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Plant behavior: More evidence of an "objective moral code" infusing the universe?

December 22nd, 2009 No comments

Gene Callahan has posted a link to an interesting article describing how plants respond to signals from other plants in their enviroment and alternatively cooperate or compete with neighboring plants, depending on degree of kinship.

More from Gene Callahan: do perceptions of "moral truths" make them objectively real, apart from those who perceive them (instead of evolved hard-wiring to cooperate)?

September 30th, 2009 3 comments

It has come to my attention that Gene Callahan has responded to my remarks regarding “objective moral truths” that I noted here.

Rather than continuing the long threadjack of an unrelated post by Bob Murphy (on climate change science), I copy and respond below to Gene`s remarks:

1.  Gene:

“to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody”

Right, Tom, of course it doesn’t. To say there are objective standards of science doesn’t mean that we judge all scientific discoveries without regard to the circumstances of time and place. If someone submitted to a journal today the fact that Jupiter has moons, he wold be laughed at. That doesn’t mean that objectively we cannot judge that Galileo made a great discovery.

“On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution”

And, this is relevant how? We have clearly evolved our ability to see trees. Is that good evidence that trees aren’t objectively real? Isn’t it better evidence that they are objectively real? Similarly, if these evolved norms aid intra-group cooperation, isn’t that good evidence that there is something to them?

2.  Me:

a.  To whom do the rules apply?

The italicized quote is a statement made earlier in the same thread by Bob Murphy; my purpose in referring to it is to note that Bob and Gene have, as I have noted in a prior post, “clarified” that the “objective moral rules” that are embedded in the universe have a differing application, depending on the capacities of the creatures that perceive (or fail to perceive) them. This position would appear to collapse any meaningful distinction between “objective” and “subjective” moral rules.

As I commented to Bob on the post linked immediately above:

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective truth”. While he suggests that by “objectively correct” we mean something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers’ (so far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not only begged the question about what we mean by saying that “it is objectively true that murder is wrong”, but he`s suggested that because ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it. By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve outlined above [in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have pointed out by your reference to Eskimos. Can any animals or life forms other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity, typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those able to perceive it?  This is both a very modest position, as well as one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but “objective” moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to survive and procreate?

b.  Does our perception of moral codes mean they have an “objective”, much less “universal”, existence?

Gene suggests that because we can perceive trees, they have an objective existence; likewise, since we perceive there are moral rules, that such moral rules have an objective existence apart from man. But the parallel doesn`t work.  Ants and other animals clearly behave in accordance with inherited rules that are internal, and not external to them; likewise, our awareness of a moral dimension to our behavior does not imply that the moral parameters that affect our behavior have any objective existence, other than as genetically encoded rules – that find differing expression depending upon individuals, culture and circumstances.

Clearly we perceive that our behavior is imbued with a moral aspect, and we can objectively document the moral rules within various societies, but this does not tell us that there are objective moral codes that apply to all humans and to all human interactions – including to interactions to individuals in out-groups.  Nor does it tell us whether the moral rules that humans follow are “universal” in the sense that they would apply to non-humans.

Other social animals appear to follow similar and clearly genetically-based rules in their mutual cooperative and hostile interactions. If they were aware of their own idiosyncratic rules (the rules unique to their species), no doubt they would view them as being “moral” (or even mandatory) strictures.

It seems to me to be more accurate and productive to view our search for understanding of our moral behavior as a study of the sociobiology of man, similar to the ongoing sociobiological study of ants, other animals and life, and even of neurons, rather than as a venture to discovery “objective” moral standards somehow existing OUTSIDE of or independent of man, that govern our actual or desirable behavior.

In conducting such a study, we may of course find ways in which the moral parameters that appear to apply to man are similar to those of other life forms, as these studies I referred to in another post (on consensus) seem to indicate:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/13/science/13traff.html
http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/ants_and_neurons/
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VH9-4V357R7-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1028980427&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=387f4778be933c406159a3815767e196

 

Consensus on my brain: Murphy on "Orwellian" consensus, Callahan's consensus on "objective" moral truths, & consensus among neurons

September 30th, 2009 No comments

A recent post by the prolifically productive Bob Murphy, “A Quick Note from Baltimore“, provides an opportunity for further thoughts on my continuing effort to puzzle out what Bob and Gene Callahan mean by their insistence that there is an objective moral order to the universe, and on what science seems to tell us about how both brains and groups of individuals function.

In his latest post, Bob decries a statement by Brad DeLong that another economist (Edward Prescott) simply does not live in the consensus reality with the rest of us.”

Says Bob:

Is anybody else weirded-out by the term “consensus reality”? Have you ever heard of a more Orwellian phrase? Not reality mind you, but consensus reality. Prescott’s sin is not being wrong per se, but rather that he disagrees “with the rest of us.” …

Now this “consensus” criterion has spread from climate change to economics?

I
am not being flip. DeLong’s use of the term “consensus reality”
disturbs me far more than his endorsement of a Keynesian model. At
least if he agrees that things are objectively right or wrong–and uses
language accordingly–we can at least debate the merits of a Keynesian model.

But
we have no hope of changing anyone’s mind, if we fall into the dreaded
minority viewpoint, in a world dominated by “consensus reality.”

My comments are copied below, with minor editorial changes:

1.  Bob, I think Bertrand has put his finger on the “problem” that seems to
bother you so much: religions – indeed, moral codes of all kinds – work
in precisely the same way.

Don`t you understand the role of
shared moral codes – which evolve to suit changed circumstances (i.e.,
it`s “wrong” to litter, to keep slaves or to make racist, bigoted or
ant-gay remarks) in our societies?

Are all shared consensuses “Orwellian” (which I thought involved a heavy-handed state role), or only non-Christian ones?

Or are you simply complaining that you don`t like DeLong`s effort to enlist public support, since you disagree with him?

On
this note, do you remember Gene Callahan`s post on how a libertarian
society might employ moral suasion as a key lever in addressing
concerns about man`s roles in climate change? [discussed here and here]; does moral suasion require “objective” truths, or merely shared/consensus values?

 

2.  “isn’t the “consensus reality” trick how Gene_Callahan usually tries to win philosophical debates?” [a comment by Silas Barta, with reference to comments by Gene Callahan on the thread I remark on here]

Silas, while I think your observation is fair, it seems to me the more
telling point is that Gene`s own behavior belies his arguments that
there are objective, universal moral truths.

Instead, we each
perceive our own reality, influenced by incoming information, including
the beliefs of others and apparent gaps between our mental map of
reality and incoming information.

Our reliance on an apparent
“consensus” should not be ignored. As a society of individuals, we are
significantly affected by what others believe, and we often find we are
weaker than we hope when faced with consensus views that we disagree
with.

Further, each of us lacks the ability to independently
confirm the validity of the beliefs about reality that we accept into
our mental maps.

As a result, the “appeal to” authority, popularity, etc. fallacies are not simply rife, but unavoidable.

Further,
scientists are finding that “consensus decision-making” processes are
at work not only in groups of individuals, but even at more fundamental
levels of personal perception, at the level of groups of neurons:

http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/ants_and_neurons/
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VH9-4V357R7-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1028980427&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=387f4778be933c406159a3815767e196
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/13/science/13traff.html

Murphy and Callahan on my brain; Murphy says: "The Brain and Mind Are Not the Same Thing!"

September 20th, 2009 No comments

[Note: I find that Bob Murphy deleted the comment thread.]

Allow me to draw the curious reader`s attention to the latest post by Bob Murphy on the subject of mind, the brain and what is “real”.  Again, the ensuing conversation suffers from confusion since Murphy refuses to clarify what he means when he uses the term “mind” and “real”.Sure, we usually mean different things when we use different terms, but in my view a Venn diagram of these two would have “mind” entirely within the boundaries of “brain” (there are no disembodied minds).

Also, Gene Callahan makes an appearance and does battle with Silas Barta in an interesting exchange that reveals to me, at least, how little I know. Not surprisingly, though, Callahan again storms FROM the Bastille, earning the following playful admonishment by Bob:

“Whoa there tiger. I realize your brain chemistry made you type those insults out, but by the same token my neurons are making me chastise your tone here. Remember, it is the Rothbardian wing of Austrian economics that resorts to name-calling as opposing to scholarly debate. You NYU guys are supposed to be above that.”

Which leaves an interesting question: when we emote, are our minds actually thinking? Or, as Bob seems to concede (by adopting my “the brain produces the mind” rhethoric), are we really just reacting, and verbalizing the flow?

Callahan finally speaks: but are external, "objective moral truths" needed for a community to enforce shared rules?

September 10th, 2009 4 comments

[Well, the Mises server just swallowed my first attempt at this post, so the reader will just have to suffer this sketchier one.]

I have been chasing both Gene Callahan and Bob Murphy to try to get them to spell out what they mean when they assert that there is an “objective moral order” in the universe; until recently Bob has been by far the most congenial, as well as evidencing more interest in discussing the subject, but he has just thrown in the towel for the time being, after conceding that “to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody” and that he has no good answers my questions as to whether the objective moral order applies to all creatures and to all men regardless of age, gender and mental development.

On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation and conflict with out-groups. Similar arguments have been made

– by Bruce Yandle,

– by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American Anthropology Assn.) in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and

– by David Sloan Wilson in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

However, Bob did point to a related post by Gene Callahan in which Gene essentially argued that the “objective” moral truths rules that are embedded in the structure of the universe apply only to those creatures able to perceive the rules. In other words, not to ants – and perhaps not to other life forms or to humans whose age and mental development leave them incapable of perceiving the rules. 

I have received no response from Gene on my posts here (perhaps he hasn`t yet perceived them), but he did start to provide a little meat in a rather long threadjack at a totally unrelated blog post by Bob (TokyoTom Moving the Goalposts? – regarding my comments on the rush to sell poorly-understood science in the political marketplace). 

Since it`s a topic of interest but I don`t wish to continue the threadjack (and it`s difficult to follow there, given unrelated comments, and contains largely irrelevant ad homs/replies), I take the liberty of excerpting relevant portions here, and I respond further below.

1.  From Bob`s thread (unedited, with emphasis added):

Gene:

As you assert, right and wrong are all just subjective opinion, so, if I can profit from these impacts, why should I care? By your own principles, the fate f those poor schucks in Sri Lanka should mean nothing to me.

TT:

Again you misunderstand my principles. But the glory of the world, of course, is that you get to base your behavior on your own principles (and objective truths as you perceive them), not mine, as well as on any moral pressure you might feel from the broader community in which you dwell.

Gene:

I am not saying you actually think it is merely a subjective matter whether or not millions die in a man-made tsunami, etc. In fact, you correctly think that such a thing is objectively wrong. For the third time, I will say that what I am saying in posts like this is not what I think your views are, but what by logic you ought to think, given your rejection of objective moral truths. I am pointing out that you’re position is inconsistent, and therefore incoherent: You claim not to believe in objective moral truth, and yet you make arguments that depend on the existence of what you deny.

TT:

– I have not so much “claim[ed] not to believe in objective moral truth” as to note that G.C. has singularly failed to explain what he means by his statement or to offer any support to for. Proof of this is not only in GC`s threads, but in the fact that Bob felt the need to re-open the subject himself.

– If I “make arguments that depend on the existence of what I deny”, then G.C. has failed to show it.

First, I have made it clear that not only to I believe that the material universe (of matter and energy) objectively exists, but that I believe that it has an underlying structure that we can strive to understand (and express mathematically) even as our understanding (and descriptions) of it will always be incomplete. Thus, an algorithm may or may not be an accurate description of the structure of the universe. In any case, the objective existence of a poorly-understood structure to the universe offers no support for the proposition that there is a moral order to the universe.

Further, G.C. has argued that there is an object moral structure to the universe; I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.

Accepting that man has a moral nature which is genetically based (but that is expressed differently in each individual and culture, and that is largely applied to in-group transactions but applied much more lightly in interactions with those outside our groups) does NOT depend on arguments that there is any universal moral order, applicable outside of man to all of Creation (or to such of Creation as may be conscious).

Sorry, but my arguments simply do NOT “depend on the existence of what I deny” – including arguments over whether or not G.C. has “behaved badly”, or arguments that man ought not to engage in actions that directly or indirectly harm others. Such things may be measured and tested based strictly on a study of human nature (which is objectively different from other animals and has an objective genetic base).

Gene:

“I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.”

And so what? Either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are objectively good things (and you’ve given up moral subjectivism), or you’ve gotten precisely nowhere.

Let’s say in the remote Amazon some group has evolved so that THEIR “exquisite moral sense” requires the smashing in of the infant’s skulls of whatever other tribe they meet. Then, through some fluke, they wind up in Tokyo and go on a skull-smashing rampage. Hey, well, that’s just the way their moral sense evolved, hey? You, by your own premises, are in absolutely no position to tell them what they are doing is wrong. In fact, since obviously my behaviour is a result of my evolutionary past, then if I am being “rude” to you, well, that’s just MY “exquisite moral sense,” isn’t it? Who are you to go saying my moral sense is wrong and yours is right, when clearly both are the product of the same evolutionary process!

So, although I realize that you do not understand that you pre-suppose that which you deny, you do. (In fact, we should suspect that anyone making such an error will pretty much always fail to recognize that they are making it, since no one can consciously embrace incoherence.)

 

2.  My further comments:

Ironically, it is Gene who is pre-supposing what my presuppositions and my objectives are. 

First, I can argue (though I haven`t made such a case) that it would be wrong if millions die in a man-made tsunami, without “think[ing] that such a thing is objectively wrong,” based on a moral code external to man. Rather, I can simply rely on my own values and those of the communities of which I am a member.

Likewise, I need not (and do not) make any arguments that either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are “objectively good things”; I need merely to observe scientifically that man, like his cousin critters, has evolved, that he has a moral sense akin to, but more more highly developed than, patterns of reciprocal behavior in other animals (while more genetically identical communities of social insects cooperate even more closely), and to suppose that this moral sense of right and wrong and the related predilection towards the social development of norms and rules were evolutionarily ADVANTAGEOUS, by enhancing group cohesion while moderating internal frictions and behaviors that were costly to the group as a whole, better enabling the group to take advantage of resources in the environment and respond to challenges, including challenges by out-groups.

Gene suggests one must have “objective truths” to get somewhere, but that just tells us the HE has an agenda for man; rather than particularly trying to get SOMEWHERE I`m just applyng an evolutionary approach to figure out how we got HERE.

It`s a shame I lost my previous post on this, but I think it pretty clear that our “exquisite moral sense” is both highly developed and very two-faced (highly selective would be a more gentle expression): we act one way to members of our group (based on highly developed codes and bonding rituals that became religions as our groups grew larger), but generally act as if we have little or no obligations to outsiders, to whom we might very well be downright suspicious and hostile. Why would that be? Maybe because, like the chimpanzee bands that so famously disillusioned Jane Goodall, we`ve been engaged in murderous competition with rival bands from time immemorial.

While it`s possible to argue that man`s deliberate struggle through history has been one of extending the limits of those whom we need to be decent to from a small circle to all of mankind (or further, to pets, other animals, etc.) – and there have certainly been individuals who have made conscious efforts to do so – one may also see the “progress” in this direction as being the simple consequence of Darwinian struggles between different human groups and societies, with the societies that more successfully united their own peoples, seized opportunities and vanquished other groups (through a combination of defeat, elimination and inclusion). Religions and our moral sense have clear served as both weapons and tools in this process; the gods have served on both sides of most conflicts, at least until one won, frequently by putting the heathen to the sword. Thus, “moral progress” has frequently been bought by brutal blood-soaked violence in which the victors routinely failed to pay much attention to the morality of their own conduct toward the other – as has always been our nature.

Forced change can be seen in both in the US. Civil War in the case of slavery and in this anecdoctal quote regarding British attempts to stamp out the Hindi practice of ritual immolation of the wives of a deceased husband in India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

Very seldom has such forced change been primarily motivated by a desire to bring about moral progress.

Persuasion and mass moral suasion can often work, as can be seen in the cases of ML King and the civil rights movement, as well as Ghandi`s efforts, particular when public opinion was mobilized. Gene has argued for this himself; while those arguing for change of course may feel united by religion and may employ appeals to the shared beliefs of others, no external “objective” moral order is needed for moral suasion to work.

Gene conjures up an Amazonian skull-smashing tribe at loose in Tokyo, but why look so far? The Japanese and the rest of the “modern” slaughters millions of unborn infants annually (and particularly females in China, India and the Middle East). The difference, of course, is that we are just doing it to ourselves, rather than having it inflicted on us by outsiders.

Gene is right to note that my rather cold-eyed observations about our remarkably self-serving moral sense might leave me in “absolutely no position to tell [Amazonian skull-smashers rampaging in Tokyo] what they are doing is wrong,” but so what? Gene is simply asking the wrong question. The Japanese do not need “objective” external moral standards to deal with such behavior; they need simply to STOP it. And make no doubt about; stop it they would FIRST, and then ask questions, and perhaps later, if time and a surviving Amazonian or two permits, they might attempt a discussion on moral issues. This of course is true of every community when faced with an attack; banding together in self-defense is virtually instinctive.

Gene might posit other, stickier situations, of which we face a bottomless pit. We have our tribal need for close groups, but have on large parts of the planet blessedly stilled the fraternal slaughter between rival societies. In larger societies, we face stresses between our attenuated bonds to others and our wish for close communities. On one front the religious bonds that united particular societies have frayed, but our urge for uniting bonds of ritual and belief remain, while on another we`ve managed to stir up more religious fundamentalism and distrust at home and abroad.

In all this, the desire for an objective set of universally binding moral rules that is floating around in the universe just waiting for everyone to become enlightened and to voluntarily submit to them is quite understandable, but obviously pie in the sky. I suggest that we try to work instead in understanding our own nature better and work at trying to persuade each other and to lessen tensions that may become murderous.

 

P.S. Gene`s error can be seen further in his comments about rude behavior. He thinks that taking a cultural, evolutionary view leaves one without a basis for criticism, so therefore I must unintentionally be relying on objective, external standards to criticize him. He`s got it precisely wrong – while clearly we ARE both “the product of the same evolutionary process”, my appeal is not to objective external standards, but to shared COMMUNITY standards (that can be objectively described). Further, by publicly arguing my position, I hope to marshal public support of the kind that he has himself usefully pointed out.

The questions are simply whether Gene and I actually share ANY communal bonds and obligations, what those obligations are, how they apply in this instance, and whether Gene cares what anyone else thinks.

What is ironic is to see someone like Gene who so clearly wants to see a better world take the position that “objective” moral standards permit such lack of concern for how he treats others and how such treatment is perceived. But an evolutionary thinker would simply see it as more evidence for the remarkable moral flexibility that the Creator has endowed us with.

 

[Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

September 8th, 2009 2 comments

[Update: Bob Murphy sends in an email comment, copied (in relevant part) at the bottom of this post.]

I`ve addressed here on five different threads the question of whether there is an “objective moral order”, which Gene Callahan broached in a May blog post. I`ve commented here mainly because I find the subject interesting, but the subsequent discussions at Gene Callahan`s blog and at Bob Murphy`s blog to be rather unproductive, if not frustrating and disappointing.  However, I note that Bob Murphy, bless his soul, has kindly emailed me a comment for me to post on one of my recent threads, in which Bob refers to a recent relevant comment elsewhere by Gene.

Allow me to repost here Bob Murphy`s comment, and my response, but first here`s some context from the post that Bob Murphy is responding to:

1. Me:

While I certainly agree that man has an exquisite moral sense, my
own view is that that sense and capacity are something that we acquired
via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation,

– as Bruce Yandle has suggested,

– as argued by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American
Anthropology Assn.)
in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and – as I have recently discovered –

– as David Sloan Wilson has argued in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

I note that the NYT has recently run a series of posts on related topics

In my view, our moral sense, rituals and “sacred postulates” (later, religions) have played a central role in the evolution of man as a
social animal, by
providing a fundamental way of ordering the world, the group`s role in
it, and the individual`s role in the group – thereby abating commons
problems both within and created by the group. The religious
lies at the root of our human nature, even as its inviolable, sacred
truths continue to fall by the wayside during the long march of
culture and science out of the Garden of Eden. While we certainly have
made progress (partly with the aid of “universal” religions) in
expanding the boundaries of our groups, we very much remain group,
tribal animals, fiercely attentive to rival groups and who is within or
outside our group, and this tribal nature is clearly at work in our
cognition (our penchant for finding enemies, including those who have
different religious beliefs that ours).

But I didn`t really kick off this discussion – why are Callahan and
Murphy so reticent to describe what it is they think they mean when
they assert that there are “objective moral truths” and an “objective
moral order”?  (I can understand why I seem to have earned the clear
hostility of one them; after all I have proven by my persistence and/or
thickheadedness to be, if not an “enemy”, then in any case not one of
the august clear-sighted.)

Here are a few questions I left with them at Bob`s most recent post:


Are those who believe that there is an objective “moral” order
asserting that, for every being – regardless of species – that there is
a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? Or is the argument
that there is an object moral order only for conscious and self-aware
beings, and none for organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious
but not self-aware?

– Or is the argument that the “objective”
moral order exists only for humans, and perhaps someday can be
identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on
brain activity and arising from shared genes?  Will such objective moral order still exist if all mankind ceases to exist?

– Or is the
objective moral order one that exists for some humans, but not all –
depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the
development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

– Is the human “objective” moral order universal, for all individuals – of whatever, gender or age – across all history?

– Is an objective moral order something real that can be tested for
despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly –
like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t
personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to)?

– And
if the objective moral order is a part of the universe, can we apply
the scientific method to confirm its existence of and explore its
parameters, and to explain (and test) it with “laws”?

– What are some of the parameters and laws governing the moral order?

2.  Bob Murphy`s comments: (emphasis added)

On the general issue of “are morals objective for everyone?” I refer to this excellent discussion by Gene Callahan:

www.gene-callahan.org/…/freedoms-just-another-word-for.html

[Here is Gene`s relevant comment:

“Something that is correct only ‘to’ someone is subjectively, not
objectively, correct. What ‘objective’ means is precisely ‘to any and
all possible perceivers.’ And, of course, it is simply a further muddle
to introduce beings incapable of perceiving the objective item in
question, as if that raised doubts about its objective status. ‘Would
this be objectively correct for ants?’ makes no more sense than ‘Is it
objectively true for ants that Mars has two moons?’ It is objectively
true, not ‘for’ anyone, that Mars has two moons, and it is also
objectively true that ants are a kind of being that cannot peer through
telescopes or count to two. It is objectively true that murder is
wrong, and if ants were the sort of being capable of murder, which they are not (as far as we know!), it would be wrong for them to commit murders.”
]

When I say that I think morality is objective, what I mean is that a
statement such as “it is better to kiss an infant than to drown it” is
a different type of thing from the statement “chocolate ice cream is
better than vanilla.” The latter is clearly stating a subjective
preference, whereas the former is (I claim) reflecting an objective
truth about reality.

Note that to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that
‘the same rules’ apply to everybody,
at least not in the sense that I
think you mean. It might not be immoral for Eskimos to euthanize old
people, whereas it could be considered murder in Manhattan.
But this
doesn’t actually prove morality is subjective. By the same token, it’s
OK for me to eat the food in my fridge. But if somebody else wandered
into my house and did the ‘same thing,’ it would be theft.

I’m a Christian so if you ask me for a list of these rules, a good
start is the Ten Commandments. And then if you want to know how to
apply these rules, I’d tell you to read the gospels and study the life
of Jesus.

As far as your specific questions, I don’t want to bother trying to
answer them. I admit I can’t give you great answers on some.
But to me,
that doesn’t show that morality is subjective after all. There are
plenty of non-material things (like mathematics etc.) that are
rock-solid objectively true. So I think our difference here is much
deeper than an issue of mere morality. I think you are a materialist
and I’m not, which is influencing our discussion on morality.

3.  My response: (emphasis added)

Bob, thanks for troubling to visit and
read, but your comments are obviously a disappointment – as you`ve
simply done none of the heavy lifting that you have implied by
insisting on various occasions that there is an “objective” moral order.

All that you`ve done here is to make a very weak argument that MAN
has a moral sense regarding how we treat others. But this is not only
obvious, it is also something that I have asserted all along.
While it
tells us something I agree is objectively true generally about man –
something that I have made various attempts to explore here and to
sketch out on your blog and Gene`s – it tells us essentially nothing
about an objective moral order to the universe
, that is applicable to
other life forms, and that will survive mankind if we were all ever to
perish.

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in
fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective
truth”.
While he suggests that by “objectively correct” we mean
something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers’ (so
far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he
asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE
CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not
only begged the question about what we mean by saying that “it is
objectively true that murder is wrong”, but he`s suggested that because
ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it.
By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve
outlined above
[in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have
pointed out by your reference to Eskimos.
Can any animals or life forms
other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder
require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity,
typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those
able to perceive it? 
This is both a very modest position, as well as
one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but “objective” moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe
that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals
also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral
sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to
survive and procreate?

#

re: Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined “objective” moral order


[Remove this Comment]

Tuesday, September 08, 2009 4:27 AM
by
TokyoTom

By the way, I note that fellow Community blogger lilburne and I agree generally about morality*

“There is a burgeoning school of thought in evolutionary biology and
the cognitive sciences (led by Marc Hauser and Steven Pinker) which
contends that morality is not just cultural artifice, but that it is an
intrinsic feature of the human mind which evolved over the countless
millennia of humans living together.”

mises.org/…/245211.aspx

 

If anyone is still reading, let me note that I posted a week or so ago further thoughts on the evolution of moral codes and why we fight over them (rarely applying to those outside our group the same moral standards that we apply to those within our groups).

[Update:] Further email comment from Bob Murphy (posted with approval):

I’m going to have to punt on this debate for now. If you agree that
“Bob should not kill an infant” has a truth value more significant
than “Bob should not wear a dress to work” than I’m happy. I think
maybe when I say “morality is objective” you are interpreting it to
mean something more than what I do mean. After all, you are saying
moral rules apply to all humans, so I don’t know what our difference
is at this point. I thought originally you were saying you were a
moral relativist.

A few simple thoughts on the evolution of moral codes, and why we fight over them (and religion, liberty and the state)

August 30th, 2009 No comments

A recent post on the Mises Daily pages on the “Religious Roots of Liberty” by the late Congregationalist minister Rev. Edmund Optiz (1914-2006) (originally published in The Freeman, February 1955) provides an opportunity to restate and discuss some of the thoughts I’ve been working though on evolution, group dynamics, religion and on the assertions of some that there is an “objective moral order”.

It seems like quite a bit to chew, I know, but I dared (with the modesty and boldness of the inexpert, of course) to venture a few thoughts.

[And since I’m having problems with formatting here, I am linking to the archived version of this post.]

Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined "objective" moral order

August 28th, 2009 3 comments

I refer to my previous posts on the interesting subject of whether there is an “objective moral order”, which Gene Callahan broached in a May blog post, returned to in a subsequent post but abandoned, to be picked up but ultimately punted by Bob Murphy (and again by Gene when he visited Bob`s thread).

While I certainly agree that man has an exquisite moral sense, my own view is that that sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation,

– as Bruce Yandle has suggested,

– as argued by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American
Anthropology Assn.)
in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and – as I have recently discovered –

– as David Sloan Wilson has argued in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

I note that the NYT has recently run a series of posts on related topics

In my view, our moral sense, rituals and “sacred postulates” (later,
religions) have played a central role in the evolution of man as a social animal, by
providing a fundamental way of ordering the world, the group`s role in
it, and the individual`s role in the group – thereby abating commons
problems both within and created by the group. The religious
lies at the root of our human nature, even as its inviolable, sacred
truths continue to fall by the wayside during the long march of
culture and science out of the Garden of Eden. While we certainly have made progress (partly with the aid of “universal” religions) in expanding the boundaries of our groups, we very much remain group, tribal animals, fiercely attentive to rival groups and who is within or outside our group, and this tribal nature is clearly at work in our cognition (our penchant for finding enemies, including those who have different religious beliefs that ours).

But I didn`t really kick off this discussion – why are Callahan and Murphy so reticent to describe what it is they think they mean when they assert that there are “objective moral truths” and an “objective moral order”?  (I can understand why I seem to have earned the clear hostility of one them; after all I have proven by my persistence or thickheadedness to be, if not an “enemy”, then in any case not one of the august clear-sighted.)

Here are a few questions I left with them at Bob`s most recent post:


Are those who believe that there is an objective “moral” order
asserting that, for every being – regardless of species – that there is
a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? Or is the argument
that there is an object moral order only for conscious and self-aware
beings, and none for organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious
but not self-aware?

– Or is the argument that the “objective”
moral order exists only for humans, and perhaps someday can be
identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on
brain activity and arising from shared genes?  Will such objective moral order still exist if all mankind ceases to exist?

– Or is the
objective moral order one that exists for some humans, but not all –
depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the
development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

– Is the human “objective” moral order universal, for all individuals – of whatever, gender or age – across all history?

– Is an objective moral order something real that can be tested for
despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly –
like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t
personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to)?

– And
if the objective moral order is a part of the universe, can we apply
the scientific method to confirm its existence of and explore its
parameters, and to explain (and test) it with “laws”?

– What are some of the parameters and laws governing the moral order?

If I`m being self-deluded about the willingness of those who believe that there IS an objective moral order to explain it (and to evidence it in their actions), I hope a good reader or two will let me know.

[Update] Gene Callahan, objectively unreal: If a blog comment is deleted, did it ever exist? And is the indignation I feel based on a moral code that has an "objective" existence?

July 16th, 2009 No comments

Your foolish reporter, having rushed in where even angels like Bob Murphy fear to tread, now reports the latest “unreal”, or at least the rather unbelievable, turn of events (and non-events), at Gene Callahan`s Crash Landing blog.

Readers may recall my earlier report regarding  Mr. Callahan`s blog post on the intriguing topic of whether “morals are objectively real”, which blog post oddly “disappeared” and was subsequenty resurrected (after my report here).

The latest news is that our philosopher king has, rather startlingly, slammed shut and bolted the windows and doorson the subject blog post, after uttering a stream of grumpy and dismissive comments,  “The Doctor Is In” sign has been yanked, and replaced with the sign

“New comments have been disabled for this post by a blog administrator.”

Comments are now closed on THIS thread – even though they remain open on ALL OTHER posts by Gene, from as far back as June 8.

That the proprietor added a parting shot (misdirected at a strawman, of course) after yours truly responded to prior comments is not particularly surprising, but what is very stunning is that my response itself has been DELETED, so that it appears as if, after being castigated by my superior,  I sinply tucked in my tail and slinked off.

[Update:  I note that I was alerted to the fact that comments had been turned off when Bob Murphy kindly sent me and email (cc`d to Gene) that indicated Bob`s willingness to take up  this subject on his own blog; when I asked why he hadn`t made this offer on the blog thread, he replied that he coul dn`t as comments had been closed.]

It was only after Mr. Callahan declined to respond to my email request for an explanation that I decided to remark here on this rather sad  state of affairs.]

This type of behavior may lead some to question Mr. Callahan`s maturity and sense of honor.  Is this how one treats “friends” or other invited guests, especially someone purportedly interested in a conversation about “truth”, simply because one does not like what others have to say?

Others may simply ponder whether Gene, fuelled not by dispepsia by by a fit of youthful good fun on a post regarding the “objective” nature of morals, has simply playfully tried to raise the questions of (a) whether blog comments, if removed by the blog proprietor, indeed ever existed, (b) if not, whether judgments as to his`s behavior can have any objective basis whatsoever and, of course (c) whether morals themselves have any objective reality.

But while others may disagree on how to evaluate such behavior (I have my own conclusions, but insist there is no objective moral order that makes me right and Gene and others wrong), I am confident, at least, that my now non-existent comment was objectively real.  For the benefit of others, I post below my complete comment (typos and all), in precisely the form I received it in my Inbox from “blogger.com”, Gene`s blogging platform (one gets these little messages by suscribing:to the comments on particular posts)..

This、I hope, demonstrates that thoughts, however evanescent, are real.

Which leaves inquiring minds to ponder just what, if anything, Mr. Callahan hope to accomplish or demonstrate by his apparently petulant and ungentlemanly behavior, and whether he is satisfied with the results.  (Discussions of whether there is an objective moral order – one not relative to man or to particular societies and individuals – will have to be left to another day and, alas, a venue other than Crash Landing, which sems to be crashing and burning.)

Here`s the comment (which was initally posted before Gene`st last word); readers can check the blog post itself for context.

from TokyoTom <[email protected]>
to [email protected]
date Wed, Jul 15, 2009 at 3:09 PM
subject [Crash Landing] New comment on Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is….
mailed-by blogger.bounces.google.com
TokyoTom has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

“As thoughts?! And thoughts consist of mass and energy?”

Yes.
There are no diembodied thoughts. “Thoughts” is a word that describes
our perception of physical activty in our brain. We might record or
communicate our thoughts, which communications also have a physical
basis.

“No, Tom, he’s speaking of mental age”

Is he your sock puppet, or are you dissing me on your own?

“most people get through their materialist stage by about 20.”

I disagree – most people never seriously think about thinking. And all cognitive scientists are older than 20.

“”discussion” doesn’t exist since it’s not made of matter and energy”

Who
says? Not me. Discussion and dialogue – communication – definitely
exist and have a material basis. Is the “freshman philospohy BS” I`m
parroting so difficult that even you can`t follow it?

“I know, there is no “point” to anything, as it’s all just a bunch of atoms colliding”.

You
might know this, but I certainly don`t. I appreciate the helpful
attitude, but maybe you can let me put my own thoughts in my own mouth?

“there
really is no sense trying to “discuss” … things with “someone” …
who can keep such rubbish in their head is really quite “pointless””

I
get your drift despite the grammar, but if all of this is so easy AND
pointless, why do you have such difficulty actually describing what I
say (that freshamn philosphy BS), why didn`t you dispose of it months
adgo on your peaen to Danny Shahar (who seems to agree with me, BTW),
why did you even bother with post, and why have you still, after all of
this time, failed to respond to my questions above (about whether the
objective order is something that exists apart from mankind, and is
universal to all men and all life)?

Too easy? Too boring? Too pointless?

I had thought that if I came here, I would get to kill the English. Have I come to the wrong place, then?

“I hope your electrons thrive in the future, Tom!”

Mant
thayks; that`s the nicest thing I`ve heard all day. Not to look a gift
horse in the mouth, but electrons don`t thrive – and even though they
may be get excited, they never get disappointed!

Post a comment.

Unsubscribe to comments on this post.

Posted by TokyoTom to Crash Landing at 2:09 AM

n

A further remaining question is whether Charlie Brown will ever again accept Lucy`s invitation to kick a proffered football.

 

[Updated] Are blog posts by Gene Callahan Objectively Real? Perhaps not

July 13th, 2009 No comments

[Update:  Happy news!  The subject blog post, once non-existent, has (been) resurrected!  Discussions, with a decided acerbic philosopher-king, continue!]

[Update part Deux: Unfortunately, as noted elsewhere, our ill-humored host has closed out his blog post, after deleting my response to a string of comments and adding a coda of his own.]

In a blog post in mid-May, libertarian wisdom-lover Gene Callahan articulated the thesis that there is an objective moral reality.  I copied here my discussion on the comment thread with Gene.  In the ensuing months, Gene has maintained strict radio silence, despite a few subsequent efforts by me to engage him.

At last however, it seems that on July 10, Gene posted a follow-up post, entitled “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is …”.

“It seems”, I say, because the blog post, which I distinctly recall, no longer exists.  Google reports faint emanations from the post in various web pages, including the following cache of the apparent post:

Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…

My friend laughed. “If morals
are objectively real, where are they?”

“Hmm,” I thought, good point. “So, the only things that are
objectively real are those located in space and time.”

“But, wait… the physical universe is not located in space and time,
so…”

“The physical universe is not objectively real!”

posted by Gene Callahan @ 3:35 PM

(emphasis added)

The contents of the non-post, and the lack of its current existence, lead me to wonder, as I wander out under the sky, the thoughts pondered in my post title.

I note that my Gmail inbox contains messages from the Twilight Zone, which indicate that I, Bob Murphy and Gene might have made the following comments on Gene`s non-post:

TokyoTom has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

Gene, thanks for revisiting this topic, but it doesn`t seems you`re
really exerting yourself, other than to make light of what you purport
to take seriously.

You might be the only guy chasing his tail who fooled himself into thinking he caught it.

Our
existence is proof that the universe exists in space and time. But
where do morals objectively exist, apart from the individuals thinking
about them? Do other species have “morals” that govern their behavior,
or is there no objective moral order apart from man? Is the human
“objective” moral order universal, for all individuals, across all
history?

Inquiring ants want to know!

 

Bob Murphy has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

TT, I don’t think most physicists (at least most cosmologists) would agree with you. The physical universe itself does not have particular space-time coordinates; relative to what?

Gene,
rather than giving such a grandiose example, can’t you pick something
easier, like the Pythagorean Theorem or a pun? I grant you, no matter
what you pick, TT or other critics will find some reason to throw out
your remark as silly, but still it might be helpful.

For the
record, folks, I used to be a materialist and Gene talked me down from
the ledge. I didn’t even realize how much importance I was vesting with
the physical world until I debated him about it on anti-state.

 

TokyoTom has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

Bob, the fact that the universe itself is not a turtle sitting on the
back of another doesn`t mean that the universe and matter/phenomena
within it are not OBJECTIVE.

The
question, assuming Gene is not asserting the lack of objectivity of the
universe, is just what the heck Gene MEANS by “objective”, and just how
it is that there is an moral order to the universe that exists just as
objectively as, say, Saturn, the Tokugawa bakufu ot Gitmo.

 

Gene Callahan has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

“Our existence is proof that the universe exists in space and time.”

Tom,
that’s ridiculous. Think about what you’re saying — the universe
cannot be “in” space! Just where in space do you think it’s located?

 

Gene Callahan has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

“Bob, the fact that the universe itself is not a turtle sitting on the
back of another doesn`t mean that the universe and matter/phenomena
within it are not OBJECTIVE.”

Exactly right, Tom — the fact that something is not located in space and time does not mean it’s not objective.

Gene`s implication appears to be that, just as the universe does not
exist in space or time, but is objective, so there exists an objective
moral order, that does not exist in space or time. 

If so, inquiring minds want to know (1) whether the objective moral
order is a part of the universe, (2) what methods can we apply to
confirm the existence of and explore the objective moral order, (3)
whether such methods are distinct from the scientific method, and (4)
just what the heck Gene means by “”objective”, anyway.

I`m not half as smart as I think I am, but I am now thoroughly
befuddled, not only as to what Gene believes is “objective”, but also
how to continue a non-existent discussion.

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// -->