Morality and Human Nature: Why Atheists Get It Right and Wrong (Part 2)

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Atheists who believe it’s good to maximize human well-being cannot support that position with evidences or with reason, but only with prejudice and sentiment. In today’s post, the continuation of a topic I started two days ago on morality and human nature, I will try to explain and defend my reasons for saying so. I’ll begin by quoting some comments from recent threads, which I find to be typical among believers in naturalistic evolution.

I believe we can use a model of human needs and the consequences of actions to offer moral guidance, particularly for matters in which different groups strongly disagree. (Source.)

Talking in terms of good and evil will get nowhere because each “side” has its own definitions. That is why I suggest thinking in terms of basic human needs – something that all sides can agree on – and finding ways forward where everyone’s needs can be met. (Source.)

The model is in terms of these type of fundamental human needs we all share. The aim is to achieve them for everyone, based on the realization that helping others helps us because we are all connected. (Source.)

The goal of all human behavior is that humanity continues. Sounds like a worthy enough goal to me. (Source.)

If you think instead of ensuring the continuation of the human species, then the benefit of reason is clearer, I think. Perhaps reason will enable us to establish colonies on some other planet, when we exhaust the resources of this one–won’t then the ability to use reason to formulate scientific theories be contributing to the continuation of the species? (Source.)

I don’t think in terms of right and wrong. And I wouldn’t judge the person, only their ideas. I think in terms of helpful and unhelpful at meeting human needs. In my view, torturing children is not a human need. A human need is something we all desire – security, meaning, autonomy, health, excitement etc. (Source.)

What Does “Human” Mean?

I’d like you to take notice of the repeated word “human” here. What does it mean? Is it obvious? Certainly, on a common-sense level it is. Everybody knows what “human” means, right?

Not so fast. Is an unborn baby a human? Does he or she have “basic human needs — something that all sides can agree on”? It doesn’t take long to run into confusion on what “human” means, does it?* Peter Singer, ethicist (cough, cough) at Harvard, says that as far as ethical considerations go, it humanness may begin well after the birth of the baby. There is equal controversy over the humanness of organisms (shall we say?) near the end of their life as humans, or of the severely mentally handicapped.

And there has also been considerable dispute over the humanness of the darker-skinned races. I think we’ve settled that one, thank God.

Deeply Muddled Definition

My point is, “human” is not as well-defined as we think it is, and thus we have deep divides over whether human needs are being met when (for example) a woman aborts her baby. My further point is this: naturalistic evolution does us no good in finding an answer. It actually makes things worse, for several reasons:

1. Evolution is about process. Every species is but a snapshot of a population on its way to being something else. Evolution never lands but for a moment.

2. Evolution cannot make a higher species. Did you think humans were an advanced group? You chauvinist, you! Advanced toward what? Paris japonica has the largest genome of any species. Maybe that’s the relevant measure. Cockroaches are reputed to be the animal species that would  thrive best following a nuclear disaster. Maybe that’s the relevant measure. Rationality? Sure, we have it, but does a raccoon care? There’s nothing there in naturalistic evolution to justify calling us a higher species. All there is, is self-serving prejudice.

3. Evolution cannot distinguish the worth of species. Ingrid Newkirk at PETA said that as far as our food choices go, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” That’s good evolutionary thinking: we’re all one sort of thing, each of us just our own particular terminus on the particular path that mindless, brainless, purposeless evolution followed (pardon the anthropomorphism) to bring us to be. What makes the path to me (or my distant ancestors, in case you were planning to bring that up) to be of any more worth than the path to my calico cat Callie? I can’t think of anything. So then what makes the outcome worth any more? I can’t think of anything there, either; not on the evolutionary theory, at any rate.

4. Most importantly, evolution does not institute species-ness, in the sense of horse-ness, or maple tree-ness, or of course humanness. The -ness suffix is a fiction, a heuristic convenience foisted by humans upon groupings of organisms to simplify our conceptions.

Let me pause and add a word to explain that. I’ll illustrate from a science fiction story that I never read, but which a friend told me of. In this story a human —call him Sam — meets an alien, either on Earth or some other planet. Trying to establish communication, Sam points at a rock and says, “Rock.” The author lets us in on the alien’s thoughts: it understands immediately. But Sam doesn’t know that, so he points at the rock again and says, “Rock.” Then we hear the alien’s thoughts: This other being is an idiot. It doesn’t realize that if it was “rock” before, it has changed in billions of minuscule ways since then. It’s not the same thing. It could no longer be “rock.”

I don’t know how the alien came to that conclusion without contradiction, for if the “rock” had changed, then so had the “other being” (Sam). And if it wasn’t the same being (Sam) saying “rock” the second time, there could have been no one being contradicting himself by using the same word both times.

But the alien was right to this extent: there’s no rock there, in reality, except as some mind recognizes rock-ness there. Nature (as naturalistic evolutionists conceive it) cannot put rock-ness into a rock. It can only put the atoms that comprise its minerals in close conjunction with one another. And nature cannot put horse-ness into a horse. It can only put its chemicals in contiguous arrangements. Horse-ness is a human construct, not one of nature. So is humanness: it is a purely human construct.

