Ethical Realism

January 25, 2011

An Argument Against Atheistic Moral Realism

Filed under: epistemology,ethics,metaethics,philosophy,review — JW Gray @ 11:11 am
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Luke Nix argues that atheistic moral realism (the view that there are moral facts) is impossible because atheistic evolution wouldn’t make it possible to know the truth about anything other than the empirical (observable) world. I will defend atheistic moral realism and object to his argument by saying that (a) atheism does not necessarily require empiricism and (b) empirical moral realism can be consistent.

Note that “atheistic moral realism” is compatible with God—it merely means that God doesn’t directly intervene in the world to bring about moral reality. That means the argument that moral realism requires God might be false, even if God exists. When I defend “atheistic moral realism,” I am defending what I see as the most plausible form of moral realism, even if God exists. I am not merely trying to make sense of moral realism as an atheist.

Luke Nix’s Argument

Luke Nix says, “I would like to point out that atheists are required to give up either absolute, objective morality or consistency in order to maintain their atheistic belief.” He basically argues that atheistic evolution would make it impossible for us to know moral facts:

[A]theists cannot explain their drive for finding consistency between what they know to be true intuitively and what they find to be true by their observations. Not only that, since natural selection operates based on survivability (vs. truth) they cannot establish that what they know to be true intuitively or what they observe to be true, are even true, themselves. Theists can explain all this without stretching their worldview one iota.

What exactly does this mean? He admits that atheists can provide consistency concerning “the physical world (the world of empirical observation)” Apparently Nix thinks that evolution can provide us truths concerning the physical world because it gave us the five senses to observe the physical world, but he doesn’t think we can know anything about morality—because morality isn’t part of the physical world. The nonphysical parts of reality can’t be known through evolution alone because we would only evolve the ability to do what is necessary to survive, and the ability to know moral facts wouldn’t be necessary to survive. (Morality requires us to be altruistic sometimes, after all).

We can formulate Nix’s argument as the following:

  1. Atheistic evolution requires empiricism.
  2. Empiricism can’t account for moral realism.
  3. Therefore, either (a) atheistic evolution is false or (b) moral realism is false.

This argument is logically valid, but we don’t know the premises are true. I find both of the premises to be unjustified assumptions.

Luke Nix actually does not use the word “moral realism” but I think it’s a better word to use than “objective morality” because the word “objective” is too ambiguous. The word “absolute” is also ambiguous, but there is a sense that moral realism always supports “absolute moral facts” insofar as these facts aren’t “a matter of opinion” and there are true conceptual moral facts that are “always true.” It’s always true that “all things equal, you shouldn’t torture children.”

My Objections

1. Atheistic evolution doesn’t necessarily require empiricism.

Nix argues that evolution alone wouldn’t enable us to know anything nonphysical (or abstract). We know about logic, mathematics, and morality—and I agree that we don’t know these things from empiricism alone. However, I disagree that conceptual knowledge would be impossible given atheistic evolution.

First, conceptual knowledge can give us a reproductive advantage. (a) It seems like a really bad idea to have contradictory beliefs, so logic is important. (b) It seems like a good idea to know how numbers apply to the physical world. A longer distance means more resources will be required to make the trip. Although moral knowledge might not give me a reproductive advantage, conceptual knowledge certainly does.

How does conceptual knowledge apply to morality? I know that pain is intrinsically bad (bad just for existing) and I know it’s wrong to make someone have intrinsically bad experiences (without a very good reason to do so). These are all “conceptual truths” because they abstract away from concrete reality and various situations we can encounter. In fact, it’s a conceptual truth that (all things equal) it’s wrong to drown someone in a deep pit of spaghetti even though such a deep pit of spaghetti might never exist.

Conceptual knowledge is something everyone wants to account for—including empiricists. However, some people think that something like Platonism is necessary to fully account for conceptual knowledge. Even if this is true, it’s not entirely clear that Platonism is incompatible with atheistic evolution (or atheism in general).

Second, not everything we evolve is a reproductive advantage. Evolution doesn’t only produce what is advantageous to survival and nothing else. For example, our minds might not be “necessary” to have a reproductive advantage. We have minds and the fact that we could evolve minds could be a fortuitous fact involving the brains that were eventually evolved. The laws of nature seem to be what gives us minds based on the fact that we have brains, but it’s theoretically possible to evolve advantageous behavior without a mind. We could have merely evolved seemingly intelligent mindless behavior similar to how we can program computers to do seemingly intelligent mindless behavior.

