Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Accommodationist Position

 
Some people are confused about the accommodationist position. Here's a good example from Janice Taylor published in The Times (London) and reproduced on RichardDawkins.net. The standard accommodationist rhetoric comes from atheists (secularists) who direct a great deal of anger toward the vocal atheists but go out of their way to excuse their religious friends.
I never thought I could utter this sentence, but I agree with the Pope. Like him I feel distaste for “aggressive forms of secularism”, although maybe I’d term it differently. I’d call it macho atheism as preached by unholy warlords.

...

Dawkins, Hawking, Hitchens: these male (always male) demagogues, bashing their anti-Bibles on to bestseller lists, smugly uncloaking the magician to show his act is mere incense smoke and mirrors. As if the rest of us require professors of theoretical physics or evolutionary biology in order to ponder the big questions of human existence, any more than we need a priest.

At least Christopher Hitchens, a US citizen, must maintain his thunderous volume to be heard above the American Tea Party movement’s Creationist tumult. (Although I thought it inconceivable that the mighty Hitch could ever be boring until I read his book, God is Not Great, a monotone, unreadable harangue.) But the other two are here in Britain. How are their crass insults to decent, thinking Catholics adding to a sane and necessary discussion about religion’s place in our public life?

...

Like the majority of British people, I have little religious faith, but the peace I feel in, say, a spartan Suffolk church connects me with my northern chapel-going ancestry. While I may not believe, the peace and quietude, the sense of something transcendent that makes my life on Earth seem at once precious and utterly insignificant, gives me sympathy towards those who do. My devout Catholic neighbour, who worked unpaid delivering babies in an African clinic, the born-again Christians who befriended my lonely aunt, even the Jamaican ladies in church hats who bring me tracts depicting in colourful line drawings the very moment the dead will rise again — they don’t make me long to assert my moral superiority or slap them round the head with Darwin.

And I’d guess the majority of my fellow heathens, those who don’t have iconoclastic non-fiction to flog, would agree. Secularism needs to stand behind the progressive movements within the Catholic Church, already challenging its policies on women, contraception, homophobia and child abuse, not run ahead of them screaming. It might concede that the Pope has a point that secular values have struggled in the past decade when morality was wholly defined by the free market.


41 comments :

  1. "As if the rest of us require professors of theoretical physics or evolutionary biology in order to ponder the big questions of human existence, any more than we need a priest."

    Amen.

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  3. Julian Baggini (writing in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/17/pope-benedict-visit-protest-ugly) is also worried that vocal atheists are making too much fuss and alienating religious protestors.

    As far as I can tell if one side is impervious to change (2000 years of dogma can't be wrong, mustn't be wrong) then accommodation looks more like appeasement. We know how well that works.

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  4. My devout Catholic neighbour, who worked unpaid delivering babies in an African clinic

    Of course, if it wasn't for religion, there wouldn't have to be people delivering babies in African clinics unpaid, as neither the population of Africa would be exploding the way it does, nor it would so poor as it is right now. But I guess in order to see this, an ability to see more links further down the causal chain than such people possess is required...

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  5. I'd rather have Dawkins! Give me someone whose passionate about truth, instead of "ho-hum and let's have an atmosphere."

    Taylor: "[The secularists] might concede that the Pope has a point that secular values have struggled in the past decade when morality was wholly defined by the free market."

    But that's a solid point there, you won't get a moral consensus out of naturalism. Nor will there be much reason to obey your own morality?

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  6. But that's a solid point there, you won't get a moral consensus out of naturalism.

    Why are people so obsessed with having a "moral consensus". As if it existed, there would be no crime, murder, rape, etc.?

    The reality is that no such thing as an objective moral law exists; given the right combination of circumstances, people will do unimaginably horrible things if they perceive it as improving their inclusive fitness. If objective morality existed, they wouldn't be raping 3-month old babies in Eastern Congo, but because no such thing exists, and they know they won't get punished for that as all social structures there have fallen apart due to the war, they do it. Ironically, the situation is very similar with Catholic priests - they know the church will cover it up, so they can molest children as much as they want.

    The more we pretend that the Bambi/Winnie The Pooh view of human nature we have is the correct one, or that if we make each of us feel accountable for his actions to some sort of higher power (see the Catholic priests example again), people won't do bad things to other people, the more we will allow people the freedom to do bad things. On the other side, if we face up reality and try to design a society with sufficiently strong mechanisms to keep our animal instincts in check, we have a much better chance of getting where we all want to be. But it will require some growing up, and growing up means realizing that fairy tales are fiction.

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  7. lee_merrill says,

    But that's a solid point there, you won't get a moral consensus out of naturalism. Nor will there be much reason to obey your own morality?

    You get a "moral consensus" when the members of a society reach tentative agreement on which behaviors are appropriate and which ones aren't. Different societies will reach different conclusions and that's proof that "morality" is derived from culture. People conform to the consensus because they recognize that it makes for a safe, secure, and peaceful society. They don't "obey" the consensus because they're afraid of God in spite of what most religious people might believe.

