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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

It is not necessary to have divine permission to know right from wrong

Christopher Hitchens

80 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Well, the religious argument, which is persuasive, is that without divine definition, there is no way to set an objective standard of what is right and what is wrong. We end up decapitated by Hume’s Guillotine again.

    The bad news is, if God sets the standard of what is right and wrong, they are entirely arbitrary, since a divinely ordained universe can never be more than divine whimsy, since God himself has no metacontext within which right and wrong can obtain meaning.

    It comes to a general question of why God acts. What in God’s realm defines the correct course of action? To God, all actions are of equal value. Create a universe or not create a universe? God has no criteria upon which to make this judgement, because God is trapped by being, literally, everything, and thus has no definable purpose, and cannot have one.

    If we ask what a machine does, one might say, “it keeps food cold” or “it transports persons from one place to another”. You would not say, “its wheels go round” or “its motor rotates”. These are not purposes. The purpose of the machine is intrinsically external to itself. But since God has no externally defined purpose, He has no purpose at all. At best, he can only be a machine that hums.

    So either God does not exist, in which case there is no objective right and wrong, or God exists, in which case there is no objective right and wrong.

    Nobody can know right and wrong. The best they can do is make shit up, and call it right and wrong. That’s probably good enough for practical purposes though.

  • So either God does not exist, in which case there is no objective right and wrong, or God exists, in which case there is no objective right and wrong.

    Nobody can know right and wrong.

    Sure they can, in much the way people can know anything. People can form moral theories of varying degrees of relevance to reality… much like everything else that we ‘know’.

    Reality, existence, the nature of things from hedgehogs to bosons… all that stuff probably exists objectively from our subjective imaginations (i.e. the theory that existence exists) but our understanding of it all is necessarily conjectural. Morality… right and wrong… is no different.

    So you can ‘know’ it. You might even be right about it… or not. Like everything. It is not some extra special category of reality.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    All actions have reactions. All effects have a cause. All justice is based on the idea of the punishment fitting the crime. When Jesus said, “Treat others as you wish to be treated”, this was not a religious statement, but a guide to moral living. The universe objectively has action and reaction- it can be proved. All our machines rely on this. With Justice, we seek just compensation. In what way, Ian, is this arbitrary?

  • When Jesus said, “Treat others as you wish to be treated”, this was not a religious statement, but a guide to moral living.

    …which kind of breaks down if you believe the greatest honour in the world is to be sacrificed to the gods to make the crops grow.

  • Perry-

    Reality, existence, the nature of things from hedgehogs to bosons… all that stuff probably exists objectively from our subjective imaginations (i.e. the theory that existence exists)

    Indeed it does exist objectively. The bad news is, no matter how much you know about everything from hedgehogs to bosons, you can’t derive a moral theory from it.

    but our understanding of it all is necessarily conjectural. Morality… right and wrong… is no different.

    No different to what? It’s different to hedgehogs and bosons.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Wrong, Ian. You can derive justice from the law of action and reaction. You can derive this law from observation. Therefore, you can derive morality from the universe.

  • Well go on then Nuke, don’t keep us in suspense. What is this derivation?

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I have already mentioned the law of action and reaction, how for every action there is a corresponding opposite and equal reaction. Justice is derivable from this. In fact, Justice has been derived from this! When we use words like fair, we mean just. We have always talked about how any punishment should be proportional to the crime. An ancient punishment has been ‘An eye for an eye”.
    Your turn, Ian. Give us examples of societies run by purely subjective laws that have survived- with no regard to punishments fitting crimes.

  • I think you run into problems there defining what acts deserve a reaction.

    The problem of constructing an ethical theory isn’t particularly the problem of how to respond to transgressions (although this is itself a secondary problem). The main problem is figuring out what the transgressions are.

  • Roue le Jour

    The Old Testament view, that only God knows right from wrong, is perfectly reasonable in context and stems from the simple observation that it is impossible for a man to know the full consequences of his actions. This is demonstrated in the Austrian thought experiment. You go back in time and prevent a small boy being crushed by a carriage. Good or bad? The boy grows up to be Hitler, good or bad? The same point is illustrated in the Buddhist story of farmer who loses his horses when a storm flattens his fences.

    …which kind of breaks down if you believe the greatest honour in the world is to be sacrificed to the gods to make the crops grow.

    Not at all. If you honestly believed that, you’d be volunteering, rather than insisting that someone else has the honour. By their actions shall ye know them, and all that.

  • Not at all. If you honestly believed that, you’d be volunteering, rather than insisting that someone else has the honour. By their actions shall ye know them, and all that.

    Not necessarily. Maybe the entrail divination showed it wasn’t your turn yet.

    Anyway, point is the “do as you would be done by” is an exhortation to apply your moral principles to others, without specifying what those moral principles are. It doesn’t help in defining them.

  • veryretired

    I was going to post a comment here on Ian B’s blog, but I don’t want to be struck by lightening if I’m wrong, so I’ll pass.

  • Fair enough. I’ll shut up and go do some work or something.

  • Indeed it does exist objectively. The bad news is, no matter how much you know about everything from hedgehogs to bosons, you can’t derive a moral theory from it.

    Wrong. Absurd actually. By that reasoning you cannot derive a theory about anything.

    No different to what? It’s different to hedgehogs and bosons.

    Re-read. Everything we know is conjectural, such as our understanding of hedgehogs, bosons and morality.

  • Roue le Jour

    Anyway, point is the “do as you would be done by” is an exhortation to apply your moral principles to others, without specifying what those moral principles are. It doesn’t help in defining them.

