Over at his Sandwalk blog, Professor Larry Moran has recently created something which he has previously declared to be impossible: a moral absolute. Readers might be wondering: what is Professor Moran’s moral absolute all about? Is it about the inherent wrongfulness of killing the innocent, or taking away people’s freedom, or oppressing the poor, or violating a commitment one has given? Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong! Here’s Professor Moran’s new moral absolute, in all its resplendent glory:
It is totally wrong, all the time, to discriminate against someone based on their sexual preferences… There is NEVER a time when an enlightened society should tolerate, let alone legalize, bigotry.
The reason why I was surprised to read this statement on Professor Moran’s blog is that he has previously denied the existence of moral absolutes. Here are a few examples of statements he has made on the subject of morality, and on how we can know that something is true:
Science, as a way of knowing, is characterized by basing your knowledge on evidence, rationality, and skepticism. The skepticism part is as essential to science as the others.
You don’t start believing in something without evidence and you especially don’t start basing your interpretation of the natural world on such acts of faith. That’s not how science works. If you behave like then you are behaving in a manner that is incompatible with how science searches for knowledge. (Source. Emphases mine – VJT.)
I don’t claim that I can prove the negative. I do not claim that I have “evidence” to prove there’s no Moral Law or that God doesn’t exist.
What I do claim is that believing in things without any supporting evidence whatsoever — and much contrary evidence — is not compatible with science. (Source. Emphases mine – VJT.)
I can think of six, perfectly scientific, questions that could be asked.
1. Is there any evidence of purposeful “fine tuning”?
2. Is there any evidence that humans were inevitable?
3. Is there any evidence of a Moral Law?
4. Is there any evidence of a soul?
5. Is there any evidence that humans have something called “free will” that other species lack?
6. Is there any evidence that such a personal God exists?
I think the answer to all six questions is “no,” therefore, believing those things conflicts with science. They are supposed to part of the natural, observable, universe and they should all be detectable, if they exist. (Source. Emphases mine – VJT.)
Science tells us that we don’t have free will — at least not the kind of free will that Christians demand. Science tells us that there’s no such thing as moral absolutes that are dictated by god(s). Science is materialistic and it may be the only valid way of knowing. (Source. Emphasis mine – VJT.)
[In response to a list of eight questions submitted by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor in 2010.]
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
I don’t think there’s any such thing as “Moral Law.”
8) Why is there evil?
All animals exhibit a range of behaviors. Sometimes those behaviors are clearly beneficial to themselves, or the group, and sometimes they aren’t. There’s no rule that says every animal always has to act perfectly all the time. Some humans, for example, would restrict a woman’s right to choose and would discriminate against gays and lesbians. I wish those people weren’t evil but their behavior isn’t a big surprise to me. (Source. Emphases in red are mine – VJT.)
The upshot, then, is that Professor Moran denies the existence of a moral law, and denies the existence of moral absolutes. For him, morality is basically about what’s beneficial to you or to the group that you belong to. To say that a behavior is bad is simply to say that doing it will either hurt you, or hurt the group you belong to.
Now let’s return to Professor Moran’s latest edict:
It is totally wrong, all the time, to discriminate against someone based on their sexual preferences… There is NEVER a time when an enlightened society should tolerate, let alone legalize, bigotry. (Source.)
Given his definition of “evil” above, Professor Moran’s phrase, “totally wrong” can only mean: harmful to the person performing the action, or harmful to the group. Since the act of discriminating obviously doesn’t harm the person who is performing the act, Moran must have in mind the group as a whole. What he is saying, then, is that discrimination on the grounds of sexual preferences is bad for the group – i.e. bad for society as a whole. What’s more, he says it is bad for society “all the time” to practice this kind of discrimination: “There is NEVER a time when an enlightened society should tolerate, let alone legalize, bigotry.”
There are several things that are wrong with this statement.
