In search of an objective morality

I’ve had a few conversations lately on morality, and it strikes me that I haven’t written about it in quite a while.  The discussions focused on whether there is any objective morality, or any objective definition of good and evil.  This is an age old question.

It occurs to me that we can break moral notions down into certain types.

  1. Personal morality: This is what we all individually viscerally feel is right or wrong.  It appears to arise from a combination of instinctive innate intuitions and cultural indoctrinations.  While we are all human and mostly have the same instincts and intuitions, we feel them with varying levels of intensities and in various combinations of those intensities, heavily modified by our unique experiences.  In other words, conscientious people can conscientiously disagree about right and wrong.
  2. Cultural morality: This is the culture’s definitions of right and wrong.  It is, in essence, the consensus arrived at from the members of that culture, modified by the environments that the culture exists in.  (For example, the mores of desert nomads will be different from farming or fishing villages.)  2 is essentially a summation of 1, but it also influences 1 heavily, making the relationship between the two complex, with a tendency to have a life of its own, transcending and often modifying and becoming part of the environment that modifies itself.
  3. Societal laws: This are the mores from 2 that a society chooses to encode and enforce.  Most people are aware of the stark differences between 3 and 2.  There are many things that are legal but are widely considered immoral, and there are many things intuitively regarded as just, that are illegal.  Some of these differences arise from who has power in a society, but some of it also arises from a pragmatic necessity for laws to work and be enforceable across the society.
  4. Objective morals: These are morals precepts that exist “out there” in some platonic sense.  If you’re religious, these may be the commandments of a god or gods.  If you’re secular, you may try to find it in some other aspect of reality, such as evolved human instincts.

There’s no question that 1-3 exist.  They can be studied through psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and history.  We can read studies of them in various other cultures, both in the world today or throughout history.  They themselves have an objective existence, although they are constantly changing.

The question is whether 4 exists, and if it exists, whether there is any way for us to know it.

Again, if you’re religious, you may believe that 4 definitely does exist; it is simply the will of the deity or order that you worship.  The problem is that there is no way to prove that any one religion is the right one, at least not in any manner that the adherents of other religions, or of no religion, will accept.  And even within a religion, there are often strong disagreements about what that objective morality is between different sects, denominations, and often even within the core scriptures.  If any one religion is true, it historically doesn’t seem to help us in discovering exactly what the objective moral precepts are.

Many secularists have attempted to find an objective morality in human instinct.  I have some sympathy for this approach, and I do think human instinct puts some constraints on moral rules, so that they’re not completely arbitrary, although the freedom allowed by those constraints appear to be wider than just about anyone is comfortable with.   The problem is that there is no one set of human instincts.  As I mentioned in 1 above, we’re all a little different.

The other problem with using human instinct as a guide, is that it often leads to mores most of us find problematic today.  It appears to be human nature to consider people who are like us to be the in-group, and all others the out-group, with the result that, historically, the out-group is often treated as less than human.  It’s also true that human empathy with people who are out of sight appears to be unnatural.  In these and many other cases, we feel the need to override our instincts in these areas with “the better angels of our nature.”

Of course, these “better angels” are themselves the result of other instincts.  A while back, fellow blogger, Ignostic Atheist, asked whether we were born evil.  My response was that we were born with both selfish and pro-social instincts, which are always in tension.  Different individuals and cultures declare different spots along the spectrum of that tension as “good” or “evil.”  An overbearing fascist might shift “good” all the way to the pro-social side, leaving little room for individual freedom, while an anarchist might position it far toward the selfish side.

All of which is to say that we can’t find an objective morality within human instinct, or more broadly in natural facts.  Attempting to do so is often called the naturalistic fallacy.

So, if an objective morality exists, we appear to have no way to ascertain it, or have confidence in its existence.  We’re back to David Hume’s famous (infamous?) observation that you can’t derive an ought from an is, the is-ought distinction.  No one has found a convincing solution to this distinction.  Although it hasn’t stopped many from claiming that they have, or claiming that the distinction doesn’t really exist, but those people have generally failed to convince the intellectual world.  (Although, of course, they often do have substantial followings.)

Does this mean that discussing morality is pointless?  That all viewpoints, no matter how odious we may find them, are equally valid?  That moral propositions are nothing more than emotive “yay charity” or “boo murder”?  Are we doomed to normative moral nihilism?

I think the answer depends on whether we can find shared common values.  If we can, then, on the basis of those shared values, we can apply science and logic to help resolve difficult moral conundrums.  At least some of the time.  For example, in a debate about animal rights, appealing to a shared sense of empathy and care of others, and then asking why it shouldn’t pertain to non-human animals, is a powerful argument.

Other times the logical answer may crash into another instinctive or indoctrinated intuition.  The abortion debate could be seen as a tension between the wellbeing of the mother and that of the embryo / fetus.  If so, a logical and evidence based discussion might lead us to conclude that the welfare of the mother should trump the welfare of, at least, an early stage embryo with no conceivable ability to experience suffering.  But this conclusion crashes into a sacred value held by many pro-life advocates, who consider the zygote to be an ensouled and inviolable human being, which they think should be treated like any other human.

