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Austin Dacey - Moral Values After Darwin
Posted: 09 May 2008 08:04 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Austin Dacey serves as a respresentative to the United Nations for CFI, and is also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times and USA Today. His new book is The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Austin Dacey argues for the objectivity of morality from a nonreligious perspective. Maintaining that the conscience is prior to and independent of God and religion, he advocates an “ethics from below” that steers a middle course between an empirical “science of good and evil” and a transcendental religious ethic. While sharply criticizing what he sees as simplistic and misleading applications of evolutionary science to moral matters, Dacey defends a naturalistic understanding of the right and good. He explains the advantages of consequentialist moral theories that seek to promote individual well-being, and returns to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty to show that the belief in objective values is perfectly compatible with the social philosophy of secular liberalism. Dacey also responds to Chris Hedges’ assertions that secularists do not grasp the nature of evil and that the Enlightenment notion of moral progress is a myth.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org

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Posted: 10 May 2008 05:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Thomas Donnelly - 09 May 2008 08:04 PM

His new book is The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.

First Chapter of the book is on-line at richarddawkins.net:

http://richarddawkins.net/firstChapter,40

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Posted: 10 May 2008 06:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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[ Edited: 30 July 2008 06:41 PM by jholt ]
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Posted: 12 May 2008 10:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I just want to emphasize one point that was briefly touched upon by Dacey: Just because science and reason cannot offer an unshakable foundation of morality, doesn’t mean that religion can. Even if there was a God, it would not automatically follow that we should obey his will. Any system of ethics deserving of being called such must also be applicable to God himself. To an atheist such as myself it is not difficult to think of something which even God would not have the right to do. In fact, if you measure evil by the amount of actual harm or suffering caused to others, then nobody has more evil to answer for than the biblical God himself (or would have if he existed).

[ Edited: 17 May 2008 07:24 AM by Hume's Razor ]
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Posted: 13 May 2008 05:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I enjoyed listening to Dacey talk, whether it is at Beyond Belief 2, at CFI activities, or in these podcasts. I haven’t read his book yet, but it is in the queue and I should get to it soon. I am definitely a fan.

I didn’t care for one of his contentions. He claimed that the fact that we debate morality and we don’t debate whether we like one flavor more than another is evidence that morality isn’t just based on our feelings. The problem is that people debate preferences all the time. People argue about who makes a better burger, McDonald’s or Burger King, and they sometimes debate is passionately. They debate whether movies are good and often seem convinced that their personal likes and dislikes are somehow something more and applicable for all humanity.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 08:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I have to say I found Dacey’s argument generally unconvincing. He seems to be saying that our moral knowledge lies in this “conscience,” which I think is nothing more than intuition or gut feeling. This is informed by our biology and culture and ontogeny, and then it is elaborated and rationalized with reason. So far, I agree. But then he twists like a cat in midair and argues that the resultant moral knowledge is objective and evidence that there are real moral answers independant of our feelings or beliefs about things. Huh?

His logic sometimes seems bizarre. For example, he argues that the fact that we disagree about our moral intuitions not only doesn’t show them to be subjective, it actually proves they are objective because if they were just differences in our bleiefs, like differences in esthetic tastes, we wouldn’t disagree about them. That makes no sense! We disagre and fight about moral understandings because we make the mistake, as he does, of believing our iuntuitions are accurate representations of a real, objective moral world and so everyone else’s intuitions must be truly, objectively wrong and inferior to our. The disagreement stems from the difference in opinion, which is inherently subjective, and the need to project our subjective intuitions onto the real world.

He also relies on false analogies to senses such as vision. We evolved a visual sense to represent the real world in functional, if not always strictly accurate, ways. So, he says,  our moral instincts must also represent some real external moral domain. Why? He’s already acknowledged that morality is not like physics where there are objective particles to be weighed and measured, so why should our moral sense be like our sense of vision in that it evolved to represent a real moral domain? He doesn’t seem to me to substantively challenge the argument that our moral sense evolved for the exigencies of scocial living and as such carries a set of assumptions and intuitions appropriate for the selective factors that contributed to its development.

