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MacNeill is on a Roll


Allen MacNeill has jumped into the Sam Harris thread and raises some interesting points.  I am always pleased to find areas of agreement with our (sometime) opponents, such as Allen.  Therefore, I am going to close the comments to the Sam Harris thread and let Allen lead this thread off.  Let me hasten to add that by giving Allen this post, I am not necessarily endorsing his views.   All that follows is Allen’s:

Sorry to come into this discussion so late (I’ve been fighting a bad cold). However, despite coming into this rather late, I think there is still quite a bit I can contribute to this debate.

Indeed, having read through all of the comments so far, I find it fascinating that no one has yet presented even the briefest outline of the two dominant theories of ethical justification (usually referred to as “meta-ethics”), nor mentioned the two predominant theories of ethics formulated within those meta-ethical systems of justification, nor cited any of the proponents of these traditions (with the exception of David Hume and utilitarianism).

Before going into them, I would first like to state that I have spent almost four decades studying and investigating the intersection between science and ethics (or “morals” if you lean more toward Latin than Greek). As a result of this experience it seems to me that referencing and exploring some of these dominant ethical traditions might help bring some clarity to this discussion.

As an introduction to such a presentation, I would like to first respond to a few of the comments made so far:

In comment #73 Clive Hayden wrote:

“Morality is always the premise, not the conclusion; it has no contingency.”

In comment #104 stephenB wrote:

“…it is impossible to make a moral choice without a moral standard based on objective truth, under which circumstances you can only make a preferred choice based on your own selfish instincts…”

In comment #124 stephenB wrote:

“Moral relativism always degenerates into tyranny—every time—without exception. Without the objective moral law as the ultimate arbiter between disputed claims for rights, power always makes the decision.”

And in comment #134 William J. Murray wrote:

“Might-makes-right is immoral; it’s the opposite of the very idea of rights and morals. Rights and morals are supposed to prevent us from descending into might-makes-right tyranny and abuse, not facilitate that evil.”

Long-time readers of these threads might initially be shocked by this, but I fully and emphatically agree with all of these comments. Furthermore, I would elaborate on that agreement by stating that both a logical and empirical analysis of the dominant theories of ethics, their meta-ethical justifications, and their empirical effects supports my assessment.

Finally, I personally have come to these conclusions from a starting position that was diametrically opposed to my current understanding. That is, I once believed that:

1) there is/are no “transcendent ethical/moral law(s)”;

2) morality (if such a thing even exists) is entirely dependent on context (i.e. “relative” not “absolute”);

3) that a thorough understanding of human biology and evolution can (indeed, should, or even must) provide us with everything we need to know to formulate a valid code of ethical/moral behavior; and

4) that given the foregoing, the only valid ethical code would be one that is rooted in and ultimately derived from empirical reality, context-dependent/relativistic, and directly derived from our empirical knowledge of biology and evolution.

I now completely reject all four of these assertions, and do so not only as a result of my much longer experience as an observer of nature (including “human nature”) but also as a person who has taken a great deal of time and care to study the various ethical traditions and the observable effects those traditions have had on the behavior of people who profess them.

This will take a while, so I’m going to split it up into several comments. Here goes

First, it will help in the discussion that follows to distinguish between the terms “validity” and “justification”.

“Validity” usually refers to the outcome of a logical operation, such as the construction of a deductive syllogism or the testing of an hypothesis via the hypothetico-deductive (i.e. “scientific”) method.

• In deductive reasoning, a conclusion is “valid” if it follows logically from its major and minor premises.

• In inductive reasoning (and its variants, abductive reasoning and consilience), a conclusion is “valid” if it is not falsified by the preponderance of the data (”preponderance” being defined somewhat differently in the different branches of the natural sciences; in biology it is typically greater than 95% of the observed cases/data).

“Justification” refers to the method by which ethical/moral prescriptions are determined to be valid.

• In the empirical sciences, determining if an hypothesis (i.e. a generalization about what some observable phenomenon) is) is “valid” involves either simple description (i.e. “natural history”) or experimentation (i.e. “controlled manipulation of independent variables”).

• In meta-ethics, determining if an ethic (i.e. a statement about what a person/people ought to do) is “valid” involves examining either the internal logic of that ethical prescription or the effects of putting that ethical prescription into practice.

Which brings us to the principle difficulty with Sam Harris’ piece. He does indeed commit what G. E. Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy”: he derives an “is” statement from an “ought” statement, which is a violation of one of the most basic principles of meta-ethics. As Hume, Moore, Rawls, and virtually all other ethicists have argued, one cannot justify an ethic by showing that it is derived from a statement about the way the world is, regardless of how empirically “valid” that “is” statement might be.

In the context of this thread, this means that no amount of arguing that humans are “social animals” or that we are “innately altruistic” or that “our sociality predisposes us to act ethically/morally” can be used to justify an ethical prescription. Even if those descriptive statements about humans are valid (and I believe they are, at least superficially and in some, but not all, contexts), they cannot tell us what we ought to do.

Empirical generalizations about human behavior can only tell us what we have a tendency to do, not what we ought to do. If we are indeed altruistic and cooperative (and there is a great deal of ethological evidence supporting this generalization), the most one can say about the application of these tendencies to what we ought to do is, if being altruistic and cooperative is what we ought to do, then doing so will not be as difficult as it would be if we were innately selfish and competitive.

Before going any further, it is also time to distinguish between descriptive and normative ethics
[BTW, from this point forward I will use “ethics” inclusively to mean either “ethics” or “morals”, as the two terms mostly differ in derivation, rather than meaning]:

“Descriptive ethics” are descriptive statements of what people in various cultures, situations, societies, etc. say are the “good” or “right” things to do.

For example, one might observe the behavior of the Nazis and conclude that their ethics were grounded on the absolute superiority of the Aryan race, which in their view not only justified their actions, it made such things as the mass murder of the genetically “defective”, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews, and mentally ill necessary. Given the observed history of the Nazis and their racial doctrines, this would indeed be a valid generalization about their morals/ethics, but only in the descriptive sense.

“Normative ethics” are normative (i.e. “law-like”) statements of what people ought to do, regardless of their particular cultures, situations, societies, etc.

In other words, descriptive ethics are necessarily “relative” (i.e. situation-dependent), whereas normative ethics are necessarily “absolute” (i.e. situation-independent). And, as several commentators in this thread have pointed out (stephenB perhaps the most forcefully, but s/he has not been alone in this effort), there is a fundamental logical contradiction between descriptive/relativistic and normative/absolute ethics: the former can be shown to demonstrably violate what any rational person would consider to be valid ethical prescriptions. That is, asserting that “a good person is required to murder people who are genetically “defective”, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews, and mentally ill” is absolutely wrong. We all know this; indeed, even the Nazis knew this, which is why they eventually had to resort to killing technologies that would remove them from direct responsibility for their actions). So, what remains for us to determine is how to formulate our ethics in such a way that they will not only not justify the actions of the Nazis, but will require us to stop anyone from doing what they did.