Of course, even then the discussions are worth having.  After all, what other choice do we have, at least other than having one group impose its values on others?  (A choice resorted to far too often in history.)  I’ve noted many times before that in a society with universal suffrage, we have no choice but to do the hard work of finding a consensus that the majority of us can live with.

But I guess the question I have is, am I missing something?  Is there a way to ascertain objective definitions of good and evil?  If so, what are they?

47 thoughts on “In search of an objective morality

  1. You’re not missing anything. Even if there were a god and it chose to show itself and assert it’s authority as the objective law giver that law/morality would be subjective to the god. Those that believe do not think there is law or morality that their god is subject to. All that such a search as this does is move the point of authority for subjective morality to a higher rank. If nature imposed objective morality it would look like gravity, or the speed of light. Morality is always subjective and context sensitive. Thinking otherwise is to abrogate subjective morality, meaning that if 4 is true then 1-3 are not. Since we know that 1-3 are true 4 cannot be unless we redefine it to fit within the constraints imposed by 1-3.

    In short, in trying to find #4 you are asking if water can be dry.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You are spot on. If there were a god and it had a morality, it would be on the basis of what … “do things my way or I will punish you”? That doesn’t seem to be terribly objective. And what if there are two or more gods which differ in their dictates? (In the words of Scooby-Doo “Rot row!”)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks. Although if an omnipotent creator-god consistently and publicly maintained that, say, masturbation was wrong, given that he/she/it would have created masturbation, I’d be willing to define that as objective.

      Interestingly, the question “can water be dry” might be more difficult than it at first looks. Wyrd Smythe recently did a post on wetness that pointed out it might exist only in conscious minds:

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The problems are many when looking for #4 but what you won’t find is a clear proof without having to make many assertions to get there. Unfounded assertions.

        Wet, like red, is a meta description of something and only exists in perception as it is only a description rather than a property. If a thing contains a liquid or is covered by one it is said to be wet. How can a liquid then be described as dry?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Totally agreed on the unfounded assertions.

          On liquids and dryness, on further thought, I’m not sure you can. I was thinking that the time frame we considered the liquid might make a difference. Looked at for a sufficiently brief period and at an accelerated perception, and you might see a liquid as a solid. But I’m not sure if the physics work out that way.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. When dealing with perceptions it must be done at the time/speed of perception. To move the time/speed outside of perception is to ignore the rest. At the right speed, a flying bullet is just an object in mid-air and the shooting victim is sadly just not fast enough to move out of the way. Changing the time distorts perception and thus the very reason for examining perceptions. If the temperature is hot enough or cold enough nothing is wet. That’s not what we’re talking about though.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. It is hard enough to describe what is true about Nature which at least has an arbiter of tests. Regarding anything regarding human thoughts/feelings/etc. and “objective” version of anything is not to be found. If humans are involved, the word “subjective” applies.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post! The ballgame is on, so I just skimmed. I’ll be back for a more serious look later (I have a post of my own to get out).

    I have a question about your closing question (forgive me if you answered this in the substance of the post):

    “Is there a way to ascertain objective definitions of good and evil?”

    Does that question even make sense in a physicalist universe without meaning? The terms “good” and “evil” need a context of some kind or they don’t attach to anything.

    Or are you asking in the sense of (given a physicalist reality) in the context of humanity can we find objective criteria for “good” and “evil” actions? I think it’s possible. For me it grounds on the fundamental equality of human consciousness.

    Obviously, if you believe in a teleological reality, then “good” and “evil” are objective and attach to the meaning behind the reality (whatever that may be). Your job as an actor in that reality is trying to figure all that out.


    1. I did give my answer to that question in the post 🙂 , but I asked it at the end to get other’s take on it. Completely agree with everything you observe here. Good and evil is intrinsically about humanity (or at most conscious agents), unless of course there is some kind of teleology out there.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “the fundamental equality of human consciousness”

      I might have missed something but to me that phrase does not even come close to making sense. Let’s drop the word fundamental for a second and work with equality. Human consciousness is one of the most subjective things ever if not the most subjective thing period. To say there is an equality of human consciousness is to make a claim that has zero support. If consciousness were to be a value that can be equated then it must do so across mammalian brains, adding human to the mix simply muddies the waters. Equality? What is it like to be a bat? What is it like to be someone of a different color? There is no equality of consciousness that can be found at a high level. Let’s assume you mean at some lower level – that we perceive and interpret those perceptions. How are the blind/deaf/color blind/and so on to be equal in their consciousness? How does human consciousness differ from other animals?

      Now let’s get to ‘fundamental’ values. I have hinted at some of what might point to fundamentals but you used the modifier for equality of …. human consciousness. At what point is human consciousness fundamentally equal for all humans? Is it that we eat, drink, breathe, fornicate, sleep? We don’t all experience the physical world in the same ways. What is the fundamental experience that makes human consciousness equal?

      Once you define that I’d be interested in how you think that builds objective morality.


      1. myatheistlife, I didn’t read Wyrd’s statement as asserting an objective fact about the equality of human consciousness. I read it as saying that if we start with equality as a fundamental shared value, that we can come up with objective criteria in relation to it, which seems similar to what I discussed in the post. (Although I might be the one misinterpreting what he said. I’m sure he’ll correct me if so.)


