Morality: How it Works

December 6, 2009 at 12:56 pm 79 comments

As I have watched discussions on forums and in debates about morals I have made what I think is a unique discovery since I have not yet seen it expressed anywhere else. Since I have watched or listened to hundreds of debates and been involved in studying apologetics which has lead me to study just about every moral explanation I could find, I am really curious to see if I have missed something. As such, please enlighten me if I am simply making an explanation of morality that has already been covered by someone else.

I want to start with a few premises and definitions:

Definitions

  • value: perception of an item, idea, or concept directly related to the work it takes to obtain or maintain it and directly related to the comfort the item brings. The more rare something is, the greater its value. If an item is not rare but difficult to maintain, its perceived value goes up. Capitalism is based on this simple principle.
  • benefit: an increase in value.
  • harm: a reduction in value. This is not to be confused with pain because a painful thing can be perceived to be beneficial.
  • suffering: harmful pain.

Now then, I confess it is extremely difficult to continue and explain how morality works because in doing so I am actually applying the principle I am explaining. The principle is extremely simple at its core, but can lead to such complex nuances so quickly that it is hard for me to focus on the simplicity of the principle and not get caught up in tertiary thought processes. As such, at the end of explaining the principle, I plan on demonstrating the principles validity by showing how writing this paper demonstrates the principle in action. I hope that for most people that will be good evidence I have deeply thought this through.

The human mind processes information to reach conclusions and these conclusions extend in ones mind on a continuum from uncertainty to certainty. Certainty means the individual has no piece of information that contradicts their conclusion. Uncertainty stems from doubt, and doubt stems from information that contradicts the present conclusion.

However, it is important to keep in mind that here is no direct correlation between that which is objectively true and ones certainty level because our knowledge is by nature limited. As such, we could always potentially encounter new information that could alter our certainty level.

Given the accuracy of all of that is stated above, our value system changes regularly. As we gather new information about things in our lives our certainty level about whether those things will cause harm or bring benefit changes. This can occur in jobs, in families, in relationships, and even in our own ideas. Since every person is constantly getting a stream of information from our senses, it is inevitable that our value systems will change over time.

I hope everyone reading can appreciate the depth of this theory and how complex it can get in such a rapid way. The reason for this is that our reception of new information is based on whether we perceive the source of the information to be harmful or beneficial. And we build this perception based on our current set of information. As such, our knowledge about the world builds in a self-referential fashion.

Most of the complexity of increasing intellectual knowledge in the human race extends from this simple principle: we refer to our current value system to inform us as to the value to ascribe to new information.

Morality (as far as I can perceive at this point given my current knowledge) extends entirely from our human ability to ascribe value to the actions and beliefs of perceived persons. Therefore, an immoral person is a person I perceive to be harmful. An immoral action is an action by another person that I perceive to be harmful. An immoral belief is a belief that I perceive to be harmful. [From the latter extends the human conception of blasphemy and heresy.]

All humans do that which they perceive to be the least harmful, therefore all humans are – in their own eyes – doing the most “moral” thing.

As such, we do not have any right to judge our fellow man. All we can do is dialogue with the goal of bringing new information in a trustworthy way so as to potentially change the value system of another man and make their moral inclinations more in line with our own.

From this principle follows the base moral inclinations that all humans can agree upon. Murder is the killing of another man where the perceived value of the other man’s life is greater than the reason for which the man was killed. Lying is the perceived willful dissemination of false information with an intention to harm. Adultery is unfaithfulness to a promised sexual partner, thus causing harm to the person’s trustworthiness. Unfaithfulness is an action that break an expected pattern of behavior, thus causing a reduction in the value of the person’s trustworthiness, thus causing harm. Notice that all of these things are based upon the other man’s perception. This is why all men can agree that murder, adultery, and unfaithfulness are wrong but can disagree so adamantly on whether it is wrong in a particular scenario (e.g. abortion, a comatose partner, or spying).

So then, morality is absolute, but information is limited and value systems differ. As a result, the perception as to whether a moral absolute has been breached is always relative to the individuals current knowledge.

Let me give an example. If I were to say lying is wrong everyone would agree that it is. But everyone would differ on whether it is a lie to tell a falsehood in order to save an individual from hearing about their surprise birthday party. The reason for this is that lying is not just disseminating false information: lying is disseminating false information that could cause a perceived harm. When I was a Christian, I thought all lying was wrong. The reason for this is that I thought that even if no harm was caused to another human, I had – in a way – caused a reduction of my value in the eyes of God. Since the highest valued thing in my life was my reputation with God, I chose not to lie about anything so as to avoid harming my reputation with Him. Therefore, lying was always harmful in my mind no matter what.

This is why theistic systems can result in the strangest displays of morality. Every theistic individual has their own perceived reputation with God that is valued above all other things. By making this reputation with God the highest valued thing, the theist will always do that which they think will cause the least amount of harm in the eyes of their God. As a result, a theist can without a qualm of conscience justify every action if they believe that God desires them to do so, because that action is the action which causes the least amount of harm in their mind.

This is why theism is potentially the most harmful idea. Theism can turn the most debase, strange, and repulsive behavior into good with a simple perception of God’s approval since God’s approval is the highest valued thing.

Haha, does that make sense?

So let’s get back to this post. Why did I write this post? I wrote it because I perceived that in many conversations and human behaviors the lack of this information has caused a perceived reduction in the value of relationships. As such, being a human who seeks to reduce harm in the world, I see disseminating this information as important to changing the value systems of others to achieve the end of a reduction in harm. Therefore, from my perspective writing this post was the most moral thing to do given the current information that I have.

Cheers all! May you understand the world better. I sure hope this is now as simple in your mind as it is in mine… but if not, please ask questions so that I can hopefully communicate the information better. Also, please point out if I had said anything inaccurate or incomplete so that I can update the information contained in this post so that it will not be perceived by anyone as willful dissemination of false information that leads to a perceived harm.

Nobody wants that.

- Josh

Entry filed under: 809334. Tags: .

My Problem with Moderate Christianity Family doesn’t want to discuss religion anymore

79 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ubieranki  |  December 6, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Perfect punchline!
    - Nobody wants that.
    Really interesting post, thnx for sharing

  • 2. Joshua  |  December 8, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Hmmm, given the lack of response I’m assuming my post is either:

    a) Off-topic to the site and nobody wants to say anything
    b) Boring
    c) Wrong, but nobody wants to say anything (although I think LeoPardus would have said something by now)
    d) Really complete and so nobody has anything to add to it
    e) Presumptuous (I mean, what sort of presumptuous person writes a post titled “Morality: How it Works”?)

    Feedback would be appreciated.

  • 3. BigHouse  |  December 8, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Sorry the reception to your post was disappointing. Let me try to drum up some conversation (at risk of Joe labelling me a sockpuppet).

    The most interesting part of the post to me was that theists would do God’s bidding, even if the action would be deemed immoral by by non-theists, as the reduction in value in God’s eyes was more harmful than the results of the action. And, thusly, this make theism in general “dangerous”.

    I think you could also argue that atheism is “dangerous” given the fact that fallible humans hold the leys to their own morality, leading to a widespread amount of “dangerous” moral calculi.

    The boiled-down fact being of course, that humans are inherently dangerous, whether following a perceived higher power or not.

  • 4. Joshua  |  December 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    I think you could also argue that atheism is “dangerous” given the fact that fallible humans hold the leys to their own morality, leading to a widespread amount of “dangerous” moral calculi.

    Absolutely. But the essential point I think that needs to be made is that the universe is dangerous. Atheists and theists alike are both part of the universe. Therefore atheists and theists are both potentially dangerous.

    Ultimately, both the atheist and theist will do that which they perceive to cause the least amount of harm in the world based on their value system.

    However, that which is genuinely harmful is dependent upon that which is objectively true.

    Therefore, in order to be most moral (i.e. avoiding the most genuinely harmful things in the world), a person must value – above all else – that which is objectively true. And the way we must do that is to discover truth.

    And the first trick to discovering truth is to recognize that that which I now hold to be true must be weighed again and again against the universe.

    Ultimately our faith is in our senses. We must trust our senses to be communicating to us accurate data over time. Part of this process is recognizing that our senses can deceive us and learning to spot the contradictions between what our senses told us once and what they are telling us now and why were deceived before. In this way, we learn to trust reason over our senses.

    So ultimately, morality must be based in reason. Even Christians recognize this when they say things like “God is reasonable and morality is based in God.” What they are saying is that for every moral proposed by God, there is a reason – even if we do not know it now. A purposeless moral is silly. The Christian would agree that all moral propositions are designed by or extended from God to reduce some perceived harm – even if that harm is just reducing God’s deserved reputation by nature of His being.

    So God, in a sense, is a real philosophical entity who can be harmed. Therefore harming God is the ultimate wrong. That is why Christians will say that the ultimate right – or end – is giving glory to God. Why? Because God is the most valued thing.

