14 votes

Atheism and moral realism/objectivism?

*Disclaimer: I am not an apologist, theologian, or a philosopher, just someone interested in the topic. Perhaps this could've been asked in r/AskPhilosophy or maybe even r/changemyview, but I figure the conversation might be good here

The recent post here on Absurd Trolley Problems has had me thinking about ethics again, and I realized I've never been introduced to how one can be an atheist and be not only a moral objectivist, but a moral realist. I remember a debate I watched years ago with William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens where Craig asks Hitchens what the basis of morality is, and he acts insulted, insinuating that Craig intended to say that atheists couldn't "be good without God" (which I think became a famous moment for the both of them.)

But I never got the answer to Craig's question that I wanted. Without God, how should we determine what moral facts there are? How should we determine if there are moral facts at all? I grew up in a fundamentalist religion, and found myself in adulthood deeply interested in apologetics, and see similar responses in debates to the one mentioned above. Now while I believe Hitchens was a moral relativist, I often see and hear cases where atheists do seem to want to say that [insert atrocity here] was objectively morally wrong. Can atheists reasonably claim that there are not only moral facts, but objective moral facts that they can access? Upon examination, aren't you ultimately required to derive an "ought" from an "is"?

I skimmed The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris some years ago, and it seems to "avoid" (i.e. commit) the "is/ought" fallacy by simply declaring that "human flourishing" (however that may be defined, separate issue) is an irreducible "ought" in his eyes. The book is great, I think that science should be part of the discussion about how one ought to live their life if the goal is some end like human flourishing; doctors already give prescriptions for behavior based on a presupposed goal between both parties to promote health and well-being. Both of these necessarily presuppose a state of affairs that one "ought" to seek to attain.

But none of this answers why one "ought" to do anything; sure, there are facts about what one "ought" to do in order to attain a state of affairs, but that isn't morality: that's true of any subject where two people agree to share a goal. It doesn't tell us why they should have that goal. None of this feels like a satisfying answer to the question Craig posed. I don't feel like I'm any closer to these objective moral facts.

I should say this topic is really meaningful to me. I've thought a lot about veganism, and the suffering of non-human animals. I've thought about the impact of my consumption decisions instead of perpetually leaning on the "no ethical consumption" crutch (even though there are reasons why that would have merit in certain circumstances. I literally can't stop thinking about climate change and how powerless, yet simultaneously complicit I feel. I've read Peter Singer, Scripture, Kant, John Stewart Mill, Rawls, and works from many others, and can't find any reason for an atheist (and maybe even a theist?) to think that there are these moral facts at all, much less objective, accessible ones. This really leaves me with "I guess I should just do whatever it is that I feel like doing", which probably seems to you as unsatisfying as it was for me to type.

16 comments

  1. Autoxidation
    Link
    I'll preface this by giving some of my own context, I've been an atheist or non-theist for as long as I can reasonably remember. Religion happened around me everywhere growing up in the Bible Belt...

    I'll preface this by giving some of my own context, I've been an atheist or non-theist for as long as I can reasonably remember. Religion happened around me everywhere growing up in the Bible Belt in the US (and still does today!), but it was never pushed on me by my parents. I never saw a compelling reason to believe, and in exploring and questioning others about their beliefs, I was never satisfied by their reasons to justify their beliefs. At least, not enough to follow myself.

    All said, why do you feel the need to have a compelling answer to this question? Does it really matter? I don't mean those questions in some facetious way, I mean them quite seriously. Live with principles that cause less harm and suffering than the ones before us and seek to leave the world better than we found it, on all timescales. Take animal suffering and veganism for example. To some that could mean dropping meat tomorrow and becoming a vegan for the rest of their life. If a change like that is too drastic, you don't have to do it all at once. Start somewhere that is comfortable and improve upon it. If you're used to eating meat every day, try having 1 meatless day a week. Once that is normal, increase it to 2. If that takes 1 month or 1 year or 10 years, that's fine.

    Live your life to the best of your ability and guide those around you with those principles. Don't twist yourself in a knot or become anxious over internal debates about things that don't really matter.

    9 votes
  2. Rez
    Link
    The use of the word "objective" can depend on the context, the same way "literally" can depend on the context. So as an atheist, I might say that some atrocity is objectively wrong as part of...
    • Exemplary

    The use of the word "objective" can depend on the context, the same way "literally" can depend on the context. So as an atheist, I might say that some atrocity is objectively wrong as part of casual, spoken conversation, but if we're in an abstract philosophical discussion like this, then sure, I can say it's just subjectively wrong.

