Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Why Only Nihilism is Consonant with Reason

Ever since I jumped back into the debate about whether “morality” is objective or simply a matter of opinion, I’ve been asked to clarify my nihilistic view that morality—as a natural, objective concept—does not exist. I am happy to do so.

The problem with morality is this: It is a term without a concept. Or, at least, it lacks a single one capable of being proved correct. An individual could define morality, quite literally, in countless ways; and, each one of those definitions would be equally correct, since there is no evidence available to support one morality conception’s veracity or another’s falsehood. Sam Harris, for example, defines moral actions as those that increase human happiness. On the other hand, in his mind, immoral actions increase human suffering. While that conception of morality seems sensible, it is totally unburdened by evidence. In his book The End of Faith, Harris simply declares that human happiness and suffering are the relevant factors with regard to morality. I could make an entirely different declaration, and be equally correct (as well as equally lacking in actual supporting evidence).

At the risk of being repetitious, I will list three possible conceptions of morality. Note, these are only three among innumerable others.

(1). Morality relates to human-to-human interaction. Moral actions increase happiness, while immoral actions increase suffering.

(2). Morality relates to human-to-environment interaction. Moral actions benefit the environment, while immoral actions harm the environment. Human happiness/suffering is not relevant.

(3). Morality relates to human-to-frog interaction. Moral actions benefit frogs, while immoral actions harm frogs. Human happiness/suffering is not relevant.

Sam Harris would argue neither (2) nor (3) is the correct notion of morality (as neither one places human happiness/suffering at the core of the issue). But, given the absolute dearth of evidence on the matter, (1), (2) and (3) all are equally plausible conceptions of morality. Indeed, the precise opposite of (1)—that morality relates to human-to-human interaction, and that moral actions increase suffering, while immoral actions increase happiness—also is equally as plausible a definition as any other is.

At the risk of being forced to eat my words, I challenge any of my readers to argue—with actual evidence—that one morality conception is more correct than another morality conception. If, collectively, we choose to define morality in some particular way simply out of speciocentric self-interest, that means that, while morality exists, it has no relationship with the natural universe or the true order of things. That is, genocide only would be immoral because—if speciocentric self-interest is the Key Factor—genocide manifestly runs counter to that self-interest. But to allege that Homo sapiens sapiens’ self-interest inherently is relevant to “morality” would be to make an assertion without the benefit of evidence. Human self-interest easily could be replaced by another Key Factor, such as the primacy of the environment or the supremacy of frogs.

The other perplexing thing about morality is the inconsistency with which it is applied. If two lions are fighting over a gazelle carcass, and one lion kills the other, has that lion committed an “immoral” act? If not, then why, in a similar case, would a human be guilty of immorality? Nobody ever talks about duck-billed platypuses behaving immorally, or geese being the picture of moral perfection. Why are Homo sapiens sapiens subject to moral strictures? We are, after all, just another animal species roaming around this planet. We live on the same evolutionary Tree of Life as lions, platypuses and geese. And yet, when it comes to morality, we pretend that we’re not animals like all the rest of our brethren. The truth is—we are. On this planet, we, like all animals, eat, sleep and reproduce.

From whence did morality come?

Why was its noose tied around the neck of our species?

And where is the elusive evidence to justify its existence as a scientific, natural concept?

6 Comments:

Blogger pgc1981 said...

"From whence did morality spring?"

I already know that you don't like my answer but I'm going to say it anyway. Satan created sin which could be defined as morality or moral issues. The Holy Spirit makes you feel conviction for your wrong doings or immoral acts, the feelings come as disappointment. Satan can also make you feel conviction and make you feel really low and like scum and make you feel worthless.

"Why was its noose tied around the neck of our poor species?"

Again, Satan is the answer. The fall of man came when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Satan brought sin into the world. People always want to blame God for sin or horrible things that happen in their life, thus causing them to fall away from the faith. Instead they should blame satan for stealing from them (John 10:10)

"And where is the elusive evidence to justify its existence as a scientific, natural concept?"

It lies within each individual person. You will never find scientific evidence for it. Science can't prove everything, science won't prove everything because science isn't the greatest thing on our planet.

"Why are Homo sapiens sapiens subject to moral strictures? We are, after all, just another animal species roaming around this planet. We live on the same evolutionary Tree of Life as lions, platypuses and geese. And yet, when it comes to morality, we pretend that we’re not animals like all the rest of our brethren. The truth is--we are. On this planet, we, like all animals, eat, sleep and reproduce."

I read some of you postings and I get a sense that you want people to agree with you that there is no God so you can feel better. Like I said before to you, I think someplace inside you, you are afraid that God is really real and that scares you because then you would have to answer for everything you do. But when you get people to agree and say that there is no God it helps you put God further and further away in your life. This might not be the right way to think, but I can't help but think it after reading some of you posts.
Sometimes I think the John Smith story describes you in a way, maybe I'm wrong.

