Dennis Edwall

Are There Moral Standards?

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I recently started reading the book "Why People Believe Weird Things" by Michael Shermer (2002). Shermer is well known in the skeptical world, being the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com) and the director of the Skeptics Society. He has written quite a few books, but this is the first one of his that I am reading.

In this book he has a chapter, "The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality." He summarizes the history of Rand and Objectivism, beginning with The Fountainhead and continuing through the growth NBI years, the Rand-Branden split, etc. I found this summary to be generally a fair assessment. As the following will show, Shermer seems to be a sympathetic critic. (Also see the TNI interview at http://www.objectivistcenter.org/ct-1852-M_Shermer.aspx.)

After he finishes his Rand/Objectivism summary, he makes these two valid points:

"This analysis, then, suggests two important caveats about cults, skepticism, and reason. One, criticism of the founder or followers of a philosophy does not, by itself, constitute a negation of any part of the philosophy. .... Two, criticism of part of a philosophy does not gainsay the whole. " (italics original)

The final four paragraphs of the chapter are worth quoting at length:

"I have read Atlas Shrugged, as well as The Fountainhead and all of Rand's nonfiction works. I accept much of Rand's philosophy, but not all of it. Certainly the commitment to reason is admirable (although clearly this is a philosophy, not a science); wouldn't most of us on the face of it, agree that individuals need to take personal responsibility for their actions? The great flaw in her philosophy is the belief that morals can be held to some absolute standard or criteria. [my emphasis] This is not scientifically tenable. Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature there are only actions - physical actions, biological actions, human actions. Humans act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral only when someone else judges them as such. Thus, morality is strictly a human creation, subject to all sorts of cultural influences and social constructions, just as other human creations are. Since virtually every person and every group claims they know what constitutes right versus wrong human action, and since virtually all of these moralities differ from all others to a greater or lesser extent, reason alone tells us they cannot all be correct. Just as there is no absolute right type of human music, there is no absolute right type of human action. The broad range of human action is a rich continuum that precludes pigeonholing into the unambiguous rights and wrongs that political laws and moral codes tend to require.

"Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal? Of course not, any more than all human music is equal. We create hierarchies of what we like or dislike, desire or reject, and make judgments based on those standards. But the standards are themselves human creations and cannot be discovered in nature. One group prefers classical music over rock, and so judges Mozart to be superior to the Moody Blues. Similarly, one group prefers patriarchal dominance, and so judges male privilege to be morally honorable. Neither Mozart or males are absolutely better, but only so when judged by a particular group's standards. Male ownership of females, for example, was once thought to be moral and is now thought immoral. The change happened not because we have discovered this as immoral but because our society (thanks primarily to the efforts of women) has realized that women should have rights and opportunities denied to them when they are in bondage to males. And having half of society happier raises the overall happiness of the group significantly.

"Morality is relative to the moral frame of reference. As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, one can be more tolerant of other human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people's actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance, and thus reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group dangerous to individual freedom. Its absolutism was the biggest flaw in Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the unlikeliest cult in history. The historical development and ultimate destruction [sic] of her group and philosophy is the empirical evidence that documents this assessment.

"What separates science from all other human activities (and morality has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis) is its commitment to the tentative nature of all its conclusions. There are no final answers in science, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific "facts" are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement, but that assent is never final. Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is at the heart of its limitations. It is also its greatest strength."

I think that Shermer's criticism is generally valid when the target is the True Believer types within Objectivism.

However, his contention that morals cannot "be held to some absolute standard or criteria" goes too far, and undercuts his response to the question, "Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal?" of "Of course not."

Shermer's last paragraph is an excellent description of how science ideally works. For some reason I cannot understand, he believes that the identification of morals cannot be deduced using a similar process, that "morality [cannot be] successfully placed on a scientific basis." I believe that his supposed justifications such as "Morals do not exist in nature....", "morality is strictly a human creation, subject to all sorts of cultural influences and social constrictions....", and "Morality is relative to the moral frame of reference." are insufficient.

In a narrow sense, it is true that "morals [cannot be] held to some absolute standard" just as the same is true in science where "There are no final answers...." (last paragraph of Shermer). But we can use the same tools of logic combined with values derived from human life qua man to help us define our moral compass. Properly understood, there is such a thing as absolute moral standards.

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Of course there are moral standards. The question is: are moral standards like physical laws, tied to the nature of the world? Or are they protocols and conventions.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Of course there are moral standards. The question is: are moral standards like physical laws, tied to the nature of the world? Or are they protocols and conventions.

Of course they are not like physical laws. Nothing in philosophy is. If not "physical laws" would just be "laws." However, morality refers to the human organism which is basically immutable through cultures. That's why suicide bombings are objectively evil and so is the philosophy (religion) they rode in on.

--Brant

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There are no such things as absolute moral standards or actions that are objectively evil. You cannot prove that something is moral or evil. One man's morality is another man's evil.

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There are no such things as absolute moral standards or actions that are objectively evil. You cannot prove that something is moral or evil. One man's morality is another man's evil.

Of course! I can rape children and torture their parents to death after letting them watch me violate their sons and daughters! I can put live human beings into a wood chipper feet first! I can physically assault you because I didn't like the look you gave me! Anything goes! There is no objective morality only power relationships! Let's do some vivisection while we are at it! Rob some banks! Drive downtown and shoot up the place for the hell of it!

You cannot prove through argument. You validate. What you "prove" through science is always, ultimately, tentative. The only "proof" is stuff that works. That is the commonality between science and philosophy. It works that I have a happy and productive life by not initiating physical force and living in a society that sanctions that and by being rational in my life and actions.

--Brant

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You cannot prove through argument. You validate. What you "prove" through science is always, ultimately, tentative. The only "proof" is stuff that works. That is the commonality between science and philosophy. It works that I have a happy and productive life by not initiating physical force and living in a society that sanctions that and by being rational in my life and actions.

What works for you doesn't necessarily work for someone else. The fact that there have always been murderers, sadists, thieves, parasites and con men in the world is evidence that their way of living is an evolutionary stable strategy, so you cannot demonstrate objectively that they have the wrong morality.

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Yes, in fact is there any such thing as pure objectivity? Scientists have made so much progress by trying to be objective as possible but it's not possible to be completely objective. If we humans want to prescribe behavior we need to have a model of human behavior which is as scientific as possible and unfortunately I don't think of objectivism as being all that scientific, despite it's name.

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What works for you doesn't necessarily work for someone else. The fact that there have always been murderers, sadists, thieves, parasites and con men in the world is evidence that their way of living is an evolutionary stable strategy, ........

Until the victims run out. Predation is pragmatically workable, but in principle it is self destructive.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Until the victims run out. Predation is pragmatically workable, but in principle it is self destructive.

But in practice it isn't and that is what counts.

I can't and won't argue with facts. The world is built of facts on the ground, not philosophical preferences.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Good post Baal.

I was deeply involved in the skepticism movement before I came to read Rand, and it was actually Shermers excerpt you quoted here on Rand that made me interested in reading her. I still am and have been a huge admirer of Michael Shermer, he is major adovcate of civil liberties and market economies and has routinely stated his admiration for Rand.

The gulf that comes here is that when Shermer uses "Objective" as in an Objective moral code, he's talking about something like a cosmic ten commandments, it's a vestige of a religious epistemology to assert that the rules governing our moral behavior must be inbedded into the fabric of the universe in order to be 'objective', so I dont think this criticism of his is legitimate. It's always the religious theist that claims an objective standard of morality which is something privy only to him and his elite sect of 'interpreters'. This is hardly 'objective' in the scientific sense. In science, the charachteristic of the objective is that it both exists as a part of reality and is easily discoverable by anyone who wishes to investigate the question. In religion, objective is "because I said so"

This is not what Rand's Objective Standard of Morality means, she was not saying she discovered some natural law embedded in space-time, but that if reality exists and man wishes to exist within it, life should be his objective standard of morality. It is not an absolute manifestation of reality that a volitional being must choose life as his standard of value, but it is objective that he must choose some standard, and the only standard which he can live in is life.

Good excerpt From Wikipedia

Ethics: Rational self-interest

Main article: Objectivist ethics

Rand identified morality as principles needed in all contexts, whether one is alone or with others, reserving the term "ethics" for relationships with others. She summarized (see Summary above) that man properly lives "with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life." According to Objectivist epistemology, states of mind, such as happiness, are not primary; they are the consequence of specific facts of existence. Therefore man needs an objective standard, grounded in the facts of reality, to achieve happiness. The human faculty of happiness is a biologically evolved measuring instrument (a "barometer"[11]) that measures how well one is doing in the pursuit of life. Therefore the standard by which one can judge whether or not some action will lead to greater or lesser happiness is, whether or not it promotes one's life. But, as Rand writes,

"To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem."[4]

The morality of Objectivism is based on the observation that one's own choices and actions are instrumental in maintaining and enhancing one's life, and therefore one's happiness. Rand wrote:

"Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice — and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man — by choice; he has to hold his life as a value — by choice; he has to learn to sustain it — by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues — by choice.