I think conscience and intuition are useful guides to moral reasoning, just as they are useful guides to Newtonian laws of motion. We’ve evolved a set of quick and efficient behavioral algorithms for dealing with moving objnects, for establishing causal relationships, and for controlling our own behavior in ways that facilitate the social living that is ultimately more adaptive than the alternatives. But, our Newtonian instincts fail at the quantum level, our mechanisms for establishng causality fail in ways that lead to superstition and irrational decision making, and our moral sense or instintcs are also fallible. So are we better off recognizing the ultimately subjectivity and evolutionary constitution of this conscience and using it as a rough and provisional guide, or should we project it outward as a true representation of an objective, even absolute right or wrong? As long as we are pragmatic enough not to slide into nihilism or extreme postmodernism, I still think recognizing the relative and subjective nature of our moral knowledge is the more accurate and safer way to go.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 10:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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mckenzievmd - 14 May 2008 08:50 AM

I have to say I found Dacey’s argument generally unconvincing. He seems to be saying that our moral knowledge lies in this “conscience,” which I think is nothing more than intuition or gut feeling. This is informed by our biology and culture and ontogeny, and then it is elaborated and rationalized with reason. So far, I agree. But then he twists like a cat in midair and argues that the resultant moral knowledge is objective and evidence that there are real moral answers independant of our feelings or beliefs about things. Huh?

Well, “objective” is a strong word here, and since it directly contrasts with “subjective” it looks like an all or nothing affair—if morality isn’t subjective than it’s got to be objective, or vice versa.  I think that there is a lot of middle-ground and that that is where the moral territory lies.  So, I agree, Dacey’s wrong to call morality “objective.”  But…

Morality is not objective, but it’s not subjective either.  A good analogy, I think, is to compare the moral domain to how decisions are made in a court of law.  In a court case reasons are offered for and against some claim or claimant and then weighed and deliberated by a judge or jury.  This is a form of practical reason.  We wouldn’t call such proceedings “subjective” just because the final decision is man-made; but nor do we call them “objective.”  Instead we call them “just” or “unjust.”  And, just as we have a sense of justice—like most of us probably think the O.J. acquittal was unjust—so too we have a sense of morality.  Moreover, this court analogy also seems to make a strong case for why, as Dacey suggests, conscience should be “open.”

Of course in real life we usually don’t have the time to carry on a long debate (like a trial) about the right thing to do.  That’s where conscience comes in.  We can use it, oftentimes, to just see the right thing to do.  And, we can perfect our conscience—our moral sense, if you will—over time and through habit (hence upbringing is vitally important).  This is a central view of Virtue Ethics.  And I think it is a more appropriate way to think about ethics than consequentialism.

So, as far as Dacey’s claim that consequentialism can be some sort of all-encompassing moral theory…I don’t agree.  Consequences are important, no doubt, but they are not the only thing that is important.  And not only that, but just like the failure in the comparison to a court battle, we usually don’t have time to figure out all the consequences—to do the cost-benefit analysis—in a given situation.  Furthermore, with consequentialism, conscience isn’t really all that important at all.  What is important, from the consequentialist perspective, is not what motivates people, rather what’s important, on such a view, is what happens, the results, the consequences.  Who cares why he saved the drowning kid (fame, hope of reward, etc.), what matters is that he did it, right?  Here conscience is largely irrelevant; so I don’t see how consequentialism fits in with Dacey’s larger points.

I think that Shermer’s (weak) defense of free-market capitalism is similarly consequentialist: Greed is good (he seems to be saying), so long as—if by an invisible hand—all people’s well-being is enhanced.  Well, I don’t believe in “invisible hands.”  I think that intelligent direction is the only way our society can have any direction at all.  It is in this regard that I don’t see Shermer’s argument as scientifically based (it seems ideological to me).  Of course in an intelligently directed society there can be a largely free-market and tons of freedom, but sometimes sacrifices and compromises need to be made.  And, here too that process needs to be open.

[ Edited: 14 May 2008 10:45 AM by Pragmatic Naturalist ]
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Posted: 14 May 2008 10:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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PN,

If morality isn’t objective or subjective, what is it? I think “just” and “unjust” is just another way of saying right/wrong, good bad, so we’ve just given another set of labels to our subjective intuition. And while the standards of ethics that we codify into laws and courtroom procedures have taken our inuition and cultural perspective and elaborated and rationlized them with reason as well as distancing them from individual whim, which makes them superior (more consistent and rational) to simple and instantaneous individual moral judgements, they are still based on the same factors (biology, culture, and the ontogeny of the individuals participating in the process) as any other moral reasoning, and they still change with time and the cultural zeitgeist. I think such a system is necessary, but I don’t think it changes the underlying subjectivity or relativity of moral values.

