A different morality

A lot of people speak of morality as if it is cast in stone and is some kind of universal truth. It is not. At best, it is something that works on the “to each his own” principle. It follows then that there would be many “flavors” of morality. There is the morality that emerges from teachings of imaginary deities, the Marxist morality practiced by communists around the world, morality of the Objectivist kind, Nietzsche’s master and slave morality, and so many others (Nietzsche actually considers morality a ruse used by the weak to rule the strong). Morality is important – everything we do is influenced by our morals – but so is identifying its source; more so when morality is codified and becomes law – something that every citizen of a country is expected to follow. Bad choices here will lead to disgruntlement and chaos.

Abortion and euthanasia (or even suicide) are issues that affect women and the terminally ill. But law is used to deny them the right to their own bodies and lives. “Taking a life” is immoral – this idea is taken to its extreme to justify bans. This report on abortion was run by the BBC some time back. It is related to the access women have to abortion in Northern Ireland. Then there was another report which talked about a woman in Britain who planned to go to Holland for euthanasia and who feared that her husband would be arrested when he returns to the country. I can’t find that particular report but this one explains the problem.

Homosexuality is another controversial issue and there are many countries in the world (including India) where the practice is outlawed through a technicality – making “unnatural sex” illegal. No distinction is made between sodomy and rape. And society gains a tool to target “different” people. The Islamic theocracy that is Iran hangs gay people. While Iran is an extreme case, I don’t think there are many countries in the world who have not, at some point of time or the other, indulged in “legal discrimination” (discrimination by government, as opposed to by private parties – there is a huge difference in these two concepts and unfortunately, a lot of liberals either don’t understand this or simply don’t want to) against homosexuals.

British mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing was probably one of morality’s greatest victims. Turing was the one who, in trying to tackle Godel’s undecidability question, came up with a design for what we now call computers; and the one who cracked the German Enigma cipher machine during the Second World War. In The Code Book, Simon Singh quotes a Bletchley Park veteran – “Fortunately the (military) authorities did not know that Turing was a homosexual. Otherwise we would have lost the war.” But the government did come to know of it later on. And it forced him to undergo hormone treatment that made him impotent. This persecution resulted in his committing suicide at the age of 42. The British rewarded his contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany with death.

Prostitution, nudity and anything related to sex has always been controversial, particularly because of religious reasons. Iran (again) has recently decided to punish bloggers who write things that are detrimental to society. And freedom is such a precious commodity here in modern India that sometimes I wonder whether we fought for freedom or for freedom to enslave. Well, here you have to be careful what you write about. Write bad stuff about India’s royalty – the Gandhi family, or about Hindu gods, or warrior kings, or politicians and you could be thrown in jail and thrashed soundly. Worse, someone will arrive at your place and thrash you. While the Hindu epics describe kings having multiple wives, wives with multiple husbands, children born out of wedlock etc etc, and there did exist a time when sex and nudity was not considered taboo (Kamasutra and the Khajuraho temple complex, for example), present day India is imprisoned in a Victorian era morality. Raja Ravi Varma too seems to have played a major role in the covering up of the Indian body. The various religion-based outfits apparently suffer from amnesia, or stupidity, or both.

Drugs, smoking, views on charity – the list goes on. Society and government intervene into areas that have absolutely nothing to do with them, according to one morality, on the strength of laws and customs based on a different morality. This is a clash between different moralities and there can be no meeting point. This is the primary reason why societies find themselves caught up in conflicts. And unfortunately, present day government offers no solution to the problem. The best we can do is limit the applicability of “moral laws” to small territories – on a city or state level rather than on a national level. While moving from country to country is not possible for many, people unsatisfied with the laws in one city or state can move to another one. And it is so much easier to get the laws changed at the local level than at a national level since a small electorate means each voter has more say. But this requires politicians with the intelligence and drive needed to make it happen. And we don’t have them.

For all the idle talk of morals and civilized behavior, when people fail to come to an understanding, they turn into cavemen and resort to the use of force. “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” Orwell once wrote (The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius). Theirs is a different morality, he should probably have added.

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  • pr3rna  On July 19, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Very good post as always.There is very little scope of commenting on your posts because you practically cover all the aspects of the subject you touch.Keep writing.

  • you12  On July 21, 2008 at 10:30 am

    We have morality issues becuase individuality is not a strong practice in India. People here follow the “leader” for everything blindly.

    It is sad to see that in a so called democracy government decides to ban dance bars and hookah bars and even more sad part is that people celebrate it.

