You don’t know yourself

People don’t always know what they believe.

Lots of people think they believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever they want to believe.

They are committed to believing that the police have a right to believe them guilty of a crime they did not commit – and the judge and the jury and the general public.

But they don’t believe that, so they don’t believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever they want.

So, they want to draw a line.  But there is nowhere to draw it which permits anyone to believe something just because they want to.  Wherever they try to draw it, they have to have some version of “Don’t believe unless you show that your belief is either supported by the evidence or is harmless.”  But showing that a belief is harmless means showing that it is harmless when you know you do not have any evidence for it.  When you know that you do not have any evidence for a belief, you can show that it is harmless but you can’t bring yourself to believe it.  So, for all practical purposes, this amounts to “Don’t believe unless you show that your belief is supported by the evidence, full stop.”

In fact, “it is,” as W. K. Clifford declared, “wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything without sufficient evidence.”

And, since that is true, we all have an obligation not to misinform others, so that we do not cause them to believe when they should withhold belief.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness,” no matter whether you are witnessing to others or to yourself.

Clifford warned:

The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things … but that it should become credulous … for then it must sink back into savagery.

This process is already in progress in at least one country.

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The Moral Superiority of the Modern World

We know that different societies have different moral codes.  Is there any reason to think that the moral codes of modern, educated, industrialized societies are better than more traditional ones?

Of course, it is impossible to use moral codes themselves as such reasons.  That would be question-begging.

If the observable variation in moral codes is not a brute fact but can be explained in terms of distorting factors impinging on a shared moral basis, it is possible to imagine that there one code could be subject to fewer distorting factors than another.  Such a code would probably be a better code.

So, we would have reason to think that the code of an “advanced” society could be better if there were fewer distorting factors impinging on it.

Two distorting factors are ignorance and error concerning material facts.  “Advanced” societies know more than “primitive” ones.  They have ways of eliminating mistakes.  Hence, it is likely that their moral codes are better.

If my moral theory is peculiarly modern in declaring that we should neither damage nor destroy others but preserve them damage or destruction, and that all are fundamentally equal, then that fact is in its favour.

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Blanket Strong Agnosticism

Blanket strong agnosticism is the view that it is impossible to know whether or not there are any supernatural beings.

Since it is impossible to observe supernatural beings directly, we can only infer their existence as the best explanation for some observation or other.

The trouble is that none of the explanations are testable.

To be testable means that it is possible to predict observations that the original hypothesis was not designed to explain.  But the only relevant observations with this kind of “argument” are always just the observations that they purportedly explain.

They all amount to a declaration that such and such is the case because there is a supernatural being with the desire and ability to bring it about that such and such is the case.

They could as well “prove” the opposite.  Suppose that such and such were not the case.  You could then “argue” that such and such was not the case because there was a supernatural being with the desire and ability to prevent it from being the case.

Supernatural “explanations” are always vacuous verbal formulas.





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The Irrationality of Rationalists

There are philosophers who maintain that morality is a function of, or reducible to, rationality.

It is impossible that they could be right.  Natural selection would eliminate individuals who were “rational” to the extent that being “rational” differed from believing and doing whatever would tend to maximize their genetic legacy, provided that they could believe or act “irrationally.”  Since believing or acting “irrationally” amounts to being able to do wrong, and since even “rationalists” know that people can do wrong,  the condition is fulfilled.  Therefore, it is impossible for the “rationalists” to be right.

I suspect that the impossibility of their project explains why, amidst their pirouettes of pointless cleverness, it is frequently possible to find elementary fallacies such as equivocation.

I suppose that I really ought to put scare quotes about the word “rationalists” in my title.

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Something We Can Be Sure of

We apply morality in specific situations.

In order to apply it correctly, we must be aware of all the relevant materials facts.

For instance, if morality requires us to engage only in the kind of sexual activity that is most likely to result in procreation, we have to know which kind of sexual activity is most likely to result in procreation.

Knowing all relevant truths is a necessary condition for doing the right thing, no matter which moral theory turns out to be true.  So, is avoiding all relevant falsehoods

It follows that we have a duty to try to ensure that we believe all relevant true propositions, and to disbelieve relevant false ones.

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The Limited Scope of Hume’s Law

I maintain that ethics ought to be a sub-field of evolutionary biology.   My stance may lead people to surmise that I run afoul of the fact/value distinction.

I don’t.

  • There can be natural selection for beliefs. It is a simple matter of whether the beliefs are advantageous.
  • There can be selection for beliefs that are so advantageous that they cannot be eliminated even if it is discovered that they are false.
  • There can be selection for beliefs that involve normative concepts. It is possible for there to be concepts that do not correspond to anything in existence.
  • Thus, I can invincibly believe – in a world in which nothing is actually of value – that another individual is of value, which entails that the individual should be neither damaged nor destroyed but rather preserved from both damage and destruction.
  • Once I believe that another is of value, I become committed not to damage or destroy the other, but to preserve it from damage or destruction. It is logically inconsistent to do otherwise.  It can be biologically disadvantageous to do otherwise as well.
  • At this point, I think we can say that I ought to neither damage nor destroy the other, but to preserve it.

