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November 25, 2006 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Youtubes of Dawkins lecturing from Lynchburg, VA, reading excerpts from 'The God Delusion' in Pt.1 & an entertaining Q&A session in Pt.2; in related news, Sam Harris elucidates the dangers of religious moderation...
posted by Rufus T. Firefly (250 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I watched this last night. It was really awesome to see Dawkins taking questions from people at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. He really seemed less arogant than usual. Maybe it was the setting that caused him to turn on the charm, but there is no doubt that the kids from Liberty found him to be much funnier and more interesting than they were expecting.
posted by aburd at 1:16 PM on November 25, 2006


I found it funny/sad/telling that the one Liberty student cant seem to distinguish 'faith' from 'reasonable expectation to follow reproducible cause and effect'.

Faith = belief without proof, plain and simple.
posted by MrLint at 1:27 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing.
posted by kbanas at 1:34 PM on November 25, 2006


I haven't watched this yet, although I will, but one thing that struck me in an earlier Ted Haggard interview was where Dawkins said first that science does change, and then in the very next breath said that the earth was four billion years old, as a fact, without realizing the two statements are somewhat contradictory. Haggard's point was that if science changed, then perhaps it could change to be more in-line with the bible.

I don't think dawkins is wrong, but I think he failed to communicate properly. To me the idea isn't "the earth is certain to be six billion years old" but rather "The probability that the earth is six billion years is so close to one as to be indistinguishable from one"

But whatever, now on to watch the vids before this thread is deleted...
posted by delmoi at 1:53 PM on November 25, 2006


To me the [is that] "The probability that the earth is six billion years is so close to one as to be indistinguishable from one"

Then I would call that it fact. It's a matter of semantics, and you're right, Dawkins should have clarified HIS semantics, but I think a reasonable definition of the word "fact" is anything that highly highly likely to be true. (The chance that it's not true is a fraction of a percent.)

I know some people would say, "No, a fact is something that IS true." And that's fine. Again, it's a question of semantics. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, a word can mean whatever we choose it to mean.

I would argue that my definition is a useful one. We need a word for those theories that have been tested to the Nth degree and have so much evidence in their favor that it's not worth spending much time considering the alternative.

Surely this is the way we use "fact" in casual conversation. I'd say that it's a fact that their's a toilet in my bathroom, but I'm not in there right now, so there's an infinitesimal chance that I might be wrong (maybe robbers stole it).

If we give up the word "fact" for stuff like that, what DO we use the word fact for? Well, I can think of one other use for it. We can safely use it in symbolic systems, like math and fiction: it's a fact that 3+1=4. And it's a fact that the fictional King Lear has three fictional daughters. But do we really want to relegate "fact" to that domain?

This is a philosophical can of worms, but I'd argue that we can never KNOW anything -- other than those sorts of symbolic facts -- to 100% degree. I am an atheist because it's a FACT that God doesn't exist. By which I mean that I'm 99.999999999% sure that He doesn't exist. If you're going to say, "Ha! You're not 100% sure that He doesn't exist, so you're NOT an atheist, you're an agnostic!" that's fine, but I'd prefer not to use language that way. I think it's unfair to the real agnostics, the people who seriously question whether or not God exists. I don't question it.
posted by grumblebee at 2:24 PM on November 25, 2006 [3 favorites]


Give it a fuckin' rest, anit-God boys, will ya ?
posted by y2karl at 2:34 PM on November 25, 2006


Oh karl, you're so hot when you're angry.
posted by kbanas at 2:36 PM on November 25, 2006


anti-God boys, that is...
posted by y2karl at 2:36 PM on November 25, 2006


If I offended anyone, I'm sincerely sorry. I'm jealous of theists and dearly wish I was one. And I'd never want to offend a believer. I was really just interested in discussing delmoi's post about scientific "facts."
posted by grumblebee at 2:39 PM on November 25, 2006


This is the ultimate in making yourself right by making the other person wrong arguments. You are right because they are wrong. OK, we get it. OK, you win. You are smarter and better than anyone else. But please, give it a rest. Pin a medal on your chests. Go out and take a victory lap already.
posted by y2karl at 2:43 PM on November 25, 2006


Don't apologize grumblebee, your comment is quality work.
posted by quin at 2:45 PM on November 25, 2006


y2karl, can you be more specific about who you mean by "you"?
posted by grumblebee at 2:46 PM on November 25, 2006


He does get a little pissy around 45:00-50:00 after that "Biology student from liberty university" asks some dumb questions, followed by a girl from LU who asks "What if you're wrong?"
posted by delmoi at 2:49 PM on November 25, 2006


Go out and take a victory lap already.

What do you think we're doing right now?
posted by delmoi at 2:50 PM on November 25, 2006


Part 2 was excellent. Thanks.
posted by gsteff at 2:50 PM on November 25, 2006


You are smarter and better than anyone else.

Any atheist or theist who thinks his stance on God makes him smarter than "the other side" is a fool. Throughout history, there have been brilliant believers and non-believers. Edmond O. Wilson is a really smart atheist. Martin Gardner is a really smart theist.

And someone who tries to show his opponent as stupid by mocking his belief/non-belief in God is trivializing a deeply important, fascinating question by turning it into a boring pissing match.
posted by grumblebee at 3:00 PM on November 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


I am not buying it. The reason people hate AtheistFilter is because so much of it is tilting against a windmill of one's own device--God equals magic guy in the sky. Hey, that's your Straw Man, buddies. Not mine. So much of this crap is putting oneself above the benighted and deluded. And people pick up on that instantly. And hate it.

Me, I am certain about nothing. Intellectually, that is. But I have touched by tongues of fire in my own time and, in'shallah, may be again sometime before I die. There is room in my life for a concept of the divine.
posted by y2karl at 3:05 PM on November 25, 2006


Welcome to MetaDawkinsFilter
posted by The Deej at 3:06 PM on November 25, 2006


y2karl, are you talking about this thread or past ones? I don't see anyone here tilting at windmills. There's been almost no argument at all here.

I see...

-- someone saying Dawkins seemed less arrogant and more witty than usual.

-- someone complaining about that a student didn't understand the meaning of the word "faith."

-- someone saying they enjoyed it.

-- me and delmoi discussing the nature of "facts."

What/who are you talking about? It's unfair to classify this discussion via former discussions.
posted by grumblebee at 3:10 PM on November 25, 2006


gee karl, you sound like your feelings have been hurt.
posted by MrLint at 3:15 PM on November 25, 2006


Then I would call that it fact. It's a matter of semantics, and you're right, Dawkins should have clarified HIS semantics, but I think a reasonable definition of the word "fact" is anything that highly highly likely to be true. (The chance that it's not true is a fraction of a percent.)

Right, I agree :)

I am not buying it. The reason people hate AtheistFilter is because so much of it is tilting against a windmill of one's own device--God equals magic guy in the sky. Hey, that's your Straw Man, buddies. Not mine. So much of this crap is putting oneself above the benighted and deluded. And people pick up on that instantly. And hate it.

Y2karl I personally feel like I'm pretty familiar with the breadth of religious thought in the world and in these threads. Some theists have nuanced views, on god, and some do not. Some atheists have nuanced views on god and some do not. Personally I find the 'intolerant' that can't understand those nuanced views very irritating, and I've argued with them.

But the whole idea that we shouldn't argue about religion is, I think, rather dumb. Or at least boring. This might be hard for you to understand, but some people actually enjoy talking about things, and having the opportunity to learn more about how other people think.

Also, you're presenting a straw-man of atheism as much as you accuse atheists of presenting a straw man of god.
posted by delmoi at 3:19 PM on November 25, 2006


Sorry about the outburst. I am in a bad mood. You may now continue with your valuable, nuanced and worthwhile discussion.
posted by y2karl at 3:29 PM on November 25, 2006


Dawkins mentioned that the two closeted groups left in American are gays and atheists. Obviously, that depends on where you are and who you're hanging around with -- there are plenty of communities where other sorts of people feel they must keep a low profile.

But I think there's a grain of truth in what he was saying. Though some people dislike it, it's not that odd for a African American or a woman to be in congress. But it's very hard for a politician to admit to being gay or a non-believer. (I would broaden the gay category to include all people who practice "deviant" sex practices: I doubt a polygamist could be elected to congress, either.)

I suspect this will change. Gays are way more accepted now than they were just a few years ago, and I bet the same thing will happen with atheists (though it will take both groups decades to have full, main-stream acceptance).

My question is: what will happen when they do? What will happen when there are no taboos left and people can openly live their lives any way they want. (I know that there will always be SOME taboos, so don't take me too literally. I'm pretty sure that if someone openly confesses to serial killing or child molestation, they won't be elected to congress, even if it's the year 3050. But those people are a tiny, extreme minority. I'm interested in what will happen when the major, every-day taboos cease to exist.)

Jacques Barzun has a fascinating book called "From Dawn To Decadence", about how personal liberty has been ever expanding, starting with Martin Luther (not Martin Luther King). He believes there's only so far such a trend can go before society collapses. As a liberal guy, I like to think that more liberties are always a good thing. But we're veering towards uncharted territory. It will be fascinating to see how thing turn out.
posted by grumblebee at 3:32 PM on November 25, 2006


No worries, y2karl. We all get in bad moods. I hope that this discussion remains nuanced and worthwhile!
posted by grumblebee at 3:34 PM on November 25, 2006


regarding 'facts', I find Gould's definition:

"a proposition which would perverse to deny conditional assent to"

to be useful.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:03 PM on November 25, 2006


It will be fascinating to see how thing turn out.

part of the hardcore neo-con body of thought is the necessity of religiousity to keep the masses from going batsh- off the rails.

There's something to be said for the normalcy in (quasi/pseudo-judeochristian) morality (10 commandment stuff) we are bound by today.

As a social libertarian I would like to see what such a society would look like, but I'm not entirely sure I'd want to live in it, given that's there's little that The Man hassles me about now (no, seatbelt laws do not bother me).
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:07 PM on November 25, 2006


I'm having trouble parsing that definition, because it's worded in such an odd way.

Does it mean the same thing as...

"a proposition to which one grants conditional assent"

or

"something with which you conditionally agree"

?

Under what condition would you disagree?
posted by grumblebee at 4:10 PM on November 25, 2006


part of the hardcore neo-con body of thought is the necessity of religiousity to keep the masses from going batsh- off the rails.

Yeah. And I'm against legislating against someone's lifestyle choices (unless they pose a clear and present danger), but I always feel uncomfortable when a conservative says, "if we allow gay marriage, what's next? Polygamy? People marrying animals?"

In line with my politics, I do think polygamy (or whatever consenting adults want to do) should be legalized, but I still feel uneasy (which isn't necessarily a negative feeling). What will society be like in 100 years? Will we get on fine without taboos? Do taboos serve some kind of purpose? Will we invent new ones when we no longer have the old ones?
posted by grumblebee at 4:17 PM on November 25, 2006


Jacques Barzun has a fascinating book called "From Dawn To Decadence", about how personal liberty has been ever expanding, starting with Martin Luther (not Martin Luther King)

That's a ridiculous argument. There have certainly been times and cultures before the "dark" ages with more personal liberty then today, (such as ancient Rome, or really any primitive society with unlimited natural freedom) and societies with greater lockdown then the dark ages in the 20th and 21st centuries (North Korea, and so on)
posted by delmoi at 4:29 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I wish Dawkins had thought more deeply about the "what if you're wrong?" question. He turned the question around and asked the theist, "what if YOU'RE wrong?" I understand his reasons for doing this: the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim. I agree with that. But I still think it's an interesting question.

I had a big epiphany a few years ago when I asked myself that same question: what if I'm wrong? What if someone proved to me -- conclusively -- that God exists. To my shock, I realized that I wouldn't care!

I mean, I'd be fascinated -- in the same way I'd be fascinated to learn that there was life on Mars. But aside from fascination, I doubt I'd be deeply touched or changed. Of course, I can't really know how I'd react, but I'm pretty good at posing fictional questions for myself and reacting as-if they were real. If I start to think of my wife dying -- even for a second -- I get very upset. (She's fine.) But imagining a real God does nothing for me.

I think THIS -- this disconnect with the feeling of God, even as a fiction -- is what makes me a real atheist. Sure, I can spout all sorts of logical reasons why I don't believe in God
(and I think they are solid logical reasons), but they matter less than the fact that I don't FEEL God.

Theists bent on converting people never tackle this problem. Like atheists, they barrage me with reasoning, but they don't tackle the real problem -- my lack of feeling. I don't blame them. Getting me to feel God would be like getting a homosexual man to become attracted to women. But it's a real problem. What's the point of converting me if I wind up saying, "Okay, there's a God. Now what?"

A good thought experiment -- for atheists -- is to ask whether there are any fictional characters that you care about? (For instance, I care deeply about King Lear.) Then ask yourself if you do or can conceive of feeling that way about God.

I would have loved to have heard Dawkins address that.

Not only do I not feel God -- I never have. I sometimes think I'm lacking something fundamental. I would pay good money to have the God feeling -- just to experience it. I once posted a question on AskMe about it -- about what it felt like to experience God. Matt deleted it (chatfilter). Too bad. It was -- to me -- the most important question I ever asked.
posted by grumblebee at 4:31 PM on November 25, 2006 [4 favorites]


That's a ridiculous argument.

I didn't agree with everything in the book, but I urge you to take a look at it. (It's been a few years since I read it, so I can't fairly defend it or denounce it.)

As I recall, he's only writing about Western culture, so Korea doesn't count. Also, he'd likely agree with you about ancient Rome. He feels that these things are cyclical.

I do agree with him that Luther's rebellion against the Church was a pivotal event in history that is still affecting us.
posted by grumblebee at 4:35 PM on November 25, 2006


Reptiles of the Mind -- Giving Thanks for Rational Atheists
posted by homunculus at 4:42 PM on November 25, 2006


But the whole idea that we shouldn't argue about religion is, I think, rather dumb.

I have to agree with this. Or to put it differently, really engaging other people in conversations about beliefs and the various reasons behind them is better than some alternatives.

The thing that bothers me about Dawkins and Harris is that sometimes *they* seem to be saying that we shouldn't even be arguing about it anymore. The time is past, the conclusions should be made, and anybody on the wrong side is just clinging to delusions. Whether or not you believe that's true, the next step I find really problematic runs along the lines of "so we've got to fight them, not by engaging religious people on important questions, but by marginalizing religion in general." Dangerous stuff, that.

I understand that this doesn't characterize atheists in general, and there's some fabulous discussion in this thread to underscore that point. Nor is it all Dawkins has to offer -- but it's one reason why he gets some people's dander up (and appeals to others).
posted by weston at 4:46 PM on November 25, 2006


There's something to be said for the normalcy in (quasi/pseudo-judeochristian) morality (10 commandment stuff) we are bound by today.

Speak for yourself. I'm personally not bound by any ancient beardo claptrap to not covert my neighbors ass. Evolutionary morality is good enough for me.
posted by budgie at 4:51 PM on November 25, 2006


I agree with you weston (and I agree with the article linked to by homunculus). I am greatly saddened by the endless fighting between theists and atheists, because I think the actual subject at hand is extremely interesting and extremely important. But it's rarely discussed. Rather, God becomes the football in a boring, angry game. Culture loses in the end by missing what could be a really meaningful exchange of ideas.

Whether or not God exists, religion -- the human ways of expressing their relationship to God/gods -- is one of the most staggeringly beautiful (and, at times, staggeringly ugly) creations of the human animal. Atheists who toss it in the trash might as well be burning the sheet music to all of Beethoven's symphonies.

Science, Darwinism, Skepticism and the other cornerstones of rational atheism are also beautiful. I pity the theist who can't enjoy them (especially Darwinian natural selection), at least as lovely fictions.

A stupid, mindless pissing war keeps people from experiencing beauty. That's never good.
posted by grumblebee at 4:55 PM on November 25, 2006


Yes, budgie, but what if you did convert your neighbor -- and all your neighbors and your neighbors' neighbors? What then?
posted by grumblebee at 4:56 PM on November 25, 2006


the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim

What defines extraordinary?

For example, further up in this thread you write:

If we give up the word "fact" for stuff like that, what DO we use the word fact for? Well, I can think of one other use for it. We can safely use it in symbolic systems, like math and fiction: it's a fact that 3+1=4.

This "fact" can depend on the axiomatic meaning of addition, as well as assumptions about commutativity. While you and I might agree that 3+1=4, I might choose to disagree about 1+3, for example, which might have meaning in how we agree on the larger meaning of addition.

A bit of an odd example, perhaps, but what is "extraordinary" is not automatically easy to define, much less agree upon, and is largely determined by what axiomatic beliefs we share and how we agree upon their use.

The problem with the theist-atheist "debate" as such is that communication is not made any easier by a lack of shared values and means for reasoning. When you have both sides asking, "What if you're wrong?", and when the meaning of "wrong" is usually different for either party, the breakdown in communication makes these kinds of discussions unproductive.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:58 PM on November 25, 2006


a conservative says, "if we allow gay marriage, what's next? Polygamy? People marrying animals?"

--
Someone let me know when animals can legally consent.
posted by MrLint at 5:12 PM on November 25, 2006


Not only do I not feel God -- I never have. I sometimes think I'm lacking something fundamental. I would pay good money to have the God feeling -- just to experience it.

You don't have to pay for it - I got one go at knowing God exists and loves me for free on the NHS, after surgery under general anaesthetic, when I was recovering from a period in intensive care and had one of those morphine drip devices where you get to administer the dose when you need it by pressing a button. I know that sounds like a joke, but it was a truly profound experience, and one which made me understand how people who have access that feeling in everyday life can believe in God. (I'm not convinced that most religious people actually have that feeling, mind you, and it does make me wonder whether religious belief is a matter of brain chemistry.)
posted by jack_mo at 5:24 PM on November 25, 2006


Someone let me know when animals can legally consent.

Um... why? What are you planning? ;^)
posted by XMLicious at 5:42 PM on November 25, 2006


as a devout Christian, i gotta say i really enjoyed these vids. one reason i like Metafilter is because of its generally intelligent discussions, and this guy is certainly smart.

plus that fucking british accent is a killer.

with that said, the easiest thing in the world is disproving something based in faith is wacky.

also i disagreed with his statement that humans are capable of being good simply because we're afraid that God will punish us. thats precisely why i'm good.
posted by tsarfan at 5:45 PM on November 25, 2006


Someone let me know when animals can legally consent.

Meh. Legal consent is simply a matter of legislation or judicial fiat. Furthermore, the idea that a person - any person - can talk about "legal consent" or "informed consent" or anything like that having any bearing on what is morally wrong or right is just as preposterous as Dawkins says religion is.

If believing in Dawkins' strawman God is preposterous (and it is, I'll grant you), then so is believing in discernable overriding moral principles that would allow a person or society to accurately determine what is "right" or "wrong" in any sense of the words.

Why should "consent" matter? Will some Coaseian economic argument be advanced to support that one, I wonder?
posted by JekPorkins at 5:45 PM on November 25, 2006


I saw this when it was aired on Cspan, and really enjoyed it. For a little home-town info, Randolph Macon Women's College (not to be confused with Randolph Macon college) is close to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. I get the impression that the Liberty kidz like to come over any time RMWC gets a controversial speaker and try to hijack the proceedings.

I kind of think Dawkins is a jagoff, in no small part due to the fact that lots of smart people on mefi are tired of his act (or at least, tired of our discussions of his act). But after watching the show, and being really impressed with how Dawkins handled himself, I think what really brought things home for me is the moment towards the end where a RMWC biology professor asks Dawkins what he thinks about the fact that over at Liberty, in the atrium of their bio department, are some dinosaur bones conspicuously labelled as being "3,000 Years Old." Dawkins has built a career writing some excellent laymen's work about evolutionary biology, and biology and science in general, and now he's approaching the end of it, he has every right to make a final case for the reason, progress, and intelligence that science has generally offered us since the Enlightenment. If he sounds "shrill" to you, just imagine if you built a career up only to see a wave of mongoloids come around and attack you and your work not on the grounds of its logic or coherence, but simply because sky-daddy said so.

I used to think we could all get along. But watching those morons from Liberty get up and rehash talking points they'd been indoctrinated to fire at Dawkins by their professors, by the people who should be teaching them to think for themselves? Frankly, I don't have much of a desire to get along with these people. I hope in my lifetime they'll be shunned and ignored as they should be.

And his bit on the atrocity of labeling a child "Christian" or "Muslim" was spot-on. What a disgusting thing to do to a child.
posted by bardic at 5:48 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Someone let me know when animals can legally consent.

Um... why? What are you planning? ;^)


Woman Marries Dolphin
posted by porpoise at 5:58 PM on November 25, 2006


You don't have to pay for it - I ... had one of those morphine drip devices where you get to administer the dose when you need it by pressing a button

Alas, drugs don't affect everyone the same way. I'm too scared to get into the heavy stuff, but my experience with light, recreational drug/alcohol use doesn't make me hopeful of having a God experience via drugs. Drugs have made me sleepy, giggly and groggy -- but I've never had a profound experience while being on drugs. Maybe it's because the drugs I've used are too weak. Or maybe it's because drugs don't affect some people as-much-as others. I have friends who really change when they get drunk. I don't.

I remember reading that Dawkins took part in an experiment in which they stimulated some part of his brain that has lead other people -- when that same part was stimulated -- to have a spiritual experience. Dawkins said he didn't feel anything (and that he was disappointed not to). Maybe some of us have a damaged "God module."

The problem with the theist-atheist "debate" as such is that communication is not made any easier by a lack of shared values and means for reasoning.

I agree with this entirely.

What confuses me is why so few people are concerned with finding common ground in these discussions (though not in this specific discussion). I'm continually rebuked when I suggest that we need to define our terms and put our cards on the table. Why is that?

I can think of three possible reasons (all of which may be true):

1) I'm wrong. We all share the same definitions and assumptions. I don't believe this for a second.

2) I'm right, but it's not important for meaningful discussion that we agree about what words mean and at least know what everyone's base assumptions are. I also don't believe this. How can we have a useful discussion if when I say cat, I mean an elephant?

3) People reject defining terms and pinning down assumptions because they don't understand that it's important to do so (if they want to have an conversation that makes sense on a literal, intellectual level).

4) People don't want to use these discussions to connect and learn from each other intellectually. They want to use them to emote at each other. If that's the case, there's no need to pin things down. In fact, pinning things down might be a liability.
posted by grumblebee at 6:10 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I used to think we could all get along.

Conflict probably is inevitable, and effort to build sane and humane ways of managing it at any level (social or personal) is a battle you almost can't win in any permanent sense. A lot of things in life are that way, though, including the sustaining of life itself, and it doesn't mean they aren't worth fighting for.

But watching those morons from Liberty get up and rehash talking points they'd been indoctrinated to fire at Dawkins by their professors, by the people who should be teaching them to think for themselves?

While I think you're right that it's probable their beliefs may be transplanted without having been thoroughly vetted, it's not necessarily the end of the story. They were at least put into a situation where they could engage an opposing point of view, and as life goes on, they'll probably have to do it again. The more civil and convincing those encounters are, the more influence they'll have.

Frankly, I don't have much of a desire to get along with these people. I hope in my lifetime they'll be shunned and ignored as they should be.

And this is what I think is dangerous. I know the frustration that leads to this feeling and it's a very human tendancy which I'm not above, but ultimately, I think it's at the root of the problem of any divided society, and therefore one that needs to be struggled against individually and socially. Embracing it certainly won't fix the problem. :)
posted by weston at 6:20 PM on November 25, 2006


grumblebee, I just wanted to slightly sidetrack this discussion by going back to what you said about a society of no taboos. If we're discussing the possible consequences of a society which doesn't disapprove of homosexual and atheists, there's no need for hypotheticals - Americans can look north to Canada, where homosexuals and atheists hold elected positions in government.

To be sure, there still exist taboos; and it seems unclear if taboos can really ever be eliminated. In Canada we may approve of gays and potheads but meth users and pedophiles certainly keep the tabloids running. But if you're talking about getting rid of unreasonable taboos, and leaving ones on murder and rape, well, I don't think the world will be worse off for it.

Back on topic, you are right in that a great deal of atheist v. theist debate is sidetracked into semantics. Even in senior level university philosophy classes, I am continually astounded by people failing to define their terms and ending up shouting at each other about the most ridiculous things. And it's definitely a result of a lack of analytical ability or knowhow - people lash out at what they percieve as wrong before they make sure they really are perceiving what they think they are.

To use y2karl as an example, he lashed out earlier in the thread because he thought he perceived where the discussion was going before it went there, and fortunately for us, he appears to have been mistaken.

Personally, I find AtheistFilter unique because mefi actually has some thoughtful theists (and atheists) who are interested in articulating ideas rather than arguing over the beliefs we may or may not hold dear. Regardless of whether or not one believes in God, Dawkins has some interesting things to say, and a large part of his religious criticism is focused on organized religion, and not spirituality itself.
posted by mek at 6:29 PM on November 25, 2006


I do agree with him that Luther's rebellion against the Church was a pivotal event in history that is still affecting us.

The western, euro-centric view of history gets old fast. At the time of Luther's defiance there were sprawling, vast empires in the middle east and Asia. In my view, Europe doesn't start to matter until the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, which no-doubt was influenced by Luther, but on the other hand, was also influenced by the renaissance which was centered in ultra-catholic Italy.

But in any event, I find the whole premise rather boring and silly, and am no more interested in knowing more about it then I am in knowing more about Christian theology. The fact that data can be chosen to fit almost metaphor of an authors is not that exciting to me.
posted by delmoi at 6:29 PM on November 25, 2006


But see grumblebee, I suspect Dawkins is mighty exhausted of having to give "equal time" to people who blithely label dinosaur bones as being 3,000 years old. It's like asking an astrophysicist to "be fair and nice" when discussing the cosmos with Mistress Cleo. Indeed, it would be assinine.

Fair, reasoned debate -- I agree. I used to call myself a Christian, and have some persective and knowledge on the matter. However, I don't go around expecting Stephen Hawking to "come down to my level" if I want to discuss the relative merits of my sky-wizard with him, and why it has more explanatory power than the laws of physics. The burden is completely on me, not on him.
posted by bardic at 6:34 PM on November 25, 2006


The western, euro-centric view of history gets old fast.

I take your point, delmoi, but there's a difference between a euro-centric view of history and European History itself. Naturally, you're interested in whatever you're interested in and not interested in whatever you're not interested in, but I don't see how anyone who really studies ANY period of history for ANY part of the world could be bored by it. (Unless they happen to be reading a boring history book.)
posted by grumblebee at 6:42 PM on November 25, 2006


And how come nobody has mentioned Hitler yet? We're way off our game.
posted by bardic at 6:46 PM on November 25, 2006


Alas, drugs don't affect everyone the same way. I'm too scared to get into the heavy stuff, but my experience with light, recreational drug/alcohol use doesn't make me hopeful of having a God experience via drugs. Drugs have made me sleepy, giggly and groggy -- but I've never had a profound experience while being on drugs.

Clearly you haven't tried mushrooms.
posted by delmoi at 6:48 PM on November 25, 2006


But see grumblebee, I suspect Dawkins is mighty exhausted of having to give "equal time" to people who blithely label dinosaur bones as being 3,000 years old.

I fear this pairing (Dawkins vs. "the rabble") is misleading. Whatever you think about Dawkins (I have mixed feelings), he's clearly a smart guy. Most people aren't that smart. If, like me, you're attracted to smart people, it's easy to watch videos like this and get suckered into thinking that atheists are smart and theists are dumb. But the truth is that most people -- atheists and theists -- are dumb (or at least not used to hard, critical thinking). So put Dawkins in front of any average audience and he'll come across as the winner.

I'm not saying they organizers of that event were wrongheaded or trying to stack the deck. Naturally, there's great value in having specialists talk to a general audience.

But I fear that many atheists have never met a smart theist. If that's the case, it's not because theists are stupid. It's because it's hard to meet smart people. Furthermore, there are plenty of smart people who just choose not to apply their critical-thinking skills to spiritual matters. We wrongly think that "being smart" means that you're always smart about everything. Yet most smart people have their blind spots.

I've been privileged to know some really brilliant theists. If you're an atheist without a chip on your shoulder, you really owe it to yourself to seek out smart theists. If you spend the rest of your life talking to fellow atheists (preaching -- or hobnobbing -- with the choir) and berating theists, how on earth will you ever grow or get exposed to new ideas.

Remember, there's much more to theism than believing. For most theists, there's a complex web of ritual, lifestyle, philosophy and storytelling. If, like me, you don't believe in God, then you must think of religion as a human invention. In which case you'll learn volumes about your species by studying it.
posted by grumblebee at 6:51 PM on November 25, 2006


Clearly you haven't tried mushrooms.

Quite right. Does everyone who tries schrooms have a spiritual experience? Trouble is, I'm hallucinated before and even that wasn't profound. It was a bit scary, but I suspected it was a hallucination. I guess I need a drug that will (a) give me hallucinations and (b) cut off my ability to reason about them. (But if I can't reason about them, can I really enjoy them?)
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 PM on November 25, 2006


gumblebee: I am greatly saddened by the endless fighting between theists and atheists, because I think the actual subject at hand is extremely interesting and extremely important.

I am too, but then again. I really think the atheist/theist question is really quite trivial in relationship to other questions such as "what is a good life" and "how do we tell good from bad." In many ways I feel more at home with some religous humanists than I do with some secular humanists such as Christopher Hitchins.

bardic: However, I don't go around expecting Stephen Hawking to "come down to my level" if I want to discuss the relative merits of my sky-wizard with him, and why it has more explanatory power than the laws of physics. The burden is completely on me, not on him.

I think one of the flaws I find with Dawkins though is that he has a habit of using the wrong tools for talking about religion. He keeps trying to shoehorn religion into biological models and rarely looking at theories from social sciences that would make some of his questions a lot less puzzling.

Certainly at some level you can say that human behavior is all particle physics and organic chemistry, but that's not usually a level which permits us to understand social phenomena.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:54 PM on November 25, 2006


theories from social sciences that would make some of his questions a lot less puzzling.

Please elaborate.
posted by grumblebee at 7:02 PM on November 25, 2006


That "Welcome to America" bit about four and a half minutes into Part 2 made me laugh.
posted by dhammond at 7:05 PM on November 25, 2006


Where the heck did this Sam Harris guy come from? Preaching intolerance is a terrible idea, whether it's for or against religion. He's a terrible debater, too, conveniently ignoring the fact that acceptance and criticism can coexist. His arguments are troll-worthy, and in fact, all his lecturing is going to do incite the fanatics and further polarize debate.

Why Oh Why don't we still worship a fertility goddess like the original religions? What's not to like about orgies?
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:11 PM on November 25, 2006


grumblebee: Well, over and over again Dawkins tries to explain "why are people religious" using either biology or biological metaphors. Meanwhile, there are a lot of theories regarding culture and community that go a long way towards explaining that critical question.

But I've brought this up many times before.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:55 PM on November 25, 2006


I guess I was hoping you could site some of those theories or link to sources. I'd be interested in reading/hearing them.

I too would naturally turn to biological explanations, not because I always favor them, but because religion exists in all cultures in all time-periods.
posted by grumblebee at 8:00 PM on November 25, 2006


Of course, as with language, the nuances of a specific religion are culture-based. I can't imagine in-depth study of, say, ancient Greek religion using the tools of the Biology.
posted by grumblebee at 8:01 PM on November 25, 2006


Well, I certainly have some issues with Dawkins too, but again, try to see it from his mocassins -- he's spent his life researching and writing about science and biology, and in his twilight he wants to make damn sure bunk "science" aka Intelligent Design and 3,000 year-old dino bones isn't just laughed at, but more importantly, not even allowed into the discussion.

Phenomenology of belief a la William James? Right on. Anthropological studies of religious practice? Booyah! Historical research into the links between western philosophy and Christianty? Hot damn. These are all valid things to debate and discuss.

My sky-daddy says Darwin is in hell so evolution is wrong? No. Sorry. You aren't allowed into the discussion, period. That's not censorhip, that's simple decency, in the same way that you wouldn't invite the KKK Grand Wizard to a debate at NAACP headquarters, for various reasons.
posted by bardic at 8:20 PM on November 25, 2006


You aren't allowed into the discussion, period. That's not censorship.

Isn't that the definition of censorship?

(I agree that these wack-o views shouldn't be allowed into the discussion, but lets call a spade a spade!)
posted by grumblebee at 8:24 PM on November 25, 2006


I'm an atheist myself, and so I follow the game, as it were, and was quite glad to watch Dawkins in action. He had some good material (especially the the Abraham and Isaac to Nuremburg analogy, I'd never thought of that one) but there was one question that I consider unresolveable myself that he was a bit dodgy on: the "origin of morality" question.

His response was that morality is the outgrowth and cultural development of Darwinian altruism. But that just isn't enough - that's a "how" without a "should" - if it's simply a matter of behavior, there's nothing actually compelling us to good behavior. Rationally, anyone who comes to believe that this is the source of morality should be willing to break any law or scruple so long as they aren't caught. I'm sure that's what the questioners were trying to pin him on.

I don't think that the problem is anything in favor of theism - as he pointed out, doing what's right because you're afraid of what God might do is an even crappier solution. Someone like that doesn't really believe in right and wrong, it's all just God's whim. (It's kind of scary how, if you maneuver carefully, how close you can get them to saying "Yeah, I'd kill my entire family if God told me to!" They're about to say it and they get this strained look on their face and just stop talking. Tee hee.)

But anyways, the question of morality seems like the one last, deeply-rooted stump of existentialism that's in the way of plowing our field of pure materialism, and I don't think that we can get it out. I don't think that we have to come up with specious arguments trying to conjure a foundation for morality out of the air - just say it. It is what it is. There's right, and there's wrong, and there's no ifs-ans-material-buts about it.

One other thing - I can't believe how Dawkins almost completely fumbled the response to the guy with the First Cause argument! The response to "How could anything like the universe have sprung from nothing?" is "So you're saying God was uncaused and sprung from nothing? You're all okay with that, right? Huh? Huh? How does it feel?" But Dawkins went on and on with his "universes must go from simple to complex" thing, and he even mentioned the Anthropic Principle, fer cripes sake! What the heck? Barely saved it in the last couple of seconds.
posted by XMLicious at 9:14 PM on November 25, 2006


I don't think it's appropriate to cast this in terms of censorship. Theists have the right to practice and express their faith, with limitations when it comes to having it funded by the state, i.e., prayer in school, 10 Commandments in the courtroom, etc. And I'm fine with that. What bothers me about the "let's all just get along" rhetoric is that many theists are asking for parity for their non-scientific ideas within discourse of science itself, e.g., ID should be taught alongside Evolutionary Theory simply because it's "another point of view."

I don't go to churches on Sunday and expect to be taken seriously if I want to give a lecture on the Krebs Cycle. Indeed, I don't pitch a fit if I'm not allowed through the door in the first place. American Christians have cleverly co-opted the language of rights to free expression to do something completely unconscionable -- pollute areas of discourse that are separate from religion, and I think it's disgusting, simply put.
posted by bardic at 9:33 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I don't think that the problem is anything in favor of theism - as he pointed out, doing what's right because you're afraid of what God might do is an even crappier solution. Someone like that doesn't really believe in right and wrong, it's all just God's whim.

I think it's important to note that, while there are people who believe this way, not all of us who believe in God believe that "it's all just God's whim," or that good vs. evil is a construct created by God. Nor do we all believe that we should do what's right because we're afraid of what God might do.

And not all of us believe that God created everything that exists from nothing (or that God always existed as God). Just saying.

It all kind of goes back to grumblebee's post about definitions and useful dialogue instead of strawman contests and arguing past each other.
posted by JekPorkins at 9:38 PM on November 25, 2006


I don't go to churches on Sunday and expect to be taken seriously if I want to give a lecture on the Krebs Cycle.