    The atheist, however, recognizes that our value system is based in evolution. Therefore humans naturally value – without any external mental pressures – a healthy life and a healthy family, since a healthy life and healthy family will be most likely to reproduce. These values, however, are not based in reason, they are based in our nature.

    Therefore, humans are – by nature – good. We always do that which we perceive will cause the least amount of harm. We are by nature evil, though, in that to every other man our own propogation of our own genesis competition to their propogation of their genes.

    Thus humans are by nature good from their own perspective and by nature selfish from the perspective of others. That’s where the dichotomy comes from and why the question “are humans basically good or basically evil?” is just nonsense.

    At least that is how it makes sense to me.

    Thanks for responding BigHouse :) I was more worried that the post was just boring or something.

    I hope it makes sense.

  • 5. BigHouse  |  December 8, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    You are rarely boring and I really liked the post. Thanks for “bumping” it so I could respond.

  • 6. Joshua  |  December 8, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    You are rarely boring and I really liked the post.

    Thanks!

    ~

    I might add out of pure amusement that the ultimate “gotcha” of this post is that no one can refute the principle I am describing without applying it themselves in their refutation.

    After all, no one will say I am wrong unless they see that the principle I am expressing is potentially harmful to the truth and they therefore feel the need to contradict it out of a moral obligation to help others avoid harm by accepting what I propose. And at that point, they are just doing what I am describing, thus validating it.

    The true explanatory nature of a concept is that is it cannot be contradicted without applying the concept itself – similar to the Law of Non-Contradiction.

    This has me worried…

  • 7. Joe  |  December 8, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Sorry the reception to your post was disappointing. Let me try to drum up some conversation (at risk of Joe labelling me a sockpuppet). (#3)

    My favorite sockpuppet was Lamb Chop created by Shari Lewis. Anyone old enough to remember her? Pretty cool character actually. She could make a statement, then respond to it moments later using Lamb Chop, and get some pretty good laughs as a result. That was a long time ago—-man I’m gettin’ old. :)

  • 8. Phil Stilwell  |  December 8, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Hey Josh, I appreciate your post.

    I think skeptics often don’t know how to handle the concept of morality. Just as with theists, we want to categorized actions into discrete boxes of “right” and “wrong”.

    Therefore, we often construct a general utilitarian morality that attempts to rigorously define “values”, “harm”, “pain” and other concepts that can then serve as a framework for making “moral” decisions.

    However, I’d like to focus on recent notable studies that have shown that, given the same outcome, people tend to consider actions of direct harmful agency as more “immoral”, even if the consequences of indirect agency or inaction will produce more harm, even by the standards of the person making the moral judgment. The most cited example can be found at http://allphilosophy.com/topic/3073 in which you have the choice to either push someone or to merely pull a lever to arrive at the same level of “harm”. Some respond by bloating the moral ontic by invoking additional stipulations such as “People should never be seen as a ‘means to an end’”.

    However, it seems to me that we are in this attempting to grasp at straws of stipulations and definitions that are then merely constructed into a moral edifice that maps onto the foundation of our emotions (much in the same way that theists construct doctrines out of vague scriptures that map onto the emotions of the day). The reason that people don’t want to push someone as opposed to merely pulling a lever when the outcome is constant is that the act of pushing someone is unavoidably emotional.

    This is why I think it is remiss not to trace the source of systems of morality back to emotions. Emotions form values, values generate goals, and strategies are forged to achieve those goals. But the foundation is our emotions.

    If lions were to suddenly reach our level of awareness, would then suddenly become “moral” creatures and attempt to suppress their predatory natures?

    Humans happen to be more altruistic, but this is due to the package of emotions we find ourselves with. Deviating from these emotions and the emergent altruism does not very often lead to happiness. But neither would a lion that deviated from its own package of predatory emotions and instincts be very happy.

    In my opinion, it is much easier to say “I am nice to others because I feel good when I’m nice to others.” We can, of course, abstract out of our personal histories “laws” of behavior that, due to the precedent of their success in bringing us positive emotions, serve as a framework for future behaviors, but, once again, the foundation is emotional.

    We could hardly end a discussion of morality without invoking Hitler, now could we? I personally never say that Hitler was “morally wrong”. I will say that he probably failed to understand what would optimize his own happiness. I will say that, had I be given a chance, I would have likely assassinated him. But constructing a moral system just so we can say Hitler was “immoral” is based on our own emotions of disgust, anger and hatred towards his actions.

    So, I try to make decisions that will optimize my happiness without invoking an artificial “morality” that can guide me. The Golden Rule is a concept that I have found maps nicely onto my emotions, but it is my emotions that is the more fundamental reality.

    What is your take on this?

  • 9. Joshua  |  December 8, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Phil, that’s a good point. I think you hit on the missing piece of my post:

    We form our values based on our instincts. Our instincts are what drive our emotions. So there is a direct correlation between our natural disgust of something and the feeling that something is “wrong”.

    So our value systems – barring any intrusion of some external controlling meme – are not based on what we choose to value, but are based on what we value given our upbringing, backgrounds, genetic makeup, and knowledge. Ultimately is seems like our knowledge – our learning – can almost overcome even our instincts in some cases.

    Ultimately I feel somewhat helpless because we can’t choose any of these things. We can only live our lives to the best of our ability with what we are endowed and let nature take its course with us.

    In the meantime I’ll gladly live under the delusion that I have some control, knowing in truth that I do not in the end. I suppose then it is not a delusion, per se, but more of a pragmatic, optimistic belief to bring about a greater sense of satisfaction in life.

  • 10. Gary  |  December 9, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Good thoughts. I am of the opinion that the foundation of your thesis is a misconception. There is no Platonic “ideal” of morality. There is no right; no wrong. No moral and no immoral, there is only “a” moral.

    Morality at best is a construct of society, human regulations maintained and enforced for the common good, or to use your term, benefit. You speak of “absolute” morality and then in the same sentence apply the condition of relativism. This unresolveable dichotomy is evidence that the concept of morality is nothing more than the invention of the human collective.

    Secondly, in your follow up comments you speak ot “Truth” and “Good” and “Evil.” I would further contend that there is no truth and no good and no evil. These are all simply concepts that humanity has created in order to create a personal and collective advantage towards survival. Isolated and alone in a cave man has no need or care about truth, good or evil. Morality is a non-issue. Survival is the only concern. It is only when we interact with our fellow man that the need for the invention and definition of such concepts becomes necessary.

    So my conclusion is that the entire concept is nothing more than a shell game. Morality, Truth, Good and Evil all shift and slide, shuck and jive based upon the will of the manipulator. There is no moral or immoral, no good nor evil. There is only being. I am. You are. And when we come together: We are. When we work together we survive.

  • 11. Joshua  |  December 9, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Hmmm, Gary, I don’t think you understood my article.

    I don’t think there is an ideal of morality either… I’m not sure where you got that.

    I think that the underlying principle of morality is absolute and extends from our desire to avoid harm and move toward levels of greater comfort. It is absolute in the same sense as, say, the theory of gravity is absolute.

    But… by definition, then, morality is relative to the individual.

    However, I don’t think what you are saying about truth makes any sense, though. It is always true that a naked man jumping in a vat of scalding water is harmful to the naked man. When it is phrased that way, it is a truth that is always true.

    It is also always evil, from the naked man’s perspective, for someone to push him into the vat of scalding water in order to pursue his own selfish gain. It is evil by definition.

    So good, evil, and truth are valid when defined in a universally valid way.

    They may be relative to the individual, but that doesn’t remove their validity.

    I think normally the problem is that humans are trying to communicate feelings of “truth” or of “good” or of “evil” to each other and since everyone defines them a little differently the meaning gets lost in translation.

    That’s why we need good definitions for words before we start saying they are meaningless. No word is meaningless: it communicates a concept from the mind of another. That concept has meaning, whether the actual sentence said makes sense or not.

  • 12. Gary  |  December 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Joshua, Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    I would contend again that morality is only absolute insofar as society is in agreement with the tenents of said morality. Cannibalism is moral, slavery is moral, semitic genocide is moral, execution of witches in the name of Christianity is moral, etc. etc. etc. All things no matter how horrendous we may deem them today can be moral if the ruling and predominant culture and society says so. This is not absolute morality, it is total relativism. Therefore I reject this concept of an “underlying principle of morality.”

    In the same way your definition of “true” breaks down. An existential fact does not necessarily require a philisophical “Truth”. It is a fact that a naked man jumping into a vat of scalding water is harmful to the naked man. You do not need to put a value judgement on that fact. It is not a true fact (redundancy), nor is it a false fact (impossibility). It is simply a fact. When you speak of truth you enter the realm of philisophical musing and speculation and by definition personal perspective and relativism. I can propose a statement of fact, “It is harmful to jump into a vat of scalding water” and you can judge the qualitative value of that statement as true or false, but regardless of your value judgement you have not altered the fact itself. This is what I am referring to as an arguement of “Being.” In street terms, “it is what it is.”