The questions are what is conscience, whence to its judgements come, and how should we view and employ them? I think conscience is useful as a quick and dirty method where lengthy reason-based processes are impractical and to keep a check on such processes diverging too much from the ultimately subjective goals we establish them to serve, but I don’t think it is some sort of infallible guide or a window into an objective world of moral truths independant of all the factors that condition our values (biology, culture, and ontogeny).

As for consequences, I think they’re worth considering. If the death penalty prevents murder, it might be mor morally justifiable than if its only purpose is to serve our sense of vengeance. But I don’t think strictly basing moral reasoning on outcomes only is workable since it is dependant on what outcomes we desire, and this itself requires moral reasoning.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 12:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I find Austin Dacey’s justification for the objectivity of morality less than compelling.  In arguing that a person’s moral position is more than a preference simply because that person views it as applicable to people other than himself, he begins to sound a lot like Christian moralists like C.S. Lewis.  Consider the following passage from Lewis’s Mere Christianity:

“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other.  You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.”

I didn’t find this argument compelling from Lewis, and I don’t find it any more compelling from Dacey.  Just because a person chooses to view his moral viewpoint as superior to that of his adversary - perhaps in order to make sense of the world around him or to provide him with the comfort of unseeing strangers in agreement - does not therefore serve as evidence that there really is a higher standard to which one can appeal.  I still don’t buy it.

[ Edited: 14 May 2008 12:48 PM by zevonsky72 ]
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Posted: 14 May 2008 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I tend to agree wholeheartedly with mckenzievmd here.  Dacey’s appeal to “conscience” is no better than a Christian ‘s appeal to “God.”  The only difference being that while an atheist attributes his conscience to an “inner voice,” a theist attributes it to an “outer voice.”  Both say nothing of what is really going on.  If we are to develop a mature scientific understanding of morality we probably have a better chance of getting anywhere if we look at genetic predispositions, cultural influences, and rational thought.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 02:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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baffledking - 14 May 2008 02:40 PM

Dacey’s appeal to “conscience” is no better than a Christian ‘s appeal to “God.”

Paul Kurtz seems to treat conscience similarly. An idea I find rather naive.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 04:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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mckenzievmd - 14 May 2008 10:47 AM

If morality isn’t objective or subjective, what is it? I think “just” and “unjust” is just another way of saying right/wrong, good bad, so we’ve just given another set of labels to our subjective intuition. And while the standards of ethics that we codify into laws and courtroom procedures have taken our inuition and cultural perspective and elaborated and rationlized them with reason as well as distancing them from individual whim, which makes them superior (more consistent and rational) to simple and instantaneous individual moral judgements, they are still based on the same factors (biology, culture, and the ontogeny of the individuals participating in the process) as any other moral reasoning, and they still change with time and the cultural zeitgeist. I think such a system is necessary, but I don’t think it changes the underlying subjectivity or relativity of moral values. 

Q: “If morality isn’t objective or subjective, what is it?”

A: It is morality.

One could say that it is “intersubjective” if one really needs a label, but then that looks like it’s tantamount to a form of cultural relativism, which has too many flaws to enumerate.  But then again, there would be no need for morality if there were no other people around (perhaps environmental and animal concerns would count?).  So it is indeed a social phenomenon.  But—and here’s the key point—not all social phenomena are subjective (in the ordinary sense of the word).  Essentially, our environment (where we make our living) is social, and individually we have a part to play in shaping it; but for all that, it is not subjective.  Is language subjective?  Can I use words to mean whatever I want them to?  There are many, many social phenomena that we would not dream of calling “subjective.”  What are economic decisions and claims, for example?  Are they “objective” or “subjective”?  I don’t see why you would want to pin one of these two labels on that?  Is one economic policy better than another?  Or is feudalism just as good as capitalism or socialism? 

Why not? 

The answer, I would aver, is because our understanding of these policies is grounded in experience and grasped by a reason that is practical and social.  The same thing holds true for morality.

In addition, I think Dacey is right to make the point that, adding a god to the picture does not change the status of morality one bit.  Socrates’ Euthyphro dilemma proves this point.  There is a false link drawn between religion and morality.  Perhaps many atheists recoil from the tyrannical absolutism of most religions and go to the opposite extreme, that there are no real standards at all.  That’s the sort of impression I got from the post about C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis: “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other.  You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.”

Lewis is wrong about god but right about moral standards.  Of course there is not one absulute standard (his wording wrongly insinuates the false either/or dichotomy), but its not anything goes either.  And, interestingly, if Lewis is correct, then what is “Right” is independent of what god thinks too.  Again, see the Euthyphro Dilemma on that one.

My point boils down to this: it is simply a mistake to think that there cannot be serious standards of morality (I will not call them “objective”) in the absence of God.  That is a misconception that has been foisted upon some of us by religious pushers.  I’ve heard it said a million times: “without god, anything goes—there would be chaos.”  That is BS.  But if you buy into it, and you deny gods, then you are led to believe that morality is purely subjective or relative.  But then Hitler and Martin Luther King are on a moral par—there are no non-subjective standards.  Slavery is morally just as good as freedom; they’re just different, right?

[ Edited: 14 May 2008 05:00 PM by Pragmatic Naturalist ]
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Posted: 14 May 2008 05:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I certainly agree thewre can be moral standards without God, I just think that they are pragmatic guidlines hammered out with our reason but motivated by desires that are constructed from our biology our culture, and our personal experience. If you don’t want to call this eeither objective or subjective, that’s fine, but I think you’re trying to sidestep the issues raised by these labels and claim they don’t exist. The strawman of nihilism raised by those who favor moral absolutism or realism is, as you say, not the only alternative to god-based morality. But moral absolutism or realism is juts as problematic with a secular foundation, and moral relativism is not necessarily the strawman of nihilism or extreme postmodernism that moral realists, secular and religious, hold up as the alternative to their position.

There are many, many social phenomena that we would not dream of calling “subjective.”

And there are many we would call subjective. Art, sartorial tastes, culinary tastes, the relative importance of and rules governing familial and other social relationships. All of these involve subjective judgements, and being shared or negotiated by a group of people doesn’t make them any more objective in their origins, though of course it makes them easier to study empirically than the beliefs of individuals. I would argue there is much subjectivity in economics, for example. Whether one prefers capitalism or feudalism does depend, to some extent, on one’s world view. A cultural viewpoint that sees the maintainance of a strict temporal social hierarchy that reflects an imagined celestial hierarchy ordained by God might find capitalism an abomination regardless of our feelings about its superiority in meeting the needs of individuals. Relatively collectivist vs individualist cultures do have differences in their feelings about economic systems. And, of course, if you’re doing especially well under one system, you’re likely to believe that superior to other systems on subjective grounds, which you can then rationalize to your heart’s content. You still seem to feel that you cannot acknowledge individual or cultural relativity without giving up the right to make judgements. Balderdash! One makes judgements because they are necessary in morality just as in science. And just as in science, one acknowledges the provisional truth of one’s conclusions and the possibility of changes in data leading to their rejection. If moral knowledge is external to human beliefs and desires in some way, than it is objectively true, not provisionally true (except epistemelogically). But if morality is fundamentally a fuinction of biology, culture, and individual experience, then it can only ever be provisionally true, and I think more good than harm comes from acknowledging this.

My point is that we debate the degree to which morality is subjective or objective because although these are simplifications with grey areas, they raise important issues about where moral beliefs come from, how they can or should be justified, how aggressively one should be willing to impose them on others based, and so on. Feeling that something “is just right” leads to a very different set of behaviors and attitudes than feeling that something is “provisionally optimal under current circumstances and prevailing values.” We can debate whcih is better, but you can’t just define away the distinction or say that because morality is a social phenomenon this makes specific moral values any less relative or subjective.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 06:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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One makes judgements because they are necessary in morality just as in science. And just as in science, one acknowledges the provisional truth of one’s conclusions and the possibility of changes in data leading to their rejection. If moral knowledge is external to human beliefs and desires in some way, than it is objectively true, not provisionally true (except epistemelogically). But if morality is fundamentally a fuinction of biology, culture, and individual experience, then it can only ever be provisionally true, and I think more good than harm comes from acknowledging this.

