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An intelligent, respectful response NEEDED, Part 2
killyoko
Hello all,

Last year, I posted a question here asking for a response. You can see the thread here:
http://atheiststo...post_23992

I am still in conversation with my Catholic friend, and the topic turned to morality and moral law. I have suggested to him that I think morals are an evolutionary bi-product; we have decided, over a long period, that certain behavior (not murdering each other, for example) is moral, and other behavior is not. So I'd like to offer up his response to see if you all can come up with another response. Here goes...

THE FOLLOWING IS FROM MY CATHOLIC FRIEND:

"In one of your recent comments, you suggested that evolution might be a satisfactory explanation for morality. While it is often suggested, I find such an explanation rather implausible. In particular, it fails to account for the fact of the moral law.

Evolutionary explanations for morality try to describe (with varying degrees of success) how behaving in a moral way results in greater evolutionary fitness for individuals, groups, or humanity as a whole. Assuming that to be the case, natural selection could indeed produce a human instinct toward moral behavior.

The problem, though, is that this utterly fails to explain the fact of the moral law (as distinct from moral behavior).

(1) In the best case, recourse to the mechanics of evolution explains nothing. After all, the fact that a group of animals evolved to have certain behavior doesn’t say anything about whether the behavior is morally desirable. So we have to look elsewhere for an explanation.

(2) In the worst case, it attempts to explain away the very idea of a moral law. If humans only believe X is moral and Y is immoral because at some point in the distant past it was helpful for survival, then the categories of moral and immoral have no correspondence to reality. In other words, if our idea of moral law has no source beyond random mutations, then it is a lie foisted on us by our genes.

I find (2) highly implausible. It is like arguing that the rules of logic or addition exist merely because evolution caused us to believe in them.

Of course, we might modify (2) slightly to say that evolution caused us to believe in the moral law because of something deep in the structure of the universe (as with the rules of logic and addition). But that nameless “something deep in the structure of the universe” comes awfully close to the idea that nature itself points to something greater than itself: a reality that is supernatural."

END QUOTE
Thanks for any help you all can give me with this. I enjoy speaking with him and hearing other perspectives. But I will freely admit that sometimes it gets a little heady for me.
 
seeker
Sorry but I don't do respectful when the argument is as inane as this one.

First off lets start with a false distinction. There is no such thing as 'moral law' in the sense of an absolute morality. The fact is that even the most pious people condone situational morality. Just ask all the Christians who commit murders during holy wars.

Now let's look at his absurd points:

1). In the best case, recourse to the mechanics of evolution explains nothing. After all, the fact that a group of animals evolved to have certain behavior doesn’t say anything about whether the behavior is morally desirable. So we have to look elsewhere for an explanation.


Why do I call this point absurd? Because the fact that animal behavior evolves in a particular way and survived is precisely what makes the behaviors they developed desirable. Had their behavior not led to a survival advantage then the animals in question would have died out. The notion of 'moral desirability' is completely absurd as the only desirable outcome for any species is survival.

(2) In the worst case, it attempts to explain away the very idea of a moral law. If humans only believe X is moral and Y is immoral because at some point in the distant past it was helpful for survival, then the categories of moral and immoral have no correspondence to reality. In other words, if our idea of moral law has no source beyond random mutations, then it is a lie foisted on us by our genes.


Why do I think point #2 is absurd? Once again the person that wrote this is operating from the notion that there is some ideal morality that we should all follow beyond that of the survival of the species. Let's suppose that we were invaded by aliens and the only way for the human race to survive was to kill every alien (even the really hot green females). In order for the human race to survive we would have to commit genocide, a highly immoral act. Ooops.

Better yet we here in the US committed near genocide of the Native Americans. The moral thing to do would be to give their land back and politely leave after making reparations. Of course then you would be uprooting the millions of people who now think of the US as theirs, thus treating the Native Americans in a truly moral way would result in treating current US citizens in an immoral way.

The fact is that the notion of 'moral law' is based on a fallacy, that some 'absolute morality' exists but even a brief glance at human history suggests that morality is always situational and oddly enough the people generally regarded as moral tend to often be the people who were most willing to be immoral to get their way.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
 
Theory_Execution
Ask him to define Moral Law.

