“Why Liberals Are More Intelligent Than Conservatives”

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Why do liberals think they are more intelligent than conservatives? “Because they are

So says evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa in Psychology Today. Empirical research seems to support the belief, but why would it be so?

It is difficult to define a whole school of political ideology precisely, but one may reasonably define liberalism (as opposed to conservatism) in the contemporary United States as the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.

That’s a strange definition. It covers only a small part of the territory, and from my study and experience it defines conservatives better than liberals. Social research shows that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, are considerably more willing to give of their own private resources, including their time, than are liberals.

I could link to various sources, such as Arthur Brooks’s Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, or I could quote from Kanazawa himself: “The fact that conservatives have been shown to give more money to charities than liberals….”

The sentence continues, of course: “… is not inconsistent with the prediction from the Hypothesis; in fact, it supports the prediction.”

Which hypothesis is that?

General intelligence evolved as a domain-specific psychological adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems…. [so] More intelligent individuals should be better able to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily novel (but not evolutionarily familiar) entities and situations than less intelligent individuals…. Evolutionarily novel entities that more intelligent individuals are better able to comprehend and deal with may include ideas and lifestyles, which form the basis of their preferences and values. It would be very difficult for individuals to prefer or value something that they cannot truly comprehend. So, applied to the domain of preferences and values, the Hypothesis suggests that more intelligent individuals are more likely than less intelligent individuals to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values that did not exist in the ancestral environment and thus our ancestors did not have, but general intelligence has no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar preferences and values that existed in the ancestral environment.

Applied to liberalism and conservatism, Kanazawa notes that liberals are more willing to have the government mediate their giving, to give it to persons unrelated and unknown to the giver. He adds that this in itself is “evolutionarily novel,” because the existence and awareness of distantly connected persons is a recent event in natural history. So since

1. giving to unknown persons is evolutionarily novel, and
2. evolutionarily novel behaviors are hypothetically more associated with higher intelligence, and
3. giving to unknown persons is associated with liberalism,

we have a possible explanation for liberals’ higher intelligence.

What I don’t understand about that is how it explains Christians’ massive foreign relief giving, or our leadership in establishing hospitals among cultures different than our own, or our persistent educational efforts in distant lands. Apparently the Hypothesis supports the theory that Christian conservatives’ greater intelligence. I wonder if that was the finding Kanazawa was looking for.

I wonder, too, whether Kanazawa has taken various forms of selection effects into account. Higher education is very famously more friendly to liberalism than to conservativism. How much does that contribute to possible differences in the rates of conservatives and liberals pursuing graduate studies? How much does it function through social influence rather than reasoned argument to turn conservative students into liberals? Kanazawa surely knows of such effects.

Credit Kanazawa, at any rate, with appropriately tentative language: “may therefore be,” “possibly because,” “may precisely be why.” It’s an hypothesis, not a conclusion. It’s an interesting one. Apart from all my doubts about evolutionary theory, though, I still do not think Kanazawa has made his case that liberals give more to distantly connected persons than conservatives.

107 Responses

  1. BillT says:

    I’m not sure laughable nonesense like this is worthy of the bandwith you’ve given it.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Someone requested a post on it.

  3. I think it has more to do with culture. As liberals are fond of pointing out, intelligence test are good at testing certain kinds of intelligence. It may as well those tests identify traits that correlate well with a drive to succeed in ways that are only rewarded in the liberal-welcoming academy that are less developed among those who feel less welcomed in that social setting. this is the kind of explanation liberals really like on other issues, such as race or gender and intelligence.

  4. it occurs to me from my last sentence that there is a consistency issue here. Should someone who holds to the more progressive or liberal explanations of race or gender intelligence test score differentials the expected by consistency of methodology to look for similar explanations of this phenomenon, assuming that you should accept that the data being presented passes muster to begin with.

  5. Justin says:

    Liberals are smarter because they say so, and since we can contort the ToE to fit pretty much any fact pattern we observe, then of course they can’t be wrong.

    Never mind that their ideas on morality seem especially regressive and certainly not evolutionarily “novel” in a vast many instances. I mean, since we’re painting with a broad brush here.

  6. ordinaryseeker says:

    Question for Justin or other conservative: what do you think is the purpose of morality? Why be moral?

  7. Justin says:

    Because behaving morally is rational.

  8. Melissa says:

    Because we all want what is good for us and behaving morally is good for us no matter what our opinion or feelings on the matter.

  9. Ordinaryseeker says:

    Justin, what makes morality rational? What’s the reasoning behind it?

    Melissa, how is morality good for us?

  10. Justin says:

    9.Justin, what makes morality rational? What’s the reasoning behind it?

    Acting morally is just seeking what is good for humans per our nature. That seems fairly rational to me. Since good is succeeding at being, those actions which tend toward fulfilling human nature are good, and those that corrupt the human nature or prevent us from recognizing our full human nature are bad.

  11. Holopupenko says:

    Justin:

    OS will now non-thinkingly parrot Dawkins’ infamously-stupid assertion that there is NO GOOD, evil, purpose…

    But, when he does–and EVEN IF HE DOES NOT–he’s trying to impose upon us his own, personal, self-serving, lust-for-power, opinion of good articulated as “there is no moral objectivity,” or “there is no good.” Or, he will deny (with no verifiable support provided) that there are “natures”… because… wait for it… for him it’s a “good” thing–employing undeniable strength of purpose (i.e., free will)–to impose such nonsense, in a similar way Hitler thought it was a “good” thing to consider Jews untermenschen or pro-abortionist thinking it’s a “good” thing to consider unborn children as non-persons. As with the vast majority of these pinheads, he will appeal in some way shape or form to the very thing he decries.

    They walk among us.

  12. David Martin says:

    Holopupenko:
    Speak the truth in love. Don’t put words in someone else’s mouth and then insult them based on what you think they will say. Calling an idea stupid (“Dawkins’ infamously-stupid assertion”) is rational dialog. Name calling (“these pinheads”) is not.

  13. Hold on. You need to make proper distinctions here. There’s nihilism about value, which holds that there is no objective value whatsoever. There’s just what people happen to like. That doesn’t mean they can’t prefer something and seek to fight for it. After all, it’s what they like. They can value something even if there’s no objective value.

    Then there’s also the distinction between moral value and value in general. Nietzsche, for example, held that there is no moral value. He was a nihilist about obligations, duties, rights, responsibilities, and so on. But he was not a nihilist about objective value. He thought certain things are objectively good and bad. He was very wrong about what some of those are, but his view was a consistent one. There are certain things that are good and bad, and there is no such thing as right and wrong.

    But then there’s the view of most atheists, which is that there are objective moral truths, and they just aren’t the same ones that most Christians hold to. They don’t hold to a meta-ethic that requires God’s existence, and they may well be wrong in thinking they can get away with that. I happen to think they are wrong in thinking they can get away with it. But nevertheless their view does not amount to holding that there are no objective moral truths, and misrepresenting their view as if they do is pretty low. You can’t accuse them of inconsistency. You might accuse them of holding a view that has an insufficient foundation, but it’s not as if they deny objective moral truths and then act as if there are some.

    Hardly anyone actually does that, because hardly anyone is a genuine moral relativist of the simplistic form that Christian apologists spend much time arguing against. Most people do believe in objective moral truths, even if they’re not the same ones many Christians accept. It’s not relativism or moral nihilism to accept that abortion, say, is morally unproblematic or that there’s nothing wrong with having sex with whoever you want as long as they consent. It’s just holding a different moral view.

  14. Holopupenko says:

    @Jeremy

    But then there’s the view of most atheists, which is that there are objective moral truths, and they just aren’t the same ones that most Christians hold to.

    “Most atheists”? Really? Please provide some numbers to back up your assertion… or is it something you’d like to believe?

    Moreover, perhaps you haven’t been paying too much attention. Let’s, for now, limit ourselves just to the atheist minions that troll this blog: not a single one of them holds to “objective moral truths.”

    Now, go beyond that to any blog or any atheist author out there: name one that accedes to the notion that (1) objective moral truth exist, (2) that provide a rigorous philosophical backing for what they mean by “exist,” (3) that provide a rigorous philosophical backing for what that objective basis actually IS [hint: the scientistic is-to-ought won’t work], (4) and while you’re at it since it’s closely related, point to a single one that holds to objective truth, and that can properly distinguish between logical truth as applied to propositions and ontological truth as a transcendental.

    Finally, based on my previous comment and what was just noted, please support your implied accusation that I or Tom or others here are reducing things to “simplistic form[s] that christian apologists spend much time arguing against.”

    Do all this now, or withdraw your unsupportable claims.

  15. Justin says:

    It’s not relativism or moral nihilism to accept that abortion, say, is morally unproblematic or that there’s nothing wrong with having sex with whoever you want as long as they consent. It’s just holding a different moral view.

    I agree that differing moral claims does not necessarily entail relativism; if morality is objective then they are simply mistaken, as someone who asserts that 1+1=3.

    What I’ve experienced with most atheists that I’ve conversed with, typically on message boards or forums is that they will assert over and over and over again that there is no objective morality, and in the next discussion, you find them arguing the correctness of some moral view or another. I’m not as smart as some of the other thinkers on the net, but that to me seems an obvious self-inconsistency in the atheist position.

    Even when pointing out this inconsistency, they still hold that morality is relative while their moral views are “right” and are “right” according to reason and logic.

    If they believe that logic can get them to their moral position such that they can make arguments to persuade others that they are “right”, then how can morality be relative? It wouldn’t even be subject to logical examination.

  16. I live in academia, philosophy in particular. Just about every atheist I know, and I know a lot, believes in objective moral truth. I know a few people who hold other views. Usually rather than adopt a relativist view, however, they end up with an anti-realist meta-ethic that allows for something like truth-conditions for moral truths but that doesn’t want to use truth-language.

    But there has been a fairly comprehensive survey of philosophers on various views they have, and the results are online for anyone to view. Almost 3/4 are atheists. Over half believe in objective morality. 41% believe even in objective aesthetic value. About a quarter are deontological. A little less are consequentialist, and 18% are virtue types. A fairly large number of atheists in that survey hold to objective moral truths, and it is a clear majority of philosophers who hold to objective morality.

  17. Oh, and I should also mention that half of those surveyed hold a correspondence theory of truth, with another quarter of them holding to a deflationary theory (which still gets you the proposition p being true if and only if the sentence ‘p’ is true, the one basic assumption of alethic realism).

    As for your insinuations that anything I said implied anything about what any particular people here said, you perhaps should re-read what I wrote, because I implied no such thing. I simply said that we need to keep in mind some distinctions. You did make some particular comments about Dawkins that strike me as going well beyond the evidence, and paying attention to these distinctions would help clarify just what it is that you’re accusing him of secretly believing (for him to be inconsistent, as you claim). But I never said any particular person here was exemplifying the behavior that I see apologists do regularly. That may well be a true claim, but I neither said it nor implied it. I simply explained some important distinctions that ought to inform our discussion.

  18. It’s not necessarily inconsistent to say that there are no objective moral truths and then to speak of moral truths, provided that you don’t think they’re objective. You might think they’re culturally-relative, for example, and given that both discussants are in the same culture it would be perfectly consistent to take them to task for their behavior. Or perhaps it’s even individually-relative, but their own personal view (which is true for them) is that they have a moral obligation to do the very thing you’re telling them they can’t consistently do, which is to try to get others to have the same moral views they have. You can be a relativist and be convinced that your own personal morality requires you to get others to have the same personal morality and to complain when others try to convince you of their view. There’s nothing inconsistent about such a view, given relativism. It’s in fact their relativism that allows them to do such a thing consistently.

  19. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Jeremy Pierce:

    It’s in fact their relativism that allows them to do such a thing consistently.

    The way I read this is that it is their inconsistency that allows them to be consistent, which while logically flawless by the principle of explosion, is also the (apocalyptic) collapse of all rational discourse.

  20. Justin says:

    It’s in fact their relativism that allows them to do such a thing consistently.

    I have a hard time buying that. If morality is relative, as they say, then the types of exchanges I’ve had still don’t make too much sense, as they still have to argue with the assumption that there is at least some higher set of moral standards or values by which they can convince me to take their view. Or, on the individual relativist’s view, then, one might have to argue that truth itself is relative.

    I fail to see how they avoid the inconsistency, self contradiction, or general absurdity.

    You can be a relativist and be convinced that your own personal morality requires you to get others to have the same personal morality and to complain when others try to convince you of their view.

    If there’s no objective nature to morality at all, how would one go about doing the convincing? You wouldn’t be able to appeal to logic, it seems.

    And again, the atheists that I commonly engage aren’t philosophy majors, nor am I, so they don’t seem to fall into the same distribution as your survey – they’re virtually all relativists when asked. I’m not claiming this is statistically significant in any way, just my experience.

  21. Justin says:

    But, back to the claim in the OP –

    more intelligent individuals are more likely than less intelligent individuals to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel preferences and values that did not exist in the ancestral environment and thus our ancestors did not have, but general intelligence has no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar preferences and values that existed in the ancestral environment.

    One example being the granting to the government more and more taxes to “take care” of the poor who aren’t in our evolutionary tribe. The motives of the politicians and policy makers certainly seem more bent on securing voting blocks than effectively eliminating the poverty. That seems to indicate people acquiescing to those types of policies are more gullible, not more intelligent.

    But hey, I’m just an East Texan boy, what do I know?

    And again, which of these policies are really novel?

    Deeming homosexuality as morally acceptable?
    Not novel.
    Redistributing wealth through taxation?
    Not novel.
    Centralized government control of minute details of everyday life?
    Not novel.
    Gender or racial equality?
    Not novel (in fact, I know this one guy in the first century…. started a church)

    How far back do we go to make the argument that any liberal/leftist policies are truly “novel”? If we are taking any policies developed since the first written records of man to be “evolutionarily novel” then the argument says nothing at all.

    This is fairly obviously a piece of left wing propaganda, dressed in condescending 50-cent words, based on the demonstrably false assumption that the left really has created anything new.

  22. Justin says:

    And this:

    It is difficult to define a whole school of political ideology precisely, but one may reasonably define liberalism (as opposed to conservatism) in the contemporary United States as the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.

    I’d argue that is not a reasonable definition of liberalism in the US. The arguments the left presents are designed to appeal to people’s emotions and ideals of showing compassion toward their fellow man. However, it is more reasonable to define liberalism as practiced in the US by the politicians and policy makers as

    the genuine desire for power and control over the people, the resources of the people, the acts of the people, accomplished by either appealing to the unwashed gullible’s sense of charity or by appealing directly to those to whom they intend to redistribute what belongs to someone else, while taking their administrative cut.

    Sure, people might hand over certain control and monies to the government under the impressiont that the government can fix a certain perceived ill in society. The political right in this country also share the sense of charity (since we’re again painting with large brushes).

    So the only difference in beliefs here is whether or not government is actually capable of solving these problems, not the desire itself to have them solved.

    I’d then argue (as before) that people who think that the government is the solution to all of these problems are naive, not more intelligent.

  23. I’m not going to defend the lame kind of popular relativism that you find among many internet atheists (and in the population at large). Among ordinary people, most such people aren’t really relativists once pushed into seeing relativism’s consequences. Among internet atheists, I’m not sure I’d expect a high degree of consistency. Internet atheists, in my experience, often don’t have much understanding of the careful work done in philosophy on these issues in recent decades (or throughout the history of philosophy, for that matter).

    But the issue here is which views can fit together, not whether particular people’s views do. There is an argument that morality can’t make sense without being grounded in God’s nature or choices or something in that area. There are also alternative positions that deny the conclusion of that argument. Those who go the latter path might have a consistent position, even if the former approach is correct and the people on the latter path have ungrounded moral views. That doesn’t mean they’re inconsistent. It just means they believe things that they haven’t given sufficient explanation for.

    On the issue of relativism and inconsistency, it’s again dependent on how you do it. If your view is that all truth is relative, that’s inconsistent in itself. But if the claim is that normative ethical views are relative, that’s a meta-ethical statement, and it’s not inconsistent at all. Most people are relativists about whether coffee tastes good, but they’re not relativists about which things are relative. Because the relativism takes place in a smaller domain and not in the broader domain in which you can talk about the smaller domain, that’s not self-refuting the way it is to say that all truth is relative, which puts itself in the domain you’re talking about by its very assertion. This is a very common point made against relativism by people who do know some philosophy, but it’s simply wrong. Relativists don’t have to be inconsistent in that way. I think relativism is a stupid view myself, and hardly anyone really is a relativist, even among those who think they are relativists, but it doesn’t have that self-refuting problem.

  24. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Jeremy Pierce:

    On the issue of relativism and inconsistency, it’s again dependent on how you do it.

    This reminds me of eliminative materialists complaining that they do not hold the evidently self-contradictory belief that there are no beliefs. It may be true that proving the incoherence of their views cannot be done in a one-liner, one may actually have to spend a whole paragraph. Since you said that you believe relativism is a “stupid view”, I will only lodge two complaints why I do not think your arguments can salvage it from incoherence.

    1. Your analogy with coffee tastes points to one obvious problem. Ethical views are not treated like mere tastes or personal preferences, but are fiercely argued over, which belies the meta-ethical relativist principle.

    2. You cannot disentangle normative ethical views from the larger domain of objective truth that easily, because the pursuit of truth being a Good is itself an ethical view; so it is either normative or not. I am not sure where the second option leads relativists to, but it surely is one fraught with problems.

  25. I agree with all of that. But those are cases of pragmatic self-contradiction. They involve conflict between belief and practice. They are not cases of contradiction in someone’s views.

  26. Justin says:

    To put something in practice, don’t they have to believe it? So there is still a conflict in belief – the belief that morality is relative and the belief that others ought to change their views to match that of the relativist and the belief that there are rational grounds by which to do so.

    I’m still having trouble seeing how it is fully consistent, even metaphysically.

  27. I think this is actually a contrast between explicit belief and implicit attitudes that one would explicitly deny if pressed on them.

  28. Andrew W says:

    Moral truths are either grounded in an absolute or they are not.

    If the former, we can argue about whether we have the correct absolute or the correct derivation from that absolute, but that’s beyond this discussion.

    If the latter, then to move any moral truth beyond the individual is an exercise of domination, coercing one person’s preferences on another.

    One might argue that words like coercion and domination are a bit strong, but we started from the position that these are preferences and opinions – there is no absolute weight to them. Being subjective, there is no reason why one person should agree with another, and to insist on such at any point is solely to project power.

    This comes out clearly with a little analysis of the relativist position. A common claim is “morality is opinion, and you cannot force yours on me”. But that very claim is an attempt to force a moral opinion – that morality is an opinion – on another. Unless this basic claim is accepted by the other party – and the relativist never allows that it is open for question – the relativist position cannot even get off the ground. The only consistent claim at this point is “I believe morality is opinion, but you do not, and I have no right to expect you to change your mind about this, nor to make claims upon you on this basis”.

    This still sounds like “live and let live”, until you realise that it robs the relativist of any consistent basis to refute absolutist claims. When the absolutist makes a claim, the relativist can reasonably say “I don’t like that”, but any attempt to prove the absolutist claim “wrong” immediately surrenders the philosophical basis.

    Of course, this problem is often avoided by an appeal to nature. But even an inherent moral value of humanity is an assumption, not a consequence of a naturalist system. Ultimately, all morality is an appeal to power: either the power of something greater than humans (that uses that power to assert the right – on whatever basis – to define morality) or the power of some humans to force their moral opinions on others.

  29. The opposite of relativism isn’t absolutism. The opposite is objectivism. An objectivist thinks there are non-relative, i.e. universal moral truths (that apply equally to everyone). It’s easy to resist relativism by being an objectivist without thereby adopting the untenable position of absolutism.

    Absolutism is an issue on an entirely different axis. Absolutists think moral truths apply without exception. Objectivists think there is an objective ground to moral truths, apart from the individual or culture. Absolutists think that there is no amount of change in ethics from context to context. An absolutist like Kant would say that it was wrong for God to tell Samuel to lie to Saul about why he was in Bethlehem (he said to say he was there to make a sacrifice, when in fact he was there to anoint David). An absolutist would say that it was wrong for David to eat the bread of the presence or for Jesus’ disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. If it’s ever wrong, it’s always wrong, according to absolutism. Christians cannot be absolutists if they read their Bible carefully. They had better be objectivists, or else the command to follow God is not grounded in any objective truth. According to the Christian there is one absolute moral truth. It is our highest moral obligation to seek and serve God. How that applies is certainly not absolute across different contexts.

  30. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Jeremy Pierce:

    But those are cases of pragmatic self-contradiction. They involve conflict between belief and practice. They are not cases of contradiction in someone’s views.

    Last comment. There are other arguments one could deploy, but your response, if I am reading you right, is to drive a wedge between praxis and belief and kick the contradiction to another level. Even if this strategy is ultimately tenable, it is hardly a consolation for the relativist (which is one reason, so I presume, why you labelled relativism a “stupid view”).