    It's true that you don't derive morality directly from naturalism. You don't derive it from religion either. Atheist societies can be "moral" because developing a consensus with your fellow citizens can be completely independent of whether or not you believe in supernatural beings.

    If you live in a society where everyone believes in the same Holy Book, it's often easier to reach a consensus on moral issues because some of the moral strictures and laws were written down thousands of years ago and they can't be changed. This often creates a conflict between the religious version of morality and just plain 21st century common sense. Churches often have a hard time with that conflict.

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  8. It's amazing what calling something nonsense does. As far as Hawking goes, he just said that scientifically that God was unnecessary - how strident! *rolls eyes* If that's all it takes to upset people, then no matter what an atheist says it's going to be construed as offensive. No matter what horrors a religious group does or how badly they misrepresent the universe, dare to question it and you're a horrible person for denying the comforts of others. The emperor has no clothes indeed...

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  9. Janice Taylor's whole argument boils down to "Hey everyone, criticize religion. But don't criticize religion too much. And you'll know when it's too much when I decide to start calling you boring and strident at the same time.

    Accommodationists are nothing more than thought police.

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  10. "thinking Catholics"

    Dear Janice Taylor

    Please explain how someone can be a practicing Catholic and a thinking Catholic at the same time.

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  11. But that's a solid point there, you won't get a moral consensus out of naturalism. Nor will there be much reason to obey your own morality?

    I've heard much the same for years; perhaps it's the repetition that allows people to present this proposition with no thought for what precious little sense it makes.

    If the Bible story had had Abraham go through with the sacrifice of Isaac, would you have thought it morally wrong? I would guess so. But why, since it is at the direction of the "source of morality," God? Of course it's because we have our own morality, our very own judgment of what is right and wrong. Or consider animal sacrifice, a significant part of Biblical ritual (and the denouement of the Abraham-Isaac story). Rather specific directions for a variety of animal sacrifices are set out in God's "voice" in the Bible. Today it engenders moral horror, which can be seen in the revulsion greeting actual or rumored animal sacrifice practices by religions such as Voudon (voodoo). Dawkins has additional real life examples of clear-cut differences between personal and Biblical morality in The God Delusion.

    If each of us plainly has his or her own morality, investing these personal feelings with religious significance ("It's not just what I want, God commands it") has consequences. First, it gives us an outsize idea of the importance of our personal moral precepts. Second, it devalues the moral precepts of others, since they're not just objectionable to you, they're objectionable to God, the moral source.

    What should concern us more, the lack of a central source of morality, or the pretense that there is one? Interesting (though I'm sure there are a near-infinite number or examples both pro and con for each "side" - humans are like that, various) that the most secular nations seem to be those that devote the largest shares of their economies to taking care of the less fortunate.

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  12. The discussion about objective morality seems to be going wrong over the old familiar is/ought distinction.

    Georgi, the fact that some people do things like, raping 3 month old children doesn't mean that there isn't an objective moral standard that everyone OUGHT to follow. It only means that not everyone is moral or is always moral. If there really is no objective moral standard, that would mean that no one could ever say that someone who thinks that rape and murder is okay is wrong, since there'd be no standard that they'd have to accept that that would say that. THAT'S the consequence of there not really being such a standard, and what humans do isn't any sort of argument against that sort of standard existing.

    Larry, you say that you can get moral behaviour by consensus, but the debate is over whether or not that sort of consensus is moral or if it can lead to immoral agreements. For example, there was indeed a consensus in many societies that slavery was morally okay ... a consenus that our society now denies. Was slavery actually morally wrong in those societies that accepted it, and they were just unaware of it, or was it the case that the consensus made it moral for them but the new consensus makes it immoral for us?

    Jud, you have the same problem; if morality is about our own personal feelings then no one can ever say that anyone else's feelings are wrong, and so you can't condemn anyone else for doing something immoral. That's not something that most humans can accept.

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  13. Veronica,

    I think that I'm a thinking Catholic. Do you have anything other than a pithy sound byte to convince me that I'm wrong?

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  15. Georgi, the fact that some people do things like, raping 3 month old children doesn't mean that there isn't an objective moral standard that everyone OUGHT to follow.

    But many people like to use the argument that because we have some sort of morality built in in our biology and behavior, therefore God exists. The historical facts, however, show that people will, first, do very bad things, if the social constraints on such behavior that usually keep it in check are lifted (such as in times of societal collapse or against members of "the other tribe"), and second, what is considered "moral" shifts from culture to culture and in time.

    How do we reconcile these observations?

    If there really is no objective moral standard, that would mean that no one could ever say that someone who thinks that rape and murder is okay is wrong, since there'd be no standard that they'd have to accept that that would say that. THAT'S the consequence of there not really being such a standard, and what humans do isn't any sort of argument against that sort of standard existing.

    We've heard that before in many versions. The problem is that what we wish to be true need not be what reality is. The reality is that the only thing that matters is who survives and who doesn't. And that most important biological imperative is the primary force that shapes individuals' behavior. The reason it looks as if we are inherently "moral" (whatever that means) is that most of the time it is advantageous to behave like this because we are a social species (or rather, it is disadvantageous to not behave this way). There might be some genetic component to it, but it isn't the most important factor, as history has shown how easy it is to override it.