          1. I’m not sure anyone is saying that, (although Wyrd may still weigh in and contradict my interpretation of his words), only that if you use it as a starting value, in relation to that value, you can make objective determinations. Of course, if you don’t accept it as a shared value, then any findings based on it will be meaningless to you.

            The is / ought distinction remains. We need an initial ought as an axiom. (Personally, I think we need several, but that’s a separate bone.)

            Liked by 1 person

        1. Hopefully my reply below resolves this. It’s a classification thing — a matter of sets. The presumption is that all members of a given set are granted an equal footing in moral arguments. I’m looking for a way to include humans, aliens, and intelligent machines.

          Put it this way: A moral argument about hamburger is different between me and a cow versus me and a strict vegan. Unless you grant parity to cows. If they’re members of the set, then they do get equal footing. A cow would have as much right to protest being eaten as a human does being raped.


      2. “I might have missed something but to me that phrase does not even come close to making sense.”

        You missed something.

        “If consciousness were to be a value that can be equated…”

        Here’s what you missed: The fact of consciousness is also a value, and as a binary value (it’s either there or not) it’s easy to equate. The nature and quality of that consciousness may vary considerably across humans, but its existence does not.

        “How does human consciousness differ from other animals?”

        You asked this in the context of sensation and qualia, and the answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Or doesn’t much. But taken at face value the answer is “considerably!” We invent tools and improve them. We create art. We ponder the future and record the past. We consciously adapt ourselves to new environments (without major genetic change, but with tools). We leap into space. We’ve even become powerful enough to destroy all life on Earth!

        “At what point is human consciousness fundamentally equal for all humans?”

        We all possess it. That is a fundamental fact of being human.

        “Once you define that I’d be interested in how you think that builds objective morality.”

        Morality is (IMO, obviously) fundamentally based on a notion of equality that must supersede, at the least, natural variation. Even better if it supersedes abnormal variation, as through accident or disease. We want a classification that makes all humans equal without question but which excludes animals and plants. Ideally, it should include putative intelligent aliens, possibly even intelligent machines.

        The notion underlies the Golden Rule, which many think is a fine atheistic statement of morality. It also underlies Game Theory, which is another area explored by those seeking physicalist objective morality. Both assume parity of the parties.

        A problem for physicalism is that the natural lesson is evolution. Survival of the most fit. That would be the morality handed to us by nature. Altruism is extremely rare in the animal kingdom. A morality containing altruism needs to be grounded on something. As you implied, humans and animals share much in common. Why ought we to act differently?

        I’m suggesting one can argue that the fact of human consciousness (and all it brings with it) is why.


        1. Okay, now I see where you are going with this. An aside, altruism is not rare in the animal kingdom and on top of that humans are animals.

          To find an objective morality or common thread to morality requires a definition of morality that is not dependent upon any given life form’s context. That’s the first problem. I’d like to see it defined outside of the context of human understanding. Such a thing as objective morality would have to make sense in every context and human context.

          What is good for the best of us is good for the least of us. The morality of nature is that life survives. Not a given kind or species but life itself survives. Defeating life is immoral. Sure, kill off a few thousand species, no problem. Kill of a whole planet’s worth, no problem. Kill off all life… that’s a problem. The truth of the matter might turn out that life is actually just a parasite, unwanted and annoying. Morality might only be for 8th dimensional beings. Slime like us doesn’t even register to the universe.

          The job of figuring out objective morality which takes into account all sentience is merely a thought experiment. There is little reason to consider alien life if not also considering Ape’s and Dolphins etc. I’d direct you to the end of the movie Blade Runner where Ford talks about Hauer and what his motivations might have been in his last moments of life. That movie says it beautifully.

          … in the end, all life, any life is precious.

          When it’s done all those moments disappear like tear drops in the rain.


          1. Very poetic, but your definition of life as an overall process isn’t useful in the here and now. While none of this may matter in the future, it matters right now a whole bunch to the quality of our lives. I do believe that a moral life is worth pursuing, so I want a set of moral yardsticks.

            “…altruism is not rare in the animal kingdom and on top of that humans are animals.”

            Only if you reduce the playing field to biology and ignore the human mind (which is a significant game-changer). Animals express evolved behaviors, not conscious choices. Humans direct conscious altruism towards the entire species, other species, and the biosphere in general.

            “The morality of nature is that life survives. Not a given kind or species but life itself survives.”

            That morality includes an asteroid wiping out a species that had been around for millions of years. It includes volcanoes and earthquakes and tornadoes. It includes disease and predation, where one life attacks another. As you say, it has no concern for species. How can such a “morality” apply usefully?

            What you call the moral lesson of the universe does not strike me as either a lesson or morality. In any event, I think we agree there is no moral lesson of value to us in nature.

            “There is little reason to consider alien life if not also considering Ape’s and Dolphins etc.”

            But I am. Their intelligence is considerably less then ours, and we are far more powerful than they are, so our position is more one of stewardship than parity.

            If we found alien dolphins or apes, we’d be in the same position. If we find intelligent aliens, we’ll be in a different position, one involving parity.


          2. oh dear, you went and did it.

            You seek but ignore the facts in front of you. Animals other than humans do act with altruism and compassion. To presume that their lack of human speach means they can’t be as humans in this regard is pure folly.

