Mary Midgley’s Moral System: Not The Answer I Was Looking For

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Series: Mary Midgley and Ethics

In my previous posts on Mary Midgley’s view of morality, I noted my appreciation for her unwillingness to accept reductionist explanations (especially for human experience), and her nearly answering a lifelong question of mine: is there really no way to ground a solid sense of morality apart from God? At the end of each post I wrote that there was nevertheless something lacking. As I put it most recently,

Thankfully, what is lacking is not interest, for as I said, it is the closest I’ve found to a positive answer for my lifelong question. Yet there are at least two specific and serious shortcomings that I will return to in my next post on this topic.

So I proceed now, with respect for the questions she raised. Let me reprise my two-sentence summary of her take on morality:

Morality is the means by which a reflective species arbitrates the competing demands of various naturally derived motives/motivations, which are in some way shared with or consistent with motives/motivations of related creatures, and which have a genuine reality of their own, not susceptible to scientistic reductionism. This takes place both individually and socially, and its chief benefit is in allowing the reflective being to make decisions and to behave consistently with long-term social and individual motives higher than short-term motives.

Does this suffice? The question I had early in college was this, quoting again from my last post on this:

Why couldn’t I just do anything at all? What was really wrong with getting drunk, having all the sex I wanted (whether the woman wants it or not), cheating in class? I couldn’t think of any reason not to do those things, other than that I’d been raised differently. That wasn’t enough.

I had not read Dostoyevsky yet, but I was running into what he said so succinctly: “Without God, everything is permitted.” But that just seemed impossible to me. There had to be some difference between right and wrong. Yet I couldn’t think of any way that difference could make sense without God.

It’s time now to explore how well she answers questions like mine.

I was describing Midgley’s book The Ethical Primate to my seventeen-year-old son, and he fairly cut me short, saying, “Ask her how she knows what’s right and what’s wrong.” Now, he hadn’t read the book, and I hadn’t given him a very thorough description, but that was a great question anyway, because until he said that, I hadn’t noticed that the words right and wrong never appear in the book, in the context of moral evaluation—not that I’ve conducted a full computer-assisted search, but I’m pretty sure they don’t appear anywhere in there. For Midgley, morals are apparently not about right and wrong.

Yet her morality is not relativistic, it is objective; but it is contingently objective. Morality is a set of rules summarizing what we works for the long-term good of the species. If through evolutionary contingencies the species had turned out different than it had, the long-term good might very likely have been different; and therefore if anything like morality had appeared in that case, such morality would also be different. It’s hard to imagine it being so different that, say, total wanton mutual destruction was advantageous. It is not so hard, however, to imagine evolution leading to a world where theft, total selfishness, hatred, incest, Machiavellian power maneuvering, race-centrism, and so on were applauded. Our own attitudes on these ethical issues could have come out differently than they did.

To which Midgley simply says, “but they didn’t.” We have the ethics we have because we are what we are. “Live with it,” she might add (I’m putting words in her mouth here), “Our sense of morality is the contingent product of our contingent evolutionary history, but the way it is, is the way it is.” I find there is something attractive about that answer. (This is why I found her book so captivating.) It’s reality-based, within limits I’ll come to later. And it’s objective, in that it’s focused on something very definable, something almost concrete: the longer-term motivations of the organism and species, grounded in what evolution has made us to be. Why should I ask for more than that?

Here’s why. First, what Midgley offers is, in the end, the morality of what works; or, more accurately, it’s the morality of what has worked, in proto-fashion for our evolutionary relatives and forebears, and now in full fashion among humans. We developed rules because they helped us keep our behavioral motivations in line with our longer-term interests. The rules have nothing to do with what is right or wrong, for there is no such category for Midgley. Perhaps she uses those terms elsewhere, but surely if she does, they function only as a language shortcut to “that which guides/does not guide us to behave consistently with our long-term motivations.”

Some of my correspondents on this blog have responded to this kind of statement in the past by saying, “That view of right and wrong is sufficient, Tom. You’re stacking the question in your favor when you call for something beyond that for right and wrong.” Perhaps, but I think I do it justifiably, because I am quite sure that most of the time when we (including my correspondents) say, “That was just wrong!” we don’t mean, “that didn’t work for the long-term interests of the species!” If right and wrong really mean to us, “what works for the long-term interest of the species,” then I would say Mary Midgley’s account of it was more than adequate. I just don’t believe that’s what we mean when we use the words.

Or are we just confused? Maybe right and wrong actually should mean to us,”that which works for the long-term good of the species.” Here we approach my second objection to Midgley’s ethics. It’s one I am loathe to register, because it’s so closely related to something I appreciate so much about her. It’s her insistence on explaining human experience non-reductively. As I wrote before, she won’t accept reductivist physical/chemical explanations for who and what we are, because (like all of us) she just knows better. Our freedom, our human agency, our thoughts, our decisions, our emotions—in all these things we know that it is we who are doing the acting, deciding, thinking, feeling. We are not unwitting and unwilling passengers on a train of physical/chemical reactions.

I agree with her on that, but I cannot credit that evolution got us here. There is too great a disconnect between the presumed processes of evolution and the observed result. Midgley carries on fierce disputes with Richard Dawkins with respect to his Selfish Gene idea, and with other reductivists for similar reasons. She has little positive to say for Daniel Dennett’s views on consciousness. She differs with them for good reason, because their positions clearly do not accord with life as we observe it and experience it. Yet they have a powerful position in the secular debate nevertheless, for they take seriously what evolution is and what it says. Given naturalism as a starting point, where from the beginning there has been nothing but matter and energy, and their interactions by necessity (natural law) and chance processes, human agency and freedom could only appear by magic. That which makes us human was never in the building blocks, nor in the mortar, nor even in the blueprint from the beginning; for the only blueprint was, try one thing after another and keep what reproduces successfully (and even that is unacceptably anthropomorphized, but it sure is hard to keep that out of one’s language on these things).

Thus Midgley’s morality must—I hate to say it but I must—reduce to “what motivates/does not motivate our species to long-term reproductive advantage.” If there is any other motivating force besides that, where did it come from? For evolution itself knows of no other force directing behavior (I am of course speaking of naturalistic evolution). Midgley’s take on human freedom is likewise cut off from the reality of its roots. It’s there, but on her terms it is completely unexplained. It popped out of thin air, and no less so if it “popped” gradually, having appeared first in the whales, dolphins, octopi, and lower primates. It still appeared from nowhere. Atoms and molecules, genes and proteins—they do what they must do according to chance and necessity. Who are we as humans to think we can interfere with that?

Our longer-term motivations are not toward the longer-term good, unless we say that good means “for reproductive advantage, of the individual, group, or species.” But there is a further problem. I made an unannounced shift in terms a few paragraphs ago. I said, “Maybe right and wrong actually should mean to us, ‘that which works for the long-term good of the species.'” Before that, though, I had been using Midgley’s terms, describing morality as “”that which guides… us to behave consistently with our long-term motivations.” Without notice or explanation, I shifted from talking about long-term motivations to long-term good. Shame on me! But—did you notice? Or were you yourself ready and willing to equate long-term motivations with long-term good? It’s an easy mistake to fall into, but what are these motivations? Does the term good really apply to them? How so? They’re what evolution gave us. What makes that good? No matter what evolution had given us as motivations, that’s what we would have. If whatever you get from evolution is what you’re going to call “good,” then “good” just means, “whatever you have.” That’s pretty weak.

So now I will circle back around again to my short statement of Midgley’s moral theory. She says morality is what allows us, as reflective organisms, to manage our behavior according to the long-term good. But we have discovered that this really means that morality is what allows us as reflective organisms to manage our behavior according to long-term reproductive advantage. From where did we gain our intelligence, language, and capacity for reflection? From evolution, which, you recall, has no motivating force but reproductive success. We’re about to spin in a dizzy circle now: The advantage morality gains us is reproductive success. The reflective abilities we have were formed by a process that had no end in mind but reproductive success. The development and propagation of those reflective abilities has been driven by one force: reproductive success.

