Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Evolutionary Ethics: Evolved Moral Principles - Are They True?

Evolutionary Ethics: "Are They True?"

I've been commenting on a posting by PZ Myers in Pharyngula that summarized an article on evolutionary ethics. Myers' summary included the quote:

For instance, he summarized three principles that seem to be general rules in moral judgments.

• Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect.

• Harm caused by action is morally worse than harm caused by omission.

• Harm caused by contact is morally worse than equivalent harm caused by non-contact

(See: Pharyngula: Marc hauser - Where Do Morals Come From?)

This is actually the quote that a member of the studio audience sent to me in asking me to comment on this posting.

The first question that popped up in my mind was, "Are they true?"

Here, the author states that people generally tend to adopt the principle, "Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harms seen as a side-effect."

Okay, people tend to make this judgment.

Are they right, or are they wrong?

The standard analysis of truth states that, for example, "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white. Okay, fine. Then it must be the case that "Harm intended as a means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect," is true if and only if harm intended as a means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side effect.

So, tell me, is it the case that harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side effect, or is it the case that we simply evolved to see it this way.

If it is a mere evolved perception without a corresponding reality, then it is the moral equivalent of an optical illusion. We (or many of us) evolved a disposition to believe that harm intended as a means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect. However, as far as independent reality goes, this is false, and we are caught in a moral delusion.

So, once more, I would like to ask those evolutionary ethicists who have determined that we evolved a disposition to make these moral judgments.

Are . . . they . . . true?

Is there an external reality that corresponds to these judgments, or are they cognitive illusions?

If they are cognitive illusions then, even though we have this evolved disposition to treat them as true, anybody interested in living in the real world as opposed to a world of fiction and make-believe should treat them as false. Because they ARE false.

PZ Myers describes another part of Here's another quote from the summary.

One example he gave that I found a bit dubious is the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to shut down regions of brain, in particular the right temporal/parietal junction (which seems to be a locus of intent judgment). In subjects that have that region zapped (a temporary effect!) all that matters is outcome.

Is this an example of impairing a person’s moral sense? Or is it the case that these people acquire a better ability to perceive moral truth than the rest of us?

Perhaps those parts of the brain that are shut off by Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation actually get in the way of our ability to see the moral truth of the matter. Perhaps they cloud judgments with irrelevant and corrupting thoughts and emotions. Or perhaps those parts of the brain actually aid us in obtaining moral truth - they process relevant bits of information without which an agent finds it much more difficult to reach the correct moral conclusion.

Is there anything at all in this line of study that tells us which method of reaching moral conclusions is more accurate than the other?

The problem is that the evolutionary ethicist cannot answer these types of questions. These questions require an understanding of what is true about morality – which the evolutionary ethicist is not studying. This is a different field of study - a field of study that these evolutionary ethicists are keen to ignore.

The claim to be studying "the origins of morality". In fact, it is the person who is studying morality as it exists (if it exists) independent of these perceptions who are looking at the origins of morality. These evolutionary ethicists are not studying morality at all.

Quite often when I read about an evolutionary ethicist speak about this moral sense, they claim that they are uncovering a biological root to our moral judgments. They note that there is this amazing degree of correspondence between this biological disposition to judge certain things, and whether the thing judged is moral or immoral.

However, when asked what it takes for something to be moral or immoral, they answer that this depends on whether people tend to judge it that way.

So their conclusion ends up being, "There is a great deal of coincidence between what people judge to be moral or immoral and what they judge to be moral or immoral."

The fact that a judgment has a biological underpinning says absolutely nothing about its justification. Sound reasoning and sophistry both have a biological underpinning. Finding a biological underpinning of the straw man argument will not, in any way, shape, or form, change the fact that this is an informal fallacy. Finding any biological underpinnings to moral judgments also says absolutely nothing about their legitimacy either.

Which might well amaze and startle the evolutionary ethicist, but falls a bit below my threshold of amazement.