    In terms of physics, all of reality is subjective, objectively speaking (which funnily enough may be the one objective truth). True objectivity fundamentally does not exist. When we philosophically remark that god is dead, it's not just dead for me, it's dead for you too, and for every religious person out there - at least from my point of view. If a religious person thinks my morality is all made up, that's true, it's just what they usually fail to properly understand is that I view their morality as made up too. The earnestness of their beliefs that it isn't just made up out of thin air doesn't really matter in that consideration from my perspective. God is dead to me in the sense that it was never alive in the first place, and a religious person is just pointing at a metaphorical corpse and declaring it to be alive.

    I've heavily read philosophy on-and-off throughout my life, and especially through the 20-21 pandemic when I had more time to read, I've come to accept philosophy as just a means to an end. It is a tool to be wielded for yours and others' benefit - it is simply not productive to engage in endless intellectual masturbation of trying to establish some axiomatic truth from the foundation of which we can build all morality. I don't mean to disparage any readings and discussions you're partaking in though, it was part of my journey as well, and it's perfectly fine to have a recreational interest in philosophy. Anyways, religious people don't bother with establishing axiomatic truth for the basis of morality and just skip that step by filling in "god" in the blank, so why can't I skip over it as well? I think we can subjectively agree there are plenty of religious and non-religious people alike that are very moral, upstanding people. Having that axiomatic foundation is simply not necessary for living in the reality we're all subjected to on Earth. It's only in heady, abstract, theoretical discussions that having that axiom becomes important, but at the end of the day, that axiom, or lack thereof, simply does not matter for the real world we all must live in. I donate blood regularly. I do charitable works (although some of my volunteering has stopped in 2022 as the pandemic has receded and I've made more time to be good to myself). People I know regard me as a good person. All that matters in the end are your actions. I don't need to painstakingly build some theoretical foundation framework to justify my actions as moral, and anyone trying to snipe at me to convince me that my altruism is selfish, evil, whatever, is simply acting in bad faith, lost in intellectual fantasies, or otherwise not worth engaging with.

    Philosophical problems and quandaries tend to forget they're made up. Like for the trolley problem - sure, tell me that flipping the switch will save 5 people at the cost of 1 who is now doomed, and as part of that exercise I'll agree to flip that switch. But what would the problem be like in real life? What would the scenario be like in real life where I knew with absolute 100% certainty that flipping that switch would result in that outcome? Real life rarely presents such certainties, so it's unlikely I would flip the switch in real life, because only in abstract scenarios do I get to have that absolute confidence in the premises and what the consequences of my actions would be. There's philosophy of the mind and intellectual exercises, and then there's philosophy as applied to real life where you can rarely be 100% confident in the premises and the consequences of the decisions we all have to make. So utilitarianism is great in theory, but in real life? We can never truly know that some great evil would result in an even greater good, so it is entirely possible that a utilitarian could commit some great evil with virtuous intent and have it simply not work out and so the end result is that evil was committed with no payoff towards the greater good.

    I would suggest that instead of concerning yourself with trying to perfect some intellectual moral framework, you instead try to figure out what it means to apply moral philosophy to the boring, mundane little lives that most of us have for most of the time. But of course, there's nothing wrong with indulging in these intellectual exercises either, as I've done plenty of that myself in my life. Just remember that ostensibly the point of this intellectual hobby is that you should in some way become a better person or make others become better people, and keeping that point in mind allows me to not stumble over things like trying to establish some axiomatic moral framework. Going in circles and getting stuck on that doesn't make me a better person so I just skip it the same way every other religious person does.

    4 votes
  3. [4]
    knocklessmonster
    Link
    The only solution I've found is moral relativism within social structures. It is a bit of a shifty thing, and also helps understand how we have progressed as societies around the world. There's a...

    The only solution I've found is moral relativism within social structures. It is a bit of a shifty thing, and also helps understand how we have progressed as societies around the world.

    There's a researcher that suspects Moses was high on some sort of psychadelic drug when he received the Ten Commandments from God. This leads to a question: If Moses received the Ten Commandments from within himself, where did he find the backing for these rules in his life?

