Archive for the ‘humans’ Category

Man & religion: Is there is an objective moral reality? In which I hazard a few thoughts

May 26th, 2009 6 comments

I make no pretense of having any formal training in philosophy, but it strikes me that the answer is no.

I post here a few thoughts I penned in an exchange with Gene Callahan at his blog, Crash Landing on May 18 and 19, in connection with conversation that Gene was conducting with budding philosopher Danny Shahar (who also comments on climate change skepticism):


At 9:25 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Well, Vichy, you have correctly identified a problem. Unfortunately, just as when someone is yelling “A cliff!” to another person who is rushing towards it while declaring “I care nothing about cliffs!” the “problem” exists for only one of us.
At 4:02 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
“the “problem” exists for only one of us.”
Yes, Gene – for the one without a glider or parasail.
Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments, and of such species` individual members.
If we limit the discussion to humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), at most, it seems to me that we can speak of is being genetically endowed (via a process influenced by natural selection over eons) with a range of moral beliefs, which find differing expressions given our gender, environment etc.
Yandle touched on some of this here:
At 4:06 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
For clarity, we aren`t endowed with beliefs per se, but with a capacity for them.
But what we end up with is heavily influenced by our upbringing/social millieu, gender/brain chemistry etc.
At 7:50 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
“Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments…”
Of course slime molds do not think, “Hmm, it’s wrong to steal.” But how is the relevant? Does the existence of blind people make you doubt that light is objectively real, or think, “The laws of light propagation are only true for sighted people”?
The same point shows the irrelevance of cultural millieu, upbringing, etc. to the question of objective moral truth. Of course these things influence what our moral beliefs are! Did you think I was unaware of the existence of other cultures?
But, again, what is this supposed to demonstrate? Does the fact that before 1900 no human being believed in quantum mechanics, and today few people understand it yet, mean that there is no objective truth about the topic?
At 11:54 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
Gene, while I consider it objectively true that human individuals display a moral sense, I see it as a biological trait (based on genotypes but with a wide and heavily environment-influenced phenotype) that exhibits a range across the species.
Outlines of the moral sense can be generalized, but each individual possesses his own, which may be quite different.
Needless to say, or biologicial relations, if as conscious and self-reflective as we, would have a different moral sense.
At 12:01 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Right, Tom. And that relates to the question of whether or not there is objective moral truth just how?
(We all have unique sense organs. Does that mean that there can’t be any objective truth to the statement ‘Light travels at 186,000 miles per second?)
At 10:23 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, while my own sense organs are limited, flawed and play tricks on me, it does seem to me that there is an objective world outside of me. At least, my experiences lead me to believe so. 

Scientific method and technology allow us to discover ever more about such objective reality (even while giving us conundrums about the particle/wave duality of electromagnetic radiation, and bizarro world of quantum mechanics).

The physical world is real, not only to us, but to other life forms that have entirely different ways of sensing, experiencing and interacting with it.

“Light”, including parts of the EM spectrum that aren`t directly visible to man, and sound (vibrations that can be sensed) exist in the real world, Gene.

But where is the “objective moral order”, that exists independent of humanity (or other life forms that act in ways both familiar and unfamiliar to us), communities and individuals?

Even if there were an objective moral order apart from our own feeble abilities to perceive it, it seems to me far more useful to regard our thinking about it in the context of our human nature, as beings subject to group selection pressures.

At 5:11 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…

Tom, other than just saying, “Well, physical things just are objectively real and moral truths just aren’t, ha-ha!” I don’t see you arguing for your position in any way at all. Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!) and moral truths aren’t, then of course that is the conclusion you will reach at the end.

So what?

At 10:04 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, thanks for coming back on this, but have you addressed my comments fairly, or just taken a long time to punt?

I think I`ve been probing rather than reaching conclusions, much less ones ending “ha-ha!”

In part, I`m trying to figure out what YOU mean by an “objective moral truth”, which appears to be something real and 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).

Is that what you mean?

And are you asserting that, for every conscious and self-aware being – regardless of species – that there is a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? [Leaving aside the question of how this objective moral order applies to type of organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious but not self-aware.]

Or are you only talking about an objective moral order that exists only for humans, that perhaps someday can be identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on brain activity and arising from shared genes?

Or an objective moral order 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)?

Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!)Yeh, kinda tricky how despite the fact that, in our search for understanding we have to rely on a brain that plays all manner of tricks on us, I agree with your basic premise that some parts of the world we inhabit is objective.