"A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality."[4]

There is a difference, therefore, between rational self-interest as pursuit of one's own life and happiness in reality, and what Ayn Rand called "selfishness without a self" - a range-of-the-moment pseudo-"selfish" whim-worship or "hedonism." A whim-worshipper or "hedonist," according to Rand, is not motivated by a desire to live his own human life, but by a wish to live on a sub-human level. Instead of using "that which promotes my (human) life" as his standard of value, he mistakes "that which I (mindlessly happen to) value" for a standard of value, in contradiction of the fact that, existentially, he is a human and therefore rational organism. The "I value" in whim-worship or hedonism can be replaced with "we value," "he values," "they value," or "God values," and still it would remain dissociated from reality. Rand repudiated the equation of rational selfishness with hedonistic or whim-worshipping "selfishness-without-a-self." She held that the former is good, and the latter evil, and that there is a fundamental difference between them.[11] A corollary to Rand's endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism — which she defined in the sense of August Comte's altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Rand defined a value as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." The rational individual's choice of values to pursue is guided by his need, if he chooses to live, to act so as to maintain and promote his own life. Rand did not hold that values proper to human life are "intrinsic" in the sense of being independent of one's choices, or that there are values that an individual must pursue by command or imperative ("reason accepts no commandments"). Neither did Rand consider proper values "subjective," to be pursued just because one has chosen, perhaps arbitrarily, to pursue them. Rather, Rand held that valid values are "objective," in the sense of being identifiable as serving to preserve and enhance one's life. Some values are specific to the nature of each individual, but there are also universal human values, including the preservation of one's own individual rights, which Rand defined as "conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival."[4]

Objectivism holds that morality is a "code of values accepted by choice." According to Leonard Peikoff, Rand held that "man needs [morality] for one reason only: he needs it in order to survive. Moral laws, in this view, are principles that define how to nourish and sustain human life; they are no more than this and no less."[7] Objectivism does not claim that there is a moral requirement to choose to value one's life. As Allan Gotthelf points out, for Rand, "Morality rests on a fundamental, pre-moral choice:"[12] the moral agent's choice to live rather than die, so that the moral "ought" is always contextual and agent-relative. To be moral is to choose that which promotes one's life in one's actual context. There are no "categorical imperatives" (as in Kantianism) that an individual would be obliged to carry out regardless of consequences for his life.

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If there was a continuum like this, objective => subjective, then there is no such thing as pure subjective or pure objective. Pure subjective would mean an observer with no input from their sensory nervous system and pure objective would mean no observer at all. Everything falls somewhere in between.

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This issue comes around once in a while.

Different people use different definitions for "morality" and for "objective," but don't tell each other. Then they argue at each other a long time.

Sometimes Rand bashers chime in to say this is proof that Objectivist ethics is not objective.

Same old same old.

Michael

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I find myself less impressed with Shermer the more I read. Here's another example, this time from his book The Borderlands of Science.

In the introduction he has a discussion of what he calls his Boundary Detection Kit, consisting of three sets which he calls normal science, borderlands science, and nonscience.

Some examples of normal science (on the science side of the boundary): evolution, quantum mechanics, Big Bang cosmology, etc.

Some examples of nonscience (on the nonscience, pseudoscience, or nonsense side of the boundary): creationism, astrology, Big Foot, UFOs, etc.

Some examples of borderlands science (in the borderlands between normal science and nonscience): theories of consciousness, SETI, grand theories of economics (objectivism, socialism, etc.), etc.

Wow -- for him to put objectivism and socialism together on equal footing in economics -- I expected better from him than this.

(It does not appear that he discusses the matter anywhere else in the book; at least, the word objectivism is not in the index.)

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Dennis, thanks for posting your comments about Shermer and his book. I think it's clear that many of us have reason to be...uh...skeptical of Shermer.

REB

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Michael,

<<I like those three categories. I wonder what his standard is for assigning something into one. I wasn't able to discern it from that list.

He elaborates in quite a bit of detail, but the answer in a nutshell is generally accepted principles of science.

I do like this paragraph of his that immediately follows the examples:

"Since these categories .... are fuzzy it is possible for them to be moved and reevaluated with changing evidence. Indeed, all of the normal science claims were at one time in either the nonscience or borderlands science categories. How they moved from nonscience to borderlands science, or from the borderlands to normal science (or how some normal science claims slipped back into the borderlands or even into nonscience), is one of the most important aspects of the study of the history and philosophy of science."

Shermer is best when he sticks to science.

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The final four paragraphs of the chapter are worth quoting at length:

[cut]

"Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal? Of course not, any more than all human music is equal. We create hierarchies of what we like or dislike, desire or reject, and make judgments based on those standards. But the standards are themselves human creations and cannot be discovered in nature.

I like the Beastie Boys. You like Kate Bush. We may fight for control of the playlist at a party, but we won't come to blows unless we think that morals are like tastes in music.

I'll distinguish morals from ethics here, and start saying ethics, which is what Shermer is really talking about. Rand considered it immoral to eat macaroni and cheese if your systolic blood pressure was higher than your cholesterol. Shermer means ethics, which Rand, more or less, defined as morals that relate to how you treat other people.

