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May 22 2012

The “objective morality” gotcha

There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those sleazebags.

I witnessed an excellent example of this irrational and contemptible behavior at a debate on Friday, in which Christopher DiCarlo and Matt Dillahunty debated a couple of forgettable Christian philosophers on the subject of the existence of gods. At one point, the Christians derailed everything by going after DiCarlo with a ludicrous question: is there an objective morality that determines whether you would torture a toddler? I don’t think DiCarlo addressed it particularly well — he’s got a whole book that discusses ethics, and it’s tricky to distill a book down into a few seconds that fit into a debate format — but the upshot was that our dim little Christians openly accused the atheists of being “MORAL NIHILISTS!” because they do not accept the imaginary words of a god that say that killing babies is wrong.

If I were confronted with such a question, I would say that no, I would not torture toddlers because I do live by an objective set of moral principles that allow me to assess whether an action is moral or not. It is not a subjective morality; I do not reject torture of toddlers or anyone else because I think it is icky (although, of course, I do), but because it breaks my moral code.

Here’s my objective, ungodly moral reasoning that I use to assess the rightness of an action. Let’s call this the basics of an objective humanist morality.

  1. Interest. Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.

  2. Consent. If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea.

    Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.

  3. Harm. I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others.

    Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.

  4. Stigma. This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.

    These are human and social constraints, not at all divine, and are also not universal or absolute — they can and do change over time. And sometimes, when cultural biases cause harm, I think we have a moral obligation to change the culture.

My rules are not perfect, of course. Sometimes they can conflict. Imagine a situation where consent can’t be obtained, but inaction will cause harm; a child getting a vaccination, for instance. Conversely, you can have cases where there is consent to do harm to some degree: a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, or a prophylactic mastectomy for a woman at high risk of breast cancer. But many decisions, especially the simplistic gotcha games of shallow Christian philosophers, are objectively resolved very easily. Torturing toddlers, for instance, violates all four of my principles hard. I have no problem at all in explaining that I have very good, non-subjective reasons for not abusing children, and that Jesus doesn’t come into play in any of them.

The Christians, on the other hand, also have a protocol for deciding the rightness of an action: they consult their bible or their priest. I’d agree that they also have an objective morality — it’s just not a very good one, because I think most Christians also implicitly follow my four rules, and unfortunately, biblical morality often directly contradicts humanist morality. For instance, the bible endorses killing children and raping virgin girls: it literally tells believers that there are situations in which it is permissible to torture toddlers, making the Christian debaters’ question remarkably ironic. Vox Day, for example, has explicitly said that if the voices in his head (which he calls “God”) told him to kill people, he would do so. He apparently lives by a different moral standard than ethically more advanced human beings do.

These Christians, though, are simply taking my fourth point, the very least of the criteria I use to make moral decisions and the one I most feel comfortable about opposing, and making it the whole of their ethics.

In another example of the dishonest Christian gotcha, lately a thick-skulled Christian idiot name Rick Warden has been pestering me with email and comments demanding that I justify support for bestiality. Seriously, dude? What the fuck is wrong with you?

Mr Warden is so obsessed with bestiality that he even claims the Friday Cephalopod is a “weekly animal sex post” in one of his incessant whines about my odious imaginary support for bestiality. He’s a shockingly dishonest asshole; he does fit my expectations of Christian liars for Jesus, though, who think nothing of accusing atheists of being moral nihilists who approve of torturing toddlers, or of being promiscuous goat-rapers.

I do not support bestiality. No one I know does. But we are capable of assessing it objectively, unlike these wretched Christians and their brains full of lies and disgust. Let’s apply my moral tools to the problem.

  1. Sorry, I have no interest at all in having sex with animals. I think sexual behavior is a fascinating subject and enjoy the diversity of sexual patterns I observe in nature, but I have never had the slightest desire to join in. Of course, since there are so many different ways that human beings have sex that I also have no interest in sharing, that I have to say that my disinterest is not an argument against allowing it.

  2. Most animals will not consent to sex with a human (and vice versa), and will respond with violent opposition to any attempt to do so. Consent is much more complicated with animals, though: cows do not consent to be turned into hamburgers, but we do it anyway.

    It’s also the case that some domesticated and intelligent animals seem to be willing to participate in sexual activity with humans — dolphins and dogs, for example. It is possible to find animals who demonstrate a willingness to participate in sex play. Within that narrow band of possibilities, I’d have to say that this criterion doesn’t provide an argument against sex with animals in all cases.

  3. I oppose causing harm to animals unless there is an opportunity for significant gain (sorry, while I can be absolute in opposing harm to humans, I do not make the same argument for animals.) Having recreational sex with an animal is not a gain significant enough to justify causing it harm, however. So most instances of bestiality must be opposed for the same reason.

    Some forms of animal sex play do not cause harm to either participant, though, so again in that limited domain of behavior, I cannot make an objection.

  4. Zoophilia has strong cultural stigma and is against the law in many (but not all!) states and countries. Given my total lack of interest in sexual activity with animals, this is more than sufficient incentive to avoid such activities. Also, given the absence of any vocal lobby arguing for the their right to participate in bestiality, I’m not feeling any need to change cultural taboos. I do feel that bestiality is adequately addressed by laws against cruelty to animals.

So, to answer clueless thick-skulled Christian idiot’s question, I don’t object to bestiality in a very limited set of specific conditions, but do not support it in any way. My position is rooted in objective moral principles other than the dogma of the bible, and is defensible as a reasonable approach based on improving the welfare of all participants in an activity. I also reject his question as a clear ploy to label critics of his dogma as goat-fuckers — and as such, his whole game is fallacious and deeply dishonest.

So what else is new? He’s a fundamentalist Christian.

171 comments

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  1. 1
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Of course morality is objective, just like hydrodynamics. The properties of fluids are such that certain shapes move through them more efficiently; the properties of humans are such that certain social arrangements and behaviors are more efficient and stable.

  2. 2
    bodach

    Thanks for this, PZ. This is a good response to those Xians that tell me that, without god, there’s no reason they wouldn’t run around raping and murdering. Of course, they’re sociopaths; maybe religion can be useful…

  3. 3
    jamessweet

    Meta-ethics is certainly tricky, and (having been honed by reading the arguments of moral error theorists such as Russell Blackford) I can indeed point out several difficulties with PZ’s formulation here (as well as Azkyroth’s who is the only person who has so far commented at the time I am writing this). I have my own thoughts on it — if you “put too fine a point on it”, I suppose I must technically count myself among the error theorists; but I also think that if you grant a very limited set of assumptions, a set which virtually all humans believe in anyway, then I transform into a moral realist.

    But nevertheless, despite all these serious meta-ethical difficulties, ol’ Euthyphro long ago dispensed with the notion that Divine Command Theory is any help here. DCT makes for terrible meta-ethics, and every philosopher worth her salt (and even most theologians!) rejects it as not-actually-morality.

    If one is very stingy in which assumptions they are willing to grant, then it can indeed be difficult to find coherent reasons to move beyond moral nihilism. But — here’s the kicker — that is just as much of a problem whether or not there is a god! If we are unwilling to grant the assumptions that allow us to move past moral nihilism in a godless universe, then we can’t move past moral nihilism in a goddy universe either. If you accuse atheists of necessarily being moral nihilists, then you are accusing yourself of being a moral nihilist!

  4. 4
    raven

    atheists of being “MORAL NIHILISTS!” because they do not accept the imaginary words of a god that say that killing babies is wrong.

    According to the xian magic book, it is OK to kill babies sometimes. The xian instruction manual even has examples.

    1. It’s OK for god to do it of course. God invented genocide right at the start in Genesis when he killed all but 8 people in a failed attempt to fix his mistakes.

    2. The Canaanite genocide when god helped his chosen people kill them all and steal their land, stuff, and women. In several places god commands them to kill everyone, men, women, and children. After other battles, it was OK to divide the women up, and keep the virgins as sex slaves.

    3. Deuternonomy says you are supposed to stone disobedient children to death. It doesn’t give the age limits so people are supposed to guess. I’m guessing most people would cut babies some slack but the magic book is silent on this.

  5. 5
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    Someone sprang that one on me the other day as would I kill a toddler. I just turned it around and asked if they’d kill a toddler if they truly believed God had asked them to.

    Silence ensued.

    I half regret not phrasing it as would they condone someone else killing a toddler if they heard God’s order. The twisting and turning could have been entertaining. The way I framed it, I should have realised I’d get no answer. Ho hum.

  6. 6
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    If Christianity contains “objective morality” then so does Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and any other religion with a moral code… plus Humanism to a degree. Once those rules are in existence, it takes a subjective judgment of some sort to decide whether those rules work for you or not. Objectively, the Catholic church considers contraception a sin, but most Catholics make the subjective judgment that it is a sin they don’t mind committing too much.

    In any case, the use of the words “objective morality” by many Christians is awfully Orwellian. It changes over the years, and yet is unchanging for 2000 years. Slavery used to be approved by Christianity, and now Christianity has always stood against slavery. Christianity has been more or less opposed to women and gays over time, the current position is the position Christianity has always had, and in 100 years if women finally start getting treated equally then Christianity will have always been for women’s rights.

  7. 7
    raven

    Xians don’t get their morality from the bible either. The vast majority have no idea what the bible really says.

    Anyone following an OT lifestyle today would be doing multiple life sentences in prison. Warren Jeffs tried it and got life + 20 years. David Koresh tried it and died in a shootout with the feds.

    Slavery is OK, polygamy is fine, and if you need a few bucks, you can sell your kids as sex slaves.

    It’s estimated that under biblical law today, 99% of the US population would end up getting stoned to death for such offenses as adultery, being a nonvirgin bride, or breaking the sabbath.

  8. 8
    dianne

    It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?”

    This question disturbs me because of two unfortunate implications:
    1. The questioner does not believe in his/her own ability to make moral judgements and tell right from wrong without a parent figure dictating the judgements. Life is subtle, complex, and always changing. Sometimes you have to trust your own judgement over the “rules”, whether those rules are received from god, the law, your parents, etc. (Of course, ignoring same can sometimes lead to disaster…just hard to tell sometimes.) The implication is that the questioner will try to always follow a set of rules, no matter the situation, even when it is clear that following the rules will lead to harm. Example: refusing medical care to a woman with a tubal pregnancy because it’s against the rules to kill the embryo.

    2. The follow up question usually has to do with getting caught: Why should you care about morals if no one knows that you did or did not do the moral thing? This question is implicit in the original question and often appears explicitly during a discussion. I care about behaving in a moral manner because I don’t want sentient beings to be hurt if I can avoid it. End of story. I’d like to get credit for doing the right thing, but I don’t care that much about it. If I deliberately hurt someone I’d know I did it, regardless of whether or not god or society or anyone else knew. And I’d have to live with the explicative deleted who did…whatever it was. That’s all that matters, not what god or anyone else thinks…if you have an internal sense of morality that doesn’t come from just following someone else’s rules.

  9. 9
    Matt Penfold

    Someone sprang that one on me the other day as would I kill a toddler. I just turned it around and asked if they’d kill a toddler if they truly believed God had asked them to.

    It is a question that causes Christians some problems. After all, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because he thought God wanted him to (although how old Isaac was is not clear).

  10. 10
    raven

    It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?”

    We’ve all heard that one a zillion times.

    1. Safeway, aisle 2, right next to the frozen foods. It’s the same place the xians get theirs and far superior to the drek found in the bible.

    2. I use my evolutionary programming and common sense. Which is what the xians do also. They just pretend to get anything worthwhile out of the bible.

  11. 11
    faehnrich

    My argument against atheists-have-no-morals crap is I have empathy for others. I couldn’t torture a toddler because I couldn’t bear harming a child like that, and would feel even more terrible knowing I’m the one responsible.

    And if I have this sense of empathy, it’s something I can use (along with other things) to judge things for myself, so if I’m using something to decide what’s moral or not in the Bible, then the Bible isn’t the source of my morals.

    And if the Bible is the only thing keeping these “objective morals only come from the Bible” people from raping and killing, then that is troubling. If anyone tried the objective-morals gotcha on me I’d ask, so you really want to rape and kill, but just the Bible is stopping you? I doubt many would say yes. So if they say no, they don’t want to do that regardless of a Bible telling them not to, then their morals wouldn’t be based on the Bible either.

  12. 12
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    although how old Isaac was is not clear

    The main problem being that the poor sod wouldn’t have got any older.

  13. 13
    dianne

    Safeway, aisle 2, right next to the frozen foods.

    Hmm…I’ve never seen a Safeway in NYC. Perhaps that explains…much…

  14. 14
    kevindorner

    “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
    – Psalm 137:9

  15. 15
    Zeno

    No one should torture a toddler. Either kill them outright because God commands it (1 Sam. 15:3) or wait till they’re old enough to walk into the mountains with you and be sacrificed as an offering to the Almighty (even if that later turns out to be a funny joke at your expense). God’s teachings on this subject are completely clear!

  16. 16
    Deen

    I would just bounce the question right back to any Christian who asks it: do you really have an objective morality? First of all, you have to establish God exists at all, otherwise your morality is no more objective as that of every priest or Bible writer or any other authority you depend on. Second, even if God exists, it doesn’t even necessarily mean that morality is objective. For example, if morality simply depends on the preferences of God, it’s actually entirely subjective. And even if you grant them an out to that problem, you’d still have to show (with objective and verifiable evidence) that God communicates his morality in a reliable way to us humans – which we know he isn’t doing, as religions just can’t seem to come to any consensus on morality whatsoever.

  17. 17
    Matt Penfold

    One should not torture toddlers. It makes their meat taste horrible.

  18. 18
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Mr Warden is so obsessed with bestiality that he even claims the Friday Cephalopod is a “weekly animal sex post”

    Hee.

    Consent is much more complicated with animals, though: cows do not consent to be turned into hamburgers, but we do it anyway.

    “We do it anyway” isn’tt an indication that it’s more complicated, just that people choose not to follow the same ethics with nonhuman animals that they do with other humans. Of course, many people convince themselves that somehow the animals have consented (just as many do with people they exploit and harm). Jonathan Safran Foer talks about “the myth of consent” in Eating Animals. Many put the question out of their minds, as they do the question of unnecessary harm and killing, but I think even those most successful at the psychological tricks are still bothered at some level (and themselves harmed) by the practice.

  19. 19
    greg1466

    My thanks also PZ. It’s such a common tactic that we really should have a standard response as well. But wait, God said it’s wrong to kill babies?!? I must have missed that decree. Apparently I overlooked it, you know, buried as it is among all of the commands to kill men, women (except virgins of course), children (again, not the virgins!) and, uh, babies…

  20. 20
    Alex M Doubts Your Commitment to Sparkle Motion

    I truly feel most Christians — like, the VAST majority — are meta-atheists. Most would NOT kill or even TRY to kill their own children if (they thought) God asked them to. Most will grieve the loss of a loved one, hard, even though they profess belief in a perfect posthumous existence. Most have moral standards that are either not addressed in or are flat-out contradicted by the Bible.

    It’s truly a pity what poor thinking, poor understanding of personal motive, and a total lack of self-reflection will reduce people to, intellectually.

  21. 21
    jaybee

    (1) Christians who find C.S. Lewis compelling put a special meaning on the word “absolute.” If I agree that nearly all cultures have a prohibition on, say, killing their own children, CS Lewis says that is an absolute law, and they think they are clever by then leaping to: absolute means independent of the universe, therefore outside the universe, therefore God.

    I prefer to say such examples of common behavior is “(nearly) universal.” That phrase is one they haven’t been trained on, and it subtly turns it into an inside the universe idea.

    Beside the basic issue of empathy, there is the evolutionary calculus that humans invest heavily in each offspring, therefore killing your offspring is not helpful. Looking to the animal kingdom, many fecund species kill and eat their young if resources have gotten tight, or if the putative father isn’t sure he is the child’s father.

    (2) There is the issue of people picking and choosing what they care to enforce from the Bible, based on the same subjecting feelings of what is right and wrong that we all have. The bible is a post-hoc justification, not the basis of that morality.

  22. 22
    Alex M Doubts Your Commitment to Sparkle Motion

    @Matt Penfold

    Really? I was always under the impression that fear added extra flavor and tenderness.

  23. 23
    Dhorvath, OM

    I think there is a difference between being able to support your actions as being of worth and saying that they are objectively correct. Truth be told, I find it uncomfortable to approach anything with the level of certainty claimed by many religious adherents, I could be wrong about my moral decisions, but I don’t want to be seems sufficient to keep me paying attention.

  24. 24
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Really? Christians are claiming that torturing children comes from biblical morality? Bullshit.

    Proverbs 13:24:

    He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

    Proverbs 22:15:

    Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

    Proverbs 23:13-14:

    Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.

    Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.

    Beat the silly, childish ways out of your kids! It’s the godly way!

  25. 25
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    Really? I was always under the impression that fear added extra flavor and tenderness.

    You’re confusing “fear” with “stewing for several hours on a low heat, with herbs and spices added to taste.” It’s a common mistake.

  26. 26
    Deen

    One should not torture toddlers. It makes their meat taste horrible.

    Besides, it’s impolite to play with your food. Morals, people.

  27. 27
    raven

    There is the issue of people picking and choosing what they care to enforce from the Bible, based on the same subjecting feelings of what is right and wrong that we all have.

    All xians are cafeteria xians. Given how contradictory the magic book is, they all have to pick and choose.

    Even a toad like Ken Ham is a cafeteria xian. He rejects the Flat Earth and Geocentrism but keeps the Big Boat Genocide event.

  28. 28
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Or, for clarity’s sake, I should have written:

    Christians are claiming that refraining from torturing children comes from biblical morality?

    Instead of:

    Christians are claiming that torturing children comes from biblical morality?

    Since it’s clear that the bible is a-okay with beating your kids until they behave.

  29. 29
    dianne

    @18: I would argue that eating animals (or not) is a good example of why it is better to think about your morality and decide what is best rather than follow a text to determine whether something is right or not.

    A cow that is about to be slaughtered almost certainly doesn’t want to be killed. I don’t know that cows are capable of having an opinion on being eaten versus other rituals for disposal of their bodies, but I’m pretty sure that they don’t want to be killed. OTOH, cows are one of the most successful large mammals in existence, barring humans, because people like to eat them, wear their skins, and drink their milk. So…would it be harm to stop exploiting cows for their meat, milk, and skin? The number of cows in the world would drop percipitously and they’d probably be considered a nuisance animal and killed when they came too close to humans (i.e. started wandering into someone’s field and eating their grain.)

    I come down on the side of it being better to have never existed than to exist briefly, suffer horribly, then die. Therefore, I don’t eat mammals or use leather if I can help it. I claim my morality is superior to that of someone who keeps kosher or halal for religious reasons, even though the results are similar, because I do it because I’ve concluded that this is the best way to reduce suffering rather than because someone told me to.

  30. 30
    dianne

    Besides, it’s impolite to play with your food.

    But…what if it’s bored?

    Don’t eat babies. Including veal. It’s bad. The monster in the shadows in OOTS said so, so it must be true.

  31. 31
    neal

    I once saw someone debate an evangelical into a corner about objective morality. It was really amusing to see him maneuver the evangelical into a position where he could use this line: “Don’t try to feed me any of that moral relativism bullshit. Morality is objective, not subjective. God is bound by the same rules as the rest of us, so when he orders the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Canaanites, he’s wrong.”

    Christians believe God makes moral law, and is therefore not bound by it. This moral relativism is, I think, an infrequently exploited rhetorical weak spot.

  32. 32
    Deen

    @dianne in #8:

    2. The follow up question usually has to do with getting caught: Why should you care about morals if no one knows that you did or did not do the moral thing?

    Indeed. Christians don’t have an absolute morality, they just have an authority figure with the absolute power to catch you and punish you. In the end, that’s what it comes down to.

    I always want to ask Christians who make such arguments whether they really believe that the child who only behaves because the teacher is watching has better morals than the kid who behaves even if they believe the teacher isn’t watching.

  33. 33
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    And OMG, I almost missed a perfect opportunity to fling out my catch phrase:

    THERE’S GOOD EATING ON A FETUS!!!

    … whew. I feel much better now. :)

  34. 34
    Nick Gotts

    PZ’s 4 points will do well enough for practical purposes, and when faced with difficult real-life moral questions, the difficulty seldom if ever arises from meta-ethical concerns. That said, I agree with jamessweet that they wouldn’t suffice in an argument specifically about the basis and nature of ethical principles: if it all comes down to self-interest (and even the point about empathy is phrased that way), then someone who happens to be without empathy appears to be immune from criticism if they act in a callous fashion when their self-interest so dictates. I’ve just spent several days on this thread getting joey to concede that he would not agree to his children being tortured even if he was sure he’d suffer no adverse consequences (including feeling bad about it). The simple fact is, most of us have goals that cannot be reduced to self-interest, and there is absolutely nothing irrational in doing so.

    Apparent ethical statements such as “Torturing toddlers is wrong” are not objective statements of fact, like, say, “Torturing toddlers makes them scream”. But nor are they just subjective expressions of taste or preference, which is often presented as the only alternative to a view of morality as objective. Rather, they are specifications of how we intend to assess behaviour, motivations andor agents. In that respect at least, they resemble the “requirements spec” for a piece of software, which is also neither a statement of fact nor a mere subjective expression of preference. Like requirements specs, they are logically related to the goals we have – specifically, goals that refer to things other than our self-interest. Like requirements specs, they can be rationally criticised on the grounds of internal inconsistency, impracticality, insufficient specificity andor unintended consequences.

    In my arguments with moral objectivists (usually but not always theists), there always seems to be a point where I justify some action or principle in terms of its effects on other people, and am then asked: “But why do you care about other people?”. My response is to distinguish a causal and a justificatory version of this question. If I am being asked How it came about that I care about other people, I can give a partial answer in terms of human evolution and culture, and my own life-experience. If it is being asked what the justification is for caring about other people, it’s that other people are likely to be better off if I do – in other words, I justify it in terms of its reasonably predictable consequences. Since the welfare of other people is (in general – I admit there are exceptions), a top-level goal for me – something I value for its own sake, not because it subserves some other goal – no further justification is either possible, or necessary.

  35. 35
    Nick Gotts

    So…would it be harm to stop exploiting cows for their meat, milk, and skin? The number of cows in the world would drop percipitously – dianne

    That’s completely irrelevant to the individual cow.

  36. 36
    mikmik

    raven

    It’s estimated that under biblical law today, 99% of the US population would end up getting stoned to death for such offenses as adultery, being a nonvirgin bride, or breaking the sabbath.

    And, ALL the kids would get stoned for various infractions, such as being normal and, basically, the terrible twos and testing boundaries. I mean, if they followed the Bible strictly, it would entail torturing babies and young children, FFS!

    Proverbs 23: 13-14.“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his soul from Sheol.” (Sheol = Hell)

    and, of course:
    Proverbs 13:24
    King James Version (KJV)

    24 He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

    Then there is this gentle reminder:
    Deuteronomy 21:18-21

    King James Version (KJV)
    18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
    19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
    20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
    21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

    – - -

    I mean, what kind of a very sick fuck even conceives of child torture to ask the question in the first place?? Oh, wait, I answered that already:

    I mean, if they followed the Bible strictly, it would entail torturing babies and young children, FFS!

    The Bible, of course.

  37. 37
    barfy

    Christians would love for atheists to state that there is no ultimate morality to the universe. No right or wrong. No good or evil. That every moral compass that is constructed is developed ex nihilo.
    I agree. Completely.
    Just as Shakespeare said,”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
    So, man up, atheists. Admit it.
    Assigning good/bad or right/wrong is a construct developed and created BY our thinking, and nothing else.
    Does that make it invalid?
    Talk amongst yourselves.

  38. 38
    ryanwilkinson

    I find it’s equally difficult to explain having an objective morality to atheistic moral relativists.

  39. 39
    dianne

    That’s completely irrelevant to the individual cow.

    Except insofar as the cow probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the meat/dairy industry’s breeding of numerous cows. I tend to agree that that is no excuse for killing cows. Interestingly, I’ve seen animal rights activists argue that it is ok to kill transgenic mice for research because they wouldn’t exist without the experiment, but not normal mice because they might exist anyway. So the argument doesn’t hold for everyone. Whatever that means to its objective truth or falsehood.

  40. 40
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    Shakespeare makes a bad philosopher of ethics. I’m not sure that reflects kindly on such philosophers especially considering the pragmatic problems with systems of morality, like the one PZ proposes to live by, are not realistically that problematic at all.

    It seems fairly obvious that ‘every moral compass’ is, in fact, not constructed ex nihilo. Does anyone actually need to have a conversation about an obvious truth?

    Barfy, perhaps you don’t understand what you mean when you use ‘ex nihilo’? It’s either that or you’re wilfully ignorant. Either way, I don’t expect your inanity to be very welcomed.

  41. 41
    Subtract Hominem, a product of Nauseam

    Allow me to jump on the bandwagon of those who get a kick out of turning the question around. Erm, and out of mixing metaphors, apparently.

    “I was able to use my own reasoning, intelligence, and empathy to figure out that torture is wrong. You mean that you weren’t? Really? Someone had to tell you that before you accepted it? I think I’m just going to back away now…”

  42. 42
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    If the big sky daddy demands it, it is not immoral.

  43. 43
    Tâlib Alttaawiil (طالب التاويل)

    as in so many things, here the christians have it completely backwards. if morality is objective, then it’s immoral for god to order genocide, which he allegedly has. i don’t know of any christians who would accept that; anything god commands is by definition moral, including all of the atrocious things the bible describes. to my mind it’s no different from believing that anything kim jong-il commanded was moral.

    doesn’t plato show in one of his dialogues that morality transcends the will of the gods?

    the moral universe of the christians is like a chess tournament in which one guy can make whatever the hell move he wants at any time, & the rest of us have to go along & pretend that it’s good. which it’s not. f yhwh.

  44. 44
    No One

    My response;

    “I’d only torture a toddler if god told me to. Since I have never seen any evidence of the supernatural, including gods, that’s highly unlikely”

    And my favorite reply to the “Have you ever lied” gotcha:

    “I always lie”

  45. 45
    ryanwilkinson

    “doesn’t plato show in one of his dialogues that morality transcends the will of the gods?”

    Well Socrates says “What is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” Plato responds with the statement that sometimes even the gods disagree; “the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. Are these not the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile to each other whenever we do?” Therefore, Plato maintains, “what all gods hate is impious, and what they all love is pious, and what some gods love, and others hate is neither or both.”

  46. 46
    raven

    If the big sky daddy demands it, it is not immoral.

    The Sky Fairy invented genocide for the Big Boat salvage operation.

    He also holds the record for most humans killed at one time, at least in percentage terms. All but 8 people were killed.

    Of course, if god genocides the human race, its not immoral either. And there is another chance to get killed by the Celestial Maniac. Jesus is supposed to show up Real Soon and kill 7 billion people. The next date to come and go is May 27, 2012. If jesus misses that one, there is another one in June.

  47. 47
    strange gods before me ॐ

    OTOH, cows are one of the most successful large mammals in existence, barring humans, because people like to eat them, wear their skins, and drink their milk. So…would it be harm to stop exploiting cows for their meat, milk, and skin?

    It would not be harm. This way of talking about a species as “successful” is as meaningful as considering hydrogen successful because it’s the most common element, calling non-prime numbers successful relative to primes, or saying “rocks are by far the Earth’s most common inhabitants”.

    It can be helpful in talking about how evolution works, but just like when we talk about particular gene variants being successful, it’s only a metaphor.

    Real success can only apply to individuals creatures, because only individuals have preferences which can upheld or thwarted.

    they’d probably be considered a nuisance animal and killed when they came too close to humans (i.e. started wandering into someone’s field and eating their grain.)

    Unlikely. The scenario presumes convincing the population to care enough about cows’ own lives and preferences to refrain from eating them.

    When that has already been achieved, such a population would prefer having humane control methods, like calling up the authorities to collect the animal and transport it to a “cattle preserve.”

  48. 48
    strange gods before me ॐ

    That’s completely irrelevant to the individual cow.

    Except insofar as the cow probably wouldn’t exist

    Not existing in the first place is also irrelevant to individuals who don’t exist.

    It’s like the question “what if your mom had aborted you?”

    Well, “I” wouldn’t care, no more than Harry Potter cares about not being a real person.

  49. 49
    hideousclaude

    My reply, having taken far more time to formulate than would ever be allowed in a public debate:
    “Who would want to torture a toddler? They would almost certainly have no good intel on terrorists. I suppose a sadistic pedophile psychopath would want to, but I don’t think you’d want to investigate the religious affiliations of that or any class of violent offenders.”
    “How old would a child have to be to be tortured for heresy or witchcraft? Christians tortured heretics and witches for centuries. Why did you stop? Did it stop being moral to do so? If so, you can hardly argue that Christian morality is permanent, and thus it cannot be said to be objective.”

  50. 50
    devnll

    Interesting article in the Guardian today about the point – or lack thereof – of swearing on a Bible in court. I would argue that swearing on the person’s holy book of choice is a _good_ idea. The more rabid religious extremists have clearly shown and stated that they _don’t_ have an objective morality, and that they _would_ run around raping, pillaging, and lying if their god didn’t constantly tell them not to, so those folks need to swear on something that will give them pause. The rest of humanity, that does have an objective morality (and I include in this the vast majority of more reasonable people who self-identify as religious) doesn’t need the oath anyways. Anyone who actually brings up the fact that their oath on a bible is rendered meaningless by their lack of belief, has already proved the point and rendered the oath irrelevant anyways.

  51. 51
    Bronze Dog

    I don’t understand the concept of “objective morality” except possibly in the sense of measuring the stability and prosperity that results from having a particular morality versus others. In that case, secular humanism and similar philosophies seem to be winning by my estimation.

    Of course, as others have pointed out earlier, the “objective” morality posited by divine command theorists is subjective “just my opinion” morality with their god being the one holding the arbitrary opinion, arbitrarily valued more than others’ opinions. When asked for a basis for valuing their god’s opinion over anyone else’s, suddenly the basis becomes “might makes right” or some quasi-Randian argument that god has the right because we’re his property, not people.

  52. 52
    Alex M Doubts Your Commitment to Sparkle Motion

    @Bronze Dog

    He shoots, he scores!

  53. 53
    Marcus Ranum

    I consider myself a moral nihilist, having failed to solve the is-ought problem and finding that I am unable to build a morality that I’m able to defend adequately. But I live my life according to a set of aesthetic decisions – trying to make my world and those around me’s world more beautiful (whatever that is) and happier (whatever that is) I am comfortable with replying “I just don’t find that attractive or fun” to the question ‘why don’t you eat puppies?’ I don’t have to justify or defend a matter of opinion.

    It’s my opinion that theists are also moral nihilists, to the extent that they believe there is a superpowerful and arbitrary being that makes up a list of “do”s and “don’t”s that they allegedly follow without understanding or being able to defend. They don’t have any objective morality and they haven’t examined theirs – in principle. In practice, it seems suspicious that god wants what they want; their “morality” is just a cheap trick for adding the imaginary weight of their imaginary god behind what are – just like mine – mere opinions.

  54. 54
    SallyStrange

    Well, I got curious about all this objective vs. subjective stuff, so I looked up “objective” in Dictionary.com, which is good enough for me.

    Under the definitions of “objective” which pertain to its use as an adjective, and omitting the first, which has to do with “objective” used as a synonym for “goal”:

    2. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.

    3. intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book.

    4. being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject ( opposed to subjective).

    5. of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality

    I’m starting to think that the distinction between objective and subjective is mostly useless.

    Certainly we can consider morality as an external object without bringing our own feelings and prejudices into it. But without minds and without our own feelings, it is rather nonsensical. Without the existence of our minds, there would be no morality.

    I suppose some theists would say that morality would be there even without humans, but since they posit the mind of god as creating this morality, my point about the necessity of minds still stands.

  55. 55
    dianne

    @50: The problem I see with swearing on a holy book of choice is that the choice will affect the juror’s views of the person so swearing. If, for example, the person swears on a Koran in a majority Christian country, the jurors might think him or her less reliable because of his/her choice in holy book. This could affect the outcome of the trial.

    Personally, I tell the truth in court out of a desire to see justice done. And yes, I’d commit perjury if that were the only way to prevent, for example, a toddler from being tortured. And my answers wouldn’t change a bit based on whether I swore on a Bible, a Koran, or a copy of LotR. Forgive me Gandolf.

  56. 56
    abb3w

    As a reflex quibble, I’d note that PZ’s “consent” principle does not include resolution mechanism from when person A wants one thing, person B wants something different, and neither will consent to the other’s course. Which, generally speaking, is a hard problem. There’s probably related issues for how to deal morally with immoral actors.

    I’d also think the more basic question of what’s meant by “objective morality” might be worth exploring. Moral realism? Moral universalism? Moral absolutism?

    Myself, I’d prefer to start with “objectively recognizable” as a minimum; that is, giving a definition of morality such that other people can recognize particular cases. This at least gives a semantic objectivity; you may not agree that my choosing to eat a cheese sandwich for lunch is better (in the sense you use the word) than choosing to eat a bowl of vegetable soup, but you might at least be able to understand that this choice-ordering validly results from whatever bizarre definition of “better” I’m using (say, defining eating cheese as better than not eating cheese). However, this probably is not a sufficient sense for most whiners to consider a morality “objective”. Contrariwise, I don’t see how anything that doesn’t meet this minimal standard can reasonably hope to be classed as “objective”.

    Looking through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Moral Relativism” gives a definition on the opposing concept: “Let us say that moral objectivism maintains that moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute or universal sense, that some of them are true, and that people sometimes are justified in accepting true moral judgments (and rejecting false ones) on the basis of evidence available to any reasonable and well-informed person.”

    For that, I’d slightly disagree, due to a fundamental disagreement on the nature of “truth” and suspicion of the term “ordinarily”. I distinguish abstract “truth” of the mathematical or grammatical sort (where my views look to resemble Coherence Theory), versus empirical “truth” describing the specific universe we live in (where my views seem to more resemble a Correspondence Theory). Moral “truth” seems yet a third type, requiring an additional axiom (bridging Hume’s is-ought divide, to define a semantically objective referent for “morality”: which of the possible ordering relationship over sets of choices is being talked about).

    Thus, moral claims can be objectively true or false (valid/invalid, what have you) relative to whatever is-ought bridge is chosen. In so far as those morals involve orderings of choices based on evidence, this would seem similar — but placing an emphasis on whatever Humpty-Dumpty “just what I choose it to mean” definition is being used. Thus, morality is objective only so far as objective agreement exists for what the word “morality” refers to. Which agreement, in the case of Christians who tend to assert the basis of morality as “you OUGHT to do what God says”, is lacking.

    However, it may just be that I’ve been reading too much abstract algebra and Lewis Carrol of late.

  57. 57
    Marcus Ranum

    Who would want to torture a toddler?

    I spent 5 hours on a flight from Philadelphia to LA last week, with a toddler kicking the back of my seat – I would have cheerfully tortured the toddler, and its parents for good measure. I’m a selfish asshole; I’m godlike in that respect.

  58. 58
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    Marcus Ranum, you didn’t enage in very deep thought about that, did you? You’re necessarily not a moral nihilist. Nihilism is a necessarily self-defeating position to take. It’s a broken concept and as such is impossible to implement it. That ought to be obvious to you (I take much pleasure in that statement), because you effectively do not live as a moral nihilist, a fact which reveals your shallow thinking.

    Sad, that.

  59. 59
    Marcus Ranum

    Oh, and speaking of torturing children – I’d just club them like a baby seal. It’s not anywhere near as bad as what the catholic priests do.

  60. 60
    dianne

    The scenario presumes convincing the population to care enough about cows’ own lives and preferences to refrain from eating them.

    Not necessarily. They could just have decided that eating cows was too dangerous or wasn’t economically beneficial. For example, if there were a drug that increased human life expectancy to 200 years, but had bad side effects when taken with beef or if vat grown meat became practical and keeping the actual animal around was 100X more expensive than just growing up a muscle in vitro. There are also situations where not eating beef could lead to an outright cow genocide like mad cow disease epidemics or maybe if people ever got serious about global warming and realized how much freaking methane cows produce.

    All things considered, I consider the scenario where people give up eating cows for moral reasons less likely than any of the above, with the possible exception of the life extension drug.

  61. 61
    dianne

    I spent 5 hours on a flight from Philadelphia to LA last week, with a toddler kicking the back of my seat – I would have cheerfully tortured the toddler, and its parents for good measure.

    Having traveled on airplanes with a toddler, I can assure you that torturing a toddler who is on a long plane trip or especially its parents is an entirely redundant act. The airline has already taken care of that for you.

  62. 62
    Sqrat

    I don’t understand the concept of “objective morality”

    Objective morality: It is morally impermissible for you to take my iPad, and it is also morally impermissible for me to take yours.

    Subjective morality: It is morally impermissible for you to take my iPad, but it is morally permissible for me to take yours. Because I’m me, and you’re not.

  63. 63
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    Marcus Ranum, and yet you didn’t. Hyperbole much? Keep at it, I’m sure there’s humour somewhere in the other hypothetical situations in which you’d do abhorrent things if only …? Oh yeah, you gloss over that bit where you actually have to admit to the action being hypothetical. Damn logic and inference.

  64. 64
    Marcus Ranum

    Thomathy, Holy Trinity of Conflation: Atheist-Secularist-Darwinist writes:
    That ought to be obvious to you (I take much pleasure in that statement), because you effectively do not live as a moral nihilist, a fact which reveals your shallow thinking.

