Intelligent Design

Knock Me Over With a Feather; Jerry Coyne is Being Honest About the Meaninglessness of Subjective Morality

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Writing at his blog:

With few exceptions, most scientists and philosophers think that morality is at bottom based on human preferences. And though we may agree on many of those preferences (e.g., we should do what maximizes “well being”), you can’t show using data that one set of preferences is objectively better than another. (You can show, though, that the empirical consequences of one set of preferences differ from those of another set.) The examples I use involve abortion and animal rights. If you’re religious and see babies as having souls, how can you convince those folks that elective abortion is better than banning abortion? Likewise, how do you weigh human well being versus animal well being? I am a consequentialist who happens to agree with the well-being criterion, but I can’t demonstrate that it’s better than other criteria, like “always prohibit abortion because babies have souls.”

From a subjectivist perspective that is exactly right. When a subjectivist says “good” he means nothing more than “that which I prefer.” Coyne leaves unsaid the ominous logical implications of his worldview. If the majority of people prefer eradicating the world of its Jews as a means to racial purity, then not only it will that happen, it will be a “good” thing that it did.

Consider especially this statement: “I can’t demonstrate that it’s [i.e., Coyne’s moral view] better than other criteria.” Again, under the subjectivist paradigm that is correct. Coyne cannot say that his view, or any view, is better than another in any meaningful sense. So which view prevails if none is better than any other? Why, the view of the strong of course. In Coyne’s world the strong impose their preferences on the weak.

10 Replies to “Knock Me Over With a Feather; Jerry Coyne is Being Honest About the Meaninglessness of Subjective Morality

  1. 1
    News says:

    “In Coyne’s world the strong impose their preferences on the weak.” That’s precisely what’s happening in the social justice war on math and science, and reality. The mercy for most victims is that they won’t actually see it coming and will blame it on some term-lmited politician or whatever people they don’t like – even as they are succumbing to their real foes. Coyne seems to have been cursed with the ability to see at least a part of what is happening as it really is.

  2. 2
    Dick says:

    “One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life…only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best.” Charles Darwin

    “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists….Reason doesn’t decide here….The picture I have painted is not
    a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me….Pure reason will not take you to morality.” Atheistic philosopher Kai Nielsen

  3. 3
    hazel says:

    Dick quotes Charles Darwin as writing, “One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life…only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best.”

    I think this is “fake news”: I don’t believe Darwin said this. A google search showed that the only place this shows up on the internet is in other posts by Dick, and in one of them he attributes it to Darwin’s Autobiography. I downloaded Darwin’s Autobiography (free at the Gutenberg project), and this quote, or anything like it, isn’t in it

    Perhaps Dick can provide a source. If not, I think it’s not an accurate quote.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    So what does it mean to say that something is “meaningful” or “meaningless”?

    How is the morality dispensed by God any less subjective than that of a human being? When He forbids coveting your neighbor’a ox at no point does He give a detailed account of the reasoning behind that prohibition. For all we know, there was none. Perhaps it was decided by the toss of a divine coin, “Heads, covet. Tails, no coveting. Tails! Okay, it’s no coveting” How is that “meaningful”?

    As for might making right, these edicts come from a being capable of obliterating whole cities or wiping out all life on Earth at will. I’d say that’s a fairly persuasive amount of might.

  5. 5
    News says:

    Hazel at 3:

    from http://www.talkorigins.org/faq.....part2.html
    The passage can be found at Extract from Nora Barlow ed. The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: with original omissions restored. The fuller context shows a rather nasty out-of-context quote that makes it look like Darwin renouced morality when he did just the opposite.

    I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

    A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives ; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive ; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.–As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures. My sole and poor excuse is much ill-health and my mental constitution, which makes it extremely difficult for me to turn from one subject or occupation to another. I can imagine with high satisfaction giving up my whole time to philanthropy, but not a portion of it; though this would have been a far better Line of conduct.

  6. 6
    hazel says:

    Excellent, News, and thank you. The reason Google let me down, I see, is that Dick’s quote changes some of the wording at the beginning of the sentence.

    I’m not a Darwin scholar at all, but I think I remember that Darwin was an agnostic. However this quote, which I gather was omitted from later editions of his work, shows that he acknowledged his moral conscience and his higher impulses, including acting for the good of others. This ties into kf’s post on morality, I think.

  7. 7
    ET says:

    Seversky:

    So what does it mean to say that something is “meaningful” or “meaningless”?

    Buy a dictionary.

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    H, yes it does, we are governed by a compass sense, conscience. We may kill it, some may be defective in that regard, or the like but on the whole this is as true as anything else. But conscience is not an authority, it is a witness. If it is false, in the context where its testimony even affects us on duty to truth, right reason, prudence, justice etc, that would create a pervasive grand delusion in our inner life, utterly undermining its credibility. We thus find it inescapable that conscience is pointing to something in us that reflects a reality in the world: it has a moral, morally governed dimension that we partake of. This then forces us to face the challenge of the IS-OUGHT gap, thence the implication of Hume’s Guillotine that this can only be bridged at world-root. That puts on the table the only serious candidate to do so. And if you doubt, simply propose another and defend it at the bar of comparative difficulties: _______ . Easier said than done. KF

  9. 9
    hazel says:

    I read your OP at Logic and Principles 10 pretty carefully, kf, and understand your thoughts on this well, I think. If I were to comment, I’d comment over on that thread.

  10. 10
    john_a_designer says:

    How am I morally obligated to even respect someone else’s made-up moral opinion or group think?

    That’s all members of the secular progressive left, like Jerry Coyne, really have, made up moral opinions that they cannot defend rationally.

    Human made-up moral opinions cannot be the basis for interpersonal moral obligation or universal human rights because there is no objective way to determine whose made-up opinion is right and who is wrong. That requires some kind of transcendent standard.

    If everyone recognized this fact I think we would still be okay. The problem is that the secular progressive left treats the latest moral fad or trend as if it was a moral absolute and moral progress. That’s because we are hard wired to think that way. In other words, what good is morality if there is no such thing a morally binding obligation?

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