Home > Bob Murphy, Callahan, commons, evolution, moral order, Rappaport, religion > Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined "objective" moral order

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

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.

  1. TokyoTom
    September 7th, 2009 at 18:27 | #1

    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.”


  2. TokyoTom
    September 7th, 2009 at 18:15 | #2

    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

    I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in
    fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective
    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, 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.

    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,
    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?

  3. TokyoTom
    September 7th, 2009 at 16:54 | #3

    Note: I received the following comment by email from Bob Murphy:


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

    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.


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