    Any government which decides how people should live is not a government in my opinion, it becomes an institution.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 21, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Interesting post, Aristotle. However, one thing strikes me upon reading it. You start off by saying that morality is not cast in stone, but most of the article cites examples of law going wrong rather than giving any actual evidence of there not being such thing as universal morality. Your writing is very good proof that governments should not decide what is moral and what is not, and I would not dare refute that. But there certainly are universal moral principles. For instance, it’s always wrong to kill a human being, allowing for certain exceptions (figuring these out is the difficult bit). Most normal people have an instinct for what is right and what is wrong, and therefore in this sense morality definitely is universal.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 22, 2008 at 12:29 am

    I never intended to prove the non-existence of a single universal moral standard. I consider it to be self evident (“It is not,” I wrote in the first line). If people think about it a bit, they would at least begin questioning the notion, and hence the laws based on it, and that was my intention.

    Why don’t I believe in a universal moral standard?
    1. Civilized people do consider that killing a human being is wrong. But societies always have exceptions to the law – war, the death penalty, self defense etc. Then we have to attack the exceptions – which war is moral?, is the death penalty a moral thing? But can we really label an exception-riddled law as universal?
    2. What about a society of cannibals? Does our morality apply to them?
    3. What about killing animals? Jainism, for example, believes that all life is sacred. Hence, can a non-vegetarian and a person following the Jain religion ever agree on the same moral principles?

    Our morality emerges from what value we place on our life and what values we consider sacred. And the concept of right and wrong emerges from such morality. But that does not in any way mean that all moral standards are the same. In any case, our evaluation of these standards is influenced by our morals. And there is no way my sense of right and wrong will permit, for example, placing Hitler’s morality and Rand’s morality on the same pedestal.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 22, 2008 at 2:13 am

    In answer to your 3 reasons for not believing in a universal moral standard:
    1. While it is true that the exceptions can and do complicate things, we cannot shy away from the challenge of working past these complications, lest we slip into relativism. There could be a perfectly good universal law that explains why there are exceptions to certain moral laws — a law to explain the laws, as it were.
    2. Let’s say you have two conflicting moralities: A believes that killing a person randomly is wrong, and B believes that it is right. A and B can’t both be right at the same time. Therefore it’s perfectly acceptable for A to tell B that he is wrong, even if B has all sorts of cultural reasons for believing as he does. If you truly believe that cannibalism is wrong, then you should also believe that the society of cannibals should stop practising it — if you don’t, then you don’t really believe cannibalism is wrong. Under relativism, nobody can really have any belief.
    3. The same principle applies: a carnivore and a Jainist have different views on the same thing. Only one of them can be right, though it is difficult to prove conclusively which. (The Jainist has it harder, though, because animals kill animals by nature, and no one considers them wrong to do so. Also, if all life is sacred, what about plants? A Jainist has to sin to stay alive.)

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 22, 2008 at 2:35 am

    Let me think over it a bit. In the mean time, have you read this.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 22, 2008 at 4:37 am

    Morality is only valid in a human context. If there were no humans in the universe, the universe would still exist. But morality would not. And questions of right and wrong can only be decided within a particular moral framework. So, in a cannibalistic society, where all members consider cannibalism to be a morally acceptable practice, it is only when people with a different moral standard come face to face with them will the question of right or wrong arise.

    Right and wrong cannot be decided by an amoral observer. Again, only from within one system can we pass judgment on another system. So, for a libertarian, any authoritarian system is immoral. But for a communist, capitalism is. When we choose our moral standard, we do it based on certain values. Once we choose it however, morality is now something that can be looked at objectively, but not before.

    Relativism – moral relativism – is fine only till we make a choice, but not after. If by relativism, you mean that nothing can be held to be right or wrong or that all moral systems are one and the same, then I don’t subscribe to that theory.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 22, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    It seems to me that capitalism, communism, authoritarianism, libertarianism, and so on, are not moral but social considerations. If certain systems (like socialism) were formulated with equality in mind, say, then it is made vastly more complex by the sheer scale involved. If one person says that socialism is good because it levels society, but another says that in practice this will never happen, we can see problems already. But morality can deal with simple cases, involving only one or two people. No confusion arises in the case of random murder that I mentioned earlier. Given that there are absolutely no other factors, it is always wrong.

    Certain societies add factors to moral considerations. So in a cannibalistic society, people think cannibalism is fine because it is the accepted view in their society. This is an unusual factor. If a child from a cannibal society were adopted into what we think of as a normal society, he would probably grow up thinking that cannibalism is wrong, even if absolutely no one told him what to think. Certain moral views are innate, and any aberrations from this usually come from unusual outside factors. To find universal moral values, we need only look at what is innate in human nature, regardless of society.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 23, 2008 at 12:57 am

    Without morality, there can be no social considerations, as you put it. Ideas like libertarianism, authoritarianism, capitalism etc need some moral basis. If there were none, what differentiates them? If socialism believes in the equality of opportunity, or communism believes in the equality of outcome, such core beliefs are related to their moral foundation.

