Problem Solved

At various times I have written (here, for example) about whether, under a naturalistic view, there can be objectively existing moral truths. I have argued that there cannot. There can be “facts of the matter” about what our moral intuitions tell us, and how they came to be what they are, but there is no external, objective standard (no “truth-maker”, as the philosophers would say) against which the “truth-value” of our moral propositions can be measured. We can say that if we want X, then we ought to do Y — and as evolved, living organisms we certainly have a great many interests that lead naturally to us wanting some things and not wanting others — but there is nothing in nature that tells us what we ought to want. Nature just is; it doesn’t care.

Sam Harris disagrees. I think he is mistaken. He made his case, briefly, at the most recent TED conference. Here’s a video of his talk.

It is easy to understand Sam Harris’s motivation here; it is no secret that there is an uncomfortable tension between the naturalistic, Darwinian worldview and our hunger for moral certainty. The idea that we came to be what we are not because of the guiding, designing hand of a benevolent God, but rather as a result of an entirely mindless natural process, is unsettling to many, if not most, people; it is an idea that can lead some minds quite directly to a corrosive nihilism. (Whether it must do so is an interesting question in itself; see here.) This is obviously a P.R. problem for naturalists (although the idea of rooting goodness in God has been known, since ancient times, to present upon close examination equally vexatious difficulties), and Dr. Harris wants to make the problem go away. To this end he makes two moves. First, he adopts a rather glib and straightforward utilitarianism, claiming that the summum bonum to be sought is some sort of maximization of human “wellbeing”, or conversely, a minimization of the suffering of conscious beings; second, he makes the claim that science is in a position, in principle at least, to inform us as to what maximizes and minimizes those quantities, and as to how effective various moral policies actually are.

As you might imagine, Dr. Harris’s remarks, which rather flatly contradict some very well-established philosophical principles about “is” and “ought”, have prompted a fair amount of discussion online. Writing in Discover magazine, physicist Sean Carroll takes Harris to task, rightly, for smuggling “oughts” over the border:

Harris is doing exactly what Hume warned against, in a move that is at least as old as Plato: he’s noticing that most people are, as a matter of empirical fact, more concerned about the fate of primates than the fate of insects, and taking that as evidence that we ought to be more concerned about them; that it is morally correct to have those feelings. But that’s a non sequitur. After all, not everyone is all that concerned about the happiness and suffering of primates, or even of other human beings; some people take pleasure in torturing them. And even if they didn’t, again, so what? We are simply stating facts about how human beings feel, from which we have no warrant whatsoever to conclude things about how they should feel.

Dr. Carroll also (and also rightly) points out that we don’t need to have objective bedrock for our moral intuitions, anyway:

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.

This is exactly right.

Sam Harris has since posted a lengthy rejoinder, which you can read here. His main point is that moral truth simply is that which maximizes the “wellbeing” of conscious entities. Now you may object, he admits, that we may not be able, in practice, easily to determine just how to measure an individual’s “wellbeing”, and that there might be many practical obstacles to determining just what policies and actions maximize that wellbeing — but there is nevertheless, he insists, an objective “fact of the matter” in principle, whether we are able to discover it or not. If this is true, then science — meaning of course his own specialty, neuroscience, with its privileged access to the brain and its cognitive states — will be our best tool for advancing toward our goal of putting the greatest number of brains into minimally suffering states.

I wince to think what someone like Bill Vallicella would do with an argument like this. It is, first of all, vulnerable at the most basic philosophical level, a point that Dr. Harris — surprisingly for one with a philosophy degree in his c.v. — stubbornly denies. The objection is this: You can tell us that doing X will put a person into an enjoyable brain state, or even that doing X will put the whole of humanity into such brain-states. And we might all agree, in accordance with our naturally evolved moral intuitions, that X would be a good thing to do. But that’s as far as it goes. There is nothing in nature, beyond our own moral intuition, that marks X as something we ought to do; an assertion like that could only be meaningful in terms of our own goals and interests. What Sam Harris is saying, then, is that the goals and interests that would lead us to doing X are the goals and interests we ought to have. But why? Either you can just take that as an axiom, in which case the discussion is over, or you can make an argument based on another term Dr. Harris used often in his talk: that morally “good” actions are those that foster human “flourishing”.

Well, to be sure, a great deal of what we consider good is indeed conducive to human flourishing: caring for our young, working productively with others, and all manner of altruistic behaviors. But there is a great deal more that has enabled various human groups to flourish that might not seem so morally uncontroversial: for example, ruthlessness in war. Indeed, a great many groups have, and still do, “flourish” precisely because of behaviors that I think Sam Harris would consider unambiguously reprehensible.

Now I suppose the rejoinder would be that such behaviors, favoring only particular groups at the expense of others, fall short of the utilitarian goal of attaining a true global maximum. Clearly Dr. Harris believes that, in principle at least, such a maximum is “out there” somewhere. For this to be true even in principle, however, assumes that there is a single, correct calculus by which the individual brain-states of the relevant set of individuals (which, presumably, includes everyone on Earth) can be summed over, and that there is a coherent moral policy that leads to this global maximum.

This is a lot to swallow, and even at this rarefied level of meta-moralizing one can still, as always, raise the same basic objection, which is to say “Well, yes, there may even be such an optimum policy, but why ought we pursue it?” To Sam Harris, however, it simply seems axiomatic that there is, and that we should. And if you don’t agree that this constitutes real, moral objectivity, of exactly the kind that philosophers have sought for millennia, well then, you’re just stupid:

One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining “causation” in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you. Or try to justify transitivity in logic: if A = B and B = C, then A = C. A skeptic could say that this is nothing more than an assumption that we’ve built into the definition of “equality.” Others will be free to define “equality” differently. Yes, they will. And we will be free to call them “imbeciles.” Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are—is there any doubt about this?—many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it.

See?

Frankly, I’m rather saddened by all of this, because, leaving aside the overblown philosophical puffery, there is much of value in what Dr. Harris says. But in his zeal to put scientific naturalism in religion’s traditional seat as a source of moral truths, he overreaches. He needn’t even have bothered: his argument will never persuade theists that their necessary moral absolutes are to be found in random and uncaring Nature, and the rest of us have pretty much given up on objective moral absolutes anyway. So why bother?

So, in my opinion: nice try, but no cigar. Watch the video, and read the links. What do you think?

30 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    I don’t buy the package Harris is peddling, but I also think it’s a bit premature to write off objective morality. If they are applied “without prejudice,” the supposed reasons for thinking that morality is not objective also undermine belief in ordinary material objects (what philosophers sometimes refer to as “medium sized dry goods”). To my way of thinking, that suggests our “reasons” have run off the rails. In fact, which is more likely… that our “reasoning” on this matter is confused, or that morality is merely subjective?

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    If you aren’t buying Harris’s argument, but still think there might be objective “truth-makers” for moral propositions, then what could they be?

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Well, I’ve never accepted that the distinction between facts and values is a straightforward exclusionary dichotomy. In other words, I think values are a “species” of facts. So, in answer to your question I’d say, “normative facts are the truthmakers for normative statements.” (The part of Harris’s argument I don’t buy is the consequentialism.)

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Let’s say you assert the following proposition: “There are three beers in the fridge.”

    I assert that “There are not three beers in the fridge.”

    One of us is right, the other is wrong. To settle the matter, we appeal to an actually existing truth-maker: the actual number of beers in the fridge.

    Now let’s say you assert a moral proposition: “we ought to do X”.

    I assert “we ought not to do X.”

    If there are normative “facts”, then, one of these statements is objectively false. We both wish to act in accordance with moral truth. To what truth-maker can we appeal to resolve the question?

    This is not, I think, a trivial distinction.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Presumably, the fact that we ought to do X is the truth-maker for the statement “We ought to do X,” just like the fact that there are n beers in the fridge is the truth-maker for the statement that “There are n beers in the fridge.” Granted, we have agreed upon methods for determining how many beers are in the fridge, while we don’t have agreement about how to determine whether we ought to do X. But that’s a matter of methodology — not ontology.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    But that’s a matter of methodology — not ontology.

    Well, that’s the very point of contention here. Do you have an argument that might persuade us that you’re right about this?

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    ???
    I contrasted “…we have agreed upon methods for determining how many beers are in the fridge,” with “…we don’t have agreement about how to determine whether we ought to do X.”(emphasis added)

    Surely, what I’ve raised is a methodological issue.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Surely, what I’ve raised is a methodological issue.

    I don’t think we can be sure of that at all!

    If it were indeed an ontological issue, we’d find ourselves in the same position of being unable to determine the “fact of the matter”, for the simple reason that there wouldn’t be one.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    What I raised is definitely a methodological issue — I used common terms in their common senses, so you’ll need to explain more about why phrases like “methods for determining” and “how to determine” prompt thoughts of ontology on your part.

    If morality turns out not to be objective, that would hardly entail that there is no fact of the matter about moral statements. Given the normal meanings of moral predicates, we’d view those statements as FALSE. In general, there is no reason to believe there is a method to determine the truth of every true statement. In fact, there are strong reasons to think that ontology (i.e., the facts of the matter) must outstrip our methods for determining the facts of the matter. So arguing directly from the fact that we can’t reliably determine what the moral facts are to the conclusion that there are no such facts is simply wrong.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    I agree, of course, that we cannot always determine the truth of true statements. (Were that not the case, there would be no need to distinguish epistemology and ontology!) I disagree, however, that the absence of a truthmaker for a moral proposition means the proposition is false. I’d say rather that the proposition is simply not such that it can be true or false — like, for example, the proposition that Sherlock Holmes was wearing red socks when he solved the Baskerville case.

    (Note that if we have proposition P which asserts “we ought to do X”, there is a distinction to be made between the meta-proposition A that “there is a moral fact F that serves as a truthmaker for P”, and proposition P itself. For proposition A, there is indeed a “fact of the matter”, namely that there either is or is not some truthmaker F “out there”, even if it might be epistemologically unavailable; whereas for proposition P itself there may be no ontological “fact of the matter” at all, as in the proposition about Holmes’s socks.)

    And just to be clear, I am not arguing from epistemology to ontology here: I’m certainly not saying that our inability to access, or agree upon, the moral “fact of the matter” proves that there is, on an ontological level, no such fact. (I don’t think there is, but that’s just my opinion.)

    If we find ourselves unable to get at the underlying moral facts, that’s consistent both with their being epistemologically unavailable, and ontologically nonexistent. What I’m asking you is what, if any, argument you would make to persuade anyone that there actually are such facts.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  11. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – With a backward glance at my earlier comment about “medium sized dry goods,” I’ll request an argument that there actually are “ordinary material objects.” I’m confident that that argument will either be woefully inadequate in its own right, or it will provide a useful template for constructing an argument that there actually are moral facts. (Frankly, I think the best we can do for either morality or ordinary material objects is to construct arguments that show how such things could possibly exist.)

    BTW, I think you do, indeed, conflate epistemic/methodological and ontological issues. To wit, even if we were able to “always determine the truth of true statements,” we would still need to distinguish epistemology and ontology. The question of “what there is” is both logically and pragmatically distinct from the question of “how (or, indeed, whether) we can know what there is.”

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    To wit, even if we were able to “always determine the truth of true statements,” we would still need to distinguish epistemology and ontology. The question of “what there is” is both logically and pragmatically distinct from the question of “how (or, indeed, whether) we can know what there is.”

    Fair enough. What I meant was that there would be in principle no epistemological barriers between ourselves and ontological facts, but your point is correct.

    If I understand you correctly, you are reminding us that all assertions about ontology are equally unprovable; all we can do is examine the world with whatever tools we have available. That said, though, at the epistemological level we do have all sorts of independently reinforcing data about the properties of material objects: we can measure them, leave them in one place and come back for them later, trip over them, etc. It is also the case that the apparent facts about material objects are, for the most part, observer-independent, and do not vary according to culture, religion, mood, etc.; a Muslim physicist weighing a stone in Somalia will find the same mass as an Anglican physicist in London.

    But when it comes to moral “facts”, we have no such abundance of accessible qualities and properties, and a glaring lack of consensus. So to argue that they are on precisely the same footing as ordinary material objects seems unconvincing: yes, they may in principle be ontologically real but just “epistemically disadvantaged”, but I see no reason to think so.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m not just making the point that all ontological claims are unprovable in some strict sense, and I definitely don’t think they are all equally likely to be true. Instead, I’m suggesting that the metaphysics of morals is not obviously murkier than the metaphysics of other domains. That’s how I see things at the philosophical/theoretical level.

    So how do things look from a more practical perspective? For what it’s worth (not much, I think, but that cuts both ways), there’s a lot more agreement in matters moral than you seem ready to acknowledge, and probably less than you seem to think about matters material. Virtually everybody who has studied the natural history of morality identifies a few “core” elements that are remarkably uniform across time and cultural boundaries. Put a couple physicists at a table with a pitcher of good beer, and you’ll see just how fragile is their agreement about foundational issues.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Yes, physicists may disagree about what it means, at the deepest level, for material objects to exist. But “from a practical perspective”, given object X, they will always agree about its size, mass, temperature, and so on. Again, as I said above, this is because when we want to verify assertions about physical objects, such as “this stone has a mass of 10 grams”, or “this brick is 18 centimeters long”, there are all sorts of objective truth-makers that are available, independently, to all observers, upon which the observers, independently of culture and personal history, will agree. (Yes, relativistic effects may alter the measurements, but in predictable and consistent ways. It’s safe to say, though, that if you have a snake in a bag, then any observer given the bag will agree that the proposition “There’s a snake in this bag” is true.)

    For moral assertions, however, there appears to be nothing beyond subjective intuition to which we can appeal. What’s more, these intuitions may disagree, and often do, with woeful results. This is not a trivial distinction.

    So I have yet to see any reason why we should have anything like the same level of confidence in the existence of moral “facts” as we do regarding easily confirmable propositions about physical objects.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  15. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I fail to see the relevance of snakes in bags to the question of whether there are moral facts.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Well, similarly, for my own part I fail to see why physicists having disagreements about the ultimate foundations of matter should be relevant to the question of whether there are moral facts. We’re talking past each other a bit, it seems.

    My point is only that we can all, independently, appeal to various truthmakers to verify propositions about the physical world (such as “there is a snake in this bag”). As such, we can say with confidence that there is an objective “fact of the matter” about whether there is indeed a snake in the bag — and having looked, all sane observers will agree about whether there is in fact a snake in there or not.

    We can’t do that with moral propositions. You can check your intuition, and I can check mine, but if we disagree, we can’t appeal the question any further. In other words, we can’t simply “look in the bag”. There doesn’t seem to be any bag.

    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  17. bob koepp says

    And the conclusion is, if it can’t be carried around in a paper bag it must not exist. Sheesh!

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Or, if you like, that it’s silly to say that objective moral facts probably don’t exist, because chairs and tables probably don’t exist either!

    I do enjoy these chats of ours, Bob.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  19. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I apologize for the cheekiness of my just previous comment, but…

    I brought up the “murkiness” of the metaphysics of ordinary material objects not to cast doubt on their existence (I haven’t questioned the existence of chairs or tables or snakes), but to make the point that such murkiness isn’t much of a reason to doubt the objectivity of morality. That morality is nonetheless very different from ordinary material objects is obvious, but it’s not at all obvious that the points of difference are relevant to the question of objective existence — which is what is at issue.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    … it’s not at all obvious that the points of difference are relevant to the question of objective existence — which is what is at issue.

    Perhaps, but I guess my point is a rather common-sense one: that it’s not at all obvious, to me at least, that the points of difference aren’t relevant to the question of objective existence.

    We certainly have a great many more ways of coming to agreement about the existence and properties of material objects than we do about moral “facts”, and the ability of all observers to agree about a phenomenon’s existence and properties is an important, if not sufficient, criterion of objectivity.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I accept without reservation that we have ways of reaching agreement about the existence of medium sized dry goods that are not applicable to moral facts. Nor are they applicable to logico-mathematical facts; nor to remote historical facts; nor even to the vast majority of facts expressed in terms of well-established scientific theories. Moral facts seem to be in pretty good company on this score. In other words, while “easy epsitemic access” (particularly of the sensory variety) might well be good indicator that something exists objectively, lack of such easy access isn’t a reliable indicator that something lacks objective existence.

    So, if some difference between putative moral facts and other sorts of facts is relevant to the question of objective existence, it probably isn’t a matter of easy epistemic access. More likely it would involve the imperative content of moral facts; this is the feature in virtue of which moral facts are able to function as practical norms. This is a clear difference; but it’s not clear how it could be brought to bear on the question of objective existence.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says

    I’m happy to leave comparisons with material objects aside, but I must point out that we do have objective means for assessing the truth-value of mathematical results (mathematical proofs are published and extensively peer-reviewed for their soundness, with zero ambiguity), and for historical facts also (archaeological discoveries, translation and cross-referencing of old texts, etc.). So moral facts still seem to stand rather apart, in terms of objectivity, from the examples you have given.

    So the question remains: why should we believe that our moral intuitions — about which, despite some commonality (which is explicable, I think, by the common circumstances that shaped our development as a social species) there is so much disagreement, and no recourse for appeal — are based on any objectively existing “facts”?

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  23. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    You say, “So moral facts still seem to stand rather apart, in terms of objectivity, from the examples you have given.”

    The middle clause ought to read, “in terms of epistemic accessibility” — and note that much of the discussion here has concerned the lack of correspondence between epsitemic accessibility and objective existence. The conflation of epistemic/methodological and ontological issues continues…

    In your second paragraph, however, you do mention some non-epsitemic matters that you think bear on objectivity — but I think you get things backwards. You suggest, quite reasonably, that some of the commonality in moral judgments might be due to common circumstances that shaped our development as a social species. Are those common circumstances not objective matters of fact? And if so, wouldn’t judgments shaped by them be objective as well?

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    You suggest, quite reasonably, that some of the commonality in moral judgments might be due to common circumstances that shaped our development as a social species. Are those common circumstances not objective matters of fact?

    Well, yes indeed. They certainly are. This is where naturalists would like to point the discussion about morality, and as far as it goes, I am perfectly in agreement.

    And if so, wouldn’t judgments shaped by them be objective as well?

    That depends what you mean by “judgments” being “objective”. If we judge that it is wrong, say, to kill a child, it is certainly objectively (if trivially) true that we make that judgment. But must we also extend our claim to add that it is objectively true that it is wrong to kill a child? Why not just be content with understanding that for sound evolutionary reasons we are set up to deem it wrong to kill a child? That’s good enough for me; I see no reason to reject that moral intuition, and start going around slaughtering children.

    But that isn’t good enough for many people; they want the correctness of their intuition to rest on something more than adaptive value. They want it simply to be a fact that it is wrong to kill children, and saying that “we deem it wrong because that attitude has contributed to our flourishing as a species” isn’t good enough. They will argue that if killing children had happened to have been adaptive, then we would see it as morally OK, which it clearly isn’t. So there has to be a sense in which “mere” adaptation could have led to moral intutions that are actually wrong, which means that evolutionary adaptation isn’t the ultimate source of moral facts. (It’s actually a lot like the Euthyphro dilemma.) So they want moral facts to come from God, or to exist as Platonic abstractions, or something, so that they really rest on bedrock.

    That isn’t going to work for a naturalist like Sam Harris — so he is trying to pull a bit of a fast one here, so that Darwinian naturalism can don the coveted mantle of objective moral authority. And as I said in the post, he needn’t have bothered.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  25. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    OK, if the circumstances shaping our development as a social species are specified as “mere” adaptation, then I’d agree that the normativity of the judgments in question would not have been shown to be objective. Of course you know that I don’t believe mere adaptation is an adequate basis for the development of morality — I think the so-called “rational faculty” plays a critical role in the development of normativity.

    (as an aside… why would a selection process equip us so that we deem X-ing to be wrong, rather than simply build us so we didn’t X?)

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  26. Malcolm says

    (as an aside… why would a selection process equip us so that we deem X-ing to be wrong, rather than simply build us so we didn’t X?)

    Well, we do just “not do X”; our moral intuitions seem to be prior to logical analysis. And that all makes perfect sense.

    But we are also self-reflective, philosophizing animals, and so we must “deem” X to be wrong as well. I’m not sure that that specific activity is necessarily adaptive; I’d say it just comes with the general “self-reflective intelligence” package, for better or worse.

    Of course you know that I don’t believe mere adaptation is an adequate basis for the development of morality — I think the so-called “rational faculty” plays a critical role in the development of normativity.

    As you’d imagine, I’d say that our rational faculty is an adaptation also, of course.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  27. bob koepp says

    Though it would depend on precisely what you mean by ‘logical analysis’, I would probably disagree that any prior “intuitions” should be viewed as moral.

    (Actually, I’m not at all sure what you are referring to as ‘moral intuition.’ At times it strikes me as akin to ‘gut feeling’ or perhaps ‘conscious inclination’, neither of which strikes me as particularly moral in tone. If, on the other hand, you mean a moral judgment for which one can’t articulate a compelling rationale, well, then moral intuitions seem not so different from most other sorts of judgments, except, perhaps, for a particular sort of subject matter.)

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  28. Malcolm says

    Actually, I’m not at all sure what you are referring to as ‘moral intuition.’ At times it strikes me as akin to ‘gut feeling’ or perhaps ‘conscious inclination’, neither of which strikes me as particularly moral in tone

    Yes, I am referring to all the automatic, gut-level discriminations we make between “right” and “wrong”, about what we ought and ought not to do regarding how we treat others. I think very few of our moral judgments are the result of any sort of intellectual activity.

    I would probably disagree that any prior “intuitions” should be viewed as moral.

    Well, we do disagree about that, then. I think those intuitions, shaped and refined of course by culture and various sorts of analysis, are very much indeed at the root of morality.

    Some of the boffins who study human morality, such as Marc Hauser, suggest that we are equipped with an instinct for moral judgments in much the same way we are equipped for language: our hardwiring permits cultural variation, as we see in both morality and language, but we are set up with a fairly narrow range of available “grammars”.

    Posted April 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  29. bob koepp says

    After all the back-and-forth, I suspect that what separates us is very different notions of how morality (or normativity, in general) is constituted, which in turn will influence how we think morality/normativity might (or not) be naturalized. For myself, I’m pretty confident that normativity can, in principle, be naturalized. But I think that our notion of nature/natural will have to change/develop in the process.

    pax

    Posted April 2, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  30. Malcolm says

    That’s a good summary, Bob. And we agree that morality is a natural phenomenon.

    Thanks as always for a stimulating conversation.

    Posted April 2, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

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