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Why a Science of Morality could be barking up the wrong tree
Posted: 16 December 2012 10:07 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Hi Guys

I’m not only new but a Briish atheist.

I am now going to put to you an email that I sent to Sam Harris but obviously he is unable to answer all his emails.

See What you think and please bare with me

By the way Russell and Stephen and Tookey are fellow atheists who have engaged in the debate.

Dear Sam

I am just a British Atheist and a nobody from the point of view of people you are used to dealing with. I very much appreciate what you have done in the struggle against theism but I have however seen both yourself and Richard Dawkins on You Tube experience difficulty on the subject of morality especially with William Lane-Craig.  I think this is one of the most vital questions for atheism and is one of our real weaknesses.  I have not read your book `The Moral Landscape’ yet but I have read your summary on your website.  I have just started an internet discussion in Britain on this subject and I would very much like your comments.

I will try and put the problem simply

1 The theist grounds morality in the existence of God as the supreme arbiter
2 You attempt to ground morality in the universe and the suffering or not of sentient beings.
3 I would ground morality in the Human Race and our nature and evolution.

This may sound simple but the implications are huge and getting in wrong in my view may cause atheists to be `barking up the wrong tree’ or looking in the wrong place.  What follows is an edited version of my thoughts and I really hope you will bare with me on the length.

What is Atheist Morality?


Before we discuss this, it may be prudent to look at the conventional model of what has historically been the foundation of human ethics and morality - that is Theist largely Christian morality in this country (UK).  This is based on a very solidly simple proposition.  It appears that its solid simplicity is the reason why the atheist narrative has run into such difficulties confronting it.  That is that God created the universe and mankind and ever since Adam and Eve man has been incapable of determining what is right or wrong, good or evil without divine guidance in the form of revelations.  More than this, not only is God the embodiment of ultimate goodness but he has a counterpart in the form of a lesser deity named Satan who is the embodiment of ultimate evil. God is not alone.

Of course mankind being child-like or sheep like (whichever one prefers) is inherently incapable of an independent path and therefore must necessarily be influenced by Satan - to the dark side, if you will, or to God to the light.  Therefore we can infer that for the theist both goodness and evil come from outside the human condition and has existed long before we were even placed upon this earth.  This is what William Lane-Craig the theist ideolgue calls `objective morality’.  By Objective he means independent of the human race - in fact as independent from us as the mountains the sun and the stars.  Given world history over the last two millennia, at first glace it may appear that this narrative has some evidential merit most recently incarnated by Hitler, Stalin, two world wars and a list too long to cite just in the last century alone, and things aren’t looking much better in this one.

So that is what they say, but what do we say?  Where do we begin to find an alternative grounding? As grounded it has to be.  Our difficulty is not that we don’t know that our morality is better than theirs but the question is why?  It has to be based on something more than our individual thoughts and opinions because Stalin and Pol Pot also had individual thoughts and opinions.  We can argue as does Russell20 that ` However I will take issue with the Stalin and Mao link with atheism and atheists in general. As what seperates us from them is that they were communists first and only de-facto atheists second.’  However the theist could also argue in line with Stephen’s observation that `Firstly, there have been many religious dictators guilty of mass murder and human rights violations. Hitler a catholic, as was Franco and Pinochet, the latter two may not have murdered as many but they still ran a state by fear and torture’  In other words, the fact that they were theists could also be a secondary matter as they were first and foremost fascists.  We cannot get away with saying that we are free thinkers and nice human beings because there are good atheists and bad atheists.

There have been attempts by none theists over the years to answer this question, Utilitarianism, Humanism, Marxism which have all found their points of departure from the human being whether that be human thought or human action whether collective or individual.  For all the qualities and insights of these ideologies they have all failed to escape the shackles of the subjectivity in the individual or the objectivity of the collective.