    The religious and philosophers alike always strive to link and label and fall into fallacy due to a long list of evolutionarily driven presuppositions. Harm equals evil, benefit equals good, etc. I would propose that one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain and that it all is really a matter of perspective. You state that it is always evil from the naked man’s perspective that he has been pushed into the scalding water for another’s personal gain. But I would contend that from my perspective if I pushed him into that vat for the purpose of boiling his flesh to feed my starving children for the next week thus ensuring continued life and well-being for my clan then the action was good. And further if my clan and other like clans endorse and encourage this type of action then the naked man’s perspective has been trumped. The value judgement has been made, the action is good. Absolutely ridiculous. There is no good, there is no evil. There is only being. It is what it is.

    It’s hunter and hunted, predator and prey. One side will always object.

    As you stated in your last paragraph we need good definitions for words. In order for that to happen you have to have agreement on those definitions. When the intrinsic value of the words themselves is tied up in the qualitative judgement by an individual from that individual’s unique perspective and cultural/philisophical mindset you will be hard-pressed to ever arrive at an agreeable working definition of those words. The value of words like good and evil, moral and immoral is so convoluted and contentious that I do hold them to be meaningless.

    We would be better as a society with dispensing of these terms and value judgements (a throwback to religion) and focus on the development of laws based on facts alone that will be mutually protective and beneficial to all in society.

    It is against the law of society to push the naked man into the vat of scalding water because it will harm him, regardless of any personal benefit to you.

    Period. No pronouncement of esoteric religiosity or judgement, just a system built upon cause and effect.

    Sorry for the length of the comment, got a little carried away.

  • 13. Joshua  |  December 9, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    I would contend again that morality is only absolute insofar as society is in agreement with the tenents of said morality.

    Gary, I still don’t think you get what I’m saying. I’m thinking deeper than a societal level. I’m thinking on the level of defining a definition of morality that always works no matter what.

    In other words, what definition of morality can we find that never fails to describe every human action and its associated interpretation as “good” or “evil”?

    You can say that morality is defined by the society, but what is morality and how does it work?

    If we can describe what morality is and how it works, then we can analyze every single moral dilemma in history and how societies create morals and have a framework for explaining why people do what they do, make the decisions they do, and subsequently judge the action as “good” or “evil”.

    ~

    Most people – it seems – equate the word “true” with “fact”. That may not be true, however ;)

    ~

    Philosophical notions of truth always bother me because they tend to make the only true thing a thought.

    I would propose that one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain and that it all is really a matter of perspective. You state that it is always evil from the naked man’s perspective that he has been pushed into the scalding water for another’s personal gain. But I would contend that from my perspective if I pushed him into that vat for the purpose of boiling his flesh to feed my starving children for the next week thus ensuring continued life and well-being for my clan then the action was good.

    We actually agree with each other, then. I’m not sure what you are saying…

    The principle which drives man’s conception of morality is absolute (reduction of harm based on that which would harm the host or its progeny). The implementation is always relative (because each man has a different perception as to what is of highest value in achieving that end).

    Do you see it yet? It’s such a super simple stupid principle yet it opens up pandora’s box in implementation. Pandora’s box, of course, is the human race.

    The value of words like good and evil, moral and immoral is so convoluted and contentious that I do hold them to be meaningless.

    No offense, but that is just ridiculous because they obviously contain meaning because you just used them in a sentence.
    Furthermore, they are not meaningless words if they can cause so much contention.

    The words contain an underlying meaning that is relative to the individual’s conception of what is fact. I think that is what you are saying. No?

    And I would even argue that the words contain an objective meaning as well. For example:

    immoral: an intentional action causing harm in the mind of the individual using the word. The word is always used to humiliate or to induce shame upon another person so as to avoid the harmful action in the future. The word definitely contains meaning, although the purpose for which it is used is the only absolute about it.

    Obviously, feel free to disagree.

    If I were to call you immoral right now, there would definitely be meaning and purpose behind that word.

    We would be better as a society with dispensing of these terms and value judgements (a throwback to religion) and focus on the development of laws based on facts alone that will be mutually protective and beneficial to all in society.

    So you highly value this and therefore consider it good (or better than we currently have) in achieving the end of increasing comfort and reducing pain. Excellent.

    You know, you are probably right about dispensing with the words immoral, moral, evil, righteous, etc. They are a throwback to religion. However, I still hold that they contain meaning. They definitely have an intended meaning behind them…

  • 14. Gary  |  December 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Perhaps we have slipped into semantic regress, which is usually the end result of discussions of this nature. But somehow I just can’t help myself, character flaw perhaps ;)

    I think we are pretty much on the same page. I would like to make a couple of comments on what you pulled from my above rant.

    1) “If we can describe what morality is and how it works, then we can analyze every single moral dilemma in history and how societies create morals and have a framework for explaining why people do what they do”

    – My whole point is that without the society’s rule of law this can’t be done collectively. We can’t determine what good and evil are because of perspective and circumstance, thus there can be no absolute morality, it will always be relative. Once you remove the possibility of the Absolute Moral Authority there will be no Absolute Morality.

    2) “Most people – it seems – equate the word “true” with “fact”. ”

    – Facts are verifiable experiences or observations. Truth is derived and established from a collection of facts, otherwise it is speculation.

    “The words contain an underlying meaning that is relative to the individual’s conception of what is fact. ”

    – You cannot have a “concept of fact.” A fact is a verifiable experience or observation. You can have a concept of “truth” based on that fact. Good and evil, moral and immoral are not facts, they are interpretations (concepts of truth) derived from observed facts. Therefore they are relative terms dependent upon the perspective of the observer.

    3) “If I were to call you immoral right now, there would definitely be meaning and purpose behind that word.”

    – Yes, your meaning, my meaning, the other hearers meaning, those who read this blogs meaning, etc. ad infinitum; relativism to the core, no absolute. Actually if you called me immoral I would tell you to go back to church where maybe somebody gives a damn. Show me how my actions did harm to my fellow man or the world around me and I will accept the consequences (natural or man-imposed) of my actions. Tell me I am wrong, or evil, or immoral because of some pie in the sky Platonic ideal cloaked in semantic phlegm that you think everyone should just “know” and I’ll tell you take that judgmental crap somewhere else because nobody is listening.

    I’m enjoying this; you are making me think… Peace

  • 15. Joe  |  December 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    There was another sockpuppet on the Ed Sullivan show that was really cool too—-can’t remember it’s name. But Ed would banter back and forth with his own hand and it would really sound like a real conversation. I’ll have to go back and check it out—-might have just been a hand with eyes and the thumb worked as the mouth. It was pretty funny though. Geez that’s a long time ago.

  • 16. BigHouse  |  December 9, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Joe, your signal to noise ratio continues to decline…

  • 17. Joshua  |  December 9, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Joe, you rarely disagree with me anymore…

    That makes me sad and happy at the same time.

    (:)

  • 18. Joshua  |  December 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Gary,

    Every utterance is an expressed concept. The exact words used are irrelevant other than the fact that someone else may ascribe a different meaning to them when they interpret what was uttered.

    Listening is learning what the utterances of others mean, regardless of the exact words used and how you personally define those words.

    That’s why I hold that talking about the meaninglessness of words is somewhat ignorant. I don’t care which words are used or how they are organized, my goal is to figure out what the other person means by them. What idea is the other person communicating and why?

    You cannot have a “concept of fact.”

    Alright, regardless of whether in your mind based on the definition of the words I used it is possible to have a “concept of a fact” or not, what did I mean when I said “conception of what is fact”? Figuring that out should be your first goal.

    I think it is going to just “click” and you’ll go “oh…”

    Cheers!
    :)

  • 19. Joshua  |  December 9, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Oh, one more thing Gary. I understand the concept of what you are communicating.

    You are trying [edit: I didn't mean "trying" as in not succeeding, I meant "trying" as in communicating it in a way that didn't make sense given the context at first... hope I didn't offend! :)] to point out that because society ultimately dictates that which is harmful or not, morality is relative to the society and so that means “morality” has no objective or absolute meaning. Therefore, “good”, “evil”, “moral”, “immoral”, and words like this are relative to a particular social order and heirarchy and therefore are only valid internal to that heirarchy. As such, they basically are meaningless when applied to the human race as a whole.

    Is that correct?

  • 20. Joe  |  December 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Funny how 16 and 17 follow right after one another again, almost as though two people show up and go at virtually the same time. :)

    Sorry if you do not appreciate the sockpuppet masters of the past. :)

    I’m kidding with you by the way. :)

  • 21. DSimon  |  December 10, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Josh, your theory seems to be summarizable as:

    1. Morality is doing that which causes a net gain of goodness (aka value); immorality is doing that which causes a net loss.
    2. However, everybody define goodness differently, and everybody has somewhat different information to work from, so everyone makes their gain/loss calculation differently.