            You consider their intelligence far less than ours but I beg you look at the lowest of us humans. We are, at times, little better than raging animals. It is hubris to presume to be caretaker of those we deem less than for in some way, the very thought makes us less than as well. You seek moral yardsticks yet show a morality devoid of compassion and altruism even as you search. Such a thing as universal or even objective morality cannot be if it depends on class separation based on intelligence. Morality, I hold, does not give a flying fsck about your master’s degree. If such a morality is to exist and be within the grasp of both human understanding and human compliance then it must be available to even the least among us, even those who cannot speak as we do. To set yourself up as caretaker, steward or other over those deemed of less intelligence bodes badly for who but you is to tell us who is less and who is not. When morality depends upon this distinction then it cannot be universal or objective for it is subjective to someone’s understanding of who and what is intelligent.

            Your search is over before it begins.


    1. Not quite sure what you mean about misinterpreting Hume. It seems like his criticism was of theologians, philosophers, and anyone else who did that kind of reasoning.

      I do think there are oughts, but only in relation to specific goals. For example, if I want to be an author someday, I ought to practice writing. Those relative oughts can be scientifically tested. But then we might ask whether that ought to be my goal. Again, it could be that I ought to in relation to some other goal. Of course, if you follow the chain of goals (values) and oughts, you eventually run into unreasoned human desires, desires we hold due to evolved instincts, which brings us back to the is / ought distinction.


      1. You mention two kinds of oughts there. “To become better you ought to practice,” speaks to a requirement. Presumably you wouldn’t get better unless you did practice. The moral ought speaks to normative or imperative statements. The way things ought (or ought not) to be.

        As you say, goal requirements can be determined and tested for success. It’s the other kind of ought that’s confounding!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hume is often presented as endorsing the is/ought barrier.

        The goal directed oughts are merely advisory, and are still opinions: you ought to practice writing to be a good author. Yes, it can be empirically tested, by authoring without practice, and then continuing to practice and author – do you improve?

        Whether being a good author ought to be a goal is just one more opinion resulting from empirical observation, albeit a rather fluffier one. You have to measure your personal desires and opinions about what you want, assess how successful you might be. Hopefully you’ll have a better empirical self-awareness than many X-Factor contestants. Ask a friend if you ought to become an author and they might give some assessment and opinion based on their rather fluffy empirical experiences of what they know of you. It’s still an opinion formed from empirical knowledge about you, just not as rigorous as the tests that can follow once you have decided that you ought to be an author.

        So, yes, a chain of goals that not only run into desires that you cannot pin down with external reason, but they are still desires and opinions formed from your experiences. So they are still empirical, if fluffy in their origins. Who knows what childhood events triggered such a desire? But of course sometimes we can pin down such events, like the influence of a teacher, an aspiration to mimic some favourite author, a learned love for words. Is it right to claim that those opinions and desires for which we can identify empirical explanations are ises, and those for which we cannot are oughts?

        But that doesn’t bring us back to the is/ought distinction in any way other than to refute it. Our oughts are buried in misty ises. They are oughts of the gap as ludicrous as god of the gaps.

        Try asking yourself why you ought not to kill. There are many biological, evolutionary and socially developed reasons to explain why we would rather not kill most of the time, and reasons to explain why sometimes we want to kill and can be persuaded to kill. But outside those empirical, albeit complex and often hidden, reasons for not killing, what does it mean to say we ought not to kill?

        Why should I want to not want to kill? Why should I ought to ought not to kill? Why should I ought to ought anything? Where is the moral requirement to have moral considerations? Morality disappears up its own narcissistic self-reflective ass. It’s a historical mess conjured up by philosophers and theologians in ignorant times and elevated to the noble heights of oughts that aren’t ises.

        I blame religion. Most philosophers of the past were at least influenced by religious ideas if not holding them themselves. Even atheists have been won over by the is/ought gap, persuaded by a history of philosophy which in turn is steeped in theology. Gods aren’t far away from the minds of most ancient philosophers. Even Descartes on his journey into the deepest doubts he could muster came out the other side with god intact for no good reason.

        The is/ought distinction is an abstract notion that has no basis in reality that I can see. About as real as the heaven and earth barrier, for all the evidence we have of either barrier.


        1. Ron,
          Sorry, I have to admit I’m a bit confused about exactly which position you’re taking here. You seem to think objective morality is fallacious (with which I tend to agree), but you also seem to think the is / ought distinction is bogus. Or am I completely misunderstanding what you’re saying?


  4. Good post! I like your list. Morality originates at level #1, becomes subject to group dynamics at level #2, and becomes law at level #3. (And as you point out, there’s a very interesting break between #2 and #3. Such a big break I no longer think of them as “morals” — “laws” are something else entirely.)

    (A question for me is — assuming it exists in some form — to what extent our innate perception of level #4 informs level #1 and, thus, the whole ball of wax. Even Kant says that, ultimately, you just know. How do you know?)

    As an aside: I distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religions are at least as much about group and social dynamics as they are about metaphysics. An irony of religion is how worldly it is. Spirituality is a belief in a teleological universe that, by definition, does have objective meaning (the trick is discovering it and building morality on it — the job is never easy 🙂 ).

    When you wrote about human instinct you seemed to focus on the emotional side. What about human rationality? Is that part of what you mean by instinct and our “better angels”? (I’m under the impression we’ve agreed the dialectic can “debug” bias, but that only clarifies conflicts of values and provides a handle on compromise. It doesn’t, on its own, solve morality.)

    “So, if an objective morality exists, we appear to have no way to ascertain it, or have confidence in its existence.”

    Substitute “dark matter” for “objective morality” in that sentence. It’s worth looking for, i all I’m saying! XD

    “I think the answer depends on whether we can find shared common values.”

    Which presents a hell of a problem, doesn’t it? Values differ hugely across the human race and even in our own country.

    You present two good examples. People apply a wide range of values to animals, and some views will always conflict (my deer-hunting buddy has a strictly vegan daughter 🙂 ). The abortion conflict is even stronger because now you’re talking about what some view as a human life (and, in fact, it is something that often becomes inarguably a human life, so they do have a point).

    What about the shared values of ISIL or the KKK? Yikes! o_O

    “Of course, even then the discussions are worth having.”

    Indeed. Morality really is a form of philosophy, and we’ve been chewing on both a long, long time. We may not have The Answer, but I’m not sure we ever will. I do think, as with science, there is a growth as we find what doesn’t work. Slavery and tyranny don’t work very well at all. Freedom doesn’t work all that great sometimes, but it’s by far the least worst we’ve found (presuming you value growth and change).

    Are we converging on morality? Does morality have a strange attractor? If so, where does it come from?

    Given the human context of morality, is it possible morality is causally correlated with intelligence? As the world gets smarter, does it get more moral? Would highly intelligent aliens think immorality was stupid?

    Humanity — intelligence — is an objective fact. Is there an objective morality grounded on that fact? On the presumption that intelligence is rare in the universe, I wonder. Certainly, subjective morality comes along with intelligence.


    1. “Spirituality is a belief in a teleological universe that, by definition, does have objective meaning (the trick is discovering it and building morality on it — the job is never easy)”

      Because it’s an invention of the imagination. Religions are as diverse as fantasy novels and sci-fi films, because they take some mundane aspects of empirical reality and are then massaged by the flights of fancy of the imaginative. The difference is that the religious, theological, and spiritual are imbued with the idea that they are real. Zero evidence for any of it.

      It’s very difficult to pin down specific religious ideas, or spiritual ones, because they lack any empirical substance. It all comes down to persuasive visions peddled by faith healers, televangelist, gurus, and anyone that can turn out a good book. In the sixties and seventies aliens had created all the great grand ancient monuments, and people bought into that. Then New Age healing and Mother Earth (which sadly claimed James Lovelock for their own and ruined the credibility of decent scientist). Now we have Deepak Chopra, or, heaven forbid, Eben Alexander’s proof of heaven.

      Spirituality is some brain stuff going on, like morality, elevated above its station by the mystically minded.

      “Humanity — intelligence — is an objective fact. Is there an objective morality grounded on that fact? On the presumption that intelligence is rare in the universe, I wonder.”

      Exactly. I wonder too. But wondering does not automatically lead to truth. Imagination, wondering, inventive speculation – these are great attributes of human intellect. They give us scope to investigate, to extend our knowledge, to give us ideas as to what directions to look in when trying to understand reality (of which we are one part we are naturally particularly obsessed with). But I fail to see why we have to be persuaded so many of these musings represent reality without further evidence to support them.

      It’s as if the brain becomes so infected by an idea that the immune system of evidence and reason is subdued. This seems evident from the crazy ideas that come out of the religions. Theologians really do seem able to look for angels on the heads of pins in all seriousness. Church of England bishops, those that have political power in Britain, blamed floods on our moral decline: the laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms. WTF? And of course the US is full of religious lunatics in and out of power blaming all manner of events on moral decline.


      1. “Because it’s an invention of the imagination.”

        Maybe. But also maybe not. The jury is still out.

        Also: Religion, as I’ve said, is not the same as spirituality. I’m not terribly interested in religion. That said, if you cite the problems of religion, to be fair you must also cite the good it’s done in the world, and I think a fair evaluation puts the balance in religion’s favor.

        “Spirituality is some brain stuff going on, like morality, elevated above its station by the mystically minded.”

        Maybe. But also maybe not. The jury is still out.

        And what if that “brain stuff” is an apprehension of something real? There’s no proof it’s not.

        “It’s as if the brain becomes so infected by an idea that the immune system of evidence and reason is subdued.”

        For the sake of argument, what if that’s a real part of reality? When you love someone, is your brain running on reason and evidence? Or is it something more powerful that, as you say, subdues reason and evidence? If you are moved by music, or a story, is that based on reason and evidence?

        What if, for the sake of argument, spiritual feelings are as real as those? That is, are based on real things? Maybe all those billions of people through thousands of years are on to something.

        Maybe. But also maybe not. The jury is still out.


    2. Thanks Wyrd!

      “Even Kant says that, ultimately, you just know. How do you know?”
      I would say that “know” is too strong a word (although it fits Kant’s outlook). It’s more like we have an intuition, which I think arises from the evolved instincts of a social mammalian species. The difference is there’s no guarantee that intuitions are right.

      “An irony of religion is how worldly it is.”
      True. A lot of religious metaphysics seems aimed at justifying its world view. Of course, that’s the view of a skeptic. A believer would say the metaphysics is there because its real.