Therefore humanness is a self-serving conception at best, though in reality it is simply a false one: for if evolution cannot create humanness, there’s nothing else in nature that could. Humanness is thus a construct without a cause. What is uncaused cannot come into being. Humanness therefore cannot really be.

Sentiment and Morality, Yes; Reason, No

Therefore also, on naturalistic evolution, to make an ethical principle out of advancing the interests of humans or humanity is to reify something that doesn’t exist except. Humanness isn’t fixed, it’s but a name we give to a population at a particular step in a process. We have no greater worth than any other species. We’re not a higher species. Humanity (in the sense of common possessors of some human nature) is a fiction.

So why make human flourishing our ethical ideal? Let me quote another comment from the recent thread:

Nothing makes humanity any more worth preserving than any other species, but our own feelings about ourselves. (Source) 59

That’s exactly right. On naturalistic evolution, sentiment and prejudice constitute the only explanation for human-based ethics: sentiment and prejudice.

Don’t allow yourself to confuse that with reason.

Meanwhile, don’t forget this: an ethic of seeking to support human well-being can be a very sound ethic. Atheists who get that right, get it right. As I said last time, they get it right because their intuitions are correct: human nature is real. Humanness is real. If naturalistic evolution can’t support or explain that (and it can’t), well then, so much the worse for naturalistic evolution.

 

*By way of contrast: In the philosophical and biblical tradition represented by Robert George, the subject of my last post on this topic, the answer is well defined. Humanness begins at conception and continues, embodied, until physical death. George writes in a footnote to Conscience and Its Enemies,

By the phrase our humanity, I refer more precisely to the nature of humans as rational beings. The nature of human beings is a rational nature. So in virtue of our human nature, we human beings possess a profound and inherent dignity…. Even individuals who have not yet acquired the immediately exercisable capacities for conceptual thought and other rational acts, and, indeed, even those who do not possess them, and never possessed them, and (short of a miracle) never will possess them, possess a rational nature.

How does he reach this conclusion? I’m afraid I don’t have space to go into it here. I suggest you look up one of Edward Feser’s books on the topic if you’re interested: The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism or Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide). My argument here has not depended on George’s; I only mention this so that you can look into it if you’re interested. (Please note: since my argument does not depend on the success of George’s argument, commenters disputing the accuracy of George’s conclusions will be off topic right from the start.)

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43 Responses to “ Morality and Human Nature: Why Atheists Get It Right and Wrong (Part 2) ”

  1. @Tom Gilson:

    4. Most importantly, evolution does not institute species-ness, in the sense of horse-ness, or maple tree-ness, or of course humanness. The -ness suffix is a fiction, a heuristic convenience foisted by humans upon groupings of organisms to simplify our conceptions.

    What exactly do you mean by this?

    If evolution is true as a matter of fact, then it just means evolution,understood as the congeries of complex biological processes driving the diversification of biological species, *does* give rise to species — or forms, in the metaphysical sense.

    note: Biologists nowadays have a concept of species based heavily on cladistics and evolutionary history, which, however useful for biologist’s purposes, is a conceptual muddle.

    Aquinas for example speculated that:

    even new species, if any appear, have existed before in certain native properties, just as animals are produced from putrefaction.

    Today, we smile at the mention of “putrefaction”, but Aquinas point is simple. Nature is endowed with certain *potencies*, and these include the production of new species; such “eduction of form out of matter”, now in the form of biological laws would be what the theory of evolution exemplifies.

    If on the other hand, you mean that if evolution is true then the concept of species, understood metaphysically as a cognate of form, is chucked out the window then I disagree that such is entailed — it does not and cannot entail such. Although, for what is worth, I do agree that if it did entail such (though it cannot) then that would be a sufficient reason to reject evolution.

  2. I disagree that naturalistic evolution can give rise to forms in the metaphysical sense. I don’t see how it could produce anything but particulars. That was the point of my alien illustration. It seems to me that forms cannot exist without mind, among other problems; and I wrote what I see as difficult in ascribing them to (particular, mind you) human minds.

  3. Maybe your key point in this post is summed up when you say, “Sentiment and prejudice constitute the only explanation for human-based ethics.”

    I can actually agree with you if only we tone down the vocabulary a bit. You can say the same thing like this: “Human will is the only explanation for human-based ethics.” Now it sounds like a tautology, in fact.

    There’s nothing wrong with basing our ethics on things we want.

  4. There’s nothing wrong with basing our ethics on things we want.

    Well if “wrong” is defined as what we don’t want then of course there’s nothing “wrong” with it.

  5. @Tom Gilson:

    I disagree that naturalistic evolution can give rise to forms in the metaphysical sense. I don’t see how it could produce anything but particulars. That was the point of my alien illustration.

    Let us forget about biological evolution, which is a terribly complicated subject, and stick to a much simpler example. According to cosmologists, a split second after the Big Bang, the universe was in such a dense, hot state, that there were no elementary particles like say an electron. Wait a split second, the universe expands, cools down, and lo and behold, the first electron appears; explicitly, the Form of electron-ness is first instantiated in the universe. The Form of the electron itself was not created (how could it?), but there is a sense in which the Form was in potency right there from the beginning of the universe, in such a way that with its natural unfolding, the Form of electron comes to be instantiated.