  31. Yes, that’s about right, I think. I don’t want to say that the view itself is inconsistent, but I have tremendous doubts that anyone consistently lives it out according to what it implies. And besides that, it’s false anyway, and we all know it, since we all have an innate, divinely-given (albeit fallible and fallen) ability to know right and wrong and to know that these moral truths are universally-applicable.

  32. ChrisB says:

    Since government handled “charity” has been shown to be ineffective, does willingness to use it make liberals smarter or dumber?

  33. Ordinaryseeker says:

    The purpose of morality is to preserve the individual and society. We are “good” when we act in ways that have a social value. We as a group determine what has social value. Many societies agree on many social values, but there are some differences across societies. It therefore makes more sense to talk about universal social values than about objective morality. There is no need for an authority outside society to create morality; it’s a product of society, of the social contract. The power of the group does hold sway.

  34. SteveK says:

    OS,

    The purpose of morality is to preserve the individual and society.

    Until the social contract says otherwise. Then you’re left for dead without any rights. Just ask the unborn.

  35. Melissa says:

    Ordinaryseeker,

    We are “good” when we act in ways that have a social value. We as a group determine what has social value.

    Doesn’t that mean that anyone who defies the social contract is bad?

  36. You must read The Racial Contract by Charles Mills. He argues that the actual social contract is one of white privilege, which means either that racism is correct or social contract theory is wrong about morality. Even if he’s wrong, what he describes is possible, in which case it would be right to be racist in some possible worlds.

  37. Tom Gilson says:

    You’ve just echoed Andrew W., os:

    The power of the group does hold sway.

    As he said, that power could be held by a transcendent God or by other persons. I can’t imagine how you could call the second option a moral system. Haven’t you seen enough of what happens when there is nothing determining “morality” but power? It’s evil unleashed, every time.

  38. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom: Not true. Group power is also responsible for positive changes: women’s suffrage. Civil rights. Public education. Etc., etc.

    Jeremy: I haven’t read it, but I don’t think the only choices are that racism is “correct” or that social contract theory is wrong. For one thing, “correct” implies objective morality, which I am arguing against. Also, those who have the greatest power in society do have the greatest influence over what becomes valued as “good,” but equality isn’t a necessary condition for the social contract.

    Melissa: Yes. At least, until enough other people agree.

  39. Tom Gilson says:

    os,

    Group power in those cases was guided by an ethic external to its own power. Women’s suffrage and civil rights trace their roots to a biblical ethic.

    You, on the other hand, were making a case for power being the source of ethics. The two cases could hardly be more diametrically different. Your “not true” is decidedly not true.

    (If you were reading my series on Sexism Among the Isms you would not make the mistake you make here.)

  40. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom, no mistake being made. What about public education? And, of course, gay rights–which you will surely agree does not trace its roots to biblical ethics? You may disagree that that’s a positive outcome of group power, but clearly the group does not agree with you. The group is using its power to re-define what is “good,” which is my point. Whether you agree that it’s good is irrelevant.

  41. Tom Gilson says:

    Wow. That’s breathtakingly naive, os, not to mention logically unsupported.

    Public education is a manifestation of the drive for universal education, which has its roots in Christianity. That’s one thing I just forgot to include earlier.

    Meanwhile you continue to argue that it’s good for groups to exercise power to re-define what is good. Either that or (I’m not quite sure which) you’re arguing that group power actually will from time to time re-define what is good, and that this is neither good nor bad.

    Either way you’re saying that ethics are determined according to who holds power.

    Let me translate that: ethics are determined according to who has the most guns. Or the most control of the rhetorical stage. Or the most successful political maneuvering. Or the greatest capacity to silence its opposition.

    That’s how you think right and wrong are determined. I shudder. How on earth can you think this is good?

  42. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom,
    I didn’t say it was good for groups to exercise power to re-define what’s good; I simply said that’s what happens, regardless of whether you personally view the outcome as good.

    Yes, I am arguing that “group power actually will from time to time re-define what is good.” And yes, ethics are determined by who holds power–but not by “who has the most guns,” which is a gross simplification of the complexities of who holds power in society.

  43. JAD says:

    @os

    The group is using its power to re-define what is “good,” which is my point.

    Group think?

  44. Melissa says:

    Ordinaryseeker,

    Just so we are on the same page. In your opinion, not allowing SSM is good, at least for the moment?

  45. ordinary seeker says:

    JAD: The group thinks together, and then there is change–an individual here, an individual there–and then the group thinks differently.

    Melissa: IMO, the group is in the process of re-defining SSM as good. It used to be “bad,” as was being gay, and now that is shifting.

  46. A cultural relativist who holds that morality depends on the culture will still say that morality derives from what a culture happens to believe, and therefore there is a correct moral view for someone in that culture to hold. That means a relativist has to say either that Hitler was right or that something within Hitler’s own culture would argue against what he was doing. I can see how you might say that about slavery, given that abolitionist arguments arose from principles at the heart of the U.S. founding. But you can’t say it about a society practicing slavery that has no such foundation. In such a society, slavery is simply correct.

  47. G. Rodrigues says:

    @ordinary seeker:

    The group is using its power to re-define what is “good,” which is my point. Whether you agree that it’s good is irrelevant.

    I am sorry, but is anyone *reading* what ordinary seeker is saying?

    Because the way I am reading this there are only two options: either we should pity him because he does not understand the foolishness of what he is saying or else he *does* understand what he is saying, and we have before us nothing less than the verbal trappings of a moral monstrosity.

    Psalm 67:1. In Latin, because English will not do (as Kurtz muttered in Apocalypse Now, “the horror, the horror…”) but Silence will not serve us either:

    Deus misereatur nostri et benedicat nobis inluminet vultum suum super nos et misereatur nostri

  48. Melissa says:

    ordinary seeker,

    IMO, the group is in the process of re-defining SSM as good. It used to be “bad,” as was being gay, and now that is shifting.

    Actually per your definition it still is bad, the social contract has not yet changed. Anything done that is in line with the current social contract is currently good.

  49. Andrew W says:

    Jeremy: I’m happy with “objectivism”, if that’s a better word for it. I don’t think morality is “abstract”, in the sense that there are moral truths that are “just true”. Rather, morality is about authority and pleasure – pleasing the one who has the authority.

    My explanation of the Christian basis for morality is that God made us and “owns” us, and “moral behaviour” is behaviour in accordance with what pleases God and what he has designed us for.

    Notice:
    – appeal to power, in this case God
    – not abstract or philosophically absolute (ie God is above morality, not subject to him)

    When I use words like “should” or “should not” as a Christian, they are actually short-hand for “God approves of” or “God disapproves of”, with the implicit claim “and we are answerable to Him”.

    But when one replaces God with another person or group of persons, then we simply have a power struggle – nothing more (or less) than “My preferences trump yours”. We may pretend there’s some higher principle involved, but there’s not, except perhaps that appealing to one helps salve our consciences about what we’re actually doing.