      “What about human rationality? Is that part of what you mean by instinct and our “better angels”?”
      I guess it depends on the definition of “rationality.” As synonymous with logic, I see it as merely a tool of instinct, an engine, an optimizer. But it has no goals, except those built from more foundational goals, which inevitably rest on evolved desires. Of course, if you see “rationality” as logic plus certain values, then it’s more than just the engine, but those values still eventually come from the same place. (At least IMO.)

      “Substitute “dark matter” for “objective morality” in that sentence. It’s worth looking for, i all I’m saying!”
      Except that we have evidence for dark matter. (Although I’ve often thought that “mystery mass” would have been a better name.) Alternate explanations such as MOND don’t explain the data nearly as well. We can’t seem to find evidence for 4. 1-3 above seem able to exist without it.

      “Given the human context of morality, is it possible morality is causally correlated with intelligence?”
      It is if intelligence is valued. Sadly, not everyone values it.

      “Certainly, subjective morality comes along with intelligence.”
      That might get into the definition of “morality.” Consider a non-social intelligent species that reproduces by laying eggs and never seeing its young again. What room would there be in its world for anything we would usually consider “moral”?

      Regarding comments you made above about all morality being based on equality, I do agree that equality is something we should value, but I can’t see that when I help a trapped puppy it’s because I deem it my equal. In my experience, trying to boil morality down to a single value almost always fails. Human social instincts are just too complicated and contradictory for it. Have you read any of Jonathan Haidt’s work on this?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “It’s more like we have an intuition, which I think arises from the evolved instincts of a social mammalian species. The difference is there’s no guarantee that intuitions are right.”

        I think you’re saying the same thing. I’ve never taken “know” in this case to have the strong meaning of factual. I’ve always read it more, exactly as you say, as intuition.

        The interesting thing is that, as animals go, humans are noted for lacking instincts and requiring a very long time to be self-sufficient. Morality as an evolved instinct is pretty high-level thought for a species that can’t even walk or swim at first.

        It suggests that years of selective evolution created brains with certain behaviors wired in, which raises interesting questions about humans raised without any social conditioning. Would they show animal behaviors or evolved human moral ones? Certainly many believe they’d be animals. The whole “raised by wolves” thing or the “Lord of the Flies” thing.

        “A believer would say the metaphysics is there because its real.”

        I think Gandhi nailed it when he said “all religions were true and also that all had some error in them.” Religion is, at best, an attempt to understand the metaphysics. (Being a human institution, there’s all kinds of worst.) For the truly spiritual, to quote Gandhi again, “What does it matter that we take different road, so long as we reach the same goal?”

        “I guess it depends on the definition of ‘rationality.’ As synonymous with logic, I see it as merely a tool of instinct, an engine, an optimizer.”

        Not as a tool for analyzing the correctness of arguments? We know differing value systems give correct different results, and in such cases differing truths have to find a way to coexist (or, alternately, slaughter the other side). There’s no dialectical way to reconcile correct arguments from different view points.

        But incorrect arguments are another matter. We can at least use the dialectic to cut between valid and invalid arguments.

        “Except that we have evidence for dark matter.”

        Growing evidence, in fact!

        Above we’re talking about moral intuition or that it somehow got wired in due to evolution (indicating it’s a positive evolutionary force). Isn’t that evidence of something? More abstract than dark matter, surely, but we’re talking about thought here, so maybe abstract applies.

        “It is if intelligence is valued. Sadly, not everyone values it.”

        I’m not sure we’re on the same page here. Let me try again: Does being more intelligent correlate with being more moral. Is high intelligence moral intelligence? As I understand it, highly intelligent children often have a strong regard for rules.

        It’s kind of an idle thought on my part, that high intelligence might mean high morals. And I don’t necessarily mean smarter humans. Perhaps it requires more than we have at present. It’s interesting that you can argue the world is getting both smarter and more moral, and I wonder about that correlation.

        “That might get into the definition of ‘morality.'”

        LOL! I think you’re stretching things a bit, and how can you say what kind of morality such a creature might have regarding how it lays its eggs or lives its life or dies? Maybe its morality is based on daily prayer. Who knows! 😀

        “I can’t see that when I help a trapped puppy it’s because I deem it my equal.”

        That’s a good point. I especially agree with what you said immediately after. Absolutely a single size doesn’t fit all. It never has.

        If you had a chance to save a human or a puppy, but not both, which would you choose and why?

        I submit the poor puppy is a party permitted partial parity (sorry, I couldn’t resist). You may not grant it equality on the basis of intelligence, but you do grant it parity as a form of life capable of suffering. You also recognize you have the power to help the puppy (and you know what they say about “with great power”).

        “Have you read any of Jonathan Haidt’s work on this?”

        I think you’ve mentioned him before. No, I haven’t.


        1. Ah, ok. I was thinking of the philosophical definition of knowledge: justified true belief.

          Humans are noted for an apparent lack of instinct, but it’s an illusion. Due to the size of a human infant’s head compared to the mother’s birth canal, it’s born far earlier in its lifecycle than most mammals. If we were born at about the same time as most mammals, we’d take 18-21 to come to term instead of 9. Imagine if we were born as a 9-12 month old! Our instincts would be a lot more obvious.

          Of course, it also means that our brains start learning while they’re still developing. A lot of what gets learned early on isn’t subject to being changed later. Socialization appears to be crucial for human development. I read somewhere that in the very few documented cases of children raised in isolation, they usually had lifelong disabilities, such as being unable to ever learn language.

          “Isn’t that evidence of something?”
          If there were a one to one relationship between instincts and moral notions, it might. But instincts are like taste buds; the translation of someone’s taste bud sensitivities to their food tastes is enormously complex and subject to heavy modification by cultural influences. It appears that the same is true for the relationship between instinct and moral notions.

          On intelligence, I’ve occasionally pondered the same thing, mainly because it seems like immoral people are often breathtakingly stupid. (The case of young criminals paying their college tuition with stolen credit cards comes to mind.) But I’ve also known very intelligent, albeit unwise people to act immorally as well, such as a brilliant programmer installing a spybot on his girlfriend’s PC.

          My point about the alien is that much of morality is about how people act toward others, or how their actions are assessed by others. For a non-social creature, what function would morality serve? (Granted, such a creature seems unlikely to build a civilization.)

          “If you had a chance to save a human or a puppy, but not both, which would you choose and why?”
          I’d save a human over a puppy. I’d also save a friend or relative over a stranger. And if I had a child, I’m sure I’d save them over anyone else.

          On Haidt, I think you’d enjoy his book: ‘The Righteous Mind’.


          1. “I was thinking of the philosophical definition of knowledge: justified true belief.”

            Yeah. Or rather, no. JTP depends on the (objective) truth of the belief and a big part of your post involves how we may not be able to know the (objective) truth of morals or moral instincts.

            What we’re talking about here is, what, a priori synthetic? Something like that?

            “Humans are noted for an apparent lack of instinct,…”

            I think this doesn’t influence the point one way or the other, so we can just agree to disagree on this. We’ve touched on human instincts before. You convinced me there are more than I may have thought, but compared to animals, I still think there’s a definite gap. Not unlike the gap between our intelligence and that of animals. Those gaps might even be related.

            It doesn’t matter. Regardless of when they appear, the question that interests me is to what extent putative moral instincts manifest absent social conditioning compared to more primitive instincts. I don’t know the answer.

            I do know one common view is the “raised by wolves” thing; another is the “noble savage” thing. Primitive societies often do have strong codes, but their view of social offenders or outsiders can be, well, primitive.

            “But instincts are like taste buds…”

            And tastes vary; agreed. A common thread is that all (healthy) people do have a sense of taste. That is evidence that taste buds (or something like them) exist. Fundamentally, isn’t any pattern evidence of something? At least, like, almost always? 🙂

            “But I’ve also known very intelligent, albeit unwise people to act immorally as well,…”

            🐱 Truth is, I’m a data point on both sides. I was a dreadfully rule-bound, horribly moral child. Some of that remains, but in my adventurous youth suffice to say I was jailed twice and only dodged prison with some tap-dancing and luck.

            But I’m not sure the equation applies to humans, although it’s possible to claim that I’m smarter now (more experienced, anyway) and also more moral. And I’ve noted that the world seems to be getting both smarter and more moral. [shrug]


          2. JTP or JTB? Can there be a synthetic a priori? That seems like saying a “synthetic analytic” or an “a posteriori a priori”. Obviously I didn’t understand your remarks here. Fatigue may be to blame.

            I’m not a fan of the noble savage notion. (Although I was when I was younger and reading Robert E. Howard.) But then I might feel differently if I were a savage 🙂

            I think I’m definitely smarter today than when I was young, but then I had a lot of boneheaded notions in my youth. I sometimes wonder what the 18 year old me would think of the 48 year old me. I’m pretty sure I’d have a hard time tolerating the 18 year old me if I met him today.


          3. “JTP or JTB?”

            Oops, sorry, JTB. Forgot to draw the lower loop. 🙂

            “Can there be a synthetic a priori?”

            Kant thought so (the whole synthetic-analytic distinction is his, blame him). One of the big debates in the philosophy of mathematics is whether math is synthetic a priori or analytic a priori. The feelings you’ve expressed regarding tensors may put you in the math is synthetic a priori camp.

            The key is that synthetic propositions can be denied without contradiction, and non-Euclidian geometry contradicts Euclidian geometry, so there’s an example of math being synthetic. I’m not familiar enough with tensors to know if they contradict anything directly (as the axioms of the two geometries do), but I believed they can be used to map between those geometries, so they’re certainly related.

            My point was that saying we have moral instincts suggests a priori knowledge, and we can question the source and nature of that putative knowledge. They are probably synthetic since moral statements can be denied without contradiction. Thou shalt not kill. Except sometimes.

            “I’m not a fan of the noble savage notion.”

            Nor am I. Morality is an instrument of human intellect. It’s nature and source are topics of endless debate, but it’s something we do like justice or art or history.

            One reason I ground my view of equality (and hence morality) on intelligence, is that it’s intelligence in the first place that apprehends morality. The two are clearly connected, seemingly correlated, and I suspect possibly causally related.


          4. Hmmm. It sounds like I might need to do some additional reading on synthetic and analytic knowledge. I had assumed (somewhat simplistically it seems) that synthetic was synonymous with a posteriori and analytic with a priori. But after your comments made me peruse the Wikipedia entry on it, it’s obviously more complicated than that.