Perhaps there is no morality for us to study. Perhaps all we have are cognitive illusions. My argument here does not depend on the assumption that an independent moral reality actually exists. My argument here is that the study of morality is the study of that independent moral reality and, if it does not exist, then the study of morality is much like the study of God or ghosts. It's something that would have to be removed from the realm of serious research.

If there is no independent moral reality then it is still not the case that these evolutionary ethicists are studying morality. They are not telling us the origins of morality or its make up. They are studying the biological underpinnings of the cognitive delusion of morality - which might be a very interesting field of study, as long as one recognizes it for what it is and does not confuse it with the study of morality itself.

26 comments:

anton said...

This dialogue appears to support the continued use of "I didn't mean to do it" and "I didn't mean to forget" and allows the user to escape "moral judgment". Could this have "evolved" since the religious introduced "Though shall not judge"?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Alonzo,

I seem to be missing the part in your first section where you actually show those statements are false.

Ben

Kip said...

> "I seem to be missing the part in your first section where you actually show those statements are false."

I'd like to see them addressed more fully, too. These are some common moral sentiments, and if they are wrong, is a clear case where Desirism/DU is contrary to popular belief.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I did not argue that they were false. They may well be true. It may be interesting to look at them more closely and discover whether they are or are not true.

But we are not going to get those answers by studying "evolutionary ethics".

That's my point. Evolutionary ethics tells us nothing about whether these statements are true or false. Evolutionary ethics actually tells us nothing about morality.

Anonymous said...

When I first read the following

"Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect."

I actually read it as
"Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a (unintened) side-effect."

Wonder if others at first glance made the same mistake. As written I make no distinction between as intent or side effect. As I read it, I think there is a big difference.

Paul

Mark Frank said...

You seem to believe that the alternative to objective moral truths is an illusion that there are objective moral truths. So that when we we say something is good there is a factor - the goodness - which we are assert is present. This is a crude view of what is going on when we make moral judgements. A moral judgement is more like saying something is interesting or amusing. Its truth or falsity is based on the human reaction to the object. There is no calculus or moral mathematics or science of detecting the conditions under which goodness is present.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I think I can make my point a little clearer by the following:

I am not saying that the evolutionary ethicist is providing the WRONG answers to the questions that I am asking. They are not providing ANY answers to the questions I am asking.

They are not even asking these questions.

This is because they are not, in fact, studying morality. They are studying something else - thoughts about morality - and are making an invalid leap of logic to claim that this is the study of morality itself.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mark Frank

"P is amusing" has a truth value.

That truth value depends on human reactions, but it is still a statement where it makes sense to ask and answer the question, "Is it true?"

We can judge things as being more or less amusing.

"Painful" also depends on a human (or biological) reaction. Yet, it also has a truth value. If I ask the question, "Is it painful?" somebody can give a yes or no answer to that question.

"Is it wrong?"

How do you answer that question?

"Do those people over there deserve to die?"

The evolutionary ethicist is giving us the answer that says, "If you evolved a disposition to feel that those people deserve to die then they deserve to die."

The leap from premise to conclusion in this case seems logically flawed.

Chris said...

Mark,
I agree. The research sited seems more akin to finding out that people think it is good to use vanilla ice cream in their chocolate shake and bad to use rainbow sherbet. We would never argue that this is only true if we could show that a vanilla ice cream, milk, and chocolate syrup shake is somehow objectively good or that a desire for it is something that people objectively ought to encourage.

Obviously we do not generally care that much with what people eat (when we do, the question "shockingly" becomes an ethical issue--see Jewish and Muslim attitudes towards pork).

We do care about peoples attitudes towards violence, not because we "ought" to care or that people "ought" to have a particular attitude, but because in fact we do care because people's attitudes have measurable affect on our lives. Our caring reflects real (objectively existent) desires in us. Obviously people have their own desires. It makes sense to take these desires into account, although there is no sense that I "ought" to take them into account although I may reflect my own desire that others take people's desires into account by saying "You ought to take other people's desires into account".

I do think that people "ought" to act in certain ways. I don't think this of their ice cream choices, but I do concerning their attitude towards violence. But this ought is internal and subjective even though it is based on objective desires and affects objective outcomes.

