What is a moral good?

Massimo has responded to Shermer’s post responding to him, by annotating the post.

…I begin with a Principle of Moral Good: Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that leads to someone else’s moral loss…

Well, that sounds good (and mighty close to Kant’s famous categorical imperative), except for the significant degree of begging the question hidden in Michael’s principle (but not in Kant’s). What is a moral good? Reading the principle as it stands I would have pretty much no idea of how to actually act, or whether my acting would lead to someone else’s moral good or loss.

Shermer in italics, Pigliucci below. That’s basically the problem I had, except that I (being an amateur) called it jumping to the middle as opposed to begging the question. Shermer doesn’t begin at the beginning by spelling out what’s in play, but instead simply assumes the very thing he’s supposedly elucidating, and jumps ahead to talk about it before he’s spelled it out.

Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women.

This is just a parenthetical observation, Michael, but that study has been debunked, together with a lot of the other questionable “science” about gender we get from a certain brand of evolutionary psychology…
Oh no! Is Massimo one of them there “radfem” types who hate all brands of evolutionary psychology because they say all men are rapists?!
I kid.

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.


Natural selection has everything to do with survival (and reproduction), but pretty much nothing to do with flourishing. The latter, in turn, is an inherently cultural concept, that is difficult to articulate and whose specifics vary with time and geography. Which means that Michael’s “smooth transition” between is and ought is anything but smooth.

Massimo expands on that point toward the end of the post.

Michael keeps talking about survival and flourishing in a single breadth, invoking natural selection as working to increase both. This is absolutely wrong. Natural selection increases survival, and even that only insofar as it assures reproduction (after that, good luck to you, my friend!). Selection has nothing whatsoever to do with flourishing, the realization of which completely breaks any evolutionarily based “smooth transition” between is and ought. Not to mention, of course, that Michael should know that natural selection likely also produced a number of nasty behavioral patterns in humans (e.g., xenophobia), which we have been trying  — in good part through philosophizing about them! — to get rid of throughout the past couple of millennia.So, again, science — or more broadly, factual evidence — most certainly has a place at the high table of any meaningful discussion about how to achieve human goals and fulfill human desires. But philosophical reflection remains central to ethics because ethics is about reasoning on the implications of and conflicts generated by those goals and desires.

Natural selection isn’t moral. It’s the opposite of moral. Darwin said this in the “Devil’s chaplain” letter.

What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!

Dawkins wrote a wonderful essay on the subject. Natural selection is an absolute shit. Without it we wouldn’t be here, but that doesn’t make it not a shit.




  1. Landon says

    If natural selection can tell us what counts as flourishing, wouldn’t “having kids” rate pretty highly on the list of things that constitute flourishing? That sort of makes Shermer’s competitive bicycling career morally questionable, now, don’t it?

  2. iknklast says

    The folks who say morality needs religion are wrong; but it does need Philosophy, and we scientists shouldn’t be scared to say that. Admitting that science can’t get you all the way to morality is not the same as opening the door to the god-botherers. Secular philosophy actually has a lot to say about morality, and they don’t need supernatural means to get there.

    I suspect that Shermer (and Harris) are afraid to acknowledge that science isn’t able to solve this problem, because they’re afraid that will mean we have to bring in religion. They simply aren’t well informed enough about philosophy to get it right (though Harris does go on and on about Buddhism!)

  3. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Natural selection increases survival

    Except when it doesn’t, and the individual, with which Shermer is concerned, is selected against.

  4. says

    There are a lot of philosophical hurdles between our ability to reason and a purely objective morality, and they’re not easy to dismiss. For example, there is the problem of discerning the good of the individual versus the multitude given that both individuals and multitures make mistakes. There’s also a problem (which utilitarians and libertarians like to ignore) of discerning short-term good versus long-term good; our perception of right and wrong or the most beneficial action changes over time and is extremely calibrated by hindsight. There are some good attempts at founding morality objectively, through appeals to enlightened self-interest, such as Kant’s categorical imperative or Rawls’ veil of ignorance but neither of those address the problem of mistaken assessment of self-interest and subtly insert a subjective judgement in the form of common sense or enlightened self-interest. The problem is that self-interest is manifestly not sensible or enlightened in all cases and is always short-term at best and ignorant about the long-term.