There are no philosophers more reductivistic than Paul and Patricia Churchland. I believe it was Patricia who said everything in the natural world comes down to natural selection’s four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing. (Pardon me, but that’s what she said.) Midgley wants to accept the reality of human experience, while also accepting evolution as our creator. Unfortunately for her, the two really cannot be melded. Her version of morality doesn’t fit her picture of reality, for her picture of reality is itself hopelessly disjointed; nothing could fit it. So like all other non-theistic moral systems I’ve had opportunity to survey, this one, too, falls short.

Finally, and very quickly and without developing them, I must mention two last problems I have with Midgley’s moral system. First, the longer-term motivations of organisms make for an incredibly vague starting point for moral theorizing. What does this tell us about, say, supporting or opposing homosexual rights, or abortion? I think that any answer could be argued.

Second, I must raise a reminder here of what I wrote last time. My search for a satisfactory secular morality comes from a specific source: I was looking for it in college, I never found it then, and I’ve been curious since then whether such a thing exists. It seemed incredible to me at that young age that nothing of the sort was possible, and that sense of surprise has never quite let go of me. As I said once before, it also surprised me, and in a way worried me, that this was something I more or less figured out as a very green college freshman!) Along the way, though, I found another source and system for morality, in the triune God and his word. I’m certainly not dissatisfied with that. I’m very confident that God exists and he has spoken; thus Midgley’s morality, which excludes that reality, fails on that count also.

The Ethical Primate, though possibly the best book I’ve read on evolution and human experience as we know it, still fails to explain how the one could realistically have led to the other.

Series Navigation (Mary Midgley and Ethics):<<< Mary Midgley’s Near-Answer To My Lifelong Question

37 Responses

  1. SteveK says:

    You covered the objections well, Tom. At the end of the day, evolution-based morality doesn’t prefer one lifestyle/outcome over the other because life was not intended to be one particular way. In fact, life itself was never intended. There is no wrong (or right) way to evolve, and so everything is permissible.

    On the other hand, if we were intended to be a particular kind of being then that means it would be against our nature to oppose that same nature. Is it morally wrong to oppose that which was intended by another? I think it is, and I believe God thinks the same – after all, he intended us to be a certain way.

    Those who say it’s not immoral to oppose what was intended by God, are often the same people that think it is immoral to oppose what was never intended by evolution – life itself. Seems completely backward to me.

  2. Paul says:

    There is no wrong (or right) way to evolve

    First of all, evolution does not speak in absolutes in this regard. A mutation can appear in an organism if it doesn’t offer a survival advantage, and may even survive in the organism’s immediate offspring if other characteristics of the organism give it enough survival value, given the organism’s environment. But a mutation that offers survival value will *tend* (note the non-absolute nature of that word) to continue to appear in offspring more than other mutations.

    So, with that non-absolute, water-muddying aspect of evolution, we may generalize anyway, and we can thereby say that the right way to evolve is to mutate a better survival characteristic given the organism’s environment.

  3. SteveK says:

    Paul:
    You started with this observed historical fact:

    But a mutation that offers survival value will *tend* (note the non-absolute nature of that word) to continue to appear in offspring more than other mutations.

    and then concluded that the right thing for everyone to do in the future is:

    to mutate a better survival characteristic given the organism’s environment.

    You’re cheating because you are creating an intended plan for the evolutionary mechanism where none exists. So my first question is, why do it this way? Why not mutate a worse survival characteristic? It’s only natural (because nature is all you have) and nothing about evolution per se says it is outside, or against, the evolutionary mechanism to do this. Lots of organisms took this route. Were they evolving incorrectly, or in a morally wrong way? No, because there is no intended outcome when it comes to the evolutionary mechanism.

    Lastly, I can do what you are saying here by causing my enemies to go extinct. Is this an immoral way to evolve?

  4. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    You wrote:

    Why couldn’t I just do anything at all? What was really wrong with getting drunk, having all the sex I wanted (whether the woman wants it or not), cheating in class? I couldn’t think of any reason not to do those things, other than that I’d been raised differently. That wasn’t enough.

    I was less agnostic in college than I am now, and I shared some of your excesses, but I would never imagine that I needed a reason to learn to act differently, then or now; I act less selfishly and irresponsibly now mostly because I just grew up. I think it pretty much happens to everybody who goes through college or an equivalent period of their life. Finding a “proper” moral grounding, for me and most of those I know, had nothing to do with this transformation.

    It is not so hard, however, to imagine evolution leading to a world where theft, total selfishness, hatred, incest, Machiavellian power maneuvering, race-centrism, and so on were applauded.

    I take you to mean here that human culture could somehow “evolve” to a state which we all find repugnant. Firstly, I don’t think it’s certain that human culture evolves in the same way that we understand biological structures to do so – I think you mean “end up” or just “wander towards.” Secondly, looking at the basic tenets of a biologically-based system of human culture (similar to what Midgley appears to be explicating, and opposed to one that is dictated by an individual or coterie of powerful enforcers), I find it very hard to imagine a (democratic) human culture that would applaud what you describe – the human tendency toward adopting the golden rule, and reciprocity, demolish virtually all of the excesses you mention.

    Given naturalism as a starting point, where from the beginning there has been nothing but matter and energy, and their interactions by necessity (natural law) and chance processes, human agency and freedom could only appear by magic.

    This comes across as too strong to me. The truth is that we don’t know how human agency and freedom exactly came about by natural means (and I imagine that for some people no explanation will ever by adequate). But this doesn’t mean that it did not, and it never will mean that it could not have.

    I am struck by two things: 1) the frequency with which you seem to wrestle with this topic (which I find largely inconsequential), and b) your need to place metaphysical importance on things which can be understood without such attachments. What I mean by this is that I believe that there are good answers to the question you ask (like this one), but that you find the answers not so much inadequate but unsatisfactory.

    I don’t mean the above paragraph as a criticism – I mean that I am mostly confounded by that fundamental difference between us, despite the large number of other sensibilities that I am sure we share.

  5. Charlie says:

    Great series, nice analysis, and commendable commitment to exploring different vantage points.
    I like this:”It’s there, but on her terms it is completely unexplained. It popped out of thin air, and no less so if it “popped” gradually, having appeared first in the whales, dolphins, octopi, and lower primates.”
    This reminds me of a anecdote of R.C. Sproul’s. He quotes an OOL researcher who said that we just must face the fact that spontaneous generation never happened and never could happen. We must learn to embrace gradual spontaneous generation.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul and SteveK,

    Paul, SteveK has already covered this well enough, but I want to add that I’m really surprised you think there’s such a thing as a right way to evolve! I would add to what Steve said, that evolution just has no categories in it as “the right way to evolve.” That’s totally foreign to it. What evolves is what evolves. What succeeds is what succeeds. What lives is what lives, and what reproduces is what reproduces. That’s it.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    @Tony Hoffman:

    I guess I was more reflective on this question than most people. I did not take part in those excesses, actually, but I was dissatisfied with my reason for not doing it. As I said, “I wasn’t raised that way” wasn’t good enough for me. “Growing up” wouldn’t have been a good enough answer either.

    I take you to mean here that human culture could somehow “evolve” to a state which we all find repugnant.

    I must not have been clear enough. No, I meant that in the philosophers’ sense of “possible worlds,” or in this case, ways that things could have turned out totally different. If evolution is generally true, then on this world things could have turned out totally different than they actually did, or on some other world things would turn out totally different, and in those situations ethics might be totally different.

    I agree it’s impossible to imagine a human culture that would applaud the ethics I described there, but that wasn’t what I was trying to say. I was saying that given evolution, the ethics that we have (which we certainly do have) could have turned out differently than they have. Ethics are contingent in that sense, on evolution.

    The truth is that we don’t know how human agency and freedom exactly came about by natural means…

    I think it’s impossible in principle, for the reasons already stated. Midgley suggests there’s some reality about the world, some other forces operating besides quantum and Newtonian ones. As I quoted in the first article in this series,

    Perhaps there are not two radically different kinds of stuff, mind and matter, but just one great world-stuff which has both mental and physical attributes…. Then it would not be surprising if a single tendency, or conatus, runs through the whole, so that our kind of conscious purposiveness is only one part of the goal-directedness of nature.