Why did we evolve minds? One, because the first brain-like nervous systems that evolved were already advantageous before they (probably) gave anything a mind. Two, the fact that certain brains produce minds is explained because of natural laws. Three, it might be more “efficient” to evolve a mind rather than a mindless computer program. Four, it might be a free byproduct of complex nervous systems that isn’t actually advantageous to survival.

In other words conceptual knowledge might be something we evolved because it is (a) “efficient,” (b) advantageous to survival, and/or (c) a free byproduct of another advantageous trait.

Three, no one has all the answers. Even if atheistic evolution doesn’t currently have the tools to explain why we have moral knowledge, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for atheistic evolution to ever attain an explanation. It’s an argument from ignorance fallacy to claim “you don’t know why something happens, so your belief is false.” If Nix wants to argue that atheistic evolution and moral realism couldn’t possibly be true, then he would have to prove that all possible forms of moral realism are incompatible with all forms of atheistic evolution—but he didn’t provide that argument.

Imagine if we had to answer every question before knowing that our “theory” might be considered to be plausible. In that case almost no theory would be plausible. Even scientific theories face “anomalies” that have yet to be explained. (There mere existence of anomalies does not disprove scientific theories because many anomalies can be explained away at some point.)

Four, atheistic evolution isn’t up for debate. Even theists should believe in “atheistic evolution.” Evolution is the only plausible theory in biology to explain our existence at this point in time, and God’s intervention in evolution would have dire consequences that are not currently accepted by biologists. “Atheistic evolution” is probably true given our current information, even if atheism is false. (Calling it “atheistic evolution” only means that God is not directly interfering with evolution.)

2. Empiricism and “physicalism” might be able to account for moral realism.

First, empiricists think they can account for conceptual knowledge. Empiricism is considered to be a sufficiently plausible epistemic theory in contemporary philosophy and no one has ever sufficiently discredited it—and empiricsts are very interested in conceptual knowledge. Empiricists think that conceptual knowledge is something like “generalizations.” It’s true that “pain is intrinsically bad” because whenever pain exists, it has the property “intrinsically bad.” We might wonder how an empiricist could know this of all pain—and one possible answer is that all the pain anyone ever experiences confirms the hypothesis “all pain is intrinsically bad” and no experience ever disproves it.1 Perhaps not all pain is intrinsically bad, but certainly most of the pain I have experienced seems like it. For more information, I argued that “pain is intrinsically bad” in my essay “An Argument for Moral Realism.”

Second, intrinsic values might be physical. Intrinsic values attach themselves to other things—such as experiences or consciousness. If nothing exists, then nothing is intrinsically good or bad. If pain exists, then something intrinsically bad exists. Pain exists as part of the “physical world” insofar as our minds are part of the physical world.

One might wonder if our minds are part of the physical world, and it’s quite possible that they are. If so, that merely means that the physical world is more than atoms and energy.

How can we know about thoughts, pain, and minds? We experience them. When I have a thought, I at least sometimes know it. When I experience pain, I at least sometimes experience the pain. When I experience pain, I at least sometimes experience it as being “intrinsically bad.” Other people seem to have thoughts, pain, and minds much like I do for much the same reasons. Having a living brain gives you mind and touching fire gives you pain.

Third, no one has all the answers. Again, we don’t know everything. Empiricists might not know how to fully explain conceptual knowledge yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to do so.

3. Nix didn’t prove that theistic moral realism is plausible.

Nix is right that there contemporary theories of knowledge, such as empiricism, face difficulties, but he didn’t prove that these theories of knowledge require God. Nix is right that contemporary theories of knowledge haven’t been fully related to evolution, but he didn’t prove that these theories of knowledge would be impossible given atheism or “atheistic evolution.” Nix argues that it’s possible that theism and moral realism to be true at the same time, and I agree.