    My conclusion after my rift with Christianity, and flirtation wirh Buddhism, is because it is good to do by some internal and even collectively agreed measure. If you have an issue with the collective, consider what it is. If you are somehow objectively wrong, pulling a lever to kill 10,000 people instead of letting the trolley run over a sandwich, obviously something is very wrong with you, but empathy, which is inherent in most people, usually guides the decision anyway.

    I developed my morality by testing what I learned in different systems (religions, philosophies, etc). Most people are ethically esoteric: not hard on any single school of thought or ethics, because it is necessary to be flexible in navigating the world. A lot of morality is just seeing if the rule passes your sniff test. If it passes enough people's sniff tests it becomes a Commandment or a law or whatever.

    4 votes
    1. [3]
      RNG
      Link Parent
      First I want to thank you for taking the time to read and write out your response to my post! I had a couple of questions about your view: So it sounds like you take a hybrid approach to the...

      First I want to thank you for taking the time to read and write out your response to my post!

      I had a couple of questions about your view:

      > The only solution I've found is moral relativism within social structures

      > because it is good to do by some internal and even collectively agreed measure

      So it sounds like you take a hybrid approach to the question of moral relativism. Is it possible in your view for the collective to agree to measures that are morally wrong? If so, where is this contradiction coming from?

      but empathy, which is inherent in most people, usually guides the decision anyway

      Would you say that inherent attitudes towards moral questions are the source of the "internal" morality you mentioned earlier? And would you describe this as a product of evolution or as something more transcendent?

      A lot of morality is just seeing if the rule passes your sniff test. If it passes enough people's sniff tests it becomes a Commandment or a law or whatever

      So I think this describes the position I'm leaning towards. I'm currently in moral anti-realist/moral non-cognitivist/emotivist land, and generally think that moral utterances are descriptions of an individual's emotional attitude toward certain actions and the moral beliefs they derive from those attitudes. This seems to explain to me why different people and different collectives can differ on moral questions, but this perspective is wholly insufficient for helping me decide what I ought to do.

      Any particular readings that you've found valuable? I don't think I've ever read anything in depth about Buddhism.

      1 vote
      1. [2]
        knocklessmonster
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        Yes. I see no contradiction. Morality is based on perceptions of right and wrong. Societal rules are based on groups agreeing to rules, or following what others agreed to. Your disagreement with...

        Is it possible in your view for the collective to agree to measures that are morally wrong

        Yes.

        If so, where is this contradiction coming from?

        I see no contradiction. Morality is based on perceptions of right and wrong. Societal rules are based on groups agreeing to rules, or following what others agreed to. Your disagreement with this rule or that one is just that: a disagreement. This disagreement has several resolutions after you have thoroughly considered your position: Change your opinion, or convince others to have your opinion. That's why people protest millenia-long dietary practices and people petition for their rights, their moral compass tells them the greater group is morally wrong, and they want to push the needle towards their direction.

        If morality is relative we must, at the very least, accept that there will be varying positions on a given topic, even if we choose not to accept these positions as valid.

        Would you say that inherent attitudes towards moral questions are the source of the "internal" morality you mentioned earlier? And would you describe this as a product of evolution or as something more transcendent?

        I would say attitudes in general are the source of morality. We are, in general, a result of our environment and our quest for morality is, in part, the striggle to find our authentic selves (background into philosophical issues on authenticity).

        but this perspective is wholly insufficient for helping me decide what I ought to do.

        This is the struggle for authenticity, and so the struggle to understand one's morality. I step outside of any sort of academically describable process (that I have $10 words for at least) at this point and view it as the combination of two things:

        Does this position pass the sniff test? (Does it smell like bullshit?)

        If I commit to this position, can I live with the result?

        You'll step in some shit and have some hard looks in the mirror so the next part comes: Why do I feel/smell this way after the decision?

        Any particular readings that you've found valuable? I don't think I've ever read anything in depth about Buddhism.