Hume says:

For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

There is no derivation of prescriptions from descriptions among the bullet points.

There is instead an account of how an organism with obligations could come into existence.

It may be inconceivable that there could be a deduction.  In contrast, it is conceivable that prescriptions could originate in an evolutionary world.  It is not a deduction.

Hume could not conceive of either more than a century before Darwin.

The strictly logical point that Hume made does not entail that there can be no bridge at all from descriptions to prescriptions.   It is a contemporary error to think that it does.

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The Irrationality of Relativism

Some maintain that moral judgments are nothing more than the opinion of the judge.

The evidence for this is the fact that people make incompatible moral judgments.

The observable variation in moral opinion is not the only relevant evidence.  It is also necessary to explain why morality is universal and why it is more effective to say that something is wrong than it is to say that you don’t like it.  If morality were just opinions, it would constitute a superfluous idiom.  If morality were just opinions, its effectiveness would be inexplicable.

The relativist hypothesis is that different moral codes are all basic rather than explicable in terms of underlying factors.

But we could expect differences in moral codes and moral opinions even if the basis of morality was shared by all moral agents.

The cause of the differences would be things like ignorance and error.  There are so many relevant causal factors that the differences are inevitable.

In view of all the relevant observations and possible explanations, it is irrational to be a relativist.


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The Duty to Shut Up

Psychologists once conducted the following experiment.  Small children were left in a room with toys, one of which was particularly attractive.  Some were told that they would be punished if they played with the attractive toy.  Others were told that it was wrong to do so.  Some weeks later, the children were again left in the room.  Nothing was said.  Those that had been told that it was wrong to play with the attractive toy were less likely to play with it than those that had been threatened.  They had accepted the belief that it was wrong to play with the toy, rationalized it in their own way, and acted accordingly.

This story shows that human beings are vulnerable to moralists.

It shows that moralists have power.

It illuminates the fact that moralists ought to act responsibly.

Moralists disagree with each other and, as a matter of logic, at most one can be right.  If at most one can be right, most are wrong.  You don’t have to be right to act responsibly but you have to try.  They way in which to act responsibly is to proportion your affirmations to the evidence.

The set of moralists include preachers, teachers, ethicists, newspaper columnists, and television pundits.  It is obvious that many do not act responsibly.  If they cannot bring themselves to act responsibly, they have a duty to shut up.

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Religious ethics

Religious ethical theories are no improvement on secular ones.

Followers of St. Thomas Aquinas argue, for instance, that human beings are essentially reproductive and that therefore homosexuality is wrong.  But if human beings are essentially reproductive and homosexuals are not, what follows is that homosexuals are not human beings.  Since homosexuals are human beings, human beings are not essentially reproductive.  The fact is that you cannot use a property to categorize things and then criticize the excluded on the ground that they lack it.  Catholics constantly equivocate.

Adherents of the divine command theory have no alternative but to maintain that revelation of some sort or other provides the only reliable guide to morality.  If God is always truthful, then revelation is reliable.  The trouble is that a necessary condition for establishing that something is in fact a revelation from God is establishing that it is entirely true.  Consequently, either they end up effectively maintaining that we know that it is true because it is from God and that we know that it is from God because it is true, which is a case of circularity, or they commit petitio principii by dogmatically affirming a clutch of moral injunctions that suit their prejudices.  Either way, revelationists beg the question.

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Supervenience and Procrustean Tendencies

There is no legal difference between two states of affairs without a difference in the material facts.

There is no moral difference between two states of affairs without a difference in the material facts.

Both of these statements appear to be true.  Philosophers allude to supervenience in the latter case but not in the former.  Given the parallelism of the two statements, however, it would be odd if supervenience were necessary in the latter case but superfluous in the former.

We speak of acts being lawful or unlawful.  Synonymously, we speak of acts being consistent or inconsistent with the law.  Hence, it is also possible to speak of acts being consistent or inconsistent with morality.

Indeed, we can speak of acts being consistent or inconsistent with morality, when morality is based on the commands of God, Platonic moral principles, or the foundational attitudes I postulate.  Each of these can function in ways analogous to the ways in which statutes function.

Now, although almost no beliefs are products of evolution, it is not impossible for there to be selection for beliefs.  If the content of a naturally selected belief included normative concepts, then we could explain how normativity could originate in a world that started out lacking it.  Explaining the origin or morality in this way is not a matter of deriving prescriptions from descriptions – natural selection is not logical inference.  It is probably the only realistic way of explaining how normativity came into the actual world.

It would be Procrustean to require talk about consistency and evolution to be translated into the idiom of supervenience.

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