Chris said...

Obviously a fact about peoples attitudes concerning ethics does not have any connection to the truth of an ethical proposition, if ethical propositions reference external properties of the world.

If ethical attitudes are subjective, then we do learn about what people do in fact desire. True, this is not discovering objective truths about what is good or bad, but wishing does not make something true in any case. Wanting objective truths about goodness is not the same as there being objective truths.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Chris

Can we not have objective truths about what people desire, and objective truths about relationships that exist or can exist between states of affairs in the world and those desires?

Chris said...

Chris

Can we not have objective truths about what people desire, and objective truths about relationships that exist or can exist between states of affairs in the world and those desires?


Of course. I have never said we could not. My problem is the implied jump from said facts to ethical propositions. It can be a fact that you value (or desire) X. It can be true that this desire relates to objective states of affairs. It may also be a fact that someone else has reasons to promote this particular desire and it may be a fact that this someone does in fact promote this desire. It may also be true that someone else has reason to not promote said desire and wishes to thwart it.

So we have lots of existent desires that relate to objective facts about the world. So what? Since people often cage their desires as ethical propositions, you are in effect spending an awful lot of time assessing what people do in fact treat as right or wrong. You critique this in others because presumably you go farther--you claim to be able to tell not just what people claim is right or wrong but what in fact is write and wrong. But I don't see it. As much as I respect the normative values you display on this site, I still think you indirectly commit the Is-Ought fallacy regardless of what you claim. Fact about the world, even facts about our desires, tells us nothing of what we ought to value.

You are right, knowing that people tend to think that deliberate actions that harm are worse than accidental actions, tells us nothing of right or wrong. But that is not because people are looking in the wrong place--there is no place--just things that people desire and value and the ways we work in the real world to achieve as much of those things we can. Morality is not so much a discovery of what we ought to value, but a commitment to what we do value.

Andy said...

Chris said:

"Fact about the world, even facts about our desires, tells us nothing of what we ought to value."

We can obviously make statements in the practical-ought form. I can say, "I am hungry for some chicken. I can obtain chicken by going to the grocery store. Therefore, I should go to the grocery store."

No argument about the is/ought distinction should come up here. The chasm between is and ought has been bridged by reference to the desires.

Since some desires are malleable, I can ask whether its practical for me to have certain desires. Should I acquire the desire to smoke cigarettes? Should I acquire the desire to take cocaine? No, this desire would thwart my other desires so it's not a good idea. Once again, the chasm has been breached between is and ought by referring to my desires. Also, I have the conclusion concerning desires, not just what actions I should go about but what desires I should have.

Therefore, we can bridge the is/ought chasm by referring to desires. We can do this with facts about desires, part of the real world.

But other people's desires are part of the real world too. We can create a new "ought" to refer to desires that we should cause others to have. Desires that would tend to fulfill our desires. Call this a moral ought. What are the ways to alter desires? Praise, blame, reward and punishment. All the properties of morality follow though.

Note that if there is an is/ought chasm that needs to be jumped here, then there is also one in the practical ought case above. We can go from "I desire X" to "I should obtain X by doing Y" so we can also do "We desire X, we should obtain X by doing Y."

Note that morality is universal. It's about the desires all of us have reason to promote/inhibit and the best way to go about doing that.

Chris said...

Andy, your examples do not solve the is-ought problem. If I want to do X and Y is an effective means of achieving X, what in the world does it mean that "I ought to do Y if I want X"? If I assert this about myself, then I am simply stating my desires relevant to facts about the world. No complaint from me.

It is when I want to say it about someone else and that someone else does not desire X or if he or she does, but does not desire to do Y no matter how effective it is at achieving X that we have a problem. It is not the relationship between desires and fact of the world--that is not ethics. It is when you want to affect my malleable desires (which you can certainly do) and then claim you are doing it not because it reflects a subjective desire on your part but that it is the "right" thing to do that I have a problem. Affect whatever malleable desires you want, but don't claim it is more than it is.

Eneasz said...

Hi Chris. I think that we have a definitional problem here, perhaps?

It is when you want to affect my malleable desires ... and then claim you are doing it not because it reflects a subjective desire on your part but that it is the "right" thing to do that I have a problem.

Firstly, it would be a lie for anyone to claim that they are affecting your malleable desires for any reason other than the effect your desires have on their desires. But I don't think that is the claim.

When desirism claims that a desire is good (or right), that translates into saying "this is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote." Any individual person who is trying to effect your desires is doing so only because s/he has many/strong reasons to promote that desire. If all people have many/strong reasons to promote this desire, than it is a "good" desire, at least for any coherent definition of the word "good".

If you have some other coherent definition of what constitutes a "good" desire, I honestly would be interested in hearing it, it could help to refine and improve desirism.

Desirism does not intend to use terms like "good" or "right" as a bludgeon to get you to conform. It uses them merely as descriptive words, which hopefully accurately represent the real world.

So please, stop thinking of these words as weapons of self-righteousness, and think of them as descriptive terms that identify desires as ones that everyone has reasons to promote (or inhibit, in the case of "bad"). This will prevent many miscommunications.

Mark Frank said...

I think Chris has it right. One thing that distinguishes moral desires from say a desire to smoke is that they have are a desire for other people to want the same thing to happen. I not only want to save the whale. I want everyone else to save the whale. Hence they become "universal" and also take on some of the trappings of being objective.

Go back to the analogy of something being funny. In one context you could regard this as purely subjective. I find Keaton funny, others don't, so what? But if you are in a group that has to come to an agreement on whether Keaton is funny (perhaps you are choosing the next film for a society) then suddenly I need everyone else to find him funny and I start to argue my case by pointing to facts about the film and wonder how everyone can be so obtuse as to miss the humour - if only they could see it.

Morality is always in this kind of context. But it is not as though being funny is an additional attribute that comes with each film in addition to all the things that happen in the film "this version is identical except they left out the funniness". And it is extremely relevant to studying what makes things funny to look at human reactions and understand how humour evolved (if we can).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mark Frank

I want everybody to give me 10% of their savings. It does not follow from this that they have an obligation to do so.

Moral claims involve a lot more than, "This is something I want everybody to do." It involves claims about, "This is what all good people would do. This is an obligation . . . a duty . . . something no good person would refuse to do."

These aspects of morality are parts not captured in analogies to things like "amusing".

There is a difference between, "That is amusing (to me)" and "Anybody who does not find that amusing is suffering from some sort of defect." Yet, "X is wrong" does, in fact, mean, "Anybody who does X deserves condemnation for it."

At the end of the day, after failing to put somebody in a state in which they are amused by Keaton, the truth to face is that different people are amused by different things. If 87% of the people are amused by Keaton and 13%are not, there is no sense to the claim that the 13% are mistaken.

But it does not matter how big of a majority is opposed to homosexual marriage, there is a fact of the matter that they ought not to be that is built into the claim that homosexual acts are not, in themselves, immoral.

Chris said...

I want everybody to give me 10% of their savings. It does not follow from this that they have an obligation to do so.
Obviously it does not follow. This would be counter to any subjectivist position, so I cannot possibly be making it. Moral obligations in this sense do not exist. Moral “oughts” are reflections of desires.

Moral claims involve a lot more than, "This is something I want everybody to do." It involves claims about, "This is what all good people would do. This is an obligation . . . a duty . . . something no good person would refuse to do."
You have it about a one-fourth right. “This is something I want everyone to do” is all you can say truthfully. You could add, “This is what people I call good would do, or call an obligation, or call a duty or would refuse to do.” You may even be able to show that doing this thing in fact tends to lead to certain outcomes that you and many people do in fact desire. But, still, no “obligation” even if you wish to talk about desires that you think are desires “good” people would promote (which would still be your opinion). 

These aspects of morality are parts not captured in analogies to things like "amusing".