Ethics can't be derived from statements like water freeeze at 0 centigrade. What a news flash.

Ethics are about conflict. Serious conflict. And goals. Serious goals.

I'd like to see what ethical goals Shermer really would be willing to demote to mere tastes.

The moral equality of all persons, regardless of race, religion or gender?

The right to believe or not believe in whatever religion you wish?

It's time we put the people who consider these kinds of things to be preferences to a test of the courage of their lack of convictions.

Screw prove it. It's time we dare these people to eat it. Like on Survivor when they make them eat octopus testicles.

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Of course there are moral standards. The question is: are moral standards like physical laws, tied to the nature of the world? Or are they protocols and conventions.

Of course they are not like physical laws. Nothing in philosophy is. If not "physical laws" would just be "laws." However, morality refers to the human organism which is basically immutable through cultures. That's why suicide bombings are objectively evil and so is the philosophy (religion) they rode in on.

--Brant

In point of fact, moral codes differ from society to society, especially moral codes pertaining to sexual behavior. I am not aware of any universal code of morality that all humans feel or are in fact bound by. Most morality is conventional, not derived from the nature of reality.

Where reality intrudes is this: Is a Moral Code X consistent with human survival? Can a communityh of people practicing a morality last for the long term? Is practicing the moral code fatal to individuals who practice it? For some moral codes the answer can be found empirically. Consider the moral code of the Shaker Movement (originated in the 19th century and went extinct in thr 20th century). The Shaker Moral code forbade sexual intercourse period. That means the Shaker Movement could only sustain itself by drawing in people from the outside. This works up to the point where no new people will join, at which point the Shaker community will dwinde from mortality. The last Shakers were two or three old women who died sometime during the 1940s or 1950s. And then there were None. The Moral Code was biologically unsustainable. That is where reality intruded.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Of course there are moral standards. The question is: are moral standards like physical laws, tied to the nature of the world? Or are they protocols and conventions.

Of course they are not like physical laws. Nothing in philosophy is. If not "physical laws" would just be "laws." However, morality refers to the human organism which is basically immutable through cultures. That's why suicide bombings are objectively evil and so is the philosophy (religion) they rode in on.

--Brant

In point of fact, moral codes differ from society to society, especially moral codes pertaining to sexual behavior. I am not aware of any universal code of morality that all humans feel or are in fact bound by. Most morality is conventional, not derived from the nature of reality.

Ba'al Chatzaf

About a universal rule, I believe rules against murder are universal. Of course, what is and isn't "murder" varies, but some taboo against killing others, so I have read, is present in all cultures.

I like Rand's comparison of morality to "health." It goes a very long way to modelling the objectivity of morality. Instead of being about what's contained within our skin (health), morality pertains to how we relate to the rest of the world. We must act to survive. Random behavior is dangerous, when it isn't wasteful. Men have to choose what to do. We can't get along on appetite and fear. Morality is the means-end description of behaving so as to flourish if you're a homo sapiens. Once you set the context for needing guides for behavior, the objectivity of morality isn't hard to prove.

= Mindy

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About a universal rule, I believe rules against murder are universal. Of course, what is and isn't "murder" varies, but some taboo against killing others, so I have read, is present in all cultures.

What about -suttee- in India? Or so-called honor slayings in Muslim Countries? Then there is the matter of killing in self defense. Killing other folks is not universally condemned. Neither is seizing property. The IRS does it all the time, for example. Laws against incest are not universal either.

Until I see some strong arguments I am staying with the position that morality is largely conventional and the only upper bound to moral bindings is that a moral code should be practiced without killing the practicioner or guaranteeing the extinction of the community. In this regard, objective consideration impinges on morality.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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About a universal rule, I believe rules against murder are universal. Of course, what is and isn't "murder" varies, but some taboo against killing others, so I have read, is present in all cultures.

What about -suttee- in India? Or so-called honor slayings in Muslim Countries? Then there is the matter of killing in self defense. Killing other folks is not universally condemned. Neither is seizing property. The IRS does it all the time, for example. Laws against incest are not universal either.

Until I see some strong arguments I am staying with the position that morality is largely conventional and the only upper bound to moral bindings is that a moral code should be practiced without killing the practicioner or guaranteeing the extinction of the community. In this regard, objective consideration impinges on morality.

Ba'al Chatzaf

I didn't say "killing" but rather "murder." That means every society has a law against killing certain others, though it be defined in different ways.

Also, doesn't it make sense to you that "moral" is a condition akin to "health" that man must discover the rules of?

= Mindy

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Also, doesn't it make sense to you that "moral" is a condition akin to "health" that man must discover the rules of?

I like this way of looking at it.

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