    While morality only exists in the human context, it does not mean that there has to be more than one human being for it to make any sense. A man on an island too needs to decide on the moral system he wishes to adopt – he can believe in nihilism, and simply rot and die, or he can believe in the importance of life and do something about it. The more the people, the more important morality becomes because society cannot exist without morals.

    In your example of A and B and their divergent views on random murder, you argument of “no confusion is possible” is from a position of objective morality. Let me play the devil’s advocate here and ask – so what if B feels there is nothing wrong in killing people just for the heck of it? He does not feel he is doing anything immoral (as opposed to an assassin, who kills for money but has a moral system according to which killing is wrong). The only reason A says B’s actions are morally wrong is because his moral compass is set that way.

    I don’t think taking innate values of some civilized human beings and constructing objective morality from it is a good idea. There seems to be some contradiction in it. Most people are good, fine. But does that mean that those who do not have those qualities that our standard of good requires them to have – are bad? Actually this is how societies behave. Most people adopt a more or less common moral standard. And all those who are beyond that are classified as bad. Which only proves my “right and wrong can only be decided from within a system” theory. And that question really has no value if asked from outside any particular system.

    As for a child from a cannibalistic society growing among normal humans, yes it is very likely that he will turn out to be a normal human being because upbringing does play a major part in the shaping of a person’s character. Think feral children.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 24, 2008 at 4:19 am

    While I concede that it may be difficult to judge what is right and wrong from outside a system, I don’t think that it has no value. Your assumption seems to be that we humans are so system-oriented that we have no power of imagination, and are unable to abstract ourselves from our own system. This just isn’t true. While it’s fair to say that probably all communist politicians thought that capitalism was morally wrong compared to their system, I can confidently say that there were countless individuals within the Soviet bloc who thought that communism was bad. When political ideals aren’t as extreme as communism, usually the proponents of particular systems are very aware of the imperfections of those systems. I doubt very much that any capitalist exists who thinks that it is a morally perfect system — the most they’ll say is that it’s the best there is.

    It is interesting that you also use the word “normal” to describe someone who isn’t a cannibal, given that you seem to be saying that there really is no such thing as normality, except within certain societies. I would posit that the only reason you use that word is because you yourself are normal (at least regarding cannibalism), not just within society but within the human species. I’m sure that deep down you know that the reason you wouldn’t become a cannibal is not because you might become a social outcast, but because it would offend your innate sense of morality.

    Normality, I would further posit, is something that can to some extent be measured scientifically (I say “to some extent” because of course this field is rapidly advancing). For instance, neuroscientists can usually spot if someone is a psychopath because of an abnormality in the frontal lobe. As unlikely as it may be, imagine a society full of people with these abnormalities. Everyone in that society would be considered normal within the society only, but not within the human species. And so, as you quite rightly say, there would be no morality if there were no humans, but given that there are humans — and we are all so similar that the differences are only skin-deep — we can certainly talk of a universal morality, that concerns feelings, and the behaviour of properly normal brains. Besides, talk of different societies may become increasingly irrelevant as international migration vastly increases: it may be that, in a few hundred years time, the world will be roughly of one society in the same way that countries can be. If this happens, there will truly be one accepted morality — and I would guess that it will be basically the same as the one we in civilized nations hold.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 25, 2008 at 2:15 am

    I would probably be the last person on the planet to say that humans lack imagination. But merely abstracting oneself away from one’s system does not mean that we can successfully leave all our experiences at home. Can I ever take a dispassionate look at the handiwork of Hitler or Pol Pot and say – well its their country and that they have the right to do whatever they want? You would argue (as you do in the case of the “normal” cannibal child) that my innate sense of morality stops me from condoning it. But I would say that my upbringing and later musings on various issues led me to finally choose one set of values over another, and that that is my morality.

    In my assassin example, the person knows killing is wrong, but still does it – he is being immoral w.r.t his moral system. But those within the Soviet bloc who thought communism was bad don’t accept communism as their moral standard. If they do, they are like the assassin; if they don’t, and say that communism is bad, they are already out of it – they wouldn’t be cursing the standard and still following it. Morality is not like following rules laid down by others where you have no choice but to obey them. How do they know communism is bad? They thought about their values and found that they had made a bad choice of standard.

    Science might be able to identify causes for specific disorders – such as psychopathology, but we cannot use that as a source of objective morality. Morality does not end with deciding whether killing is right or wrong or only limited to feelings. There are many things that go into it – suicide – right or wrong? taxation – right or wrong? military draft – right or wrong? charity – right or wrong? An unlimited number of issues in fact, most of them interdependent.

    It might very well happen that as humans become more intelligent, the vast majority of us will begin to subscribe to a more or less single moral standard which would fit into what we today call “civilized behavior”. But even in that case, we would only be “choosing” a moral standard based on certain values. It would not prove the existence of an objective morality.

