The forlorn search for moral realism

I’m not a moral realist.  But I think we definitely have personal morals, the moral norms of the culture we live in, and the moral rules we encode in law.  These all interact and influence each other in an ongoing feedback process.  They can be studied with psychology, sociology, anthropology, law, history, and probably some other fields I”m overlooking.

But while these things exist, they are often purported to be based on something else “out there”, an objective morality.  Some moral realists see this objective morality existing in the divine commandments of a God or a pantheon of gods.  Others see it in some form of natural law, which can be accessed through deep meditation or reasoning.  A few even think it’s natural law that science can study, although the vast majority of scientists and philosophers think this is misguided, that science can inform our values, but not determine them.

Some moral realists admit we won’t find moral rules in any of those things, but insist nonetheless that they exist in a sort of platonic fashion.  This appears to be the position of Russ Shafer-Landau, a view he discussed with Sean Carroll on his Mindscape podcast.

As noted above, I’m not a moral realist, although I wouldn’t mind finding a way to be one.  Many ethical arguments would be so much easier to resolve if we could just say, “Let us us experiment,” or, “Let us calculate,” or by some other means that produced an undeniable result.

Unfortunately, while Shafer-Landau sounds like a very nice guy, I found his arguments underwhelming.  They seem to boil down to: it would really really stink if there isn’t an objective morality.  He can’t stomach it if there is no objective basis to condemn genocide, subjugation of women, murder, or other heinous actions.

Carroll, himself a moral irrealist, accepts that the non-realist must bite a philosophical bullet here.  But he points out that doesn’t obligate the non-realist to tolerate those things.  I agree.  I’d also note that the argument that because we can’t ground a value in some absolute objective fashion, that we’re then not allowed to hold it, is itself a value proposition, one I reject.

Of course, the concern then is we’re reduced to might makes right.  Unfortunately I think that’s true.  But it’s always been true.  Even in a perfectly egalitarian society where the moral rules are worked out by consensus, what is right is being determined by the collective might of that society.  Those who don’t agree, are forced to either comply or face the consequences.

It seems like a pretty stark conclusion.  But it does have a benefit.  Someone who is aware that morals are created by humans for humans, is less likely to be sanctimonious and intolerant about them, more willing to argue for their point of view rather than simply take it to be the right one and the other person’s the wrong one.

To Shafer-Landau’s credit, he admits that if his type of moral realism is true, we’re in the same boat, since there’s no real way to discover what the objective rules are.  Carroll notes that, as a moral constructivist, that puts them in the same place as far as their attitudes toward particular moral precepts.

So maybe the overall lesson here is for all of us to be a little less sure that we know what right is, and a little more tolerant of other opinions about it.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

161 thoughts on “The forlorn search for moral realism

  1. That’s the problem with materialism — it’s fundamentally amoral. There is no statement a materialist can really make about morality.

    “…the argument that because we can’t ground a value in some absolute objective fashion, that we’re then not allowed to hold it,…”

    True, but the problem is that neither are you required to hold it. Materialism has no onus for moral development.

    As I’ve said before, I think morality can be grounded in notions of egalitarianism — the idea of parity. For the spiritual, it can be a “we’re all god’s children thing” or that we all possess the same spirit. For materialists, it can pivot on consciousness, but that requires admitting that consciousness is something pretty special.

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    1. Definitely there are more comforting outlooks than physicalism. Unfortunately, science hasn’t shown comfort to be a reliable indicator of accuracy. It’s actually a reason to be suspicious, since its presence too often leads us to go easy on the associated propositions, or be too hard on the ones lacking it.

      I’m generally for egalitarianism, but it itself seems to be a value that can’t be objectively substantiated. Many human societies have rejected it. Most hunter-gatherer cultures are egalitarian, but the instincts of most other primate species appear to be more hierarchical. (Us and bonobos appear to be the oddballs.)

      I don’t think consciousness is a way out for physicalists. Unless any of the exotic theories turn out to be true (see above on suspecting comfort), it doesn’t leave us with any grounding to regard consciousness as something special. Arguably, and from many people’s viewpoint, bleakly, it’s just the impulse of a social species to recognize commonality with other systems.


      1. “Definitely there are more comforting outlooks than physicalism.”

        I wasn’t invoking notions of comfort, just observing that materialism is intrinsically amoral. Since science assumes materialism, of course it makes no moral statements. That’s not its domain. Science studies what is. The study of ought is another domain.

        “Us and bonobos appear to be the oddballs.”

        Well,… yes, because ought is the domain of higher minds. As you suggest, “might makes right” (the strong survive, the weak don’t) is the law of nature and evolution. It requires a conscious mind to recognize the parity of other conscious minds.

        In a sense, the spiritual view about souls is a crude pre-scientific recognition of the specialness of conscious minds. Almost any notion of moral behavior one can name ultimately traces to a perception of the value and sovereignty of similar beings — a notion of parity.

        “Unless any of the exotic theories turn out to be true (see above on suspecting comfort), it doesn’t leave us with any grounding to regard consciousness as something special.”

        I think humans exploring and inhabiting every corner of the Earth is special. I think sending spacecraft beyond the reaches of the Solar System is special. But more to the point, I think being able to ask questions about reality, and to imagine new things, is the the truly special thing.


        1. Totally agreed that science is about is rather than ought. Science can inform our values, including providing sub-goals, but ultimately it can’t tell us what we should value.

          On ought being the domain of higher minds, I think it depends on what you define as “higher”. A chimpanzee who mistreats another member of his troop can face osctracization from the rest of the troop, implying ought-type thinking by members of that troop. Similar behavior has been observed in other social species. Of course, social species, as a general rule, are more intelligent than non-social ones. (Octopusses being a major exception.) And humans take it to a much higher level.

          On us sending spacecraft beyond the solar system, definitely symbolic thought has enabled us to hit far beyond our original ecological niche. To the extent you equate consciousness with that (and there are definitions of it that would match up), then it would be special. Of course, we’re now using the word “special” to refer to causal scope (beyond the solar system).

          But how do you get equality out of that type of specialness? Some people, being smarter than others, or richer, contributed more to that endeavor than others. We started the space age with a society that valued lighter skinned people more than darker skinned ones, that restricted the options of women, and that regarded LGBTQ people as disgusting deviants. All of it built on top of V2 technology developed by a regime actively hostile to equality.


          1. “On ought being the domain of higher minds, I think it depends on what you define as ‘higher’.”

            😀 😀 😀

            “And humans take it to a much higher level.”

            Exactly. Much higher!

            “…symbolic thought has enabled us to hit far beyond our original ecological niche. To the extent you equate consciousness with that […], then it would be special. “

            I absolutely do think hitting far beyond our niche is special. It’s kind of the point of brains.

            “But how do you get equality out of that type of specialness?”

            It’s not about being smart (or rich). I referenced our technological accomplishments, yes, and I think those are special. However I continued, “But more to the point, I think being able to ask questions about reality, and to imagine new things, is the the truly special thing.”

            Which has nothing to do with being smart or technological. It’s that the universe created something that can question and understand the universe. And come up with ideas of morality and justice (and art, music, and literature). I think that’s incredibly special.


          2. “It’s that the universe created something that can question and understand the universe. And come up with ideas of morality and justice (and art, music, and literature). I think that’s incredibly special.”

            It may well be. But, sorry if I’m missing something obvious, I’m still not seeing how equality comes out of it.


          3. For the same reason we talk about rights for AI we perceive as conscious. Also the same reason we talk about animal rights in higher animals — the ones we perceive as more self-aware.

            We recognize parity in consciousness — the capacity for self-awareness as well as in the capacity for suffering. (They are what create the need for a moral view.)


          4. Ok, thanks. I agree that the modern conception of consciousness is tied to being a subject of moral concern. For many, they’re actually equivalent. However, I think both are in the eye of the beholder.

            For example, above we equated consciousness with symbolic thought. But when we start talking about other animals, even relatively intelligent ones, we don’t have that anymore. So it becomes a judgment call on how much of that specialness they share, that is, how much like us they are.


          5. “However, I think both are in the eye of the beholder.”

            I know you do, but your implication seems to be that therefore it’s a free-for-all and there is nothing objective about it. To the extent you are or might be implying that, I think it’s what you’re missing — there are objective criteria.

            “For example, above we equated consciousness with symbolic thought. But when we start talking about other animals, even relatively intelligent ones, we don’t have that anymore.”

            To be clear, it was you who made that equation. I agree symbolic thought is part of the picture, but just part. I’ll quote myself again: “But more to the point, I think being able to ask questions about reality, and to imagine new things, is the the truly special thing.” That’s a lot more than just symbolic thought.

            There is also what I said in the previous comment: “We recognize parity in […] the capacity for self-awareness as well as in the capacity for suffering.” So, again, more than just symbolic thought.

            I do agree there is a judgement call to be made, but I don’t think it’s entirely arbitrary and subjective. I think, again, there are some objective criteria we can focus on.

            “So it becomes a judgment call on how much of that specialness they share, that is, how much like us they are.”

            I think the first clause is right, but the second one is wrong. It’s not a matter of how much like us — consider the octopus — but of whether they possess senses of self-awareness, an inner life of some kind, and the capacity to suffer.


          6. I’d say for any particular but specific definition of consciousness, there are objective criteria. The problem is the definition. No single definition, aside from vague stuff like “something it is like”, have widespread agreement. It’s why people who agree on all the relevant objective facts can reach diverse conclusions ranging from panpsychism to only language capable humans being conscious.

            On recognizing parity, I’d agree that it can be objective, in that the more precise we get on the specific type of parity we’re talking about, the more objective we can be about it. But recognizing “parity” without any qualifications? I think the vagueness of that criteria does leave it pretty arbitrary and subjective.

            On the octopus, I think what fascinates us about them is how alien they are, but how much like us they seem in terms of problem solving and emotions (such as spraying water on humans they dislike).


          7. A good definition for consciousness is important for understanding other forms (and our own). I don’t think the definition is germane for purposes of human parity. Regardless of the definition, I think we agree humans have consciousness. It’s possession of that consciousness that grounds parity among humans. The only qualification necessary is being human.

            “On the octopus, I think what fascinates us about them is how alien they are, but how much like us they seem in terms of problem solving and emotions.”

            I just don’t see it as them being like us. I see it as demonstrating convergence of solutions.

            Which is the point I’m making below about morals and laws. Given intelligent beings capable of meta-thinking and abstraction, are laws and morals convergent?

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    2. I think the statement that “materialism is fundamentally amoral” is incorrect. It’s possible I misunderstand the gist of the statement. As my viewpoint seems to be unique among the commentors so far, I will start my own comment thread, so, see below.



      1. Not unique in being a moral realist, but perhaps in grounding it in entropy. (One problem you have there is that nearly all the entropy in the universe is inside black holes. Humans contribute a very tiny fraction. The plant and insect biomasses of the Earth probably convert much more of the sun’s low-entropy energy into high-entropy waste IR than we do. If anything, humans represent a really interesting temporary decrease in entropy — a case where simple rules + energy result in complex outcomes.)


  2. As usual, you have missed very little, certainly none that I can see.

    Objective morality is an desired outcome of wishful thinkers, wishing they had a parent who could “lay down the law,” but we are grown-ups now and no such “parents,” cosmic or otherwise, exist.

    “Putting pineapple on a pizza is an abomination!”
    “No, it isn’t.”
    Yes, it is!”
    Do we really expect some spiritual entity to pronounce on this intensely moral debate?

    And, as to a Platonic realm of perfect forms, including perfect morals, didn’t the Greeks move away from that idea 2500 years ago as being untenably mystical? Why would we move back toward it … unless we desperately want mystery in our lives.

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    1. Thanks Steve.

      I actually like pineapple on my pizza. I’m frequently surprised by how horrified my friends are when I order it. I much prefer that to those disgusting anchovies. If there’s an objective morality, surely it proscribes such a thing.

      On the Platonic realm, I think the Greeks argued about it, just like we do. And it seemed to get a revival in late antiquity and in medieval philosophy. It never really left intellectual thought. But I’m with you. My attitude toward platonic objects is pretty much the same as toward objective moral rules. If they exist, they appear to have no causal role in our world, so we can behave as if they’re not there.

      Many people definitely want mystery in their lives.


          1. I’m good with that. Pineapple (which has neither pine nor apples) and ham is actually okay with me, although not too much pineapple, and not too juicy. Don’t want my ‘za swimming in pineapple juice.

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  3. Wouldn’t the fact that in order for one life form to survive, it has to exploit other life forms, be evidence that there couldn’t be an objective morality (unless that in itself is considered a morality, or maybe I have a skewed definition of what morality is???)?

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    1. Trying to find moral rules in nature is pretty problematic. It can lead you to places like Nietzsche’s slave vs master morality.

      I used to try to find some objective basis in human instincts. The problem is that humans have many instincts, many of which contradict each other. We’re constantly having to inhibit some and indulge others. Moral rules prescribe which ones should be inhibited, and which allowed. But every society seems to choose different combinations.


      1. — “Trying to find moral rules in nature is pretty problematic.”

        I’m not sure if this is agreeing with me or not. 🙂 I think I was just asking if an observation about nature made the notion of “objective” morals invalid.

        — “The problem is that humans have many instincts, many of which contradict each other. We’re constantly having to inhibit some and indulge others.”

        Isn’t this primarily a temporal issue, not an absolute issue? One instinct (I call them needs…not sure if you see a difference in the terminology) may contradict another at a moment in time, but it doesn’t mean that they will always be in contradiction (or that they always have to be fulfilled at the same time), especially since the needs don’t have to constantly be met anyway. Feelings of satiation arise from fulfillment, which under good conditions is usually enough to allow someone to stop trying to fulfill the need for the time being. And the initial levels of suffering soon after a need has been met are low. It takes time for suffering to reach unbearable levels (different amounts of time for different needs). So, one should be able to fulfill all their needs at frequent enough intervals that suffering between each fulfillment doesn’t reach too high of a level. If one need is currently not socially acceptable to meet for one reason or another, there should be another reasonably close enough point in time where it is socially acceptable to meet it.

        If we are going to invent morals in order to try to minimize the suffering that both leads to actions like “genocide, subjugation of women, murder, or other heinous actions” as well as arises from those same actions, my opinion is that they should be morals that prevent needs from being permanently inhibited in the first place. I also think that we should go even further than that and invent morals that prevent any type of need from being exorbitantly difficult to meet in the first place. The invention of cultural traits with these morals shouldn’t be an impossible task, but the implementation of such cultural traits where the transition is smooth is where things become tricky… But these are just my opinions and as such are very open for debate. 😊 And honestly, many cultures don’t purposefully permanently inhibit some of the needs. The permanent inhibition often just arises from inefficient implementation of the various institutions of the culture (i.e. poverty). Maybe the morals also need to focus on the urgency with which these inefficiencies are addressed.

        — “I used to try to find some objective basis in human instincts.”

        I agree that this would be fruitless if there are indeed no objective morals, as I suspect there are not.


        1. My statement about nature was meant to be in agreement, just in my own language.

          I actually prefer “instinct”, or maybe “impulse”, “reaction”, or “desire” for this discussion than “need”, which has a value judgment lumped in. If I have an intense reaction against someone because they remind me of someone else I don’t like, is that a “need”? No. But it is an instinctual or habitual reaction, one I should inhibit, not just ethically since that person doesn’t deserve to be judged in that manner, but also just as good social strategy on my part.

          Definitely we’re not having all those reaction or instincts all the time. Many of them are situational. But in many situations, we’re going to have conflicting impulses. I think one of the reasons we evolved a reasoning ability was to adjudicate between those impulses, to decide which to allow and which to inhibit.

          Every society’s mores require that we inhibit some reactions. For example, if someone on the road cuts in front of me in a dangerous manner, risking an accident, I’m expected to curb the impulse to run them off the road, although horning them is generally considered acceptable.

          Put another way, each impulse, in and of itself, is amoral. Allowing or inhibiting that impulse is where both prudent self interest and societal standards come into play.


          1. — “My statement about nature was meant to be in agreement, just in my own language.”

            Oh! Hmm, I think I understand how we are in agreement, maybe? Haha. Maybe if you go into more detail or give me an example I’ll make the connection better. Sometimes I’m slow to catch on. 🙂

            — “I actually prefer “instinct”, or maybe “impulse”, “reaction”, or “desire” for this discussion than “need”, which has a value judgment lumped in.”

            Ahh, ok. I think the difference is that I’m talking about, for example, hunger in general (of which I’m not quite sure how this has a value judgment lumped in with it) and you’re talking about craving types of food (which is where I think the value judgement plays a role). I want to unpack this with you in moral terms (I think it could be a long discussion), but this blog post has taken off with tons of comments and I’m currently deep into research for a response to Wyrd on Maslow’s theory (which I think plays an important role in this very topic of morals). So I’ll finish up that response to him and after this post quiets down I’ll come back here to continue with you on this matter. 🙂


          2. “Maybe if you go into more detail or give me an example I’ll make the connection better.”

            Eric, I’m confused on what the issue is. Above, you said:
            “Wouldn’t the fact that in order for one life form to survive, it has to exploit other life forms, be evidence that there couldn’t be an objective morality”
            and I replied:
            “Trying to find moral rules in nature is pretty problematic.”
            My interpretation is that we’re in accord. No?

            No worries on the rest. If and when you’re ready.


          3. — “My interpretation is that we’re in accord. No?”

            Yes, I think we are in accord, but I just think I was getting hung up on trying to figure out whether you were talking about objective morals or human invented morals. When you said “find moral rules”, my initial interpretation was that you were talking about inventing morals based off observations of nature, but now I think you were talking about using observations of nature to uncover objective morals.

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  4. I can’t conceive of an objective set of moral judgements that we somehow discover. If morality were something objective that’s “out there,” then the realist has to account for the way that we interact with this objective judgements. This is not possible unless the mind is somehow immaterial as well but we have good reasons to believe the contrary from physics, phenomenology, and the analytic tradition. I don’t have a metaethical position yet but realism doesn’t sound like an option to me

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    1. In many ways, I think the idea of an objective morality is a holdover from the theology of moralizing high gods. Without that background, I wonder if we’d even had a conception of morality as something separate from legal laws and cultural conventions.

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    2. If morality were “out there” or as Russ Shafer-Landau put it in Sean Carroll’s podcast, if it were independent of us, then moral epistemology becomes very problematic, as you say. But it’s not obvious to me that “objective” has to mean “out there”. It might just mean that there’s a fact of the matter. And social constructs can correspond to facts. It’s a fact that driving down my street at 90 mph would be unlawful, even though this rule is “just” something that Michiganders “made up.”

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      1. Oh, I agree that social mores and societal laws are facts of the matter. I think of them as objective, but I suppose technically they’re intersubjective. In any case, there’s nothing stopping us from studying them. Sociologists and anthropologists do it all the time. They’re just not absolute facts independent of human thought in the way something like E=mc^2 appears to be.

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      2. That reminds me of Haslanger’s theory of social structure. I guess you would mean morality is objective from a social metaphysical perspective in the same way that social structure is according to Haslanger. That would make it objective in a fashion similar to de Saussure’s theory of langue and language as well

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  5. Of course, even if there is no objective morality, we can act and think (pretend) otherwise. I am often prone to this sort of behavior. I do not believe in a creator god and yet usually tend to act as though there was one. Almost unconsciously. You have talked often on your pages, and we have often talked together, about our hopes for a technological future. We have both expressed our liking for a thoroughly moral society where incredibly advanced minds act for “Good”. We as a society increasingly act for good – than god for the welfare state after the second world war. Thank god for an end to the Norsemen and their sick Valhalla. Yes, we are still cursed with a great deal of dog eat dog left over from evolution but if we decide we want it to be otherwise, it will be. Gradually and over time, if more and more people become persuaded as to the rightness of such a quest.

    So no – bleak as it may seem, there may be no moral absolutes. We must, therefore, make up our own. And might should never be allowed to be right.

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    1. The point about Valhalla is, I think, a very good one. One of the problems with positing an objective morality, is admitting that we don’t have it right, or that we didn’t have it right before. Without an objective morality, there is only what we as a society agree to, and changes are easier.

      So, we have no problem dismissing Norse values, the racist ones of the 19th century, the restrictive role previous generations put women in, or the acrimony against LGBTQ only a few years ago. The only obstacle is people accepting that the new rules would be better to live under.

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  6. I understand the point of view that assumes we can’t ground our values in some absolute objective fashion. It seems to be the conventional wisdom of our time. I admit I am a new fan to your blog. However, I note a subtle yet perhaps significant difference between your starting assumption about science that does not seem to apply to ethics. You once expressed an opinion about Noam Chomsky: “Chomsky’s thesis is that there are areas of reality that science is simply incapable of understanding.” Your rebuttal was that there may “…be fundamental limits to what we can learn about reality.  It just seems unproductive to assume it in any particular case.” Could that perspective apply to our knowledge of things not within the realm of science? Perhaps, for example, your pessimism about ethical knowledge is just as unfounded as your optimism about scientific knowledge. And, by the way, I doubt that our current scientific truths are, by contrast, grounded in some absolute objective fashion.

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    1. Ah, keeping me honest. Good job!

      My response is that I was talking about what is in the Chomsky post, not about what ought to be. I find Hume’s is-ought distinction convincing. But maybe I’m all wet and there is some way to make those kinds of determinations. As I noted in the post, I’d like to find a way toward moral realism, so if someone successfully demonstrated a way science could do it, I’d be on board.

      Unfortunately, I don’t see that anyone actually has. The people who try always seem to sneak in one or more values as a starting point, often implied or vaguely stated, making their science of morality more philosophy in disguise.

      On our current scientific truths, I judge them in terms of how accurate their predictions (and retrodictions) are. But I think we have to always be prepared that what we think is an established truth is only an instrumental mechanism, that perhaps doesn’t map to reality in the way we expect. Although it does have to map in some fashion, otherwise the predictions wouldn’t work.

      But Ptolemny’s model of the universe made accurate predictions of naked eye observations of the sky. It was only when the telescope was invented that its predictions started failing, and the Copernican model was shown to be more reliable (albeit with its own faults). Any scientific theory we now have might suffer a similar fate. Although when pondering that, we have to remember that any alternative has to reproduce the successful predictions of whatever theory it replaces.


      1. Oh Boy! There is a lot to unpack here. I’ll limit my targets. First, I understand that you find Hume persuasive—many still do. But his analysis in “An Essay concerning Human Nature” (now over three centuries old) is disputed by many philosophers. Perhaps—for you—the more persuasive critique would be by Hilary Putnam, renowned Harvard mathematician, computer scientist and philosopher of mind. See, “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays”, Harvard Press, 2002. Second, and I love this, if someone successfully demonstrated a way science could ground ethical principles, you’d be on board. Great! But perhaps that is like saying if I could find a chef who could make an omelet with a table saw I’d be on board. In other words, If all you have is a science hammer, then every problem is a science nail.

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        1. Hi Matti,
          Though I expect that we’re quickly going to tax Mike’s ability to respond to lots of comments as fast as he’d like (talented though he might be), I wonder if you’d like to drop down and respond to my first comment?

          I consider philosophy essential to the effective function of science. Metaphysics could be said to provide the canvas which bounds it, whether natural or otherwise. Epistemology could be said to provide the rules from which to do it. And axiology could be said to provide a value component which drives the function of the conscious entities which actually do science.

          Regardless I personally don’t consider every problem to look like “a science nail”. I think we need a community of respected professionals to hammer down some basic philosophical principles so that the relatively new institution of science could use them to function better than it has.


        2. Although I’ve read numerous arguments from moral realists, I don’t know that I’ve read that Putnam paper. Briefly, what points from it did you find convincing?

          What would you recommend for ascertaining an objective morality aside from science? I know philosophy has a vast literature on this, but while philosophy has its uses: clarifying concepts, questions, intuitions, hypotheses, etc, I think finding objective answers is science’s forte.


          1. I suggested Putnam because I assumed his contributions to mathematics, computer science, and philosophy of mind would (for you) give him credibility. His approach, as one well versed in the philosophy of science, is to directly tackle the terms Hume worked from as an empiricist and how those terms were bastardized over time. More importantly, Putnam’s critique is less about Hume than how Hume’s argument became inflated to the form expressed by, for example, Carnap and the logical positivists—and perhaps yourself. In short, Hume did not intend to rule out the study of ethics. In fact, he contributed to a school of ethics known as the British sentimentalists.

            Putnam’s purpose is to clarify this evolution of Hume’s thought which was intended as a distinction not a dichotomy. Moreover, Putnam analogizes Hume’s fact/value dichotomy (as inflated) with the logical positivists analytic/synthetic dichotomy. (Terms adapted from Kant.) And similar to Quinn’s argument in “The two Dogmas of Empiricism” which destroyed the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, the inflated version of Hume’s dichotomy fails—I.e., the two sides of the dichotomy have no firm boundaries. In short, the argument rests on a weak foundation that is not accepted by most contemporary philosophers.

            It is informative to know that Hume (and Carnap) referred to ethics. Value is not synonymous with ethics. It’s a broader concept. Also, Hume relegated “fact” to mere sense impression. As Putnam points out there are many kinds of value judgments that are not ethical which contradict the argument. Science conducts is business with a number of value judgments in order to construct an accurate description of the world, e.g., simplicity and coherence, for example.

            So, you can hold the view that ethics is cultural, or relative or merely an emotive reaction. But this inflated argument referencing Hume is not your best gambit. Finally, and I think Putnam is dead-on here, Putnam argues that the idea of “rationally irresolvable” ethical disputes “functions as a discussion-stopper” and worse a “thought-stopper.” Doesn’t that touch a nerve with you?

            For my part, I think Putnam is helpful. But, I especially like the cheerful analysis presented John Searle as well—love his sense of Humor! See, his “Philosophy In A New Century.” Searle began developing his argument in 1964 and took a lot of criticism which I think helped spur him on to develop a masterwork on social ontology which I strongly recommend. There’s also, Iris Murdock, Philippe Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre and, for me, a little know but brilliant Oxford educated Australian (now deceased) by the name of Julius Kovesi.

            As you your second question—That’s a bit like the opening in Plato’s Republic, what is justice? I.e., to big for me in such a forum. And, maybe to big for me period.

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          2. Thanks for the details on Putnam’s argument. But I’m not clear what is meant by the inflated version of Hume’s argument. What in particular is different about it in relation to the original?

            Certainly the logical positivists had their issues, which ultimately undid their philosophy. I’m not really aware of what their take on the is / ought distinction was.

            I should note that I don’t rule out the study of ethics. But it has limitations. Any reasoning has to start with preexisting shared values as premises. And my experience is that people tend to reason until they’re preexisting intuitions are satisfied.

            I agree that values are broader than ethics, but only because an ethical value is a type of value. I have a degree in accounting, which, among other things, is concerned with valuing assets, a very different kind of value.

            On Putnam’s “discussion-stopper”, if it is a discussion stopper, it’s only because people struggle to find a response. What’s his response?

            I find Putnam a mixed bag. But I’m not a fan of Searle. Just about everything of his I’ve read, I’ve found to be poorly reasoned, leaning heavily on the prejudices and biases of his audience. To me, he seems more an emotional rhetorician than a logician.


          3. Matti,
            You mentioned an admiration for John Searle above. I have that as well, and specifically regarding his Chinese room thought experiment. In fact it inspired me to develop a separate thought experiment with his theme that I suspect might do quite well in academia. Mike is in extreme opposition here, though his many involved responses have helped my argument quite a bit. We recently decided that we’ve taken our discussion as far as it might productively go. Thus I’ve been looking for other interested people. I’d love for you to consider the following, and perhaps let me know your thoughts as well?

            It’s generally presumed that when a person’s thumb gets whacked, that associated nerve signal information is provided to the brain. Presumably the brain then processes this information and somehow causes “thumb pain” to exist. But how? I suspect that the processed information goes on to animate thumb pain producing mechanisms, among other things. It’s somewhat like a computer’s processed information animating a computer screen.

            (What might those qualia mechanisms be? I can’t say for sure, though there is a UK professor by the name of Johnjoe McFadden who has done work which suggests it’s the electromagnetic fields produced by neuron firing. Regardless, naturalism suggests that something must be responsible.)

            In opposition to this position are people who I refer to as “informationists”. They believe when the brain processes whacked thumb information into new information, that this processing will in itself exist as “thumb pain”. So here’s my thought experiment:

            If the information associated with a whacked thumb were instead expressed on enough sheets of paper, as well as processed by a fast enough scanning to printing computer into the right response information on paper… then something here would thus experience what you do when your thumb gets whacked!

            Is this not ridiculous? Paper with information on it turned into other paper with information on it, such that “who knows what” will then experience qualia? Though I do consider this account supernatural, I believe I can naturalize it as well. If that second set of information laden paper were then fed into a machine set up to interpret it, as well as animate whatever physics the brain uses to create qualia, then something associated should thus “experience thumb pain”.


  7. I haven’t watched that podcast, but I guess I have to now. I think I’m a moral realist, and I think the only one here, at least commenting so far. So let me lay it out.

    [I’m going to make statements below in the form “This is the way it is.” Please mentally insert “I think” before each such statement. I’m just attempting brevity at the risk of hubris.]

    1. There is a fundamental law of physics: entropy increases.
    2. There is a physical explanation of why life exists: it increases the rate of the increase in entropy. (I think there are papers to this effect, which I can locate if pressed.)
    3. There is a physical explanation of why we have a “sense of morality”, i.e., our gut feeling that something is right or wrong: it increases the survivability of the species.
    4. There is a physical explanation of why we have ethical/moral rules established by society: it increases the survivability of the culture/society.

    So everything we do is explained by the fact that it ultimately increases the *rate* at which entropy increases. There is an objective moral goal: to hasten the heat death of the universe.

    Major point: because of the nature of the universe, there is no way to calculate how any specific moral decision will ultimately impact the rate of entropy for the universe, because there are not enough resources in the universe to do so, so it would be wrong to even attempt to try to base decisions on this analysis. Instead, we should make moral decisions on the basis of the equipment provided to us, our gut feelings and the moral codes provided by our culture, which we can change based on rationality and our gut feelings, and let natural selection, both at the level of species and at the level of societies, determine which are the “best” gut reactions and the “best” moral rules.

    In general, there are two major options for any moral decision: cooperate (do what’s best for those impacted by the decision as a whole) vs. compete (do what’s best for the self, possibly at the expense of those otherwise impacted). “Survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” frequently favor the latter of these choices, but it turns out that a group of cooperators is more fit, mightier, than a group of competitors. So, in general, cooperation turns out to be a better option. But this leaves an interesting conundrum: within any group of cooperators, a competitor will have an advantage. Successful societies tend to generate rules to ameliorate this effect in the form of laws, but it’s difficult (impossible?) to eliminate without sacrificing a lot of effectiveness. And the competitors (cheaters?) will always be there and always try to find new ways to take advantage of the cooperators. In the end, natural selection decides.

    Okay that’s it. Ask me anything!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I might have to give the entropy thing more thought, but my initial reactions are that saying life exists to increase the rise in entropy strikes me as imposing a teleology on a system that doesn’t have it, although maybe you’d say teleonomy. I’d be surprised that any scientific paper would take that position, although maybe a philosophical one would. (Or maybe not. There are some strange scientific papers out there.)

      It seems like life is basically just froth that comes into existence along the gradients that produce entropy. The sun produces far more entropy than we ever will (unless maybe we become a Type III civilization). And throughout the universe, stars and black holes seem to leave us in the dust in that manner.

      But even if we take that to be our moral purpose, it seems like there would be many ways of increasing entropy that have little or nothing to do with what most people think of as moral actions. Maybe we could optimize survival of the species (and our long term ability to produce entropy) with a Thanos type action involving killing half or more of the population, a move most of us would have a hard time seeing as a moral one. (We might reconcile ourselves to it in the face of clear, powerful evidence that we’ll all die otherwise, but not simply to optimize our chances.)

      I think there’s a lot of value in game theory. I’m sure you know the best tactic for the prisoner dilemma is cooperate then tit-for-tat. But game theory is only functional in terms of particular goals. If you read Richard Dawkins’ book, “The Selfish Gene”, he uses game theory extensively. But it’s game theory in relation to maximizing the survival and propagation of genes.

      For game theory to be effective for us rather than our genes, we still have to decide what we’re going to value. You might argue that we should optimize for survival, but it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where we’d rather not live, where mere survival would be too miserable to be worth it. In any case, privileging survival at all cost is itself a value.

      To your final point, we could simply accept natural selection as our moral compass. It’s been tried before, but with results most people today find morally abhorrent. Natural selection will win in the end, but most people don’t see it as our duty to help it.


      1. A few points: First, I’m not saying life exists *to* increase entropy, i.e., for the purpose of increasing entropy, because that purpose would have to be assigned to some entity. I’m saying life, and moral gut feelings, and moral rules, exist *because* they increase entropy. Now, moral feelings and rules *do* have a purpose, and this purpose can be assigned to a system we call natural selection. The system called natural selection was not created for ta purpose. It just fell out of the laws of physics.

        So if you accept this as our moral goal, it is the case like I said that we cannot calculate what will best achieve this, and it’s a mistake to try. It’s better to develop rules of thumb which seem “right”, and let the best culture win. Note, you don’t have to invoke Thanos to find a concept morally repugnant to everyone, but morally correct to the users. I give you suicide bombers and terrorists.

        So again, I would not accept natural selection as a moral compass. I propose cooperation as the moral compass. Natural selection will be the mechanism which chooses among moral compasses. Increase in the rate of entropy will be the result of the operation of natural selection. I’m good with that.



        1. The problem I see is that history shows that natural selection could easily select a society with a ruthless and authoritarian regime for reasons having little to do with the society’s moral worth. A lot of people think China will dominate the world beginning later in this century. If it does, I don’t think it will be because it’s a more virtuous society, but because its economy is larger than anyone else’s.

          It wouldn’t be the first time in history that such a society came to dominate more liberal and enlightened ones.


          1. I don’t recall saying anything about moral worth. Selection is gonna select whatever works. And there will be aberrations and fluctuations. (cough, cough, Trump, cough). But that’s just how selection works. China may very well dominate the world soon, but how do you know it won’t be more liberal and enlightened by the time that happens?



          2. Well, no one can predict the future. Who can say what might change with China. But in history, the enlightened civilizations often loses to the less enlightened one. Often, as with the Greeks and Romans, the conquered culture goes on to influence the conquering one, but not always. (And of course “enlightened” is a judgment we make about particular cultures based on our own cultural biases.)


        2. “Natural selection will be the mechanism which chooses among moral compasses.”

          Only if the selection process favors a “better” moral compass as a survival trait. Which, at best, seems to beg the question and, at worst, is simply not in accord with reality.

          (FWIW, I generally see evolution and morality as completely disjoint ideas.)


    2. Hi James,

      I’m not sure I agree with your second bullet. Life generally is “negentropic” I thought, in the sense that the production of complex, highly-ordered structures and nested energy reserves that are the hallmark of living organisms are not an increase in entropy. Quite the opposite, in fact. What is it that makes you think life increases the rate of increase of entropy in the universe?

      If life can be said to increase the rate of entropy formation locally, I’d think that may primarily be in the case of advanced life forms like ours, that are rapidly releasing the stored energy reserves of our planet–which are only there, instead of having already contributed to the heat death of the universe–because of the existence of previous life. So over the long period, energy stored as hydrocarbons for 50 million years, only to be burned, is no more or less entropy than if it had simply vanished into space in the first place. In fact, life could be argued in this case to have slowed the rate of increase in entropy, albeit for a very short time in cosmological terms.

      Also, I’m not following the leap from bullets 1 and 2, to 3 and 4. Let’s say life did increase the rate at which entropy increases, how does that relate to survival mechanisms as discussed in bullets 3 and 4, unless you are implying that life perpetuates itself by increasing entropy? This would tie the physical law to the sort of moral imperative I think you are trying to establish. I don’t agree, at least without knowing more, but is that the type of link you are trying to make?



      1. Hey Michael, good questions. The primary way life increases entropy is by converting low-entropy sunlight into higher entropy infrared light as heat. Without life, visible light photons would just get reflected/scattered into space. With life, photons get absorbed, turned into fuel, and the fuel gets burned, turning it into heat. The more life there is, the more this happens.

        Yes, life generates complex, low entropy systems, like us, but this only happens if the whole system creates more entropy as heat than it loses due to complexity. And that high entropy heat coming from fossil fuels originally came from low entropy sunlight. The fact that it was sequestered for 50 million years doesn’t matter that much on the timescale of the universe.

        On your last point, yes, I am in fact implying that life perpetuates itself by increasing entropy. That’s just a physical fact. Pretty much everything about life either creates or burns fuel, but the sum total of all those processes create more entropy than they started with.

        The main proponent of this theory about life and entropy is probably Jeremy England. You can check it out here:


        Liked by 1 person

        1. “The primary way life increases entropy is by converting low-entropy sunlight into higher entropy infrared light as heat.”

          As several people have pointed out, the human contribution to increasing entropy is utterly swamped by other sources. Most of the universe’s entropy is inside black holes. Stars generate huge amounts of entropy. Sunlight shining on the earth and being radiated back into space as IR generates most of the Earth’s IR waste. We’re a tiny fraction of that.

          “The main proponent of this theory about life and entropy is probably Jeremy England.”

          From what I can tell at a glance, you’re taking his idea far beyond what he proposes. He’s pointing to entropy as a source of abiogenesis (an interesting idea; I’ll have to read that article), but I don’t see where there’s a moral platform from it.


          1. For a pile of oily rags in a hot garage, the very first spark of spontaneous combustion releases an insignificant amount of energy compared to what happens when the pile burns. We’re just getting started.

            [and yes, England is not saying anything about morality. Pretty sure that’s all my idea. I’m okay with that.]


          2. The mathematics of entropy. (To see why there are many orders of magnitude of difference between the human contribution and existing natural sources. Entropy is logarithmic.)


          3. If humans, or their constructs, never leave the solar system, you would be correct. But you have missed the point of my analogy. The universe is a pile of oily rags, and we are a spark.



          4. No, you’re just not doing the math. Your oily rags are just one garage on one block in one city in one state in one country on one planet.

            Likewise, even if we colonized the galaxy (wishful SF-besotted thinking IMO), that’s going to be about it. Already, most of the universe is out of reach without serious FTL. More of it becomes inaccessible every second.

            So, no. Humanity will never have a measurable impact on the universe’s entropy. It’s not possible mathematically.


          5. I stand corrected. We will only maximize the acceleration of entropy in our light cone, or whatever part of the universe we can actually get to. The flame from our pile of rags will not jump to the next pile of rags.



          6. Right. And within that light cone, other processes will swamp our contribution. Even if we built a Dyson Sphere around the entire galaxy. The math is simply against us.


        2. Hi James,

          Thanks for the further explanation. I understood that dissipative systems, like organisms, can achieve low entropy states at the expense of “exporting” entropy to the environment. Not having studied this at the detail you’re suggesting here, I always thought the entropy production of the sun was enormous compared to the self-ordering, low entropy biomass on Earth, so that drawing an appropriate system boundary to include the sun would avoid any thermodynamic travesties. And I never thought that life had a strong local effect on entropy formation at the Earth’s surface itself.

          It seems that what you’re saying though, and some researchers, is that the Earth’s radiation signature is changed by the biosphere–as compared to that of a simple rock–to be a lower grade energetic profile. I hadn’t understood that before. The papers I found treated that as a “guesstimate” not a proven fact, but they were from ten or fifteen years ago so more recent work could have been done.

          The reason I was resistant to your second bullet was that in my original conception, the entropy generation was in the sun, and the low-entropy organizational structures of life were remote. So it really didn’t matter what life did or didn’t do–the production of entropy by the sun would be unchanged. And I would think that would still be the case, at least with respect to the sun. So what we’re saying is that the biosphere degrades the quality of solar radiation that it intercepts faster than if that radiation simply hurtled into space. And I do agree that makes sense, because life is using that energy for something, so there must be entropy generation.

          This is all a bit like saying cars run in order to produce fumes. And that the cars that produce the most fumes win, which is very counter-intuitive. That’s also part of my initial reluctance. For me, it’s clearer to me to say that the forms of life that achieve the greatest complexity are generally “winning” and that these tend to be correlated to the most dissipative energy utilization and thus the most entropy production. Having said that, it’s not clear to me that the human being produces more entropy than a hippopotamus, though we are arguably more complex–(but we do if you count our technological footprint).

          Interesting stuff, James! I’m still unclear, like Wyrd, on how the fact that life generates entropy leads to a moral position. But that’s secondary for me at the moment.



          1. Well said. Two points:

            1. It’s not so much that individual humans produce more entropy than individual hippos. It’s more that humans, because of their information processing capabilities, especially after the development of culture, accelerate the increase which will happen eventually in any case. Hippos don’t spread to every environment that could possibly sustain them. Hippos don’t dig up and burn fossil fuels. Hippos don’t burn rainforest for their own future benefit. Hippos don’t dig up radioactive material and concentrate them to create chain reactions, which reactions would otherwise take millennia to happen. Hippos don’t send robots to asteroids to break them up and extract useful things from them, which asteroids might otherwise simply float around for millions or billions of years with no significant change/increase in entropy.

            2. This is the most misunderstood part of what I’m saying: The tendency to increase entropy does not provide or justify morality, it simply explains it. Cars don’t run *to* produce heat [fumes being an unnecessary by-product, heat being a necessary by-product], but cars run *because* they do something which necessarily produces heat. Even electric cars. We don’t have morality *in order to* generate entropy, we have morality because it does something (promotes survivability of individuals and cultures) which necessarily increases entropy.


            Liked by 1 person

          2. Thanks for bearing with me, James. Agree 100% with your first point.

            I understand your second point better and appreciate the clarification. And I think I would say, while it’s merely a matter of personal preference and not technically any better or worse, that from the perspective of a physical optimization problem providing the explanation for morality, I’d be more inclined to go with the wording that morality is explained by the maximization of energetic flow through the system and/or the production of complexity than the notion that it is explained by entropy generation. That’s basically a glass half full versus a glass half empty discussion, though.

            At the end of the day, I think you’re saying morality is objectively the product of the physical necessity of life to increase entropy, complexity and energy dissipation, because these are the primary underlying drivers of survival. And now that I’ve turned my attention to this part of your note, I think it begs a question: why is it important to increase these parameters? Does it simply boil down to competition between organisms and species for a greater share of a scarce resource (Gibbs Free Energy)?



          3. Michael, not sure how you’re using the word “important” when you ask why is it important to increase entropy, complexity, energy dissipation. I wouldn’t say it’s important to do those things. I just say under certain circumstances those things are gonna happen.

            And please be sure not to confuse entropy and energy. For example, as I was just reminded in the video below, the earth radiates exactly as much energy as it receives from the sun. Otherwise, it would be collecting energy. But the earth “radiates” more entropy than it receives. For every one high energy/low entropy photon it receives it radiates 20 low energy (cancelling out the energy) energy photons. And 20 photons have more entropy than 1 photon.

            Sean Carroll is doing a series of physics videos, and it just so happens that the one released this week, #20, is on entropy and information. It’s an hour and a half, but he’s a very engaging speaker. You can check it here:


            Liked by 1 person

          4. Hi James,

            I’m about half way through Carroll’s video and enjoying it. My own understanding of entropy is more on the thermodynamic side, from coursework in mechanical engineering. I also really enjoyed Prigogine’s book “The End of Certainty” though it may be slightly dated now. It’s a little abstract for me to make the leap to entropy being fundamentally related to what we know about a system, but I understand the idea and the math works pretty well. Entropy has its hand in a lot of pots: the quality of energy, the directionality of time, the irreversibility of physical processes, and information flow of course. I don’t fully follow the information/knowledge aspects but comprehend intuitively, I think, that higher entropy conditions have more possible microscopic states than low entropy conditions, and so there are more unknowns. It’s volume of phase space is larger to use the terms from Carroll’s video. But why the universe would proceed to the greatest possible state of ignorance is a great question isn’t it!?

            On starlight being low entropy, it’s interesting to note that the units of entropy in basic thermodynamics involve mass, which starlight doesn’t exactly have. This is just an observation that is puzzling, about which I have nothing intelligent to say, but when we say that hot starlight has lower entropy than cool starlight, it’s interesting to ponder exactly what that means. Perhaps it’s as simple as noting, as you pointed out, that the lower energy radiation contains many more photons for the same quantity of energy, and therefore many more possible states, and thus a higher entropy.

            The only reason I brought up the importance of these processes is that way back when, when we started this exchange, which I’ve greatly enjoyed, you posited this, “There is an objective moral goal: to hasten the heat death of the universe.” And so, if this is to be the basis of a moral system, then it is by definition important. At least to me, otherwise what’s the point of moral systems. If it just happens and doesn’t really matter, I don’t see how that could ever form the basis of a moral system. To be the basis of a moral system I think you’d have to have a value judgment somewhere, such as arguing that making choices to align with this outcome is better than making choices that do not align with this outcome. And that’s why I thought it would be important. If it doesn’t matter… well, then it doesn’t matter and who cares, right?



          5. Just gotta make this clear: I don’t think increasing the rate of entropy increase is a *basis* for a moral system. I think it’s an explanation of why there are moral systems. It’s not only impossible to make correct decisions based on the effect on entropy, it’s a bad idea, because there are moral systems which work better, and will be selected first. Personally, I’m going with “cooperate first, compete second.”


            Liked by 1 person

  8. I consider morality to essentially exist as a social tool from which to help a fundamentally self interested creature, effectively function in highly advanced social groups. Thus the emergence of the human’s “moral ought”. Furthermore I consider this social tool to have so far mandated the softness of our mental and behavioral sciences. Essentially it penalizes scientists who formally propose that feeling good / bad constitutes the good to bad value of existing as a given subject. From such a position scientists are vulnerable to being characterized in terms of standard hedonistic wickedness.

    To overcome this barrier and thus begin developing effective general models regarding our nature, amoral exploration should be required (as is practiced in all “hard” forms of science). But given the personal nature of their work, these scientists should thus be morally judged for some of their proposals. How might they be provided with enough cover from which to say things which challenge standard moral notions?

    I propose a principle which, if accepted, should help. It runs like this: “It’s possible for a machine which is not conscious (like a brain), to produce a punishment / reward dynamic (or qualia), from which to drive the function of something that is conscious (like you or me)”.

    Here I expect there to be concerns such as “I’m a theist like Descartes, and so believe that God creates the qualia that I experience”. Or “I’m a mystic like Chalmers, and so believe that qualia is otherworldly.” Or “I’m a panpsychist like Philip Goff, and so believe that everything experiences some level of qualia.” Or “I’m an informationist like Michael Graziano, and so believe that qualia exists when the right set of information is properly converted into another such set.” Though I personally suspect that there are dedicated mechanisms in the head which produce qualia, each of these beliefs work under my plan (with panpsychism being funky, since here qualia may not be just “brain based”, though affordances could still be made). Regardless of how it exists, the crucial point is that qualia constitutes the value of existing for anything, anywhere. Here there is no “rightness” or “wrongness” regarding any behavior, but rather a social tool of approval and disapproval (which exists in the form of qualia as well). Without morality we’re left to consider the qualia based goodness to badness experienced by various subjects.

    As morality becomes sidelined for our mental and behavioral sciences, these fields should also begin to develop effective descriptions of our nature itself, or the “hardness” which they’ve always lacked. And indeed, once qualia becomes formally acknowledged as the stuff which constitutes the value of existing for any given subject, whether an individual bird for a second, or all the people in America for a year, this premise should also help us more rationally decide how to lead our individual lives, as well as structure our various societies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do agree that morality is a social tool. It’s basically the way we all live together. And I also agree that science shouldn’t let moral considerations interfere with what it finds or its conclusions.

      But while the social sciences definitely have their issues, I don’t know that being beholden to morality is the issue. They have methodological issues, such as their part of the replication crisis, which we’ve discussed before. And many accuse them of having a liberal bias, which is probably true to at least some extent. Which are issues that need to be worked through, probably a long term effort. Although the supposed bias is somewhat belied by the liberal angst directed at some in the psychology profession (such as Steven Pinker).

      But I’m not sure how any particular theory of consciousness necessarily helps with that. The reward / punishment dynamic in particular is already factored into a lot of psychological theories.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        Yes their replication crisis should be methodological, but in a field such as psychology (whose subject matter does formally cover the topic of “bias” itself), why would these scientists of all people permit themselves to fall under the methodology of p-hacking? Perhaps somewhat because technical “micro theory” regarding standard case studies hasn’t gotten the field anywhere? What respected and credentialed figure shall come along to provide a reasonable general model regarding our function?

        In the old days there was Freudism, behaviorism, and so on. Of course they’ve all failed. Today we get crap like “the theory of constructed emotion” where people are supposed to be socially taught to feel things like sadness. What I’m proposing is that the failure of psychologists to acknowledge that we’re all self interested products of our circumstances, is probably because the political heat associated with countering standard moral notions, has been too great. Roughly I’ve seen elements of my position referred to as “psychological egoism”, or even “drive reduction theory”, though I’m not aware that this theme is getting anywhere. Why? I suspect that standard evidence itself is supportive, though is ignored given that such theory lies in contrast with the social tool of morality. Essentially we’re penalized for acknowledging the validity of hedonistic positions.

        I suspect that fields like psychology will not be able to fix themselves alone given that the foundation upon which science rests, instead lies in philosophy. But once we have a community of respected professionals armed with various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, soft scientists should then be in the position to build far more worthy structures. I propose four such principles, with the axiology component mentioned above.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          I think something like p-hacking is inevitable. The field sets a standard and people game it. (Ironically to your thesis, the thing that should prevent it, aside from long term self interest, is ethics.)

          On constructivism, I’m currently reading a book on pain, perhaps the most primal emotion we have, and I’m finding the scientific evidence to be much more in favor of the idea that emotions are constructed than arising from some primal place. There are primal reactions, but they’re not the experienced feeling of the emotion. I’ll have more to say on it later, but the research in this area seems to resonate more strongly with Barrett and LeDoux’s positions rather than the primal emotion ones.

          Psychological egoism remains a viable theory, although many people think it’s too simplistic. A soldier diving unto a grenade to save his comrades seems to falsify it. Of course, we can take a broader view of the soldier’s interest, such as the fact that evolution may motivate him to sacrifice himself for his relatives (with shared genetics), an impulse hijacked by indoctrination techniques so that he feels the same impulse for his “brothers” in arms.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike,
            I’d say that psychologists will not p-hack so much… when they see greater danger of being caught and thus punished. And yes the social tool of morality may be used as another form of discouragement.

            I’m not saying that we should try to end the effect of morality as a social tool. I’m saying that this tool can be so powerful, that psychological egoism remains unable to achieve warranted consideration. Here proponents should tend to be stigmatized as hedonists. And if I’m right that this position does provide an effective description of our nature, then that could be why the field has struggled for so long in this regard. It may be that other positions aren’t effective enough, and while this one is effective, it’s also taboo!

            Soldiers sacrificing their lives for others, doesn’t begin to falsify the premise that our own happiness is all that matters to us each moment. Realizing that a grenade is rolling out to quickly injure and kill your people and friends, could provide a horrible instantaneous feeling. And especially to a soldier with first hand experience. So at that moment, which feels better? Alert everyone but leave them to injury and death? Or save everyone and die yourself? Sometimes saving everyone but dying should feel better at a moment’s notice. This should have nothing to do with genetic survival. That’s evolution’s goal rather than ours. And apparently evolution advances this goal by making us all self (or qualia) interested products of our circumstances.

            On constructivism, I’m certainly not going to say that there is no psychological construction to a given sadness that I might feel. My past experiences should affect a current state of sadness. But in the end I presume that there are dedicated mechanisms in my head which produce associated qualia. And correct me if I’m wrong, but you consider sadness to exist when certain information is processed into other information, whether by means of neuron firing or any other computational platform. So in either case evolution must have chose this sort of feeling to be adaptive for the situations which cause us to feel sad. Furthermore qualia should run the gamut. Pretty much whatever qualia we experience, evolution should have chose it for that sort of situation. This should be the case whether through specific mechanism instantiation (my belief) or specific information processing (your belief).

            So from here let’s consider my interpretation of Lisa Barrett’s proposal. Young babies might experience some affects, but will have no “emotions” since they haven’t yet been taught to feel them. As I recall she even says that young babies experience no “pain” (though presumably some undefined sort of negative affect). And how does she consider babies to learn to have actual sadness, frustration, hope, pain and so on? As I recall they’re taught through the expressions displayed on people’s faces, though more importantly through the words that they speak. Am I right that she thinks non-humans do not experience anything like the qualia that we do, given that they didn’t evolve the capacity for language? Just base affects? Thus for example, a dog can never feel “hopeful”, or “fear”, as the terms are commonly understood?

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,
            On the soldier, without the reconciliation I provided, I think you’re describing something inconsistent with your proposition. If we’re all self interested, but that self interest extends to pure acts of altruism, then we’re not really self interested. Yes, the soldier may have a strong feeling for his comrades, but if so, it ends up being an altruistic feeling. As I noted, altruism isn’t ruled out by a kin selection account of evolution. But if you eschew it, then you have to come up with a new framework.

            On constructivism, one thing to remember is it’s not positing that the baby has to consciously learn those emotions. That type of learning would be unconscious. Nor is it saying that a newborn doesn’t have feeling states, just that they’re simpler, more primal. As I’ve noted before, a lot of this can be seen as terminological disputes. Even Panksepp admitted that complex emotions have learned aspects.

            Barrett never explicitly mentions qualia, which isn’t unusual for scientists. She does think animals have affects, but she makes a distinction between those and emotions.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Mike,
            If you understood my model a bit better, then I think you’d see that it is quite consistent with soldiers willingly sacrificing their own lives. Though you could quaintly interpret there to be “altruism” here, ultimately my model reduces such function to immediate self gratification. Let me explain.

            For one thing there is sympathy, or something which tends to impart a suffering to us when we better grasp the suffering of others. Thus when you witness a helpless child screaming in agony given an obvious injury, this understanding should tend to cause you to suffer as well in another way. So it’s not truly altruism which then incites you to help her if you see a way to. Rather this should be a self interested desire to help yourself feel better by helping her feel better.

            Beyond sympathy there are also theory of mind forms of qualia centered upon the way that we perceive ourselves to be thought of. It tends to feel good to perceive one’s self to be respected, with the opposite the opposite. I consider this to be a quite prominent element of our nature.

            Anyway, if a soldier instantly feels better about sacrificing himself rather than permitting others to suffer and/or die, then at the crucial moment this should be the deciding factor. Such a decision, if conscious, will theoretically be a matter of instantaneous qualia based self interest.

            On the kin selection of evolution, that’s evolution’s thing rather that ours. We’re concerned about being happy rather than genetic proliferation. If it often made a given creature feel good to sacrifice its gene line, then that characteristic should tend to die out. Here subsequent creatures should be trying to promote qualia based interests as before rather than preserve their gene lines, even if they do also preserve them.

            On Barrett, how far would fields like physics and chemistry have gotten, if these sorts of word games were played in them as well? She’s free to define the “pain” term such that only an organism with language can potentially experience it. Furthermore I’m free to argue that that’s a crappy definition. Without effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to work, these soft sciences should continue to go in circles.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Eric,
            If a soldier sacrificing his life doesn’t count as a case of altruism, then what would you consider to be one? How are you defining “altruism”?

            I agree that kin selection is evolution’s thing. But the reason certain things make us happy or make us sad is because of the effects they have on kin selection. Of course, as Dawkins himself noted in 1976, we’re probably the first living organism to be able to subvert this relationship, to get the happiness without the kin selection aspect, birth control being the most obvious example.

            There are terminological disputes all the time in science. I think much of the kin selection vs group selection debate in biology amounts to that. The higher up in levels of organization a science in, the more prone it is to those kinds of disputes. But even astronomy isn’t immune. Note the debate on what a “planet” is. And of course, there’s our discussion above on altruism.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Mike,
            It’s not that I’m defining “altruism” in a non-standard way. We use the term to reference the practice of being selfless for the welfare of others. Even I personally consider this to exist in us epistemically (or perhaps naïvely) rather than ontologically. Earlier I said that altruism might “quaintly” be said to exist. Our sympathetic and theory of mind forms of qualia seem largely responsible for standard belief in “true altruism”, though I believe that I’ve made a pretty good case that these reduce back to self interest in the end.

            “True altruism” would exist, I think, if someone were to knowingly sacrifice their own qualic interests for someone else’s, though without enough incentives (likely unseen) to tip the balance towards personal interest. And surely even when the sympathy and theory of mind distinctions that I’ve made are granted, my model should still tend to be challenged in this regard. I welcome such testing.

            My theory is that the conscious entity exists as instant qualia. I consider these countless “individual selves” effectively joined to past selves through “memory”, or past consciousness that remains. Clearly people who have memory failure, as is commonly displayed with dementia, are disconnected with their pasts.

            If the present self is technically all that matters to us, then why do we make apparent sacrifices for future selves? Enter “hope”. Worthy investments impart positive qualia presently given that they seem hopeful to us. Then there is “worry”. This imparts negative qualia presently for not tending future interests. In practice they function hand in hand.

            Regardless, because the field of psychology has not yet been able to develop accepted general theory regarding our nature, lower mental and behavioral sciences should naturally suffer given this lack of supervenient guidance. And why is it so difficult for us to effectively grasp the essentials of our own nature? Perhaps somewhat because the social tool of morality tends to punish those who defiantly propose hedonistic positions.

            Science is still a relatively new institution however. Note that hard or soft, it functions today without generally accepted principles of metaphysics, or epistemology, or crucially here, axiology. Once it becomes formally acknowledged that value exists exclusively by means of something which can be produced in the head of sentient creatures, and I’ve lately been referring to this as “qualia”, then it should be more possible for our mental and behavioral sciences to begin from the amoral position that harder forms of science are inherently able to.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Eric,
            I don’t know that what you describe as “true altruism” is coherent. We never do anything without affective motivation. And we do sacrifice our own affective interests all the time. Remember that we have lots of affects, and they often conflict with each other. As you note, we often override short term affects in favor of long term predicted affects. Someone sacrificing their life for others is typically doing so because affects related to how they feel about their companions is overriding their own flight affect.

            In other words, someone can agree with you ontologically, but still use the language of altruism as we commonly use that word. For most people, this would not be acting in a self interested manner, again, as those terms are commonly understood. In other words, I’m not sure you’re effectively describing your own position.

            On adding new metaphysical doctrines to science, I don’t know if you saw my post on the mechanical philosophy and mysterianism. I think when scientists adhere to any philosophy too rigidly, it becomes an obstacle to progress.

            The only fixed doctrine that science needs is: truth is better than fantasy. Which operationally translates to: more accurate prediction is better than less accurate prediction. It seems to me that every other aspect, such as prioritizing empiricism over rationalism, and both of those over authority, as well as any specific methodologies, is in service of that one doctrine. I think adding any others will cause problems, and would weaken science.

            Liked by 1 person

          7. Okay Mike, maybe I haven’t been describing my position as effectively as I might. It could be that when I refer to us as self interested beings who thus aren’t “altruistic”, most tend to interpret me to mean this in an epistemic rather than ontological capacity. In the future I’ll try to be more clear.

            Regardless, you’ve now implied that you do agree with my premise in an ontological capacity (to the extent that you currently understand it). And just as a physics student shouldn’t be able to learn the subtle intricacies of physics without testing initial conceptions of such theory against practical questions, that should be the case here as well. This is to say that my lectures should only teach you so much. In order to grasp many of its subtle intricacies, you’d need to take an associated quandaries and then predict this theory’s answers. The goal would be to attain a working level rather than merely lecture level grasp. It’s like being a business owner who must figure out how to make the business work right rather than an employee who the owner pays to follow specific instructions.

            On your Chomsky post, yes I did read it at the time, and supported your position 100% (not that I delved into the writings of Chomsky myself, but still). I didn’t weigh in then because at the time I considered myself to have more important business with you, or a marathon discussion that began here:

            Of course at the very end I did take your early advice for us to agree to disagree. But I also consider there to be a strong irony here given that the theme of my argument in that discussion conforms very well with the theme of your Chomsky post. If you recall I was arguing for “mechanism” based qualia, and the theme of your Chomsky post was that we shouldn’t presume voids in mechanistic explanations for what we observe since they might exist and even be discovered at some point. Conversely in our discussion your argument was that qualia exist through no specific mechanism, but rather generic information processing alone. This has always struck me to be a less than natural account, and of course I’ve developed a thought experiment to display this. We don’t need to open the topic up again, though given that you published your Chomsky post during our conversation, this now strikes me to be quite ironic.

            Regardless, my four principles of philosophy lie squarely in support of helping science become more effective in the face of mysterian influences, or the “truth over fantasy” theme that you’ve now raised. My single principle of metaphysics should effectively divide science into both a “causal” form as well as a “causal plus” form, and so help purify the first from such influences which seem to exist in current science. My first principle of epistemology should square up the nature of definition which seems to trouble it so much. My second principle of epistemology should formalize there to be a unique process from which to “figuring things out”, or an empirical method for far more than just “science”. And my single principle of axiology is something your last reply suggests that you agree with, or that conscious function does happen to be qualia motivated. I believe that these four principles of philosophy would strengthen (causal) science in general, though mainly benefit our still soft mental and behavioral varieties.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Philosopher Eric,

      There is an old Nordic proverb; “The morning is wiser than the evening.” After ruminating over your comments I went to bed to await the wisdom of the morning and the happy prospect of a rewarding discussion. Alas, I must confess that I’m, at best, a dilettante in the realm of philosophy of mind and consciousness. And your philosophical position is framed in such terms. I fear any attempt to translate your words into more conventional philosophical terms that I’m comfortable with would unfairly do violence to your meaning. However, I do agree, if I understand you correctly, that ethics has been sidelined by (your terms) our mental and behavioral sciences. In part my concern about such things is what drew me to Mike’s very interesting blog. I would add that ethics has also been reduced and/or translated into a mere fragmentary part of the evolutionary sciences—most distressingly evolutionary psychology. I hope we all can explore that a bit more in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your efforts Matti. I suppose that many don’t get me so this is my problem rather than yours. But let me try what I consider to be a reasonably simple description. Don’t worry if this fails you as well.

        Imagine a bunch of biological robots evolving, where nothing matters to anything though they survive nonetheless. These machines are able to do quite a bit with their programming, but can’t deal with more “open” environments all that well. (By this I mean the opposite of something like the game of Chess. It’s the place where our robots also fail.) So in this world where nothing can be good or bad for anything, evolution then adds a value component, or qualia. Thus conscious function emerges, and existence can now be good to bad for these entities on this basis and not otherwise. Here the more positive qualia that a given subject experiences, the better existence is for it in that regard, with the opposite being bad for it.

        Fast forward to something as highly evolved as the human. The calculus shouldn’t have changed here — the more it feels good the better existence should be for it in that regard, with the opposite bad for it. But it also has theory of mind qualia such that, for example, it feels bad when others think poorly of it. So the social tool of morality emerges. And furthermore sympathy does exist as well, which is to say that witnessing hurt, for example, can hurt it.

        Here’s my point. When this creature tries to grasp its nature, it should be less socially able to admit that feeling good constitutes good for it, given influence from that social tool. Here it should be penalized for supporting selfish positions, such as its nature that we established previously. Instead it should tend to advance selfless notions given that others will tend to reward it for doing so.

        Does this not sound familiar? Do we not reward the apparent selfless for their charity and punish the apparent selfish for the social ills that they cause? This social tool, I think, is why the field of psychology has failed to grasp the hedonistic reality that qualia constitutes the value of existing for anything. This, I think, contributes to the softness associated with our mental and behavioral sciences.


    3. Your critique of morality seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap betweemoral relativism – wonderful for inquiry and diversity but useless for helping us live together – and moral idealism – unbelievably distorting to inquiry but useful for helping us live together.” Is this a reasonable interpretation of your intent?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Ben, and thanks for your interest!

        If pushed I suppose that I would call myself a moral relativist, and in the sense that I consider our moral inclinations to exist entirely as social constructions. I don’t consider there to be anything which is “right” or “wrong” beyond such constructions, though I do consider it possible for existence to be good to bad for any defined subject. I suppose that’s where you might have gotten a “moral idealism” impression, though the term makes me uncomfortable.

        Regardless, I believe that there’s a certain kind of physics by which existing can feel good to bad rather than what’s standard, or no feeling at all. Apparently evolution implemented this physics because its biological robots couldn’t be programmed to function well enough under more “open” circumstances. Thus many forms of life then evolved a conscious component as well.

        My point above was that our mental and behavioral sciences largely fail, given that the social tool of morality tends to punish those who propose “qualia” as the value of existing for anything, anywhere. Here we’re dismissed as vile hedonists given the selfishness associated with the idea that feeling good constitutes what’s good for the thing which feels it. Conversely the social tool of morality encourages us to function altruistically, or the very thing which we tend to be socially rewarded for.

        I do believe that science will eventually get beyond this hurdle however. To do so it should need a community of respected professionals armed with effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, as well as the axiology which I’ve just mentioned. In total I propose four such principles to hopefully better found the institution of science.

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        1. Interesting answer. Thank you.

          I agree with your idea of hedonism rewarding “selflessness” but that’s, fundamentally, not what I think morality is for or about. My study of ancient civilizations and moral systems pretty heavily implies that altruism in the sense you and I are discussing hasn’t been “good” in any durable way until the rise if Christianity. Alexander the Great, for example, was praised because of glory and strength – both of which the Greeks considered moral goods. The horrible suffering he inflicted on his victims was beside the point because, to my eyes, selflessness was not considered important for Greek princes. (We can see similar phenomenon with the ancient Chinese and Indians so this is not a Western culture thing, it seems.)

          This is not to imply that Alexander was not shaped by and morally constrained by the hedonistic desire to earn praise/power/honor from his contemporaries, only to point out that “selflessness” does not have to be the catalyst.

          I mentioned the bridge between moral idealism and moral relativism because I believe both fail given the following assumptions:
          1. Morality must function as telos. That is to say, our morality needs to serve a social function and it cannot lead us to extinction/chaos/ruin while remaining valid.
          2. Moral idealism must specify laws or deontological stuff a la Kant. In other words, lists of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

          Relativism fails because its telos breaks down at any high level of social organization. In extreme relativism, the failure is obvious. We cannot live together if I believe in the United Nations and you believe in sacrificing victims to the dread gods of the Aztec. We need an idealism, an “absolute” to refer to in order to reconcile our differences and form a stable social group.

          Idealism fails because no list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots can stretch far enough to account for all the ways people have, do and will live together. Condemning Confucius for not believing in feminism or condemning Hillary Clinton for neglecting to build an altar to Zeus is the sort of nonsense that arises whenever we attempt to impose a “universal” moral code universally.

          In order to solve this problem – to unite the useless but flexible relativisms with the reality distorting but useful idealisms – I suggest we leave behind the deontology and the commandments and instead create an idealism of consequences.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ben,
            What would you say to us substituting all talk of “morality”, for talk of “welfare”? To me your use of the “ideal” term suggest that you might be open to this. You seem to use it in the traditional sense of “perfect” (and so not the funky belief that reality exists as a construct of the mind). Thus “ideal existence” would be something to at least aspire to, or perfect welfare. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “an idealism of consequences (maybe “perfect consequences”?), but hopefully you believe that science needs to learn more about our nature so that such information might be used to help us better lead our individual lives, as well as structure our various societies. That’s my own quest.

            In my amoral exploration of our nature, I’ve decided that a punishment / reward element of reality (sometimes referred to as “qualia”), constitutes the welfare or value of anything that exists. So what will the value of existing as a rock be? If it experiences no qualia, then there won’t be any. Still its existence might be valuable in respect to a creature that does experience qualia, whether it has positive or negative influences. What is the value of existing as yourself for the past year? Add up your positive qualia, deduct your negative, and that should be an effective answer. Not that we have very objective ways to measure qualia yet, but theoretically. Or we could consider the welfare of all the people in Korea over the past year. Or the fish in the ocean.

            If it’s useful to say that value exists as qualia, shouldn’t psychologists acknowledge this as a fundamental property of our nature? So far they haven’t however, and I suspect largely because the social tool of morality renders a person politically vulnerable for supporting such an idea.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. “Ben,
            What would you say to us substituting all talk of “morality”, for talk of “welfare”? To me your use of the “ideal” term suggest that you might be open to this. You seem to use it in the traditional sense of “perfect” (and so not the funky belief that reality exists as a construct of the mind). Thus “ideal existence” would be something to at least aspire to, or perfect welfare. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “an idealism of consequences (maybe “perfect consequences”?), but hopefully you believe that science needs to learn more about our nature so that such information might be used to help us better lead our individual lives, as well as structure our various societies. That’s my own quest.”

            I’m speaking of idealism in the same sense as Blaise Pascal or Plato – the idea that the mathematical and “perfect” principles we use to imperfectly describe our worlds are “superior” to the world of sensation. That is, the perfect and nonexistant circle is “better” than the imperfect circles that can exist in the world. Bertrand Russell has an interesting exploration of these mathematical thinkers and how closely they are tied up in the Judeo-Christian hatred of “the flesh.”

            Libertarians – who love “freedom” and are dismayed that the world has failed to conform to it – celebrity scientists like Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson – who believe in the form of mathematics and condemn the world because it doesn’t fit their idea of rationality – and social justice people – who imagine “fairness” and hate the world for failing to be fair – are, by this standard, the greatest modern idealists.As for using science to inform welfare or morals, I don’t entirely disagree. However, I am interested to hear how you think – bearing in mind he had access only to the science of 1896 – P. Charles Michel went wrong in his “A Biological View of English Foreign Policy.”

            “In my amoral exploration of our nature, I’ve decided that a punishment / reward element of reality (sometimes referred to as “qualia”), constitutes the welfare or value of anything that exists. So what will the value of existing as a rock be? If it experiences no qualia, then there won’t be any. Still its existence might be valuable in respect to a creature that does experience qualia, whether it has positive or negative influences. What is the value of existing as yourself for the past year? Add up your positive qualia, deduct your negative, and that should be an effective answer. Not that we have very objective ways to measure qualia yet, but theoretically. Or we could consider the welfare of all the people in Korea over the past year. Or the fish in the ocean.”

            I completely agree with you that mere existence is insufficient as the standard of goodness. Rocks, after all, exist with much more certianty than we do. As for using qualia as the standard above and beyond rocks, this seems to me like a species of utilitarianism. Is that fair?

            “If it’s useful to say that value exists as qualia, shouldn’t psychologists acknowledge this as a fundamental property of our nature? So far they haven’t however, and I suspect largely because the social tool of morality renders a person politically vulnerable for supporting such an idea.”

            This is definitely part of the problem. There’s a book called “Gallileo’s Middle Finger” by Alice Dreger that goes into detail about the stuff you’re mentioning. However, I think ethics is right to be suspicious of science for the simple reason that science is nihilistic and directionless. As I hinted before, attempts to have “scientific morals” have, thus far, been horrific. So, the idea of consequential idealism. As you hinted before, we need our ethics to achieve two universal, mathematically precise and a priori ends. First, we need to exist. Any ethics that makes us extinct is bad in any possible ethics because if we don’t exist we can’t make/appreciate/do good by any standard. Second, in order to be good as human beings and not as rocks, we need to impose a system of meaning on the universe. This means we need to create religions, ideologies, myths, sciences, traditions or whatever else that explains the universe. If we fail to do this, we are rocks. Therefore, any ethics must reach the idealized end of creating systems of meaning. I call this consequential idealism because it doesn’t seem to matter how we get survival and systems of meaning. It also doesn’t seem to matter what kind of survival or which systems of meaning we achieve. We can do it through widespread misery or universal qualia or warrior cults or aestheticism or religious fundamentalism or Japanese death camps or enlightened democracies.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Ben,
            On where I think P. Charles Michel might have gotten things wrong, I can’t claim all that much. Clearly he got things right regarding the German threat to England in the first half of the following century. I don’t see how he could have then predicted that the US and its non territorial expansionism would succeed so well, or defeat Soviet expansionism to create a relatively unified world countering regional threats. What are your thoughts on his predictions?

            (By the way, I don’t consider the “social justice” people as a whole to be ideologically driven per se, but more about winning points in their own social circles. I consider us all to be self interested products of our circumstances.)

            You’re entirely correct that my own ideas do not exist under utilitarianism, but rather under more of a family resemblance to that position. Utilitarians attempt to claim that their position is “moral”, which I consider to fail given various associated repugnant implications. Conversely my own position is neither moral nor immoral. Just as physics is explored amorally, I believe that science must explore human nature this way. Our mental and behavioral sciences fail, I think, given that they do not yet amorally delve into “value” (which is to say “purpose”, “good”, “welfare”, and so on). Actually the field of economics does go there, though it seems too specialized for psychologists to follow given the backlash from the social tool of morality.

            I read the wiki on Galileo’s Middle Finger. Yes that’s what turns me off regarding the social justice people — they merely display apparent ideology, though lack proportional reason.

            I can’t say that my own ideology of feeling good entirely conforms with my perception of your two consequential idealism proposals. First there is survival. It seems to me that surviving while feeling horrible will by definition be worse than non survival, or at least for that period. Then regarding “imposed meaning”, I don’t see how forced myths and such will be good for what exists. But then I may have misinterpreted the purpose of your consequential idealism. It could be that you’re simply discussing how things are rather than what’s “good”?

            Liked by 1 person

          4. I mentioned P Charles Michel because I also could not find any fundamental fault in his scientific reasoning. I also could not help but notice that if we had listened to religious leaders and historical figures instead of scientists, the idea of racial cleansing would perhaps not have come to define the first half of the 20th century.

            This is all part of the history of scientism, which is a very dark history indeed. The only two times we’ve tried it on a large scale we got scientific racists (Nazis) and scientific historians (Marxists). On a smaller scale, it’s given us eugenic morality, a lot of “enlightened” nihilism and the Nietzschean death of God.

            The qualia idea, to my view, seems to have a lot of the same problems that other utilitarian and scientific moralities have had. Mostly, there is an arbitrary and “non-scientific” value judgment at the heart of any system. Your value is feeling good. Someone else’s might be property rights or equality or the list goes on. This is unavoidable because science doesn’t have values and, if it is to function correctly, CANNOT have values.

            I propose survival and constructed systems of meaning for two reasons. First, if you don’t survive, no values are possible. Second, if you don’t have a system of meaning, you’re a rock.

            So, I would not agree that a horrible existence is worse than not existing at all. Certainly a painful existence is preferable to not existing. To prove this, I offer to examples.

            1. A meaningless existence of feeling good. We’ve seen this idea presented in fiction many times – Homer’s Island of the Lotus Eaters is probably the most famous. This sort of existence is consistently portrayed as tragic because, to my interpretation, it’s meaningless.

            To leave the realm of fiction, we are right now entirely capable of leading a pleasant but meaningless existence before slipping quietly into nothingness. All we need to do is hook ourselves up to a morphine drip and drift off …

            2. Many people in general and almost all of the people we’d consider great or praise worthy suffered horribly in order to create meaning. Julius Caesar was well on the way to killing himself through overwork when the Senate got to him. Jesus got nailed to a cross. Marie Curie starved herself. Theodore Roosevelt took a bullet to the chest, caught malaria and lost a retina. More prosaic, walk to any graduate school and look how much family, friendship and comfort the students are sacrificing in order to increase their influence, to expand their capacity to impose meaning on the world.

            We are world explaining creatures. That’s what we’re for.

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          5. Well argued Ben. And even though I personally disagree with notions such as that it’s better for a person to perpetually suffer in pain rather than not exist at all, it seems to me that your position does correspond with what the social tool of morality naturally encourages us to believe. Thus it may continue to enjoy political success even if ultimately false.

            I think you’re right to worry about the expansion of science in this regard, since if it’s actually me who is right here, then that’s the institution which should eventually demonstrate this to be the case well enough for consensus agreement. It seems to me that that’s what should be required for our mental and behavioral forms of science to begin hardening up. But then you might be correct in the end anyway. It’s all to be determined.

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  9. I think I agree that morality does not boil down to a set of “objective” —or universal—rules, but I’m not sure that means all we’re left with is “might makes right”. And it seems to me you’ve touched on why we needn’t be reduced to this:

    “Someone who is aware that morals are created by humans for humans, is less likely to be sanctimonious and intolerant about them, more willing to argue for their point of view rather than simply take it to be the right one and the other person’s the wrong one.”

    We can—at least in theory, sometimes in practice—reason our way to consensus. As I understand it, “might makes right” bypasses reason altogether. But if we are using reason to determine how we should live, not just playing some sort of rhetorical game where the verbal victors get their way, that means we’re acknowledging that there are better and worse arguments. So what standard are we using to make that determination? That’s what I wonder about. I’m not saying there must be transcendent or objective moral “rules,” only something relatively objective (apologies for the oxymoron.) It’s tempting to say that culture sets the standard, but where does this standard come from? And how is it possible that we are able to spread our cultural values to others (assuming we’re not simply imposing our values) without a higher standard?

    I have no set answers to these questions. I’m just curious to hear what you think.

    I tend toward the idea that we possess some sort of moral instinct which is indeed fallible, but not as fallible as some would have us believe. It works best in specific scenarios, not in theoretical generalities (which is why the law is always struggling to catch up), and maybe that’s because it is itself grounded, to some degree, in time, place, and circumstance. I think this is in part why fiction appeals to us—we want to see the details, we want to see how particular characters react when specific circumstances play out, and what those consequences are.

    In your first paragraph you mentioned an ongoing feedback loop of personal convictions, cultural norms, and the law. I think what you said in that paragraph hits closest to the truth. Maybe we can’t find an “objective” morality because morality can’t be entirely reduced to any one part of the feedback loop.

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    1. Well said! I quite agree. It’s like the law. A lot of it is relative to a society, but the basic principles are based on something more objective. Civil and personal rights, in the case of law; personal conduct in the case of morality.

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    2. A lot of people seem to be triggering off that might-makes-right point. I probably should have put more effort into making sure the point was clear. Might isn’t always some big bully, or even a set of bullies, walking around forcing everyone to do their bidding. A society may establish a consensus in the most laudable manner we can conceive of. But no consensus is ever completely universal. There are always those who disagree. Assuming that consensus has any kind of enforcement mechanism, it is itself the might in that scenario.

      (A good example is what happened in some Arab countries when they became more democratic. The freedom of many of their citizens actually declined, because most of the population believed in conservative restrictive religious laws. It’s a consensus, but one many were unhappy with.)

      On relatively objective, I know where you’re coming from. It seems like there should be some objective basis somewhere for the consensus we do arrive at. I think there are, but there are so many factors that it’s hard (probably impossible) to account for them all. A society’s history, it’s geography, economics, educational levels, and all kinds of other things probably factor into it.

      For example, we know the mores of a desert dwelling nomad society are going to be different from those of a fishing village along a freshwater river, or a tribe living in the arctic. A hunter-gatherer culture will have very different mores toward senescent parents or disabled children than an agricultural one. But while environment and developmental levels have an effect, you still find wide variances between cultures in similar settings, because they all have unique histories.

      On moral instincts, I do think there’s something to Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. But while it provides the “taste buds” of morality, it still leaves far more latitude than most of us are comfortable with. Many of the foundations can conflict with each other, leading different societies to resolve them in different ways.

      I do think the feedback loop is important. When it’s allowed to function well, I suspect a society’s mores drift closer to the instinctive needs of its population, although given how contradictory those instincts are, it always involves inhibiting some instincts and encouraging others.

      Interestingly, one of Harari’s points, which I agree with, is that we’re becoming a global society, with an emerging global consensus. It means in the future we’re unlikely to see the degree of variability in social norms we’ve seen historically, at least as long as we’re all on Earth.

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      1. Yeah, “might makes right” is pretty contentious stuff and has a long history.

        Anyway, I didn’t mean that consensus is itself the end or moral right. I meant to point at reason…or maybe I should say reasonableness…as the driving force behind debate and discussion. Assuming there is a better and worse argument is what makes debate worthwhile. It’s possible to reach an immoral consensus.

        “It seems like there should be some objective basis somewhere for the consensus we do arrive at. I think there are, but there are so many factors that it’s hard (probably impossible) to account for them all. A society’s history, it’s geography, economics, educational levels, and all kinds of other things probably factor into it. “

        I think we might be saying the same thing, except I might add even more complicating factors at the personal level. Here I would normally get into virtue ethics but I’m typing on my phone and I can’t stand it.

        Basically what I’m trying to say is, i don’t think it’s possible to account for morality in a way that satisfies every possibility and situation. It’s like we’re moving and shooting at a moving target, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hit the mark.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think we’re on the same boat.

          How can you stand commenting on a phone? I know people do it, but it always feels like driving with one hand tied behind my back while looking through a peephole to see where I’m going.

          I think there are good insights in virtue ethics. It provides a useful framework for someone looking for a good personal strategy. But it sort of dodges the core question of what should be a virtue and what should be a vice. You end up having to figure out what your society regards as one or the other.

          These days, I lean more toward Epicureanism. (I won’t say I am an Epicurean because these philosophies always have details I don’t buy.) But prudent hedonism seems like a good option to me.

          But I totally agree with your last point. In the end, we’re talking about how to live, and no set of rules will ever fully account for everything life throws at us.


          1. You know, that last comment might have been the first time I tried responding on my phone. It was terrible and I probably won’t do it again. I was just worried that I’d forget to respond if I didn’t do it right away.

            On virtue ethics, yeah, it does seem a bit dodgy if you’re looking at it from a modern point of view. It’s essentially the difference between doing good and being good. Being good is what the ancients emphasized, in part because they believed morality and happiness are supposed to go hand in hand. Why be moral? Because it’s for your own benefit.

            Modern ethics (Kant especially) denied that the two have anything to do with one another. You’re just supposed to do the right thing, even if it makes you miserable. In this regard, virtue ethics seems more appealing.

            “You end up having to figure out what your society regards as one or the other.”

            More importantly, you have to figure it out yourself, for yourself. “Know Thyself.” Vague advice indeed.

            Here’s a metaphor that may or may not work, but I’ll try it out: Imagine we’re all various musical instruments which require tuning. We’re not all tuned in the same fashion—guitar strings are tuned differently from other stringed instruments which are tuned differently from other kinds of instruments—but we can all be in tune or out of tune in two different ways: both internally, and with each other.

            In virtue ethics, you get yourself in tune before you worry about harmonizing with the rest of the band. (The problem is, getting yourself in tune isn’t as easy as tuning a guitar. You may never get to play with the band. On the other hand, maybe it’s no big loss because the band sounds terrible.)

            I believe I’ve reached the limit of this metaphor.

            On Epicureanism—it definitely has its…virtues. 😉

            Liked by 1 person

    3. Since you beat me to the main point, I’ll springboard from there. Might doesn’t make right, it enforces right (or wrong, or most often, a mixture). It’s the reasonable agreement of members of a society, all of whom have a voice in the moral discussion, that makes right. Of course we usually don’t have such an egalitarian discussion, in which case finding what’s right becomes all the more difficult, but no supernatural or non-natural powers are required. And of course even in an egalitarian discussion where all voices are heard, there will be sociopathic con artists who try to skew the results to favor themselves. And everyone else will be on their guard for such manipulation and sometimes wrongly accuse genuinely pro-social (yet still self-centered insofar as everyone’s life narrative centers on themselves) people of such manipulation. And yet, for all that, I do think we get some things right.

      Now to a different idea.

      Part of what drives people to excessive meta-ethical skepticism is the fact that no matter what values or rules are suggested, there is always somebody who won’t accept a moral code. Cue the sociopaths and con artists again. But to infer from that, that there is no truth there in the moral code, is to confuse a moral argument with a magic spell. To engage sincerely in moral argument is already to accept certain values, such as the importance of agreeing with others in society about what we shall collectively do. To do ethics and metaethics, you don’t need to sneak values in through the back door. They can be trucked in through the main gate.

      Liked by 2 people

    4. Have you read Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence?” There’s an interesting distinction between power and violence she draws. I think, perhaps, Mike’s problems go away to some extent if we interpret his “might” as power rather than violence.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. I can see that. Social disapproval can be a powerful force. Of course, to enforce that isolation, to prevent some people (not just the isolatee) from ignoring the isolation, may require the kind of power backed by physical force.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Oh, I completely agree. Physical force can be the final step, I’m just pointing out that power is mostly social with human beings. Even when we use physical force, we almost always use physical force socially.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s a little more than that.

          She basically proposes three stages of “power.”
          1. Strength. This is the power of your body to control and coerce others. This is, in any large group of people, almost useless. A good example of this happened last weekend. Former UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier lost to current UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic in a very close fight. It is entirely reasonable to propose those two men as the two best practitioners of physical, human force on earth. And yet, I would be shocked if you or I couldn’t get both of them to quietly accept confinement in a jail cell if we showed them a police badge first.

          2. Violence. This is the use of physical force through intermediaries. Where Stipe Miocic or Daniel Cormier could force any ONE person to physically submit, they are easily overcome by people who use physical force in groups. A gang of drug abusers, for example, can be quite dangerous for the simple fact that they physically coerce in a group. Secret police are probably the highest form of violence by Arendt’s definition.

          3. Power. This is the ability to get obedience from large numbers of people because they recognize your legitimacy and, at least partially, submit voluntarily. This is how most heads of state operate.

          To put it all in an amusing scenario, think of this. If Caesar Augustus is trying to enforce the law in Rome through force, he needs to run around the capital suplexing miscreants one by one. If he is using violence, he can hire mercenaries or use spies. If he is using power, he points out the malfeasance of the criminals and stands back while the citizens take care of the problem for him.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks for the explanation of Arendt. I think if power can come from people recognizing your legitimacy, and if that comes legitimacy can from being intellectually honest and reasonable, then yeah, Mike’s problems—or maybe I should say “problems” for Mike’s sake—go away.

            Liked by 2 people

  10. I think the greater question is not “if” there is an objective morality, but why there is not. I agree with Eric that our reality, the entire physical universe is amoral, but that assertion only reduces once more to the greater question of: Why?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lee,
      Why does morality not objectively exist? How about because (pending definition) it’s essentially just a social construct? Every society and sub society has its own “morality”, and based upon transient beliefs held within.

      We can also graduate from this sort of speculation and go on to “welfare”. For the sentient entity, or a group of them (and let’s not worry about what you consider “sentient”), welfare should be effective to define as its aggregated qualia over a defined period of time. Are you able to agree?


      1. Eric,

        “For the sentient entity, or a group of them, welfare should be effective to define as its aggregated qualia over a defined period of time.”

        Absolutely!! You have no dissent from me on that qualifier.


        Liked by 1 person

    2. My answer is similar to Eric’s. I think morality is a social tool we use so we can live and work together. I think the only reason we’re tempted to see it as something more are the moralizing high gods in our cultural history.


        1. From what I’ve read, the high gods didn’t evolve specifically for moral rules. They may have started as local spirits that just happened to be the patrons of conquerors and became the high gods of the resulting empires. But they did later get pressed into service for validating the resulting society’s social mores.

          Obviously I disagree about finding the moral realities.


          1. “From what I’ve read, the high gods didn’t evolve specifically for moral rules.”

            I didn’t say they did, just that we’re the source of any morals from the gods.

            “Obviously I disagree about finding the moral realities.”

            Not the in the sense of one-and-only, but as a discoverable region of configuration space. (Which I think you’re on board with? Or do you view all morals as entirely arbitrary?)


          2. I don’t think they’re completely arbitrary. They’re constrained by human instinct and environmental factors.

            That said, those constraints are wider than just about anyone is comfortable with. They include, for instance, ancient Greek societies seeing pederasty as a wholesome practice, husbands owning their wives and children, and ancient moral teachers instructing slaves on the virtues of obeying their masters.


          3. “They’re constrained by human instinct and environmental factors.”

            Perhaps ultimately that amounts to the same thing. These physical and logical constraints lead to patterns of social behavior we discover.

            “They include, for instance,…”

            Doesn’t that you can name these as examples of obviously questionable morality demonstrate that civilization, over time, refines its moral understanding?


          4. How would the examples be different if, rather than refinement, we’re just looking at a history that just gradually approaches our current prejudices?

            I do at times think we’re getting closer to the egalitarian mode we lived in before farming, and our ability to get closer to that mode we evolved in could be seen as moral progress. Although before getting too taken with that view, we should remember that before we evolved to be egalitarian, we were probably as deeply hierarchical as most primate species. Our instinctive repertoire reflects both legacies.

            And when I read about historical thinkers, thinkers who took themselves to have a steely eyed objective view, and how much that view is embedded in the prejudices of their own time, my confidence that I’m somehow rising above the indoctrinations of my own culture are shaken. I think of Nietzsche, who took himself to have a piercing view of history, but to me, much of it now sounds like a reaction to late 19th century culture.


          5. It depends on how linear you think the progression is. Is there as much new territory ahead as there is between Nietzsche and now? Or is there an asymptotic aspect to discovery in a domain?

            It’s been said that, when it comes to moral philosophy, everything since Kant is either an illumination of Kant, a refutation of Kant, or an extension of Kant. The basic moral ideas go back much further — the golden rule was old when Jesus used it in the Sermon on the Mount (which, by the way, is a pretty good moral text all on its own).

            (What really changes is who and what we include in those moral considerations. That’s what we’ve gotten much better at.)


          6. (I keep forgetting that WP expands urls to images if they’re on a line by themselves. Really hate that feature.)

            Just to be clear, I was reminded about the part on ethics being solved in 2013. (Not the eugenics and sterilization part.) I did think that’s where you were going with your question. Sorry if I got it wrong.


  11. I am definitely not a moral realist, Mike. But I don’t think what is moral is simply the fashion of the time and place, either. I guess I would distinguish between values and morals. A society can have shared values, and everyone can agree to them, but they aren’t still necessarily moral in my view. The’re just values. To those who like them or benefit from them, they may be “good.” To others, maybe not so much. So I appreciate that if I choose to differentiate values from morals in some way, it sort of becomes a question of what the “right” values are, who decides, and on what basis right?

    Well, I’ll posit a hypothesis: human beings who respond to a situation from the heart will respond uniquely to a situation–in point of fact, the situation as well as the people involved are always unique–but also in ways that are for the highest good of all involved. No logical process or objective system of observation can reproduce what the human heart already knows. And so I would posit that throughout history, in any time or place, such people would respond uniquely, but in very much resonant ways. The same, but different, basically.

    Thus I think that emphasizing kindness, or goodness, for instance–nebulous as that may seem–is perfectly understandable to people, and requires no system of training or logical construct to support it or backstop it. It’s not that a logical construct cannot be put together. A great many probably could and obviously have been. If I was to pick the logical cornerstone of such a system it would be unity.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Michael, I agree that people who respond from the heart will do so uniquely, but I don’t see that it will always be in ways that are for the higher good of all involved. They may think they are from their point of view, but others will disagree intensely.

      For example, I know people who, genuinely speaking from the heart, think that homosexuality is bad for anyone who engages in it, and sees it as their duty to try to dissuade them from it, or failing that, to prevent it from being normalized. I was once one of these people, so I can attest that it’s a genuine feeling.

      Of course today, after learning a lot more about history, biology, and psychology, when I genuinely speak from the heart today, I think that unnecessary suffering is bad, that there should be a high bar of evidence for suffering being necessary, and that depriving LGBTQs of their freedom and dignity causes unnecessary suffering.

      On the other hand, when I see a young person smoking, or a child unbuckling their seat belt, I probably still have a reaction not that different from the person who sees homosexual behavior as a tragic mistake.

      All of which is to say, people can disagree from genuine places, places they can’t always be persuaded away from.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mike,

        I have gone out on a limb here, which probably requires some explanation.

        First, in my view having a strong feeling about something, even a passionate one, is not necessarily the same as coming from the heart. Many strong feelings in my opinion are very definitely NOT coming from the heart. There is a tendency to view the mind as analytical, and the heart as emotional. But this is not how I view it. Most emotions are simply the body-mind system alerting us to the implications of a particular situation relative to the beliefs and goals we’ve given it (or which it has ascribed to itself, if you prefer that wording).

        Example, if I am anticipating that the blame for a complicated issue at work that has arisen may fall on me, because I’m the person with the lowest seniority and someone clearly needs to “take the blame,” then I may be very sensitive to particular movements in a conversation. I may have very strong feelings as soon as I perceive that someone is positioning the conversation to send that blame my way. And I may respond with great emotion (expressed or not) to try and influence this discussion and those around me. But that’s not necessarily coming from the heart: that’s an emotional response to a condition that is out of alignment with the self-model I have.

        If we take the case of a person who believes it is their duty to prevent the normalization of homosexuality, and who speaks with strong feeling on the matter, I think again what we’re seeing is response to an alignment or a misalignment of a particular situation to the beliefs and goals the person carries. Now there are two ways such a conversation might go—maybe many ways. One way can be out of a genuine concern, without judgment of the other party. This may not be threatening to the recipient. Or it could be with a very different feeling, an angry or attacking one, and which is based on a phobia of those who are different than oneself. With regards to the former, I’ll even suggest it is quite possible in some situations for an individual to admit they are concerned about another’s lifestyle choices, and come from the heart, and for this expression to truly be the highest good in that moment. Because the other individual might realize there is genuine concern, and not some fear, anger or hatred at the root of it, and that might change everything. We just don’t know. This has shifted from admonishment or judgment, to an appreciation of one another, which can lead to very different places.

        So to clarify, and distinguish between the types of feelings noted above and those related to a heart-centered response, let me offer some additional attributes I would say are related to or incorporated within the notion of speaking from the heart. Those would be, in no particular order, an implicit awareness of unity (which the heart knows, even if the mind doesn’t), an implicit extension of love (which is closely related to unity), the absence of judgment (as in the acknowledgement of innate worthiness), and an implicit appreciation of the truth alive in each person, which no matter how obscured, once witnessed, naturally engenders respect.

        And I do think that when people speak and act from this place, while they may each do so very differently, it is always for the highest good of those involved. This may be very difficult to accept or to perceive, I admit. But implicit in this hypothesis is the notion that we do not always know what the highest good is, or by what avenue it may be realized. And efforts to logically determine this in advance will simply not be fruitful as compared to the offering of a heartfelt response. We might discover or realize in hindsight that this approach has served us well, and that is how we begin to develop wisdom. But this is what I think would be universally valid throughout history.

        It’s also not intended to be thought of as the art of persuasion, as I see it extending beyond verbal conversation to actions that we take, etc.


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Michael,
          I appreciate your efforts to clarify. If I understand you correctly, speaking from the heart means speaking from a place of unity, love, an acknowledgement of innate worthiness, and respect. Doing so will result in responses that are for the highest good of all involved.

          Could be. But without more precision, it seems close to saying that good willed people will make good responses. That might be true, but it seems a bit circular. As you note, it’s very difficult to know where people are really coming from. Heck, I’m not even sure where I’m really coming from half the time.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike, I don’t either! Haha.

            Let me try and be more precise. It’s a good challenge.

            1. The fundamental nature of existence is unity.

            2. The primary cause of suffering is our temporary ignorance of the fundamental nature of existence. I say temporary because I don’t think ignorance ever lasts indefinitely.

            3. Immoral actions have their causes in our suffering, and are taken as reactions to it. These reactions are basically expressions of ignorance, or of disunity, which isn’t true. Such actions are thus not in alignment with the whole, and this is why they may be considered immoral—although that’s probably a strong term. There’s no need to judge a person for making an honest mistake, right? I’m suggesting this is about as straightforward as physics, though.

            4. Moral actions, on the other hand, are expressions of unity. Because of this they are aligned with the whole.

            In summary, expressions of unity are marked by the parameters you just quoted back to me–love, appreciation of innate worthiness, etc.–and are readily felt and understood universally, so what I’m suggesting is that morality is not some objective code, and there are no “canned answers” or laws of logic that will always work. But actions taken as expressions of unity, will always be moral, and we ourselves can sense, know, and understand when we are doing this and when we’re not.

            There is really nothing further we need on this subject. There are many very interesting philosophical discussions we can have, and they may all be very enjoyable, but I posit they are not truly necessary to advance the field. We already have everything we need. What we lack is acceptance of, and thus awareness of, bullet 1. Which leads to bullet 2. Which leads to bullet 3. And we’re all trying to get out of the vicious cycle, in a sense, but if bullet 1 isn’t in play then to me all the other options we’re exhausting in the meanwhile are forms of delay.


            Liked by 1 person

          2. Hi Mike,

            A lot rides on it, and I am not sure if it is even possible to explain what it means. I will try, but I think you should consider anything I say on the subject to be merely a “pointer” towards the reality itself. We can slice and dice words very fine, but that will not necessarily aid us in understanding this. In a sense this is why I began with a discussion of coming from the heart. The mind is a profoundly good analytical tool, but it needs a starting point from which to begin, and I think it is the heart’s function to provide what no analysis can deliver: a beginning.

            First, it may be helpful to say what unity is not. The self we appear to possess, which may in some ways be illusory, or at least we might say is a model or a construct, contains as part of its principal deceit the notion that we are separate. Separate from one another, from other elements of matter, from everything in a sense. We are discrete, and this is evidenced by our bodies. The totality of our influence upon one another is from the outside—like colliding billiards in a sense. We can talk at one another, touch one another, exchange subtle EM radiation when in close proximity, give and receive things from one another, even receive information from various outside sources about one another, but that’s about it. We are parts, but not parts of a whole. We can elect, for instance, to behave one way in the presence of one another, and think in different ways that are not consonant with our behavior, and imagine that the gap between the two is irrelevant. We can imagine that harboring hatred of a person—an extreme example, but just for talking purposes—only matters to the extent it informs the actions we take. So long as we are aware of it and monitor carefully our behavior, then it can have no effects to speak of.

            There are ways to argue around this point, which I understand. We could argue it’s not possible to truly hate someone and not have this be reflected in behavior. I wouldn’t disagree frankly. But this wouldn’t change the point I’m trying to make about the manner in which influence and relationship work in the mindset of separateness I’ve just described. There could be millions of ways that our actions would reveal our core sentiment, and of course they could all express that hatred in some degree. But no one who has accepted the apparent veracity of separateness, or discreteness, worries too much about thinking a person to death, or worries that a persistent thought could have any effect other than these subtle “leakages” of our inner orientation into our behavior.

            Unity posits something different. It posits the existence of an indelible, fundamental relationship between each element of reality with every other. We are parts of a whole, and the whole is very real. There is nothing truly outside of this wholeness, of which we partake, which is quite a different condition from what we imagine ourselves to be in our “separateness.” One implication of such a view is that it does not permit the dismissal of gaps between presentation and content as being irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that we have the power to think another to death. It just means each of us is indelibly joined to one another, to existence, and to the whole in ways that cannot be broken, and which do indeed matter. And it does mean that our inner lives have farther-reaching consequences than we generally admit. I’d describe this as a creative relationship with reality. It is possible, for instance, to recognize the ways the world responds to us, just as we respond to it.

            I’ve inadvertently set up what is a more important and perhaps more accessible clarification: it’s taken for granted that we humans can develop a hatred for other humans. But it’s actually not possible to do this while one is occupying a state of awareness of unity. This is perhaps one of the best clarifying examples I can offer. When there is someone who has behaved very poorly towards us or even threatened our well-being, the sensation of hatred that obtains in the mindset of separateness, is, from the mindset of unity, something quite different. It is perceived instead as a natural appreciation for the fact that the one who has attacked us is suffering, and ultimately seeking relief. Granted, in a very perverted way, but from the mindset of unity, hateful actions are readily perceived as the byproduct of great suffering, and the natural response is first, to recognize this condition of deficit. The responses to any given situation may still be quite varied, but they would not be retaliatory. We wouldn’t typically retaliate against a human infant who needs nurturing, to put it as simply as possible.

            This is but the tip of the iceberg and I’ve rambled too long in getting here. To summarize as concisely as possible, unity posits that the indelible, fundamental relationship between each and every element of reality is quite real. It posits that this relationship is knowable, by the heart first and foremost, and that knowledge of it naturally engenders expressions of love, which are moral actions. There is a physical analogy for this notion, and that is resonance. I suspect that at some point in our scientific development the tools will even emerge to objectively understand and witness various effects of this fundamental relationship, but I don’t know when that will occur exactly. I just think it is possible. This would likely be in the form of physical correlations, probably quite subtle, that we are not presently in position to measure.

            It is worth noting that we probably cannot do this type of research, even assuming we understood how to go about it, in an environment whose chief functional premise is that such a unity does not exist until proven otherwise. The reason, I hope, is obvious. Keeping with the extreme example, we cannot hate someone and then show up for the experiment and shut that off arbitrarily. We cannot suppress ourselves and be free, in other words. And we cannot “show up” in any way other than we believe ourselves to be, as our whole organism communicates this choice. So if there is any shred of reality to what I’ve described, exploring the physical correlations would require a sort of experiment historically difficult for us to undertake: the sort that entertains the notion that who we believe ourselves to be is the fundamental independent variable.


            Liked by 1 person

          3. HI Michael,
            I’m grateful for the explanation. And I second Lee in noting that you write extremely well. Unfortunately, my response will likely seem far less poetic.

            First, I’ll agree that we can view reality that way. But it doesn’t seem to me that we have to. And some aspects of reality seem to get in the way. For example, as heterotrophs, we have no choice but to survive by consuming other life forms. Now, as omnivores, we have the option to confine ourselves to plant life, and so avoid causing distress. But many species are carnivores, and don’t have that choice, setting up an unavoidable conflict of interests between predator and prey.

            And then there’s the fact that the harmony of an ecosystem requires this kind of competition. In Yellowstone, wolves were killed off in the early 20th century, which led to all kinds of problems in the park due to burgeoning populations among animals the wolves preyed on. Reintroducing the wolves in the 90s, has brought the park’s ecosystem back into harmony. But I’m sure they’re prey don’t see it that way.

            Unfortunately, this kind of thing extends into human affairs. Consider politics. Our rhetoric often gives the impression that it’s about competing ideologies. But it’s actually about competing interests, or very often, competing coalitions of interests. People often think the solution is for everyone to just be kinder to everyone else, or be smarter, but that solution inevitably asks someone to sacrifice their own interests. Often the best thing that can happen are messy, and often very disharmonious, compromises, where everyone gets part of their interests satisfied by but have to sacrifice on others.

            Or consider our nervous system. During development, more neurons are generated than necessary, which results in a battle for survival. The ones we have today are the victors. And the ongoing activity in our brains is one of never ending competitions among neural circuits and coalitions of circuits for causal influence throughout the system, with neurons literally trying to suppress other circuits through lateral inhibition.

            The harmony of an overall ecosystem is a complex thing. Pro-social emotions like love and respect definitely have their place. But anger, fear, and other negative emotions evolved for a reason. Of course, our ability for rational thought also evolved for a reason, so we’re not total slaves to those feelings. But while there’s a lot to be said for promoting the positive ones over the negative ones, it seems like it will always inevitably require a balance, a balance that is constantly shifting due to changing circumstances and interests.

            All of which is to say, unity seems like something that itself may be very different from different perspectives and interests.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Hi Mike,

            Thank you for the kind words re: my writing. Writing as you know is something I enjoy as a hobby, so this is much appreciated. There are many good writers here as far as I can tell.

            Apologies in advance for this. I was very much drawn to respond to your insightful observations in a way that I hoped would be thorough, knowing even as I did I have undoubtedly left considerable rhetorical vulnerabilities. But I’m not trying to debate, just explain. So I accept completely the risk. I rambled though. Haha.

            There are a couple of themes that run through your reply to which I would like to respond, and those are the necessity, efficiency and inevitability of competition, and the notion that the unity I have attempted to describe is related to the accentuation of what you’ve described as positive feelings. With respect to the latter, I perceive you to be saying, in short, that being nice just doesn’t get the job done, and I agree completely. That is definitely not my point.

            The unity I have attempted to describe is different from what I think you are objecting against, and I want to try and show the daylight between them if I can. First, regarding competition, which is essential for the reasons you’ve described, and from the viewpoint in which you’ve described it, there is an underlying orientation here that informs all efforts to translate observations into a meaningful conclusion, and that is that what ultimately matters is the fate of bodies.

            Your observations are great because they force me to admit without temperance of any sort that the unity I’m seeking to describe does not put the fate of bodies at the top of its value system. This is because a body is simply a representation, or expression, of the underlying wholeness, and the self that purports to be that body alone is illusory. This is a discrete self, as opposed to a self abiding in wholeness. In unity we are not merely bodies, and so the fate of bodies is not the only or even the primary concern.

            The primary objection to unity in your observations, I think, is that a certain amount of killing, sacrifice and compromise is required to navigate this apparently intractable “many body problem”—e.g. the scarcity of resources and the dependency of bodies upon bodies. When the fate of bodies is the principal orientation for all value judgments, then such conclusions as you’ve posited are inevitable. In essence, you are quite correct: this is what it looks like and how it feels to view the world as a system of discrete, self-interested actors. (Self in the body-centric sense.)

            The unity I’m describing offers a very different orientation to these conditions. First, the dependency of life upon life—the fact that some organisms eat other organisms—is not in and of itself grounds for rejection of unity, or its value. There has been some discussion here of jumping onto the grenade to save the lives of fellow soldiers, and it is quite possible to perceive the magnitude of the gift that life gives to life by considering these relationships on such terms. We object to this because we, in our body-centric view, value the life of our own body above all else—and rightfully so while we believe it is the sum total of our existence. Unity offers an alternate comprehension of ourselves, however, and this is why it is so fundamentally and profoundly different than the perceptions to which we are accustomed. When we project a body-centric value structure onto the natural world, we can only see sacrifice and loss. From the view of our discreteness we cannot fathom the extent to which love and mutuality flow through the world, so we simply cannot compute that a mouse giving its life to a hawk is, in the grand scheme, part of a great harmony.

            There are many great questions / discussion points to be had around this subject, but I’ll just say for tonight that the perception of unity does not object to wolves eating squirrels or rabbit or deer. Nor does it object to humans eating chickens or cows. This is just how the world works in its current state. It is not good or bad. What the state of unity would object to is taking such actions without appreciating the gifts that have been given. Taking life callously is of profound concern. Unity objects not to the relatedness of life, but to mindless consumption. Through the lens of separateness, the intercombination of forms is an endless string of horrors. In unity it is the transformation of life into life. In unity, there is reverence, and reverence—similar to the notion I expressed previously about coming from the heart—would shape our relationship to the animals we eat quite differently. Because we are in a state of conflict–our body-centric view implies our actions are immoral–we have either to ignore the situation, or assert that the commodification of life somehow makes economic sense. Both of these responses run roughshod over the wisdom of the heart.

            Very quickly, in terms of something like human politics, the way groups would interact when coming from a place of unity would be very different than what we see today. They would not truck in deception, or game any systems, and would respect the needs of one another and the differences of opinion. The result would be that solutions we do not see today would naturally emerge, and would probably surprise us. We simply cannot see them because we are not looking for them. We are stuck in our zero sum games and our body-centric value systems that nourish the greed and antagonism that robs our collective dialogue of efficacy. It is one of those vicious cycles, as efficient as any natural law.

            Lastly, the unity I am seeking to describe does not reject diversity; in fact it supports it. Unity is the underlying ground of expression. Diversity is the essential characteristic of expression itself. There can be no expression without diversity. Unity and uniformity are not even distantly related. A spectrum with two distant ends is a good model for unity that contains diversity. Being nice, and comforting, and saying what people might like to hear has nothing to do with this. Suppressing diversity has nothing to do with this. In fact, being “nice” to someone while at the same time harboring an underlying resentment is something that only makes sense through the view of separateness, as I tried to suggest last time. You’re absolutely right that the balance in Yellowstone cannot be preserved by wolves “being nice” to squirrels and rabbit and deer, but “being nice” is not what unity is. Interrelatedness is what unity is. Being genuine is related to unity. Unity doesn’t ask that we hide or suppress the tensions that exist between diverse positions. It just means we would navigate them differently, in ways that lead to far better outcomes.

            Lastly, I would like to note that a principal objection to unity is the great fear we have that we ourselves will be asked to give in the way that mice or rabbit give. In the way that plants give, and plankton, and wheat. This is a powerful objection. But many have overcome it. Think Chernobyl or Fukushima. Think of any war. Think of countless acts of heroism. Meanwhile, our quiet lives of grievance and safety are destroying the planet, little by little it seems.

            I’d like to suggest that the notion we’d all have to sacrifice our very lives is a straw man objection. It is simply not required in or by this condition of unity, although in some cases it may be a choice that we make. But for now, what is actually before us, and what is actually quite difficult, is to entertain for a moment the possibility that unity is the foundation of existence, and not bodies alone. This difficulty cannot be overstated, because although no bodily sacrifice is required, the cessation of investment in a body-centric identity is. And this is a reorganization of the fundamental building blocks of our psyches. It is not required, of course, unless one wishes to make the great experiment of asking if unity is possibly real or not, but I do contend that if more of us do not make this experiment, the little by little death of this planet will continue unabated.

            We each have our ideas of what will make this world a better place, and I do respect and appreciate the differences of opinion. That is all well and good. This is simply where my own hope lies. And regardless of where anyone’s hope lies, I contend that coming from the heart will work this all out no matter what one’s conceptual orientation may be. Lastly, I want to close by saying how much I appreciate the space you’ve given me here, Mike.


            Liked by 1 person

          5. This pretty much says it all because the underlying meaning is a reference point from which to either build or destroy. Destruction or unity is contingent upon the choses we make as individuals. It should be the grounding foundation for a renaissance of moral values.

            “This difficulty cannot be overstated, because although no bodily sacrifice is required, the cessation of investment in a body-centric identity is. And this is a reorganization of the fundamental building blocks of our psyches.”

            Thank you for sharing your wisdom…



  12. So maybe the overall lesson here is for all of us to be a little less sure that we know what right is, and a little more tolerant of other opinions about it.

    The above should accompany all our statements of facts, unless it is in mathematics. Our knowledge is not absolute and we should have what I would call “academic humility” to accept that we could be wrong or half right.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Firstly, I think science can never provide a “moral calculus” — there are no moral specifics for that. But there are, I believe, moral generalities and abstractions that, like math patterns and abstractions, it almost seems we more discover than invent. The premise being there is something Platonic about moral law.

    Secondly, here’s a thought experiment: Would an intelligent alien species be likely to form morals or laws that are similar to ours? Would they ultimately “discover” the same principles of personal sovereignty and freedom? Or would they create morals and laws unrecognizable to us?

    Put another way, are there “attractors” when it comes to laws and morals? Does Kant’s Categorical Imperative make sense universally for intelligent minds? Or what about Kant’s idea that we treat others as ends, not means?

    (Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld series, has major character Granny Weatherwax channel Kant when she asserts that ‘morality is simple, you just don’t treat people like things.’ And it really is kinda that simple.)

    So, if it seems reasonable that, as with math, aliens would ultimately converge on moral views and laws we would recognize, then perhaps there is something universal about them.

    I’ve long thought there might be a correlation between higher intelligence and a moral view. In part because, as I argued above, higher consciousness itself forms a basis for parity, but also because I think a higher intelligence recognizes moral duty as an ought imposed by that intelligence.


    1. What would be an example of a moral generality or abstraction?

      I’ve often seen the comparison with mathematics. My issue is that mathematical proofs can be constructed that, if valid, everyone is forced to accept it, or be illogical. Is there a version of that for morality? I’ve seen logical ethics arguments before, but they always seem to include one or more values in their premises.

      On aliens, on the one hand, it seems like in order to construct a civilization, they would have to be social creatures, which might well converge on something similar to the conventions we settle on to work together. The problem is that still seems to leave a lot of room for alternate arrangements that are overall effective, including ones we may see as horrendous.

      On the other hand, I suspect it’s hard not to have a failure of imagination on how an alien intelligence may evolve. Just using our own planet as a guide, they may be a social species, but in a manner more like ants. They may have a social structure more like a lion pride, where the new alpha males kills all the existing cubs as soon as he takes over. Maybe similar to many spiders, their mating ritual might involve the female consuming the male once he’s done his thing.

      Or, more likely, it may be some arrangement no species on this planet has hit on yet. Overall, I think we have to be cognizant of just how easy it is to slip into anthropomorphic mode when thinking about this.


      1. “What would be an example of a moral generality or abstraction?”

        From All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:

        “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. […] Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. […] Be aware of wonder. […] Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.”

        “My issue is that mathematical proofs can be constructed that, if valid, everyone is forced to accept it, or be illogical. Is there a version of that for morality?”

        No, because we’re not talking about mathematics. The idea is that, to reference another document, there are certain truths we hold to be self-evident.

        Something similar does exist in mathematics. There are things that seem clearly true, but which are extremely hard to prove true. There are some things (per Gödel) we’re pretty sure are true but can never prove true.

        “I’ve seen logical ethics arguments before, but they always seem to include one or more values in their premises.”

        Of course. What would be the point without values? Again, you seem to think these must always be subjective and arbitrary. But things like life and consciousness offer handles as to what has value.

        “The problem is that still seems to leave a lot of room for alternate arrangements that are overall effective, including ones we may see as horrendous.”

        I asked the deeper question of whether Kant’s C.I. or view about means was universal. Do you think they are not? Do you really think an intelligent society would form along the lines of ants or lions? Ants and spiders are mindless. Lions follow might=right logic; is that intelligent?

        “Overall, I think we have to be cognizant of just how easy it is to slip into anthropomorphic mode when thinking about this.”

        I’m asking an abstract question about the correlation between intelligence and moral behavior.

        You argue about what science might accomplish on the one hand, how it can answer so many questions, but here you seem to think we should just give up. It’s all just too subjective and arbitrary and anthropomorphic to ever unravel.

        Is that what you really think? Or, as you do seem to admit, is it that other intelligent species “might well converge on something similar to the conventions we settle on to work together.”

        And, if so, doesn’t that suggest a certain Platonic component to morality?


        1. Wyrd, I don’t think it’s obviously right that intelligence = morality. Indeed, I know some pretty intelligent people who are, frankly, ethical disasters.

          On ants, spiders, and the like, an equivalent intelligence obviously wouldn’t form the exact type of civilization we did. It would be very different. It may have its intelligence distributed among its nest members, or in some other fashion. It might be a civilization that accomplishes much of what we do, but without the type of self we have, or other mammalian and primate instincts.

          On aliens in general, I think of the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes’ point that if horses had a conception of the gods, they would look like horses, just as we imagine them to be like us, only bigger, stronger, etc.. I think we have a strong tendency to do the same with any aliens we imagine, not necessarily physically, but it’s hard to avoid imagining them as like us mentally, and I think we have to be aware of that tendency.

          Maybe they will be a lot like us. But it’s not obvious to me that the constraints make it inevitable.


          1. “I don’t think it’s obviously right that intelligence = morality.”

            The thesis is that there is a correlation, not that there is an equivalence. There will be exceptions so long as minds have free will and are subject to greed, lust, selfishness, etc.

            “I think we have a strong tendency to do the same with any aliens we imagine,”

            You’re arguing our anthropomorphic limitations again. We’ll just have to disagree on this one, since I don’t think we’re really that limited. (We’re not horses.) Science fiction is one example of how well we can imagine alternate forms (Greg Egan’s “Wang’s Carpets” being a good example), and you are imagining civilizations based on lions and ants.

            Regardless, if it’s coherent that alien species “might well converge on something similar to the conventions we settle on to work together” it demonstrates that moral views can converge. Which suggests an abstract universality to the idea.

            Consider eyes. Evolution came up with them multiple times, but the basic necessities of implementing vision cause those separate designs to converge. Respiration, blood flow, locomotion — only certain designs solve those problems.

            I’m reading a book, Animal Wise about animal cognition and just finished a chapter about ants. They can be said to teach, which raised a huge debate about how to define “teach”. I suspect the need to train the neural nets of new group members is a universal requirement in organisms complex enough to have groups.

            Existing successfully in social groups seems to carry with it what Kant might have called “moral duty.” It shouldn’t really be surprising that the requirements of that duty tend to be convergent. Note the general universality of the quote from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. What’s called “The Golden Rule” is equally universal.

            Think of it as an area of configuration space. Fuzzy boundaries and lots of variables, so it’s hard to pin down precisely. But I think it’s a bit like porn — we know it when we see it.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. First, let me say, I like your many interesting observations. And, perhaps, I could add to your thought experiment:

          “Would an intelligent alien species be likely to form morals or laws that are similar to ours?”

          We may have the second best thing to that in plain sight. We’ve had several civilizations which developed separately (e.g., Greco-Roman, India, China) and which, during the Axial Age (a 500 year period which ended around 300 BCE), produced sophisticated philosophical and theological texts that in many respects share moral premises. This is the thesis of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers and appears to be correct.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you! I’ve appreciated your arguments, too, though I don’t have nearly your depth in philosophy. I have a CS background and know Searle and Putnam in that context, but haven’t explored their work in humanities. I’ve added your references to my TO-READ list.

            Separate civilizations here on Earth; yes, good example! Somewhat constrained in that homo sapiens is involved in all cases, but a good illustration of the two core points: Firstly, that intelligent minds have a theory of mind that leads to parity between minds. Secondly, that notion of parity leads to moral obligation or duty.


      2. “My issue is that mathematical proofs can be constructed that, if valid, everyone is forced to accept it, or be illogical. Is there a version of that for morality?”

        Yes. Kant was trying to do that with the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

        It’s a more sophisticated version of the golden rule that tells you what not to do: Don’t do anything that can’t be universalized without engendering logical contradiction.

        Consider lying. It’s impossible to conceive of everyone lying all the time. Universalizing lying breaks down language and makes lying impossible. Lying eats its own tail. Same goes for murder, for obvious reasons, and the like.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The categorical imperative is a worthy attempt. And it’s reasonable to do a deontological check for any action we’re considering, along with maybe a consequentialist one.

          The problem is, it’s easy to think of situations where most of us would see violating the consistency as the heroic move, such as the vintage example of lying to the SS officer looking for the Jewish family hiding in the basement.

          Of course, you can achieve consistency by making the rules more elaborate. Or by aiming for a more general rule. But it always seems to amount to fiddling with the rules until we get the outcome we intuitively think is the right one. Not that utilitarianism doesn’t suffer from the same issues.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “…such as the vintage example of lying to the SS officer looking for the Jewish family hiding in the basement.”

            That turns out to have two problems under analysis.

            The first is that lying to the SS officer may not save the family (which would be the intent of the lie). Perhaps, unbeknownst to you, the family (knowing the SS officer is at the door) has snuck out and your turning away the SS officer allows that officer to spot the fleeing family. Had you not lied, the officer would have searched your house allowing time for the family to escape.

            The problem here is that one cannot predict the future, so there’s no way to determine the ultimate effect of the truth or a lie. Under Kant’s C.I., lying is immoral, so you should opt to tell the truth.

            The second problem is that the SS officer represents an immoral organization (per the C.I.), so a lie can be seen as opposing that and attempting to restore the balance demanded by the C.I.

            The thing I find about the C.I. is that it’s a pretty accurate razor when it comes to a specific isolated situation (telling a given lie or committing a given acct). But it doesn’t work perfectly in the messy real world. That ties to what I said above about there being no “moral calculus.”

            That’s why no moral platform fits all situations (deontology, value ethics, consequentialism, etc) — real life has too many variables; its configuration space is probably uncountably infinite. There is no moral equation, just moral guesswork.

            The trick is to converge on that presumptive abstract center. Overall, the general course of civilization does seem to. The world slowly becomes a more moral place. Intelligence reduces entropy locally, moral clarity being one place that happens.

            Liked by 1 person

  14. Mike

    I knew I should have tried to harder to summarize Putnam’s argument. The confusion is me not him. Perhaps another time. This blog apparently is not giving me a spot to “reply” after your response anyway. But that’s good that you don’t rule out the study of ethics and I quite agree with you that ethics requires a starting point. And that is IMO impossible to do with the tools we usually try to use. If I may digress a bit. We all think with an Enlightenment mind-set. It’s the intellectual air we breath. Unfortunately our Enlightenment tradition, and we’ve inherited a great deal from Hume, has been unable to come up with a reliable Archimedean point to begin ethics. The intellectual tools of science, which we have honed to perfection, simply can’t do it. However, my point was limited to the general overuse of Hume’s guillotine. It’s a dog-whistle to me. Sorry. To be clear, my point is the inflated argument that we cannot go from description to evaluation is simply erroneous. I should have made that distinction clear. We go from description to evaluation all this time—even in science. Our language is saturated with value. To make a down and dirty argument, if I tell you I just bought a set of knives for my kitchen (I love to cook) my description comes ready-made with the criteria to judge whether they a “good” or “bad.” As Alasdair MacIntyre says, “The knife is supposed to be sharp.”

    But, I will grant you that that insight only gets us so far and unfortunately is not the Archimedean point we’ve been searching for in ethics these past few hundred years—although some think it provides a useful clue. And Searle, I submit, successfully and indisputably argues that there are reasons for action purely from the nature of the fact or description that are independent of our desires—i.e., an ought. But its not the full answer I grant you. Even Searle says so.

    But, to swing back to your friend Hume. He is right, “Good” is not something we perceive as Hume used that term—the empiricists sense impression. Hume is right about that. But, there are loads of things that leave no sense impression that are nevertheless real. Perhaps if we step out of the box with our science tools there are other resources that may help us. That was my previous point about trying to make an omelette with a table saw.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Matti,
      On replies, yeah, WordPress stops providing reply link at the max indenting, which I currently have set to 5. (The max is 10 but it causes formatting problems, particularly on phones.) It’s better with an email or WordPress account, because then you get a reply link in the notification that you can use indefinitely.

      I’m definitely good with whatever tools we can use to make progress. I often turn to science because I think it’s the best collection of tools, with philosophy as a fall back when science simply can’t deal with it.

      I would note that there is a way to bridge the is-ought divide. But it involves add the missing “for”. So, whether or not your new knives are good or bad in some unqualified fashion can’t be scientifically established. But whether they’re good for certain tasks most definitely can be. Of course, that’s simply adding the value of that task as a premise, but in relation to that, we can objectively test how good the knives are by any clear criteria. This implies to me that the is-ought boundary isn’t some metaphysical barrier. It’s more about ambiguity.

      I think the original reason the idea of an objective morality developed came from moralizing high gods, where the missing “for” applied to pleasing, or at least appeasing, them. So “the good” was ultimately about what was good to them. (The etymology of “good” is that it’s derived from “God”.) Socrates with the Euthyrpho dilemma implied there may be more to it than that, but I think most people started with Euthyphro’s initial assumption.


      1. “So, whether or not your new knives are good or bad in some unqualified fashion can’t be scientifically established.”

        Holy cow! I’m sorry, this sounds incoherent to me. I will assume I’m missing something. Let me emphasize, in our world “knives” have no function beyond their well-understood purpose. I didn’t pull that function out of thin air as a sneaky premise of value. And it is objective. We can find websites that rate the knives—German, Japanese, etc., and some are rated “good” and some “bad.” We all easily understand the ratings. No one expects a knife to be “good” in some “unqualified fashion” whatever that might mean. Likewise we can discuss and debate the merits of Itzhak Perlman and Sara Chang as violinists verses my neighbor’s kid. And for the most part we know how to judge whether they perform good or bad in their function as violinists. No one, I promise you, will ask “But is Itzhak Perlman good as a violinist in an unqualified sense?”

        I don’t think this is trivial by any means. Do I have a function? Let’s take a look. I might be a bus driver. Is there an objective way to judge whether I’m good at it? I think so. What if I were a heart surgeon—same thing. Now I might be a daddy—am I good at that? I assure you there are generally understood criteria from which an observer could make a judgement on my parenting skills. Same with my function as someone’s son. I could be a colleague on a university faculty, a scout master, a neighbor, a citizen, on and on. As the philosopher Michael Sandel says, we are “situated” and our circumstances many times come with ready-made obligations. Those are sometimes called moral obligations. But, I will grant you, as I said in my previous post, that insight only gets us so far. But, it not trivial or a trick. And you certainly may ask, am I good in an unqualified sense. Damned if I know. I only started out arguing against a Humean type of assertion that all values are subjective and somehow beyond certainty. But I may be all wet.


          1. Then I misunderstand. I still have no comprehension of the statement: “So, whether or not your new knives are good or bad in some unqualified fashion can’t be scientifically established.”

            To me it appeared that you were saying that my attempt to demonstrate that there are many many ways in which we move from fact to value, from description (knife) to evaluation (a good knife), was illegitimate, a sophistical trick. That there was some other, the real good, an unqualified good, that needed scientific justification. The holy grail of good, I suppose. And that I needed to show a good in some special unqualified fashion that can be scientifically established. So, I clearly don’t get your meaning.

            I am still quite befuddled, but I apologize if that is not your meaning. My only goal was to exorcise the ghost of Hume. He gets conjured up so very often in support of the erroneous claim that all values are subjective and uncertain. Not so. QED.


          2. “To me it appeared that you were saying that my attempt to demonstrate that there are many many ways in which we move from fact to value, from description (knife) to evaluation (a good knife), was illegitimate, a sophistical trick.”

            That definitely was not was not what I was thinking. I can see how the “I would note” lead above might have made it sound like I was opening a new front in the debate. Sorry. Not what I intended. The spirit of those two paragraphs was just additional thoughts about the overall issue.


          3. Bravo Matti, Bravo! Humes ghost does indeed need to be exercised in order to free the world from the grips of skepticism. For certainly, value is sovereign and is not subjugated to what we might think of “it” as an ontological imperative, an ontological imperative that is truly free and independent.

            Rhetoric trumps dialectic any day of the week. I applaud your skills.



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