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Should we be equally tolerant of all ethical and moral precepts?

  1. Sep 13, 2010 #1


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    I'm treading on very thin ice here, I will do my best to be respectful and very careful with my words. I should preface this thread by saying that while i have no respect for actual religions (in general, not in specific), I absolutely respect the adherents to those religions. They are human beings, and I have the same respect for them as I do for any other human (religious or not). Please try to keep that idea firm in your mind as I try to form an entire thought.

    (Credit to Sam Harris for planting this idea in my head.)

    Premise: without actually stating which ideas are "good" for human well-being, it seems possible that science (or at least the scientific process) could help determine which religious ideas we should be most tolerant of.

    Support: Analogy: no one can say which food is necessarily "good" and yet we are comfortable making broad generalizations about things such as "healthy food" and "poison" and "nutrition." In each area there are exceptions to the rule, but generalizations are made to great benefit.

    Peanuts are poison to some people, but are, in general, regarded as a healthy food. However, potassium cyanide is never regarded as a healthy food. No one would suggest that gallons of wine are necessary to a healthy diet, yet there are discussions about how a glass of it might be beneficial.

    Furthermore, if someone with no expertise in the field of nutrition were to make a "ground-breaking" statement, we tend to ignore them. If the marketing director of Pepsi Co. suggests that you should have no less than 8 glasses of Pepsi each day, we ignore him in the same way that we might ignore a claim that we should stop eating fruit. We acknowledge experts in the field, and generally disregard non-experts.

    Why do we accept "holy books" as granting instant "expert" status? Isn't it possible that some holy books, some where, might contain a small amount of ethical poison? Why is it that we rationalize the terrible behavior of certain religious groups when we don't rationalize the terrible diets of some? Why must we be equally tolerant of all ethical and moral precepts?

    No one would suggest that science has nothing to say about human nutrition simply because there are many valid answers and thousands of caveats. Why would we think that science has nothing to say about ethical and moral behavior?

    Conclusion: Just as there are many foods that could contribute to a healthy diet, perhaps there are many types of moral and ethical behaviors that could contribute to a healthy existence. And just as there are many food that are poisonous, perhaps there are many types of moral and ethical behaviors that could be poisonous to a healthy existence.

    Closing statement: In the same way that nutrition is a science with much nuance and many conflicting ideas, I'd like to propose the idea that ethics is a science that remains undeveloped.

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2010 #2


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    So the question is whether there is a rational basis to ethics? To answer this, you would have to be able to say something convincing about the purpose of human existence.

    Is the purpose of human existence to maximise joy (or some other measure of hedonic pleasure)? Is it instead simply to exist (a human presence to be maintained, or better yet, increased, in the universe)? Is it - "scientifically speaking" - just to obey the second law and accelerate the entropification of the universe (that is certainly what civilisation achieves historically)?

    Religions are a moral code - an instruction manual for how a social group can get along - plus usually a creation myth that justifies that code.

    So "scientifically" we would probably see their purpose as about in-group survival (which would place religion within a Darwinian evolutionary framework), and then life itself would be seen as having the purpose of dissipating entropy gradients (which is where the theory of dissipative structures would seem an even more fundamental framework of analysis).

    Maximising joy, the utilitarian principle, doesn't seem to get much of a look in here, even though that might seem the most attractive over-arching purpose for existing. The way to bring it in as "science" might be via a complexity argument.

    Entropification is a solid scientific framework - material systems must obey the second law. Darwinian evolution is also pretty solid - it is pretty easy to understand "what works", although it is in fact a lot more complex than just "survival of the fittest". To get joy into the picture scientifically, we would have to have some still higher level solid framework, a theory of socially derived contentment of some sort.

    It would have to be a theory that was anchored in the previous two levels (entropification, evolution), so serving their purposes, while still adding something new due to the creation of a higher level of complexity.

    For me, the central dynamic of successful (and joyful) societies is the properly organised balance of competition and co-operation - the balanced marriage of local freedoms and global constraints.

    Good human social systems - whether we call them religions or political systems - seem all to be based on maximising personal freedom of action while also maximising group cohesion.

    You have also tried to find the dichotomy that is the driving dynamic of a social system in talking about what is good for you in one situation, that could also be bad if there is too much of it. Yin yang logic.

