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Humanist morality
Posted: 23 May 2007 10:08 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I recently got into a frustrating argument over at Planet Wisdom, on whether humanist morality is Subjective or Objective.  It was frustrating because they were more interested in proving I was wrong about something, picking apart every single post line by line looking for a contradiction than they were in explaining just what they were getting at.  I never did understand what they were trying to say.

As near as I can get it, they say that humanist morality is Subjective, that it is totally made up in our heads.  They seem to think that since every atheist comes up with a completely random set of ethics (naturally they kept using the example “What if an atheist decides that killing is okay?”), all of it means nothing.  According to them, the only Objective morality is that conceived of by God.  They even claim that atheist philosophers AGREE with them on this, that if there were such a thing as Objective morality, it would prove that God existed.  The problem is (well, one of the problems) that they have a hard time defining Objective.  They tried it one way, and when I pointed out a contradiction involved with that, they said, “We never said we define it that way.  You’re attacking a straw man.”  But of course they never did give me another definition.

I thought I would bring the topic over here in the hope of having a more productive discussion.  Can’t morality be Objective?

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Posted: 23 May 2007 11:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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This is a very complex question. The problem is that there are different systems of “humanist morality”, and different people with different ideas.

The notion that morality comes from god, however, was demolished by Plato in his dialogue the Euthyphro. So that’s a non-starter. Insofar as philosophers agree on anything it would be that.

Now, as to where ethics comes from, that’s what is studied in so-called “meta-ethics”. There are many different opinions about this. However, it does bear repeating that there is a school of philosophers who believe that ethics can be naturalized, that it is objective, that there are objective ethical truths. One can interpret Kantian, Aristotelian, Socratic and Utilitarian ethical schools in that light: these are each different ways to ground ethics in certain sorts of natural properties.

There are other schools of philosophers who believe that ethics is subjective or relative. But one does not have to agree with them to be a humanist.

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Posted: 23 May 2007 11:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m in the camp that believes ethics/morality are subjective and largely relative. That is NOT, however, the same thing as saying that ethics are “random” or arbitrary. Ethical systems are remarkably consistent in many broad principles across cultures because they are based on fundamental features of human nature and objective reality. I think a good argument can be made that there are inherent principles that we all are at least aware of, and most of us would subscribe to, that come from our natural history as a species and that are built in to our cognitive apparatus (Marc Hauser is a good advocate for this position). I also think there are practical considerations having to do with living with other people and depending on other people for our survival that constrain our ethical principles within certain boundaries. But in a given set of circumstances, ethics can be substantially turned upside down and good become evil and evil good, or at least evil become more acceptable (war is a great example). The religious would see this as an example of fallen man straying from the objective moral standards set by God. I see it as an example of the malleability of moral principles and their relativity to circumstances, as well as the inherently “tribal” nature of human ethical standards, which almost always value “us” (howevere defined) more than “them.”

In any case, the subjectivity or relativity of ethics, if you believe in it as I do, doesn’t mean the religious are correct in thinking that non-believers have no ethical standards, or standards that are of necessity opposed to those religion p;romotes. Religion is just one cultural vehicle for the codification and transmission of ethical standards which come, ultimately, from the same source as the standards of the non-religious: namely our biology and natural history and our circumstances.

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Posted: 23 May 2007 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Reading through my last post, I feel I wasn’t very clear, so I’ll try again. I believe morality is not objective in the sense that physical objects or physical laws have an objective existence apart from any association with humans. Morality is simple a set of principles humans apply to their own behavior. We don’t blame the cat for torturing the mouse because the moral implications of the act are only important if the actor is aware of them and has the cognitive capacity to be interested in them. At present, most people believes this only applies to humans, though I think some arguments could be made for some moral awareness among other primates. Anyway, the basic idea is that there is no “objective” morality in the sense that moral principles exist apart from humans and their beliefs and actions.

The problem is that religious people usually extend this concept to the conclusion that in the absence of a morality determined outside of human beliefs and actions (i.e. by God), moral principles and rules for behavior would either not exist or would be entirely arbitrary and unpredictable, and probably completely different from those espoused by religions. As I argued in the previous post, I believe this conclusion is false and does not follow from the premise that morality is determined by human beliefs. The key is to point out that religious ethics actually come from the people themselves and then are packaged as part of the designs of a supernatural creator for the purposes of justifying and transmitting them. This is demonstrated by the similarities of ethical systems among various religions as well as among non-religious groups, by the example of Christians who hold moral values very different from those dictated by their holy text and who must continuously interpet and massage their interpretations of these texts to fit what they already believe and to rationalize what they don’t accept, by the data generated by Hauser and others on the biology of ethical thinking, and probably but other data I am forgetting. Of course, religious people are unlikley to accept this argument, due to the efficacy of the religious “meme” in justifying and transmitting itself. But there are other ways to counter their conclusions about subjective moral values, including all the traditional arguments Kurtz and other humanists and philosophers have long made for rational foundations for ewthical systems. Doug would be much more familiar with, and better at explaining these than I.

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Posted: 23 May 2007 11:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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If you think they will read it, have them read this article:  http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/schick_18_4.html  It’s called:  Is Morality a Matter of Taste?
Why Professional Ethicists Think That Morality Is Not Purely “Subjective”
by Theodore Schick, Jr.

The view that belief makes right is known as “subjectivism” or “relativism.” Despite its popularity, there are probably fewer subjectivists among professional ethicists than there are creationists among professional biologists. Why? Because as ethical theories go, subjectivism is about as bad as they come.

It goes on to discuss ethics, morals, and subjectism.

Oh and you can have them read this one too:  http://www.americanhumanist.org/humanism/morality.html  Called The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics
Without God, how can you be moral?
by Frederick Edwords

If they have any open-minded intelligence, they might learn something.

Oh brother!  rolleyes  You’re going to have right click and tell it to open in a new window or you’ll leave the board.  GRRRR!

[ Edited: 23 May 2007 11:26 PM by Mriana ]
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Posted: 24 May 2007 12:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Mriana,
I have to say, I’m not very impressed by the reasoning of the first article you provided a link to. It ios in many ways a strawman argument, framing subjectivism and cultural relatvism in their most extreme and absurd possible incarnations and then arguing against that. The point is not that any moral judgement by an individual or culture is right, onlhy that the very idea of what is morally right must rest in human judgements, not in some external “objective” reality such as God.

And the also presupposes the truth of his own position, that is the objective nature of morality, throughout. For example, he states that a moral or ethical system cannot be correct if it sanctions immoral actions. He then points out examples of what his value system would label as immoral and argues that since someone could possibly believe that action to be right, while it is “self-evident” that it is wrong, then morality cannot be relative. What nonsense!

Finally, he ultimately concludes by appealing to “self-evident” truth. So now we are to believe that morality must be objective because he believes some things are self-evidently right or wrong? Alltogether a very sloppy bit of argument that does little but ridicule a caricature of what it opposes and then assert it’s own inherent truth as obvious.

While I’m not a fan of extreme cultural relativism, I think many of the arguments against it are crude, as is this one. Opponents of relativism often argue that acknowledging that different cultures have different moral beliefs, and that asserting the superiority of one’s own cultural belief system as obvious is self-interested and not based on reason or evidence but on ethnocentrism, is equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as morality and then positing the end of the world if the idea of relativism were to take hold. They then almost invariably suggest as an alternative a system of making moral judgements that yields as its results the value system they already hold. This is precisely the same flawed argument this thread is about, in which religious believers claim that morality or ethics without God is essentially the absence of morality or ethics and that the world as we know it will crumble if God is not at the center of our ethical systems. As non-believers, I think we can do better than this. But I also think, as a scientific naturalist, that the idea that the universe contains any inherent ethical values is nonsense. The universe is morally indifferent and the very idea of morality is dependant of humans (or other conscious entities) beliefs and judgements. In this sense, morality is subjective. As I argue above, I think there are constraints and shaping factors that yield remarkably similar and consistent moral schemes across time and culture, which is why I’m not a strict cultural relativist, but ultimately something is only moral or immoral because we decide it is so, howevere this decision is made.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 12:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Is the second one of any use to you?

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Posted: 24 May 2007 12:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Is the second one of any use to you?

Much better! :grin: A much more cogent explanation than mine of what I was trying to say in my first two posts. Thanks!

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Posted: 24 May 2007 01:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Oh good.  smile  I’m glad one of them was helpful.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 02:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I believe ethics are absolute (objective) in a relative sense.  For the moment let’s consider behavior rather than ethics. 

Solitary animals from protozoa up can behave with complete freedom only limited by their capabilities, environment, and other competing organisms.  For a society to function there are some limitations:  Individuals must avoid harming other members of the society, and each must contribute to the welfare of the society. 

Consider a single human on a desert island.  S/he doesn’t have to impose any limits on his/her behavior.  If another human shows up, they can choose one of three modes of behavior.  First, they can ignore each other, second they can compete, and third they can cooperate.

If they ignore each other they revert to the solitary condition. 

If they compete and are equal, each spends much energy doing that, so they accomplish less than they could otherwise.  If one kills the other, the situation reverts to the single human.  If one subjugates the other, the second becomes a resource and the situation again reverts to the single human.

If they cooperate, that is, become a society, each is limited by social behavior; they must work together for their mutual benefit, and they must avoid harming each other.  As the society becomes more complex, the same social behavior still applies.  However, millennia of philosophers have developed a myriad of complex descriptions and explanations for this behavior.  The name they gave this field and this behavior was “ethics”.

Of course, some societies or sub-societies can give some members lower status, e.g., women, lower economic class citizens, certain religious or ethnic groups, slaves, those with more melanin in their skin, etc.  These individuals get less of the benefits and can suffer harm from the higher status citizens.  While this is generally considered a variety of (or “subjective”) ethics, I believe that it is merely a sign of a society that is being damaged. 

I know that Doug will find this explanation simplistic, however, it seems to me to be the basis for ethics.  As such, as I said, I believe ethics are absolute (objective) in a relative sense.  :smile: {and screw the smileys}

Occam

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Posted: 24 May 2007 09:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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The social and cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks with Henry Finder about the five foundations of morality, and why liberals often fail to get their message across. Watch it here. Interesting.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 10:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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If humidity is what makes people liberal, why aren’t more people liberal in Missouri?  (Nah, he made a joke about humidity making people liberal.)  I guess I’ve always had the two foundation morality deal.  It’s the first two things I think about when something is wrong.  “Who’s hurt?  Who was treated wrong?”  However, I disagree with what he says about religious people being happier.  I was never happy when I attended my grandmother’s church as a child, my great uncle’s, or even the Lutheran church as a teenager with my mother.  Attending the Episcopal church I had more depression than I do now.  Actually, I haven’t suffered from depression since I gave it all up.  So, I really think he needs to say there are exceptions to the rule.

As for dropping things and following Mother T., I’d sooner be leery of her.  I don’t know why, but until I get to know a minister of any sort, I’m leery of them.  Must of been the things my great uncle did as a minister. I don’t know.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 11:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Occam,

I wonder if maybe we aren’t using “objective” and “absolute” differently. What you outline is roughly the same as the second article Mriana linked to, and I think it makes a lot of sense. But I think what advocatus’ opponents, and most religious people, mean by “objective” is “not derived from humans.” Clearly in your scheme, ethics and morality only exists as part of the interactions of humans, so they aren’t outside of us in any meaningful way. And, as far as absolute, I take it to mean there is only one right answer to any moral question. You seem to be mean by absolute that there are necessary limitations to our behavior imposed by our need to live together successfully. I agree completely with this, which is why I think the religious fears about atheists making virtues out of murder and so on are nonsense. But I don’t think this means morality is absolute in the sense that right is right no matter what anyone thinks. Morality is constrained by our social circumstances and our biology, but right and wrong are still relative in most details, even if the general outline is fixed by what is necessary for us to live together successfully.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Yes, basically that is what I’m saying.  If you have any feelings for anything you would not want to kill, except maybe in order to eat, but you could in no way kill your own to eat.  I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 11:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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mckenzievmd - 24 May 2007 11:02 AM

... But I think what advocatus’ opponents, and most religious people, mean by “objective” is “not derived from humans.” Clearly in your scheme, ethics and morality only exists as part of the interactions of humans, so they aren’t outside of us in any meaningful way. And, as far as absolute, I take it to mean there is only one right answer to any moral question. ...

Well, I take it that a question has an “objective” answer if there is some independent source of information that isn’t simply opinion. In the case of morality, many (all?) objective and non-theological sorts of morality do base their moral judgments on what it is to be human—or at least sentient—in some sense. E.g., Kantian ethics bases such judgments on the very concept of a person (as something that should be an end in itself, and not a means to an end). Utilitarianism bases such judgments on pain and pleasure maximization. Aristotelian ethics bases such judgments on human—or sentient—virtues like courage, wisdom, etc.

Now, we all have opinions about these things, but there is at least the hope—by the objectivist about ethics—that we can come to some view about such things (the concept of personhood, pain and pleasure, courageous virtue, etc.) that goes beyond mere opinion and looks to something in the world to answer these questions. What could that thing be? Presumably at some level we will have to look to scientific results. Certainly in the case of utilitarian ethics we can see something of a clear road to understanding what pain and pleasure amount to, and how they can be maximized.

But I don’t think we have to claim, as objectivists about any subject, that “there is only one right answer to any question” about that subject. To take one uncontroversial case, I am an objectivist about planets. Planets really exist. But is there really always a right answer as to whether something is a planet or not? No. There are vague, in-between cases. The same is true of any subject matter, and an objectivist about ethics need not claim that ethics is any different. There are always difficult cases in which two well-meaning observers may come to different conclusions.

All an objectivist needs to assert is that some cases are not vague. So, to be clear, an objectivist does not need to claim that “there is only one right answer to any moral question”. All he needs to assert is that “there is only one right answer to some moral questions.” That is a small but very crucial distinction.

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Posted: 24 May 2007 12:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Doug,

I guess part of the problem I have with objectivism, as you define it, is that the “outside” bases for morality, what you would call “independant” or “in the world,” still seem to be, to some extent, post-hoc justifications for values already established as crucial in the opinion of the person establishing the system. So Kant values individual human beings and then creates an “objective” standard that says they must never be seen as means but only as ends in themselves; Mill values pleasure and condemns suffering, as perceievde by the individual, and then establishes a standard of maximaizing the sum of one and minmizing the sum of the other; the religious person values whatever it is they value, and then they say God is out there and that’s where the values come from. I don’t see how any system of values can originate outside of opinion, so in some sense it is subjective. Now, I do think once a basic principle for ethics is established, you can make it consistent, as opposed to objective, by using it as a foundation for a general rule structure to apply to particular moral questions. But the foundation of morality comes from what someone values, and that is inherently subjective.

Now, what I am arguing is that rather than locating the source of moral values “outside” of human feelings or opinions, we should acknowledge that morality is founded on our needs and desires, our evolved cognitive apparatus, the requirements of sociality, and other such factors that shape our moral reasoning. While this is inherently subjective and relative, in need not be inconsistent or whimsical, and it is likely to be the norm that people and cultures share many basic ethical principles because we share these foundations for ethics. Then it is a matter of creating a rule structure that applies general ethical principles to particular situations. However, there will always be ethical outliers, as there are biological outliers, so some individuals will not conform to the larger society’s agreed-upon ethics. I don’t believe that subjectivism or relativism requires we consider these outliers’ ethics to be acceptable or just as good as the larger cutlure’s values, as opponents of subjectivism and relativism sometimes presume. There are good reasons to establish codes of ethics that “work” to facilitate fulfilling the values most people agree on and then coercing the outliers to adhere to them. However, a cautious degree of relativism prevents us from going to the extreme of assuming a priori that we have the perfect system of ethics that is completely objective and that any dissent on any specific point is automatically wrong and unacceptable. Justifying ethics on outside absolutes, like religion does, almost requires one to have this exaggerated sense of absolute certainty, and that’s why I’m not ready to throw out relativism completely despite its real, and imagined, excesses, and why I’m comfortable saying that morality is somewhat relative and contingent and subject to change as cultures and values change, just as scientific truth is somewhat uncertain and subject to revision as justified by new ideas and data.

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