    That we even feel the need to make such justifications is enlightening in and of itself.

  50. Oh, but the idea that it’s true merely because the being who says to do it has power is not the traditional one. The most standard one in the history of Christian thought is that God’s metaphysically perfect nature (something not assuming moral perfection) is the ground for what it is to be moral perfect, and therefore God’s existence explains morality without it being simply because the most powerful being says to do it. So it’s not about brute force or anything like that.

  51. SteveK says:

    IMO, the group is in the process of re-defining SSM as good. It used to be “bad,” as was being gay, and now that is shifting.

    Of course this is pure nonsense, but it begs the question: should the group allow the “bad” SSM efforts to continue? Not at all, evil should be resisted. The group says so.

    Think about it….slavery was “good” until the moment that the majority thought is was “bad.” Funny though, I don’t recall anyone tallying a vote of every living person to make that determination – it just became law.

  52. Andrew W says:

    Jeremy, going somewhat off-topic, but it’s a more interesting topic:

    My reading in this field is limited. Do they mean that morality is what it is because it follows the nature of its creator (which seems like a no-brainer), or that there are concepts of metaphysical perfection that somehow exist tangential to God?

    Both Old and New Testaments portray God as transcendent (“How unsearchable your thoughts, O God!”), but rarely as abstract (God is a person, not an ideal). Similarly, the writers frequently use emotional words of God (pleases, angers) when exhorting behaviour. Scripturally speaking, morality appears to me to be a response to God as person, not primarily to derived or idealised characteristics.

    (Not saying arguing from ideals is invalid, but the scriptural focus is firmly on who God is, rather than what God is.)

  53. Tom Gilson says:

    os,

    Others responded to your main point here overnight, and I have little to add but to echo G. Rodrigues concern for you, and the points made about the vacuity of a position that says whatever is, is right. For I think that’s what your position entails, if you believe that the currently existing culture determines what is right.

    What that requires—absolutely requires by the force of the logic, mind you—is that we agree that the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s was wrong at the time, for it was in conflict with prevailing ethics. The same is true, even more so, for Wilberforce’s 20-year effort to end the slave trade in Britain a couple hundred years ago. He was doing something wrong at the time, according to the only meaning of wrong that you have available to you. The women’s suffrage movement, which you mentioned earlier in this thread, was likewise wrong at the time.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out to you that you grossly over-simplified my illustrative list of how power is manifested in this world. You quoted what I said about guns and omitted the rest. And then you had the gall to complain that to speak of guns is to oversimplify!

    And then, not long after, you added this:

    JAD: The group thinks together, and then there is change–an individual here, an individual there–and then the group thinks differently.

    Considering that it came from the commenter who said I was over-simplifying cultural complexities, that statement is really quite ironic.

  54. Tom Gilson says:

    I have to apologize for not taking part in the better part of this discussion, the interactions with Jeremy on objectivism etc.

    It’s not because I’m not interested, it’s because I am in learning mode. I appreciate what you’re sharing, Jeremy, and the high-level conversation everyone is having on the topic. I’ll jump in when I think I have something to add to it. (It’s a bit more challenging anyway since I’m working via my mobile phone most ot the time–there’s no Internet where I’m staying right now.)

  55. Ordinaryseeker says:

    Melissa: I think the polls are showing about 50-50 in regard to SSM, so I think that at this point there is no overriding social determination of whether it is good or bad. I suspect within a generation, it will be solidly good.

    SteveK: not every person, groups. Yes, slavery was acceptable until it wasn’t. See gay rights.

    Andrew W: not individual preference over individual preference, but group preference over individual preference.

    Tom: yes, they were all considered wrong until there were enough people in agreement with them. Again, see gay rights.

  56. Brandon says:

    Long time lurker, first time poster. I may not have superior intellect or a Dr. in front of my name, but OS, I know illogical nonsense when I see it. Something is good until it is bad or vice versa. I do not understand the logic in that. If the majority thinks it is right, then it is right? Homosexuality was wrong until the majority agreed it was right? I am confused by this logic.

  57. Tom Gilson says:

    No, Brandon

    I think your problem with his logic is that you are not confused. It takes a confused mind not to have a problem with it.

  58. Tom Gilson says:

    Not only that, but os, if there was a point to your last comment you failed to include it.

  59. Brandon says:

    Tom, thanks for exactly pointing it out for me. Confused may have been the wrong term to go with here, more like shell-shocked by the supposed theory. If we follow the logic that the majority thinks it is right, then it is right. We would then have to claim that it is right, based on the majority in Islamic nations, that Christians, Jews, Homosexuals and so forth should be put to death. Since in those nations, the majority see that as good.

  60. Ordinaryseeker says:

    Tom, I was responding to others’ comments and making the point that one can examine the progression of gay rights in this country to verify my hypothesis. I would have written more but am limited by my ability to type accurately with one finger.

    Brandon, I believe your view of morality as objective is responsible for your confusion. If you could suspend that view, I think you could see the evidence of my argument.

  61. Brandon says:

    OS,

    Why would I suspend objective morality? If I were to use morals, then lying, cheating, stealing and murdering would be neither right or wrong, since it would rely on personal preference or culture, and who knows, I could have a personal preference to cheat, so through your theory, If I were to use subjective morality, cheating on my taxes would be neither right or wrong, since, through my subjective morality, I do not see it as bad. Do you think cheating is wrong? Stealing?

    (On a side note, I do not see cheating as right)

  62. Ordinaryseeker says:

    Brandon,
    Our society has determined that cheating and stealing are wrong. Cheating on your taxes would still be wrong, whether you personally thought so or not, because our society has determined it to be

    In other societies, bribes–a way of cheating–are an expected and acceptable part of life.

  63. Brandon says:

    OS,

    “In other societies, bribes–a way of cheating–are an expected and acceptable part of life.”

    Just because it is part of life, does it make it right? Beheading Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and other nations is a part of life, but is that morally acceptable?

  64. Brandon says:

    OS,

    “Our society has determined that cheating and stealing are wrong. Cheating on your taxes would still be wrong, whether you personally thought so or not, because our society has determined it to be”

    Where did society obtain these morals to declare that cheating and stealing was wrong?

  65. Ordinaryseeker says:

    Brandon, again, you are viewing the issue through your own beliefs about what morality is–that it exists outside of human culture. My argument is that it does not, and therefore what is determined by a society to be good is good. You do not see bribes as good because you are not part of a culture that finds them acceptable.

  66. Tom Gilson says:

    os,

    You remain hopelessly and foolishly mired in “whatever is, is right.” You have yet to grapple responsibly with the way that entails that “right” is determined through power alone. You use the example of growing acceptance of homosexuality. You are grossly naive to the way that acceptance was acquired by gay-rights advocates through the skillful application of rhetorical, political, and judicial power. You can show no grounds for believing, as you do, that a society that approves of homosexuality is morally superior to one that doesn’t.

    In other words, you offer nothing worth listening to, and my only remaining question is, don’t you see how your ethical incoherence hurts and embarrasses you?