There is a difference between, "That is amusing (to me)" and "Anybody who does not find that amusing is suffering from some sort of defect."
You are right here about the amusing analogy (although I am not sure Mark is making the claim you say he is making). But I do find it amusing how often even innocuous concepts like humor, which we usually do not treat as a moral issue (meaning “I am not going to try to change your actions or desires”), become “moral” issues the minute someone does wish to step in and coerce change in behavior or desires (e.g. Lenny Bruce.)
But the fact that someone else sees something as “moral” when you do not describes a common state of affairs pretty well. Just because someone treats something a moral puts no obligation on you at all. Obligations are internal.

Yet, "X is wrong" does, in fact, mean, "Anybody who does X deserves condemnation for it."
No, people mean, “I will condemn you for it and I desire that others do the same.” You can want it to mean more, but that is just wishful thinking.

At the end of the day, after failing to put somebody in a state in which they are amused by Keaton, the truth to face is that different people are amused by different things. If 87% of the people are amused by Keaton and 13%are not, there is no sense to the claim that the 13% are mistaken.
I am not sure if Mark is really arguing this point. I suspect he is pointing this out to illustrate that we cannot do this.
But since he is arguing in favor of my post I will comment. Obviously people are amused for different reasons. People like different ice creams. People are moved to affect change in other’s desires for different reasons. And all of them are tied to objective reality in some way. Subjectivism is firmly tied to reality.

But it does not matter how big of a majority is opposed to homosexual marriage, there is a fact of the matter that they ought not to be that is built into the claim that homosexual acts are not, in themselves, immoral.
Sorry, there is no fact of any matter that leads to an “ought” that is binding on me in any way. And you are correct that homosexuals are not immoral because immorality is not a property of objects.

Mark Frank said...

Alonzo

Of course, being funny is only an analogy and it does not capture all aspects of morality. It was only intended to show how the context can make something which is at root subjective take on some objective characteristics.

To look at some of the features of morality that you have mentioned in more detail:

There is a difference between, "That is amusing (to me)" and "Anybody who does not find that amusing is suffering from some sort of defect."

I might well argue that someone who does not find Buster Keaton funny is defective - they have a defective sense of humour. To be out of kilter with the majority of humanity is to be defective in all sorts of fields. Obviously we care much more about someone being a psychopath than lacking a sense of humour - but we consider both to be defective.

"Anybody who does X deserves condemnation for it."

Yes that is part of morality. Whereas someone who does not share our sense of humour might be ridiculed for a lack of sense of humour or being stupid, if they do not share our sense of morality we condemn their behaviour. I don't see that this makes any difference to the argument.

At the end of the day, after failing to put somebody in a state in which they are amused by Keaton, the truth to face is that different people are amused by different things. If 87% of the people are amused by Keaton and 13%are not, there is no sense to the claim that the 13% are mistaken.

A passionate Keaton fan might well say that the 13% are mistaken.

But it does not matter how big of a majority is opposed to homosexual marriage, there is a fact of the matter that they ought not to be that is built into the claim that homosexual acts are not, in themselves, immoral.

In neither case is the fact of being in the majority important. If I assert that something is funny or wrong I am not describing the fact that the majority of people agree with me. In fact I am not describing anything, I am expressing an opinion. It is semi-objective because my assertion is based on the believe that I could get others to share my opinion. My tutor used to call this "suspended subjectivity". It is subjective in nature but we treat it as objective because it is important to us that everyone or most people agree and we feel sure we can get them to agree. Something similar applies to aesthetics.

Chris said...

Eneasz,
When desirism claims that a desire is good (or right), that translates into saying "this is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote." Any individual person who is trying to effect your desires is doing so only because s/he has many/strong reasons to promote that desire. If all people have many/strong reasons to promote this desire, than it is a "good" desire, at least for any coherent definition of the word "good"

Then this whole discussion is pointless if all people have to have this desire to call it “good”. I am not sure that is what DU is claiming. If all desire some thing, then there is no moral issue at all, just pragmatic questions of how to get whatever we all desire. But I read enough of this site to know that Alonzo does believe that certain desires are good even when he is in the minority.

If you have some other coherent definition of what constitutes a "good" desire, I honestly would be interested in hearing it, it could help to refine and improve desirism.

