Tuesday, 31 March 2009
Not every atheist makes a sensible transition into a new moral paradigm when they deconvert from Christianity. There are many lame roads to take and this is only one of them. Basically instead of keeping the good, leaving the bad, tentatively reappraising your starting assumptions for good measure, and making improvements from there, they eject everything and are totally lost as though they never had any idea what morality was about in the first place (Luke: "As a Christian, my entire ethical system was bound up in what I thought God had said was good. If God didn’t exist, that meant I had no idea what was right and wrong."[emphasis his]). I can understand being a little overwhelmed and certainly understand the enthusiasm to question everything with fresh eyes, but it's a little implausible and self-defeating to presume you can't trust anything you ever knew about the topic. How is it exactly that Christianity, for example, could get EVERYTHING wrong? That would be a miracle in and of itself.
Anyway, I left a comment over at "Common Sense Atheism" on a post that I thought was particularly disensible and hopefully a slight slap upside the head will do Luke some good. We'll see.
Notable quote of Luke's:
The wrong test: That struck me as a bizarre test for an ethical theory. It would be like lining up scientific theories about cosmology or genetics or neuroscience and asking the public: “Which theory fits best with your feelings on the matter?” What a strange way to go after the truth about morality! The defenders of this approach seemed to assume that humans had evolved a sixth sense (”the conscience”) to detect moral values out there in the universe, and that this sense could be trusted.
My first comment:
You seem to be framing an inquiry that can't find useful results. At some level whatever objective moral facts we discover need to be amicable to our moral intuitions or else there's really no reason to follow them. Let's say we do discover a rigid intrinsic set of moral values and it's so disconnected from our impulses that we can never feel right about ever engaging in it. Maybe following it makes us feel constantly guilty or something else that is incredibly dysfunctional to the human condition. If you start turning your ship of "evidence and logic" away from the facts of human psychology you will run into all kinds of disasters, never settle on anything and reject a whole lot of obvious things most people will rightly take for granted. It seems you're already well on your way there to no where.
You make too much of the differences between cultures and not enough about the similarities. I suggest looking into scientific studies on the similarities before you toss up your hands and say there's no common ground. These are noob mistakes, in my opinion. "Common sense" says you will fail and unless you want to embrace the magic of Platonism, you'll come back to your senses. Good luck, regardless.
There is some common ground, but even that is no indication that we have an accurate morality detector in our heads. No, it is an indication that our species evolved to have feelings about certain things one way or another. Ben, when we are able to deconstruct the entire brain and find that there is indeed no "sixth sense" for the direct observation of moral values, then what will you say?
To say that we "need" an intuitive moral sense to test moral theories is like saying we "need" an intuitive astronomical sense to test astronomical theories.
You seem to be interested in moral theories that are workable - that people cannot actually follow. That's fine. We are then talking about two different things. You are talking about a moral theory that is workable. I am talking about a moral theory that happens to be true. I'm after truth.
Smilansky has argued something similar to your thinking with regard to free will. He says that it's becoming clear that we do not have free will, but such a discovery is not workable in human society. Human society will degenerate if philosophers and nueroscientists tell the common people that they do not have free will. So, we have to lie to the people and tell them that "Everything's okay, we found free will. It exists. You have it. Be good, now."
I don't think society will fall apart with the knowledge that free will does not exist. But let's say I'm wrong. Perhaps we SHOULD lie to people about free will, just because that's more workable. That's a debate worth having.
But, back to morality, that is not the debate I'm having here. I'm arguing about a test for what's true, not about what's workable. Indeed, testing moral theories against our moral intuitions is a decent test for workability. All I said above is that it is not a decent test for truth.
What you call "the wrong test" I would call "one test among others" and then all of the sudden our moral intuitions have a reasonable role to play. You even validate this with you own impulse, "Perhaps I had even made a net negative impact on the world because of it! Had I made the world a worse place because I’d been following a false ethical system, or had I gotten lucky and not caused too much harm?" How can even this question be valid or worthwhile if the so called human "morality detectors" are complete crap? You are wasting your brain power on unnecessary extremes and are sabotaging your pursuit of moral truth in the process.
Are you to the part in Sense and Goodness where Carrier lays out his moral theory? Why don't you read that and get back to me. Or you can watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dce8mE0q4zA
> How can even this question be valid or worthwhile if the so called human "morality detectors" are complete crap? <
The question is valid because I don't trust my magical morality detectors. Do you really think we evolved to have a special mental faculty for detecting moral facts? Richard Carrier doesn't think so, either.