        I can recommend Brad Warner's books, starting with his first, Hardcore Zen. Dont let the punk allusions fool you, his credentials are solid, but he draws from his experiences from college, being in a weird hardcore punk outfit, to moving to Japan to work on Ultraman (also how he wound up becoming a priest). The Soto lineage he belongs to is a bit different than most people imagine Japanese Buddhism. There is frankly not much to say about morality in this context. It is mostly about the Noble Eightfold Path and practice for its own sake, be it virtuous behavior or meditation, rather than meditating for enlightenment or being good for magic karma points. I like Warner and his late mentor Gudo Nishijima because they're more practically minded in a Buddhist school that is already fairly stripped down and practical, without doing it in a way a lot of westerners do where it feels like they're picking and choosing what they want. Nishijima and one of his pupils Chodo Cross also did a translation of the core Zen text Shobogenzo that is interesting if you are interested in drinking directly from a firehose.

        I would avoid a lot of Buddhist social media spaces, especially /r/zen and related subreddits that dont actually discuss Buddhism, or anything that feels culty or too centered on people, or mysticism since you come from a similar position I did. Some Buddhist schools feel like Hinduism 2, but the further east you go the more that falls away.

        2 votes
        1. vord
          Link Parent
          The simplest argument for moral relativity is a simple one I think: Killing other people is wrong. But what of killing someone who is actively beating you to death? Most would agree in that...

          If morality is relative we must, at the very least, accept that there will be varying positions on a given topic, even if we choose not to accept these positions as valid.

          The simplest argument for moral relativity is a simple one I think: Killing other people is wrong.

          But what of killing someone who is actively beating you to death? Most would agree in that particular case murdering your assailant accidentally would be acceptable. So even in one of the top commandments, there is lots of room for variations because of extenuating circumstances.

          One problem we face as humanity is that the internet and global trade has necessitated merging of our local communities into a global one far more rapidly than our monkey brains have the capacity to handle. Overcoming the typical problems of imperialism is being met with the need to relatively quickly come to some level of global consensus on the major moral points, lest the imperialistic tendencies get worse.

          1 vote
  4. [2]
    Grendel
    Link
    Full Disclosure: I am a person of faith who believes in God (specifically Christianity). I've had thoughts about giving up my faith. I've wondered what it would look like. I've experimented with...

    Full Disclosure: I am a person of faith who believes in God (specifically Christianity).

    I've had thoughts about giving up my faith. I've wondered what it would look like. I've experimented with different moral frameworks in my head.

    None of them fully "worked" for me. With every single one of them, there were situations where the application of that framework felt very very wrong internally. Using a framework is great because it uses (mostly) objective logic and we can feel good about logic being inherent to the Universe. But, if I apply different frameworks to different situations it devolves into me deciding morality on my own biased feelings. The moment that I become the author of morality is the moment that it loses all meaning in a universal context.

    If I'm following a system I can claim the system is the authority. The system transcends any one person. But when humans decide what's moral, whether as individuals or as a society, there is no authority to it. What makes one society right and one wrong? What right does any one person have to make claims about right and wrong?

    These kinds of questions really gave me a hard time. I also had a childhood within what most would consider a fundamentalist religion. I've definitely moved away from that. But when you've grown up with the concept of morality coming from a higher power it's hard to feel satisfied with anything else. A higher power provides a sense of authority, a logical reason for our beliefs of right and wrong. It's not just what I feel, and it's not from another human who's in the same boat I'm in.

    This is just a long way to say that I don't have an answer to your question, but that I've pondered it myself. Ultimately I still do believe in God and I believe that "Love God and Love your neighbor" are the ultimate tests for morality. There will always be some subjectivity no matter what, but it's hard to live in a world where you don't believe "absolute" right and wrong don't exist.

    4 votes
    1. RNG
      Link Parent
      I think I have an identical view to you, and maybe the similarities in upbringing similarly influenced our intuitions on the subject. I don't think there can be objective morality without God....

      > None of them fully "worked" for me. With every single one of them, there were situations where the application of that framework felt very very wrong internally.

      > These kinds of questions really gave me a hard time. I also had a childhood within what most would consider a fundamentalist religion. I've definitely moved away from that. But when you've grown up with the concept of morality coming from a higher power it's hard to feel satisfied with anything else. A higher power provides a sense of authority, a logical reason for our beliefs of right and wrong. It's not just what I feel, and it's not from another human who's in the same boat I'm in.

      I think I have an identical view to you, and maybe the similarities in upbringing similarly influenced our intuitions on the subject. I don't think there can be objective morality without God. Without God, morality seems to be little more than the complicated, often contradictory emotional states of humans towards moral issues. As it stands, I'm an agnostic, and so far am unconvinced that God does indeed exist (though I'm open to the idea,) which leaves me without any concrete grounding for moral claims. So I generally describe my beliefs as moral anti-realist, but I'm not deeply committed to that position and am always open to hear what others have to say.