    Assuming that Evolution is right as a fact of matter, the case is exactly parallel (with one certain exception and possibly, possibly, a couple more).

    Now, from what I have said, it is obvious that Forms are not created, much less that the unfolding of natural laws creates them. And as you point out, unless you are a Platonist (and no naturalist is a Platonist), Forms necessitate a mind, God’s mind, which is where Christians typically housed them as the archetypes of Creation. But if this is *all* you mean, then the problem you are pointing out is only incidentally about Evolution, and more about the rejection of Forms (or Kinds, or Species, or whatever, for the discussion at hand it matters little) itself.

    note: hmm, on rereading my first post, I expressed myself equivocally. To repeat myself, new forms appear in the sense that hitherto uninstantiated forms become instantiated.

  6. That makes sense, and I agree with you on your further explanation, except I don’t know how this works:

    1. The Form of the electron was instantiated a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

    2. The Form of the electron was not created.

    3. Form necessitates mind.

    It seems to me that either there was mind, and creation (the theist option), or there was no mind, no creation, and thus no Form, except as humans regard it so looking back toward the past (the atheist view). Is that what you meant?

    If so it makes sense, except I don’t know why the form itself could not have been created. I’m thinking this through as I write. The Form existed in potency before it was instantiated, so the moment of its instantiation could not have been the moment of its being created. If it was created, it was created in potency; indeed all Forms (on this view) were created in potency in the Big Bang.

    Is there a reason that is impossible?

  7. John Moore,

    There’s no tautology there. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with basing our ethics on things we want, provided that we want what is in accord with human flourishing. That’s the first point of explication beyond tautology. Obviously it’s possible to want things that are not good for us. But what is good for us depends on what we are, and what we are is not so clear given naturalistic evolution, as I said in my points one through three (and possibly four, though that’s in discussion now.)

    Second, the language of sentiment and prejudice is appropriate specifically in view of the fact that, on naturalism, humans are but a snapshot in a moment of geological time, there’s no ontological basis for considering ourselves really different in worth from the rest of nature, and we are not a higher species: except as we take a chauvinistic attitude toward ourselves in defiance of the facts.

    Take away that emotionally-based chauvinism, and the radical environmentalists’ ethic makes more sense than that of maximizing human flourishing, if naturalism is true. That includes Eric Pianka’s (see here, here, and here to read two sides of that story) or that of Peter Singer, who considers infants of less moral significance than some animals.

    And you must recognize that one chief purpose for this post was not to prove atheists wrong about ethics, but to show that their claims of being more reasoned and reasoning than theists are about ethics is false. As far as I can tell that point still stands.

  8. Again, I agree that “there’s no ontological basis for considering ourselves really different in worth from the rest of nature,” but we’re not looking at things from nature’s point of view (or God’s). Instead, we’re just looking at things from our point of view. We are all we care about.

    Sure it sounds egotistical, but put it this way: We only want what we want. It couldn’t be any other way.

    You’re right of course that we don’t really know what we ultimately want or who we ultimately are, but whatever that is, it’s the basis for our morality. Theists say we’re God’s children, and evolutionists say we’re just trying to survive on our own. Both points of view have a solid basis for morality.

  9. I agree that “there’s no ontological basis for considering ourselves really different in worth from the rest of nature,” but we’re not viewing things from nature’s (or God’s) point of view. We can’t escape our own human perspective. Or in other words we only care about what we ourselves care about.

    It’s true again that we don’t know what we ultimately care about, or who we ultimately are, but whatever the answer is, it’s the basis for our morality. Theists think we’re God’s children, and evolutionists think we’re just trying to survive on our own. Both sides have a solid basis for morality.

  10. @Tom Gilson:

    Anticipated apologies, but I will make this comment longer than it should be. To put my thoughts in order, and preempt confusions as much as possible, let me start by playing against each other the Aristotelian (more precisely, Aristotelian-Thomist) and the Platonist conceptions.

    note: there are some grueling over-simplifications here, but hopefully the picture conveyed is accurate enough.

    (1) Both Platonists and Aristotelians agree to the objective reality of universals. Forms are one kind of universals; they are what makes a thing a this rather than a that, or what marks off a thing from every other thing in the universe (not to be confused with numerical distinction). As universals, they are posited to account for, among other things, unity within plurality (or the One Over Many). The bone of contention between Platonists and Aristotelians is the precise nature of the relation between universals and their instantiations.

    A Platonist, which has a broadly relational ontology, will say the instances of the universal stand in a specific relation with the universal they instantiate or exemplify, and that the latter are ontologically independent of their instantiations. Because they are independent, they exist ante rem (literally “before the thing”, before in an onto-logical sense), the Platonist is bound to posit a third realm to house them. The Aristotelian will deny this ontological independence, and will say instead that the universal is “in” their instantiations, or exists in re, being a constitutive principle of the substance itself (constitutive ontology), and that apart from the substances in which they inhere they are a mere abstraction. So on this conception, Form is a part of substance, just not a material part as usually understood.

    (2) Now let us apply this to my earlier example of the First Electron Ever In The Universe. A Platonist will say that the Form of the electron, existing eternally (a-temporally), was instantiated or exemplified. The Aristotelian will say that an electron has first come into being, and in that sense the Form of electron was first instantiated, but to ask if the Form was created or not is a conceptual muddle because it presupposes the ontological independence of Forms. The Form as it exists “in” the electron, and that is the way in which it exists, came to be at the same time as the electron.

    Now a Platonist will probably complain about this answer and will indeed press the issue against the Aristotelian. An Aristotelian-Thomist has a further resource, a neo-Platonic move, to stave off *some* of the Platonist objections: he simply says that Forms exist eternally in the mind of God as the archetypes of creation and therefore, God can serve some of the functions that the Platonic realm is supposed to serve.

    (3) In the classical conception a mind just *is* the kind of thing that can “hold” or “possess” universals without instantiating them, that is, a universal, any universal, exists in the mind in a different mode of being, abstracted from the substances that instantiate it (exists post rem, literally “after the thing”). This is necessary if knowledge is to be objective.

    (4) Now, with all this in place, why did I say that the reality of Form necessitates Mind? One reason, and maybe this is what you are trying to get at, is the Fifth Way. To revert to my earlier example of the electron, the Form of the electron must have been there in potency from the beginning, as with all Forms that have appeared “naturally”, as the final cause or telos of whatever was in there from the beginning (from the beginning is just a way of speaking; no temporal beginning need be assumed). But what is in potency has no causal efficacy. The Aristotelian-Thomist has no third realm to turn to like the Platonist, so he must say with Aquinas that God, holding in His mind the forms of all beings, directs nature, or natures, towards bringing about their specific ends, namely, bringing about the coming to be of electrons say.

    Note that the Aristotelian-Thomist is *not* denying the efficacy of secondary causes; whatever was there from the beginning did bring about the coming to be of electrons. What the Aristotelian-Thomist will insist on is the necessity of the concurrency of the ordering power of God as a First Cause.

    (5) There are many, many ways in which one could deny this classical Platonic slash Aristotelian picture, although typically Aristotelian-Thomists will insist on the interlocking necessity of all their basic concepts (substance and accident, form and matter, act and potency, etc.) and say that either you buy the whole hog or stay at the door.

    a) the opponent could go the Nominalist way and simply deny the reality of universals. My first response is the same as yours: the Nominalist is denying that human beings exist.

    b) the opponent could concede the reality of Forms at the level of say, elementary particles, but deny it at higher levels. This is a riff on Atomism; something like this is what hovers on the minds of most naturalists (which makes it more ironical their chronological snobbery). My first response is the same as in a).

    c) the opponent could adopt any number of middle positions. For example, he could concede to the reality of *some* universals like properties, but then deny that substantial forms exist, or reduce them to “bundles” or sets of properties. The response here depends on what exactly is the opponent denying. There is an obvious distinction between properties that are essential and properties that are accidental: a human being is essentially an animal; he could not loose the property of being an animal without ceasing to exist. So if the bundle theorist is denying essential properties, the difference between change and ceasing to be becomes unintelligible and my first response ends up being the same as in a). If he does not deny that some properties are essential to the substances that instantiate them, then it becomes more difficult to deny the reality of substantial form, and for the purposes of the current discussion methinks it does not matter much.

  11. @Tom Gilson:

    Grrrr…

    The comment about constitutive ontology is probably more obfuscating than enlightening as Aristotle is at pains (in the “Categories”) to show that universals are not in the substances they inhere in, so for now just disregard it. I will have to think more carefully how to spell out what I want to articulate by “in”.

  12. Thanks for that from Public Discourse, Ray. It’s very helpful and enlightening, though it has little direct bearing on the ethics question.

  13. Thanks for that from Public Discourse, Ray. It’s pretty informative, very helpful as background perspective, even though it has little direct bearing on the ethics question here.

  14. G. Rodrigues –

    In the classical conception a mind just *is* the kind of thing that can “hold” or “possess” universals without instantiating them, that is, a universal, any universal, exists in the mind in a different mode of being… [emphasis added]

    Why is that “the” instead of “a”? In addition to ‘instantiated in some substance’ and ‘in the mind’, wouldn’t a classical Platonist argue that universals exist in a third “mode of being”, the Realm of Forms? Did you mean to say “classical A-T conception”? (Don’t read that in a challenging tone; I’m just asking for clarification.)

  15. On the basis of naturalism and biological evolution do human beings have rights? Are these rights intrinsic? …universal? Or, are they arbitrary? If they are arbitrary, how did we get them?

    The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims that they are universal. Is this true? What does it mean for a right to be universal?

    Here are a few of the better known rights listed in the U.N. Declaration:

    Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

    Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

    Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

    Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    Article 20: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

    http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/#atop

    Again, do we, or don’t we, really have rights? Where do they come from?

