Sunday, November 27, 2005

Moral Facts, Arrogance, and Tolerance

I believe that there are moral facts.

When I say this, I sometimes run up against the counter-claim that those who believe in moral facts are necessarily arrogant and intolerant. The position some of these people take states something like, "If you believe that something is wrong, then it is wrong, and you cannot tolerate any other view."

I want to offer some criticism of this response to those who accept moral facts while, at the same time, argue for the morality of respect for different opinions. Note: I have posted a more thorough defense of moral facts on my web site in the article, “Defending Moral Realism from ‘Error Theory’

Moral Facts

I would like to explain a little about what I mean by 'moral facts'. Some people who deny the existence of an 'objective morality' do so on the basis that it must refer to some strange sort of entity that cannot be measured by scientific means.

Just as I do not believe in God, I have no tendency to believe in strange moral entities. My statement that there are moral facts comes from recognizing that statements like "Jimmy likes chocolate ice-cream" can represent a fact in the world. It is not a moral statement. However, it still is either a fact, or it is fiction.

Moral statements are statements like this, except they look at what all people like or dislike. A moral statement, like "Harming children is wrong" is a way of saying, "Hey, everybody, we would tend to be a lot better off if nobody liked to harm children." Even a person who likes to harm children can find value in a society where nobody likes to harm children.

I cannot hope to offer a complete defense of the idea of moral facts in a few short paragraphs. I have presented only a rough idea of what I mean by ‘moral facts’ for reference in the argument that follows.


Statements that condemn those who believe in moral facts of intolerance and arrogance are actually incoherent. The person making such a claim is asserting a moral fact. Specifically, such a person asserts that intolerance is bad (immoral) and, since those people who believe in moral facts are intolerant, they are immoral.

However, the claim that intolerance is bad is a moral statement. As such, the person making the statement is asking others to accept his claim that those who accept moral facts are intolerance, and that this is morally bad, as a moral fact. Ultimately, what such a person is saying, “It is a moral fact that those who assert that there is something morally wrong with those who assert the existence of moral facts.”


In fact, it is very easy for a person who believes in moral facts to say that, "We ought to be tolerant of different views" is one of those moral facts.

Saying that there are moral facts -- that there is a right or wrong answer to moral questions -- does not imply that the person making the statement knows what those moral facts are in all circumstances.

There are chemistry facts. Yet, if somebody were to ask me for the chemical formula for polyethylene, I would have to say, "I do not know." I say that there are chemistry facts, but I do not know what all of them are. In some cases -- many, in fact -- I have to consult somebody who is a specialist in that area.

There are some questions that even the specialists in a particular area do not know the answer to, just yet. "How were the first living cells created?" Here, the experts do not know. There may be some theories as to what is involved, and some theories may be more likely true than others, but nobody yet has a clear right answer to question.

Here we have a situation where a group of people admit that there is a fact of the matter. Each may have their own theory. Yet, none of them asserts, "I am right and anybody who disagrees with me should be put to death." Well, some of them might. But, it is quite possible to hold that there is a right answer, while at the same time advocating tolerance for different theories as to what that right answer may be.

In previous blog entries, I have spoken about a moral issue in just this way.

In the post on "Capital Punishment", I said that the evidence seems to suggest that we would have fewer murders if we, as a society, did not cheer or celebrate any killings, including the killing of murderers. However, I said that I could not prove this and suggested that more research be done.

In the post on "Physician Assisted Suicide" I said that allowing this created two dangers. First, it might weaken the psychological barriers against killing and result in more murders. Second, health-insurance companies might find it in their financial best interest to vigorously market death when medical treatment becomes expensive. I do not know if a society can organize its institutions in such a way that those who are suffering can obtain the benefit of physician assisted suicide, while avoiding these dangers. Therefore, I suggested that a "states rights" approach be used so that different options can be tested.

In both of these cases, I spoke in a way that was consistent with the view that there was a moral fact of the matter – better and worse ways for organizing a society. At the same time, I admitted that I did not know what the moral facts were.

Tolerance for different views comes from recognizing that may not yet have all of the information I need to be certain about any particular conclusion. An individual can say, “The evidence seems to suggest that we would be better off if we, as a society, did not celebrate any killings; however, since we do not know this, let different societies try out different systems.”

Moral Fact: Intolerance is Bad

The person who believes in moral facts does not face these difficulties when he claims that tolerance is good and intolerance is bad.

First, only the person who believes in moral facts can coherently assert that it is a moral fact that intolerance is bad. Those who assert that morality is merely a matter of personal opinion has nothing to say against the person who adopts the personal opinion that he will not be tolerant of other views.

Second, the idea that morality concerns facts to be discovered immediately raises the possibility that, “What I think is wrong, might not be wrong in fact.” Those who base morality on personal feelings or opinion support a system that does not even allow for the possibility of error. The person who has a dislike for interracial relationships and sees them as ‘wrong’, cannot be mistaken about the fact that he sees them as ‘wrong’. We cannot say that he is mistaken unless we can say that there is a fact of the matter that he can be mistaken about.


I agree that belief in moral facts combined with a certain amount of arrogance is a dangerous combination. People like this are more willing to force their morality on others and, to the degree that they are mistaken about what is in fact wrong, to that degree they will do real harm.

