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Is There Any Hope For Morals In A Non-Religious World?
Posted: 13 November 2006 04:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]  
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That’s a great point Rod.  I wrote that bit you quoted thinking about future scientific impacts on morality, but you’ve pointed out the significant impact that science has had on morality over the past few hundred years.  And this argument can go a long way in helping to dissuade those who believe that moral value can come only from an authority like a god. The proof that this view is has already been undermined is abundantly evident in even those two examples you suggested, drought and disease. But how many other human actions or natural phenomena were also once attributed to “god’s punishment for wrongdoing” - that have now been fully exposed by science as bogus moral claims.

Homosexuality is one of those human behaviours that is presently on the “dividing-line” between science and religion.  Traditional religion held that homosexuality was immoral (by the authority of god), but science is showing that this sort of moral valuation is false and dangerous.  This is a perfect example of how secular science slowly undermines religious dogma until it simply crumbles under the pressure of common sense; science has moral value - unquestionably.

Bob

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Posted: 13 November 2006 07:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]  
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[quote author=“publius”]There will never be, nor can there be a “scientific” basis for ethics.

Nice name, publius. Bad arguments though. Not only scientific basis for ethics is possible but it will function much better than religion based ethics.

The ethics of religion like Christianity are based on the wisdom of rather primitive desert dwellers and enforced by the convoluted mix of psychological tricks [also known as brain washing] developed and perfected over centuries by the church.

The secular ethics can be scientifically developed for balancing and optimizing social stability and individual happiness. They can be enforced by the combination of laws and social pressure to conform to the norms of society.

Given the reality of the world we live in now you can only defend “the only true ethics of religion” by ignoring the common sense and the objective symptoms of social sanity and happiness. If the crime statistics doesn’t convince you that secular and tolerant countries like Netherlands and Sweden have something that religious country like the US doesn’t what kind of evidence are you looking for and what can you demonstrate to us? I expect that apart from some quotes from the Bible you don’t have much to show.

T. O.

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Posted: 13 November 2006 08:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]  
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Secular ethics are simple and common sense but the debate around them is nothing but simple and common sense. In today’s world I could formulate secular ethics as the following set of goals.

1. Individual freedom and rights must be respected
2. Social stability and the rights of nations and cultures to survive and thrive must be respected
3. The survival of the human race must be protected
4. The balance between the above goals must be sought

It is curious to me why we accept the notion that certain individuals by the virtue of their social position are more competent than others to serve verdicts on ethics. Two categories of people come to mind. Religious authorities and politicians. Some of the religious figures may, indeed, have special experience and competence to pass ethical judgment better than an average person but in most cases the advantage they gain this way is dwarfed by the enormous bias of their particular religious believes. Some rabbis and some muslim clerics involved in running the community affairs certainly have valuable experience. Dalaj Lama by the virtue of representing the Tibetan people clearly demonstrated sound ethical judgments. On the other hand whenever I hear about Washington politicians usurping their rights to teach the scientists the ethics of science I want to laugh. And I want to cry, too.

Once we accept the simple four principles of ethics I listed above the rest is all science. The role of science is modest but nevertheless powerful. Science will not tell us what is good and what is evil as those still clinching to the absolutist notion of morality/ethics rooted in some supreme being might demand. However, science will tell us how to govern ourselves so the four goals listed above are realized. Unfortunately it is still the religion and politics, and not science, which are in charge.

T. O.

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Posted: 14 November 2006 09:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]  
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There is a lengthy body of scientific research which concerns questions of ethical behavior and altruism. The conclusions are drawn from very large sample sizes. To wit, this area of study is called Game Theory. One of the best popularizations of this theory is in a book by Tor Norretranders called “the Generous Man.”  As Mr Spock would say, “fascinating!”

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Posted: 15 November 2006 01:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]  
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[quote author=“Thomas Orr”]1. Individual freedom and rights must be respected
2. Social stability and the rights of nations and cultures to survive and thrive must be respected
3. The survival of the human race must be protected
4. The balance between the above goals must be sought

I love philosophers. They pile up “musts” 1, 2, and 3. And then make the fourth one above and hope it is consistent. Very musty. Very musty indeed.

You guys crack me up, sometimes. At least the amateur ethicists do.

The survival of the human race MUST be protected. By whom? Wow. Just wow.

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Posted: 15 November 2006 04:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”]I love philosophers. They pile up “musts” 1, 2, and 3. And then make the fourth one above and hope it is consistent. Very musty. Very musty indeed.

You guys crack me up, sometimes. At least the amateur ethicists do.

The survival of the human race MUST be protected. By whom? Wow. Just wow.

Hi Salty,

I am sorry if you read it as philosophy. I thought I was pointing to the obvious but apparently I was wrong.

I thought that #2 must be mentioned so we become aware that destroying communities in the name of efficiency as our corporations do is not ethically neutral and should be condemned for the same reason we condemn putting somebody in jail without a trial. Ultimately, not respecting cultures and communities leads to the abuse of individual rights and individual suffering but the link is not obvious to many and outright denied by the entire conservative wing in this country (and on this forum).

#3 is the basis for what we do when we establish international quotas for fishing or when we gather support for the Kyoto protocol. I would be ashamed for including such an obvious point on my list if it wasn’t for our president who says that our individual rights to protect the American lifestyle trumpet any international concerns.

When I added #4 I wasn’t hoping for consistency. Of course #1 - #3 contradict each other and compromise is necessary. However, some compromises are better than others and that’s why we need science when we attempt to improve the society. Science will help in establishing the measures of improvement. Science will help in bringing about the actual improvements, however they are measured. Ultimately, the paradise and humanity living in perfect harmony and happiness are not possible. But striving for better social order and happier societies is.

I cannot be offended by the label of amateur ethicist. I would be worried if you classified me as a professional. So far the professional ethicists: rabbis, priests, mullahs, moral relativists and behavioral scientists did nothing to inspire my confidence. On the other hand, societies like some European countries who discarded religion-based ethics and make their laws with the simple goal in mind to minimize suffering and practice tolerance do impress me, indeed.

Since most atheists, agnostics and freethinkers on this forum express similar convictions regarding the morals and ethics resulting in similar stand on ethically controversial issues like abortion, legalisation of drugs, doctor assisted suicide and equal treatment of all, including women and homosexuals, I am inclined to think that principles of secular ethics can be formulated and verbalized, they are not terribly complicated and they will work better than other ethical systems.

Please, regard me as a boy who said “the king is naked”, not as a philosopher.

Thomas Orr

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Posted: 15 November 2006 06:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]  
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You didn’t answer my question, Thomas. With human beings, the fox is in charge of the henhouse, and, to paraphrase Elliot, the fox and the hen are one.

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Posted: 15 November 2006 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”]You didn’t answer my question, Thomas. With human beings, the fox is in charge of the henhouse, and, to paraphrase Elliot, the fox and the hen are one.

What was your question? Was it: “The survival of the human race MUST be protected. By whom? Wow. Just wow. “?

I don’t understand. The thread is about whether the secular ethics are possible, not about how to implement them.

The four points I included replace 10 commandments if you will. If ethics are about answering the question what’s wrong and what’s right I thought I answered that question even if my answer lacks in important specifics. Didn’t I?

From there to the just and prosperous society there is still some ground to cover and I am sure there will be many foxes and hens in the henhouse. Nevertheless, I consider my plan a progress with respect to Christianity.

Please be patient for a little longer as I try to make myself clear. Regardless of what behavioral scientists tell us about ourselves and about the confusion of acting out of selfishness while imagining more ulterior motifs, I trust the feelings of empathy and compassion we naturally are capable of being motivated by. I also trust our ability to eventually yield to common sense and say goodbye to our favorite intellectual constructs when the conflict between intellect and emotions arise. From this perspective the issue of ethics [=what’s right and what’s wrong] is simple and that’s what I tried to formulate with my four points. I would be curious to know if you feel differently.

Thomas Orr

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Posted: 15 November 2006 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]  
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[quote author=“Thomas Orr”]I don’t understand. The thread is about whether the secular ethics are possible, not about how to implement them.