We do much more than just eat sleep and reproduce. We are here for a greater reason other than evolution and the role the environment played. We are so much more advanced than any other living being on this planet. To think that we are just another animal devalues the meaning of life and makes it pointless in my opinion. If we are just the same as any other animal then why are we so much more advanced than any other animal? We build cities, cars, electronics, businesses, houses, roads. We grow food in gardens to eat, we raise animals to kill and to eat, we go to school to learn about our history and science and we are probably that only living being that questions where we came from. We are probably the only living being that has everything we do, doesn’t value it and always wants more.

3:24 PM EST  
Anonymous Matt said...

^^^THAT^^^^ is moronic.

Kudos on your post. I think most people would say that we alone make moral decisions because we alone have "free will." In fact, free will is illusory. There are many species of animal that engage in altruistic or at least non-purely-selfish behavior, but only we conceptualize morality and can think about it in the abstract due to our advanced cognitive capacities.. especially the ability to use advanced language.

9:16 PM EST  
Blogger Lui said...

"Again, Satan is the answer. The fall of man came when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Satan brought sin into the world."

Then why did God punish women by making their labour during birth difficult? Why the age-old loathing of women if it was Satan's doing? Why not just destroy Satan and be done with it? And I thought that Satan only came later when Lucifer was banished from heaven after some angel war. Therefore, he couldn't have been around to corrupt Adam and Eve. God has therefore punished all of womankind for the "sin" committed by one woman. That's collective punishment on an unimaginable scale, far worse than anything Saddam Hussein or any other tyrant has ever done. This is all superfluous anyway, given that Adam and Eve people were not people who really existed.

"To think that we are just another animal devalues the meaning of life and makes it pointless in my opinion."

Far from devaluing the "meaning of life", (unless by "meaning" you simply imply God's meaning) it forces each of us to find our own. An evolutionary explanation for humanity doesn't take anything away from it. As Steven Pinker said: "Far from being anathema to our moral sense, evolution can tell us why we have one."

"If we are just the same as any other animal then why are we so much more advanced than any other animal?"

Evolution. I've been reading "The Ancestor's Tale". Dawkins talks about the exceptional brain of Homo sapiens and discusses some of the selection pressures that played a role in the "ballooning of the mind". We have to look for the selective, Darwinian advantage afforded by large brains, just as we would look for the selective advantage in the unusual size, shape or composition of any organ possessed by another member of the animal kingdom. In doing so we see what demands were being made by the environment on a lineage throughout evolutionary time.

There are varying degrees of sophistication in the animal kingdom. There's a whole continuum ranging from almost brainless, all the way to dolphins and primates. Note that this doesn't imply that the "goal" or "purpose" of evolution is to produce braininess. We could look at any animal alive today and hold that up as the "pinnacle of evolution", and with just as much justice say that evolution was "aiming" towards powered flight or echolocation. We are but on twig on the tree of life, one species among millions. Every animal alive today has had the same time to evolve, and one can only talk about "more sophisticated" and "more complex", not necessarily "more evolved". Animals and plants are well adapted to the environments they have found themselves in, because in order for them to be here at all, their ancestors had to be at least good enough to give birth to at least one surviving offspring before they died. In the particular environment our relatively recent ancestors had to endure, intelligence was selected for because it probably helped them navigate life in a group. This gave rise to a cognitive repertoire that in turn gave rise to the things we have today, including religion.

6:51 AM EST  
Blogger tedlove said...

morality can be defined however you wish. but so can anything else. i can choose to define "happiness" or even something like "tall" however i wish. we don't necessarily need evidence to support these concepts, right?

so i would think that just because we can't agree on a definition of morality doesn't mean that it is illusory or meaningless. and just because we can agree on the definition of something doesn't mean it is a legitimate concept (the concept of fairies, for example - as the logical positivists have argued).

maybe like other relative concepts, like "tall" or "happy", we can all settle on a definition that fits. i mean, everyone can agree that mount everest is tall. and everyone can agree that happiness is the sensation felt when one falls in love. so maybe the same can be done for morality?? i don't know. i could be wrong here - im just trying to write down some thoughts that haven't been fully developed.

7:59 PM EST  
Anonymous still learning said...

neither argument can prove anything. it takes faith to be a thiest or an athiest. either way, one has to have faith (or hope) that they aren't wrong. but if the athiest is wrong, he will regret it. if the thiest is wrong, then he might have lived his life for a non-existent entity, but nobody will ever prove him wrong b/c they will cease to exist. i just can't understand how some people can hear only two or three points for either argument and base their lifestyle on that... they have more balls than me. i, persoanally, would love to hear intelligent arguments from either side b/c i haven't totally made up my mind after reading volumes of science and theology. i would definately prefer the christian worldview, but i'm about as objective and open-minded as they come, so i will continue to pray that God helps me understand while i study the sciences and listen to everybody's opinion. one day, hopefully, i will have my answer.

e-mail: cambro21@yahoo.com

thank you all

11:29 PM EST  
Blogger Tommy said...

Still Learning, you are limiting yourself to just two choices when there are many more. Did it ever occur to you that there might be a god but that it does not judge you and that it does not care if you worship it or even believe in its existence?

Put it this way, what would you say is more important, (1) being a good person, doing charitable works, helping your family and neighbors, helping strangers and so forth, or (2) believing that Jesus Christ is the son of God, was born from a virgin and rose from the dead?

11:34 PM EST  

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