  16. @Ray Ingles:

    Why is that “the” instead of “a”? In addition to ‘instantiated in some substance’ and ‘in the mind’, wouldn’t a classical Platonist argue that universals exist in a third “mode of being”, the Realm of Forms? Did you mean to say “classical A-T conception”?

    Yes, you are correct. On the other hand, I said and I quote “a mind just *is* the kind of thing”, etc. I cannot go here into how Platonists conceive the Third Realm (mainly because of my ignorance), but it is not a “kind of thing”, that is, a substance.

  17. Are these rights intrinsic? …universal? Or, are they arbitrary?

    Good question. Makes me wonder about Platonism. Do they believe that forms have intrinsic rights, and/or different rights based on the form? If no, then what Tom is saying about evolution, specifically #3, is also true about Platonism.

  18. I see a huge problem with your attempt to construct a dichotomy here.

    Peter Singer and Ingrid Newkirk have spent their entire careers demonising the very biologists whom you are portraying as their allies. They also deny that evolutionary theory tells us that animal models are worthwhile in research, supporting their denials with many, many lies.

  19. I’m not portraying them as allies, and what they believe about animals in research has nothing to do with what I wrote here. I wasn’t writing about their opinions about that. Singer and Newkirk have their points of difference with biologists and their points of agreement with philosophical naturalism, which is what’s relevant in this context.

  20. Steve K asked:

    Makes me wonder about Platonism. Do they believe that forms have intrinsic rights, and/or different rights based on the form?

    Next to the Judeo-Christian ethic probably the ideas of Plato and Aristotle have been the most influential in shaping western ethical thought and belief. For example, in his work the The Republic Plato grounds the concepts of justice and virtue in an ultimate Good that trascends subjective human opinion.

    Here is a brief summary of Plato’s ethical thinking:

    Metaethically, the Republic presupposes that there are objective facts concerning how one should live. Much of its account of these facts sounds naturalist. After all, Socrates uses the careful study of human psychology to reveal how our souls function well or ill, and he grounds the account of what a person should do in his understanding of good psychological functioning…

    Although this naturalist reading of the Republic is not anachronistic—Aristotle and the Stoics develop related naturalist approaches, and Plato had naturalist contemporaries in a hedonist tradition—Plato himself would not be content to ground his account of good actions on empirical facts of human psychology. On his view, actions are good because of their relation to good agents, and agents are good because of their relation to goodness itself. But goodness itself, the Good, transcends the natural world; it is a supernatural property. This commits Plato to a non-naturalist version of ethical realism, which modernity’s creeping tide of naturalism threatens to wash away. But non-naturalism in ethics will retain some appeal insofar as the other ways of trying to explain our experiences of the moral life fail to answer the serious objections they face.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/#6

  21. JAD,
    One question that popped into my mind concerning Plato is how would anyone come to have knowledge of a good that transcended the natural world? This supernatural property would have to come into contact with the natural world such that humans became aware of it. Does Plato explain that somewhere?

  22. I don’t think in terms of right and wrong. And I wouldn’t judge the person, only their ideas. I think in terms of helpful and unhelpful at meeting human needs. In my view, torturing children is not a human need. A human need is something we all desire – security, meaning, autonomy, health, excitement etc.
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/uncategorized/2013/07/the-fourth-reason-for-religious-freedom/#comment-66781

    So, in other words, according to David P, morality is reduced to desire? How do we reduce moral obligations to desire? Do moral obligations even exist based on David P’s world view?

    Peter Kreeft argues that this view is counter to our everyday experience. Desires and obligations “are generically different” things. He gives the following example:

    Moral absolutism is certainly based on experience. For instance, let’s say last night you promised your friend you would help them at 8:00 this morning. Let’s say he has to move his furniture before noon. But you were up ’til 3:00 am. And when the alarm rings at 7:00, you are very tired. You experience two things—the desire to sleep, and the obligation to get up. The two are generically different. You experience no obligation to sleep, and no desire to get up. You are moved, in one way, by your own desire for sleep, and you are moved in a very different way by what you think you ought to do. Your feelings appear from the inside out, so to speak, while your conscience appears from the outside in. Within you is the desire to sleep, and this may move you to the external deed of shutting off the alarm and creeping back to bad. But, if instead you get up to fulfill your promise to your friend, it will be because you chose to respond to a very different kind of thing: the perceived moral quality of the deed of fulfilling your promise, as opposed to the perceived moral quality of the deed of refusing to fulfill it. What you perceive as right, or obligatory—getting up—pulls you from without, from itself, from its own nature. But the desires you feel as attractive—going back to sleep—push you from within, from yourself, from your own nature. The moral obligation moves you as an end, as a final cause, from above and ahead, so to speak. Your desires move you as a source, as an efficient cause, from below, or behind, so to speak.

    http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/05_relativism/relativism_transcription.htm#7

    Would it be right or wrong to break your promise to a friend based on your own needs and desires?

  23. Tom Gilson –

    It’s pretty informative, very helpful as background perspective, even though it has little direct bearing on the ethics question here.

    I rather thought it directly addressed your ‘point #4’, where you wrote, “Most importantly, evolution does not institute species-ness, in the sense of horse-ness, or maple tree-ness, or of course humanness.”