  67. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    The reason why societies attitude to certain behaviors change is because the reformers convince others that the behaviors are objectively wrong. The subjugation of anyone by the powerful is wrong and that is the overriding principle that people like say Rosa Parks were pointing people to when they protested against injustice. The same sort of thing us happening with SSM. No one is arguing that since they have a personal preference for allowing SSM so the rest of us should change our minds. Is that what you argue when you support SSM? Do you label the actions of people against SSM as wrong? Just trying to work out here how you would change society, given what you believe about morality, without resorting to deliberately manipulative and dishonest rhetoric?

  68. SteveK says:

    Os,

    Brandon, again, you are viewing the issue through your own beliefs about what morality is–that it exists outside of human culture. My argument is that it does not, and therefore what is determined by a society to be good is good.

    There is no argument for your position, only a confused assertion. A confused assertion that flies in the face of what “the majority” has to say about it.

    Hey, look at that, you’re wrong about this even on your own terms. 😉

  69. ordinary seeker says:

    Brandon,
    You asked, “Where did society obtain these morals to declare that cheating and stealing was wrong?” Great question! I think they come from our attempts to figure out how to live together, how to balance individual needs, how to balance the needs of the individual and the needs of the group–the golden rule, right? Tom may say that’s a product of Xianity but there is some form of it in most religions, and I think it is a codification of how to live peacefully together.

  70. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa, you wrote, “No one is arguing that since they have a personal preference for allowing SSM so the rest of us should change our minds. Is that what you argue when you support SSM? Do you label the actions of people against SSM as wrong?”

    No, I am not arguing that anyone’s personal preference is the basis for determining right and wrong.

    What specific actions are you referring to in your second question?

  71. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom, you wrote, “You are grossly naive to the way that acceptance was acquired by gay-rights advocates through the skillful application of rhetorical, political, and judicial power.” Um, no, I’m not. And other civil rights, of which you approve, gained acceptance in exactly the same way. It is how change occurs in our country.

    “You can show no grounds for believing, as you do, that a society that approves of homosexuality is morally superior to one that doesn’t.” You are putting words in my mouth and assuming you know what I believe.

    “You have yet to grapple responsibly with the way that entails that ‘right’ is determined through power alone.” I said that power can be used for both positive and negative outcomes. What else would you like me to address?

  72. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa, you wrote, “The reason why societies attitude to certain behaviors change is because the reformers convince others that the behaviors are objectively wrong.” That may be a tactic, but it doesn’t contradict my argument about how what is good and what is bad is determined.

  73. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    That may be a tactic, but it doesn’t contradict my argument about how what is good and what is bad is determined

    You completely missed the point of my comment there. Partly it is that it was a belief in objective moral truth that was instrumental in the changed attitudes of society. The fact that attitudes change does not show, as you claim, that we determine what is good and bad, because it could equally be the case that as we grapple with moral issues we discover real truth. There is no decisive evidence to settle the question either way which leads me to the second point which was, given you believe that the group determines good and bad what could you offer in support of moral change that isn’t just deliberately manipulative, dishonest rhetoric.

  74. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa,
    Sorry I missed your point. It’s a good one. I suppose it is possible that as we grapple with morality, we uncover objective moral truths. I don’t believe that’s what’s happening, but I agree there’s no evidence either way.

    What could I offer in support of moral change that isn’t just deliberately manipulative, dishonest rhetoric? I’m not sure what you consider “manipulative, dishonest rhetoric,” but what I would offer is the goal of a contented–and therefore peaceful–society.

  75. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    What could I offer in support of moral change that isn’t just deliberately manipulative, dishonest rhetoric? I’m not sure what you consider “manipulative, dishonest rhetoric,” but what I would offer is the goal of a contented–and therefore peaceful–society.

    By manipulative, dishonest rhetoric I mean if you were to label a proposed social value as good or attempted to shame or pass moral judgement on those who disagreed with your proposed new social value. What would you offer in argument that we should value your goal of a contented society more than any other goal?

  76. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa, I can see how attempting to shame or pass moral judgment on those who disagreed with a new social value could be “dishonest rhetoric,” but how is labeling a new social value as good dishonest, if one believes the new value is good? A new value is socially determined to be good as more and more individuals agree that it is good, so saying it is good would be part of the process, I think.

    Why value the goal of a contented society more than any other goal? Because it manifests the ideal balance between individuals and between individuals and the group–a utopia, if you will. Because if we were actually able to achieve this, each individual and family and sub-group of society could live in peace.

  77. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    but how is labeling a new social value as good dishonest, if one believes the new value is good?

    Because as per your definition it isn’t good so how can you believe it is good.

    In the second part you are assuming an ultimate goal for all of us. I reject your ultimate goal. Now what?

  78. ordinary seeker says:

    Individuals can and do decide that something is good; when enough individuals agree that something is good, it becomes a, for lack of a better phrase, moral good.

    If you reject my ultimate goal, perhaps there is another that you will accept. Issues are argued in pursuit of more than one goal, after all. And if you don’t accept any of the goals, and the issue at hand becomes a society-determined moral good, then I suppose you will be a detractor. Eventually, you may be part of the backlash, or part of the wave of another change.

  79. Justin says:

    Yeah, and we can all come together tomorrow and decide that 2+2=5, but that won’t make it so.

  80. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    Individuals can and do decide that something is good; when enough individuals agree that something is good, it becomes a, for lack of a better phrase, moral good.

    You are equivocating over the word good then which is still dishonest.

  81. Mike Gene says:

    OS: Individuals can and do decide that something is good; when enough individuals agree that something is good, it becomes a, for lack of a better phrase, moral good.

    So morality is no different from fashion. Such nihilism.

    You never did address JAD’s point about morality being nothing more than group think.

  82. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa, you are correct that I was not clear enough about how the group determination of what is good develops, but I have said in previous comments that the group determines something is good when enough individuals agree that it is good. At the individual level, you have personal ethics; at the group level, you have morality.

    Mike Gene: I thought I did address JAD’s comment. However, to elaborate: the process of the group determining what is good is incredibly complex, involves a high level of analysis and debate, and occurs over an extended period of time. None of these things are true about group think.

  83. Tom Gilson says:

    Your response on the power question is lacking, too, os, although you seem to think you’ve answered it.

    “You have yet to grapple responsibly with the way that entails that ‘right’ is determined through power alone.” I said that power can be used for both positive and negative outcomes. What else would you like me to address?

    The question.

    You have jumped over it into an assumption, which is that there is some power-independent definition of good, which you have never supplied. You have also assumed that there is some power independent means to identify what is good.

    My contention is this: your system admits of no way to define good except according to the opinion of whoever holds the most current cultural power. It also allows no way of identifying what things should be considered good except through cultural power. Since there is no independent definition of good, then there is no meaningful way to say that this power has misidentified it, or has named the good bad or the bad good. There is no way to speak from within the power structure and say, “we got this wrong,” for there is no such thing as an independently identifiable wrong. There is no speaking to power from outside the power structure, either. No one can tell the power that it has chosen the wrong things to call good. The choices made by the power cannot be opposed by reference to any other “good,” but only by power raised against power.