No. You keep framing the question in a ridiculous way and I wonder what the point of that is. My point is that basic moral intuitions ultimately need to plug into any worthwhile moral theory and that they are a necessary part of a good system of checks and balances. It doesn't mean they are the only standard or that they are always right. It just means they shouldn't be ignored wholesale in favor of some moral theory that can't ever get along with them. If you do agree with this (as you conceded humanity has some common moral ground even though we'd never know that from reading your post), then you should probably have said something like, "Our natural moral intuitions are important, but can also be mistaken, and we need to make sure we've gotten things right with other means like logic and reason." There goes your entire post. Simple, obvious, effective and doesn't take the inquiry careening into all sorts of worthless directions and causing all sorts of unnecessary problems.
"...based not on our feelings, but on what we actually find out there in the universe, and what conforms to logic."
It is simply absurd and obtuse to "go looking" for morality somewhere out there in the universe. What in the world could you possibly be talking about? A morality that is all logic is just as worthless as one that is all feeling, since there is ultimately no reason to be moral or care about anything. So if you are looking for a logic only morality, I'll save you the trouble. There isn't one nor can there be. Feelings have to factor in or it's pointless and you *will* factor them in regardless of whether you claim not to be doing so. I thought I'd save you that cliche' bit of self-deception, but as is you're either going to come up with something that is just as refutable as what you dismiss on your own terms, you'll end in some kind of stupid Dr. Manhattanesque nihilism, or you'll just be really confused and wandering through various ethical theories for a really long time. All this because you can't bring yourself to accept a straight forward balance of emotion and logic where either one can check the other as needed.
If this isn't a helpful heads up, then pretend like I didn't say anything. ;)
> It just means they shouldn't be ignored wholesale in favor of some moral theory that can't ever get along with them. <
Why should our moral feelings not be ignored? Do they have something of value to contribute to the question of what exists and what does not? If so, why do you think so? Do our feelings have anything to contribute to our investigation of whether or not germs cause disease, or whether or not the sun in 93 million miles away, or whether or not virtual particles pop into existence uncaused, or whether or not humans are descended from apes, or whether or not water is H2O?
> It is simply absurd and obtuse to "go looking" for morality somewhere out there in the universe. <
Why? Because you concluded a priori that moral values do not exist?
> What in the world could you possibly be talking about? <
Morality talks about objective reasons for action that exist. Perhaps there are some such things that exist, or perhaps there are not. I've come to think there are, but I could be wrong.
> Feelings have to factor in or it's pointless and you *will* factor them in regardless of whether you claim not to be doing so. <
Feelings do not have to factor in to the facts about morality, just as they do not have to factor into the facts about chemistry. They will, of course - until we can make robot scientists - but that doesn't mean they should, if we are looking for truth.
> All this because you can't bring yourself to accept a straight forward balance of emotion and logic where either one can check the other as needed. <
Is this how you treat all other domains of fact, too? Emotions must check the facts about planet formation, or neutrinos, or cosmic expansion? We should test these things against our feelings about them?
"Do our feelings have anything to contribute to our investigation of whether or not germs cause disease, or whether or not the sun in 93 million miles away, or whether or not virtual particles pop into existence uncaused, or whether or not humans are descended from apes, or whether or not water is H2O?"
If any of those scientific pursuits had to do with human feelings, then yes, I would strongly recommend investigating the nature of human feelings. For instance, you could blast the same red herring argument against the entire field of psychology and yet what would psychology be if it didn't have anything to do with understanding human feelings? It'd be a big empty book wouldn't it?
"Morality talks about objective reasons for action that exist. Perhaps there are some such things that exist, or perhaps there are not. I've come to think there are, but I could be wrong."
And yet the only *reason* you will ever find to be moral is because of your *feelings*. You *care* about doing more good than not or you would not even be *looking* for desire utilitarianism. It's inescapable.
Basically, Luke waxes from extreme to extreme in order to reject everything. What he calls "the wrong test" I would call "one test among others" and all of the sudden our moral intuitions have a reasonable role to play. Yay! He even validates this with his own impulse, "Perhaps I had even made a net negative impact on the world because of it! Had I made the world a worse place because I’d been following a false ethical system, or had I gotten lucky and not caused too much harm?" How can even this question be valid or worthwhile if human morality detectors are complete crap? As I said in the intro, it's self-defeating.