Huh. I do, but I guess I go to a church that's different than most. Of course, I don't want my religious beliefs taught in public schools, either, but I don't think that any of them contradict science.
posted by JekPorkins at 9:40 PM on November 25, 2006


grumblebee: I too would naturally turn to biological explanations, not because I always favor them, but because religion exists in all cultures in all time-periods.

Well, everyone eats in all cultures, in all time-periods. Does that mean that we should talk about the biology of forks vs. chopsticks? And biology is of limited use for explaining how problems of transporting water shape the development of human cities.

But, yeah. James is essential reading. Of more recent works, I think Communities of Practice is useful. Marxist analysis might also be worth examining. (Social structures exist to perpetuate class relationships.)

XMLicious: His response was that morality is the outgrowth and cultural development of Darwinian altruism. But that just isn't enough - that's a "how" without a "should" - if it's simply a matter of behavior, there's nothing actually compelling us to good behavior. Rationally, anyone who comes to believe that this is the source of morality should be willing to break any law or scruple so long as they aren't caught. I'm sure that's what the questioners were trying to pin him on.

Yeah. I always thought altruism was a hot topic in evolutionary biology as well. But since Dawkins doesn't deal well with cultural levels of analysis, this doesn't surprise me.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:47 PM on November 25, 2006


I think it's important to note that, while there are people who believe this way, not all of us who believe in God believe that "it's all just God's whim," or that good vs. evil is a construct created by God. Nor do we all believe that we should do what's right because we're afraid of what God might do.

I'm sorry about that Jek, I should have elaborated more. I don't mean to throw up any straw men, I've just been through the argument so many times that I skipped some (well really all :∫) of the steps.

Let me preface this by saying that although I've got a few Muslim friends, I've only discussed this with Christians so far.

The dichotomy that usually arises is that the people I've talked to believe the God is the Supreme Being and as such, him being subordinate to external moral laws is contradictory to his supremacy. But of course, God is also unquestionably good. So the outcome is usually that the moral laws are subordinate to God rather than the other way around. This also helps to explain the inconsistencies of God's behavior in the Old Testament that Dawkins was talking about, like ordering the Hebrews to slaughter the worshippers of the golden calf on one hand and handing down "Thou shalt not kill" on the other hand.

I didn't mean to imply that all religious people believe this. The reason why I was mentioning it is because I think that the reason that Dawkins and others advance the altruism-as-the-basis-of-morality claptrap is because they fear that asserting the existence of non-material moral law is somehow going to be a concession to theism, or some kind of defeat, but I don't think it is at all, because of the aforementioned conundrums in reconciling absolute morality with the existence of an actually-supreme being. I think we're stuck: we simply have this inalienable sense of what is right and what is wrong, and not even God can save us from it. ;^)
posted by XMLicious at 10:39 PM on November 25, 2006


And besides, even if it is a concession of some kind, if it's true that's enough reason to say it.
posted by XMLicious at 10:52 PM on November 25, 2006


that's a "how" without a "should" - if it's simply a matter of behavior, there's nothing actually compelling us to good behavior. Rationally, anyone who comes to believe that this is the source of morality should be willing to break any law or scruple so long as they aren't caught.

I don't get your point.

Let's assume Dawkins is right. Evolution endowed us with a drive towards altruistic behavior (because, according to Dawkins, our ancestors had to live in tight-knit groups, and in such groups, there's a survival payoff to being nice).

What is the meaning of a "drive"? Think of the sex drive or the drive to eat. A drive just makes you feel like doing something. It's an instinct. "Should" needn't enter into it; same for fear of getting caught. The drive makes us want to be nice and it (or another evolved drive) makes us feel guilty when we aren't nice.

I'm not necessarily agreeing with this model, but it certainly makes sense to me.

You claim that anyone who believes this can override it. Aren't you claiming that if we understand the mechanism behind a drive, we can overcome it? Not so. I know why I get hungry and horny, but that doesn't held me stop being either of those things.
posted by grumblebee at 11:21 PM on November 25, 2006


KirkJobSluder, I'm not about to express my own views. Rather, I'm going to take a guess as to why Dawkins doesn't use tools from the social sciences:

In the "hard science" community, many feel that social scientists do not adhere to the Scientific Method, and that the Scientific Method is the only reliable way we've found to gather meaningful knowledge. Dawkins is likely to feel that much social science is similar to religion -- based more on faith and quackery than on rigorous critical thinking and sound methodology.

I can't comment much beyond that, because I've read very few of the authors you sited, with the exception of a little Marx (in his case, I would agree with that his methodology is unsound).

But IF it's the case that the social scientists are not real scientists (not real users of Scientific Method), then I too would shy away from their findings. Which is not to say I'd believe that all answers come from Biology. But I do think that Biology -- givin its limitations -- is a sound tool. So I'd trust it much more than an unsound one.
posted by grumblebee at 11:28 PM on November 25, 2006


His response was that morality is the outgrowth and cultural development of Darwinian altruism. But that just isn't enough - that's a "how" without a "should" - if it's simply a matter of behavior, there's nothing actually compelling us to good behavior.

That's the thing though, there is really no good reason to be moral. Lots of good reasons to desire that everyone else be moral, but there is no good reason that you yourself be moral as well. Dawkins talks about a lust to be moral. *shrug* Why does there need to be a reason anyway? We are moral because we are compelled to be moral, and we demand morality in others because it is good for us if they are.

One other thing - I can't believe how Dawkins almost completely fumbled the response to the guy with the First Cause argument! The response to "How could anything like the universe have sprung from nothing?" is "So you're saying God was uncaused and sprung from nothing? You're all okay with that, right? Huh? Huh? How does it feel?" But Dawkins went on and on with his "universes must go from simple to complex" thing, and he even mentioned the Anthropic Principle, fer cripes sake! What the heck? Barely saved it in the last couple of seconds.

You mean why didn't dawkins hit him with the "Turtles all the way down?" argument? Well, it's a bit played out isn't it? Maybe dawkins wanted to throw something new out there. Not like it matters, dawkin's answer gives people something new to think about, rather then going through the opening motions of a boring, played out chess game.

Well, everyone eats in all cultures, in all time-periods. Does that mean that we should talk about the biology of forks vs. chopsticks? And biology is of limited use for explaining how problems of transporting water shape the development of human cities.

There must be some biological reason for using utensils though, no? Otherwise why not just eat with your hands? And certainly there is a biological reason we eat, eating is not culture dependant. So if eating (and eating with utensils) are not culture dependant, it would seem to suggest a biological reason. Furthermore I'm not exactly sure what your point is.
posted by delmoi at 11:38 PM on November 25, 2006


And how come nobody has mentioned Hitler yet? We're way off our game.

This one goes out to my homeboys, Falwell, Dobson and all my peoples who failed to get relected to the US Congress.

*clears throat, sings*

Spring time! For Hitler! And atheists!
Dawkins is happy and gay!
We're debating at a faster pace!
Look out, here comes the Christian race!
Spring time for Hitler and atheists!
Winter! For Poland, and God!
Spring time for Hitler and atheists,
Come on, atheists,
go into your dance!

...

Sorry.

I'll stop now.

...

Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Godless Party.
posted by sparkletone at 12:09 AM on November 26, 2006


grumblebee: I know why I get hungry and horny, but that doesn't held me stop being either of those things.

delmoi:
We are moral because we are compelled to be moral, and we demand morality in others because it is good for us if they are.

You guys are seriously arguing that people don't make moral decisions? That they're blindly compelled by instinct and it doesn't matter to them whether what they do is actually right or wrong? All right, whatever... I'll bite...

You don't compulsively eat and / or fornicate with everything in sight. You're completely in control of the decisions to eat and have sex. People fast, people are celibate, people intentionally change their eating and sexual habits for all sorts of reasons. If you think that something will make you gain weight, you may not eat it, whereas if you work at UPS hauling packages all day and burn up every calorie you consume you won't hesitate to eat an entire pizza by yourself. If someone believes they're in love, they may consider it more (or less) wise to have sex than if they believe they'd simply be fulfilling an urge.

And in the same way people make a judgement before they take an action they regard as morally significant. Especially germane to the discussion are moral concepts that negate the rules, like self-defense for example. Many people believe that a threat of harm or even the appearance of a potential threat of harm to their person or property negates the prohibitions they normally hold against harming others. Or take the case when someone "deserves it"; if you believe that a man is a child molester you might turn a blind eye to him being beaten or even raped while in jail, whereas you might risk your own life to defend a complete stranger from the same fate.

So I think it's pretty safe to say that people have no problem whatsoever factoring in all kinds of circumstances when they make moral decisions and decide whether moral rules apply to them or not. And when they do "the right thing" regardless of the consequences it's because they think that's what they should do, irrespective of socio-biological theories of species development. Similarly, we abhor crime because it's people doing things they should not do, things that are wrong, even if we ourselves would never suffer from it. You're horrified by the child molester even if you don't have your own kids or nieces or nephews. (And if children are too Darwinian for you, substitute elder abuse, or racial crimes against a race other than your own. Or clubbing baby seals.)

And if people really came to believe that the whole right vs. wrong thing is just a sort of species-wide habit, like dogs sniffing each others' butts or something, they'd have no trouble cutting morality out of the equation. Like the Bush Administration planning a war, they'd write off anyone who they could chalk up as collateral damage.
posted by XMLicious at 1:55 AM on November 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


faith is 'without proof'.

but proof is subjective to our senses.

so which carries the greater weight? who cares!
posted by altman at 2:02 AM on November 26, 2006


faith is 'without proof'. but proof is subjective to our senses. so which carries the greater weight? who cares!

Don't be moronic.
posted by bobbyelliott at 5:11 AM on November 26, 2006


XMLicious, I don't think that the right vs. wrong thing is like "dogs sniffing each others butt or something", it's just that biology dies hard and sneaks into cultural norms and supposedly rationally derived moral rules.

It feels shameful or disgusting to break a moral rule which you think is really important, right? Well when some action feels like something, it means that biology is at it again. You have the ability to convince yourself of certain moral rules and, as long you really belive them to be true, you will get a bad feeling by breaking them. If you are convinced that acting moral is important that is (which I am).
posted by vertriebskonzept at 6:31 AM on November 26, 2006


You are right because they are wrong

just like Iraq, y2karl -- jury's still out, huh?
posted by matteo at 7:21 AM on November 26, 2006


You guys are seriously arguing that people don't make moral decisions? That they're blindly compelled by instinct and it doesn't matter to them whether what they do is actually right or wrong?

That's not what I'm arguing. Sorry if I was unclear. I'm arguing that the URGE to act ethically is prompted by instinct. Just as the urges to have sex and eat are prompted by instinct. One can consciously fight against those urges (celibacy/dieting), but the urges are still there.

I'm also arguing that biology underpins much of our specific moral rules (though I'm sure they're greatly nuanced by cultural forces). Why is it ethically good to help other people? Why aren't we sitting around saying, "George is such a good man? He just hit that woman in the head!" Because our specific morality evolved via a Darwinian process which was pressured by the fact that our ancestors lived in tight-knit groups where kindness had a survival payoff.

I keep saying "I'm arguing," but in fact I'm not arguing all of this. As I said in my last post about it, I'm merely stating that I think it's a plausible theory. I don't feel we have enough evidence to make a strong factual claim about the origins of morality.

Also, I don't know why you say "are you guys seriously arguing that people don't make moral decisions" as if questioning free will was a bizarre and crazy thing to do. Though I'm not questioning it here (if anything, I'm saying there are pressures on it, which is surely something you agree with: peer pressure, etc.), but there's a long respected tradition of questioning it, and were this another thread, I could point you towards dozens of brilliant articles that argue that we have NO free will at all. (Here's a jumping-off point). There are also good arguments for free will, but it's a point of great contention and though many great minds have taken a stab at it, there's no consensus as to the right answer.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 AM on November 26, 2006


Your comments in this thread have been wonderful to read, grumblebee, thank you. I want to go back a bit to your comment about the “God feeling”—jack_mo weighed in with his experience, but no one else. I’ll give you mine.

It is interesting that you mention how much you care for King Lear; when I did believe in God, the feeling itself was indistinguishable in quality, if not in intensity, from my feelings about King Lear. It is the same feeling you get when you are struck by the rightness of words in right order—which has nothing to do with truth—a sudden and wild awareness of light being thrown in good patterns on darkness. It is a raised-hackles feeling, a someone-just-walked-over-your-grave feeling, and in between those strong moments, a serenity that comes with knowing that those moments will return. And it was, for me at least, a feeling of mental illness—a state of mind that carried its own peculiar authority, and was mostly impervious to sound argument in the other direction, and steadfast in the face of all evidence against it. What if you’re wrong never even entered into the picture. The feeling existed, and the feeling was not wrong, though I had sent it into the service of the wrong abstraction: I thought the pleasure I felt was an awareness of God’s light in the world, when I should have recognized it instead as the pleasure of a good mind creating light around what it sees, and the force of accumulated literature behind me like a wind from somewhere.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 8:43 AM on November 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


It is the same feeling you get when you are struck by the rightness of words in right order—which has nothing to do with truth—a sudden and wild awareness of light being thrown in good patterns on darkness.

Thank you!

I don't know if everyone experiences God this way -- like a perfectly-place note in a symphony -- but it's something I can grasp, and I can understand how such a feeling is powerful.

What if you’re wrong never even entered into the picture.

It enters MY picture constantly. I continually question whether I'm wrong about everything. I continually wonder whether my senses are tricking me. I continually play mind-games in which I assume the opposite my most fundamental beliefs is true. I don't do any of this as a philosophical stance. I just do it without trying and without being able to stop doing it. I can't simply "go with the flow." And I wonder whether this impedes my ability to feel God.

the feeling was not wrong

This is why I love feelings. They are propositionally inert. They are never right or wrong. They just are.

On the one hand, I think feelings are the most important things on Earth. On the other hand, I think they are lousy fact-gathering devices (if you feel something is true, that doesn't make it likely to be true).

It always saddens me when people try to tie feelings to physical realities, because doing so devalues feelings. It's like if I told someone that I loved chocolate cake, and they replied that I'm an idiot because cake is bad for you. As if taste had no value unless it was linked with utility!

But I wonder whether this stance -- that feelings can be (and often are) self-contained islands of sensation, not tied to truth in the natural world -- impedes me from experiencing certain kinds of feelings. Is belief in the actual existence of God (or, at least, disinterest in whether or not He exists) necessary to feel Him. If so, why? Why is this necessary for God but not for Lear?

[I did, years ago, have a vague feeling that there was a God. It wasn't a very satisfying feeling. It was like a weak broth -- not a hearty stew. It mainly manifested itself when things went wrong. I would stub my toe for the fifth time and scream, "Why? Why? WHY?!?" And I was screaming to some intelligent force: some "guy in the sky" who had it in for me. But as I got older, this stopped happening. I haven't even had that vague feeling in years. Now, when I stub my toe, it feels like happenstance in a random universe.]
posted by grumblebee at 9:42 AM on November 26, 2006


I continually question whether I'm wrong about everything. I continually wonder whether my senses are tricking me. I continually play mind-games in which I assume the opposite my most fundamental beliefs is true. I don't do any of this as a philosophical stance. I just do it without trying and without being able to stop doing it. I can't simply "go with the flow." And I wonder whether this impedes my ability to feel God.

I, on the other hand, have always been childishly trusting of nearly everything I am told--and my thirst for knowledge manifests itself not so much in a love of fact-gathering but a love of story-gathering. I also possess a general disregard for which is which, and a general laziness about keeping the two separate. These qualities made me a prime candidate for hyperreligiosity as a child and teenager, I imagine.

But I wonder whether this stance -- that feelings can be (and often are) self-contained islands of sensation, not tied to truth in the natural world -- impedes me from experiencing certain kinds of feelings.

I speak from the other side of the fence, as a person whose small aggregate of knowledge is suffused with feeling, and who, when she remembers facts particularly, often does so because those facts are tied to a powerful awareness of their sublimity. My brain's store of facts about, say, the book of Job is inextricably tied to the strong wallop in the chest I feel when I read the book itself. For me, and for a long time, that wallop made the book itself true.

Is belief in the actual existence of God (or, at least, disinterest in whether or not He exists) necessary to feel Him. If so, why? Why is this necessary for God but not for Lear?

This is the question that is most compelling to me. I continue to "believe" in God the way I believe in Lear: as a created force of literature, rather than a creative force of life, which is how I once saw him. I also continue to "love" him in the same way that I love Lear, though with a bit more ambivalence about the author of his literature, which is mankind itself.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 10:54 AM on November 26, 2006


Okay, as a non-believer I still should be able to connect with God. I should be able to view Him a fictional character and connect to Him the way I do with many other fictional characters in my life. So why don't I?

One reason might be because I have a chip on my shoulder. Perhaps I don't connect because I don't want to connect -- because I fear such a connection would lead to ... what? Me being viewed as simpleminded and unscientific?

To the best of my knowledge, this is untrue. I don't have ant-religious feelings; nor do I think theists are stupid. The smartest guy I know is a believer. And I often envy people who believe. I also have some psychological pressure to believe. I'm very scared of losing my loved ones. If I could feel -- even as a fiction -- that I would one day be re-united with them in an afterlife, I would be a much happier person. Yet I still don't feel God.

Maybe the problem is one of my specific personality not clicking with the Jewish/Christian God, which is the theistic tradition I'm closest to. I've read the Bible, and I didn't wind up falling in love with God (the way I fell in love with Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby) because His character seemed vague (and sometimes ill-defined and contradictory).

I can much more imagine myself falling for, say, the ancient Greek goods, who had clear personalities. But I wasn't raised in that tradition, so I never got close to them.

I imagine the biblical God works really for you if you already have some sense of God before encountering Him -- some feeling that there's an intelligence behind everything. In that case, His vagueness may even be an asset, because you can read into Him (like the shadow journalist in "Citizen Kane") and connect Him with your own conception. If you already have a strong idea of what He looks like or how He thinks, you can probably plug those ideas into God without contradiction. If you don't -- if your idea is vaguer -- then you can use the small clues in the Bible to flesh "your God" out. But if you have no pre-Bible-reading conception, I'm not sure the Bible can help you, because God is somewhat underwritten.

I have similar problems connecting to underwritten fictional characters. I've noticed that, when I see a horror movie with a large audience, I'm often the only one not scared. This especially happens to me with those teen slasher movies, like the Friday the 13th series. People around me are screaming, but I can't feel anything, because the characters are so simplistic. I can't care about them. (On the other hand, I do get really scared when I watch movies like "The Shining," in which the characters are well drawn.)

I'm NOT claiming greater sophistication than the average movie-goer. In a way, I'm claiming the opposite. I imagine that most people get scared because they can connect some prior notion of a character (themselves?) to a vaguely drawn character in a story. I can't. I need a fully 3D character in order to care. Which means, I suppose, that I have less to bring to the table than the average bear.
posted by grumblebee at 11:26 AM on November 26, 2006


Hey, way late to the party, but FWIW, a few thoughts on this excellent discussion:

But anyways, the question of morality seems like the one last, deeply-rooted stump of existentialism that's in the way of plowing our field of pure materialism, and I don't think that we can get it out.

I'm always curious that this is such a complex question--I am not religious, so my morality does not come from a code or fear or whatever other external motivations might exist for some. My morality is based in compassion; I do the right thing because I don't want to cause unnecessary suffering to others (or to myself). Human beings are feeling creatures first, thinking ones second, and when one has a keenly developed sense of compassion, it becomes more difficult to behave in selfish ways.


That's the thing though, there is really no good reason to be moral. Lots of good reasons to desire that everyone else be moral, but there is no good reason that you yourself be moral as well.

Nonsense--it causes me pain when I act in ways that hurt others. I try to practice empathy and compassion on a regular basis, and to be aware of how my words and actions affect those around me, particularly those whom I care most about. This is one of Dawkins' big blind spots about religion, I think--early on in his latest book, he sidesteps religions like Buddhism (Taoism, Confucianism, etc.) because they're not really religions in the strictest sense, in that they do not require belief in the supernatural. But Buddhism is exactly the kind of religious philosophy that points up fundamental weaknesses in some of his arguments--it provides a clear rationale for moral behavior without sets of rules (principles, yes--rules, no) or threats of eternal punishment, etc.

Buddhism is an effective spiritual practice in terms of morality because it develops one's sense of empathy and compassion--and when I look at the world today (certainly the tone of public discourse here in the U.S.), what I see is a profound lack of compassion and empathy. (Ironic, considering that Jesus is one of the most compassionate figures in history and literature.)


American Christians have cleverly co-opted the language of rights to free expression to do something completely unconscionable -- pollute areas of discourse that are separate from religion, and I think it's disgusting, simply put.

This needs to be said loudly and often. In areas of specialized knowledge, experts' opinions and thoughts do carry far more weight than anyone else's. A preacher has no more qualifications to evaluate the evidence and theories of science than a trash collector or a waiter or a painter does. The difference is that a preacher has a pulpit and an audience.

(Yes, I realize that comment can be turned to scientists who talk about religion--like Dawkins--and, to a fair degree, it's true. Dawkins most egregious dismissals in his book come from either ignorance or over-simplification of the issue he's demolishing. However: science is a body of practice and knowledge that requires a tremendous amount of learning and skill--not just knowledge of science itself, but of mathematics, etc. Theology is a body of knowledge based in part of human beings, how we are, how we act, what we feel we need, etc.; and in part based in made up fancifulness. So there is, IMHO, a gulf between science as a specialized body of knowledge, and theology. Further, most of America's most influential preachers have no background in substantial theology. And I say this as the grandson and great-grandson of preachers.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:29 AM on November 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


He believes there's only so far such a trend can go before society collapses. As a liberal guy, I like to think that more liberties are always a good thing. But we're veering towards uncharted territory. It will be fascinating to see how thing turn out.

Facsinating indeed, grumblebee, and don't worry, he's got it all wrong about societal collapse - societal uplift, more like. Higher ground. It's going to be just like an Iain M. Banks novel, real soon. You don't need to trust me, just wait and see.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:31 AM on November 26, 2006


My morality is based in compassion

Yes, but I think you're skimming over the interesting question: WHY is your morality based in compassion?

Because people are feeling, sympathetic, empathic creatures? Fine, but again, WHY? If you're a Christian, the answer is simple: because that's God's nature and we're made in His image. But it's a more complicated question for us non-believers.

Why did altruism evolve in a cut-throat, survival-of-the-fittest world? Reams of paper have been used up on this subject (do a web search!) Dawkins has attempted to explain this riddle via the ancestors/small-clan model.
posted by grumblebee at 11:41 AM on November 26, 2006


Okay, as a non-believer I still should be able to connect with God. I should be able to view Him a fictional character and connect to Him the way I do with many other fictional characters in my life. So why don't I?

Actually, I disagree with your premise--the idea of God goes waay beyond any fictional character I've read about. I connect to fictional characters emotionally because they are like me in many ways--most often (but not always--I do love SF) they're other human beings, but every non-real person with whom I've felt an emotional connection was, in many ways, like me--that is to say, a thinking, feeling, mortal, physical creature, with hopes/fears/passions/etc. that I understand and can relate to.

God, on the other hand, is a different order of magnitude of creature, which is why the idea of God is so often personalized--so it's comprehensible. Many Christians love Jesus in a very real way, but still have nebulous feelings about God itself.

If you've never believed that God is real, is an active force in the world, is listening to your thoughts and prayers, has a plan for you, it's difficult to imagine him as real in any, well, real way. If you've never believed that God is real, it's an outlandish concept, given the paucity of actual material evidence.


WHY is your morality based in compassion?

Because I paid attention, and realized that everyone around me is just like me, with the same sorts of fears and questions, and emotional needs and vulnerabilities, and joys, etc. Mostly, it's really just that: I started paying attention to other people.

This does little to answer the larger question of how altruism evolved within the species, but you're asking two very different questions and conflating two separate issues. How one finds a moral basis for oneself is a much different question than the scientific one of how altruism arose in the species in the first place. One does not need to answer the latter to answer the former. For me, in my life day-to-day, I need the former answered. The larger questions, the scientific ones, are fascinating, but to a great degree truly academic--whether or not I know how altruism arose in the species does not obviate my need for a moral compass, and that need is more pressing, because I speak and act in the world every day.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:58 AM on November 26, 2006 [2 favorites]


Right on, grumblebee.

Altruism in a limited sense can be explained purely by biological motives -- you help your family out because they share genes with you; you help a friend out because you can afford to now, and she'll help you out later when you need it, promoting the success of your genes.

I think that kind of stuff makes sense to everybody.

I think also that what people seem to get hung up on is that our sense of altruism isn't so strictly limited. We get pleasure donating to charity (even anonymously), or helping an old lady across the street, even though she'll never return the favor. Why?

Some people will point to a higher calling or something like that. To me, it seems that the reason stems more from an evolutionary shortcut.

For instance, we've evolved to really enjoy sex because it helps us reproduce. Sex itself does not always make babies -- see contraception -- but that's the shortcut evolution took (rather than making pregnancy very pleasureable for both parties, which I imagine is harder to do).

We can exploit that shortcut to have a good time.

Similarly, our brains are very good at inferring causal rules from discrete events. This helps a lot in some cases ("I ate this thing... and three hours later, I puked. hmm.") but sometimes we make incorrect judgements. For instance studies routinely show that people think they have more control over events than they really do.

Back to the beginning: it seems likely that a nice, quick way to encode altruism into our genes is in the form of a few rules that work very reliably, those given above.

Those rules did in fact work very reliably in our evolutionary environment of small groups where repeated interaction was just about guaranteed. They just get exploited now that we live in a much larger, more interconnected world.

The end result, by happenstance, is that we feel good doing things that may not benefit us, but that do benefit others. I'd call it a stroke of good luck.
posted by ajshankar at 12:11 PM on November 26, 2006


Also, an additional thought on this: If you're a Christian, the answer is simple: because that's God's nature and we're made in His image. But it's a more complicated question for us non-believers.

I don't think it's that much more complicated, actually--for a non-believer, it can even be easier. Channeling Joseph Campbell here, if you can recognize religious stories and beliefs as metaphors, you can more easily understand the more fundamental truths at their core. I don't need to understand, in terms of my day-to-day thoughts and actions, why human beings feel compassion or practice altruism; I just need to realize that it is so.

This is where I think these issues can be over-intellectualized (and a challenge of having a healthy, curious intellect is that one can easily get side-tracked from what is most salient, in a quest to understand as fully as possible): it is more important, for me, to recognize that a thing is true first, and perhaps understand why later. I recognized that it matters to me, deeply, how my words and actions affect those around me (especially those I care about most). That, for me, is far more important that knowing why I have compassion in the first place. While I may pursue that more fundamental question, in the meantime I need to keep on living.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:12 PM on November 26, 2006


It's funny that you brought up scary movies, grumblebee--I have often wondered how much of my early religiosity stemmed from my phenomenal susceptibility to suggestion. I can't watch scary movies at all; I can't even watch parodies of scary movies. After my father showed me Jaws, I didn't take baths for years--and don't even talk to me about The Exorcist. This susceptibility could either be a quirk of my own mind or a product of my strict religious upbringing, I'm not sure which. Your own inability to connect with underwritten characters seems to be a product of a rigorous training in the rational tradition. Rational debate, with myself or others, is not where my primary strengths lie.

LooseFilter writes: It is more important, for me, to recognize that a thing is true first, and perhaps understand why later.

Isn't this where many atheists believe that theists have gone wrong?
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 12:32 PM on November 26, 2006


Isn't this where many atheists believe that theists have gone wrong?

Certainly, and I'd absolutely agree with them--I consider myself very much a rationalist. I was making that comment about a specific topic, and definitely wouldn't transfer it beyond that context. Apologies if I was too vague on that point. (Specifically, regarding my own feelings vis-a-vis morality: I feel compassion. It is more important to me to recognize that that feeling is real and true, and to act accordingly. Understanding why I evolved to feel compassion is, for me, secondary to that. Not unimportant, but secondary.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:43 PM on November 26, 2006


you're asking two very different questions and conflating two separate issues. How one finds a moral basis for oneself is a much different question than the scientific one of how altruism arose in the species in the first place.

This seems to be addressed to me (forgive me if it's not). I don't think I am asking two different questions. I don't remember asking "how one finds a moral basis for oneself". I only remember asking about the basis for altruism. Both questions are important.

In terms of the theism/atheism debate, they need to be asked at two different times:

If we're trying to decide whether or not there's a God, we need to ask why people are moral. We need to ask this, because many theists claim that God planted the need to be moral in our brains. I think Dawkins was trying to counter this with a scientific explanation. Note that this issue has nothing to do with "how should we behave?" It's more about "why do we behave the way we do?"

The second question -- the nuts-and-bolts question about how to choose the right thing to do only makes sense to talk about after we resolve whether or not God exists (assuming that, if He exists, He's the arbiter of ethical behavior).

If we decide that God exists, then we know what to do: follow His rules. The only problems are (a) if we find contradictions in His rules and (b) if we understand His rules but have trouble following them. But having-trouble-following them has nothing to do with knowing what they are.

If God doesn't exist, then it becomes a really thorny question, at least for some of us. (Not for others. Some here seem to feel like all you need to do is be compassionate and your heart will tell you what to do. I feel that this only works sometimes.) If God doesn't exist, it's harder to find a guide to correct behavior.

I've heard some people use that fact to argue that God must exist. THAT really mystifies me. God may or may not exist, but surely the fact of His existence isn't contingent on our desire that He exists. Dawkins mentioned this when he talked about how we shouldn't equate what's comfortable with what's true. I don't have a million dollars just because I want a million dollars.
posted by grumblebee at 12:47 PM on November 26, 2006


You guys are seriously arguing that people don't make moral decisions? That they're blindly compelled by instinct and it doesn't matter to them whether what they do is actually right or wrong? All right, whatever... I'll bite...

Are you saying the people aren't compelled to be moral? If they weren't compelled they wouldn't do it, as far as I'm concerned (and a minority of people don't)

You don't compulsively eat and / or fornicate with everything in sight. You're completely in control of the decisions to eat and have sex. People fast, people are celibate, people intentionally change their eating and sexual habits for all sorts of reasons.

You obviously haven't ever gone very long without eating. No one is saying that you are compelled to eat "everything in sight", but that you are compelled to eat appropriate items based on various cravings you might have for different nutrients (might want something sweet one day and fatty another) either way, the vast majority of people will absolutely eat anything they might think of as food if they've gone hungry long enough. I can't believe I'm even arguing this. Try holding your breath for an hour and see how that goes if you don't believe me.

In the same way people apply judgment to their eating, or breathing, they apply judgment to their application of morality.

Nonsense--it causes me pain when I act in ways that hurt others. I try to practice empathy and compassion on a regular basis, and to be aware of how my words and actions affect those around me, particularly those whom I care most about.

Uh, you're not disputing what I said. What I meant was that there was no good rational reason for being moral, only emotional reasons, and emotions are biological in nature. Empathy, as an emotion and as a sense is a biological thing (in fact scientists have done a lot of work toward figuring out what parts of the brain cause it monkeys)

That's the whole thing, morality is an intrinsic thing not something arrived at through rational thought.
posted by delmoi at 12:54 PM on November 26, 2006


there was no good rational reason for being moral

Well, said, but I can picture the linguistic maze we're likely to get lost in (mostly because we're halfway lost there already). Someone will respond, "But there IS a rational reason for being moral. We're moral because we're compassionate! Because we care about other people!" The person saying this (if I'm not setting up a straw man) is misunderstanding you, of course. You (and me and Dawkins) are trying to get at the first cause of morality.

Why are we compassionate?

Because we see that other people are like us!


Why do we care that other people are like us?


Because we're empathic creatures!

Why are we empathic creatures?

This can go on forever unless we agree that there's a first-cause that's not being discussed (which Dawkins directly addresses via a biological model) or unless we agree to say "Whatever. We're compassionate and altruistic for some reason -- who cares why!" I have some sympathy for that second stance, but I don't share it. I care why.
posted by grumblebee at 1:02 PM on November 26, 2006


Maybe some of us have a damaged "God module."

As a person who completely lost her mind and suffered amazing religious delusions for a prolonged period, I have to agree with this. I was never a believer until I became psychotic. Then I completely and utterly believed, felt god's presence in dozens of daily events, and completely rebuilt my beliefs about god and the supernatural. I finally understood why believers believed - it's impossible *not* to believe when you feel it in your bones, at a level beneath conscious thought or justification.

Some of us just aren't wired that way. My delusions did eventually fade (it took months), and I returned to my normal state.

In my opinion, there is only a (small?) subset of people for whom argument, discussion, evidence (or lack thereof), and considered deliberation can significantly change whether they believe in a particular god-concept or other form of spirituality. Then there are those who simply won't believe because they never *feel* it, and those who always will because they do. I think this god-module or what have you works deep below the conscious level in most people. We feel it (or don't) then look for arguments and justifications to back up our position.

My strange mental states taught me a deep understanding of what it feels like to be a believer. It brought me great comfort during a time of incredible mental turmoil, and it was traumatic to lose it when it disappeared. I miss that comfort and certainty, but I'm glad to be back to normal.

I find it amusing looking back and remembering some of the bizarre ideas I had as my mental state was slowly returning to my unbelief. At one point I thought god was evil and his creation of the universe was a great crime, and he was hiding from punishment by not existing. Wily fucker, that. Heh.

When it was all over I had felt rather violated in a profound sense, that my mind had been ripped apart so brutally. There were a lot of insane things I had believed, but for some reason the religious delusions left me the most raw, the most damaged in my ability to trust myself. It's hard when your mind betrays you completely like that, and you realize that your internal bullshit detector will not always be intact to save you. I haven't been the same since.
posted by beth at 1:09 PM on November 26, 2006


That's the whole thing, morality is an intrinsic thing not something arrived at through rational thought.
What sort of decisions, then, are arrived at purely through rational thought? I'd say nothing is meaningful without an underlying intrinsic motivation.
posted by Anything at 1:09 PM on November 26, 2006


Why do we care that other people are like us?

I might be missing something here but this is how I'd answer this:

Because if they are like us, then we can use what we know about our own minds to better understand them (understand their goals and motivations, their relationships, their emotional states, etc), and gain (and keep) them as allies, and avoid having them become our enemies.

Isn't that enough of a reason?
posted by beth at 1:28 PM on November 26, 2006


@grumblebee: If you haven't already, can I suggest that you read Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers? I can't (or wouldn't wish to) promise you that you'll have a spiritual experience as a result of reading it, and it's quite long and has to be read slowly, but based on your comments in this thread it seems as if you may be one of the book's ideal readers. Really, this book wants you to read it.
posted by Prospero at 1:32 PM on November 26, 2006


That's the whole thing, morality is an intrinsic thing not something arrived at through rational thought.

I don't think there's any way to answer that question without toppling over into a discussion of free will. I'm willing to go there if everyone else is, but it's a huge can of worms!


I was never a believer until I became psychotic.


Absolutely fascinating post, beth. I don't ever want to become psychotic, but I admit to envying you the God part of your experience. I'd love to experience that.

Beth, do you think there's anything in your pre-psychotic personality that would have left you susceptible to that particular delusion?

A side-track (to this thread) issue that I often think about is whether or not I'd lose my ability to reason if I became mentally ill. Obviously, it would depend on the type of mental illness. One's reasoning ability comes from the brain, so it can get damaged just like any other brain function.

But assuming it's not specifically my reasoning that gets damaged, I've often wondered how I would react to hearing voices or hallucinations. Both John Nash and Howard Stern reasoned themselves back from madness, so it is possible for some people to do this.

My starting assumption -- even when I'm sane -- is that my senses are deeply flawed. Assuming my reasoning wasn't impaired, if I saw a dragon my FIRST assumption would be that it's in my head. I also profoundly believe that strong feelings are not equal to reality. So even if I felt the extremely scared of the dragon -- and even if I felt the heat from his breath -- I would not assume he existed.

Most people I've met are not like this. They may give lip service to the fact that senses and feelings can lie, but they don't really hold that in their gut.

The next question is: does it matter? If I'm scared of the dragon and I can feel his breath, does it matter if he doesn't exist? This question brings my derail back to the topic at hand:

I always want to ask theists what they do if they got conclusive proof that God didn't exist but if they still felt His presence really strongly (but knew that feeling was created by their heads). I don't ask this, because I fear people will assume I'm mocking or trying to prove a point. But I'm not. My question is about how much import people place on objective truth.

If you're not a theist, you can still ask this question: imagine you discovered that your husband/wife/gf/bf was a figment of your imagination. But it was a persistent figment. Would you continue your (imaginary) relationship with him/her or would you try to suppress it?

I'd continue it. But I'd fear that my knowledge of the truth would gradually whittle away my belief.
posted by grumblebee at 1:36 PM on November 26, 2006


Because if they are like us, then we can use what we know about our own minds to better understand them

Yes, this makes sense, but I think there's a missing connector between this an altruism. We could also use this knowledge to be opportunistic and to dominate other people. In fact, we sometimes do. But we also use it to help people. And (most of us) don't just help people for obvious personal gain. We feel sympathy and want to help just to be helpful.

Why?
posted by grumblebee at 1:39 PM on November 26, 2006


I don't remember asking "how one finds a moral basis for oneself". I only remember asking about the basis for altruism. Both questions are important.

Yes, I was responding to you, grumblebee--you've been writing throughout the thread in both personal and universal terms, so I must've inferred incorrectly. I agree that both questions are important. I did want to respond to this, though: If we're trying to decide whether or not there's a God, we need to ask why people are moral.

Are you struggling with the question of whether or not there is a god? One of the most valuable points I feel that Dawkins, et al, makes is that the playing field needs to be levelled in discussions like this (about morality, etc.): belief in God is a very narrow, specific proposition for which there is no empirical evidence. That such belief is even considered when pursuing existential questions is, from an objective point of view, unnecessarily prejudicial. If one wants to consider the basis of human morality, some biological root is (likely) rightly viewed as the first cause--any superstition or belief that human beings may ascribe to such causes is just that--projection onto something that exists anyway.

If, on the other hand, one does believe in God, these questions likely hold no mystery. But I think one should be careful not to set up straw-men of belief--there are lots and lots of religious materialists who believe that, of course there is a biological basis for morality--God put it there, and discovering it through science is a way to know him. (But for all intents and purposes, for those people the theological question is put aside in the interest of the scientific one.)


What I meant was that there was no good rational reason for being moral, only emotional reasons, and emotions are biological in nature.

Ah, then I agree with you. Apologies for misreading. I think I'm conflating directions within the thread with specific responses. Though there are certainly instances that spring to mind where the rational choice is to act morally, I agree that the prime mover for morality appears to be biological. (And of course, as Dawkins would assert, biology is the prime mover for everything our organisms do.)
posted by LooseFilter at 1:39 PM on November 26, 2006


More specifically, why do I run into a burning building to save people who aren't related to me? That seems counter to the Selfish Gene model, yet it happens. Dawkins feels that it's a side-effect. We developed altruism as a way of protecting relatives (who share our genes) in a time when pretty much everyone we hung out with was a relative. Our evolution has not kept pace with societal changes, so now we help complete strangers. Evolution didn't bother building a stranger/relative detector into our altruistic urge, because that would have been a waste or energy back when everyone around you was a family member.
posted by grumblebee at 1:42 PM on November 26, 2006


Are you struggling with the question of whether or not there is a god?

Nope. I know He doesn't exist. (And I apologize to any theists here by using the word "know" in this way, but it's the best way of describing my mindset.)

My struggle: knowing this but wishing I didn't know it. Or wishing that I could connect with God despite knowing that He doesn't exist. God is one of many things that I want that I can't have. But while it's remotely possible that I'll one day have a million dollars, I find it highly unlikely that I'll ever have a relationship with God.
posted by grumblebee at 1:46 PM on November 26, 2006


Also, grumblebee: did you ask upthread about drugs and possible spiritual experience induced by taking them? I think your desire to experience a belief in God might be satisfied by entheogens. I refer you to this comment I made in a thread a while back, on this topic.

You ask: We feel sympathy and want to help just to be helpful. Why?, and that's a great question. I don't think, though, that anyone in this thread can really answer it in any real way. Dawkins also offers, in The God Delusion, a good summary of other schools of thought on this question, under the umbrella concept of psychological by-products--with most coming from the field of evolutionary psychology, which he asserts as a very important emerging field several times in the book.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:49 PM on November 26, 2006


Prospero, thanks for the recommendation. I just ordered the book! I'll have to get over my stupid prejudice against Mann. It's stupid, because I've never read anything by him. I just hate how Americans -- with American accents -- refuse to pronounce his name with an American accent. It's a silly pet-peeve, I know, but it drives me batshit when I hear someone saying, "I've been reading this book by tow-MAS Maahn."
posted by grumblebee at 1:50 PM on November 26, 2006


I haven't read tons of Evolutionary Biology, but what I have read strikes me as dangerously seductive. People like Stephen Pinker "reverse engineer" human behavior and come up with really attractive theories that fit in with Darwinian Natural Selection.

I have no problem with that, since I believe Darwin was correct (so naturally any theory MUST fit in with Darwinism), but I don't see how EB can take the next step: proving the specific theories are true. They mostly can't be tested; nor than they be used to make predictions. They are, at their most helpful, plausible stories. The danger lies in the fact that many of these stories are so plausible it's tempting to assume they are truth.

I really really really like the altruism-as-a-byproduct theory, but the fact that I like it doesn't make it true. Nor does the fact that it slots well into Darwinian Natural Selection. The true theory WILL slot into Darwinism, but that doesn't mean that any theory that slots into Darwinism is necessarily true.

Is there any utility to EB besides a generator of interesting theories?
posted by grumblebee at 1:58 PM on November 26, 2006


I think you mean Evolutionary Psychology, not Biology? If so, I don't know--I do know that Dawkins believes it is an exciting new field, and I certainly give his opinion on such matters (matters specific to his field, that is) more weight than mine. In his book, he agrees with you--we don't know why a prediliction for religious belief, or altruism, etc., exists, but ideas of evolutionary by-products are many and gaining traction. He lists in the bibliography The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, D. M. Buss, ed.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:15 PM on November 26, 2006


(Though, upon investigation, I see that's a rather expensive item, other, more affordable introductions come up on the search.)
posted by LooseFilter at 2:17 PM on November 26, 2006


I think you mean Evolutionary Psychology, not Biology?

Oops. Yes, I did!

Evolutionary Psychologists talk about "reverse engineering," which is a telling phrase. If I reverse-engineer MS Word, I can build another application that looks and acts just like MS Word. It may be totally different that Word under-the-hood (it probably is, because I wasn't able to look under-the-hood when I made my clone -- hence the need for reverse engineering.) But who cares? My clone works!

The trouble is that the goal of EP isn't to built androids, it's to figure out what makes actual people tick. So what goes on under-the-hood is important.

In a way, you could level the same criticism at all science. Einstein's Theories may explain how things MAY work, but how can we be 100% they describe how things DO work? Answer: we can't. But we CAN use his theories to make predictions.

That's what seems to be missing from EP. So maybe altruism is a byproduct of protecting your gene via its expression in close relatives. What can you predict with that?

Please, please, please: if anyone is more knowledgeable about EP than I am (which wouldn't be hard), explain how I'm wrong about it.

EP is useful in theological debates, because whether EP models are true or not, they're definitely simpler than God-models. So Occam's Razor should favor them.
posted by grumblebee at 2:27 PM on November 26, 2006


I don't think there's any way to answer that question without toppling over into a discussion of free will. I'm willing to go there if everyone else is, but it's a huge can of worms!

Well, that's beside the point. Whether or not I have "free will" is irrelevant to whether or not I'm hungry, and if I'm hungry I may not be able to stop my self from eating food that is available. One is not "free" to do things that they have no motive for doing

Absolutely fascinating post, beth. I don't ever want to become psychotic, but I admit to envying you the God part of your experience. I'd love to experience that.

I've heard more of beth's story before, and trust me you wouldn't.

Beth, do you think there's anything in your pre-psychotic personality that would have left you susceptible to that particular delusion?

Beth's psychosis was a physical thing. Just like our base desires are physical things. All caused by brain chemistry and structure.

More specifically, why do I run into a burning building to save people who aren't related to me? That seems counter to the Selfish Gene model, yet it happens.

It does not, because the people in the building may carry copies of your genes.
posted by delmoi at 2:34 PM on November 26, 2006


if I'm hungry I may not be able to stop my self from eating food that is available.

Then you don't have free will (at least in respect to this), right?
posted by grumblebee at 2:38 PM on November 26, 2006


Then you don't have free will (at least in respect to this), right?

Well, it depends on how you define free will I guess. To me the free will/determinism question is not really relevant to that scenario.
posted by delmoi at 4:15 PM on November 26, 2006


I wish Dawkins had thought more deeply about the "what if you're wrong?" question. He turned the question around and asked the theist, "what if YOU'RE wrong?" I understand his reasons for doing this: the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim. I agree with that. But I still think it's an interesting question.

I think Dawkins turned the question around because he's spent plenty of time asking himself the same question, and as someone with a scientific approach he would not have a problem admitting he is wrong about something if proven so. The question implies, unfairly, that he is closed-minded, and is being asked by someone who is probably less likely to admit being wrong in the face of evidence than he is. He turns it around because the question is more appropriately posed by him toward someone who would ask him this kind of question.
posted by troybob at 6:00 PM on November 26, 2006


Yes, I understand why he turned it around, but I'm still interested in what Dawkins would do if he was wrong. Would he think, "Okay, I'm wrong." Or would he drop to his knees and start praying? If he started praying would his prayers be thankful or grudging prayers?
posted by grumblebee at 6:38 PM on November 26, 2006


If Dawkins decided he were wrong about the existence of a god, I don't think he would automatically accept the validity of religious observance, or that he would necessarily believe any religion has gotten anything right. He would probably keep investigating.
posted by troybob at 7:10 PM on November 26, 2006


As it happens, Altruism is the subject this week on my favorite radio program/podcast -- "In Our Time" on BBC4. One of the guests is Richard Dawkins.
posted by grumblebee at 7:12 PM on November 26, 2006


Ex-monk B. Alan Wallace explains what Buddhism can teach Western scientists, why reincarnation should be taken seriously and what it's like to study meditation with the Dalai Lama
posted by homunculus at 8:14 PM on November 26, 2006


More specifically, why do I run into a burning building to save people who aren't related to me? That seems counter to the Selfish Gene model, yet it happens.

This is an extreme case of the prisoner's dilemma that Dawkins talks about in The Selfish Gene. The example given in the book is that there's a species of bird that grooms other birds (it's been a while since I read it, so I hope I'm not butchering this too badly). The grooming is only of benefit to the recipient, with small cost to the groomer. The gene that regulates this behavior drives a bird to do what's best for the group at the expense of the individual. Ditto with your rescuing-people-from-burning-buildings habit.
posted by jewzilla at 8:28 PM on November 26, 2006


Whoa! I didn't think that this thread would keep on going so long (Though in retrospect I can't believe I thought that. MeFi is as MeFi does.)

grumblebee: I'm also arguing that biology underpins much of our specific moral rules (though I'm sure they're greatly nuanced by cultural forces). Why is it ethically good to help other people? Why aren't we sitting around saying, "George is such a good man? He just hit that woman in the head!" Because our specific morality evolved via a Darwinian process which was pressured by the fact that our ancestors lived in tight-knit groups where kindness had a survival payoff.

Believe me, I completely understand the mechanism behind the behavior you're describing and I actually agree with you. But don't you see that "morality is just a behavior" is a totally different thing from "behaving morally is what we should do"? It's the difference - the "should" - which (if it's real) can't have any material cause and (if it's real) can't be subordinate to another cause (like God) in general.

LooseFilter: My morality is based in compassion; I do the right thing because I don't want to cause unnecessary suffering to others (or to myself).

You're saying that all your moral decisions are simply what you want to do, anyways. An essential thing about doing right and avoiding wrong is that it often is not what you want to do and does not benefit you. If it really is all based on compassion for you, then when you don't feel that compassion (or if you can convince yourself that doing something wrong won't really harm others) you'll be willing to do anything.

This Darwinist altruism stuff is frequently presented as a roundabout way of (fallaciously) arguing that the basis for moral behavior is that it actually benefits the individual, because it benefits the individual's species.

delmoi: What I meant was that there was no good rational reason for being moral, only emotional reasons, and emotions are biological in nature. Empathy, as an emotion and as a sense is a biological thing (in fact scientists have done a lot of work toward figuring out what parts of the brain cause it monkeys)

That's the whole thing, morality is an intrinsic thing not something arrived at through rational thought.

I think that your last statement there is the crux of it. Perhaps we're saying the same thing, but I wouldn't describe the sense of right and wrong as emotion. I think this sense is independent of emotion, because as I described above, doing what's right and avoiding what's wrong isn't always what we want or what feels good.

Sigh - I'd wanted to avoid fulfilling Godwin's Law, but now seems the right moment to point out that a certain secular movement of the 1920's and 1930's did take as its foundational philosophy doing what is best for the species. Moral behavior was no longer owed to those deemed to not be of the species - Jews and Gypsies and others. This is why I think that asserting a materialist Darwinian basis for morality (and thereby denying our innate ability to perceive the non-material basis of morality) has so much dangerous potential.

And it wasn't just the Nazis in the 20's and 30's, there was a thriving Eugenics movement in the U.S. too. Thousands of people deemed "unfit" were sterilized before the outbreak of WWII. And of course, a great deal of the rationale for racism against blacks in the U.S. has derived from speciesist arguments - that blacks are just fundamentally different from whites and that's why treating them differently is justified. I've literally heard it said that a white girl dating a black guy is "betraying her race".

So I think that a materialist Darwinian basis for morality is a dangerous thing that opens up a means of stretching right and wrong to fit what an individual wants. And it furthermore whispers seductively to utter racism, the kind of absolute negation of morality that has led to much of the darkest evil of human history.

Don't you see that in this respect it's serving the same function as religion - a proxy framework for right and wrong that can be bent and broken to serve our own base desires and thereby help us to ignore our more fundamental, direct sense of what's right and wrong? And it's doubly dangerous because so many of us atheists believe that we're fundamentally different from theists, that we have renounced and aren't prone to the irrationality that was the source of so many religiously-justified atrocities in the past.
posted by XMLicious at 12:39 AM on November 27, 2006


Morality does have utility. A culture needs to create functional mores if it wants to thrive, just as a business needs to ensure that its employees behave in a certain way if it wants to be lucrative.

The Nazi example that you brought up is a good way to illustrate how a government that chooses the wrong moral protocol becomes unstable. Before the Nazis came to power, Germany was at the forefront of the fields of Chemistry and Physics. Nazi atrocities caused many of Germany's brightest physicists (some of whom happened to be Jewish) to leave the country. You can't build an atom bomb without brilliant physicists. In this way, the Nazis many moral failures stifled their own war machine.
posted by Human Flesh at 3:54 AM on November 27, 2006


The reason that the Nazi government became unstable is because they lost a war. There isn't some cosmic (read: divine!) justice that will materially punish people for being immoral and our determination to do right can't depend on anything like that.

Utility doesn't make right any more than might makes right. Morality might on occasion have utility but that can't be the reason why we're moral. And in fact we ought to seek out morality that does not have utility for us, because pairing those up is just asking to be corrupted.
posted by XMLicious at 5:25 AM on November 27, 2006


But don't you see that "morality is just a behavior" is a totally different thing from "behaving morally is what we should do"?

I think this is a language-based confusion. It meaningless to say "you should do this" or "you shouldn't do that" unless there's a context -- a goal.

Example: you should wear gloves.

That doesn't make sense, unless there's (say) a goal of keeping one's hands warm.

So it doesn't make sense to say "Thou shalt not steal" without a context. God is a great context. With God, you can say, "Thou shalt not steal without breaking God's Law." But for many of us here -- including me -- that context won't work.

Any context for an atheist will necessarily be arbitrary, but it can be based on primal human urges. In other words, the best we can do is say things like, "Pretty much everyone wants to be happy, so that will be the context. So you should do X, Y and Z, because that will maximize happiness." (Another arbitrary choice might be keeping the eco-system healthy.)

The problem comes when a personal context involves other people. When that happens -- as it almost always does -- I need you to follow my rules. And if you don't want to (say you want to steal), what should I do? I probably have items in my moral system that frown on forcing people to do things for selfish reasons. On the other hand, my whole system falls apart if you don't follow it. In the end, it generally comes down to might makes right.

That's true for atheists and theists (the might of God and an infrastructer of human-built institutions to enforce God's rules).

I realized this when I was a teenager. My mom told me that I should do something -- I forget what -- and I berated her for imposing her will on me. She argued that I was wrong; that what she was telling me was for my own good. I asked her what happened if I disagreed about what was for my own good. She said, "well, you have to do it anyway." I aksed why. She said, "because I'm the parent!" I pointed out that this was an example of might makes right. She -- being a liberal mom -- was very uncomfortable with that idea.

Yes, I was an annoying teenager. But I do think there's a drive to say, you SHOULD do blah blah blah without a context. Why should I do it? You just SHOULD! Unfortunately, that makes no sense.

As for the Nazis, I'd say that the real danger is people using bad science. Darwinism is descriptive, not prescriptive. It doesn't suggest that you should go around killing people who are "less perfect" than you. It doesn't suggest that you do anything. It's just a description of the mechanism that drives the natural world. And it's not even the case that the animals go around purposefully killing every other animal that is weaker than them. The hippo doesn't go around picking off weaker hippos.

You do bring up an interesting point. What should we do (there's that "should" word!) if we uncover a dangerous truth. Maybe you think Darwinism is an untruth. But for the sake of argument, pretend it's a truth. Do you think it should be suppressed -- even though it's true -- because it's dangerous?

I'm not gearing up to pounce on you and say, "Aha! You believe in censorship!" Though my gut HATES censorship and believes that "information wants to be free," I can't cling to that stance religiously. Maybe there's some information that is so dangerous that it shouldn't be free.

I don't think Darwinism falls into that category.
posted by grumblebee at 5:48 AM on November 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


Rationality enters into morality through the training of parents, as an adult, many moral behaviors might be be just learned habits. Each moral act may not be rational, (eg going into a burning building), but what habit is? I expect that there exists a complex interplay of nature/nurture at work with most behaviors, as unique as any individual, its not a binary equation - preternatural emotion versus rationality. I understand that this by itself doesn't adequately explain the origins of the behavior, but my sense is that basic societal living is going to select against anti-social , immoral (doh!?) behavior from a practical standpoint, and those that banded together were probably more likely to survive due to community resources, etc.

I remember reading a study about altruistic behavior in wartime, throwing yourself onto a grenade to save your comrades, etc. IIRC, the overwhelming motivation was personal loyalty - one friend to another, not wanting to let your mates down, while the concept of country, patriotism, desire to be a hero, etc, were not found to be a motivator at all.

Also, morality or what may be construed as altruism can be just indirect enlighted self-interest. For example, as an atheist parent I train my children to tell the truth for many reasons, many of which boil down to the fact that its easier on me, and I have strong practical feeling about the futility of lying - meaning a belief that it is better in the long term for the 'liar' to tell the truth - this mixed with the vestiges of my Catholic upbringing, personal philosophys which have resonated, create an environment where lying is strongly discouraged.

I do know one thing, I am going to try to read more on these topics.
posted by sfts2 at 6:15 AM on November 27, 2006


grumblebee, I think that perhaps you really actually don't understand what I'm saying, which I must admit that I hadn't considered before.

Why should I do it? You just SHOULD! Unfortunately, that makes no sense.

"You just SHOULD" is exactly what I'm saying.

I was putting "should" in quotes because I was trying to signal that I was using it in a manner distinct from the dictionary definition. But due to the entanglement with the dictionary definition, I'd have been better off if I'd just completely made up a word.

Yes, in English the most common meaning of the word "should" means "to best support the goal". So when you say "If you want to buy a sandwich you should bring some money with you to the restaurant" it means "To best support the goal of buying a sandwich, you would bring some money with you to the restaurant."

A term that better conveys the meaning I'm using is "obligated". So when I say "you should not kill innocent people" I mean "you are obligated to not kill innocent people." I do NOT mean "to best support some goal you would not kill innocent people."

"Primal human urges" do not create any sort of obligation, it's not the same sort of thing at all. You need to eat, you need to have sex, those acts best support the goals of staying alive and procreating - but you aren't obligated to eat or have sex. And any moral system that you try to construct from facts that science has derived about human psychology or biology will be the same way.

This is what I'm saying, the "should", the obligation to do good and avoid evil, stands on its own in a materialistic world. And even in a theistic world, God being everyone's big daddy, with morality based upon his whims, would lead us to acts (i.e. Old Testament righteous smiting) that violate our innate sense of morality.
posted by XMLicious at 7:07 AM on November 27, 2006


I do understand what you're saying, but I can't parse it in a way that makes sense to me:

"you are obligated to not kill innocent people."

Why?

Because you ARE!

Sorry, but that's meaningless to me. I understand the FEELING, but I don't privilege feelings as having any semantic meaning (though I do privilege them as being important).

That statement makes as little sense to me as

you are obligated to wear socks!

The only sensible responses to that are "why?" or "no I'm not." I'm not obligated to do anything, unless you give me a context and I agree to share that context with you.

And believe me, there are TONS of things I want people to do. I want them NOT to murder. I want them to be kind to each other, etc. But I can't fool myself that they're obliged to do these things. Doing so would be incredibly egotistical. It would be taking MY desires and giving them cosmic weight. (A theist has an easy out here, of course. Thou shalt not kill isn't his desire; it's God's desire.)

I can only hope that other people share my context. If they don't, I can only hope that enough powerful people share it (e.g. government officials) that they can force everyone else into my context.

Many people are uncomfortable with that last idea, and so and I (and so was my mom!), but I think it's unescapable.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 AM on November 27, 2006


There isn't some cosmic (read: divine!) justice that will materially punish people for being immoral and our determination to do right can't depend on anything like that.

Exactly. That's why moral protocols should be enforced by humans instead of gods.

Utility doesn't make right any more than might makes right. Morality might on occasion have utility but that can't be the reason why we're moral.

Why not? Although I try to seem iconoclastic and contrarian, I still make an effort to avoid looking like a sociopath. I'm not clear about the degree to which my feelings of empathy are influenced by my upbringing and genes. My point was that moral systems are useful adaptations for social animals to cultivate.

Sending millions of civilians to death camps and starting wars on two fronts are tactical blunders regardless of how abhorrent those actions are to us or the gods.

And in fact we ought to seek out morality that does not have utility for us, because pairing those up is just asking to be corrupted.

It doesn't seem that the gods have done a very good job at stopping corruption.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:38 AM on November 27, 2006


Okay, then... what is your answer to why you are obligated to not kill innocent people?

The only sensible responses to that are "why?" or "no I'm not." ... I can only hope that other people share my context.

It sounds to me like you don't actually believe it's wrong to kill innocent people - or at least that you wouldn't be willing to tell other people not to. Would you be willing to punish a murderer? Or would him not sharing the context get him off? And if you would be willing to punish him, what justification would you give?
posted by XMLicious at 7:44 AM on November 27, 2006


It sounds to me like you don't actually believe it's wrong to kill innocent people - or at least that you wouldn't be willing to tell other people not to. Would you be willing to punish a murderer? Or would him not sharing the context get him off? And if you would be willing to punish him, what justification would you give?

If I don't believe it's wrong to kill innocent people, wouldn't it be logically consistent to not believe it's wrong to lock murderers up?
posted by Anything at 7:55 AM on November 27, 2006


To clarify, what would stop me from forgoing "fundamental morality" altogether, for the punishment as well as for the crime?
posted by Anything at 8:07 AM on November 27, 2006


If I don't believe it's wrong to kill innocent people, wouldn't it be logically consistent to not believe it's wrong to lock murderers up?

Yes, it would. And it would also be logically consistent for him to not disapprove of the actions of Stalin, the Nazis, etc. and to be indifferent to the war in Iraq, and it would be logically consistent from him to murder people who get in his way. But I don't believe that he or anyone else is like that. People who would say they are are simply "try[ing] to seem iconoclastic and contrarian" like Human Flesh there.
posted by XMLicious at 8:08 AM on November 27, 2006


XMLicious, I didn't understand your last comment. Are you trying to say that if we understand the etiology of various moral systems, they'll somehow become less binding? Behaving like a sociopath doesn't seem rational to me. Being a super-villan isn't as easy as it sounds. We still have to interact with our fellow humans regardless of whether we take our moral cues from John Stuart Mill or Mohammed the Prophet.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:08 AM on November 27, 2006


I said that if someone says they think there's nothing wrong with murder, there's nothing wrong with what Hitler or Stalin did, and that they themselves would be willing to kill people who got in the way, they're just trying to portray themselves as iconoclastic and contrarian.
posted by XMLicious at 9:21 AM on November 27, 2006


Well I may be odd in that respect, but I don't concern myself with morality when the war in Iraq makes me sick. I concern myself with these, among many other things:

1. I care about people in general. When a superpower fucks up the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, it makes me enormously sad.

2. I care about my own freedom to live in peace, and my own freedom of movement. I believe the war in Iraq will end up causing a lot of hate towards the west in general, and I don't want to die in a suicide bombing. I would also have liked to maybe see Baghdad some day, but I gather it's becoming just a smoking ruin.

For these reasons, I'd personally like to see the warmongers locked up and all their property confiscated to strip them of all their power to do fucked up things which, along with other consequences, make me scared and angry.

I know I could attach a moral "sense of justification" to these feelings, but I don't see what that would achieve beyond making the feelings more rigid. I'm fairly sure that I don't need it to stay angry about the war, since I think my reasoning and my instinct on this subject will stay the same. And I do want them to stay the same; the mere thought of a future-me truly not giving a shit makes me -- now -- very uneasy, so it's a feedback loop of sorts.

Nevertheless, I want to keep my mind open to the possibility that my reasoning has failed or that my instincts are harmful. If I'm convinced that I am right, these possibilities are hard to consider.
posted by Anything at 9:23 AM on November 27, 2006


I'd personally like to see the warmongers locked up and all their property confiscated to strip them of all their power to do fucked up things which, along with other consequences, make me scared and angry.

But you don't think that what they did is wrong?

Of course you do. Just look at what you wrote there. I think you have a sense of right and wrong, and you don't mind projecting your knowledge of right and wrong onto other people, I think you just don't like the words "right" and "wrong".
posted by XMLicious at 9:41 AM on November 27, 2006


Come to think of it - are you equating the use of the word "moral" with "righteous"? Don't. Look, it's perfectly okay to say that killing innocent people is wrong, and that George Bush (and many other accomplices) are wrong and have done evil in intentionally and willingly causing the death of many innocent people.
posted by XMLicious at 9:45 AM on November 27, 2006


When you say you're concerned that your instinct may be harmful, you're saying that because you know that being ignorantly harmful of others is wrong.

Being certain of your moral principles doesn't mean that you can't be careful or humble or give the benefit of the doubt when you make moral judgements (which is what you're doing all the time, when you form any opinion, even if you shy away from calling it that.)

"It's wrong to kill innocent people" is something that you should be rigid about, something that you shouldn't accept compromises on or accept someone saying "well my reasons are good enough to kill innocent people over." You know that you definitely wouldn't be flexible about it if the innocent people being killed were your own loved ones.
posted by XMLicious at 9:59 AM on November 27, 2006


It sounds to me like you don't actually believe it's wrong to kill innocent people - or at least that you wouldn't be willing to tell other people not to. Would you be willing to punish a murderer? Or would him not sharing the context get him off? And if you would be willing to punish him, what justification would you give?

What I can say is this. I hate murder. I would hate myself if I murdered. I hate anyone else who murders. I don't want to live in a world with murderers, so I'm in favor of laws against murder.

There's a certain point -- when I'm going on and on about all the ways I hate murder -- when it becomes easier to just say, "I believe murder is wrong." So that's what I do in casual conversation. And to be honest, that's how I FEEL. But when I'm intellectualizing, I realize that "wrong" (to me) just means that I profoundly dislike it. That it doesn't square with my version of the world.

The problem is that -- as I advocate laws -- I'm imposing my will on other people, and I'm not very comfortable with it. I do it anyway, and I comfort myself with the thought that most people share my views about murder. But even that comfort fails at some point, because it means that the majority is imposing their will on everyone: might makes right.

I really really really want to say that murder is just wrong because it's wrong. It's cosmically wrong. And I think that's one of the great solaces of religion. If you're religious, you can say that. But I'm not, so I can't.

It's weird to me that whenever I discuss this with people, they say things to me like, "How does that make you better than a Nazi?" or "Doesn't that mean that you think murder is okay?" Maybe, but tell me the flaw in my reasoning! If murder is okay, then murder is okay. It has nothing to do with what I think. It has to do with what's true. If you agree with my reasoning, then it's true for you, too, though you're welcome not to think about it.
posted by grumblebee at 10:16 AM on November 27, 2006


XMLicious, you're making a lot of statements without backing them up, which would generally be fine. Except we're having a scientific/philosophical discussion here, so it's confusing when you don't provide evidence or logic to back up what you're saying.

I'm talking about statements like this:

"It's wrong to kill innocent people" is something that you should be rigid about

WHY should I? According to whom? Is there any answer to those questions other than "because I say so" and "according to me"?
posted by grumblebee at 10:27 AM on November 27, 2006


I said that if someone says they think there's nothing wrong with murder, there's nothing wrong with what Hitler or Stalin did, and that they themselves would be willing to kill people who got in the way, they're just trying to portray themselves as iconoclastic and contrarian.
Sure, someone who supported a death probably wouldn't call it a pejorative term like murder. I haven't knowingly met anyone who supported Hitler or Stalin so I can't account for their behavior, but I think it's rather glib to claim that the crimes committed by the SS were motivated by contrarian impulses.

You seem to have a hard time accepting morals that aren't rooted in deontology.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:58 AM on November 27, 2006


No, there isn't any other answer. For the tenth time, THAT'S WHAT I'M SAYING. It's wrong because you know it's wrong, not for any other reason. Invoking some kind of authority (like God) or logic (like if you could say "The one fundamental drive of organic life is proven to be that murder is wrong!") wouldn't make it any more wrong.

Look, then, for all your avowed ambivalence about the matter, if you had the power to snap your fingers and stop something you were certain was murder, wouldn't you in every single case force your opinion on the situation?

(And by the way, if you're so open-minded and fair about everything, why do you have a problem with me asserting that something is self-evident to all humans and stands without proof? Are you saying that's... wrong? ;^) Just kidding.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:08 AM on November 27, 2006


For the tenth time, THAT'S WHAT I'M SAYING. It's wrong because you know it's wrong

Yes. This is the locus of our disagreement. I say, something is NOT wrong because I "know" it's wrong.

Actually, I don't know it's wrong. I feel in my gut that it's wrong. You may equate gut feelings (or something similar) with knowing, but I don't.

if you had the power to snap your fingers and stop something you were certain was murder, wouldn't you in every single case force your opinion on the situation?

Yes, I would. And?

I would do it, because I hate murder. Doing it would be a selfish act (though, I suspect, most people would be happy that I was acting selfishly). I'd be wielding my magical powers to make the world more the way I want it to be. Might makes right. Or, if I want to be easier on myself, I can say I'd be wielding my magical powers to make the world the way most people want it to be: majority rules.

I'm still uncomfortable. I don't want to enforce my personal morality -- or even the majority's morality -- via force or magic. I'd much rather just explain to everyone that I'm enforcing God's morality or The One And Only True Cosmic Morality, but I can't do either of those things.


if you're so open-minded and fair about everything

When did I claim that?

I know you're kidding, but just so we're clear, I'm specifically claiming to be UNFAIR. I am unfair, because I am willing to selfishly impose my morality on others.
posted by grumblebee at 11:39 AM on November 27, 2006


Terms such as right and wrong are value judgments. How could a value judgement exist without an evaluator?
posted by Human Flesh at 11:54 AM on November 27, 2006


Terms such as right and wrong are value judgments. How could a value judgement exist without an evaluator?

I agree, Human Flesh, but let's be really clear about the ramifications: Fred says, "Stealing is wrong. So since Amy is a thief, she should go to jail." By this, he means: I am comfortable being the arbitrator of what is right and wrong (or I'm going to do it whether I'm comfortable or not), and I personally judge stealing to be wrong. And since I have so judged, I advocate throwing Amy in jail. And I will help make sure she's thrown in jail. In other words, I will impose my will on someone else.
posted by grumblebee at 12:01 PM on November 27, 2006


I am unfair, because I am willing to selfishly impose my morality on others.

Okay, now I'm serious rather than joking. Are you saying it's wrong to selfishly impose your morality on others? Is it, like, more wrong than murder, or less wrong than murder?

I think what's coming through is that you know that making rigid moral judgements is wrong and you're mixing that up with having firm moral principles. Now just take that confidence you have that making rigid moral judgements is wrong, and extend it to other things that every human can agree on, like murdering innocent people.
posted by XMLicious at 12:13 PM on November 27, 2006


I agree, Human Flesh, but let's be really clear about the ramifications...

This is what I'm talking about, the conflation between moral principles and particular moral judgements. What you're saying is "If murder was wrong, someone at some point might have to decide whether someone had commited murder and possibly punish them, and they could be incorrect in their conclusion; therefore, murder can't be wrong."
posted by XMLicious at 12:21 PM on November 27, 2006


Here's another tack: since the element of having to make a judgement of whether an immoral act has occured or not is causing you some cognitive dissonance, let's remove that from the equation by considering the case where the person in question has "confessed", where they've told you what they've done.

Let's say someone tells you that they're a child molester and you don't have any reason to think they're making it up, i.e. you don't think they're delusional and you don't think they're lying to cover for someone else, etc. Let's say that an acquaintance of yours who is a preschool teacher casually mentions to you that he had sex with one of his kids. Would you have a problem telling him "That was wrong, you shouldn't do it again" or would you say "hey man, that would be wrong if I did it myself, but for you it might be perfectly okay"? (rhetorical question) And wouldn't you take further steps to make sure it didn't happen again?
posted by XMLicious at 12:41 PM on November 27, 2006


"Though shalt not covet your neighbour's wife... or her ass" [pause, laughter]
Dawkins really is shedding a new interpretive light on his bible readings.

Great post - very interesting!
posted by algreer at 12:47 PM on November 27, 2006


I would probably not be in the mood to have a philosophical debate with the molester, and might well say something like "that was wrong", sort of when I say "the sun rises", even though it's just the earth moving, and the sun doesn't actually rise.

And then I'd take him to the cops.
posted by Anything at 1:06 PM on November 27, 2006


I agree, Human Flesh, but let's be really clear about the ramifications: Fred says, "Stealing is wrong. So since Amy is a thief, she should go to jail." By this, he means: I am comfortable being the arbitrator of what is right and wrong (or I'm going to do it whether I'm comfortable or not), and I personally judge stealing to be wrong. And since I have so judged, I advocate throwing Amy in jail. And I will help make sure she's thrown in jail. In other words, I will impose my will on someone else.

In an ideal world no one would do anything unpleasant, so we wouldn't have to worry about how we should respond to problematic behavior (e.g. theft, murdere, etc.). We don't live in that world, so we create things like laws, money, language, guns, and prisons (essentially a civilization) so that we can influence the behavior of the population.
posted by Human Flesh at 1:11 PM on November 27, 2006


Are you saying it's wrong to selfishly impose your morality on others? Is it, like, more wrong than murder, or less wrong than murder?

No. You are using the word "wrong." I'm saying I'm uneasy about it. I'm uncomfortable imposing my will on other people. But even if I was a firm believer in a fixed moral code, I doubt I'd call imposing-my-will wrong. It might sometimes be wrong. Other times, it might be for the best. But I was brought up to be humble and fair, so I'm uncomfortable doing it.

Now just take that confidence you have that making rigid moral judgements is wrong, and extend it to other things that every human can agree on, like murdering innocent people.

Clearly, all people don't agree on this. Most people do. If we institute a moral system based on what most people want, then we're allowing the majority to rule the minority. This is, in fact, what we do. And I'm not proposing an alternative. But I can't pretend I'm comfortable with it, either. I'm not.

This is what I'm talking about, the conflation between moral principles and particular moral judgements.

I guess I don't know what a moral principle is. How does it differ from a strong preference? (As opposed to a Law. Gravity is a law. You must obey it, even if your preference is not to.)

What you're saying is "If murder was wrong, someone at some point might have to decide whether someone had commited murder and possibly punish them, and they could be incorrect in their conclusion; therefore, murder can't be wrong."

What's the point of morality if it doesn't lead to action? Is there any point in just labeling something right or wrong? Not to me.

[Child molester] Would you have a problem telling him "That was wrong...?

I do this all the time (tell people they're wrong -- not molest children). I do it, because -- as I've said -- I FEEL like there's such a thing as morality. And I often act on my feelings. But I don't think there's a sound, logical argument backing up my feelings.

I think most of us (me included) want to (a) have the ability to pass judgment and (b) refer to some force, external to ourselves as the source of that judgment (it's not just me saying it's wrong; it IS wrong!)

I don't think it's really possible to do this, but by shouting, "that's WRONG" loudly, it seems like you can do it. Making moral (as opposed to preferential) judgments is a fictional way of having our cake and eating it too. As-long-as we don't examine it too closely. Alas, I can't stop myself for examining it closely. But when I'm really pissed off or indignant, I can turn off the over-thinking module for a while.

we create things like laws, money, language, guns, and prisons (essentially a civilization) so that we can influence the behavior of the population.

Who is "we"? The good people? The moral people? Who says "we" are the moral people? Are we moral because we're the ones in power? Are we just moral because we are, goddammit?

Maybe I'm confusing people, because they think I'm proposing some sort of solution. I'm not. I don't believe that there's any reasonable, logically-consistent way you can be an atheist and a moralist. If you read that and want to ask me questions like, "So what do we do about murderers?" then I can only answer "I don't know."

It's sort of like saying, "We need $1.50 for a subway ticket but we don't have $1.50. What should we do?" I don't know. Just because I'm bringing up a problem, it doesn't mean that I have an answer or that there even is an answer.

I can tell you what I would do with a murderer. I would throw him jail. Why? Because I feel like what he's doing is wrong! But didn't you just say ... ? Yes, I did. I can't exist without the illusion of morality. So most of the time I just try to forget that it's an illusion. I wish I was better at forgetting.
posted by grumblebee at 1:51 PM on November 27, 2006


Yeah, don't want to wade into the thick of this, but...

grumblebee, you wrote, The problem is that -- as I advocate laws -- I'm imposing my will on other people, and I'm not very comfortable with it. I do it anyway, and I comfort myself with the thought that most people share my views about murder. But even that comfort fails at some point, because it means that the majority is imposing their will on everyone: might makes right.

I really really really want to say that murder is just wrong because it's wrong. It's cosmically wrong. And I think that's one of the great solaces of religion. If you're religious, you can say that. But I'm not, so I can't.


Something is confusing me about your thinking--you're talking about absolutes, if I understand correctly (what is morality? Upon whose authority should it be based? Who gets to decide if an action is 'right' or 'wrong'? etc.), but continue to look for concrete examples, and those are two different conversations, I think.

Morality as an absolute, a philosophical topic absent of context is a challenging and fascinating subject to discuss, and quite thorny (obviously). But I think the whole conversation has to change when one begins to discuss right/wrong, etc., in the context of real actions and other people. The latter is a practical concern: 6 billion of us have to live together on this planet, so how are we going to get along? My particular tribe ('nation') has 300 million people in it, and collectively decided both a conceptual, philosophical framework for determing what's right and wrong, and to what degree, through a democratic process featuring open debate on the front end and judicial review on the back end.

I don't understand how you are so fundamentally, intractably uncomfortable with imposing your will on someone else--absolute freedom is only possible in a world of one. As soon as another creature inhabits your world, you have to agree on how you're allowed to treat one another. In the U.S., our system of law was conceived to accomplish that goal while retaining the maximum freedom possible. I just don't see what good it is to agonize over your discomfort with the concept when it is an intractable practical reality of human beings living together in a society, at least as far as we've figured out.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:27 PM on November 27, 2006


There is no god.
posted by BoatMeme at 2:33 PM on November 27, 2006


Who is "we"? The good people? The moral people?

By we, I mean the culture in which we live. We may live in different continents, but the rough principles that guide cultural evolution are the same.

Who says "we" are the moral people?

We don't have to be moral, but nature exerts selective pressures that favor cooperation.

Are we moral because we're the ones in power?

Yes, a set of rules that we call morality will persist so long as it can find a stable host population.

It's sort of like saying, "We need $1.50 for a subway ticket but we don't have $1.50. What should we do?" I don't know. Just because I'm bringing up a problem, it doesn't mean that I have an answer or that there even is an answer.

Like many social animals, we tend to form pecking orders, but I don't see why your moral authority should have to be a god. We can look to a local warlord, priest, labor union, king, or a charismatic figure like Confucius, Zoroaster, or Peter Singer if we need moral guidance.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:40 PM on November 27, 2006


Also, what's untenable about a society agreeing that murder is wrong because it's one person harming another person without the harmed's consent?

Also also, I think there are important differences between 'might makes right' when might comes from a single, unchallengeable authority (like a king) than when it comes through consensus of the populace (like, one hopes, in a democracy).

There are certain unavoidable truths about existence--one is that life feeds on life. Another is that, so it seems, homo sapiens need authority to keep one another in line. If so, it seems wise that we should establish as consensus-based and accountable an authority as possible, and accept its need to exist.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:40 PM on November 27, 2006


grumblebee:

Quite right. Does everyone who tries schrooms have a spiritual experience? Trouble is, I'm hallucinated before and even that wasn't profound. It was a bit scary, but I suspected it was a hallucination. I guess I need a drug that will (a) give me hallucinations and (b) cut off my ability to reason about them. (But if I can't reason about them, can I really enjoy them?)

Not everyone who tries mushrooms has a spiritual experience, but I'd say it's far and away the most common reaction. And if not, odds are you're having a bad experience, which may still be spiritual.

But I'd say it's safe to assume a first try of mushrooms would more likely than not generate a very intense spiritual--although usually not definitely religious--experience. It's not the hallucinations caused by mushrooms that are spiritual, it's the emotional state they cause. In my opinion, a drug like mushrooms has a very distinct emotional reaction that is missing in other common hallucinogens (e.g. LSD, etc). So your question about giving hallucinations and cutting off your ability to reason about them doesn't really apply.

At least, that's my experience with mushrooms. And like others, I can say with a serious degree of certainty that mushroom trips are the closest I have ever personally come to a religious, spiritual, etc. epiphany/awakening/experience. I think most would say the same thing.

...now I'll let you all go back to your religious discussion ;)
posted by jckll at 2:50 PM on November 27, 2006


I guess I don't know what a moral principle is.

An example of a moral principle would be, "It's wrong to kill innocent people" or "It's wrong to have sex with five-year-olds."

What's the point of morality if it doesn't lead to action?

I would say that there isn't a "point of" morality. It's not a tool that exists to serve us. That question is like saying "what's the point of logic if you can never be certain the assumptions you're basing it upon are true?" TRUE ∪ FALSE ≂ FALSE still works even if there are no humans in the universe.

But in any case, action or inaction still has nothing to do with whether something's right or wrong in the first place. It's still a fallacious argument to say, "Because it would be difficult to decide whether a murder was committed in a particular case, murder cannot be wrong."

... by shouting, "that's WRONG" loudly ...

I'm not just "shouting that's wrong". I'm consistently demonstrating that I know what judgement you'll make, because you have the same internal sense of morality that I do. You would stop a murder and you would stop child molestation, just the same as I or anyone else would.

"So what do we do about murderers?" then I can only answer "I don't know."

That's not true - you've already said that you would stop murder, every time, if you could.

You're also conflating holding moral principles as wide ranging things as the legal system, the penitentiary system, and punishment in general. You don't have to say "murder isn't wrong" just because you can't think of the best, or even any successful, way to prevent murder or appropriately deal with murderers. I can't think of a system like that either.


It's sort of like saying, "We need $1.50 for a subway ticket but we don't have $1.50. What should we do?" I don't know. Just because I'm bringing up a problem, it doesn't mean that I have an answer or that there even is an answer.


Your answer wouldn't be "I guess I'll stay at work all night", though. You still have to get home. By the same token, just because we can't design a perfect justice system we don't have to say "justice doesn't exist".

I can't exist without the illusion of morality. So most of the time I just try to forget that it's an illusion.

I'm telling you, it's not an illusion. Otherwise how would I know how you'd answer all of these questions? It's not like you don't have to be careful - it's not like you don't have to sift through your feelings and apply alot of self-doubt and reasoning and "recuse yourself" from issues that your own interests might interfere with.

And it's not like we're positing a pantheon of gods or an afterlife to exist - this isn't much further faith than "I think therefore I am." I mean, if you think that I exist - and the only evidence you have of that is some words appearing on your computer screen - it shouldn't be too much further to think that right and wrong, which you have much more direct and immediate and frequent experience of, are real.

It's important to too, because thinking that morals are illusory is an even better way to persuade yourself to ignore them at some point than thinking they're the whim of God.
posted by XMLicious at 2:50 PM on November 27, 2006


Heh heh... subway ticket... by the same token sometimes I think there's a metaphysical pun substrate to the universe too.
posted by XMLicious at 2:58 PM on November 27, 2006


Also, what's untenable about a society agreeing that murder is wrong because it's one person harming another person without the harmed's consent?

This is pretty much the society Western humans live in, and that other countries aspire to. The notion that rights to life, liberty, and property (Jefferson sugar-coated the latter to "happiness") goes back to Locke and Rousseau (over-simplifying here, of course).

It seems to me that grumblebee protesteth too much. The whole point of society, post-Locke, is that if I murder someone I go to jail (or at least, should go to jail) simply because I have violated an arbitrary contract. This still leaves room for moral condemnation from on high, from your God's dead kid or from Vishnu or whatever, and for strong moral positions (murder is wrong, helping others is right), but we no longer have to burden our admittedly fuzzy legal principles with the supposedly infallible ones from, say, the Old Testament.

It tends to work nicely in practice with some glaring exceptions.
posted by bardic at 2:59 PM on November 27, 2006


6 billion of us have to live together on this planet, so how are we going to get along?

I've already answered that. Might makes right, majority rule, and some comforting lies we tell ourselves so that we can think we have a better solution.

I don't understand how you are so fundamentally, intractably uncomfortable with imposing your will on someone else

What's so special about me? Why should MY will be imposed?

Also, what's untenable about a society agreeing that murder is wrong because it's one person harming another person without the harmed's consent?
What do they base this agreement on? The feelings of the majority? Fine. Like I've been saying: majority rule. I go along with majority rule, because I can't think of a better plan. It's the best plan we've come up with in a very flawed culture. Some people -- at this point -- can say, "Well, since it's the BEST we can come up with, I can comfortably think of it as a good idea." That's good for them, but I don't have that luxury. I think majority rule is horrible. The fact that it's the least evil of all evils doesn't make it not horrible. (The best house in hell is still in hell.)

(You can't just say it's wrong to murder because murdering is harming another person, because that's dodging the question. You're have an unstated premice that "harming another person" is wrong. So what you're saying is murder is wrong because it's wrong. Because it just IS!)

action or inaction still has nothing to do with whether something's right or wrong in the first place.

True. But I have no interest in the subject outside of utility. I'm totally bored by the idea of labeling, say, Bush as a good or a bad man. Who cares? Wake me up when we're talking about giving him a medal or putting him in prison.

just the same as I or anyone else would.

If you're claiming that EVERYONE on Earth has the same moral values, then we disagree. (If I agreed with that, I'd reverse much of what I'm saying here, so it's worth your while convincing me of this point -- if you think you can!) I do agree that many people (most?) share similar values. And -- as I've said many times -- if we agree to run with these values, we're letting the majority rule the minority. Which is, in fact, what we generally do. And it's what I'd vote to do, if it was up for a vote. But I'd be unhappy.

It's important to too, because thinking that morals are illusory is an even better way to persuade yourself to ignore them at some point than thinking they're the whim of God.

I know you think otherwise, but humor me for a second and pretend they are illusory. You're saying that if we accept this fact, then we'll wind up doing terrible things (murdering, etc.) And you might be right about that. But if (still humoring me) morals are an illusion, then you're saying we should try to believe a lie in order to help keep from doing bad things. And you may be right about that too.

What I'm trying to point out is that whether or not believing in morals is a useful thing to do is a completely different issue than whether or not they exist. Placebos can be useful!

The whole point ... is that if I murder someone I go to jail (or at least, should go to jail) simply because I have violated an arbitrary contract.
Yes (and though I can't come up with a better system, and doubt that there is one), this bothers me.

It tends to work nicely in practice with some glaring exceptions.
What does "it tends to work nicely" mean? That the majority are happy with it? Do you happen to be part of the majority? Lucky for you!
posted by grumblebee at 3:20 PM on November 27, 2006


I'm not trying to have the last word, but depending on how much work comes in, I may not have time to write much more tonight. But this has, for me, been a wonderful discussion. Thank you all very much! I will write more when I'm able.
posted by grumblebee at 3:23 PM on November 27, 2006


What does "it tends to work nicely" mean?

Well, I gave a concrete example, with a pretty important caveat. If someone is arrested for murder, it's not another's "will" being enforced upon the criminal. The guy gets put in jail because he has violated the rights of the murderee. I don't see what's so difficult to understand about that. It's hardly a reason to go all Chicken Little.

As for the caveat, well, there's OJ. But luckily most murderers don't have that kind of wealth, celebrity, and ability to garner racial sympathy.
posted by bardic at 3:31 PM on November 27, 2006


*damn you lack of spell-checker
posted by bardic at 3:32 PM on November 27, 2006


You would stop a murder and you would stop child molestation, just the same as I or anyone else would.

This is demonstrably not true - in the case of 'acceptable levels' of civilian casualties in wartime, dishonoured women in the traditions of some cultures, or like-minded nambla members. As soon as you say "we are obligated to not kill innocent people, except in this circumstance" you are deriving your morality from context, as grumblebee pointed out upthread.

So what are the contexts in which "We are obligated not to kill innocent people" is true, and why is it true in those contexts? Humans are creatures both of their history as a species (co-operation in our case equaled better chance of survival, so we tend to have co-operative tendencies) and what we inherit from that, but also our personal histories, in which the mores of the society we live in got passed along to us as "the way things are" - part of the social contract we follow to avoid ostracisation or (perhaps capital) punishment by parent, courtroom or angry mob. We tend not to question these things, prefering to seem them as natural aspects of ourselves, whereas, in fact, they are totally derived from present and historical context and circumstance.

XMLicious knows how grumblebee will respond because they operate within similar contexts - that's all. If things were different, the contextual reality might be "It's wrong to kill innocent people, unless they're from Oceania/Eurasia/whatever it is today, because that's what I've been told every day of my life (with the implicit understanding that punishment will result from disagreeing) plus they killed my dad." And this very outlook may have tremendous survival value, when any given member of that group is likely to kill you if they see you. It will thus be adopted - possibly for long enough that alternate moralities are forgotten.

Moral relativism isn't abandoning morality - it's merely understanding the origins of morals, and their contextual dependance. Morality is a hugely useful thing for the survival of our brand of ape, I don't think anyone is disagreeing with this point - similar moralities form cohesive, protective groups within which the primary business of mixing genes and spawning can proceed unencumbered. But because we can trace moralities' contextual origins, we shouldn't be so arrogant as to assume what suits us currently is the be all and end all of the subject - an absolute. There's what's best in our current context, and nothing else at all.
posted by Sparx at 3:48 PM on November 27, 2006


Ditto what bardic said--harming another without the consent of the harmed is what is wrong. It's not a judgment of an abstraction (i.e., 'harm' is wrong).
posted by LooseFilter at 3:55 PM on November 27, 2006


What's so special about me? Why should MY will be imposed?

It's not your will, it's your perception of right and wrong, which corresponds to everyone else's.

But I have no interest in the subject outside of utility. I'm totally bored by the idea of labeling, say, Bush as a good or a bad man. Who cares? Wake me up when we're talking about giving him a medal or putting him in prison.

What utility to you does giving him a medal or putting him in prison have? None. Your life will be the same either way. You're interested because you know he's done wrong.

If you're claiming that EVERYONE on Earth has the same moral values, then we disagree.

When you get down to the essentials, they do. Everyone believes that killing innocent people is wrong, for example. They or their societies may have concocted various original sins that they can use to ensure that when necessary, innocence can be banished, but the need to conjure guilt before killing someone is there.


But if (still humoring me) morals are an illusion, then you're saying we should try to believe a lie in order to help keep from doing bad things.


You don't really think I haven't considered the scenario where there's no moral obligation :^) Well, first of all, it's not a matter of "believing a lie"; as you observe yourself, even without a belief in the nonmaterial reality of something like "you shouldn't kill innocent people" you still have compelling emotions that make you behave as if you yourself have such an obligation, and as if others do as well. So you're believing in something much more substantial than a lie. And for that matter, there's no liar involved.

Secondly, if it is illusory, then there actually can't be any bad things, so you can't mess up.

Yeah, there's a certain amount of hedging your bets involved. But if you've already gone through "I exist", "the other people I perceive exist", "because the other people I perceive behave like me, they're the same inside as I am and I have compassion for them" then "the moral obligations I perceive exist" isn't too much further.

More likely than you're believing in a lie is that you're just crazy. But being crazy isn't so bad :D And there are lots worse ways to be crazy than opposing murderers and child molesters. (Yes... this is your subconscious talking to you out of the solipsistic world through the computer screen... you are crazy... you are crazy as a wombat...)
posted by XMLicious at 4:04 PM on November 27, 2006


This is a moment where Richard Rorty would, in his inimitable style, say that some of us are "doing philosophy" in his oh-so-scornful manner, and ignoring the obvious -- we're lucky to live in advanced democracies where our rights don't come from sky-gods or religious texts, but from liberal and Liberal consensus. And that's generally a good thing.
posted by bardic at 4:13 PM on November 27, 2006


Sparx: ...plus they killed my dad.

See, this is what I mean by "conjuring guilt"; in the situation you're describing, the killees aren't believed to be innocent.

Whenever I've talked to someone who's pro-war, and ask them pointedly about the innocent people who die, they either actually consider those people to be guilty for some rationale related to harboring or supporting evil, or they say that those people would have died anyways under Saddam, or they even insist that no civilians actually died during military campaigns. They never just say "aw, well, you gotta break eggs to make omelettes", they're compelled to find some reasoning that it wasn't really the intentional killing of innocent people by their own party. (and by "party", I mean their own associates, of course. *wink* *wink*)

bardic: we're lucky to live in advanced democracies where our rights don't come from sky-gods or religious texts, but from liberal and Liberal consensus.

And the people who get murdered are lucky to die in an advanced democracy! ;^)
posted by XMLicious at 4:24 PM on November 27, 2006


And the people who get murdered are lucky to die in an advanced democracy!

Well, in a sense, yes. At least their families are. They have two opportunities that they wouldn't have in many places -- to see the person tried and condemned to death (personally I'm opposed to the death penalty in the abstract, but if someone I cared about were murdered, I might change my tune real quick), and to sue the pants of the person in civil court, even if they aren't found guilty.

Obviously, it's not perfect. But tiresome debates over needing to have first-principles (from God or from "human nature") or else ZOMG ANARCHY! are just so simplistic and ignorant.
posted by bardic at 4:31 PM on November 27, 2006


When you get down to the essentials, they do. Everyone believes that killing innocent people is wrong, for example. They or their societies may have concocted various original sins that they can use to ensure that when necessary, innocence can be banished, but the need to conjure guilt before killing someone is there.

It's not 'wrong' in the compass of innumerable humans' moralities to win a war, and killing people who don't deserve to die is par for the course in wartime. You might not think of them as persons, but rather 'collateral damage' or 'infidel', but innocent people they are, regardless. As predominantly lefty mefites, we might not share that view, but it's around, it's a pity, and it isn't always considered 'wrong'.
posted by Sparx at 4:33 PM on November 27, 2006


I shoulda previewed XMLicious. I take your point about 'conjuring guilt' my example, but you could remove that and I feel the argument would stand.

The point remains that the origin of the "we are obligated not to kill innocent people' aspect of morality comes not from any mysterious absolute value, but from the context of our history as a species and our current situation. It is not innate in humanity - human sacrifice has been a part of many cultures including my own and it was as often kings as criminals getting the chop.
posted by Sparx at 4:42 PM on November 27, 2006


It's not 'wrong' in the compass of innumerable humans' moralities to win a war, and killing people who don't deserve to die is par for the course in wartime. You might not think of them as persons, but rather 'collateral damage' or 'infidel', but innocent people they are, regardless. As predominantly lefty mefites, we might not share that view, but it's around, it's a pity, and it isn't always considered 'wrong'.

My, my... have I been judged a "rightie" by someone who doesn't believe in judging (and who evidently skipped reading a great deal of this thread before making that judgement)? Judged so thoroughly that you even felt confident putting the word "lefty" in my mouth?

Ever hear the expression "the victors rewrite history"? I'm saying (in what I really didn't think were that obscure terms) that people always have to convince themselves that the slain weren't innocent.
posted by XMLicious at 4:45 PM on November 27, 2006


If someone is arrested for murder, it's not another's "will" being enforced upon the criminal. The guy gets put in jail because he has violated the rights of the murderee.

The rights of the murderee? Where did he get rights from? Do we all get rights just by being human? If so, who gives us these rights? Ourselves? God? Society. If one of those is the answer, we're once again talking about religious believe, might makes right, majority rule or "because I say so."

harming another without the consent of the harmed is what is wrong. It's not a judgment of an abstraction (i.e., 'harm' is wrong).
Upon what do you based your idea that harming someone without their consent is wrong? Upon your gut feeling ("Because I say so?")? Upon the general consensus of society ("Because we say so")? upon God's rules ("Because He says so")?

Again, I'm not mocking you if you do any of these things. I'm just asking people to call a spade a spade.

your perception of right and wrong, which corresponds to everyone else's.

I'm STILL waiting for evidence that all people share the same perception of right and wrong -- including me and a gay basher. Though I sometimes hate to admit this, gay bashers ARE actually people.

What utility to you does giving him a medal or putting him in prison have? None. Your life will be the same either way. You're interested because you know he's done wrong.

Well, you have a point about the medal. That would be pretty useless. But my life might change if Bush was thrown in prison. In any case, you're wrong about my psychology: I really don't care about applying a label to him or anyone else. If you do, fine, but it's a bit silly for you to tell me what I care about.

Everyone believes that killing innocent people is wrong

Evidence! I must have it! I will debate this point no longer unless you provide some. Saying something over and over does not make it true.

You don't really think I haven't considered the scenario where there's no moral obligation

Man, I wish you would actually answer my question. I'll restate it: Do you think it's sometimes wise to believe a lie, if you can? I KNOW you don't think morality is a lie. I get that. But if it WAS a lie, do you think it would be wise to believe in it anyway?

Whenever I've talked to someone who's pro-war, and ask them pointedly about the innocent people who die, they either actually consider those people to be guilty for some rationale related to harboring or supporting evil, or they say that those people would have died anyways under Saddam

Is this the evidence I've been waiting for? Okay, but I can counter it. My gut morality -- the kind I feel deeply, whether or not I actually think it exists -- tells me that killing ANYONE is wrong. Killing a murderer is wrong; killing Osama Bin Ladin is wrong; killing Hitler is wrong. I would kill those last two anyway, if I had the chance, but I wouldn't be able to sleep well at night afterwards. I would feel guilty for the rest of my life.

I don't expect everyone here to share my feelings about this. And THAT'S my point. So you have to either tell me that ALL people agree with me that killing is ALWAYS wrong. Or you have to tell me that I don't really feel what I think I feel. And you're going to have a hard time convincing me of that. Maybe I'm a mutant with a weird morality, but I'm still a human. So all humans DON'T share the same morality, even if most do.

===

I agree 100% with everything Sparx wrote. He put my main point in a nicely-polished nutshell: "We tend not to question these things, preferring to seem them as natural aspects of ourselves, whereas, in fact, they are totally derived from present and historical context and circumstance."
posted by grumblebee at 4:58 PM on November 27, 2006


Sparx, good point with the human sacrifice bit, but I would counter that in any culture that believes in an afterlife they didn't necessarily believe that the human sacrifice was dying in the same sense we might. And I understand (at least, I get the idea, from those movies with Pacific Islands and virgin-hungry volcanos) that the person sacrificed is sometimes believed to be rewarded in the afterlife.

Certainly not an airtight case on my part and it's a notable exception to my generalization, but I still believe that in the vast majority of cases the vast majority of people observing something that they would regard as intentional killing of an innocent person would consider it wrong. And I think that the remaining instances are going to involve the observers somehow having an inhibited sense of right and wrong - through self-interest, as may be the case with the human sacrifice, for example. Or perhaps in some cultures, it's believed that the "victim" should always want to be sacrificed, so it's perceived as suicide rather than homicide.

But I'd actually be really interested in hearing more about your culture and the place of human sacrifice in it. (historically, I assume?)
posted by XMLicious at 5:04 PM on November 27, 2006


in the vast majority of cases the vast majority of people

Not ALL the people?
posted by grumblebee at 5:11 PM on November 27, 2006


Maybe Sparx is from Scotland.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:18 PM on November 27, 2006


I'm STILL waiting for evidence that all people share the same perception of right and wrong -- including me and a gay basher. Though I sometimes hate to admit this, gay bashers ARE actually people.

I would point out that you haven't ASKED for that kind of evidence until now - you seemed alot more intent on disproving my assertions about what you yourself felt. Like, you never gave examples of people believing killing innocents is okay, the way Sparx here did. But that may simply have been my misperception.

The gay bashers I've met don't regard gays as being innocent, they regard them as guilty of a moral wrong or a sin. I think I could probably dig up some gay-basher literature to this effect, if you don't agree with my assertion.

Everyone believes that killing innocent people is wrong
Evidence! I must have it! I will debate this point no longer unless you provide some. Saying something over and over does not make it true.

Again, something you might have asked for earlier... I thought that you were disputing my assertion that there's an internal sense of right and wrong, as opposed to the Darwinian psycho-social motivations you were advocating at the beginning, rather than disputing that people even think that something like murder is wrong.

I'm not a historian or anthropologist or anything, but I'll give it a try. I remember from school that in Hammurabi's code, restitution was always demanded of a murderer. Murder of slaves just demanded financial payment, but murder of a free man or citizen or whatever demanded capital punishment. Roman and Norse law I'm certain prohibited murder (of Romans and Norsemen, of course; slaves and foreigners often weren't considered worthy of the same regard, like Black slaves or Iraqis in the US).

Well, I'm unaware of any current-day nations or cultures in which murder isn't a crime. And I've made a hobby out of amateur study of languages, and though I've heard many anecdotes about certain words missing from particular languages, I've never heard of a language that lacks the word "murder" as distinct from killing, which seems like it would be quite notable.

But anyways, I can see that I wouldn't get anywhere trying to compile an exhaustive list of cultures and countries where killing innocent people is considered bad. What kind of evidence are you looking for? Would something saying that murder is a crime in all legal systems known to a particular legal expert do?

BTW, I just googled for the languages thing. I found a few anecdotes on bulletin boards but they claimed that the culture in question was too peaceful to need them.

But if it WAS a lie, do you think it would be wise to believe in it anyway?

Sorry about the misunderstanding there; My answer is no, if you thought that you were deceiving yourself about right and wrong, I think that you'd live a more comfortable life if you accepted that it didn't exist and made plans and adopted philosophies accordingly. (Though I guess it depends upon how good you are at deceiving yourself, I'm not very good.) And if you thought that someone else was lying to you about it (i.e. they didn't believe it) you'd do best to just figure out why they're lying to you. And if you think that someone else is advocating morality to you and believes it themselves but you do not, and you care for them, it's probably to their best comfort if you play along.

My gut morality ... tells me that killing ANYONE is wrong.

The war anecdote wasn't supposed to be about you (for once), in that case I was trying to demonstrate that people in general need to feel that they weren't a party to the death of innocents. But "killing anyone is wrong" makes you still fall within the category of my assertion, that killing innocent people is wrong, you just believe in more than that.

I actually believe that capital punishment is wrong too; I dunno, maybe enemy soldiers in a legitimate war, maybe killing someone to stop a murder if there's absolutely no other way, but that's pushing it. Of course, lots of people construct arguments that these cases are both wrong and necessary at the same time.

I'm just absolutely certain that killing innocent people is wrong. My sense of the situation is that the rest has to be built on that by reason.

The "either killing all humans is wrong or what I feel isn't real": I think that may be a false dichotomy you're putting yourself into, but if I had to vote I'd say that probably it's actually wrong to kill anyone. You're probably just more perceptive than most of us, or maybe less self-deceiving. Exceptional maybe but mutant is a bit much - what you're describing isn't going to be a different kind, but a different degree.
posted by XMLicious at 6:08 PM on November 27, 2006


in the vast majority of cases the vast majority of people

Not ALL the people?

No... like I said in the next sentence, And I think that the remaining instances are going to involve the observers somehow having an inhibited sense of right and wrong...

Remember, though, that I'm not saying something like "because everyone says it's wrong, that's why it's wrong." I'm arguing that everyone has an internal sense of right and wrong...

You know, I'm just going to come right out and say it. Further up this thread it really seemed to me that you were at least accepting Dawkins' idea of Darwinian social pressure producing morality, and you didn't seem so intent on making Dawkins (other MeFites) prove that moral behavior existed, or accuse them of shouting the same thing over and over again without evidence. You quoted things like "We're moral because we're compassionate!" without demanding proof that we're moral, and the assumption that we're moral seemed to be a predicate of your own questions and arguments. So it does seem to me that, though perhaps your thoughts have shifted in the heat of battle (I do that all the time), at some point you accepted that there's some pretty universal thing that could be described as "moral behavior" that Dawkins and others were talking about which isn't entirely at odds with being compassionate towards people. If that's correct, wouldn't the moral thing referred to above in the "compassionate" discussion include an aversion to killing innocent people?
posted by XMLicious at 6:40 PM on November 27, 2006


What kind of evidence are you looking for? Would something saying that murder is a crime in all legal systems known to a particular legal expert do?

I am NOT looking for evidence that certain laws and customs are cross cultural (and have existed at many periods in time). Such evidence is absolutely fascinating and deeply meaningful, but it doesn't support your claim that ALL people share the same morality.

Perhaps we should be very clear here about what's at stake. If you proved to me -- conclusively -- that all people throughout time have shared the same morality EXCEPT FOR ONE GUY WHO DIDN'T, I would have to discount all your evidence.

I'm not nitpicking, but the "all" thing gets to the heart of what we're arguing. If you wanted to soften your argument a bit -- if you wanted to say that there were general trends in morality and principles that MOST people shared -- then I would agree with you. Completely. But you keep harping on ALL.

Why is the distinction so important? Because my claim is that most people's morality, whether or not they choose to admit it, is based upon imposing the will of the majority. So, if everyone in the world -- except that one guy -- agreed that killing is wrong, and if we made appropriate laws, we (the majority) would be forcing that one guy (the minority) to follow our rules.

On the other hand, if ALL people share exactly the same morality, there's no issue of forcing.

In any case: what evidence would I accept? I'd accept you showing me a brain module that, say, compels all people to think that killing innocent people is wrong.

I would also find it telling -- though maybe not conclusive -- if you should provide evidence from animal studies (using other mammal species.)

There are many problems with listing examples of laws in multiple cultures. You'd have to convince me that a culture's laws are good indicators of the will of the people. I can think of several laws in the US that aren't part of the universal will. Those laws are generally examples of a powerful group winning a debate.

You also need to explain how I (and maybe you) can have a quirky view about murder (against killing Hitler, etc.) Surely you're not claiming that everyone is against killing Hitler. You also can't say I'm somehow redefining Hitler as an "innocent person." There's nothing innocent about him. He was a horrible guilty person who murdered members of my own family. Yet my guy tells me that if I shot him, I'd be wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 6:41 PM on November 27, 2006


XMLicious, we are deeply misunderstanding each other. For instance, you just claimed that I "quoted things like 'We're moral because we're compassionate!' without demanding proof that we're moral" No. Go back and read what I actually wrote!

Someone will respond, "But there IS a rational reason for being moral. We're moral because we're compassionate! Because we care about other people!" The person saying this (if I'm not setting up a straw man) is misunderstanding you, of course.


I wasn't quoting anyone. I was making up a possible COUNTER-argument to what I was saying and explaining how this counter-argument is wrong.

For the record, let me state that I've ALWAYS believed that all (or nearly all) humans have what is generally called "a moral sense." I've actually said that over and over, including claiming that I have one (it's the sense that makes me not want to kill Hitler!) So we're in agreement about that.

My other claim is that this sense is nothing more or less than a strong feeling. And that if we use this feeling to guide our actions -- especially actions that involve other people -- then we're forcing things on other people because we feel like it. Not because those feelings have any merrit outside our own brains. (e.g. they're not linked to a God, because there is no God. Nor are they linked to any other universal thing. They are just linked to our own selfish desires).

I also agree that many -- not all -- people share similar moral feelings (e.g.killing is wrong). But not ALL people share these same feelings. So if one group imposes their feelings on another group, that's an instance of might makes right. Which makes me uneasy.
posted by grumblebee at 6:52 PM on November 27, 2006


But not ALL people share these same feelings. So if one group imposes their feelings on another group, that's an instance of might makes right. Which makes me uneasy.

Again, you're missing a pretty large and important point. Violent criminals don't go to jail because a majority of society "feels" violence is wrong, they go to jail because the rights of an individual have been violated.

I certainly hope that our moral instincts and our laws can overlap, but please stop trying to argue that the imperfection of either means that the other will always be hopelessly inadequate. Certainly there are many finer points that need to be ironed out, but just because we don't have a perfect or perfectable moral system doesn't mean we're hopelessly doomed. Far from it. Indeed, we're better off acknowleding that our "philosophy talk" regarding morality is just that -- talk. The important thing is that we put moral laws into practice, regardless of whether or not their underpinnings are infallible.
posted by bardic at 7:05 PM on November 27, 2006


(And my invocation of Rorty earlier was also an attempt to lay my own cards on the table. If we start taking our "philosophy talk" more seriously than the actuality of our (admittedly fuzzy at times) democratic rights, we do everyone a disservice.)
posted by bardic at 7:13 PM on November 27, 2006


Again, you're missing a pretty large and important point.

Funny. I feel the same way about you :-)

I've asked you before, and I hope you'll explain: where do these rights (of the individual) come from? Who gives the individual these rights? Why does he have them?

please stop trying to argue that the imperfection of either means that the other will always be hopelessly inadequate.

When did I argue that? I've said very little about laws. And I don't think morality is inadequate. Inadequate for what purpose? I think morality arises from selfish desires. That has nothing to do with whether or not it's adequate.

just because we don't have a perfect or perfectable moral system doesn't mean we're hopelessly doomed.

I'm not sure who you mean by "we." Humans have developed many moral systems.


we're better off acknowleding that our "philosophy talk" regarding morality is just that -- talk.


I don't get what else it could be except talk.

The important thing is that we put moral laws into practice

'What are "moral laws"? Do you mean we should try to make sure that our legal system matches someone's morality? Whose morality? And why should we do that?
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 PM on November 27, 2006


My, my... have I been judged a "rightie" by someone who doesn't believe in judging

Sorry, XMLicious - my apologies - I was not attempting to indicate you in particular or your beliefs, which I don't presume to know, just a general you as in "you might think small, fluffy animals are harmless, but you'd be wrong, they're savages that want your precious bodily fluids". That paragraph came out clumsily. And I have read the thread, just most of it was yesterday, so there's a fair whack of time in between when I stopped reading and when I picked up again later.

As far as human sacrifice goes, I was referring to Vikings (I'm apparently of Norman extraction, so there's a good chance there's some Norse rage floating about :-) and your afterlife argument carries some weight in that regard, but not in every case of the practice worldwide. Appeasing gods in harsh times was always a popular reason and slaves weren't always the victims - sometimes sons and daughters were required. Sometime the sacrifice was an honour. But that pretty much indicates they weren't of the 'Other' with regard to that culture - and thus we return to context and learned culture with regard to acceptable innocent death.

But the afterlife argument doesn't really gel for me. Do people mourne less when they have a notion of Heaven? Catholic Americans bombing in Kosovo probably weren't justifying their actions to themselves that any Catholics caught in the blast were probably just happy to meet St Peter. And I am not entirely convinced that people are always happy with the ol' cognative dissonance wrt incidental deaths in wartime. When you corner them (again - not you in particular), they may try and justify it to you and themselves, but is that what they really believe? I don't know...

Possibly, homo sapiens is too singular a unit to look for the kind of diversity I'm suggesting could exist - we all have too much evolutionarily in common. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, regularly kill even tribemates whereas Bonobos are too busy having sex all the time to get up to much violence. Dangerous territory, I know, owing to sapience concerns but worth a quick glance. Those two different positions exist in those close to us genetically (and close to each other geographically) and are almost certainly evolutionarily derived. Why should our mores be any different? Whatever enables you to survive tends to get imprinted and re-inforced by social contact and mimicry.

I must concede, however, that most people in history would agree with you - heck, if I've read aright, even Grumblebee agrees with you. We shouldn't kill innocent people. It's just that our explanation of the reasons why we feel that way differ.
posted by Sparx at 7:23 PM on November 27, 2006


(And my invocation of Rorty earlier was also an attempt to lay my own cards on the table. If we start taking our "philosophy talk" more seriously than the actuality of our (admittedly fuzzy at times) democratic rights, we do everyone a disservice.)

Who is doing that? Do you think I am doing that? On what basis? Because you see me spending a lot of energy philosophizing in this thread? So what? I deeply enjoy philosophical discussions. And just because I enjoy them, that doesn't mean I fail to act in the real world. It's as if you think I can only possibly have enough energy to talk or act. Not true. I can (and do) do both.

Maybe I've confused you by pointing out problems with our moral system. Maybe you think that means I'm against morality or maybe you think I'm advocating some sort of change. I'm not. As I've repeatedly said in this thread, in everyday life, I go with my gut, I am in favor of laws, of punishments, etc.

You can be in favor of something while, at the same time, thinking that thing is DEEPLY flawed. That describes my view exactly. I think our moral and legal system is deeply and horrible flawed -- yet I'm also in favor of it. That's NOT a contradiction. I'm in favor of a deeply flawed system because I believe we must have SOME system and our flawed one is the better than any alternatives that I know.

Similarly, I am in favor of having my arm cut off if the only alternative is having my head cut off.
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 PM on November 27, 2006


I think we're covered under Rorty. Understanding the reason for our beliefs helps us evaluate their relative worth and helps us in future situations and evaluations. We're not arguing how many angels can tapdance on a bed of nails, or anything.

I also think that the ongoing redefinition of 'innocent' person, from 'people in my tribe' to 'people of my country' to 'people of my religion' to 'people of my race' to 'anybody that hasn't done anything to me' (not necessarily a linear progression' is a pretty strong argument in favour of morality being contextually derived.

Gotta run - thanks for the mental workout, folks.
posted by Sparx at 7:40 PM on November 27, 2006


where do these rights (of the individual) come from? Who gives the individual these rights? Why does he have them?

From an arbitrary agreement.

When's the last time you bought something? Did you stop to wonder whether or not the dollar bills you forked over were really worth anything? They're basically IOU's from the Federal government. And these days, they aren't even backed up by gold. And yet, you can buy things with them since it's agreed upon that they have value. An arbitrary value, but that's still (ahem) worth something. I think human rights are similar in many ways. I can't point to them, obviously. They don't have taste or smell. I can't tell you at what point Vishnu made humans superior to cockroaches or anything like that. But they tend to work regardless of whether or not they rest on invincible first principles.

I enjoy philosophical discussions as well. I just don't let them interfere with a pragmatic acknowledgement that even without a priori "proof" that human rights exist, they serve our species well in practice. I'm highly skeptical, in the truest sense of the term, of the philosophical exercise of "needing" to prove the human rights have existential validity and/or theological grounding. Plenty of things work (like money) simply because a majority of people wants them to. A lack of philosophical "proof" for human rights is a game that's kind of fun to play as long as we don't take it too seriously and begin to think that our word-games really carry any weight in the long run.
posted by bardic at 7:49 PM on November 27, 2006 [1 favorite]


Hmm. Actually, our word-games can carry a lot of weight, all the moreso when people want to indulge in the language of a priori "first principles" based either on theology or "human nature." That's why I try to shun that type of language. If someone is placing their boot on your throat, no amount of sophistry either for or against human rights will save you.

If someone can come up with a great big comprehensive system as to how human rights are derived from objective, a priori first principles, terrific. It's been done before, and people will continue to try and do it. And unfortunately, other players of word games have come along later and toppled over these very same arguments.

I just worry that the dangers of this "will to knowledge" are potentially overwhelming. Because once your next Martin Heidegger comes along at the right time, our scaffolding collapses entirely yet again.

Covering a lot of ground quickly here, I realize.
posted by bardic at 8:05 PM on November 27, 2006


bardic, as you probably guessed, I'm going to pick nits:

From an arbitrary agreement

Who is agreeing? All people? Most people? Some people?

they serve our species well in practice

what does "serve our species" mean? Serve it in what way? Are you claiming that "our species" has some need and it's being fulfilled? What is the need and how is it being fulfilled?

And -- again -- what is "our species" in practical terms? (I understand that, in biology, species help us classify, compare and contrast.) By "our species" do you mean ALL people? ALL people are served by these arbitrary agreements? The majority is served? What?
posted by grumblebee at 8:06 PM on November 27, 2006


Who is agreeing? All people? Most people? Some people?

Enough people.

what does "serve our species" mean?

From the perspective of Utility, it's a general sense that modern civil societies should, to varying degrees, increase the potential for all life to be free from needless suffering.

As for "all people," I'm obviously speaking from the context of someone living within said liberal democratic society. But you're right, thats hyperbolic. I should be referring to "overwhelming majorities" of people who are served by secular humanist principles, that, at the end of the day, either don't have a priori backing or, if they do, it's a priori backing that any philosophy grad. student could pick apart given world enough and time. And then we can all laugh at her and her word-gamery and say, well, that's great Ms. Foucault.

(Meh. Foucault is certainly more complex than that, but you probably see where I'm going.)
posted by bardic at 8:36 PM on November 27, 2006


...your claim that ALL people share the same morality.

To clarify, what I'm claiming is that morality isn't simply a behavior, but a real, nonmaterial thing that everyone has the ability to perceive. I'm not claiming that everyone has exactly the same moral code or the same moral behavior or would make the same moral judgements - I'm claiming that the convergence of moral codes and moral behavior is the consequence of this common perception, for example, that there's always a context in which someone can be declared innocent and therefore it would be wrong to kill them. I'm not saying that every person would render the same judgement in a particular case, but I think that because of the common perception of morality, and because I think that human reason will operate on the commonly-perceived moral obligations (feel free to insert "laws" or "rules" here if you want) more sophisticated analyses (that is, analyses that attempt to take more factors into account and isolate the judgement from personal and cultural bias) will converge on the same judgement.

Huh, well, that's probably more confusifying than clarifying.

(And to boot, my original point was that a nonmaterial source of morality is necessary, period, for moral behavior to be intelligible as an obligation.)

I'd also note that this is why I was only quoting a few specific moral principles and not saying that everyone had the same overall moral code and not saying that everyone interprets the concepts of "person" or "innocent" the same way.

But anyways, so, the upshot is, I think it would be very easy to find someone who behaves in a manner that doesn't fit your definition of "sharing the same morality", primarily because they tighten down the list of people deserving of moral treatment to their own race or their own family, but because of other factors too, like self-interest. In the first case, the individual would still regard their own behavior as moral, whereas in the second case they'd (apart from self-deception) perceive their own behavior as immoral.

And so consequently no, I'm not suggesting that everyone would be against killing Hitler, in fact I'm sure you can surmise that for anyone who believes that killing guilty people is okay (which, by the way, is something I haven't mentioned before and is NOT a corollary of "it's wrong to kill innocent people", and I never said anything about redefining people as innocent) would consider him well within the sphere of "guilty".

So I don't suppose you're required to produce a brain module that produces might-makes-right behavior... or that one case of a minority obtaining their rights over opposition of the majority would disprove your position?

Regarding the compassion thing... I'm sorry, I had re-scanned your posts and picked that out because it was in quotes. But, as you say, I wasn't imagining it that you do presume everyone to have a moral sense.

And finally, the "just a feeling" thing. Aren't the sensations produced by your eyes and ears etc. just a feeling? You didn't respond to my questions about whether you think I exist, which to me seems like a great deal of confidence in those feelings meaning something outside your head. And you have confidence in logic, right? Definitely something that's not a feeling but you're confident in its ability to infer the presence of another human being out here from inside your head.

But bah, contrary to us misunderstanding each other I think we're really operating on pretty similar wavelengths. I think you have probably thought of the other arguments I might give and possibly have thought of them long ago.

Okay, so I guess that was the penultimate thing. The final thing is that it seems to me that you're putting the cart before the horse. You say you haven't accepted yet that there's right and wrong, but you seem to be permitting it as the primary motivator of your thoughts.

I mean, that's what would make you uneasy about the might makes right thing, correct? That it would be wrong for might to make right? It seems to me that you're using your own instinctive morality as a sort of meta-morality by which to evaluate the validity of other moral codes and you're maintaining the special status of your instinctive morality by remaining in flux about whether morality as an obligation is real at all. Which I would think is going to keep your whole chain of reasoning unstable and probably be both unpleasant for you and not terribly successful at resolving (or at least refining your level of certainty) about any moral issues.

(Of course, the caveat is that I'm looking at this with my own conclusion that material facts cannot create moral obligation. You seemed to agree with me on that, but if you don't it would open up further avenues that you might synthesize your instinctive morality with... but if you ask me it opens up a haystack you'll either never find the needle in or one that will deceptively look like it's made of needles.)

Well, I'm going to put this post out of its misery. Oops, wow, on preview, I've missed alot. Whoa, I just understood what "on preview" means.
posted by XMLicious at 8:36 PM on November 27, 2006


Sparx: But the afterlife argument doesn't really gel for me.

Well, I did mean it more for consolation in the case of human sacrifice. I mean, Christians (moreso Early Christians, though many still today) and Muslims seem to really play that up when it comes to martyrdom.

Do people mourne less when they have a notion of Heaven? Catholic Americans bombing in Kosovo probably weren't justifying their actions to themselves that any Catholics caught in the blast were probably just happy to meet St Peter. And I am not entirely convinced that people are always happy with the ol' cognative dissonance wrt incidental deaths in wartime. When you corner them (again - not you in particular), they may try and justify it to you and themselves, but is that what they really believe? I don't know...

I actually think that I would find the concept of an afterlife really comforting. Maybe that's why I'm an atheist, because it produces more skepticism, or maybe I'm just that kind of person. I haven't had any close loved ones pass on yet, fortunately, so maybe I'll crack at that point. But bah, I think I'd have trouble really believing.

So anyways, I do think that an afterlife might provide a bit of "shoot 'em all and let God sort it out" type of consolation, especially if the person in question has done some soul-searching divination-type stuff beforehand and thinks that, say, their military service is okay with the powers that be. But I have also seen many religious people be troubled by "collateral damage" deaths.
posted by XMLicious at 9:04 PM on November 27, 2006


So bardic, it has appeared to me that your (recent) comments, at least, have dealt with the larger scope of society's philosophical underpinnings. If you think it's germane to the subject, do you consider your actions constrained by a moral code asking you to do things that aren't always to your personal benefit (utility) or your moral instincts (if you feel like that) and if so, do you feel a need to integrate that with the overall moral behavior of society?
posted by XMLicious at 9:27 PM on November 27, 2006


Yes. And yes.
posted by bardic at 12:08 AM on November 28, 2006


You've made some very interesting points, XMLicious. I'll try to respond to them. I think it's funny that we long-winded people are pretty much the only people left in this thread. Do you think we scared everyone else away. Or did the thread just have its 15 minutes of fame and now it's over?

you're putting the cart before the horse. You say you haven't accepted yet that there's right and wrong, but you seem to be permitting it as the primary motivator of your thoughts.

I don't think I'm behaving in an illogical or contradictory way, and I've explained this apparent "paradox" here several times. But it's often a sticking point when I discuss this issue. People say, "for someone who claims that morality is illusory, you sure act like a moral person!" Again, I don't think that's all that strange. Do people generally act on all their convictions? Do people generally act on all their intellectually-based ideas? Obviously they don't. (For instance, may people think it's wise to diet and exercise and yet don't do it.) Maybe the odd thing is that I'm so vocal about my objections to the common idea of morality. Generally, when people don't practice what they preach, they keep quiet about it. Maybe they go into denial. For some reason, I don't. I am able and willing to confront these "contradictions" (in quotes because I don't think they are really contradictions -- but they often seem that way to others.)

I think that there are several illusions that are very hard to escape:

1) God
2) Free Will
3) Morality

I believe all of those things are illusory, by which I mean those words don't point to objects in the physical world. But they may very well point to strong feelings. As I've mentioned, I don't have a feeling of God, but I do have feelings of Free Will and Morality. I think these are cases where my mind is playing tricks on me, but knowing they are tricks don't make them any less powerful. Knowing that a movie is just a bunch of still images doesn't make it seem static. Knowing that Cordelia isn't a real person doesn't stop me from crying when she dies.

Also, I think it's quite likely that believing certain fictions gives us a survival advantage. Many people see to think it's always best to believe the truth. But if you define "what's best" as "that which increases your ability to survive and reproduce" (the Darwinian sense of best), there's no obvious connection between that and truth. It's surely advantageous to know the truth about your immediate environment (There are three -- not two -- tigers hiding behind that rock), but I bet it's often advantageous to believe lies about more abstract things. For instance, believing in Morality helps gives us some useful tools for co-existing as social animals.

Again: I DO believe that people have strong preferential feelings, and that we tend to call those feelings Moral Feelings. I too have those feelings, and they're impossible to ignore, so I don't ignore them. I differ from most people by claiming that there these strong feelings are nothing more than feelings. They are not connected to anything cosmic or universal (though there are some strong trends that tend to make my moral feeling similar to yours).

But as you bring up, everything we sense is a feeling! Aren't the sensations produced by your eyes and ears etc. just a feeling? You didn't respond to my questions about whether you think I exist, which to me seems like a great deal of confidence in those feelings meaning something outside your head. And you have confidence in logic, right? Definitely something that's not a feeling but you're confident in its ability to infer the presence of another human being out here from inside your head.

That's a very challenging observation. But before I tackle it, ask yourself if you're being 100% fair. Often, when I've tackled someone's sacred cow -- if that particular cow is an sensual entity (rather than a physical entity) -- someone brings up the "but everything is filtered through our senses" argument. They are suggesting that if we accept one bit of sensory evidence (e.g. the sense that if you drop something, it falls) we have no reason to reject another one. Maybe, but does anyone actually do that? Does anyone accept every bit of sensory evidence as equally likely to be true as every other bit? No. Most of us feel that dreams, fictional characters than affect us, hallucinations, imaginary friends, etc. are not real in the way that a tree is real. The question is, how to do make that judgment call?

I think we start by TAKING ON FAITH that the physical world exists. All science is based on this article of faith, and science can't work without it. Theists often point this out, and scientists often try to deny it, but it's true. But then the theists go to far and claim that scientists relate to their article of faith the same way that theists relate to God. That's not true.

Einstein said something like, "Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler."

If you MUST accept an article of faith to move forward, it makes sense to do so. You do it with great regret, but you do it because of the fruit it yields. You also periodically come back and re-assess that article of faith (not all scientists actually do that, but they should if they want to remain intellectually rigorous). In a way science is a game in which the players agree that the goal is to assume as little as possible -- with one exception: a physical world. They say, "let's just assume that and see what we get by doing so."

What do we get? Well, if we assume a physical world and follow some really simple steps (Scientific Method), we are able to make accurate predictions! They make be accurate predictions in a fictional world, but they're still accurate.

The point is that just because someone chooses to allow one article of faith -- it doesn't follow that he must arbitrarily allow any other article of faith. That's not a useful way to behave. (The same is true for theists, and atheists rarely give them credit for this: just because someone believes in God, it doesn't follow that he'll necessarily believe in any crazy thing.)

How do we know if our senses are lying? Bottom line is: we don't. But we can't live if we constantly assume everything we know is wrong -- especially since it might be wrong in any way: my wife might actually be a bunny or a T-rex. Should I pet her or flee? So we have to make some assumptions. Which should we make? I'd argue for making the fewest we need to make (and continually re-evaluating those!) My assumption (which I feel I must make in order to live) is that, in general, the data I gather with my five senses is correct. (The "in general" is VERY important. My senses can and do get fooled.) I assume other people exist, and I assume that the more people who report five-sensing the same thing, the more likely it is to be true. So if I see an dragon, it's more likely to be true than if I think a dragon. If ten people see the same dragon, it's even more likely to be true. (Yes, those ten people might not exist. Remember, I'm admitting to making assumptions about them.)

My choices aren't arbitrary; they're utilitarian. If I feel like there's a fire in the middle of the room, but I don't see one, I've learned from experience that I can walk through it and not get burned (it's just an odd feeling), but if I see a fire, my experience tells me that I will likely get burned if I walk through it. If ten people see it, it's even more likely that I'll get burned. Of course, none of this proves the fire (or the people) is real, but real or not, it hurts when it burns me. I've discovered that the more SEEMINGLY external something is to a feeling in my brain, the easier it is to make predictions about it.

But don't millions of people sense morality? Yes, but not with their five senses. Why do I grant the five senses primacy over feelings? Because, in my experience -- and in the experience of many people I've talked to (and from what I've leared via research), you have a MUCH better chance making predictions based on five-sense data than on feeling data. I've often had that neck-tingling feeling that someone was watching me, but no one was there. On the other hand, if I SEE someone watching me, then I can make accurate predictions about him.

So this is why I assume that you exist. I can see you and touch you. And other people can report to me that they can see you and touch you, too. This is why I don't accept any spiritual agency behind moral feelings. I can't see God (or whatever). I can't touch Him. Nor can anyone else. At best, He's a feeling. It's also why I don't trust moral feelings to influence the real world. Sure, I might influence the real world based on my response to a moral feeling, but moral feelings -- powerful as they are -- are feelings and nothing more.

(I hated writing that last sentence, because it sounds like I'm belittling feelings. In fact, I think feelings are the most important things on Earth. I just don't think they point to physical objects. If I feel that there's a dragon, it doesn't mean that there is a dragon (or that there isn't), but that feeling is still powerful. Similarly, you can't build a bridge or cure cancer with Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but it's still powerful.)


So I don't suppose you're required to produce a brain module that produces might-makes-right behavior...

If I claim something, I AM required to provide evidence to back up my claim. If I don't, you shouldn't take my claim seriously. But I never claimed that might-makes-right is a mental construct. We don't have might-makes-right feelings. Might-makes-right is just an event that happens in the real world. Evidence is easy to provide: many armies have shown that might can make right. But even that's a silly way of proceeding. Because I never claimed that might DOES make right. My claim is that there's a hidden might-makes-right rule in many people's moral code.

Let me return to my mom. She said, "Don't steal." I said, "Why not?" She said, "Because it's wrong." I said, "What does that 'wrong' mean?" She said, "it means it's a bad thing to do. It hurts people's feelings." I said, "Why shouldn't we hurt people's feelings." She said, "because it's wrong." I said, "I still don't get what 'wrong' is." She said, "Right and wrong are rules that we live by." I said, "Whose made up the rules?" She said, "Lots of people made them up. Lots of people follow them." I said, "What if I don't follow them." She said, "Then you're behaving wrongly." I said, "According to those rules that many people follow?" She said, "Right." I said, "What if I have different rules?" She said, "If you have different rules from everyone else, you'll probably wind up in jail."

THAT is might makes right. Over and over, in these discussions, I've seen people reluctantly pull out that card in the end. It's as if they're saying, "Look, I'm hoping that everyone will just choose to do the right thing. But if they don't, in the end, we'll have to force them."

I'm not saying that's bad. In fact, I agree with it. I'm just pointing out that -- for most of us -- there's an assumption that our rules should be forced on people who don't choose to follow them. Now, since I believe that my rules are "just in my head", I'm not comfortable forcing them on someone else. To me, that's like forcing you to invite my imaginary friend to your birthday party. I'm going to do it, because in the end I care deeply about my imaginary friend, but that doesn't stop me from feeling uncomfortable.

or that one case of a minority obtaining their rights over opposition of the majority would disprove your position?

Sorry. That's just wrong. YOUR position would be disproved by one counter-example. Not mine. Yours would be disproved because you used the word "all." If you say "all cows are brown," your statement is utterly devistated if I produce one white cow. If you claim "most cows are brown," I can't devastate it by showing you a white one.

[You say you don't believe in morality, but] ... that's what would make you uneasy about the might makes right thing, correct?

Correct. I am made uneasy by my moral feelings. Again, moral feelings do exist -- and they can cause great unease. So can dreams and hallucinations. So can disgust at a rotten egg.

morality isn't simply a behavior, but a real, non material thing

I agree with you IF you're speaking metaphorically when you say that moral feeling are non-material. Remember, my base assumption is that the material world exists. I also assume that non-material things do not exist. (God, etc.) I can't assume they exist, because that opens up a can of worms that grinds thought to a halt. If non-material things exist, then we can't rule out anything (dragons, magic, etc.) I'm certainly not going to assume one particular non-material thing exists because it makes me feel good to do so.

So if you're claiming that moral feelings have no physical cause -- that they just exist or that they're caused by some spiritual being -- I disagree. Moral feelings are caused by structures in the brain interacting with data from our senses or other brain structures. Moral feelings are caused by neurons firing.

I do agree that moral feelings are non material in the way that dreams are non material. They are, in a sense, software not hardware. They are the results of brain processes and they don't manifest themselves as physical objects.
posted by grumblebee at 6:48 AM on November 28, 2006


I don't see how religion would fundamentally change the rules of power (might makes right). Don't we obey the gods merely because they're more powerful than us? I suppose some people asume that gods have superior surveillance technology, but I think that the carrots, sticks, metal detectors, and cameras that we mortals have developed are adequate for controlling most people's behavior.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:04 AM on November 28, 2006


People say, "for someone who claims that morality is illusory, you sure act like a moral person!"

I wasn't talking about the way you act, though, I was basically talking about the way you make moral judgements, at once denying some moral judgements, as in you seem to assert that "innocent people should not be killed" would be based upon an illusory feeling that's simply inside your head, whereas you seem to regard "might makes right is wrong" as real enough to be criteria by which to judge the first assertion above.

I believe all of those things are illusory, by which I mean those words don't point to objects in the physical world.

We kinda touched on this before... do you think logic is illusory? Is mathematics illusory? Neither of those point to objects in the material world.

...They are suggesting that if we accept one bit of sensory evidence (e.g. the sense that if you drop something, it falls) we have no reason to reject another one. Maybe, but does anyone actually do that?

I'm not sure if this is directed at what I was saying (since you said the bit about "other people's sacred cows")... but I'm of course pointing out that you accept a great deal more than one bit of sensory evidence. In positing the universe to exist and insisting that you can identify "objects in the physical world" you're accepting a pretty high percentage of everything that you experience.

And by the way, if what you said there does seem like a reasonable attitude, it is of course what I am doing: accepting one bit of sensory evidence.

In a way science is a game in which the players agree that the goal is to assume as little as possible -- with one exception: a physical world.

I actually don't think that a scientist who has it right (by my standards of Truth, of course) even considers the physical world to necessarily exist. I mean, if you "believe" in quantum physics - not that I think you should - do you consider the physical world to exist? And I don't think that the modern physicist believes in quantum physics any more than he believes in the corpuscular optics and phlogiston chemistry of Newton's era, or than a scientist of Newton's era believed in the Aristotelian Natural Law that preceded him.

I think you're right that it's all about repeatable steps and accurate predictions, but those predictions are of phenomena - experience, really - not of "reality". When scientists believe that their work has anything to do with Reality with a capital R or Truth with a capital T, that's when I think that accusations of "science as a religion" have merit. You can't fight religion with assertions of "X proves that Y is True!" it has to be "if you did X1 and then X2 and then X3, you would see Y, just the same as I or anyone else would."

So this is why I assume that you exist. I can see you and touch you.

No, you can't. That's my point. What you're saying about rational inference from your senses is true, but it constitutes continuous and ongoing faith, not a one-time acceptance.

Sure, I might influence the real world based on my response to a moral feeling, but moral feelings -- powerful as they are -- are feelings and nothing more.

What you're saying here is that because morality would have to be non-material and non-material things cannot exist, therefore morality cannot exist. But like I said you accept logic and mathematics as non-material, existent things, and if you accept science as truth you accept gravity and electromagnetism and wave mechanics and all sorts of other non-material things. Your objection with morality is that there aren't "moralon particles" that would show up on an electronic or mechanical detector of some sort, you have to use humans as the detectors for examining moral obligations.

Now, since I believe that my rules are "just in my head", I'm not comfortable forcing them on someone else.

Except for the rule "might makes right is wrong." You know that's definitely wrong, so it's okay to force that on someone else.

Sorry. That's just wrong. YOUR position would be disproved by one counter-example. Not mine.

It does seem like you're getting off rather easy there. For one thing, I think you're being a bit strident in claiming that you have me in a headlock or something because I used the word "everyone". I mean, obviously I didn't mean you couldn't find an insane person who would consider it perfectly fine to kill innocent people.

Hey, let's try it turned around, too. You show me one person who does not have an internal moral sense. A person who isn't insane, of course. Oh, we can't practically define insane? You're right, I win! ;^)

And futhermore, so okay, you've left your statement about might-makes-right as the basis of morality unqualified enough that you can deny that you're saying that about all cases. So put up! Are you saying more than half the time it's true? In all political situations? In half of political situations? In all personal moral judgements, in half of personal moral judgements, in almost no personal moral judgements?

I agree with you IF you're speaking metaphorically when you say that moral feeling are non-material.

I'm not speaking metaphorically, which I'm certain you realize. I mean that what the moral sense is perceiving exists in the same way that logic or mathematics exist.

I hope you can see that all I'm doing is using the exact same process of thought that you use in arriving at the conclusion that the "true physical world" exists and applying that to morality. I just don't have this contrived prejudice that non-material things cannot exist. I figure you think that if you can dump what I'm saying into the "religious" bucket you can deny what I'm saying categorically.

Do I think that morals are caused by some spiritual being? What part of "I'm an atheist" don't you understand? Are you suggesting that I'm really a Deist or something and I'm just masquerading as an atheist? Or maybe I'm not a real atheist because my conclusions constitute faith and the only kind of faith permitted to an atheist is the kind you describe yourself having above. It's all very well and good for you to deceive yourself into thinking that you don't believe in non-material things and don't believe in morality, except when you're right (is this why you kept asking that "believing in a lie" question?), but not all of us have that handicap.

(P.S. I think that the monks from my Atheist Temple and the monks from your Atheist Temple should meet in the streets and have a kung fu fight.)
posted by XMLicious at 9:25 AM on November 28, 2006


Einstein said something like, "Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler."

That's interesting, I hadn't heard that one before. It seems to be a response to Occam's Razor.
posted by XMLicious at 9:37 AM on November 28, 2006


I wasn't talking about the way you act, though, I was basically talking about the way you make moral judgements, at once denying some moral judgements, as in you seem to assert that "innocent people should not be killed" would be based upon an illusory feeling that's simply inside your head, whereas you seem to regard "might makes right is wrong" as real enough to be criteria by which to judge the first assertion above.

XMLicious, forgive me for asking you to read again what I said earlier. Innocents getting killed and the guilty getting punished could well, as apparently in grumblebee's case, be both followed by the same kind of uneasiness, while ascribing neither to some immaterial* morality. Yet you insist on trying to support your argument by doing just that, specifically with regard to uneasiness towards "might makes right". I'm sorry, but that distinction is completely arbitrary.

*I do agree that moral feelings are non material in the way that dreams are non material. They are, in a sense, software not hardware. They are the results of brain processes and they don't manifest themselves as physical objects.

Grumblebee, I think that's quite a misstep. The brain structure that enables dreams and feelings is very much physical and the brain processes in which they manifest are physical processes. This should be kept distinct of the type of non-materialism I think XMLicious has so far been talking about, so as to not confuse the debate:

But like I said you accept logic and mathematics as non-material, existent things, and if you accept science as truth you accept gravity and electromagnetism and wave mechanics and all sorts of other non-material things.

XMLicious, all these things are considered material phenomena in modern philosophical materialism. Wikipedia says so!
posted by Anything at 12:14 PM on November 28, 2006


Ack! I was specifically referring to gravity and electromagnetism and wave mechanics, not logic and mathematics.
posted by Anything at 12:19 PM on November 28, 2006


In any case, what's common to logic and mathematics, as well as gravity, electromagnetism and wave mechanics, is that they have strict laws that produce consistent results that can be verified by whoever does the same experiments or calculations. This does not apply to morality!

XMLicious, I know you've said throughout the thread that every (sane) person thinks killing innocents is wrong. None of the counterarguments have convinced you, and I actually sort of understand that, and I think I have better anecdotal evidence than the other people here so far :)

I have a friend, a very sane person, with whom I frequently have arguments about Israel. I get angry about innocent people getting killed in, say, Lebanon. He acknowledges that many of the victims are innocent, but still his position is "tough shit, but Israel is right in defending itself". So there's an example that would contradict your argument of this particular moral principle being universal. Of course you may assume that I'm lying or misremembering our conversations with this particular friend, but I have a pretty strong gut feeling that my example is not really that extraordinary.

(Then I go on about how I don't give a shit about who is "right", I just want the US to stop supplying them with offensive weapons that kill a dozen civilians for every Hezbollah fighter while destroying less rockets than Hezbollah can supply themselves with, thus not achieving jack.)
posted by Anything at 12:54 PM on November 28, 2006


... which brings me back to why I find it worthwhile to argue against morality. Many people fighting and supporting wars are so right that they can't change their minds about it even when faced with the horrible consequences. For many in the great majority that gets no personal gain from the war, this wouldn't happen if they kept morality out of their reasoning.
posted by Anything at 1:13 PM on November 28, 2006


I'm sorry, but that distinction is completely arbitrary.

I don't know if we've got crossed wires here, but what I was saying is that the distinction that grumblebee is making between those principles is arbitrary. I'm not saying that the kind of uneasiness he experiences in each case is different. I'm saying that in his moral reasoning, one is actually wrong because of the uneasiness (might makes right), whereas the other uneasiness is the product of illusory morals (distaste for killing people).

You're demonstrating the same thing when you say ... which brings me back to why I find it worthwhile to argue against morality. Why is it worthwhile to argue against morality? Because it's right to, is your assumption. Why is it important to oppose war or other bad things that come from poor reasoning? Because they're wrong. You guys are trying to use different terms like "uneasy" for "wrong" and "worthwhile" for "right" because you associate those words and the term "moral" with people who are harsh and judgemental, because you consider yourselves essentially different from those people, and so you want to distance yourselves from them.

XMLicious, all these things are considered material phenomena in modern philosophical materialism. Wikipedia says so!

Whatever, I don't particularly care what definitions philosophers make. I think you guys understand that I mean "not derived of a material origin" the way that wave mechanics isn't. If we have to use the term again we can write it phenomena* so that toes don't get stepped on.

As far as your friend with whom you discuss the Israel-Lebanon conflict, I bet that he wouldn't think it would be so great if Israel killed a few thousand Israeli civilians in the course of accomplishing their military goals, or for that matter an uninvolved third party, like a few thousand people in Costa Rica, for example. I think that his statement has more to do with the fact that they're Lebanese civilians and thereby involved in the conflict and not innocent in quite the same way as other people might be.

And if he thinks it would be morally okay for thousands of Costa Ricans to die to accomplish Israeli military objectives in a war against Lebanon, he's nuts ;^) (Like, for example, the U.S. action in Cambodia during the Vietnam war was.) I guess that sounds kind of funny, but I really think that if the choice was his (if it was "real" and not hypothetical or something he's dealing with in hindsight), and he was willing to look really actually innocent people in the eye and pull the trigger (if he didn't have some means to objectify them and rationalize their deaths, that is) I really do think that he's mentally unbalanced somehow and I think he is essentially different from everyone else.

And I really don't think that there are very many people like that at all, but alot of "lefties" as the term was used above like to make out conservatives as incomprehensible emotionless monsters because it serves their political purposes and because it makes them feel morally superior, even though they might avoid ever using that term, and their closely-held beliefs are so right as to be completely above the concept "moral". That's just as objectifying as saying "Muslims are all bloodthirsty, violent maniacs". When I say this I'm talking more about people I've known in person more than people I've known online. I don't know if this is what you guys are doing here, but it sure seems to me that you're swinging a "morality is illusory and self-aggrandizing" club while being perfectly willing to make moral judgements yourselves.
posted by XMLicious at 2:20 PM on November 28, 2006


(BTW, the Vietnam war was nuts in general, not just the Cambodia part.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:22 PM on November 28, 2006


XMLicious, please read these posts.
posted by Human Flesh at 3:01 PM on November 28, 2006


You're demonstrating the same thing when you say "... which brings me back to why I find it worthwhile to argue against morality". Why is it worthwhile to argue against morality? Because it's right to, is your assumption. Why is it important to oppose war or other bad things that come from poor reasoning? Because they're wrong. You guys are trying to use different terms like "uneasy" for "wrong" and "worthwhile" for "right" because you associate those words and the term "moral" with people who are harsh and judgemental, because you consider yourselves essentially different from those people, and so you want to distance yourselves from them.

Let me clarify on the words. I believe there is a difference in the way a human mind deals with adopted moral stances, compared to "plain" feelings of antipathy towards certain kinds of behavior, assuming the person keeps himself aware of the mundane origins of these feelings. I'm using words such as "uneasy" in this conversation particularly to be clear on which process I'm talking about. In casual conversation, I do use "right" and "wrong", although probably less frequently than most.

Also, you possibly didn't mean it that way, but you'd be wrong in saying that I consider "moral people" harsh and judgemental. Basically everyone I know thinks in terms of right and wrong, yet many of them are kind people for whom I have great respect. In most situations there is practically no difference in the way we think. This might have been unclear because the examples I've used are from the quite marginal extremes where there do tend to be differences relevant to this discussion.

Although I've spoken of the rigidity that morality imposes on thought, I think people can revise their moral stances, just as I can pacify my instincts and adjust my reasoning, but I think noticing that a gut-feeling was flawed is less of a burden than letting go of a moral principle. I'm not better than anyone else, but my life is probably easier, and I hope and believe that my philosophy makes it more simple for me to act reasonably in adverse circumstances.
posted by Anything at 3:53 PM on November 28, 2006


I hope and believe that my philosophy makes it more simple for me to act reasonably in adverse circumstances.

Can you explain what the real difference is between acting "reasonably" and acting "morally?" Why would acting "reasonably" be desirable? Is "reasonableness" inherently good? If so, how can there be inherent goodness in existence, but not inherent morality? Is there really a difference?
posted by JekPorkins at 4:20 PM on November 28, 2006


This might have been unclear because the examples I've used are from the quite marginal extremes where there do tend to be differences relevant to this discussion.

Well, and also because you said I find it worthwhile to argue against morality.

But I'm glad to hear that you take a balanced approach to things, I'm sorry if I mischaracterized your thoughts.
posted by XMLicious at 4:27 PM on November 28, 2006


Oh - actually, thanks Jek because I guess I didn't read that very carefully.

So the things you consider wrong aren't morally wrong, they're gutfeelingly wrong? Uh, yeah, actually, then I still think that you've got something against people who use the word "moral" and you're trying to convince yourself that you're different and gutfeeling judgements are more reasonable or otherwise superior to other people's moral judgements because they come from a purer source.

Your rightness comes from a better place than morality, so gosh, you sure couldn't stoop to using the same words to describe what's right and wrong. When you think killing people is wrong, why, you're openminded, but when, say, a Christian thinks that killing is wrong, they're just being theistic.
posted by XMLicious at 4:49 PM on November 28, 2006


In the same way an intolerant Christian might label their own thoughts and reasoning as "holy" or "God-inspired", you're anointing your own moral judgement as special and different from that of others and that's why you talk about "gut feeling" and "pacifying your instincts" where other people would "revise their moral stances."
posted by XMLicious at 5:00 PM on November 28, 2006


Except for the rule "might makes right is wrong." You know that's definitely wrong, so it's okay to force that on someone else.

We absolutely MUST get something straight. Either I wrote something confusing or you misread something I wrote. I do NOT think it's okay to force "might makes right is wrong" on anyone.

I have repeated said that I ENDORSE might makes right. I endorse it but I feel uneasy about endorsing it. I know that's a confusing position, but it is my actual position. I believe that the ONLY way that a moral system can be made into a practical moral system is to combine it with might makes right. In other words, there are competing moral systems in the world. If any one of them is going to be put into practice -- via laws and rules -- that has to be done through use of power. I DO think we need laws and rules, so I am in favor of that use of power. BUT it makes me unhappy.

The point that I've been trying to make is that many people go into denial about the might-makes-right part of the equation. I don't want to play armchair psychologist, but I think I know why the don't like to talk about it. I think it's because it makes them uneasy -- yet they KNOW it's a part of the equation. These people (me included) would rather we all lived in a world in which you could get everyone on the same page by merely using logic and explaining to them why X moral system is the best one.

But you can't do that, because moral systems are subjective. They only become objective if there's a God-figure who makes up the moral rules for all of us -- or if we're all biologically programmed to come up with the same rules (I don't believe that we are). So since we all have different rules, there must be some arbitration system if any one set is going to be implemented. That system is might makes right.

(I've probably created this whole confusion by using the phrase "might makes right." I've always meant that metaphorically, and I'd stupidly assumed it was clear I didn't mean it literally. I don't mean that if you use power that makes you right. I mean that if you want your moral system to be adopted, you'll need to use power to get it adopted. "Right" doesn't really make sense in this context, because we're talking about competing moral systems. In Fred's system, killing is wrong. In Alice's system, killing is right. Fred can use "might makes right" to make his system become the official (State) system, but that doesn't make his system right and Alice's wrong. It just makes his system the one that people are forced to use. And THIS is why -- though I advocate force as a necessity -- it makes me uneasy. If my side wins, our moral system will be used to make laws. But that DOESN'T make my system better than the losing system. It just makes my system's champion (me and my side) stronger than the champions of the opposing systems.)

do you think logic is illusory? Is mathematics illusory?

Here's another confusion we need to clear up. Logic isn't a thing or a feeling (nor is mathematics). Logic is a set of rules. It's a SYSTEM. Systems never point to things in the real world. Rather, they are ritualistic practices that we use to manipulate real-world objects.

Similarly, a "building a house" is not a real-world object, and it's stupid to debate whether or not "building a house" exists. "Building a house" is just a convenient label that we give to a set of steps. Math and logic are of the same ilk. They don't exist or not exist. They are not objects or names of (pointers to) objects.

Moral feelings are not like math and logic. Moral feelings are not systems or processes. Moral feelings are how we register the firing of certain neural networks in the brain. Network X activates: I feel outrage. Moral feelings are user interfaces to neural networks (that's a metaphor, but I think it's in the ballpark of the truth).

Once again, I am NOT claiming that moral feelings don't exist. The most decidedly do exist. In fact, they exist much more than math and logic, since math and logic don't exist at all (see above).

You show me one person who does not have an internal moral sense.

I can't, because I doubt there is such a person. If I EVER lead you to believe that I think some people have no moral feelings (no user interface to those particular neural nets), then I mislead you. I have never thought that, and I don't think that now. (Though, as you suggest, it's possible some forms of brain damage might rob someone of moral feelings.)

For one thing, I think you're being a bit strident in claiming that you have me in a headlock or something because I used the word "everyone".

We'll have to disagree here. To me "everyone" means "everyone." It doesn't mean "all sane people." Especially when my whole point was that multiple moral systems are competing. Mine is in competition with both sane and insane people. You're free to say "the crazy people don't count," but I don't necessarily have to agree with you. Actually, I DO agree with you, and I advocate a might-makes-right approach in which we forcefully eliminate moral systems devised by crazy people (if we can figure out who is crazy). And, once again, I am made deeply uneasy by my conviction.

I'm not speaking metaphorically, which I'm certain you realize ... Are you suggesting that I'm really a Deist or something

I wasn't suggesting anything. I was asking a question. And I didn't know whether or not you were speaking metaphorically. When someone says that morals are non-material, that can have (at least) two distinct meanings. I wasn't sure which you were implying. I'm still not entirely sure. Saying they are non-material the way logic is non-material isn't helpful, because I don't know in which sense you think logic is non-material.

Here are the two possible meanings of non-material:

1) Mental processes that, while they don't point to anything outside a specific person's brain, they are completely material in the sense that they are comprised of brain cells interacting with each other. In fact, they are just as material as a tree. But it's sometimes convenient to call them non-material to distinguish them from objects outside of someone's head.

2) Truly non-material. Not made of matter. Mysterious objects or forces that come from "beyond our universe" or "the spirit world" or whatever.

I only accept the first type. To me, if you believe that in type 2 in any way shape or form, you're religious (or spiritual). I'm not saying that you do (or that you're bad or stupid if you do), but I don't, and we can't have a meaningful discussion about this stuff if you believe in 2 and I don't.

it is of course what I am doing: accepting one bit of sensory evidence.

What do you mean you are accepting it? You're accepting that your moral feelings exist? Okay. So am I. I'm accepting that they exist because they DO exist.

I have confused you with my claims about which sensory data I accept and which I reject. To you, my way of thinking seems arbitrary, and I'm not sure that I can convince you that it's not. But I don't think it is.

My goal is to

(a) accept as little as possible on faith, but
(b) to accept as much as I need to accept on faith in order to make predictions about the universe I seem to be living in

I've found that placing SOME trust (never complete trust) in my five senses (and in reports from other people of data gathered with their five senses) I have a much better chance of predicting events in the universe I seem to be living in than if I trust sensory data from feelings in my head.

So I don't trust dreams and other feelings as event-predictors. That doesn't mean I discount them. It just means that I don't find them useful as predictors. In other words, if I have a vague (or even profound) feeling that something is wrong in the real world, I don't trust it as a serious indicator that something IS wrong in the real world. But I do take the feeling seriously. In fact, I probably care more about the feeling that whether anything is actually wrong in the real world. For instance, if the feeling is profound enough, I might choose to stay home from work because of it.

However, I would never impose that feeling on anyone else. If my five senses suggested that something was wrong in the real world (e.g. I see a ticking bomb), I would impose those feelings on other people (e.g. warn them to flee). But I'm not going to tell you to run because I have a feeling -- based on nothing coming from my five senses -- that you're in danger.

Why do I give primacy to my five senses over my "mental" senses? Because, as I've said above, I've found that my mental senses are not good predictors of reality. If I feel you're in danger and I warn you, I'll probably just wind up feeling fooling, because it will turn out that you're not in danger.

Now, a very powerful type of mental sense is a moral feeling. And I care deeply about my moral feelings. But I don't believe that they point to anything in the real world (I know you don't either.) Which is why I feel uneasy forcing other people to follow them. BUT I SO ANYWAY. IN SPITE OF MY UNEASINESS, I FOLLOW THE MIGHT-MAKES-RIGHT RULE. I do this even though telling you to follow my moral rule feels like telling you to run when I have no physical evidence that you're in danger.

that's when I think that accusations of "science as a religion" have merit.

You lost me on the whole "reality with a capital R or Truth with a capital T" thing. Sorry. But I will say that though some are offended by this, I consider science and religion to be equally founded on faith. Scientists take on faith that the physical universe exists and that we can measure it; Theists take on faith that God exists and that we can relate to Him.

I prefer science, because my goal is to minimize the number of faith-based assumptions. That goal is built into science (though even science can't survive without SOME faith-based assumptions). It's NOT built into religion.
posted by grumblebee at 5:33 PM on November 28, 2006


Just to go overboard in the name of clarity, let me state that -- yes -- it is my moral sense that makes me feel uneasy about might makes right:

My moral sense tells me:

1) It's imperative that I get everyone to follow my moral system.

2) It's wrong to force people to do things against their will.

Item 1 is slightly more important than item 2, so I go ahead and advocate forcing. But the existence of item 2 makes me feel forever uneasy.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Wait? Grumblebee is admitting to having morality? I thought he was a disbeliever in it!" then I have hopelessly mangled my point (or you have misunderstood it).

My point -- to use lay-terms -- is merely that though my moral system exists, it is "all in my head." When I force or expect other people to follow it, that's like forcing or expecting other people to listen to me over and over again recite a story I wrote.
posted by grumblebee at 5:44 PM on November 28, 2006


The idea that "the good" doesn't actually exist at all -- that it's just a human construct individualized for each person -- is sort of interesting.
posted by JekPorkins at 5:51 PM on November 28, 2006



For one thing, I think you're being a bit strident in claiming that you have me in a headlock or something because I used the word "everyone".

We'll have to disagree here.

You just said If I EVER lead you to believe that I think some people have no moral feelings ... then I mislead you. I think this time I'll refrain from articulating the significance of that.

However, I would never impose that feeling on anyone else.

Yeah, you would. You've already said that you would stop every murder if you could. You would impose your "feeling" (which is, in fact, your moral judgement, though you want to believe that you're so naturally open-minded that you don't have moral judgements.)

You're accepting that your moral feelings exist? Okay. So am I. I'm accepting that they exist because they DO exist.

Do you think that you're being really clever by substituting "moral feelings" in place of where I've said "morality" in these various points? Such careful alteration of my statements shows that, for all your feigned confusion, you understand very well what I'm saying. For anyone left watching the show, I of course said that the moral sense allows him to perceive morality in the same way that sight and sound allow him to perceive his "true physical world".

I've found that placing SOME trust (never complete trust) in my five senses (and in reports from other people of data gathered with their five senses) I have a much better chance of predicting events in the universe I seem to be living in than if I trust sensory data from feelings in my head.

And hmm, your moral sense exactly predicts how you'll behave morally and earns SOME trust in predicting how other people will behave morally. Funny thing that.

It's almost the kind of thing that would drive a person to flip flop back and forth between objections about the morality of "the system" and personal morality.

I've found that my mental senses are not good predictors of reality.

Except of course that whatever mental thingie that lets you use logic, you trust just fine. But oh, we decided that perceiving the rules and operation of logic can't be called a "sense", so I guess that doesn't count.

If my five senses suggested that something was wrong in the real world

Like seeing a murder about to happen...

I would impose those feelings on other people

Like stop a murder, the way you said you'd do?

My moral sense tells me: 1)It's imperative that I get everyone to follow my moral system.

Funny you didn't mention that one before. "If I were to feel obligated to stop a murder, I'd have to feel obligated to force all of society to adhere to my entire moral code." Does that go for telling a murderer not to kill someone too? Would you have to get all of society to adhere to your moral code before you would say "Put that butcher knife down, you shouldn't kill that woman"?

When I force or expect other people to follow it, that's like forcing or expecting other people to listen to me over and over again recite a story I wrote.

Or it's like stopping a murder. And of course, your superior-subordinate use of moral principles on your reasoning remains: What makes it wrong to force other people to listen to you over and over again recite a story you wrote, and is doing that as bad as murder or better or worse?

It's probably obvious, but just to say it, I have of course been through the exact same reasoning process that you're going through, and so at one point in the past I would have said exactly what you're saying, so I totally sympathize with everything you have said in response to me. (That isn't to imply that you'll reach the same conclusions as me.)

JekPorkins: The idea that "the good" doesn't actually exist at all -- that it's just a human construct individualized for each person -- is sort of interesting.

If you're talking about moral right and wrong being individualized, that's the "moral relativism" that Sparx was talking about earlier. It is interesting, but wherever the individual moral systems come into contact you get a rock-paper-scissors thing going on and the resolutions to that end up having to call on other moral systems.

Or maybe you just mean that what's good for people is individual, or maybe you're talking about an Aristotelian Good. That makes sense to me and is interesting too. It definitely seems as though what's good for people is individual, though you can get some great ideas by watching others ;^)
posted by XMLicious at 10:50 PM on November 28, 2006


For one thing, I think you're being a bit strident in claiming that you have me in a headlock or something because I used the word "everyone".

We'll have to disagree here.

You just said If I EVER lead you to believe that I think some people have no moral feelings ... then I mislead you. I think this time I'll refrain from articulating the significance of that.

To be a bit softer on that one, sure, I can't prove that everyone's internal moral sense perceives the same thing. Even if two people both said they believe it's wrong to kill innocents, you'd still have have the same problem as "when you see red and I see red, do we really see the same color?" And certainly not if you genuinely thought I meant insane people. And heck, it's not like I said "all LIVING people", I said "everyone" and I certainly can't prove that dead people have the same moral sense that living people do. So you win. I fumbled about with my attempt to "prove" it above but when I said it I didn't intend for it to be anything more than an anecdotally-supported statement.
posted by XMLicious at 11:11 PM on November 28, 2006


XMLicious, I am saddened by your last post. I fear I have offended you, though I'm not sure how I did it. If I did, please accept my apologies.

I was really enjoying this discussion -- so-much-so that I couldn't wait for work to end so that I could get back into it. And your contributions were at the top of what gave me joy. One of the reasons I liked this discussion so much was that it was serious without ever becoming ugly. I have an iron-clad personal rule about not staying in ugly discussions, which is why I almost never join in on Metafilter (so many discussions here turn into flame wars).

I am thrilled that you disagree with me, because the conversation would be dull if we all agreed. I am fine with you pointing out flaws in my ideas. That's why I'm here -- to either strengthen my ideas or discover how they're wrong. What I'm not fine with is you telling me what my intentions are. I will not stay in a discussion in which people start psychoanalyzing me. According to my morals, that's one the worst things one human can do to another. I don't expect you to share that conviction. But I wanted you to know what I intend to bow out -- unless things turn a corner.

What am I talking about?

Do you think that you're being really clever by substituting "moral feelings" in place of where I've said "morality" in these various points? Such careful alteration of my statements shows that, for all your feigned confusion, ou understand very well what I'm saying.

I am not trying to be clever and I am not trying to alter your statements. I have zero interest in altering your statements. My interest is in replying to you as clearly as possible, and that includes being very careful of what words I use. "Moral feelings" is MY phrase, and it's an important one to me. It's the best phrase I can come up with to susinctly describe what's going on in my head. In this paragraph, I'm not concerned as to whether you agree or disagree with my wording. I'm concerned that you've accused me of dishonesty: feigning confusion. It is absolutely impossible for me to prove to you that my intentions are pure, so I won't try. But if you don't think they are, then we have no basis for discussion.

I have of course been through the exact same reasoning process that you're going through

You can't know that without getting inside my head. And I seriously doubt that you have been through my reasoning process, because you don't get my reasoning process. That's probably my fault, because I've failed to explain it clearly. But I've been thinking about, reading about and studying this stuff almost daily for thirty years. My reasoning process isn't some fad I'm going through. It may very well be wrong, but it's come by long and careful thought and study. Your comment -- that you've been where I'm standing and have moved passed it -- is condescending.

If you do want to keep discussion this -- and I'm all for that (and excited by the idea) as long as the discussion remains centered on the ideas and doesn't involve mind reading -- I think we should start by you explaining what you think my position is.

It's hard for me to continue this, because I'm not sure what you think I'm arguing. It seems to me like you think I'm arguing something different that what I think I'm arguing. So maybe we're laboring under a massive misunderstanding.

Do you think this is my position?

"If I were to feel obligated to stop a murder, I'd have to feel obligated to force all of society to adhere to my entire moral code." Does that go for telling a murderer not to kill someone too? Would you have to get all of society to adhere to your moral code before you would say "Put that butcher knife down, you shouldn't kill that woman"?

It's not. Where did you get that first quote from ("If I were obligated...")? I searched this thread and couldn't find it. Did I say that? Or is that your version of my philosophy? Because it's not MY version of my philosophy. Again, I'm willing to take the blame. Maybe you think that's my position because I mislead you. Whatever the case, though, it's not my position. Please clarify what you think I believe. Maybe we can clear this up really quickly.
posted by grumblebee at 6:49 AM on November 29, 2006


Maybe I'm not fully awake yet, but I'm totall baffled by this exchange:


YOU: For one thing, I think you're being a bit strident in claiming that you have me in a headlock or something because I used the word "everyone".

ME: We'll have to disagree here.

YOU: You just said If I EVER lead you to believe that I think some people have no moral feelings ... then I mislead you. I think this time I'll refrain from articulating the significance of that.


Okay, so you think I'm being over-critical to point out that when you said everyone you didn't mean literally EVERYONE (e.g. you weren't including insane people). Am I right so far?

I disagreed with that -- I felt that it was fair to call you on your use of "everyone." Right?

You next are pointing out some flaw in my reasoning. You do that by pointing out that I said, "If I EVER lead you to believe that I think some people have no moral feelings ... then I mislead you." What does that have to do with my critique of your use of "everyone"? I'm not "feigning confusion." I really really don't get it!

Do you think I'm chastising you for using universals ("everyone") while I myself am also using them? I don't think it's bad to use universals. I use them all the time: all people are mortal, all ducks are birds, etc. What I think is wrong is to use a universal when something is NOT universal: if I find even ONE duck that's not a bird, then ALL ducks are NOT birds. I'm not trying to hold you to some insanely picky standard. I'm trying to hold you up to YOUR standard -- you're the one that said "everyone." I know you later amended that to disinclude the insane, but I still don't see what you're getting at -- what you're saying about my logic -- the above exchange.

===

Please correct this if it's wrong, but it seems to me like you're repeatedly saying that I have selective -- or hypocritical -- views on morality. That I, say, refuse to admit the existence of morality and yet I use morality all the time.

I don't know if I created that confusion or if you did, but I wish we could get past it.

That is not what I think. Nor is it ever what I thought. It is true that I don't like to use the word "morality" when talking about its existence. I prefer "moral feelings." That's not me trying to play some sort of word game with you. That's me trying to refine my thoughts and be clear. I can't honestly say "morality exists" (or "doesn't exist"), because I don't know exactly what "morality" is. But I do know what feelings are, and I do believe that feelings exist.

And I have moral feelings. And I make decisions based on those moral feelings. And I often feel bad when I do so. And those bad feelings are also moral feelings. In other words, my morality makes me want to do things that wind up making me feel bad. That may be nuts or complex, but how is it hypocritical or dishonest?
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 AM on November 29, 2006


Ah, yes, you're right. I did have a major misconception, I had gotten it backwards that, as you did say clearly, "I endorse might makes right." Partly it was caused by me misreading things like "I do NOT think it's okay to force 'might makes right is wrong' on anyone." I misinterpreted the negation "not think" ... "is wrong" but that's my own fault, I'm the one who introduced the phrase "might makes right is wrong."

So, I understand now that you're asserting something like "of all possibilities might makes right is most acceptable", which doesn't constitute any kind of comfort or ease with the situation, is that correct?

So I completely retract my statement that I understand your reasoning process, I apologize, and I hope that you can believe I really thought I understood why you were making that series of arguments in that way, and I was trying to avoid being condescending that you were going to reach the same conclusions I had.

I fear I have offended you, though I'm not sure how I did it.

No, not at all.

So, the other major thing that has tripped me up is the transitions between talking about the individual's source of moral direction and justification for behavior, versus talking about the problem of constructing a communal judicial and law enforcement system. I really don't think about how to construct a communal system based upon morality partially because it's already there and my influence on it is negligible (though in the rare situations where I think I would have some kind of influence, I do think alot about what I should do) but primarily because I'm much more occupied with discerning what moral rules my sense of morality is showing me and pondering my own moral judgements or fulfilling my obligations, like should I send money to the tsunami victims, should I tell my client something that will upset them even though I know it won't do them any good to be upset, and have I done enough of the shared maintenance of the building I live in.

As I've said before here, I also think that the two things are pretty independent of each other - particularly, however you might have to set up the communal system isn't going to determine how you have to behave personally. I don't think that you can use some fact about the way a communal law enforcement or judicial system would have to be set up to justify something about your personal moral behavior - that's why I was (based upon my misunderstanding) trying to demonstrate a contradiction by tying together your individual
actions in opposing murder with the "imperative that I get everyone to follow my moral system."

To me, a desire or obligation to get other people to follow your own moral system doesn't have anything to do with the validity of the moral system itself. For example, Christians believe it's their duty to evangelize and spread the gospel, but if a Christian doesn't successfully spread the gospel or doesn't even try, that doesn't mean that he no longer believes that he is bound by the dictates of the gospel.

So, I'm confused as to why you keep mentioning this thing about endorsing might makes right - what does that have to do with the rest of your moral feelings? Isn't it just one moral feeling among all the other moral feelings, like feeling that murder is wrong? In the same way that (I assume) stopping a particular murder wouldn't make you change your mind (change your moral feeling) about whether it's an imperative to get everyone to follow your moral system, whether or not you've gotten everyone to follow your moral system in the society you're living in shouldn't change your mind (change your moral feeling) that you should stop murder, does it?

The other thing that I don't understand is that you appeared to agree with me earlier that an obligation to do something can't come from a purely material source. If that's so, and as you keep saying, you think that your own moral feelings are just neurons firing in your brain, why behave at all as if you're obligated to act out those moral feelings?

If the uneasiness thing about forcing people to do things is so closely balanced with the need to get everyone to follow your moral system, I'd give the uneasiness a little push and let it win and just don't force anyone to do anything. It's like I said before, if it's all just a feeling, you can't make a wrong choice.

Okay, this isn't really comforting, but consider this: if it's all really purely material, then if you had the right kind of lobotomy (obviously, it might be more complex than a particular region or connection of the brain) you would simply stop feeling those feelings.

Or think of it in an aesthetic sense; you should promote moral behavior in yourself but in the same way that you should have a pretty painting on the wall instead of an ugly one. The moral compulsion as a sort of harmony with your environment.

Like you said, morality-as-a-feeling is just like eating or sex: so put yourself on a morality diet.

Well, I had a whole bunch of stuff worked up on regarding the other topics, but as there's been this radical revisioning of the argument, and since it seems to mostly be my fault, I'm going to forget about that for now, but feel free to re-ask any questions you want to.
posted by XMLicious at 12:30 PM on November 29, 2006


XMlicious, I don't have time to respond in full right now (though you bring up many many fascinating points), but I wanted to say that I think you're a real gentleman (or gentlewoman -- sorry: I'm unsure of your gender) for responding the way you did! Thank you. And, though you've been kind enough to place all the blame on your own shoulders, I wanted to apologize again for any role I've taken in the confusion.

More later.
posted by grumblebee at 1:10 PM on November 29, 2006


I really don't think about how to construct a communal system based upon morality partially because it's already there and my influence on it is negligible

I'm pretty much with you here. I don't think all that much about changing the law. I only kept bring up laws because laws are big things -- easy to grasp. But I think that even if you keep your moral principles to yourself, it's very difficult to avoid inflicting them on other people. For instance, you bring up the question "should I tell my client something that will upset them?" If you do, you're letting your morals affect them. (Again: I'm not saying that's a bad thing.)

If you're very weak compared to them, you may not be able to exercise your morals in a way that affects them. You may start to tell them the upsetting thing and they might walk out of the room without listening to you. But if you're the "alpha dog," you will dominate them and they will listen to you. This is a small example of "might makes right." In that example, your morality was the one that was effective because you were the one with the might.

Let's imagine that there was a way to rank moral systems from best to worst. I don't think this is really possible, but let's just pretend it is for a second. Let's say that we ranked A better than B. However, B's owner has more might, so B's moral system gets play and A's doesn't. I'm not crazy about that, because who-has-more-might has nothing to do with who has the best moral system (unless you're a believer in trial by combat :-)

Yet any practical application of morality -- even a tiny one like me chastising someone for being rude on the subway -- is completely entangled with might. This is why I harp on the subject.

I think you and I are on the same page, because you say pretty much the same thing here:

To me, a desire or obligation to get other people to follow your own moral system doesn't have anything to do with the validity of the moral system itself. For example, Christians believe it's their duty to evangelize and spread the gospel, but if a Christian doesn't successfully spread the gospel or doesn't even try, that doesn't mean that he no longer believes that he is bound by the dictates of the gospel.

But your focus is a bit different. You are not interested in the might-makes-right angle, and I go on and on about it. I am not interested in the morals-system-that's-in-one's-head-even-if-it-never-gets-expressed angle, and you go on and on about it. Actually, I am interested in it, but I don't really know where a discussion about it can go. We're in agreement that everyone (or most people) have a moral system (or moral feelings or whatever) in their head. And?

I mean, if I'm trying to learn about a particular person, then this info is fascinating -- just as knowing anything about a person's mental state is fascinating when you're interested in his character. But here I was discussing things on a more macro scale. Society and all that.

if you think that your own moral feelings are just neurons firing in your brain, why behave at all as if you're obligated to act out those moral feelings?

For the same reason I want to have sex -- even though the desire is "just in my brain." Feelings are the most powerful motivators. I can do all of the intellectualizing I want. It won't matter. My "firing neurons" compel me to act morally (or, at the very least, make me feel horrible when I don't).

If the uneasiness thing about forcing people to do things is so closely balanced with the need to get everyone to follow your moral system...

I think we're on the same page here, but just to clarify: I don't have a need for everyone to share my moral system. In other words, if I think it's wrong to kill, I DON'T have a need for everyone else to THINK it's wrong to kill. I just have a need for everyone not to kill. So for me, the word "follow" in "the need to get everyone to follow" means "obey" not "believe in."

It would be awesome if everyone shared my (or any) moral system. But that's so unimaginable to me, I can't even wish for it. The only way I can imagine harmony is if everyone OBEYS one moral system -- whether they agree with it or not. And so we return to ... wait for it ... might makes right!

Like you said, morality-as-a-feeling is just like eating or sex: so put yourself on a morality diet.

Easier said than done.
posted by grumblebee at 3:37 PM on November 29, 2006


I don't have a need for everyone to share my moral system.

But do you believe that your "moral system" is universal, regardless of whether or not others adopt it?

In other words, if I think it's wrong to kill, I DON'T have a need for everyone else to THINK it's wrong to kill.


Again, do you believe that it is wrong if someone else kills in violation of your "moral system," or do you believe that another person's failure to adopt your system makes their actions moral? If Vincent Vega is a stone cold killer with no moral code, does that mean that you consider him to be acting morally?
posted by JekPorkins at 3:50 PM on November 29, 2006


JekPorkins, I understand what you're saying -- and it's a great question -- but I don't have an answer. For me, right and wrong only exist within my system. So all I can say that since in my system killing is wrong, someone who kills is wrong WITHIN MY SYSTEM.

I think that what most people mean when they say "he's wrong!" Then mean "he's wrong according to my moral system." But they don't bother saying the last part, either because they assume it's understood; or because they don't regularly think about the fact that there are other moral systems besides their own.

So the guy is wrong within my moral system and right within his moral system. That's all I can say. But I can add that I care about my system and not his.

And, as I've said here ad nauseum, I feel bad that I care about my system and not his.
posted by grumblebee at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2006


That first part should have said:

JekPorkins, I understand what you're saying -- and it's a great question -- but I don't have an answer. For me, right and wrong only exist IN A MEANINGFUL WAY within my system.
posted by grumblebee at 4:55 PM on November 29, 2006


For instance, you bring up the question "should I tell my client something that will upset them?" If you do, you're letting your morals affect them.

I think you might misunderstand me there - I mean telling them something like "In my experience, this approach isn't guaranteed to work" when there aren't any alternative approaches.

I understand what you're saying though and could probably think up some examples myself, but I'm more interested in pointing out that you're yet again setting one of your own moral feelings as a meta-moral - that it's wrong to let your morals effect someone else. With that motivation, NOT telling someone something because you think it's part of or representative of your moral system is also allowing your moral system to effect them.

If you're very weak compared to them, you may not be able to exercise your morals in a way that affects them.

Again, what the heck does this have to do with whether it's wrong to kill innocent people or not?

However, B's owner has more might, so B's moral system gets play and A's doesn't. I'm not crazy about that, because who-has-more-might has nothing to do with who has the best moral system...

Don't you see that you're again making another meta-moral moral judgement, that the best moral system should get the most play? You can't even talk about these things without presuming some moral system to be true. (I'm generally speaking of course, as in "One cannot even talk...")

Yet any practical application of morality -- even a tiny one like me chastising someone for being rude on the subway -- is completely entangled with might.

It still seems to me that you're utterly conflating individual morals with the morals that would have to be implicitly implemented in an effective judicial and law enforcement system. I don't see how telling someone to not be rude while you're on the subway in any way constitutes an application of "might makes right". When I tell someone not to be rude, I don't mean "society says you shouldn't behave that way" I mean "you shouldn't harm that person in that fashion". That holds true even if the attitude or action that would be rude may be incomprehensible to me or not from my culture - like putting ketchup on certain things in front of a gourmet chef. As you said above "I fear I have offended you, though I'm not sure how I did it" - you were worried that you had been rude to me, even though the actual thing you might've done may have been something that would never offend anyone else. (Though I say again, you haven't offended me in any way.)

(Hmmm, gee, interesting how "rude" is a universal concept, just like "murder." I bet you there definitely ISN'T a language where "social interaction" and "rudeness" are the same word, where people wouldn't distinguish between the two.)

(BTW, or like putting brown sauce on certain things in front of a gourmet chef. Seems like you're on a European schedule (or maybe just third shift in North America.))

(And a further BTW - if you use fancy ketchup they don't mind. Remember that, good etiquette tip.)

You are not interested in the might-makes-right angle...

No - it's not that I'm not interested in it, it just has nothing to do with whether murder or child molestation is wrong. In the same way that whether or not murder is wrong has nothing to do with whether child molestation is wrong.

the morals-system-that's-in-one's-head-even-if-it-never-gets-expressed angle

It DOES get expressed! You yourself said that you would stop a murder if you saw it happening! THAT'S EXPRESSION OF YOUR MORAL CODE! And if you did not stop a murder because you thought that would be expressing your moral code and you shouldn't do that - I'm sorry, you would also be expressing your moral code.

For the same reason I want to have sex -- even though the desire is "just in my brain." Feelings are the most powerful motivators.

Funny how you don't have sex with cheap, diseased prostitutes even though you very easily could. Seems like your self-interest has no trouble trumping feelings there. If you really believe that morals are just feelings, do the same thing and let self-interest win out over your moral feelings. This Captain-Kirk-ish "I... just... can't... stop... my... moral... FEELINGS!" thing is getting old.

Look, if you really do feel so inexorably compelled - by irreconcilable, irreducible, conflicting moral obligations that you intellectually believe to be completely meaningless - even though I personally believe you're perceiving (some) "real", existent moral obligations, I would urge you to get help with this out of self-interest because it's NOT normal, even in people who are very morally-inclined. (But I don't really think that's what you feel ;^D I think that the compulsion that you feel, like me, is to articulate a coherent system, and you say these things because the meaninglessness of feelings-derived morals is logically incompatible with the way you know you're going to behave.)

I just have a need for everyone not to kill.

STILL a separate thing from whether YOU should not kill or should prevent killing. And "have a need for everyone not to kill" is consistent, anyways, because you said that if you had magic you'd stop all murders. But "I don't have magic" doesn't have any bearing on any of this.

(And, BTW, I'm interpolating "need for everyone not to kill" into "need to set up a communal judicial and law enforcement system that prevents killing" because I think that's what you're doing when you say it too.)

It would be awesome if everyone shared my (or any) moral system. But that's so unimaginable to me, I can't even wish for it. The only way I can imagine harmony is if everyone OBEYS...

Too bad you can't imagine harmony. That's really awful in a sort of care-bears way. But don't kill people, and do stop murders when you see them happening. If you have to go bawl on your bed in remorse after you've stopped a murder, so be it. </sarcasm>

or because they don't regularly think about the fact that there are other moral systems besides their own.

Or because their moral system doesn't contain the dictum "moral relativism is the one really right thing". It really blows my mind that you don't see that you're making a moral judgement yourself by saying things like this.

----------------------------------------------------

I thought of a better way to express the way that I think that moral obligations are "real" in the same way that math or logic is real. I know that you preferred to say that logic and math "neither exist nor don't exist" so let me phrase it that they "have some kind of transcendent governance" over things both material and non-material.

So the ratio of the radius of the sun's disc to its circumference is 2Πr, even if there aren't any humans yet on Earth to see it, and even if there aren't any humans left on Earth. And this ratio would also be "true" even if there were no circular things in the universe to test it by.

And in fact, even if you just have a human who is unaware of that ratio sitting there and imagining a non-existent circle, if they analyzed it long enough they would conclude that its circumference is 2Πr (though it would be pretty impressive if they actually came up with the value of Π.) And furthermore, like Euclid and other luminaries they would be able to demonstrate to other people that this mathematical rule does govern all circles even though there aren't any materially-existent perfect circles from which the value of Π could be calculated. And even if not everyone agreed, even if there were some people whom, no matter what evidence was put before them, insisted that this ratio can't be a constant and actually must change with the "size" of the object involved (and I have met people like that) it wouldn't matter.

That's what I'm saying moral obligations are like.
posted by XMLicious at 5:12 AM on November 30, 2006


P.S. Note that I'm not saying that logic, math, and morals are the same kind of thing - obviously, morals obligate human action and logic and math are of a completely different realm - I'm just saying that they way they non-materially "exist" is the same.
posted by XMLicious at 5:48 AM on November 30, 2006


P.P.S. This is also a good platform to demonstrate why I think that religious people's belief that morality depends on something supernatural is so stupid. If an all-powerful universe-creator deity existed, and he said "Circumference shalt not equal 2Πr! 2 + 2 shalt not equal 4! And lo, black shalt be white!" I would be like, "Tough fucking shit, Mr. Supreme Being, it doesn't matter what you say about that." Anyone who wants to believe it would matter is saying "Yaaaay, I'm in the Matrix! But God made the Matrix, so it's so woooonderful! I think therefore I am doesn't even matter! Wheeeee!"
posted by XMLicious at 6:13 AM on November 30, 2006


P.P.P.S. I can't stop laughing when people respond to that by saying something to the effect of, "But you shouldn't talk to God that way!"
posted by XMLicious at 6:30 AM on November 30, 2006


you're yet again setting one of your own moral feelings as a meta-moral - that it's wrong to let your morals effect someone else.

Yes, I am. But I guess I don't see your point. Part of my ethical system says that it's bad to push your convictions on someone else. Are you saying that this is silly? Even if you're right, it IS part on my ethical system. I didn't choose for it to be part of my system. It just is. In other words, when I push my convictions on someone else, I wind up feeling bad: the same kind of bad that I feel when I steal from someone. I can't control this feeling or make it go away.

Other parts of my moral system tell me that I MUST push my convictions on other people (if I see someone hurting another person, I must make him stop). These two parts of my system are in conflict.

I don't see how this conflict can be resolved. According to my beliefs, morals are just feelings, and feelings are often at odds with one another (you can love and hate someone at the same time). I can (and do) choose to let one feeling guide my actions (and just repress the other feeling), but I can't totally repress the other feeling, so I still wind up feeling bad in the end. As-far-as I can see, the best defense is just not to think too much about it -- or too deeply about it. Don't endlessly reflect on your actions. Alas, these avenues are close to me. I've never been able to shut off my "inner voice."

what the heck does this have to do with whether it's wrong to kill innocent people or not?

Nothing, presumably. Were we discussing whether it's wrong to kill innocent people?

Okay, if we're going to discuss it, here's my take: the question is meaningless outside the bounds of a specific person's moral system. Killing innocent people is wrong to ME. And it may be wrong to YOU. But there's no sense that it can be just wrong -- outside the context of a specific-person's system unless there's a universal moral system. Which there isn't.

(There are great similarities between my moral system and the moral systems of MANY other people. So we could say that killing is wrong according to the average person's moral system. But I'm not sure what we get by saying that. My response to that is AND?)

Don't you see that you're again making another meta-moral moral judgment, that the best moral system should get the most play?

No. The best moral system CAN'T get the most play, because there IS no best moral system. There is not best moral system because there's no criteria for ranking one moral system vs. another -- other than one's personal criteria, and if you use that, you're back in subjective land.

What I said is that I WISH that there was a ranking system. It's the fact that one doesn't exist that makes us resort to might makes right.

don't see how telling someone to not be rude while you're on the subway in any way constitutes an application of "might makes right".

You're right in a literal sense, but I meant something a bit different.

Look at it this way? WHY do you tell someone to stop being rude? Is it because you just want to get your feelings off your chest? Maybe, and it that's true, you're all set. You're not imposing anything on anyone -- other than an opinion, which even I can live with, because the listener is free to ignore you.

But I have no interest in emoting on the subway. If I'm telling someone to stop being rude, it's a ploy to actually get them to stop being rude. So I'm going to use more than just words -- unless I think that the person is such a beta-dog that words alone will work. I'm going to try to dominate him (with my voice, gaze, etc.)

I have zero interest in telling someone that they're rude just so that they'll know what I think. I want them to STOP. But as-soon-as I use the slighted tactic to get them to stop, I'm trying to impose my moral system on them. So I brought this up as hum-drum example of might makes right that takes place outside of the arena of laws and courts.

it just has nothing to do with whether murder or child molestation is wrong.

Murder and child molestation is wrong (in your system) if you think or feel that it's wrong. Simple.

Now explain to my why I should follow your system. And you can't say, "because murder is wrong," because I can counter with "according to whom?" And you can't say, "because child molestation hurts children," because by saying that you're implying that hurting is wrong, and I can, again, counter with "according to whom?"

You can say, "according to the moral systems of many many people -- according to the majority of moral systems." And I can counter with, "So? Why should I care about the majority? Just because a zillion people think bigfoot exists, that doesn't bring him any closer to existence. So without carting out lots of people, explain to my why hurting is wrong!"

You can say, "it's wrong in EVERYONE'S moral system." That stops me in my tracks for a moment (which is why, XMLicious, I took you to ask for saying "everyone"), because if it IS wrong in EVERYONE'S moral system, then I kind of feel that it IS wrong.

"But wait," I say. "How do you know it's wrong in everyone's system? Have you talked to everyone in the world? If there's even one guy who thinks it's right, then we're back to lots and lots of people, and I don't care. Oh, and I can tell you that there is one person who thinks hurting is right: ME! So hurting is right in my system. Now explain to me why it's wrong..."

(I assume we all get that I, grumblebee, don't really think hurting, killing and child molestation are right!)

ME: the morals-system-that's-in-one's-head-even-if-it-never-gets-expressed angle

YOU: It DOES get expressed!


You are quoting me out of context. I NEVER said that moral systems don't ever get expressed. Of course they do. I said that WHEN then don't get expressed -- when they remain just thoughts or feelings inside someone's head -- I'm not really interested in talking about them. (And then I went on to give some exceptions when, even when they are just in someone's head, I am interested in talking about them.)

Funny how you don't have sex with cheap, diseased prostitutes even though you very easily could.

You clearly don't know me very well. ;-)

But you're missing my point. It doesn't matter whether or not I actually HAVE sex. If I want to remain celibate, I can. What I can't do is turn off the DESIRE to have sex.

Similarly, I can refuse to heed the voice that says "Don't impose your morals on other people," but I can't stop feeling bad when I do impose my morals on other people. Or, I stop imposing my morals on other people, but I can't turn off the bad feeling that happens when someone gets murdered because I did nothing to stop it.

This Captain-Kirk-ish "I... just... can't... stop... my... moral... FEELINGS!" thing is getting old.

Yes, it is. But that doesn't stop it from being true. Of course, if it bores you, we don't need to talk about it. In my last post, I mentioned that it seemed to me like you and I wanted to discuss two totally different things.

Look, if you really do feel so inexorably compelled - by irreconcilable, irreducible, conflicting moral obligations that you intellectually believe to be completely meaningless - even though I personally believe you're perceiving (some) "real", existent moral obligations, I would urge you to get help with this out of self-interest because it's NOT normal

I agree that it's not normal. Via my biased notions, I would claim that I am unusual because (a) I have thought things through to a disturbing truth, and (b) I am unable to shut off that thought. Most people don't ever think through to that truth -- or they don't believe it (or they don't believe it in their GUT). For those few people who do think it through and believe it, most of them are able to repress it most of the time. I have no skill at repressing thoughts.

I realize that last paragraph was monumentally egotistical. "I have glimpsed the horrible truth that others are too repressed to glimpse." If it helps me seem less snobby, I really don't think I'm that much smarter than the average bear. It's just that (a) I'm not religious and (b) I've been thinking about this and studying it for 30 years.

Let's assume -- for a second -- that my egotistical claim is right and I HAVE glimpsed the truth. So what? I see no reason to believe that the truth is always good for you. So maybe I've made myself sick by dwelling on a truth that's best left alone. Okay: what sort of help would you suggest I get? I've been in therapy off and on, and that didn't change anything. Of course, it's possible that I didn't find the right therapist.

the meaninglessness of feelings-derived morals is logically incompatible with the way you know you're going to behave.

I don't think they're meaningless or meaningful. I don't think feelings are either of those things. Feelings are sensations. What can it mean to say that a sensation is meaningless?

ME: I just have a need for everyone not to kill.

YOU: STILL a separate thing from whether YOU should not kill or should prevent killing.


(part of) My moral system:
1) I should not kill.
2) I should do what I can to stop others from killing.
3) I should not impose my convictions on other people.

I'm interpolating "need for everyone not to kill" into "need to set up a communal judicial and law enforcement system that prevents killing" because I think that's what you're doing when you say it too.

No. I have a feeling of wrongness when I kill (or when I contemplate killing) and I also have a feeling of wrongness when I see someone else kill. These feelings occur regardless of any legal system in place.

But don't kill people, and do stop murders when you see them happening. If you have to go bawl on your bed in remorse after you've stopped a murder, so be it.

Ok. I was already doing all of those things.

"moral relativism is the one really right thing". It really blows my mind that you don't see that you're making a moral judgment yourself by saying things like this.

XMLicious, of COURSE that's a moral judgment. When did I say it wasn't. You can's say that something's right or wrong without making a moral judgment. What difference does it make whether it's a moral judgment or not? How does it being a moral judgment change anything, since I can't help making that judgment!

By the way, I DON'T think moral relativism is the only really right things. I think there are many right things.

math or logic ... "have some kind of transcendent governance" over things both material and non-material.

I disagree with this. Math and logic are just steps that we carry out, and all of those steps are concrete, real things. In order to describe those steps (that we do over and over again), we've coined the terms "math" and "logic." Math and logic didn't create the steps. The steps existed first.

What you're saying is like if I decided to give a name to the acts of walking up the stairs, brushing my teeth and spitting out the window. I could call doing those things "glagging." Fine. But it's silly to then say that "Glagging" has some kind of existence.

Doing math is the act of pushing symbols around on paper or in your mind -- and even if you do it in your mind, you're still taking actual, physical, non-mysterious steps: you're causing certain neurons to fire.

Moral feelings are different. They are still based in the physical reality of the brain, but they are sensations that HAPPEN to you: neurons that fire without any conscious effort on your part.

The trouble, XMLicious, is that when you talk to me, you're talking to a hard-core materialist. I don't believe that there are ANY abstract entities -- math, logic, moralities, etc. -- that exist. Everything is either matter in the extern world or a brain process, which is matter moving around in your brain.

As I said earlier, I take the existence of matter as an article of faith.

So the ratio of the radius of the sun's disc to its circumference is 2?r, even if there aren't any humans yet on Earth to see it

The fact that the sun has a certain circumference is NOT the same thing as math.

Physical object have attributes, but math is a human activity (that makes use of those attributes). If there were no humans (or smart machines/aliens) there would be no math.

And furthermore, like Euclid and other luminaries they would be able to demonstrate to other people that this mathematical rule does govern all circles even though there aren't any materially-existent perfect circles from which the value of ? could be calculated. And even if not everyone agreed, even if there were some people whom, no matter what evidence was put before them, insisted that this ratio can't be a constant and actually must change with the "size" of the object involved (and I have met people like that) it wouldn't matter.

I agree, but that's because Euclid can say to people, "Hey, if you don't believe me, draw a circle and then complete steps B, C and D and see what conclusion you come up with." If follow the steps, they will come up with the same conclusion Euclid came up with,

Morals are completely different. What steps can we all take to come up with the same ones?
posted by grumblebee at 3:05 PM on November 30, 2006


Part of my ethical system says that it's bad to push your convictions on someone else.

So why do you keep telling me that it's somehow illegitimate or irrational or wrong to regard my moral sense as objective? You really don't seem to have difficulty deciding which parts of your moral system to apply when. In fact, if you look up this thread, I think you'll note that you choked back the pain for long enough to spend quite a bit of effort coming up with criteria to judge other people's moral systems by, and freely communicated those criteria, without any holding back to avoid pushing your convictions on them.

WHY do you tell someone to stop being rude? Is it because you just want to get your feelings off your chest?

I'm assuming that the person being heckled is obviously uncomfortable? Well, certainly, what I'd initially be doing is try to persuade the heckler to not be rude. And if that didn't work, I would hope that just voicing my opinion would be some kind of support to the person being heckled. Or, if it's getting really bad, and the person being heckled is really uncomfortable, maybe I'd try to stand in between them.

Possibly I'm just not familiar with what you're talking about. I've been on the subway in London, Atlanta, DC, NYC, and Boston, and lots of long-distance, cramped and packed buses all over the place, but I've never seen anything like this happen. Is it the subway equivalent of road rage or something?

The other thing is, is this really a difference of morals? Or would the person doing the heckling call themselves an asshole too?

Wait - are you talking about someone being on their cell phone or listening to their iPod too loud or something?

what the heck does this have to do with whether it's wrong to kill innocent people or not?

Nothing, presumably. Were we discussing whether it's wrong to kill innocent people?

That would fall within the realm of morality. And I guess it just seemed to me that you're saying that other morals have some dependency on the might-makes-right thing. Like it kind of seemed that way when you said Yet any practical application of morality -- even a tiny one like me chastising someone for being rude on the subway -- is completely entangled with might. But silly me for thinking that.

And just to be perfectly clear here, my point is that you refraining from killing someone has nothing to do with might at all.

So we could say that killing is wrong according to the average person's moral system. But I'm not sure what we get by saying that. My response to that is AND?

Well, can you at least see that it's not inconsistent with all of those people perceiving an objective moral obligation to not kill? That at the point where everyone agrees on what the moral rule is, it's only your assertions about the way the universe works that would give them the idea that they're in actuality being subjective and they just don't know it? That maybe they shouldn't just dismiss the non-average people who say that killing's okay, and should maybe try to figure out if something other than subjective incompatibility of moral neuron patterns is going on? Like when Americans see suicide bombers blowing themselves up in Iraq, they shouldn't say "They're nuts, those Muslims! They're just built differently!" they ought to try to see that in the same situation, they might be tempted to do the same things if they believed their very way of life was threatened on purpose.

Murder and child molestation is wrong (in your system) if you think or feel that it's wrong. Simple.

Now explain to my why I should follow your system.


Well, I wouldn't just assert things like "Hurting is wrong." They already have their own moral system; I'd be working off of that. I would ask them questions about what they consider to be right and wrong and demonstrate to them that they already consider killing innocent people to be wrong. Maybe I'd have to show them contradictions in their own behavior, or show them the logical extension of beliefs they already hold, etc.

But I really don't think I'd even get into that situation simply over whether murder is wrong. I would be absolutely floored if I asked someone "When is killing people wrong?" and they said "Never." I'd expect that any actual debate would be over whether a particular person was innocent, or whether members of a particular ethnic group could be innocent. Like if I was in Rwanda pre-genocide, talking to a Hutu, I would ask, "Do you really think it's okay to kill an infant Tutsi?" I think that I could eventually get them to say that's wrong, and from there I'd work my way up to older children and try to get up to adults. And if they just don't know any Tutsi personally, I would try to introduce them to Tutsi and demonstrate that the Tutsi are just like them.

But even if I couldn't convince them, the problem isn't that they don't think it's wrong to kill innocent people, it's that they consider the Tutsi to be sub-human or otherwise incapable of innocence somehow.

ME: the morals-system-that's-in-one's-head-even-if-it-never-gets-expressed angle

YOU: It DOES get expressed!

You are quoting me out of context. I NEVER said that moral systems don't ever get expressed.


It seems odd, if you believe that, that you would use such a phrase as the one I quoted at all. But I wasn't making a point about your statements, anyways. You said that the angle I am interested in is the "morals-system-that's-in-one's-head-even-if-it-never-gets-expressed" one, when in fact, as I pointed out in parts you left out of my response, the things I've been talking about very much involve the expression of moral systems outside of one's head.

You clearly don't know me very well. ;-)

You're all into the diseased prostitutes, huh? Even if you are, is it because you really decide that fulfilling the desire for sex is worth contracting a disease, or is it because you think you've taken effective precautions? If you were certain you were going to catch a disease, wouldn't you be able to find the strength to jerk off instead? Yeah, I know that the desire would still be there, but it's not so hard to look out for your self-interest, is it?

What can it mean to say that a sensation is meaningless?

It would mean that you feel as though you're obligated to do something but you're in fact not obligated to do it. To feel like it's something you "should" do, when in fact all that's there is the desire to do it, like the desire to have sex or eat.

Okay: what sort of help would you suggest I get?

My particular thought was a prozac-class drug that alters neurotransmitter function. But I don't know anything about medicine, that's just my initial thought.

The excessive intensity of and anxiety caused by all your emotions doesn't seem like the kind of thing that's psychology-based. My impression has always been that therapists are better at dealing with more specific problems.

Ok. I was already doing all of those things.

Seriously? You have cried because of the injustice you did to a murderer in preventing him from killing an innocent person? Was the murderer or the victim someone you knew? If you weren't just stretching things to answer my question, I actually really do think that you should look into drugs.

By the way, I DON'T think moral relativism is the only really right things. I think there are many right things.

Okay, so, how many of the right things are things that other people already agree with? Obviously, you don't need to do much most of the time to get other people to not commit murder, right? Or is that something that causes you stress, even though both you and the people around you don't do it? Do you feel stress because you find yourself thinking about going out to find murders that are being committed and stop them? If you do think about that, I don't think you should feel stress about it, I think it's very good of you.

If that kind of thing is not what's causing you stress / making you feel uneasy, which are the moral feelings, besides the "I have to make everyone follow my moral code" moral feeling, that do make you stressed out?

I don't believe that there are ANY abstract entities -- math, logic, moralities, etc. -- that exist.

For someone who doesn't believe logic exists, you seem to use it an awful lot. I mean, obviously the way in which you think logic doesn't exist isn't quite the same way that you and I think that God doesn't exist.

The trouble, XMLicious, is that when you talk to me, you're talking to a hard-core materialist.

Oh, it is such trouble. I'm seeing you in a black leather jacket with lots of studs and chains and "Hard-core Materialist" written on the back. Do you have a tattoo saying that too (actually, if you did, it would be kind of cool.) I'm very intimidated, let me assure you.

The fact that the sun has a certain circumference is NOT the same thing as math.

Okay, but the fact of the sun's certain circumference related to its radius as a ratio is an objective rule that applies to all circular objects in the universe, right, as well as imaginary circles? That the objective rule holds isn't the consequence of neurons firing, it's consistent outside of anyone's head, right? I guess it wasn't all that obvious, but I'm talking about the set of objective rules, not the process of utilizing them for measurement or engineering or something.

What steps can we all take to come up with the same ones?

You can say to them, "Find someone whom you believe to be innocent, whom you could kill with no ill consequences to yourself or anyone you care about, and whose death you would not profit from in any way. Place a lethal bomb next to them and set the timer. Now, based upon your moral feelings, decide whether to disarm the bomb or allow it to explode and kill the person."

Or you could just talk to them about right and wrong. It's really not difficult to find common ground in a practical sense. Disagreement, I find, is usually about the facts of a situation rather than the moral rules involved. Like people disagreeing on whether someone is innocent (like the discussion about Lebanese civilians above) or not recognizing that their personal interests are entangled with the outcome of a moral judgement.

I think that if you operate with the assumption that other peoples' morals are not your own, and that they not only have moral feelings inside that are completely different, but also that these feelings will compel them without any regard to reason (as you perceive your own situation to be), then you're going to be alot less open to simply persuading others into behavior that won't set off your uneasiness. No wonder you can't imagine harmony if you're fixated with the thought that you have to construct some political-social machine that will force others into moral behavior.

How about persuading everyone in the world to follow your morals (or in my terminology, persuading them that their morals and yours are the same) be your Herculean task, rather than force? Then, your morals being close to the average will be an advantage, right? Because that's all the less persuading you'll have to do.
posted by XMLicious at 11:03 PM on November 30, 2006


On the thing above about you stopping a murder... could it just maybe have been the intensity of the situation that upset you? Because that would make sense, I wouldn't worry about that. Or if you had to hurt the guy or something. It's if you genuinely felt remorse simply for asserting that the murder shouldn't occur, outside your own head, that would seem very unusual.
posted by XMLicious at 1:34 AM on December 1, 2006


ME:Part of my ethical system says that it's bad to push your convictions on someone else.

YOU: So why do you keep telling me that it's somehow illegitimate or irrational or wrong to regard my moral sense as objective?

Huh? What does your statement have to do with mine? I said "part of MY ethical system" meaning my SUBJECTIVE system. Why should me believing that I have a subjective system make me accept that there's an objective system.

It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective; just like it's irrational to regard God as existing because He doesn't exist.

You really don't seem to have difficulty deciding which parts of your moral system to apply when.

I have great difficulty. I tend to "overcome it" by randomly choosing one part of the system and then feeling guilty about choosing that part and not another part, but it's impossible for me to choose all parts, because some of them contradict each other.


In fact, if you look up this thread, I think you'll note that you ...spent quite a bit of effort coming up with criteria to judge other people's moral systems by

Whaaaaat???? One of us is seriously confused. Right now it's me. When did I EVER judge someone else's moral system. I would never do that, because I have no criteria to do it. I'm clueless as to what you're talking about.

If I tell someone that killing is wrong, I'm not judging his moral system, even if he thinks killing is right. I'm not interacting with his moral system at all. I'm telling him that killing is wrong in MY moral system and ignoring his system altogether.

And I think that's what almost all people do. They use their moral systems and ignore other moral systems. The only difference between me and them is that I feel guilty about it. I feel guilty about it, because my moral system contains a rule against ignoring other people's systems.
posted by grumblebee at 5:48 AM on December 1, 2006


For someone who doesn't believe logic exists, you seem to use it an awful lot. I mean, obviously the way in which you think logic doesn't exist isn't quite the same way that you and I think that God doesn't exist.

I think we may have to put this to bed. I clearly don't have the words to express myself on this point. We're covering it over and over and not moving forward. You're just going to have accept that I believe something that is, in your view, irrational. Whether or not you agree with it or understand it or think it's insane, the fact is that I don't believe math and logic have the quality of existence.

Not existing means not existing, so -- yes -- they don't exist in exactly the same way that God doesn't exist.

The ONLY difference I can see that -- for many people -- God is not useful unless He exists. I once asked my Christian friend if he would still worship God if he discovered God was all in his head. My friend said "no." I'm sure there are some Christians who would say "yes." For them, God is very similar to how logic is for me. I don't care that it doesn't exist. It's useful. Having the property of existence wouldn't add anything to it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:55 AM on December 1, 2006


the fact of the sun's certain circumference related to its radius as a ratio is an objective rule that applies to all circular objects in the universe, right

Not really, no.

A sun has certain objective properties: mass, etc. But a "ratio" is a relationship, and relationships don't exist objectively.

My wife and I aren't married objectively. We're married because she, I and the state have agreed to a ritual.
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 AM on December 1, 2006


ME: The trouble, XMLicious, is that when you talk to me, you're talking to a hard-core materialist

YOU: I'm very intimidated, let me assure you.


I assume you're joking, but do you understand why I said I'm a hard-core materialist? It's to let you know that I only believe in the existence of MATTER. You can keep telling me that math, logic and morality exist, but I am not going to buy it unless you come up with a really really amazing argument.

My belief in matter is faith based.
posted by grumblebee at 7:01 AM on December 1, 2006


When did I EVER judge someone else's moral system. ...I have no criteria to do it. I'm clueless as to what you're talking about.

I'm not saying you didn't make alot of openminded, non-judgemental statements as well, but take a look at the following. I've assumed that "when did I EVER" gives me the same license you take when I say "everyone", so here goes:

What will happen when there are no taboos left and people can openly live their lives any way they want. I'm pretty sure that if someone openly confesses to serial killing or child molestation, they won't be elected to congress... I'm interested in what will happen when the major, every-day taboos cease to exist.

Simply using the word "taboo" is suspicious and implies that that the rule someone's living (or choosing politically by) can't be valid, but I'll grant you the benefit of the doubt... but why would these "major every-day taboos" cease to exist, unless there's something wrong with believing in them? Why are you so certain that society will proceed in a particular direction morally unless you think that there's something superior about that direction? Interesting, BTW, that you hold as the two non-variant "taboos" the same things that I have been advancing as examples of objective morals.

(talking about Dawkins talking about theists) I understand his reasons for doing this: the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim.

The theist's claims are "extraordinary" whereas the faiths you have and your conclusions from them are "ordinary", eh? Do you see how you're not even saying "more logical" and "less logical" or "more supported" and "less supported" here, but are making value judgements? This isn't a case of using the words "right" and "wrong" because they're the common parlance.

I'm also arguing that biology underpins much of our specific moral rules ... I keep saying "I'm arguing," but in fact I'm not arguing all of this. As I said in my last post about it, I'm merely stating that I think it's a plausible theory. I don't feel we have enough evidence to make a strong factual claim about the origins of morality.

Except for the strong factual claim that "morality is subjective" because of your faith that only matter exists, it now comes to light. So despite your dissembling there, you really are judging other people's moral systems as "just biology" and giving special status to your own because you're taking account of that truth.

Fine, but again, WHY? If you're a Christian, the answer is simple: because that's God's nature and we're made in His image.

Why do the why's end for the Christian? Why doesn't the Christian say "Why is compassion God's nature and why are we made in his image?" Because Christians aren't basing their beliefs on reason. Because they're messy, illogical, non-material-thing believers who just can't see the error at the root of their ways in giving credence to non-material things.

I think that what most people mean when they say "he's wrong!" Then mean "he's wrong according to my moral system." But they don't bother saying the last part, either because they assume it's understood; or because they don't regularly think about the fact that there are other moral systems besides their own.

So, it's wrong, or dumb, or inferior in some other way to not take into account in your moral system that other people have different moral systems. Which, in contrast, is something that your moral system does do by not really being certain of the validity of any of your moral feelings. This is the clearest, most direct example of what I'm talking about.

Anyways, that's what I got from re-reading about a third of the thread and because I think I've presented enough evidence I'm not going to continue. My overall point: not only do you have a moral system by which you permit yourself to judge those of others to be more or less right and wrong, but you've contrived a philosophical framework that allows you to say to yourself that you're not actually doing so.

Let me say, though, at the same time, that I can tell from the way you make various statements you have obviously done very well in inculcating habits of mind that oppose bias and self-interest in your own reasoning. You're probably much better than me at that. I just disagree that you've arrived at an overall philosophy of reasoning (materialism and moral relativism) that excludes bias and self-interest, that's all.

I don't think it's possible to exclude bias and self-interest from thought, and I think you'd agree and maybe even already made the same statement somewhere above. The problem is that there's some faith at the root of every argument if you get back through all the why's. All you really have is consistency and inconsistency (which is an article of faith on my part, faith in logic ;^).

The only difference between me and them is that I feel guilty about it.

Looking at the things you've said above, you've actually made quite a few assertions that in some way related to moral judgement you're very exceptional and unique. This is at odds with the "only difference" statement here.

A sun has certain objective properties: mass, etc. But a "ratio" is a relationship, and relationships don't exist objectively.

So, say, the force of the sun's gravity, which I assume you'd say holds the planets in orbit even if there aren't any neurons firing to see it, is not in a relationship with its mass? Or, to use a less pejorative term, related to its mass.

I'm very intimidated, let me assure you.

I assume you're joking, but do you understand why I said I'm a hard-core materialist?

I understand why you want to think that there can be such a thing as a hard-core materialist who does not disappear in a puff of logic, to take a page from HHG. I think that you're again pursuing a way to distinguish yourself as fully as possible from theists. Although you use the word "faith" here I think that you regard your faith as superior to that of theists and that denying the existence of anything besides matter is essential to that superiority.

In the same way that theists try to boil everything down to one easy-to-handle, non-contradictory thing - God, you're doing the same thing with matter, no more and no less. You're still trying to shut out the inherent existential paradoxes of human existence and find an absolute rather than a conditional.

Since you've been so kind as to strip your own arguments down to bear bones there, let me try to do the same. I've come to the conclusion that we're getting too caught up in the "I said - you said" stuff again. This is probably something you've been trying to tell me in some way, too.

I think that material causes cannot convey the obligation that the assertion "it's wrong" places upon an action. This is the case even if you're saying "morality is subjective, it's wrong just for me." I do agree with you that if moral feelings are so strong as to override all reason, intellectual realization that their compulsions are non-binding would not produce any change in behavior. I just don't think you're being entirely candid about how strong those feelings are and that you do in fact override them for your own intellectual purposes.

I think that moral rules have a non-material, objective existence and this is why people are able to find common ground if they work on it, and why I'm personally able to find moral common ground with someone who superficially appears to hold diametrically opposed views to me. (I'm not talking about you, I'm talking about someone who would attend Pentecostal Revivals and take up snakes and vote the total opposite of me on candidates and ballot issues.)

You can categorically deny my above assertion by saying "only material things can exist" but your behavior is inconsistent with that because, for example, you use logic internally and then present it to other people as if the rules of logic have some objective governance of their own thoughts.

I do not assert that the reason for anyone to agree with me is that there's some way to experimentally demonstrate that all human beings have the same internal moral sense. It would be impossible in any practical way to construct such an experiment, even if it was theoretically valid. I believe that the available evidence does not contradict my claims.

I'm also not saying that you can build an ironclad chain of logic, the way a theologian might try to for the existence of God, to demonstrate that my claim about morality is true. All you can do is demonstrate it to be consistent or inconsistent with other beliefs, consistent or inconsistent with behavior. Even if you accept the preceding assertions it doesn't mean that morality in particular exists, or that a single objective morality exists. There isn't any airtight "proof" that anything exists. I just think that when, as you say, one must take on faith the existence of the universe depicted by the senses and inferred by reasoning to exist beyond the senses, there's no reason not to include morality in that, and there are many reasons to include it. Your division of the information coming in into "senses" which you know represent reality and "feelings" which you know do not is arbitrary and is a priori reasoning.

I also believe that the idea "Their morality is subjective, so I can dismiss it as nonsensical", i.e. "Meh, you're just thinking that because you believe in the sky-wizard and in boogeymen!" or "Muslims are just nuts, it's in their religion" is internally useful to people because it gets them "off the hook" for understanding another's point of view. That isn't morally wrong, of course; but it violates the principle that logic is not subjective, in that it mixes self-interest and reasoning.

I'd also point out that if logic doesn't exist and all morality is subjective then any discussion of morality between different people would be unintelligible. You might try to tell other people "morality is subjective", but that's just as much of an absolute statement and a subjective judgement as "killing innocent people is wrong". But you do go ahead and discuss morality and this is another behavior that is inconsistent with your articulated beliefs.

One final note: I apologize for dispensing with the usual polemical etiquette of not making statements about your interlocuter's motivations, but you are a really formidable opponent and I'm having to take the gloves off to stay above water. (Holy mixed metaphors, Batman!)
posted by XMLicious at 2:07 PM on December 1, 2006


Simply using the word "taboo" is suspicious and implies that that the rule someone's living (or choosing politically by) can't be valid

Whaaaat? That's not what taboo means, and it's ABSOLUTELY not what I meant when I said it. There are tons of things that are taboo -- atheism for one -- that I think are valid. Homosexuality is taboo, pot is taboo, plural marriage is taboo, saying "fuck" on TV is taboo. These are all things I think should be allowed.

Why are you so certain that society will proceed in a particular direction morally unless you think that there's something superior about that direction?

Why do I think society will do X if X is not superior? Are you serious? Do you think that society always moves from inferior to superior? I don't.


XMLicious: I may have figured out our communication block. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm an extremely literal guy. What I say -- or write -- is generally EXACTLY what I mean. I wish I could say this is because I've made a life decision to always be honest and direct, but it's not. I just have a really hard time crafting non-literal language. (This is most-likely due to Aspergers Syndrome, which runs in my family.)

Yet you continually read things into what I'm saying -- things that I didn't ACTUALLY say. So I have the odd experience, reading your responses, of thinking "Wait! He thinks I said THAT?!? That's not what I said at all." Sometimes you seem to realize this, yourself, and you preface what your remark with something like: "You said ... but I think you mean ..." But often you simply claim I said something that, in fact, I never said, never would say, and categorically disbelieve. I strongly urge you -- if you have an interest in understanding where I'm coming from -- to read my text literally. Unless I say I think something, I don't think it. If I say I think something, that's exactly what I mean.

You also read inter-personal motivation into my text. Is this because you feel I'm "you are a really formidable opponent"? Maybe you frame this discussion as a (friendly, I hope) argument in which we're both trying to win, but that's not what it is for me. I don't care to win, and I'll instantly concede if you convince me I'm wrong. This is impersonal for me, and my only motive is clarity. I take part in these discussions because they help me clarify my ideas. You've greatly helped me do that already.

Here are some things that you've claimed I believe that I don't actually believe:

-- Do you see how you're ... making value judgments?

You repeatedly tell me that I'm making value judgments and I repeatedly agree with you. You're making some kind of assumption that I've claimed that I don't believe in making value judgments. I've never said that. I make value judgments all the time.

The ONLY negative things I've said about value judgments are...

a) I'm uncomfortable when I make them. Uncomfortable does NOT mean I don't make them, I play to stop making them, or I can't make them. I make them, and I plan to go on making them, and I'm pretty sure I'll go on feeling uncomfortable when I make them.

b) There's no criteria for ranking one moral system vs. another. That's ONE kind of judgment that I don't make. I do make OTHER kinds of judgments. For instance, I judge someone as bad if they kill. When do that, I am judging their act, not their moral system. It makes no difference to me whether under their moral system killing is right or wrong. It's wrong according to MY moral system, and I use MY moral system to judge their actions.

The ONLY thing that gives me pause is that I'm uncomfortable inflicting my moral system on someone who might have a different one. I'm so scared of that last sentence, because every time I write it, you read all sorts of things into it that I didn't say and didn't mean. So let me say AGAIN that though I'm uncomfortable, I STILL judge. I still think he's a bad person for killing. And though the fact that he may have his own moral system is the reason for my discomfort, I don't delve into its details and I don't care about its details. I don't think my moral system is superior to his, because I don't think there's such a thing as a superior moral system (they can't be ranked). So I just go with mine (without thinking it's superior).

-- you really are judging other people's moral systems as "just biology" and giving special status to your own because you're taking account of that truth.

I'm NOT giving special status to my own moral system. My moral system is just as bad or good (unrankable) as everyone else's, and any truths that I might recognize are irrelevant.

I might think I'm a special PERSON because I recognize some truths that the masses generally miss (though I actually DON'T think this), but special people do not have better moral systems than non-special people.

I'm not judging someone's moral system when I say it's "just biology." I happen to think that moral systems are biologically based. How is that a judgment? When I say a tree is biologically based, I'm not judging the tree, either. Saying something is biologically based is neutral -- it's not a stamp of approval or disapproval. If we ever invent androids with artificial intelligence, I won't think we're superior or inferior to them because we're biological.

-- So, it's wrong, or dumb, or inferior in some other way to not take into account in your moral system that other people have different moral systems.

You say this over and over. Do YOU have trouble thinking of things without labeling them right or wrong? That's NOT the way I think.

All I've said is that in ****MY**** moral system it's wrong to discount other moral systems. It may be fine in your system and in other people's systems. I have never said -- and I never will say -- that another person's moral system is dumb. I DON'T RANK MORAL SYSTEMS!

-- [You are] not really ... certain of the validity of any of your moral feelings.

Wrong. I AM certain of the validity of my moral feelings, though "validity" strikes me as a strange word to describe a feeling. But I am certain that I do feel what I feel.

Are you saying my claim is that while I FEEL that killing is wrong, I am not certain that it actually IS wrong?

That's not true. If I FEEL that it's wrong then it IS wrong. End of story. BECAUSE I JUDGE VIA MY MORAL SYSTEM. And my moral system is neither valid nor invalid (because there's no criteria for judging the validity of a moral system).

-- not only do you have a moral system by which you permit yourself to judge those of others to be more or less right and wrong, but you've contrived a philosophical framework that allows you to say to yourself that you're not actually doing so.

No. My philosophical system does NOT say I'm not judging people. I judge people continually and always will.

The only thing I can think is that whenever I say I'm "uneasy" or "uncomfortable" about judging people, you read something more profound into it.

I WISH I had the sort of philosophical system you're talking about. It might make me a happier person. But I can't even imagine such a system.

-- I just disagree that you've arrived at an overall philosophy of reasoning (materialism and moral relativism) that excludes bias and self-interest, that's all.

Yes. I disagree with this too, because I never tried to devise such a system -- nor do I think it's devisable.

I have tons of bias and I'm self-interested all the time. The fact that I'm uncomfortable inflicting my will on others doesn't stop my self-interest, especially since I inflict my will on others anyway.

And according to my morals, I don't even get any brownie points for feeling bad. A murderer who feels bad and a murderer who doesn't are pretty equal in my book. So I'm just as bad as anyone else who inflicts their will on others. It matters not that I feel uncomfortable about it.

I think that you're again pursuing a way to distinguish yourself as fully as possible from theists. Although you use the word "faith" here I think that you regard your faith as superior to that of theists and that denying the existence of anything besides matter is essential to that superiority.

XMLicious: what have I EVER said that makes you think I suppose myself to be superior to theists? I don't think that. My best friend is a theist and he's much smarter than I am.

And I don't think my faith is superior to their faith. Faith is as unrankable as moral systems.




The problem is that there's some faith at the root of every argument if you get back through all the why's. All you really have is consistency and inconsistency (which is an article of faith on my part, faith in logic

Guess what?

I agree with this 100%.

In the same way that theists try to boil everything down to one easy-to-handle, non-contradictory thing - God, you're doing the same thing with matter, no more and no less.

I agree with this, too.

I'd also point out that if logic doesn't exist and all morality is subjective then any discussion of morality between different people would be unintelligible.

This is an interesting side-point that we could discuss here or elsewhere. The reason I say "logic" doesn't exist is because I think "logic" is just a convenient shorthand word that we use for taking certain steps with things that DO exist.

Whereas it seems like you're taking my statement as some sort of claim that logic is a flawed system or an arbitrary system. It's actually a really useful system for making certain kinds of predictions in a seemingly-real universe.

Moral systems aren't used to make predictions. It's true that if you know something about someone's moral system, you can use that info to make predictions about how he'll behave. But knowing-something-about-a-moral-system is not the same as the moral system itself. Moral systems THEMSELVES are not useful for making predictions. They are useful for deciding how to behave and how to judge (oneself and others). They are very useful for that!

I think that material causes cannot convey the obligation that the assertion "it's wrong" places upon an action.

This is also interesting. As you can guess, I disagree. I think the material causes of neurons firing are plenty strong to produce any kind of feeling. Including a feeling of strong obligation.
posted by grumblebee at 4:04 PM on December 1, 2006


What I say -- or write -- is generally EXACTLY what I mean. ... I just have a really hard time crafting non-literal language. (This is most-likely due to Aspergers Syndrome, which runs in my family.)

"You can't be right about this because I'm incapable of even subconscious deception or of doing anything other than honestly communicating my thoughts." My heart goes out to you.

For someone who's so literal and direct in their communication, you haven't had trouble ignoring quite a few of my direct questions in the course of this conversation. I've done the same thing to you.

...you continually read things into what I'm saying...

I might buy it that it's all a misunderstanding and you're actually being literal, direct and unswervingly honest if it wasn't for the fact that you have shown yourself so adept at ignoring problematic points I've made and problematic questions I've asked you and if you hadn't on a number of occasions rephrased things I've said into carefully neutered terminology. I may have guessed the wrong meaning in some of my attempts but I don't think that myself or anyone else reading this thread could be blamed for thinking they're justified in looking for subtext to your statements. Though as you pointed out earlier, I'd be surprised if anyone besides us long-winded ones are still here at all.

Guess what? I agree with this 100%.

In the case where I said you'd probably already said the same thing yourself? Thanks for the big concession. ;^)

I don't care to win, and I'll instantly concede if you convince me I'm wrong.

You come and argue with people online just for the edification of it, huh? If I looked through your other MeFi posts (which I'm not going to do, not only because I'm not especially interested but because it would be creepy) or even further up this post, would I see very many of these instant concessions when you're wrong?

I'm not judging someone's moral system when I say it's "just biology."

...you're just saying that there's no way they can be objectively true, and that therefore the very premise of their moral system is fallacious. No, that's not judging. Not at all. Where did I get all these wacky ideas about you?

You repeatedly tell me that I'm making value judgments and I repeatedly agree with you.

Except when you said When did I EVER judge someone else's moral system.

I might think I'm a special PERSON because I recognize some truths that the masses generally miss (though I actually DON'T think this)

LOL! Dude! Have you ever heard the phrase "he talks from both sides of his mouth"? You just made a statement and its exact opposite at the same time (again).

Whereas it seems like you're taking my statement as some sort of claim that logic is a flawed system or an arbitrary system.

No, you just want to say that it's not objectively valid (or "useful" or whatever word you want to use), because you want to be able to say that nothing is objectively valid. You of course do realize this and that's why you intentionally avoided using the words "subjective" or "objective" in this entire most recent page-long post, particularly in the bit about logic, even though you were quite gung-ho about using those words up until now.

This is the kind of thing - your very careful use of language - that makes me disbelieve that you're an uncontrollably literal communicator.

Looking back, I just noticed that after I'd made the "math and logic are non-material" point only two or three times you actually did say Logic is a set of rules.

You understand me perfectly. Logic is a set of rules. Morals are a set of rules. It's not some crazy, impossible analogy. It's not gibberish coming out of my mouth. (Keyboard, rather.) If you want to make a fine distinction, or if you want to say logic is objective and morals are subjective, go ahead, but come on, you know what I'm saying. If logic is an ambient set of rules that applies to everyone, morals could be an ambient set of rules that apply to everyone.

But knowing-something-about-a-moral-system is not the same as the moral system itself.

Unless morality is objectively real. Then the reason that you know things about other people's moral systems and can predict their behavior is because you're directly perceiving the same objectively real moral rules.

I think the material causes of neurons firing are plenty strong to produce any kind of feeling. Including a feeling of strong obligation.

Okay, one more try at this. Imagine that you've been fitted with a science fictiony machine that absorbs energy from its environment, synthesizes nutrients in the precise proportions and combinations that your body needs, and pumps them directly into your small intestine. You'll never have to eat again but your stomach is always empty and you still feel hungry sometimes. Wouldn't your rational perspective on the significance of your feeling of hunger be different than it is now? That difference is the kind of thing I'm talking about. (Although, that's still not exactly what I'm talking about, because like I said feeling and obligation aren't the same thing.)

a feeling of strong obligation.

Yes, you can pair up the word "feeling" with anything I say. You can be lying in bed, so dizzy that you're feeling like you're falling, but you aren't going to pick up the phone on your bedside table, call one of your friends, and say "Quick! I'm falling! Go buy a parachute and bring it over to me!"

(You probably shouldn't do that, anyways, because it would turn out to be an anvil instead of a parachute, like in Looney Tunes.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:22 PM on December 1, 2006


My point there about how you'd even said Logic is a set of rules yourself: So you clearly are entirely able to grasp the analogy I'm making between logic and math and morals, but to avoid giving even a single inch of ground, you react by portraying incredulous incomprehension. You say things like "I am not going to buy it unless you come up with a really really amazing argument."

You make sloppy counter-claims like "relationships don't exist!" and when I respond by asking "so is the sun's gravity related to its mass?" you simply ignore the question.

This is what you refer to as I'll instantly concede if you convince me I'm wrong? Not only are you sweeping incongruities in your philosophy under the rug, you're deceiving yourself about your openness in communicating with other people as well.
posted by XMLicious at 9:10 PM on December 1, 2006


All right, I guess that I'm getting a bit peeved for once.

You, who's all into criticizing me and others for labeling, for "just labeling something right or wrong", who's in fact critical to the point where you had the audacity to say "Do YOU have trouble thinking of things without labeling them right or wrong? That's NOT the way I think." But you're just fine with ignoring the analogy I'm making and defending your turf in the argument by labeling logic and math as "non-existent" so you can get to say "morals don't exist."

And when I jump through your little hoops and come up with all kinds of different ways of saying there's a parallel of some kind between them, you stick to saying they "don't exist" and tell me "we'll have to put this to bed," I better just give up. And when I point out that the effect of logic's rules is objective rather than subjective, well, let's just forget that "objective" word and that "subjective" word, shall we, they're so passé, you just ignore what I said so that you can continue pretending that I'm not making any sense.

Another gem of yours I just found is

It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective; just like it's irrational to regard God as existing because He doesn't exist.

Why isn't morality objective? It just ISN'T! Why doesn't God exist? He just DOESN'T! If people think those things, they're just wrong about it. That doesn't sound like any sort of reasoning you've criticized before, does it? Can you guess which of your own words I might use to respond to this?

I say, something is NOT wrong because I "know" it's wrong.

So are you beginning to accept that maybe you aren't so pure and shiny after all? Like maybe you sometimes take on the slightest shade of hypocrisy or are a bit disingenuous and it's not too unreasonable of me to look for subtext in what you're saying? I'm hypocritical and disingenuous too, BTW.
posted by XMLicious at 11:03 PM on December 1, 2006


You come and argue with people online just for the edification of it, huh? If I looked through your other MeFi posts (which I'm not going to do, not only because I'm not especially interested but because it would be creepy) or even further up this post, would I see very many of these instant concessions when you're wrong?

If you DID look through my posts, you'd find dozens of interests where I'd admitted I was wrong and apologized to people. You won't find any apologies in this thread, because I haven't felt that I've said anything wrong here, yet. I'm sure I have made plenty of errors, but I haven't noticed them.

But I do owe you an apology. I thought I had carefully answered each of your questions and responded to all of your points, but you say that I haven't. I am sorry. It wasn't intentional, and I'd like to make up for it. (See below.)

Before getting to that, I am concerned with your use of "concessions" and your disbelief that I "come and argue with people online just for the edification of it." In fact, that's the only reason I argue with people online. And I'm not very happy with the word "argue." I'm fine with it, if we're using "argument" in the sense of "making a logical argument," but I don't think that's your sense here. It sounds like you mean argument in the sense of "a fight between two people for dominance."

I am against those types of fights, and I try hard to avoid them -- especially online. I'm not perfect. I get angry and hurt and defensive just like anyone. But I try hard to curb those feelings and not let them get me into conflicts.

As I've said, my goal for entering in these discussions is to (a) refine or change my point of view by having it challenged and (b) to get closer to the truth of whatever subject we're discussing. I am NOT interested in wining, and from my point-of-view, the idea of winning is absurd, because I'm not taking part in a game or a competition.

I've said this before, and apparently you don't believe me, which is your right. You frame almost everything I say as an attempt to make myself superior. That, again, is your right, but it's my right to bow out when the discussion becomes a personal attack rather than a polite discussion of ideas -- which is all I signed up for.

I told you once before that I ABSOLUTELY REFUSE TO CONTINUE IN DISCUSSIONS IN WHICH PEOPLE TELL ME WHAT I'M THINKING. You stopped doing that for a while, but you have started doing it again. This hurts me more than any other thing you could do to me -- outside of extreme things like sticking a knife in me -- and I'm not going to inflict that kind of pain on myself by continuing here.

You say, "I don't think that myself or anyone else reading this thread could be blamed for thinking they're justified in looking for subtext to your statements." And you may be right. But I have no interest in taking part in a conversation where people are reading subtext into my statements. You can take that as weak or unrealistic or piggishly trying to have my way. I don't care. I want to talk about morality and atheism. I don't want to talk about my subtext.

I am cool with you pointing out flaws in my ideas. I am not cool with you making psychological assessments of my motives. Here are some examples:

-- I'm incapable of even subconscious deception.
-- [you have] rephrased things I've said into carefully neutered terminology.

[By the way, I have never done this. Every time you've accused me of doing this and brought up an example, it's hasn't been an example of me rephrasing things you've said. It's been an example of me using MY language to convey MY ideas rather than using YOUR language to convey my ideas. Like when you chastised me for "rephrasing" your term "morals" with mine, "moral feelings." I wasn't rephrasing you. I was using a term which, I thought, conveyed MY idea better than "morals." Via my thinking, "morals" wouldn't properly convey what I was trying to say, so I didn't use it.]

-- you just want to say that it's not objectively valid (or "useful" or whatever word you want to use), because you want to be able to say that nothing is objectively valid.

-- You of course do realize this and that's why you intentionally avoided using the words "subjective" or "objective" in this entire most recent page-long post

-- You understand me perfectly.

-- but come on, you know what I'm saying.

-- to avoid giving even a single inch of ground, you react by portraying incredulous incomprehension.

-- you just ignore what I said so that you can continue pretending that I'm not making any sense.

[That last one is important, because I would have NO problem if you had just said, "you just ignore what I said." Had you stopped there, I would have apologized, as I did above. But you went on to tell me my MOTIVE for ignoring you. That's my problem and that's what I can't put up with.]

-- you beginning to accept that maybe you aren't so pure and shiny after all?

I also feel that we have to stop this discussion because we use language too differently to have a meaningful discussion (of course, it doesn't matter how we use language if we're just tring to have a good old knock-down drag-out fight, but I don't want to have one of those). My use of language isn't the right way (or the wrong way). Nor is yours. They're just too different to be compatible. Here's one example out of a ton of them I could bring up:

ME: I might think I'm a special PERSON because I recognize some truths that the masses generally miss (though I actually DON'T think this)

YOU: LOL! Dude! Have you ever heard the phrase "he talks from both sides of his mouth"? You just made a statement and its exact opposite at the same time (again).


I'd agree with you completely if I'd said, "I think I'm a special PERSON because..." but I didn't. I said, "I ***MIGHT*** think I'm a special PERSON because..." and then I said that I actually don't think I am a special person. The word might, to me, changes everything. It is not hypocritical or talking-from-both-sides if I say, "I might eat some cheese, but in fact I won't eat some cheese."

It's totally fine if you thin that's nit-picky, but I don't. And I'm going to continue to use language that way. It's totally fine if you think I'm pig-headed and unfair to insist on using language the way I want to use it, but I'm STILL going to use it that way. So take it as me being unwilling to budge or whatever. But since I AM unwilling to budge, there's no point in us continuing.

============

I don't expect you to agree with me, but I think there are two really horrible things that one person can do to another (outside of physical violence):

1) ignoring.
2) armchair psychoanalyzing.

I've belabored how I think you've done #2 to me, but I actually think #1 is worse, and you say I've done that to you. I don't recall doing it, but I'll assume you're right. And since you are right, I'm very very sorry.

Though I intend to bow out of this discussion, before I do so, I will point-by-point answer any questions you'd like to bring up. So, if you'd like, please feel free to post a list. If you number the list, I will number my responses, so we can be sure that I haven't left any answers out.

But please note that I may not agree with everything you say and I may not understand everything you say. Let's say you ask:

Why do you consider morality to be a different kind of thing than logic?

and I answer

Because I see logic as a set of steps and morality as a set of feelings.

I may be wrong or confused or in disagreement with you, but I'm not ignoring you. Right? Your claim is that you've actually asked me questions and I've dead-on ignored them and not answered them. THAT'S what I'm apologizing for, and THAT'S what I'd like to address.
posted by grumblebee at 10:23 AM on December 2, 2006


Hey, sounds good, we can close this down. I agree with you that it may be for the best.

I want to make one last point. It probably won't really be my last point, because you are an intelligent, articulate, and engaging person and you'll very likely say something that I will want to respond to.

My point is: When you said that "...it's irrational to regard God as existing because He doesn't exist." do you see that, by your own standards and with the very same words that you have indicted me and theists for using, you demonstrated your atheism to be a matter of faith rather than reason?
posted by XMLicious at 12:15 PM on December 2, 2006


And that similarly "It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective..." demonstrates that your disagreement with my position on morality, and thereby your motivation for dismissing any arguments I make in my position's favor, is a matter of faith for you also?

This is hypocrisy, no ifs, ans, or buts. You're here arguing with me, at least in part, to affirm the latter article of faith. In the same manner that you're not here to win fights, I'm not here to affirm your faith. However amateurish my psychoanalysis of such intentions, it's a necessary tool for me to participate in this particular discussion in any way that's meaningful to me. I'm truly sorry if I've made you feel bad when I've guessed wrong, and still sorry, though a bit less truly, if I've made you feel bad when I've guessed right.

I'm here in pursuit of truth, through both market-like, dialectical, chess-match-like competition of ideas and cooperative, mutually-supportive discussion and exchange of ideas. There's a balance to be struck between realistic investigation of both conscious and unconscious ulterior motives and demonizing and wanton abuse of each other. And you've gotta be wary of feedback loops reinforced by aggression and stubborn dissembling, real or imagined.

But presumption of absolute honesty and self-awareness isn't remotely realistic and isn't conducive to real evaluation and trial of ideas. You need a little rapier humor and three-stooges eye-poking to grease the wheels. Uncritical, sympathetic exploration of the ideas of others has its place but I think MetaFilter is and should be more than that. [*bows samurai-like to your lower user number*.] Let's just wear pads and have at it.
posted by XMLicious at 12:18 PM on December 2, 2006


To amend, you need more than humor to grease the wheels. To ensure it's a contact sport between ideas that will uncover their essentials, probe their weaknesses, and leave nothing unexamined, rather than simply being an exhibition of our rhetorical skills, you need to avoid disingenuousness on your own part and sometimes you need to tell other people they're being disingenuous or demonstrate that.
posted by XMLicious at 12:38 PM on December 2, 2006


When you said that "...it's irrational to regard God as existing because He doesn't exist." do you see that, by your own standards and with the very same words that you have indicted me and theists for using, you demonstrated your atheism to be a matter of faith rather than reason?

I disagree with you about this very specific instance, and I'll explain why in a second, but before I do so, let me broaden the subject a bit because you may care more about broader matters than this specific example.

To attempt clarity, let me state that...

1) I believe certain things based on faith alone. I try to keep the number of these things as-small-as I can, but there's no denying the fact that it's true. I have always admitted this and I see no shame in it, and I've never chastised anyone else for believing something on faith alone.

I've POINTED OUT that their believe is faith-based, but pointing something out is not the same as chastising.

There are many many atheists who claim that they are superior to theists because theists believe things based on faith and atheists don't. I am NOT one of these atheists. Is it possible that you're lumping me in with them? (Please not I'm not armchair-psyching you -- I'm asking a QUESTION about your point of view, and I'm prepared to accept an asnwer of, "No. that's not what I think.")

Also, I think faith-based reasoning is irrational. I almost think that's the definition of irrational. So, yes, I believe some things irrationally, and -- again -- I've always been open to that and don't see anything shameful about it.

When I've said "irrational" have you assumed I've been saying it as an insult? I can understand that if it's the case, because people often mean it as an insult. But that's not how I've meant it.

The only thing I'm not crazy about is believing something for irrational (faith-based) reasons and pretending you believe it for rational reasons. That hinders intelligent conversation.

Okay, now to your specific example:

When you said that "...it's irrational to regard God as existing because He doesn't exist." do you see that ... you demonstrated your atheism to be a matter of faith rather than reason?

When I said, I don't believe God exists because he doesn't exist," I didn't mean "He just doesn't" as in "even you give me strong evidence for His existence I still won't believe Him because He simply doesn't exist."

I meant, "I don't believe in God because (based on strong evidence and reasoning I've deduced that) He doesn't exist," but I left that parenthetical phrase out because it seemed like a side-track from our main conversation (morality) to get into a conversation about evidence pro/con God's existence.

But I don't want to shirk from the more important point: Do I believe some things for irrational reasons: yes? Am I being hypocritical? No. Why not? Because I've never chastised anyone else for believing something for irrational reasons.

Here's where we could get back into "yes you did ... no I didn't." I don't expect you to agree that I haven't been hypocritical, because in post after post, you've accused me of berating people who believe this that or the other. I disagree that I've done that, and I'm massively confused as to why you think I have done that. But after all this time, I'm doubtful that we'll ever get to the bottom of it. Either I've miscommunicated in a really gross way or I'm being disgustingly dishonest (to you, myself, or both of us), and if this is true, I'm either not man enough to admit it or I'm in complete denial. OR you're massively misunderstanding me. Maybe it's a combination of several of these factors.


Moving on: I really wish you'd numbered your points, because I'm scared that I'll accidentally leave something out and you'll think I'm ignoring something. Please bring anything I ignore to my attention and I'll address it.


But presumption of absolute honesty and self-awareness isn't remotely realistic and isn't conducive to real evaluation and trial of ideas. You need a little rapier humor and three-stooges eye-poking to grease the wheels. Uncritical, sympathetic exploration of the ideas of others has its place but I think MetaFilter is and should be more than that. [*bows samurai-like to your lower user number*.] Let's just wear pads and have at it.


I respect your style of discussion, but it's not for me. And I grant you that maybe putting-on-boxing-gloves is a necessary tactic to get to the truth. But if that's the case, then I care more about politeness than truth. Think what you will of that, but it's a core facet of my personality. I don't have the stomach for fights, and I'd rather avoid them.

I've met tons of people who enjoy a little rough-and-tumble. I even have a friend who tells me that she enjoys fighting with her boyfriend. To each his/her own. I get no pleasure at all out of fighting, even when I win. So I'm not going to do it.

I also agree with you that, in general, MeFi is a fight-friendly place, so maybe I'm bucking the culture here by opting scramming from a thread as-soon-as someone throws a punch. In fact, I almost never post on MeFi (I prefer AskMe, where there's more of a polite culture). I only participated in this thread because it started out so politely.

Uncritical, sympathetic exploration of the ideas of others has its place but I think MetaFilter is and should be more than that.

I'm all for the hyper-critical -- as-long-as it's of ideas instead of people. I would happily stay in this conversation for weeks if you would confine your criticism to telling my how stupid or crazy my ideas are.

I find this conversation really frustrating and hurtful because I'm being 100% honest and you keep accusing me of being disingenuous (as opposed to wrong, irrational or confused, which I'm fine with). And I see absolutely no way to prove to you that I AM being honest. So I'm utterly trapped.

(Or I'm lying -- to myself or you -- and am refusing to admit it. I really don't think there's any way for you or me to prove which of these possibilities is true. And how can we have an intelligent conversation if you're convinced I'm dishonest and I neither admit to my dishonesty or prove my honesty? The best we can do is go into a sort of schoolyard bout of "you're lying ... no I'm not ... yes you are..." which, in a sophisticated way, is what we've been doing.)
posted by grumblebee at 1:57 PM on December 2, 2006


[*bows samurai-like to your lower user number*.]

Though I've said that MeFi is a culture of (sometimes all-in-fun, sometimes mean, sometimes something in-between) fighting, I think the truth is a little more complex.

I've been here almost since the beginning, and I went from being a strong advocate for polite conversation to getting tired of pushing that point and finally giving up and retreating to AskMe. But though I've been one of the most vocal pro-politeness people, I've never been alone. From day one, there have been tons of people who have gotten upset with the contentious tone here. Often, they have emailed me and thanked me for speaking on their behalf.

So I think we're a culture with a large group of people who like to fight and a large group of people who don't (and tons of people who fall somewhere in-between). I have no idea which group is the larger. Even if the fighters are a minority, they're going to seem like a majority because ... well ... .because they're willing to fight. Whereas even the most vocal of my group (like me) tend to give up (as I did).

I'm not willing to fight the fighters because if I do that, I become a fighter. So I guess you could say that, since the fighters always win, MeFi IS a culture of fighters.

Which is fair enough, if you define a culture as "the prominent voice in a group of people." But I think it's worth pointing out that there are a large number of people in that group who don't agree with that voice.
posted by grumblebee at 2:04 PM on December 2, 2006


Hmm, a quick one to begin on the MeFi culture thing... I'd say "sharing" is more accurately the opposite of "fighting" over ideas, the kind of people who poke their heads in, speak their peace, and when they resurface it's because they thought of something else to say or to sympathize or agree with another person. Someone who is polite can very easily be saying something that is aggressively polemical - "polite" in this context isn't the antonym of "fighting", the two are very much compatible. Most of the haughtily dismissive comments I've heard used to convey that an idea is ludicrous were very polite and did literally observe all etiquette. I'm sure you can imagine what I think of "I care more about politeness than truth" - that the juxtaposition of politeness with fighting is a false dichotomy, another massaging of terminology intended to imply that your emphasis on politeness proves you haven't been disingenuous.

There are many many atheists who claim that they are superior to theists because theists believe things based on faith and atheists don't. I am NOT one of these atheists. Is it possible that you're lumping me in with them?

No, I wasn't lumping you in with them or making a categorical criticism of you.

When I've said "irrational" have you assumed I've been saying it as an insult?

No. Holding that what I'm arguing is simply irrational, a priori, at the same time you're considering the rationality of my arguments is producing disingenuous responses on your part. I'm proposing (and have advanced an array of evidence) that you're being selective in what you choose to acknowledge and respond to and are denying intermediate assertions that you wouldn't deny if it wasn't in the context of opposing my claim that morality is objective.

...I left that parenthetical phrase out because it seemed like a side-track from our main conversation (morality)

But in the stuff I'm quoting, in fact in the very same sentence, you said "It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective..." and you also left any similar parenthetical statement out of that too. I mentioned this just now and said that "motivation for dismissing any arguments I make in my position's favor, is a matter of faith for you also" and then said "You're here arguing with me, at least in part, to affirm the latter article of faith." and then said "...you're not here to win fights, I'm not here to affirm your faith." You think that the main conversation is about morality (and I'd agree) but although you restated in several ways that you're not here to win fights, and you devoted several paragraphs to faith in atheism. But because I didn't number things you couldn't guess that I thought it important for you to respond to my assertions on your faith in the subjectivity of morality?

...or I'm being disgustingly dishonest...

You're really getting into pejorative terminology here (pejorative against yourself, I mean). I didn't say dissembling and being disingenuous is disgusting. It's really aggravating to me, but like I said I do it myself. I think everyone does. You shouldn't feel that you have to be able to prove that you were 100% literally stating all your relevant thoughts in every exchange. 99% or 90% is just fine and I think you can go much lower than that before you get into the realm of being "disgusting." I'd also argue that no one is 100% or even 99% (not that I think you want to argue about that! ;^).

Also let me say this because you mention feeling hurt, understandably if you believe you have to be 100% this way: you aren't asking for my forgiveness, I don't think you've done anything that should need it, but I forgive you. I'm not implying that you accept my assertions about the causes of the behaviors I'm describing and documenting or even the behaviors themselves, this is all hypothetical and not intended as a ploy or indirect assertion of anything, but just in case on some level you need my forgiveness you've got it.

Please bring anything I ignore to my attention and I'll address it.

A few more specific examples follow, though there are many more I could give. I'm getting some personal validation from documenting this so specifically. But I guess I do give credence to there being a slim chance you really have no idea what I'm talking about and really do regard yourself as having been 100% not that way (I don't accept the variety of criticisms I've made being translated collectively and wholesale into an accusation of lack of "honesty" (or, as I said previously, not being "polite")), even with all I've said and with the examples I've already given.

1) Up above I said that everyone thinks killing innocent people is wrong. In your response this became "ALL people share the same morality," which you demanded I demonstrate. I do think that you understood at that point that I was claiming morality is objective because you responded to me with things like "With God, you can say, "Thou shalt not steal without breaking God's Law."" (Not saying you've denied you understood, I'm just establishing this.) And you've now revealed that you believe "It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective..." If morality just isn't objective, what good would it do me to demonstrate that everyone in the world has the exact same morality, or even just that everyone in the world believes that killing innocent people is wrong, if I could actually accomplish such Herculean evidence-gathering? I wouldn't accept that as a proof that morality is objective myself. So you actually would not be convinced by me doing what you're asking anyways, and you wouldn't expect to have to prove that morality is subjective in every single case, yet you demand "Evidence! I must have it!" again and again.

2) I said

So I think that a materialist Darwinian basis for morality is a dangerous thing

and you respond

What should we do (there's that "should" word!) if we uncover a dangerous truth. Maybe you think Darwinism is an untruth. But for the sake of argument, pretend it's a truth. Do you think it should be suppressed -- even though it's true -- because it's dangerous?

I did not say "Darwinism is a dangerous thing" - Darwin sure as heck didn't say anything about morality - I said that it's dangerous to base morality on Darwinism. So why ask whether I think that Darwinism is true or not? And I also didn't position my own statement as truth, I began with "I think", and I gave specific examples, Nazism and the Eugenics movement, for you to judge as dangerous outcomes or not. You say that morality is the feelings a person has, so I'm fairly certain you could understand the notion that Nazism and Eugenics may have led people to do things contrary to their moral feelings. But you rephrased what I said into something easier to refute without having to agree with it on any level and then managed to connect that version with censorship immediately afterwards.

3) How about all of the stuff I said about labeling? If you do disagree with it you could have said something like "No, I wasn't labeling" or "Yes that's labeling but labeling isn't dissembling or disingenuous, I was accusing you of it for different reasons" or even something as mild as "That wasn't an audacious thing to say." But justifying those disagreements with me are harder cases to make than continuing to insist that I don't have any way (or at least any... right?) of determining that you're being disingenuous.

4) It is not hypocritical or talking-from-both-sides if I say, "I might eat some cheese, but in fact I won't eat some cheese."

No, but it would be to say "I might have eaten some cheese, but in fact I didn't eat some cheese" which is what you said.

I even have a friend who tells me that she enjoys fighting with her boyfriend.

Like, it gets her hot? You and I oughta be regular casanovas! Just kidding, I can certainly imagine someone feeling this way, I just wanted to make that joke. And maybe you are a casanova.
posted by XMLicious at 4:27 AM on December 3, 2006


Thank you for the numbers. They are extremely helpful! However, some of your numbered points are quite verbose (which is NOT a criticism -- I really WOULD be hypocritical if I chastised you for being long-winded). So I'm worried that I might get confused about what part of a specific point you want me to respond to and what is just preamble to help explain what you want me to respond to. So if I get it wrong, PLEASE don't assume I'm avoiding the issue. Just point out that I missed the main point and I'll try again.



1) I deeply regret saying "It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective..." I still agree with what I meant by it, but what I meant by it was not how you took it. I don't blame you for misunderstanding me. I see I was unclear. I "sinned" by opting for brevity (rare with me) and by being too brief, it gave the impression that I believe something that I actually don't believe.

Like I said, I DO believe that "It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective..." But I DON'T believe that "it's not objective and NOTHING could ever convince me that it's not objective."

I realize now that when people say something like, "I don't believe X because X isn't true," that's what they mean. They mean "there's nothing you could say to ever convince me that X is true."

This didn't occur to me earlier, because that thought process is absolutely alien to me. I have ZERO unshakable beliefs. So when I say "It's irrational to regard morality as objective because it's not objective...", I mean "it's not objective according to my reasoning at the moment, but if you convince me I'm wrong, I will change my assertion."

People get confused all the time about the assertions of truth that scientists make. Scientist claim something is a Truth or a Law and then 50 years later, they claim that Truth or Law is overturned. Scientists don't view this as a problem. Most of them feel that ALL "truth" is conditional, but that the word "truth" is still useful to describe those things that we've tested (and reasoned) exhaustively and -- for now -- can't refute.

I get into a similar mess all the time when I discuss my atheism. People say, "how can you prove conclusively that God doesn't exist?"

I say, "I can't. There's a chance He might exist, but I'm 99.99999% sure He doesn't."

"But," they say, "You say He DOESN'T exist. So you're being dishonest. You now say that there's a small chance that he might exist. You're agnostic."

I say, "You can call me that if you want, and I can see your reasoning, but I'm not going to call myself agnostic, because I think that would be more misleading than your proposing. My level of certainty that God doesn't exist is SO high that I don't consider God's existence worth thinking about on a day-to-day basis. I am open to evidence that He does exist, and if that evidence arrives, I will re-assess my cosmology, but until that point, I feel safe saying that God doesn't exist."

"You're using language in a really weird way," they say. "When most people say something doesn't exist, they mean it DOESN'T EXIST. They don't mean that there's a tiny chance that it might not exist."

I reply, "The trouble is that I don't believe that anything is necessarily True in the sense you're describing. ALL my truths have a slight chance of being false. But I'm not going to go around saying things like, 'I just put some milk in the fridge, so it's probably still there, but there's an infinitesimal chance that it's not there.'" No, I'm going to say, 'I just put the milk in the fridge, so I KNOW it's there.'"

"BUT that doesn't mean that if it's not there, there's no point in you proving it to me, because I'm locked into my version of the truth. If it's not there, show me the evidence and I will revise my cosmology accordingly."

So, XMLicious, I can finally get back to your question: If morality just isn't objective, what good would it do me to demonstrate that everyone in the world has the exact same morality, or even just that everyone in the world believes that killing innocent people is wrong

It would do a WORLD of good. If EVERYONE shared the same morality -- even about just killing -- I would totally revise what I'm saying. I would then ABSOLUTELY believe that morality was objective.

I guess, strictly speaking, I would have to say that it might still be subjective, but that everyone in the world is having the exact same subjective experience. At that point, we might as well call it objective.

So if you provided such evidence, I would say, "Wow. I was wrong all along and you were right." And I would heave a big sigh of relief, because I could quit worrying about forcing my moral system on other people. I'd know that we all share the exact same moral system.

But it would have to be ALL people. If a small group of people don't share the same system (even if those were crazy people), then there would be a chance that -- with any individual person -- I might STILL be forcing my system on them. THAT'S why I kept harping on your word "everybody" and THAT'S why I jumped when you amended your statement to disinclude crazy people. I actually meet crazy people and might actually impose on them!

Incidentally, I don't think it's necessary for you to interview everyone in the world in order to prove to me that we all share the same moral system. I believe that we all share the same cell-structure, even though I haven't taken cell samples from everyone in the world. (I believe this in the same way that I believe God doesn't exist -- I'm 99.99999 percent sure that we all share the same cell structure. If you can get me that sure that there's an objective morality, then I'll believe that there's an objective morality.) What you have to do is to show me that given our biology and history, there's no way we could have developed individual moralities that differ from each other. I think that's potentially do-able. I just don't think you've done it.

(You could also prove to me that morality is independent of our biology and evolutionary history -- that there's some other (supernatural?) force that guides it and, in addition, causes it to be the same for everyone. If you did this, I would again revise my cosmology. But I think you're more likely to have luck with the method I mentioned in the previous paragraph.)

2) I'm struggling with how to answer this one, because you didn't boil it down into a question (or maybe I'm confused). But I'll make some points and you can tell me if I'm off the mark.

a. Darwin DID write about morality. I'll see if I can find some sources and get back to you.

b. Even if he didn't, it doesn't matter. When I day "Darwinism," I don't mean "the thoughts of Charles Darwin." And, in fact, that's NOT the way the term "Darwinism" is conventionally used nowadays in the sciences. When a scientist (or when I) says "Darwinism," he means "That school of thought that was started by Darwin (and a few other people) and has since been added to by many other scientists and philosophers."

c. Is it dangerous to take the stance that morality is subjective. Quite possibly.

d. Is it true that morality is subjective. YES! (See item #1, above, for what I mean by "Yes.")

e. So (if you believe what I believe), you're left with the fact that it's dangerous to believe (or talk about?) something that is true. I think this happens from time-to-time. For instance, it's true that if you do X, Y and Z, you'll make an atomic bomb. But it's dangerous to talk about that truth, because you may be giving info to a terrorist that he can use as a weapon against innocent people!

f. this is why I asked: What should we do (there's that "should" word!) if we uncover a dangerous truth. Maybe you think Darwinism is an untruth. But for the sake of argument, pretend it's a truth. Do you think it should be suppressed -- even though it's true -- because it's dangerous?

I wasn't trying to persuade you of anything. I was really asking the question. I think it's a deeply important question, and I don't know the answer to it. To rephrase it: If I'm right and morality is subjective, should I keep my mouth shut about it?

3) How about all of the stuff I said about labeling? You're going to kill me, but what stuff about labeling? Please give more details, and I PROMISE I will answer. You can even link to a particular post, and I'll re-read it. Sorry. I just don't remember this part of our discussion.

4) No, but it would be [hypocritical] to say "I might have eaten some cheese, but in fact I didn't eat some cheese"

I'm not trying to be perverse, clever or argumentative, but I still think you're wrong.

If you say, "I might have done X, but in fact I didn't do X," that's entirely consistent and logical. Again, it all hinges around the word "might." Might implies "might not." If it didn't, it would be a totally useless word.

Here's another example:

"Given the way you treated me last night, I might have burned your house down. In fact, I didn't, but I certainly might have!"
posted by grumblebee at 6:47 AM on December 3, 2006


FYI: A brief overview of Darwin's take on morality. (Note that it's HIS view, not mine, though I think much of it sounds reasonable.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:39 AM on December 3, 2006


ARRRGH, I must have previewed without pressing Post. Gimmie a day to reconstruct that.
posted by XMLicious at 2:58 AM on December 4, 2006


Bah, sorry, man. Continuing was on my to-do list for all this time but the wind has fled from my sails.

Thanks again for a great conversation.
posted by XMLicious at 10:06 PM on December 19, 2006


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