    This seems to just be utilitarianism with an acknowledgement that the metric of utility is subjective.

    The problem I have with your theory is that it doesn’t seem to have very much explanatory power. Sure, we can use it to study people’s actions, but all it adds is the lens of “People will see as moral those actions which cause the most gain in the things they think of as moral”, aka “People consider morality in terms of whatever it is that they think is moral”, which is obvious.

    Furthermore, as an explanatory theory it ignores the fact that people often tend to act first by gut instinct and then come up with rationalizations after.

  • 22. Joshua  |  December 11, 2009 at 12:49 am

    So DSimon, you have me interested in reading some of these others views.

    I don’t agree with utilitarianism, because I don’t think the moral worth of an action can be determined retroactively. The moral worth of actions are in reality oftentimes determined retroactively, but I don’t think this reveals whether the action was moral at the time it was done.

    I don’t agree with deontological ethics, because I don’t think humans have any duty to do anything. We have no duty to follow any particular rules or laws.

    I don’t agree that the character of a person determines their morality, because I hold that every man’s character is irrelevant. Character is like lifting weights. You can work on it and practice it. This only begs the question as to why a person would seek good character in the first place. People want good character ultimately for selfish reasons. As such, every man’s character is rotten and this undermines this entire moral theory.

    I agree with Solomon when he says that every man does everything out of envy of his neighbor.

    Let’s start there.

    Since this is true, every man considers another man’s action immoral when it intentionally hinders his own perceived ability to succeed. This is where we would get the idea that men have a right to the pursuit of happiness. This is also where we get this sense that there are moral absolutes in the world. However, since every man has a different idea of what it means to succeed, perception of morality is relative to the individual. Therefore, morality is absolute in principle but relative in practice. So the question “is morality absolute or relative?” is the wrong question. It is always and in every scenario both absolute and relative.

    I don’t really know how else to describe this.

    Let me try another way…

    Furthermore, as an explanatory theory it ignores the fact that people often tend to act first by gut instinct and then come up with rationalizations after.

    The theory first addresses the human action at the time it is being done, saying that humans will do an act to achieve the greatest perceived increase in value. Therefore, even if a human recognizes that his action is evil in the eyes of others, he will always consider it right in his own eyes at the time he performs it.

    My theory then follows up by describing how we attribute moral value to the actions of humans retroactively based upon the perception of the intention of the acting individual (even if it is ourself) at the time the act was performed.

    Let’s say I were to perform an action. Whether I perform it consciously or not, the theory says that at the time of the act I did that act because I perceived it to be the most beneficial at increasing value based on my value system at the time the act was performed.

    However, the theory says that in retrospect I could look at my own action and weigh its moral value based upon my present perception of my past intentions. My perception of my past intentions is based solely on my current value system. Since my own value system is subject to change, I could even look back at my own action and call it immoral even though I considered it moral at the time since based on my current value system it was done out of an intention to reduce value even though my value system at the time the act was performed was done out of intention to increase value.

    Basically, this describes how a person can consider their old moral system immoral! So this is why someone can repent of an action they once considered moral. The value system shifts and the person’s perception of their intention of their past action can shift as well.

    This is why Christians will say things like “Well, I once thought I was staying away from Christ because I didn’t believe it. But now I know that I was simply running from the truth because I wanted to sin.” Even though at the time they thought their unbelief was done out of moral intentions, when their value system changes upon becoming a Christian suddenly their entire perception of their past intention can change as well. They can go from thinking that their past actions were done out of genuine goodness into thinking that they themselves had some sort of underlying evil intention in avoiding Christ. They then project their present value system on everyone around them and assume, without question, that everyone else who is avoiding Christ is doing so out of the same evil intentions.

    The theory implies that humans always project their present value system onto others without a conscious thought, and as such always make their moral assessments based on their present value system.

    ~

    I mean, isn’t it weird that Paul can both say that he was an evil man before coming to Christ and in another breath say that he was forgiven because his actions were done out of ignorance?

    Heck, if Pauls actions were done out of ignorance then how can they be immoral? Yet somehow Paul’s new value system caused him to perceive his pre-Christian actions as immoral despite the fact that they were done out of ignorance!

    What sort of ethical theory can explain this bizarre sort of retroactive illogical shift in moral assessment?

    What sort of theory can explain the fundamentalists assessment that every man is infinitely evil before a just God?

    Let’s try to apply my theory’s principles to the fundamentalist:

    The fundamentalist value system says that highest value is determined by God’s approval.

    Furthermore, their perception of truth claims that every human is born with a different value system than God’s. Ergo: every human action is objectively evil in the eyes of God because every human has a different value system than God. Even “good” actions are evil even if they are done out of good intentions, because God’s value system is valued over any human value system.

    So then, in the eyes of a fundamentalist, how can anyone be good?

    A person must obtain God’s value system so that they can begin doing good deeds. But since God’s value system cannot be learned by human means, each person has to be enlightened to understand it and therefore no human can do anything objectively good until God reveals His value system to that person.

    As such, the fundamentalist Christian feels completely just in assessing the behavior of every person who does not appear to have God’s value system as having a fundamentally wicked heart.

    Now here is the kicker: my theory says that each person’s value system is relative to the individual at the time they are making the assessment. As such, the person’s assessment of the intentions of everyone around them is dependent upon their value system at the time they are making the assessment.

    As such, the fundamentalist Christian who considers himself right before God will therefore consider his present value system to be God’s value system. Then, the Christian will without a qualm of conscience say that another man is evil – even if there is no external sign that the person has evil internal intentions. Why would the Christian make this assessment? Because anyone whom the Christian perceives to be lacking God’s value system cannot possibly be doing anything good!

    But then what happens if the Christian changes his mind about a moral issue? Will that bother him? Probably not. Because the Christian always equates his current value system with God’s value system, his every present action is considered moral. However, the Christian increases in knowledge and therefor his value system may change. As such, he will look back and call his past actions immoral even if at the time he thought they were what God wanted. This will never bother the Christian because he will always consider his current value system to be most accurate. It will rarely occur to him that every one of his present actions may be evil according to his future value system!

    However, this should bother the Christian greatly. Massively. Because it means that no matter how much they think their current value system is in life with God’s value system, they could be wrong. Therefore, no action they do can be considered good either.

    That’s why some of the more extreme hypercalvinist types will say that no humans can do good. Period. The only humans who can do good are the ones who are empowered by God – almost without the human’s knowledge – to do something good in God’s eyes: in God’s value system.

    So far, it appears my theory explains some of the weirdest moral systems out there… including fundamentalist Christianity in various forms.

    I’m not trying to prescribe a moral system. I’m trying to explain every moral system in existence. I’m trying to find an underlying theory that explains not just whether actions are perceived to be moral or not, but what makes us perceive actions to be moral or immoral in the first place. I’m trying to explain how we develop our moral systems by one simple theory that explains every action, every judgment, and every shift in moral judgment.

    I’m definitely out of my pay level, I know. Quite frankly, I don’t know that I know what I am doing, but I’m trying it anyway.

    Does that make sense?

  • 23. LeoPardus  |  December 11, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Been busy. Still busy. Will try to be brief.

    Emotions have been brought in. Good. They form a big part of peoples’ moral structures (unfortunately).

    Another big part is ‘authority’. People form their morals based on who told them what is moral or immoral. Sources of moral authority are parents, teachers, friends, holy books, society, etc.

    That last one – ‘society’, or if you will ‘culture’ – is huge. Most people get the biggest part of their morals from the setting they are born into. You will never see a Dane flying a bomb-loaded plane into a skyscraper: English hooligans think it’s perfectly OK to start a riot over a game: and so on.

    You posited information and judgement about what causes harm as your major factor in establishing morals. I’d say that does figure in. More on a level of things like, ‘how do I vote?’, or, ‘what news do I watch?’, or ‘what rally do I go to?’. But information isn’t IMO the big operator for most people. Frankly they just don’t use enough brain cells. [Or as I say so often, "Humans are not rational creatures; they are creatures with the potential for rationality."] For most folks, the determiners for morality are ‘upbringing’, ‘authority’, ‘peers’, ‘emotions’, In other words, morals are learned, evolved, or thought through; they are programmed in.

    Ain’t that f***in’ sad?

  • 24. DSimon  |  December 11, 2009 at 11:40 am

    I don’t agree with utilitarianism, because I don’t think the moral worth of an action can be determined retroactively. The moral worth of actions are in reality oftentimes determined retroactively, but I don’t think this reveals whether the action was moral at the time it was done.

    As I understand it, utilitarianism in practice doesn’t mark as immoral those actions which turned out badly and caused a net loss in utility, but which the person doing them had every reason to expect would cause a net gain in utility.

