Tom Clark, Empiricism, and Ethics, Part Two

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I’m certainly more than overdue to respond to Tom Clark here, and now finally there is opportunity to do so. It has been so long since the last post on this topic, and this answer will run so long, that I’m publishing it as a new blog post.

First, I want to state my agreement with what he wrote about non-Christians’ ability to “be moral in all the ways that Christians endorse,” though only partially. I think he and I would both agree that this applies strictly to moral norms such as found in the latter portions of the Ten Commandments and not to the earlier, where the topic has to do with relating to God. The first and greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22:37). This is not something a non-Christian can do or would choose to do, unless she were at the same time deciding to follow God’s way. Somehow, strangely, I think even Christian believers have forgotten that this is a central ethical issue, though as the first and greatest commandment it certainly must be.

Nevertheless in terms of human relationships, atheists can and generally do indeed act morally, as do Christians, so that point is not in contention here. The question is whether naturalism presents a compelling and coherent explanation for morality, and as Tom said at the end of his comment, it was his goal, he said, to show that a naturalistic ethic could be stated and held coherently.

He may have met that goal, though I have serious questions about that. There is another important goal in moral discussion, which is to state an ethic compellingly. On this he ended up where (in my experience) non-theistic ethics always seem to end up, in a place that is not at all fruitful for moral thinking. I’ll explain as I go along.

Coherence
First, my questions about the coherence of his description of morality.

Tom Clark says “values flow from human nature as modulated by human culture… we’re hard-wire to take our moral intuitions very seriously.” We agree that values may be discovered by observing human nature, and by reflecting on our own experiences; and we agree that these are things we take very seriously. To the not inconsiderable extent that this is an empirical fact, it is explained at least as well by theism as by naturalism. Christian and Judaic theism takes it that humans are created in God’s image, which includes having at least some grasp of what goodness is in God’s view.

Tom says then “there’s good empirical evidence for a robust natural motivational basis for the problem morality addresses.” If by that he means that this provides differential support for a natural motivational basis–i.e., that this is evidence for a natural more than for a supernatural basis–I would disagree, for supernaturalism accounts for the empirical evidence at least as well as naturalism does.

We come now to a further point Tom makes here, which raises several puzzling questions for someone like me.

How does a liberal-progressive Western naturalist like myself justify the proposition that all humans have equal claim to the same set of rights against the opposing conservative-regressive claim, advanced by some Eastern Muslim theocracies, that certain classes of humans (gays, women, minorities, non-Muslims) should not be granted equal rights? This is a quintessentially normative, not empirical question, but it is informed by empirical considerations. The basic argument, some of which you kindly quoted, is that all classes of human beings have, in empirical fact, more or less the same desire for self-preservation and actualization – for human flourishing – and there’s no empirical basis to deny any class the opportunity for such flourishing. So, absent any countervailing considerations, they should be granted such opportunities.

Normativity
My first question with respect to this is how it can be, when Tom has set up empiricism as the only basis and test for knowledge, that another category, the normative, can find room to enter in. He seems on the one hand to have set the two in opposition to each other, but on the other hand to have given the normative some epistemic space anyway. I’m not at all sure how this can be done, given his epistemology (discussed earlier in this series).

Equality of Desire
Second, is it empirically true that all human beings (not classes of human beings as written here, but human beings themselves) have the same desire for self-preservation and actualization? How has this been measured? Is there not psychological/sociological evidence to the contrary? What about suicidal persons? The question is important because of a follow-up point found not much later:

The claim that all humans are of equal worth flows from the fact that each of us has more or less the same desire for flourishing, and the fact that there’s no basis to suppose some classes of humans should be thwarted in that desire. The value, the worth of each human being, is rooted in human nature itself, namely in each and every person’s strong innate desire to live and thrive.

If worth is derived from desire to flourish, then if I become depressed and suicidal, does my worth decrease? I assume Tom would answer no, but on what basis? This puzzles me.

My third and fourth questions from this passage requires me to quote part of it again:

There’s no empirical basis to deny any class the opportunity for such flourishing. So, absent any countervailing considerations, they should be granted such opportunities.

Abstractness
I frankly don’t know how to apply morality to a class. This is an abstraction beyond practical application. I can treat a person morally or immorally, and I can treat members of a class morally or immorally, but I can only do so by the way I treat them as individual persons. Maybe my decisions on how to treat them are based on the class to which they belong (in reality or in my perception). But even in that case it is not the class I’m treating well or ill, it is the person. Even if another member of that class feels well-treated or put off because I made my decision on the basis of class membership, that is a person, not a class, that is being affected by my action.

This point matters in this discussion because Tom Clark seems to think equality of worth comes from each class having equal desires for life, self-actualization, and flourishing. Statistical leveling of large groups tends to make this the case, but morality is not about statistically-defined groups, but about persons. I would like to know if he can take this to the level of individuals.

What is a Class?
Further, even if treating the matter according to classes could be defended as legitimate, I wonder if there’s some smuggled-in set of assumptions about what constitutes a class. I think there may be a class of suicidal persons who do not have the same desire for flourishing as others have. Does being a member of that class make one’s worth less than others? Or, there may be a class of suicidal persons and their spouses. Why can we not define a class in that way? This class’s overall desire for self-actualization and self-preservation is, on average, less than the rest of the population. Does that mean that even the non-suicidal spouse, as a member of that class, has a lower worth than someone who is not associated with a suicidal person?

In other words, if there is a coherent basis for regarding each person as equal in Tom Clark’s ethic, I have yet to understand it.

has to do with a to the question, “why should I follow moral system M?” Without this compellingness, there is no reason to follow an ethic, and the person is free to make up his own or to follow an ethic of personal impulse and immediate unmoderated desire. Compellingness (and here for now I will switch to the more common “oughtness”) may be either internal or external. There is the inward oughtness of human nature, discussed above, and there is also that which is learned from outside oneself through family and culture, which often becomes internalized as an inward sense of oughtness.

Compellingness
I suppose I made up that word “compellingness.” It has to do with answering to the question, “why should I follow moral system M?” Without this compellingness, there is no reason to follow an ethic, and the person is free to make up his own or to follow an ethic of personal impulse and immediate unmoderated desire. Compellingness (and here for now I will switch to the more common “oughtness”) may be either internal or external. There is the inward oughtness of human nature, discussed above, and there is also that which is learned from outside oneself through family and culture, which often becomes internalized as an inward sense of oughtness.

But as Tom Clark has astutely pointed out, these norms are not all universally shared. The naturalist has two options to revert to at that point: persuasion and power. He states it clearly enough here:

Because there’s no value-neutral criterion (such as God’s authority) by which to decide between competing moral principles, arguments for them necessarily involve appeals to pre-existing values. So, progressive naturalists appeal to the innate moral sense… and they cite the virtues of existing cultural traditions and political arrangements based in progressive values…. However, given sharp differences in cultures and worldviews, there is no guarantee such arguments will cut any ice with the opposition, and sometimes we are forced to use force in defending our principles. This point gets elaborated here.

In the ellipsis I left out part of the way in which he would attempt to persuade those who disagree, but the point is that there is either persuasion or force. What bothers one like me most about this is that quite clearly, morality is a matter of who wins. I don’t see a universal law in naturalism that decrees liberal equality will be the winner. In fact, I suspect there may even be some chronological/cultural chauvinism involved in supposing that our culture, alone among all cultures and all periods of history, has figured it out in a way that will last. The door is wide open for a different winner, one that Tom Clark will argue (unless he changes his mind) fails to meet the standards of empiricism. The new winner may well say, “we see it differently,” and that will be that. The word “compellingness” comes back, with a decidedly less friendly feel to it than in the first way I employed it here; and who knows where “oughtness” goes?

Christian theism’s ethic is based on a much firmer foundation. Standards of morality are part of the furniture of reality, as it were, which is why we have a basic apprehension of them in our consciences. Their oughtness is inherent within them, and not derived from some other non-moral principle. Their compellingness is fitting to them, inherent and appropriate to their own basic nature, and our experience of their compellingness may be internalized or external. Either way, it fits.

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41 Responses

  1. Joseph A. says:

    Tom Gilson,

    You really do put on the kid gloves sometimes. A nice piece, but I think what you’ve said in response to the naturalistic foundation for morality/ethics supplied here is, to say the least, the tip of the iceberg.

  2. It’s my position that naturalism does not support extrinsic normativity in the strongest sense of being independent of any sort of human thought. However, it is also the case that simply denying extrinsic normativity does not at all contradict or falsify any actual observation, whereas all forms of extrinsic normativity require elaborate, rococo elaboration to account for all the observations.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    @Joseph A.:

    I don’t disagree with you at all on that. From a Biblical perspective there is much, much more that could be said. My approach here is to critique naturalistic ethics from within its own assumptions, to challenge its internal consistency and adequacy.

    Both Tom Clark and Alonzo Fyfe speak of a desire-based ethic: what can be done to maximize the fulfillment of desire. Every desire is on the table for consideration, in Alonzo’s version, and the only limitation is that if pursuing one desire interferes with maximizing some other desire, it’s not a good idea. (I don’t know if Tom Clark would agree with that completely.) From a Biblical perspective that’s not just wrong, it’s as twisted and distorted as it could possibly be.

    If I had thought of this as being directed at a Bible-believing audience I would have spoken from Biblical assumptions. I’m directing it at naturalists instead, whom I do not expect to hold to Biblical assumptions, and I’m trying to show that even from within their own assumptions these ideas fall short. If you have more to add on that, directed toward this audience and holding their assumptions in mind, please write it.

    In Biblical terms, aesthetics (joy and delight) and ethics are tied together, in that God gives joy and life and delight to those who will follow him, submit to him, trust him; those who will give joy and life and delight away freely to others. It works, by the way, as it should since it is true.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    @Barefoot Bum:

    I think by “extrinsic normativity” you mean something like objective moral values and duties, which in the past here we have defined as moral values and duties that would obtain, would be true, even if no human believed them or agreed with them.

    What I meant by external compellingness in this post was externally-enforced standards, i.e., if you speed you could get a ticket.

    I’m pointing this out just to clarify the terminology, and to find out from you whether I’ve understood you correctly.

  5. @Tom Gilson:

    If you’re “trying to show that from within their own assumptions their ideas fall short,” you have not yet done so. You’ve shown that only Clark’s ideas fall short.

    (If you understand Alonzo Fyfe’s ethical philosophy, you’re one up on me, and I’ve been reading Fyfe for 10 years.)

    It works, by the way, as it should since it is true.

    Does it mean anything to say that Biblical morality “works”? How would you know if it didn’t work?

  6. @Tom Gilson:

    I think by “extrinsic normativity” you mean something like objective moral values and duties, which in the past here we have defined as moral values and duties that would obtain, would be true, even if no human believed them or agreed with them.

    Yes, that’s precisely what I mean.

    What I meant by external compellingness in this post was externally-enforced standards, i.e., if you speed you could get a ticket.

    I understand. The idea of external compulsion in the sense you cite in the comment seems uncontroversial.

    I deny there is any compulsion external to human society other than non-teleological physics: if you jump off a cliff, you will fall to your death, but gravity does not exist for the purpose of establishing the “wrongness” of jumping off of cliffs.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    And if I have understood you correctly, then I disagree on two counts.

    1. A Christian ethic is not “elaborate, rococo” in the pejorative sense that I think you meant by that. One of the unique and often-noted features of Christianity is that there’s something there for everyone. My kids understood some of the basics when they were hardly of school age. They’re still learning more. I’m still learning more. It’s elaborate, rich with thought and implications in that sense. There’s always more of God and his ways to be learned. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

    The simple basics of Christian ethics are, however, really quite simple: God has given us a set of commands, and principles relating to those commands, to be obeyed because they are good. They are good expressions of his good character, and they produce good fruit in those who practice them. They even produce good fruit in non-believers who practice them, though a fuller practice is acceptable only for those who trust and follow him. This is for two reasons: the commands and principles include a call to trust and follow him (the first several of the Ten Commandments, for example); and also, God provides to his followers life, guidance, and strength for doing good.

    That’s it in one paragraph. The basic commands are summed up just as easily: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” There are specific commands as well, relating to interpersonal relationships, marriages, employment, sexual expression, use of money, honesty, and so on. But these are not “rococo,” any more than any other ethical system, in fact less so because there is a solid core of principles to them. Alonzo writes of a “desire utilitarianism.” Have you ever tried to sort out utilitarianism in any practical sense, where you have to weigh and count the utility of one action and compare it to the utility of another? My goodness, how complex that can be!

    Second, does denying this contradict any actual observations? Sure it does. Those who follow God’s ways really do experience more positive life outcomes, while those who do not are far more likely to run into major disease and damaged relationships. That’s just a beginning. Non-objective morality also runs into the observed contradiction of persons saying over and over again of various things, “This is very, very wrong,” and “this is very, very right,” — as if there really was such a thing as right and wrong. In what I’ve read of Alonzo’s blog, he avoids those words like the plague. Clark only uses “right” in the sense of human rights. Neither of them lays claim to there being an actual right or wrong.

    Now for purposes of a technical treatment of the issue, I suppose that expresses some consistency of thinking. But suppose you hear someone say, “It’s just wrong to dump toxic discharges into the river!” or “Raising children with safety and love is the right thing to do.” Suppose further that when you hear that being said, you agree with them in your heart. There’s the observation that contradicts non-objective morality. Your heart knows certain things are right and others are wrong, period.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Oh, and by the way, how is it you accuse objective ethics as “elaborate” and “rococo” and then later add, “If you understand Alonzo Fyfe’s ethical philosophy, you’re one up on me, and I’ve been reading Fyfe for 10 years.”

    I do not claim to understand all of Alonzo’s philosophy, I’ve only read what I’ve read. I understand utilitarianism generally, and I think from what I’ve read about Fyfe’s version, it’s plain that every desire is equally on the table for consideration of its utility. Some are excluded only after a utility analysis concludes they do not contribute to overall fulfillment of human desires in general.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    Does it mean anything to say that Biblical morality “works”? How would you know if it didn’t work?

    I think I’ve actually answered that already, by accident as it were. See above where I noted that those who follow God’s ways experience more positive life outcomes. Documentation is linked. Note this reference in particular.

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    If you’re “trying to show that from within their own assumptions their ideas fall short,” you have not yet done so. You’ve shown that only Clark’s ideas fall short.

    I’m quite convinced Fyfe’s approach to faith is seriously flawed, as I have argued not long ago. As to his overall ethic, you’re right, I haven’t tackled it. One thing at a time. My guess is that on analysis it would collapse as other utilitarianisms have, and I’m sure it will fail the test I just mentioned of our internal knowledge that some things are really right in themselves, and others are just wrong in themselves. But that’s preliminary.

    I think I’ve spent enough time with Fyfe for now, though. He really got off of any productive discussion and jumped to ad hominems here, and I’m not that interested in that kind of interaction.

  11. A Christian ethic is not “elaborate, rococo” in the pejorative sense that I think you meant by that.

    I don’t expect you to agree. 🙂

    The simple basics of Christian ethics are, however, really quite simple: God has given us a set of commands, and principles relating to those commands, to be obeyed because they are good.

    This is not “simple” in the sense that I mean: At some point God’s commands must be enumerated; they cannot be not derived from a smaller set principles. And, of course, we must elaborate some sort of epistemic basis to know which statements are God’s commands. In just the same sense physics can’t be “simplified” by saying, “There are a set of physical laws, and all matter ‘obeys’ those laws.” One must actually investigate the details of those laws — and how they are known — to evaluate their simplicity.

    Have you ever tried to sort out utilitarianism in any practical sense, where you have to weigh and count the utility of one action and compare it to the utility of another? My goodness, how complex that can be!

    This is a different sense of “simplicity”. We know from both mathematics and physics that a simple set of underlying equations or laws can result in “complicated” emergent behavior. I’m talking about the simplicity and parsimony of the underlying principles.

    And yes, I do in fact often apply utilitarian principles to ethical decisions; it’s usually quite straightforward.

    Those who follow God’s ways really do experience more positive life outcomes, while those who do not are far more likely to run into major disease and damaged relationships.

    It’s not enough to cherry-pick the studies that support your position. In order to avoid Cargo Cult Science, you need to bend over backwards to examine the studies and data that tend to undermine your position. (Naturally, I’ll examine in more detail the studies you present on the same basis, as time permits.) So you have to discuss issues such as the correlation of religion to higher divorce, out-of-wedlock births and teen pregnancy. At least at the sociological level, religion does not appear to be particularly helpful to ethical topics considered relevant to many religious people.

    Of course, I personally don’t consider divorce or out-of-wedlock births to be ethically objectionable; teen pregnancy concerns me only to the extent of the well-being of the children; I don’t see teen sexuality as being objectionable per se.

    More fundamentally, though, even assuming the underlying data are correct and we agree on what constitutes a “positive life outcome,” you’re undermining your own point. Presumably, you’re intent on establishing “moral values and duties that would obtain, would be true, even if no human believed them or agreed with them.” You’re making an instrumental case: One should follow God’s laws in order to maximize one’s “positive life outcome.”

    It might simply be the case that those ethical and psychological principles that can empirically be found to have “positive life outcomes” have been retroactively applied to the interpretation of scripture and traditional practice. Many prominent Christians once interpreted the Bible to justify slavery; today they (happily) interpret the Bible to condemn slavery. If such an interpretive adjustment is possible regarding slavery, it’s possible regarding any ethical value.

    And I myself have most definitely not followed God’s laws (at least not those laws I suspect you would endorse); even so, I’m quite happy with the positive outcome of my life.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    BB,

    On simplicity I think you are just wrong. Utilitarianism is complex, as you yourself admitted. Sure, you can apply it in specific cases, but as an overall system it is very complex.

    Second, just to enumerate God’s commands is not “rococo” or even baroque.

    Third, just what kind of world do you think we live in? Do you really think there’s an ethical system out there that doesn’t need to be expressed in specifics? My goodness, how unlikely that would be!

    I’m not cherry-picking studies. The NSYR, the main study I referred you to, is the best of its kind. And if you read the literature of religion and sociology in the U.S. widely enough you’ll run across phrases like this very, very frequently:

    “One of the best established findings of the sociology of religion is that persons who follow religions have more positive outcomes, in general, than those who do not.”

    The statistics at the Ed Brayton page are one view; another view may be found here or here. It would be a matter of some considerable interest to chase down the reasons for the discrepancies there.

    More fundamentally, though, even assuming the underlying data are correct and we agree on what constitutes a “positive life outcome,” you’re undermining your own point. Presumably, you’re intent on establishing “moral values and duties that would obtain, would be true, even if no human believed them or agreed with them.” You’re making an instrumental case: One should follow God’s laws in order to maximize one’s “positive life outcome.”

    I’m not intent on using these data to establish that objective moral values exist. I’m using these data to show that the following the objective moral values that do exist results in good outcomes, in general. Or in other words, God’s objective moral values are good in more ways than one (which I have already said, by the way).

    And with that, it’s time for me to pull out of this discussion for a few hours and get the garage cleaned.

  13. @Tom Gilson

    On simplicity I think you are just wrong. Utilitarianism is complex, as you yourself admitted. Sure, you can apply it in specific cases, but as an overall system it is very complex.

    Second, just to enumerate God’s commands is not “rococo” or even baroque.

    Obviously, I disagree. We’ll have to discuss the issue in more detail.

    I’m using these data to show that the following the objective moral values that do exist results in good outcomes, in general.

    If certain beliefs or activities lead to a positive outcome, then you don’t need any further justification.

    And with that, it’s time for me to pull out of this discussion for a few hours and get the garage cleaned.

    I suppose there’s one advantage to living in a snowy climate: it’s presently much too cold for me to contemplate cleaning my own garage.

  14. Let me make my position clear for when you return.

    First, there are certain “life outcomes” we both consider positive, and there are certain beliefs (and/or attitudes, actions and patterns of action) that we both can empirically conclude will bring about those life outcomes. These common elements are uncontroversial, and such elements do not distinguish between naturalism and “supernaturalism”.

    The crux of the biscuit will center on those “life outcomes” whose value you and I disagree on. Of course, proving that some beliefs (etc.) would bring about an outcome that you and I disagree the value would beg the question. I believe that a happy primary relationship is a positive outcome; I believe that lifetime monogamy per se is a neutral outcome. Therefore, if you showed that believing Christianity resulted in a lower divorce rate, I’d say, “So what? I don’t care about divorces. I care only that people are happy in their relationships.”

    Another point of focus would be on beliefs (etc.) that were good or bad regardless of their outcome.

    If all “objectively true” moral beliefs necessarily lead to subjectively determinable positive outcomes, then I submit you and I are in complete agreement, except that you define the label “objectively true” as exactly synonymous with “subjectively desirable”. Likewise, if you say an outcome is “positive” by virtue of being a result of an objectively true moral belief, then you are making the same tautology.

    So the relationship between following “God’s laws” (as you construct them) and “positive life outcomes” has to be seen either as a distraction or proof that you and I are in complete agreement.

  15. Joseph A. says:

    Tom Gilson,

    Actually I wasn’t even referring to critiquing it on Biblical terms at all (though as you’ve pointed out, there’s quite a lot that can be done there too.)

    Bluntly, the essays you’re responding to come across to me as remarkably insincere. There’s no attempt to actually find what morality or ethics naturally flows from a thoroughgoing naturalist ethic. Instead there’s this hodge-podge, carefully worded attempt to try and intellectually mimic religious/theistic morality while giving up as little of precious naturalism as possible. It screams “So long as you turn a blind eye to the glaring problems and gaping holes in our reasoning, we can kinda-sorta offer a watered-down, mutilated version of non-naturalist morality and ethics!” What’s left over after a moderately aggressive analysis of this grounding of morality is shockingly little.

    As I said, you put the kid’s gloves on for these things. And I can respect that – you’re one of the most polite and hospitable bloggers around. But when I see some of what you engage, I can’t help but think an Ilion-like approach now and then is justified.

  16. @Joseph A.

    Bluntly, the essays you’re responding to come across to me as remarkably insincere. There’s no attempt to actually find what morality or ethics naturally flows from a thoroughgoing naturalist ethic. Instead there’s this hodge-podge, carefully worded attempt to try and intellectually mimic religious/theistic morality while giving up as little of precious naturalism as possible.

    I have to say that I more or less agree. I think most “naturalistic” ethical philosophers are as deluded as theologians and theistic philosophers. Needless to say, my opinions are not held in high esteem in the eyes of most secular ethical philosophers.

    There’s simply nothing we can say — in a philosophical or scientific sense — about what other people “should” do, only about how individuals negotiate, persuade and ultimate coerce other individuals into doing what they want each other to do.

    It’s an uncomfortable philosophy, but it’s true: We human beings are and always have been on our own, ethically speaking; most ethical philosophy seems to me a cowardly shrinking from that most terrifying freedom.

    Captcha: 62 pundits

  17. Tom Gilson says:

    Joseph,

    If you mean that Clark’s ethic comes out suspiciously PC—taking academia’s prevailing mood and trying to make it fit into his view of reality—I would say you’re right, and I missed that. He has no basis in his ontology for his view of equal treatment, but he got it to fit in there somehow.

    I don’t like the Ilion style, and I won’t employ it. I have real appreciation for Tom Clark’s manner of carrying on debated and discussion. But I think his ethic is a very strange mixture of atheistic naturalism and PC equal rights, whose only logical connection is that they both happen to be popular at about the same time in academic history.

  18. Jacob says:

    There’s simply nothing we can say — in a philosophical or scientific sense — about what other people “should” do, only about how individuals negotiate, persuade and ultimate coerce other individuals into doing what they want each other to do.

    This sums up my philosophy. After all, is the concept of murder uniform? We justify and barter and say that “they had it coming” using our subjective values. We ask how it all effects us. The one thing that can be appealed to is that we don’t like our values harmed, so we shouldn’t try to harm other values. Perhaps this won’t deter some people, but they would hardly be deterred by abstract concepts and normative values anyway. Like it was pointed out: your arguments tend to regress to these very same principles of consequences and outcomes.

    Working toward a more free and just society would help things. I tend to view human history as one contiguous movement toward this stability, and I hope it’s inevitable. People benefit from stability and harmony. Religion is also a form of stability if you choose to look at it that way. Human behavoir is malleable. It can be fashioned into anything. Religion can offer focus.

  19. @ Jacob

    The one thing that can be appealed to is that we don’t like our values harmed, so we shouldn’t try to harm other values.

    If my comment sums up your philosophy, this statement doesn’t follow. It’s trivially counterintuitive anyway: we typically have no problem “harming the values” of murderers and rapists.

    Working toward a more free and just society would help things.

    But this simply begs the question: who decides what specifically constitutes “freedom” and “justice”? Furthermore, these values are in general dialectically contradictory: justice (as typically conceived) entails some limitation of someone’s freedom; freedom creates at least the possibility (and often the actuality) of injustice.

    My view is that I can say that I want certain things, and I don’t want certain things. I know there are six billion people in the world who all want and don’t want their own things. The best I can do is persuade, negotiate, compromise and sometimes fight to get as much of what I want as is feasible, knowing that all of them are doing the same thing.

    As it happens, I’m a moderately nice guy: On the whole I want other people to be happy, and I don’t want other people to suffer. But I can’t take any moral credit for this position: I don’t “choose” to be nice, it’s my more-or-less “physical” nature to be nice, that results from causal factors external to my own consciousness. In just the same sense, I don’t “choose” to like broccoli and dislike Brussels sprouts or like pleasure and dislike pain: these characteristics are just “wired in” to who I am.

  20. Jacob says:

    Of course. I was offering an incredibly basic view of things. Sometimes harming values is inevitable. For instance: by taking a job across the country, we might be hurting the people around us who have to deal with that upheaval. It’s that sort of collision of subjective values that interests me.

    When I said that we shouldn’t try to harm other values, the emphasis was on the word “try”. I should have made myself more clear. Sometimes it becomes necessary or pertinent to harm other values. It’s all give and take. After all, who doesn’t evaluate consequences in terms of positive and negative outcomes? But that all depends upon what the individual thinks is a positive or negative outcome, so evaluation on an objective scale is incredibly difficult. I was being pretty abstract when I talked about justice, but I did mean that society has been working toward a system in which people have the right to do certain things given that it doesn’t cause specific kinds of damage to another. That’s all pretty subjective too, of course, which is why we might bicker about it. But from a purely pragmatic point of view, I think it is important that we work toward a system that grants the most basic of rights to all individuals ubiquitously. That’s a good starting point, and that’s what we’re discussing. What is the starting point for morals?

  21. Of course. I was offering an incredibly basic view of things. Sometimes harming values is inevitable.

    Then the standard “try not to harm other people’s values” is at best a generalization about people’s psychology; it’s not a universal ethical principle.

    When I said that we shouldn’t try to harm other values, the emphasis was on the word “try”.

    In the words of the immortal philosopher, Yoda of Dagobah, “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.”

  22. What is the starting point for morals?

    The starting point is what people want, and how they can get it.

  23. Jacob says:

    I don’t consider anything I’ve said really as a universal ethical principle. Perhaps universal principles that apply to ethics. In fact, I resist such things because I recognize that we act with warring motives. Any one dictum is likely to fail in practice because morality is at best situational. We weigh how things positively or negatively effect us as individuals based on our values. In fact, I’d like to abolish traditional terms that we take for granted. The conscience is likely to respond given what we do in a situation. It’s not necessarily confined to what we usually define as morality.

    Now I am using a form of normative values because there are things that can be appealed to within each and every one of us. Trying is very important in the sense that I’m employing it. I’m basically saying that we should be cognizant of the values of others. That way if we do decide to harm their values, we’ve at least considered what our actions may do. We might not consider it for long. Most of our considerations may have been in the fomenting stage of our values so that the mind is already prepared to deal with them when the times comes. But there should be a certain level of respect if we consider some basic rights as important. That’s all I’m trying to say.

    But again, that’s based on pragmaticism, and I could make an argument about the things we should appeal to as humans. Stability is good, we shouldn’t just be how we’re conditioned, etc. I recognize that people will fight for their values, but I think that we can appeal to intelligence somewhat. I believe most dumb things happen because of bad judgment. And a component of intelligence is realizing that there is more to this world than the individual. Because if we’re going to talk about clashing ideals, we also have to talk about how we reason with each other. And if we all had better judgment, then we’d make better decisions…since decision-making is a huge part of morality. I’ve noticed over the years that it’s not even necessarily a matter of right or wrong. People just do dumb things because they have bad worldviews thanks to bad reasoning and bad judgment…or they’re simply deluded. But then we can get into a regress there and argue over what constitutes better judgment. I just wanted to establish some basic guidelines.

    Sometimes our values simply clash, and there isn’t always such a thing as right or wrong here; perhaps simply there is only the outcome that defines winners and losers.

    It might seem like I’m equivocating a bit, but there is a middle ground that we must find. We might not agree with what constitutes murder, but we all generally respond to death. And since many people try to justify their actions, it must be an attempt to reach out and appeal to others. Therefore, sound judgment only makes sense. But it ultimately comes down to the situation. Sometimes we really do understand killing or theft or lying and excuse them, and the appeals we make might be good or bad. But if we’re talking about apealing to others, then we might talk about why people are the way they are, how they came to their values, etc. That’s part of the appeal process.

  24. Tom Clark says:

    Tom G.,

    Thanks for your good comments. You agree that naturalists can be moral but say they neglect a central ethical issue for Christians:

    The first and greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22:37). This is not something a non-Christian can do or would choose to do, unless she were at the same time deciding to follow God’s way. Somehow, strangely, I think even Christian believers have forgotten that this is a central ethical issue, though as the first and greatest commandment it certainly must be.

    It’s interesting that Christians are commanded to love God, since love can’t be voluntarily willed in response to a demand for love, but arises in response to the loveability (shall we say) of the loved one. More generally, Christians suppose that without commands to be moral, they wouldn’t be moral, whereas naturalists see morality as feasible without supernatural admonition. We are naturally inclined to be moral, just as we are inclined to love someone who’s loveable. In any case, I’m glad we agree that the failure to love (or more fundamentally) believe in God is no bar to being moral.

    You wonder whether naturalism has a coherent explanation for morality, and contrast it with supernatural explanations:

    Tom says then “there’s good empirical evidence for a robust natural motivational basis for the problem morality addresses.” If by that he means that this provides differential support for a natural motivational basis–i.e., that this is evidence for a natural more than for a supernatural basis–I would disagree, for supernaturalism accounts for the empirical evidence at least as well as naturalism does.

    I won’t attempt to argue you out of your supernatural explanation for morality, since my only objective was to show that there’s a coherent natural explanation. I certainly don’t expect you to buy it!

    You ask whether naturalism make ethics compelling, getting at the issue of normativity. You say

    My first question with respect to this is how it can be, when Tom has set up empiricism as the only basis and test for knowledge, that another category, the normative, can find room to enter in. He seems on the one hand to have set the two in opposition to each other, but on the other hand to have given the normative some epistemic space anyway. I’m not at all sure how this can be done, given his epistemology (discussed earlier in this series).

    To say that it’s right or obligatory to do X isn’t a knowledge claim, but what we might call an imperative behavioral advisory, a strong social admonition about how to behave in a given situation with the understanding that there are positive or negative consequences for behaving or not behaving that way. Normative claims are backed up by social rewards and sanctions and they function to bring about states of affairs that members of a moral community generally agree are desirable. What makes ethics compelling is the combination of our evolved moral sense, the presence of social reinforcers, and a plausible higher-level explanation that justifies the moral norms, e.g., an explanation about why each of us is an equal object of moral regard and subject of moral obligations to others. Naturalists and anti-naturalists offer different explanations.

    Morality can be thought of as a body of shared social agreements about appropriate behavior (norms), as distinct from empirical knowledge about the world (facts). The normative and empirical therefore aren’t in conflict or opposition, instead they necessarily combine when we predict or assess the outcomes of moral practices, or when we seek the origins of morality itself. (Of course there are also epistemic norms about how we can best know about the world, which we discussed in the first three sections of this exchange.)

    Re each person’s desire to flourish as the basis for equal rights, you ask:

    …is it empirically true that all human beings (not classes of human beings as written here, but human beings themselves) have the same desire for self-preservation and actualization?…. If worth is derived from desire to flourish, then if I become depressed and suicidal, does my worth decrease? I assume Tom would answer no, but on what basis? This puzzles me.

    There will of course be variation among individuals’ desires to flourish, but it nevertheless remains an essential foundation for claims to equal rights. Absent such desires, there would be no human project at all and no moral problem to solve (the conflict between self-interest and those of others). But you raise a good point (also raised in the section of your post titled “What is a class?”) to which I would respond as follows: the value of each of us (our moral worth) depends not only on our own desire for flourishing, but also on how others value us and how we value others. We don’t let the depressed and suicidal act on their self-destructive impulses because we have a stake in their survival and flourishing. As empathetic creatures, we naturally want to reduce their suffering and keep them from harm, especially if they are close to us. The liberal project is to maximally expand the circle of moral concern (eventually to all sentient beings, some would argue) by showing our essentially common sentient, motivated nature.

    But of course this isn’t sufficiently compelling for you, since you will always ask: Sure, people may have altruistic and empathetic inclinations, but why *should* they act on them, as opposed to their merely selfish impulses? This question can be asked no matter how strong the desire (and altruism often competes strongly with selfishness). It asks for a justification for right action that’s independent of human motivation. As a naturalist, I see no prospects for desire-independent justifications for right action (about which see Joshua Greene’s paper The secret joke of Kant’s soul), but as a Christian you do: in God’s command.

    In the section on Abstractness, you worry that speaking of classes (females, gays, non-whites, atheists, etc.) diverts us from the central moral obligation to individuals:

    Tom Clark seems to think equality of worth comes from each class having equal desires for life, self-actualization, and flourishing. Statistical leveling of large groups tends to make this the case, but morality is not about statistically-defined groups, but about persons. I would like to know if he can take this to the level of individuals.

    You’re of course right that morality is about how individuals should be treated, and my point was simply that all individuals should be accorded equal rights no matter what class they may be in. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    Getting back to the issue of “compellingness” or oughtness, you say

    What bothers one like me most about [Clark’s naturalistic take on ethics] is that quite clearly, morality is a matter of who wins. I don’t see a universal law in naturalism that decrees liberal equality will be the winner. In fact, I suspect there may even be some chronological/cultural chauvinism involved in supposing that our culture, alone among all cultures and all periods of history, has figured it out in a way that will last. The door is wide open for a different winner, one that Tom Clark will argue (unless he changes his mind) fails to meet the standards of empiricism. The new winner may well say, “we see it differently,” and that will be that. The word “compellingness” comes back, with a decidedly less friendly feel to it than in the first way I employed it here; and who knows where “oughtness” goes?

    You’ve pointed up the central difficulty of how to arrive at a compelling justification for morality absent external absolutes (although remember that on my view such a justification is only one component of what makes morality compelling, two others being our innate moral sense and social reinforcers). You’re right, there is no “universal law in naturalism that decrees liberal equality will be the winner.” For naturalists like myself, morality is a human project, playing out within a larger non-moral natural context with no necessary guarantee of success, either for the liberal interested in expanding human rights, or the conservative intent on maintaining the status quo or returning to a less egalitarian society. I see moral conflict (disagreements about moral norms) as essentially two sides of human nature, selfish and altruistic, duking it out, and there’s no higher authority telling us which way we should act, all things considered. Were there such higher authority, it would still be incumbent upon it to supply a justification for its moral injunctions beyond an authoritarian “because I say so.” It isn’t clear whether that justification would end up favoring the liberal or the conservative, or what it would consist of.

    For you as a Christian, there’s no problem:

    Christian theism’s ethic is based on a much firmer foundation. Standards of morality are part of the furniture of reality, as it were, which is why we have a basic apprehension of them in our consciences. Their oughtness is inherent within them, and not derived from some other non-moral principle. Their compellingness is fitting to them, inherent and appropriate to their own basic nature, and our experience of their compellingness may be internalized or external. Either way, it fits.

    There is no problem of moral justification for you since right action is prescribed by, inherent in, divine reality as apprehended by your conscience. As a flawed human being you will occasionally fail to do the right thing, but you believe you know infallibly what that is and you believe you have an indefeasible justification for it. I think those beliefs are mistaken, but don’t expect to convince you of that. All I hope is that non-naturalists like yourself will grant that naturalists, who have no such foundations available to them, can be and are just as moral as Christians, except of course in their failure to love God. I think you do grant this, in which case we can trust one another as good neighbors and citizens of an open, pluralistic society in which different worldviews can peacefully coexist.

    As always, I appreciate the respectful dialogue.

    best,

    Tom C.

  25. Tom Clark says:

    Tom G. wrote in the comments

    …I think [Clark’s] ethic is a very strange mixture of atheistic naturalism and PC equal rights, whose only logical connection is that they both happen to be popular at about the same time in academic history.

    The connection I’ve tried to establish is between empiricism and equality. The rise of science and more generally intersubjective empiricism, the epistemic basis for naturalism, enabled challenges to traditional non-empirical claims about the inherent inequality of various classes, e.g., women, non-whites, gays, atheists, etc.

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    Greetings again, Tom, and thank you for the continuing dialogue.

    Some responses:

    It’s interesting that Christians are commanded to love God, since love can’t be voluntarily willed in response to a demand for love, but arises in response to the loveability (shall we say) of the loved one.

    Well, it is a command, but like all other general moral commands God gives, its basis is two-fold: (1) the injunction is toward doing that which is really good for us, and (2) we’re not always smart enough to recognize that this is so. Therefore he tells us to do what is good, so that we will by practice learn to discover that it is good.

    To love God is to recognize his perfect intrinsic loveability, and also to recognize that the distractions and counterfeits to that love are not what they appear to be. For me, in practice, it’s a command to pursue the knowledge of God, and to practice personal relationship with him. The emotion of love follows.

    In fact, biblically your premise is incorrect anyway. The love with which God loves his creation is not dependent on our lovability, but on his own lovingness. His love for me or you does not go up or down depending on how lovably we’re acting.

    Further, the love-to-loveability connection of which you speak here seems to have more to do with the emotion of love than with its full spectrum of meaning, which includes treating others with love regardless of how we may feel at a given time. There are times, frankly, when I don’t understand what God is doing in my life. My knowledge of him tells me that whatever he’s doing, he’s wiser than I, so I ought to trust him with it. My emotions don’t always track with that knowledge. I can love God anyway, if not by emotions (which I can’t control) then by following him, obeying him (John 14:21), trusting him, honoring him.

    More generally, Christians suppose that without commands to be moral, they wouldn’t be moral, whereas naturalists see morality as feasible without supernatural admonition.

    No. If I understand what you’re saying, you’re making a mistake here that I tried to warn against. Christians do not believe we wouldn’t be moral without commands. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard it stated that way, in fact.) We believe that without a moral basis to reality, morality has no objective meaning; and that if it has no objective meaning, ultimately it has no meaning at all, for the subjective meanings that have been proposed for it all devolve into something lesser and different than what morality is usually taken to mean.

    And here’s an example:

    To say that it’s right or obligatory to do X isn’t a knowledge claim, but what we might call an imperative behavioral advisory, a strong social admonition about how to behave in a given situation with the understanding that there are positive or negative consequences for behaving or not behaving that way.

    You’re saying that “right” and “wrong” are really, “do this and you’ll be rewarded” or the converse. That, then, means that whoever holds the keys to the rewards holds the keys to morality. Enter Nietzsche and his disciples, of whom Hitler is a strong example. Power rules. To a lesser extent we even see the same in the U.S. The morality of homosexuality has been turned upside-down through homosexual activists’ success in exercising political and cultural power.

    You know enough history, I’m sure, to know what happens when the rules of culture are set according to who holds the most power. It ain’t pretty. In fact, usually it’s been very, very deadly. Furthermore, it’s not morality. It’s power in action.

    The normative and empirical therefore aren’t in conflict or opposition, instead they necessarily combine when we predict or assess the outcomes of moral practices, or when we seek the origins of morality itself.

    Translation: whatever is observed (empirically) to be considered right, is therefore (normatively) right. And who decides what is empirically considered right? The powerful. Whether the power is military, cultural, or political, it’s still the powerful who determine this. This is why an objective morality is so terribly important! It’s the only protection we have from each other and even from ourselves. (In that context I worry that your swipe at conservatives’ desiring a “less egalitarian society” might be dangerously naive. What “conservative” means to one person may be different from what it means to another, but remember what happened to France’s experiment in “liberty, equality, and fraternity” a couple hundred years ago. Ungrounded in transcendent morality, it turned out quite the opposite of what was putatively intended.)

    There will of course be variation among individuals’ desires to flourish, but it nevertheless remains an essential foundation for claims to equal rights.

    And from where did you derive that assumption that there is such a thing as a claim to equal rights? I agree they’re great, but I have a basis for it. Yours, I think, has disappeared. I refer you to my argument on that above, which I really don’t think you’ve answered at all.

    All I hope is that non-naturalists like yourself will grant that naturalists, who have no such foundations available to them, can be and are just as moral as Christians, except of course in their failure to love God. I think you do grant this, in which case we can trust one another as good neighbors and citizens of an open, pluralistic society in which different worldviews can peacefully coexist.

    I quite agree. Yet I must hold out this as a principle: atheists who act morally do something that (I continue to maintain) affirms and is supported by Christianity, and is completely unsupported by naturalistic ontology. Morality is written in our hearts, and one need not be a Christian to read from that code. But it took God to write it there.

  27. Jacob says:

    I’d like to think that the concept of positive and negative consequences is grounded in something a little more objective. We all generally know when we’re harming another. And we all know that negative actions often beget negative consequences. In fact, such an idea should in theory act as some deterrent to negative actions. Like I was saying before, we truly benefit from stability. Chaos generally cannot hold. There are real reasons to favor certain ideals.

    I don’t know if this is what you meant as empirical, but I think that morality is also highly conditioned into humans. We have “impulses” that are translated into belief systems that inform us of how to act. If I’m exposed to many cultures or types of people, then I’m less likely to be racist, for example. Experience is a large part of morality. I’d like to think that morality tends to be progressive to a certain degree. We’ve evolved and refined over time.

    But normative ethics is not something guaranteed, and life itself is a strange mix of the objective and subjective. Personally, I’d argue that God has done a very poor job indeed of informing us about those standards, and morality is far too relative because everybody has a different idea about religion and revelation, but perhaps that’s a different discussion.

  28. Tom:

    You are indeed correct to characterize Mr. Clark’s naturalistic ethics as a “strange mixture”—but his worldview is not limited to ethics, for a careful read of his writings at the center for naturalism (as well as others who contribute there) leaves critical thinkers with the impression that they unsuccessfully search for or illicitly duct tape-together any ideas that support their emotional commitment to naturalism. Mr. Clark’s tacit admission of an a priori commitment to naturalism here forced me to step in to raise a few issues.

    First, consider his claim to try to establish a link between empiricism and equality, and the straightforward question that is begged: why the attempt to link? (More on this below.)

    Second, note how loaded the terms “empiricism” and “equality” are, and why they cannot be “connected” in the way Mr. Clark desires. “Empiricism” is used by Mr. Clark only in a way that supports his a priori commitment to naturalism, and in particular to empiricism as employed by the modern empirical sciences (MESs).

    Third, it also betrays an a priori commitment to getting epistemology right (which “resides” in the knowing subject) before considering the external object. This approach turns the world on its head: instead of letting the external object “object” to our senses and then work from there, Mr. Clark (and all who follow Descartes’ mistake that eventually morphed into the intellectual travesties of Hume and Kant) work inside their minds and then hope their epistemology is worthy of the outside world. (By the way, DL’s idealism is a perfect example of this.)

    Clark’s upside down approach is cheating because it is precisely that which permits Mr. Clark the luxury of first formulating his own epistemological rules (in his mind), and then ruling “foul” upon anything in the real world which fails to fit his narrow self-serving epistemological mold.

    This, in fact, is the answer to the begged question above: the attempt to link MES empiricism with moral (or ontological) equality is loaded to support Clark’s prior commitments from the get-go. Mr. Clark admits as much when he states, “the rise of science and more generally intersubjective empiricism, the epistemic basis for naturalism, enabled challenges…” Mr. Clark wants classes to be “equal” (in whatever fuzzy meaning that has for him), and then pursues an eclectic concoction of favorable philosophical ideas (whether those ideas are sound or not) in a repugnant tag-team effort with MES empiricism.

    The worst part about all this is the a priori epistemological strictures atheists, naturalists, and sundry fellow travelers impose upon themselves blinds them to true ontological distinctions… hence the commitment to only one ontological kind of existent: material objects / physical phenomena. Existence in terms of a things “beingness” is NOT the same in all existents: I can cut a slab of granite in two and the only difference between the two parts is accidental: the pieces will still remain granite. One cannot to that to a man (or unborn child—a favorite target of most atheists): the form of a man arises from something interior to him in a way that the form of the granite does not. And yet, Mr. Clark would have us believe granite ontologically differs from a man only in degree—not in kind. Once that error is made, the moral equivocation of homosexual to straight (for example) becomes a logical black hole that destroys critical thinking. Think about it from this perspective: How does calling myself a heap of atoms any more meaningful than claiming, “I am lying”? In Mr. Clark’s world view, no true distinction possible.

    There is also a certain lack of rigorous thinking in the whole “equality” thing because it betrays a lack of logical and ontological distinctions. Strictly speaking, demonstration is a more significant word than proof. The latter is correctly applied to mathematics, and less so to the natural sciences. To demonstrate the veracity of a claim, however, is to pull ontological considerations into what would otherwise be a mere proof. For example, I may “prove” that one side of a mathematical equation is equal to the other side, or I may provide a logical “proof” for certain propositions. But when I provide a demonstration that Jack the Ripper murdered seven or more innocent women in London, I’m claiming much more than Jack the Ripper = the murderer, as if such a statement could be reduced to an equality or (worse) a tautology, as if the word “is” (and hence the concept of “being” could be replaced by an equal sign).

    Note the difference in the natures of the terms being compared: in a mathematical expression, any number may do as long as the equality holds (e.g., in the expression y = a(x^2) + bx +c is true for a wide range of variables), whereas Jack the Ripper is a unique individual related to a unique set of events, and no other person will do… ever. Another example: E = mc^2 is an expression that denotes a convertibility—a substantial (as opposed to accidental change, in fact—between ontologically very different entities. No nuclear engineer in his right mind would assert that energy IS mass times the square of the speed of light, i.e., neither is energy nor the mass from which it is converted existent at the same time and same manner, nor are they ontologically the same thing.

    Homosexuals are equal in terms of their dignity (something Steven Pinker labeled a “stupid idea”) to straight persons because of their ontological status from a proper understanding of human anthropology that incorporates theological considerations. But homosexuals are not equal to straight persons from the perspective of their actions any more than Jack the Ripper is equal to Tom Clark based on their actions. That addressing and understanding these types of “inequalities” goes beyond mere MES empiricism because it demands ontological distinctions be drawn does not take away from such a development… nor does it privilege naturalism. In fact, naturalism fails of its own accord: what Clark and others at their site ultimately propose is a privileged epistemological status be granted to the MES, which is inherently ontologically reductionist… but that’s a whole other discussion. Don’t buy what they’re peddling.

    P.S. I just noticed you posted on what counts as evidence, which is a shorthand way of relating what I noted above.

  29. One more point wrt to a naturalist approach to understanding reality is that analogous language is considered at best “old fashioned,” and at worst anathema. The inability (better: refusal) to admit of analogical terms is what (among other things) makes it impossible to speak of ontological kinds. The MESs seek univocal definitions of the material objects (“material” in the logical sense; matter and physical phenomena in the immediate sense) they study. It is the univocity of the language of mathematics that makes it so clear, while at the same time making it tempting to try to reduce all terms in all sciences to be expressed univocally, if not mathematically—which is one of Descartes’ errors that ripples down to us to this day.

  30. Tom Clark says:

    Hi Tom G.,

    You say

    You’re saying that “right” and “wrong” are really, “do this and you’ll be rewarded” or the converse. That, then, means that whoever holds the keys to the rewards holds the keys to morality. Enter Nietzsche and his disciples, of whom Hitler is a strong example. Power rules. To a lesser extent we even see the same in the U.S. The morality of homosexuality has been turned upside-down through homosexual activists’ success in exercising political and cultural power.

    Yes, unfortunately those in power sometimes commandeer a conception of morality to suit their ends, usually to reinforce the status quo in their favor. But essential to morality is the idea that action needs justification independent of the pure exercise of power, or the mere deployment of social rewards and sanctions, otherwise that exercise/deployment couldn’t be claimed to be morally defensible. A regime with pretensions to legitimacy is forced to have some sort of rationale for its practices and political arrangements – an ideology – because people generally want reasons and justifications for social practices. So discriminatory and oppressive regimes generally assert a conception of morality and try to justify it, e.g., gays shouldn’t be allowed equal rights including marriage because homosexuality is unnatural; Jews should be exterminated because they are an inferior race, etc.

    What these regimes can’t do is to claim to be moral and legitimate absent some sort of justification, however absurd others might find it. That justification then becomes susceptible to critique and counter-claims, for instance the claims that being gay isn’t unnatural, that Jews aren’t inferior, etc. Those opposing the regime will appeal to ethical intuitions and principles based in our innate moral sense and cultural precedent – witness the recent march by women in Afghanistan against the law granting husbands the right to coerce sex. The rise of gay rights is attributable not only to assertions of gay power (economic and otherwise), but to judicial decisions and legislation justified by the (secular) principle of equal protection under the law.

    This is why it doesn’t follow from anything I’ve said that “whatever is observed (empirically) to be considered right, is therefore (normatively) right.” That would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Norms by their very nature always require justification, they can’t simply be read off from what is the case, including people’s opinions about what’s right. And justifications are always subject to further challenge, for instance (to use your example), the French eventually admitted that “liberty, equality, and fraternity” couldn’t justify the Revolution’s atrocities – they had betrayed their own ideals.

    You say that given abuses of power, objective Christian morality is “the only protection we have from each other and even from ourselves.” But in empirical fact we have robust secular protections against the abuse of power based in notions of human rights (e.g., to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) that command the utmost respect among many nations, for instance as expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

    You say that naturalists act morally, but that they can’t justify acting that way since it’s “completely unsupported by naturalistic ontology.” You discount the evidence that we have an innate, naturally evolved moral sense (God wasn’t needed to write it in our hearts), and you discount as insufficient long-standing, consensus-derived secular justifications for human rights based in universal natural desires for freedom and fairness, for instance as expressed in the Universal Declaration. For you, unless rights are written into the fabric of reality as created by God, they can’t really exist. For me, they exist as essentially human phenomena, contingent bio-social constructions which are all the more precious for being hard-won victories of the progressive moral vision, won against strong conservative opposition every step of the way (full rights for gays, including marriage, is the next step).

    It’s clear that these differing conceptions of morality are rooted in our differing ideas about what’s fundamentally real. We won’t ever agree on these matters, but that’s OK so long as we can trust one another (which we do) to do more or less the right thing, even if as judged from our respective positions it’s for the wrong reasons.

  31. @Holopupenko:

    First, consider his claim to try to establish a link between empiricism and equality, and the straightforward question that is begged: why the attempt to link? (More on this below.)

    One possible answer is that Clark is simply mistaken about the connection.

    “Empiricism” is used by Mr. Clark only in a way that supports his a priori commitment to naturalism, and in particular to empiricism as employed by the modern empirical sciences (MESs).

    Examples please. Quite a lot of Clark’s writing has been referenced in just this thread, so I don’t know specifically what you mean or to what specifically you object.

    In general, the connection between empiricism and naturalism is direct and seems benign: naturalism can be construed as the position we can talk about truth only in relation to our perceptual experiences. Of course, describing that relationship precisely and accurately is more complicated.

    The worst part about all this is the a priori epistemological strictures atheists, naturalists, and sundry fellow travelers impose upon themselves blinds them to true ontological distinctions…

    Well, you would have to make a case that these “true” ontological distinctions are supportable; it is an open question whether naturalists are “blind” to particular ontological distinctions or alternatively supposedly alternative ontological distinctions are entirely imaginary.

    One cannot to that to a man…: the form of a man arises from something interior to him in a way that the form of the granite does not. … And yet, Mr. Clark would have us believe granite ontologically differs from a man only in degree—not in kind. Once that error is made…

    First, you have not adequately demonstrated that Clark does in fact believe that granite ontologically differs from a human being only in degree, not in kind. A quotation is required here.

    Second, what precisely does it mean to say granite and human beings differ “in degree” or “in kind”? This characterization seems vague. There’s no controversy at all among naturalists and scientists that quantitative differences can give rise to qualitative differences, especially when we talk about statistical properties of large scale phenomena. Human beings and granite are both made of matter, but that human beings are many orders of magnitude more complex than slabs of granite directly entails qualitative differences between the two.

    Third, how do you know it is Clark’s (supposed) view that is in error and not your own? You can appeal to something we can perceive: we can perceive that human beings have some property not accounted for by a purely materialist conception. But that is a purely naturalistic, empirical argument, and would be compelling to any naturalist. Alternatively, you can say that Clark (or the materialist view in general) contradicts a priori assumptions that you hold but he does not. But what of it? We already know we hold different a priori assumptions; the controversy becomes banal.

    [T]he moral equivocation of homosexual to straight (for example) becomes a logical black hole that destroys critical thinking.

    I disagree with both you and Clark on this matter: I do not believe that any moral statement is a statement of objective truth; they are statements of preference. Either position, that homosexuals are morally equivalent to heterosexuals or that homosexuals are morally inferior (or superior) can be rationally held, so long as one is clear that one is describing his or her personal preferences. (Of course, either position can be held irrationally as well, by basing the position on false assertions of fact.)

    At the level of supporting or undermining critical thought, one can hold that homosexuals are morally equivalent to heterosexuals rationally in just the same sense that short people are morally equivalent to tall people; likewise one might rationally hold that that homosexuals are morally inferior to heterosexuals in the same sense that anthropophages are morally inferior to ordinary people.

    (I do in fact hold homosexuals as morally equivalent to heterosexuals: I do not consider any person’s consensual sexuality morally relevant. And I am willing to enforce that view through well-accepted democratic processes.)

    Think about it from this perspective: How does calling myself a heap of atoms any more meaningful than claiming, “I am lying”? In Mr. Clark’s world view, no true distinction possible.

    Anyone sophisticated enough to use the word “ontological” should know that “a heap of atoms” substantively misrepresents materialism: even the earliest formulations of materialism holds that the arrangement of matter — not just its constituent parts — is ontologically meaningful.

  32. Jacob says:

    Holopupenko –

    Everybody generally “wants” their morality to be correct. First we must consider the emergence of morality. I would argue that morality always first works itself inside of the mind. Our minds can be conditioned for values either externally or internally. Unfortunately, the factors are usually external in our fomenting stages.

    Let’s consider the objective factors (generally death is considered a negative) and the subjective factors (we can actually be convinced that any one death is a positive). The justifications we use here are paramount. We use experiences to form values that we ultimately try to justify because we know that we have to answer to each other. The tragedy of this is that children can be trained to hate and kill. But because we have to answer to each other, there is a good argument to be made that we should be cognizant of each other. And because experiences often inform our morality, part of proper justification is taking a step beyond ourselves and asking about the true meaning of our experiences. For instance, I step beyond myself and look at Gandhi and seriously consider the efficacy of his non-violent approach. I ask how he’s justified and whether it will work in all situations.

    Furthermore, I say that naturalists do consider the object itself. Do homosexuals harm anybody? Do they have proper consent? Can they have a real, loving relationship? Those are all important questions. Every object is based on its own merits. It’s true that it’s quite subjective, but as long as we’re not simply conditioned to accept it and actually considering the object in question, then the idea of harm is pertinent. It’s basically what the entire concept of modern ethics centers around. We have this kind of social contract that says we can pursue our own interests and are free from incurring a certain measure of harm. If we at least try to shoot for that ideal, then I feel that it’s in the best interest of everybody.

    Lastly, I would say that it’s human nature to assign values to everything. That’s basic biology. We essentially consider the human spirit ineffable, even if one is a naturalist – it is sacred to us, and that’s all that matters. While in actuality things might only be separated by degrees, we’re bound by our minds, and no one really thinks that way. We consider things in human terms.

  33. We essentially consider the human spirit ineffable, even if one is a naturalist – it is sacred to us, and that’s all that matters.

    As a naturalist, I find this construction at best hyperbolic. The human spirit hardly seems “ineffable”: we can understand it with psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc., and we can understand the casual factors underlying people’s thinking and feeling with biology and evolution. The human spirit — in the sense of our empirically supportable feelings, emotions and preferences — is important but hardly “sacred”, especially in a religious context such as this.

  34. Hi Tom and Tom

    An interesting discussion. Now whilst both Tom Clark and I share the view that there is a naturalistic basis for ethics, there are both similarities and differences in our view. I will highlight only those similarities that can lead to our differences. There are many other similarities which are not relevant here. However engaging in this is not to presume that a supernatural ethic is a viable alternative. Regardless of our differences such differences do not make a supernaturalistic ethics viable, that has be substantiated on its own.

    There is no singular naturalistic world-view, as there is not singular supernaturalistic world-view so do not get confused over differences between our token versions to condemn the type. Still I am not assuming any metaphysics here but using the best available methods that have been shown to reliably work.

    The argument I present is one to possibly improve Gilson’s understanding of the type of naturalistic ethics that is possible but this cannot avoid in providing a critique of Gilson’s model in passing.

    My main dispute with Clark is over “innate moral sense” but this is minor in comparison Gilson’s baroque assumptions.

    Normativity

    First I deny that there is a special field called ethics which is distinct from empirical, historical and philosophical analysis, research, inquiry and reasoning. There is no fourth category (assuming there are just these other three for the purposes of argument here). Ethics is the systematic study of a domain and like any domain is constrained and informed by empirical, historical and philosophical inquiry. There no such thing as another type of reasoning called “normativity”. All the aforesaid forms of inquiry have their own norms internal to them, such as epistemic, biological, cognitive, physiological, evidentiary norms etc. There are no special norms of ethics as such.

    The denial is based on how there could possibly be such a distinct field as opposed to one domain amongst many. There is no empirical evidence to support this. Philosophically we can examine and invent many proposed aspects of such a field, such as categorical imperatives, and historically we can see how such beliefs – that categorical imperatives exist – can effect ethical discourse. However much we can understand the logical possibility and historical use,, empirically there is no evidence to conclude that they are not fictions and nothing to show they are facts. Empirically belief in entities such as categorical imperatives exist is an error.

    Coherence

    Tom Clark says “values flow from human nature as modulated by human culture… we’re hard-wire to take our moral intuitions very seriously.”… it is explained at least as well by theism as by naturalism. Christian and Judaic theism takes it that humans are created in God’s image, which includes having at least some grasp of what goodness is in God’s view.

    1. We do take our moral intuitions seriously but that does not mean that they are correct nor that we have a special “moral intuition” faculty.

    Mackie’s Error Theory shows how such intuitions are in error if we think there some entity as “goodness” that exists independently in the world, and Mackie’s Objectification Theory explains why we commit this error, we reify these concepts as if they had independent existence – that objects posses inherent property of “intrinsic prescriptivity” (including God) or there are natural or supernatural prescriptive laws. There is no evidence that these could exist and we can provisionally conclude that any theory that relies on false premises can be dismissed.

    2. We are not “hard wired” in the sense that our “moral intuitions” are product of biology and culture and is malleable – alterable by changing the environment. We are “hard-wired” in the sense that as humans we all share the same type of biological capacities that are responsive to culture and environment(or culture is part of our environment) and that also often lead us to commit the error of reification over moral properties.

    4. Moral psychology examines how we reason over moral issues, but this is a descriptive enterprise, it cannot show why we should reason as we do.

    5. Evolutionary theory can show how we have evolved the capacities we have so that moral psychologists can examine they we reason the way do and this does not justify why the must operate as they do.

    6. Evolutionary theory and moral psychology can explain why these capacities are constrained or biased to apply differential reified standards to one’s in-group over ones’ out-group but again not why we should.

    7. Our values do flow in the way that Tom stated, but this is not yet about moral values. What these are still need to be established.

    8. Gilson’s Christian alternative cannot explain this as it relies on the above noted error of reification or the assumption of some God given ability or being made in God’s image in having a morally intuitive sense.

    Tom says then “there’s good empirical evidence for a robust natural motivational basis for the problem morality addresses.” …If…this is evidence for a natural more than for a supernatural basis–I would disagree, for supernaturalism accounts for the empirical evidence at least as well as naturalism does.

    Supernaturalism cannot account for the empirical evidence as well as naturalistic accounts. The only natural motivational basis we know of is desire, which is better explained on naturalistic accounts, based on parsimony, evolutionary and other principles. We do not need to employ any non-natural motivational basis such as God’s desires, we do not know if God exists, if God does exist we do not know which one is the correct one based on publicly available evidence and even if we did this is still no basis to saying the God’s desires are more compelling than anyone elses. There is no non-cirular, non-arbitrary grounds for that suggesting God’s desires have superiority or privilege over anyone else’s and even if there were, there is no empirical basis for how this could work empirically except on non-moral rounds, which is self-defeating.

    Classes, Abstractions and Equality
    Gilson misaddresses this Clark’s point here. Clark is saying there is no empirical or rational basis for using such abstractions that generate such classes as means to differentially apply moral rules. History shows this has repeatedly occurred, and biology explains why it has occurred but neither can provide a justification as to why this should occur. The same argument applies to lead to the “Equality of Desires”, there is a shared universal capacity, however differentially developed and sometimes temporarily or permanently impaired.

    Compellingness

    “why should I follow moral system M?” Without this compellingness, there is no reason to follow an ethic, and the person is free to make up his own or to follow an ethic of personal impulse and immediate unmoderated desire. Compellingness (and here for now I will switch to the more common “oughtness”) may be either internal or external.

    Indeed, all oughts have reasons as to why they are recommendations ,otherwise there is no reason to follow the ought. How compelling these reason are is the issue. Reasons that do not exist have zero compulsion.

    There is the inward oughtness of human nature, discussed above, and there is also that which is learned from outside oneself through family and culture, which often becomes internalized as an inward sense of oughtness.

    All these “oughts” are the desires we do have. Whether we should have them – including whether our society or god is justified in compelling us to have them – is the question of the domain under investigation. There is no such thing as “oughtness”, that is another reification.

    The naturalist has two options to revert to at that point: persuasion and power.

    Exactly the same as the supernaturalist, there is nothing else.

    Abuse of power and persuasion is the problem that morality seeks to address. Solutions such as categorical imperatives, innate moral intuitions and God’s nature (in the sense that I have analysed above) can be dismissed as they are based on false premises.

    The empirical challenge of establishing the moral value of any value (the relation of desires to states of affairs), is to evaluated it like anything else by treating the value in question as a means (even if it is an end for a person) and evaluating against it material, physical effect on all affected values (other ends) – without bias or exception. One can also evaluate power and persuasion practices this way, to establish whether they are being abused. One uses persuasion and power to correct such abuses. There is nothing else that exists.

    Standards of morality are part of the furniture of reality, as it were, which is why we have a basic apprehension of them in our consciences. Their oughtness is inherent within them, and not derived from some other non-moral principle. Their compellingness is fitting to them, inherent and appropriate to their own basic nature, and our experience of their compellingness may be internalized or external. Either way, it fits.

    Given all the above either way, this does not fit.

  35. Jacob says:

    The Barefoot Bum –

    You know what I was getting at: we consider ourselves, in effect, more than the sum of our parts. There is an abstract quality that is sometimes tough to gauge, and we should not regard this dispassionately. I was mostly referring to a Kurt Vonnegut excerpt – there is only a single line of sacred eminence amongst a sea of dead machinery. To exhalt it doesn’t make it supernatural. It just makes it special to us.

  36. Barefoot:

    It’s there for all to see—in Clark’s tacit admission above, in his other comments on this blog, and in his general writings. I’m not going to fall for your—or Clark’s—bait-and-switch. (I agree the “granite” example was a general indicator of Clark’s position (point taken), but it still stands as generally true.) Besides, all it would take would be a simple statement on Clark’s part which denies naturalism reduces all existents to one kind (material objects and physical phenomena), and to deny that these existents can only be known through the MESs and their methodologies (within the methodologies I include Clark’s reduced version of “intersubjective empiricism”). But, then his whole worldview would collapse in a heart beat, wouldn’t it?
    And you?

    Anyone sophisticated enough to use the word “ontological” should know that “a heap of atoms” substantively misrepresents materialism: even the earliest formulations of materialism holds that the arrangement of matter—not just its constituent parts—is ontologically meaningful.

    First, this clearly indicates an ignorance of distinction in what is meant by ontological kinds, and it conveniently avoids assigning a level of beingness to, say, “the day after tomorrow” or any of the scientific methods or the rules of chess or virtue, etc.

    Second, it hugely begs the question of what you mean by “arrangement”? Is “arrangement” as such a thing in itself, or is it something that “resides” or “inheres” in existents? If the former, please show me an independently-existing “arrangement” employing only your five primary senses (provide me empirical evidence of its independent existence)… in a word, put it in your pocket. If the latter, then doesn’t this indicate a very different level of existence between “arrangement” and the thing which is arranged? If I show you a picture of Clark as a child and a picture of him today, possible “meaningful” basis do you have for calling him “Clark”… or are we to expect the usual “it’s a short-hand account of the thing in front of us arranged in a particular fashion”? Why, then, violate parsimony? Why not call it what naturalists claim it is?

    Digression: By the way, I did find it interesting and revealing that you avoided addressing the example of gay vs. straight and Clark vs. the Ripper as distinguished by acts… which, from the perspective of your loose use of the word “arrangement” and naturalism is impossible to distinguish “meaningfully”: what precisely is the difference, please? Perhaps an easier example better brings out the problem you face:

         Naturalist: Why is it not necessary and sufficient for the mind to be merely a physically-emergent property of the brain in order to explain moral obligations and imperatives? In other words, is it not sufficient that the brain is an exceedingly complex, self-organizing, physical system and therefore capable of understanding and imposing the moral imperative that innocent children should not be harmed?

         Honest Inquirer: Consider the following scenario: In a room there are three persons: (1) an innocent and helpless infant, (2) a man causing the infant to suffer and who apparently doesn’t believe it is wrong to hurt infants, and (3) a woman who is certain it is wrong for anyone to cause intentional harm to an innocent and defenseless infant. Clearly, all three persons—from the materialist perspective—are composed of the same basic stuff, i.e., matter only. Question: what material difference(s) or physical processes(s) can explain (a) the moral difference between the act of torturing the infant and the act of saving the infant from torture, and (b) the difference between the moral convictions of the man and woman? (Or, do we merely wait for naturalists to huff-and-puff and reduce morality to “preference” or whatever is in vogue that day?)End Digression

    This is precisely the game naturalists play: they rely on terms/concepts that they can’t meaningfully define (substance, accident, cause, potency, act) in terms of naturalism (and its scientistic presuppositions) alone, or they set up the rules of the game to favor their worldview by denying meaning to these terms or conveniently calling them “vague” (the Pinker-esque tact of “run away!” from difficult questions), and then chastise others for not agreeing.

    Third, what could you possibly mean by “ontologically meaningful”? Care to take a stab at that without belly-flopping into circularity? What does it mean to be “meaningful”?

  37. Hi all

    Having stated my position in my previous comment I will in my next comment address what has come up in the comments. This comment serves to avoid some possible misunderstandings I wish to avoid.

    First I do not regard this as an issue of naturalistic ethics versus supernaturalistic ethics. I want to use the best available tools of philosophical, empirical and historical inquiry to find the provisionally best explanation of ethics available today. This happens what could be called naturalistic ethic, but this is a conclusion and only a label relevant to this context. Such a label is not a substantive point. One should not assume any a priori metaphysical assumptions if possible, I chose only the most efficient and effective methods to make this analysis.

    Second, the main thrust of my previous comment was that where the two Toms agree and I disagree is over the innate moral sense. I deny that on empirical and philosophical grounds as I have argued and have proposed an alternative in my previous comment – that does not rely on a dubious entity such as an innate moral sense.

    Third, Clark and I may disagree on that but what we have in common is the denial of all the additional dubious and likely fictional entities that Clark requires to make his ethical theory work. I indicated those there too. So even as Clark and I disagree over innate moral sense, it is still the case that Clark’s ethics is better than Gilson’s on the principle of parsimony and public evidence and so on.

    Now to read the comments.

  38. Okay trying to be as brief as possible.I will address only those points that I do not think have been adequately dealt with by Tom Clark or Barefoot Bum in responding to Tom Gilson’s post and comments and to clarify or contrast my position with theirs.

    Tom Clark
    I acknowledge your intent to establish a “coherent naturalistic ethics” at least as good a Gilson’s super-naturalistic ethics. However I find this unnecessarily defensive and, whilst more sensitive to other ethical approaches than my own, problematical.

    The history of moral philosophy has found theistic based ethics (and other relativisms) deeply problematic and has proposed many alternatives that do not suffer from its shortcomings, pretty much of which most could fall under the umbrella of naturalism (including Moore’s “non-naturalism” in this sense). Whilst none of them are without shortcomings of their own, many are simply far better than theistic-based ethics on philosophical and empirical grounds.

    My direct alternative to your “evolved moral sense” is that social persuasion (morality) and power (the law) are part of the environment that alters the desires people do have. If persuasion fails, the threat of legal sanctions reinforces (in a just law) this persuasion and, if this fails, the execution of legal sanctions and penalties applies. These all go to moulding people’s desires so they do not have morally problematic desires or at least these are minimised and less likely to be acted upon, so that, in general, people do not want to act in certain ways.

    Otherwise not much to disagree with but see my reply to the Barefoot Bum.

    Barefoot Bum
    Apart from terminological confusions that Gilson picked up there is not much to disagree upon but one major point.

    The means by which we exercise persuasion and power to obtain our own ends has a structure amenable to empirical analysis just like any other, such as vision and nutrition, of course the tools employed need to be appropriate to this domain. That is we can analyse the interaction of desires as executed in terms of the effects of intentional actions on others. This is based on what people already do and on this your comments here indicate that you appear agree.

    And that leads to Fyfe’s evaluative analysis- extended rationality operating over ends as well as means, a desire-based account of motivation, incorporating the lack of objective values independent of humanity and employing fewer empirically certifiable real world entities to do more with less than other approaches – which seems to extract the best from a range of theories from Mackie, Hare, Railton, Griffin, Singer and Brandt to name but six significant professional moral philosophers of recent times.

    The complaint over ethical theories in general I agree with. In a sense desirism (my shorthand now for Desire Utilitarianism and to avoid confusion with other versions for which it is not prone to the same weaknesses) is a model (in my view the provisionally best today) of what you get when you do reject all ethical theories due to their shortcomings – especially over ethical normativity. You can call it an ethical theory, or not, but it still addresses the physical processes that underlay social interactions to both classify and indicate solutions.

    Actually this not much more to say at this stage of the game with one proviso. Regardless of my position on desirism, whatever the shortcomings other theories of a naturalistic bent have, nothing here yet indicates, to the degree they have been relevantly addressed, that they have mostly less shortcomings than the theistic alternative employed by Gilson et al. and that is why this is likely to be a more fruitful path to seek some provisional solution.

  39. Typo, repeating the last paragraph:

    Actually this not much more to say at this stage of the game with one proviso. Regardless of my position on desirism, whatever the shortcomings other theories of a naturalistic bent have, nothing here yet indicates, to the degree they have been relevantly addressed, that they have anything like the shortcomings of the theistic alternative employed by Gilson et al. and that is why this is likely to be a more fruitful path to seek some provisional solution.

  40. @Holopupenko

    To be absolutely honest and completely sincere: I did not understand a single concept of your previous comment; I am thus unable to reply substantively.

  41. Jacob says:

    Holopupenko –

    I would have to agree with The Barefoot Bum a little and say that you get so caught up in your examples and digressions that your main points lack quite a bit of clarity. When you try to make it clear, you get caught up in another digression.

    I’ll try to respond, however, by saying that your actual example with the infant lacks real world physics. No human just “does” anything. What are his motivations? What kind of man is he? Is there something in his past that led to this? Can we pinpoint a mental abnormality? We can look toward the physical to answer, as that’s how we usually deal with problems anyway, and we can appeal to the basic distinctions of humanity to help us. For we might not understand exactly what is happening within the mind, but we can understand the reasons why they are happening.

    Anyway, I must profess that certain things need to be cleared up before we proceed, but let me charge ahead a little, and you can correct me if I’m mischaracterizing your points. When it comes to equality, I hold that such a term is meaningless if we seek to prove that they’re perfectly one to one, but it’s pertinent in the sense that we treat things as equal. I prefer heterosexuality, obviously, but I have no reason to treat homosexuality different if it meets certain criteria…that are themselves based on objective measures – objective in the sense that all humans conform to them and understand them. I actually think that these measures and where we really differ are quite evident, and I feel that I can reasonably define them all. I myself have held that morality is, in fact, situational based on these factors, so I need a clearer argument against the pros or cons of such a view. Are you saying that naturalism cannot make such distinctions? I fail to really see why.