Home > Callahan, commons, David Sloan Wilson, evolution, liberty, moral codes, moral order, Murphy, Rappaport, religion, yandle > [Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

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

[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:


[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

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
[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 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.”



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.

  1. TokyoTom
    September 10th, 2009 at 13:47 | #1

    Keith, welcome.

    You lost me on the question of waste and seeking gain. All animals waste, to the extent they have the luxury. Waste, in the sense of consuming more than needed, is limited simply because extra killing, eating etc. can be costly. But that`s the very reason why various animals have “wasteful” reproductive displays, to show they they are more than fit.

    Some predators kill just for fun, if the prey can get away.

    Granted, technology has enabled man to catch and kill more tan he needs, so we do waste alot.

    “we are always seeking gain, even at some other’s loss.”

    Well, we do raise crops, husband animals, preserve bits of nature, in order to satisfy our own desires. But what animal cooperates, if not for its own advantage?

    (As for the arses, because we stand upright, we`re one of the few species where what`s left can get in the way of walking. Standing upright also makes man the only species to get hemmorhoids).

  2. KAckermann
    September 10th, 2009 at 06:41 | #2

    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.

    We are all subservient to the biosphere. The prime objective is to flourish. A secondary objective to aid the first is to survive. The we sacrifice ourselves so that our children may live is an example of that (along with many other species exhibiting the same thing).

    We are induced to thrive by through hormones that induce a sensation of love or lust, and we are rewarded with great pleasure from the act of sex. We are induced to act against our own self interest by the chemicals that produce a sensation of love. This protects our offspring by making us always cognizant of loved one’s needs. Part of our ‘self’ is transferred.

    Animals possibly hold a higher moral station in how they serve the biosphere. We waste, they don’t. A cheetah does not run around at top speed all the time, but we are always seeking gain, even at some other’s loss.

    If you were to chart the increase of entropy by each species, there is one, and only one, that stands out many orders of magnitude more than the rest. Not sure of the natural morality of that.

    Another thing that is unique to the species of man, is that we wipe our asses. I’m not sure if that is a design flaw, or if there is some higher meaning.

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