    No useful theory of human behavior could rely on people being omniscient, since nobody we know of is. :-)

    I’m trying to explain every moral system in existence. I’m trying to find an underlying theory that explains not just whether actions are perceived to be moral or not, but what makes us perceive actions to be moral or immoral in the first place. I’m trying to explain how we develop our moral systems by one simple theory that explains every action, every judgment, and every shift in moral judgment.

    Your system does indeed encompass all these lofty and widespread things. It’s just that it does it by abstracting the entire problem, still unsolved, under the term “value” and then putting a delicious but thin hard candy shell of utilitarian logic over it. (Craving M&M’s at the moment, sorry :-) ).

    It’s so incredibly broad, in other words, that it doesn’t help us actually figure anything out! Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

    Let’s say I were to perform an action. Whether I perform it consciously or not, the theory says that at the time of the act I did that act because I perceived it to be the most beneficial at increasing value based on my value system at the time the act was performed.

    Inserting even unconscious, thoughtless actions into the meaning of “value”, that definition has now been extended so that it includes every single action that anybody might perform, ever. This is a serious problem with any theory!

    Let me tell you a story. When I was about 7 years old, I was walking with some other students in a line. Suddenly, the student at the back of the line began running past me towards the front of the line! I had a vision in my head of when Bugs Bunny sticks his leg out and Elmer trips over it, and was overwhelmed with curiosity. Would it work the same way in real life?

    Without even thinking about it, I stuck my leg out and discovered to my immediate horror that, yep, people really will trip dramatically over an unseen outstretched leg and hurt themselves. I apologized over and over again, but I still felt crappy about it for a while afterwords until the kid’s bruises healed up.

    My action was almost thoughtless and nearly unconscious. It violated my own moral system, but I did it anyways, and wasn’t even able to find any way afterwords to rationalize it. It was like something right out of “A Separate Peace”.

    If your theory does explain my action, then I argue that this is a weakness in your theory! As far as I’m concerned, this particular action occurred entirely outside of my system of morality. You could say that my sense of momentary curiosity temporarily fulfilled the role of my value system, but to do so you’d have to stretch the definition of “value system” so thin that I could see a 10 watt incandescent lightbulb through it.

    If your theory explains every possible action ever, then there’s no action which could falsify it. This prevents your theory from having explanatory power, since ANYTHING could happen and your theory can still go “Yep, that makes perfect sense”.

  • 25. Joshua  |  December 11, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Okay, DSimon, I get what you are saying.

    Now I’m a little worried though:

    If your theory explains every possible action ever, then there’s no action which could falsify it. This prevents your theory from having explanatory power, since ANYTHING could happen and your theory can still go “Yep, that makes perfect sense”.

    But evolution is a theory that “explains every possible outcome ever” and nobody has a problem with it. Evolution just stretches the definitions of “benefit” and “fittest” so thin that it can be applied to anything relating to reproduction and death.

    I get what you are saying… sometimes a theory explains so much that it can’t be used for anything. Mine definitely fits that bill, I agree.

    Bleh, whatever.

    Maybe the problem is that I’m not just trying to explain morality, I’m trying to abstract out every human behavior and that is just silly.

    Oh well, corrections duly noted everyone.

  • 26. Gary  |  December 11, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    ” I’m trying to find an underlying theory that explains not just whether actions are perceived to be moral or not, but what makes us perceive actions to be moral or immoral in the first place. ”

    – This has been a great discussion. Please bear with me for another comment.

    I feel like we just took a ride on a merry-go-round ;) Changing impressions of value, new found morals, rejecting old standards, embracing new absolutes. All of this smacks of “gods unto ourselves” which has been my premise from the beginning of this discussion. If you cannot appeal to some higher authority, some universal power, then there can be no absolute, unless of course you are willing to concede that there exists 6 billion absolute authorities all of whom are subject and willing to change their absolute minds at will.

    We can’t even agree on the definition of the basic terms of good, evil, moral and immoral. Dare we assume that we can come to terms with the absolute?

    Perhaps we should allow that all people desire what is best for themselves in any given situation and construct guidelines for the collective (society) to make global decisions about behavior.

    Again, great discussion. Thanks

  • 27. DSimon  |  December 11, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Joshua, evolution doesn’t explain every possible outcome ever; it’s falsifiable. If we started finding fossils at entirely the wrong strata or with totally incongruous carbon dates, or if we had animals whose DNA was 99% dissimilar from that of any other species, or if bobcats were seen giving birth to adorable baby penguins, then we’d have to start seriously looking for another theory of speciation.

    On the other hand, your theory of morality could be used to explain any action done for any reason, since you can just describe that reason as being the actor’s value system. This doesn’t make your theory wrong (unlike, say, Intelligent Design, which is both unfalsifiable AND incorrect), it just means it cannot make useful predictions.

    Evolution does define “fitness”, as a technical term, more broadly than in everyday speech, but it still does have a specific meaning: a “fit” creature is one that successfully reproduces. Your theory’s use of the word “value system” as a technical term seems far far broader to me, closer to the meaning of the word “motivation” or maybe “justification”.

    Note: I’m being hard on your theory even though I largely agree with it because I think it just lacks elaboration! For example, we could do some research to discover trends in value system selection among populations or on a situation-by-situation basis. That would allow us to then make some predictions and make discoveries about human behavior.

    For example, consider my story of impulsive tripping. If we just describe my curiosity about cartoon physics as my “value system” for my action and stop there, we haven’t explained anything. On the other hand, if we made guesses about why my value system changed in that way at that moment, and tried to predict when other people might do such things, then we could be onto something.

  • 28. Joshua  |  December 11, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    If you cannot appeal to some higher authority, some universal power, then there can be no absolute

    Unless the principle itself is always followed regardless of the action actually performed. I think that is my only point. I’m trying to find the principle beyond human behavior that makes the connection between what a person knows and what they do and how that influences their judgment of what is right and wrong. Maybe its a lost cause. DSimon’s point is probably the best so far because his little story shows that human behavior may not be driven by what we know or don’t know… sometimes we just do things purely out of curiosity as to what will happen if we do it.

    And that may very well be a missing component in the whole thing… curiosity.

    Sometimes we do shit just because we’re curious. We’ve never done it before. Then it hurts somebody or something. Then once we discover that power to cause pain and we create entire moral systems, rules, laws, and regulations around that particular thing that has the potential to cause pain. But until someone was curious nobody ever thought about it.

    That would probably best explain people’s reaction when they are coming out of religion. They were curious. They tried religion out. Religion was neither good nor evil… it was just there before. Then when they leave they can start to see religion as actually an “evil” because they’ve now seen how much pain it can cause.

    I don’t know… I’ll probably just go back to the drawing board on this. Or not at all. Maybe I’ll get some books.

    DSimon,

    I guess all I’m saying is that the principle of evolution is not falsifiable. Saying things change and the things that are most fit for their environment will out-survive their peers really isn’t saying much either.

    I don’t know how you would ever test a moral theory at all. I suppose you make a prediction about the moral judgments a group of people would make after given a particular set of controlled information. Then you could remove pieces of information from control groups to watch how they changes their moral judgment…

    That actually would yield some really, really damn cool studies I would think.

    Take a group of people and ask them several questions about their belief in God and ask them to rate in their value system what is most important (God’s approval, church leader approval, following gut instinct, following inner voice of Holy Spirit, following government laws, gathering proper information, etc.). Then give them fictional moral dilemmas on paper in which they put that value system to the test. You could then see if there was a direct correlation between their value system and the results and compare that to the predictions. If the predictions were accurate you know you have a good foundational theory.

    That would demonstrate that there is a direct correlation between how people form their value systems based on the knowledge they have and how that influences their moral judgments. If you can accurately predict what moral judgment a person will have based upon the the things they believe and the information they are given… and accurately predict how their moral judgment will change based upon new information added….

    I’m just thinking out loud here and off the cuff…

    All that said, DSimon your last paragraph is exactly the type of response I was hoping for to this article. Thanks!

  • 29. DSimon  |  December 12, 2009 at 11:34 am

    I guess all I’m saying is that the principle of evolution is not falsifiable.

    Joshua, what do you mean? I just listed a bunch of things that would falsify it. Just for fun, here’s some more:

    * If we found that an organism’s traits turn out not to be inherited from their parents
    * If we found that genotypes are never altered in copying or by sexual selection
    * If we genuinely did find an “irreducibly complex” organism

    And that may very well be a missing component in the whole thing… curiosity.

    Well, I don’t know if that addition by itself would be enough to cover everything. My particular story was motivated by curiousity, but there are many more types of situations where people act automatically without consulting their moral systems at the time.

  • 30. Joshua  |  December 12, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    DSimon, the evolutionary principle cannot be falsified.

    Specific instances can.

    There’s a difference.

    That’s all I’m sayin’, ya know…

    A God-theory cannot be falsified because all data can fit it. “Survival of the fittest” is a god theory, because no matter what happens someone can say “see, the fittest survived.”

