Moral Facts and Opinions

Having seen yet another moral philosopher (another religious one) make a hash of morality, I wanted to write a detailed post on my position on how morality is nothing more than opinion elevated to a fictitious nobility; a common man, made special by simply calling him a lord or a bishop.

There are a few details to tidy up, and then we can get on to moral facts and opinions and the distinctions between objective and subjective moral facts or truths:

  • The error of the is/ought distinction
  • A potted history that explains how we got to where we are now
  • The mental lives of empirical creatures
  • Facts, induction and deduction
  • Moral facts are opinions we really care about
  • Objective/Subjective moral Truths/Facts
  • Moral consequences

The Error of the Is/Ought Distinction

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how when some people read him it might seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises.

Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

The potted history explains why there are only ises.

How We Got Here – A Potted History

Let’s start out with a summary of what happened to get us where we are today. This is necessary to get to the modern day picture. If you are religious you probably don’t buy this picture, but instead seem content to hold beliefs that were established in a dim and ignorant time. If you’re an old school philosopher you might not buy it either. I’d be interested to know why; but so far any religious and philosophical counters to this following explanation, about our reality and our understanding of morality, have been full of errors.

This review of how we humans got here is necessarily simplistic. But I think the meaning is plain enough. This explanation exists in other sources, but I’m summarising it here for the context that’s required to avoid any special kind of dualism, gods and excuses for ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ morality.

Humans and pre-humans, as species, awoke to start thinking about stuff, about themselves and their world, and their place in it, more than other animals did or do. It’s difficult to imagine how rudimentary this thinking was. This development is lost in history. All we have are artifacts and then writings from societies that came much later than this dawn of thinking. In a way, the lost distant history and the emergence of Greek philosophy is analogous to our individual personal awakening from infancy. We can’t remember much, if anything at all, about our early life before the ages of two or three, and then a scant few memories remain. Of those very early personal memories, some may be false memories that we’ve adopted from later tales about our early life. Similarly, all we know now is that at some stage humans, like we as individuals, started to think and become self aware to a degree that we would now recognise as the possession of human cognition, and all we have left are stories, some of which will be false.

With little more to go on, humans played with their newly found minds, and invented gods to explain what couldn’t be explained. They also invented witches, ghosts and all sorts of other creatures, material and non-material, to explain away strange events. They used those gods to justify blaming and punishing other people that would not comply with what the gods or their priests required. I suppose this was a natural outcome, from a time when the ideas of reason and evidence were not as well developed as they are today. It’s relatively easy to invent an entity in the mind that had its own sort of existence, it’s own reality, and yet couldn’t be touched by the physical world, by the senses.

This was the creation of what I refer to as the primacy of thought as the key to understanding the whole of reality. Philosophy and religion were bedfellows dictating this primacy of thought, while our senses were believed to give us access to only some part of a greater imagined reality, and not always reliably at that. A lot of the mental stuff wasn’t reliable either, but you couldn’t really test that – you sort of had to take it on faith. And oh how we did.

Not all thinkers fell for this supremacy of the mind. Naturalists/Empiricists of various kinds recognised the folly of it. Conflicting beliefs seemed so easy to conjure up, and the only reality that smacked you in the face on a regular basis was the material world. It wasn’t as if many philosophers or theologians denied the existence of the material world and our sensory access to it. Their main difference of opinion with naturalists was that they thought there was more than just the physical world. Many desperately wanted there to be more, so much so that they really believed there was more, of other realms, gods, demons, angels. With such little understanding of the material world, and our part in it, as existed then, the balance of power remained with these dualists, and the religious in particular.

Eventually the Enlightenment, better philosophical tools of thought, and science emerged. And then Darwin. And then the brain sciences, from psychology to neuroscience. And eventually we started to get a better picture of what we were and what we are now.

What do we understand now of our history?

Life started as simple empirical creatures, interacting with the world through physics and chemistry alone. And much of physics is chemistry and chemistry is physics, at the molecular level, where the electromagnetic interaction of electrons around atoms describes everything at those scales. In small life forms, the early cells, the interaction is the physical boundary of the cell wall and the chemical transmission of information, food, energy. Information, food and energy are indistinguishable on these scales, they are just interactions of particle elements and molecules, and the exchange of energy.

Multi-cellular creatures evolved variation in their cell types, to become organisms with multiple organs. And, for our purposes here, one distinct cell type is of interest: the neuron. A neuron is just another type of cell that specialises. It’s generally a long cell that transmits signals along its length – not by the conduction of electrons as in an electrical wire or electronic component, but as waves of ions crossing the boundary along the cell’s length, with each ion event triggering the next, like a Mexican Wave. The neuron can also grow extensions – synapses – to connect to other neurons, and other cell types in our peripheral nervous system. The connections are not direct cell-to-cell physical contact of cell walls, as much as gaps across which chemical signals can be transmitted. We are creatures with brains: a collection of interacting neurons.

The remaining details of how neurons work is not important for now. What is important is this: there is little significant difference between peripheral neurons and brain neurons. The brain neurons are essentially ‘sensing’ and ‘activating’ each other just as the sense neurons connect to each other and to other tissues or to the neurons of the brain. Whatever other cell types and processes go on in brains, this seems to be the most significant feature: brain neurons are sensing and activating each other in such a complex way that the brain becomes aware of itself, even invents an abstract model of itself, me, my mind and I. We consider our peripheral neurons to be engaged in the empirical aspect of our epistemology while the brain neurons are engaged in the mental aspect, our reasoning. But since brain and peripheral neurons are all engaged in the same type of physical and chemical activity we are in fact totally empirical systems, and what we call the mind and its thinking and reasoning function is the outcome of a mass of empirical neurons working together. We were empirical beings all along! We are empirical beings!