Well, I can say that some desires are good or bad, in the sense that I prefer or disapprove of them. This may motivate me, but does not obligate you at all. I am not specifically trying to improve DU. I am just commenting. I am a subjectivist and I comment because too often subjectivist arguments (including some of my own comments) are lumped into a pile and presented in a way that I find unrecognizable. 

Desirism does not intend to use terms like "good" or "right" as a bludgeon to get you to conform. It uses them merely as descriptive words, which hopefully accurately represent the real world.

I never said it was a bludgeon. If the rest of what you said were true, then I would have little problem. But DU is not meant to be primarily descriptive about what desires people do have or what desires are malleable. It attempts to talk about what desires are good.

But you are partly right. I find that the musings on this site tend to go from merely descriptive (“we all have desires," “some desires are not malleable”, “Ought implies can”) to sneaking in obligations that are claimed to be more than one’s desires. (“X is a desire that a good person ought to desire.”



So please, stop thinking of these words as weapons of self-righteousness, and think of them as descriptive terms that identify desires as ones that everyone has reasons to promote (or inhibit, in the case of "bad"). This will prevent many miscommunications.

I think your insistence on using the words like “everyone” is what is not helping. If you mean that descriptively (i.e. everyone does in fact have this desire) then we are not talking about ethics. If you say that you just want everyone to have this desire and are willing to work for it, then you are at my position. If you mean that everyone “ought” to have this desire when in fact they don’t, then we are back to square one: How do you “know” that everyone ought to have this desire? I know that when you say, “everyone ought to have this desire,” you are telling me about your own desires, but I don’t see how you tie this to something about them--that it is a desire that they ought to have.

I think DU is very unclear of this jump from fact to ought. Saying ought implies can does not fix it. Saying desires really exist does not fix it. Saying I should take into account other’s desires sounds wise to me, from a pragmatic point of view (I can’t affect real change with a bludgeon--it is easier with rhetoric and cultural changes and understanding and empathy), but I hope you are not trying to claim I “ought” to take them into consideration, because your desire that I take into account your desires has no particular, moral, force on me.

Saying we have reasons for promoting various desires does not fix it, because it is not the desires I happen to have, for whatever reason, that are important; it is the desires you think I lack or that you think I should stop having or the reasons you disagree with, that is.

Chris said...

Mark

I might well argue that someone who does not find Buster Keaton funny is defective - they have a defective sense of humour. To be out of kilter with the majority of humanity is to be defective in all sorts of fields.

Defective in this case is normative and therefore relative to a standard. A comedic standard is subjective (but may be common because we share similar biologies and similar cultural artifacts). In other words, people who dislike Keaton share certain objective characteristics that you label "defective". But this is not quite the same as saying that they have a trait of "defective". It also says nothing about what they ought to laugh at (which is still just reflection of a subjective desire on your part.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Let's put it this way.

"We have evolved a disposition to laught at X and, as a result, X is amusing to us," is a perfectly legitimate proposition. I do not see any problem with it.

"We have evolved a disposition to value killing people like you. As a result, you deserve to die."

Are you trying to tell me that the second statement is logically equivalent to the first?

Such as:

"We have evolved a disposition to value killing homosexuals. Therefore, homosexuals deserve to be killed."

The claim seems to be that this is logically valid in the sense that IF the premise were true, then the conclusion must be true. No consistent or coherent thinker could hold that the premise is true but the conclusion is still false.

If we were ever to hear somebody say, "Well, yes, we may have morally evolved a tendency to value killing homosexuals but they do not deserve to die," we would react to the logic of that statement the way we would react to, "Well, yes, we may have morally evolved a tendency to laugh at behavior such as Keatons but he is not at all amusing."

These so-called ‘evolutionary ethicists’ can spend all the time they wish in studying who we are genetically disposed to value killing. They are mistaken when they claim that what they are studying is who deserves to die.

Chris said...

Let's put it this way.

"We have evolved a disposition to laught at X and, as a result, X is amusing to us," is a perfectly legitimate proposition. I do not see any problem with it.