    As for your statement of there not existing a capitalist “who thinks that it is a morally perfect system”, have you met Ayn Rand or some of the libertarians?

  • GraceJunction  On July 25, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    While the third world countries are struggling with issues such as food shortage, unemployment, illiteracy, population control, low per capita income, inflation, communal and casteist struggles, poverty, natural calamities, insufficient resources, utilities and infrastructure, health and hygiene etc, the United States and many countries in Europe are fighting and arguing about something that most people in the world are not even able to think about …

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 25, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    You say that “morality is not like following rules laid down by others where you have no choice but to obey them”. This basically proves my point. When I say that rape is wrong, I know for certain that I am not following rules laid down by others. You would argue that it was my upbringing that gave me that instinct. That’s true, but I think that most of upbringing can be taken apart and understood within a psychological context.

    If someone is raised to be an extremist Muslim, for instance, they may grow up “instinctively” thinking that it’s fine to beat women. But I guarantee you that if they were not inculcated positively with these values, or any other values, but were merely allowed to fit into the natural order, they would end up with the natural view that it’s not fine to beat women. We know this because when children see others hurt, they become visibly distraught. If they are fed a certain moral ideology, be it good or bad, it is quite natural for them to adjust themselves into it, despite the obvious discomfort that that can entail. This period of adjustment has consequences that will be pretty visible to the objective observer. Your average Jihadist will be repressed and mentally scarred in all sorts of ways that he wouldn’t otherwise be if he wasn’t inculcated with these views from an early age. And this is not the natural course.

    We in civilised countries are exposed to ideas that undoubtedly inform our morality. Perhaps the most important of these ideas are freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of belief. Without these, no doubt most people would be too scared to deviate from the morality of tradition. You say that your upbringing and later musings led you to your current moral views. The very fact that you were inclined to muse on these matters is very revealing — it shows that there is an innate need to grasp some certainties of morality. If you assumed in the beginning that your morality is completely contingent on your surroundings, then you would have felt no need to muse at all; and now, your musings are rendered rather pointless in the context of the completely subjective morality that you concluded.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 26, 2008 at 2:31 am

    If you do a google search for “objective morality”, you will get a lot of results. I have some links that I have to go through; primarily these – The Case for Objective Morality and Ayn Rand On Emergencies.

    Let me think about it a bit – convincing oneself about axioms is easier than convincing others through an argument that the axiom is indeed an axiom. I will comment on it tomorrow.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 27, 2008 at 1:58 am

    All your arguments emerge from empirical evidence – you observe some people’s reaction to some situations (some people being most of the civilized world, and some situations being actions like theft, murder, rape, hitting etc), then conclude that since they react in a particular way to a particular situation such a reaction proves that there are some “rights and wrongs” that are objectively true in the human context. You consider the actions of cannibals, psychopaths, jihadists and other fringe elements to be objectively wrong and argue that if these people were brought up among normal people right from the very beginning, they would turn out to be like us.

    What I have been arguing all this time is that there are no objective rights or wrongs if we simply place a bunch of humans on this planet, and that the question of right and wrong only comes in the mind of a person when he chooses a moral system based on the values in life he considers most important – he could choose to live a productive life without harming anyone, he could choose to live a parasitic life without caring where the things he needs come from, he could choose to believe in God and get a free and compulsory lesson on morality in God’s own words, he could choose to die because life has no meaning, and so on (and this choice is purely subjective). Once he decides his morality, he is now in a position to start pointing fingers.

    Objective morality can only be valid for you if you believe in God. In fact believing in God and not believing in objective morality is a contradiction. Strange because, in Is There Any Real Right or Wrong?, Michael Horner begins his argument as if he is proving objective morality, but then goes ahead to derive God from the same. Absolutely unnecessary. He however commits the mistake of equating strong moral relativism (a subject can have no real opinion about the correctness of a particular action) and moral subjectivism (actions can be said to be right or wrong from the viewpoint of a subject). Fredrik Bendz puts forth a good argument regarding this in Why There Is No Objective Morality. And Francois Tremblay defends objective morality from an atheist’s perspective in The Case for Objective Morality. He bases his argument on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I am not convinced.

    We might both agree that the holocaust was wrong. But this agreement does not come from some objective truth, but from our understanding that we cannot kill someone just because we don’t like them, and at the root of this is the value we place on our life; a person who does not care about his own life won’t think about what happens to the lives of others. Lets see this another way, using the controversial topics that are a part of my post.