Consciousness … humans have argued for a long time about what it is. But here’s a materialist perspective. Brain neurons communicate locally, regionally, and externally, in and outside the brain. The brain’s processes can be viewed as many layered models of processing. And such models don’t require detail all the way down. So, here’s what consciousness is: when a system of neurons has such massive amounts of internal interaction, and creates models of itself, it also creates models of its modelling, such that this modelling becomes so internally reflexive, that one model that emerges is the mind. The brain’s self awareness of the brain’s own processes is what the brain is creating, as an executive level model. And here’s the killer: this mind model does not model, does not sense, the individual neurons engaged in its own modelling process – the brain’s mind model feels like it’s a free floating entity, an abstract non-physical entity, and this is why we (we embodied brains) have the feeling that gives rise to the dualism of mind and body. The error in the brain’s model of its own self, is to give it the impression that that very model is something altogether different from the physical brain that creates it. This error has a lot to answer for.

And so here we are. Products of Evolution. Embodied brains. Empirical creatures, with brains that concoct mental lives. Conscious creatures with a flawed model of our own consciousness. Those flaws have consequences. One is an erroneous view of what morality is. Another is the idea that death for apostasy is morally necessary to maintain a religious system of morality, … but more on that elsewhere.

The Mental Lives of Empirical Creatures

Our mental lives are to a great extent full of illusions. The brain cannot sense its own neurons at work, so to the brain itself, it feels like it’s a disembodied mind, floating around in close proximity to the head, somewhere behind the eyes. The physical brain with a self model of consciousness is the reality; but the free floating conscious mind is the illusory aspect that the conscious brain has of its conscious processes, and that is what is meant by the illusion of consciousness.

The abstract self, the mind, vanishes when looked at closely, or when the brain deteriorates. We know many of our optical illusions are not in fact tricks of the physics of optics but tricks that the brain plays on itself; or more graciously, the brain is fooled into to believing something is the case when it isn’t.

Our whole mental view of our visual ability is an illusion – we do not see a continuous movie made up of frames, but rather concoct an internal mental model based on snippets of encoded transmissions from the eyes and the re-invention of previous models. It’s such a remarkable system that it really does look like the mind has an immediate and detailed and accurate window on the world.

Internal mental illusions are plentiful. There is zero evidence that an out of body experience is anything other than an illusion, and much evidence of it being an error. Out of body illusions can be stimulated in the lab and the subject tested on the accuracy of what they think they are seeing from outside the body, and they are wrong. Experiences such as ‘astral planing’ are no more than trippy internal experiences, no matter how profound the experience may feel. The same with hallucinogenic drugs: the experiences my feel profound, and indeed, chemical changes in the brain may take place as a result of using them, sufficient to enlighten one’s life or destroy it … but all that is happening between the ears.

We invent gods, contradictory gods, and make up awfully bad reasons for believing in them, and yet there is zero evidence of any god anywhere, ever, as far as we can tell. And, again, to doesn’t matter how uplifting and spiritual these ‘visions’ or ‘voices from god’, it’s all an internally generated light show.

In the sense laid out above it’s important to grasp that the categories we invent, the physical and the mental, the material and immaterial, even categories of the material such as the distinction between physics, chemistry, biology, are all fairly arbitrary, with regard to the material matter that we are made of and that we interact with. When an asteroid impact hits the earth and results in atmospheric reactions that wipe out species, that’s chemistry and physics at work, not a punishment from the gods.

In this context we are material creatures in a material world, experiencing that world empirically through our epistemologically limited sense and brain neurons, co-opting our brain neurons to perform reasoning functions on the empirical data we collect. Our gods are the inventions of brains of such creatures.

This leaves us with some straight forward results. There is no evidence of anything other than the material world, the material universe. There is no evidence that we humans are anything but components of that material universe and not somehow distinct from it or transcendent beyond it. There is no evidence of a magical mind or soul that is distinct in kind from our material brain-body systems. There is no evidence of anything like a god from which we can derive something that might be a moral fact. There is nothing in the cosmos that reveals itself as something that might be a moral fact.

So, what are moral facts? First, it might help to establish what we mean by ‘facts’.

Facts, Induction and Deduction

We can take facts to be truths or near truths about the world, or something along those lines. That sounds a bit vague, and that’s because even the most solid facts we have are vague in detail if not in appearance. How do we establish facts? In one of two ways mainly, and often in some combination: inductive evidence, deductive reasoning.

Inductive Evidence

Arguments from induction have a bad rep in philosophy, but that’s the fault of philosophy. Remember the primacy of thought, the supremacy of the mind that I mentioned earlier? That’s where this erroneous philosophical misjudgement comes from. The black swan argument has a lot to answer for.

I see only white swans. I confer with other people and they too see only white swans. We don’t presume we’ve seen all swans in the world, so we conclude, tentatively, or perhaps confidently, but contingently, that all swans are white. We have induced, from several, maybe many, particulars of evidence to the general case that all swans are white. Fact: all swans are white.

But then someone tells us there are black swans in the southern hemisphere, and maybe brings back a pair to Europe! Oh no, our fact isn’t correct any more! What the hell happened?!

Induction worked, that’s what happened. We contingently concluded that all swans are white, based on the ones we’d seen. It was inductive: arguing from the particular evidence, contingently to the general case.

And now we adapt our argument based on these new particulars, and the result is a modified. Fact: all swans indigenous to Europe are white.

This evidence based inductive argument is, in this simple form, representative of science: observation, specific data, hypothesis statement, checking the hypothesis against more data, adapting the hypothesis to account for the new data. Science is a lot more than that. Collections of such uses of inductive evidence form whole sciences, and many such collections can be used to create theories that model the world so well we call what we can derive from them facts.

The basis of inductive evidence is simple:

  • Collect evidence
  • Form a contingent inductive argument from the particular evidence collected to the general case.
  • Declare the general case as a contingent fact
  • If conflicting evidence comes in, adapt the argument and the details of the fact – and if the new evidence makes the argument and the fact useless, abandon it, otherwise declare the updated contingent fact.

For more on the contingency of human knowledge (and the bogus ‘other ways of knowing’) see here.

You will find that people like David Deutch will make a fuss about how bad induction is, that isn’t how science works; and many philosophers will tell you all about the ‘problem of induction’. They are talking nonsense, because there is no problem with induction unless you use it incorrectly – that is, if you expect it to prove anything beyond doubt. It doesn’t.

An induction argument is a contingent argument based on particular evidence in order to make some useful general statement about the world, and it’s adaptable, correctable. What could be more useful to human beings, tiny creatures trying to understand the universe? It’s the best we can do with incomplete knowledge and fallible and limited evidence collecting and reasoning tools.

Deductive Reasoning

Here we come to another aspect of the error that the philosophical supremacy of mind created: giving deductive reasoning too much credit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful tool. But it doesn’t discover new facts about the world. Instead, it tidies up our reasoning about facts about the world, and helps to link facts together in a more reliable reasoning process.

Deductive reasoning is based on logic. The binary stuff: 0/1, true/false, yes/no. Deductive arguments take a set of premises and using strict rules argue to some conclusion. That sounds pretty good. We can get from something we know and really reliably, absolutely, prove the conclusion, right? Wrong. That absolutely bit – that’s where it’s wrong.

A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion cannot be false, if the premises are true. A sound argument produces a conclusion that is absolutely true if the argument is valid and the premises are absolutely true.

That’s just fine, but there’s that absolutely again, but here it is clearer that the soundness of the argument depends on the absolute truth of the premises. In other words, the conclusion is contingent on the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises. Deduction stuff is contingent after all. But our understanding of at least simple arguments is rock solid – if we can rely on logic at all – a question for another time.

The problem for deductive arguments sits squarely in the contingency of the premises. And so for any deductive argument, we have to be able to prove its premises too, … with another argument; and then that argument’s premises; and on it goes back up the line of reasoning – all necessary for a sound argument and our ultimate conclusion we want to prove absolutely.

And so it all falls down. We cannot prove all premises in a chain of arguments. Somewhere along the line we rely on either a guess, some arbitrary decision, some assertions by definition, or an inductive argument from observation.

Some premises, in mathematics, for example, are called axioms. What are they? They are premises we take to be true, either because we have learned, inductively and deductively after a lot of work that they appear to be true, or because intuitively they seem to be true and we haven’t had good reason to reject them. Mathematics is contingent on these axioms, for its absolute truth, so it isn’t absolutely true, in any of its claims. That’s quite different from whether it’s useful enough for our purposes.

Acquiring Premises

Intuition can sometimes be good. But what is intuition other than the physical brain having established some idea about what might be the case. We don’t know why a particular intuition exists – though in some cases psychology and neuroscience can give us some ideas. But many intuitions are shown to be flat out wrong, so they are not arbiters of ready made truths. Will someone point this out to Alvin Plantinga – sensus divinitatis – he has intuition of having an intuition that becomes a presupposition that we have that intuition, that leads him to believe that … there is a god … or some such nonsense.

What about scientific foundations? They are taken from observations about the world, and a few trial and error guesses, hypotheses, that someone then tests, and finds to be good enough.

Are there any absolute truths that we can use as premises? None that I know of. Really, none. There might be some we assume to be true because it really feels as though they should be true. But I bet in all cases it can easily be pointed out what guess or other arbitrary choice is being made, or how it’s based on some observations about the world.

In the end deduction is nothing more than a tool to get us from one set of contingent facts to another set in a reliable manner. The proof of deduction is localised to the argument and does not prove the premises; so its reach is limited.

And so always, we are empirical humans, observing the world, even empirically reasoning about it, since our brains are full of empirically operating neurons interacting to carry out reasoning processes. And all our knowledge so acquired is contingent.

Moral Facts are Opinions We Really Care About.

With a working idea of what facts amount to, how are we to think about moral facts?

Are there no absolute moral facts? What about ‘it is wrong to kill‘ makes that an absolute moral truth, an objective moral fact?

Oh, hold on, ‘objective‘, another of those words we need to clear up. I’ll come back to that…. But, in the mean time, when it comes to the ways in which the term ‘objective moral fact/truth‘ is often used, no, there are none, they are all contingent, and when we look closer, they are nothing more than opinions.

Humans evolved to have the brains we have, to build the social structures we do, to have children, to live as a family. Our brains work using reason, but in many ways they are still very much like the brains of our animal relatives, subject to emotions, feelings that make us feel that something ought to be the case, that make us decide to act for no apparent rational reason – though we might rationalise our reasoning to fit our emotional decisions after the event.

When we get together and decide that killing each other is a bad idea we do that because we feel that. We feel it about ourselves, because we are survival machines – hey, who wants to be killed, right?

We have evolved to have empathy for each other, and we have developed a theory of mind whereby we think that other people behaving like us think and feel like us, and that they too don’t want to be killed.