The fact that a god has determined that certain behavior is 'correct and 'proper' doesn’t say anything about whether the behavior is desirable for us as humans.

Where is the harm in wearing clothing of mixed fibre, vs not suffering a witch to live?
 
Cynic
The core premise of your friend is flawed in that it an attempt to explain that which has not passed a basic test of existence. If you asked him (I'll assume "him" until informed) to provide an explanation for those teacups floating just off the outer rings of Saturn I bet he'd understand this problem immediately. It's harder to spot in our own thinking.

As Seeker will attest, I tend to toward more of an absolute than a relative morality outlook. Relative to circumstances, yes, but not so much relative to individuals or even (especially, perhaps) cultures. The general basis for what I'd consider a moral absolute verging on "law" rests in reciprocal regard for each other. You know, "do unto others" only a bit more nuanced and fundamentally applicable. And no, I do not credit Christianity for having invented the notion. In fact, I credit evolution.

First, I need to clear up a point about evolution. It is not driven by survival, but "fitness", which is about the production of offspring and their potential to produce their own offspring. "Survival of the fittest" isn't merely an oversimplification, it's actually wrong. The individual with the greatest fitness isn't more likely to survive, it is more likely to pass on viable offspring, and not just pass them on, but produce offspring that will consistently outproduce the bulk of the local population as well.

Because of this, all behaviors are not necessarily geared toward survival at all. Take langur monkeys. Langurs form groups, "led" by a more or less tyrannical interloper from attacking outside male. When a new male takes over (by driving out or killing the previous dominant male), one of the first things they do is kill the infants females might be nursing. This behavior cannot be explained in terms of survival. By killing the infants, nursing females regain their fertility sooner, and thus the dominant males can produce more offspring over the course of their reign before getting supplanted (which is two years on average). Thus, eventually those males that commit infanticide become more fit than those who do not and the behavior is re-enforced within the population.

What does this have to do with "morality"? Nothing and everything. The thing your friend needs to understand about evolution is that is doesn't explain "morality" but it does explain or give insight into animal (including human) behavior. If he insists that human behavior includes morality, then, well, there you go.

I threw reciprocity out earlier. Take many bird species. If a predator enters a nesting area, most of the birds will engage in mobbing behavior to thwart the enemy. What's more, if a bird fails to help out, that bird is much less likely to receive similar help from the group if the need arises in the future.

That's pretty interesting as a model of morality, yes? But it's predicted and explained by the same theory that predicts and explains infanticide in langurs. The problem with evolution is that it's simple -- really, really simple. And that makes people, even the ones who grasp it, think that behaviors stemming from it must have correspondingly simple explanations, that it all comes down to this or that. But extreme complexity can arise from the most simple of setups.

Fact is, even through many persistent things in life can be chalked up, one way or another, to fitness or survival, many things come down to opportunity, environment, genetics, etc. Many things aren't what they call "adaptive" at all. Some are even maladaptive. Some of what we might call morality can be stuffed under this heading as well. Consider "altruism," much of which can be considered adaptive (and thus selfish by that virtue) but the closer you get to "true" altruism, the closer you get to maladaption. Guess which is more common? Guess why? Evolution.

I doubt you'll get this into your friend's mind all in one go, but I'd definitely recommend a good book of animal behavior to him.
 
killyoko
Thanks to everyone for the replies. I appreciate having thoughts and ideas that are on the tip of my tongue--or more accurately on the tip of my brain--laid out and given a voice.
Keep the responses coming!
 
Theory_Execution
As both have said above, it is a matter of approach, and is an issue with most people's understanding of Evolution.

If you have seen X-Men you will see the popular fallacy writ large, that evolution has an aim, that there is an end-game or target.

Think clouds, think puddles and think oceans - essentially all the same thing, water, and to water itself, it does not care which form it is and we would not say water itself has been designed to be such things.

The same is true of Morality, it is just a term we as humans have applied to the interactions between people, the behaviours as Cynic says. Moral being what the consensus at the time saw as fit, amoral being everything else.