    Is abortion right or wrong? Catholics say it is wrong, because we “take a life”. And there must be about a billion of them on the planet. Their position on euthanasia is similar. We could discount them saying their morality comes from God. But even our morality says taking a life is wrong – the only difference is that ours is more granular. We might differentiate based on the circumstances, they won’t. Homosexuality – again the opposition comes from religion, and nearly all of them. But there do exist a large number of people who hold strong views purely on the basis of ideas like “moral corruption”. Drugs – I am libertarian and couldn’t care less what people consume. But governments worldwide do crackdown on the phenomenon, and there is wide public support which is based on the theory that it is a practice that is harmful to society. Charity and taxation – a lot of people believe that charity is good, and people need to be forced into it by increasing taxes and using those funds to subsidize the expenses of those who can’t afford to pay. All in all, these seem more like choice of systems than objective morality.

    Or we could head down Arthur Schopenhauer’s “will to life” road where our will to live keeps us alive, where we live for our desires and then try to rationalize them, where human intellect “is like a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulders of a blind giant” – a mute witness. Or Nietzsche’s “will to power” where the only reason we live is to gain power, and nothing else matters. I haven’t really read them in depth, and don’t really believe in such ideas, but the possibility does exist – to choose.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 27, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    I had a flick through some of the articles you linked to. All very interesting, and they have alerted me to a confusion I didn’t pay much attention to before, namely the meaning of “objective morality”, and how it’s apparently a logical contradiction. I must say I disagree. Although it is quite obvious that morality is not objective in the sense of it being logically necessary, this is not the same as it really not being objective. When I say that morality is objective, what I mean is that we can, in the majority of cases, work out morally correct actions given that we know enough about human nature, and about the evolution of the species.

    Also, some things can be good or bad, quite objectively, within an evolutionary context. If we put morality aside for a moment, we can see that, for instance, to have eyes is better than to not have eyes, if all else is equal. So if there are only two possibilities, having or not having eyes, having eyes is “good” and not having eyes is “bad”. Someone might perversely say that they prefer not having eyes, but this is purely a matter of taste. Within the context of evolution, eyes are good.

    By the same rationale, we can see that being morally good in the “traditional” way is better within an evolutionary context than the opposite. If there were only two societies in the world, a moral and an immoral one, it is clear that the moral one will survive longer, given that there is no conflict between the two. So I think it is perfectly coherent to speak of morality as “objective within an evolutionary context”. A computer, programmed with all the relevant information, would be able to tell us by logic what is morally right, something which we know by instinct. I don’t mean to suggest that morality is as simple as being dependent solely on survival, but it is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a very important factor.

    You speak of people choosing moral attitudes as if they were completely arbitrary decisions. Surely you must agree that, as long as we know enough about human nature, no decision is purely arbitrary. No one simply “chooses” to lead a productive or parasitic life, unless something has influenced him to. I would argue that the decisions that most people think of as negative usually arise from some outside factor, rather than spontaneously, and those that are positive are simply in the natural course of things, so long as nothing terribly unusual throws a spanner in the works.

  • K. M.  On July 28, 2008 at 1:16 am

    Aristotle The Geek,
    You say,
    “What I have been arguing all this time is that there are no objective rights or wrongs if we simply place a bunch of humans on this planet, and that the question of right and wrong only comes in the mind of a person when he chooses a moral system based on the values in life he considers most important…”
    Morality comes one step before the choice of values in life. It comes at the choice of life itself. Once a person chooses to live, he must act in accordance with the necessities of life. He must think, thought being a pre condition of action, he must think correctly, for his actions to succeed and so on. The choice to live brings in a whole lot of secondary values which must be gained or kept as well as a hierarchy in which these values should be placed. Of course the specific values and the specific hierarchy might differ with context.
    If a person does not choose to live, he can have no values, life being a pre condition to gain or keep values. Morality does not apply to him.
    Those actions that further man’s life (in an appropriate context) are moral. In as much as all humans share the same context (and being of the same species, there is a lot of it), morality is universal. Thinking rationally is morally right for every human. Acting to secure a livelihood is morally right for every human. Acting against the evidence of his senses or the reasoning of his mind is morally wrong for every human. In as much as we don’t share the same context, morality is contextual (note: not subjective). It might be difficult or impossible for one person to judge certain actions (such as choices of career, hobbies, friends, partners etc) of another person morally. Morality still applies to these choices. There is such a thing as a moral choice and an immoral choice for the person who makes it. In as much as the the person making the choice judges the choice to be the best for his life within his knowledge and understanding, the choice is morally right (even if it is actually wrong because of a lack of knowledge). In as much as the choice is made disregarding his knowledge, it is morally wrong. Whether universal or contextual, morality is always objective. Given a person’s context, there are courses of action that are objectively right and those that are objectively wrong.
    To sum up, morality is conditional on the choice to live. Given that condition it is objective. In its absence it does not exist.

  • aristotlethegeek  On July 28, 2008 at 3:36 am

    Man can choose to live or to die (even not making a choice is a choice – death). If he chooses to live, he can choose to do so on the basis of reason, or on the basis of a variety of whims, or on the basis of a belief in the supernatural. If he chooses to die, that is the end. When he makes this choice he gets his system of values – rights and wrongs – morality – with it. Even if he chooses to die, he has chosen to deny the maintenance of the primary value – life – is it not?