First, I’d like to observe that it is common for people who deny the existence of moral absolutes (as Moran has done previously) to say that you can’t make sweeping statements that are applicable to all people living in all societies, at all times and places. Intentionally killing the innocent seems obviously wrong, but (they say) there may be extreme situations when it is justified – for example, when not doing so would result in an even greater number of deaths. Taking away people’s freedom may sound like a nasty thing to do, but in an emergency, when the very survival of the state is at stake, it may be necessary. Oppressing the poor – say, by taxing them exorbitantly – sounds quintessentially evil, but if the money raised were necessary to preserve one’s society from outside attack, it would rank as the lesser of two evils. Breaking a commitment sounds like a bad thing to do – but sometimes one has to do so, because of a more fundamental commitment. And so on.
It is very surprising, then, to see Professor Moran claiming that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is always bad for society as a whole. As he puts it: “There is NEVER a time when an enlightened society should tolerate, let alone legalize, bigotry.” On the face of it, that assertion looks highly doubtful. I presume that Professor Moran (who appears to be a utilitarian) would say that there are some extreme cases when intentionally killing innocent human beings might be morally justifiable, for the sake of preserving society as a whole. If so, then the blanket claim that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is never justifiable, and that it always harms society, is surely open to doubt.
Second, I’d like to point out that Professor Moran’s new moral norm is vaguely worded, to say the least. Moran writes: “It is totally wrong, all the time, to discriminate against someone based on their sexual preferences.” What, one might ask, are sexual preferences? Is a pedophile’s attraction to young children a sexual preference? If not, why not? What about a sadist’s desire to inflict pain during sex? Isn’t that a sexual preference? Or what about a foot fetishist’s fixation with people’s feet? Isn’t that a sexual preference, too?
Now, I am sure that Professor Moran is not claiming that social discrimination against people with these kinds of preferences is always wrong. I presume he is instead referring to sexual orientation, which the American Psychiatric Association defines as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes,” or alternatively, “a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.” That makes more sense; but I presume Professor Moran would also want to add that discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong too, where gender identity is defined as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.” That’s fine; but I would like to ask Professor Moran: what makes these two kinds of preferences – sexual orientation and gender – distinct from the other (not so healthy) kinds of preferences an individual might have, and against which society might justly discriminate?
Third, even if Professor Moran’s sweeping moral claim about the universal wrongfulness of discrimination is sensibly restricted to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, scientific skepticism is still warranted. For what Professor Moran is assuming here is that these terms are universally meaningful – that they apply to all societies, at all times and places. However, it can be shown on meta-inductive grounds that this is highly doubtful. Most scientific theories eventually turn out to be wrong, and the terms they employ turn out not to “carve Nature at the joints” – in other words, they don’t describe the world properly. (Think of Aristotle’s four humors, or phlogiston theory, for instance.) The science of psychology is still in its infancy: as a field of experimental study, it did not begin until 1879. Given the past history of failed scientific theories, we can be fairly certain that most of the theoretical terms employed by psychologists today will be discarded by scientists at some point in the future – which means that Professor Moran’s claim that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is always wrong will eventually become obsolete. This is hardly a fate that one would desire for a universal moral norm.
Fourth, even if we interpret Professor Moran’s claim that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is always wrong as charitably as possible, it still appears to be empirically wrong, if we use the good of society as the ultimate yardstick of right and wrong (as Professor Moran evidently does). Let’s consider discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Suppose that a pandemic in the 22nd century ravages society, reducing the world’s population by 99.9% and leaving almost no women of childbearing age still alive. Let’s also suppose that by then, most young people are very shy about “hooking up” (because of poor parenting practices in that future society, where parenting is mostly done by robots, as most people have to return to the workplace soon after the birth of a baby, for strictly financial reasons), and let’s imagine that the few survivors of childbearing age, far from showing any desire to re-establish the human race, are more inclined to think that the human race should just die out. (This is a view already held by some people: see here.) Most of them opt to avoid sex altogether, while others opt for same-sex liaisons, reasoning that if they declare themselves gay or lesbian, they will not be pressurized to “go forth and multiply.” Would it then be immoral for the remaining members of society to implement measures encouraging young people to multiply, which discriminated against people of same-sex attraction, and in favor of heterosexuals, for the sake of preserving the human race?
Or what if the world’s population skyrocketed instead to a level which Professor Moran would consider ecologically unsustainable – say, 14 billion, which is double the present population? Would Professor Moran consider it wrong for the government to discriminate against heterosexuals who were thinking of marrying young and starting a large family on their own, contrary to the government’s wishes that they refrain from doing so?
I could dream up less extreme (and more plausible) scenarios, but by now, readers will have gotten my point. The claim that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is always and everywhere contrary to the interests of society as a whole is (almost certainly) empirically false. As a scientist who follows the evidence wherever it leads, Professor Moran should respect that fact, and avoid making sweeping statements.
Finally, I note that Professor Moran’s use of judgmental terms like “anti-gay bigots” in his post about discrimination reflects an odd sense of moral indignation on his part, which clashes with his views on free will. For if, as Professor Moran maintains, human beings have no free will, then that surely applies to people who practice what Professor Moran calls “anti-gay bigotry.” On his own view, they can’t help it: they’re just mal-programmed meat machines. If that’s the case, then why get mad at them? The only sensible thing to do would be to fix (i.e. re-program) them if you can, and ignore them if you can’t.
Perhaps Professor Moran thinks that getting mad at people with unenlightened views and subjecting them to public ridicule is a useful way to move society forward and advance the common good, as the people whose views he detests will eventually become too embarrassed to speak out, and their opinions will then become socially unacceptable. However, such a standpoint presupposes a Whig view of human history: the view that society as a whole (or at least, democratic society) is steadily progressing towards goodness, and that a moral consensus reached in a democratic fashion can never be overturned. The empirical evidence for a “march of history” is very weak, and is limited to a mere handful of causes – banning slavery, ending torture, overturning racial discrimination, implementing women’s rights, and legally tolerating practices between “consenting adults” – which have been advanced over the last 200 years at most. If Moran thinks that everyone under 40 supports gay marriage, for instance, he might be surprised to find that 26% of millennials still oppose it, and as many of them hold “traditional” views on sex and marriage, it’s a fair bet that they’ll be having more children than their more “progressive” peers. Professor Moran should also realize that hurling insults at people generally doesn’t make them wilt in shame; it just causes them to develop very thick hides. In short: “vanguard of the revolution” tactics, which are so beloved of radicals, generally backfire.
To sum up: Professor Moran’s declared views on morality appear to be mutually inconsistent, and defending all of them at once is tantamount to attempting to square the circle. If this is the best that a skeptical scientist can do when addressing the topic of morality, then I have to say it doesn’t look good.
And now I’d like to invite readers to weigh in and say what they think.
UPDATE: I see that Professor Moran has published a new post, On moral absolutes and ethical relativism in which he makes the following statements:
What I mean is that enlightened societies will almost always reach a consensus on discrimination against minorities. They will decide that society functions best when all types of discrimination are bad and should not be tolerated.
They will decide that it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin, although some societies become enlightened on this subject later than others. They will (eventually) decide not to discriminate against women. As new issues arise (e.g. gay marriage) the enlightened society will decide that we should not discriminate against gays. At least, that’s my opinion on how ethical relativism will play out.
Did anyone notice the vital concession Professor Moran made here? There is an ocean of difference between “always” and “almost always.”
Professor Moran is also badly confused about the nature of ethical relativism. Ethical relativists do not make seek to ascertain how “society functions best”; that’s what utilitarians do, as they define what’s right as that which promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarianism is actually an absolutist position: if an action tends to make society as a whole unhappy then it is said to be objectively wrong. Ethical relativism, on the other hand, defines “wrong” as either what I don’t like (ethical egoism) or what any given culture doesn’t like (cultural relativism) – which means that different societies may have different moral prohibitions: some societies will tolerate a given practice while other societies will prohibit it, and still others may make it mandatory. Ethical relativists do not make statements like “it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin”; what they may say is: “I don’t discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin” (an ethical egoist might say this) or “Our society doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin” (a cultural relativist might say this).
Professor Moran’s claim that “society functions best when all types of discrimination are bad” is also incoherent. What he was trying to say was “society functions best when all types of discrimination are banned.”
Finally, Professor Moran’s conclusion, “that’s my opinion on how ethical relativism will play out,” undermines his absolute claim that we can make meaningful statements about how societies function best. If we can, then there is no need for opinions to back these statements up; and if we cannot, then Professor Moran’s opinion is no more valid than that of the bigots he despises.