    I think she’s basically right on that, but she cannot be right if naturalism is true, because this is a denial of naturalism, a flat contradiction to it. Naturalism admits of two kinds of causation only: the necessity of natural law, which is very much a necessity, there is no freedom in it; and quantum chance, which is freedom but not human freedom—it is the freedom of subatomic particles to do what they do when they do it, with no discernible cause. That’s all the causation there is on naturalism, and the system is closed. There can be no human freedom, because human freedom is the freedom to cause something other than what is caused by necessity or quantum chance, but nothing else can be caused.

    On your closing points, you’re right, I do keep coming back to this ethical question frequently. Maybe my prior post in this series explains why I do that. But can these things be understood without metaphysical attachments? It depends on what you mean by understanding. You and I agree that we can make ethical decisions without exploring the metaphysics, but I want to know more: what makes a right decision the right decision? How do we know it’s right? How could anything be right and wrong in the first place, if the world is just physical? These things do stay often on my mind.

    I do not say that a Christian believer must necessarily conclude that all other ethical systems are failures. First, Christianity teaches that God has written his character on our hearts, so that we all generally know what’s right and wrong. (Our alienation from God through sin clouds that knowledge but does not eliminate it.) Second, if another system were found to provide a decent grounding for ethics, that would by no means mean that Christianity is false. It would undermine one line of apologetic argument, the moral argument, but there are many other reasons to believe. The reason I have come to believe theism’s grounding for ethics is the only one that succeeds is because I’ve been looking a long time and haven’t found any other that does.

    The world is a very confused place, and everyone has their own opinion about what’s ethical and what isn’t. Should we support gay “marriage”? Should we “kill the infidels”? These kinds of questions take work, and right answers can only be built on right foundations.

  8. Charlie says:

    Tom/Tony, re: Tony,

    For an action to be in excess there must be something against which to measure it.

    For one to “grow up” to adopt new practices implies improvement and targeted direction.

    To label actions “irresponsible” and “selfish” is to imply that these actions were wrong or somehow deficient.

    But, on naturalism, if we chose those actions previously it is because they were/are natural. They were/are every bit as natural as the mindset which now judges them to have been in excess. They could not have been better or worse, more good or more bad, than that which now judges them so – having been equally the result of biology, evolution and nature. On naturalism, there has been no improvement.

    The truth is that we don’t know how human agency and freedom exactly came about by natural means (and I imagine that for some people no explanation will ever by adequate).

    If we don’t know that is because we have no explanation.

    I am struck by two things: 1) the frequency with which you seem to wrestle with this topic (which I find largely inconsequential), and b) your need to place metaphysical importance on things which can be understood without such attachments

    How can something be understood without its being explained? If science/naturalism doesn’t have the answer, as above, you can choose to call the question “inconsequential”, as Tony does (“meaningless” to others”) but you can’t turn around and suddenly claim understanding.

    What I mean by this is that I believe that there are good answers to the question you ask (like this one), but that you find the answers not so much inadequate but unsatisfactory.

    Neither Tony nor Tom actually seems, as above, to think there is a good answer (by Tony’s scientistic criteria) to this question.
    This seems to admit that what non-explanatory speculations exist certainly are both unsatisfactory and inadequate.

  9. SteveK says:

    As for me, I’m not amazed at the frequency with which people wrestle with this topic. This topic is far from inconsequential. It’s one of the primary topics that lead to my belief in theism, and my subsequent belief in Christianity. It’s one of the reasons why I would continue to be a card-carrying theist even if Christianity were proven to be false.

  10. Tom,

    I must not have been clear enough. No, I meant that in the philosophers’ sense of “possible worlds,” or in this case, ways that things could have turned out totally different. If evolution is generally true, then on this world things could have turned out totally different than they actually did, or on some other world things would turn out totally different, and in those situations ethics might be totally different.

    This is in relation to your previous claim:

    It is not so hard, however, to imagine evolution leading to a world where theft, total selfishness, hatred, incest, Machiavellian power maneuvering, race-centrism, and so on were applauded.

    There are a few problems with this. For starters, if selfishness were the primary ‘rule’ then “theft” could only be applauded when one succeeds in doing it: e.g., if I steal from you in this supposedly “possible world” and you were ruled by selfishness, if you somehow learned of it you would have no reason to “applaud” me on my stealing. Or, similarly, if, in this supposedly “possible world”, I hated you with great intensity (for whatever reasonable or unreasonable reason), and you, being selfish and wanting power and fame, knew this, why would you “applaud” my hatred as it does not assist you in your selfishness? In short, it is by no means ‘easy’ to imagine this world.

    Secondly, a world pervaded by those qualities would not be a very adventageous world: the mother, being completely selfish and full of hatred, would not care for her child, or at least would not put up with their crying when it conflicts with her completely selfish desires. This certainly wouldn’t help to perpetuate the species. Similarly, a world that is pervaded by those qualities would not have very successful businesses or peace between either people or nations as all contracts would be inherently suspect, no one would trust each other to fulfill their ‘part of the bargain’, etc., etc., etc. So, if we accept some version of evolution (see here and here for some interesting discussion), then your possible world isn’t possible (or at least it is ‘hard’ to imagine it as it seems to entail some possible contradictions or impossibilities).

  11. Charlie says:

    Such worlds are not the least bit hard to imagine when you give ourself to the logic of naturalistic evolution.
    1) You can applaud the thief, even though you are angry at your loss, for his ingenuity and for doing what comes naturally.
    2) Thievery and anger could be beneficial on possible worlds. It is possible that a species evolves a neuronal network that rewards success in stealing and releases reproductive hormones. Not only has the thief gained greater resources for himself, and for his offspring, but he has engaged in an activity that has increased his fecundity.
    Now let’s suppose the victim has experienced anger But the anger he feels also releases a hormone related to fecundity. Perhaps it is less effective as a reproductive impetus than that for the thief, but it still has a selective value. Let’s even give the victim mirror neurons, where he can counteract his natural displeasure for having lost his goods by feeling empathy for the thief. He experiences some of the thrill, vicariously, that the thief had, and so gains along with the thief to some degree from the thief’s selfishness.
    Both are positively affected in terms of their reproductive urges and the act of stealing has benefitted the species.

  12. Paul says:

    Hold onto your horses, but SteveK and Tom are right. I retract my idea about a right way to evolve. What was I thinking?

  13. The Deuce says:

    Here’s a simple question. Who’s long-term benefit am I most morally obligated to, according to Midgley’s moral theory? The Caucasion race of which I am a member? The entire collection of organisms with which I am genetically compatible in terms of reproduction (ie, Homo Sapiens)? All creatures with an IQ over 30? All mammals? All vertebrates? What?

    If, for example, I do something that helps my closest relatives, or the Caucasion race, at the expense of another race (for instance, promoting eugenics for the black community to lower the violent crime rate in America) is that wrong according to Midgley’s theory, and if so why? Alternatively, if I do something to further the long-term goals of other humans in general, at the expense of my own family is that wrong, and if so, why?

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    Deuce:

    Here’s my simple answer to your simple question: “I don’t know!”

    (If anybody can do better than that, I’ll sure be interested to hear it!)

  15. Charlie says:

    Hi Tom,
    One of your quotes makes Midgley appear to adhere to some pantheistic monism.Is this developed in her book, or is it not the case at all?

  16. Charlie,

    1) You can applaud the thief, even though you are angry at your loss, for his ingenuity and for doing what comes naturally.

    But then you aren’t applauding the thievery itself, but the ingenuity with which the act is done. Nietzsche said the same thing in relation to a lie: someone can spin together a “good lie” (an “intricate deception”) in that it is intricate, believable, etc. or we could applaud a “good hit” where it is the expertise and effectiveness of the hit that is applauded and not the pain that it is inflicting on us or the anger that brought it on. You are too quickly and easily conflating an action, its effects, and its motivation.

    2) Thievery and anger could be beneficial on possible worlds. It is possible that a species evolves a neuronal network that rewards success in stealing and releases reproductive hormones. Not only has the thief gained greater resources for himself, and for his offspring, but he has engaged in an activity that has increased his fecundity.

    While not necessarily including the hormone secretion (you’d have to be more specific on the function of this secretion), there are biological rewards for stealing: getting what you want, the ‘rush’ due to risk (and the preparation for possible ‘fight or flight’), the satisfaction of a well-done theft, etc. And, yes, this may lead to ‘reproductive’ excitation or acts, but here we are only talking about a single person and we have not presented anything about how this plays out and gets perpetuated in a species and in a society that requires the Other in order for perpetuation to happen (and for our needs to be met, by and large). In fact, as I’ve argued, the widespread genetic distribution of this connection would not assist in the perpetuation of the species, but would cause widespread problems in social relations, distribution of resources, etc.

    Now let’s suppose the victim has experienced anger But the anger he feels also releases a hormone related to fecundity. Perhaps it is less effective as a reproductive impetus than that for the thief, but it still has a selective value. Let’s even give the victim mirror neurons, where he can counteract his natural displeasure for having lost his goods by feeling empathy for the thief. He experiences some of the thrill, vicariously, that the thief had, and so gains along with the thief to some degree from the thief’s selfishness.

    But it would have to be a very strong vicarious ‘gain’ in comparison with the loss and the resultant anger and it is entirely unclear how this could have developed and been perpetuated throughout generations of the species. In fact, it could be argued that a species that developed something akin to the above would not have a high survival value as a whole (and this is a very real constraint on the modal analysis of evolutionary ‘possibilities’).

    Both are positively affected in terms of their reproductive urges and the act of stealing has benefitted the species.

    So your discussion of reproductivity is just in relation to creating “urges” in the one who commits the act? How does that help in ‘wooing’ the other gender in the species to enter into a reproductive act? A genetic predisposition for increased desire for reproductivity does little without being able to tie it to the other gender: did they see the thievery? Was it a public spectacle, which would then radically remove the ‘secrecy’ aspect of thieving? Again, you are just throwing together A and B without demonstrating any decent account for how they could get connected and the only reason it seems possible is that you are focusing on an individual and forgetting the essentially social nature of all species. Your reliance on some abstract logical space of possible worlds that is ungrounded by concrete possibilities only muddles the issues.

    This is one of the problems of possible worlds analysis: it usually uses only the law of non-contradiction as its guide rather than the constraints of a historically developing reality. It ignores the need to account for countless conditions that would need to come about (in this case over a rather long period) in order for this or that to also come about. I’m not saying they are useless, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt.

  17. Tom Gilson says:

    @Charlie:

    No, she doesn’t go into that in the one book I’ve read. All she does in that respect is insist that scientific reductionism is insufficient.

  18. Preston G. Scrape says:

    Why should I perform what is morally \right\ according to my evolution?

    Because what is \right\ promotes the survival of the species.

    Now, why should I promote the survival of the species?

    Because promoting the survival of the species is good.

    …Buh?

  19. SteveK says:

    Here’s my simple answer to your simple question: “I don’t know!”

    (If anybody can do better than that, I’ll sure be interested to hear it!)

    “I dunno”, or the shorter “dunno”, is better because it requires less letters to convey the same message 😉

  20. Charlie says:

    Hi Kevin,

    But then you aren’t applauding the thievery itself, but the ingenuity with which the act is done.

    Even though you are mistaken your rebuttal is pointless – the fact is that in stealing the selfish thief can be applauded, his behaviour can be rewarded and he can be thought moral.

    You are too quickly and easily conflating an action, its effects, and its motivation.

    I’m not sure how quick I was, but if you can explain this I’ll respond.

    While not necessarily including the hormone secretion (you’d have to be more specific on the function of this secretion),

    Too many things you say seem to have import that I can’t see. Why, in a thought experiment demonstrating how we can imagine a possible world which applauds stealing, would I need to describe the neurochemical workings of a plausible secretion?

    And, yes, this may lead to ‘reproductive’ excitation or acts, but here we are only talking about a single person and we have not presented anything about how this plays out and gets perpetuated in a species and in a society that requires the Other in order for perpetuation to happen (and for our needs to be met, by and large).

    Stealing itself requires the Other. There can be no stealing without the Other. I can well imagine a species which had, in some measure, a propensity, a social instinct, if you will, to procure goods from members of another tribe. One has to look no further than the Native American for a culture which honours such behaviour. Given this propensity I see no reason it could not be honed, to a superfluous degree, by natural selection. And this propensity not only to steal, but to applaud thievery, can, it seems to me, then be generalized such that stealing, which has been seen as a moral good, can then be applied within the tribe just as it had been without. It will carry with it all of the attending benefits, the honour associated, the approbation of one’s fellows, the sexual attractiveness to potential mates, and the libidinous increases of the act itself. I can see no reason why this would not transfer to stealing within the tribe.

    In fact, as I’ve argued, the widespread genetic distribution of this connection would not assist in the perpetuation of the species, but would cause widespread problems in social relations, distribution of resources, etc.

    But I’ve argued why it would assist in the perpetuation of the species. You, unfortunately, appear to be mired in thinking about social relations in societies like ours, and feelings about distributions of resources as we see it. In a society evolved to steal and take whatever it desires such relations will be different and resources will be distributed according to a different set of rules.

    But it would have to be a very strong vicarious ‘gain’ in comparison with the loss and the resultant anger and it is entirely unclear how this could have developed and been perpetuated throughout generations of the species.

    The gain would not have to be strong. There is already a gain associated with the anger itself, and the vicarious gain through the mirror neurons is just an additional benefit. It can then be honed to approve more and more of the stealing performed by another as one can relate to the enjoyment he feels, biologically adapted as he is, when he is the thief.
    It ought not be unclear at all how this could have developed – it developed by chance; a random mutation associated with the social instincts. How it spread was by increasing the fecundity (fitness) of those possessing the trait. Approving one’s own thievery it became a selectable feature to also, via empathy, to approve of another’s thievery. Given the fact that an active thief will have many victims the number of times he steals, resulting in vicarious pleasure for the observer, will vastly out number the times he will victimize that observer.

    In fact, it could be argued that a species that developed something akin to the above would not have a high survival value as a whole (and this is a very real constraint on the modal analysis of evolutionary ‘possibilities’).

    It certainly could be argued so. But it can be argued the other way as well. And, more to the point, such a situation is not hard to imagine.

    So your discussion of reproductivity is just in relation to creating “urges” in the one who commits the act? How does that help in ‘wooing’ the other gender in the species to enter into a reproductive act?

    Sexual selection has also honed the desire to steal, as well as the attraction to those who do steal. Besides, it is a chauvinistic fallacy to presume that only one gender is stealing and only one gender being aroused by the act.

    Again, you are just throwing together A and B without demonstrating any decent account for how they could get connected and the only reason it seems possible is that you are focusing on an individual and forgetting the essentially social nature of all species.

    You are actually imposing your idea of what a social species must be (because of what a social species seems to be in this world) upon this possible world. For instance, we know of social species where they kill their brothers and sons, where they enslave others, where some never get to breed, etc. And, if raised in such societies, we would find nothing immoral about that. There are all kinds of societies.

    Your reliance on some abstract logical space of possible worlds that is ungrounded by concrete possibilities only muddles the issues.

    You’ll have to demonstrate why this is ungrounded by concrete possibilities rather than merely begging the question.

    I’m not saying they are useless, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt.

    It seems to me, and I can see no reason to the contrary, upon a fair weighing of the balance of the evidence, why all evolutionary just-so stories need not be taken with a similar grain of salt.

  21. ChrisB says:

    Your boy has good instincts.

    I understand your desire to keep chasing an answer to your question, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. An atheistic ethical system will always boil down to pragmatism; it can never say what we “ought” to do, only what is most advantageous.

  22. Tony Hoffman says:

    The Deuce,

    You wrote:

    If, for example, I do something that helps my closest relatives, or the Caucasion race, at the expense of another race (for instance, promoting eugenics for the black community to lower the violent crime rate in America) is that wrong according to Midgley’s theory, and if so why? Alternatively, if I do something to further the long-term goals of other humans in general, at the expense of my own family is that wrong, and if so, why?

    I haven’t read Midgley, but if you’re asking how a non-theological moral system would answer these questions I’d say that you have to understand the empirically knowable facts about the inherited moral senses of our species, refer to foundational moral principles (golden rule, reciprocity), and reason from there.

    But I would also have to ask how theists and Christians would answer yours and other moral questions, why so many from that perspective have gotten questions like yours so wrong in the past, and if you truly think that the (for the sake of argument) existence of an eternal moral character is knowable (and if so, what evidence do you have that this conclusively true)?

    Tom,

    As I intimated earlier I think the question that you keep asking is fundamentally wrong-headed; rather than asking how could a non-theological moral based system be grounded, I would ask what evidence do Christians have that their morality is in fact grounded. In other words, I think both theist and non-theist moral systems mostly muddle their way forward, and that the claims to access to objective morality by Christians is not supported by the evidence. In other words, as I was trying to say to The Deuce, pointing out other systems’ difficulties in reaching some clear moral conclusions does not free the theist from the same problems.

    Jesus’s words did not invent the golden rule. Morality and abuses of morality existed prior to Christianity, alongside it, and afterward both within and without. Even the most basic seeming of all moral objective statements, “Thou shalt not kill,” is not easy to interpret (What about self-defense? In aid of a helpless child? Who and what can’t be killed? What about morally justified war? What about the Crusades? Even Christians can reasonably make different conclusions about any of these issues, despite the moral system’s purported grounding and objective existence of the directive.)

  23. Tom Gilson says:

    @Tony Hoffman:

    You asked for evidence that morality is grounded on theism. I don’t think that’s exactly the right question, since this discussion is not about evidence for grounding, it’s about logical argumentation for grounding. To provide evidence per se would mean providing evidence for theism. I did not ask what Mary Midgley’s evidence for naturalism was; I asked, if naturalism is true, then is it possible in that case that morality would be grounded. Can it be explained coherently within the assumptions of naturalism?

    So I’m not going to argue here that theism is true, but instead discuss the grounding for morality, on theism.

    Theism posits that there is an eternal, personal, creator God, a necessary Being who is Being itself; who by nature is good; whose character as one of its aspects includes perfect moral goodness. On that view, morality is part of the eternal furniture of reality. Contrary to all other systems, it is not inferred or derived from any other reality or fact. It is an aspect of God that simply is.

    Thus theism provides the only system I know of that does not require an is-to-ought inference. God’s morality is “ought” from start to finish.

    God communicates his moral standard to us in a number of ways, most clearly through his word, the Bible, but also through conscience and through reflection, whereby humans have discovered “natural law.” Natural law is an inference from what is observed, but it does not involve the same is-ought inference that non-theistic ethical philosophy has involved. Better said, there is that inference there, but the “ought” that is discovered that way is, like the ought within God’s character, is one that started as an ought and ended as an ought. The “is” in the middle is a matter of how that ought is expressed or communicated or instantiated in the world, but the ought that is discovered thereby is one that was an ought from start to end.

    Of course in God’s word there is no inference at all, there is only statement of the ought.

    But revelation has been progressive for centuries and centuries. We have not gotten it right all along. That is a matter of discovering and understanding God’s morality more clearly as time goes on. It is a matter of seeing through our cultural blinders and more nearly apprehending what is spoken through his word. The moral mistakes you speak of are not in the Bible; they are in our understanding and application of the Bible, and our correction of those mistakes means we understand and practice God’s revelation more nearly as it was written and intended, not that we move beyond that revelation in any way.

    It is not easy to interpret or to apply in all cases. We’re still learning. But the basis is there, and the system itself is coherent, as no non-theistic system is, with the exception of pure relativism which throws up its hands and says “there is no real ethic!” (But even those who say that act as if they believe there is one.)

  24. Tom Gilson says:

    @Tony Hoffman:

    I haven’t read Midgley, but if you’re asking how a non-theological moral system would answer these questions I’d say that you have to understand the empirically knowable facts about the inherited moral senses of our species, refer to foundational moral principles (golden rule, reciprocity), and reason from there.

    That’s what Midgley presented in her book, and it didn’t succeed, as I wrote in the original post.

  25. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    You asked for evidence that morality is grounded on theism. I don’t think that’s exactly the right question, since this discussion is not about evidence for grounding, it’s about logical argumentation for grounding.

    I believe that many of your discussions on morality do not address this question, and that it is fundamental to what you ask. I take, for the sake of argument, that God exists – I still think that the evidence is lacking that morality is still objectively obtained with this assumption. As evidence to the contrary I present history, Christian schism, and the divergence of today’s closely aligned Christian adherents on critical moral issues.

    You originally wrote:

    My search for a satisfactory secular morality comes from a specific source: I was looking for it in college, I never found it then, and I’ve been curious since then whether such a thing exists.

    This also has me thinking. I believe that you and others have found non-Christian descriptions of morality to be lacking because they do not have “proper grounding.” But on what do you ground your feeling of satisfaction regarding moral systems? It seems to me that you could be described as saying that Christian morality is best because it is more satisfying for you – but isn’t this a relativistic term? In other words, what stops me from saying that my moral system (for the sake of argument let’s say it’s approximately Midgley’s) is equally valid because I find it as satisfying as you do yours?

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    It’s not just that it’s “more satisfying,” Tony, it’s that unlike all other systems, it’s logically coherent, as I argued a couple of comments ago. It’s not relativistic at all; it’s based in logical and rational analysis. All other systems fail on the is-ought fallacy (or on other logical problems). Christian theism stands up to analysis. That it hasn’t been followed perfectly is not a reflection on the system, it’s a comment on the nature of us humans (and that nature, by the way, is also explained coherently in Christian doctrine).

  27. Tony:

    You say: “I still think that the evidence is lacking that morality is still objectively obtained with this [God exists] assumption. As evidence to the contrary I present history, Christian schism, and the divergence of today’s closely aligned Christian adherents on critical moral issues.”

    That’s a fallacy. Can you guess which one? Hint: what does the existence of varying Christian denominations and their divergences on moral issues have to do with the existence of objective moral truths?

  28. Tom Gilson says:

    No, no, no, Holopupenko, it’s simple. What fallacy, indeed? This is perfectly logical, isn’t it?

    A. If there are objective moral truths grounded in God, then believers in God will follow God’s commands perfectly.
    B. Believers in God do not follow God’s moral commands perfectly.
    C. Therefore there are no objective moral truths grounded in God.

    (For the sake of new readers I had probably better add that A through C are wrapped in “tongue-in-cheek” tags.)

  29. SteveK says:

    To find the answer we only need to look at the existence of varying secular ‘denominations’ and their divergences on epistemology and what effect that has on the existence of objective reality.

  30. Tom Gilson says:

    By the way, I should note that what Holo and I just wrote is not exactly an answer to what Tony was saying; that is, it is but not 100% to the point. He wasn’t saying that Christians’ behavior disproves that God is the source of objective morality. If he had been, then what Holo and I wrote would be very direct rebuttals to that. He was saying that Christians’ behavior fails to provide evidence that there is a source of objective morality in the God of the Bible. That could still be true, even in the face of what Holo and I just wrote; but then I would say simply that he is looking for evidence in the wrong place, and I would add (as I said once before) that Christian theism’s moral system is superior to that of naturalism in that it is internally coherent. That is, it stands the test of logical analysis, apart from empirical evidences.

    What about empirical evidences, though? If Christians are all horrible persons, as Holo and I have said, that would say nothing whatsoever against God having in him a true and objective morality. It would be a comment on humans, not on God.

  31. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    I don’t think you are answering my question, which is, How do you know that Morality as you understand it is objective, coherent, and non-relativistic? What claim can you make, either logical or evidential, that a naturalist cannot make that affords the same benefits that give you satisfaction?

    But I also think that a logical argument for the superiority of Christian Morality (which I believe is hopelessly circular, although I also believe you will not agree) fails not just on the level of logic, but on the level of evidence. Muslims can make the same logical claims for their morality that you make for yours, but I imagine that you would find Sharia to be morally repugnant on some levels. So I think that the logic behind the moral grounding for the system to which you subscribe is not what gives you satisfaction about your system of Morality.

    So the question remains: Why do you find your moral system satisfying, and more importantly, what makes you think it’s objective?

  32. Tony:

    One quick (albeit oblique) reason is because YOU, a proponent of moral relativism, never actually can or will live out such a conviction. You talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk… or am I missing something about your expected response to me stealing your money or insulting you in a response to your comments?

    Second, what counts for you as “evidence”? That’s not a flippant question: it actually gets to the heart of the issue because I strongly suspect you haven’t told us WHAT YOU believe morality to be in the first place before dismissing its objective character. Is it the same KIND of thing as, say, a neutrino? Or is it more akin to the rules of chess?

    Third, you again revert back to the fallacy I pointed out: whether a Christian subscribes to the theological virtues or the Muslim to sharia is immaterial to the point… and so it’s hard to respond to someone who throws a fallacious assertions about as if it were a truth.

    Fourth, you cannot engage in addressing moral (legal and political, for that matter) questions without first understanding the human mind/soul (human psychology). And even there, the approach to understanding human nature cannot be limited to observational and inductive tasks, for this would be mere experimental psychology. Human nature is understood through reason—obtaining a rational account of human nature. Once one has in hand an idea of a flourishing, healthy, wholesome human life, then one can see how to best preserve this ideal through moral imperative and laws.

    Why is this? Should not one, in fact, take the facts of human nature as they are observed in the real world, in other words, should not one obtain a descriptive psychological account of human nature? Should not one run around and take measurements or conduct experiments on, e.g., reaction times to certain stimuli, etc., and then put it all together?

    Well, yes, but only to a limited extent. What if you came upon places in which the local inhabitants were largely mad, stupid, duplicitous, atheists, homosexuals, abortionists, female circumcisers, cannibals, racists, etc.? You would not want to cobble together a system of morals, laws, and political institutions ideally suited to promoting such disorders. One must, in fact, step back from the superficial and mere contingent (accidental) characteristics of humans and ask what is essential to human nature. We would find—as did Aristotle—that the very basis of our natures is that we are rational animals with free wills (rationality and free, in fact, cannot be separated). Then, we can ask what is good for this curious rational animal.

    But note carefully: the good of man cannot simply be what man chooses or what man asserts is good (which echoes YOUR vision of morality, and hence why you believe ALL morality is relative), for we are all constituted differently from experience. Most people have bad habits of one sort or another, some have bad upbringings, some have weak characters, some are lazy, some are duplicitous—valuing what is false over what is true, some suffer illnesses that impair their ability to reason… and all these people invariably choose what is not, in fact, good for them. An alcoholic will choose the bottle as good, and Hitler will choose cleansing the population of undesirables as good. In other words, human nature is not something that can bow to a descriptive “pollster” understanding of the good or human nature. People Magazine, although much more widely distributed and read than Milton’s Paradise Lost, is none the less not a good means by which to gain understanding of human knowledge compared to Paradise Lost.

    To bring this to a close, my sense is you take the common, superficial, “acceptable” view de jure—moral relativism—because it is in vogue. Try the more demanding approach to explain why (for example) it would never be morally right (all things being equal) to cook one’s scientific research to achieve preconceived results. You might come back with a response akin to: “Yes, I would cook my scientific journals if I was forced by my Nazi captors to develop a more efficient way of killing people, so that I might lessen the lives lost or suffering.” Good for you! But then, you’d be subscribing to a higher good, wouldn’t you? Think about: you CANNOT escape the first principle of moral reasoning “do good, avoid evil.” To deny it would be to undermine your own attempt, for to try to deny it would be to pursue a good, wouldn’t it? How’s that for objective?

  33. Tom Gilson says:

    Tony,

    You can’t seriously look at this and say I’m not answering your question. You ask “what claim” I can make, but I’ve made my claim, and you haven’t answered it. I’ve already pointed back at that comment once since I posted it, and (since you asked for evidence) I don’t see any evidence that you’ve read it. Please do so, and if you intend to ask again how theism grounds morality objectively, please don’t ignore again how I’ve already offered an answer.

    Muslims can make the same logical claims for their morality that you make for yours, but I imagine that you would find Sharia to be morally repugnant on some levels.

    Tony, please: what question are you asking? What question do you want me to answer?? Is the question whether theism can provide an objective, grounded morality? Then I’ve answered it. Or at least, I’ve given an answer that you haven’t responded to, so it’s your turn. Is your question, “Do all theistic systems have the same morality?” The answer is no. That was easy. Is your question, “How can I trust that Christian theism provides a good system of morality, when Islamic theism does not?” Well, that’s a new question, isn’t it? I think it’s a pretty easy one to answer—just look at what each religion teaches—but it’s also a side trip. Let’s try to stick with one issue at a time, okay?

    Is the Christian ethical system “hopelessly circular”? You’ll have to explain how, and not just make assertions. But please try to be careful not to confuse circularity with internal coherence. The two can look quite superficially similar.

    So the question remains: Why do you find your moral system satisfying, and more importantly, what makes you think it’s objective?

    First question: it’s satisfying because it is good, and because it comes from a good God. (I kept that short because it’s not the main topic of discussion here. As you yourself said, the second is more important, and for our purposes in this context I agree.) What makes me think it’s objective? I’ve already answered that. What makes you think it isn’t objective? Not “what makes it not good;” not “what makes it different from Islam;” but, “what makes it not objective?”

  34. Charlie says:

    Since nobody is asking, it is no longer relevant, it is long, boring and meandering, here is my follow-up to the questions I had anticipated regarding imagining a possible world where thievery and selfishness are applauded.
    Sorry fort he distraction, but pretend it has something to do with Holopupenko’s remark about contingency and accident …
    \
    We know that apes and other primates steal (or are ‘selfish’), as do members of our own species, so it is obvious that stealing has some survival benefit. Natural selection, daily scrutinizing every trait and eliminating any even the least bit injurious, assures of this. That being the case it would be a miracle of convergence for us to have independently evolved this adaptation in several lineages – all the moreso if it were strictly negative and deleterious to society. So it is more than likely that our common ancestors, long lost to deep time, stumbled upon the trait as one of the social instincts and that it was found to be beneficial. Being that it was beneficial enough to maintain and then to propagate for millions of years and countless reproductive events it is no stretch of the imagination to concede that , given a different set of contingent circumstances, the moral impulse to steal could have become just that little bit more ingrained, and just that little but more fine-tuned, to the point that it would be seen as a duty worthy of approbation and a trait to be desired rather than spurned. It could be honed to greater and greater perfection, given just a slightly different history.

    But, one might say with the Greek, that if stealing were a good then it would be universally good, and one ought to always do it. But then it can’t be good, because if everyone stole all the time then there would be no such thing as personal possessions, i.e., nothing to steal. Well, let’s imagine. It’s easy if you try. Of course, as evolution leads us toward Utopia and ever increasing progress this is exactly where it could lead; to a communal society where everyone just takes what they want and all property rights are annulled. As the staunchly evolutionary Marxists might have you know, this is the natural end for man. It would, in fact, be the highest morality to steal at all times, to take whatever pleased you, because this would mean that there was nothing but a brotherhood of man.

    But evolution knows nothing of Greek philosophy and might not wind up, with all stealing all the time, at communism. It might just follow the path of that other evolutionary model. What with every member of a society stealing from one another that society may realize, in Malthusian honour, to stretch its borders for members of its society. Having always to watch your possessions go to the next guy a society so-evolved may just determine to engulf more and more resources for the betterment of its race; and, thus, the betterment of the species, as it could see itself chauvinistically as the epitome of the species.

    At the same time, the all-selfish all-stealing society may depend upon social contract and mutual reciprocity. A member can realize that his selfish accumulation of goods is rewarded to a far greater extent when he is among other producers, albeit selfish ones, who raise every ship with their tide, than he would be gathering his own coconuts. So, in order to selfishly gain, even in order to steal, he must enter into this group and dwell among other selfish stealers. In order to maximize his stealing potential he must, and knows he must, succumb himself to being victimized. Seeing his own stealing as good, having evolved to view mighty men of valour who steal land, resources, people and goods as admirable, and knowing that it is for the reproductive good of the species, and, mathematically, to his own emotional benefit *, he learns to curb his distaste for having his own goods stolen and enters into a contract whereby he will be victim as well as thief.

    But there is another way to model what evolution might actually do in this possible world. We could find or imagine another society, an hypothetical group for whom the surrender of possessions to another is seen as a moral good. Perhaps we could think of a society that says “’tis more noble to give than to receive” and that considers it an actual moral duty, an admirable act, to selflessly give one’s possessions away. We may even find that they are biologically programmed by evolution to give out of altruism and empathy. Maybe they are rewarded by physico-chemico feedback when they give. Maybe it actually feels good to give, to volunteer, and to see others give as well. Does this do away with property altogether? Not necessarily. Does it cause the demise of the society? Not so far. In fact, one can quickly see that a society in which altruism is the moral good (where even enforced altruistic charity [stealing and redistributing wealth] is viewed as good) can survive. That society, it turns out, does not only give, just as the stealing society need not only steal. In fact, such a society, as seen above, might see fit to extend its borders so that there is even more to give (or to have stolen). Or it might live amid such abundance that there is little to no cost to attaining the necessary goods. Or, it might find its members motivated to work harder, so that there is more to give and even more to keep after the redistribution. Plainly such redistribution need not cause the collapse of society – even when such giving is not voluntary.

    Therefore, it is no wonder that we can imagine a society where total selfishness and constant thievery is viewed as a moral good. We see thievery is an evolved trait, adding survival benefit and adaptiveness , among social animals. We see it among our nearest relatives, our lowest savages, and our most highly evolved. We can see many examples of societies, real, historical and hypothetical, where diminished property rights and the loss of possessions do not necessarily cause is downfall but are even seen as a Utopian paradise.
    It takes no special effort to extend these observations to a possible world where it would be a diminishment of our noblest part to deny the moral duty to steal and gather as many goods to oneself as possible. I can see no reason why these observations could not be so extended.

    ps.
    The benefits of vicarious enjoyment of thievery increase geometrically with population size while the detrimental effects of being the victim progress only linearly.
    For instance, in a population of 21, any individual has the opportunity to be robbed by 20 other members. Thus, he can be assigned 20 negative robbery units. But he also has 20 potential victims of his own robbery, so he has 20 positive robbery units. But there are also 20 other thieves in his society, with the opportunity to rob 20 other thieves. Here he receives 400 vicarious robbery units. It does not take much to see the larger his population the less potent the vicarious units need to be in order to not only offset but eventually flood out the negative robbery units.

    Compare this to the situation where there are only three members of his thieving society. There he can be robbed twice, or he can rob two others. Here he can only witness four other robberies so the effects of the vicarious units are greatly diminished. But when you increase the population to 21, while his negative robbery units have increased by a factor of ten, his vicarious units have increase by a factor of one hundred.
    In a population of two hundred other thieves his negative units have increased from two to twenty to two hundred, but his potential vicarious points have gone from 4, to 400, to 40,000.

  35. Tom and Charlie:

    Great comments. I feel I’ve left Tony hanging a bit with the “objective morality” issue, so I need to follow up. Systems of objective morality can be seen as proceeding from a number of sources, including: (1) the Divine, in the case of religious faith, (2) reason and the natural world, in the case of many secular philosophies, for example some forms of utilitarianism or the categorical imperative of Kant, and (3) reason and the Divine in concert, as in the case of Thomism. I will attempt to summarize (quite unfairly) St. Thomas’ vision.

    Thomas Aquinas’ mission in life was service to people and the Church, and hence to God. In other words, Aquinas’ concern was the spiritual dimension of human life, and hence in conducting ones life such that it is worthy of salvation as secured through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    The latter is quite interesting because, against false claims that Aquinas’ moral philosophy is merely rehashed or warmed-over Aristotelian moral philosophy, we see superadded to objective speculative and practical knowledge of the real world (including ourselves, e.g., intellectual and moral virtues) revealed knowledge (including the theological virtues of charity, faith, and hope in the moral sphere). Aristotle did NOT have at the center of his thinking the inspiration of a religious world view… BUT he was definitely on to something very good. Aristotle understood, among many other things, (1) the integrated whole of our nature as humans in the realization of human life, (2) the political realities around him, (3) the disciplining influence of civic law, (4) the importance of early instruction and acquisition of the virtues, and (5) the source of moral corruption. Thomas applauds this, but carefully notes it is not enough. The intellectual (reasoned to: empirical, speculative) and moral (reasoned to: non-inductive, practical) virtues are great as far as they go.

    But the Christian obligation extends to knowing the Divine Essence. Christianity considers 24/7/365 something Aristotle never considered: salvation in securing the eternal reward of heaven… he had no sense of original sin, redemption, etc. (While Aristotle is orders of magnitude above the secular speculations over morality of Kant and his contemporaries and certainly even further above silly modern philosophical ideologies and post-modern conceptions of secular morality, the underlying similarity is all these don’t consider—or even actively and intentionally avoid to consider—spiritual verities… and hence, sooner or later, they will fail… for which we have plenty of evidence through body counts attributed to secular ideologies far outpacing killing in the name of religious faith.)

    So, Thomas realized there must be more: something must be added above and beyond the intellectual and moral virtues as commonly understood by philosophers up to the point of the Incarnation. It is not by our own means but through revelation that we “achieve” salvation, i.e., it is not we but God who “touches” us. We must have, through grace, the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity because intellectual and secular moral “salvation” is no salvation at all.

    Consider the theological virtue of Charity (Love). In Aristotle there was no concrete virtue known as Love or Charity, although he had magnanimity (great “soulness”) underlying all the other virtues, i.e., we must not only behave virtuously to become virtuous, but we must do so in a full-spirited, deeply-intentional sense in order to truly grow in virtue. One can act bravely, but if one acts bravely under duress or without much commitment, the virtue will not develop to the point of becoming “second nature.” Christian Charity is quite different from magnanimity: one must be sure to never neglect the needs of others, to never put oneself first, to exercise restraint in taking what is due, to not even take what is justly due to you if what you take denies someone else what is due to them, to understand that what you have is a gift that should be shared, etc., etc. Absent this theological virtue of charity, salvation is impossible no matter how virtuous you are in the world: something will be fundamentally missing in your moral makeup.

    Consider the theological virtue of Faith. You have no sensory evidence and no air-tight rational argument according to which what you believe is necessarily true… yet you believe it! Aristotle qua epistemologist would have a deep problem with this. Thomas would counter that faith is a different KIND of virtue, even while agreeing the intellectual and moral virtues will get us quite far. Thomas would say the Providential God has provided us with the means for salvation. No matter how well developed you secular episteme, it is not enough: Aristotle simply did not have a theory on Divine Grace… although he did distantly anticipate life beyond the grave in his demonstration of the immortality of the soul and eternal contemplation. Similarly for the theological virtue of Hope (the eschatological vision), but I won’t get into that here.

    What about our actual conduct, i.e., how do we conduct ourselves in a morally “good” way? We are good when we conduct ourselves such that our actions are reconciled with the Eternal Law of God, and His natural law (which we can know) per the creatures we are by our natures. This is why the following principle of St. Thomas is so important: If our natures were different, our duties would be different. (Why do you think Darwin-ISM tries to deny the existence of a human “nature,” and why repugnant ideologies (including Transhumanism and Kurzweil’s silly futurism “singularity” in the form of the oxymoron “spiritual machines”) try to alter human nature?) We must know what we are in our essential beingness (our nature) if we are to “function” or “perform” well. (Analogously, we must know what the nature of a telephone is in order to state whether it is a “good” (working) or “bad” (broken) telephone. C.S. Lewis’ depiction in Perelandra space trilogy of sin in a person as one who is “bent” is brilliant, and of course the Christian conception of our “brokenness” is analogously spot-on.) What is the “function” of a human being? According to Aristotle, to employ one’s capacity for reason (and concomitant free will) in a maximally virtuous way… in order to achieve happiness. According to Christianity, to come to know and worship the Lord your God in faith by means of grace. The “works” part naturally flows from this in that by loving and serving our neighbor we love and serve God. Christians will achieve happiness because they will be basking in the Beatific Vision.

    The Christian conception of morality is not one based on heroism as of old: going down in history as a virtuous hero is not the gig, it is not about how we appropriate the characteristics of a hero (although certainly we want to emulate what some incorrectly label as the “heroism” of Christ on the Cross: Christ was heroic insomuch as He was faithful and obedient to the Father’s Will!), but how we appropriate the characteristics of a saint: to know and love God and to become worthy of eternal life with Him.

    How come we’re not “good enough”? (For you ultra-empiricists out there, just take a look around you.)

    The culprit is desire of things not good for us (hence the term “concupiscence”): every human being has a tendency to like what is not good. Pleasures of the moment trump the dictates of reason: the hedonistic, self-interested person who wants sense gratification now and at all costs inevitably reduces to the image of a brain in a vat. We become addicted to desires, and all that remains is a pattern of (1) sensory stimulation, (2) desiring what has been stimulated, (3) satisfaction of that desire, (4) further satisfaction, (5) the desire not being quenched so we seek even more satisfaction, (6) we rekindle that desire through increased stimulation, etc., etc., etc. (Recall the image of Jim Carey playing the Riddler in one of the Batman movies who seeks to stimulate his brain with knowledge in order to control others: once he obtains it near the end of the movie, the Riddler’s one word response is “Bummer!” and… and he loses his mind.)

    To close, a bit on our human nature as it relates to the moral sphere. If someone warns you that you should not jump off a cliff or that you cannot jump 150 meters straight up into the air on your own power, they are not imposing their vision of reality or even the law of gravity on you but are clearly and prudently expressing objective truths of reality in the realm of speculative knowledge. Similarly, if someone warns you that you ought not murder an innocent person, they are not imposing their morality on you but clearly and prudently expressing an objective truth of reality in the realm of practical knowledge. (“Speculative” and “practical” forms of knowledge are terms of art in philosophy.) You cannot jump off a cliff and survive because it is not in your nature to be able to do so. Similarly, you cannot murder an innocent person because, believe it or not, it is not in your nature to take away from another what is due them (which, by the way, is the definition of an “injustice”—intentionally not granting to another person what is due them, in this case their life.) Of course, you are free to jump off a cliff, but then you’ll have no more nature because you’ll be physically dead. Similarly, you are, in a certain respect, “free” to murder an innocent individual, but then your nature is severely degraded—you literally become “inhuman,” (spiritually dead) and what’s worse, once you are in this state you will continue to behave this way (or worse) because you’ve degraded your nature.

    Now, we as the human race as a whole, because of original sin, are degraded in our natures and hence we have a strong propensity (an innate tendency, if you will) to choose what is not good for us (i.e., what is evil). Hence, the term “concupiscence,” which is (broadly) any desire of the soul for good… but not necessarily a desire that is truly a moral good, rather it is a desire of the lower appetite contrary to reason. Concupiscence is not itself sinful, but it is highly likely to cause sin. In fact, we WILL sin if we are not in a state of grace… but I’ve digressed to a previous point raised in another entry on this blog: we can do no good without grace.

  36. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    You recently wrote:

    I’ve already pointed back at that comment once since I posted it, and (since you asked for evidence) I don’t see any evidence that you’ve read it. Please do so, and if you intend to ask again how theism grounds morality objectively, please don’t ignore again how I’ve already offered an answer.

    I didn’t mean to appear to be ignoring your response; my apologies. The comment to which you referred me says this:

    Theism posits that there is an eternal, personal, creator God, a necessary Being who is Being itself; who by nature is good; whose character as one of its aspects includes perfect moral goodness. On that view, morality is part of the eternal furniture of reality. Contrary to all other systems, it is not inferred or derived from any other reality or fact. It is an aspect of God that simply is.

    Thus theism provides the only system I know of that does not require an is-to-ought inference. God’s morality is “ought” from start to finish.

    While this might be coherent (I’m not sure), my question isn’t so much, what’s the argument, but, how do you know the argument is true?

    For instance, if you’re only looking for logical coherence, why don’t you find equal satisfaction in Islamic morality? My point being that the logical coherence of the argument doesn’t seem to be that important, as I believe you do not find satisfaction in Islamic morality, which should be able to borrow from the same argument you provided. And since it’s not the argument itself, it should (I think) be the evidence that persuades you.

    The moral mistakes you speak of are not in the Bible; they are in our understanding and application of the Bible, and our correction of those mistakes means we understand and practice God’s revelation more nearly as it was written and intended, not that we move beyond that revelation in any way.

    But in order for you to know that past moral mistakes were a result of our misunderstanding of the Bible, don’t you either a) now have access to objective morality upon which to determine in fact that there were past misunderstandings, or b) admit that you face the same problem as those who have had past misunderstandings (and that you singled out from Midgley’s system as being deficient) and that you do not truly know what is right and wrong?

    So those are my questions, which if you’d like summed up in a claim would be something like: that your claim to having a system of morality that gives you sole or special access to (objective) Morality, where you can truly “know what is right and wrong,” does not appear to be demonstrated.

    Charlie,

    This…

    Since nobody is asking, it is no longer relevant, it is long, boring and meandering, here is my follow-up to the questions I had anticipated regarding imagining a possible world where thievery and selfishness are applauded.

    … is sincerely funny; I’ve been there myself many times, and I always appreciate the reminders that, despite all of our differences, we all suffer from the OCD fixation that won’t let us rest because somewhere, someone on the Internet is wrong.

    In answer to your earlier and latest posts, I haven’t replied because I don’t want to get off track or divert my energies away from what I started commenting about with Tom and your comments. But I will say this:

    The biological model of an “Arms Race” has been used to explain biological structures that relate to other organisms (predator and prey, host and parasite, even mother and fetus), and also, of course, behavior in species in societies similar to the one you imagine. Game Theory is another useful model that comes to mind. These models are required, I think, because biological and evolutionary dynamics are not as simple as “doing the math.”

    Case in point would be someone like Malthus, who did the Math and made predictions and ended up being (thankfully) terribly wrong. My point being that very often straight geometric and exponential functions are not accurate reflections of what has occurred or will occur in biological populations, and I think that your thought experiments suffer from this fact.

    Holopupenko,

    Sorry, but I haven’t had time to digest your entries. The first one I read that was directly addressed to me didn’t answer my question (or what I thought my question was), but I’ll reread and respond to you as soon as I can. Not, as Charlie mentioned earlier, anyone may even care..

  37. Tony Hoffman says:

    Holopupenko,

    You wrote:

    One quick (albeit oblique) reason is because YOU, a proponent of moral relativism, never actually can or will live out such a conviction. You talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk… or am I missing something about your expected response to me stealing your money or insulting you in a response to your comments?

    I’m not sure what question of mine you’re asking for and what question you’re asking me – the last prior question from my previous comment was, “Why do you [Tom] find your moral system satisfying, and more importantly, what makes you think it’s objective?” But I should say I’m actually not even sure if I’m a moral relativist or not – I just haven’t ruled out the possibility that Morality exists as a part of reality or not.

    My comments here were an attempt on my part to ask Tom to provide a valid logical argument that demonstrates the conclusion he appears to have made about morality – that only Theism provides access to objective moral truths, and that only through theistic morality can we truly know what is right or wrong. This stems from a longstanding complaint on my part that he criticizes other understandings of morality from this conclusion, and I wonder if his premises are all valid. My concern is that, like the vat in the jar argument, we might all be better off understanding that morality is objective (some things just are good), but that we can only know this in the way that we know that the world outside of our minds exist.

    Your second comment, while interesting about what you believe and for the history it involves, doesn’t seem to answer my question about how Tom can know that only Theism provides access to objective moral truths, and that only through theistic morality can we truly know what is right or wrong.