Another angle to this, as we are atheists is to recognise the centrality of science in this question and I think Darwinian evolution by natural selection must play a crucial role in this puzzle along side human thought and action. To start from basics we can ask what is the purpose of any species that has ever evolved on the earth? Given we are one.  To reduce the answer to its essence we can say the purpose of any species is its survival, reproduction and wellbeing.  This applies to any living thing from bacteria onwards and there is no reason why this should not apply to us, just because we can be separated from the rest of the animal world by our super-intelligence and super-capabilities.  So how do all these things fit together?

As I have said in previous posts there is such a thing as good and evil, right and wrong but these concepts find their origin within our species and exist nowhere else but within our species. This will remain the case until super-intelligent life is found elsewhere in the universe.  We as atheists should know this because we know that good and evil exists but we also know that man created god not the other way around. We also know that there are now good or evil animnals and this does not apply to nature or the universe as such.  I would contend that whatever actions (taken by humans) aid our primeval instincts of survival, replication and wellbeing for all humans are good and moral and those that are detrimental to these instincts are evil and immoral - this applies both on a societal/global and an individual level.  All that has been said in the debate `morality atheism’s weakness’ fits into this narrative one way or the other.  I think that this is so absolutely true that almost all humans understand this to the extent that when we do evil deeds we know that we have done evil and have made a conscious choice to do so.

Tookey2k stated that `Morality can NEVER be an absolute commodity. What is good today could very well be bad tomorrow’  Absolutely correct. Morality of course depends on our stage of historical development and the contemporary challenges we are faced with as a species.  The issue of global warming is a good example of a situation that was not an issue two hundred years ago but is very much an issue today in terms of our survival replication and wellbeing for the future.  I would say that those who purposefully ignore it or fight against the control of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are acting in an immoral way.

There are many more examples of this, nuclear weapons world poverty, human rights etc but the correct moral answer to these issues must be viewed via the prism of our prospects for survival, reproduction and wellbeing as a species as a whole.

Although I am of the view that morality is not static we should also bare in mind the fact that are some absolutes that humanity has `uncovered’ through our history and development.  I would categorise these absolutes in the same way that science has demonstrated absolute truths such as the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around - or that evolution is a fact and creationism is a fiction.

Many of the things that we take for granted today have in fact been `uncovered’ by way of struggle and reason. Slavery for example is wrong today as it has always been wrong (even in ancient Rome). Racism is wrong but this moral understanding was only uncovered in the 20th Century (through struggle) although it has always been wrong.  Homophobia is wrong but the battle still rages on this front (especially with the theists) but need I say, it has always been wrong.  Likewise the equality of women which still rages in many parts of the theist world - I could go on.

Stephen says `We can learn our morality by life experience and as man is basically a social animal we have a natural sense of community and justice. Therefore we should come up with our own moral obligations that are better than those of an organisation that has preset ideals dating back to the bronze age.’

Stephen is of course correct that our underlying morality dates from the dawn of our species on the African Savannah that in order to survive it was not advantageous to harm our collective in any way. that children should be protected and nurtured, (as they should be taught to think today) that we should cooperate in hunts and gathering food and acquiring shelter, that we

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Posted: 27 December 2012 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Good post.

I agree that humans are the only moral agents in our world, but I also tend to agree with Sam Harris that, insofar as they exhibit sentience, animals also have moral standing (as object, not agent). Personally, I think inanimate objects may have moral status, and I think our private conduct is a moral issue, too. A life devoted to philosophy and art is better than a life devoted to gluttony and pornography.

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Posted: 27 December 2012 10:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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logicophilosophicus - 27 December 2012 09:10 AM

Good post.

I agree that humans are the only moral agents in our world, but I also tend to agree with Sam Harris that, insofar as they exhibit sentience, animals also have moral standing (as object, not agent). Personally, I think inanimate objects may have moral status, and I think our private conduct is a moral issue, too. A life devoted to philosophy and art is better than a life devoted to gluttony and pornography.