    What evolution and the scientific method combine to teach us is that what allows us to survive is the practical definition of “good” i.e: what appears to be working right now. We use the scientific method to reject what no longer appears to be working when it no longer appears to be working based on survival. This does not yield us anything like a “morality” of right and wrong unless we identify survival as the only good.

  5. says

    This is just a parenthetical observation, Michael, but that study has been debunked, together with a lot of the other questionable “science” about gender we get from a certain brand of evolutionary psychology…,

    Translation: “Hey, Micheal? Your sexism is showing.” Which is not surprising after his sweeping dismissal of evo-psych critics in that awful SciAm piece. I am really, seriously side-eyeing this.

    I have to ask (again): if we got rid of the libertarians, how many of the slymepitters would go with them?

  6. Hamilton Jacobi says

    I don’t know quite what Shermer has in mind by “flourishing,” but I think natural selection can have quite a lot to say about flourishing. Not in the 19th century social Darwinist sense, but in other more reasonable ways.

    For example, animals have been conditioned by millions of years of natural selection to fight frantically to escape when trapped or cornered, so maybe putting animals into cages isn’t conducive to their flourishing. And animals have been conditioned by millions of years of natural selection to place a very high importance on being able to select who to mate with, so maybe rape and arranged marriages are not conducive to flourishing. And people have lived for millions of years in an environment where vitamin D is provided naturally by exposure of skin to sunlight, so maybe forcing women to live their whole lives wrapped head to foot in black bags is not conducive to flourishing. That sort of thing.

  7. Gordon Willis says

    …philosophical hurdles between our ability to reason and a purely objective morality…
    (a) can we reason well?
    (b) there’s this objective morality…isn’t there?
    Whether there is, can our reason find it out?
    For example, there is the problem of discerning the good of the individual versus the multitude…
    Wait, wait. What is a multitude? Can “more” be better than “one”? When we consider the “good” of “society” what are we actually considering?

    (a) What is society?
    (b) Can our definition suggest what might be good for it?
    I mean, if for instance society is how individuals interact, what interactions benefit those…interactions. No, wait, if society is a set of norms governing how Mr and Mrs Blog interact with each other (and with several-and-perhaps-far-too-many very small Blogs and all their greater aunts and cousins-twice-removed and friends-who-sleep-over and with Mrs Neighbour and with the shop assistant and the dustman and the mortgage company and Miss Teacher and P.C. Forty-nine) how exactly are social goods distinguishable from my good and yours? How does honesty in dealing with one’s children or one’s students or one’s employees differ from honesty in dealing with the taxman? If social good means that I and my brothers and sons must die in the trenches, how is that to be distinguished from my belief that no single person should be bullied by totalitarians or mullahs or popes or sassenachs and someone ought to do something about it?
    So where does the difference come, morally speaking, between the individual and the multitude? In Terry Pratchett’s delightful book “Going Postal” the protagonist, Moist von Lipwig (truly!) turns out to have murdered several people, not by committing a single act of violence (against his principles), but by defrauding banks. Did he offend against society or against individuals? He thought he was cheating something personified by “bankers”; in fact, he was stealing pensions and investments and savings and thus betraying the trust and the stake-in-life of numerous individuals. He also cheated individuals by manipulating their credulity and cupidity, though we are not told whether the consequences were in any case fatal. However, by being brought to consider his actions, he learnt that in practice an offence against society is an offence against individuals; and one can add that an offence against an individual is an offence against society, because society is merely the individual writ large: if it were not, then Mr and Mrs Blog and all their various sorts of relations would be of no consequence. Therefore, although one might make, for certain practical purposes, an analytical distinction between “society” and an individual member of it, one cannot make a moral distinction. To put it another way, morality is how I behave, not how society behaves, and if society treats me unjustly, it is because Mr Justice Hogwash is a fool or a bigot or a blackguard, or because some elected imbeciles in Parliament need to be woken up.
    …given that both individuals and multitudes make mistakes.
    But my mistakes are not society’s mistakes, or the football crowd’s mistakes. On the other hand, society can be very specific about my mistakes (indigence, depression, should-have-known-better), while I cannot be at all clear either about society’s mistakes (because they come under many different headings, though “institutional” and “systemic” and “bull-headed” might be helpful categories) or about the football crowd’s mistakes (because who knows?).
    I suppose what it comes down to is this: in the scales of the interest of one person versus that of the greater good, if my interest is of no consequence, then neither is yours, and if no one matters, what is the value of “society”?
    And if one can ask such a question, isn’t one presupposing an objective morality? For otherwise, what is the point of putting the question of the good of the individual versus that of “the multitude” in the first place?