    Let me summarize that last paragraph: “good” is no more, no less, no different than what power says it is. So a “positive outcome” is also nothing but what the power says it is: which, by the way, is what the power wants.”

    If you have a different opinion about good and you want to oppose the existing power structure’s definition, you cannot do it with truth. You can only do it with power. Power is all there is to define good.

    Therefore your answer, “power can be used for … positive … outcomes,” is equivalent to, “power can be used for that which power wants, or for what (some other) power doesn’t want.”

    How ethical is that?

    Your answer, “power can be used for … negative … outcomes,” is equivalent to, “I don’t agree with what power wants,” which typically proceeds toward, “I’ll apply power against power to get what I want.”

    And that’s your thoroughly disturbing ethic. At least I hope you see how disturbing it is.

    By the way, please don’t come back to me and say that you have something more “ethical” to revert to, behind or beneath “what power wants;” as if power’s wants were guided by some background definition of what is good. You’ve already taken that option away from yourself, on your understanding of ethics.

    Got it now?

  84. Tom Gilson says:

    Now let me contrast a more sensible, and by the way biblical, understanding.

    There is such a thing as real good and real evil; real right and real wrong. We can know it. Every person knows it to a significant degree.

    How? Goodness is an essential aspect of the Creator, who has instilled knowledge of goodness in every human. Atheists may say that Christians believe no one can know what is good unless they read it in the Bible, but that’s a misconception, a distortion of the Christian position. Common sense shows that people know right and wrong (to a large extent) with or without Scripture; Romans 2:12-16 confirms it.

    That passage also affirms the common-sense position that no one does good consistently. Christians also take it that although we can know good and evil apart from Scripture, that knowledge is incomplete and distorted. Again, however, there is real good and evil and it is largely knowable by humans. That makes a lot more sense than saying that good and evil are whatever power says they are.

  85. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom,
    I don’t have time to respond to this now, but plan to this evening–unless the comments have developed so far away from it that to respond would be pointless. I hope not, for I look forward to answering.

  86. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks, os. No matter where the comments go, if you don’t deal with this issue personally you’re cheating yourself. You must grapple with the very real possibility that your definition of “good” reduces to “whatever the powerful prefer.” And you must grapple with the real-world consequences of thinking that is true.

  87. Melissa says:

    Ordinay seeker,

    This is why I reject views about morality such as yours – because you can’t have a discussion about morality without smuggling in value from somewhere else. Tom pointed out one example above.

    Melissa, you are correct that I was not clear enough about how the group determination of what is good develops, but I have said in previous comments that the group determines something is good when enough individuals agree that it is good. At the individual level, you have personal ethics; at the group level, you have morality.

    Your position as stated before is that something is only good once the group decides it is good. On what basis could you think something is good if you know it us not good. Your distinction between personal ethics and morality does not help you because we are discussing the dishonesty inherent in you labeling prospective social values (moral values in your system) as good.

  88. ordinary seeker says:

    If by power you mean the consensus of the group, then there is no power-independent definition of good. I believe we can individually identify what we think is good, by thinking about how actions affect ourselves and others–but this too is of course influenced by our social connections.

    What do you mean there is no way to speak from within the power structure and say, “We got this wrong?” It is happening right now: Our president has just said that we got SSM wrong!

    We can also speak from outside the power structure, which is what occurred with civil rights and with gay rights. Those movements began outside the power structure, and caused change in the determination of what was good.

    The original choices made by the group were and are opposed by references to other goods–the new idea of what is good that began with a few individuals and was accepted by more and more, until there were enough to cause change. The gays who rose up against the police at Stonewall were not people in power. Rosa Parks was not a person in power. The African-Americans who sat at the white only lunch counters in the South were not people in power.

    If you have a different opinion about good and you want to oppose the existing power structure’s definition, you can do it by using what you think is truth–but those in power likely won’t accept it as truth. It may boost your own feelings about what you are doing, but otherwise it’s irrelevant. You can tell me what you believe is truth as much as you like, but unless I also believe it is truth, it won’t sway me in the least.

    The point you seem to miss is that the power is us, Tom. We, all of us, contribute to the determination of what is good in our society. At different times there are different prevailing ideas about what is good, but in sub groups these are in constant flux and when they build to a certain tipping point, change occurs.

  89. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa,
    I don’t really see what the problem is here. We are capable of thinking independently of the group. Many of us develop a personal ethic that is in some ways different from the prevailing group consensus of what is good. How do we determine that something is good that group consensus has determined is not good? We think about. We have experiences that cause us to look at things with a different perspective. We are influenced by other ideas from other cultures. Morality evolves.

  90. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    I don’t really see what the problem is here. We are capable of thinking independently of the group. Many of us develop a personal ethic that is in some ways different from the prevailing group consensus of what is good. How do we determine that something is good that group consensus has determined is not good? We think about

    The problem has nothing to do with being able to think independently and everything to do with the way you have defined good. If good is defined as what is agreed on by the group then what is not agreed on by the group is by definition not good. This conclusion follows from the way you have defined good.

  91. Mike Gene says:

    OS: I thought I did address JAD’s comment. However, to elaborate: the process of the group determining what is good is incredibly complex, involves a high level of analysis and debate, and occurs over an extended period of time. None of these things are true about group think.

    LOL. You think this? And there are plenty of people who would argue that the process of the group determining what is fashionable is incredibly complex, involves a high level of analysis and debate, and occurs over an extended period of time.

    Let’s make some tiny changes in something you just said to Melissa:

    “I don’t really see what the problem is here. We are capable of dressing independently of the group. Many of us develop a personal fashion that is in some ways different from the prevailing group consensus of what is fashionable. How do we determine that something is fashionable that group consensus has determined is not fashionable? We think about. We have experiences that cause us to look at things with a different perspective. We are influenced by other ideas from other cultures. Fashion evolves.”

    So in your mind, morality is not significantly different from fashion. Morality is a fad.

    Such nihilism.

  92. ordinary seeker says:

    Melissa, I understand that you are pointing out a discrepancy between how I said good is determined (by the group) and me also saying that the individual has the ability to determine what is good. It is an error in the way I presented the argument in my first comment, but not, I think, a problem for the theory itself. What I am proposing is, after all, embodied in the democratic process.

  93. Melissa says:

    Ordinary seeker,

    If you think it’s not a problem for you theory reformulate your theory to avoid the incoherence. You remonstrated with other commenters That they were viewing your theory while making the assumption that morality still existed outside culture. From what you have written here it’s obvious that you have not erased that from your thinking either, the assumption is just buried deeper, but it is revealed when you talk of individuals being able to call something good and the exercise of the powerful being negative or positive. If you think it’s not a problem for your theory reformulate your theory to avoid the incoherence.

  94. Tom Gilson says:

    What you are proposing, which is indeed embodied in the democratic process, is either (1) a means for the politically powerful to create and impose on everyone else their own ungrounded definition of “good,” in which case “good” is a matter of what the powerful say it is and nothing more; or else (2) it is a means by which the people working together seek to discover what is really and essentially good, and to craft our laws so as to reflect (not to define or to create) that real good.

    Which is it?