    The difference in what I am saying is that, yes there must be balance - that is what a moral code sets out to achieve - but the polarities are both "good". So both competition and co-operation are equally good, equally important to maximise.

    Social systems are not driven by one dynamic (such as just competition, or just co-operation) and this dynamic then becomes a problem when it is over-emphasised. Instead, it is the interaction of two drivers that is the essence of the game, and it is the balance of the interaction which is what needs to be measured scientifically to have a scientific model of an effective moral code. And thus to be able in turn to measure the performance of various religions.
  4. Sep 13, 2010 #3


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    Aperion, I see you got into some specifics. That wasn't really my intent, however I did shamelessly delve into specific examples and analogies. Let me try again:

    There are two types of unanswerable questions. Those that cannot be answered in principle (i.e. Do you experience heat the same way I do?) and those that cannot be answered in practice (i.e. How many mosquitoes exist at this very second?). Everyone would agree that there is a definite, well-formed, way to answer the second question, but because of all of the variables at play it is impossible to give an absolute answer.

    Does the question of morals and ethics belong to the first category or the second? I would say that there is a very real answer to that question but that it cannot be known in practice since there are too many variables.

    That being said, just like we can ignore nonsensical answers to the "mosquito" question (for example: we know the answer is not "7" or "23" or "apple"), we must be able to ignore nonsensical answers to the "ethical" question.

    I would say that there are many thousands of GOOD ways in which society can treat a female rape victim, but I would go further to say that stoning her to death is a nonsensical answer (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/05/world/africa/05somalia.html). Not just a bad answer, but a "poorly formed" answer. It is so bad, that it transcends "bad."

    I would say that there are many thousands of GOOD ways in which society can treat women in general, but I would go further to say that keeping them in cloth bags is a nonsensical answer (http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/burkas-1-2.jpg).

    Why do we tolerate this? Why are we even asked to tolerate this?
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  5. Sep 13, 2010 #4


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    I guessed your question related to Islamic fundamentalists, and the sociological level answer - the null hypothesis of cultural anthropology - is that for a human custom to persist, it must be ecologically functional (or else selection would weed it out).

    So the presumption about even the extreme examples you cite is that they would be behaviours that arose for a "good" reason. And they would only be "bad" only to the extent they are dysfunctional (not achieving an over-arching social purpose - and we still have to decide whether that is the principle of maximising joy, maximising survival, maximising entropy, or whatever).

    Now a behaviour could be functional in one setting (the unperturbed original tribal community) could become something quite else in another setting (the "modern world" where your country is being colonised for its resources).

    So stoning adulterers might be a functional behaviour in a society where hierarchy, land rights, and other tribal stuff really matters (and actual stonings would be rare, zealotry having its natural limits in a well-adapted setting). But in a disrupted setting, such practices might instead become the subject of zealotry - for example, a way to distinguish "the true believers" from the "foreign colonisers".

    So it is important - if you really seek a rational explanation of moral codes - to judge behaviours in their original intended setting rather than in a culturally disrupted setting.

    On your other point of unanswerable questions, subjective questions like feelings of heat (or joy) can be both modelled and measured. Psychology does it all the time. So if we had a model of "the perfect society/moral code" based on its ability to maximise the dimension of collective or average human joy, then we could in principle make measurements (not saying it is easy, but it is not ruled out in principle).

    And the alternative problem you suggest is that there are just too many variables - too many possible ways to get the same job done.

    But again, all that means to me is that the models are going to be of a more general nature. That is why I focus on what is actually meant by "getting the job done" - is the purpose of a social system to maximise joy, maximise survival, etc.

    Once you have that model, then you can measure the success of different moral codes at achieving the stated goal. If there are still many actual ways of achieving the goal, then all the various routes are equally good. The choice between them becomes random, the difference irrelevant.

    So again, I see no in principle reason not to be able to answer the question. But you do have to create a model that enables something to be measured. That is where the "science" comes in.

    And again, in anthropology/sociology, they do this kind of modelling all the time in a general way.

    For instance, a politlcal scientist wrote this on the practice of "lapidation"...

    Even other punishments like cutting off noses and ears have a long history that is not tied to some particular religion or region. And all must be presumed functional in their original cultural setting to have persisted as customary behaviours. So they would have a "moral basis".

    This does not mean I don't believe that some social systems are better for "the world right now", or "for me personally". But I start with the presumption that anything I don't like about another culture (eg: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber...) must make sense in its intended cultural setting. Either that, or it is indeed evidence of an adapted culture turning dysfunctional and so signalling its own imminent demise (eg: Lady Gaga, etc..) :P.

    Another "scientific" aspect of this conversation is also of course the need of societies to create self-defining boundaries - the ingroup/outgroup boundary marking behaviour.

    That is why I make a joke of tacky kids pop music - to show clearly that I am defined by my cool taste in music, a taste I will share with other cool people.

    And it must also be the dynamic driving the US vs Islam rhetoric that now abounds. The US is the "us" which has to have a clear image of its "other". Other societies in other times have rallied around other images of "otherness", like for example the nasty jew, or the yellow peril, or the african savage.

    Islam is the current cartoon villain. It is the religion/culture of a region of great geopolitical significance (it is all about the oil/pipelines). So Islam is now how we can "recognise the enemy" and so justify the actions we want to take in the area.

    I'm sure this is not what you want to hear. But you did suggest seeking a rational basis to commenting on ethical codes. And the social/psychological models are available to explain things pretty straightforwardly.
  6. Sep 14, 2010 #5
    I think that fundamental physical science tells us that there is no fundamental physical basis for what we call 'moral' behavior other than that underlying any and all behavior. That is, electrons, atoms, molecules, and humans are all emergent phenomena based on certain underlying physical laws, but which, nevertheless, exhibit certain unique scale-dependent behavioral properties.

    Ethics is a human scale-dependent consideration. And, as such its formal development has no physical validity outside the scale of human behavior.

    Ok, so are some human behaviors better than others? Wrt what? Ie., it depends on the criteria that one might use to evaluate the behaviors in question. Are some criteria better than others? Wrt what? And so on. Is this a science? No, I don't think so.

    And whatever apeiron wrote -- I haven't read all of it yet.
  7. Sep 14, 2010 #6


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    Does science not provide us with two? Evolution and the definition of life.

    Further, even if specific principles do not necessarily have a rational basis, that doesn't mean that concensus-generated principles/goals can't be explored in a rational way.
  8. Sep 14, 2010 #7


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    How does that differ from what I said?

    No. Being scientific and rational here means stepping back to look at what is really going on. Being objective rather than subjective. And so that always involves stepping from an internal to an external viewpoint to the system in question.

    So you are suggesting just discussing what the consensus generating mechanism generates. I am saying step back to understand the consensus generating mechanism itself.

    Being rational is about finding global reasons to explain local phenomena.
  9. Sep 14, 2010 #8


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    Yikes, let's get started.

    I strongly disagree. Selection doesn't necessarily have a natural basis. In-group survival can be selected for arbitrarily. If you chose to kill anyone with red hair, then the red hair population would diminish for no "natural" reason. I propose that the only grounds for such behavior can be an irrational belief in cause-and-effect at some point. Much like a Native American rain dance.

    I disagree with your premise here which seems to presuppose that only "functional" behavior can be selected for initially. The prohibition of mixed material fabric found in the Torah and Old Testament can only be ascribed to superstition. If you are allowed to wear wool, and you are allowed to wear cotton, what is the functional danger of wearing both wool and cotton simultaneously?

    This is probably true. But I wasn't trying to "reverse-engineer" certain moral codes to justify them or explain their origins. I'm more interested in knowing if we could agree that questions of morality must, at some fundamental level, affect the well-being of a person (or animal). We don't feel moral obligations to rocks. Furthermore, a statement of morality that doesn't affect a living thing is of no use ("Do not step on broken glass" might be a warning, but it can't be called a moral statement.).

    I reject the idea of a "perfect moral code" I'm simply introducing the idea that there could, in principle, be at least one moral code (among many?) that has the goal maximizes human well-being.

    I agree that all moral paths to maximizing human health and well-being could be equally valid. I would argue that a path that does not endeavor to create human health and well-being should not be considered as a moral path.

    I flatly reject the "us/them" mentality. And it's quite unfair to call Islam an enemy or anything of the sort. The perceived enemy is not Muslims or Islam, it's a specific group of Muslims. However, I would argue, and argue strongly that at this time not all religions are equally likely to produce suicide bombers, keep women in cloth bags, kidnap journalists and saw their heads off, stone rape victims, and seek methods to generally endanger the population. And it not racism or bigotry to notice that.

    (Credit to Sam Harris, again, for the idea.)
  10. Sep 14, 2010 #9


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    Oh bugger. I just typed out a complete response and pushed the wrong button. Message eaten. :mad:

    In short, I agree that some moral codes are more antiquated and over-loaded with constraints on personal freedoms than others. This is something that can be objectively measured.

    But imagine a world where the bearded fundamentalists in some failed state were going over the top in their interpretation of the Torah or Old Testament and the wealthy middleclass looking on in horror from a great distance were Muslims practicing a very attenuated version of Islam - their real ethical system being the consumer society.

    Is Islam more overloaded with arbitrary nonsense than other religions?

    Stoning - the reference I gave showed how it is a greek/jewish custom, not a persian one. Islam had to endorse it as an establish practice.

    Women in bags - people are treated as property everywhere. Yes, this probably does not maximise local freedoms (such as to be happy and healthy) and so there is an objective reason to criticise. But it is not an Islamic speciality. Didn't the US practice slavery until recently? And doesn't it still benefit from the virtual slavery of globalisation - sweat shops, child labour, bonded labour, etc? So this is not about a particular religion but a general problem of social organisation.

    Suicide bombers and beheading journalists - where in the Quran is this demanded? Obviously, this is not about religion but asymmetric warfare. If you face a much stronger foe, you have to attack him where he is weakest. A determined human can be a matched for a remote piloted drone. Making the US home population tired of war through YouTube clips is asymmetric warfare 101.
  11. Sep 14, 2010 #10
    If we agree on the metric, on the purpose, say if we decide the basic moral axiom is to maximise human contentment, then sure we could use science to select the social systems that best achieve our chosen end (although, as I think Sam Harris's critics have emphasised, it doesn't seem that we can use science to choose which fundamental axiom or metric that we optimise over).

    Even if we do agree on the metric, (as I think apeiron is pointing out) it isn't obvious that the science will give the answers that we in the west are hoping for. For example, perhaps one of the better modes that society could adopt would enable people to choose much stronger marriage contracts than we currently have available in the west (you can see how this might have the consequence of better stability, less deceit and betrayal, but perhaps a few stonings). And while "putting people in bags" sounds bad (way to choose neutral language), I understand it to be the case in most western countries you are forced not to go out without wearing any bag lest that you will be placed on a sex offender list and be obstructed from obtaining employment ever after. Perhaps one of the better modes that society could adopt does happen to involve the same expectation of privacy being extended to most of our faces. (In particular, it may address evolutionarily hardwired discrimination, and give people greater freedom and creativity in how they can acceptably choose to represent themselves to others. It might even correlate to more satisfying intimate relations long term.)

    Regardless of this, we can't agree on the metric. E.g., part of the population believe in an eternal afterlife; to them, the only sensible metric is one that maximises expected eternal wellbeing (and at times, optimising for that metric will necessarily sacrifice worldly well-being).

    Perhaps there are some cases where we can say "even according to your own basic principles, we can prove your course of action would have sub optimal results". But then, there is a saying "even the devil can quote scripture..", so perhaps it wouldn't take.

    Maybe we have to just say that these are our principles, and though you may not share them, nonetheless in our interactions we will act to try to optimise the world according to our principles. I.e., free trade or development aid may be contingent on no-fault divorce legislation. But yeah, it kind of still feels like moral imperialism..
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2010
  12. Sep 14, 2010 #11


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    I agree with what you said (laughed particularly at your reminder that we all must wear bags - although there are a few militant nudists about, terrorising the "normies" - http://www.nudists.org/).

    But optimisation for a reward in an afterlife would be what we could safely term here as irrational surely? That is the kind of thing which science does not support (whereas it supports thermodynamics and evolutionary theory, and in a less developed way, theories of psychological well-being).
  13. Sep 15, 2010 #12


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    Maybe, as a starting point, we could agree that religion (in general) has been shown to be a poor source of ethical and moral guidelines?

    Moral and ethical questions are questions specifically pertaining to the treatment of living things. We feel moral obligations to friends, family, strangers, children, puppies, kitties, and even trees to varying extents. But we have no moral obligation to toggle switches or rocks. I would argue that a question that does not deal with the well-being of a living thing is not a candidate ethical or moral question.

    If you acknowledge that first, you can refine it further to say that ethics and morality are a study of neuroscience. "Which stimuli excite the parts of the brain the promote a feeling of well-being and mental health?" No one would argue that a bullet to the brain is the best way to encourage mental health. So why would we argue that stoning rape victims is the best way to encourage mental health? We have EEGs and we can see which areas of the brain are active when we are "well" and which areas are active when we are "unwell." These are concrete questions with real answers.

    [DIGRESSION]I recent study has shown that we can even tell if someone is experiencing "un-truth." (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mri-study-shows-lying-bra) I absolutely refuse to say that it can tell you if you're lying, it can only tell you if you are experiencing an untruthful situation. Atheists and theists respond differently to the statement "God exists." And neither is lying, necessarily.[/DIGRESSION]

    We can quantify moral behavior for the first time. I'm not saying we can map the domain of all ethical and non-ethical behaviors and find the complex interplay between them. But I am saying that we can at least rule out certain moral precepts as non-ethical.

    No one enjoys a vaccination, but we understand that there is a deeper moral obligation we have to keep our children healthy despite the momentary discomfort. What part of stoning a child rape victim promotes her well-being? Where is the pay off?
  14. Sep 15, 2010 #13


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    Actually no, my argument is that ideas which survive are functional. So religions, as collections of ideas, must have served a purpose at least in their original setting and could just as well prove to be more general truths (to the extent that they have generalised principles in fact).

    So when it comes to ethics, most religions could get it generally right - the 10 commandment level, the golden rule level.

    But where religions generally fail is in their creation myths - their reasons for why things are how they are.

    So that is one clue to how I would sort good from bad religion - first throw away the creation myth, then a religion with general (global and broad) principles will likely be better than a religion loaded with particular (local and narrowly specified) rules. It is religions with too much detail that are likely to be over-constraining of personal creative freedom.

    If it has feelings, then we ought to respect (or take into account) those feelings to the degree they exist. That seems perfectly reasonable.

    With sentience, we would also demand a commensurate level of responsibility too. A sentient being should have its freedoms respected, but is then also going to become bounded by the global constraints that a society has decided upon.

    Stating this makes it clear that we are viewing morality as an entire system, not just some random, unplaced, fact.

    Err, I would say EEGs or scans are a pretty crude way of asking that particular question.

    If I wanted to know how someone is feeling, I would ask them (structured psychological tests) or simply apply empathy (if I wouldn't like it, that's a good guide).

    You've lost me here. Why cite an extreme case which is clearly dysfunctional. What percentage of devout Muslims would agree that this was a justified act under their religion?

    You have to demonstrate first that this is an actual feature of the religion you wish to criticise, otherwise your argument is going nowhere.

    If a Dahlmer in the US goes to church, does that make his deeds that of a Christian?
  15. Sep 15, 2010 #14
    As scientists, we know that "life" is a false dichotomy. I think what you're really arguing is that when monkeys use the word "morality", though clearly they might each be intimating slightly different notions, there is obvious overlap between nearly all of their notions.. so you identify that region of overlap (using sciences like linguistics), and then (now that the question is rigorously defined) ask what (neuro)science can say about the concept, and if anyone disagrees with the conclusions then you can dismiss them for failing to use language (specifically the world "morality") in a manner compatible with all the other monkey's communication convention. (Like saying "freedom" as double-speak when you mean "authoritarian".)

    (Of course, maybe in other cultures or languages the concept of morality will be too strongly tied up with concepts like honour or vengeance, and this still won't support the conclusion you want.)
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2010
  16. Sep 16, 2010 #15


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    I feel like this is a Jackie Martling joke. Depending upon your reference religion of choice, up to 30% of the 10 commandments is about respecting God. How could that be called an ethical or moral statement?

    Furthermore, rape doesn't make it on to the list, but not making "graven images" is on there. Yet, ethically, we accept photographs, religious idols, pornography before we accept rape.