The question is: Is theism compatible with our “knowledge?” Is theism plausible? So far, I am unconvinced. In order to know that “theistic moral realism is true,” we would have to prove that this theory has a greater justification than the alternatives, and Nix did not prove that. Nix may have proved that there are weaknesses in “atheistic moral realism,” but he didn’t prove that “theistic moral realism has no weaknesses. If theistic moral realism is probably true, then it must have a greater justification than atheistic moral realism.

The question is: Is theism compatible with our “knowledge?” Is theism plausible? So far, I am unconvinced. In order to know that “theistic moral realism is true,” we would have to prove that this theory has a greater justification than the alternatives, and Nix did not prove that. Nix may have proved that there are weaknesses in “atheistic moral realism,” but he didn’t prove that “theistic moral realism has no weaknesses.” If theistic moral realism is probably true, then it must have a greater justification than atheistic moral realism.

Theistic moral realism is not considered to be plausible in contemporary philosophy. Why not? Because we should prefer our theories and explanations to be as modest as possible. To require all the atheists, Buddhists, and Taoists around the world to reject moral realism or believe God exists is not modest by any means. We have reason to believe in moral realism, and it is from evidence other than a belief in God.

Consider that we know that pain is bad, which is why “(all things equal) we ought to give strangers an aspirin when they have headaches.” We know this because we know what it’s like to have a headache, not because we know God hates headaches. If God was used as evidence for moral realism, then we would have to know something like (a) the nature of God and (b) that the nature of God is perfection.

It is immodest to require anyone to believe in God insofar as God’s existence is controversial. Perhaps the main problem is the belief that God is supernatural. Whenever we talk about the supernatural, we are talking about something we can’t examine or test—and something that almost by definition defies our experiences of reality. The “intuitions” people have concerning God have also been proved inconsistent. Many Christians think God must be omnipotent and supernatural, but not everyone agrees with those beliefs.

Conclusion

No one has all the answers, but it certainly hasn’t been proven that atheistic evolution and moral realism are inconsistent. To do so would require us to prove that atheistic evolution and moral realism couldn’t possibly be true at the same time—but to do that would require us to prove every version of moral realism to be incompatible with every epistemological theory compatible with atheism.

I am not saying that “it’s my way or the highway.” It’s not that I have all the answers and everyone has to agree with me. There are serious meta-ethical theories in philosophy all competing right now. However, atheism is compatible with all of the competing contemporary moral realist theories that I know of—including Platonism and intuitionism. (That’s not to say that theism isn’t also compatible with such theories.)

How should we decide what theory to believe in? It’s not an all or nothing decision to make. You don’t have to prove that all theories are impossible except the one you accept. Instead, I suggest that a careful analysis of pros and cons must be assessed. There are multiple positive epistemic traits a theory can have that make it more plausible, and some theories have a better combination of positive traits than another. For more information, see my essay on “Knowledge, Justification, and Theoretical Virtues.” Such theoretical virtues are themselves up for debate and are “contentious.” For example, empiricists will reject self-evidence. However, the alternative of doing philosophy (and trying to decide what theory is “most justified”) isn’t looking good.

The best way to argue for a moral realist theory is not to try to prove that all the alternatives are impossible. That is too ambitious for the reasons given above. Instead, a careful analysis of theoretical virtues in an attempt to prove one theory to be “more justified” than the rest would be much more modest and much more likely to be convincing as a consequence. (For example, theistic moral realism seems to violate Occam’s razor.)

Update (1/26/11): I added a clarification to the introduction, and I clarified the objection, “Is theistic moral realism plausible?”

Note

1 What about masochists and the fact that pain can help us? You might want to read my essay, “What does ‘meaning of life’ mean?” for one answer to these concerns.

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13 Comments »

  1. I’d also point out that there is a value to evolving brains that can track truths of the natural world, so the fact that our brains were created by evolution doesn’t necessarily mean that our brains cannot track truth.

    Comment by josef johann — January 25, 2011 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

    • Yes,Nix admits that evolution could help us know the truth about the natural world, but he doesn’t think morality is natural.

      Comment by James Gray — January 25, 2011 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

  2. Nice post.

    I hate the use of atheistic, atheism and atheist. These are non-words.

    There is no atheistic evolution. Only evolution. I do not have atheistic conversations, dinners or walks. Please do not encourage the xtians.

    Good post! Nix is a lune.

