Human Morality

Bernard’s response can be found here.  There is no need to respond to the selection and physics parts of the response because they were dealt with on this blog in the comment sections here and here, and Bernard eventually let them go.  And it is very telling that Bernard completely left out the entire issue of the hard problems of consciousness.  But as we saw, and Bernard agreed, the panpsychism view was entirely consistent with the laws of physics.  In his response, he keeps noting the brain, with no mention of consciousness or how the mind not being reducible to brain undermines his entire line of thought here.  How could one talk about the brain in the context of this conversation and not note the importance of the mind/matter issue? 
Further, the selection issue (that our brains were designed to only recognize and discover pragmatic knowledge), was let go of when Bernard agreed with the autonomous moral reflection aspect noted in the SEP entry:
“I absolutely understand this process, and agree that we have exactly this type of intellectual autonomy, and that it underpins many of our moral judgements.”–Bernard
So, why he is now saying this: “However, evolution tells us that the design is the result of pragmatic forces.” -is beyond me.  I guess it can be hard to track one’s own argument sometimes.
I am happy however that Bernard brought these up in his own post response rather than making me repeat the arguments already made, ones that made him put those issues aside.  Otherwise, a new comment section would have grown, no doubt, to hundreds although it is ground already well covered.  All one need do is peruse the comment sections noted above and they will see that Bernard let those issues go realizing they did nothing to help his case.  Not sure why he brings them up again.
So Bernard was finally left to agree that this was not a dispute over the science/evolution—there was no clash—but that it was rather a philosophical disagreement.  His critique then became two fold, but he only brings up one in his response.  His first critique was this:


“Deductive reasoning is a process that takes us from prior assumed truth to implied truth. The implied truth will be reliably true only to the extent that assumed truth is. Hence, we can not use reason to a moral truth without first assuming a moral truth (as the Stanford example inadvertently demonstrates). Thus, reason can not be the method by which we ultimately discern moral truth.”
I then explained how this charge works both ways.  The argument would be that we then cannot reason our way to the belief there are no moral truths without first assuming there weren’t any.  This is the very issue pointed out in the SEP entry:
“Unless realism [my position] has already been rejected for other reasons, then, this picture is an open possibility at the start of the debate, which means that the realist is entitled to hold that many of our moral beliefs are in fact not merely caused by evolutionary and other ‘morally blind’ influences, but are instead well-grounded responses to moral reality. That is, the realist need never grant the debunker’s strong claims to the effect that our moral beliefs across the board are saturated with evolutionary influence (see section 2). Perhaps some are and some aren’t, and the proportions will depend on the extent to which we’ve successfully exercised autonomous reflection in arriving at our moral beliefs, which is a wide open question. If there are enough autonomous beliefs in the mix, and we can identify them, then the rest of the argument will not go through (FitzPatrick 2008a,b).[10]
The debunking argument would be strengthened if we had good reason to be skeptical about autonomous moral reflection. In this vein, Street claims that whatever moral reflection and reasoning we engage in is limited merely to assessing “thoroughly contaminated” evaluative beliefs using “tools of rational reflection [that are] equally contaminated” (Street 2006: 124). The problem, however, is that this claim is based upon the very premise in question: the tools of reflection are allegedly thoroughly contaminated because of the “tremendous” evolutionary influence on the content of “our” moral judgments across the board; yet our question is why we should believe the latter in the first place. Until we are given independent reason to discount the power of moral reflection so radically, treating it as nothing more than using some rotten apples to judge other rotten apples, we seem to have little reason to dismiss the possibility of autonomous moral reflection, and therefore little reason to accept the initial claim of pervasive “saturation” of our moral beliefs with evolutionary influence.
In general, the worry about Joyce’s debunking argument is similar to the worry about Street’s: unless we start out already assuming (against the realist) that there are no knowable moral truths, it is hard to see why we should accept Joyce’s premise that we possess a complete non-moral geneaology of moral judgment, and hence that it is explanatorily superfluous to posit moral truths. Whether or not the non-moral geneaology is complete is precisely what is in question in ongoing metaethical debates: realists, who posit knowable moral truths, can reasonably hold that the correct explanation for at least many of our moral beliefs does appeal to moral truths or facts that we have grasped, while anti-realists, who deny the existence of such truths, claim that the correct explanation for all of our moral beliefs involves no such appeal. The issue remains controversial. So unless one has independently settled that issue against realism, one is unlikely to accept the premise that there is a complete non-moral genealogy of our moral beliefs: there may well be a partial non-moral genealogy, for the sorts of reasons Joyce gives, but it will be complete only if none of our moral beliefs are the result of our having grasped moral truths; and this negative claim will be very unlikely if there are in fact knowable moral truths (since we would plausibly have grasped some of them, and they would thus figure into the explanation of some of our moral beliefs). We should therefore feel compelled to grant Joyce’s premise that there is such a complete non-moral genealogy only if we have already given up on the idea of knowable moral truths. But that makes it hard to see how the argument as a whole can be used to persuade anyone who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.”
Realizing then that this was another dead end, Bernard switched back to this:
“How does the realist propose we first grasp these facts? Not through reason, as they would in turn require prior moral facts. And there is no other process we know of, consistent with evolution.”
Again, Bernard has already agreed that both the realist and non-realist positions are “consistent” with evolution, so I’m not sure why that is brought up again.  And the part about prior moral facts was just addressed in the SEP quotes above.  What about assuming, prior, that there are no moral facts?  It is a self-defeating argument.  But, putting that aside, he now goes back to the “how can we first grasp these [moral] facts.”
Again, the answer to that question is autonomous moral reflection.  So this is basically all Bernard has left—we come down to it here.  His main criticism is that our brains/minds/consciousness cannot grasp or recognize moral truths, even if they existed.
And here is where we basically left off in the comment section and thus we have Bernard’s response up on his own blog, to which I will now turn.  But first, I see nothing in Bernard’s response where he shows a formal error of logic or even an informal one.  This also was supposedly one of his remaining critiques after letting go of the “clash with science” charge.  I’m going to assume then, that he has let the “logic” critique go as well.  Here now is his first critique:
“And that is an explicit claim that the appeal to autonomous moral reasoning does not work, if its intention is to show it to be a reliable generator of morally true statements. In other words, the analogy with scientific or mathematical reasoning is a false one.”
First of all, the fact we are capable of autonomous moral reflection and reasoning is only meant to show we are capable of recognizing moral truth in general, it does not mean all our statements or reflections are entirely accurate or complete.  However, it may mean we can generate true statements such as, “Torturing children is wrong and evil” and consider them reliable and accurate.
Second, Bernard conspicuously leaves out a very important part of the SEP entry regarding the analogy with scientific and mathematical reasoning.  Here are the pertinent sections:
“On the face of it, the mere fact that natural selection would not have ‘designed’ our moral faculties to track moral truths accurately (as it plausibly designed our perceptual faculties to track facts about medium sized objects in typical human environments) is not obviously problematic. There are, after all, lots of cases where we seem to be able to grasp genuine truths even though those truths play no role in the story of how our basic mental capacities evolved. We are able to grasp truths of quantum field theory or higher dimensional topology or, for that matter, philosophy (or so we are assuming in even engaging in this debate) even though those truths had nothing to do with why the basic mental capacities underlying these abilities evolved in Pleistocene hominins. Those capacities evolved in response to selection pressures in ancestral hunter-gatherer environments, and we have simply learned how to develop, train and exercise them in cultural contexts to discover truths that go far beyond any that were relevant to the evolution of those underlying capacities. Philosophers who endorse some form of moral realism have typically believed that we’ve done the same thing in grasping moral truths (see sections 2.4–2.5).
This assumption [that we have the capability of moral autonomous reflection/reasoning] seems hard to deny in the face of such abstract pursuits as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, modal metaphysics, or twelve-tone musical composition, all of which seem transparently to involve precisely such autonomous applications of human intelligence.” 
Notice he left out philosophy and these other areas.  I still believe that the same works for math, quantum physics, and all these areas of knowledge noted above at the theoretical level.  The key point is that clearly we are able to grasp truths that have no pragmatic or survival value and there is no reason to bracket one area (moral truths) as the one area we could not grasp abstract knowledge and be able to theorize and even come to the conclusion they exist.  But let’s put aside math—if that is the sticking point.  In philosophy and all these other areas of knowledge, we see that humans are eminently capable of reflecting, reasoning, building concepts, and recognizing whatever abstract truths pertinent to those areas of knowledge.  To bracket this one area (moral truths) is simply to reveal a huge bias, one we cannot hold on to logically and still think we can reason in these other areas.  This seems obvious to me.  This is so clearly an ideological objection to one area; the objection has nothing to do with a scientific or logical error.
So what are we left with here?  Bernard hasn’t shown a clash with science or evolutionary theory.  He hasn’t shown a formal or informal logical error on my part or the SEP’s part.  At best, he simply shows us that he disagrees with the SEP entry.  Fine.  We knew that.  Moving on.
Something else that is very telling is that Bernard, out of the entire SEP entry, only addresses one quote.  I challenge anyone to read the entire entry and not agree that the general thrust of the whole goes completely against Bernard’s line of thought as he has presented it here on this blog and in his response.  One can well see why the rest was not addressed.  One can also see that the entire entry addresses every question and critique Bernard has mustered, other than the physics question (which isn’t relevant). Clearly Bernard disagrees with the writer, but one can certainly see that Bernard has not brought up anything that is not covered in the whole entry.  There is no novel or new critique here.  People much smarter than both of us have covered these issues and addressed them—we are simply conversing under that umbrella.  I think it rather presumptive to think we are breaking new ground here or that one is proposing something not addressed in the entry.
And here is how the SEP entry ends:
“Thus, although the evolutionary story fits naturally with a merely non-cognitivist metaethical view, it may fit equally well with a cognitivist view. If one rejects the existence of moral truths, the latter would then lead to an error theory (Mackie 1977). But as discussed in section 4.1, it is far from clear how much support evolutionary biology itself lends to moral anti-realism or irrealism [Bernard’s position]. It is consistent with plausible evolutionary stories that although our capacities for normative guidance originally evolved for reasons that had nothing to do with moral truths as such, we now regularly employ them to deliberate about and to communicate moral truths. So all three metaethical views discussed here—expressivism, error theory and moral realism [my position]—remain on the table.”
Now this is from an up-dated, academic, peer reviewed source from one of the most respected universities in the world.  This entry was peer reviewed by biologists and philosophers of science who are considered experts in these areas.
I will take their side over Bernard’s.  How ironic that this all came about through a claim my views clashed with science.  Here we see I was the only one able (or willing) to use neutral academic sources (of scholars in the fields of science and biology) for my arguments.  Bernard used none.  One would think someone appealing to an authority as big as “science” would have used such sources to make his point.  A professor would have said, “Show your work—we’re not interested in your opinion.  Where are your sources?”
This is what happens when we conflate philosophical naturalism/materialism/empiricism with science.  While Bernard’s views in these areas do not clash with science (a silly claim to make toward either side), he is certainly outside the mainstream view here.  And that is fine.  Maybe he is right and the mainstream is wrong—it happens all the time.

In the meantime, I will side with the consensus view. 
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108 Responses to Human Morality

  1. Hi Darrell

    There is confusion here over the way we're using the word causation.

    We can certainly have causation running at many levels. So, if I am watching my television and see an explosion depicted onscreen, I might answer the question: 'why did the explosion occur' with reference to the director's motives, the character's motives, or indeed the physical behaviour of the pixels. All are valid uses of cause.

    In this sense, there is mental causality of the physical.

    What physics appears to rule out is mental causation of the physical, such that the physical re-arranges itself in a manner that is inconsistent (by its equations) with the previous physical state. In other words, the brain can only take state B if this is consistent with the prior state, A.

    I have argued that we know of no reliable method by which our moral conclusions could match objective truths that does not violate this type of physical rule.

    That we can reason our way towards opposite moral conclusions show clearly that the determining factor for match between moral conclusion and reality is the match with the starting assumptions. In other words, our moral intuition must be attuned to truth if our reasoning is to take us there (because reasoning can in fact take us in any direction, morally speaking).

    Now, if our intuitions have evolved, both biologically and culturally, then the match is with pragmatic need, rather than any overarching reality. If, however, our intuitions are nudged by our experience of the moral universe, then the physical law appears to be contravened. This is true even if we hold to pan-psychism, as it holds that each of the physical states will be consistent with prior physical states (which is why I say it doesn't clash with physics).

    Bernard

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  2. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    Well, as you can see, it appears you still end up with some deep problems as to mental causation and physics.

    “What physics appears to rule out is mental causation of the physical, such that the physical re-arranges itself in a manner that is inconsistent (by its equations) with the previous physical state. In other words, the brain can only take state B if this is consistent with the prior state, A.”

    But there is nothing I’ve proposed, or noted in the SEP entry, or anywhere in the literature I can find that suggests anything like what you note. Who is suggesting anything breaking the chain? The Panpschism view clearly does not break any physical chain.

    “I have argued that we know of no reliable method by which our moral conclusions could match objective truths that does not violate this type of physical rule.”

    Right, this is what I don’t understand. It would be great to really unpack that notion for us since it must be novel to you. Because clearly you believe our conclusions can match subjective truth claims without violating any physical rules. How? I've never read or heard of anyone making this move other than reductive materialists who believe consciousness to be an illusion. Is that where you are going with that?

    “Now, if our intuitions have evolved, both biologically and culturally, then the match is with pragmatic need, rather than any overarching reality.”

    But see this seems to contradict what you write here:

    “Yes, if we argue that evolutionary forces determine our moral judgements, we go too far. No doubt about that. The human mind is flexible: responsive to cultural norms, can set both immediate and long term goals, and is capable of reason. All of these evolved capacities give us access to a moral code that is more than a simple reaction to immediate survival needs. In the same way we have developed art, literature and mathematics.” –Bernard

    And as noted over and over in the SEP entry, we clearly have access to non-pragmatic knowledge. So how does our having access to that type of knowledge violate the laws of physics?

    Of course the problem now, is that this comment section is going to run into another 100 comments as you attempt to explain all this. It would be really nice to take my questions and comments and post something that really breaks it down and addresses these real, and rather large, problems.

    Can you do that? I’m not going to let it go on here any further. Thanks. Of course if you wish not to, I understand completely.

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  3. Darrell

    I understand you don't want to continue this conversation, and that's fine. It may well be that this makes more sense to you upon reflection, who knows.

    The key is to consider how it is different people can reach different conclusions despite using the same method of reasoning, and when we agreed on this we'd made significant progress.

    If this is the case, then it must be because their intuitions are pulling them in different directions. If some of these people can reliably sense objective truths, then we're conclude that in some way their intuitions read true.

    How might this come about? Not by evolution, which reads pragmatically true, nor by reason, which faces the constraint we've agreed upon. Any other method, as best I can tell, will violate the rules of physics as outlined.

    Even if you tried to think through what the mechanism that allows reason to sometimes read true is, you'd be closer to seeing the nature of the problem your belief embraces. But I'll leave that to you.

    Best.

    Bernard

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  4. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    “If this is the case, then it must be because their intuitions are pulling them in different directions. If some of these people can reliably sense objective truths, then we're conclude that in some way their intuitions read true.”

    This is something we never talked about or agreed to. None of what we talked about had anything to do with “intuitions” or with “sensing” anything but with reasoning (just as we do with philosophy and other such areas of abstract non-pragmatic knowledge) and our being able to access non-pragmatic knowledge, which you agreed we could do. The word “intuition” I don’t believe ever came up. We talked about reflection and reasoning, never “sensing” so I have no idea where that is coming from.

    Here is the problem as I see it: You agreed we are capable of accessing and recognizing non-pragmatic knowledge, as your quote notes. You agreed we are indeed autonomous morally reflective reasoning persons, which means, inherently, our conscious minds are able to move us to act or reflect morally and otherwise.

    You agreed to all of this but simply said, at the end, “well, yes, but” these are just subjective moral preferences or choices. I think you agreed, or at least could see, that such just begs the question—that is the disputed issue. As you note here:

    “You and I can certainly agree that we can reason our way towards moral truths if we do not mean that these truths are objective.”

    See how that just begs the question? My point though, is how are we not violating the laws of physics in this case too, where you agree we can reason our way to moral truths?

    So herein lies the rub: How are we not violating the law of physics if our conscious minds, reasoning, bring us to the conclusion moral truths are subjective cultural choices…but we are violating the laws of physics if our conscious minds, reasoning, come to the conclusion moral truths are universal and objective?

    Now, if you could just take the above and respond in a post on your own blog that would be great. If not, I get it.

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  5. Hi Darrell

    One of the reasons I've urged you to consider how exactly two different people could reason their way to opposing moral stances, is that if you do this you will see that differing intuitions must come into play. And at that point, my argument falls into place. So I do continue to urge you to meditate on this particular point.

    The answer to your main question:
    “My point though, is how are we not violating the laws of physics in this case too, where you agree we can reason our way to moral truths?” will flow directly from this understanding.

    If reliable moral knowledge relies upon true assumptions, then the belief that we attain such knowledge requires that we assume our intuitions read true. And attempting to show how this will happen will run foul of physics (or, for some solutions, evolution).

    If we do not assume our reasoning leads to objective truths, then we need not assume our intuitions read true. Hence there is no need to provide a mechanism by which they could read true, and the clash with science doesn't arise.

    Now, you have certainly agreed that different people will reason their way to different, and potentially contradictory, moral truths. If each's reasoning is sound, what, other than the moral intuitions employed, could explain this divergence?

    I sincerely believe that if you attempt to answer this question, you'll see what is going on.

    Bernard

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  6. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    “If reliable moral knowledge relies upon true assumptions, then the belief that we attain such knowledge requires that we assume our intuitions read true. And attempting to show how this will happen will run foul of physics (or, for some solutions, evolution).”

    Then perhaps you could explain how this statement: “You and I can certainly agree that we can reason our way towards moral truths if we do not mean that these truths are objective.”-Bernard

    -if this statement, in and of itself, is “reliable” and relies upon true assumptions including that your intuitions “read” true, does not then violate the laws of physics, but coming to the opposite conclusion does. So, if I write, “You and I can certainly agree that we can reason our way towards moral truths if we do not mean that these truths are simply subjective,” where are the laws of physics now being violated?

    “One of the reasons I've urged you to consider how exactly two different people could reason their way to opposing moral stances, is that if you do this you will see that differing intuitions must come into play. And at that point, my argument falls into place. So I do continue to urge you to meditate on this particular point.”

    You’ve never said anything about differing “intuitions” but have constantly referred to differing beginning assumptions (which I agree is true, but speaks to each side’s arguments), so again, this is something you've come up with now completely unrelated to our prior discussion (if anyone doubts this, simply search–the word “intuition” will not appear or if so, negligibly). Further, you've addressed none of the clear inconsistencies and contradictions regarding your prior quotes (agreeing we can reason our way to non-pragmatic truths and moral truths) and this issue of violating the laws of physics. How is it a violation when people conclude morality is objective but not when they conclude its subjective? Does starting with the wrong assumptions violate the laws of physics? Where in the conscious mind is the violation of physical laws happening if we conclude morality is objective, but the violation does not occur if we conclude they are subjective? You haven’t come close to addressing this huge problem (a post or several would be needed).

    Now, here is the deal: Your response needs to be one of two types, either: “Darrell, I will take all these issues up and respond with my own blog post…” or, “Darrell, I think I've explain this well enough and will leave it here.”

    In other words, please do not just keep throwing out responses here in a comment section so that we see another 500 comments here. This is my blog and I expect you to abide by my rules. Unless you care to respond with your own blog post, please do not respond to the above here unless the response is in line with the above examples I gave. Thank you—I appreciate the courtesy.

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  7. Hi Darrell

    Your conversation, your call. I'm sorry I wasn't able to make the argument sufficiently clear for you. I tried.

    Best

    Bernard

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  8. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    Well, if you change your mind, you could certainly try in a post of your own, where there is plenty of space to show that sufficiency. I would really be interested in how you address the issues raised here and hope you take up the challenge.

    I’m just asking you not to do it here in a comment section. As always however, I appreciate the conversation.

    I still see some progress being made here.

    All the best-

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