    That’s all I’m sayin’…

  • 31. BigHouse  |  December 12, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Joshua, so then, is evolutionary theroy not scientific becuase it cannot be falsified?

  • 32. LeoPardus  |  December 12, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    DSimon is correct in his examples. The scientific principle of evolution would indeed be falsified by any of his examples if they were found to occur in more than a rare incident or two.

  • 33. Joshua  |  December 12, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Evolutionary theory is composed of multiple pieces.

    1) The principle “survival of the fittest” by itself is unfalsifiable. How would you falsify that principle? Someone could just always argue that the only reason X survived was obviously because X was fittest – even though we don’t know what made X the most fit.

    2) Common descent (built upon the principle “survival of the fittest”) is falsifiable, however. If we found there was no genetic connection between species, then we could be sure.

    My moral theory is more like (1) than (2).

  • 34. BigHouse  |  December 12, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Then, the problem with your theory is the retrofitting of definitions to fit the theory. If we cannot proactively define the terms being “tested”, then the theory has little explanatory or predictive power.

  • 35. Joshua  |  December 13, 2009 at 3:17 am

    Maybe there are not really words to fit the definitions I’m using.

    Damn English language.

  • 36. BigHouse  |  December 14, 2009 at 10:18 am

    It sounds like you’re joking, Joshua, but I would be curious your response to the points being raised. You did ask for a more livened debate on this post ;-)

  • 37. SnugglyBuffalo  |  December 14, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    As I understand it, biologists are kinda steering away from the phrase “survival of the fittest” for that very reason.

    Just kinda throwing out ideas, but couldn’t a falsification of the general idea of natural selection be a negative, heritable trait spreading through a population? If there was some heritable trait that made you less likely to reproduce and pass those genes on, and yet that gene spread through the population instead of dying out, I would think that would be a falsification of natural selection.

    Basically, a falsification of natural selection would be a trait being selected against becoming widespread.

    But then, I’m not a biologist, so I don’t know if I’m on the right track here.

  • 38. LeoPardus  |  December 14, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    SB:

    Yep. That would be a way of falsifying the principle of survival of the fittest.

  • 39. Joshua  |  December 14, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    SnugglyBuffalo,

    Well, then I would just argue that the negative heritable trait is the fittest thing, obviously, because it is surviving more than the alternates. It may be negative for the human, but it is positive for its self-propagation. :)

    It’s a lot like the ultimate god-concept Itself. Something bad happens, but we “know” everything God does is good. Therefore, obviously, that thing we “think” is bad really isn’t. Duh!

    Or, another way…

    God is the Being that controls everything. God always does that which is good. Therefore, anything that happens is good. So, nothing that happens is bad – no matter how bad it may seem to us.

    These god-concepts are almost, in many ways, like the pictures that can be more than one thing if you just change mental focus – except they are ideas that always work if you change the mental focus point. Really, it just seems like using definitions to create illusions of explanatory power.

    It seems there is no way to disprove a god-concept because every outcome is expected and the theory is applied post-hoc only in an effort to give the illusion of intelligence and therefore garner a sense of power over ones surroundings.

    Ahah! I knew that if X happened it would mean Y! Therefore, nothing surprised me and I, therefore, feel in control.

    I’m totally just thinking out loud now. Seems like god-concepts don’t ever predict a specific outcome, they only explain things once they happen. Like…

    If X nation repents, God will bless them. If X nation does not repent, God will smite them.

    So, no matter what X nation actually does, the god-theory holds up because it only describes what the cause was if a certain effect occurs. Ahah! X nation was destroyed, so that obviously means they did not *truly* repent!

    Eh, my moral theory sort of falls under that type of god-concept, quite frankly, unless I can find some sort of precise predictive power in it. Sadly, since humans can report false beliefs there would be no ultimate way to put it to the test I suppose. And the entire goal is to find a direct correlation between what a person believes to be true and how their conscience works to influence their interaction with others.

    Science needs theories that predict, not just explain, in order to be useful. Saying “the fittest will survive!” isn’t saying anything at all, really, other than saying “the thing that survives is the most fit!” It’s a way of saying “I don’t know what will happen, but no matter what happens, I will be able to provide the cause!”

    I’m totally having a sober mind trip right now. This is just too weird… I wonder how many god-concepts like this we apply on a daily basis and don’t even realize it…

  • 40. Joshua  |  December 14, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Okay, I confess this whole thing has me really weirded out.

    Think about how this works in the Christian life. Every possible effect is explained by a cause post-hoc.

    If you are persecuted, it means you are blessed.
    if you are not persecuted, it means God is blessing you too!

    So whether you are persecuted or not, you are blessed. Therefore, it gives the believer a sense of security in knowing the cause for anything that could possibly happen: God’s blessing.

    Therefore, the believer will thank God for anything because it means God is blessing them – even if it is for an unknown reason!

    Things don’t become truly conflicted until one god-concept conflicts with another… like:

    If you are suffering, it means that God is disciplining you.

    Therefore, if you are suffering, does it mean God is disciplining you (punishment / temptation) or that you are being persecuted for being good (testing / glorification)?

    I suppose most believers go “I don’t know, but I know Jesus loves me” and just move on.

    That is where things go haywire and the mind nearly explodes.

  • 41. Joshua  |  December 14, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    The experts have spoken:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=feMItLo5gwgC&pg=PA534&lpg=PA534&dq=survival+of+the+fittest+unprovable&source=bl&ots=SaRM-iUKTw&sig=TuOnIWidkgxqye8sLHxtGVkI8UM&hl=en&ei=B8smS4ynD9GAngf5nYjsCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CBcQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=survival%20of%20the%20fittest%20unprovable&f=false

    That makes sense to me, the idea that “survival of the fittest” is a colloquial expression that by itself is a tautology but in actuality does not sum up the entire theory.

    Anyway, weird conversation if I do say so myself.

  • 42. Joe  |  December 14, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Wilfred (5 foot 3 inches tall, male, balding, blood-shot eyes behind 1/2″ thick lenses, with plastic pocket holder full of pens, large ink-spot at bottom of pocket, pot-belly, welt on head his grandmother gave him before he left the house for not wearing his mittens, 44 years old):

    “Yes, I would agree that survival of the fittest is a totally valid hypothesis” (wipes nose with embroidered handkerchief and reaches for his cell phone to check in with Grandma for lunch break).

  • 43. Ubi Dubium  |  December 15, 2009 at 8:05 am

    And Wilfred’s chances of reproducing and passing on his genes? Pretty much nil. Natural secection works again!

  • 44. LeoPardus  |  December 15, 2009 at 11:47 am

    God is the Being that controls everything. God always does that which is good. Therefore, anything that happens is good. So, nothing that happens is bad – no matter how bad it may seem to us.

    Sounds like something right out of ‘Candide’ :)

  • 45. Joe  |  December 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Ubi (#43)–
    :) :)

  • 46. Joshua  |  December 15, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    LeoPardus… you now have me wanting to read Voltaire.

  • 47. DSimon  |  December 16, 2009 at 8:32 am

    We live in the best of all possible Internets.

  • 48. jocelyn  |  December 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Dear Josh,

    You are a cool guy and I have enjoyed reading your posts as a lurker for over a year.

    Maybe its because everyone here is being so nice, but I really feel it necessary to emphasize that your intuition that you really don’t know what you are talking about is, well, probably true.

    A small amount of research on your part would make clear that there are really many examples out there that better express these ideas and are now informed by advances in methodology and technology. Plus, they give us practical guidelines for cultivating a healthier society.

    (The ingenuity and reasoning you bring to inventing a framework for explaining human motives is impressive. Unfortunately, it is fatally undermined by reliance on outdated premises and ignores a burgeoning of empirical evidence in many related fields.)

    I am curious as to the sources of debates and discussions you have been listening to, but I recommend that you conduct a more thorough review of literature about these topics—go a little deeper in your Google Scholar search— and you will find a vast scientific base on a range of issues regarding morality, ethics, compassion, social cognition, etc.

    These include research on:

    * How moral development is based on the wiring of empathic and social brain networks (In response to essential childhood experiences of nurturing, attunement, stimulation, interactions, and parental modeling)

    * The importance of mirror neurons and spindle neurons for social cognition

    * How brain wiring imbalances can result in moral impairments such as: psychopathy and malignant narcissism, social and non-verbal learning problems, and emotional unawareness (alexithymia)

    * How our brains weigh fairness and value: the neural correlates of salience, relevance, credibility, and valuation

    * How humans can reason, but we are not very “rational” or objective

    * How emotion and somatic awareness are essential for normal cognition

    * How most of our decision-making and initial thinking occurs on an unconscious level

    * How our prefrontal cortex creates justifications for our opinions after we have formed them

    * How social structures can change behavior

    * How no one is immune from group influence or situational context. (People have to develop special skills in order to counteract group influence)

    * How stigma and status are powerful imperatives that influence most social behavior

    * “Certainty” is a sensation: A sense of intuitive knowing is the last thing we should trust (without verification)

    * And much more . . .