    As Miller puts it: “Yes, if Darwin is right, we need to adjust some of our concepts, the biggest adjustment being that the borders between species turn out to be not sharp but blurred, just as the borders between various colors are not sharp but blurred. To be sure, this is a big change (which is one reason Darwin was a great scientist), but it is just one more improvement in our understanding of reality on a par with other scientific discoveries that have caused us to adjust our understanding of reality—our concepts—in significant ways.”

    The fact that humans could develop into other things eventually doesn’t mean there’s no way to define being human now. The descendants of humans could, I suppose, develop into aquatic mammals someday. They might even develop gills. That wouldn’t mean humans can breathe water now.

    I also have a problem with a different part of your essay, where you write: “On naturalistic evolution, sentiment and prejudice constitute the only explanation for human-based ethics: sentiment and prejudice. Don’t allow yourself to confuse that with reason.”

    That’s the wrong way of looking at it. Something can be a-rational (or perhaps even better, pre-rational) without being ir-rational, contrary to reason.

    I might not have a rational reason to prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate ice cream. But that doesn’t mean I’m behaving irrationally when I choose strawberry ice cream. I am a human being. Wherefore should I not have human concerns and take a human perspective?

  24. We can define human beings now, perhaps, but on what basis can we define them as having any particular worth over and above other organisms? We are but a point on the continuum. How does this give us any value?

    A-rational is not necessarily contra-rational. But it is also not rational.

  25. It seems fairly clear to me that the notion of a universally true “goodness” or “humanness” or “value” is not compatible with a naturalistic universe: these things are properties of minds, not physical attributes that can be objectively measured using any kind of scientific instrument (as opposed to properties such as mass or electric charge, which can be measured).

    In order for something to have “value” there needs to be a mind valuing it. In order for a person to have “humanness” there needs to be a mind ascribing that attribute to it.

    Therefore, to take the position that things such as “value” and “humanness” and “goodness” (and all those other attributes that can’t be measured by scientific instruments) are universal, it is necessary to also take the position that there is a mind that sits outside our physical universe and whose judgements apply universally within our universe.

  26. We can say so if we want. But we can’t offer any reasons for it.

    But now you’ve jumped a level. In geometry, what’s the reason for Euclid’s first postulate, “A straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points”?

    Trick question. It’s a fundamental assumption, a starting point. Axioms aren’t subject to rational justification. You gotta start somewhere.

    Though that’s not to say the selection of axioms is entirely arbitrary, either. Since you’re willing to at least provisionally grant that “We can define human beings now”, the nature of human beings might have some impact on their feelings.

  27. Yet Another Tom –

    It seems fairly clear to me that the notion of a universally true “goodness” or “humanness” or “value” is not compatible with a naturalistic universe

    Sure.

    But it can still be objectively true that some things are good to and for humans. Sure, that’s only from a human perspective… but hey, I’m human. In fact, I accuse you of being human too.

  28. But it can still be objectively true that some things are good to and for humans. Sure, that’s only from a human perspective… but hey, I’m human. In fact, I accuse you of being human too.

    For something to be objectively “good” for humans it can’t only be good “from a human perspective”. Under a naturalistic universe, something is either objectively true (in which case it can be described mathematically and measured scientifically) or it is not.

    You can describe me as human because you have a mind that can ascribe “humanness”, but you can’t expect other minds to necessarily agree with you that I am human. Without a “God Mind” to ascribe “humanness” to me, I’m only as human as you and I (and everyone else) agree that I am.

  29. @Ray Ingles:

    Trick question. It’s a fundamental assumption, a starting point. Axioms aren’t subject to rational justification. You gotta start somewhere.

    This is not correct; it certainly is not correct as regards mathematics. What probably you want to say is that there is no formal proof of them, which with a couple of qualifications, is indeed correct. But “rational justification” and “formal proof” are not the same thing. For an example, not related to Euclidean geometry but set theory, see a paper of Dana Scott from the 1970’s, “Axiomatizing Set Theory”, in which there is a very clear presentation of the hows and whys of formalizing our intuitions of what a set *is*.

  30. Ray,

    It’s a fundamental assumption, a starting point. Axioms aren’t subject to rational justification. You gotta start somewhere.

    A blind assumption or one that is based on some justifiable rationality? I think you know that it’s the latter. You don’t just start somewhere, you start where you can be rationally justified to start.

  31. Yet Another Tom –

    For something to be objectively “good” for humans it can’t only be good “from a human perspective”.

    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2012/11/preparing-for-persecution/#comment-43415

    It can be objectively true that some strategies are better at fulfilling a goal than others. (You won’t win a lot of chess games sacrificing your queen in the first few moves.)

    If human nature influences human goals (and I think we can agree it does), and if there are objective facts about the world and how humans interact with it (and I think we can agree there are), then there can be objectively “good” and “bad” moves for humans.

    it can be described mathematically and measured scientifically

    Hello, game theory, the study of strategic decision making.

  32. If human nature influences human goals (and I think we can agree it does), and if there are objective facts about the world and how humans interact with it (and I think we can agree there are), then there can be objectively “good” and “bad” moves for humans.

    In a naturalistic universe, if there were no humans, there would be no such thing as “human nature” and therefore no such thing as “good” or “bad”. If there is a God who sits outside that universe, then concepts such as “human nature”, “good” and “bad” can exist within the mind of God and apply universally throughout the universe. Humans could discover those concepts, but those concepts would exist objectively and independently of humans within the universe.

    Hello, game theory, the study of strategic decision making.

    Game theory requires someone to keep score and decide who wins. We as humans are capable of doing this and, once we have set up the rules of a game, we can represent it and manipulate it mathematically. But the whole concept of “winning” requires a mind to define it, and therefore in a naturalistic universe where there are only human minds and no “God Mind” no-one can claim that their definition of “winning” is objectively true.

  33. Yet Another Tom – As Melissa noted in the other thread, be careful about confusing ‘objective’ and ‘absolute’.

    Even in a world where chess hadn’t been invented, it would remain true that sacrificing your queen at the start of the game would be a bad strategy for winning chess. The fact that no one recognizes a fact (or even there’s no one to recognize a fact) doesn’t mean the fact isn’t a fact.

    (But in any case, there are humans, so your hypothetical “if there were no humans” doesn’t apply.)

    But the whole concept of “winning” requires a mind to define it, and therefore in a naturalistic universe where there are only human minds and no “God Mind” no-one can claim that their definition of “winning” is objectively true.

    As I asked SteveK, “Are human goals justifiable based on human nature? Can we study humans and learn things about what goals humans should pursue?” If there are facts about what makes humans happiest, “then there can be objectively “good” and “bad” moves for humans.”

  34. Ray, I’m happy to differentiate between “objective” and “absolute”.

    Furthermore, I can agree with you that, under the current rules of Chess, it is objectively true that a player who sacrifices his queen at the start of the game is far less likely to win the game than if he does not. Therefore, if your goal is to win the game of chess, then sacrificing your queen in the first few moves is an objectively bad move to make.

    Of course, humans are perfectly entitled to change the rules of chess, and it is entirely possible to change the rules of chess in such a way that sacrificing your queen in the first few moves becomes a very good move to make. The important thing to note here is that the rules of chess are something that humans decide: they exist inside human minds and if those human minds change, the rules can change and the “objective” truth can change.

    Sure, you can argue that by changing the rules you’ve created a new game and that sacrificing your queen is still an objectively bad move in the old game. But all you’ve proved then is that it is possible to create a game with objective rules and objective goals. If we got into an argument about which set of Chess rules was the the “true” set of rules, would we be able to settle that debate objectively?

    I say all this to emphasise the difference between things like “the rules of chess” or “morality”, which exist only within minds (be they human minds or the mind of God), and things like “the mass of an electron” or “the speed of light”, which exist independently of humans. You can change human minds as much as you like and you will not change the mass of an electron or the speed of light, but you might end up changing the rules of Chess.

    Most theists tend not to make a distinction between things which exist only within minds and things which exist independently of (human) minds. As far as theists are concerned everything exists within the mind of God: if God changed his mind about morality, then, even if no human minds were to change, morality would change, and if God changed his mind about the mass of an electron, the mass of an electron would change (this is hypothetical, of course – most theists view God as unchanging). What we can take from this is that, if everything comes from God, then the “objective” really does become the “absolute”. If everything comes from God then humans changing their minds on things like morality (or even the rules of chess, for that matter) would not mean that those things change, it would mean that humans are getting it wrong.

    As I asked SteveK, “Are human goals justifiable based on human nature? Can we study humans and learn things about what goals humans should pursue?” If there are facts about what makes humans happiest, “then there can be objectively “good” and “bad” moves for humans.”

    We can study humans and learn what goals humans do pursue, but can we really learn what goals humans should pursue? If you have a given set of goals, you can state objectively what actions you should take in order to maximise the probability of achieving those goals (based on available evidence). And if you want to call actions that increase the probability of achieving your goals “good” actions, then sure, you can say there are objectively “good” actions and “bad” actions. But before you can do that you need to establish that the goals themselves are objective.

    You have assumed that “happiness” is a human goal, which seems like a reasonable assumption, but I’m sure it’s not the only goal. Can we be certain that every human has exactly the same set of goals? Assuming they do, then we can objectively state that, for humans, certain actions are objectively “good” (likely to lead to us achieving our objective goals) or “bad” (likely to lead to us not achieving those goals). But this is a really big assumption to make, and it still doesn’t guarantee that our goals won’t change in the future (in a naturalistic universe containing humans who are evolving, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that human goals in 3 million years’ time will be as different to human goals today as today’s human goals are to the goals of chimpanzees).

    In a naturalistic universe, the most you can say is “Under my current set of goals, which I assume are pretty much the same as everyone else’s set of goals, doing X is likely to lead to those goals not being achieved, therefore X is a bad action to take”.

    Of course, if you’re talking to someone with whom you have discussed all this previously, you can shorten that cumbersome statement to “X is wrong” or “X is bad”, for ease of communication. 🙂

  35. Yet Another Tome –

    But all you’ve proved then is that it is possible to create a game with objective rules and objective goals.

    Not quite. What we’ve shown is that, given particular goals, and particular rules, it’s objectively true that particular strategies follow from that. Change the goals and/or the rules, and you change the implications, the strategies. But the key principle is that some kind of implications must follow.

    Consider geometry. In Euclidean geometry, you have the parallel postulate: Given a line, and a point not on the line, you can draw exactly one line through that point parallel to the first line. This has lots of geometric implications.

    You can pick other postulates, though. If you assume no parallel lines, you have elliptic geometry. If you assume more than one parallel line, you get hyperbolic geometry.

    But the key point is that once you pick a postulate, it’s objectively true that certain implications follow from that.

    If we got into an argument about which set of Chess rules was the the “true” set of rules, would we be able to settle that debate objectively?

    As you note, there’s a difference between the laws of physics and the laws of chess – we don’t get to pick the laws of physics. Same with geometry. If the classical physicists had their way, the ‘real’ geometry of the universe would be Euclidean geometry. But after Einstein, the geometry of the universe depends on the distribution of mass in a region – it can be Euclidean, elliptical, or hyperbolic. We don’t get to pick that, either.

    I say all this to emphasise the difference between things like “the rules of chess” or “morality”

    Hold up – I’m emphasizing the difference between “the rules of chess” and “morality”!

    There’s three things in this analogy. (1) Goals, (2) fixed ‘rules of the game’, and (3) the strategies that arise from the interactions of the first two. It’s not a “goal” that you shouldn’t sacrifice your queen early, nor is it a rule of chess that you can’t or anything – it’s something else. It’s a strategic maxim.

    When goals smack into fixed constraints, strategies arise by implication. The same way postulates in geometry lead to the implications we call theorems.

    We can’t settle the rules of chess objectively – we agree to play by a given set of rules, or we pick another game. But we don’t get to pick our physics! That debate we can settle objectively.

    So, “morals” are strategic maxims, not goals or fundamental ‘rules of the game’. In the game called ‘real life’, we don’t get to pick the fundamental rules, the laws of physics. Given a particular set of goals, you’re going to get a particular set of strategies. Now, what about those goals?

    Can we be certain that every human has exactly the same set of goals?

    One of the interesting results of game theory is that similar strategies arise for a wide variety of goals and rules, so long as the game isn’t ‘zero-sum’. In general, for a non-zero-sum game, the successful strategies tend to be (a) ‘nice’, that is, don’t go starting fights, (b) ‘provocable’, in that they will nevertheless defend themselves if attacked, but are (c) ‘forgiving’, in that they’ll give opponents a chance to cooperate again, and (d) ‘clear’ in that it’s possible for others to figure out how to cooperate.

    It happens in real life, too. Imagine you want to raise children and have them be happy and fulfilled. Then you want a safe, stable, prosperous society. What if you just want to party down? Then you still want a safe, stable, prosperous society. (Hard to get your funk on when you’re naked in the woods scrabbling for buried radishes.)

    That’s not to say that everything’s determined. If you have cars and roads, it makes sense to drive on one side or the other, but it doesn’t matter much if it’s the left or the right. A lot of social conventions are like that.

    Some are up for debate, we haven’t nailed down the best option in many areas. Given how human sexuality works, some concept of modesty is pretty much required if people are going to get along with each other in groups. But how modesty is implemented has a lot of variations – think Polynesian island girl in a sarong, a typical career girl on the streets of an American city, and a Saudi Arabian woman in a burqua. I have my opinions about which is best and worst, but I can’t claim to have it down to a mathematical demonstration.

    On the other hand, a lot of engineering works, but works by rules of thumb and experience. You can build a brick wall that’ll last centuries even if you don’t know exactly how cement works.

    I think we have a pretty good handle on the broad strokes of moral strategies. Nice, provocable, forgiving, and clear – that seems pretty well established by history.

    Admittedly, humans might change, in a few hundred thousand years, and the optimal strategies might shift then. I’ll get back to you on that in a few hundred thousand years. 🙂

  36. One of the interesting results of game theory is that similar strategies arise for a wide variety of goals and rules, so long as the game isn’t ‘zero-sum’. In general, for a non-zero-sum game, the successful strategies tend to be (a) ‘nice’, that is, don’t go starting fights, (b) ‘provocable’, in that they will nevertheless defend themselves if attacked, but are (c) ‘forgiving’, in that they’ll give opponents a chance to cooperate again, and (d) ‘clear’ in that it’s possible for others to figure out how to cooperate.

    I hadn’t seen that before. It’s quite interesting and it seems to make intuitive sense as well. Also, it reminds me of a story (http://i.imgur.com/dx7sVXj.jpg) that I saw posted on twitter recently. I’m not sure if it is true or not, but if it is, it’s an example of those 4 strategies at work.

    I basically agree with everything you’ve said there. I guess my point was that you can’t objectively state that your goals are the “right” goals. Of course, once you figure out what your goals are, I don’t see why you should change them, because that would automatically be a “bad” move…

  37.