    No, I don’t think it is. (An exhortation, that is.) The key point here is we are dealing with sentient creatures. A man may say “I’m starving. Can you spare some bread?” There is no moral dilemma here. You don’t have to ask yourself, ‘Now what did he mean by that, I wonder?’ The man has asked for bread. If you had asked for bread, you would hope to receive some, so give him bread.

    To go back to your earlier point, Nobody can know right and wrong. surely the problem is everybody does know right from wrong, it’s just not necessarily the same right and wrong? The aim of “Do as you would be done by” is to be general rather than specific and avoid this problem.

  • Tedd

    Morality has a self-referential nature unlike anything else, in that it defines what matters but also can’t exist unless it matters. Hedgehogs, bosons, and everything else exist, with exactly the same properties, whether or not their existence matters or has any meaning. But morality ceases to exist if it doesn’t matter.

    That’s why moral theories based on “universal” (i.e., common) moral rules, or moral theories based on utilitarian arguments (such as evolutionary theories) aren’t any help philosophically, because they don’t explain why anything matters. They’re interesting and perhaps of some practical value, but they’re philosophically useless.

    Hence the idea that you need God, because then what matters is what matters to God. Unfortunately, as IanB pointed out, that doesn’t actually get us out of the bind, it just passes the buck.

    The essential moral question is: Does anything matter? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be an answerable question. So, as IanB also said, we’re stuck with just “making shit up.” Some of that shit might be right and some wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be any objective way even of determining if that’s the case, never mind which is which.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The quote is absolutely right. Ultimately, morality can be grounded in reasoning about the requirements of Man as a rational creature, as the Ancient Greeks did. We don’t need guys in the sky to do this.

    The greatest thinker that the Catholic church ever produced, Thomas Acquinas, helped revive the thinking of Aristotle, remember.

    That said, I would not disparage the contribution of religion to moral thinking per se; I can and would want to learn a lot by reading all the different religions. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, for instance (a fact I intend to correct at some point).

  • John B

    The quote does remind me of another concept, that made me wonder in my youth, what the fuss was all about. That was: “God is dead”.
    I used to wonder, if you really don’t believe He exists, or don’t find the idea of God fits in with 20th Century thought, why bother?
    But.
    As to morality. Good and bad are strange concepts to engage if one does not believe in God. You could say it makes you feel better, or worse. But an objective good or bad?
    I know Ian has no time for the concept of God, with good reason. Why believe something exists if you don’t believe it exists? Indeed.
    Which is why I prefer to retreat from “baited ground” and really, honestly ask the question that I have come to, which is: Can order occur spontaneously in randomness?
    One needs to sort out whether God exists before trying to establish whether something is good or bad.
    And, when one has done that, perhaps, one is also faced with the problem that Perry introduces above: whether one can accept that what one thinks has any validity outside the electric circuitry of one’s brain.
    It interests me that people who have become blind can take stimuli into the brain through channels other than the eye, and activate the brain cells that constituted what was sight, and to an extent “see”. Actually have visual images.
    For me, I believe in the Lord Jesus, His death and resurrection, because of what has happened, and continues to happen, in my life.

  • BigFatFlyingBloke

    Do unto others is just a fancy interpretation of the same general concept troops of monkeys have that is not in general a good idea to kill, steal from, maim or otherwise deliberately harm the other monkeys. Unless, of course, they are from that tropp in the next valley over in which case doing all those things is to be commended.

  • Paul Marks

    “Natural law is the law of God – but if God did not exist, Natural Law would be exactly the same”.

    Fransisco Suarez – but a fairly normal statement for a Schooman.

    There is such a thing as objective right and wrong, good and evil. And we can judge it. As usual David Hume (if one takes him at his word) is worse than useless – worse than useless because his positions (on this and much else) are actually harmful as well as wrong.

    However, belief in God is NOT needed for this – neither for judgeing what is right and what is wrong, or for standing with good and opposing evil.

    And the above was all written by a conservative Christian – which is what I am.

    I will not win an argument by false tactics – and “belief in God is needed for moral reasons” is false.

  • There is such a thing as objective right and wrong, good and evil. And we can judge it. As usual David Hume (if one takes him at his word) is worse than useless – worse than useless because his positions (on this and much else) are actually harmful as well as wrong.

    Rather than just dismissing those you disagree with Paul, perhaps you’d care to explain how this “objective right and wrong, good and evil” can be determined.

    Please don’t use vague terms like “by reasoning”; I want you to present an algorithmic method by which any person will unavoidably reach the same conclusions, because nothing less will do in order to support your assertion.

  • Please don’t use vague terms like “by reasoning”; I want you to present an algorithmic method by which any person will unavoidably reach the same conclusions, because nothing less will do in order to support your assertion.

    Really? Nothing less? Heh, I never realised you were a Randian and therefore presumably think you can input data into some constructed algorithm, crank the handle and a sausage of Inescapable Truth That Must Be Accepted By All Rational People will emerge out the other end.

    Even if reality is ‘objective’ (and I certainly support that notion), the best we can do is use reason to form critical preferences for the best theories (including a moral theories) that explain objective reality.

  • Perry, I’m not sure you’ve quite understood the discussion.

    I’m a subjectivist, not an objectivist (at least in this context); an “anti-Randian”. It is Paul’s assertion is that such a method exists, not mine. My point is that it doesn’t.

  • I know you are a subjectivist, Ian, hence my scorn for you wanting Paul to construct an Objectivist style Truth Machine when good old Popperian conjecture can do the job just fine.

