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Evidence of ethical and inethical behavior among bacteria

January 15th, 2010 No comments

See Michael Gilberson, co-blogger with Lynne Kiesling at  Knowledge Problem, discussing recent research:  “Cooperation and cheating among bacteria“.

I think we are beginning to see that ethical issues, that is, “problems” of cooperation between individuals, permeates life, and that evolution and experience provide differing capabilities for cooperative behavior across the spectrum of life.

Humans, being the most “advanced” and self-reflective of life forms, are privileged to include fights over “property rights”  and “objective” universal moral codes, etc. among our daily battles over how to advance our personal interests.

[The post title is tongue-in-cheek, obviously, but the study of the why and wherefor of cooperation is a serious matter, indeed. Perhaps it is the underlying theme of this blog.]

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.

What IS "property"? A few weird thoughts on evolution, society, "property rights" and "intellectual property", and the "principles" we structure to justify them

December 21st, 2009 2 comments

I copy here some thoughts I posted on two linked threads by Jeffrey Tucker and Stephan Kinsella in November [2009] regarding problems with intellectual property, as well as some relevant parts of the comment thread by Stephan and others:

My own view has come around to the idea that state-created IP is abusive and has been hijacked by rent-seeking. Firms and individuals that want to maintain information as property should do so without state grants, other than the use of courts in providing remedies for theft.

But that the idea of IP itself as “property” does not seem absurd to me in the least; the prevalence of the idea is an example of the way that communities adopt and internalize rules and apply them rather reflexively (and feel them morally) and is a testament to the capacity of humans to minimize tragedy of the commons situations (as Yandle and Ostrom have noted). The problem is simply that IP has slipped its moorings and become abusive to the point that we need to start working (via legislation, no?) to lessen the evident parasitism and abuse.
Published: November 19, 2009 7:57 AM

Stephan Kinsella:
TokyoTizzom:
These comments have an odd air to them–state created IP is “abusive”? It’s been “hijacked”? Libertarians talk about just and unjust, rights and rights violations. And IP was not hijacked by the state any more than taxing power or regulation of wage and working hour or outlawing cocaine was hijacked by the state. It’s not as if these things would occur in a free market.
Yes, let’s just work with the state to decree more unjust fake “laws” …. that’ll work.
Published: November 19, 2009 9:36 AM

TT:
“And IP was not hijacked by the state any more than taxing power or regulation of wage and working hour or outlawing cocaine was hijacked by the state. It’s not as if these things would occur in a free market.”

I’m not sure why you want to drum up disagreements; is it because I agree with you as a practical matter, rather than delving into principle? If we change anything here, it will not be so much as a result of principle as getting others, as a practical matter, to agree that IP has gotten out of hand.

In any event, I was referring to abuse by rent-seekers, not by the state.

Further, while I don’t see how we can possibly conclude that communities cannot, without use of a state, derive the equivalent of taxes, wage regulations or outlawing cocaine, how is this even relevant to a discussion of the legitimacy of IP?

Care to clarify the following?
me: “The problem is simply that IP has slipped its moorings and become abusive to the point that we need to start working (via legislation, no?) to lessen the evident parasitism and abuse.”
You: “Yes, let’s just work with the state to decree more unjust fake “laws” …. that’ll work.”
I’m not following you – what is YOUR proposed course of action for rolling back IP? Are you expecting everyone to simply ignore the state and IP laws? Seriously, I’m missing something.
Tizzy Tom
Published: November 20, 2009 2:06 AM

TT:
It seems to me that Stephan – as most libertarians who focus on principles – fails to ground his fine edifice on or link it into what we understand of the continual saga of competition and cooperation in Nature for acquiring, using and protecting scarce resources, and man’s ascendant path.

Basically, “property” is simply the name we give to the resources that we are able personally to protect, as well as those which – via sophisticated shared mechanisms that continue to be developed within communities over time – we can protect, plus our recognized share of common assets.

In a state of nature, very little is secure, as most life forms have limited means of securing or maintaining exclusive control over assets. What one predator catches, another often soon steals. Different species have developed different ways of coping with the ongoing struggle, utilizing varying degrees of cunning, speed, strength and cooperation.

Humans have triumphed over the rest of nature because we have found sophisticated ways of balancing individual initiative and moderating intra-group struggle with cooperation, and devised methods to acquire, use and defend resources.

Property has been a key tool, but we can readily see that our “property” has its roots in the ways that our cousin creatures invest energy in marking out territory, fighting (individually or in groups) to protect their young, and growling over bones. At the same time, we can see that animals treat each other as dinner, make calculated decisions as to when to “steal” resources that others are guarding, and as well find advantage in cooperating, both with relatives of their kind and with others.

Our need to defend property from other groups has fed our inbred mutual suspicions of “others”, and our ongoing battles, both for dominance within groups and to acquire the resources held by rival groups, – and has led directly to states.

Bruce Yandle has addressed the ascendance of man through methods such as property to facilitate cooperation and to abate ruinous conflicts over resources; he has an interesting short piece I’ve excerpted here: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/11/20/bruce-yandle-on-the-tragedy-of-the-commons-the-evolution-of-cooperation-and-property.aspx

To tie this in more closely with Stephan’s battle with libertarians and others over IP, I note I have further discussed the ways that groups have, in order to strengthen group cohesion and dampen conflict, of developing and inculcating mores; formal religions are obviously just one branch of this tree:

– see my discussion with “fundamentalist” here: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/08/30/a-few-simple-thoughts-on-the-evolution-of-moral-codes-and-why-we-fight-over-them-and-religion-liberty-and-the-state.aspx

– and my discussions with Gene Callahan and Bob Murphy on whether there are “objective” moral truths, or simply a felt need on their part to find some: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/search.aspx?q=callahan+moral

These are relevant because they explore not property per se, but our related need to make our property rules stick, by tying them to “sacred postulates” of one kind or another. The problem with this, of course, is that it makes us difficult to abandon what we all pretty much assumed was sacred, like IP. (Of course it also makes even discussing property quite difficult at times.)

TT
Published: November 20, 2009 9:13 AM

• Lord Buzungulus, Bringer of the Purple Light
TokyoTom’s latest post is, frankly, bizarre, and I fail to see that it has anything do with the issues of property rights and IP.
Published: November 20, 2009 9:19 AM

• Stephan Kinsella
Lord B– re TokyoTizzom — I kind of agree.
Tom: I really am not sure what you are asking. You seem to be rambling in a sort of New Age libertarian “we’re all practical moderates can’t we just get along Rodney king” kind of way, “can’t we just have incremental improvement, kumbaya”.

Maybe I’m misreading you. I just can’t follow this amorphous way of thinking.
Published: November 20, 2009 10:43 AM

• TokyoTom
LBBPL & Stephan:
Sure, it’s a bolt from the blue and kinda past my bedtime, but it’s not so hard:

The deep roots of “property” are not in principle but in simple competition, physical defense of assets valuable enough to make the effort worthwhile, and in the grudging recognition by others – more willingly offered by those who share bonds of community – that yielding to others’ claims may be more productive than challenging them.

This is as true for rest of creation as it is for man. While we have developed property to a a very sophisticated degree, at its core property remains very much about the Darwinian struggle to survive and prosper, violence, theft and calculations as to when challenging control over an asset is not worth the effort.

To the extent we’re past that, which is quite a ways indeed, property is a social construct that is flexible (though rigidified in various ways, including legislation) and based primarily on practical considerations as to what parameters best engender wealth and respond to shared purposes by minimizing free-for-alls, externalities, free-riding & rent-seeking and facilitating voluntary transactions.

Elinor Ostrom has spent alot of time documenting sophisticated local community property rights, all of which at the end of the day all supported by threats of sanctions and violence against rule breakers and outsiders. http://bit.ly/2caqUr

It’s natural that we feel strongly about what we consider to be ours, but this feeling is a gut one that is not in essence grounded on principles deeper than our sense of fair play and just desserts in a community to which we feel we have bonds of common purpose.

And we have a natural tendency to dress up our shared institutions – such as property rights – in moral precepts.
But we always remain subject to problems of theft, especially so as our bonds of community and shared purpose loosen. Libertarians are absolutely right to keep shining a spotlight on how the state has become an instrument of theft.

As for IP, as specialized knowledge can be quite valuable, it seems quite possible for me to imagine a society that developed IP and enforced it mutually, as a way to minimize high costs for protecting trade secrets.But such rules would not be enforceable against other societies, unless resort is made to government. And it seems clear to me that there are substantial rent-seeking costs now associated with state-granted IP.

To roll things back, just the argument that things are out of control and IP is now grossly abused and counterproductive is good enough for me, but I wish you luck in wielding arguments of principle. That’s the great thing about being a pragmatist.
TT
Published: November 20, 2009 11:54 AM

Bruce Yandle on the tragedy of the commons, evolution of cooperation & property, and the struggle against government theft

November 20th, 2009 No comments

[I note that this is one of my earlier Avatar-themed posts. 2010/02/15]

I`ve often referred to Bruce Yandle, a “free-market environmentalist” who is dean emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Clemson University`s College of Business & Behavior Sciences, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center, a faculty member with George Mason University’s Capitol Hill Campus, and a Senior Fellow at PERC – the Property and Environment Research Center (a free-market environmentalism think tank which has great links to his many works).

I`d like to draw attention attention to one short paper by Yandle which I find insightful in providing a perspective on the evolution of prperty rights and problems with resource management which arise from government owenership, even as he has short-shrifted the importance of community property mechanisms, which Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom has so extensively researched and documented (as I keep noting).

Yandle`s paper, The Commons: Tragedy or Triumph?, was published by the Foundation for Economic Education in its April 1999 online edition of Freeman. Here are few portions (emphasis added):

The feeder is a commons, but not just for hummingbirds. Bees are
attracted to it as well, and oddly enough, they can drive off the
larger hummingbirds. So even if the dominant bird is able to deflect
competition from other members of the species, that is not enough to
protect the nectar, and the defense itself is costly in energy burned.
The feeder contents are never secure.

Hummingbirds have no way to stake a claim to the feeder. So far as
we can tell, hummingbird communities have no constitution that reflects
socially evolved rules for establishing a social order. Most likely, a
long process of adaptation and selection has generated a hummingbird
capable of living in a world where nourishment is a common-access
resource, a commons. Hummingbirds live a life of flight, engaging in a
constant search for nourishment to feed their high-energy lives and, at
times, fighting for temporary control over valuable resources.

Human Commons

We all know the tragedy of the commons story. Wonderfully written
by Garrett Hardin in 1968, the highly stylized rendering is about a
pasture devoid of rules, customs, or norms for sharing.[1]
It is open to all comers. In this never-never-land, shepherds logically
add sheep to their flocks as long as doing so adds an increment of gain
for the particular flock. Uncoordinated in their effort, and unaware of
the effects of their individual actions on others, the unconcerned
shepherds collectively destroy the pasture. What could be a story of
plenty, if only the shepherds understood, turns into a story of
poverty. The passive shepherds are like hummingbirds. [Yandle has this wrong; Hardin posits competing shepherds who don`t talk w/ each other,and so look after only their narrow self-interests.]

As Hardin artistically puts it: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man
is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without
limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which
all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that
believes in freedom of the commons.”

Garrett Hardin’s words beautifully bundle aspects of an endless
human struggle to form communities, accumulate wealth, and improve
well-being. With that phrase—tragedy of the commons—the essence of the
challenge hits us squarely between the eyes: When there are no property
rights—formal or informal—that limit use of a scarce natural resource,
human action leads inevitably to untimely resource depletion and
destruction.

But people are not hummingbirds. People can build institutions that
take the edge off frantic commons behavior. People have unwritten and
written constitutions that help to establish social order. People can
and do accumulate wealth. People communicate, invent lines of kinship,
and develop customs, traditions, and rules of law that limit
anti-social behavior. People define, enforce, and trade property
rights. People can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. Indeed,
instead of living with tragedies, people triumph over the commons. But
the triumphs are never perfect or complete. There is always another
commons to manage.

The Ascent of Man

I wish to put forward the notion that encounters with the commons
form the fundamental stimulus that yields, instead of tragedy, what we
today call civilization.
The ascent of man from a primitive existence
with no wealth accumulation to life as we know it is fundamentally a
story about triumph over, not tragedy of, the commons. Let me explain.

Our very existence as human beings is defined by evolved
institutions for avoiding tragedies. We have names, which serve the
economic purpose of identifying us as parties to contracts and
agreements. Those names, first and last, form webs of communication
that reduce the social cost of assigning responsibilities and
liabilities. They enhance truth-telling and promise-keeping; they raise
the cost of engaging in anti-social behavior. They limit a tragedy of
the commons.

We have abstract symbols of ownership—deeds, titles, and
contracts—that define spheres of autonomous behavior. We speak of our
homes, our cars, our clothes, our families, and our pasture. Even
language has evolved to provide a possessive form that accommodates
triumph over the commons.

We write and observe contracts, wills, and marriage agreements that
define relationships, identify turf, and conserve wealth. We accept
evolved bodies of law and law-enforcement activities to assure the
integrity of our agreements. We carry papers that enable us to acquire
property, extinguish debt, cross borders, drive vehicles, and
communicate effectively with strangers. And we have locks, keys, walls,
fences, brands, and encryption devices, all this in an effort to avoid
a tragedy of the commons.

Property rights define who we are and what we have. Property rights
guard others from our unwanted advances and prevent us from
contributing to a tragedy of their commons.

Avoiding a tragedy of the commons is costly. The benefits must be large. …

The tragedy is found where for reasons having to do with power,
intolerance, or cost, human beings have not yet defined private
property rights. Or, as we shall see, where evolving property rights
encouraged by man the institution builder have been destroyed.
What was
once a triumph can become a tragedy. …

What about fisheries? How can we avoid a tragedy of the commons
there? Long before the Europeans arrived on the scene in the Pacific
Northwest, Native Americans had figured it out. Small tribes in what is
now Washington State had salmon fishing rights.
Don Leal tells us that
“in some cases, the tribe owned the rights; in others, families or
individuals or a combination owned the rights.”[5]

And what happened when the Europeans arrived? You guessed it. Leal
tells the story this way: “Instead of recognizing the well-defined and
enforced fishing rights, the U.S. government allowed newcomers to place
nets across the mouth of the Columbia. This quickly depleted salmon
runs, so traps and weirs were banned—only to be replaced by purse seine
boats powered by internal combustion engines. The race to catch salmon
moved to open waters. Ironically, from the country where private
property is considered sacrosanct came a socialistic legal system
driven by politics and military power.”[6]

What had been private property was turned into a commons. What had been
an institution-builder triumph became a political tragedy. …

For centuries before anyone in the United States thought much about
environmental quality, our common law defined and protected the
environmental rights of ordinary people.[10]
Enforced by judges in courts across the land, common law protected the
right of downstream property owners to receive water and air in
undiminished quality for reasonable use.
At common law, rivers could
not be treated as open sewers if doing so imposed costs on downstream
rightholders. Industrial plants could not blow smoke and emissions onto
the land and property of ordinary people. The record is filled with
cases, here and in Canada, decided under English common-law traditions:
where farmers sued industrial plants and won; where citizens of one
state sued polluters in another state, and won; and where common-law
judges ordered polluters to clean up or shut down. There are also cases
where this did not happen, where judges turned away from
property-rights enforcement and behaved as policy makers. But when the
judges got it wrong, their decisions affected a small number of people,
not an entire nation. [I note Walter Block disagrees strongly and views this change in common law as leading to the rampant pollution that set the stage for federal legislation.] This, of course, changed with the advent of
legislation.

Prior to the passage of federal pollution-control statutes, every
major city in the United States had taken steps to define public
property rights to air quality. Many states, including California, had
taken a river-basin approach to the management of water quality, this
in addition to the use of common law. Multi-state compacts were
forming. By the 1960s, environmental quality was improving rapidly in
many locations. The property rights institution builders were on their
way to avoiding a tragedy of the commons. Common law was converting the
commons to private property.

This was changed with the passage of federal legislation that
effectively nationalized air and water quality in the United States.
What was becoming private property was made public property, almost a
commons. The new system of command-and-control regulation allowed
polluters to operate legally if they had a permit. With permits in
hand, new polluters could enter already crowded river basins. The new
regime provided political access to industries and municipalities that
hoped to postpone the day of reckoning in common law courts.

This work sheds light on mankind’s struggle to avoid the tragedy of
the commons. It tells us that at very low levels of income, what might
be called stage one, human beings cannot afford to do much about
property-rights enforcement and the commons. They live in a world where
custom and tradition sustain them. As incomes rise and losses from the
commons expand, stage two is entered. Fences go up, and rules are set
for protecting the commons. Finally, in stage three, markets evolve
along with rules of law that define spheres of private and public
action. Private rights replace public control, and the triumph replaces
the tragedy of the commons.

[Yandle ignores government mismanagement here, and how Western markets and Westernized leaders have seamrollered native institutions.]

Life for mankind began on a commons where tragedies were
commonplace and the incentive to improve was powerful. Out of the
struggle to survive and accumulate wealth evolved markets, property
rights, and the rule of law—a triumph on the commons.

But just as bees compete with hummingbirds in the struggle to
control access to nectar, institution builders who seek to support
markets and property rights compete with others who seek to
redistribute wealth. Actions to redistribute wealth blunt the incentive
to protect property rights and create wealth. This converts triumph to
tragedy.

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

 

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.

Evolution & religion: Idle hands express idle thoughts about Bob Murphy`s determination to apply reason to his insistence that "non-believers burn in hell"

June 22nd, 2009 No comments

I refer to Bob Murphy`s blog post, “Do Non-Believers Burn in Hell?”, which is still active, but with little further contribution from Bob (who`s been busy doing God`s work  on other matters). In the post Bob asserts that “the doctrines of Christianity make sense and are logical” and attempts to explain what he means by his belief that atheists are “going to hell.”

Below are my two posts on the thread.  The first asks Bob to clarify his logic; the second steps back to meta-issues that are too often unexplored in arguments over religion.

A. June 14, 2009 5:23 AM

Bob, if you`re in favor of using your reason when contemplating God, can you tell me:

1. is there a hell? what evidence is there for hell?

2.
Who goes to hell? You suggest “person[s] who actively rejected the
Creator’s offer of friendship”, but by this (a) do you imply that
everyone got a “personal” offer? how so?

(b) if not, what
happens to those throughout human history who never got a personal
offer, or who thought their offer was to follow Judaism, Islam, the
Budddha, etc?

(c) what about those with limited capacity –
children (including those stillborn, or naturally or artificially
aborted), the mentally handicapped? do they burn in hell for eternity,
or are they united in communion with the Creator?

I`m not sure
where reason leads us in matters of faith, other than we have a
capacity to believe all manner of what seems obvious nonsense now.

B.  June 22, 2009 4:42 AM

James, I think you are being far too judgmental.

And I think this discussion generally is too shallow.

Can
I suggest that you – and others – step back to consider the role of
“Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity,” as explored in a book
of that title by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American
Anthropology Assn.
and published postumously)?

Rappaport
recognized the role that ritual and “sacred postulates” (later,
religions) have played 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.

Amazon

Google Books

review by Mary Catherine Bateson

Interview

Especially as we live in an increasingly global world, it behooves us all to know ourselves better – even us hermits in Tokyo.

Can we sheath our vorpal swords?