    I see a bunch of assertions and an appeal to some external authority that apparently I’d know about if I wasn’t a completely unlearned ass. But how does that explain anything?

    What you appear to be doing is claiming that my aesthetics (by which I mean something like tastes/desires/opinions/what I like) are a moral system. They’re certainly a system of some kind, but I don’t apply them very consistently. I favor non-violence when it applies to me, for example, but if Mike Tyson started beating the shit out of you, I’d probably find that amusing. I also would have a great deal of trouble defining them systematically. How is a jumble of opinions about what I want a moral system that I should be living by? (which would make me inconsistent)

  65. 65
    Marcus Ranum

    Marcus Ranum, and yet you didn’t. Hyperbole much?

    Fear of retaliation by others. Perhaps I don’t believe in morality or have a consistent system of rules but there are people with guns who think they do and who are empowered and willing to inflict their arbitrary opinions on others. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in a cop’s morality – the cop does.

  66. 66
    strange gods before me ॐ

    or if vat grown meat became practical and keeping the actual animal around was 100X more expensive than just growing up a muscle in vitro.

    Okay, I can imagine that being plausible.

    But the stray cow problem in that economic scenario is not an argument against stopping the exploitation of cows for their meat, milk, and skin on moral grounds, since the stray cow problem is likely to have a better resolution in the moral scenario.

    Not that you said otherwise, of course.

  67. 67
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    Marcus Ranum, you clearly live by your jumble of opinions, unless I’m mistaken in reading your comment, so it constitutes a system, inconsistent as it may be, of morality. You’re not a nihilist as you describe yourself, you’re amoral. I don’t even buy that, since it’s contradicted by the fact that you did not violently assault the toddler and xi’s parents, either out of convention or because of the possible repercussions you might face.

    It might be more accurate to describe you as merely an asshole who wants to beat up toddlers and their parents in certain situations because of annoyance to you. If you are trying to make yourself seem like a sociopath, you do a good job. It’s just that it’s obvious you’re just trying. At best, it’s creepy, asshole.

  68. 68
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    Marcus Ranum @65, and your opinions are not also arbitrary?

    (Hint: opinions are not arbitrary.)

  69. 69
    strange gods before me ॐ

    Marcus, as I’m sure you’re aware, any set of conditionals, no matter how complicated and reliant upon variables like mood, can still be described as a system.

    Thus you have a moral system, if only an implicit moral system which you act in accordance with 100% of the time. ;)

  70. 70
    barfy

    To Thomathy:
    I believe that I have used ‘ex nihilo’ appropriately.
    Such that, Godel states that any system must have one statement that cannot be proven and thus taken as axiomatic, all systems are unprovable.
    If you want to argue that human moral systems can be constructed out of an acceptance of evolutionary heritage, preferences, self-interest, etc – I get that.
    It’s just that, ultimately, we are creating a moral construct whose ultimate aim is to work against the pernicious onslaught of entropy. But who is to say that entropy is, in itself, ultimately good or bad, but thinking makes it so?

  71. 71
    michaelb

    Other than not wanting to lose debates with religious apologists, what makes us so uncomfortable nihilism, utilitarianism, or consequentialism? Why not admit that natural selection has bestowed upon us tendencies toward behaviors that we describe as morality? Societies in turn reinforce the local consensus as to which behaviors are moral and censure those regarded as immoral. These standards change over time. If morals are relative depending on time and place are they not subjective? There’s an element of intuition involved here too – we don’t do stuff that makes us feel “icky” – but until recently there have been places in the world where our Western taboo against cannibalism would have been regarded as an immoral refusal to engage in appropriate ancestor reverence in the highlands of Borneo. If we argue that our morality is improving over time do we mean to imply that morality is some sort of emergent property? What if we humans simply tend to color inside the lines and punish those who do not because it suits our needs as social animals? It’s worked pretty well for us so far. What’s wrong with admitting there are no moral absolutes, simply useful choices and deleterious choices for individuals, groups, societies, and species? Perhaps we resist admitting that there are no objective morals because then the monotheist retorts “So, you’re saying there’s nothing objectively wrong with murder, rape, or torturing babies for fun?” As others have noted, it’s not like the religious can demonstrate their deity has a corner on consistently moral behavior as defined in their own holy books, where genocide, rape, and ritual genital mutilation abound.

  72. 72
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    barfy, WTF? Entropy is a useful concept in physics and particularly useful when understood in thermodynamic terms. It is not so much useful in terms of human social interaction or, indeed, any area outside of physics except as a (usually) very poor metaphor. So, don’t be obtuse.

    Also, moral construct is not a ‘who’. The people who use such things have aims, concepts do not. And it certainly does not work against entropy. That doesn’t even make sense and I refuse to be generous and offer a plausible meaning for your use of entropy there.

  73. 73
    Sili

    Oh, and speaking of torturing children – I’d just club them like a baby seal. It’s not anywhere near as bad as what the catholic priests do.

    Depends what end you club.

  74. 74
    madbull

    I loved the post, and thanks for it. There is something I disagree with though.

    I oppose causing harm to animals unless there is an opportunity for significant gain (sorry, while I can be absolute in opposing harm to humans, I do not make the same argument for animals.) Having recreational sex with an animal is not a gain significant enough to justify causing it harm, however. So most instances of bestiality must be opposed for the same reason.

    Is eating an animal significant enough gain to cause it the harm of death ? If so, I do not see why sex with it should be less of a gain. There are vegetarian substitutes for almost every nutrient you can get from an animal, so the only gain is the pleasure you get from eating the meat. I do not support bestiality for the same reason that I am a vegetarian. If I didn’t have a problem with eating meat though, I wouldn’t have a problem with bestiality either (It would be gross to me, but who am I to tell other people how to have sex)

  75. 75
    consciousness razor

    Well, I got curious about all this objective vs. subjective stuff, so I looked up “objective” in Dictionary.com, which is good enough for me.

    That’s not good enough to understand what ethical philosophers are talking about. For better or worse, they aren’t, in fact, responsible for writing those entries in dictionaries.

    Certainly we can consider morality as an external object without bringing our own feelings and prejudices into it. But without minds and without our own feelings, it is rather nonsensical. Without the existence of our minds, there would be no morality.

    Think of it this way: Without the existence of a mind, would anything be true? Or are we defining “truth” so that there are any truths which are independent of whether or not a mind is thinking about it?

    Take the Pythagorean theorem, for example: was it not the case that a^2+b^2=c^2 before the Pythagoreans thought about it?

    I suppose some theists would say that morality would be there even without humans, but since they posit the mind of god as creating this morality, my point about the necessity of minds still stands.

    If truth is taken to be dependent on a mind, then like you suggest, divine command theorists don’t have an objective morality because their god is a subject.

    However, the first question you might ask is whether it makes any sense to assign truth-values to moral claims at all. So, is it “true” or “false” that X is good, or does neither apply because that’s just an emotional expression or something else?

  76. 76
    pieris

    I’m surprised that the 60+ comments, and pz’s blog, have not proposed what seems to me to be a reasonable hypothesis to account for ethical/moral behaviour. My guess is that this is embedded in the human nervous system, just as it is in other mammalian populations of social animals such as wolf packs, prairie dogs, antelope herds, and bonobos. One of the strongest selective factors in this regard is the instinctive altruistic care that mammalian mothers give to their offspring. In its absence, it seems obvious that a given mammalian population would soon become extinct. Such behaviour would presumably emerge during development from the interaction of multiple genes and transcription factors, producing variable degrees of altruistic tendencies in the adult. At one end of the spectrum, we have a few individuals who are surprisingly kind and generous, and at the other end we have rare sociopaths completely lacking the usual sense of empathy with their fellow humans. So, my answer to the fundamentalist Christian who asks how I know right from wrong would be “Evolution.” Unfortunately, they would need an undergraduate course in evolutionary biology to understand the answer. Also, I would confess that it is “just a hypothesis” which would not satisfy their need for a final answer.

  77. 77
    Dhorvath, OM

    Pieris,
    Err, did you read the comments? The evolution gambit has been played my friend.

  78. 78
    David Marjanović

    I simply replace “consent” with “informed consent”. As far as I can tell, that takes care of bestiality…

    the imaginary words of a god that say that killing babies is wrong

    …Are there such words?

    Children are supposed to “honor” their parents; is there any commandment (or implication) that goes in the other direction?

    Objectively, the Catholic church considers contraception a sin, but most Catholics make the subjective judgment that it is a sin they don’t mind committing too much.

    Nah. Most catholics make the subjective judgment that the pope is full of shit on this one and it’s objectively not a sin at all.

    Oh, sure, they don’t say that very loud; that’s because of PZ’s reason number 4.

    I’ve just spent several days on this thread getting joey to concede that he would not agree to his children being tortured even if he was sure he’d suffer no adverse consequences (including feeling bad about it).

    …I can’t answer that question for myself. Any person who wouldn’t even feel bad about it is just not me. :-|

    (That’s before we get to the specific example… torture making people lie and confusing their memories and stuff.)

    Derail into pragmatics: how many people without empathy are there?

    Since the welfare of other people is (in general – I admit there are exceptions), a top-level goal for me – something I value for its own sake, not because it subserves some other goal – no further justification is either possible, or necessary.

    But why is it a top-level goal for you?

    Because it makes you feel good? I’m projecting here, but…

    “I always lie”

    “All Cretans are liars.”
    – Epimenides the Cretan, who has a street in Iraklio on Crete named after him

    Forgive me[,] Gand[a]lf.

    Not for misspelling and by implication mispronouncing him.

    As a reflex quibble, I’d note that PZ’s “consent” principle does not include resolution mechanism from when person A wants one thing, person B wants something different, and neither will consent to the other’s course.

    …You mean in a situation where tertium non datur, one thing or the other has to be done, doing nothing or doing anything else is not an option?

    I spent 5 hours on a flight from Philadelphia to LA last week, with a toddler kicking the back of my seat –

    …What did the parents do when you told them the first time?

  79. 79
    consciousness razor
    the imaginary words of a god that say that killing babies is wrong

    …Are there such words?

    I was thinking much the same thing. For that matter, is there some passage in the Bible that tells USAnian Christian they ought to vote for Republicans? Surely, there has to be one, or else they wouldn’t do it. ;)

  80. 80
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Relevant: Video 1, Video 2. Take your pick.

    Improbable Joe:

    THERE’S GOOD EATING ON A FETUS!!!

    Not much of it, though. You have to raid an IVF clinic if you’re going to get your RDA from fetii.

    Barfy:

    man up, atheists.

    Fuck off, sexist.

  81. 81
    mnb0

    I know of a subjective morality that tells me not to torture anyone, including toddlers. That’s good enough for me. Anyone who needs an objective morality either lacks brains or empathy.

  82. 82
    David Marjanović

    G[ö]del states that any system must have one statement that cannot be proven and thus taken as axiomatic, all systems are unprovable.
    If you want to argue that human moral systems

    *eyeroll* Gödel was talking about mathematical systems, which must contain statements that cannot be proven within the system in question but may be provable from outside (by enlarging the system, AFAIK).

    It’s just that, ultimately, we are creating a moral construct whose ultimate aim is to work against the pernicious onslaught of entropy.

    Please do explain.

    Pieris,
    Err, did you read the comments? The evolution gambit has been played my friend.

    It has been, but only in comment 71, and pieris claims to have read “60+ comments”. This thread was simply moving too fast at the moment.

  83. 83
    Richard Smith

    Rick Warden’s takeaway:

    I don’t object to bestiality…in any way

  84. 84
    mnb0

    Btw it’s not so clear if the Bible forbids killing babies. See Leviticus 27:6 – a baby less than a month old is worth nothing.

  85. 85
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Oh, and speaking of torturing children – I’d just club them like a baby seal.

    Funny that, I club them with a baby seal.

  86. 86
    Dhorvath, OM

    David, Take a look at Raven at 10, Jaybee at 21, KG at 34. The idea is out there, although I will grant that Pieris expanded on it, I don’t think it was fair to say no one had brought it up.

  87. 87
    consciousness razor

    I believe that I have used ‘ex nihilo’ appropriately.
    Such that, Godel states that any system must have one statement that cannot be proven and thus taken as axiomatic, all systems are unprovable.
    If you want to argue that human moral systems can be constructed out of an acceptance of evolutionary heritage, preferences, self-interest, etc – I get that.
    It’s just that, ultimately, we are creating a moral construct whose ultimate aim is to work against the pernicious onslaught of entropy. But who is to say that entropy is, in itself, ultimately good or bad, but thinking makes it so?