    Lastly, the 10 commandments declares the need to respect the Sabbath and to not work on it (Saturday or Sunday depending upon Talmudic origins or reformed Christian) but doesn't denounce slavery.

    It's hyperbole. Please remember, I'm not attacking religion specifically, I'm attacking the idea that science has nothing to say about ethics or morality. Maybe stoning people isn't a great example. How about something much more moderate like baptism by immersion in water (not practiced by all Christian faiths), which has contributed to at least one death and, I would think, is traumatizing for any infant. Why must we respect this in the name of "cultural diversity?"
  17. Sep 16, 2010 #16
    Alright, first off, as apeiron mentioned before, in order for any reason or logic to be applied to any morals, we need to start with a fundamental axiom of ethics. But to say that this axiom should be to maximize joy or happiness is as completely arbitrary as to say it should be to honor god or be a good person or whatever. Science can't give us this axiom because we can't just inherently know fundamental moral truths, unlike in mathematics where intuition provides us with axioms. The question of how to use science to get morals is a flawed question because ultimately, reason tells us that, unless we get this fundamental axiom of morals from some other source than intuition, there are no morals.

    Now I would like to say that religion is as much a cultural creation as a spiritual one. Any perceived "bad" thing that a religion can encourage can be attributed to just a general difference in moral codes between you and the culture in which it is. Stoning is not something that religion created, it was something that was culturally created, so you really should be attacking the culture, not the religion. Religion is not inherently bad. It is at the most, a vision of divine power corrupted by people to suit their own culture and desires. At the least, it's a cultural construct. Slavery was not denounced in the bible because it was a culturally accepted practice. You can say the same about most everything else that is objectionable. Every so often a person or group of people come in and distort what the religion says for their own intentions, such as war or submission.

    Peoples claims that you can get morals from science and reason, are being just as arbitrary as people who claim you can get them from god. Even more so perhaps. Because god, in theory, could provide this fundamental axiom, whereas it doesn't even make sense for science to give us this axiom. Similarly to the cosmological argument where god is the "first cause", god could provide the "first moral" from which every other moral is derived. It is inherent to the definition of god, however silly it may sounds, that he/she/whatever would be able to give this to us. On the other hand, reason can easily tell us that we can't get morals from reason without being circular, and thus fallacious.
  18. Sep 16, 2010 #17


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    Okay this is basically just tautological drivel. I'm really sorry, I don't mean to be insulting, but I see "card stacking," "circular reasoning," "assertion," and "false dichotomy" on my first pass.

    To start, why would you need a "fundamental axiom of ethics" to being to apply logic or reason to morals? That is a content-free statement. Do you need a fundamental axiom of mathematics before you can decide if one apple is fewer than two apples? Do you need a fundamental axiom of physics because you can determine things fall towards the earth instead of away? There's no comparable requisite to set this precedent and I deny you the luxury of asserting it. In fact, one of the themes of this discussion seems to be that you need to lay down an absolute reference before you can even begin to work which is utter nonsense.

    You then add "but to say that this axiom should be to maximize joy or happiness is as completely arbitrary as to say it should be to honor god or be a good person or whatever." Again, a mindless statement of un-fact. I wish I didn't need to address the nonsense here, but I will because this type of thinking can't be left unchecked. In one sentence you've posited the existence of a god and equated appeasing it to the "joy or happiness" of a real person. Let's agree that "joy and happiness" doesn't encapsulate the entire problem. "Well-being" is a term that can refer to mental health, intellectual growth, and physical constitution. To compare the factual well-being of a real person to appeasement of a hypothetical deity is intellectual high-treason in my mind; they are incomparable. It entirely removes you from the discussion.

    False dichotomy and baseless assertion. Why can't we inherently know moral truths but inherently know mathematical truths? Are those the only two options?

    Assertion and false generalization. Reason tells YOU specifically.

    Assertion. You've provided no evidence for "spiritual creation."

    No fallacy here, just assertion again. However, you do cover a wide range, so we can accept the premise. Also, this avoids the "no true Scotsman" problem.

    What conclusion do you draw from this? I say that it means no religion is divinely inspired, but rather social justification for the crimes societies wish to commit against themselves.