  5. starchturrets
    Link
    I'm also someone who grew up in a fundamentalist religion before moving away from it, so I totally get what you feel. Personally, I did a lot of soul searching about this, and I eventually came to...

    I'm also someone who grew up in a fundamentalist religion before moving away from it, so I totally get what you feel. Personally, I did a lot of soul searching about this, and I eventually came to the conclusion (and also because despite my best efforts, philosophy is hard) that I would just have to assume objective morality as an a priori of the universe, the same way I did the laws of logic. I don't know where it comes from, the same way I don't know what happened before the universe began. I don't really think assuming a moral code is any worse than assuming a God, from which said moral code inherently derives from, so this leaves me the most comfortable with myself.

    3 votes
  6. skybrian
    (edited )
    Link
    A lot of the flavor of modern morality comes from universalism - that is, trying to find and agree on universal rules that everyone should follow. (For example, consider the Universal Declaration...

    A lot of the flavor of modern morality comes from universalism - that is, trying to find and agree on universal rules that everyone should follow. (For example, consider the Universal Declaration action of Human Rights.) This sort of "cosmic" morality seems like a construct of philosophers. I think in practice, many of our ideas of morality come from more practical reasoning in everyday situations - call that "reasonable" morality.

    And in particular, it comes from the difficulty of raising children. I think if you wanted to understand where morality comes from, the best place to start would be to study how parents try to raise their kids. Trolley problems don't come up when you're trying to get kids to behave in the moment, and more generally to learn behaviors that they should have later in life.

    It's not clear that everyday morality scales up. I roughly go along with utilitarianism thinking where, all things being equal, an action that results in fewer deaths is better than one that results in more deaths. But I don't think utilitarian calculations work so well that you should always follow them, even if the results seem morally repugnant.

    I also think that moral "calculations" are just a metaphor. In practice, nobody uses a spreadsheet to calculate what's morally acceptable, nor do we find spreadsheets morally persuasive. (A good graph can be persuasive in understanding what's happening, but not what to do about it.)

    Moral decisions become more difficult in extreme situations. War in particular. I haven't seen much in the way of pacifists arguing on moral grounds against assisting Ukraine in killing Russians.

    Getting back to the question, I think you're looking for some cosmic, universal morality to replace a religious idea of what morality is, but it's the wrong place to look. Maybe look at everyday morality instead, and what people you consider good are doing and teaching?

    3 votes
  7. eladnarra
    Link
    I'm an atheist who was brought up as one. I... Don't really get philosophy. I studied a bit of applied ethics a long time ago, which I enjoyed since it had real world relevance, but often...

    I'm an atheist who was brought up as one. I... Don't really get philosophy. I studied a bit of applied ethics a long time ago, which I enjoyed since it had real world relevance, but often philosophy seems too abstract and strange to me. So I might not be fully understanding what you're getting at/asking.

    After a quick Google about moral realism, I think it could be said that as an atheist I sometimes act as a moral realist in my day to day life, but I don't believe in moral facts? I figure that all my morality is a product of evolution and socialization, which creates the mirage of moral truths or facts. I might make a decision because this reaction evolved to help my social group survive and pass on our collective genes, but in the moment when I make the decision it just feels like "the right thing to do."

    3 votes
  8. imperialismus
    Link
    I've never been particularly religious, but in my teens I read a lot of philosophy, and there was a period of time when I was really troubled by my inability to find a firm philosophical footing...

    I've never been particularly religious, but in my teens I read a lot of philosophy, and there was a period of time when I was really troubled by my inability to find a firm philosophical footing for ethics and morality. I didn't believe in a god or gods from which to draw moral authority (and anyway, as I'll expand on below, even if I did I do not find it a good source of such authority). But I still had a strong sense that certain things are right, and certain things are wrong, and I couldn't imagine living a life in which I could not say, for instance, than wanton murder or rape were wrong, or that feeding the starving is good. It seemed if I didn't believe in objective morality, I would pass through life like a fraud, because I can't help but have moral opinions, and at times express them, but I couldn't find any good philosophical argument to support that.

    In the end, I settled on a kind of philosophy promoted by the philosopher Simon Blackburn, and got on with my life. But first, I rejected entirely the idea of god or gods as a source of moral authority. I find Plato's Euthyphro argument from 2000+ years ago to still be relevant today. Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods? If it is the former, then we don't really need the gods: there must be some other source of moral authority or moral standards, because divine decree is not what makes what is right, right, or what makes what is wrong, wrong. On the other hand, if divine decree is the source of morality, then, if God or the gods declare that rape and murder is good, then we must accept that it is. And I find that utterly unacceptable, as would most reasonable people. And if you counter that God or the gods would not command us to act in evil ways, then we are back to square one: there must be some other source, other than simply divine will, from which moral authority springs.

    If I seek to find a foundation for basic moral principles such as "causing unnecessary suffering is bad" or "promoting happiness and good health in fellow humans is good", then I can't rely merely on arbitrary pronouncements by religious or divine fiat, and if the pronouncements aren't arbitrary, but based on some kind of logical or natural law, principle or standard, then I don't see why this law could not exist, and be found, without having to invoke any divinities.

    Now, when it comes to Blackburn's philosophy, it's extremely technical (some would probably call it sophistry). I read through his works and satisfied myself that it was sound (or at least plausible), and then I just accepted the conclusion, and have since forgotten the details of how I got there. The core of his philosophy, which he calls quasi-realism, is to establish a way to use moral talk without having to commit to some grand metaphysical moral standard. His argument proceeds by analyzing moral language, such as "X is wrong", "Y is morally right", etc, and arguing that it doesn't require one to commit to moral objectivism. The result, if you accept his argument, is that moral language and moral reasoning are vindicated without having to invoke objective morality. In effect, it's having your cake and eating it too: you can say the same things as the moral realist when discussing practical issues of ethics, like "If stealing is wrong, and Bob stole, then Bob acted immorally", or "it is the morally right thing to do to support welfare for the poor". But at the same time, when discussing metaethics, you can maintain that, despite sounding like a realist, you do not necessarily believe in an objective standard of morality that requires the bridging of the gap between "is" and "ought".

    This might seem like a bit much. Can you really justify using the exact same language as a moral realist, who believes in objective morality, and yet maintain a philosophical difference? Doesn't the whole thing just collapse into moral realism in the end? Many philosophers don't find Blackburn's arguments convincing. And since it's been more than a decade since I read it, I can no longer remember any of the fine details. But in the end, having spent several years reading thousands of pages of philosophy, I concluded that this was the most reasonable-sounding philosophy I could find, and anyway, torturing myself over it was not going to serve me in any way. And so I decided that I was going to follow Blackburn's example, and use moral talk like a normal person, but maintain a healthy skepticism towards the existence of "objective" morality.

    I find it doesn't really matter in practical terms. Usually, when having a discussion about ethics, the participants share certain moral assumptions, even if they don't necessarily agree about the ultimate justification for those assumptions. And if the gap is too great, and one person simply holds fundamental beliefs or axioms about morality that are incompatible with the other person, then there is no way to resolve the debate, and one just has to agree to disagree. Even if I subscribed to the idea of objective morality, that would not convince anyone who held fundamentally different beliefs about the basic foundations of moral value. People who believe in objective morality don't agree on what that morality looks like anyway.

    Two people might believe that morality derives from God, but if they believe in different gods, or different interpretations of the same god, then they will never agree on points of fundamental disagreement. If two people believe in some kind of natural or logical law of morality, but do not agree on the exact particulars of this law, what the law says and how one might learn about and interpret it, they will not be able to resolve their disputes using purely logical or naturalistic reasoning either.

    People often invoke objective morality as some kind of trump card in a discussion, but then they can't justify it further than "that's just how it is", or a reference to scripture. It feels more like an admission that reasonable debate can't sway you from some kind of fundamental belief on which the rest of your ethics rest. And I certainly have some fundamental moral beliefs, or attitudes, or opinions (depending on which philosophical school of thought you subscribe to), which I've simply resolved to believe in and attempt to act according to. And in the end, whether I say that's just what I believe and you can't change my mind, or I say that's just the objectively correct way to think about morality, it seems to me in practical terms I've said basically the same thing. It's just that one requires a good deal more metaphysics. Either way, the statement serves as an indication that further civilized debate on the issue is unlikely to prove constructive.