    And I don't at all understand why people think that just because there are no objective moral standards, it necessarily follows that we should go out killing each other in rampage. The most important goal is to make sure the species survives. It is definitely not in the species' interest for us to do such things, especially given how much of our evolutionary success is due to our ability to cooperate with each other.


    For example, there was indeed a consensus in many societies that slavery was morally okay

    Yes, there was such a consensus indeed, including in the societies that gave us the major religions of today. See my point above. Does it mean that slavery is OK, because it was OK in the Bible, or that the moral imperatives of the Bible are false because we now don't think it's OK? Where is that kind of logic going to take you?

    Jud, you have the same problem; if morality is about our own personal feelings then no one can ever say that anyone else's feelings are wrong, and so you can't condemn anyone else for doing something immoral. That's not something that most humans can accept.

    Again, what "most humans can accept" and what is need not be the same. The universe doesn't exist because of us, it goes no about its business and it doesn't care about what we feel.

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  16. Georgi, the fact that some people do things like, raping 3 month old children doesn't mean that there isn't an objective moral standard that everyone OUGHT to follow.

    But many people like to use the argument that because we have some sort of morality built in in our biology and behavior, therefore God exists. The historical facts, however, show that people will, first, do very bad things, if the social constraints on such behavior that usually keep it in check are lifted (such as in times of societal collapse or against members of "the other tribe"), and second, what is considered "moral" shifts from culture to culture and in time.

    How do we reconcile these observations?

    If there really is no objective moral standard, that would mean that no one could ever say that someone who thinks that rape and murder is okay is wrong, since there'd be no standard that they'd have to accept that that would say that. THAT'S the consequence of there not really being such a standard, and what humans do isn't any sort of argument against that sort of standard existing.

    We've heard that before in many versions. The problem is that what we wish to be true need not be what reality is. The reality is that the only thing that matters is who survives and who doesn't. And that most important biological imperative is the primary force that shapes individuals' behavior. The reason it looks as if we are inherently "moral" (whatever that means) is that most of the time it is advantageous to behave like this because we are a social species (or rather, it is disadvantageous to not behave this way). There might be some genetic component to it, but it isn't the most important factor, as history has shown how easy it is to override it.

    And I don't at all understand why people think that just because there are no objective moral standards, it necessarily follows that we should go out killing each other in rampage. The most important goal is to make sure the species survives. It is definitely not in the species' interest for us to do such things, especially given how much of our evolutionary success is due to our ability to cooperate with each other.


    For example, there was indeed a consensus in many societies that slavery was morally okay

    Yes, there was such a consensus indeed, including in the societies that gave us the major religions of today. See my point above. Does it mean that slavery is OK, because it was OK in the Bible, or that the moral imperatives of the Bible are false because we now don't think it's OK? Where is that kind of logic going to take you?

    Jud, you have the same problem; if morality is about our own personal feelings then no one can ever say that anyone else's feelings are wrong, and so you can't condemn anyone else for doing something immoral. That's not something that most humans can accept.

    Again, what "most humans can accept" and what is need not be the same. The universe doesn't exist because of us, it goes no about its business and it doesn't care about what we feel.

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  17. verbosestoic asks,

    Larry, you say that you can get moral behaviour by consensus, but the debate is over whether or not that sort of consensus is moral or if it can lead to immoral agreements. For example, there was indeed a consensus in many societies that slavery was morally okay ... a consenus that our society now denies. Was slavery actually morally wrong in those societies that accepted it, and they were just unaware of it, or was it the case that the consensus made it moral for them but the new consensus makes it immoral for us?

    I maintain that "morality" is relative. Thus, there were societies in the past where slavery was considered acceptable (i.e., moral). And it was moral in that context and time. Now it's not.

    Let me give you a better example. Today, there are societies where capital punishment is immoral and societies where it is acceptable. In those countries that have a death penalty (e.g. China, USA, Saudi Arabia) a majority of citizens consider it to be perfectly moral. I think public executions are immoral. Who's right?

    There are plenty of other examples of differences between Europe and America, such as abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, socialized medicine, public nudity, and recreational drugs.

    In all these examples, Americans generally have an old-fashioned moral view that's very likely to change in the future. Right now, though, even the brief flash of an exposed breast is considered immoral in the USA. It was thought to be extremely dangerous that children might have been exposed to the incident on television. Europeans think that's very strange.

    Right now, there are millions of Americans who believe in all sincerity that homosexuality is immoral. Is it really immoral or are they mistaken? What's changing—is it our, possibly incorrect, understanding of some absolute Moral Law or is it the moral consensus that's changing?

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  18. verbosestoic writes: Jud, you have the same problem; if morality is about our own personal feelings then no one can ever say that anyone else's feelings are wrong, and so you can't condemn anyone else for doing something immoral. That's not something that most humans can accept.

    No, it is not correct in the least to say that if there is no absolute source of morality, you can't condemn anyone else's conduct as morally wrong. One certainly can. I've done it, and I've seen frequent examples of others doing it.