    Comment by Mike DK — January 25, 2011 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

    • No, “atheistic evolution” is not a non-term. There is a real distinction between theistic evolution and atheistic evolution. One could imagine a god-guided evolutionary process distinct from a god-less, natural selection driven one (even though the evidence in fact only supports the idea of a god-less one).

      Nix seems to assume that a god-driven evolutionary process would somehow remove the problem of how moral knowledge came about since the evolution that brought us about would have specifically been rigged to create it, whereas in god-less evolution nobody is guaranteeing our minds will line up with the world rightly in all ways such that we have truth about all things.

      And in general this Harris-inspired attempt to say that we need not even call specifically atheistic positions “atheistic” because they’re “just reality” is a obnoxious feigning at linguistic stupidity that tries to utterly marginalize the fact that theist positions exist. I understand not wanting to be limited to only being a not-something-else and wanting to be a constructive something. But the attempt to say that since theistic positions are so untenable, our rejection of them need not even be referenced is to pretend we are not, sociologically speaking, part of a specific group holding a specific position where others specifically disagree.

      From a cultural standpoint there is disagreement, we are players in a larger debate and not in a context where atheistic agreement is so very assumed that we can drop the modifier as mere redundancy. And, in fact, it is important that we emphasize that atheism is an integral assumption or conclusion of views like evolution by natural selection precisely as a way of forcing this issue on those who want to glaze over the ways that it causes problems for theism.

      Finally, I do have atheistic conversations all the time. It’s a meaningful term.

      Comment by Camels With Hammers — January 27, 2011 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

      • Dan – Are you serious? What exactly is an atheist? Atheist is a crappy word for a person that doesn’t believe in God/Gods for the simple fact there is no and never was any evidence for them. It is a non word. Just like atheism and atheistic.

        Now for your evolution. There is only one evolution. There is no atheistic evolution. There is no theistic evolution. There is no Jewish science. There is no Christian mathematics. There is no Buddhist geometry. There is no Egyptian algebra. There is no female civil engineering.

        >>One could imagine a god-guided evolutionary process distinct from a god-less, natural selection driven one (even though the evidence in fact only supports the idea of a god-less one).

        Just because you can imagine one does not make it so. Attempting to assert there is such a thing a theistic evolution is beyond ridiculous. Is there one scrap of actual evidence for an intelligent design in evolution? No.

        >>Nix seems to assume that a god-driven evolutionary process would somehow remove the problem of how moral knowledge came about since the evolution that brought us about would have specifically been rigged to create it, whereas in god-less evolution nobody is guaranteeing our minds will line up with the world rightly in all ways such that we have truth about all things.

        Nix is crazy. Does that mean we entertain every crack pots notion on physics? No. Speak in what is real or what is the point. If you start with crap for a premise you can only end up with crap that uses that premise for a base. ID = crap.

        Make the theist prove his point! Can he? That is what this should be about.

        >>And in general this Harris-inspired attempt to say that we need not even call specifically atheistic positions “atheistic” because they’re “just reality” is a obnoxious feigning at linguistic stupidity that tries to utterly marginalize the fact that theist positions exist. I understand not wanting to be limited to only being a not-something-else and wanting to be a constructive something. But the attempt to say that since theistic positions are so untenable, our rejection of them need not even be referenced is to pretend we are not, sociologically speaking, part of a specific group holding a specific position where others specifically disagree

        Look Dan I am all for them presenting ideas and us going through their thought process. I am not about allowing crappy versions of Pascals wager. It is either God or no God. They are just asserting their vapid position without evidence. Should we add alien evolution to the mix? Can you say for certain aliens didn’t jump start it all? That is how ridiculous allowing even a crumb of stupid into the conversation is? What is next Pink Vampire Trolls?

        >>And, in fact, it is important that we emphasize that atheism is an integral assumption or conclusion of views like evolution by natural selection precisely as a way of forcing this issue on those who want to glaze over the ways that it causes problems for theism.

        I would love for it to be called “Brights” evolution but it is only evolution. It is a scientific theory which makes it a fact. Not an atheistic fact but a fact. Abiogenesis is the initial starter for life. There is no atheistic abiogenesis. How silly would it be to have atheistic replaced with something not believed in because of no evidence abiogenesis?

