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Sorry Sam, Morality Does Not Exist
Posted: 16 December 2006 07:36 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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With respect to today’s subject, I am in the minority even among atheists. Few non-believers—no matter how strongly they reject traditional Christian morality—are willing to call moral issues strictly matters of opinion. However, I remain a steadfast nihilist despite the rarity of my breed. Morality is, at its heart, a subject about which no hard facts exist. Murder is bad…Altruism is good…Theft is bad – These are nothing more than statements of opinion and expressions of personal taste. Although this bold assertion might seem shocking and offensive to some, I hope to explicate my position by way of two pertinent analogies: weather and movies.

Weather conditions can be classified as “good” or “bad” (or somewhere in between those). Personally, I enjoy the heat. My ideal weather would be 90 degrees and blazingly sunny. If I awoke tomorrow and those were the conditions, I would classify the weather as “good.” However, nothing intrinsically is good about those conditions. Given alternate preferences (for example, preference for snow and wind), the aforementioned conditions would be considered “bad” weather. To me, 90 degrees is “good.” To hypothetical individual A, 90 degrees is “bad.” There is no method by which to discern the intrinsic “goodness” of weather—no existing scientific instrumentation is up to the task. And so, we must conclude that no weather intrinsically is either good or bad. Those concepts are coherent only in the eyes of the beholder, and one opinion is just as good as any other, since none could be considered objectively correct.

Movies can be classified as “good” or “bad” (or somewhere in between those). Personally, I enjoy slasher movies. My ideal flick would be a gory slasher story on the order of Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If I went to the multiplex on Saturday night and saw a movie similar to the one I just described, I would classify that film as “good.” However, nothing intrinsically is good about that hypothetical film. Given alternate preferences (for example, love stories or historical dramas), the aforementioned flick might well be considered “bad.” To me, slasher movies are “good.” To hypothetical individual A, slasher movies are “bad.” There is no method by which to discern the intrinsic “goodness” of films—no existing scientific instrumentation is up to the task. And so, we must conclude that no movie is either good or bad. Those concepts are coherent only in the eyes of the beholder, and one opinion is just as good as any other, since none could be considered objectively correct.

Morality (the study of “good” versus “bad”) is precisely the same as my two examples. Morality cannot be gauged, measured, quantified or tested in the scientific sense. There are no measurable units of morality comparable to inches, ounces, volts or calories. Unless, and until, a reliable “morality meter” is invented by an enterprising scientist, moral claims must be recognized for what they truly are: statements of unsubstantiated opinion masquerading as universal standards to which we should submit.

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Posted: 16 December 2006 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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“Few non-believers—no matter how strongly they reject traditional Christian morality—are willing to call moral issues strictly matters of opinion. “


This is completely untrue.

You’re trying way too hard to be abrasive in order to make a point.

“Although this bold assertion might seem shocking and offensive to some, I hope to explicate my position by way of two pertinent analogies: weather and movies. “

I’m shocked! lol

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Posted: 16 December 2006 07:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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The difference between a bad movie and murder or theft is that with the latter two, you’re hurting someone else.  A bad movie does not.  As Robert Heinlein wrote, the only sin (or immoral act, if you wish) is harming others unnecessarily.  All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.

Call it morality, call it whatever you want.  The simple fact is if you avoid hurting others as best you can, you’re moral.

It’s a pretty simple way to live life (not hurting others) and to compare that philosophy with a ‘bad movie’ misses the boat completely.

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Posted: 16 December 2006 08:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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The question is how seriously to take the consensus if you have not fully bought into it. I think that’s an argument that Lewis Carroll used. Most people treat conventional morality as a practical necessity.

[ Edited: 01 January 2007 04:56 AM by ]
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Posted: 16 December 2006 08:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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WWFStern:

I’m going to have to disagree with you.

I’m not with the theists, who want to claim that morality stems from God, and is absolute and inviolate throughout the universe, but I’m not with you either.

The fact that you and I can differ with regards to morality is not the same thing as morality being a matter of opinion only.

I look at it this way:  There is a general morality which you could look at as a species wide consensus morality.  As you descend into nations, social groups, etc., you get into progressively more specifc “local” moralities, until, finally, you wind up at the individual level.

It is easy to dismiss the consensus morality in favor of individual morality, but to do so misses the larger point, which is that humanity has evolved a moral capacity, and indeed even basic moral precepts, which have come about as means of keeping our species alive and prosperous.

Thus, what we call morality is a collection of mutable protocols that, nonetheless, all exist to confer an adaptive advantage to our species.  I’d hardly call that compatible with the claim that morality is strictly a matter of opinion, or that no objective basis for it can be studied.

Furthermore, the examples that you brought up, such as temperature and movies, are tortured.  It is entirely possible to have a concept of “good” weather that looks for comfort, and not a specific temperature, which would encompass both of the people that you use in your example.

If you want to play philisophical games, you can say that the survival of the human species is an arbitrarily adopted value, and then all sorts of thoughts can be entertained, but as for me, I am the descendant of a long line of survivors (going back billions of years, in fact), and I feel no need to pretend that I am not the product of such long chain of successful reproduction.

-Matt

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Posted: 16 December 2006 09:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Hello WWFstern,

The following doesn’t address your point in the least, but I can’t let an opportunity go by to quote Oscar Wilde when someone mentions morality.


“I never came across anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log-stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity. Moral people, as they are termed, are simple beasts. I would sooner have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue.”

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Posted: 16 December 2006 10:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Morality cannot be gauged, measured, quantified or tested in the scientific sense. There are no measurable units of morality comparable to inches, ounces, volts or calories. Unless, and until, a reliable “morality meter” is invented by an enterprising scientist, moral claims must be recognized for what they truly are: statements of unsubstantiated opinion masquerading as universal standards to which we should submit.


My understanding of Sam is that the ‘morality meter’ measures the degree to which our actions cause ourselves or others happiness or cause others to suffer. Happiness and suffering are the objective, measurable units with which to gauge the degree of morality of a given action. Also, the degree to which different sentient beings can suffer comes into play (a cricket has less cognitive ability to suffer than a deer than a human….)


There is no objective natural law that says “slavery is wrong” or “slaughtering chickens is wrong”;but the suffering caused to humans by slavery, or to chickens by slaughtering them is objective and observable. This, I take Sam to mean, is where our disscussion on morality should begin.

This is just my personal understanding of Sam on this issue…...

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Posted: 16 December 2006 11:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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My understanding of Sam is that the ‘morality meter’ measures the degree to which our actions cause ourselves or others happiness or cause others to suffer. Happiness and suffering are the objective, measurable units with which to gauge the degree of morality of a given action.

Based on what Sam wrote, I have to agree with your interpretation of his stance. However, his stance is baseless.

There is no scientific evidence demonstrating that morality has to do with the happiness and/or suffering of sentient creatures (or has anything to do with happiness and suffering at all). That’s an arbitrary standard.

Just as easily, I could say: Morality has to do with actions which help or harm the larger environment.

Just as easily, I could say: Morality has to do with actions which help or harm ME, and nobody else is relevant in the equation.

Sam acts as though human happiness and suffering manifestly are relevant to “morality.” I disagree. No lab test has confirmed that significant hypothesis.

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Posted: 16 December 2006 02:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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[quote author=“WWFStern”]

My understanding of Sam is that the ‘morality meter’ measures the degree to which our actions cause ourselves or others happiness or cause others to suffer. Happiness and suffering are the objective, measurable units with which to gauge the degree of morality of a given action.

Based on what Sam wrote, I have to agree with your interpretation of his stance. However, his stance is baseless.

There is no scientific evidence demonstrating that morality has to do with the happiness and/or suffering of sentient creatures (or has anything to do with happiness and suffering at all). That’s an arbitrary standard.