    What utter nonsense. Besides the fact that you’re taking this outside the context of formal axiomatic systems, Gödel didn’t prove math is wrong or subjective or relative or come “ex nihilo” (whatever the fuck that means here), just that there exists a true theorem in a system which can’t be proven with it.

  88. 88
    David Marjanović

    David, Take a look at Raven at 10, Jaybee at 21, KG at 34. The idea is out there, although I will grant that Pieris expanded on it, I don’t think it was fair to say no one had brought it up.

    True. Comments 10 and 34 just mention it, but 21 explains a bit. I’m tired and probably ill. :-]

  89. 89
    barfy

    Godel’s Theorem does speak to mathematical systems. However, unfortunately for people who like absolutes, it is my conjecture that it propagates into the nature of the universe. I’m not a physicist, but I have found nothing that contradicts the assertion that we cannot absolutely know anything. This gets confusing and counter-intuitive, because we make suppositions such as, one=one, and would like to believe that as fact and transcendental, whereas, this can’t be proven.
    In essence, everything, including math and morals, cannot be proven to be absolute.
    So, ultimately, in developing a moral system, I have to accept that I can’t know if anything I do is moral/immoral or good/bad. Ironically, many religionistas get this about atheists, and many atheists are loathe to admit it.
    As to the question of entropy:
    The universe, as far as we know, is headed inevitably to an entropic state that terms like,’quiet’, ‘chaotic’, ‘random’ are all pitifully incompetent to describe. Therefore, I impose upon the future a subjective value judgment of ‘bad’, and have determined, as the basis of my moral system, to work against this.
    I can understand why many of you may find this pronouncement trivial or inconsequential. However, I would argue that willful ignorance and/or fear towards this concept is why god was developed.

  90. 90
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    barfy, your ass, you should stop talking out of it.

    On a serious note, just what the fuck are you talking about? I’m willing to be redundant here; I don’t understand your gibberish.

  91. 91
    Nick Gotts

    Oh, and speaking of torturing children – I’d just club them like a baby seal. It’s not anywhere near as bad as what the catholic priests do. – Marcus Ranum [emphasis added]

    As we see here, Marcus’s pretence of not understanding moral standards collapses as soon as he’s not thinking about it. He’s a bore who thinks he’s clever, and a bit of an arsehole, but neither a nihilist nor a psychopath.

  92. 92
    abb3w

    @70, barfy:

    If you want to argue that human moral systems can be constructed out of an acceptance of evolutionary heritage, preferences, self-interest, etc – I get that. It’s just that, ultimately, we are creating a moral construct whose ultimate aim is to work against the pernicious onslaught of entropy.

    You sound unaware that evolution is a by-product of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. You might find (doi:10.1098/rspa.2008.0178) to be illuminating reading.

    @87, consciousness razor:

    Gödel didn’t prove math is wrong or subjective or relative or come “ex nihilo” (whatever the fuck that means here), just that there exists a true theorem in a system which can’t be proven with it.

    I think it’s more exact to say that the theorem shows there exists a proposition such that neither P nor its refutation may be proven. The propositions P and not-P are “undecidable” rather than “true” theorems.

    Common sense dictates that one or the other must be “true”, but abstract mathematics at Gödel’s level often has nauseatingly little relation to common sense. It may well be that proposition P is not “true” or “false”, but something like “true under the Axiom of Choice and false under the Refutation of Choice” or “true under the Refutation of Choice and false under the Axiom of Choice”; Boolean logics are not limited to algebras on a two-element set.

    That said, I’d agree with the core point you seem to be trying to make. Gödel’s proof shows that there’s statements not provable by the system, not that there are no statements provable in any system.

  93. 93
    viaten

    It seems nonbelievers can generally agree with believers on morals relating to crimes, hurtful behavior, etc, and it’s still not good enough. Following morals seems to be the issue. It seems they’re asking, “How can I know you will follow your morals as I would mine with their greater implied punishment?”. Or maybe, “How can I know you won’t stop following your morals before I would?”.

  94. 94
    nooneinparticular

    Interesting discussion

    One comment. madbull@74. You seem to be saying that eating animals has, in itself, a moral dimension. I don’t think it does. The morality comes in with how those animals are treated while alive. Also, I would argue, how husbanding those animals effects the world as whole (e.g. the effect on the environment and harm to other life, etc) has a distinct smell of morality to it. But eating animals is not, in my view, a question of morality.

    I may be misreading what you’ve said, though.

  95. 95
    strange gods before me ॐ

    It seems nonbelievers can generally agree with believers on morals relating to crimes, hurtful behavior, etc, and it’s still not good enough. Following morals seems to be the issue. It seems they’re asking, “How can I know you will follow your morals as I would mine with their greater implied punishment?”. Or maybe, “How can I know you won’t stop following your morals before I would?”.

    Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, 23, 483-491.

  96. 96
    dianne

    Not for misspelling and by implication mispronouncing him.

    Dyslexia. I can only spell through brute force memorization and/or spellcheck. This also makes pronunciation a bit odd at times (my mind doesn’t bother with every letter, just the ones I need to recognize the word, with slightly random fill in.) I’m sure this is a moral failure in some belief system or another.

  97. 97
    Amphiox

    About that “don’t kill babies” thing?

    The bible isn’t actually all that clear on that one.

  98. 98
    AlanMac

    I cannot imagine a scenario where torturing a child would be an option for any but the most vile and criminal sociopath, nor can I even imagine torturing a child at all. It’s my humanity that is outraged, not my belief in, or fear of, a deity.

    But then again, according to our friendly local apologist William Lane Craig, a little torture is merely stubbing their tiny toes as they step onto the transporter pad to heaven.

  99. 99
    consciousness razor

    Common sense dictates that one or the other must be “true”, but abstract mathematics at Gödel’s level often has nauseatingly little relation to common sense. It may well be that proposition P is not “true” or “false”, but something like “true under the Axiom of Choice and false under the Refutation of Choice” or “true under the Refutation of Choice and false under the Axiom of Choice”; Boolean logics are not limited to algebras on a two-element set.

    Right, well I’m not a philosopher of math, but I assume it still makes sense to say it’s a true theorem given additional logical structures like that. I didn’t mean to imply it’s true only in relation to that system with no other axioms.

    That said, I’d agree with the core point you seem to be trying to make. Gödel’s proof shows that there’s statements not provable by the system, not that there are no statements provable in any system.

    Yes, that was the point. Thank you, that says it very clearly.

    ———

    This stuff about the evolutionary origins of morality is important to understand, but it’s not clear to me how that helps to answer the metaphysical question of what morality is. I guess I would say that it has to be part of the answer, but not the entirety of it. And I’m not even sure which part it is.

  100. 100
    Lynna, OM

    Apologies to those who may have already read this on The Endless Thread. I posted it there, but it really fits here.

    A religious legislator posts a biblical injunction to kill all gays. His follow-up story, and the thrust of media coverage, is that he feels threatened.

    A pastor turned Mississippi legislator is fearing for his life after activists say he endorsed the killing of gay men on his Facebook page.

    Rep. Andy Gipson cited a Bible passage earlier this month to slam President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, saying he believed that homosexuals shouldn’t have the right to marry.

    “The only opinion that counts is God’s,” he said, then quoted a Bible passage that he interprets to say that being gay is a sin.

    He also quoted another passage:

    “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”…

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/mississippi-legislator-fears-life-comments-gay-marriage-article-1.1082421

    More on the story about Rep. Andy Gipson’s anti-gay remarks:

    Gipson refused to backtrack, however, posting on Friday to his Facebook page that he “Will not apologize for the inspired truth of God’s word.”

    After that, he said, the threats began to come.

    In a statement to WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., Gipson said he never called for the killing of gay people and slammed The Huffington Post, which ran an article about his refusal to apologize, as a “well-known radical liberal blog”.

    “Any reasonable person who reads the actual post can see that both scriptures were cited only for the proposition the same-sex marriage is morally objectionable,” he argued.

    I’m calling total bullshit. For one thing, I’m really fed up with the “it’s not me saying kill the gays, it’s God” excuse. And I’m totally fed up with the “yeah, I quoted God-inspired text justifying killing gay people, but I didn’t really mean it that way” excuse.

  101. 101
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    Lynna, OM, it really shouldn’t be an excuse at all. He shouldn’t be allowed to stand behind that kind of bigotry and incitement to violence murder. His feet should be held to metaphorical fire). Bigots should not be allowed to stand and say that sort of thing without consequences.

    This is a perfect example of how problematic the supposed moral authority of their God is.

  102. 102
    raven

    I’m calling total bullshit. For one thing, I’m really fed up with the “it’s not me saying kill the gays, it’s God” excuse.

    God also wants people to kill:

    1. Disobedient children.
    2. Adulterers
    3. Nonvirgin brides
    4. Sabbath breakers
    5. False Prophets
    6. Apostates
    7. Heretics
    8. Atheists

    In short god wants people to kill just about everyone. Estimates are that 99% of the US population falls under one of the capital crimes lists and would be stoned to death.

    Gibson knows this or should, be a minister. It’s just hypocrisy and cherry picking the bible to sound like a sociopathic murderer while blaming it on god.

    If any proof was needed that belief in the xian Sky Monster is unnecessary and often deleterious for morality, the fundies prove it every day by their words and actions.

  103. 103
    barfy

    Any statement can only be provable within a constructed system – not outside of the system. The basis for the system itself must contain a proposition that is non provable.
    Ultimately, this goes to the law of identity. Can you prove that anything is what it is not?
    Wittgenstein, Godel, Heisenberg, and more recently, Susskind and Hawking have all struggled with defining what something/anything is. This has led to hypotheses such as the Holographic Principle and the difficult marriage between philosophy and mathematics.

  104. 104
    Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts

    barfy, what exactly are you getting at? Stop being obtuse; surely you have a point?

  105. 105
    Amphiox

    re @100;

    Absolutely agree on the bullshit. If he REALLY only wanted to highlight that it was a sin and didn’t have any intention of incitement to violence, he could has easily just ended his citation with “both of them have done what is detestable”.

    But he didn’t. He deliberately included the next two lines about killing when he did not have to. The second one in particular is quite clearly an incitement to vigilante style violence.

    The inclusion is very telling.

  106. 106
    raven

    wikipedia list of capital crimes in the bible:

    Religious practices

    Sacrificing to gods other than YHWH[2][3]
    Passing children through the fire to/as [MLK]. The triconsonantal root MLK has traditionally been translated as if it were the name of an otherwise unattested deity – Moloch – but may just describe a type of sacrifice. It is generally thought that this refers to a form of Human sacrifice similar to that of which the Phoenicians (particularly in Carthage) have historically been widely accused[4] However, the Septuagint reads “You shall not give your seed to serve a ruler”, suggesting that the root M-L-K should be more properly rendered as ‘king/ruler’.
    Worshiping Baal Peor[5]
    False prophecy[6][7][8]
    Necromancy, according to the masoretic text; specifically those who are masters over ghosts (Hebrew: Ba’al ob) and those who gain information from the dead (Hebrew: Yidde’oni).[9] The Septuagint instead condemns gastromancy (Greek: eggastrimuthos), and enchantment (Greek: epaoidos).[10]
    According to the masoretic text, practitioners of kashaph[11] – incanting maleficium. According to the Septuagint version of the same passages, pharmakeia[12] – poisoners. Historically this passage has been translated into English using vague terminology, condemning witchcraft in general.[13]
    Blasphemy[14]
    Sabbath breaking[15][16][17]
    A foreigner (outsider) who gets close to the tabernacle[18]

    [edit] Sexual practices

    Rape by a man of a betrothed woman in the countryside[19]
    Being either participant in consensual sexual activity, in which a betrothed woman consensually loses her virginity to a man[20]
    Loss of virginity by a woman prior to marriage, to someone other than her husband while falsely representing herself as a virgin[21]
    Adultery with a married woman.[22]
    Marrying your wife’s mother[23]
    Certain forms of incest, namely if it involves the father’s wife or a daughter-in-law.[24] Other forms of incest receive lesser punishment; sexual activity with a sister/stepsister is given excommunication for a punishment;[25]; if it involves a brother’s wife or an uncle’s wife it is just cursed[26] and sexual activity with an aunt that is a blood relation is merely criticized.[27]
    Prostitution by the daughter of a priest[28]
    Certain activities with a male (Hebrew: zakhar) involving what the masoretic text literally terms lay layings woman (Hebrew: tishkav mishkvei ishah),[29][30] and the Septuagint literally terms beds [verb] the woman’s/wife’s bed (Greek: koimethese koiten gynaikos);[31][32] the gender of the target of the command is commonly understood to be male, but not explicitly stated. The correct translation and interpretation of this passage, and its implications for Homosexuality in Judaism and Homosexuality in Christianity, are controversial. Translations into English are wide-ranging.[33][34]
    Bestiality[35][36]

    [edit] Miscellaneous Murder, believed by Jews to apply to believing non-Jews, or (Noachides) as well[37][38][39][40]

    Smiting a parent[41]
    Cursing (ie repudiating) a parent[42][43]
    A son who persists in disobeying his parents[44]
    Kidnapping[45][46]
    Negligent homicide, specifically by ox-goring[47]
    Contempt of court[48]
    False witness to a capital crime[49]

    Here is a list of death penalty crimes in the bible. It’s a long list and includes many that are no longer death penalty offenses or even crimes. You can get away with picking up sticks on the sabbath in most of the USA. I’d be careful in Mississippi though.

    A foreigner (outsider) who gets close to the tabernacle[18] Watch out for tabernacles though. It is a death penalty for a foreigner to get too close to a tabernacle. BTW, what in the hell is a tabernacle anyway. For all I know, I walk by one every day.

    Gipson is a cafeteria xian. He quotes one part of his magic book and ignores all the rest.

  107. 107
    raven

    If we are going to start stoning gay men to death we have to also be consistent with the bible. And start stoning false prophets to death like it says in Deuteronomy.

    That would take care of our fundie problem. All their leaders would be dead under a pile of rocks. Including Andy Gipson, homicidal maniac who calls himself a xian minister.

  108. 108
    Amphiox

    And of course, guess what isn’t a capital crime in the bible? Destroying an unborn fetus, ie abortion.

  109. 109
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    Aren’t theistic objective morals actually subjective to their god(s)?

    I’ll just ignore the WLC “x is a property of God” bullshit, as that simply makes that deity subject to some other standard.

    It’s all nonsense.

  110. 110
    barfy

    The point is that atheists need to admit that morality is a construct.
    That terms like, “objective morality” have to involve definitions that are agreed upon by the participants in the discussion.
    That atheists cannot absolutely define anything as good/evil or moral/immoral.

    The reason we, as atheists, go through such logical cartwheels about morality, without admitting the above, is because we know that the religious are playing a game of Gotcha, and can’t wait to insert God into the fear generated by the thought of a potentially amoral universe.

    But, once again, stated many times by many others, we can’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

  111. 111
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    That atheists cannot absolutely define anything as good/evil or moral/immoral.

    We can’t?

    Killing or torturing toddlers (barring in some really weird fantasy-land hypothetical special case that someone might dream up) is evil/immoral.

    Next question?

  112. 112
    consciousness razor

    The point is that atheists need to admit that morality is a construct.

    This is the point you were trying to barf out? Hilarious.

  113. 113
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    Me @111
    …Or if it’s barbecue weather. Obviously.

  114. 114
    saguhh00

    Morality comes from the brain, because to be able to act morally you must be able to think and to be able to think you must have a brain.

    This “morality comes from God” thingy makes no sense.
    For 4 hundred years most Xtians in the American continent supported slavery, but now the only Xian I know who supports slavery is Jezuzfreak777. How can there be objective morality when Xians change their minds so drastically about issues like slavery.

  115. 115
    dianne

    what in the hell is a tabernacle anyway

    Um…a place where Mormons have choir?

  116. 116
    No One

    Lynna, OM @ 100

    Interesting to note that a christians reaction to Rep. Andy Gipson was to link to this bible quote:

    Hebrews 7:12

    English Standard Version (ESV)

    12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.

    I’m sorry you morals come from where?

  117. 117
    barfy

    Why is it hilarious?
    Cause you didn’t understand it the first time?

    ADMIT IT!

    Say it after me: “There is no absolute morality.”

    There. Now didn’t that make you feel better?

  118. 118
    Sastra

    barfy #110 wrote:

    That atheists cannot absolutely define anything as good/evil or moral/immoral.

    We can define it as “absolutely” as the theist can. Are they asking about judgement, or are they asking about origins?

    In answer to the question “how do you justify your morals?” I tell the theist they rest on the same ground their own rest on — asking “Is God ‘good?’”

    By what standard do you measure and judge that God is good? That’s the standard we use, too.

    Origins is a different question. Evolution talks about the details and methods and mechanisms in an attempt at a real explanation: “We get our moral nature from a Moral Source” just moves the question around to look like an explanation.

  119. 119
    abb3w

    @103, barfy:

    The basis for the system itself must contain a proposition that is non provable.

    AKA, “axioms”.

    However, in the case of mathematical/linguistic axioms, they can be picked pretty arbitrarily. Whether you start with ZF or vNBG makes less difference than choosing to discuss philosophy in English or French; there’s some translation required, but that’s about it.

    Taking an additional axiom allows addressing inferences about the empirical — “is” questions. That one’s equally takeable in Refutation, but the alternative is usually considered philosophically uninteresting.

    @103, barfy:

    This has led to hypotheses such as the Holographic Principle and the difficult marriage between philosophy and mathematics.

    …dude, you’re verging on word salad, even more than I do.

    @110, barfy:

    That terms like, “objective morality” have to involve definitions that are agreed upon by the participants in the discussion.

    Nope. That just makes communication easier by reducing the amount of translation involved.

    However, if Humpty-Dumpty wants to use “eating cheese is better than not eating cheese” as the referent ordering relationship he associates to the word “morality”, I just need to know that, and note that (say) Daz appears (@111) to be using a different basis (though it’s unclear whether deontological or consequentialist) to define Daz‘s sense of the word.

  120. 120
    consciousness razor

    Say it after me: “There is no absolute morality.”

    Absoluteness isn’t objectivity. It’s hilarious that you’re clearly a clueless dumbass, yet you think there’s some profound lesson in your idiotic preaching that we just don’t understand.

    You’ve done your bit about incompleteness. Now all you need to do is mention quantum mechanics, relativity and the mind-body problem for a BINGO. (You get the free square for the rest of your incoherent rambling.)

  121. 121
    Margaret

    “I was able to use my own reasoning, intelligence, and empathy to figure out that torture is wrong. You mean that you weren’t? Really? Someone had to tell you that before you accepted it? I think I’m just going to back away now…”

    Love that turn-around.

    When the religious talk about “objective morality” they don’t mean “objective,” they mean “external.” They have to be told the rules by some external means rather than using empathy and reason to figure it out themselves. They seem to be claiming to be sociopaths.

  122. 122
    kp71

    WHAT????? Torture a toddler? God has no problem with that. 2 Samuel 12-13.

  123. 123
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    However, if Humpty-Dumpty wants to use “eating cheese is better than not eating cheese” as the referent ordering relationship he associates to the word “morality”, I just need to know that, and note that (say) Daz appears (@111) to be using a different basis (though it’s unclear whether deontological or consequentialist) to define Daz‘s sense of the word.

    I realise you were only using it as an example, but I got interested and had to look up ‘deontological’. If I understand it right, I’d go with consequentialist. Hard-and-fast rules don’t allow for grey areas. Not that I can imagine much of a grey area where killing and/or torturing toddlers is concerned mind, but I have to, in all honesty, stick with the principal that it’s the consequences of one’s actions that matter, not whether one followed a rule.

  124. 124
    Daz, when the wind's called Mariah I know a hawk from a handsaw

    “Principle” Damnit.

  125. 125
    Kel

    The strive for objective morality is overrated, and anyone who claims it’s necessity is not only misrepresenting what morality is, but also putting themselves into saying that they see no difference between torturing and not torturing a baby except that their God says “No!” It’s silly that this canard is pulled out time and time against by theists looking to argue for their God.

    The moral argument for the existence of God is bankrupt – it reduces morality to God’s authority and cares nothing for the agency that’s involved. Torturing babies is a horrible thing because of what it does to the baby, and that’s all one needs to say about it.

  126. 126
    barfy

    Please, please, please…
    teach me what is wrong with the phrase, “there is no absolute morality.”
    Then this obtuse dumbass can go to bed knowing that he learned something today.

  127. 127
    Evader, the parasite-infested branch on the evolutionary tree

    Excellent post Professor, as sharp as always.

    Matt Dillahunty is really good at his morality talks, always enjoyed them.

  128. 128
    Kel

    teach me what is wrong with the phrase, “there is no absolute morality.”

    Nothing wrong with the sentiment, just that it frames the discussion poorly. J. L. Mackie’s “There is no objective ethics” might be a better way to put it.

  129. 129
    consciousness razor

    Nothing wrong with the sentiment, just that it frames the discussion poorly.

    And it’s utterly obvious. And it does not in any way follow from the bullshit barfy was spewing before.

    J. L. Mackie’s “There is no objective ethics” might be a better way to put it.

    Might be? Uhh… It is better to avoid strawmen. It’s not that it just might be better to avoid them. But sure, at least Mackie’s assertion is about the issue, whether or not it’s true.

    But here it seems like you’re conflating objectivity with something having to do with a god, which isn’t helpful either:

    The strive for objective morality is overrated, and anyone who claims it’s necessity is not only misrepresenting what morality is, but also putting themselves into saying that they see no difference between torturing and not torturing a baby except that their God says “No!”

  130. 130
    reynoldhall

    That bullshit with Warden is partly my fault in a way…I saw the article that he originally posted about it, as well as one that (in the picture header for it) referred to that same issue.

    You can see the mentality of the man in the header to that second post of his.

    I thought: Fuck that. I harangued that son of a bitch relentlessly until he made a total ass of himself.

    More details about that, provided that one doesn’t mind spam to a skeptics site (I don’t want to give any more links to that guy than I have to) can be found here.

    I formally apologize to Myers and his daughter if this bloody nonsense gave them any trouble, but damn it! I can’t stand to see that kind of shit!

  131. 131
    reynoldhall

    Reading Warden’s reply, what I did NOT expect was that he’d call on OTHER people to do this as well?

    Shit, when one reads what I originally posted to Warden, I told him to just make ONE email, to Myers and myself. He went for a public post. Fine: Let him make an ass of himself publically again. Suited me.

    But: He tried to get other people to email as well? That stupid bastard…

    Well, hopefully after all of this I can extract a public apology from that guy to Myers and his daugher, which is what I’ve been angling for all along.

  132. 132
    Kevin

    Ask them:
    Is drowning a baby immoral?

    Then:
    What about every single baby alive?

    Wait until they catch on.

  133. 133
    Kevin

    Is it just me, or does barfy sound like a random word generator?

  134. 134
    rrhain

    There’s a more accurate answer here, I think:

    There is no such thing as “objective morality.”

    All morality is subjective. Nobody has direct access to this “god” persona to tell them what is right and wrong. They must go through an intermediary and all such intermediates have been shown to be inconsistent.

    But let us suppose that one does have a direct line to “god.” This simply raises the question of where “good” comes from: Does god do it because it is good or is it good because god does it? If god does it because it is good (and I will stipulate that god never deviates), then why do we need god? Goodness is external to god and thus we can access that concept of goodness without him. Besides, Genesis claims that we have eaten of the tree of knowledge, becoming as gods knowing good and evil and thus, we really don’t need god as an intermediary.

    But suppose it’s the other way around: It’s good because god does it. That’s pretty capricious and arbitrary since it is clear from the descriptions of god that certain actions are sometimes good, sometimes bad. In fact, there are some actions that we would definitively describe as evil despite having been carried out by god. If we are to follow the Genesis account, even god admits that he has made mistakes. In this case, we find that we shouldn’t use god as an intermediary because he is inconsistent and does not follow objective standards.

    And as anybody who has paid attention to his or her life can tell you, there are times where it’s really hard to know what is good. Unless great areas of life are left to the concept of being morally neutral, there is no way to have a spanning set of moral principles that doesn’t result in contradictory goals. Do we end the suffering of a terminally ill person who is in agony with no hope of recovery, or do we refuse to deliberately end life? Both questions have a good reason to support them: A person who is in debilitating pain deserves relief, but how could we possibly expect or demand someone to take another person’s life? The entire process of determining that a person is competent to end their own life is fraught with the potential for coercion and projection that there will always be a case that was incorrectly decided. No matter what we choose, there is going to be a time when we were wrong about that choice. The easy scenarios are just that: Easy. It’s the cases that land in between that are where our true test of morality comes into play and anybody who thinks they have a checklist they can turn to and mechanically come up with an answer shows they don’t really understand morality and ethics at all.