"We have evolved a disposition to value killing people like you. As a result, you deserve to die."

Are you trying to tell me that the second statement is logically equivalent to the first?




Did someone say they were equivalent? (I know this is your theme in your critique, but I am still not sure that evolutionary ethicists make this claim.) And what in the world would deserve mean in this sentence, anyway?

I would say that "We have evolved a disposition to value killing people like you (e.g. I want to kill you, and I know the biology of why), and as a result, I want to kill you." is closer to being equivalent.

My desires have no obligatory force on you, as you well know. I am guessing that you also have evolved a desire to protect your life. If neither of our desires are malleable, then I guess we are in trouble.

You added the charged normative term "deserve" for no good reason than to make your point.

Mark Frank said...

"We have evolved a disposition to laught at X and, as a result, X is amusing to us," is a perfectly legitimate proposition. I do not see any problem with it.

"We have evolved a disposition to value killing people like you. As a result, you deserve to die."

Are you trying to tell me that the second statement is logically equivalent to the first?


No - because the first is about the cause of our laughter - the second about the justification of a moral attitude.

It would be absurd to try to persuade someone that a film was funny by arguing that we had evolved a disposition to laugh at it. You would point to some aspect of the film - the timing perhaps.

A scientist studying comedy might be interested in how we evolved to laugh at certain timings.

Similarly it is absurd to justify your moral attitude by arguing that we evolved that attitude. If you believe that homosexuality is wrong (and unfortunately a lot of people do) then you could not justify your statement by showing how you evolved that attitude. You would justify by drawing attention to some of the consequences of homosexuality or by just saying you think it intrinsically wrong. However, scientists studying morality might well be interested in how you evolved that attitude i.e. what caused you to have it.

Eneasz said...

Chris -

Then this whole discussion is pointless if all people have to have this desire to call it “good”
...
I think your insistence on using the words like “everyone” is what is not helping. If you mean that descriptively (i.e. everyone does in fact have this desire) then we are not talking about ethics
.

I'm not saying that everyone has desire X. I'm saying everyone should have this desire.

They "should" have this desire because this desire tends to help fulfill many/strong other desires, or prevents the thwarting of many/strong other desires.

Since promoting desire X in people will tend to fulfill others' desires, people generally have strong reasons to promote desire X.

Can we agree that the two previous sentences are objectively verifiable? That regardless of anyone's subjective opinion, they can be found to be true or false for any given desire?

eg: Is it true that "an aversion to theft" is one that fulfills many other desires, and thus people have reasons to promote this in others? And that the same doesn't apply to "an aversion to chocolate"?


If you say that you just want everyone to have this desire and are willing to work for it, then you are at my position.

My position isn't that I personally want everyone to have this desire, but rather that people in general have many reasons to promote this desire - even if they may not believe this to be the case. The homo-bigot may desire to cause harm to homosexuals, but he (and all those around him) would be better off without this desire. It is therefore a bad desire.


If you mean that everyone “ought” to have this desire when in fact they don’t, then we are back to square one: How do you “know” that everyone ought to have this desire? I know that when you say, “everyone ought to have this desire,” you are telling me about your own desires, but I don’t see how you tie this to something about them--that it is a desire that they ought to have.

We can only know this the same way we know anything else in the real world. Observation, hypothesis, testing, repeat. Basically - the scientific method. Discover which desires in fact tend to fulfill other desires, and which desires in fact tend to thwart other desires.

Many of the simpler questions have already been answered a long time ago (murder is bad, theft is bad). Others have only more recently been answered (slavery is bad, tribalism is bad, truth is good, bigotry is bad). Many are still unanswered. But that doesn't mean that there isn't an objective answer.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mark Frank and Eneasz

It seems to me that you are trying to argue in the comments some points that require considerably more room.

Eneasz is correctly describing the views that I have defended here, but does not have the room to give a full defense or even explanation of those views.

I would recommend doing a search of this site for postings talking about "Hume" and "subjectivism", as well as visiting the FAQ site linked to on the right of this post.

Or (to be self-serving), you could buy the book. I discuss the issue in detail in the book as well.