  8. Duke Eligor says

    I absolutely agree with the last part about evolution and what is “natural” somehow making it morally good. It’s the same reason why I reject the arguments of empathy as the end of moral reasoning because it’s “natural” (so, sociopathy and narcissistic personality disorders are a choice?). We’ve heard the same exact arguments applied again and again to condemn homosexuality (and if evolution is the moral standard, and evolution favors copying genetic material, then homosexuality would indeed be a sin against nature).

    And in any case, why would being in line with “human nature” be the moral good, and not, say, trying to transcend the mundane and banal limitations of the human species? After all, cognitive biases are the most natural method of human thinking, hence the prevelence of religion and superstition. But look what happens when we deliberately try to reduce and control for our natural biases: we get science. Seems to me that morality can just as easily be about trying to be better than what nature has bequethed upon us.

  9. Gordon Willis says

    Surely that’s right. We trust each other with so many personal things, and we attempt to give support in so many different ways, that “nature” must be seen as something that helps or hinders. “Natural” can mean either a solid basis of trust or no basis at all. But it cannot be trustworthy in itself — that is, not morally trustworthy. Morality has to be something else, something more than nature. Trust means “come what may”. If it doesn’t, we are lost. “Natural” could be a reason for all sorts of things, but it cannot be any kind of excuse.

  10. Landon says


    There’s a lot to wade through, there, but at bottom there seems to be some confusion about what “social goods” might consist of. Yes, all goods are presumably – ultimately – to the benefit of individuals, but it is an obvious error to ignore that (a) individuals exist as members of social groups, which is to say partially constitute their identities through them, and (b) real and material benefit or harm can come to individuals by way of benefit to or harm to social groups, institutions, etc.

    Social goods benefit the individual in ways that cannot be brought about by treating the individual as an atomic unit, without regard to how he or she exists in the social environment. For instance, I benefit – as do you – from there being widespread education. Those benefits do not accrue directly to us – not all of them, anyway – but rather come from the fact that we don’t have to deal with uneducated, unsocialized barbarians, and the benefits also extend across generations, as well. The benefits of certain programs/initiatives/policies/whatever can only be seen when they applied at the level of society as a whole, rather than selectively to the individual. This argues that there are social goods.

    Conversely, there are genuine social ills, problems that are not down to the actions of any one person or small group of persons, but which exist as a result of systemic dysfunctions and/or pathological mores that have become entrenched. Again, the ill effects redound to the individual, but the problem cannot be properly understood or addressed except at the social level. This, likewise, argues for the legitimacy of talking about “social goods” and “social ills.”

    I hope this clears up some of your concerns about the role of “society” in moral discourse.

  11. bad Jim says

    As an amateur, I’m continually frustrated by the philosophical approach to morality. In my lifetime I’ve seen enormous changes to the popular consensus on moral issues concerning race and sexuality which as far as I can tell were the result, not of conceptual breakthroughs, but of those most affected making their voices heard. Progress in sexual ethics has come mostly from women deciding what not to put up with.

    Morality is more a matter of politics than philosophy. How we treat other people (or other living things) is very much a matter of their status and their power. The principle of universality is thousands of years old, taught by Jesus, Hillel, the Buddha and Confucius, but none of them advocated democracy or any number of things which we now consider morally obvious.

    We’re moral animals, and there’s nothing more intuitive to us than the conviction that some things are right and wrong. We may very well be wired that way. There are however very good reasons to suppose that our convictions are somewhat arbitrary, since they change over time.

    If morals are something we make up as we go along, the reasonable ways to deal with the subject are to describe the actual state of affairs or to advocate what we think are improvements. It’s inescapably messy, like everything else, but in this case resolution is a matter of negotiation rather than discovery.