The only laws involved in Morality are those same laws that orchestrate the passing of water from oceans to clouds to puddles - the natural mechanics of the universe we inhabit.
 
seeker
Cynic - As usual a beautifully written argument with which I , for the most part, agree.

I wonder if you could expand on this statement:

As Seeker will attest, I tend to toward more of an absolute than a relative morality outlook. Relative to circumstances, yes, but not so much relative to individuals or even (especially, perhaps) cultures. The general basis for what I'd consider a moral absolute verging on "law" rests in reciprocal regard for each other. You know, "do unto others" only a bit more nuanced and fundamentally applicable. And no, I do not credit Christianity for having invented the notion. In fact, I credit evolution.


The reason I ask is that I'm not so sure that your description is of a "moral absolute" or a more general "moral guideline". What I've always found interesting about the "do unto others" approach is that it can become an exercise in rationalization in the case of dealing with an unjust act or situations like war and poverty.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
 
Cynic
seeker wrote:

Cynic - As usual a beautifully written argument with which I , for the most part, agree.



Thanks!


seeker wrote:
I wonder if you could expand on this statement:

As Seeker will attest, I tend to toward more of an absolute than a relative morality outlook. Relative to circumstances, yes, but not so much relative to individuals or even (especially, perhaps) cultures. The general basis for what I'd consider a moral absolute verging on "law" rests in reciprocal regard for each other. You know, "do unto others" only a bit more nuanced and fundamentally applicable. And no, I do not credit Christianity for having invented the notion. In fact, I credit evolution.


The reason I ask is that I'm not so sure that your description is of a "moral absolute" or a more general "moral guideline". What I've always found interesting about the "do unto others" approach is that it can become an exercise in rationalization in the case of dealing with an unjust act or situations like war and poverty.



Heh. In general my "conclusions" are malleable. Certain principles have more or less crystallized in me, however, such as distrust of simplicity, a distaste for individual selfishness, and a wariness of groups pushing their views on individuals. To me, a proper application of "do unto others" necessarily requires that all factors are taken into account and weighted in accordance to each other. It usually devolves into rationalization because absolute objectivity and knowledge of factors are very difficult standards to live up to. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, of course.

But my point is, I see it as a continuum with a well-qualified absolute algorithm that requires very deep analysis on one end and a crude guideline at best at the other. The rule can be made to skew in different directions (and is!) depending on one's biases regarding complexity, individuality, etc. In all practicality, it's not reasonable to expect it to be a good absolute. I would argue, however, that what we liberals tend to view as a "more enlightened mindset" is really another way of suggesting that the person having it is more adept at applying the "do unto others" guideline in a robust manner than their "less-enlightened" counterparts.

This sort of or morality isn't related to evolution, though I do find it amusing that so many people that go around quoting the the Golden Rule and cursing all things Darwin so readily endorse "social Darwinism".
 
seeker
Cynic wrote:...To me, a proper application of "do unto others" necessarily requires that all factors are taken into account and weighted in accordance to each other. It usually devolves into rationalization because absolute objectivity and knowledge of factors are very difficult standards to live up to. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, of course.

But my point is, I see it as a continuum with a well-qualified absolute algorithm that requires very deep analysis on one end and a crude guideline at best at the other. The rule can be made to skew in different directions (and is!) depending on one's biases regarding complexity, individuality, etc. In all practicality, it's not reasonable to expect it to be a good absolute....


For me the crux of this argument seems to be the notion of a 'well qualified absolute algorithm'. I have this mental picture of a Rube Goldberg device into which data is fed at one end and the after some manipulation the proper behavior pops out of the other end (I've never before noticed how similar pops and poops are). In any case this seems a case of an algorithm composed of an infinite set of variables, i.e. one that may have no practical use because the application would require more information than one could possibly have.

I could simply be biased against absolutes.

Cynic wrote:I would argue, however, that what we liberals tend to view as a "more enlightened mindset" is really another way of suggesting that the person having it is more adept at applying the "do unto others" guideline in a robust manner than their "less-enlightened" counterparts.


Probably true to some degree. Conservatives tend to interpret 'do unto others' as 'leave them on their own' while liberals are more inclined to want to be pro-active and lend a hand. Both see themselves as moral and view the other as immoral because they have completely different premises regarding what people need.

Cynic wrote:This sort of or morality isn't related to evolution, though I do find it amusing that so many people that go around quoting the the Golden Rule and cursing all things Darwin so readily endorse "social Darwinism".


I think that it can be tied to evolution in the sense that this kind of morality is result, as you suggested in your earlier post, of behaviors that we've adopted over time in order to enhance our civilization building skills.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
 
Cynic
seeker wrote:

For me the crux of this argument seems to be the notion of a 'well qualified absolute algorithm'. I have this mental picture of a Rube Goldberg device into which data is fed at one end and the after some manipulation the proper behavior pops out of the other end (I've never before noticed how similar pops and poops are). In any case this seems a case of an algorithm composed of an infinite set of variables, i.e. one that may have no practical use because the application would require more information than one could possibly have.

I could simply be biased against absolutes.



I think of it more like interpolation and approximation function, where the more data points you have the more accurate the answer will be so long as minimums are met at key parameters. I call it absolute, but there's a wiggle factor because part of the data that feeds into it is context, making it somewhat recursive as well. To emphasize, however, that something is absolute doesn't necessarily imply that it is digital or that only one outcome might result. To me, a moral system doesn't tell you what to do -- it tells you where the boundaries are for what you should not.


This would seem to render it relative rather than absolute, but I think the approach is sufficiently different from that. Relative morality seems like it effectively allows anything given a big enough system with sufficient distance between regions. "Murder is OK where I come from, so it's not right that you should barge in an try to stop me." Such a murderer is arguing for relative morality whereas the one trying to stop him might be coming from a position of absolute morality, nuanced (OK under some circumstances and not others) or simplistic (murder is never right).

The key to this distinction in my mind is that an absolute approach might have a range of considerations that can be weighed against the circumstances -- an action can therefore be challenged. It always seems as if relative morality is most-often used as a device to avoid having an action challenged at all, where criticism is cast as an impudent value judgement by outsiders. Worse, and directly related to why I don't like it as much as I don't, it is the chief defense of groups imposing their wills on individuals.

Another difference is the element of the arbitrary. I don't like wholly arbitrary things. No doubt, absolute rules can be arbitrary. But relative morality virtually demands it. I favor a system whose conclusions can be traced back to something, even if that conclusion is merely a shrug and consent-implying silence. My notion of an absolute morality much more "scientific" (in that it requires honesty and integrity to work) than the religious kind people are most familiar with, which are just people stamping their feet and insisting that things have to be done they way they say they should.

Finally, ultimately I think the problem is that what people generally consider absolute systems are really just the corollary to the relative mindset. That is, if a relative morality system says that any arbitrary moral rule set is as legitimate as the next, then what most people call absolute moral system is one in which only one possible permutation of arbitrary moral systems is correct, and therefore any deviations are wrong. When people speak of extreme Christians trying to enforce their "absolute morality" on people, this is precisely the kind of "absolute morality" they mean.

I think I'm proposing something different than that. It's not perfect and not every scenario has a clean, neat resolution. But it's not arbitrary, either.


seeker wrote:

Cynic wrote:This sort of or morality isn't related to evolution, though I do find it amusing that so many people that go around quoting the the Golden Rule and cursing all things Darwin so readily endorse "social Darwinism".


I think that it can be tied to evolution in the sense that this kind of morality is result, as you suggested in your earlier post, of behaviors that we've adopted over time in order to enhance our civilization building skills.



The core of the whole "do unto others" notion is our somewhat innate sense of fairness, I think. Sociopaths (e.g. corporate CEOs, top-tier politicians, etc) aren't good at that. Sometimes they're broken people, but I'd guess (not argue) a fair number of people with sociopathic tendencies are following an evolutionary track that takes advantage of game theory: when everyone else is playing by the rules, there is an advantage in cheating large enough to outweigh the consequences (and when everyone else cheating, there may not be an advantage to following the rules, but cheating isn't as much of an advantage). Just as autism stymies processing of many social cues, sociopaths may have a similar disorder that in the right combinations gives an advantage. I wonder sometimes if the tendency of sociopaths to also be highly charismatic is an indication of the condition be the opposite side of the autism coin.
 
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