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Mar 05 2014

Guest post on Humans, gods, and morality

Originally a comment by Marcus Ranum on Separating god from morality.

Morality is such a human concept, it’s hard to see how it would apply to a god, anyway. What does “fairness” mean to a god? Or “honesty”? Can you “steal” from a god? Could a human and a god have a meaningful conversation about morality, especially given the vast power-differential between us?

Epicurus touched on this in one of his sayings:

A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.

By the same token, I think the idea of a god loving a human (or all humans) makes about as much sense as loving your intestinal flora. Suppose I had moral expectations of my intestinal flora. What would those expectations look like, perhaps? And how could I communicate them to my intestinal flora in such a way as to transfer the moral burden of compliance to those bacteria? Let us imagine that I have a dictate I wish to make to my intestinal flora, namely that they not produce too much methane. Because, I their god, am an angry god when I fart in elevators. So, um, see the problem? I can hardly blame my intestinal flora for making methane when, after all, that’s how they work. And I didn’t really tell them “no hydrogen, either” but mostly the problem is that they are not equipped to understand the will of god so they can’t be blamed for just doing what bacteria do. Socrates let Euthyphro off lightly, really.

Atheism is a statement about morality because it discards the “sky hook” that there is a divine moral expectation or some kind of external moral code. Atheism forces us to define “morality” in terms of purely human concepts, which is why we get mired down in moral nihilism: we can’t(*) Belief in a god is often used to sweep the whole question under the carpet.

(* DIsclaimer, I am a moral nihilist, in that I am unconvinced that objective moral frameworks – other than self-referential/tautological definitions like Richard Carrier attempts – are possible or even desirable)

31 comments

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  1. 1
    brianpansky

    i do not understand your criticism of what carrier said here(the section titled “breaking it down into easier to follow units” is the part to read):

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4498

    but parhaps some confusion is that you don’t quite get the definition. here is how i would rephrase the definition:

    moral imperatives are any imperatives which are more imperative than all other imperatives.

    now i hope you can see that we can indeed judge whether something fits the definition, and it meaningful. in particular, it would take priority over any other definition of morality someone could come up with. i hope that helps you understand.

  2. 2
    Andrew B.

    “By the same token, I think the idea of a god loving a human (or all humans) makes about as much sense as loving your intestinal flora.”

    That and the reverse: God has human enemies. Isn’t that the silliest thing you can imagine? It’s like a human declaring amoeba to be your immortal enemies. “I have a blood-feud with amoebas…plankton, too.”

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    moral imperatives are any imperatives which are more imperative than all other imperatives.

    Don’t you see how self-referential that is? Hint: What does “imperative” mean or imply?

  4. 4
    machintelligence

    Do you expect your intestinal flora to worship you? Whatever for?

  5. 5
    brianpansky

    @3
    Marcus Ranum

    Don’t you see how self-referential that is? Hint: What does “imperative” mean or imply?

    imperative means something you should do (eh, google just tells me it’s something important). sure, carrier himself claims this is tautology.

    now again, i don’t understand your criticism. halp.

    do you disagree there are such things as imperatives? but he points out that there are.

  6. 6
    Menyambal

    It’s like when God told Adam and Eve to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They literally had no concept of right or wrong, so they couldn’t know that disobedience was bad. “If we eat of that tree, will that be Good, or will that be Evil?” “Look! A bunny!”

  7. 7
    brianpansky

    @Marcus Ranum

    just to be claer about what is happening in carrier’s article:

    in order to show that his conclusion is not supported, you have to show how one of his points is *untrue*, or else show how conclusions do not follow from the premises.

    your criticism doesn’t seem to be doing either of these.

  8. 8
    Marcus Ranum

    imperative means something you should do (eh, google just tells me it’s something important). sure, carrier himself claims this is tautology.

    Right – that’s the “ought” part of the equation. It’s something you ought to do, but – why? Because you ought.

    As Carrier points out, that’s a tautology (a very small circle of circular reasoning) and it’s true because all tautologies are true by definition. But they don’t actually add anything useful to the argument: in this case they are the things we should do because we should do them. Uh. Why should we do them? Because we should do them! Why? Because we should! Do you find that acceptable reasoning? Can you build a moral system on top of that? How?

    Adding that “moral” imperatives are the ones that are more imperative doesn’t help, because now you’re expected to be able to somehow tell which of the things you should do you really shouldiddy should do. And how are we supposed to do that? Carrier claims that this amounts to an objective moral truth, but really what you have is a piece of circular reasoning (the tautological part) added to the presupposition that people somehow are able to tell which of many “imperatives” is the more imperative one. Well, if you could do that, you’ve got a moral system, all right – but it’s uniquely based on your interpretation of the many “imperatives” that confront you.