    All that is needed for Paul’s assertion to be valid is forming a critical preference for the theory that as reality itself is objective, one can meaningfully conjecture moral theories based on objective facts rather than subjective perceptions.

    “Natural law is the law of God – but if God did not exist, Natural Law would be exactly the same”… that sums it up perfectly. Our (moral) theories spring from our imperfect understanding of what those laws really are.

  • Perry, you can’t make the leap from objective facts to moral theories. That’s the crux of the problem, which was stated very clearly by Tedd a few posts up.

    “What is a “meaningful” conjecture”? What is “natural law”? I know there are lots of people asserting the existence of this “natural law” but they just assert it exists then start developing theories on that basis. But this “natural law” cannot be found anywhere in facts about the universe.

    Paul’s (and your apparently) assertion of a natural law declares this natural law to be a fact of nature. Where is it? Where does it reside? What are its basic tenets?

  • Perry, you can’t make the leap from objective facts to moral theories.

    No Ian, you don’t ‘leap’ from one to the other, you construct your theories on your best understanding of objective reality rather than “God said so” (the religious view) or “I want this to be true” (the secular subjectivist view).

  • Perry, please google “Is Ought problem” then come back. I know this will sound rude, but it really appears you don’t understand the basics of the issue under discussion.

  • John B

    Laws? That seems to imply something that must be conformed with. Who established this law?
    Or is it simply a condition of reality – like gravity? You jump off a cliff, you die, sort of thing.
    And where does one find an external reference for all one’s thinking and decision making about it?
    What is good or evil without some external reference?
    You eventually get to the current situation wherein anything goes, fairly much, because in the end we’re all dead.

  • Ian:

    I understand perfectly Ian but as you are so habitually rude I cannot be bothered to spell it out for you, hence my replies tend to be rather terse. I just don’t like you enough to spend that much time correcting your manifest errors :-)

    John B:

    “Or is it simply a condition of reality – like gravity? You jump off a cliff, you die, sort of thing.”

    Yes, pretty much that. Reality seems to be, er, real, hence by attempting to understand that reality, one can also base moral theories on what appears to be the nature of reality (so once we establish that pushing people off cliffs tends to kill them, we can start theorising about the rightness and wrongness of doing that as well as just theorising about their terminal velocity).

    In short conjecturing about rightness and wrongness must seek to base the notion on deeper understanding of objective reality or it is just preference (what you want) rather than critical preference (what your reason leads you to believe is true).

  • Well, thank you for your honesty Perry.

    “I can’t be bothered to explain”, in a discussion, tends to be a cover for “can’t explain”. The problem is, you’re focussing on a mechanism (“Popperian conjecture”) whereas the actual hard part of the problem is developing the moral axioms you will test with your conjectural process. That is the problem Hume indicates. It is a profound problem, and anyone who handwaves it away just hasn’t understood it.

    So science (or some other truth-seeking process) can ascertain that pushing people off cliffs kills them. What it cannot ascertain objectively is the rightness or wrongness of doing so. That depends on a moral axiom (for instance, it is better to preserve than destroy life). But there is no scientific fact that supports or denies that assertion. It remains inescapably just preference.

  • “I can’t be bothered to explain”, in a discussion, tends to be a cover for “can’t explain”.

    Done it so many times, often on Samizdata, that I really can’t be bothered.

    But after having admittedly sneered at Rand earlier, actually she does an excellent job of explaining the intellectual mechanics of objective based moral theories, even if she presents her theories as perfect sausages of unalloyed truth (i.e. where she descends into religion occurs elsewhere in the sprawling Objectivist Truth Machine edifice, but I hate to throw out the baby with the bathwater).

  • Well, I’m happy to sneer at Rand TBH. Her philosophy is very poorly developed. Her attempt to deal with Hume’s Guillotine displays her at her worst, a few lines of poor reasoning, a dismissal, and a descent into florid oratory.

    Here’s David Friedman ripping it to shreds.

    And I rather like you Perry. I feel quite hurt, frankly.

  • Laird

    A fascinating thread, but the post I find most interesting is Ian B’s first one. Frankly, I find it as close to the truth as we’re likely to get.

    Perry says that “as reality itself is objective, one can meaningfully conjecture moral theories based on objective facts rather than subjective perceptions.” Fair enough, but note his (correct) use of “theories” in the plural. There can be more than one theory of right and wrong which fits objective reality, and selecting from among those competing theories is a subjective matter. In other words, we make shit up, in Ian’s pithy phrase. Seems about right to me.

  • Nope on oh so many levels. ‘Subjective’ does not mean “a difference of opinion”. There may be competing theories (usually are in fact) but some theories are better than others and a rational man tries to use reason to figure out which is which, with varying degrees of success. We can “make shit up” if you like but that does not mean all theories are equal.

  • some theories are better than others

    Do you say this speaking objectively, Perry? In other words, what exactly do you mean by ‘better’?

  • Laird

    Thanks, Alisa; you beat me to it.

  • Midwesterner

    First, I’m commenting seldom enough that I guess I need to preface my remarks by saying I ride an agnostic horse and tilt at both religious beliefs, theist and atheist. Both are unsupportable from observed reality.

    It is a fascinating thread. In the first comment, Ian B, who doesn’t believe in God, expresses amazingly detailed knowledge of God’s value system or lack thereof. For example, “To God, all actions are of equal value.” This statement “God is trapped by being, literally, everything” borders on strawman because it lays out a very narrow definition of God in order to make broad assertions. Why limit God? Why should our universe not be a subset or a creation of God? Discussing the verisimilitude of ‘God’ is pointless because the nature of the term ‘God’ is an entity that resides at a higher plane of existence that is unreachable by humans or perhaps any entity based in our universe without God’s assistence. Any refutation of ‘God’ that begins by describing ‘God’ is epistemologically flawed.

    But since God has no externally defined purpose, He has no purpose at all. At best, he can only be a machine that hums.” A non-sequitur followed by a straw man.

    Morality is derived from one’s values. To say that “So either God does not exist, in which case there is no objective right and wrong . . . ” is to say only a theist can have values. ‘Moral’ is coherence with one’s values. Differences in morality derive from differences in values multiplied by differences in perception of reality. Theists and atheists value their emotional feelings about ‘God’ as perceptions on which to build their ‘reality’. Empiricists value the inputs from the senses as perceptions on which to build their ‘reality’. By way of clarification, I think many empiricists who claim to be atheists are conflating ‘no belief in God’ with ‘belief in no God’. Atheism is definitely a religion as it holds beliefs about something that cannot be described, much less disproved.

    Whatever the provenance of one’s ‘reality’, it is the place in which one finds or builds their values. With those values, the individual selects morals. Religious people (both theist and atheist) receive their morality dictated by whatever entity it is that moves them spiritually. Agnostics form their morals by making ‘best guess’ estimates about reality and estimating what morals will lead them to a more spiritually desirable place. When making ‘best guess’ estimates about reality, obviously some theories are better than others. This gets into a discussion of the difference between overwhelming probability and certainty which I am not going into. That discussion is somewhere back in the archives.

    My perceptions lead me to conclude that there is one single reality we all live in together. They lead me to believe that we (human beings) have changed and will continue to change both individually and generationally. They lead me to believe that actions we take effect what those changes will be. They lead me to believe that individuals can abandon and eventually lose personal capacities and either die or merge into a collective organism or that individuals can gain and strengthen capacities, becoming more individually empowered now and future generations. I choose my morals to pursue the future state I value.

    I readily concede that it is easy to derive contrary moral codes by reason because it is possible to have different values. Where do values come from? I don’t know but they do not come from religion. I have seen far too many people abandon and adopt religion to believe it is causal. Religion is the consequence, not the source, of values.

  • Better. For example heliocentricism was a better explanation than geocentricism, so I have a critical preference for heliocentricism. Or as David Deutsch would say, gravitational theory is a better explanation than undetectable invisible pixies. I would say theories based on personal moral agency are better explanations (more coherent and based on better understandings of the nature of humans) than, say, Nazi or Marxist classification based moral theories.

  • I would say theories based on personal moral agency are better explanations

    Of what, human nature?

  • Perry, the distinction of “better” between explanatory theories is different to “better” in moral theories. Alisa has in her usual succinct manner nailed the heart of the problem; how do you define “better” in moral terms?

    Nazi moral theory was predicated on “better” as survival of the German folk. Randian moral theory is predicated on survival of the individual. Somebody else may prefer survival of the human species. Some Greens would prefer the extinction of the human species because their “better” is the survival of the biosphere. You first have to make a subjective choice before you can decide which of these paradigms to develop a moral theory within. The problem for morals isn’t the theory itself, it’s generating the goals the theory must serve. Back with the Nazis, once the subjective choice that survival of the German folk was the moral imperative, it became a moral choice to kill the Jews, as a threat to that folk.

    You can argue that the perception of the Jews as a threat was an error (we can never know for sure of course) but that isn’t the moral issue; within a r*c*al paradigm, eliminating competitor r*c*s becomes the moral choice.

    Or, Rand argued that the survival of the self is paramount; this is how she believed she had beaten Hume, by setting this as the objective, er, fountainhead of her moral system. But it is arbitrary. I’d bet that most people would sacrifice themself to save their children. Or, you’re an action hero and you can stop the bad guy’s nuclear missile being launched at New York. The downside is the only way to do it means dying of radiation poisoning due to having to disarm it from inside. Rand tells you to save yourself and screw New York’s millions. Is that the correct moral judgement?

    You have to choose a goal in order to use the word “better”. That is where the problem lies.

  • Midwesterner, I used the definition of God used in general by Christians, Jews and Muslims; the description of His attributes is a logical consequence of that. There are an infinite number of imaginable Gods of course, but I was using the one we normally talk about who is ominiscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. The God who is everything discussed in churches across the globe every day.

  • Midwesterner

    No. Jews, Christians and Muslims do not define ‘God’. Certainly they make no claim to circumscribe the full extent of ‘God’. Those three religions all declare ‘God’ to be beyond human comprehension. ‘God’ is an entity that interacts with humans through avatars and representatives with either a physical or mental presence and has complete awareness. Certainly Christianity, but I think the others as well, infer a very large component of ‘God’ that is not knowable to humans.

    And in cases where ‘B’ is part of ‘A’, it does not necessarily follow that all of ‘A’ is also ‘B’.

    I wonder what churches you were attending that taught that ‘God is everything’. I sure some probably do but it certainly wasn’t any of the main stream fundamentalists churches I attended until the age of 18. They would have abandoned that train of thought abruptly as soon as they got to the necessary corollary that therefor ‘God’ is ‘Satan’.

  • Midwesterner, I think if I’d written your last comment you’d be demanding to know where i got the right toclaim that God has “complete awareness”.

    I don’t know where you’re trying to go with this. Christians routinely describe God. Do you agree with my assertion that He is generally considered omniscient (knows everything) and omnipotent (can do anything)? Or are those arrogant presumptions on my part?

    God is so far as I’m aware considered the creator of all creation. Are you asserting that Satan is not part of God’s creation? If so, what created Satan?

  • Midwesterner

    You are engaging in straw man tactics again, (example your clever substitution of “describe” for “define”) and trying to skip past many of your earlier assertions. I am making no assertions RE ‘God’. That would be your department.

    I don’t argue with straw men. Done here.

  • Better as an explanation of how morality accords with objective reality and the nature of man. Just because opinions may vary on that score (as on most things) that does not mean some theories as to how that works are as valid as all others… hence some theories are… better.

  • Midwesterner, I really have no idea what’s going down here.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Ian, in Darwinian terms, your genes are you. Thus it makes great sense to preserve these other versions of you- genetic sense, that is. Genes can be immortal, in that sense. This is how Dawkins explains altruism and self-sacrifice and other social conundrums.

    And isn’t the social contract supposed to be about all individuals co-operating together so that all benefit? I think Adam Smith described this accurately. The morality of co-operation and trade fits the facts of human nature, and therefore seems best designed to improve all human lives, over the long term.
    What else should a moral code do, if it doesn’t lengthen or enhance life?

  • Midwesterner

    Then here’s another one.

    You:

    The God who is everything discussed in churches across the globe every day.

    Me:

    They would have abandoned that train of thought abruptly as soon as they got to the necessary corollary that therefor ‘God’ is ‘Satan’.

    You:

    God is so far as I’m aware considered the creator of all creation. Are you asserting that Satan is not part of God’s creation? If so, what created Satan?

    Another clever switch from “is” to “created“. Since most Christians believe that God created Satan good and he choose evil, there is no conflict with the latter statement, there is foundational conflict with the prior statement. You are wasting my time.

  • Midwesterner.

    Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on here. You’re not engaging in a discussion, you’re just aggressing. You did the “I’m not playing any more” thing, then you post again. I really have no idea what has so offended you. Since you voluntarily started this, whatever it is, it seems that you are deliberately wasting your own time. I suggest you find another hobby.

  • The Is-Ought problem is an interesting one. I like Rand’s derivation, and I don’t understand how some of David Friedman’s criticisms are supposed to refute it. Perhaps there are better criticisms elsewhere (I haven’t read TMOF yet).

    The first criticism – that some animals place a higher value on reproduction than survival – seems to me irrelevant to the derivation of a human code of ethics. Perhaps Rand’s decision to compare people with animals in their choices as regards existence was a bit too much, but so what?

    The second criticism, that certain people may choose to die for a given cause and hence value that cause more than their own lives, seems to me to miss the point on two counts. First, any derivation of “ought” from “is” isn’t going to be refuted by instances of people behaving contrary to that ought. That is the whole point of an “ought derived from an is” – that it remains true irrespective of what people think about it. It could still remain the case that such people ought to have acted differently. Second, since your life comprises not just physical values (air, water and so on), but also conceptual values (devotion to particular relationships etc), a choice to physically die in advancing or defending those conceptual values is also a refusal to die “conceptually” or “spiritually” (so to speak – very clumsy, I know) whilst survive physically. That, especially, is where children and the evolutionary apsect come in to it – the death of a person’s children may not have a direct impact on their physical survival, but it could be a real soul-destroyer in that “conceptual” sense.

    I’m also quite fond of that bottle of Popper that Perry keeps pouring from.

  • John B

    I don’t know why you guys make things so complicated.
    It is very simple from your perspective. And that is, surely, that things happen.
    What is morality? It is what makes you feel better. Which can include the awareness of it being good to be nice to people because then people are probably nice to you.
    The intimations on immortality also come in there somewhat, that, when I am gone, my genes will continue. But why you need to feel some kind of immortality is also somewhat puzzling.
    You happen, and then you stop. And what makes you feel good (contributes to your organism in a manner that is conducive to survival) is “nice”.
    As Richard Dawkins will probably confirm.

    However that does leave unanswered the problem as to why there is anything happening in the first place when the natural state would seem to be stillness and silence and for any natural sequence to resolve back to such a state.

  • Dave Walker

    A good quote, certainly.

    However, I thought that the Hitchens quote from this debate which considers the postulated Heaven / Earth situation as “a divine North Korea” to be far more thought provoking (and also, far funnier).

  • What is morality? It is what makes you feel better.

    Egregious category error. A St. Emilion Grand Cru makes me feel better. Is wine morality? No.

    Seeking theories to determine appropriate behaviour is not about ‘feeling better’ or indeed much about ‘feelings’ at all really, it is about living with more than one’s ‘feeling’ to guide you.

  • John B

    It makes you feel better for a somewhat more subtle reason than your St. Emilion.
    It can be that short term, but sure, it tends to usually be a more deferred pleasure/benefit as I did sort of mention: Being nice to people on an understanding that, if they belong to your ‘moral code’ they will also be nice to you.

  • Perry, the distinction of “better” between explanatory theories is different to “better” in moral theories.

    Not so sure about that myself, Ian. FWIW, I now see Perry’s point. Not sure I agree, but that’s food for thought.

    Mid, I may be mis-remembering, but it has been established in the past here that Ian is a troll. A useful and (pace Perry) likable one, but still a troll.

  • Okay, I get it. Fuck the lot of you. I’ve really got more to worry about right now than this. Really I have.

    I thought I was here engaging in interesting conversation with the like-minded. Clearly I was wrong.

    To hell with it.

  • Lee

    That seemed somewhat rude, Alisa. I have been following this discussion and have found Ian B’s contributions to be both eloquent and thought-provoking.

    Especially as I have been unable, in my own reasoning, to formulate any rebuttal to Ian B’s suggestion that morality is dependent upon subjective value.

    Indeed, to draw upon Ian B’s example, the Nazis believed that perpetuating the Aryan race was for the benefit of humankind and the supreme ‘good’. And their morality sprung from that initial statement of subjective value.

    If all morality is created in such a manner – through the subjective creation of a supreme ‘goal’ – then how can one know which is the ‘correct’ supreme goal to follow?

    If morality is not created in this way, then how is it created? All the moral codes I have come across make some presumption and derive moral behaviour accordingly. For example, the presumption may be that, to quote Star Trek, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But why should that be the case? Where is the undeniable scientific proof that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

    From my experience, there isn’t any. It is merely personal preference. And nothing more.

  • John B

    Being sincerely provocative in a search for the truth is what it’s about, when it is appropriate?

    Looking at your Glossary:

    Troll

    1. verb. To troll for hits is to post a provocative article purely in order to generate an angry response (usually followed by sending a mass e-mail shot to the target audience) and commensurate increase in hit rate.

    2. noun. A person who trolls.

    Usage: “Justin Raymondo has just trolled the Warbloggers again.”

    ‘Troll’ is usually used as an epithet and the term is widely used in this sense in newsgroups and e-lists as well as blogs.

    One of the things I agree with is that we do not have a right not to be offended.
    This can happen when trying to remove the rubbish from reality.

  • Laird

    Alisa, I don’t know where you got that idea, but I don’t think that Ian B is a troll (although there may be another Ian who is). I disagree with him lots (as you know!), but it’s always an interesting discussion.

  • Laird: same Ian (B). Take the definition John (B) provided above, and generalize it to cover not just the generation of hits for one’s website, but any other personal purpose, material or psychological or whatever – anything but a discussion productive of truth. Also, see Mid’s last couple of comments demonstrating how it is done, among other methods (one of the other methods being circular arguments).

    BTW, and FWIW, I happen to agree with Ian quite often – which may not be obvious, as I normally don’t see a point in posting me-too comments.

  • Tedd

    BTW, and FWIW, I happen to agree with Ian quite often – which may not be obvious, as I normally don’t see a point in posting me-too comments.

    Me too.

  • Alisa, this is hateful.

    I just deleted the rest of this comment. All I can say again is that you are being hateful.

  • Tedd

    This is beginning to remind me of the liberal/progressive discussion of a few days ago, and the issue of assigning labels to a person as opposed to an idea or, in this case, an action. I don’t think it’s good to apply the label troll to a person, regardless of how good it may be to condemn trolling as an activity. Most of us are capable of troll-like behaviour at times.

    As for IanB, I find his contributions to the discussions to be thoughtful and informed, even though I don’t always agree. (They’re valuable to me because I don’t always agree.) If there have been instances of trolling they don’t stand out in my memory.

  • Tedd: quacking ducks etc., although you could be right, and I’m the only one who’s hearing the quacking.

    Yes, most of us are capable of troll-like behavior at times. Problem is, Ian seems to be nearly incapable of any other kind – at least not here. Also, I never said that trolling is a deadly sin – I don’t think it is, although it can be very annoying. It’s just that I like clarity more than anything else, and so felt the need to clarify things.

    Ian, when you are done with your tantrum, you might want, for a change, to address the point I made about you, or any of the opposing points others made on the actual topic at hand (which, oddly enough, was not you). Was that maybe in the rest of that comment that you deleted? Right. Or maybe you would like to do that after you storm out the door and come back in a month or two? Yawn.

  • Well well.

    As I said when Midwesterner popped up out of nowhere and suddenly flew off the handle over an obscure theological matter which, at worst, revealed my terminology and writing to be imprecise but which he apparently took somewhat personally, at which point I withdrew replete with a cartoon question mark over my head, “I have no idea what is going down here”.

    But I can guess. I can guess there are emails flying. Should my ears be twitching, Alisa?

    You seem in your last post to be suffering the misapprehension, common to conceited persons, that others should seek your approval and that your approval is of value to them. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you Alisa, but really, if this is what you think well, thank you so much for the “clarity” there, but I really don’t give a tinker’s cuss. You don’t like me. Okay, thanks for the heads up, but I’ll probably survive somehow, you know.

  • Anyhoo, back to the discussion in hand-

    Lee-

    My own view is that if this subjectivist view is correct (and obviously i think so otherwise I wouldn’t be arguing it) it actually is rather more positive than it appears. You said-

    If all morality is created in such a manner – through the subjective creation of a supreme ‘goal’ – then how can one know which is the ‘correct’ supreme goal to follow?

    I think this is the error moralists make. They presume there must be a “supreme goal” and that’s where the trouble starts- national superiority or purity of the biosphere or the triumph of a particular religion or something. Once there is a supreme goal, it is utterly logical to then start coercing people into seeking this goal.

    But if we recognise that nobody is objectively right, and if we recognise that all we can have are “local” goals (bring up my family successfully, go on holiday next year, be a better trombonist) then it logically follows that the only social system that fits that one truth (subjective difference) is a society which maximises the ability of each person to pursue their own private, subjective goals. That is the only “objective” morality (deliberate sneer quotes) that there can possibly be. And that is libertarianism, or individualism, or (classical) liberalism.

    It does not mean an atomised society. It just means that we are likely to form alliances with people whose values align with our own (not me and Alisa then, apparently) and leave alone those who we are not so close to.

    That’s why for me Obectivism for instance is a fundamentally flawed philosophy. Rand had to tell everybody what they should feel and believe, even to the extent of encouraging smoking even though that directly conflicts with the supposed survival imperative that she thought would get around Hume. So I don’t believe that any objectivised morality beyond “live and let live” can be libertarian.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    If materialists are right, and no spiritual realms exist, then morality is whatever furthers the survival of your genes. human nature would therefore be genetically programmed, and the philosophy which best expressed this, or allowed it to flourish, will be the philosophy that survives, over the long term. whilst Ian thinks you can pick and choose, careful observers will note who survives, and adopt their morals, and thus survive. The imperatives of evolution demand no less.

  • Laird

    “But if we recognise that nobody is objectively right, and if we recognise that all we can have are “local” goals . . . .” [balance of paragraph omitted for brevity]

    I agree with all of that. But I can also see how someone (a staunch religionist, for example) might disagree with one or both of the premises (these two “if” statements). Everything flows from there, and if you start from fundamentally different and irreconcilable premises you’ll never reach agreement on the conclusion. You’ll just have to agree to disagree and move on.

  • “Once there is a supreme goal, it is utterly logical to then start coercing people into seeking this goal…”

    Doesn’t that rather depend on what the supreme goal is? With regard to an ethics of liberty that “logical” jump to coercion would surely be a non-sequitur, no?

    “…the supposed survival imperative that she thought would get around Hume.”

    Help me out Ian would you? My reading of Rand’s ethics is not the survivalist interpretation, but the survival plus “flourishing” one. I think it does get around Hume – though I do think, especially in her literature, she puts the case in terms which are far too narrow (the sort of stuff about mantis mating behaviour and so on which Friedman takes her to task for in the article you linked to above).

    On the broader “flourishing” interpretation, the imperative is not physical survival at any cost, or more specifically, the cost of those conceptual values (relationships and so on) constituting your way of life. On that reading, your attitude to death becomes not only a question of when, hoping to delay it indefinitely, but of when in relation to how and why – in relation to those conceptual values you have built your life around.

    Going back to Hume’s problem, the derivation of Ought (e.g. in the question of how and when I ought to die) from the Is of life might actually be quite a long chain of reasoning, rather than a short one. The Randian “survivalist” argument that I should die at the last physically possible moment because after death all values are no longer possible seems to me to be not quite right. The question of when and how I ought to die turns not simply on the availability of physical values, but also on the availability of those conceptual values I have built my life around (i.e. at what point will I no longer have anything left to live for?). To what extent those conceptual values are still available may in some people’s cases be obvious, but in other cases the answer may be much more heavily conjectural, a la Popper. In fairness to Rand though, her admission of cognitive fallibility and the necessity, in the absence of knowledge, of observation and deductive reasoning would seem to cover that.

    Another thing that bothers me about Hume’s problem, is the prior question of why an ethics needs to objective rather than subjective or critically conjectural. Putting a finer point on it, the question is why the need for certainty rather than either unexplained whim or rational conjecture?

    On either model, you can argue for your ethics and try to persuade others willing to listen. On either model you can act on the basis of your ethics. The Popperian argument is that claims of certainty are dangerous because they can be used to silence further criticism. But such use is not a necessary consequence of a claim to ethical certainty (not, on my reading, in the Randian or Rothbardian derivation). On the other hand, Rand’s anti-Kantian argument is that rational certainty is necessary because, without it, loss of confidence in human knowledge is an inevitable result and hence a descent into stultifying epistemological and thus ethical uncertainty. But it seems to me that this “inevitability” claim is a bit of a stretch… I’m not really sure what conclusion to draw from this other than that all three positions seem to draw heavily on consequentialist claims and therefore seem to require a hell of a lot of explication.

  • John B

    I think it has something to do with the need to be authoritative.
    Being which is no more a problem than being in control. It’s the need that messes up the world, with its repercussions.

  • But I do like you, Ian, even though you are a troll. I am glad though that you don’t need my approval (that would be too much of a burden on me), and that you decided to hang around. Like I said, useful at times.

    Lee: when I called Ian a troll, I was referring to his exchange with Mid on that obscure theological matter (namely, what is god), as well as his numerous past exchanges on numerous past threads. Back to the topic at hand, though:

    Especially as I have been unable, in my own reasoning, to formulate any rebuttal to Ian B’s suggestion that morality is dependent upon subjective value.

    I am in absolute agreement with Ian on this point. But, unfortunately, that’s not all there’s to it. At the risk of making a me-too comment, see Mike’s point above:

    “Once there is a supreme goal, it is utterly logical to then start coercing people into seeking this goal…” Doesn’t that rather depend on what the supreme goal is? With regard to an ethics of liberty that “logical” jump to coercion would surely be a non-sequitur, no?

    But I would go even further: what if your supreme goal is not liberty, but anything else, like pie (in the sky or here on earth)? Does that automatically make you an enemy of liberty? If you have read as many of Ian’s comments as I have, you could have noticed that Ian tends to think that just because he doesn’t share someone’s goals (or values), it necessarily follows that that someone is out to use coercion to achieve those goals and values, i.e. is an enemy of liberty. Now this begs the question of Ian’s own values – if any. If liberty is one of them, then the above-described position is highly problematic, as it is anything but liberal.