    3 votes
  9. [3]
    lou
    (edited )
    Link
    One thing to have in mind is that both Sam Harris and William Craig Lane will require some kind of axiomatic "hard truth" at some point of their reasoning, which they'll inevitably try to...

    One thing to have in mind is that both Sam Harris and William Craig Lane will require some kind of axiomatic "hard truth" at some point of their reasoning, which they'll inevitably try to circumvent or obscure.

    I'd look into a hedonistic consequentialist worldview instead: which actions are less likely to impose suffering on others, and bring the greatest amount of happiness into the world? Which begs the question, who's gonna tell me which things are more likely to prevent suffering and more likely to produce joy? Well, science, of course. And why should you trust science? Well that's the part were I refer you to philosophy of science. Good luck :P

    2 votes
    1. [2]
      RNG
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I like hedonistic consequentialism and utilitarianism very much. I think my own intuitions map onto utilitarian/consequentialist views closely by themselves. I have a couple of problems with them...

      I like hedonistic consequentialism and utilitarianism very much. I think my own intuitions map onto utilitarian/consequentialist views closely by themselves. I have a couple of problems with them though.

      While I think there are good utilitarian objections to Nozick's Utility Monster, other objections seem to hold water for me: First, a common objection is should we kill one person to harvest their organs to save 5 people? Why not? This seems to be an uncomfortable conclusion for the utilitarian. The common response from the utilitarian is to turn utilitarianism on itself and say that it'd cause greater suffering to live in a world where we chop up people for organs. Fair response. Pin in that.

      The biggest issue I have is that every decision you make throughout the day would involve tremendous effort to perform the hedonic calculus required to evaluate the action. Choosing between two brands of food at the store. Which ingredients are the most likely to involve contributing to climate change? How about animal suffering? Forced labor? How much should I pay extra to purchase the more ethical product compared to the resulting change in pleasure/suffering? If we consider effects even further out, it seems that the long term, butterfly-like effects can't possibly be calculated. It seems that in this case, performing the hedonic calculus and the resulting moral paralysis causes more suffering than it alleviates!

      Utilitarians do have a response to this too: rule utilitarianism. This develops general rules that, if followed, are most likely to maximize pleasure/minimize suffering. By following these rules, you avoid needing to perform the hedonic calculus every time you take an action, rather you follow the rule. This is also a helpful way that utilitarians can conceive of things like "rights" which seem to have more than just the weight of the immediate suffering/pleasure involved. For me, this seems to collapse utilitarianism into a deontological, rather than consequentialist, ethical theory.

      Now back to the pin from paragraph 2. If what we have been talking about this whole time were objective moral truths, then whether or not 90% of people disagree with cutting up the person shouldn't be reason to think that "utilitarianism has a problem, and we need to fix it." We should bite the bullet and accept it, right? If what we are doing is discovering real moral truths, then those facts are true regardless of the degree of popular agreement with the uncomfortable conclusion. The fact that unpleasant conclusions harm an ethical theory's validity tell me that we are doing something more like concept creation than discovery. To me, this phenomenon seems least surprising on a relativist or moral anti-realist position.

      4 votes
      1. lou
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        Most people's ethics is a mix of different schools. Maybe that doesn't make logical sense, maybe an individual is not a cohesive whole. I honestly don't think there's anything wrong with that....

        Most people's ethics is a mix of different schools. Maybe that doesn't make logical sense, maybe an individual is not a cohesive whole. I honestly don't think there's anything wrong with that. Pragmatically, it sometimes make sense to act in an entirely consequentialist fashion. In other situations, virtue ethics is a more adequate framework. Everyone is a bit like that, we're not logic systems. We're human beings, and reality is complex.

  10. Amarok
    Link
    In my mind, it's all just altruism arising from natural selection. It's the same impetus that forms animals into packs and tribes and flocks and schools - there's strength and wisdom in the group....

    In my mind, it's all just altruism arising from natural selection. It's the same impetus that forms animals into packs and tribes and flocks and schools - there's strength and wisdom in the group. This leads some creatures including humans into taking care of their group's members for purely selfish reasons - if your group is diminished, so are you. There's nothing particularly mystical or divine about it, just a more intelligent form of survival that confers very real benefits.

    Humans got their start on morality from there. That plus mirror neurons and a good, long look at the night sky (which very few of us can see anymore) is the impetus for religion.

    2 votes