    What is true is that, depending on the situation, one may be less than sure that one is right to condemn, if one lacks the certainty that "God's on our side." As Larry pointed out with examples about the death penalty and homosexuality, such a lack of certainty can be a very good thing.

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  19. Larry,

    My view is that even though I don't currently have the knowledge to settle the questions you raised about who is right in those cases, there is still, in fact, a FACT about the matter. Either capital punishment is moral or it is not. Slavery is either immoral or it is not. And so on. You seem to deny that there are or can be facts about those sorts of questions.

    Now, let me just outline what you have to give up to hold that. You cannot in any credible or objective way criticize any other culture/society on any moral grounds, since you claim that what is moral is just what that culture/society agrees is moral. Even inside a culture/society, you have no way to measure moral progress; what is moral is what is moral for that society, and that it has changed says nothing other than it has changed.

    Even someone inside that society has no recourse if their idea of what is moral conflicts with that of the majority. They, literally, CANNOT BE RIGHT, because there's nothing to be right about.

    These are some of the consequences that convince me that relativism is just wrong-headed, and that we so far do not have the correct absolute principles and that so far humans don't agree on what is or isn't moral in no way solves those sorts of problems with relativism.

    After all, if relativism is correct murder and rape are not objectively immoral, despite the near universal agreement that they are immoral. Doesn't that fact demonstrate some issues with your position?

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  20. After all, if relativism is correct murder and rape are not objectively immoral, despite the near universal agreement that they are immoral. Doesn't that fact demonstrate some issues with your position?

    If everyone was free to murder and rape, society would collapse very quickly, and societal collapse isn't good for the species. This is a very good objective reason why we shouldn't be murdering and raping - those are things that are bad for all of us in the long run (including those that commit such acts). However, from the perspective of the individual, it may often be advantageous for him to do these things (which is why people do them).

    So there are very good reasons why certain behaviors should be discouraged. But if it for the wrong reasons, the correct reasons for that can (and do) become lost, with the end result being that the accomplishment of those goals is jeopardized. Our completely detached from reality (but very much attached to religion) view of morality is actively jeopardizing the long term survival of the species. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons isn't always a good thing

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  21. Jud,

    I'm not sure I get your comment about how some people criticizing other people for being immoral refutes my claim about how you can't do it. It strikes me like you being facetiously nitpicky.

    So, to clarify, you cannot do it in the same way that you can't respond to someone who says "I like vanilla ice cream better than chocolate" with "That's wrong! Chocolate is better than vanilla!". Your position reduces moral judgements, essentially, to personal opinions, and you can't call personal opinions wrong because opinions are just opinions; there's no fact to be wrong about.

    Even your comment about hesitation says something about your moral views but not theirs. If you hesitate to criticize, it is not because you aren't sure that you're right, but because you aren't convinced of your opinion that that is immoral.

    In order for there to be harm from having conviction in moral judgements, it has to be the case that the moral judgement could be wrong. But relativism -- especially at the level you take it -- essentially says that moral judgements cannot be objectively wrong. The only way they can be wrong is if they don't express what you, personally, really think is immoral.

    Ultimately, to be able to criticize the morality of anyone else in any way that they should take seriously, there has to be a fact of the matter about what is or isn't moral in that situation, which is what you give up if you accept relativism. That's why I said that you can't criticize someone else's moral decisions if you accept relativism; it's an expression of an opinion under relativism, nothing more.

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  22. Georgi,

    So, let's look at this. Imagine that there's something that, if practiced, would hurt the species in the future but that won't happen until the individuals die. Should they, then, consider it morally okay to do it?

    This gets to the heart of your issue, because as far as I can see there are two ways this can go. One is that you can say that, no, that wouldn't be moral ... at which point you're appealing to an objective moral principle that needs to be justified. Why should we consider the survival of a species the ulimate decider of morality? Yes, a good morality will generally preserve the species, but that doesn't mean that all it means to be moral is to preserve the species.

    The alternative, though, is to argue that as long as it did benefit the individual more -- ie all upside no downside -- then they should do that and it can be considered moral. However, in the case of rape and murder that causes a breakdown in society and that doesn't benefit them, so the benefit to THEMSELVES is such that they want to have -- and keep -- rules about rape and murder. This is basically Egoism and a Hobbesian Social Contract. However, it leads to the situation you described: if people in some situations find that rape or murder would benefit them more and if they can get away with it -- thus avoiding the "society collapses" consequences -- then it's perfectly morally acceptable for them to do that.

    We, almost universally, REJECT that line of argumentation. We want to consider them immoral for doing it even when it most benefits them to do it. And, in fact, ESPECIALLY if that sort of reasoning was used.

    So, again, you end up appealing to a seemingly objective moral principle anyway, either that society/species should be preserved or that people ought to do what most benefits them. That wouldn't be a defense of a relativistic position ...

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  23. Why should we consider the survival of a species the ulimate decider of morality?

    Because if the species goes extinct, there would be nobody to argue over morality, right?