In fact, arrogant people have a tendency to not listen to others. This makes it harder to correct any mistakes they may have made.

It is their tendency to act in ways that are harmful to others that makes it the case that society would be better off if people tended to be less arrogant. This, in turn, gives society a reason to meet arrogance with condemnation and contempt. This gives society a reason to insist that its members be mindful of the fact of their own infallibility. They exhibit this appreciation of their own fallibility by being tolerant of others.


There is nothing about the belief in moral facts that gives rise to an arrogant intolerance of other positions. In fact, a belief in moral facts provides a foundation for an argument in favor of tolerance. Intolerance requires not only a belief in moral facts but an arrogant assumption as to one’s own infallibility. The moral failing of intolerance rests with this arrogant assumption of infallibility, not with the belief in moral facts.

However, tolerance, like all other moral principles, is not absolute. The more certain it is that an action is wrong (the more certain it is that an aversion to a particular act-type will help people to lead fulfilling lives), the less reason there is to be tolerant. This essay does not suggest tolerance for rapists, murderers, malicious liars, thieves, and others whose actions are clearly wrong.


Anonymous said...

I really have to disagree with the notion that morality is what's good for society. This is really a way of replacing a god with another mystical superbeing (society). A truly independent source of morality is identity - acting according to what something or someone is. For instance, a proper argument in support of the death penalty might be "murderers deserve death," while one against it might go "nobody deserves to die." This is better than your idea because, frankly, we have no idea what effect many actions will have on society or even if society is worth much consideration. One could reasonably argue that racial segregation is right because integration is harmful to society. Indeed, that argument would be correct in a way because integration would in fact be destructive to that person's ideal society. So who wins?

I assert that a human is above all else free, so it is wrong to hurt him or otherwise bind him unless he does it to someone else first. It is wrong to steal from someone because the person whith something to steal has done something to earn it, while the thief has not.
Were I to argue from a social view, one could easily counter that it's perfectly acceptable to steal so long as the thief has good intentions. If I walk by the Salvation Army Santa at the mall without donating, he could justify picking my pocket because he has a better use for my money. If his use for it was important enough, he could justify killing me for my money.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr:

As I wrote in the essay, I scarcely have space in a few short paragraphs on a blog post to fill in all of the details of this particular view.

Consequently, you will find huge gaps that can only be filled in my looking at the supplementary materials.

For example, if you say that a person ought to do X, this has to imply that he ought to have those desires that would have caused him to do X. If not, then you are telling him to violate the laws of physics (like asking him to teleport a child out of a burning building). No person ought to do anything that is impossible.

If you say that he ought to have had the desires that would have caused him to do X, then you have to accept all of the other actions that the desire would also cause. Desires are persistent entities, so it is impossible for a person to have desires that would cause him to do X at one instant and have a completely different set of desires 10 seconds later.

These physical laws tell us that, in examining what a person ought to do, we ultimately have to be making statements about what a person ought to like. When we make statements about what a person ought to like, we need to accept all of the other actions that having that particular like or dislike will cause.

Our "innate notions" about what is really right or really wrong are simply our learned prejudice. I have met bigots who have a very strong "innate notion" that it is really wrong for the races to interbreed. I have met people who have a strong innate notion that it is "really right" to lock all homosexuals in a walled ghetto and let them starve to death. The 9/11 hijackers felt it was "really right" to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. I see no particularly compelling reason to give these "innate notions" any credit. What we need is a system that helps us to sort out these "innate notions" and discover which identify things that are right or wrong in fact, and which are mistaken.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


This theory does not make mention of any type of "super entity". The term "society" refers to a collection of all individuals with their own individual desires. I say nothing about a "society" that is not objectively true of such a collection.

If you and a bunch of your friends were watching a football game, and you decided to order a pizza, you would then try to answer the question, "What sort of pizza should we get?" The "we" is nothing but a group of people with their own different tastes in pizza. The "best pizza order" would probably involve more than one type of pizza (to appeal to the different tastes). Yet, ultimately, there is an answer to the question, "What type of pizza should we get?" (Or "what movie should we go see?" or "What should we have for supper") that does not require that "we" refer to any type of super entity.

Moral statements are nothing more than "we" for the largest "we" group possible -- all people. Denying that it is sensible to make these types of statements would be denying the obvious -- you make these types of statements all the time.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr:

Demanding the Impossible Of course it is ridiculous for morality to demand that one teleport a child out of a burning building. That was my point. It is equally ridiculous to demand that a person ought to have done some action without demanding that he had the desires that would have caused him to perform that action. This counts as "demanding the impossible" -- like teleporting a child out of a burning building. To avoid "demanding the impossible," a statement about what a person ought to do has to include an evaluation of the desires that would cause him to do it.

Innate Notions I am saying that for conscience to be reliable it has to have a good track record at yielding right answers. If we look at the people throughout history who have accepted moral wrongs such as the divine right of kings, religious persecution, slavery, conquest, crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, torture, arrest and imprisonment without benefit of trial, and the like you will find that the numbers are quite different from those who believe we did not go to the moon. These people let their conscience be their guide and, finding no inhibition against torture or slavery or any of these other evils, they embraced these evils instead.