I disagree… I think we can have philosophy AND pornography in equal measure and have a fulfilled life. wink

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Posted: 27 December 2012 01:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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I agree that animals have some moral standing in so far as we are responsible for them because we dominate the world.  This is not the difference between me and Sam or me and Richard Dawkins for that matter.

The gravity of what I am saying is that I cant find anywhere else on the net or in books where human morality is grounded at all apart from the theists concept of God.  It is a weakness within the atheist discourse I will give you an example.  William Lane Craig when debating sam said the following.  that theist morality is grounded firmly in the existence of God - who is the personification of goodness. To quote him exactly he says ” Consider first the question of objective moral values. If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? In particular, why think that human beings would have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being. This is what Dr. Harris calls “The Value Problem”.  He further implies that for the atheist, humans are just a purposeless collection of atoms and molecules dominated by `selfish genes’.

He poses further awkward questions such as

Would the Nazi Holocaust stil be wrong if the Nazis had won the war, exterminated or brainwashed everybody who did not agree with them and then wrote it in all the history books that the holocaust was right.  Lane-Craig says yes because morality exists in the divine.  Sam Harris as far as I can tell has no anwer to this and did not answer it in the debate.  Sam’s contention that moral values start from the position of the suffering of sentient beings in the universe.  This is abstract and is grounded nowhere.

I have an E=MC2 type of answer that I have seen nowhere else.  I need 6 pages of A4 to explain it though.  I feel excited about it but getting someone to listen is the frustrating part.  it’s dirt simple and deduced by logic taking into account a little of what I know about a number of scientific disciplines.  I looked on the internet and ive seen nothing else like it.  What do you think I should do buddy?

 

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Posted: 28 December 2012 03:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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a) Re philosophy/pornography. Your answer doesn’t address the moral issue. Is time *better* spent on philosophy or pornography? Of course, you may think there is no moral issue at all in time privately spent. You might try reading Austin Dacey on this…

b) ...or indeed on this (i.e. your latest post). You might also try reading up on humanism. In any case, the moral or spiritual (loose catch-all term) views of neuroscientists like Sam Harris and evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins may have a high profile in the media, but they are only outliers in a vast field. Very many physicists, mathematicians and molecular biologists, and the vast majority of philosophers, do not accept that the world is just made of space and matter/energy.

Anyway, keep thinking. You’ve avoided the first trap, the pressure to come down on the side either of theism or materialism. Keep discussing on the web. Expect some insults from rabid disciples of Dawkins et al - I guarantee that someone will sooner rather than later accuse you of “lying for Jesus” - but never blame the dog for the fleas.

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Posted: 28 December 2012 04:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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The thing is I am not lying for Jesus, I am a total devout and militant atheist and my only wish in this is to strengthen the arguments on the side of atheism.  I also do realise that the issue of morality amounts to an (unassailable) least one third of the theist discourse and has been for centuries. 


Personally I think that if you spend your spare time watching pornography or doing philosophy is a completely irrelevant and diversionary question and that is because in my world view there is no moral issue about what anybody does in their spare time as long as it harms nobody else.  it is neutral - enjoyment or enquiry every human being has the right to both.  Morality is about good or evil, right or wrong and the basis on which we judge.  Not about entertainment of the pursuit of knowledge.


If you ask me about spirituality or materialism I am a definite materialist in that I think there is a scientific basis and explanation for everything.  I think Sam Harris’s point of departure, that Morality is objective, Is true, I agree with him that its basis is not to be found in any deity, but his alternative about the suffering (or not) of sentient beings is abstract and perhaps (borrowed from philosophy or Utilitarianism).  The key question that I am trying to address is where is morality based or grounded? and secondly how does it work and why?  How do we instantly recognise right from wrong? How do we know what is just or unjust.


I have trawled the internet, viewed many videos on You Tube on the subject, done a lot of reading and if there was a simple answer out there I’m sure I would have found it.


