Archive for the ‘David Sloan Wilson’ Category

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):


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.


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.


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.


– 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).


“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:…/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

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.”…/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.