The Nation Gets It

Did the New Atheists (and many old ones) get the memos regarding the 20th Century and the demise of Positivism?

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33 Responses to The Nation Gets It

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for this fine article. Mostly, I don't have a bit problem with it. But I should point out two things. First is that I have always agreed that Harris's gambit for objective and scientifically-determinable morals was doomed from the start. He is just wrong, wrong, wrong. And his jingo-ism hardly helps. Second is that the problems of positivism generally are dissectable in similar fashion.

    The writer takes a broad brush against positivism, but the real issues are its moral pretensions- that we can know from science what is good, what is bad, even which humans do or don't make the grade. This is worshipping at the altar of objectivist morals. If morals are objective, then shouldn't science be able to find out what they are and figure out how best to implement them? It is no more absurd than the proposition that morals are objective, and thus whoever among us wear the funniest hats are gifted with the best discernment of knowing what they are.

    Either way, the project is misguided, because morals are not objective at all.

    “Islamic jihad is looking less like a revolutionary religious movement and more like the guerrilla fantasy of some angry young Arab men—educated, unemployed and humiliated by actual or imagined imperial arrogance.

    And, I would add, more directly humiliated by the practice of polygamy, which makes them superfluous and sets up a deadly contest for status and reproduction. We see the same dynamic in the fundamentalist Mormon treatment of it teen boys, who are discarded routinely. Whether one construes polygamy in our modern age as a religious or cultural institution, it is highly toxic.

    “Belief in scriptural inerrancy is Harris’s only criterion for true religious faith. This eliminates a wide range of religious experience, from pain and guilt to the exaltation of communal worship, the ecstasy of mystical union with the cosmos and the ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt.”

    While I am loath to defend Harris, here there is a point to be made, which is that the main fundamentalist lure to fellow-believers is that they are more observant, more schooled in the scriptures, and more religious overall. This is a natural consequence of the logic of religion itself, that if one founds an irrational system on mythical documents, those who take them the most seriously and coform most closely are ipso facto the most religious. I know that there are many forms of religion and interpretations, but the fundamentalists have an extremely (!) logical case to make here.

    And the problem that Harris has is with extremists, not with your sufis and quakers, though insofar as main-line religionists take the logic of fundamentalism seriously, even unconsciously, (with such commonplace media expressions as “strong believer”, “deep belief”, “unshakeable commitment”, and the like), power is handed from them to the fundamentalists.

    … cont …

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  2. Burk Braun says:

    “Harris continues to dwell on the fear of Muslim extremists establishing a new caliphate across Europe, making unreason the law of the land and forcing Parisian shopgirls to wear burqas.”

    The burqa issue is fascinating indeed. How do we take action against an infectious mind virus that browbeats women into a position of subjugation, and induces acquiescence (Stockholm syndrome) to the point that they take up the banner of “freedom” in its defense? When does a cultural identity and political program become recognized as directly and dangerously antithetical to the wider society, abusing its values of freedom and diversity?

    That said, the author is quite right that the caliphate is a long way off. They couldn't even get it off the ground in the middle east, let alone Europe.

    “As the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes, the burqa is a “mobile home” in patriarchal societies where women are otherwise confined to domestic space.”

    Oh, right- that makes it all better! But seriously, so why is it being pushed on Islamic women in the west, who need no such mobile home? Even though its origins are in Middle Eastern elitism, not in the Koran at all? The reason is as a badge of patriarchy and fealty, in order to spread essentially tribal values in defiance of any notion of assimilation, or, in effect, of freedom.

    Anyhow, to close, I should return to the ideal of objective morals. The author seems to promote relativism, with which I agree.. a principled relativism, where we maintain our subjective moral views, and supplement them with careful investigation of the consequences and subjective effects of other moral systems. Not dismissing them out of hand, but not respecting them blindly either. And I agree with the author's theme of a moral crisis in the west, exemplified by consumerism and finacialism – a theme I try to touch on from time to time.

    All this is not to say that positivism in its basic scientific proposition is dead. Science remains our best method of figuring out anything that has an empirical truth-maker, i.e., which deals with external reality. There are other ways of “knowing”, but none come close in their effectiveness. There are other things worth knowing, like our subjective and unconscious realms- those are pretty much untouched by the positivist program, even in the age of brain scans, and even if those scans turn into perfect windows into what we are thinking.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I am glad you generally agree with the article, which I’m assuming means these portions as well:

    “More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes…The midcentury demise of positivism was a consequence of intellectual advances as well as geopolitical disasters.”

    This is interesting because, as far as I can tell, the above description of Positivism describes what you seem to be asserting all the time. Perhaps everyone has just misunderstood you all this time.

    “The writer takes a broad brush against positivism, but the real issues are its moral pretensions- that we can know from science what is good, what is bad, even which humans do or don't make the grade. This is worshipping at the altar of objectivist morals. If morals are objective, then shouldn't science be able to find out what they are and figure out how best to implement them? It is no more absurd than the proposition that morals are objective, and thus whoever among us wear the funniest hats are gifted with the best discernment of knowing what they are.”

    I knew it was too good to be true. Well, if morals were like a rock or a hammer, then yes science could discover them as objective. But, morals are not like that. To then assume morals cannot be objective is to continue to make the category mistake you are always making.

    You are assuming that the writer doesn’t believe morality can be objective, but he never says such. He is pointing out the error of thinking that we could ever deduce an objective morality from scientific research or methods. It would be like weighing a poem to see if it were objectively true. The writer is noting the absurdity of what Harris is doing, not whether or not morality is objective per se.

    Two things are interesting. One, that Positivism seems to describe your philosophy fairly closely and it simply no longer exists as a viable philosophy for any reasonable or credible person. You might want to address that. Second, Harris is faced with the same dilemma Singer is trying to address. Both want to be able to assert, to rouse people to action, to get people moving in a certain direction and they both know that only appeals to objective morality will do that. Plus, they also know that it is the only legitimate way to call something “evil” and mean something more significant that saying, I just don’t feel good about it—it’s not my taste.” The problem is both resort to an entirely natural explanation, a reduction, that as the Nation writer points out is, one self-defeating, and two, creates Frankenstein Monsters like those of the 20th Century.

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  4. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    I think something like postpositivism would fit the bill, assimilating the various critiques of logical and moral positivism and going on from there.

    Anyhow, I assume that anyone who puts himself out as a relativist surely is also an moral subjectivist. But that was an assumption on my part. You ask how something can be called legitimately “evil”. The answer is that we each make the personal decision to call something that or not. I call one thing evil, you may call something else evil. To take an example, I might call the Catholic church evil. You may not. Not that I do, … just for a little rhetorical flash!

    There simply isn't some legitimator up in the sky to decide that on our behalf. That is why you find yourself making apologies for things that used to be just fine in the old testament, but now are not so fine, either in the new testament, or further on in our more advanced ethical age, such as it is. You might make the excuse of greater discovery or discernment now versus before. But does that fairly characterize how change comes about? That some person, let's call him Jesus, finds out that killing really isn't objectively good, and announces this research finding to the world, upon which the world awards him a nobel prize in objective moral research.

    No, the way it really happens is that people are socially pulled along by charismatic leaders either to one side (the KKK, perhaps), or to another side (MLK, perhaps), having their feelings, self-image, and interests played on, and being personally changed so that they feel differently. That is how things change, and there is little objective about it. Mistakes on this score are what was so damaging about our 20th century horrors- the promise of scientific socialism, or objective racism. People's feelings were subverted by objectivist propaganda, hate taking the cover of science or other popular theories. If the hate were more naked, it would have been snuffed out earlier.

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  5. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “No, the way it really happens is that people are socially pulled along by charismatic leaders either to one side (the KKK, perhaps), or to another side (MLK, perhaps), having their feelings, self-image, and interests played on, and being personally changed so that they feel differently. That is how things change, and there is little objective about it. Mistakes on this score are what was so damaging about our 20th century horrors…”

    You lay the contradictions out for us here. You note that changes either way are neither good, bad, or indifferent—they are simply changes brought about by whoever has the most charisma. But then you tell us that “mistakes” were made. How do you know they were mistakes? Are you just following the lead of someone with charisma who told you they were mistakes? Maybe following even your own charisma? Or perhaps you've escaped everyone's charisma, but can point out how everyone else is being duped? In the end it hardly matters. What you lay out here is an understanding that would reduce the building of ovens to burn bodies and the building of ovens to bake bread for the poor into equal and meaningless acts. They become simply different acts that can be puffed up into acts of “evil” or “good” only because of the persuasive powers of certain individuals, not because the acts themselves are intrinsically evil or good.

    Two points. First, the vast majority of people, whether educated or not, have never and do not now view morality the way you suggest. Second, it was exactly your view which gave credence to the evils of the 20th Century exactly because objective morality was viewed as a thing of the past and morality became whatever the state or its charismatic leaders said it was based upon their subjective will-to-power. You are telling us such is exactly right and the way things actually work. They agreed with you.

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  6. Burk Braun says:

    Sorry if you got the impression of a contradiction. I meant “mistake” solely in my & our current conventional understanding of our history. A few centuries hence, eugenics may well come back into fashion, and our own laissez-faire approach to reproduction be conventionally regarded as a “mistake”.

    So, I regard them as mistakes, but I don't claim any objective basis behind that judgement (aside from a bit of utilitarian reasoning in places, added to the basic subjective criteria). Change is the only constant!

    “They become simply different acts that can be puffed up into acts of “evil” or “good” only because of the persuasive powers of certain individuals, not because the acts themselves are intrinsically evil or good.”

    Now you are getting it. Perhaps I over-emphasize the role of leadership- people are occasionally able to make up their own minds based on their own feelings and reasoning. But one has to say, it doesn't seem to happen very often. We are highly socially conditioned, typically.

    Bottom line- there is no intrinsic good or evil, other than the subjective feelings we commonly share in avoiding pain and seeking fulfillment, goodness, and pleasure. The fact that most people are (possibly) mistaken about this is not a problem.. they were mistaken about a lot of things they don't think very deeply about. Even such a sterling philosopher as Sam Harris can get it wrong! It remains incumbent on objectivist philosophers to show what is objective about it- what is outside humanity, measurable or objectively demonstrable, etc.

    Hopefully we have exhausted the 20th century horrors theme.. they can be constructed to blame either side, with more or less success. But the problem was not that charismatic leaders convinced their followers that morals were relative and to each his/her own by the light of his/her conscience. Rather, they convinced their followers that the new system was objectively right and historically preordained- that Jews were evil, that the kulaks were evil wreckers, and thus merited liquidation.

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  7. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “They become simply different acts that can be puffed up into acts of “evil” or “good” only because of the persuasive powers of certain individuals, not because the acts themselves are intrinsically evil or good.”

    “Now you are getting it. Perhaps I over-emphasize the role of leadership- people are occasionally able to make up their own minds based on their own feelings and reasoning. But one has to say, it doesn't seem to happen very often. We are highly socially conditioned, typically.”

    Oh, I get it alright. And I couldn’t disagree more strongly.

    So then you agree this is what you are doing: “What you lay out here is an understanding that would reduce the building of ovens to burn bodies and the building of ovens to bake bread for the poor into equal and meaningless acts.”

    True? And perhaps you are just “socially conditioned” to “feel” this way but it has no bearing on good or evil, right or wrong, you are just blabbing (like the guy taking the opposite position) what you are programmed to blab? This is your position on ethics?

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  8. Burk Braun says:

    The problem is that you continually conflate the recognition that moral positions are subjectively based with a complete lack of moral position.

    I couldn't be more opposed to your scenario. But dressing it up as some objective, beyond me, part of the universe category is both wrong and destructive.

    It leads right to the problem of people signing over their consciences to someone else who claims better “discernment” of the objective moral truth. It leads to a great deal of blustery rhetoric with nothing underneath it but competing subjective visions of what is good, which would be better presented for what they are.

    But whatever it utilitarian defects, the bare fact is that we judge right and wrong by our feelings and interests, leading to perpetual conflict between the empathetic feelings and social principles we are born with and are typically reinforced by our environment, .. and the our feelings of greed, anger, and self-interest, which often conflict, especially in the short term.

    The problems we face are inherent in the human condition, and making as if we are all sinners or defective because we don't operate as well-behaved automatons in accordance with the original designer's blueprint specifications .. sells short the reality of our situation, and especially the ability of art (and psychology) to illuminate our tragic conflicts.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Your response simply highlights the contradictions of an irrational view.

    “The problem is that you continually conflate the recognition that moral positions are subjectively based with a complete lack of moral position.”

    I have never said it equates to a lack of a moral position. It equates to destroying the very idea of a moral position. If building ovens to burn bodies is the same as building ovens to bake bread are just different acts, neither intrinsically evil nor good, then there is no “moral” position to take, there is only will-to-power subjective “feeling” and many Nazis “felt” fine about it. You have no idea how deep the critique of your position runs.

    “It leads right to the problem of people signing over their consciences to someone else who claims better “discernment” of the objective moral truth. It leads to a great deal of blustery rhetoric with nothing underneath it but competing subjective visions of what is good, which would be better presented for what they are.”

    Well this is confusing. So are you saying that it leads to the very thing you suggest is the way the world really works anyway? So let me get this straight: As long as people come right out and say that although there really is no difference between planning the Holocaust and planning a wedding, we all have to choose, so make your choice and let the best rhetorician win!

    “The problems we face are inherent in the human condition, and making as if we are all sinners or defective because we don't operate as well-behaved automatons in accordance with the original designer's blueprint specifications .. sells short the reality of our situation, and especially the ability of art (and psychology) to illuminate our tragic conflicts.”

    This is just irrational. According to you, there are no “problems” with the human condition, there are just differences of taste or different actions—actions which are all ultimately equal—so what is the problem? According to you, there are no “tragic” conflicts because to assume such is to assume that some act is different in a real and significant way. You have destroyed the very basis for the idea of illumination. In your world, there is nothing to illuminate. All is equal. Life is just one damn thing after another. Nice.

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  10. Burk Braun says:

    “Well this is confusing. So are you saying that it leads to the very thing you suggest is the way the world really works anyway? So let me get this straight: As long as people come right out and say that although there really is no difference between planning the Holocaust and planning a wedding, we all have to choose, so make your choice and let the best rhetorician win!”

    Did I say there is no difference? No. You again conflate the actual origins of morals with no morals and no differences (“really no difference”). You are stuck in wanting your moral position validated by an imaginary outside perspective or being, which doesn't exist. Wanting it so doesn't make it so.

    In the subjectivist account, there are differences aplenty, but they are not assigned by Wotan or whoever. They are assigned by us, through our feelings and judgement. Sometimes even written down into myths and scriptures to give them extra rhetorical firepower! When our feelings and judgements change, so do our assignment of moral “mistakes” and “evil”, etc. The sumersaults of theology to accommodate the changing mores of the bible should be enough to give you pause. Feelings change, and with them, morals. I know this complexity is unnerving, but why else do we have politics and the unending cultural debate?

    This is the realistic account, and serves as the default until and unless some other source can be identified by something other than assertion and bluster. Or popularity- note that this popularity arises from a very simple source- the need for parents to tell children, and clergy to tell their sheep, that this is the way it is and it isn't open for negotiation, period. The objectivist position is adopted many reasons- easy rhetoric, easy philosophy, easy social control. That doesn't make it right. Remember that divine right of Kingship used to be objectively moral as well, until it wasn't, as was homophobia, slavery, etc…

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  11. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    But you have to square this circle for us. Notice you don’t defend your position, you simply assert beliefs (your atheism).

    You make all sorts of assertions here: “there are differences aplenty” “They are assigned by us” But at the same time you tell us that none of these “differences” are really true, good, bad or indifferent but all the accomplishment (of whomever’s difference prevails) of those with charisma. But maybe your assertions are just the product of charisma and no truer, better, or moral than the exact opposite of what you claim. Like the parents telling their children, perhaps you have been influenced by the big brother who comes along and says, “Yeah, I know that is what Mom and Dad say, but here’s the real deal…” You are just listening to a different authority, but deeper and more importantly what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful. How does that not invalidate your own position? How is it not self-defeating?

    Second, we’ve gone through this before and you have yet to show us a single instance of where it has happened otherwise historically, but you claim that, “When our feelings and judgements change, so do our assignment of moral “mistakes” and “evil”, etc.” Yes, but you are missing the most important part of that change. Those changes of feeling and judgments all came about because of the recognition of some objective outside source, some person, or teaching, some event, or communication of some sort. Again, you reveal a completely a-historical and unrealistic account of how cultures change in their views of morality.

    “I know this complexity is unnerving, but why else do we have politics and the unending cultural debate?” But this proves my point, not yours. We have politics and unending debate because people truly believe there are some things intrinsically right and some wrong. If we really believed your position, no own would care either way. They would know that all this nonsense (debate) is about power and persuasiveness, not about what anyone really believed to be true, moral, or good. I can’t think of a better position to completely rid people of any type of democratic effort or involvement.

    The other point you fail to see is that changing morality over time means nothing as to whether or not morality is objective. Nothing.

    Your position is self-defeating and irrational—not to mention completely devoid of any historical evidence.

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  12. Burk Braun says:

    ” We have politics and unending debate because people truly believe there are some things intrinsically right and some wrong. If we really believed your position, no own would care either way. They would know that all this nonsense (debate) is about power and persuasiveness, not about what anyone really believed to be true, moral, or good. I can’t think of a better position to completely rid people of any type of democratic effort or involvement.”

    You are not understanding this position in a very basic way. If you have a desire for going to a movie, and your friends have a desire for going to a museum, this leads to a debate. You may try to pursuade them that, if they really had taste and discernment, they would prefer the movie because, unbeknownst to them, it fits with their interests very well. You might also try to explain that in the long run, the movie will be a more significant experience because everyone at work will be seeing it and their social standing would be raised more by this than the other experience.

    A great deal of debate is involved in this kind of negotiation, and the pattern is the same for morals, about which we individually care far more, and are willing to debate far more. There is no need for anyone to presume that there is an objective basis to drive debate. That part only drives bad philosophy and grabs for power. If that objective basis were actually real and observable, then we would have no debate at all- morals would be clear to all. But that is not, sadly, the case.

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  13. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    You make a huge leap here that is justified neither by history, experience, or logic. To equate a debate over which movie to see and whether or not capital punishment should be legal is incredibly ridiculous.

    Again, the vast majority of people do not view the difference (which you are trying to erase and make a similarity) the way you do.

    To try and equate these two types of debate actually lowers and debases the very idea of debate and the issues truly worthy of debate. Again, if everyone believed as you, like Clark Gable, no one would give a damn.

    Yes, if morals were like the sun in the sky or a rock on the ground and objective in that way—they would indeed be obvious. But since morals are not like that and because you continue to make this category mistake, I’m sure such will continue to perplex you. That will hardly prevent people from continuing to believe and know that morality can be objective.

    Again, you are missing something very basic here and I point it out again from my last response:

    …but deeper and more importantly what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful. How does that not invalidate your own position? How is it not self-defeating?

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  14. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    I don't think you are doing justice to your own powers by positing that if people care about and debate about which movie to watch, “no one would give a damn” when it comes to morals. You would have to agree that people care about morals- you certainly do.

    What you imagine their origin or status to be is a separate issue. “That will hardly prevent people from continuing to believe and know that morality can be objective.” Nice how you slipped in “know” there. Do you “know” this? What is the form of this knowlege and what is it based on? What is your epistemological model of this kind of knowledge? You have always been totally vague on this score, while I am perfectly clear- our desires, summed over short and long terms and all their implications, are what we base our judgements of “what is good” on.

    “… what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful.”

    Firstly, the process of adjudication is just as much a subject of our mutual negotiation as is the subject of morals themselves. Thus we came up with increasingly peaceful methods (tribal councils, elders, states, laws, democracies..) to do this negotiation. If we simply agree to disagree amicably and disallow attempts to use force in place of negotiation, we will have gone beyond your simpl formula.

    Secondly, in light of the epistemological problems above, you are in no different position than I am. In your story, various contending parties or viewpoints have to fight to establish their “objective” account of whatever morals they favor, without the benefit of any objective measurement or publically discernable standard … because “morals are not like that”.

    So you likewise are left in exactly the same landscape of power and might makes right, as the Islamic folks are busily proving. Only with the routine acceptance of secular civic space in Europe, roughly after the thirty year's war, did the resort to war to decide who had the “right” objective system fade, in favor of eventually deliberative democracies and private rights of conscience.

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  15. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Your response doesn’t even make sense. I said if people truly believed like you, they would not give a damn about morals-which is true. Of course people care about morals, for the very reason I posited—they really believe some things are intrinsically good or evil. The origin of morality is not a separate but the only issue. It is the origin that makes people debate and care.

    No one, whether the man on the street or the woman in the academy equates what goes on when people discuss going to a movie to what goes on when leaders decide whether or not to go to war. Tell me what rational person does so? To equate all these, as you do, is really incredible.

    Notice you can’t address how people actually think about the area of morality. You have no argument from history, experience, or logic. You are basically saying that the entire world now and historically have been fooling themselves (thinking there was such a thing as morality) and you figured it out. Everyone is wrong except Burk. Nice argument.

    I have never been vague on how we can know something. The fact that very few choose the only model you believe valid (empiricism) is what seems to vex you. Not much I can do about that. Again, that morals are not like rocks or birds is a category mistake you can either continue to struggle with and keep making or move on and perhaps learn something.

    You continue to side-step the question I pose. Just come out with it. I post it again:

    …but deeper and more importantly what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful. How does that not invalidate your own position? How is it not self-defeating?

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  16. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    “I said if people truly believed like you, they would not give a damn about morals-which is true. Of course people care about morals, for the very reason I posited …”

    You are assuming here what is in question. Admittedly, I also have mostly asserted my position, that people come up with morals spontaneously and subjectively. So the question is whether we have any clever way to adjudicate the question. What people rationalize & claim post-hoc has little bearing, since narcissism will naturally drive people to claim objectivity for their views .. (doesn't everyone know that chocolate is good / murder is bad / men are more important than women / killing terrorists is good …)

    The question is whether shouting “That's wrong!” amounts to evidence for objective morals, or rather amounts to an expression of personal opinion. It certainly doesn't amount to evidence, but it may express belief in objective morals. And what of that? Your model of human psychology is sorely lacking if you think that everything we believe is automatically true. Not only that, but the claim of objectivity has obvious functional and cognitive purposes- to globalize personal views, and end debate on favorable terms. I would ask you then what happens when two different moral views, both claiming objectivity, come into conflict, such as in the abortion debate. Is objectivity apparent there, and how does objectivity come to the rescue to resolve it?

    I have frequently referred to the variability of moral views, which is consistent with a subjective source, though as you say, it is also consistent with an objective source that we don't know much if anything about, for what that is worth.

    I have also demonstrated that those who take a subjectivist position (e.g. me) care plenty about morals, so your assertion otherwise is simply false. In fact, one can go to cognitive/neuro science to show that people care about moral issues no matter what theory or lack of theory they have about the origins of those ideas. We are wired to care about fairness, status, altruism, free-riding, and the rest. This caring comes prior to any conception of objectivity or its opposite. Here is a random study in the field.

    So you could claim that this caring reflects the objective status of the world, via mechanisms we don't know anything about, and which are more or less defective. That is finally the same as recognizing moral views as subjective, and just negotiating among them as we do anyhow.

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  17. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “The question is whether shouting “That's wrong!” amounts to evidence for objective morals, or rather amounts to an expression of personal opinion.”

    The deeper question is, if one’s view is just a personal opinion, like preferring white wine to red, why the shouting? No one shouts out, “I prefer white wine to red—who’s with me!!!” People shout, organize, raise money, lobby, gather signatures, go to prison, change their lives, live and die because they believe some things to be worth it and they are only moved in such a way when that thing (whatever it might be) is believed to be true in an objective way that far outstrips what people normally feel about a subjective personal opinion. Such a reaction from people and the universal understanding of the difference certainly provides some evidence for objective morality. It certainly doesn’t provide any evidence for your view. Your view is completely a-historical and detached from reality.

    “ I would ask you then what happens when two different moral views, both claiming objectivity, come into conflict, such as in the abortion debate. Is objectivity apparent there, and how does objectivity come to the rescue to resolve it?”

    Imagine you were asking this question about slavery or civil rights for minorities or women’s rights? I can tell you that historically, it was because enough people were persuaded by arguments that were objectively based to change their minds. Of note, is that you cannot provide a single instance where in matters of such gravity (like slavery) where people just changed their minds willy-nilly and when asked why said something like, “well, the guy just had such charisma and seemed to make sense—I liked him.” You give people no credit at all. Basically your argument is everyone is fooled into believing whatever by whoever is the most persuasive/most charismatic. So when people believe you, what are we to make of that?

    “I have also demonstrated that those who take a subjectivist position (e.g. me) care plenty about morals, so your assertion otherwise is simply false.”

    I have never once said you or those who take a subjectivist position do not care about morals. What I have said is that their caring is not logically tied to their position. Again, no one gets upset when they learn that the guy next to them likes red roses when they like yellow roses. A person can say they are a subjectivist all they want, but when they really care about something—they do not base their arguments on personal preference.

    “ In fact, one can go to cognitive/neuro science to show that people care about moral issues no matter what theory or lack of theory they have about the origins of those ideas. We are wired to care about fairness, status, altruism, free-riding, and the rest. This caring comes prior to any conception of objectivity or its opposite. Here is a random study in the field.”

    This is Sam Harris’s position really and it is an argument for an objective morality (based in nature) and not a subjectivist one, so how this helps you I have no idea.

    I take it you cannot respond to my assertion of your position? You are basically asserting there is no such thing as intrinsic good or evil- there are only descriptions we subjectively attach to events and if we were to describe something as the exact opposite (such as calling the Holocaust good) it would be equally true and plausible if supported by a majority. True?

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  18. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    “The deeper question is, if one’s view is just a personal opinion, like preferring white wine to red, why the shouting? No one shouts out, “I prefer white wine to red—who’s with me!!!” People shout, organize, raise money, lobby, gather signatures, go to prison, change their lives, live and die because they believe some things to be worth it and they are only moved in such a way when that thing (whatever it might be) is believed to be true in an objective way that far outstrips what people normally feel about a subjective personal opinion.”

    You are clearly conflating subjectivity with triviality. I know that suits your argument, but it is wrong.

    We care about anything that affects us strongly, like terrorists, killings, robbery, corruption, etc. Whether we care about something has nothing to do with whether one believes morals are objective. Suppose only you thought that killing was bad, and everyone else thought it was good. Would that make you care about it less? Suppose for a minute that dislike of killing arises from your subjective viewpoint- your reasoning about what kind of society you prefer, your experiences in dire circumstances, perhaps your reading of thrillers and watching of crime dramas. Would that make you care about murder less?

    The fact that we care strongly about something like murder, rather than caring weakly about something like wine, doesn't alter the category of the preference or how we come up with such views. That is why I have been using analogies like this, which seem to be beyond you.

    “I have never once said you or those who take a subjectivist position do not care about morals. What I have said is that their caring is not logically tied to their position.”

    And there we go again. Caring is not tied to any position at all- it is pure human nature. Indeed animals (dogs, baboons, crows) care about fairness and similar moral issues. It is up to you to explain how having an objective moral theory (true or not) has anything to do with how much we care about things. I could see how it leads to pigheadedness, ideological posturing, and war, but not really how it dictates whether we care about basic ethical and moral issues.

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  19. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “You are clearly conflating subjectivity with triviality. I know that suits your argument, but it is wrong.”

    No, I am addressing the very words and analogies you have been using. You asked the question yourself: When someone shouts “This is wrong” does it amount to nothing more than personal opinion. Well, the last time I checked, no one gets work up because someone else’s “personal opinion” differed from theirs. No one gets upset because one person wanted to go and see one movie as opposed to another one (unless they are 12 years old). Go ask 10 people if they think their opposition to a statement like, “The Holocaust was morally good” is just a personal opinion of theirs or if they think they are stating something universal and objective. Yes, I know you think they are all wrong, that what they are really doing is following the pied pipers out there, but perhaps then you could tell us which one you have been listening to. And, if people believe you—are you also simply just another pied piper? Are you saying everyone has been fooled but you?

    When you use terms like “personal opinion” and use analogies like debating which movie to see—we should rightly conflate subjectivity to triviality. That is the difference. But no one does that when talking about significant issues like capital punishment, torture, going to war and a myriad of other issues like that. No one says, “I’m against torture, but that is just my personal opinion.” In fact, when people use the term “personal opinion” we naturally equate it with trivial issues. One might hear someone say- I prefer taking the train, but that’s just my “personal opinion.”

    I get what you are saying. You are basically saying that whether a person says “I think the Holocaust to be evil” or whether they say, “I like purple balloons,” they are all saying the same thing—only the object in question is different. We could reverse it and say “I like the Holocaust” and “I think purple balloons are evil,” and it would be the same thing in your view. Do I have that right, or no? It is hard to tell since you refuse to really answer the question.

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  20. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    It is unfortunate that you hold your personal opinions in such low regard. At any rate, getting beyond the semantics of the word 'opinion', the question is whether views on momentous issues differ in kind. Despite what many people claim about going by objective morals, they are curiously unconnected with anything characteristic of the word “objective”.