If you have an alternative answer to my theory it please let me know what it is

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Posted: 28 December 2012 07:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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I don’t know what your theory is.

One point. If your “only wish in this is to strengthen the arguments on the side of atheism” then I think you will go wrong. My only wish from philosophy or science is the truth, whether it confirms or contradicts my opinion or inclination.

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Posted: 28 December 2012 09:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Touche’

Point taken, I should have known this because this is something that somebody raised in the debate at Atheism UK.  I originally fell into the trap of calling it `atheist morality.’  Somebody of course said we do not wish to be pigeon holed like some religion.  The thing is I think my theory does actually give a` true’ framework to human morality.  I have re-named it the `Origin of Human Morality’ and it starts from science and ends at science.

I further take your implication that I may be going wrong but I can’t see it.  So far on this one website in the UK where we have had a long discussion nobody has been able to criticise it successfully.  I appreciate the scientific method of testing and verification and I am not `precious’ about ideas, either they are right or wrong.  This is one reason why I have come to this website to spread the discussion further a-field.

I wish I could put the theory on this thread but it is 8 pages long.  If you think it’s a good idea let me know.  I think I can however put on something shorter to open the debate.  This is a letter that I posed hyperthetically to Richard Dawkins to start the discussion off.  I will put this on the next post See what you think.

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Posted: 28 December 2012 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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AN OPEN LETTER TO RICHARD DAWKINS

 


Dear Professor Dawkins

 

As a committed atheist, I would comment that your contribution to our cause has been invaluable as yourself and the other `four horsemen’ have brought the cause of rationality and reason back to the fore in light of the rising wave of fundamentalist theism now afflicting the world.  I have been watching your debates on You Tube and I saw the debates between yourself and others, and Sam Harris against the theist advocate William Lane-Craig.


Please accept that the spirit of this letter is to assist the cause of reason science and atheism on the specific subject of morality.  it appears to me that this subject has been and still persists as a weakness in our ideological armoury.  I believe that Lane-Craig in a way has laid this weakness bare in a very public way and is now a figure of fear for many atheist debaters.


Lane-Craig’s main contention is that theist morality is grounded firmly in the existence of God - who is the personification of goodness. To quote him exactly he says ” Consider first the question of objective moral values. If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? In particular, why think that human beings would have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being. This is what Dr. Harris calls “The Value Problem”.  He further implies that for the atheist, humans are just a purposeless collection of atoms and molecules dominated by `selfish genes’.


In his debate with Sam Harris, Sam put forward the broad brushstrokes of an alternative based on his book `The Moral Landscape’ that `morality is objectively grounded in a proposition:  that ultimate evil is the most possible suffering of conscious beings in the universe and what is moral, is any movement away from that.


Given the `abstract’ nature of this statement it seems that Lane-Craig always gets the better of the debate by being the only one with a `concrete’ idea of where morality is grounded and how.  This is irrespective of the fact that theist morality is obviously inferior to what we would consider to be correct moral values in general.  It reminds me of the scenario that if their are 10 people in a debate but only one puts forward a positive argument: and this could be about anything - then that person will win the argument by default: irrespective of any disagreeable comments or voting.


Sam Harris’s perspective of Neuro-science and the operation of the brain ultimately answering the questions about why we consider some things good and some bad I find unconvincing.  I do not say it is impossible or incorrect but It is like trying to understand the social behaviour of ants by dissecting an ant’s brain. I feel that answers by going down this road are a long way off.  The key reason being that for social animals, morality/instinct can only be understood in terms of social relations and interactions between individuals and groups .The key question in my view is that Morality is both an evolutionary and a social question for humans.


You dedicate a whole chapter of `The God Delusion’ to this matter.  In the chapter entitled `The Good Book and the changing Moral Zeitgeist’, In which you correctly describe the rapid advance of human moral progress which mirrors scientific progress in recent centuries but in the end - page 308 you admit:


“It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way.”


I think the problem may be precisely that.  That in order to address this question scientifically, we have to combine the disciplines of the natural sciences particularly evolutionary biology, ethology and anthropology with social science and human social history.  This is precisely what I have done but admittedly only on a very superficial basis but yet I seem to have stumbled onto a consistent theory of morality. The theory is very simple and elegant with a simple formula, an E=MC2 if you will, (I say this only because it is simple and elegant not out of some delusions of grandeur).  This is merely a scientific theory deduced by logic.  I start with the following propositions.


1 In the animal world, instinct and morality are one and the same thing and we should respect animal instinct in this regard.

2 Given that we are in fact animals albeit with super-intelligence and super-ability our starting point has to be our evolved over millions of years natural state, our instincts.

3 The concept of morality as opposed to instinct is therefore a human construct.

4 Morality i e good and evil, therefore exists only within the human race as a species. (unless we find some even more advanced species in the universe).

5 Because of our super-intelligence and super-ability we are able to make progress on all things, an ability absent in the animal kingdom.

6 Science is the uncovering of truth about the world and the universe.

7 The moral zeitgeist that you describe illustrates the `uncovering’ of the truth of our evolved morality and nature by way of the struggles and development of human history and now in the modern world broadly corresponds to the 14 atheist commandments that you superficially sketched out in your book.


In the end. Morality belongs to us as humans and our present moral truths have been `uncovered’ rather than evolved as `true evolution is too slow a process to explain the moral changes that have taken place in world history since the time of Christ until the present’ - and this process continues right up to this very day.


Either way it is in our hands, the grounding for morality is nowhere other than in the human race as a species.  This is a fact that we should be proud of and celebrate our gradual but measurable moral progress.  We should however understand that if our morality lags too far behind our scientific progress and ability this would almost inevitably cause us to destroy ourselves.


As we concretely look at the reality of actually existing theocracy in the world today. we are able to deduce that we are observing moral regress in these cases not progress.  Whether this be nuclear armed Iranian Mullahs or Pakistani Jihadists (who love death more than we love life) or Nuclear armed US creationists who look forward to the day of judgement and their own rapture and commonly speak of the “clash of civilizations” - this is all the more reason for us to steadfastly confront the spread of theistic ideas as much as we can -  as it is possible that the very future of our species could ultimately depend on it.

 

Regards
TrevW
AtheismUK


.............................................................

 

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Posted: 09 January 2013 04:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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I think your (1) is wrong. Animals have no morality, we suppose; why then say that instinct = morality?

Even if (1) and (2) were correct, (3) does not follow; and then nor does (4)...

However, humans and higher animals share an instinct for superstition. An example is the ruinous superstition of gamblers, which has been demonstrated in other species (e.g. Pigeons will starve pecking at a button that delivers feed occasionally - i.e. far too infrequently - on a “variable ratio” or fruit-machine-like schedule, even though a second available button delivers adequate feed on a regular schedule). So the advance of science may parallel the advance of morality because both are effects of the advance of reason. I don’t advance that as a complete theory, just a more cogent hypothesis.

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Posted: 09 January 2013 06:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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logicophilosophicus - 09 January 2013 04:40 AM

I think your (1) is wrong. Animals have no morality, we suppose; why then say that instinct = morality?

Here’s Amazon’s book description of Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved:

“It’s the animal in us,” we often hear when we’ve been bad. But why not when we’re good? Primates and Philosophers tackles this question by exploring the biological foundations of one of humanity’s most valued traits: morality.

In this provocative book, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that modern-day evolutionary biology takes far too dim a view of the natural world, emphasizing our “selfish” genes. Science has thus exacerbated our reciprocal habits of blaming nature when we act badly and labeling the good things we do as “humane.” Seeking the origin of human morality not in evolution but in human culture, science insists that we are moral by choice, not by nature.

Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks “Veneer Theory,” which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on both Darwin and recent scientific advances, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. In the process, he also probes issues such as anthropomorphism and human responsibilities toward animals.

Based on the Tanner Lectures de Waal delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values in 2004, Primates and Philosophers includes responses by the philosophers Peter Singer, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher and the science writer Robert Wright. They press de Waal to clarify the differences between humans and other animals, yielding a lively debate that will fascinate all those who wonder about the origins and reach of human goodness.
http://www.amazon.com/Primates-Philosophers-Morality-Evolved-Princeton/dp/0691141290/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1357741876&sr=8-4&keywords=de+waal

 

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Posted: 10 January 2013 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Dear Logiciophilosphicus

Who said that points 3 and 4 had to logically follow points 1 and 2?  And if you are criticising my post do you think it would be a good idea to say why points 1 and 2 are wrong?  Who the hell mentioned gambling and what has that to do with anything?

Basically I think that you demonstrate both the limits of formal logic and the Poverty of Philosphy.

Dear NV

I appreciate your comments, and thank you.  I have to now say that this whole thread is a bit mixed up, mistitled and that it is my fault.  I have started the thread anew under the title.  “The Origin of Human Morality” For all those interested in the subject please attend that thread

Thanks

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Posted: 10 January 2013 11:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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The word “therefore” means “it follows that”. Who said points 3 and 4 follow from 1 and 2? You did.

The point was about superstition. Not all gambling is superstitious. You missed it.

Your abusive remarks about philosophy are, THEREFORE, demonstrably ironic.

I could hazard a guess why you believe no one has been able to fault your “theory”. “Who the hell” would continue such a dialogue?

Not me.

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Posted: 16 January 2013 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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TrevW, with all due respect, I think your criticism and so-called “theory” has many flaws and you need to do more research.

nv refered you to a book by Frans de Waal and below is a link to a TED talk he gave on his work on moral behavior in animals.

http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html

IMO, these experiments actually support and reinforce Dr. Harris’ thesis in the “The Moral Landscape” which you yourself said you have not read.

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Posted: 17 January 2013 01:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Dear Cypher

Thanks for the information.  It was a very entertaining and informative video and explores the similarities between humans and higher mammals which is positive.  I think that the problem here is that we are talking at cross purposes.  I completely apologise for the title of this thread and I have already said that it is misleading and unhelpful and is totally my fault.

I think the video certainly explores the details of certain behaviours that can possibly lead us to what we refer to as morality today.  I am however talking about a general broad outline.  I do not think that Sam’s work is incorrect and I think that his theory has great merit.  I am only suggesting that I think that I have gone a step further along the same road not only identifying the relation ship between human morality and animal behaviour but also the difference between the two.

Please,  I would refer you to my new thread in the general discussion section entitled “The Origin of Human Morality”  I would very much welcome any comments (and criticism) on it if only for my own understanding.  You see I am of the view that threories are either correct or false and if false they need to be tested to destruction.  If correct they need to be improved upon or refined.

The theory is about 8 or 9 pages long and runs continuously on that thread.  I know that it is quite a lot of trouble but this is a subject that we should all be concerned with.

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Posted: 25 January 2013 06:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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logicophilosophicus - 09 January 2013 04:40 AM

I think your (1) is wrong. Animals have no morality, we suppose; why then say that instinct = morality?

I think that animals have a morality insofar as they have a functional phenomenology (mental life) which can be benign or adverse for the agent, have various values. If they responsd to that aspect of their “life world” (however primitive it is on the intellectual side) they have a form of normative conduct. What animals lack is a systematic moral philosophy. But thay are still morally apt (see the concept of ‘truth apt’ fror the allusion) - just like a monkey is gravity apt (subject to the logic of gravitational forces) even if it is no Newton with a complete theory of the subject under its armpit. I think the issue revolves around proving that animals have a value apt phenomenology - capable of good or benign states etc - analogous to ours.

[ Edited: 25 January 2013 06:12 AM by Hypersoup]
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