        There is no atheistic first cause as they like to say. They need have do the work. They have done nothing. So far all their ideas rest on the laurels of ancient writers that have plagiarized from other religions. That is not doing their do diligence.

        Let’s see an actual proof God imprinted belief. Can they do that? Let’s see the proof for ID! Oh they did that and it failed. Let’s see a proof for the origin of the universe. Can they do that? They are capable but will it be coherent?

        >>Finally, I do have atheistic conversations all the time.

        Do you really or are you discussing more logical proofs for theism to be false? Why theists think the way they do etc. There is actually nothing to discuss in atheism. Just like there is nothing to actual discuss with pink vampire trolls or Russels Tea Pot.

        Comment by Mike DK — January 28, 2011 @ 5:05 am

  3. I thought more about this. Another reason not to fall into their trap of using a no word like atheistic. We do not know if there should be another label. Evolution is the label for the process how species change/evole/devolve speciate over many generations. Then I saw this definition.

    “In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution … is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions.”
    – Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986

    Biological is the label that should be used.

    “In fact, evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next.”
    – Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Biology, 5th ed. 1989 Worth Publishers, p.974

    Most of us are clever enough to know that this is a process. The Theory of Evolution itself explains the process. Atheistic adds nothing. As an intelligent person. We can say things like we do not know and not have to make unintelligent assumptions by adding a God.

    For abiogenesis I say I do not know exactly how it started but there are many theories out there. The theist says “I don’t understand comprehend or am too fucking lazy so God did it.”

    Origin of the universe. I say I do not know exactly but I am pretty sure it was formed from the dark matter that fills the majority of the universe because it had too. So while Lawrence Kraus says the only way to get our universe is from nothing. He explains that his nothing is the primordial dark matter. Dark matter is a form of energy. Where did this dark matter/energy come from? I don’t know.

    Theist on the origin. “I couldn’t possibly understand so God did it.”

    So what exactly would atheistic tells us about anything? Someone that doesn’t believe in something with no evidence for it. I hope we all fall into that category and we do for most things. Which is why theists do not believe in every God.

    Comment by Mike DK — January 28, 2011 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

    • Mike,

      You said, “So what exactly would atheistic tells us about anything? Someone that doesn’t believe in something with no evidence for it. I hope we all fall into that category and we do for most things. Which is why theists do not believe in every God.”

      This definition obviously won’t work because (a) many theists think they will be described by that definition and (b) I certainly don’t think all atheists are described by it. They can believe in ghosts, new age junk, and so on. A perfectly rational person would be described by that definition, but I don’t know anyone who is perfectly rational.

      Comment by James Gray — January 28, 2011 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

      • >>This definition obviously won’t work because (a) many theists think they will be described by that definition and (b) I certainly don’t think all atheists are described by it. They can believe in ghosts, new age junk, and so on. A perfectly rational person would be described by that definition, but I don’t know anyone who is perfectly rational.

        You are right. I was trying to get away from the God word and screwed it up.

        So what exactly would atheistic tell us about anything? Someone that doesn’t believe in god/gods with no evidence for it.

        That would have worked better.

        >>They can believe in ghosts, new age junk, and so on. A perfectly rational person would be described by that definition, but I don’t know anyone who is perfectly rational.

        You are correct. Now that I fixed my mistake it works for all atheists. As for the other things mentions. Am I an aghostist? An aspiritualist? Would my position on astrology create aastrology evolution?

        >>A perfectly rational person would be described by that definition, but I don’t know anyone who is perfectly rational.

        You are right.

        Comment by Mike DK — January 28, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

  4. Hi, I am an atheist, I know beyond every possible doubt that there is neither God nor afterlife.
    I think that belief in God can not provide us with an objective morality, as clearly shown by the Euthyphro dilemma : is something good just because God stipulated it is (in which case it is arbitrary, for God could state one ought to love ones foes as well as ordering the slaughter of the folks of Canaan. ) or did God ordered it because it is good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of God) ?
    However, I believe that the same challenge could be posed to any form of atheistic moral realism.
    Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.
    This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don’t consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.
    This shows the truth of David Hume’s famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut’s feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”, moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.
    No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.
    Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

    Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
    Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you’ve more imagination than I 🙂 who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.
    When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.
    Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.
    What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?
    My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.
    Now, a defender of godless moral realism could agree with me it is fallacious to rely on evolution to define an objective morality in the same way it would be fallacious to rely on the commandments of a deity. But he could then argue that there exists a moral standard independent of Evolution upon which moral realism would be based.