    When people ask about an “objective morality” what they are asking for is a shared understanding of what is right and wrong. It has to be shared otherwise it may as well be pure fiat; what I’d call having “an opinion about right and wrong.” E.g.: I opine it is worse to kill people than to torture them; someone else might not agree with me – it is a matter of opinion. When we seek an “objective morality” we seek a shared means of reasoning that will allow us to consistently conclude which option is right, and which is wrong. Of course the moral nihilist observes that doesn’t appear to be how things actually work, and that people behave as though their morality was simply their opinion (based on experience, situation, culture, education, and what they had for lunch) objective moral truths appear to be absent.

    What Carrier appears to be arguing is that “Of course we have objective morality; you can measure it and therefore it’s objective. And it can be called ‘morality’ therefore it’s objective morality.” Ah, yes, but is that what we asked about? I think we can probably agree that everyone has a lot of opinions about what is right and what is wrong, and could go on all day about them — but if you imagine a large enough questionnaire containing detailed problems asking the subject to say what was write and wrong – nobody’d agree about everything all the time. Because morality is a matter of opinion, not fact. Carrier plays a WLC-esque bit of sleight of hand amounting to saying “it’s a fact that people have opinions about morals, therefore objective morality!”

    do you disagree there are such things as imperatives? but he points out that there are

    I would say there are things we’d have opinions about whether or not they are imperative, and those opinions would differ between us. I could construct what I call a “moral system” based on my own ordering of imperatives but eventually it would be different from yours.

    Here’s a simple example: a capitalist investment banker’s #1 imperative is to make assloads of money, in order to ensure the safety and comfort of their self and family and offspring. The capitalist assesses their #2 imperative as “being a nice guy” – so the imperative is to shut down that factory and throw its workers into poverty because their #1 imperative says they should. Meanwhile, one of the workers who just lost their job’s #1 imperative is at odds with the capitalist’s. Of course, some might say that the capitalist has mis-ordered imperatives but that is a matter of opinion unless we introduce a way of ordering imperatives that everyone is going to agree upon. If we could do that, then we have a moral system and we don’t need to talk about “imperatives” at all, we can just use that ranking system as our moral system…. Um… Where is that ranking system? It’s in the realm of opinion.

  9. 9
    brianpansky

    @8
    Marcus Ranum

    Right – that’s the “ought” part of the equation. It’s something you ought to do, but – why? Because you ought….Why should we do them? Because we should do them! Why? Because we should!

    no.

    i was describing point #2 for you, the definition of morality. if nothing fits that definition (if nothing actually is imperative) then it is true that there is no true morality.

    perhaps hypothetical imperatives (his point #3) are what you are looking for here. other than that, you may simply be operating on nonsense word definitions, resulting in a word salad.

    Here’s a simple example: a capitalist investment banker’s #1 imperative is to make assloads of money, in order to ensure the safety and comfort of their self and family and offspring. The capitalist assesses their #2 imperative as “being a nice guy” – so the imperative is to shut down that factory and throw its workers into poverty because their #1 imperative says they should. Meanwhile, one of the workers who just lost their job’s #1 imperative is at odds with the capitalist’s. Of course, some might say that the capitalist has mis-ordered imperatives but that is a matter of opinion unless we introduce a way of ordering imperatives that everyone is going to agree upon. If we could do that, then we have a moral system and we don’t need to talk about “imperatives” at all, we can just use that ranking system as our moral system…. Um… Where is that ranking system? It’s in the realm of opinion.

    have you even read carrier’s article?

    he doesn’t say that everyone must agree on it.

    he doesn’t even say that all reasonable people who accept his morality science will have the same imperatives, so it does not matter that your example includes different people with conflicting imperatives.

    you are arguing against something other than carrier’s position.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    1. Moral truth must be based on the truth.

    Truth is true. OK. Fact is fact. Opinion is opinion. Be careful, lest you mistake your opinions for facts.
    What Carrier argues here is correct; if you are in possession of a moral fact, then it is, indeed, factual.

    2. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.

    Here’s where Carrier veers off the real world and into the weeds. He argues:
    So I will have something even more imperative than yours, and if mine is factually true (it really is that which you ought to do above all else), yours cannot be

    That assumes that somehow one of us is in possession of a moral fact, while the other is not; in Carrier’s scenario one of us is of the opinion that we have a moral fact, but the other comes along and trumps it with their real moral fact. Uh, how does that happen? Has anyone ever seen that happen in real life? I mean, if we have a trivial case, like we’re arguing about whether to shoot a kitten for fun, then I suppose Richard could come along with his all-trumping moral fact that shooting kittens is wrong.* But we see over and over again in real scenario after real scenario that someone asserts that X is right and someone else asserts that, no, Y is right and there is no way to decide because it’s not always obvious.