This isn’t necessarily something that we all figure out in some rational burst of self-awareness. It’s what creeps up on us personally, through our personal mental development, and what we learn from our cultural past and the way in which it is passed on to us in turn, through our moral systems.

That cultures have tended to invent gods as authority figures to authorise these rules seems obvious now. In such a world it makes things a lot easier if you invent gods that tell us we should not kill. It’s also handy if your particular god tells you under what convenient circumstances it’s good to kill; and that makes for a very handy self-sustaining system of bullshit if that god is supposed to authorise the killing of people that don’t believe in that god and his non-killing rules.

It’s fairly easy to see how many conflicting religions can invent and then mold the characters of their own gods for the sustenance of those religions and the cultures that they are bound to. It’s fairly easy to see that within the context of some general feelings about killing, different cultures can come to enhance their morality, by constructing god stories to suit their own particular circumstances. And they can acquire some seriously dumb arbitrary moral rules along the way.

It’s fairly easy to see that, without evidence for these gods, the moral facts attributed to them are nothing of the sort: they are not moral facts at all.

All human moral facts are based on opinions humans have about how other humans should behave, and if maintaining such benefits to us necessitates agreeing that we must be mutually subject to these rules, then that’s fine. We all get along by sharing some moral opinions.

But I like strawberry and you like chocolate, so who is right? If moral opinions are just like that, aren’t they easily argued against?

Yes they are!

Doesn’t it mean someone can just say, “No, in my opinion killing is good, so I’m going to kill you.”?

Yes it does! Sorry if that’s uncomfortable. But bear with me.

Morality is all about opinions just like that. But the thing is, many if not most of us are survival machines, and we like an easy life, so most of us are prepared to submit to the general opinion that killing is bad, most of the time.

In my opinion, formed from my personal emotional feelings about my survival, the survival of my children and parents, the survival of my friends, killing is always bad news, if not for me then for someone in my society, and I can empathise with victims of killings. That’s why killing is bad. It’s a feeling, an emotion, and a reasoned argument about those instincts as to why we all should not kill – an opinion based on all that, such that in my opinion killing is wrong.

I have invented an ought as an emotionally charged is.

What about the opinion that eating pork is not okay but eating beef or lamb is? Nope. Not worthy of being a moral opinion . That does nothing for me. But my Jewish and Islamic friends feel otherwise. Some might pass it off as a cultural requirement rather than a moral proscription, and that is exactly what it is; but for many it’s an opinion elevated into a moral fact, for them.

So, here we have two moral facts that have been elevated from mere opinion: ‘not killing’ and ‘not eating pork’. One is more widespread in its acceptance than the other. The latter seems more obviously a relative moral fact, more like an opinion. To may Jews and Muslims the avoidance of pork is more than an opinion, it is a moral fact.

On the other hand we can concoct yet another moral opinion that eating any animal is wrong. But such an opinion derives from the association of human suffering with the suffering of other animals. It’s still an opinion.

They are all opinions.

“Moral relativism! You’re a moral relativist!” –  Well, yes and no.

This is descriptive moral relativism I’m presenting, rather than prescriptive moral relativism.

I can observe and describe a relative matter of moral fact: some people think eating pork is morally good or neutral, some think it is wrong, and yet others think eating any animal is wrong.

But, I do not subscribe to an absolute unbridled prescriptive moral relativism.

I would suggest and argue that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is morally wrong. That is an opinion of mine based on my observations of reports of how harmful it is, and, given my low opinion of the moral merits claimed for it, I feel I can argue that my moral opinion on this matter is a worthy one.

A moral fact is only an opinion given some extra emotional status, sometimes backed up by arguments from evidence, sometimes backed up by the belief in some imagined god that sanctions the moral fact.

But in the latter case the claim that there is a god is itself based on an opinion, but one with zero supportive evidence. And as you’ll often find, the religious, when pushed, tend to turn to human nature themselves – they just seem unable to take that last step and fess up that their god is an invention to codify the moral opinions of humans, sometimes of humans from more barbaric times, and that’s why their holy books often present a barbaric immoral god.

That most humans feel very strongly about the ‘not killing’ moral opinion, such that they hold to it and elevate it into a moral fact, does not stop it being an opinion. It is an opinion common to most if not all humans. But it nonetheless an opinion based on feelings, biologically evolved feelings.

A male lion, on acquiring a new mate, is likely to kill the cubs his new mate has had by some previous vanquished male. The killing is a bit strong for humans, perhaps, but relations between step parents and step children is known to not always run smoothly. Why is that? Human couples can adopt children quite well, so what is it about some step-relationships that are so fractious? How often are step children driven out of a home? What, of our instincts of jealously, possession and so on, have we retained from our older animal past? The detachment leading to abuse, sexual, violent, or both, is certainly not unknown. And most of the sexual violence is male on female, and the male on male violence strikes of competition. This is not to say that human relationships are so simplistically similar to that of lions [Update: Lobsters], but, we are not as distant from our animal past as we would like to believe.

Suppose there is some alien race of beings that do not have our empathy and other brain tools helping us survive as a group, but rather use some other facts and reasons upon which they build their societies. What if an alien race exists whereby the females always bite off the heads of the males after mating, or where the female lets her offspring eat her, or where reproduction is non-sexual and killing is an enjoyable sport? Where does our ‘not killing’ prescription fit into the bigger picture? You may have recognised that these are indeed other behaviours of some other animal species.

The point is that, our moral codes are arbitrary in the cosmos – but particular to us, as far as we know.

Note that this is an inductive argument, about moral facts being opinions: it is wrong to kill because all the creatures that can think about this stuff that we have come across so far tend not to like killing. It is contingent upon having a majority of humans that feel this way. It is contingent upon us putting in place systems that counter our occasional frustration or anger that incites our wrath that in turn incites us to kill others, friends or strangers. It is contingent upon us constructing organisations like the UN to declare our moral opinions on killing globally. All the facts about human history and its tendency to generally oppose killing, imply that it is an opinion acquired through personal feelings and societal development.

And yet still, some think that insulting a dead prophet is enough to abrogate that moral opinion.

Let me state it explicitly:

Our morality on killing is arbitrary in the scheme of the cosmos – nobody out there cares, the stars do not care if we kill each other until the human race is extinct. There is no objective moral requirement in the cosmos that demands we should not kill. But, there are evolved and socially developed reasons, opinions, that we have come to feel very strongly about, that humans should not, on the whole, kill each other.

Objective/Subjective Moral Truths/Facts

The religious or cosmologically determined objective moral truths are nothing of the sort. They are subjective human opinions about the sources of morals.

Some humans feel so strongly about these sources of morality that they treat these opinions about sources, and opinions about morals, as if they were objective moral truths, as if the facts about these moral ideas can be found, somewhere out there, in or from God, or in the cosmos – but they are never found there, they are only ever imagined to be found there.

But, it is a contingent observable fact, an objective fact about human behaviour, that humans have on the whole come to treat the requirement not to kill as a moral fact.

Humans have invented and hold to a subjective (personally, and culturally) moral opinion, that we should not kill, and hold it so strongly that many mistakenly take it as a moral fact.

But note the important distinction here:

  • That killing is wrong is an opinion held by humans.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many if not most humans have that opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans feel so strongly about it, and are so unable to see the source of our moral opinions, that they take killing to be wrong as an objective fact about the cosmos or about what gods think.
  • It is not an objective fact that killing is wrong in any sense other than the sense that it’s a strongly held opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans will find convenient exceptions to this general rule that they hold to, that killing is wrong.

We, as humans, have opinions about morality and concoct subjective opinions. The above are the observable objective facts about the subjective opinions of morality that we concoct. They include some explanation for why humans think there are moral truths independent of that, and some explanation about the ways in which we are mistaken.

This subjective/objective business seems to confuse some, but it’s fairly straight forward once you get it, so it’s worth restating it:

  • There are objective discoverable facts about humans.
  • One such (simplified) objective fact is that humans concoct subjective opinions they sometimes feel are objective facts about the world.
  • There is no discoverable (or discovered as yet) cosmological objective fact that it is wrong to kill.
  • There is a human-relative subjective opinion that killing is wrong, and this is (likely) to be the result of evolutionary and social objective facts about human development that we have been discovering for millennia.

There are no gods and no cosmologically available moral facts, that we have found.

Really, there aren’t. Show evidence for them, if you think there are. Sorry, your holy book that asserts there are doesn’t count any more than the thousands of other cooked books.

Don’t just declare that your holy book tells you about God. That a holy book self-declares its own truth should be setting off big alarm bells in your epistemology. A liar writes a book that declares the liar is telling the truth? How would you distinguish a liar’s bible from a genuine bible? Evidence? Well, where’s this evidence? Will it lead me to the hearsay of Josephus, or will you use the reasoning of William Lane Craig, who will then lead me to Josephus and other nonsense? C. S. Lewis? Mohammed? Oh please. But by all means, let’s go down a few of those rabbit holes if you like.

Are you a non-theist moral facts person? Are your moral facts absolute, written in the cosmos? Where? What physical laws best model your moral facts?

Moral Consequences

The consequences of all this can be disconcerting to theologians and philosophers alike, and to many people that don’t think about this stuff much.

There’s a problem we have if we take the absolute moral facts view (god given or written in the stars). To say we ‘ought’ to do X is an assertion. But then one could ask any of the following:

  • “Why ought we to be concerned with morality?” This isn’t merely meta-morality, which is ethics, but a sort of met-meta-morality.
  • “Ought I do X? If so, why? Ought I ought, to do X?”
  • “What’s the moral fact basis upon which I should care about morality at all?”

It becomes circular. The moral opinion based on our evolved feelings and social development is much more coherent. But is morality that arbitrary?

It seems that arbitrary, on the scale of the cosmos. The stars do not appear to cry out when humans kill each other in large numbers. In fact no other earthly animals seem to care either. We are the only ones that appear to care, if we do at all.

There could be some small scale operational fact about the universe, on the scale of physics and chemistry, such that when biological brains evolve in groups of sexually reproductive animals like us there is a tendency to prefer not killing over killing, based on the evolution of survival and empathy and theory of mind. This ’emergent’ phenomenon might exist. But as yet we really don’t know that this is how brainy species must evolve – it is totally speculative, and does nothing to help the religious or philosophical opinion that moral opinions are in fact facts.

Of course, it’s not that arbitrary, for us. It is the case that humans do want to survive, they do have empathy, and do have a theory of mind; and these and other factors all come together to make us create cultures (many times, independently) where ‘not killing’, at least within the culture, is valued and elevated to a moral code. But that’s about as objective as it gets.

Does that mean there is really nothing stopping you killing when you want to?

No there isn’t, not really, not in some cosmic or god given sense. There is nothing that demands that you should not kill.

Some people are prepared to kill and have no problem doing so. In the past we tended to call them all evil, based on our religious notions of that concept. But now we know there are some categories of human brain that do not have the inhibitions most of us have, nor the empathy to drive such inhibitions.

Some people have brains that have no problem killing, and it’s perhaps to the credit of our moral systems that they don’t kill more often. We have built police services, armies, laws, courts of law, prisons and lots of other mechanisms to persuade those of us not convinced by the not killing code to actually not kill.

But it takes a particular type of mind, or a mind under some particular conditions, to actually kill; and so mostly we don’t kill. Except for a number of very densely populated cities and some areas of conflict, like war zones, killing is quite rare. There are about 3 million people living in my Greater Manchester home, and not so many people are murdered – it’s news when they are. Even in cities with a high murder rate, it’s still a tiny fraction of the city population that do the murdering, and very few murder more than a small number of times. War zones are exceptions and news. And yet, when it comes to hand to hand combat the killing is small scale, and so only weapons of medium or mass destruction kill many people at once.

The Nazis were a modern exception that mechanised killing on a far more personal scale. Other genocides are occasionally personally brutal. And there’s a whole other subject about how otherwise decent people can be incited to kill other humans with such ease.

Sadly, as well as for personal gain and power, political and religious ideologies have played a big part in motivating people to kill when they otherwise would not. It seems some otherwise very good people can be persuaded to kill quite easily, in the right circumstances. Look at some of the smart young kids persuaded to join ISIS and kill for their religion.

Religions have helped prevent killing, with their imaginary god given law, but have also been a significant excuse for killing. And still are. They have outlived their overall utility. The brutality of religions was once hidden among the barbaric social systems that were less opposed to killing. But now, religious barbarity stands out like a sore thumb.

We need to improve education with philosophy and morality and science, to explain who we are and why we don’t want to kill. The naturalistic reasons presented above are enough. Develop those into humanist principles and we don’t need religion.

The non-religious answers aren’t absolute, and are not guaranteed to stop all the killing. But religion doesn’t stop it anyway, clearly. It seems like there’s a good chance that a better education, a reduction in religious indoctrination to remove the temptation to allow religion to increase divisiveness and encourage killing, could move us to a generally better world.

But we have to understand what morality is, and why we want it. We have to get rid of this religious scaremongering that tells us we’re off to hell in a hand cart were it not for religion. It’s nonsense. We can have moral opinions, and we can reason about them to improve them. And we can elevate them to moral codes of conduct that are backed up by law.

We don’t need to uplift morality into some cosmic or god given truth or fact – or to some is/ought distinction. The objectivity of our morality lies within the personal subjective experience of our common human nature. We may have only contingent facts and truths that we must adapt in the light of evidence – but that’s all we have. We are empirical moral humanists, with some common moral opinions.

Not all our opinions are the same, even with regard to killing. Morality becomes even more clearly a matter of opinion when we get down to lesser moral dilemmas. Property is theft? Words are violence? Not complying my choice of pronouns is a hate crime? I appreciate it’s very easy to get your moral knickers in a twist. We can do better. And we can do much better than religions have: we can use reason, evidence and good arguments as to why some moral codes make sense, and why others do not.

Moral Facts – Sam Harris

In this post I plan to criticise some views, giving my opinion on where they go wrong, then ask some questions to which I have no answer, and then describe my particular view on the matter, without having the slightest confidence that I’m right. And, for good measure, I’ve every chance of contradicting myself on the way. It’s not going to be short. This sounds about par for the course.

The Harris Problem…

It’s all about what Sam Harris appears to be claiming in his TED Video. I blame Lesley for getting us into this mess, here, here and here. And now Gurder has turned this into a wider debate.

Sam Harris TED Talk…

I want to address the talk itself first,…

“It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value.”

I think that’s right, but with the caveat that it can give us data that can influence what we think we ought to value. I’m with the general agreement on Lesley’s and Gurder’s blogs and comments that science provides the data and that it’s for us to form opinions about that data. At least I think I am.

There’s a formulaic sense in which science can give us an ‘ought’, but it’s the wrong sense of ‘ought’. If I include in my ethics the ‘least harm’ principle, and then concoct some scenarios where there’s a choice between harms – e.g. the Trolley Problem – then science could say I ‘ought’ to do such and such in a particular scenario to achieve least harm, then this isn’t the moral ‘ought’.

But for me this does then raise the questions, what is a moral ‘ought’? Do morals exist, and if they do what are they?

Back to Harris,

“And, consequently, most people … think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life: questions like, “What is worth living for?” “What is worth dying for?” “What constitutes a good life?” “

I think science can answer these questions, if we give science the goals that we want to achieve in the first place. Further more, I don’t think these particular questions are moral questions. They may be personal judgements – a Royalist might think Prince Charles is worth dying for, a Republican might not. We need to be clear about what constitutes a moral question.

“So, I’m going to argue that this is an illusion — that the separation between science and human values is an illusion…”

Let’s see if he does.

“Now, it’s often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values,”

Now that depends on what is meant by ‘foundation’. (‘That depends’ is a theme of this post) If it’s a foundation of data upon which we can build our morality, our ethics, then yes, as long as we have the other elements of morality to go with this foundation. The stronger the foundation of facts the more informed we can be in building our morality. But the foundation of facts is not the full extent of our ethics – maybe. Don’t we need our moral goals in place to use these facts?

I think this is where Harris goes wrong.

“Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures.”

Yes, they become facts in their own right, once we decide what they are – it is a fact that most humans believe murder is wrong. It may be a fact of biological and cultural evolution that has caused most humans to hold that view, and so on. But what is fact about why we should think that we should hold this view? – What makes this a moral question?

“Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks?…And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now, the crucial thing to notice here is this is a factual claim: This is something that we could be right or wrong about.”

Yes, it is a factual claim, that we do hold this view, and we might be wrong about it (as Gurder points out). Again, evolution can explain why we do – where ‘why’ here means ‘how it came about’. It says nothing about why we should hold this view (or not).

“And we know — we know — that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.”

Do we? Really? Just because we agree with Harris on most of his scenarios doesn’t mean they are moral questions, or questions that are only to do with morals.

“Would adding cholera to the water be a good idea? Probably not.” – Probably not? Why not just ‘no’? Why not ‘yes’? What is that turns this into a moral question?

“There are truths to be known about how human communities flourish, whether or not we understand these truths. And morality relates to these truths.” – First sentence, OK. Second? How and why? It relates in the sense that the more we know the more it can help us to construct morals – given we know what our moral goals are. Again, if least harm is a goal then the ‘Probably not’ answer is probably right – depending on other facts – but we do need to know our moral goals.

So, we must know our morals first, in order to decide what to do with the facts that we uncover. But is it that simple? How do we get to our moral codes in the first place? We observe them in ourselves? We feel them? But sometimes we feel we want to kill, so why do we choose non-murder as a moral code? Our morals often seem to be intended to overcome some of our feelings – our base instincts, or animal instincts. Why is love a moral good and murder a moral bad? Because of the Golden Rule? But what determines the Golden Rule is worth following? Our moral sense? But …. where do we go from here?

More from Harris. He gives some explanations, and then comes to this, “So, what I’m arguing is that value is reducible to facts — to facts about the conscious experience — of conscious beings.”

This sounds sort of right – we can reduce some values to facts. But which values? All of them? The fact that this organism (me) puts a greater value on raspberry to strawberry can be reducible to the details of science – raspberry releases more pleasure signals (simplification) than strawberry does – I like raspberry more than strawberry. But what’s happening in my nervous system when I attribute greater value to love than hate? I mean, it clearly is my nervous system that’s driving that valuation (at least as a materialist I think it is). And that nervous system is as it is because of scientific facts – biological and cultural evolution and personal experience – whether we have all pertinent facts or not. What is the difference between these values that makes one a matter of preference and the other a matter of morals or ethics?

I’ll leave that for now and get back to Harris.

“Now, let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question. …” – See. Caveats – for those who take this talk too literally, or who didn’t hear this bit clearly enough. This is a common notion to materialists: just because we can’t answer questions yet, or maybe can never answer them (at least in our currently evolved human form), doesn’t mean we have the final answer on the matter.

“…But if questions affect human wellbeing then they do have answers, whether or not we can find them. And just admitting this — just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish — will change the way we talk about morality, and will change our expectations of human cooperation in the future.”

And there it is! There’s his moral goal. He’s already stated this, but it’s easy to let it slip by; and so from there he thinks that science can provide answers. This is the respect in which Harris thinks science can answer moral questions.

The fact that science can’t do that for every ‘human wellbeing achievement’ question, by using current science, is not to say it can’t, ever. But even if it were the case that science can never answer every such question, then so what; maybe it can answer more than by not using science.

The remainder of the talk fills in the details. We can argue about some of the examples, and question some of his reasoning, as Chris Anderson does. But the general idea that if we can establish that human wellbeing is in fact a moral goal we value, and if we can establish what constitutes human wellbeing, then science can accumulate the data needed to make the judgement call – maybe.

But for me Harris isn’t clear (maybe in his own mind, I don’t know) about what we use to judge the value of the science he is talking about, because he doesn’t say how science gets us to evaluating our values. He seems to assume one moral value, human wellbeing, as a given. Where’s his science that gets us to this and other moral values? Maybe he gets to that in the future. Maybe all we can draw from this is that science can help more than we are accustomed to thinking since Hume gave us is/ought. Can we dispose of is/ought as we dispose of non-overlapping magisteria?

I don’t think Harris convinces that it’s all an illusion – unless he can tell us elsewhere how he’s figured out all the problems of metaethics – see later. It’s not illusory that science can’t help us with all aspects of morals – as his own caveats attest.

Sean Carroll On Harris…

Sean Carroll criticises Harris here.

Well, I don’t think this is quite right with regard to Hume’s is/ought. See this post by Alonzo Fyfe. “Prove it.”, challenges Alonzo. Of course Alonzo knows that can’t be done, and isn’t really expecting you to. It’s a rhetorical flourish to explain his claim that Hume’s argument is one from ignorance. The difficulty, the seeming impossibility, of getting and ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Carroll says, “Morality and science operate in very different ways.” – Well, maybe. Maybe morals and psychology are as different as psychology and physics. Maybe we just don’t understand morals too well – we may know them when we see them, but that doesn’t mean we understand them. Surely Carroll isn’t doing a Stephen Jay Gould on us – do science and morals operate in so different ways?

I’ll come back to Carroll where I think he’s right.

Where Does That Leave Me?…

Is the problem perhaps that morality itself isn’t quite what we think it is – that it is some specific set of facts that determine what we do? This has a similar flavour to questions of what consciousness is, what free-will is – whether they exist at all, or whether they do exist but not as we know it; Jim. Could Harris be right that morals can be reduced to facts?

Maybe morality is, in fact, just another, fact, another data point, an emotional response that we experience. What is it, in fact, to say we have morals? After all, as I conclude that I have no evidence of God (I therefore become an atheist), at all, and so can’t derive morals, whatever they are, from him, then God isn’t a source – as far as I can tell. Further, as I have no evidence that there are moral absolutes in the universe, but also no evidence that I can know I have access to absolutes in order to judge that, then I can’t claim that that’s a source, or not.

So if my morals come out of what’s left, the only evidence available to me, my biological and cultural evolution, then in the great scheme of things they are quite arbitrary facts, aren’t they? They could have been otherwise different facts. If we had inherited a propensity for infanticide of existing children of new mates, say from a common ancestor with some big cats, then any female divorcee might be reluctant to take on a new man – but the infanticide under those circumstances might then not be a moral problem. Maybe we would have come up with a ‘moral’ means of achieving this – like the debate over the method of death on death row in some US states, the death isn’t the moral issue, but the method is. Our morals are only meaningful in our own human contexts.

Maybe, below our feeling that they are not facts, they in fact are – and being this type of fact are open to discovery, and statistical analysis (i.e. democratic voting), the result of which determines what we do. This doesn’t mean we have to, as some fear, scan each other constantly to determine our moral values. The human genome project hasn’t been quite the horror for insurance access that we worried it might be, because we took some more general principle fact (empathy), constructed a moral code out of it (fairness) and prevented the wholesale use of genetics as a means to insurance discrimination and persecution.

So, before we’re too critical of Harris, maybe we need to think what our morals are first – I don’t mean what our moral values happen to be. Earlier I distinguished between two possible meanings of ‘ought’. But do we fully understand what the moral ‘ought’ is?

1) Is it (morally)right/wrong to murder?
2) Is it (morally or otherwise)right/wrong to make murder a moral matter?

What do I mean by ‘otherwise’? I mean as in ‘makes sense’, or as in ‘category error’, or as in ‘appropriate’…

If it’s wrong to make murder a moral matter, then the first question loses its significance.

3) Is it (morally)right/wrong to like oranges?
4) Is it (morally or otherwise)right/wrong to make the liking of oranges a moral matter?

Q4 is easier to answer than Q2, so Q3 is obviously not a moral issue. Why is Q1 a moral issue? Have we clearly answered Q2?

Exactly why is murder a moral question and the liking of oranges not? You might think to answer ‘The Golden Rule’, or ‘Least Harm’ or whatever is your moral code. But why is that a moral code in the first place?

As Gurder says, “Ethics are not easy“. Quite right. The whole subject of metaethics is testament to that. Try wading through this, through all the descriptive/normative stuff, and see if you can find a conclusion – you’ll certainly come out of it with more questions than you took in.

So, where do I stand?

Yes, ethics is real complex. we’re not even sure what it is we’re talking about – yet we all sort of know what we’re talking about, as if by magic (e.g. as if by God), when really it’s just some complex opinion we have that comes about because of our biological and cultural evolution and personal experience and reason – or at least as my biological and cultural evolution and personal experience and reason informs me. All very flaky, tentative, contingent, arbitrary? Too true it is.

Should I be a moral relativist? Well, what an awkward question that is – I’m asking an ‘ought’ question about my ‘oughts’. I can certainly observe a moral relativism – it’s plain to see that everyone has a relative opinion about morality, even if there are more common features than differences. There are probably as many nuanced moral views as there are variations in the human genome – and why shouldn’t that be so.

But we don’t generally implement moral relativism (some post modernists excepted). We do make moral stands – i.e. we do make moral claims – and Harris points out some of these. Even if we can’t justify how we come by them or why we hold them. We can’t give a moral justification for all our moral views.

That means conflict. I think genital mutilation of baby boys and young girls is morally wrong. I can justify why – Golden rule, least Harm, Freedom to Choose, Self-Determination, etc. – but I can’t justify those in turn on moral grounds. I am at odds with people who think those practices are acceptable. I could have, had I lived at the time of the Crusades, gone to war over an issue like this. Now I have to content myself with changing opinions through reason and law – if I, with others, can through reason persuade enough others that these practices should be proscribed through law, then I win that conflict; otherwise I continue to lose. This is what it boils down to.

So, I think Sean Carroll is on firmer ground with this:

“A big part of the temptation to insist that moral judgments are objectively true is that we would like to have justification for arguing against what we see as moral outrages when they occur. But there’s no reason why we can’t be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature. In the real world, when we disagree with someone else’s moral judgments, we try to persuade them to see things our way; if that fails, we may (as a society) resort to more dramatic measures like throwing them in jail. But our ability to persuade others that they are being immoral is completely unaffected — and indeed, may even be hindered — by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true. In the end, we will always be appealing to their own moral senses, which may or may not coincide with ours.”

I’ve emphasised the bit where I’d add something: by pretending that our version of morality is objectively true, whether they turn out to be objectively true or not, whether Harris is right or not. I’m back to my contingency of knowledge again. Epistemology is a bitch, even for a deity. But that’s okay. When it gets very vague – at the limits of ability to figure things out, we just have to make the best of it we can – we do science.

The religious seem to dump this whole problem in God’s lap. That doesn’t seem good enough to me (do I find that an immoral failure of responsibility?). If I can’t figure something out I’d rather admit it, and if I must, I make a choice, based on whatever I’ve got available. And that consists of my senses and reason. And the best we can do with our senses and reason is to use them as rigorously as possible – science.

So, to some extent I’m with Harris in his project. I don’t think he’s got it right yet. But give the guy a break, we’re still trying to figure out lots of stuff, and philosophers and scientists are bound to make lots of mistakes. But how do we know what are the limits of knowledge; how do we know what we can’t know, when it comes to complex issues like this, that are processed in our very peculiar brains, which we don’t yet fully understand.

Let’s give Harris some rope – see if he ties it all up nicely or hangs himself.