    They are not agreed-upon, they are changeable by circumstance, they are self-serving, they are undefinable, and they are not demonstrably external. They talk, smell, and quack like opinions, however reasonable and commonplace. Their criterion is not the commands of martian overlords, but our own ultimate happiness. Ask someone why murder is prohibited, and they will say that otherwise, society couldn't function, at least not at a high level.

    If they claim objectiveness to this rule, you might ask them why the rule exists. They might say that god said so and that is an end to it, as it is the end of so many other lines and forms of thought. But if asked further, you would get the answer that it would be stupid to allow murder, as we have benefited so much from more peaceful societies.. and you would have your subjective answer again. So I basically disagree about both the incidence and the dispositiveness of objectivist answers to this kind of question.

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  21. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “It is unfortunate that you hold your personal opinions in such low regard.”

    That is pretty rich. You tell us that people, even if they are willing to go to prison or be executed for their belief, are really just asserting a personal subjective opinion that is neither intrinsically true nor ontologically different than holding the opposite opinion. I can’t imagine a lower regard for the beliefs of others. Further you tell us that people believe what they do simply because they’ve been hoodwinked by charlatans and charmers. What could be a lower regard for the way people form their deepest held beliefs than that—and then to equate the entire process to debating which movie to see simply adds insult to injury. Incredible.

    The rest you offer is pure assertion with no evidence to back it up except your prophetic powers to know what is really going on when “other” people assert their beliefs, all the while exempting yourself from the the same critique. Nice gig if you can get it.

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  22. Burk Braun says:

    I welcome your counter-critique of my mental operations!

    “You tell us that people, even if they are willing to go to prison or be executed for their belief, are really just asserting a personal subjective opinion that is neither intrinsically true nor ontologically different than holding the opposite opinion. “

    Not true at all. The whole point of holding an opinion or view is that the opposite view is not the one you want to hold, perhaps to the point of pain and sacrifice. Again you trivialize the fundamental autonomy and rights of the person, developed over a long historical process of weighing subjective considerations, including compassion & respect for others.

    “What could be a lower regard for the way people form their deepest held beliefs than that—and then to equate the entire process to debating which movie to see simply adds insult to injury. Incredible.”

    I am looking for a bit of introspection, and proof of your claim of objectivism. If something is objective, should it be “secretly” objective? Shouldn't it be demonstrable in clear fashion? What does the word “objective” even mean? If your only recourse is to say that … if someone says something is objective, then it is, by golly. What if scientists adhered to such a low standard? We would still be in a dark age.

    And anyhow, you tip your hand right here by citing people's “deepest held beliefs”. What could be more subjective? Gravity is not a deeply held belief with me, it just is. Objective aspects of the world just are- they don't need to be debated endlessly or hidden behind “because I said so” justifications.

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  23. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Not true at all. The whole point of holding an opinion or view is that the opposite view is not the one you want to hold, perhaps to the point of pain and sacrifice.”

    Notice you say just the opinion one doesn’t want to hold. But why? You can’t say because it is intrinsically right or wrong to hold that opinion—only preference. When we begin to ask people the reason they would go to prison or give their life for their moral belief, we never get an answer like, “Oh, it’s just a personal preference” or, I just “feel” this way. Again, your view is entirely removed from reality. You have no evidence for your view.

    It is you who are trivializing the autonomy and rights of persons. You have told us several times that people aren’t even really making their own decisions—they are simply swayed by charismatic personalities (except you of course!).

    As to objectivity, again, I’m sorry you seem unable to wrap your mind around the idea that morals, good and evil are not like gravity, rocks or trees and one cannot weigh them or measure them with a tape measure, but that has not prevented the vast majority of people from realizing the difference and knowing it does not prevent morality from being objective. You are simply making a category mistake.

    Again, I ask my same questions: …but deeper and more importantly what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful. How does that not invalidate your own position? How is it not self-defeating?

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  24. Burk Braun says:

    “Again, I ask my same questions: …but deeper and more importantly what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful. How does that not invalidate your own position? How is it not self-defeating?”

    Aren't you embarrassed sometimes by reading what you want to hear into what others say? You are stuck on the objective criterion, even though in this message you again totally evade the question of what “objective” could even mean in this sphere. If morals are not like gravity, then what are they like and how can they in demostrable terms differ from subjective morals? The answer is that they can't and they don't.

    People are moral insofar that they care about their own future in a social setting and about others, either for utilitarian reasons, or for empathic ones. There is plenty of reasoning at work in morals, as we figure out what will make us happy on the long term (order, peace, etc.). But at core, the criterion is what we want and how we want to live, given that we are social and have to live in societies.

    Most of the time, people will have quite congruent ideas about fairness and morals, and then it makes little difference whether they conceive of them as god-given, absolute, or sprung from their own reasoning, opinions, and traditions. But at other times, when morals come into conflict, it becomes clear that no one has any objective criterion or authority to appeal to- none that is not mythical and/or self-serving, that is.

    We may heed great teachers who presented far-seeing visions of morality that improved upon the conditions of their times, but just as often, those teachers are left behind as we come up with new and better visions of morality. Muhammed was far ahead of his time, though not so much ahead of our current time. Which is to say, we seek morals that match our conditions, that learn from history, and that are calculated to improve our future happiness.

    Your argument depends on convenient lack of introspection and analysis, neither questioning what it means to posit an objective moral, nor asking why such a thing is conjured as a totem if it is so undefinable and inchoate, indeed unobjective. I ask you to define what on earth you are talking about.

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  25. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    You are side-stepping the issue and I can see why you would like to. We both know that are assertions about whether or not morality is objective or subjective, is based upon our a-prior belief in God (my view-thus objective) or in our belief that no God exists and there is nothing but the material (your view—thus subjective). This is elemental. This is philosophy 101 and you know it. What we have been discussing is how then does the atheist/materialist account for morality and how do people actually act and think about the whole area of morals. To act, at this point in the conversation, as if you don't know this is rather weak.