  95. ordinaryseeker says:

    Tom,
    I don’t accept your dichotomy.

  96. ordinaryseeker says:

    btw, for the past week or so I’ve been getting “internal server error” about half the time when I try to go to this site.

  97. Tom Gilson says:

    I wish I knew how to solve that. A note to tech support is in order.

    Meanwhile, what’s your alternative to the dichotomy?

  98. Andrew W says:

    Relevant article:

    http://www.reformation21.org/articles/is-sandusky-really-such-a-bad-guy-after-all.php

    Talks in depth about the consequences of post-modern morality. Worth considering in-depth, even if you disagree with the Christian appeal at the end.

  99. Holopupenko says:

    @97 = a sandbox-level deflection betraying ignorance and cowardliness. Tom’s question is a fundamental one not amenable to the typical atheistic sound-bite sleaziness.

    @100 Good link, Andrew.

  100. ordinary seeker says:

    Tom,
    Your first option assumes that the politically powerful can determine what is good without consulting with the rest of us. I don’t believe that’s true (in this country.) Your second option presumes that there is an objective good that can be “discovered.” I don’t believe that’s true, either.

    As children, we learn what our culture considers to be good. As adults, many (but not all) of us can reflect on whether we agree with those cultural definitions. We can then, if we choose, try to change what our culture considers good, through the democratic process. If enough of us agree, we will be successful in creating that change.

    Now, that’s a very simplified explanation. And, I’m currently reading a book–The Righteous Mind is the title, I think–that may change the way I view all this. So you may hear something different from me in the future.

  101. PhiloOOO says:

    Ordinary seeker is arguing for the social contract theory here, which can be roughly defined as the view that “Morality consists in the set of rules governing behavior, that rational people would accept for their own benefit, on the condition that others accept them as well.” This theory is quite brilliant, not to mention dominant in ethical debates, because it simultaneously explains both the origin and purpose of morality. Remember that there can be good and bad social contracts. The theory would argue what makes a particular rule or set of rules (the contract) good or bad is its ability to consider the self-interest of all parties involved. If you add to this Hegel’s spiral model of cultural development and social consciousness, you can make sense of bad social contracts becoming less common, and good social contracts becoming more common.

  102. SteveK says:

    PhiloOOO

    Morality consists in the set of rules governing behavior, that rational people would accept for their own benefit, on the condition that others accept them as well.”

    So if rational people accept slavery because it benefits them, and others accept this, then slavery is considered a good social contract. Society just got better because it embraced slavery.

    If you add to this Hegel’s spiral model of cultural development and social consciousness, you can make sense of bad social contracts becoming less common, and good social contracts becoming more common.

    I don’t get this at all. The only way this can work in any meaningful sense is if there is a fixed target of what is deemed to be a good social contract, and what is deemed to be a bad social contract – but you don’t have this.

    What you have is a rigged system such that ANY change is considered to be a change for the better. Doesn’t matter what the change is. By definition that change means that society just embraced a good social contract and goodness increased. Whatever the situation of the moment is, that situation is deemed to be better than situations of the past. But there is no real increase in goodness.

  103. PhiloOOO says:

    Steve,

    Slavery would definitely be a bad social contract as the people being slaves would never agree to it. This goes back to the definition “rules by which the rational parties would agree to if others did as well”, like the rule that nobody gets to enslave other people because we wouldn’t want to be enslaved ourselves. So there’s a bad contract, perhaps the worst contract would be a monarchy that didn’t value anyone and enslaved them all for their benefit alone. The fixed target for social contract also goes back to the definition (don’t confuse hegel and mills here), it would be a society that has enacted (key word) a social contract which perfectly enables and protects ALL the rational self interested parties, like different races, religions, sexual orientations (people who like butterflies, …, you can keep going with this but our society hasn’t even gotten this far). Now Hegel, which is a different story, had this vision of a society ending up having an in-tune collective conscious whereby we realize the wants and wishes of everyone and treat each other accordingly (sounds like Mills, also sounds a little like Jesus). That’s a long term consequence of many complex interactions though. We wouldn’t say that because it got colder today that global warming can’t be real, would we?

  104. SteveK says:

    PhiloOOO

    Slavery would definitely be a bad social contract as the people being slaves would never agree to it.

    Maybe I misunderstood the criteria you put forward. You said:

    “Morality consists in the set of rules governing behavior, that rational people would accept for their own benefit, on the condition that others accept them as well.”

    I don’t think you are saying that everyone “must accept them as well”. So the question is who must accept? Just the people directly involved? That group of people can be tough to define since nobody lives in a vacuum and a case can be made that what you do in private impacts the lives of others in some way – even if only in a lessor / minor way.

    Your objection to slavery may make my life more difficult – am I to be included in the group of rational people that has a say in this social contract? My difficult life impacts my family, will they get a say in this too?

    Or maybe you are saying that the majority of people “must accept them as well”. If so, then my slavery example is an accurate portrayal of a majority agreeing to enslave a minority.

    You said:

    [a fixed target, good, social contract] would be a society that has enacted (key word) a social contract which perfectly enables and protects ALL the rational self interested parties, like different races, religions, sexual orientations

    The inherent problem with this system is that it has huge gaping holes in it. It lacks a transcendent, meta-level, rule for determining priorities, for determining the relevant time frame, for determining who you mean by “all” (see above), what you mean by “protect” and what you mean by “rational”. And as such, contrary to your claim, there is no fixed target.

    As one example: Is short-term protection better than long-term protection? If you say long-term protection is better then the next question is what level of protection are we talking about (individual or group, degree of protection, etc), and the next question is are you being rational or irrational with your answer and then the next question is who has to agree in order for it to be deemed a good social contract?

    What you have here looks good on paper and gives everyone warm fuzzy feelings, until you actually try to make it work.

  105. Philo000 says:

    These are good points Steve. It gets real messy real quick when you try to apply it. I do mean everyone though, and philosophers argue whether or not just living in a society implies consent to these contracts which confuses it more (I don’t even really know what to make of that and I’ve read lots on this topic, what happens if you can’t consent? like the unborn as I have heard you bring up previously are a problem for this theory, so are animals and the severely handicapped). On another note, I should point out that many see the contract as not touching the ground, so to speak. They view laws not as morality in and of itself, but as a means to protect the contract (or something else entirely in some cases), which would be something like a constitution, or some would even say an implicit understanding which helped form the constitution. That removes a little bit of liability for the mess that ensues, or at least it attempts to, but you’re right it gets very messy especially if you try to fix all the problems at once. This is also especially messy because it is not at all utilitarianistic Steve. Despite what I have heard the ordinary seeker say, I don’t believe the majority is allowed to override any group no matter how small in a ‘good model’ of this theory. If what one group desires steps on one persons foot it shouldn’t really be there says the theory. That kind of stance doesn’t allow you to get into any specifics really. It only allows you to say very broad (but warm and fuzzy) things like ‘we all agree to freedom of religion’, or the slave thing. It would do really badly at things like rules of war. To be fair though, what is an alternative that is more specific, and doesn’t also get messy as it’s applied? I think that might just be the nature of the game.

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