  12. Landon says

    @bad Jim:

    Your comments reflect one of the problems philosophy suffers from, which is that it is fundamental, but SO fundamental that people outside the discipline or one of its close cognates (like politics) rarely see its influence. I can’t be sure, but from tenor of your comments and your references to “Jesus, Hillel, the Buddha and Confucius” I think you may have a mistaken idea of what “philosophy” is. This is hardly your fault – I blame Barnes & Noble. (grin)

    In all seriousness, though, many of those enormous changes you’ve seen WERE the result of “conceptual breakthroughs,” as it were. The founders of the United States were keen to institute a form of government hitherto unknown on the face of the Earth due significantly to their deep background in the political philosophers of their day. King and Gandhi studied philosophy and used arguments from moral philosophy to drive their rhetoric. Rawls and Nozick, in the early 70s, had tremendous impact on professional politicians and social activists alike. Feminism and the gay rights movement are important philosophical enterprises and gain a lot of ground by winning arguments in the academy, which persuades the professors who teach the students who become the next generation of votes, and so on.

    In the end, I’m not sure what you mean by “the philosophical approach to morality” and why it would be “frustrating.” What choice do we have BUT to try to reason out the principles of morality as best we can. Even if we think that the problem is a purely pragmatic one, (a) we must ARGUE that point, rather than assume it, and (b) that still makes it a matter of political PHILOSOPHY. “Politics” as such is what happens AFTER your political philosophy – its the practical result of coming to certain philosophical conclusions. Conservatism and liberalism are both philosophies, so calling morality “a matter of politics” is to put the cart before the horse. We engage in politics to realize our philosophically-derived principles.

  13. bad Jim says

    Landon, my point is that the changes were not due to the intellectual breakthroughs of the educated elite but to the concerted, public and political efforts of blacks, women and gays. The universal principle had hitherto been rather loosely applied and the majority of humans considered outside its scope. Arguments for roughly what we have now have been made since antiquity, so the explanation for our progress can’t be found in philosophy.

    Look, some of the difference in the freedom women have comes down to one indefatigable heroine, Margaret Sanger, who nearly single-handedly pioneered contraception as a cornerstone of modern sexuality. She acted out of her moral convictions, certainly, but she changed everything by changing the results of fucking.

    I’m bemused by these philosophical discussions. On free will, I tried to be a good pragmatist and found out I’m an existentialist. Now with morality I find out I’m a Marxist: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.”

  14. Landon says

    I took your point just fine, bad Jim – my point was that while some act out of knee-jerk moral revulsion against certain things they take to be intolerable, others come to their convictions primarily by means of exposure to reasoned argument on the subject, and any activist who wishes to **successfully** bring about a change in the morals of society must employ arguments to support their positions. All such arguments are either philosophical or religious, as these are the only two spheres of human activity that take morality in their purview (politics is not morality – this is a confusion).

    Your choice of Sanger to represent your case is curious, as she makes my point nicely. An educated woman who kept company with notable socialist philosopher/activists like Emma Goldman (among others), Sanger was prompted to her moral views by her experiences as a nurse, undoubtedly, but formulated them with what philosophical acumen was at her disposal, and used her public addresses and her newsletter to make arguments – philosophical, as opposed to religious – for the moral necessity of birth control and so on.

    In short, not only am I not sure what you are suggesting, I don’t think you are, either. You wave your hand at what Sanger did. You say she “acted.” You say she “changed everything.” I agree on this much. But what, sir, did she DO when she acted? HOW did she change everything? And, most importantly, WHY? Had she not had the education she had, had her associations with her socialist friends not raised her sensibilities, had she not the mental furniture to formulate a full-blown social critique from her inchoate moral repugnance, Sanger would have been an unhappy nurse, rather than a social revolutionary. In short, philosophy was a necessary backdrop and instrument both for Sanger’s revolution.

    Moral reasoning not wholly based on religious command or revelation just IS philosophy. That you are bemused by “these philosophical discussions” is not indicative of anything about their quality, especially as we don’t know which philosophical discussions you’re talking about, specifically. All those who seek to advance arguments for the moral betterment of society without resorting to raw appeal to religion are doing philosophy, whether they realize it or not. Most of those who do it well are most assuredly aware of it, as they have studied moral philosophy.

    By the way, Marx was a philosopher himself. Self-deprecation is something we engage in frequently.

  15. says

    I’ve been traveling and thus wasn’t able to get in on this in time, but I have now weighed in on the matter of the Shermer-Pigliucci debate:

    Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science

    I mention this because I’ve been a major proponent of Shermer’s thesis, and have taken the philosophical requirements of the argument far more seriously than he apparently has. And I really don’t like the way he is going about defending it.

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