    Yes, a good morality will generally preserve the species, but that doesn't mean that all it means to be moral is to preserve the species.

    "A good morality will preserve the species"...

    This sentence tells me that you haven't understood absolutely anything of what I posted above.


    However, it leads to the situation you described: if people in some situations find that rape or murder would benefit them more and if they can get away with it -- thus avoiding the "society collapses" consequences -- then it's perfectly morally acceptable for them to do that.

    People typically do not think that long term and the society collapse consequences aren't avoided (Eastern Congo, again). Anyway, the argument is what would happen if everyone was doing those things. And you keep trying to have things separated into "moral" and "immoral" when you were repeatedly told that those words mean absolutely nothing...

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  24. Georgi,

    "Because if the species goes extinct, there would be nobody to argue over morality, right?"

    And why should anyone care so much about this to make that the overwhelming concern of a moral code?

    Besides, this would only work if you remove the term "species" and insert "moral agents", because there may be more than one species that can be moral, thus the species level considerations couldn't be justified by your reasoning.

    " "A good morality will preserve the species"...

    This sentence tells me that you haven't understood absolutely anything of what I posted above. "

    So, care to fill me in on what you think I'm missing, or did you just want to say this? And are you sure that you aren't misunderstanding me here?

    "Anyway, the argument is what would happen if everyone was doing those things."

    You now seem to be sticking the Kantian Categorical Imperative into a Hobbesian Social Contract. Again, this is an objective moral standard that you'd have to justify, and so you aren't defending relativism by injecting objective moral standards into the discussion to try to save the immorality of things.

    "And you keep trying to have things separated into "moral" and "immoral" when you were repeatedly told that those words mean absolutely nothing..."

    If you aren't using those terms, then you aren't talking about morality. Period. And yet you do seem to be talking about morality, thus the terms are useful.

    And just because you SAY that those words means nothing doesn't mean that I -- or anyone else -- has to agree with you. In fact, thousands of years of moral philosophy pretty much DOES disagree with you.

    At any rate, if you want to drop all notions of immoral and moral, be my guest, but be prepared to deal with the consequences, which I've already outlined.

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  25. verbosestoic says: Ultimately, to be able to criticize the morality of anyone else in any way that they should take seriously, there has to be a fact of the matter about what is or isn't moral in that situation, which is what you give up if you accept relativism. That's why I said that you can't criticize someone else's moral decisions if you accept relativism; it's an expression of an opinion under relativism, nothing more.

    I reject what I see as your attempt to pigeonhole thought about human moral behavior into two extremes, absolutism or total relativism. The vast majority of people in daily life neither arrogate completely to themselves, nor abdicate all responsibility for, making moral judgments of others' conduct.

    Neither I nor most others in society have a problem judging negatively and imposing sanctions upon conduct such as murder. I don't happen to think I'm doing the Lord's work when I do so, or adhering to any other absolute and unchanging standard of morality. In fact, there are some instances of allowing the deaths of others lauded in religious/moral literature (e.g., allowing one's only begotten son to die horribly nailed to a cross) that I would object to on moral grounds. (How about you? Would you allow a child of yours to be tortured to death if it would save the lives of several other people? Would you feel your decision, whichever way you decided, was clearly a morally laudable action on your part, or would there be reasonable arguments on both sides? Do you feel your answer is absolutely right and should apply to regulate the conduct of others?)

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  26. Jud,

    I think it might be hard to translate my view to yours. For me, whether an action is moral or not is, as I said, a matter of fact. There is a fact about which option is moral or the most moral. And so, yes, if I KNEW that an action was the morally correct one -- no matter what it was -- I would indeed think that that was the objectively morally correct decision and that everyone in my circumstances should do that, even if there were reasonable arguments that another option might have been the morally correct one. Since I know that my decision was the right one, those other options and arguments are akin to saying "It COULD have been the case that sticks really do bend in water ... but I know they don't."

    However, if I don't know that that is the right decision, then I should be more uncertain and less likely to insist that my decision is the right one. But that doesn't change my view that there is a fact of the matter; it just says that we may not know what it is. That doesn't leave it up to personal feelings -- where we started -- in any interesting way.

    Now, you are correct that people do feel confident in saying that rape and murder are wrong. And that's exactly the problem with relativism; we DO act as if there are absolute moral standards that everyone should follow. You do that with murder, yourself. But it sounds like you're saying that if you had what you consider reasonable arguments for two positions, that that would somehow mean that there was no fact of the matter. And that I do not accept, because the same reasoning could be applied if someone thinks that rape or murder should not be immoral (or just not immoral in some cases) by what THEY think is a reasonable argument that you don't think is reasonable.

    Either everyone's opinions of reasonable count equally or there's an objective measure that you can appeal to. Only once this is established can we ask if there are legitimate grey areas.

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  27. verbosestoic says,

    My view is that even though I don't currently have the knowledge to settle the questions you raised about who is right in those cases, there is still, in fact, a FACT about the matter. Either capital punishment is moral or it is not. Slavery is either immoral or it is not. And so on. You seem to deny that there are or can be facts about those sorts of questions.