    You haven’t a single scintilla of evidence for your view. Most people and most cultures believe certain things are good or evil based, not upon their personal preference or taste, but upon some objective source. The burden rests with you to tell us why everyone else is wrong and how you have somehow managed to escape the forces you believe cause people to believe the “myth” that what they actually think is intrinsic is rather just their subjective feelings.

    What I am looking for is some introspection from someone who is basically saying that any event, whether the Holocaust or what happened recently in Norway is not intrinsically evil, but rather it is whatever we choose to describe it as. How is your view not simply that whoever has the power and the persuasion is right, moral, and good?

    I can see why you would like to change the subject, but I ask it again:

    …but deeper and more importantly what you are saying is, regardless, no one is really moral or right—it just comes down to who is more persuasive/powerful. How does that not invalidate your own position? How is it not self-defeating?

    Like

  26. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    We seem to have reached a serious block in this discussion. As you say, it touches on core issues, which deserve better examination.

    “You haven’t a single scintilla of evidence for your view. Most people and most cultures believe certain things are good or evil based, not upon their personal preference or taste, but upon some objective source. “

    People had moral views long before they have any idea about objective theories and the like. As I mentioned, even dogs and other animals have moral views, apparently without any philosophy whatsoever. So your assertion here is willfully false. Saying over again won't make it truer.

    Modern philosophy is getting to this point as well, as they find that people make their decisions on instinct, not on theory. Such classics as the trolly scenarios demonstrate that whatever theories people have about ethics and what is right, they make their decisions on gut instincts, first and foremost.

    Their rationalizations are secondary, and as you claim, many (probably not most, but I would welcome evidence on the matter) can involve putatively objective rules for which they have zero coherent explanation. This is similar to many other products of the unconscious, which are taken as objective or “from god” for lack of better introspection.

    So I have plenty of evidence on my side, indeed it is the default explanation how we actually operate.

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  27. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Hopefully you have known from day one that whether or not one believed in the existence of God (at least in the sense of the Christian God) or some transcendent source would obviously impact how one thought about morality, its meaning and origin. Why bring it up now?

    “People had moral views long before they have any idea about objective theories and the like.”

    Tell us what people, what civilization you are talking about? You (and no one else does either) have no idea what people did or thought prior to what we have some historical record of or archeological evidence for. So my assertion is most definitely true until you can demonstrate otherwise.

    First of all, animals act in various ways for various reasons and to compare such to the complexity of what humans mean when they reflect in the area of ethics and morality is misleading, to say the least. To assert animals are doing the same is highly speculate. Second, what in the world would that have to do with whether or not morality is objective? If the beginning of all life, including animals, is ultimately from God—then even if it were somehow shown some day that animals did have some moral sense in the same way humans do, it would still be tied to an objective source. But this is, again, side-stepping the issue.

    Your position is clearly not the de-fault position. Again, no one says—“I’m against torturing babies, but that’s just my personal opinion.”

    You are stuck with a position that one, destroys the very idea of morality (which is not a claim than atheists are not moral), and two, goes against what people actually say they think about morality and what they are doing when they make morals decsions. I know you think they are wrong, but that is a whole other issue. For now, it is what it is. You hold a radical minority view and so it rests with you as to why we should view morality differently.

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  28. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I hate to beat a dead horse, but there is just too much of what you assert to dispute. The “Trolley” scenarios have nothing to do with whether or not morality is objective or subjective in a philosophical sense. It simply has to do with how people say they might or might not react to a given situation. Since they are hypothetical situations, we can never know what a person might actually do—but that is beside the point anyway. What we can imagine, as people reflect upon why or why not they would do one thing and not another, is that most would cite some moral reasoning, faith view, or principle that was based upon some objective standard before we would hear someone say something like, “I would save the five people rather than the one, just because of my personal feelings and opinion.” I guess if someone were to then ask them, “Well, what is your opinion?” You would have us believe them to answer, “Oh, my opinion is to go with however I’m feeling at the moment.”

    Going deeper though, you are missing the fact that anyone even cares what we might or might not do in such hypothetical situations. If there is no such thing as morality, no intrinsic correlate to the words we use to describe certain acts, events, omissions or commissions, and those things in themselves, then who cares what people might do in these hypothetical situations. They could do anything and it would be equally meaningless. The very fact that people look for and want to know if a given act or omission is “moral” or not, should tell us something. It certainly lends evidence to the view that people think of morality as being based upon some objective source and not on subjective feeling or preference. You can say they are wrong; you can say you have evaluated their mental processes and what is really going on is “this” whatever “this” might be, but the fact remains that most people describe what they are doing in completely different ways that what you suggest.

    Universally people recognize these types of thought experiments to represent decisions significantly different than decisions like, should I order fish or steak. Why is that? You would collapse significant moral decision making into (reduce it to) the same category of what we associate doing when ordering off a menu.

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  29. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    “The very fact that people look for and want to know if a given act or omission is “moral” or not, should tell us something. It certainly lends evidence to the view that people think of morality as being based upon some objective source and not on subjective feeling or preference.”

    This is absolutely classic. The first sentence is quite correct- the investigation into what we feel moved to pay attention to and care about is central to this whole question. And my trolley citation, and others, especially in their evolutionary and psychological aspects, go right to this issue. Moral philosophers have generally tried to search out some rationale or standard behind the moral rules that we have created for ourselves in such profusion. But as Darwin said, we would learn more by studying baboons.

    The second sentence doesn't follow. Indeed, it assumes your chosen answer to the first question. Do people care about others because Jesus told them to care about others? Do they care about others out of fear of hell? Do they care about others because 1+1=2? No, they care about others quite spontaneously, from birth, and our social structures merely refine and channel what is already present- the basic moral sense.

    We are not always sure about our moral actions not because we don't think of ourselves as good, but because the world is complex, and we can not always foretell future consequences of our actions. It is reasuring to have structure and rules to go by, but their point is to codify the best practices (e.g. “honesty is the best policy”) that contribute to a utilitarian/subjective criterion, which is- what will make me happy on the long term in my society. Do you know of any morals that go against it?

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  30. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “This is absolutely classic. The first sentence is quite correct- the investigation into what we feel moved to pay attention to and care about is central to this whole question.”

    But it goes deeper than that. It follows logically that if morality truly boiled down to simple taste or preference, we would not care why people made the choices they did. We would simply know that they were doing what made them “happy” in the “long” term. Case closed. I like steak over fish—enough said. But such a view tells us nothing about morality, it only tells us that people act or do not act. They like “this” but they don’t like “that”—but “this” or “that” could be anything—it wouldn’t matter. It says there is no “ought” only an “is.” And that is why the second sentence most certainly follows.

    But no one views morality the way you describe. The fact that studies are done is because we care and it is significant. Regardless, back to the point at hand, the Trolley studies say nothing about whether morality is objective or not.

    “Do people care about others because Jesus told them to care about others?” Yes
    “Do they care about others out of fear of hell?” Maybe
    “Do they care about others because 1+1=2?” No (Wow, we agree one out of three)

    “… they care about others quite spontaneously, from birth, and our social structures merely refine and channel what is already present- the basic moral sense. “

    Here is the problem. Either that basic moral sense is from God or some transcendental source, or it is based in nature (in a way proposed by Sam Harris and others), but either way those would be objective sources. Since you believe both to be false, then there can be no basic “moral” sense there can only be meaningless acts or non-acts—only matter in motion.

    Nice try, but no cigar.

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  31. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Putting aside the “objectiveness” of subjective moral sentiments generated by evolution, let me address your question of caring.

    “It follows logically that if morality truly boiled down to simple taste or preference, we would not care why people made the choices they did. We would simply know that they were doing what made them “happy” in the “long” term.”

    This fails to see the core problem of morals, which is its social nature. These are collective action problems. Morals are not about whether I want more or less desert. They are about whether I should take the last piece of pie when others want some too. The questions of murder, stealing, torture, fairness and kindness are all about how we treat each other, which by its nature makes us care about them, out of self-interest. I don't want to be robbed, killed, tortured, or cheated. Thus I care about the morals, not only of those close to me, but all those around me, at whatever distance I may be affected from.

    The choices of other people affect me, thus I care about them keenly. That is what puts them into a moral class of problem. Civilized solutions to moral questions typically also require behavior that goes against myopic selfishness, in our individual and mutual longer-term interest. Thus we get all the inner psychological conflict, and the variable adherence to standards of behavior from people variously equipped to repress immediate desires on behalf of their own and their community's interests. It is the fodder for endless drama.

    If I may continue with my questions.. Insofar as people aspire to a standard of behavior, whether objective or subjective, how would you characterize that standard? It is perhaps organized about harmonious social living? What is its real point? How do you imagine people without any conception of an after-life pursue a moral this-life?

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  32. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Putting aside the “objectiveness” of subjective moral sentiments generated by evolution, let me address your question of caring.”

    Here you are side-stepping the issue again. Evolution as understood by philosophical naturalists/atheists can only generate what is necessary for survival and can only respond to what is, not what ought to be. Evolution neither cares about nor can point in a “moral” direction as opposed to an “immoral” direction because both categories are meaningless to Evolution as understood by the atheist. Again, we are passed that. We know why you think morality has to be subjective. We are interested to know if you understand the implications of such a view. I think you do, but for some reason you refuse to own up to it. I wouldn’t want to either if I believed like you, so I understand your refusal. I too wouldn’t want to admit that I didn’t think the Holocaust was intrinsically evil, but that it was just an event that we put the descriptor “bad” over, but that the event could have been given the descriptor “good” if history is different. Thus, power is morality. Wow, no wonder capitalist billionaires, gang lords, and state thugs too like the idea that morality can be whatever the powerful say it is.

    “This fails to see the core problem of morals, which is its social nature. These are collective action problems.”

    This statement and your articulation fails to take into account the 20th Century and even the present day. That is why positivism and materialism are waning if not dead. That is why the Enlightenment project is dead. The world watched as the most educated and “civilized” nations in the world (we thought) committed some of the most hideous crimes against humanity in recorded history. Most in the name of “science” and freedom from the old morality (read Judeo-Christian morality).

    You are also articulating a view similar to Dawkin’s selfish gene view, which is fairly discredited. You cannot explain altruism, sacrifice-with no gain perceived, the virtue of being thankful, or many other components to the complexity of what comes under the rubric ethics and morals by starting from purely materialist sources.

    Beyond that, none of this addresses whether or not morality is objective or not and whether or not you can reflect upon and own up to the implications of your view, which are quite radical and held by few. You are in the same boat as those who believe the moon landing was faked. The onus is on you.

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  33. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    “Evolution neither cares about nor can point in a “moral” direction as opposed to an “immoral” direction because both categories are meaningless to Evolution as understood by the atheist.”

    To repeat, I was just telling above how the point of morals is successful living in communities, which happens also to coincide with the aim of evolution for social species. If you think about it, it all makes sense and hangs together. Evolution is highly directed in that sense.

    “That is why the Enlightenment project is dead. The world watched as the most educated and “civilized” nations in the world (we thought) committed some of the most hideous crimes …”

    I was not talking about the content of morals, or who has them or not, but rather about why they occur in the first place- to solve collective action and community living problems. Dawkins' selfish gene formulation may be either here or there, but insofar as you accept evolution, as I understand you do, you also accept its role in shaping our psychology, including our social psychology- it all hangs together.

    There are many other social species that have been built by evolution- ants, bees, wolves, whales, etc… the list is very long, and shows that evolution is quite capable of creating altruism and related social/moral traits.

    Now, all this sociability may just recurrently redisplay eternally cosmic principles of getting-along or social morality. If so, they don't occur outside of living beings, so the status of those principles is of little obvious or broad significance. Many animals survive without being very sociable and with minimal morals- there are various ways to be. But evidently most of us are programmed to pursue the path of forming more instead of less harmonious social systems, and it has been a very successful strategy for humans.

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