  • Tedd

    If materialists are right, and no spiritual realms exist, then morality is whatever furthers the survival of your genes.

    To me that begs the question. Clearly, the universe is constructed such that survival of genes is a key factor in what happens. But there’s nothing in the materialist-evolutionist position that says it makes any difference whatsoever whether any genes ever survive, or whether they even exist in the first place. You might just as well conclude that morality is the law of gravity, or conservation of energy. Strict materialism doesn’t allow for the possibility of anything mattering (who would it matter too?), and is therefore simply not relevant to the question of morality, other than by suggesting the possibility that there can be none.

    I realize there are materialist-based arguments that do attempt to address this question. But I’m focusing on the form of argument presented in the quote.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Tedd, my point is that you can derive ethics from the world as it is. I am not sure that I am happy with such ethics, but you could do it. Maybe materialism only gives you minimum ethics (propagate and protect your genes)- still, you could limit yourself to that, and still have a moral code. You might be better off asking a Humanist about their moral codes.

  • “I think it has something to do with the need to be authoritative.”

    John B: I’m sorry, but was that addressed to me in my last comment or someone else?

    Alisa: “me-too” comments are feedback – can be useful.

  • Mike,

    the thing about “surviving” and “flourishing” is that they’re different meanings of the word “life”. One means something like “the continuance of metabolism” , the other one is “life” in the sense of “live life to the full”. We use life in that second sense as a metaphor of a kind.

    The problem for Rand is that if you accept her “is”- only living beings can act, so one must stay alive to do so- it only applies to the first meaning- survival. The “flourish” part can’t be derived from it. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t seek to flourish. It just simply isn’t supported by the “is” of being a living being who must stay alive in order to continue being. Rand slyly (or brazenly?) slides from one meaning of the word to the other, hoping that having “proved” the first meaning, the second comes along for the ride.

  • “The “flourish” part can’t be derived from it.”

    Convince me. As I understand it, the idea is that survival and flourishing are connected such that survival tends to demand at least some of the same vaguely teleological impulses that drive “flourishing”, e.g. physical growth of the body from childhood to adulthood along with an increasingly sophisticated conceptual understanding of reality.

    Isn’t the very notion of survival itself bound up with probability? I can act in ways that will improve the odds of my continued survival over a given time, or I can act in more sophisticated ways requiring greater knowledge and intellectual involvement with any given problem at hand that may even further improve those odds, to help me “survive better” so to speak. So in order to improve my survival odds, I “accidentally” as it were arrive at some form of “flourishing”. The one tends to implicate the other does it not? Except of course in cases where my freedom of action is limited by political or other restraints (e.g. disease).

  • OK Mike, time for a me-too comment here:-) (The general point, not Rand, having not read her).

  • John B

    Mike. No, not aimed at you.
    It seems to me to be the problem of the human race, in human terms.
    It can be summed up as: Who tells who what to do.
    Which can be a bit more subtle and be: What I think is correct and better informed and therefore it is only sensible that I tell you what to do.
    One problem is that it blunts the sensitivity (necessary accuracy?) needed in order to penetrate the obfuscations. (We think in order to reduce our discomfort rather than to see/observe the truth?)

  • Paul Marks

    Ian – I was agreeing with Mr Christopher Hitchens (on his specific point), even though he is atheist and I am a Christian.

    If a Christian says “one must believe in Jesus to know right from wrong” or even “to choose right over wrong” they are just wrong – and it must be pointed out that they are wrong (and other Christians do not get a pass from the moral duty of pointing out their error, it is not a crime to fail to point this out [as no violation of bodies or goods is involved] but it is a failure of moral duty to allow such a radical error to be used as an argument in defence of religion).

    “But you have not examined my position”.

    I am not interested in your position – on ethics (no doubt you know far more than I do – about other matters). But as you bring it up…..

    Your position is well known to me – it is the old logical positivist one that good and evil are but cheer and boo words (expressions of arbitrary preference).

    It is not actually a moral position at all – as this position holds that (strictly speaking) there is no such thing as good and evil (separate from “good is stuff that gives pleasure” and “bad is stuff that I do not like”) or right and wrong.

    “But I just do not accept there is any such thing as right and wrong – separate from my own desires”.

    Fair enough Ian – as long as you do not act on any criminal desires that you may (or may not) have.

    And by “criminal” I (of course) am not talking about government statutes or case law either.

    “Prove there is such a thing as right and wrong – or good and evil”.

    “Prove there is such a thing as the principle of justice – and that some actions (that violate it) are criminal”.

    Category mistake.

  • Just for the record – I’m not a troll. I just happen to disagree occasionally (ie quite often) with one or two commenters here. I usually agree with both Ian B and Perry though.

    For what its worth my view here: (from a 2005 blog post)

    In the absence of a belief in a God we need some other way to define what constitutes “moral” behaviour since we cannot rely on an omnipotent being to define it for us. Mary Warnock argues that any concept of morality must start within us – “moral sensibility, the wish to do what is right, or to avoid what is wrong must stem first from the individual in his dealings with other individuals.” To the extent that a “moral thought” originates with an individual then I suppose I agree. However we still need to establish the measures to be used in assessing our dealings with other individuals. If we cannot rely on a set of externally prescribed rules, where should we go?

    My argument is that we should derive such standards not from our relationship with others, but from the very fact of our humanity. This is not the same as treating moral behaviour as only applicable to our dealings with other humans. In my view any behaviour that diminishes us as rational thinking beings would be covered.