    The FACT is that what we consider to be moral and immoral depends on the culture we live in and what century we were born.

    For centuries, capital punishment was thought to be morally justified. During all that time it WAS moral by any reasonable criterion. It was moral because the overwhelming consensus within society said it was moral.

    Same with slavery.

    You cannot in any credible or objective way criticize any other culture/society on any moral grounds, since you claim that what is moral is just what that culture/society agrees is moral.

    Nonsense. I have my own personal opinions about what kind of moral positions my society should take and whether other societies should adopt them as well. I happen to think that societies practicing the death penalty are not as good as societies that don't. I think I have rational arguments to support my claim and I'm not embarrassed to express them.

    I do not base my claim on any absolute moral law. I base it on what's best for a modern 21st century society.

    What's wrong with that? It's exactly how all those moral issues were decided in the past. The only difference is that in the past people on different sides of a moral argument always tried to prove that God was on their side.

    Most of us have decided that it's best to cut out the pretense and the middle man.

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  28. Jerry Coyne has a link to the Hitchens-Belinsky debate in which David Berlinsky argues that if Hitler actually believed in god, then Hitler would have put the brakes on his behavior and never have engaged in mass killing. This certainly is one possibility, but another equally likely view is that he believed in god and that belief led him to also believe that god was on his side and he was doing god's work.

    For the theist, wouldn't it matter whether someone actually was doing god's work before he or she could decide if it were moral?

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  29. verbosestoic says,

    Now, you are correct that people do feel confident in saying that rape and murder are wrong. And that's exactly the problem with relativism; we DO act as if there are absolute moral standards that everyone should follow.

    I don't act like that.

    Even though I advocate a societal prohibition of murder it's for the good of all of us and not because of some absolute moral standard. As a matter of fact, I can think of several circumstances where I might kill someone and not have any feelings of guilt whatsoever. (In my case, they are very unusual circumstances.)

    There are some situations where murder is morally justifiable. Fortunately, most reasonable societies accept that and they don't punish people who act in self defense or in protecting their loved ones. Some societies accept euthanasia, which is a form of murder. Some societies even sanction mass killings, as in war. Some twisted societies even commit legalized murder in the form of the death penalty. They think it's quite moral in spite of any absolute moral law.

    There is no absolute moral law against killing someone. It all depends on the circumstances. However, "do not murder" is a very good rule of thumb that leads to a stable and peaceful society.

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  30. Jerry Coyne has a link to the Hitchens-Belinsky debate in which David Berlinsky argues that if Hitler actually believed in god, then Hitler would have put the brakes on his behavior and never have engaged in mass killing.

    I watched that too, and actually both of them were completely missing the point. Before we can argue over what theism and atheism may lead to, the much more important question to answer is what is true. Instead Berlinski was arguing "Atheism leads to bad things, therefore the Judeo-Christian god exist and we should worship him", Hitchens was mostly arguing that atheism doesn't lead to those things. Which is true, but what is much more important is that the argument from the "evil of atheism" is a complete non-sequitur.

    It is exactly the same evolution and many other topics surrounding the science vs religion "controversy" - many people feel that because if they accept what science has shown to be true, something very bad will happen (which typically doesn't at all follow), therefore the scientific fact in question must be wrong. It's a very perverse manifestation of our anthropocentric arrogance toward the universe. What is is completely independent from what we wish to be because the universe goes on about its business and doesn't at all care about us and our feelings.

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  31. verbosestoic says: Now, you are correct that people do feel confident in saying that rape and murder are wrong. And that's exactly the problem with relativism; we DO act as if there are absolute moral standards that everyone should follow.

    (Un)Interesting little world you live in. It does not correspond to any polity on Earth I'm aware of. Here on Earth, "situational morality," if you'd like to call it that, governs both what is considered rape and murder and what is not, and to what degree they are punished.

    Trivially, there is the self defense justification for murder. There are degrees of murder, and levels of culpability for killing that aren't considered to rise to the level of murder. In the USA the rules governing these things vary widely among states. There are also rules, such as "felony murder" rules, that elevate a killing to consideration as murder almost regardless of degrees of culpability or intentionality. Again, these rules vary widely among states in the USA.

    There is also wide disagreement with regard to appropriate punishment. At least one state felt quite recently that it was morally justifiable to condemn an abused (IIRC, one of the things his parents did was burn him with lit cigarettes) mentally retarded man to death for a killing he committed. The US Supreme Court did not find this to be cruel and unusual punishment in 1989, but did find imposing the death penalty for mentally retarded persons to be cruel and unusual 13 years later, as measured by "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." That is quite evidently a pronouncement of evolving (i.e., not absolute) morality.

    Something similar is true, though to a lesser extent, of rape. In some states, rape is defined to exclude even non-consensual sex within marriage, while "statutory rape" includes consensual sex outside of marriage. Thus potentially very serious criminal charges and long prison terms may turn on how much your prospective in-laws like you - that is, whether parents provide consent for the wedding of a partner below the "age of consent."

    All of these varying rules reflect balances struck between competing moral imperatives. The age of consent determination can reflect outdated views on the intellectual capacities and social roles of young women, as well as a simple and suitable appreciation of the appropriate protective role of parents where children may lack the life experience necessary to truly give consent.

    Thus your world in which "people feel confident" in treating "rape and murder" as moral absolutes is more the stuff of late night dorm room BS sessions than it is reflective of modern societies, where moral determinations on issues of rape and murder can involve an agonizing balancing of competing relative moral interests.

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  32. You have a post about the different types of creationist, but there are different types of accommodationist too (there's no high priest dictating accommodationist doctrine, is there?).

    I'd say three types are easily identifiable:
    (1) those who really want to reconcile science and religion (theistic evolutionists amongst others)
    (2) those who think that it's counter-productive to shout negative things about religion, characterising it as ridiculous (the framers, aagh!)
    (3) those who think that it's not an argument worth having, and hey chaps, can't we live together a bit more nicely? (apathetics??)

    Some of the differentiation is purely cultural, and it's a problem that the commonality of the English language can mask the differences between the various English-speaking cultures.

    In the US the argument matters, because science is in a struggle with religious bullies. In Europe, organised religion might talk tough occasionally, but it's largely ignored and most practising European Christians would laugh at the idiotic beliefs of US fundamentalists.

    So in the UK, we are experiencing an argument from the gurus (Dawkins and Hitchens) that is more appropriate and relevant to the US than to Europe.

    Oh, by the way, no, I'm not an accommodationist: there's no gods, they're best just ignored in any and all discussions of science and science policy.

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  33. >>Different societies will reach different conclusions and that's proof that "morality" is derived from culture.

    Strictly, it isn't. That's like saying the fact that different societies have different creation myths means there's no objective truth about the origin of the universe.

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  35. > Prof. Moran: Even though I advocate a societal prohibition of murder it's for the good of all of us and not because of some absolute moral standard.

    Um, that's an absolute moral standard. Or it's sure functioning like one! You evidently have reasons for your conclusions, and you expect others will see those reasons and adopt your moral conclusions.

    Nobody ever said morality was arbitrary.

    "Love fulfills the law." (St. Paul)

    There's the foundation, rather similar to yours. I should perhaps welcome you at this point into the absolute moralist fold. ;-)

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  36. When I said,

    Even though I advocate a societal prohibition of murder it's for the good of all of us and not because of some absolute moral standard.

    lee_merrill replied, "Um, that's an absolute moral standard."

    Nonsense. I'm perfectly capable of recognizing exceptions to the general prohibition of murder (e.g. self defense) and I'm perfectly aware of the fact that my opinion might change in the future.

    Those are not the characteristics of Moral Law or absolute moral standards.

    There's no such thing.

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  37. Larry,

    I'm actually sorry for not replying to your or Jud's comments earlier, but yesterday was the day where I spend the whole day away from a computer, and today was spent mostly with work so far.

    Anyway, to tie in to your reply to lee_merril, the problem is that there are two differing definitions of "absolute moral principle" in play here. When I -- and presumably lee -- talk about it, we simply mean what I've said multiple times before: given a morally relevant proposition, there is a fact of the matter about whether or not that proposition is true or false, universally. The truth value may depend on circumstances, but it will never be the case that it is simply a matter of opinion. This is contrasting it with relativism, which says that there isn't such a fact. When Jud comments that it's up to personal preference and you say that it's social consensus, what you're saying is that outside of the group you're referring to there is no right answer, and if two differing groups disagree on the truth statement of that proposition there's no objective way to settle that.

    What you and Jud are arguing beyond the words that get us talking about relativism is taking the more modern definition -- that I think horribly muddled -- that contrasting absolutism with consequentialism. You argue that an absolute moral code has to be, well, absolute, making a rule that cannot take ANY specific considerations into account. So, you claim that you are not absolutists by denying that your rules are, in fact, universal ... which is not what we're referring to when we claim that you have absolute moral standards.

    Look, even the most absolute of the bunch -- Kant's Categorical Imperative -- doesn't have to have the sort of absolute moral rules that you claim we have to have to be absolutists. He talks about generalizing a rule to be a universal maxim, and uses lying as a prime example, but there's nothing inherent in Kant that says that you couldn't try to make an EXCEPTION to lying a universal maxim, potentially solving that objection to him. It wouldn't work (since even the exception is still self-defeating by the original argument), but that wouldn't make his position relativist, or deny any meaningful notion of moral absolutes.

    By the same token, I -- and I'm pretty sure lee_merrill as well -- will claim that Utilitarianism does, in fact, have what we call an absolute moral principle: utility. It says flat-out that the morality of an action is objectively determined by adding up the happiness it'll cause, subtracting out the suffering, and seeing if that option has the highest utility. But it's clearly both consequentialist and situationalist, and that absolute moral principle is what, in fact, MAKES IT SUCH.

    So the objections of "Nonsense. I'm perfectly capable of recognizing exceptions to the general prohibition of murder (e.g. self defense) and I'm perfectly aware of the fact that my opinion might change in the future." are talking past our comments. The first is out because we don't accept that having exceptions means that the absolute moral principles aren't absolute moral principles, as long as the exceptions are part of the standards of the morality under discussion. The second is out because the fact that you might change your mind and that people HAVE changed their minds doesn't mean that there isn't a fact of the matter. It just means we don't know what that specific fact is yet.

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  38. Jud,

    I tried to leave a long post in response to Larry's comment to lee_merrill, so we'll see if it shows up. But I'll deal briefly with your reply:

    "Trivially, there is the self defense justification for murder. There are degrees of murder, and levels of culpability for killing that aren't considered to rise to the level of murder. In the USA the rules governing these things vary widely among states. There are also rules, such as "felony murder" rules, that elevate a killing to consideration as murder almost regardless of degrees of culpability or intentionality. Again, these rules vary widely among states in the USA. "

    The problem is that that was CLEARLY not the sort of thing I was talking about. I have repeatedly commented that when I talk about absolute moral standards I mean cases where there is a fact of the matter about what is moral and what is not. This applies to all specific cases as well. And so I reiterate that people when being told of a rape or a murder do judge that specific case as being moral or immoral and seem to think that all people with a reasonable sense of morality will agree on that point. They also do think that rape and murder are, in fact, morally wrong. In your example, self-defense -- or the other cases -- are not considered moral because people are thinking that there are some cases where murder is not immoral, but because they don't think that killing in self-defense IS murder. And that's a HUGE difference, even without the fact that I would allow for exceptions.

    Oh, and Larry, that's a problem in your reply as well. You flip between "kill" and "murder", but they aren't the same thing. Again, almost everyone thinks that murder is immoral, across almost all cultures. What they DON'T think is that every instance of killing a person is murder.

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  39. Larry,

    Okay, my longer comment didn't make it through, so let me try again (hopefully shorter this time):

    You and Jud and myself and lee_merrill are using different ... theories, I guess, when we talk about absolute moral standards. I and lee_merrill, when we use absolute, use the older version that contrasts absolutism with relativism, where absolute is more in line with "objective", and claim that any standard that attempts to apply morality and moral judgements outside of a specific group can only do so by positing such a standard. You and Jud set yourselves up as relativists to us because your standards -- social consensus to you, personal preference for him -- apply only to a certain group.

    When you and Jud reply with "We allow exceptions" you're taking the more modern -- but in my view, horribly muddled -- view that contrasts "absolutism" with "consequentialism" or "situationalism", and holding that there could be no exceptions to the rules. So, more like an interpretation of the Categorial Imperative that doesn't allow you to try to make exceptions to the rule.

    But that is not the position we're taking.

    If you take our position to loosely be "There are facts of the matter about a moral situation", you can clearly see that there's nothing in that that doesn't allow for that fact to change based on circumstances, any more than there being a fact of the matter about gravity or genes or any scientific fact means that that can't take circumstances into account. So we can allow for exceptions (depending on the specifics of the moral code). All we'd say is that the exceptions have to either follow from the principles of the moral code or have to be enshrined in it, just like in science the circumstantial cases are made part of the theory, and not just left outside of it.

    As an example, I consider Utilitarianism to be an absolutist consequentialist code. It has an absolute moral principle: what is moral is what has the most utility. But while that rule is, in fact, even universal in YOUR sense, the consequences of that rule (unless you're a Rule Utilitarian) are that the facts are greatly determined by the specific circumstances of the decision you're making (and even on the subjective impressions of the people involved).

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  40. As with at least half of such issues, the lack of sufficient terminology to distinguish different issues causes problems.

    We can speak of *absolute* morality (in the sense of "this action is always right/always wrong depending on circumstances"), and of *objective* morality (as verbosestoic says, "there are moral facts"). But objective morality does not require or assume absolute morality!

    And in reality there is a spectrum of objectivity from:
    1) moral rules are fundamental, & are the same in all possible worlds

    2) moral rules are objective in this universe, but there are possible worlds in which the moral rules would be different

    3) there is a certain set of moral rules intrinsic to human nature, but other sapient species might have a different correct morality

    4) moral right and wrong is specific to the society;
    different societies might have a different correct morality

    5) moral right and wrong is specific to the individual; different individuals might have a different correct morality

    I'd argue that 1) - 3) can be called objective morality, 4) - 5) relative morality; though some might disagree on 3).

    (I personally believe 3), by the way, and consider it a form of objective morality.)


    1) and 2) are mostly only distinguished in theological debate ("could God have created a world such that murder was morally right?"); in practice they're identical.

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  41. > Prof. Moran: I'm perfectly capable of recognizing exceptions to the general prohibition of murder (e.g. self defense) ...

    As are all reasonable people, I would say.

    > ... and I'm perfectly aware of the fact that my opinion might change in the future.

    So might mine. What *won't* change (re VerboseStoic) are the principles.

    I like your principle, though it seems it can be sharpened a bit--and you evidently expect others to see your reasoning, and adopt your (albeit tentative) conclusions.

    Yet this is still absolute morality, there are things that are really right, and really wrong, and here's why.

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