    I spoke too soon. Here is the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. How do you know that they are distorting it as opposed to being the only true adherents?

    False and fundamentally invalid comparison. "Science and reason" are tools developed and refined for the purpose of understanding the universe and predicting future events. "God" is a specific scientific hypothesis. You're comparing the can of soup to the supermarket (people getting bread from a can of soup is just as silly as getting it from the supermarket). Nonsense.

    Religious rant. No information content. Filled with opinions.

    The best case of circular reasoning I can think of. "We cannot get our morals from ourselves, first we must invent a god to get them from." This is the coup de grace of circular reasoning.
  19. Sep 16, 2010 #18


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    I think the chink here is the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive ethics.

    The impression I'm getting here is you want to be able to evaluate ethical imperatives against an empirically observable standard. That would seem to be the historical function of having a code of ethics in the first place. As for what that is, it's probably an unanswerable question like "how many pieces of gold existed during the reign of Julius Caesar?" That is, some of the necessary facts to decisively answer such a question are probably not recoverable, even though there definitely is one right answer.

    Let us posit, for the sake of argument, what I personally feel is a reasonable hypothesis. Pre-ethical sentiments developed in social animals, and explicit codes in humans specifically, in order to ensure there would be an advantage to living in groups. Things like murder and theft are universally proscribed against amongst social equals. The functional reasoning here is something like if you allowed these things, group dynamics degrade into anarchy with no assurance you won't be killed or stolen from, and hence there is no advantage to living in a group. Some set of behavioral norms that will at least mostly be followed are required to prevent anarchy.

    You can then evaluate specific ethical codes and imperatives against their functionality in preventing anarchy. You can even side-step the problem that different codes seem to function equally well (for instance, Saddam Hussein's Iraq never degraded into anarchy). Different sets of norms function equally well in the specific context in which they arose (the point made by the earlier anthropological analysis); however, certain norms seem to function well in one context then horribly in others, whereas other norms seem to function pretty well in any context. I think that context is the degree of social equity. In a monarchy, it's perfectly functional for a king to be allowed to do anything he please, for the nobility to steal and kill as long as they don't do it to other nobles, and for the peasantry to adhere to strict proscriptions against theft and killing. However, in a hunter-gatherer society where every individual is potentially self-sufficient, and nobody has power except what the others continually grant, you're unlikely to find anybody killing or stealing from anybody else.

    The reasoning here is that, to get specific, there is really no advantage to a female living in Saudi Arabia rather than in the US, but due to the historical development of power relations between genders, the Saudi woman isn't left with much of a choice. To properly evaluate norms against the reason they ever developed in the first place, we have to first balance all of the power relations that historical coincidence unbalanced.

    So you can now evaluate any given code of ethics or a particular ethical imperative against the criterion of how well it would function to prevent anarchy in a perfectly egalitarian society. Universal proscriptions against murder, theft, rape, assault, and so forth meet this. Stoning women that get raped, immersing children in water, or making it illegal to not wear clothes, don't really work quite so well. These might make sense in particular cultures depending upon heritage and power relations, but they probably don't work universally in a hypothetical egalitarian society.

    That's fine for evaluating ethics against historical function. The bigger problem, the harder problem, is deriving an imperative from an empirical fact. They are qualitatively different categories of statements and there is no logic connecting one to the other. Take the argument:

    The function of a fire hydrant is to release water.
    Therefore, a fire hydrant ought to release water.

    This is valid if we take "ought" in the sense of "would be expected." If, however, we take "ought" as a moral imperative, it no longer follows that because a fire hydrant is designed for the purpose of releasing water, that it has a moral imperative to do so.

    Obviously, a fire hydrant is not a moral agent, but even if we consider moral agents, the reasoning still doesn't work. A person that is genetically engineered and then trained from birth to be the perfect 100m sprinter has no moral imperative to be a 100m sprinter. Similarly, we cannot say one code of ethics is morally more correct than another because it better fits the historical function of ethical codes in a wider range of social contexts (or at least there is no strictly logical reason to say this). We can only say it better fits the historical function of ethical codes in a wider range of social contexts. This is a statement of fact, not a statement of imperative.

    But to answer your specific questions, no, I don't think we should be equally tolerant of all cultural practices, and yes, I think we should attempt to be scientific-minded, rather than dogmatic, in evaluating particular ethical codes and imperatives.
  20. Sep 16, 2010 #19
    Man, there really is no need for you to jump to the conclusion that I'm some religious fanatic. I'm not going to delve into the intricacies of my personal philosophy or religious beliefs, or lack thereof, but I will say that I'm most definitely not trying to say that since we can't get morals from reason, that we must get them from god. What I'm saying is that there morals are simply human constructs, and to say that you can get them from reason is just as arbitrary as saying you can get them from god. When I mentioned god or religion, I was not mentioning it as the best alternative.

    Yes, in case you didn't know, our whole concept of counting is based on this axiom or 1 +1 =2. it's something that we intuitively know is true, but we can't prove it. That's the definition of an axiom, something which is true, but which we cannot prove based off of other axioms or theorems. As for physics, there is the axiom that what we observe is true, which itself doesn't necessarily mean it's true, but observation is the only thing we have to work with.

    What I was saying, was that suggesting that a base moral should be to maximize the well-being of a person is just as unfounded and illogical as saying that we should appease a hypothetical god. You do realize that just because you see the word "god" in my argument doesn't make me religious. If I remember correctly, a certain extremely well known physicist used the word in a few quotes...

    Why can we inherently know moral truths? From what source can we get it? I admit, I was a bit hasty in my assertion and didn't adequately provide reasoning for it. In an attempt to explain it in a better way, let me ask you, is it bad to kill someone and if so, why?

    Must you automatically assume I'm talking about god creating us? I meant creation for the purpose of a perceived spiritual or divine power.

    It is possible that no religion is divinely inspired, but that in itself is an assertion which we have yet to prove. I'm not saying religion is divinely inspired, I'm just saying that it's possible. And that's not saying that I think it's reasonable to believe it is divinely inspired without evidence. But why exactly is slavery a crime? What is the reasoning behind your opinion that slavery is bad?

    I'll give you this one, and say that I really meant it as a proposed mechanism. But again, why is it wrong that a religion may influence people to start wars against other people, or submit certain people?

    This was my fault, probably shouldn't have brought up the cosmological argument due to connotations. What I'm saying is that every moral that you have probably boils down to well being is good. What I'm saying is that that is that "first moral" axiom that everything else is based off of. Why is that moral true? It would simply have to be inherently true, or else it's just completely false and arbitrary.

    Alright, let me put it this way. Religious people say "we cannot get our morals from ourselves, lets assume that there is a god that tells us what is good". What you propose we do is say "we must use reasoning in order to get morals, but in order to use reasoning, we need to assume that this fundamental axiom of morals is true". Both use assumptions that are baseless.
  21. Sep 16, 2010 #20


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    There's so much here that is impossible to argue, mostly because it's correct, sometimes because it's too abstract to argue (like a boxer always ready to punch; there's nothing to guard against).

    I would, however, like to break your argument a bit with the following:

    I think this is just an inadequate statement, not really a good example. It should read:

    The function of a fire hydrant is to release water on command.
    Therefore, a fire hydrant out to release water on command.

    I will deal with this rather than nit-picking details since this is the core of the argument at this point. I apologize for the adversarial nature. It was frustrating to read, that's all.

    I'll try to argue that we do have access to the "moral axiom." Axioms are, usually, the simplest statement in a system, and they are simply assumed to be true. I would argue that by the definition of "moral" or "ethical" behavior, we have already assumed the ethical axiom of "it is preferable to be good."

    In the same way that we have not defined "2" with the axiom "1+1=2" except in terms of "1", here we have not defined "good" except in terms of "preferable."

    We define, for all purposes of discussion, that to "be good" is to behave ethically. I will gladly concede that we have a long way to go to now extrapolate how to be good, and that the discussion has not even begun. Nonetheless, it is a functional axiom.

    In fact, though, trying to prove a statement like "helping someone who is hurt is better than hurting them more" would be the equivalent of proving differential calculus starting with "1+1=2." There is much to be done, but, my original argument was that science has something to say about it.

    Lastly, just as most of us intuitively understand certain mathematical concepts (that could be very difficult to prove), most of us intuitively understand certain ethical concepts (that could be very difficult to prove).
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