Just as easily, I could say: Morality has to do with actions which help or harm the larger environment.

Just as easily, I could say: Morality has to do with actions which help or harm ME, and nobody else is relevant in the equation.

Sam acts as though human happiness and suffering manifestly are relevant to “morality.” I disagree. No lab test has confirmed that significant hypothesis.

It sounds like morality is relative simply because we can’t decide what “morality” means, not that the measure by which we judge our actions is relative. Sam solves this problem, kind of, by simply saying that we should work to reduce suffering. That which increases suffering is less moral than that which decreases suffering—which is more moral. In this sense, there may be no such thing as absolute morality or the complete absence of morality, but it does suggest that morality does have a method of measurement. I think most people who call morality relative believe that because some things are both moral and immoral at the same time, but to different degrees, therefore, to them, morality must be relative.

When you get rid of this notion that actions are either purely moral, purely anti-moral, or purely amoral, you are able to measure the effects of the action in conjunction with its moral value. Thus, what we will be striving for is not absolute morality, but a more perfect morality. There are bugs in the moral system; there is no good bug fighting against the evil bug. The bugs themselves have good and bad qualities. We need to decide simply how to increase the good qualities and decrease the bad qualities, not decide which actions are wholly good, which actions are wholly bad, and which actions are meaningless in terms of morality.

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Posted: 17 December 2006 03:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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In general morality is encompassed in the Golden Rule. If you think you could wake up on any particular day and change the way you would like to be treated by others…then maybe your morality is a choice. Mine has always remained pretty consistant…and from the reaction of others, it seems prettty objective.

Rod

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Posted: 17 December 2006 03:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Well put, Rod. I agree. The idea of moral relativism is an interesting and complex one.

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Posted: 17 December 2006 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Sorry everybody but I still think Sam, on this particular issue, has betrayed his allegiance to evidence. In “End of Faith,” he says this:

“A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.”

He also says:

“If there are truths to be known about how human beings conspire to make one another happy or miserable, there are truths to be known about ethics.”

Now, let me just make clear that, in large measure, Sam uses “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably in this book. From my reading, I have seen him provide no meaningful distinction. Indeed, he talks about “ethics” in terms of right and wrong, which really is the territory of morality.

Now, my objection to the two quotes provided above can be summarized in a quote Sam includes in End of Faith. Christopher Hitchens says:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

Sorry, but I’ve seen no evidence that morality OR ethics relate to happiness and suffering in any way, let alone specifically with respect to sentient creatures.

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Posted: 17 December 2006 04:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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I couldn’t disagree more.  I think there is a confusion here, taking the word “morality” as implying “something that is taught as the proper moral behavior by some religion or other belief system.”  With that definition, it is certainly relative to the particular belief system (although they can generally agree on certain basics which may, as another poster pointed out, may be grounded in evolutionary biology).  But that is already surrendering the idea of morality to religion.  To the contrary, I would go back to Socrates and Plato and argue that there is indeed an objective morality, but that it is not something that can be codified in any system of belief.  Both the dogmatic moralist and the relativistic sophist it seems to me miss the mark by locating the moral injunctions in the external social world—the dogmatist in their particular dogma and the relativist in the world of social convention.  Instead, I would suggest that morality itself is something internal that can only be achieved in approximation via the Platonic dialectical ascent.  In this regard, it has only little to do with promoting happiness (although the result of a moral life is happiness) and everything to do with recognizing and responding to necessity in each given situation.

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Posted: 18 December 2006 11:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Marc Hauser and Peter Singer at Harvard have done some research showing that morality is much more than a choice and quite disconnected from ones religion.

http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~mnkylab/publications/recent/HauserSingerMoralRelig05.pdf

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Posted: 19 December 2006 02:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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For my blog, I wrote this companion essay, which I think is relevant here, about morality and its non-existence…


Ever since I jumped back into the debate about whether “morality” is objective or simply a matter of opinion, I’ve been asked to clarify my nihilistic view that morality—as a natural, objective concept—does not exist. And, I am happy to do so.

The problem with morality is this: It is a term without a concept. Or, at least, without a single one capable of being proved correct. An individual could define morality, quite literally, in countless ways; and, each one of those definitions would be equally correct, since there is no evidence available to support one morality conception’s veracity or another’s falsehood. Sam Harris, for example, defines moral actions as those that increase human happiness. On the other hand, in his mind, immoral actions increase human suffering. While that conception of morality seems sensible, it is totally unburdened by evidence. In his book The End of Faith, Harris simply declares that human happiness and suffering are the relevant factors with regard to morality. I could make an entirely different declaration, and be equally correct (as well as equally lacking in actual supporting evidence).

At the risk of being repetitious, I will list three possible conceptions of morality. Note, these are only three among innumerable others.


(1). Morality relates to human-to-human interaction. Moral actions increase happiness, while immoral actions increase suffering.

(2). Morality relates to human-to-environment interaction. Moral actions benefit the environment, while immoral actions harm the environment. Human happiness/suffering is not relevant.

(3). Morality relates to human-to-frog interaction. Moral actions benefit frogs, while immoral actions harm frogs. Human happiness/suffering is not relevant.


Sam Harris would argue neither (2) nor (3) is the correct notion of morality (as neither one places human happiness/suffering at the core of the issue). But, given the absolute dearth of evidence on the matter, (1), (2) and (3) all are equally plausible conceptions of morality. Indeed, the precise opposite of (1)—that morality relates to human-to-human interaction, and that moral actions increase suffering, while immoral actions increase happiness—also is equally as plausible a definition as any other is.

At the risk of being forced to eat my words, I challenge any of my readers to argue—with actual evidence—that one morality conception is more correct than another morality conception. If, collectively, we choose to define morality in some particular way simply out of speciocentric self-interest, that means that, while morality exists, it has no relationship with the natural universe or the true order of things. That is, genocide only would be immoral because—if speciocentric self-interest is the Key Factor—genocide manifestly runs counter to that self-interest. But to allege that Homo sapiens sapiens’ self-interest inherently is relevant to “morality” would be to make an assertion without the benefit of evidence. Human self-interest easily could be replaced by another Key Factor, such as the primacy of the environment or the supremacy of frogs.

The other perplexing thing about morality is the inconsistency with which it is applied. If two lions are fighting over a hyena carcass, and one lion kills the other, has that lion committed an “immoral” act? If not, then why, in a similar case, would a human be guilty of immorality? Nobody ever talks about duck-billed platypuses behaving immorally, or geese being the picture of moral perfection. Why are Homo sapiens sapiens subject to moral strictures? We are, after all, just another animal species roaming around this planet. We live on the same evolutionary Tree of Life as lions, platypuses and geese. And yet, when it comes to morality, we pretend that we’re not animals like all the rest of our brethren. The truth is—we are. On this planet, we, like all animals, eat, sleep and reproduce.

From where did morality spring?

Why was its noose tied around the neck of our poor species?

And where is the elusive evidence to justify its existence as a scientific, natural concept?

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Posted: 19 December 2006 02:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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[quote author=“WWFStern”]Sam acts as though human happiness and suffering manifestly are relevant to “morality.” I disagree. No lab test has confirmed that significant hypothesis. . . .

. . .  Christopher Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

Sorry, but I’ve seen no evidence that morality OR ethics relate to happiness and suffering in any way, let alone specifically with respect to sentient creatures.

WWF, sciences are able to accomplish many useful and amazing things, but combing through various human-constructed concepts and “proving” that some actually exist materially while others reside elsewhere is not something scientists typically attempt.

If you’re interested in what an author and scientist specializing in animal morality is able to accomplish by way of hypothesis/theory/data collection/analysis/peer review, see Frans de Waal’s Good Natured, the Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals.

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