    Yes, if Richard’s moral position if factually true and mine isn’t then we can have the kind of discussion he seems to think takes place. But it’s an edge-case, like kitten shooting or pushing old ladies in front of buses. There are edge-cases the other way, which look closer and closer to toss-ups and matters of opinion. That is why we still argue about these things!

    Carrier continues:
    so if any of those happen to be more imperative than all other factually ascertainable imperatives

    This is presuppositionalism of the type that (ought to) embarrass William Lane Craig. What is an “imperative”? And “imperative” once you unpack the definition, is “something you really really really ought to do.” How do we know that? Um. Because we do. At least Carrier doesn’t humiliate himself by introducing a sensus imperator or something like that. But, seriously, where do “imperatives” come from? I’ll give you a hint: they come from our understanding of a situation which is an opinion based on situation, cultural context, accuracy of our understanding, our past experiences, and our personal preferences. Some of those are facts, some are opinions. The end result, all rolled together: opinion.

    3. All imperatives (all ‘ought’ statements) are hypothetical imperatives.

    Yes, that sounds good… Except for where Carrier tries to sneak past us:
    All that is required is that we prove you do desire x and that y is the only way to obtain x

    Oh, really? The only way. So we have perfect knowledge Richard? It’s easy to agree that I do desire X, but it’s a bit harder to understand that Y is the only way to obtain it. What if I miss an important one? This is not a nitpick; it means that I must have a perfect knowledge of a situation, my options, and their consequences in order to make a true moral decision. Balderdash. I’ll operate on incomplete knowledge – i.e.: my opinion. That’s why we understand that people make wrong decisions for what they think are “the right reasons at the time.”

    So Richard slides this impossible requirement for proof in. I’m a big fan of Richard’s work but this is not the level of honesty I expect from him. He then goes on to rant (legitimately) about the lack of attention Foot gets,** and has gotten. While utterly failing to make his case.

    It makes absolutely no difference how many kinds of categorical or hypothetical imperatives or levels of imperatives Carrier wishes to introduce into his argument, because he is using “imperative” as if to presuppose that we acknowledge in advance the rightness of the “imperative” (that’s what it means, after all) – in the real world, of course, we find that these “imperatives” are not, and there are plenty of people who will agree that it’s a true proposition that it’s OK to kill someone else, but not them. That’s how observation of reality describes the scene: there is no “imperative” there is only one person or another’s opinion about what’s imperative at a certain time and place, because: {reasons}

    4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.

    Shall we continue? At this point I can’t decide whether to /facepalm or to slam my face into the keyboard.

    What about human opinions that are delusional (i.e.: acknowledged later to be wrong) or self-destructive (thought by others to be wrong)?

    Carrier puts down his shovel and fires up a great big backhoe to make dirt fly!
    In both cases (irrational and mal-informed decisions) a decision was made in violation of our first premise (“Moral truth must be based on the truth”) generalized to all domains (“Prudential truth must be based on the truth”). In fact, that our decisions are being made irrationally, or that they need to be, is just a special case of making mal-informed decisions (since if we knew we were being irrational, we would either stop being irrational or continue, but…

    Ok, stop. Just stop. People make wrong decisions, so they’re tautologically wrong and therefor they are mis-informed or irrational…. Carrier is trying to argue, apparently, that it’s possible to make a decision that is not mis-informed See that? At this point, I lose patience. Does Carrier not understand that because of our inability to accurately predict the future every decision is mis-informed?

    So when we assert that “all human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in,”

    “Circumstances” here meaning: understanding of the circumstances, plus predispositions resulting from education, past experience, etc. I.e.: forming an opinion about the situation.
    Carrier can’t come out and say it, but he’s moved away from the idea that he can reason about objective morality, by sneaking personal opinion (rolled up in a carpet) into the room as if it’s not a factor. When, actually, it is the factor.

    5. What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances is an empirical fact that science can discover.

    Uh, yeah, “satisfaction” meaning “personal opinion about the current state of affairs” – yes, you can objectively say that the rapacious capitalist is “satisfied” with their choices and you can determine that empirically with a survey. But you still have not empirically determined whether or not their actions were right. Their opinion is a matter of fact. Duh. Because they acted upon it.

    6. There are many fundamentals of our biology, neurology, psychology, and environment that are the same for all human beings.

    Yeah. And those affect how we form our opinions about what’s right and wrong.

    Let me finish with this:
    Therefore, Harris’s core thesis is correct. Indeed, it’s undeniable.

    That’s a cheap trick. “It’s undeniable” tries to reach for a degree of certainty that intellectual honesty should not allow Carrier. Of course it’s bloody deniable. Carrier’s argument is weak.

    (* I have actually shot a kitten. My horse stepped on it and it was going to die horribly.)
    (** I have a copy of Foot’s book and mean to read it eventually. I got halfway through Carrier and gave up because I was spraining my eye muscles from eyerolling)

  11. 11
    suttkus

    I’m not sure the bacteria metaphor works for me. Bacteria can’t be subject to my moral expectations because they have no intelligence. They simply act like machines act, according to their structure.

    I can have moral expectations of other things that are “beneath” me in intelligence. I have communicated to my cat that he is not allowed on the table. My cat doesn’t understand why I have imposed this rule. He knows I grow angry with him when he violates it, and that I will bring my wrath down upon him. So, he accedes to the moral expectation I have of him and doesn’t get on the table.

    That’s the problem when trying to deal with gods in metaphors, though. There is nothing like the Christian conception of God that we could make a meaningful comparison to. Some other religions have smaller gods. We can compare the relationship of a Greek or Norse god and their worshipers to me and my cat. The gods aren’t indestructible. They have things they want and while we may not understand the reasons, they are enough like us that we can conceive that they might have reasons.

    The Christian God… where do you begin?

    So, we’re made with free will, but the expectation that we follow rules. Except that we have emotional drives that influence our behavior, but these drives don’t match those expectations. In other words, God expects us to be monogamous, but we have a sex drive that cares nothing about monogamy. We could have been programmed to be monogamous, but we weren’t. And you can’t claim that a monogamy favoring sex-drive would violate free will because it doesn’t anymore than a sex-drive does in the first place. The system just seems like we were set up to fail and be punished on purpose.

    Or, of course, it wasn’t set up at all.

  12. 12
    Marcus Ranum

    have you even read carrier’s article?

    Yes, several times. And I thought it was poor, so I bought a copy of the book, but it kept knocking me unconscious around page 60 and I decided I’d let the matter drop because Carriers’ problems are his, not mine. I love the guy and I really enjoy his talks and the last thing I want to do is get in an argument with someone who is as passionate, prolific, and wrong as I am.

    I haven’t read Foot, yet. It’s sitting on the radiator in my bedroom, where I banished it when I got disgusted with the whole topic.

    perhaps hypothetical imperatives (his point #3) are what you are looking for here. other than that, you may simply be operating on nonsense word definitions, resulting in a word salad.

    If I’m operating on word salad it’s in terms of “hypothetical imperatives” – WTF is that? It’s something that must be done because I think it’s right but I’m not sure if the situation is true? Hey, please – don’t blame me for the word-salad. There is a lot of chopped lettuce being thrown around but not by me; I’d be just as happy to stick with simple words like “right” and “wrong” and then we can talk about how to tell the difference. That’s morality right? I can blame Kant for the “categorical imperative” bit but let Carrier take his share of responsibility for the rest.

    The reason Kant (and Carrier) slipped in “imperative” is because it presupposes an understanding of what you should/shouldn’t do. Basically: situational ethics. It’s cheating. Kant did it very smoothly, and Carrier less so, but it’s still cheating. It’s the same kind of nonsense a creationist like William Lane Craig pulls when he presupposes a supernatural power in the first stage of his ludicrous Kalam argument. I’m ashamed to see Carrier doing it. He’s one of my heroes.

    he doesn’t say that everyone must agree on it.

    Where? Because if he’s admitting that his idea of objective morality is a matter of opinion then we’re done here, and the only flag left standing on the battlefield is the black flag of moral nihilism.

    you are arguing against something other than carrier’s position.

    There, I was arguing with you. Which is why I felt it proper to do a separate comment arguing with Carrier.

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    Here’s another thing to consider with respect to moral systems and right and wrong.

    - Suppose there is a moral system that allows you to accurately (close enough for argument, anyway) determine what is right and wrong in a given situation.
    - Such a system would either be time-invariant of not. What do I mean? It would give the same results in 2000BC as it would in 2100AD, or it would give results according to the time and place and situation. I.e.: killing humans would be as wrong in 2000BC as in 2100AD.
    - If such a system took “local knowledge” or “prevailing attitudes” or some other code-word for the morals of the time into account, it’s not a moral system; it’s simply a record of prevailing attitudes reified as “moral” at that time and place in history. I.e: if slavery was OK in ancient Rome but not OK in 19th century USA our “morals” are so flexible as to not deserve the title “right” and “wrong” so much as “right in this time and circumstance” and “wrong in this time and circumstance.”
    - If your moral system is a matter of time and circumstance, I submit that it’s not a moral system at all;’ it’s simply a fiat “this is how things are/were at this particular time, based on these particular opinions at that time.”

    I then observe that moral systems have changed profoundly over time. So, was the Athenian Socrates, who grew up in a society based on slavery and oppression, a “moral” being by today’s standards? Or is an American, who is part of a ‘democratic’ society that commits torture and capital punishment in his name, who eats pigs and cows, a “moral” being by the standards of the 23rd century? And, if your answer to the latter is “I can’t know” then where’s your objective morality?

  14. 14
    Marcus Ranum

    Addendum to previous: if there were such a moral system, why didn’t it indicate in 2000BC that slavery was always wrong?? It didn’t, did it. Situational ethics say nothing about what’s “right and wrong” except for brute survival, which Carrier would try to promote as a “moral imperative”

  15. 15
    brianpansky

    ugh, i had an entire response finished…then i closed my browser…

    i’ll try that again.

  16. 16
    Marcus Ranum

    I’m not sure the bacteria metaphor works for me. Bacteria can’t be subject to my moral expectations because they have no intelligence. They simply act like machines act, according to their structure.

    Compared to a god who can invent a universe and physical laws that would lead to life, you are simply a machine that acts according to your structure. Your complexity is as nothing to a god that can create the physics that would cause black holes and plasma jets. I don’t have a useful metric for complexity but I am probably closer, intellectually and in terms of personal power, to my intestinal flora than a hypothetical god is to humanity.

    I can have moral expectations of other things that are “beneath” me in intelligence. I have communicated to my cat that he is not allowed on the table. My cat doesn’t understand why I have imposed this rule. He knows I grow angry with him when he violates it, and that I will bring my wrath down upon him. So, he accedes to the moral expectation I have of him and doesn’t get on the table.

    Yes, you are a cruel and wise yet capricious god. Because you know your cat will die if it eats all those cheezburgers at once. Yet, like any other god you are comfortable handing down punishment (excuse me: deterrent) on a subject that obviously does not understand it. In your terms, being a superior being, the rules you lay down on the cat make sense. In the cat’s terms, since the cat cannot understand your long-term intent, you are just another capricious god that swats it to the floor when it makes its move on your yummy cheezburger.

    So, he accedes to the moral expectation I have of him and doesn’t get on the table.

    I’d argue that the cat is not making a moral decision. The cat is simply recognizing that your will is all-mighty. You have an expectation of your cat that your cat does not comprehend, but you are willing to enforce. Welcome to Yahweh’s moral hell.

    The gods aren’t indestructible. They have things they want and while we may not understand the reasons, they are enough like us that we can conceive that they might have reasons.

    Your cat is probably intelligent enough to understand that you have reasons, even though you cannot communicate them. That is one thing that sucks about being a god: I don’t speak the good intestinal flora. I wish I did because I’d tell them “red wine and curry coming; tomorrow just veggies. Live for today!” sadly the gap between us is just great. Of course, since my survival depends on them (especially the ones that do such a good job on the pizza!) I’m in the morally compromised position of expecting something pretty darned stupid to do something very very important for me, because my life depends on it.

    What if Neil Gaiman were right and a god’s power depended on the number of active believers in it at any time? Making sure my intestinal flora were With The Programme might be more than a mere academic problem.

    So, we’re made with free will, but the expectation that we follow rules

    Well, free will is contradicted by reality as we understand it. So I think the best thing we can say is that we’re created with the strongly held illusion of free will which, to us, is indistinguishable from Free Will(tm) but – whatever – if the human violate our rules (like the cat) they get knocked to the floor with the back of the divine hand.

    The system just seems like we were set up to fail and be punished on purpose.

    Yes, god is the quintessential “asshole dominant” – who enjoys setting the submissives a problem they can’t solve, so that “punishment is justified”… Of course, the philosopher would argue that the punishment should be on god, who created and completely owned the situation, and (if there’s any free will) should get responsibility for everything that goes wrong.

  17. 17
    brianpansky

    @12
    Marcus Ranum

    “hypothetical imperatives” – WTF is that? It’s something that must be done because I think it’s right but I’m not sure if the situation is true?

    you said you read the article but here it doesn’t seem like you did.

    here is his description of a hypothetical imperative:

    A hypothetical imperative is an imperative proposition that reduces to an “if, then” conditional, such that “if you desire x, then you ought to do y” can be factually and objectively true (and empirically discoverable and demonstrable as such). All that is required is that we prove you do desire x and that y is the only way to obtain x

    yet i suppose you will still ask me “why” we ought to do y. so PS, the question “if you want x and y is the way to get it, why should you do y?” doesn’t make sense to me, because it answers itself.

    using a “why” question will be broken any time you include the answer in the question. for example:

    “if the sky emits light that we perceive as blue, then why do we see it as blue?”

    i can’t deal with that. if you must continue this questioning, please be clear what your question means, and that it does not answer itself.

    also he does say:

    If at this point you protest I can’t ever prove anyone really ought to do anything, much less above all else, that that is not an empirical matter capable of scientific demonstration even in principle, then you need to brush up on the basics: both I and Churchland have in that event proved you wrong, and if you knew anything about the role of empirically proved imperative facts in agriculture, engineering and medicine, we wouldn’t have to school you on this point. But alas if we do, go read what we’ve said on it.

    but i seriously can’t wrap my head around this protest he describes and that you exhibit. it just doesn’t make sense.

    I’d be just as happy to stick with simple words like “right” and “wrong” and then we can talk about how to tell the difference. That’s morality right?

    those words mean should do/ should not do. if you have some other definitions, please share.

    The reason Kant (and Carrier) slipped in “imperative” is because it presupposes an understanding of what you should/shouldn’t do. Basically: situational ethics. It’s cheating.

    what about situational ethics? i’m not sure what they are (i’m guessing it just means the “if – then” type thing, where “if” is a situation…), or what is cheating about them.

    he doesn’t say that everyone must agree on it.

    Where? Because if he’s admitting that his idea of objective morality is a matter of opinion then we’re done here, and the only flag left standing on the battlefield is the black flag of moral nihilism.

    i didn’t mean he says it is a matter of opinion. i meant it in the same way that evolution is true regardless of whether everyone agrees on it. so i could have said “not everyone has to agree that evolution is true in order for it to be true”

    you are arguing against something other than carrier’s position.

    There, I was arguing with you. Which is why I felt it proper to do a separate comment arguing with Carrier.

    k

    i do not hold the position that all reasonable people who accept true morality must have the same imperatives in order for them to be true, so it does not matter that your example includes different people with conflicting imperatives.

    you are arguing against something other than my position.

    @13

    i think you are confusing some things here.

    you are equivocating:

    1) changing opinion (or even updating factual knowledge) about morality

    with:

    2) any possibility that morality can depend on situation.

    these are not the same thing.

    @14

    if there were such a moral system, why didn’t it indicate in 2000BC that slavery was always wrong?? It didn’t, did it.

    if science can uncover facts, why didn’t it indicate that evolution was true 5000 years ago? it didn’t, did it.

    get a grip here.

  18. 18
    Axxyaan

    My problem with Carrier is that he doesn’t judge the desires. So as far as I understand Carrier, it implies rape can be moral. If I desire to have sex with someone and the only way to have sex with that person is to rape them, then it is imperative that I rape them.
    And if having sex with that person is IMO the most important thing to me, then raping that person becomes a moral imperative.

  19. 19
    suttkus

    “Compared to a god who can invent a universe and physical laws that would lead to life, you are simply a machine that acts according to your structure. Your complexity is as nothing to a god that can create the physics that would cause black holes and plasma jets. I don’t have a useful metric for complexity but I am probably closer, intellectually and in terms of personal power, to my intestinal flora than a hypothetical god is to humanity.”

    Yes, and one of the “acts according to your structure” is to intelligently adapt to circumstances and knowledge, which is what bacteria cannot do, and what makes the metaphor not work for me. Punishing a bacteria for violating “rules” makes no more sense than punishing the ocean because the tides aren’t doing what you want. (Which, I recall, some ancient king did.)

    But a god could communicate rules and punish me to drive me to following them. Which is what we’re told god does all the time.

    Yes, you are a cruel and wise yet capricious god.

    I have no expectation that my cat considers me wise. Just dangerous, but a net benefit. (barely) : – )

    Because you know your cat will die if it eats all those cheezburgers at once. Yet, like any other god you are comfortable handing down punishment (excuse me: deterrent) on a subject that obviously does not understand it. In your terms, being a superior being, the rules you lay down on the cat make sense. In the cat’s terms, since the cat cannot understand your long-term intent, you are just another capricious god that swats it to the floor when it makes its move on your yummy cheezburger.

    Of course, the cat lives with a pantheon, and some gods are more prone to feeding him yummy cheeseburgers anyway, a moral failing on the part of some of the gods. (Yes, Dad, you’re not fooling us.)

    I’d argue that the cat is not making a moral decision. The cat is simply recognizing that your will is all-mighty. You have an expectation of your cat that your cat does not comprehend, but you are willing to enforce. Welcome to Yahweh’s moral hell.

    I’d argue that the so-called moralists aren’t making moral decisions either, they’re trying to avoid imagined punishment from god. Like the priest that Dawkins interviewed who claimed that if you could prove that there was no god, he would have no reason at all not to go and rape the first attractive woman he saw. I don’t believe in their God, but I have a reason: I don’t like making my fellow human beings suffer. But that’s a moral decision, while “God says I shouldn’t” isn’t.

    But the context of the conversation was trying to apply morals to bacteria and I was just adopting the language already used.

    Your cat is probably intelligent enough to understand that you have reasons, even though you cannot communicate them. That is one thing that sucks about being a god: I don’t speak the good intestinal flora. I wish I did because I’d tell them “red wine and curry coming; tomorrow just veggies. Live for today!” sadly the gap between us is just great.

    Of course, the reason I can’t communicate my reasons to the cat isn’t just because the cat is limited, but because I am limited. I can’t even communicate to the cat things that other cats can communicate to my cat! God, hypothetically, shouldn’t be limited that way. But, once you throw infinity into an equation, it tends to screw up the works.

    Well, free will is contradicted by reality as we understand it. So I think the best thing we can say is that we’re created with the strongly held illusion of free will which, to us, is indistinguishable from Free Will(tm) but – whatever – if the human violate our rules (like the cat) they get knocked to the floor with the back of the divine hand.

    Of course, the cat can see the divine hand. He doesn’t have to imagine that the divine hand is behind something bad that just happens. Lucky cat, his gods are knowable and evidenced. Also, he can bite the gods if they go too far.

  20. 20
    brianpansky

    @18
    Axxyaan

    My problem with Carrier is that he doesn’t judge the desires.

    this isn’t an argument against his logic.

    still, you are missing part of it i see. the question can still be asked “why” someone has the desires they do, and this will often lead to more basic desires.

    your main problem is that you are taking one impulsive desire in isolation, and looking in the shortest time span possible, and not reasoning AT ALL about how this will play out. in other words, your scenario is neither rigorous nor reasonable.

    and i don’t want to hear any devil’s advocacy about rape, ok? you can (try to) do that with ANY moral system. yes, i’ve even seen people take moral systems based ON CONSENT to an extreme scenario where violating the consent of one person saves many others from rape. just don’t give me that, especially since it does not challenge the logic of carrier’s argument. ugh.

    And if having sex with that person is IMO the most important thing to me

    in your opinion??

    i’ll quote carrier here:

    Moral facts do not follow from opinions (not only because opinions aren’t widely shared but also because they can be wrong even for the person uttering them…e.g. you might derive your opinion from a false belief about the object of your opinion, e.g. in the PZ case if you have not read all the blogs on FTB, you cannot claim his is the best, so if you do, your opinion is fallacious).

    Moral facts follow from actual values–which does not mean the values you think you have or just happen to have, but the values you would have if you derived your values non-fallaciously from true facts (and not false beliefs) about yourself and the world. Hence, your actual values (what you really would value if you were right about everything).

  21. 21
    Axxyaan

    @brianpansky

    So what if it isn’t a an argument against his logic. William Lane Craigs gives a very logical argument for why the genocides done by the ancient jews in the OT were good. Any critic you have will probably be not against his logic.

    And yes the hubris of Carrier to just ignore all values that don’t fit and declare that if someone values something that doesn’t fit his idea of ethics, that it is just their opinion of what they value but in reality they really value something else more.

    He has just build an irrefutable system, because any example in the real world that would contradict his idea, like two people having values that contradict each other can be explained away by claiming that these are just their opinions on what they value but if we dig deeper we can find more base values with each person which won’t contradict any more.

  22. 22
    sawells

    Brian, here’s a question for you. Suppose we grant every single one of Carrier’s premises, for the sake of argument [note that in fact I regard some of his premises as vacuous, some as irrelevant, and some as just wrong, but we needn't hash that over again here]. So we grant that there are empirical facts about what would make me most satisfied with my life, and there are facts about what would make you most satisfied with yours, and so on for every person in the world.

    Now, it turns out as a matter of empirical fact that what will make me most satisfied – let’s call that X – is, unfortunately, something that will make lots and lots of other people much less satisfied. What a shame! But I don’t know those people and they can’t reach me, so their dissatisfaction touches me not at all.

    Should I do X?

    Nothing in Carrier’s logic requires anyone to take anyone else’s satisfaction into account if it doesn’t affect their own. In the arguments about this, Carrier, and you, seem constantly to assume that we _ought_ to be empathetic and considerate of others and not act to others’ detriment – but this is not in the logic. The supposed “moral facts” being generated are no more than plain facts – such-and-such would make such-a-person most satisfied. There’s no moral fact about what we should do with that information.

    You still have the Hume problem: “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.”

  23. 23
    brianpansky

    @sawells

    all you are showing me is that you have not read carrier’s answer to exactly these kinds of things (and that you can’t think them through yourself, of course). i’ll try to get back to you later.