  135. 135
    Raymond Crapsell, Utterly Pathetic Fuckwitted Delusional Stupid Lying Bullshitting Godbotting Fucking Idiot Wanker, du fromage

    Only in the hive-mind of PZ Myers and his leukocytes would it seem reasonable to include idiot sleaze bag goat-fucker et al in an essay about the origin of morality. Can I get a shout-out from all the post-grads in the hizzouse? PhD repreSENT!! PZ goes on record in a subsequent post that “the Bible really is a great evangelical tool for atheists,” demonstrating what an original thinker Dick Dawkins is. Dickbots repreSENT! As I ponder Pharyngula, it occurs to me that this blog would be a great evangelical tool for Christians. Keep up the good work, and thank you for your inspiration. Peace out.

  136. 136
    Stacy

    “There is no absolute morality.”

    ….

    Why is it hilarious?
    Cause you didn’t understand it the first time?

    No, Barfy, it’s hilarious because you went through such pretentious circumlocutions to make such a trivial point.

    Yes, we realize that the universe is amoral. We get that there is no *absolute* morality.

    (How do we derive our moral principles? is morality subjective, or objective? What does “objective” mean, applied to morality? Those are the concepts under discussion.)

    ADMIT IT!

    Uh huh, sure. Run along now.

  137. 137
    frankb

    Barf, I think you lost a lot of commenters when you brought up “entropy”. Your plea for a answer to the question you are asking can rub people the wrong way as well. But I will give you a simple answer from what I have gathered from this thread. The answer to the question, “Is there an absolute morality?” is not so much “no” but rather “it does not compute.”

  138. 138
    Stacy

    There is no such thing as “objective morality.

    IANAPhilosopher, but it seems to me there’s a problem with the term “objective”. Maybe some people confuse it with “absolute”, as barfy seemed to.

    Maybe it would be helpful to imagine a continuum, with “purely subjective” on one end (comprised of qualia, like an individual’s private experience of the color red, or dreams), and “purely objective” on the other (comprised of, say, mathematical truths.)

    Or maybe not. Just thinking out loud, here. It just seems to me there’s a problem here that has more to do with definition than disagreement.

  139. 139
    Stacy

    Oh, and raymondkoepsell? Thanks for dropping by, sweetie.

  140. 140
    gluon

    I always tell them that I make up my own morals, just like they do.

    When they wrote their fairy tale and again when they cheery picked their fairy tale because they decided that Iron Age morality wasn’t for them any more, they are just making stuff up. That they think it comes from God is just a delusion, of course. The reality is that our morals all come from the same source: humans thinking about what they want the world to be like.

    The same is true of the “wonder in the world”, which they seem to think goes away when you don’t believe in God. I see wonder in the world for the same reason they do. They are just deluded into thinking that reason is God and not common human wiring.

  141. 141
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    As I ponder Pharyngula, it occurs to me that this blog would be a great evangelical tool for Christians. Keep up the good work, and thank you for your inspiration.

    Yep, how to become an atheist. Read your book of mythology/fiction and see your imaginary deity is really an amoral fuckwit who makes drug lords seem like model citizens. And how you are a total and abject fool for believing in it…

  142. 142
    consciousness razor

    Maybe it would be helpful to imagine a continuum, with “purely subjective” on one end (comprised of qualia, like an individual’s private experience of the color red, or dreams), and “purely objective” on the other (comprised of, say, mathematical truths.)

    I kind of like the continuum idea, but I’m not sure if it works. It seems more like people are working with different meanings of subjectivity, as well as different meanings of objectivity. It’s hard to tell if there’s any way those different meanings could be connected.

    So we all accept that science is “objective,” but what does that mean? There’s no sense in saying that means there would be science even if people did not exist. After all, people are subjects and they’re the ones doing science. Scientific statements are always put in terms of our experiences of the world. It’s not about what a god’s point of view is, because we don’t have that sort of information (not to mention that gods almost certainly don’t exist). And it’s definitely not as if it is some abstracted metaphysical truth about existence itself which is lacking any vantage point whatsoever.

    Despite all that subjective stuff, people still call science “objective” for good reasons. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it can be a bit confusing. I guess you could say that science involves a sort of relational subjectivity, in the sense that we do science by relating to the world and it depends on those sorts of relationships between a subject and an object. While we could say plain old objects have relationships, they don’t relate to one another the way subjects do: they don’t think or have experiences, or have anything like a perspective with which to model the world and produce knowledge about it.

    Then there’s another sense of subjectivity which has more do with the nature of subjectivity itself. That’s more like the redness of red, emotions, dreams, opinions, private memories, or whatever people can introspect about their subjective relationships with the world. So maybe you could call it meta-subjectivity, since in a way it’s about that first kind of subjectivity, or a step removed from it, or sort of turned in on itself.

    So where does morality belong in that kind of framework? I really don’t know. I’m inclined to think some moral claims are objective (or at least depend on objective claims), but obviously we can’t leave subjects out of ethics altogether because it’s all about subjects and what they value. Maybe it isn’t objective in the way psychology is (which is also all about subjects), but that by itself doesn’t tell us a whole lot. So as far as I know, I don’t think we have a good answer at this point.

  143. 143
    Rick

    @Stacy

    I’ve had my own confusion over the idea of, and definition for an “objective” morality. It took some time but I believe it settles in and around the idea, “objective” morality is the notion of “right” and “wrong” being universal and fixed for all times. In the context of religious belief, the nature of a universal and fixed morality is the result of Po6.

    I am firmly of the idea that morality remains subjective. That said, my moral actions follow along the lines articulated by PZ. Evolution, social development, culture, etc. has guided our moral development, and will continue to. Hume talks about morality and virtue as independent of religion and the supernatural, and about moral action as part of the same physical world in which we reasonably talk of in terms of cause and effect. I agree.

    It seems to me that the coups de grace in any moral debate with wingnuts is to ask them if “they apply ALL the moral teachings of the bible?” We know they do not. And further to ask them “why not?”

    Dawkins brought up this point in The God Delusion, there is a selective process by which believers apply or disregard morality in the bible. The very fact that they discount some biblical morality means they are already independently (from the bible) making moral decisions divorced from what the bible tells them. Its obvious, they don’t need, nor do they draw upon, biblical morals when they are in fact discriminating prelusorily.

    It’s a solid argument that demonstrates evidence for the Hume’s position.

  144. 144
    Trickster Goddess

    I had this discussion with my Christian missionary sister last year. I discussed empathy and social contract and so on, but my trump argument to her was that I didn’t need to read a book to know how to behave ethically.

    Anybody who requires written instructions is deficient in the empathy department.

  145. 145
    Stacy

    Despite all that subjective stuff, people still call science “objective” for good reasons. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it can be a bit confusing. I guess you could say that science involves a sort of relational subjectivity, in the sense that we do science by relating to the world and it depends on those sorts of relationships between a subject and an object.

    And the laws undergirding the whole enterprise don’t change. And different people, in different places, from different cultures and different times, should be able to get the same results/observe the same phenomena.

    With morality, surely there are also some things we can all agree on at least theoretically. Pretty sure no human society approves of “murder”, and for reasons that make sense on many levels (sociological, evolutionary, psychological). But of course different societies all have particular exceptions wherein killing is justified….

    So–

    So as far as I know, I don’t think we have a good answer at this point

    What you said.

  146. 146
    karpad

    Man, big fan, PZ, but this is like the least effective rebuttal of divine command theory I’ve ever seen.

    “I have an objective morality based on… things I want to do, whether other people would want me to do them, how much it would hurt myself or others, and what society as a whole thinks of that thing.”

    I’m sure it’s been addressed upthread, but the whole Euthyphro thing is generally a better response, as the point is not to immediately engage in the flaws in YOUR moral system (which aren’t really prevalent. One doesn’t need to be a philosopher who has sussed out their own system of universal morality to behave morally.) but to engage the flaws in divine command theory: Either what god says is magically right, regardless of what god says (so any depraved act is justified if God told you to do it) or god only tells people to do things that are moral, in which case god doesn’t matter and the rubric for morality has nothing to do with what god says.

  147. 147
    consciousness razor

    And the laws undergirding the whole enterprise don’t change. And different people, in different places, from different cultures and different times, should be able to get the same results/observe the same phenomena.

    Science changes all the time, and it isn’t even close to being finished or complete. Maybe the change from Newtonian physics to relativity and quantum physics is a good example. The point is that there are very few (if any) parts which couldn’t possibly be revised if we observe something new or notice inconsistencies with previous observations.

    There’s also some dependence on culture, in the sense of what we study and how it’s studied. I think Thomas Kuhn has probably done the most work in that area, but I haven’t read his work and have no idea how seriously to take it. Anyway, I’m not sure how relevant that is to what science is (just taken as a broad metaphysical question), but it could be worth taking into account in some way.

    With morality, surely there are also some things we can all agree on at least theoretically. Pretty sure no human society approves of “murder”, and for reasons that make sense on many levels (sociological, evolutionary, psychological). But of course different societies all have particular exceptions wherein killing is justified….

    Maybe, but I don’t think we need to be committed to the idea that anybody has now or in the past ever had a “correct” moral system. Whether or not there are universals is an interesting question, but their implementation in laws and so on is a separate issue and makes things very confusing. Again, if we look at science as an example of what “objectivity” is like, there’s general agreement among the experts at any one time, but the theories themselves are changing and improving on one another. It shouldn’t bother us that some 19th scientist got stuff wrong. It doesn’t matter anymore, and the possibility for error doesn’t make science non-objective in the relevant sense.

  148. 148
    consciousness razor

    some 19th-century scientist

  149. 149
    Kel

    But here it seems like you’re conflating objectivity with something having to do with a god, which isn’t helpful either

    You’re right, consciousness razor, I should have been clearer. If I can try again…

    * The idea that God can ground objective morality misrepresents what morality is; the argument that God is an integral part of morality ignores the contingent and necessarily subjective concerns on which moral decisions are based. If theists really followed the logic, then that would mean that torturing children is not wrong because of the suffering inflicted but of God’s decree.
    * The strive for objective morality is absurd. We’re simply not going to bridge the gap between is and ought, and there’s no way of saying what this objective morality would consist of. The best we can do is say that there are ways that we can assess how well certain propositions work in terms of how they affect on our behaviour; some propositions are better than others.
    * The lack of objective morality isn’t a problem, however, as it’s really unnecessary. What we have are objective ways to think about moral problems, and we have the capacity to objectively assess the merits of moral propositions. Subjectivity, too, plays a vital role in how we make moral decisions – the golden rule being a prime example of subjective thinking that’s morally useful. And when it comes to many of our moral concerns, they are claims regarding the fulfilment of our desires or the experiential effects on the conscious self.

    That clearer?

  150. 150
    Kel

    This is a much better telling of the view I’m trying to argue for.

    Philip Kitcher on the ethical project:
    “Ethical progress is a matter of problem-solving. It is not progress to something (a final complete ethical system), but progress from, and the evolution of ethics is always unfinished.
    [...]
    The ethical project is a venture in problem-solving that responds to deep features of the human condition – specifically, we are altruists enough to manage a particular sort of social life, but, without the technology of ethics, that sort of life would be fragile and difficult.
    [...]
    Ethics is our invention. Human beings do not discover ethical truths, except in the special sense that we work out together better ways of living together.”

  151. 151
    John Morales

    Kel, I really don’t care.

    I will listen, but in the end others’ ethical systems are theirs, and mine is mine. I do what I think is right.

  152. 152
    Dhorvath, OM

    Ethical progress is a matter of problem-solving. It is not progress to something (a final complete ethical system), but progress from, and the evolution of ethics is always unfinished.

    ooh, I like that statement a lot.

  153. 153
    Kel

    Kel, I really don’t care.

    I’m not sure how your caring comes into it. I was trying to clarify my position for the sake of Consciousness Razor.

  154. 154
    John Morales

    Kel:

    I’m not sure how your caring comes into it.

    Look at the thread title.

    Your theories and those of others are fodder for my consideration, no more.

  155. 155
    Kel

    Your theories and those of others are fodder for my consideration, no more.

    They’re a little more than that, they’re about something – or more specifically, about ways to think about something – and that’s what makes it something for you to consider.

  156. 156
    John Morales

    [meta]

    Kel @155, I consider everything I can — else how can I know something is not worth consideration? ;)

  157. 157
    johnhodges

    For the “is/ought” problem, “objective” ethical systems, and other meta-ethical puzzles, try this:
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/is-and-ought-rands-metaethics

    Despite the reference to Rand above regarding metaethics, I am not a “Randian” in ethics itself; See the second half of this essay.
    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/atheist-foundations-of-ethics

  158. 158
    Emptyell

    @barfy

    teach me what is wrong with the phrase, “there is no absolute morality.”