Oz I have assumed that Oz is writing from a political/economic perspective that I used to share -- something close to the Objectivism of Ayn Rand. Anyway, his writings are like those that are from people who speak from this perspective, so I place them in that context in interpreting them. If I am wrong, I hope that Oz would correct me.

Ought In order for me to answer a question from you about what we "ought" to do, I need you to give me a definition of the word "ought". "Ought" is am ambiguous term -- it has a lot of different meanings. The statement, 'If you want to rob a convenience store without being recognized, you ought to wear a mask," is a perfectly legitimate statement. Yet, this "ought" has nothing to do with morality. Nobody would say, "You have a moral obligation (moral-ought) to wear a mask".

Once we are mindful that "ought" has different meanings, we can see that a sentence like, "The fact that you ought to wear a mask if you do not want to be recognized does not imply that you ought (have a moral obligation) to wear a mask."

Your objection here is playing on the ambiguity of the word "ought". You are switching meanings half-way through your objection without recognizing the difference.

Moral "ought", I argue, is concerned with what people in society have reason to praise or condemn, reward or punish. What it means to say that robbing the store is morally wrong is that society in general has strong reason to condemn those who would rob stores. This does not imply that wearing a mask while you rob the store is not a good way to prevent from being recognized. The fact that it has no such implication is not a sound objection. That society has reason to bring the weight of its praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment against robbers is all that I need to mean by a moral 'ought'.

Anonymous said...

Don JR --

I can think of purely practical reasons to base morality upon advancing society, or rather, protecting society.

Actions which harm others are worthy of condemnation because such actions pose a threat to everyone, both to members of society as individuals (you, or anyone else, might become a future victim) and more generally because a functioning society benefits everyone. That seems like sound enough grounds to answer the question "why should one do good?" Because doing bad has real, tangible negative effects that put others, including myself, at risk.

I admit that if I saw the child rapist you mention in action, my thoughts and feelings would not be about the threat posed to society. I would experience real distress for the child. We humans are social beings. I suspect that we've evolved a sense of concern for others because such concerns tend to promote a healthy society.

Regarding desires, I believe, as I think Alonzo does, that it is indeed impossible to take any intentional action that does not attempt to fulfill your strongest desire or set of desires at the time of action. This doesn't mean it is something pleasant, but it is the best choice you can come up with at the time. You said you sometimes do things you don't want to do, but you feel you ought to do. I'd say that you actually never do this. Perhaps the task you feel you ought to do is unpleasant and you wish there were better options, but not doing the task is in some way even more undesirable to you than any other option you can think of at the time.

Since all intentional actions spring from desires, it makes sense to evaluate the moral implications of desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am agreeing with you on the first point. It is ridiculous to thing that morality would ask this of someone (teleporting a child out of a burning building). In fact, I do not think this. I also hold that it is just as ridiculous for morality to demand that somebody perform an action independent of the desires that would cause him to perform that action.

The reason that I think that you have equivocated on "ought" is because your question seems to be asking, "Why should I, given my desires, not do that action that it is rational for society in general to condemn me for doing?" The personal 'ought' and the societal 'ought' are two different 'oughts', and you are treating them as one. There is no answer to this question (as I explained in "Why be moral?".

A person will be moral because he wants to be, and nothing short of magic can introduce any other type of reason. He may "want to be" because he wants to avoid hell or to obtain the pleasures of heaven. This does not violate the principle that he does the right thing because he wants to -- it just gives him another reason to want to.

The question then is, "Why want to?" The answer to that is that society in general has a reason to mold its members so that they are not a risk to each other. Just as it is prudent for them to establish (for example) a tsunami warning system if they live on the coast of an ocean subject to tsunamis, they have just as much of a reason to estabish a "peaceful neighbor system" -- that system being morality.

The child rapist, you mention, need not like or even appreicate the fact that society is prudent to establish and maintain a peaceful neighbor system (morality) that condemns his actions. Yet, this does not change the fact that it is prudent for society to set up and maintain such a system. His personal feelings do not change that fact.

Anonymous said...

Don JR --

I don't understand what your quibble is. Are you denying that inflicting harm on others is a sound basis for declaring such actions "wrong"? The child rapist can say whatever he wants, but his actions harm others, and is therefore wrong.

It seems that you are positing the existence of some extremely selfish person who asks "why can't I do what ever I want, even harm others?" I can't honestly see how we can even discuss morality without "harm done to others" being at the core of the discussion. And, I don't think saying so in any way validates theistic morality. On the contrary, theistic morality is not concerned with harm done to others, but rather, with fulfilling the will of God.

Regarding society, I believe you're misrepresenting Alonzo when you state:

Don: "Why be moral?"
Alonzo: "Because it helps society."
Don: "Why ought we care about helping society?"
Alonzo: "Because that's what a moral person would do"

I don't think Alonzo says that we should be moral for the purpose of helping society. Rather, society demands morality because doing so helps society.

Regarding desires:

Me: "You said you sometimes do things you don't want to do, but you feel you ought to do. I'd say that you actually never do this."

Don Jr.: "It's pretty much impossible for me to respond to this. I mean, if you know me better than me. (Talk about baseless assertions.")