    I am familiar with your argument (from Rand’s Objectivist Ethics) – that anything that works in maintaining life (rationally) is moral, anything that isn’t is immoral. But again this judgment is valid within the standard that is life (a rational productive life). And within any standard everything (including standards outside the current standard) can be objectively said to be right or wrong –

    When we choose our moral standard, we do it based on certain values. Once we choose it however, morality is now something that can be looked at objectively, but not before. (comment #7)

    But can you therefore say that there exists an objective morality that is valid for all humans, regardless of their choice of standard (life-or-death, and then kind-of-life-or-death), something that they must choose and then follow? I think not.

    You have now come from “objective morality” to “objective morality within an evolutionary context”, which is a context, as I have been saying from the very beginning. If by this you mean – anything that works in maintaining life (rationally) is moral, anything that isn’t is immoral – something that furthers life, then fine. But if you rely purely on evolution, then it has some nasty surprises. Just refer to Nietzsche’s ravings about evolution sparing the mediocre and killing the strong and you will probably have second thoughts even on this context.

    I am not talking about arbitrariness when I refer to subjective choices – an arbitrary choice means a random choice without considering the consequences of the choice. A subjective choice means a choice which is made after paying attention to what you are choosing. Since man can think, it is up to him what he chooses as his standard (K.M., and Rand have reduced it to life-or-death). Once he does so, he has his objective morality, within that standard.

  • K. M.  On July 29, 2008 at 2:22 am

    Aristotle The Geek,
    You say,
    “If he chooses to live, he can choose to do so on the basis of reason, or on the basis of a variety of whims, or on the basis of a belief in the supernatural.”
    Man cannot successfully choose to live by rejecting reason. He can only wish it. Reality will not grant that wish. The choice to reject reason is the choice to die.
    To put it in other words, man does not have a choice of standard. He only has a choice of ends (life or death). Given the choice to live, it is reality that dictates the standard (the necessities of life).

  • Mr. Contrarian  On July 29, 2008 at 5:24 am

    I don’t think we should get carried away within Nietzschean ideas on evolution: he clearly misunderstands it anyway. Evolution is a bit like the free market economy — it can’t be centrally controlled. Contemporary scientists are broadly in agreement on the connection between evolution and morality. Morality is something that a species evolves as a means to strengthen the society, not the individual. Most animal societies have morality, and without it they would be visibly weakened. Obviously, their morality is much simpler than ours, but this is simply a consequence of our bigger brains and more complicated society. At our very essence, however, is the same basic moral instinct that the animals have.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 1, 2008 at 2:34 am

    Regardless of Nietzsche’s views on evolution and morality (Nietzsche, Darwin & Evolution (pdf)), the problem is we cannot use evolution as a basis for defining morality. I quote a paragraph from Copleston’s History of Philosophy, Volume 8 which represents T.H. Huxley’s views on morality and its connection to evolution –

    Those who expound an ethics of evolution, according to which man’s moral life is a continuation of the evolutionary process, are probably right in maintaining that what we call the moral sentiments have evolved like other natural phenomena. But they forget that the immoral sentiments are also a result of evolution. ‘The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.’

    Huxley goes on to say that “the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

    If we go purely by evolution, the process is skewed in favor of quantity not quality. And murder and mayhem are all too common in the animal kingdom, all for “survival”. If we based human morality on animals, we would have to do the same. Yes, morality is important in keeping society going, because without it society would not exist since humans would not band together to form societies in the first place. Only when people are satisfied that their life and property is somewhat safe from external threats do they sit down and “benefit” from life in society. But morality is not a characteristic of the society, but that of the individual.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On August 3, 2008 at 4:22 am

    It is interesting that Huxley should have said “the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” He said in the previous quote that moral sentiments have evolved; unless I misunderstand him, he’s contradicting himself: nobody chooses to imitate the cosmic process. Which is why your point about the morality of animals is redundant: the consequences of evolution are different across the species. If all the members of a particular species of animal acted in a way that we would consider immoral, they are in fact acting morally by their own standards, given that evolution gave them those instincts — they cannot help but act that way.

    On the whole, all members of any particular species have the same moral instincts — the obvious exception being us humans. The only reason we are all different is because the sheer complexity of our brains makes it inevitable. However, at the very root of all of us is in fact the same set of moral instincts — we become different becomes of the complex fusion of our basest instincts, our intellects, and our environments, and thus, our outward instincts might change. Now of course, the sheer complexity of this mixture means that it becomes difficult to exactly and objectively systematise all of human morality, but it is certainly possible, and I have no doubt that evolutionary biology will provide the answer in time to come.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 5, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Huxley isn’t contradicting himself. He’s only saying that while morality too evolved as a part of the evolutionary process – just like everything else, humans don’t and shouldn’t follow the same morality as that dictated by evolution (strong vs. weak, quantity vs. quality). While animals still do it, we don’t, and we actually work against the process – our morality-based laws that protect the weak, for instance.

    Complexity cannot be used to mask the difficulty in proving a set of objective laws. And we humans are so complex that I would be very surprised if evolutionary biology, or any other field of specialized knowledge ever cracks the mystery that is life. Anything over which there is sizable difference of opinion cannot be objective in nature. People never fight over 2 + 2 = 4. But they do over issues like freedom, or the death penalty, or affirmative action. So, even empiricism militates against the possibility of existence of an objective morality.

  • Mr. Contrarian  On August 8, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    The idea that evolution is itself a moral system which we can choose to follow or not is just wrong. It is like telling a lion that it is in his nature to eat meat; if he is told this, he still won’t be able to choose otherwise, and further, he doesn’t need to be told it to know it: he knows it innately. The fact that evolution created our morality means it’s impossible for you to say that evolution can lead an individual to immorality; it is the individual that chooses, and this is only because he has a consciousness that can compete with his moral instincts.

    I don’t see what is contradictory about protecting the weak and having evolution-created morality. Let’s put it this way: evolution favours the strong over the weak, but evolution doesn’t necessarily favour an individual who favours the strong over the weak. If anything, it is more likely to favour individuals who care about all members of the species, simply because that sort of behaviour is more likely to favour the survival of the whole species.

    Our difference of opinion regarding scientists solving the mystery of human life is unbridgeable. I completely respect your opinion, and have thought it myself in the past, though only one of us can ever be proven right, and it certainly won’t happen in our lifetimes.

    As for your contention that nothing over which there is a sizeable difference of opinion can ever be objective in nature, well, I am absolutely certain that that is wrong, and there are countless examples to prove it. The earth revolves around the sun — that’s an objective fact, yet there was massive disagreement about it 500-odd years ago. Now that everyone has access to the right information, nobody, apart from loony conspiracy theorists, would ever seriously contend it. Once we have an equivalent amount of information regarding the human brain, we will be in a similar position, and will be able to find an objective morality. I think you might be getting objective mixed up with a priori. The fact that the earth revolves around the sun is objective truth, but not a priori, and the same thing applies to morality.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 10, 2008 at 12:39 am

    The evolutionary process works in a manner which may be referred to as a moral system. Yes, lower animals work plainly on instincts and hence have no moral systems. But Huxley was referring to an argument which talked of humans basing their morality on the evolutionary process. There are two different concepts here – one, evolution is responsible in some ways for our (human) morality – it gave us a bigger and better brain, and unlike animals, humans had to actually think to survive – societies and so on, and two, the evolutionary process of survival of the species is a lesson in morality. Huxley says “one” is true. But don’t follow “two”. He therefore categorically rejects the idea that humans should follow a system of morals based on the evolutionary process (“two”).

    The fact that the Earth revolves around the sun is based on empirical evidence – it is a posteriori knowledge. But then it is a fact. Just as 2+2=4. The disagreement over Heliocentrism was a religious one – the Church chose to ignore facts. The disagreement that I am talking about is not one which pertains to definite knowledge – a priori or a posteriori. It is one where we cannot deduce anything but are reliant on theories.

    You say “once we have an equivalent amount of information regarding the human brain, we will be in a similar position, and will be able to find an objective morality.” What you mean then is an absolute sense of morality has been hardwired into our brains and we don’t yet have the technology to scientifically prove it. How did it get hardwired? There can be but one answer – evolution. If evolution is doing the hard wiring, what about cases where mutation occurs – not the Godzilla kind, but subtle changes in response to surroundings. Then two different people could end up having two different hardwired “objective” moralities. Which is the real objective morality? The one that is “normal” – the one followed by a majority of the population.

    This is the problem with the idea of an objective morality. Under such a theory, humans have zero choice on the moral system they choose. Its already built in – you either go accordingly and do moral things, or go against it and do immoral acts. Seems eerily close to a god-given morality, with Evolution replacing God. And you said – “the fact that evolution created our morality means it’s impossible for you to say that evolution can lead an individual to immorality; it is the individual that chooses, and this is only because he has a consciousness that can compete with his moral instincts.”

  • K. M.  On August 10, 2008 at 1:28 am

    “This is the problem with the idea of an objective morality. Under such a theory, humans have zero choice on the moral system they choose. Its already built in – you either go accordingly and do moral things, or go against it and do immoral acts. Seems eerily close to a god-given morality, with Evolution replacing God.”
    There is an objective morality but it is not hardwired into our brains. A morality applies only to actions that are chosen and so it cannot be hardwired. It is the result of the fact that reality has a specific identity with specific implications and conditions for the survival of (individual) man. An objective morality is not similar to a god-given morality; it is derived from reality while a god-given morality is arbitrary.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 11, 2008 at 1:42 am

    Yes, “a morality applies only to actions that are chosen”. But neither Contrarian nor I are talking about the non-existence of “free will” in relation to actions. I could know the difference between right and wrong and still do the wrong thing.

    What I argued (from his “science will find objective morality” theory) was if an “absolute sense of morality” or the “knowledge of right and wrong (not the compulsion to act on the basis of such knowledge)” was already present in humans at the time we are born, reality and our choice based on such reality becomes irrelevant.

    Contrarian says knowledge of objective morality is a posteriori, just like our knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but talks of finding the answer inside our brain. You say an objective morality exists, and derive it from reality – life over death – rationally sustaining such life and so on, and say that “morality is conditional on the choice to live. Given that condition it is objective. In its absence it does not exist.” (Comment #17).

    Given this condition, the only objective morality is the Objectivist (big O) one. I am ready to accept that it is the best one out there. But the only one universally applicable to all human beings whether they accept it or not? Some one could surely derive a morality that ignores reality (we already have many of them floating around) and follow it till he dies without having any doubts about it. It may not be something we might endorse – we could call all his actions immoral, for instance. But it could still be a “moral system” (not a “moral” system).

  • K. M.  On August 11, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    Ok that makes your stand perfectly clear. And I agree with it fully

  • Mr. Contrarian  On August 21, 2008 at 4:13 am

    Apologies for the late reply, Aristotle.

    While it is of course true that the human species, just like any other species, is prone to mutation, the fact remains that these mutations are very slight–too slight to have, in and of themselves, any real effect on morality. Let’s put it this way: if we can talk of morality being so elastic that any small mutation can change it drastically, why can we not talk of our body parts in the same way? We can speak of arms and legs perfectly objectively, and can even say what constitutes normal arms and legs, despite the fact that no two are ever the same.

    I doubt that the crux of our disagreement can be bridged. For what it’s worth, however, I propose another way of looking at my point of view. Namely: there is no “objective morality” as such, in much the same way as there is no “objective economics”. That is to say, there is no a priori way of saying which economic systems are better than others. Indeed, economists are very often in disagreement. However, once certain basic principles are agreed upon as good foundations, then we at least have a basis on which to say which systems are better than others. For instance, if more money is better than less money, then capitalism is better than communism, and it would surely be absurd to argue otherwise. Now of course, you would argue that these foundations are open to the same disagreement as morality in general. But I think that as long as we agree (as we do) that morality is rooted in evolution, then we need simply to find the evolutionary roots of morality. In other words, the task is this: given that our basic patterns of behaviour come from evolution, and evolution seeks essentially to keep genes alive, and the genes of all humans are so similar that the differences are negligible, then what patterns of behaviour did we evolve in order to keep our genes alive? This, essentially, will be the root of morality.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 22, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    I again come back to the difference between evolution and the evolutionary process (although we do use the terms interchangeably). The former is the process of inducing physical changes to enable the survival of the species – the way reproductive systems and different organs in animals have developed to increase the chances of their survival, for example. The latter is the playing out of the drama – the species being let loose to compete against each other. In other words, evolution is the architect, and the process its laboratory. The fine tuning keeps going on.

    Humans evolved and survived because evolution gave them a bigger brain which meant intelligence on a level much higher than other animals. And this choice has a cascading effect – the amount of time the embryo spends in the mother’s womb, the softness of the skull (fractured I think) that enables it to pass out without damaging either the mother or the baby which is designed so to allow the brain to grow in size, the period of time a baby is helpless as compared to the young ones of other animals etc. This is evolution’s contribution to human survival, and morality. Evolution does not directly create a morality for us. At most, it can only program instincts within us. Morality is the exclusive domain of the human thinking process. And morality is influenced by the upbringing as also exposure to new knowledge that can make one think about one’s beliefs. When I say that evolution is responsible (in someways) for human morality, this is what I mean.

    If by evolutionary roots, you mean what are those factors that lead humans to choose a particular method of living, and pass on these values to their offspring, then probably you might find the root of morality. But even here, the earliest humans survived primarily on instinct. It was only after the discovery of fire, and agriculture and the wheel and communities that the roots of “modern” morality were probably established. I cannot imagine, for example, the earliest cavemen who could neither read nor write but did only two things – make provisions to eat and mate – regardless of what method they chose to accomplish that, ever contemplating or thinking about ideas such as morality. Any system that enables survival does not necessarily have to be moral. The “how” behind survival is more important than survival itself. This needs to be considered before placing a bet on discovering morality within human evolution.

    Capitalism and communism are less about money and more about force – less about economics and more about philosophy. So it would not be appropriate to categorize them purely on the “more and less money” scale.

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