    I know this has been taken apart already but I can’t help myself…

    What I find wrong with it is that it is neither useful nor meaningful. Kind of like saying there are no pink unicorns. “Absolute” is a concept that has some utility in abstract thought, like “infinite” or “perfect”, but little or no relation to objective reality. “Morality” is a practical construct that emerges out of social necessity. Conflating the two just seems silly.

    Of course the original topic was objective morality, but, whatever…

  159. 159
    The Laughing Coyote (Canis Sativa)

    I for one am just sick and tired of christian apologists trying to weasel out of the difficult answers.

    I have heard so much christsplaining horseshit over the years, about how maybe ‘Lay hold of a woman’ doesn’t ‘necessarily’ mean rape, or about how Job actually somehow demonstrates God’s perfect love or how it’s presumptuous to question the will of God and all that.

    I’m unutterably weary of answering the same stupid ‘Gotchas’, over and over again, hearing the same damn ‘God is infinite and we can’t really know his plans or purpose, just that he has one,’ all the same damn explanations that amount to “God is all powerful and doesn’t have to explain himself to a little mortal shitstain like you”.

    I suppose I have nothing of value to add to all the philosophy discussions.

    I just want to express how fucking indescribably tired of it all I am.

  160. 160
    consciousness razor

    The strive for objective morality is absurd. We’re simply not going to bridge the gap between is and ought, and there’s no way of saying what this objective morality would consist of. The best we can do is say that there are ways that we can assess how well certain propositions work in terms of how they affect on our behaviour; some propositions are better than others.

    Let’s see how absurd your position can get. ;)

    How would you describe engineering? What is it? Would you call it objective or subjective, both or neither? Engineering depends on what our goals are, some of its products are better than others in terms of those goals, what technologies and resources we have at our disposal, which all depends on how well we understand the world.

    For example, I would say an hourglass isn’t as “good” a piece of engineering as an atomic clock, meaning it’s not as useful for telling time and doesn’t rely on all the best information we have about the way the world works. Would you make a big deal out of it that I’m only assuming that measuring time accurately is a “valuable” thing for some people to do, or that one way of doing it isn’t really, objectively “better” than another? Maybe some people really love hourglasses, more than they do atomic clocks, for some reason which has nothing to do with how well either tells time. I’m not saying they couldn’t have such reasons. Maybe for them it’s a matter of aesthetics, or they’re attached to it as a family heirloom, or they have some particular use for hourglasses for which atomic clocks aren’t as effective. That’s fine with me. And perhaps occasionally some people just don’t want to know what time it is, so you might say time-keeping doesn’t override other values and concerns they have. That’s also not a problem.

    The point is that I would say there is a fact of the matter about which is better at any given task, despite the fact that the value we assign to doing that task isn’t written into the laws of physics or whatever. But if someone tells me hourglasses are better at telling time than atomic clocks, I’m going to say they are objectively, factually wrong. It should be obvious to anyone that I’m not just being opinionated or emotional or culturally-biased or whatever. Of course ethical decisions are usually much more complicated than that, but that doesn’t mean we should treat all of them as an entirely different kind of problem.

    Subjectivity, too, plays a vital role in how we make moral decisions – the golden rule being a prime example of subjective thinking that’s morally useful. And when it comes to many of our moral concerns, they are claims regarding the fulfilment of our desires or the experiential effects on the conscious self.

    Sure, but I don’t think it’s entirely about personal experiences. What people consider “good” doesn’t all reduce to whatever produces pleasure or happiness, or anything that simple. Often, we also take into account broader, social effects. Some values have more to do with whatever makes individuals and society flourish in the long run, though they may not offer much in the way of immediate, experiential pleasure. They may even be unpleasurable sometimes, and I admit it’s hard to figure out how to find a good balance between those sorts of things.

  161. 161
    barfy

    “Objective morality” should mean that morality whose definitions, actions and variance from those actions can be agreed upon and measured by all observors in a consistent and repeatable fashion.
    It appears to me that when people state, “objective morality” what they really mean is “absolute reality,” that is, a morality that is universal and possibly even transcendant to the universe. The confusion between these two terms is what makes the distinction meaningful and useful.
    If we’re basing a philosophy of life on a dogmatic conception of an absolute morality, such as a consistent god concept like the bible-thumpers, it follows that it is important to define the basic tenets of an absolute morality. This is their argument. We, as atheists, need to state that we can’t, at the present time, know if there is an absolute morality.
    Then, and only then, can we enter into a discussion with a religious person about what constitutes an objective morality. In this way, we can reasonably measure how they fall grossly short of their objective morality when they don’t stone disobedient children.
    I apologize for being wrong about my earlier statement. There may or may not be an absolute morality, we just don’t know.

  162. 162
    abb3w

    @123, Daz:

    If I understand it right, I’d go with consequentialist.

    The difference is only in how you think about morality, rather than any difference in territory. One can convert deontology to consequentialism by preferring the consequence “these rules were followed”, and consequentialism to deontology by the rule “prefer the ‘best’ consequences”.

    Glad I piqued some interest.

    @157, johnhodges: [...]

    Skimming, I think we’re coming at similar positions, only rather than approaching through more traditional fields moral philosophy, I’m coming at it from the forsaken tundra of formal mathematics. Your “hypothetical oughts” appear to serve as the case-by-case basis what I refered to as the “additional axiom” to bridge the is-ought divide.

  163. 163
    rrhain

    @147: You’re confusing “science” with “observation.” Different people in different places from different cultures and times always get the same results/observe the same phenomena when performing the same experiment. That’s how we know that the scientific method works.

    Now, our understanding of why we are seeing what we are seeing will change. When Einsteinian understandings of gravity were replacing Newtonian understandings, apples didn’t hover in mid-air, waiting for us to decide how gravity was supposed to work before falling to the ground. They still fell exactly as they always had. We had come up with better instruments to observe their motions and thus come up with a better model, but the actual falling of the apple did not change. No matter how “subjective” we may consider the practice of science to be, the fact remains that apples fall from trees.

    That’s how theories work: If you come up with a new theory to explain something, that theory needs to explain all the observations that have already been made because while the theory may be capable of changing, the observations aren’t. It’s a variation of the old saw: You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts. When Newtonian kinematics displaced Aristotelian kinematics, it had to explain why it was that when you slide a book across the table, it comes to a stop. Aristotle posited that the “natural state” of an object is to be at rest. Newtonian kinematics says that no, an object in motion remains in motion…unless acted on by an outside force. The book comes to rest not because it is the book’s “natural state” but because friction is bleeding off the energy of motion. The new theory replaced the old, but all the observations remained exactly as they were.

    That is why we call science “objective”: Because it is based upon observations that cannot change. It seeks to take into account everything we have managed to observe in order to provide the most accurate model which will help us make predictions about things we haven’t seen. It will never be perfect since, being an observational practice, we will never be able to observe absolutely everything. And even if our model is perfect, even if we’ve managed to stumble upon the actual method by which a phenomenon can happen, we can never be sure that we got it right precisely because the only way we can verify is to observe and we will never be able to observe everything. The best we can ever hope for is to say, “It’s consistent with all known cases.”

    Your comments about how culture determines what we study and how we study it are true but immaterial. Those are questions of implementation, not paradigm. Deciding that we’re going to study the social behaviour of ants rather than that of wasps is a subjective act. But the results that you get, if they are accurate, should be independent of that and anybody anywhere will get the same results if they do the same thing.

  164. 164
    Kel

    Let’s see how absurd your position can get. ;)

    I always like a reductio ad absurdum.

    How would you describe engineering? What is it? Would you call it objective or subjective, both or neither? [..] Of course ethical decisions are usually much more complicated than that, but that doesn’t mean we should treat all of them as an entirely different kind of problem.

    So if I get what you’re saying…

    Firstly, that my criteria for morality is too strict in so far that if applied elsewhere would lead to what we consider an absurdity. That my use of objective is setting an impossible standard, thus when I dismiss morality as not being objective, it’s a mistake on my part on what an objective morality would constitute.

    Secondly, if we take the engineering example to heart, then objective ways to assess moral propositions itself constitutes objectivity; or at the very least, that in principle moral propositions are not fundamentally different from judgements in engineering, and thus to dismiss morality on objective grounds would be premature.

    Is this a fair assessment, Consciousness Razor?

  165. 165
    consciousness razor

    rrhain:

    I agree with everything you wrote there. I’m not sure what you think I was mistaken about. Let me go back to the quote I was responding to:

    And the laws undergirding the whole enterprise don’t change. And different people, in different places, from different cultures and different times, should be able to get the same results/observe the same phenomena.

    I wasn’t objecting to notion that the laws remain the same — although if they do change, we’ll have problems. (I don’t think this really gets to the heart of what people mean by objectivity, but I’ll leave that aside.) In principle, anyone at any time could make any scientific observation, but that’s not really how it works in practice. For example, when people observe gravitational lensing, they don’t go back and check to see if their observations agree with Newton’s, because he didn’t make any. He had no way to observe that kind of phenomenon and didn’t know anything about it. Big deal, right?

    I’m not saying it is a problem for science, but I thought the implication was that maybe we could identify some moral “universals” that everyone at all times would be able to recognize as moral. The idea is that those would be the sorts of things that we might want to call “objective” because they don’t change over time. For some very simple cases (analogous to your fact that apples fall down), maybe you could identify some very basic things everyone has agreed on, but I’m not sure how useful they would be anyway. The point is just that that would only be what people tend to think is moral, not what actually is moral (if there’s a difference), which is confusing epistemology with ontology. I don’t know how one might identify such universals, if there are any, but honestly I don’t really care.

    ———

    Kel:

    That my use of objective is setting an impossible standard, thus when I dismiss morality as not being objective, it’s a mistake on my part on what an objective morality would constitute.

    I think that’s the main thrust of it. Maybe not an impossible standard so much as an inconsistent one, or one that hasn’t been considered very thoroughly. The engineering analogy was supposed to get you to think about what you mean by objectivity and find some holes in my presentation of it. I figure that’s better than you asserting things and me disagreeing with them. Anyway, there are a lot of different ways of looking at the problem, so you arguing against a position I don’t hold won’t be productive.

  166. 166
    Kel

    I was trying to make sure we were on the same page with what the analogy showed, because there’s no point in me pointing out what I see the flaws are if I’ve missed the point of the analogy. My response will come soon.

  167. 167
    reynoldhall

    I can’t believe it…instead of an apology, Rick Warden comes out with this:

    PZ offers no objective grounding or basis for deciding whether or not bestiality is acceptable. Instead, he offers his list of subjectively informed “tools” in an attempt to justify his views.

    The subjective nature of his tools makes it quite difficult for PZ to answer my second question, “Should bestiality be legalized in your opinion?” Thus, PZ still has not answered it. If each person has their own subjective moral code, based on such things as their level of “interest” in animal sex, then there is not a strong basis for outlawing the behavior of bestiality.[6]

    You know, I must be effed in the head: I actually thought that Warden would have shut up after this.

    Nope. Holy shit. Well, I’m off to try to ram reality down this idiot’s head, again.

  168. 168
    dennissmith

    Of course, we all know that God, the God these Christians worship did both slaughter infants and toddlers and condone the slaughter by his “chosen” people. This is not to also mention the deaths which occur in natural disasters in which the lives of children are lost and they suffer. These are natural disasters that God either caused or allowed to occur. If not, then he is not all powerful or he chooses to allow them to occur.

    So, on the Christian argument, you have “objective” ethics in that the standard arises outside of yourself. What they are really saying is that there is some definition external to any human being and all human beings, for what is good”.

    The problem is that if they are honest and hold that God is not subject to anything external to “himself”, then whatever God says is good and what is good, is simply what God say. This is really only shifting the relative standard for what is good to God because God is supposed to be the “ground” of all being, whatever that means. To say that God is good then has no meaning as God is simply what he is, there is no standard outside of God by which he can be judged as good. You could simply say God is “glonk”. It has just as much meaning.

  169. 169
    henryruddle

    I’d simply say, “We are quite capable of using reason and our moral instincts to decide that torturing toddlers is wrong. If we were not so equipped, how could we judge the morality of any objective standard you chose to offer?” For fun, I’d probably add, “If you propose that we substitute the subjective whims of an imaginary being for our solid, time-tested objective moral codes, that would be immoral.”

  170. 170
    reynoldhall

    dennissmith at #168

    That’s kind of what me and some other commentators at Rick’s blog are doing, basically. It’s kind of fun to see in a way: No one who’s posting there as of this writing (just scroll up to see them) is agreeing with Rick.

  171. 171
    jefflowder

    PZ — I’ve posted my reply to your article on my blog here:

    How Not to Debate ‘the’ Moral Argument: A Reply to PZ Meyers

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