I think you entirely misunderstood what I was saying. I was saying that nobody takes an intentional action that doesn't fulfill (or attempt to fulfill) their desires. Answer me this: if your desire to not fulfill a perceived obligation is stronger than your desire to fulfill it, then why would you act to fulfill the obligation? You wouldn't. You always, always act upon your strongest desire or set of desires.

Anonymous said...

Don JR --

Thanks for your reply.

Of course I do not actually believe that all that causes harm is morally bad while all that does not cause harm is morally good. That's far too simple. Space here is limited. My point was merely to underscore the centrality of harm in discussion of morality. I do in fact start with an assumption: that harm is "bad." Sometimes it may indeed be morally acceptable to inflict a harm to avoid still greater harm. And, unintentional harms are still bad, but they do not (usually) permit us to declare that the one who inflicts it is bad (immoral). And also, intending to cause harm, but failing to actually pull it off, can still be deemed bad (immoral).

So, I do start from an assumption. I assume that "bad" or "immoral" deeds must in some way be connected to harm caused or intended. The more a deed increases the harm that exists in the world, the more immoral it is.

Incidently, if I understand Alonzo correctly, harm means "thwarting desires." It's the best basis for defining harm I've encountered.

Of course, one could challenge my assumption. If you think that'd be an interesting avenue of discussion, then please do so. But, I can see no meaning in a moral claim that "X" is immoral when "X" neither causes, nor intends to cause, some sort of harm.

Regarding your question to me "what makes you right and the child rapist wrong?" The rapist's deeds increases the amount of harm in the world, so they are bad. I am of course starting from the assumption stated above. Given that it is a correct assumption (which one could contest), I see no question begging in this answer.

I don't know to what degree Alonzo would agree with this, but I do believe he would say that, ultimately, it is actually desires that we should morally assess, since they are what give rise to deeds.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

Actually, my claim is not that we are moral because it helps society. Nor do I say that we ought to care about helping society. Neither of these claims are a part of my argument.

I said specifically that a person does the moral thing that he wants to. The reason that he wants to is because society has caused him to have such a desire through the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Society has caused him to have these desires because doing so helps them maintain their security and happiness.

Caring about society may well be one of the things that people are taught to like. However, history has shown that it is more prudent and effective to try to get people to care about truth, a fair trial, freedom of the press, non-aggression, charity, and tolerance. If people are made to care about these things, then the well-being of society will come about in due course.

The child-rapist you speak about can speak all he wants about his actions being moral. However, he cannot make it the case that society has no reason to use the tools of condemnation and punishment against such people. Calling something moral that society has every reason to condemn and punish is simply playing with words. In fact, his actions remain immoral. In fact, his actions remain a type of action that society has reason to condemn and punish. The child-rapist cannot change this fact.

I can't prevent the child rapist from saying that his actions are moral. I can't prevent a person from saying that 2 + 2 = 4. However, if the child rapist cannot prove that society has no reason to condemn and punish people such as him, then the child rapist cannot prove that his actions are moral in fact. The best he can do is claim that something is moral that is, in fact, immoral.

Anonymous said...

Don jr. --

You are asking for something that is impossible -- not just for my moral system, or Alonzo's moral system, or non-theistic moral systems, but for any moral system.

You seem to want me to prove that right is right in the same way a mathemetician may prove some therom. You take issue with my making an assumption, but the fact is, it is impossible for any moral theory to not make assumptions. For example, "moral" and "immoral" must be defined, but there is no way to do that without making assumptions.

Do you know of any moral system at all that does not make assumptions? If not, then there is not point to your objection, unless you are prepared to argue that all moral systems are equally invalid, in which case you should not argue against some moral system in particular (such as Alonzo's), but against the very idea that morality has any real meaning.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Nontheistic morality is on much firmer ground than any theistic morality. You can neither prove God's existence, nor prove that we should give a hoot about what he says regarding morality even if we knew he existed.

If Alonzo's moral system is in the same boat as "nontheistic math", whatever that is, then I'd say that's a pretty good boat to be in.

Defining rights and wrongs upon harm is fine by me because, frankly, it works to protect people. You are quite right, I'm not troubled at all if I'm question begging. I think that's a pretty meaningless complaint. I've made some assumptions in defining morality, then proceed from them to conclusions regarding various behaviors. I see nothing wrong with that.

If one wants to take issue what I or Alonzo are saying, then the two logical avenues of complaint are to challenge either the assumptions or their application. But to challenge the very making of any assumption is nonesense. As I said, no morality, whether theistic or nontheistic, would exist if we could not make assumptions.

Indeed, if we always reject all assumptions, human knowledge would be very limited. Science, for example, works by making, then testing, assumptions. You would apparently reject science, yet science works. It is not perfect. It is certainly not free of mistakes and error. But it has, better than any other process, greatly expanded our knowledge of the workings of the universe.

I'd love to hear an argument from you that theistic morality makes no assumptions. There is no valid argument for that proposition.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Okay, I see that you were merely pointing out that math is nontheistic, and I guess you're then claiming that all things nontheistic inherently lack an ontological basis. Is that it?

Well, if that is it, then that merely goes to show that having no ontological basis is not necessarily a problem. Math works pretty well to help us get by in the world, and to understand it.

I think you reach way too far when you imply that making assumptions is purely arbitrary. Assumptions can be based upon observation, and they can be tested by further observation. Assumptions are not all equal.

My moral system is superior to the rapists because mine protects people from harm, while his increases the harm in the world. You can complain all you want about ontology, but the fact is my system has real world practicality that improves peoples lives. Like math. I don't care about the ontological basis, or lack thereof.

Now, on to another point: you are being hypocritical. You said "the nature of God gives an ontological basis for the existence of morality." Talk about making an assertion! You're assuming God exists, that his nature provides an ontological basis for morality, and that you can know his nature.

I won't even get into whether God exists or whether you can know his nature. For the sake of argument, I'll grant those dubious things. Now please explain how God's proclamations about morality give morality an ontological basis.

Could God tomorrow announce that it is immoral not to torture you're first born to death over the course of two weeks? From now on, every first born child shall be put to slow painful death in this way when they turn 3 months old. If you don't do it, you'll be flaunting God's will, and it will be deemed by him to be immoral.

Would there be a sound ontological basis for such a thing?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

If God made such a proclamation, would we in fact be immoral if we ignored it?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Let's drop the math discussion. I think it's an unneccessary tangent.

I did in fact answer your question. My system is better than the rapist because it works to protect people from harm, while the rapists does not. I make some assumptions about what is right and wrong, but, despite your claims to the contrary, they are not arbitrary. They are based upon the real world effects of human behavior.

Your objections regarding my lack of an ontological basis are both unimportant and hypocritical.

They are unimportant because the harms people inflict upon one another are real and observable. The child rapist can claim that he is being harmed by outlawing rape. Fine. I suppose to some degree he is. But he does not account for the harm he inflicts. His morality is concerned with no one other than himself. If we allowed people to do whatever they wanted with out regard to anyone else, society and all it's members are at risk. I really don't care in the least if nonthiestic morality rests upon a firm ontological basis. I care that it protects people.

It's hypocritcal because you are yourself making unwarranted assumptions: that God exists, that you can determine his nature, that his view of morality matters (or perhaps you believe he is somehow the source of morality, another assumption). Surely you will admit that all these things require some assumptions. Am I right?

My questions regarding theistic morality are not in the least bit obstinate. They are sincere.

I asked the question regarding torturing first borns for a reason -- not to be snotty. I'd like an answer.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I'll wait for your more complete response.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

Somebody can call a toothbrush a "dog" if he wants to, but he cannot make it bark.

The child-rapist can call his actions "moral" if he wants to, but he cannot make it the case that society has reason to condemn and punish people such as himself.

You are confusing the subjectivity of language with the subjectivity of the things spoken about. What we call things is completely arbitrary. No argument can be given that one name is better than another. However, the features of the things we name do not change.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

In the English Language, morality has to do with what society has reason to condemn.

Morality is Not, by the way, found in what society actually does condemn, but what society has reason to condemn. So, you cannot look at what a society actually condemns to determine what is moral or immoral. Sometimes, societies condemn things they have no reason to condemn, because they hold false beliefs. Or they refuse to condemn something they have reason to condemn, for the same reason. So, you can't look at what a society does or does not condemn to determine what is moral or immoral. There is a fact of the matter -- a fact that everybody in that society may be unaware of.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I also believe that a lot of what were talking about has to do with confusion about words.

Morals are rules of behavior society defines to protect itself and its members. Why that should require a supernatural origin escapes me.

You haven't said, so I making a guess here, but I think many who argue for, but are mystified by, the existence of objective morals would point to the fact that certain moral rules seem to be universal. They can see no explaination for this other than God.

The hazard with this kind of explaination in general is that, as we learn more and more, there's less and less room for a god who supposedly answers these "unanswerable" questions.

But regarding certain universal moral codes specifically, I see no big mystery. Humans are social animals. We need each other. This is not the case with all animals, except in regard to mating. Apart for brief sexual encounters, many animals can do just fine without other members of their species. Not us. We have been, for as far back as can be detected, social. It comes as no surprise then that certain codes of conduct have developed that strengthen and reinforce social groups. "Though shall not kill" clearly reinforces society, not just here in the US, but wherever people live in close contact. It's, as I keep saying, practical. And so it is with the other universal moral codes.

It even makes sense that we should have strong, innate feelings of morality. People who get along with others make good mates, and they help society function, so that trait is readily passed down from generation to generation and easily spreads throughout society, and eventually humanity.

Incidently, other social animals have moral codes too. I learned in one of my biology classes that vampire bats live in small social groups. When a member is too ill to go out and collect food (blood) with the rest of the group, the others regurgitate some of their meal for the sick bat. Those who don't participate are actually punished by the others. Need one invoke the divine to explain this? Of course not, caring for one another is a quality that strengthens the whole group and helps them survive. Other social animals have codes of behavior that they enforce.

I could go on, but it's your turn. Sorry, there's kind of a lot to respond to since your last posting.

Anonymous said...

Make that "Thou shall not kill," not "though shall not kill"...

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I was offering an explanation for why unversal moral codes exist, and why innate feelings of right and wrong exist. I wasn't denying that morals concerns right and wrong, I was offering a natural explanation for their universality and the innate feelings of right and wrong that people experience.

Don Jr.: "In the rest of your last post, all you said was doing T helps X, where T is "things advantageous to society" and X is "society." I've already said, and it should be obvious, that this is true and, more importantly, not worth saying. You're just saying that if we do things to help society, then we'll help society. What's your point?"

No, that is not what I said in the rest of my post. I'm offering a natural explanation as to why moral behavior and rules exist. And, I was explaining that moral behavior doesn't only help society, it helps members of the society as well.

What's my point? That a natural origin of morals makes perfect sense. It is easy to see how they arise, and how they spread throughout humanity because they help the survival of both individuals and society itself. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how a society could exist without them.

People require society, and society requires morals. None of it is mysterious, and none of it even hints at the existence of god.

Morals exist because they work. They are practical. They have real world effects that help people survive, and so are self perpetuating.

Now, you have:

1. Rejected all assumptions, and even implied that all assumptions are on equal (and shaky) footing.

2. Assumed that "objective morality" requires God.

3. Assumed that God can somehow provides an "ontological basis" for morality.

4. Contradicted yourself.

Just how does God provide an ontological basis for morality? I think that's an utterly meaningless idea. I'm looking forward to your defense of it.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

One more thing. I've not said that "things that help society are good things." I've said things the tend to decrease harms are good, while things that increase them are bad. Yes, that's an assumption. But so what? The word "wrong" makes no sense unless if refers to some harm (or potential harm).

The society part explains how morals naturally arise and persist.

God, on the other hand, does not explain morality. If you reject what I'm saying because it makes an assumption, then yours must be rejected because it too makes assumptions.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Okay, I've re-read our previous posts, and I think I am overstating your position by saying you reject all assumptions. You've merely said that my assumptions are baseless. (I assert that they are not).

Sorry for my misstatement.

The contradiction is more implicit. You reject morality that is has no ontological basis, then make the assumptions that nature cannot provide this basis, and that God can. Perhaps there is some basis for those claims (I don't think there is), but you haven't responded to my natural explanation of morality, and certainly have not attempted to show that God can provide the ontological basis you seek even if he does exist. I don't think God can do this.

What is the ontological basis for theistic morality?

Anonymous said...

Don JR. --

I don't see why you assume I'm being disingenuous. Couldn't I merely be misinterpreting you?

Let me re-cap a few things:

I said that "wrong" means increasing the harm that exists in the world. I think any definition of "wrong" that doesn't involve harm is pretty meaningless.

You reject this on the grounds that it is a baseless assumption. That also, I take it, is the reason I can't apply it to the child rapist.

I don't think it's baseless because it is useful. It protects people. I suppose you would say that is an arbitrary goal.

Before delving further, perhaps this would be a good time for you to give a good non-arbitrary definition of "wrong" or "right." Then we can put our two definitions side by side and compare which has a firmer grounding in reality.

Anonymous said...

A cautionary note:

I tried to post a longer version of the one just above this one, and I got an error and completely lost my post.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Sorry to be a source of frustration. I really did misunderstand your meaning, and I've figured out why:

At one point you said: "You even admit that you are starting from an assertion, which you state in your last comment."

When I read that, red flags went up. I've talked with people who took the view that if I couldn't absolutely prove what I was saying, then they were justified in rejecting it completely. I don't think that's an intellectually honest position to take, so, I was a little predispositioned to be weary of that sort of thinking.

Perhaps because of that, I either forgot this next sentence, or it just never registered: "The problem is that, from an objective standpoint, this assertion is baseless and begs the question."

Of course that changes everything. You're simply saying that the particular assertion I made is baseless, not all assertions (assumptions).

And, I've been operating under that mistaken interpretation for several posts, which has influenced where I've been heading with things. Again, I'm sorry, and I'll try to read a little more carefully.

I'm glad to read that you want to take care that we're communicating clearly. Man, my wife and I miscommunicate about what's on the grocery list, so some measure of it is sure to occur when discussing complex and abstract ideas such as these.

Anyway, in this post, I won't critique your position of morality, I'll just see if I can restate it correctly, just to be sure we agree about what you're saying.

So, if I understand you, you are saying that we are born with an innate sense of the difference between right and wrong. This sense is the morality that is "out there" somewhere; that actually exists. That's the "ontological basis" for morality -- it exists as a thing (a sense) within us.

Further, "right" is what corresponds to God's will, while "wrong" is what conflicts with it. So, we have the ability to sense God's will.

Is that your position?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Due to my work schedule (and a Bronco's game I'm attending), I may not be able to post much for the next few days.

So if I understand you, it is God's nature, a real thing that acutally exists, from which moral "rights" and "wrongs" arise. We humans have the ability to sense this nature, and thus tell the difference from right and wrong.

That does indeed raise a lot of questions in me, but I'm not going to fire them at you all at once. I'll stick to just one.

It seems to me that we agree that people have a sense of right and wrong. We differ in our beliefs about why that is. I argued earlier that there are good natural (non-supernatuaral, non-theistic) reasons that explain this. People are social beings. We need each other. Caring for others can be thought of as a trait, like any other. It's a trait that makes families healthier, and society itself healthier. Since it has these effects, it is not surprising that it has become prevalent throughout humanity.
I'll admit I can't prove that's why we have a moral sense, but I do think that's a pretty plausible explanation.

Now my question: How do you get from the observation that we have an innate sense of right and wrong to the theory that this actually is an ability in us to sense some perfect nature in a god? I must say, that just seems like an odd conclusion to draw if one were starting from a completely neutral position.

I've also considered exchanging email addresses. I'm not opposed to it, but anyone who reads this blog could then get our email address, if that matters. Also, I do like the easy to follow linear way our entries show up here. But like I said, I'd go for an email exchange if you prefer.

One other thing: I'm sure you found Alonzo's mention of you raising the question of destroying an alien civilization in today's blog topic ("The Meaning of 'Ought'") to be a bolt from the blue. Actually, I know Alonzo personally. I sent him an email with a scenario about the morality of destroying a friendly, non-threatening civilization of aliens on another planet. He must have thought that you brought up the example in our discussion. I've told him about it.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I realize I haven't answered a direct question you asked a couple of posts ago:

"So are you disagreeing with Alonzo and thereby suggesting that what helps society should not be the crux of the matter?"

I just can't conceive of a definition of "morally wrong" that doesnt' have to do with inflicting harm (or intending to). It just flat out does not make sense to me to say "Behavior X is wrong" if in fact behavior X cannot cause harm.

The society part explains how common ideas about "right" and "wrong" arise (see post above) and become so prevalent, as well as offers justification for society to pass laws.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

Sorry about the delay in my response -- busy at work.

You're asking "is objective morality possible in a nontheistic system?"

Yes. It hinges on the idea that harm is bad. That seems so transparently obvious that I feel a little silly typing "harm is bad."

The child rapist might claim that by society restricting his behavior, he is being harmed. He could then demand justification for the restrictions we might impose. But in doing so, he is being hypocritical, for he himself is inflicting harm that he is not justifying. And since the harms he inflicts far outweigh the harms he endures, it's clear that he is in the wrong.

Now, you might say he does have a justification: he simply defines child rape as "good." But, how is he going to sell his case? I can at least point to the real effects harmful behaviors have on the afflicted. The rapist can only point to his own thwarted desire. That's fine, as I said before, the thwarting of desires is a good way of defining harm. But in making this case, the rapist admits that thwarting desires is harmful and "bad." But what about the thwarted desires of those he rapes? Somehow, he'll have to make the case that his desires matter while those of the children he rapes do not.

Now, you might say that "harm is bad" is arbitrary. Why is it bad? I will admit that I cannot do much better than to point to the effects harms have on people. But I think that is a very minor concession, especially given the assumptions that I believe must be made to support a theistic view of morality.

Which brings me to your theistic view of morality. You've said in the past that God's existence is something that can be logically inferred from the existence of objective morality. But you also state "Morality, or, more precisely, what is good, has its ontological basis in the unchanging, perfect nature of God."

I'm not exactly sure how you square those two things. It seems to me that on the one hand, you're saying we know morality is objective because it's rooted in the nature of a perfect God, but on the other hand, you start from the presumpton of an objective morality, and from that "fact" infer that must be a God.

You've said that God gave us a conscience through which we can sense right from wrong. But that's only something you could propose only after first demonstrating the existence of God. Starting from scratch, all you know is that people have a conscience that gives them a sense of right and wrong. I see absolutely no way to conclude that this conscience must be sensing the nature of a god, or the "rights" and "wrongs" that derive from a god's nature.

Even if you cannot concieve of how such a sense could arise naturally (although I explained how I think it not only can, but would be an expected thing) all you would be left with is a mystery. Not noing how a thing could come into being does not justify concluding that there must be a god that created it.

Anonymous said...

Can you tell I typed that at 3:23 in the morning? I of course meant "Not knowing how a thing..."

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

You ask: "To the serial killer who says harm is not bad, what do you say?"

Haven't we been over this? I point to the harm he inflicts, and society locks him up because such behaviors are a threat to everyone.

As I said, if he says that locking him up will harm him, then he is admitting that harms matter. If on the other hand, he rejects the notion that harming others is bad, then how can he complain about being locked up? Afterall, we're "merely" harming him!

Like I said, this is practical and based on the real world we can all see. To me, your armchair complaint that I can't prove that inflicting harms upon others is bad is insignificant.

I think it's interesting that you didn't address the issues I raised about God and objective morality.
After you do that, perhaps you would also tell me what you would say to the serial killer. I don't see how you can possibly convince him of the wrongness of his ways.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

When you asked "To the serial killer who says harm is not bad, what do you say?", I assumed you meant how would I explain to him that his deed is "bad."

I do have many questions about your view, but I'll start with one thing. I don't see how you determine that there is an objective morality.

For me, I simply note that harms are bad. I know you don't like that explanation, but it is my explanation. I'm sure we'll discuss it later.

Given that you seem to reject the notion that harms are inherently bad, I don't see anyway for you to determine that there exists an objective morality.

You've said that objective morality exists, and from that you infer God. But, before you make that inference, how do you assume an objective morality?

You've said we all have a sense of right and wrong, but that doesn't seem like enough to justify the claim "objective morality exists." A natural origin for such a sense is easy to explain naturally.

So how do you find that there is indeed an objecive morality?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I have many questions regarding your theistic morality. But we'll get to them in due time.

I've told you how I concluded that objective morality exists. Indeed, we've spent a fair bit of time discussing that.

I am perfectly aware that you reason from objective morality, and from it you conclude that God exists. That's why I said, in my last post, "You've said that objective morality exists, and from that you infer God."

I do indeed question how you arrive at the conclusion that there is an objective morality. And there is nothing unreasonable about my prying into your reasoning, just as you have asked me for mine.

You seem to reject harm as a basis for morality. Given that, I don't see how you can conclude that objective morality exists.

So I ask again, how do you conclude that there is an objective morality? I don't know why you won't tell me what leads you to that conclusion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

To augment Thayne's question, this proof of an objective morality must not presuppose God.

Since objective morality is being used to prove the existence of God, any argument for an objective morality that presupposes the existence of God would thereby be circular.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

You stated "Why you feel it necessary to question a premise, namely, the existence of objective beyond me."

I ask for your reason for assuming an objective morality because, quite frankly, I think there is no case to be made for it if you reject the notion that harm is "bad."

I know you think I'm begging the question. So be it. That doesn't mean it's meaningless. As Alonzo pointed out, "circles are round" is also begging the question, but so what? We can take this issue up again later if you wish. But, you said it's time for me to ask you questions regarding theistic morality, so let's continue in that vein for now.

So, if you reject "harm is bad," then I see no basis for an objective morality.

And, according to your model, without objective morality, you lose the inference of God, and therefore theistic morality altogether.

I don't see anything on the list you provided in your response to Alonzo that will make your case. For example: "our innate awareness of right and wrong" presupposes the existence of right and wrong. One cannot be "aware" of something that doesn't exist. We have feelings about right and wrong, but I see no way to infer that these feelings actually accurately sense rights and wrongs that objectively exist. Further, it is reasonable to expect that such feelings would naturally evolve in social beings, as I previously argued.

So I'll ask yet again. How do you conclude that there exists an objective morality?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

I've had to hold my tongue (well, fingers) many times throughout our discussion as you've misrepresented what I or others have said. I'm going to do so more than I'd actually like here. I've restrained myself in the past because I wanted to stay focused on issues, and because, to be honest, you seem pretty sensitive. It's pretty irritating to put up with your insults about logic or reading comprehension when you yourself obviously don't get what I or Alonzo are saying.

Consider, for example, your latest post where you highlight the back-to-back sentences that are allegedly so contradictory that you just can't continue:

Don Jr.:
" 'One cannot be 'aware' of something that doesn't exist.' Duh. That's the whole point. Amazingly, after saying this, in the very next sentence you say, "We have feelings about right and wrong, but I see no way to infer that these feelings actually accurately sense rights and wrongs that objectively exist." What?! How can you say that we cannot be aware of something that doesn't exist and then turn around and (in the very next sentence!) say that our awareness of right and wrong doesn't mean that right and wrong actually exist?"

Are you kidding, Don? Have you been paying any attention to what I've previously said on this topic? Please pay attention now: I did not say that we are aware of right and wrong. I said we have "feelings" of right and wrong. "Feelings" about what is real are not at all the same thing as an awareness of some reality. That was my whole point, which you completely missed. On a cloudless day at noon, I am aware of the sun overhead; I don't just have some gut feeling that the sun is overhead. Indeed, the question I've posed could be rephrased "how do you know these feelings of right and wrong are actually an awareness of right and wrong?"

Don Jr.: "No one can prove that objective morality exists by asserting that harm is wrong. That's just a horrific display of reasoning."

Again, I must ask, have you been paying attention to what I've been saying? I have not ever said that I have proved objective morality. I've clearly said that I ASSUME that harm is bad, and then progress from there. I've said I think that's a reasonable assumption -- much more reasonable than the list of baseless assumptions required in theistic morality, which, unfortunately we didn't get to (I suspect you don't want to). I've said that one could certainly challenge my assumption.

Don Jr.: "If a Christian falls down and hurts herself she has sinned?"

Are you trying to be juvenile?

Recall an earlier post of mine:

"I do in fact start with an assumption: that harm is "bad." Sometimes it may indeed be morally acceptable to inflict a harm to avoid still greater harm. And, unintentional harms are still bad, but they do not (usually) permit us to declare that the one who inflicts it [oops, should have said "them"]is bad (immoral). And also, intending to cause harm, but failing to actually pull it off, can still be deemed bad (immoral)."

Okay, read that carefully and then tell me how you'd bet money on my answer to your silly question about someone falling down. Intent is obviously an element. Incidently, in case you're wondering, I wouldn't call a thorn immoral if someone stepped on it and punctured their foot. Bolts of lightning that strike people down are also not immoral.

It appears to me that you really don't like being challenged. You're willing to clear up any misconceptions I may have about what you're saying, but your not so willing to hear challenges to your beliefs. In response to such challenges, you pompously blow a lot of smoke about the logical ineptitude of your opponents while evading the questions put to you.

And now, when challenged, you're quitting. Fine. But, in future posts, I recommend you stop pontificating, stop trying to make others look silly, and read what they have to say with a charitable heart.

Anonymous said...

can u explain more detail bout societies rules to guide a moral person and importance of the rules of society.....thank you