    The problem of this argument is the following:
    As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
    Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
    Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
    Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail’: http://faculty.virginia.edu/ha
    And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
    For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.
    Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
    For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greene’s dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jg
    To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
    But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
    In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I don’t believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
    The traditional moral discourse “The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people are wicked and so on and so forth” seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
    I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.

    Comment by Gruesome_hound — October 18, 2011 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

    • Gruesome_hound,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I will briefly reply to many of your statements and arguments.

      Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.

      First, I don’t know that neurology has proven what you are saying it has proven. Second, the evolutionary process doesn’t seem to disprove morality any more than it disproves epistemology or any other form of knowledge. We can know the process by which we attain knowledge and reason, and that doesn’t undermine the fact that knowledge can be attained or that reason can be used.

      This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don’t consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.

      The fact that some people lack the ability to do moral philosophy would not prove that everyone does. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced that “psychopaths” are incapable of moral philosophy or attaining moral knowledge. Some people have argued that psychopaths are often utilitarians. http://gogrue.wordpress.com/2009/04/25/the-morality-of-psychopaths/

      This shows the truth of David Hume’s famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut’s feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”, moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.

      How could you possibly come to that conclusion? The premises seem to be lacking to form a valid argument to that conclusion.

      No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.

      I have written extensively on the is/ought gap and moral realists need not think “moral obligations” are anything other than what anti-realists think they are. They can be part of a social contract or an expression of the importance that something be done. There’s nothing magic or mysterious about these things. The primary interest of moral realism is not necessarily “moral obligations.”

      Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

      Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
      Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you’ve more imagination than I 🙂 who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.

      When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.

      Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.

      Moral realism is not just concerned with “evolved intuitions.” Almost no beliefs are entirely genetic. There are genetically contributing factors to intuitions. You are mischaracterizing moral realism then debunking a straw man argument.

      What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?

      Perhaps that their intuition is false and people have value.

      My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.

      Reasoning always requires intuition. If you think intuition can be debunked using your thought experiment, then knowledge is impossible. We would have no way to prove to lizards that we have minds, that an external world exists, that 2+2=4, that something can’t be true and false at the same time, etc.

      The problem of this argument is the following:
      As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.

      Then tell me why you haven’t debunked all forms of knowledge.

      Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction.

      He can’t know what “always” happens, but he is merely looking at a “reasoning process” and describing it. He can’t prove the reasoning process is a complete failure without leading to absurdity.

      He has named this phenomenon ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail’: http://faculty.virginia.edu/ha
      And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.

      How do you know that a “fact alone” can’t be a “moral fact?” That would already stack all the cards against moral realism. Additionally, the presence of emotion need not prove that the reasoning process is flawed. Maybe scientists have “emotions” involved with their reasoning process. (I find that highly likely.) Philosophers get “heated debates” no matter what they argue about, and they would probably not debate anything without any emotions being involved.

      For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.

      And that’s not how a moral realist argues.

      We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.

      And we might love babies because we think they have intrinsic value. Also, it is an assumption that moral realism has “categorical oughts.” Moral realism does not require categorical imperatives by definition.

      Comment by JW Gray — October 18, 2011 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

    • A defense of moral realism that attempts to show how debunking moral realism is likely to debunk “epistemic realism” can be found in Cuneo’s Normative Web and Nobis’s Truth in Ethics and Epistemology

      Comment by JW Gray — October 19, 2011 @ 12:20 am | Reply

  5. The only mistake Nix made here was to confuse an empiricist for an atheist, since an atheist who does not believe in God could still believe in fairy tales. But a rational atheist who does not believe in God because God is not empirically observable cannot, without being inconsistent, believe in objective morality, unless he thinks morality can be empirically observable. Reproductive advantage is not an imperative for morality to most of us.

    Comment by Jonathan — February 29, 2012 @ 12:21 am | Reply

    • Yes, but you just said it. Even empiricists could think morality could be observable.

      Comment by JW Gray — February 29, 2012 @ 12:32 am | Reply


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