            The reason I often mention Haidt in these discussions, is he has looked at morality from a psychological angle. His research seems to show that it’s based on these primal impulses: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, purity, and freedom. He notes that there may be more, but those are the one’s they’ve been able to isolate so far. He warns about the danger of trying to boil morality down to one axiom here:

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Hahaha, I think you know my answer.

    Right and wrong are knowable only in hindsight and only by the standards of meaning and survival. 😉

    I’m not sure instincts really play that big a part, especially since we’re such a plastic species or make a good standard for us. I don’t know of any other species that can thrive in a desert oasis, Times Square and Antarctica.

    This is where the Will to Power becomes very powerful to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As far as I can see, instincts play a big part in all of our cognition. Instincts are the base programming that motivate us to survive and procreate, to protect our friends and family, to cultivate and protect our social standing. Without instinct, there is no Will to Power, or will to anything for that matter. Without it, we’d be just a bundle of random action.

      Instinct is such a part of our cognition that we have a tendency to take it for granted, and to implicitly project that any intelligent system (such as an AI) would have similar instincts by virtue of being intelligent. But our instinct is the result of billions of years of natural selection. Human instincts in particular are the results of millions of years of evolution in certain environments. Yes, we’re in every environment now, but in evolutionary time, that is a very recent development.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t mean to say we aren’t instinctual. I meant more that we are flexible enough, our base programming is so incredibly flexible, that going back to the state of nature and looking for “what we naturally do” might not be very helpful.

        “What people naturally do,” in other words is and always has been extremely sensitive to context.

        “Survive and procreate, to protect our friends and family, to cultivate and protect our social standing.”

        I would agree that all those things are common. However, I can also pretty easily think of people who reject/rejected all of those things. Respectively, suicides, monks/nuns/users of prophylactics, cowards and traitors and lots of aecetics and hermits.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Certainly, we have a lot of flexibility. Part of that is because we have a wide variety of instincts, many of which are contradictory. Which one “wins” at any point in time depends on the particular mix of instincts and relative strengths of those instincts in the particular person, the exact sensory experiences that they’re currently having, and their cumulative lifetime of memories and learning.

          But when people reject innate desires, what are they rejecting them in favor of? When someone chooses to use birth control, for instance, they’re doing so to satisfy the specific desire for sexual satisfaction without having to deal with the reason we evolved that desire: reproduction, or with other complications such as STDs.

          When a religious person denies innate desires for sex, food, or comfort, they’re doing so to fulfill longer range desires, such as immortality, nirvana, or some other longer range version of survival. In every case, certain desires are denied in service to other instinctual desires. (Whether it is rational to expect those other desires to be fulfilled or not is a different matter.)

          Even suicide is done to fulfill an instinctual desire to avoid pain or other adverse experiences. Those experiences are adverse, we have an aversion to them, due to instinct. Learning may add things to the list of things we have an aversion to (such as the specific thing that causes public shame) but when you follow the hierarchy of motivations, you always eventually hit an unreasoned instinct, an urge, a desire, or aversion that we have only because we have them, because having that innate drive was adaptive (at least at some point in our evolutionary history).

          Unless, of course, I’m missing something?

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Hume’s guillotine (the is-ought problem) is now viewed as Gospel; that prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be) cannot be DERIVED by positive statements (about what is). And, it becomes the central point in moral philosophy.

    One of the Hume’s original argument is: {given knowledge of the way the universe is, in what sense can we say it ought to be different?}
    At the time when the laws of universe is not fully understood, Hume’s argument does make sense. When the final physics is known, Hume’s argument becomes nonsense.

    This universe consists of only two parts.
    One, here it IS.
    Two, here are processes: creation and degeneration.

    When, IS(a) degenerates, it creates an OUGHT (a).
    So, IS(a) is fundamental while OUGHT (a) is the emergence.
    {“ought” can never be derived from an “is”} is a total nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tienzen,
      If I’m understanding your argument correctly, ought arises from the delta between the full creation of (a) and its degenerated state. Let me know if I have that wrong.

      The problem I see is that words like “create” and “degenerate” are inherently value laden. The creation of an X is the same as the degeneration of a Y. For example, when an interstellar dust cloud collapses into a star, it’s the creation of the star, but also the degeneration of the cloud. Or when a predator kills its prey, it’s creation of life for the predator but degeneration of life for the prey. The ought for the prey is different than the ought for the predator. Which one ought to be the global ought?


  7. “ought arises from the delta between the full creation of (a) and its degenerated state.”

    “The creation of an X is the same as the degeneration of a Y. … Which one ought to be the global ought?”
    Excellent. You got it.
    Yes, creation and degeneration is the same process AFTER the first creation, and they are exact as you described.
    The hard part is that the FIRST creation process is also a degeneration process, and this is the hardest issue: {Why is there something rather than nothing?}.

    I am writing a new book {Nature’s Manifesto — Nature vs Bullcraps}. The first draft is done, about 700 pages. My goal is to reduce it to 600 pages. The key point of the book is about this “First” issue. The book will be published in January 2017.

    However, I have post an introduction (part of Chapter 12) online. You can get a hint about this ‘First’ issue there (see ). I will discuss this ‘global ought’ after you reviewed the ‘First’ issue.


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