"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" [Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it? - TT's Lost in Tokyo

[Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

[Update: Bob Murphy sends in an email comment, copied (in relevant part) at the bottom of this post.]

I`ve addressed here on five different threads the question of whether there is an "objective moral order", which Gene Callahan broached in a May blog post. I`ve commented here mainly because I find the subject interesting, but the subsequent discussions at Gene Callahan`s blog and at Bob Murphy`s blog to be rather unproductive, if not frustrating and disappointing.  However, I note that Bob Murphy, bless his soul, has kindly emailed me a comment for me to post on one of my recent threads, in which Bob refers to a recent relevant comment elsewhere by Gene.

Allow me to repost here Bob Murphy`s comment, and my response, but first here`s some context from the post that Bob Murphy is responding to:

1. Me:

While I certainly agree that man has an exquisite moral sense, my own view is that that sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation,

- as Bruce Yandle has suggested,

- as argued by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American Anthropology Assn.) in his book "Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity" (which I have discussed here) and - as I have recently discovered -

- as David Sloan Wilson has argued in his book "Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society".

I note that the NYT has recently run a series of posts on related topics

In my view, our moral sense, rituals and "sacred postulates" (later, religions) have played a central role in the evolution of man as a social animal, by providing a fundamental way of ordering the world, the group`s role in it, and the individual`s role in the group - thereby abating commons problems both within and created by the group. The religious lies at the root of our human nature, even as its inviolable, sacred truths continue to fall by the wayside during the long march of culture and science out of the Garden of Eden. While we certainly have made progress (partly with the aid of "universal" religions) in expanding the boundaries of our groups, we very much remain group, tribal animals, fiercely attentive to rival groups and who is within or outside our group, and this tribal nature is clearly at work in our cognition (our penchant for finding enemies, including those who have different religious beliefs that ours).

But I didn`t really kick off this discussion - why are Callahan and Murphy so reticent to describe what it is they think they mean when they assert that there are "objective moral truths" and an "objective moral order"?  (I can understand why I seem to have earned the clear hostility of one them; after all I have proven by my persistence and/or thickheadedness to be, if not an "enemy", then in any case not one of the august clear-sighted.)

Here are a few questions I left with them at Bob`s most recent post:

- Are those who believe that there is an objective "moral" order asserting that, for every being - regardless of species - that there is a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? Or is the argument that there is an object moral order only for conscious and self-aware beings, and none for organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious but not self-aware?

- Or is the argument that the "objective" moral order exists only for humans, and perhaps someday can be identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on brain activity and arising from shared genes?  Will such objective moral order still exist if all mankind ceases to exist?

- Or is the objective moral order one that exists for some humans, but not all - depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

- Is the human "objective" moral order universal, for all individuals - of whatever, gender or age - across all history?

- Is an objective moral order something real that can be tested for despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly - like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to)?

- And if the objective moral order is a part of the universe, can we apply the scientific method to confirm its existence of and explore its parameters, and to explain (and test) it with "laws"?

- What are some of the parameters and laws governing the moral order?

2.  Bob Murphy`s comments: (emphasis added)

On the general issue of "are morals objective for everyone?" I refer to this excellent discussion by Gene Callahan:


[Here is Gene`s relevant comment:

"Something that is correct only 'to' someone is subjectively, not objectively, correct. What 'objective' means is precisely 'to any and all possible perceivers.' And, of course, it is simply a further muddle to introduce beings incapable of perceiving the objective item in question, as if that raised doubts about its objective status. 'Would this be objectively correct for ants?' makes no more sense than 'Is it objectively true for ants that Mars has two moons?' It is objectively true, not 'for' anyone, that Mars has two moons, and it is also objectively true that ants are a kind of being that cannot peer through telescopes or count to two. It is objectively true that murder is wrong, and if ants were the sort of being capable of murder, which they are not (as far as we know!), it would be wrong for them to commit murders."]

When I say that I think morality is objective, what I mean is that a statement such as "it is better to kiss an infant than to drown it" is a different type of thing from the statement "chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla." The latter is clearly stating a subjective preference, whereas the former is (I claim) reflecting an objective truth about reality.

Note that to say morality is objective doesn't necessarily mean that 'the same rules' apply to everybody, at least not in the sense that I think you mean. It might not be immoral for Eskimos to euthanize old people, whereas it could be considered murder in Manhattan. But this doesn't actually prove morality is subjective. By the same token, it's OK for me to eat the food in my fridge. But if somebody else wandered into my house and did the 'same thing,' it would be theft.

I'm a Christian so if you ask me for a list of these rules, a good start is the Ten Commandments. And then if you want to know how to apply these rules, I'd tell you to read the gospels and study the life of Jesus.

As far as your specific questions, I don't want to bother trying to answer them. I admit I can't give you great answers on some. But to me, that doesn't show that morality is subjective after all. There are plenty of non-material things (like mathematics etc.) that are rock-solid objectively true. So I think our difference here is much deeper than an issue of mere morality. I think you are a materialist and I'm not, which is influencing our discussion on morality.

3.  My response: (emphasis added)

Bob, thanks for troubling to visit and read, but your comments are obviously a disappointment - as you`ve simply done none of the heavy lifting that you have implied by insisting on various occasions that there is an "objective" moral order.

All that you`ve done here is to make a very weak argument that MAN has a moral sense regarding how we treat others. But this is not only obvious, it is also something that I have asserted all along. While it tells us something I agree is objectively true generally about man - something that I have made various attempts to explore here and to sketch out on your blog and Gene`s - it tells us essentially nothing about an objective moral order to the universe, that is applicable to other life forms, and that will survive mankind if we were all ever to perish.

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding "objective truth". While he suggests that by "objectively correct" we mean something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers' (so far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not only begged the question about what we mean by saying that "it is objectively true that murder is wrong", but he`s suggested that because ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it. By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve outlined above [in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have pointed out by your reference to Eskimos. Can any animals or life forms other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity, typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those able to perceive it?  This is both a very modest position, as well as one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but "objective" moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to survive and procreate?

# re: Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined "objective" moral order

[Remove this Comment] Tuesday, September 08, 2009 4:27 AM by TokyoTom

By the way, I note that fellow Community blogger lilburne and I agree generally about morality*

"There is a burgeoning school of thought in evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences (led by Marc Hauser and Steven Pinker) which contends that morality is not just cultural artifice, but that it is an intrinsic feature of the human mind which evolved over the countless millennia of humans living together."



If anyone is still reading, let me note that I posted a week or so ago further thoughts on the evolution of moral codes and why we fight over them (rarely applying to those outside our group the same moral standards that we apply to those within our groups).

[Update:] Further email comment from Bob Murphy (posted with approval):

I'm going to have to punt on this debate for now. If you agree that
"Bob should not kill an infant" has a truth value more significant
than "Bob should not wear a dress to work" than I'm happy. I think
maybe when I say "morality is objective" you are interpreting it to
mean something more than what I do mean. After all, you are saying
moral rules apply to all humans, so I don't know what our difference
is at this point. I thought originally you were saying you were a
moral relativist.

Published Tue, Sep 8 2009 10:58 PM by TokyoTom


# re: [Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

Thursday, September 10, 2009 1:41 AM by Keith Ackermann

<i>it tells us essentially nothing about an objective moral order to the universe, that is applicable to other life forms, and that will survive mankind if we were all ever to perish.</i>

We are all subservient to the biosphere. The prime objective is to flourish. A secondary objective to aid the first is to survive. The we sacrifice ourselves so that our children may live is an example of that (along with many other species exhibiting the same thing).

We are induced to thrive by through hormones that induce a sensation of love or lust, and we are rewarded with great pleasure from the act of sex. We are induced to act against our own self interest by the chemicals that produce a sensation of love. This protects our offspring by making us always cognizant of loved one's needs. Part of our 'self' is transferred.

Animals possibly hold a higher moral station in how they serve the biosphere. We waste, they don't. A cheetah does not run around at top speed all the time, but we are always seeking gain, even at some other's loss.

If you were to chart the increase of entropy by each species, there is one, and only one, that stands out many orders of magnitude more than the rest. Not sure of the natural morality of that.

Another thing that is unique to the species of man, is that we wipe our asses. I'm not sure if that is a design flaw, or if there is some higher meaning.

# More from Gene Callahan: are external, "objective moral truths" needed in order for a community to enforce shared rules?

Thursday, September 10, 2009 7:58 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

[Well, the Mises server just swallowed my first attempt at this post, so the reader will just have to

# re: [Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

Thursday, September 10, 2009 8:47 AM by TokyoTom

Keith, welcome.

You lost me on the question of waste and seeking gain. All animals waste, to the extent they have the luxury. Waste, in the sense of consuming more than needed, is limited simply because extra killing, eating etc. can be costly. But that`s the very reason why various animals have "wasteful" reproductive displays, to show they they are more than fit.

Some predators kill just for fun, if the prey can get away.

Granted, technology has enabled man to catch and kill more tan he needs, so we do waste alot.

"we are always seeking gain, even at some other's loss."

Well, we do raise crops, husband animals, preserve bits of nature, in order to satisfy our own desires. But what animal cooperates, if not for its own advantage?

(As for the arses, because we stand upright, we`re one of the few species where what`s left can get in the way of walking. Standing upright also makes man the only species to get hemmorhoids).

# More from Gene Callahan: do perceptions of "moral truths" make them objectively real, apart from those who perceive them, as opposed to evolved cooperative traits?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 10:43 PM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

It has come to my attention that Gene Callahan has responded to my remarks regarding "objective