My point is that we debate the degree to which morality is subjective or objective because although these are simplifications with grey areas, they raise important issues about where moral beliefs come from, how they can or should be justified, how aggressively one should be willing to impose them on others based, and so on. Feeling that something “is just right” leads to a very different set of behaviors and attitudes than feeling that something is “provisionally optimal under current circumstances and prevailing values.” We can debate whcih is better, but you can’t just define away the distinction or say that because morality is a social phenomenon this makes specific moral values any less relative or subjective.

Exactly.  Until we admit that right actions and wrong actions depend on the circumstances within which they are taken, we are just running around in circles playing pin the tail on the donkey when there is no donkey to begin with.

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Posted: 14 May 2008 06:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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baffledking - 14 May 2008 06:05 PM

  Until we admit that right actions and wrong actions depend on the circumstances within which they are taken, we are just running around in circles playing pin the tail on the donkey when there is no donkey to begin with.

I would pretty much agree with that.  But, I simply refuse to conclude that, because circumstances are indeed morally relevant, it follows that morality is “subjective.”  On the other hand, I wouldn’t go as far as Dacey and call morality “objective” either.  There is no use for such labels here, they only serve to make enemies where there are none.  I think the whole objective-subjective thing is a false dichotomy.

mckenzievmd - 14 May 2008 05:14 PM

Feeling that something “is just right” leads to a very different set of behaviors and attitudes than feeling that something is “provisionally optimal under current circumstances and prevailing values.” We can debate whcih is better, but you can’t just define away the distinction or say that because morality is a social phenomenon this makes specific moral values any less relative or subjective.

You’ve mentioned—twice now, I think—that acknowledging this [i.e., that morality is subjective] is somehow a good thing.  I’ll be waiting for reasons why.  Keep in mind I cannot be grouped with the fundamentalists who believe in timeless absolutes.  But what is wrong with acknowledging some minimal, and perhaps defeasible, moral standards—like it’s wrong to torture babies for fun?

[ Edited: 14 May 2008 06:46 PM by Pragmatic Naturalist ]
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Posted: 14 May 2008 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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You’ve mentioned—twice now, I think—that acknowledging this [i.e., that morality is subjective] is somehow a good thing.  I’ll be waiting for reasons why.  Keep in mind I cannot be grouped with the fundamentalists who believe in timeless absolutes.  But what is wrong with acknowledging some minimal, and perhaps defeasible, moral standards—like it’s wrong to torture babies for fun?

I think there is nothing wrong with acknowledging and defending, even promoting moral standards. You’re no fundamentalist and I’m no pomo academic. However, I think the problem of excessive moral certainty is far more prevalent and pressing than the problem of nihilism. More harm, IMHO, has been done in the name of such certainty, and the belief that our beliefs are validated by something objective and external, than by the notion that our beliefs are conditioned by biology and circumstances and may very well be wrong. If we’re talking about slippery slopes, I think the one from realism/objectivism to absolutism is a lot easier to slide down than the one from provisionalism/relativism to nihilism. So on a pragmatic level, I think encouraging less moral certainty right now is a good thing. I certainly acknowledge that as circumstances change, the opposite could come to be true, of course.

Additionally, as a scientist and a philosophical naturalist, I think our understandings are superior and more useful if based on truth. And I am convinced, for now, that the truth of moral reasoning is that it is dependant on the factors I keep referring to. Knowing this, and understanding how it works and what influence it has on setting limits and patterns for our moral reasoning, gives us a better understanding of morality and how it works than trying to locate moral truth somewhere external and claim our intuitions and beliefs have some external objective existence. Just as we are more likely to critically evaluate our own perceptions when we understand how inaccurate they can be, and thus be safer from superstition and faulty causal reasoning, so we are more likely to critically evaluate our moral beliefs and hesitate to impose them on others if we recognize how they arise and how they are conditioned. Now, I don’t critically evaluate my eprceptions in the heat of a crisis, and there are times when we have to accept and act on our perceptions and intuitions even though we know they are flawed. I don’t advocate analysis to paralysis. But when it is possible to consider our own beliefs in a critical and skeptical way, I think it benefits us to do so, and I think recognizing the relative and subjective nature of them is part of this critical reflection.

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