  24. 24
    brianpansky

    @21
    Axxyaan

    So what if it isn’t a an argument against his logic. William Lane Craigs gives a very logical argument for why the genocides done by the ancient jews in the OT were good. Any critic you have will probably be not against his logic.

    perhaps i should have said logic + truth claims.

    true premises and valid logic can’t give you something mistaken.

    And yes the hubris of Carrier to just ignore all values that don’t fit and declare that if someone values something that doesn’t fit his idea of ethics, that it is just their opinion of what they value but in reality they really value something else more.

    hmmm, you could argue that carrier’s responses in comments and other places are clouded by his own intuition of what is actually moral, but i don’t see that bias included in the 6 points he gave. especially the first 3 points, which tell us the only possible things that can be truly moral/should be done, and are easier to to accept as correct a priori.

    He has just build an irrefutable system, because any example in the real world that would contradict his idea, like two people having values that contradict each other can be explained away by claiming that these are just their opinions on what they value but if we dig deeper we can find more base values with each person which won’t contradict any more.

    well anyone can *try* to explain stuff away. but what matters is what is true. if it is true that there are conflicts, then that is what is true!

  25. 25
    sawells

    @23: I cannot sufficiently stress the extent to which you need to STOP DOING THAT. Do not tell me that I have not read what I have read. Do not tell me that I cannot think through what I have thought through, merely because I disagree with you. You are not exactly doing a great job of putting your case convincingly; glib evasions and appeals to authority do not help, neither does your appalling condescension.

  26. 26
    Marcus Ranum

    1) changing opinion (or even updating factual knowledge) about morality

    Are we done here? Are you acknowledging that morality is a matter of opinion?

  27. 27
    brianpansky

    @25 and 26

    i worded those badly.

    @sawells, i don’t know what you’ve read etc. sorry about that.

    if you have read responses to those points, then i hope you won’t be too surprised if my response looks familiar. i haven’t finished writing it though.

    @marcus, do you realize that you made an equivocation? please acknowledge this.

    now, i was not saying morality is a matter of opinion. apparently i failed to be clear enough.

    the whole point was that my #2 is possible to be a true fact that is not based on opinion (for instance, it may be a fact that lying is moral in some situations, like to save a life, but not in other situations). it is separate from #1 which included errors such as incorrect opinion. (so even if it were a fact that it was ok to lie in *some* situations, this does not mean that every time someone is of the opinion that their lie was moral that it was in fact moral).

    i hope you see how these are different things, and i hope that clears it up a bit.

  28. 28
    Axxyaan

    @brianpansky

    The problem I have with all people that somehow claim that morality is objective and that there are moral facts, is that none of them have given even an hypothetical example of how we would test moral claims for their validity.

    My standard demand is, provide a moral claim and a scientific test with which we might refuted the claim as a moral fact. None seem to be able or willing to go there, which is IMO very odd for people who claim there are moral fact and that morality is objective.

  29. 29
    brianpansky

    @22
    sawells

    so for the sake of argument here you grant that this gives us what we ought to do above all else? if you don’t want to call what you should do above all else “moral”, that is just semantics (when you say: “The supposed “moral facts” being generated are no more than plain facts”).

    also, you are moving in the complete opposite direction i care to move in this conversation. you are granting premises you do not agree with, and then speculating about empirical facts.

    instead i care about establishing basic premises (particularly 1-3) at which point the actual facts take over and your speculation is irrelevant!

    i hope readers can see that it’s not pointlessly “self-referential”. that we must at least demand empirical answers to the burning question, “can x and y be known”? (or, even further, can the empirical claims 4-6 be confirmed or disproven?)

    this empirical question prevents it from being self referential. this has already achieved the final say on the basis for morality.

    so do you know the answer to this question? does anybody know? isn’t finding the answer sort of, you know, extremely important?

    i mean, i’m really seeing a disconnect here between how important this is and how i see people reacting to it.

  30. 30
    brianpansky

    @28
    Axxyaan

    i can see that being concerning. carrier apparently talks about this in his book. also i saw him offer in the comments section to answer that kind of question if you give him some specific thing you want to know how it might be researched (yes, to this day he still answers comments in those articles he posted in the fall of 2013).

  31. 31
    Marcus Ranum

    do you realize that you made an equivocation? please acknowledge this

    Where, what, huh? And does that somehow support Carrier’s arguments, or defeat mine?

    (so even if it were a fact that it was ok to lie in *some* situations, this does not mean that every time someone is of the opinion that their lie was moral that it was in fact moral).

    You are tiresome; how can you tell when a lie is moral or not? C’mon, please. The way to end this whole discussion in a spectacular victory for you is to begin applying this fact-based moral system to answer some practical questions about real-world situations.

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