You sure don’t. I would say that the possibility of secular ethics depends acutely on whether anyone can propose a way to implement it. At least in any sense of the word “possible” that I think is possible.

But it is possible that I do not understand you. Be that as it may, you still have not answered my question. “By whom?”

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Posted: 15 November 2006 08:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]  
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Salt Creek,

I would say that the possibility of secular ethics depends acutely on whether anyone can propose a way to implement it. At least in any sense of the word “possible” that I think is possible.

Our system of ethics is already partially implemented in our laws. From prohibitions on murder right down to whether I can speed in your neighborhood. This is all secular. Obviously they do not cover all of our ethical intuitions…I mean I can still lie to my friends and for the most part it is not illegal. This sort of thing is relatively self limited…how many times before they are not your friends anymore, and stop listening to you. Fact is, we have tried to put many of our secular ethical intuitions in our law codes, and they usually have something to say about our best wishes for treating each other fairly. The trouble we still have is in removing the religiously inspired laws that more often than not have no real connection to true ethics or common sense.
Some ethical considerations I’m not sure you would even want to codify into law. My house is on fire….do I want a law that tells me I must save my child before my wife, or vice versa? Or should I go after the insurance papers? HEEE HEEE

Rod

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Posted: 15 November 2006 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”]But it is possible that I do not understand you. Be that as it may, you still have not answered my question. “By whom?”

Rod answered this question partially. There is also another factor frequently overlooked but very significant, and it is the culture. By that I mean what children are taught in schools and in their families, the pressure/expectations to conform to societal norms. These are powerful factors frequently deciding whether a given political system (democracy) will work, or not. The culture is something that grows slowly but when it takes roots becomes a very powerful force. More powerful I should say than the religion instilled fear. It is possible to create the culture and steer it in the desired directions. Too bad that the politicians are short term oriented and generally are not interested in building the culture. However, we can build the good culture in our communities.

Thomas Orr

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Posted: 16 November 2006 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]  
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[quote author=“Thomas Orr”][quote author=“publius”]There will never be, nor can there be a “scientific” basis for ethics.

Nice name, publius. Bad arguments though. Not only scientific basis for ethics is possible but it will function much better than religion based ethics.

The ethics of religion like Christianity are based on the wisdom of rather primitive desert dwellers and enforced by the convoluted mix of psychological tricks [also known as brain washing] developed and perfected over centuries by the church.

The secular ethics can be scientifically developed for balancing and optimizing social stability and individual happiness. They can be enforced by the combination of laws and social pressure to conform to the norms of society.

Given the reality of the world we live in now you can only defend “the only true ethics of religion” by ignoring the common sense and the objective symptoms of social sanity and happiness. If the crime statistics doesn’t convince you that secular and tolerant countries like Netherlands and Sweden have something that religious country like the US doesn’t what kind of evidence are you looking for and what can you demonstrate to us? I expect that apart from some quotes from the Bible you don’t have much to show.

T. O.

The appeal to “common sense” is the surest sign that one lacks an argument.  I rarely quote the Bible, especially where ethical justification is concerned, but it might not be such a bad thing if you actually read the Bible and the Qu’ran.  Think of them as bad fiction or literature if you like, but to suppose you’re equipped to critique religion based on non-textual oriented conceptions of God means that you’ll never be criticising a position that anyone holds.  Your dogma aside, there are several really big problems with your (and other’s) analysis.

First I reiterate my position:  science cannot be the ground for ethics.  Facts are certainly relevant to moral judgments, but moral principles and rules are not factual statements.  I note that no justification for ethical conduct has been offered - other than to point to what is commonly accepted by most (the sole basis upon which Harris founds his ethical arguments) - and that the athiests faith that science can provide answers is as perversly dogmatic and non-sensical as a theist who believes God is the source of morality.  As I said, I am a theist, but I’m very comfortable critiquing both religious and secular ignorance.

Here’s the first really big problem with your analysis (and others).  If ethics needed to be grounded in science then two deeply troubling things follow.  First, there is no reason to think that we OUGHT to be ethical now because we have not satifactorily explained the scientific basis or grounds for ethical action.  Thus, like the good agnostic, we might simply say, I don’t have enough evidence to act ethically.  Indeed, many if not most of the responses here betray a deep faith that science will provide answers tomorrow.  But this faith is misplaced.  In some three hundred years, no knock down scientific proof of ethics has ever been developed.  As you demand of theists:  you must abandon beliefs for which the evidence is overwhelmingly against you.  Science can never justify a moral “ought” becaus science is merely descriptive of the world. 

Second, if the basis for ethics is science (empirical observation, testable hypotheses) then the secular athiest is deprived of his ethical critique of religious conduct.  After all, if science only got going at the time of the Elightenment or in the modern world, then no one prior to that time could be faulted for lacking ethical knowledge.  Lacking ethics would be no more blameworthy than failing to have invent the light bulb.  It’s lamentable that people lived in—what from our perspective is the dark—but there’s no basis upon which to get morally outraged over the Inquisition, etc. 

Next problem is that you’ve mischaracterized what I’ve said and confused justification and motivation.  I asserted that God cannot be the basis for ethics.  However, it does not follow that a belief in God cannot be a motivator for ethical behavior.  The problem is that God is no more the source of ethics than science.  By placing all his hopes on science, the secular athiest seeks to have science do what not even God can.  The justification for ethical conduct can only be found in practical reason—that is philosophical reasoning about what one ought to do.

Consider by way of example, one classic, non-scientific justification for ethical conduct:  Kant’s categorical imperative.  The categorical imperative takes several forms, but I’ll restrict my remarks to one:  Kant’s formula for a univeral law (FOL):  Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.

A voluminous discussion could be had as to these (and certainly Kant himself thought so).  But there’s a simple point to be taken away.  There can be no doubt that universilization and non-contradiction are critical to good ethical reasoning.  But the FOL would never be discovered by neuroscience or in a labratory some place.

Finally, Kant thought that morality was a set of categorical imperatives.  An imperative is a command like “Shut the door.”  It has no truth value but it does have logical properties.  For example, it has a logical contrarty:  Open the door.

Do you agree that “Thou shalt not murder” is a justified command?  Some think it’s justified because God commanded it.  I do not.  If the command is justified, what justifies it?

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Posted: 16 November 2006 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]  
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[quote author=“Publius”]The appeal to “common sense” is the surest sign that one lacks an argument.

In this case, publius, it might be a suggestion that NO ONE possesses an argument, and that common sense notions of reciprocity, and a systematic basis in human evolution probably have some bearing. Citing Kant doesn’t do it for me. Citing Kant as an entree to ethics is one of the surest signs I know that one lacks common sense, and would very much like to intellectualize the problem to death.

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Posted: 16 November 2006 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]  
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[quote author=“publius”]First I reiterate my position: science cannot be the ground for ethics

Agree. My common sense ethics are grounded in the feelings of emphaty and compassion, and wishing well to my friends, family, children and humanity. It is actually amazing how easy and how well people can agree on those principles unless, of course, their common sense and ability to think for themselves are compromised by religion.

So ethics are grounded in our feelings but the implementation must be grounded in common sense and science. Without that you will have Christians who consider charity the sign of love yet do nothing to address the social problems underlying the need for charity in the first place.

Thomas Orr

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Posted: 16 November 2006 06:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”][quote author=“Publius”]The appeal to “common sense” is the surest sign that one lacks an argument.

In this case, publius, it might be a suggestion that NO ONE possesses an argument, and that common sense notions of reciprocity, and a systematic basis in human evolution probably have some bearing. Citing Kant doesn’t do it for me. Citing Kant as an entree to ethics is one of the surest signs I know that one lacks common sense, and would very much like to intellectualize the problem to death.

In what way are you different from a religious fundamentalist?  The Christian fundamentalist assures me that Jesus has entered his heart and that right and wrong are clear to him.  You offer me common sense and then a rejection of Kant, without argument.  You’ve simply substituted “Jesus” for “common sense”.  Indeed, your position strikes as being far more suspect that the fundamentalist because you claim a world completely grounded in reason and yet fail to give any sort of meaningful argument or discussion or analysis of how ethis is possible.

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