    Starting with 2500 years of brilliant debates in moral philosophy (and especially the last 200 years of clarifying terminology), to advances in moral psychology, anthropology, group dynamics and social psychology and, in particular, the latest studies in social and affective neuroscience, there is an entire world of research addressing the problems you are thinking about.

    From what you say, your past experience of debates on moral philosophy occurred in the context of the particular theology you have abandoned, and you appear to assume that the debate is conducted in the manner you encountered in that context. I strongly suspect that this is not the case; that an account of moral philosophy filtered through apologetics will likely bear little relation to how such debates are conducted outside that context.

    Because I have seen you earnestly seek to incorporate new evidence into your schema, I have included a list of experts I think would be helpful to check out as a start. Maybe you have already come across some of them, but that is not reflected in your post.

    I really respect what you are doing, so I apologize if I am being too blunt or forward (or sound patronizing), but it seemed necessary to make my point in fairly strong terms.

    I have put together a more comprehensive list of recommended reading and web site links that I would love to email you. Please let me know if this would be ok.

    I look forward to any questions or comments.

    *****Selected List of Experts
    The following scientists have web sites, research labs, peer-reviewed papers available online, and popular books.

    ****Key Issues:
    How a moral sense, conscience, and empathy are internalized
    Interoception, empathy, altruism, moral-decision-making, metacognition

    * Joshua D. Greene
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Psychology
    Harvard University

    * Jonathan Cohen
    Professor of Psychology
    Director, Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior

    * Jonathan Haidt
    Professor in Social Psychology
    Dept. of Psychology
    University of Virginia

    * Dr. Jean Decety
    Irving B. Harris Professor
    at the University of Chicago
    Department of Psychology
    Department of Psychiatry

    * Marc Hauser, Ph.D.
    Harvard College Professor
    Professor of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Biological Anthropology
    Harvard Dept. of Psychology

    * Marco Iacoboni
    * Mark D’Esposito

    * Frans de Waal, Ph.D
    Director, Living Links Center
    C.H Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University

    * Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D.

    * Paul Bloom, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology
    Yale University

    ****Search for Meaning
    Research on brain and belief formation
    How we can over-identify with mental concepts or beliefs

    Key Issues:
    Dogmatism, indoctrination, cultism, prejudice, bigotry, salience, meaning

    * Chris D Frith
    * Antonio and Hannah Damasio
    * Daniel Schacter, M.D.
    * Robert Burton, M.D.
    * Mahzarin R Banaji
    * Daniel Wegner
    * Scott Atran
    * V. S. Ramachandra
    * Roy F. Baumeister

    *****Developmental Foundations
    How children’s brains are wired by experience and interactions with others

    ****Key Issues:
    Nurturing, healthy brain wiring, meeting developmental needs, precursors to emotional intelligence

    * Alison Gopnik , Ph.D.
    * Andrew N. Meltzoff, Ph.D.
    * Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D.
    * Susan Gelman, Ph.D.
    * Wayne Chugani
    * Bruce Wexler
    * Marilyn Diamond
    * Charles A. Nelson
    * Stanley Greenspan, M.D.
    * Gary F. Marcus

  • 49. plover  |  December 24, 2009 at 12:42 am

    SnugglyBuffalo@37 & LeoPardus@38:

    To the best of my knowledge, the example as stated — a negative, heritable trait becoming fixed in a population — is emphatically not a falsification of natural selection. Even if natural selection were taken to be the only factor affecting evolution (which not even it’s strongest proponents do), it is still, at root, a statistical theory, and thus must allow for improbable events. Thus, this is not the sort of theory where finding a single counterexample can refute it. Mathematically, I think, if you consider an infinite population, then a single such counterexample would provide a refutation, but, obviously, no actual biological population is infinite. (I’m not quite sure on this last — infinite sets do strange things.)

    In order to make a refutation along these lines, I think one would need to show a pattern of such traits appearing and becoming fixed at a rate (based on population size) that significantly violated the expected occurrence of rare deviations.

    If natural selection is not treated as always the decisive and dominant factor in evolution, that is, if factors like genetic drift are taken into account, then the occurrence of non-optimal traits is taken as an important mechanism in how lineages traverse the “search space” of evolutionary possibility.

    Selection on most traits is very weak, which is, in part, why evolution (outside the microbial realm) is so hard to document. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner is good book showing how much work goes into documenting evolution in the wild — it discusses the (still ongoing) decades-long research project on some of the Galapagos finches.

  • 50. Joshua  |  December 24, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    jocelyn ,

    Thank you so much… a response like yours is really what I was waiting for.

    You hit the nail dead on the head with your statement:

    “your past experience of debates on moral philosophy occurred in the context of the particular theology you have abandoned, and you appear to assume that the debate is conducted in the manner you encountered in that context”

    I’m constantly digging up old things I was taught in the church that have become ingrained in my psyche and of which I am not consciously aware. One of those concepts was the idea that what we believe is super important because it affects how we act and feel.

    I’m tempted to delete this post, because I realized after discussing it with everyone (for which I am extremely thankful for everyone’s input) that my conclusions are based on a lot of bad premises. I’ve been trying to fit the world inside this little box that was created for me as a child. I’m trying to finish a puzzle without the right pieces.

    Thanks for your input, it is greatly appreciated and I’m fully willing to admit my post doesn’t match reality…

    It’s so nice to know I can be wrong and not have the weight of the world – or a flock of spiritually starving and dependent sheep – on my shoulders.

  • 51. DSimon  |  December 30, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    I know that this thread is a little dated, but Joshua, I encourage you to check out this really interesting link on utilitarian morality and comparison of ethical systems:

    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/carrot&stick.html

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything Ebon says there, but he’s a very good read nonetheless.

  • 52. plover  |  January 1, 2010 at 2:30 am

    Possibly unnecessary clarification:

    In my previous comment @49, the aside beginning “I’m not quite sure on this last” is intended to refer to the statement “if you consider an infinite population, then a single such counterexample would provide a refutation”, and not the remainder of that sentence.

    Strangely enough, my level of certainty is quite high that there are no actual infinite biological populations, even if my ham-fisted editing may suggest otherwise.

  • 53. plover  |  January 1, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Josh–

    When I first read this thread last week, I had a strong reaction to some of the comments in which you set out your rationale for this post, and wrote out a response to them, but then never got around to posting it. This is in part because I’m concerned my remarks may come across as more confrontational than I intend. Perhaps, I might just say that what follows should be read in the context of what Jocelyn says above. (I’m a colleague of hers.) Also, your response to her comment seems to indicate that at least part of what I’m getting at is something you may be well aware of.

    *

    Joshua@39:

    I wonder how many god-concepts like this we apply on a daily basis and don’t even realize it…

    If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more than most people think and fewer than it may appear to someone who has recently de-converted.

    The tendency to apply concepts that work this way is a habit like anything else, and if a person has spent most of their life living in a system that uses such concepts by default, then even after leaving that system, does it not make sense that that person would continue to construct concepts that are structured similarly even though they are now working from different premises?

    You say (@22):

    I’m trying to explain every moral system in existence. I’m trying to find an underlying theory that explains not just whether actions are perceived to be moral or not, but what makes us perceive actions to be moral or immoral in the first place. I’m trying to explain how we develop our moral systems by one simple theory that explains every action, every judgment, and every shift in moral judgment.

    Why do you think that everything that has been called a moral system constitutes a unified enough category that a single “simple” theory could explain it?

    Trying to explain how humans come to moral conclusions, and how, out of our perceptions and reactions and emotions and thinking, we create the kinds of systems of meaning that produce moral judgments is, of course, an important task, but why is it equivalent to “explain[ing] every moral system in existence [...] by one simple theory that explains every action, every judgment, and every shift in moral judgment”?

    Why do you want to live in a world where “one simple theory” could explain “every action, every judgment, and every shift in moral judgment”?

    I do not. In my experience, any such theory ends up artificially constraining and diminishing the obvious diversity, profusion, and sheer messiness of existence.

    And by saying this, I do not mean that humans have some sort of indefinable, uncapturable essence, or that we can not hope to come to some scientific grasp of human consciousness, but rather that any useful, powerful theories we do arrive at will be partial, contingent, untidy.

    As I see it, escaping the traps of fundamentalist and authoritarian thinking seems to necessitate searching for what it means to expect the world to be contingent rather than determined by a plan — even a plan conceived as “natural” rather than God-given.

    *

    Joshua@4:

    The atheist, however, recognizes that our value system is based in evolution. Therefore humans naturally value – without any external mental pressures – a healthy life and a healthy family, since a healthy life and healthy family will be most likely to reproduce. These values, however, are not based in reason, they are based in our nature.

    Therefore, humans are – by nature – good. We always do that which we perceive will cause the least amount of harm. We are by nature evil, though, in that to every other man our own propogation of our own genesis competition to their propogation of their genes.

    You are skating on the edge of naturalistic fallacy here (i.e. uncritically deriving “ought” from “is”), if you haven’t already fallen in.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “The atheist, however, recognizes that our value system is based in evolution.” Our basic needs, our perceptions, and the mechanism of our drives are a function of our biology, and thus, in some ultimate sense, a product of evolution. But I find it hard to imagine a meaningful argument that anyone (sane) creates their value systems by simply accepting their perceptions and drives.

    Further, whose idea of evolution should we be using? You seem to be applying one strongly based on the idea of “survival of the fittest”. Why not apply this one?

    When you say “to every other man our own propogation of our own genesis competition to their propogation of their genes,” you are making an enormous number of assumptions about what evolution teaches us and what the nature of individuality is (more than I can really take the time to unpack just now), and you are using this unqualified statement to make rather sweeping arguments.

    I’m sorry, but the effect, to me, is that, as an atheist, you’re arguing from the fundamentalist’s idea of what atheists think. In other words, it’s as if you’ve taken on to some degree the idea that atheists derive their moral system from evolution in some direct sense and that “survival of the fittest” can be treated as one of the foundations of a moral system. I don’t know what your real intention was, and I would be surprised if my description here actually reflected your thinking, but that is how the above passage reads to me.

    Not everyone creates a family in order to reproduce, and some healthy lives are relatively solitary. Everyone may, in some sense, desire a healthy life in a context that supports their uniqueness, but the diversity of fulfilling human families and lives can not be derived in any easy sense from evolution, and certainly not from “survival of the fittest”. Arriving at values that approach the fullest sense of the dignity and diversity of human life is not so easy.

  • 54. Joshua  |  January 4, 2010 at 2:28 am

    I suppose this is the classic chicken and egg argument: which came first, the values or the need for them?

    I would argue the latter, I suppose. If history seems to reveal something about morals, it is that moral systems are born of necessity. If I can generalize my knowledge of history without being too out of line, new moral codes seem to be birthed after time periods where their lack caused a great deal of suffering and the death of those who did not apply them or at the very least the memories of the deaths of those who fell under a regime that refused to apply those codes.

    Which is probably why we see Nazism as evil. We know where it leads. It’s somewhat pragmatic, really: born of necessity.

    It seems to me that we do not have inherent dignity “from somewhere” – as Christians would have us believe. Instead, we must have dignity out of necessity. If there is no dignity or inherent value to our lives, then there is nothing to keep us from annihilating even ourselves. A species such as ours that were to lack a sense of dignity would lack the necessity necessary to give birth to a moral invention to keep ourselves from harm.

    Ironic that these same moral codes then end up being used to often cause suffering of their own.

    Seems that then the natural progression would be the birth of “spiritual” moral codes that would supersede the written letter.

    Hmmm, I’m gonna have to sleep on that one.

    Alas, probably won’t come up with anything, but its a start. Thanks for the comments.

  • 55. Michael  |  January 4, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Without morality (sexual specially) religion is just cultural practice and a total whitewash. Where is the world leading to? Common people and leaders are in the same trap.Every evil act has been normalized in the name of freedom. Abortion where a helpless unprotected child is murdered by his or hers mother, Multiple sex partners, High school and freshmen classes where almost every one has slept with every one else is now all normalized. Sarah Palin whoes daughter had child out of wedlock is said to have American values by many of her supporters at the book signing events. Jesus (God) dying for the sins concept promote this attitude?

  • 56. Joshua  |  January 4, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Wow, Michael. Quality reading material there:

    http://endphysics.com/

    http://devilsmatrix.com/

  • 57. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Morality is all relative, unless it’s a perverted relative.

  • 58. Joshua  |  January 5, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Well, we all know morality is relative to *something*.

    I’d just argue it is relative to background, upbringing, parent’s morals, what you’ve been taught, your life experiences, what you like or don’t like, what grosses you out, what you would want done to yourself, etc.

    None of those have anything to do with an “asbolute” moral system “out there” “Somewhere” or in “Someone”.

  • 59. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I really don’t believe morality is “relative”—just making a pun there. :>)

  • 60. Frreal  |  January 5, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Joe if morality is not relative how do you explain differing moral systems between old and new testament? Either it IS or IS NOT ok to have multiple wives, slaughter the children of your enemy, eat shellfish, work on the Sabbath and on and on and on. Either you rigourously adhere to your moral code and kill a man for touching the tabernacle or instead you kill the child (an independent soul) of a man who committed adultry leaving the alduterer “relatively” unharmed.

    God said he doesn’t change his mind and yet in the NT he obviously does.

  • 61. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at (pauses to crack a lobster tail)–can you be a bit more specific?

  • 62. BigHouse  |  January 5, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    59. Joe | January 5, 2010 at 1:56 pm
    I really don’t believe morality is “relative”—just making a pun there. :>)

    Solidly contributing the the latter half of the signal/noise ratio as always.

    If you actually care to discuss the issue:

    Do you think there is one absolute moral code?
    From where does it come?
    Does the Bible accurately depcit some/most/all of this code?
    If it does not depict all of it, where do we get the rest of it from?

  • 63. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I like squares and rectangles–not much into circular reasoning.

  • 64. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Morality is all relative, unless it’s a perverted relative.(#59)

    That was the original pun. Is it not possible to throw in a bit of humor without it turning into a full-fledged debate? :)

  • 65. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Sorry—the original pun was actually in #57.

  • 66. Frreal  |  January 5, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    You said you didn’t believe morality was relative. I asked you to explain and gave you a few examples of how morality was “relative” to the times or if you wish, to God’s discretion. How can I be more specific?

    Is God’s morality relative or absolute? Some things are considered bad sometimes but not all the time? If something is considered immoral pre-Jesus how can it not also be considered immoral post-Jesus. Use the reference of intercourse with menstruating females as an example. Pre-Jesus = unclean. Post Jesus = no problem.

    Why would God’s view on menstruating females change in anyway pre and post Jesus if morality was not relative? If God is not consistent with his rules then how are we to know which rules are set in stone and which rules are open to whim ie.. relative.

  • 67. BigHouse  |  January 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Joe, ALL YOU DO is crack jokes (with varying levels of success).

  • 68. BigHouse  |  January 5, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Frreal, don’t worry, it certainly wasn’t you not being clear in your inquiry. The cracking lobster shells must have been too loud for de-conversion’s Don Rickles to hear..

  • 69. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Frreal—-

    I understand where you are coming from. But a morality “argument” always winds up becoming circular or endless–I’ve seen too many here.

    BigHouse (#67)— I wouldn’t say that’s “all I do”, but I would agree with the “varying levels of success” part. :) Actually I haven’t posted here for over two weeks and noticed there wasn’t much action and tossed in my “pun”.

    I really don’t want to get into an endless discussion about God and morality though and the OT vs the NT—I can go back through older 2009 posts here and find a million of those. :)

  • 70. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Lighten up Edison. Just having some fun. I’ll let you get back to your discussion. I’ll just read again for a while.

  • 71. Frreal  |  January 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Inconsistency is not circular. Shrug.

    BigHouse hah except Rickles wasn’t the only one that thought Rickles was funny. :)

  • 72. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Yeah—Rickles doesn’t carry on conversations with himself either. :)

  • 73. Joshua  |  January 5, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    Joe, to be honest, you’re beginning to get annoying.

    I don’t even know what you believe any more and all you do is crack jokes.

  • 74. BigHouse  |  January 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Careful, Josh, that talk is likely to get us labelled as sockpuppets again….

    But I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one…

  • 75. Joshua  |  January 5, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    I don’t care if I get labeled a sockpuppet.

    Joe is God’s sockpuppet, and he puts out the expected amount of substance if our worldview is accurate.

  • 76. Joe  |  January 5, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    :) Let’s see—Josh wasn’t even in the conversation earlier. Just Frreal and Bighouse. Now check the timing:

    #73 6:08 P.M. Joshua
    #74 6:12 P.M. BigHouse

    I will vacate the premises, but I think Josh and Bighouse—and maybe Frreal are all the same person. I’m starting to get scared. :)

    I’m outta here. :)

  • 77. Joshua  |  January 5, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Sigh.

  • 78. BigHouse  |  January 5, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    The funniest part, Josh, is it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works…

    Not surprising from someone who worships an ancient manuscript.

  • 79. Landon Springer  |  February 9, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Josh,

    Forgive me if you’ve established this in a previous post, but if offenses are relative, based on the perspective of the person affected, why would you believe that the standard by which an offense is deemed offensive is absolute?

    In other words, if offenses are inherently relative, why do you seem to believe that there is an absolute standard broken by such offense? Isn’t it enough to know that it was relatively offensive, if not absolutely?

    Landon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

Twitter

Archives

Blog Stats

  • 1,996,534 hits since March 2007

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers