Archive for the ‘sociobiology’ Category

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: