Ethical implications of evolution

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I spent some time cruising the Intelligent Design Network site. The last few grafs of William Harris and John Calvert of the Intelligent Design Networks's Intelligent Design: The Scientific Alternative to Evolution provide a clue to the quality of the reasoning and what the IDN thinks the stakes are:
Did God create us or did we create God? Do we have inherent purpose or are we free to define our own purpose? The answers to these questions are key to any discussion of ethics. The late Professor William Provine helps us understand the deeper implications of a naturalistic, materialistic, and Darwinian worldview.
First, modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable. Second, modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society&. The conflict between science and religion is to the extent that persons who manage to retain religious beliefs while accepting evolutionary biology have to check their brains at the church-house door.71
Is Provine right or wrong? If one takes for granted that natural phenomena are not designed, he is logically correct. That is because purpose only derives from a mind that has the capacity to arrange future events for a purpose. Law and chance simply do not have the capacity to contemplate the future and aim at a goal.

Accordingly, a Darwinian or evolutionary worldview has profound ethical implications that are diametrically opposed to those flowing from a theistic worldview. Ethical decisions dramatically depend on whether we are or are not designed for a purpose. For example, we have a natural reluctance to act contrary to the plans and purposes of another mind absent a rational and reasonable justification. A land developer who discovers an ordered assemblage of stones in a field that appears to be an ancient graveyard would pause and reflect before he moved them. He would at least consider the implications before he violated the clear intentions and purposes of an ancient civilization. But if the stones were simply strewn willy-nilly across the field due to a flood or avalanche, he would without a thought bulldoze them into a ditch.

Similarly, if life is an accident, why not alter it to suits our needs? If we can, why not make human clones? Why not abort unwanted children? Why not euthanize the "useless" Why not end a challenging marriage? Why not cheat on our taxes? Why not "steal, kill, and destroy?" Ordinary people intuitively recognize that with no overarching, inherent purpose in life, anything that is consistent with the purposes created in our own minds is acceptable. "If there is no God, all things are permissible."72 However, if (and there is no bigger if) life is not just an accident or occurrence, but is something that has been designed and made, then life must have an inherent purpose. If purpose pervades life, then we pursue actions contrary to that purpose at our peril. Manipulating our genes to produce "designer humans" may conflict with an intended but currently unknown purpose of standard procreation and may result in disasters unimaginable. How extensively should we tinker with life when we do not know its intended purpose?

The bioethical implications of ID are clear, not only for individuals, but for culture as well. Who will tell us whether we should clone humans, traffic in human organs, inflict capital punishment? Who will sit at the head of the cultural table? Who is even allowed at the table? Naturalistic science tells us that it will provide the "facts," and it will tolerate theologians and philosophers as they opine about purpose and meaning. But materialistic science has already concluded that there is no inherent purpose in life, so what true role remains for religion? Why give any credence to individuals who have deluded themselves into the false notion that life has purpose? They are like the couple that must be invited to the party for political reasons but whose quaint views are ignored. What if life really is designed and truly has purpose? What then for science? If so, then religion not only deserves a place at the table, it may deserve to be at the head.

71William Provine, "Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics," MBL Science 3.1 (1998); 25-29
72Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Cutchogue, NY; Buccaneer Books, 1996).

Winston Smith does a pretty good job of demolishing the claim that God is needed to provide morality (the Divine Command Theory) here (read the whole thing):

Though there's no time now for me to go through the failings of the DCT in detail, let me just end on this note: The DCT is simply moral subjectivism writ large. The DCT proper is merely divine subjectivism (or an individualistic version of divine relativism, if you prefer). According to the pure form of the DCT, right acts are right and wrong acts are wrong merely because God says that they are. There is no rhyme or reason to morality, no objective reason that murder is wrong, no reason that God cannot change his mind tomorrow and make genocide and rape not only permissible but obligatory.

...

So no sensible theist is a divine command theorist. But if a theist is not a divine command theorist, then he has no philosophical advantage over anyone else. A theist who is not a divine command theorist believes that right acts are right for some reason other than God's commanding them. Consequently, such a theist still faces the task of understanding and explaining why right acts are right. If God's commanding them doesn't make them right, then something else does--and the theist is in no better position to figure out what that is than the rest of us are.

Actually, the situation is rather worse for Intelligent Design because ID doesn't get you all the way to belief in God as the proximal cause of our existence. Even if you accept the basic principle of ID, namely that our existence (and the existence of all the extant species on Earth) is so improbable that it can't have occurred by evolution but must rather have been designed, that only demonstrates that there must have been some designer, not that that designer is God. And even if you subscribe to the DCT, that doesn't mean that that theory necessarily extends to any arbitrary designer.

To sharpen this point, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose we finish processing the entire human genome and somewhere in the junk DNA on chromosome 15 is the sequence "Designed on Alpha Centauri by Genomic Systems, Ltd., All Rights Reserved." Moreover, the genomes of every other species we sequence contain similar copyright notices. So, it's pretty clear that we were designed by some bug-eyed monster living on Alpha Centauri. So far so good, except that said bug-eyed monster shows up and informs us that we were designed to serve as a cheap source of food for Alpha Centaurans, who love the taste of human flesh (it's a cookbook!!!!).

So, we know what our purpose was... to be a tasty source of protein. The DCT theory (and that espoused by Harris and Calvert and the IDN) indicates that we ought to go along with this purpose and offer ourselves up for fricasseeing. This doesn't seem like a very attractive outcome, and I rather doubt that Harris and Calvert would be the first in line to the slaughterhouse.

You can try to bypass this fairly disturbing conclusion by arguing that the Centaurans themselves must himself have been designed by some designer (ID arguments again), that that designer was God, and that having humans served as tasty appetizers is contrary to God's purposes. I.e., it's not the proximal designer's purposes that matter but that of the original designer (God). There are (at least) two problems here:

  1. We don't know that ID arguments actually apply to the Centaurans. The current ID arguments rely fairly heavily on the current structure of Earth-based life forms, the fossil record, etc. Maybe the Centaurans are constructed in such a way that these arguments don't work and so they weren't actually designed. After all, the ID argument depends on God not having being designed in order to avoid infinite recursion.
  2. Even if the Centaurans were themselves designed, it's not obvious that they were designed by God. Maybe they were designed by some other kind of aliens, who were themselves designed by aliens, etc. How many levels of indirection do we have to have before its the purposes of the proximal designer that count rather than the original designer? And how, exactly, are we to access the purposes of the nth-order designer when all of our contact is with the Centaurans, who, as mentioned before, want to turn us into appetizers?

So, even if ID is correct (and as far as I can tell it's more or less without merit), it isn't sufficient to demonstrate any reasonable kind of more principles.

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32 Comments

I don't quite agree with your characterization of the ID response to your thought experiment, at least based on the statements quoted here. You suggest that "The DCT theory (and that espoused by Harris and Calvert and the IDN) indicates that we ought to go along with this purpose and offer ourselves up for fricasseeing." But I don't think a believer in ID would say that. Rather, he would "at least consider the implications before he violated the clear intentions and purposes of an ancient civilization." And he would argue that, "If purpose pervades life, then we pursue actions contrary to that purpose at our peril."

And he might be right! If we did do something to upset the apple cart and make ourselves unsuitable for use as food by the Centaurians, that could have even worse repurcussions. They might turn off the sun or cause some other disaster, if we were no longer useful for our designed-in purpose.

In short, ID believers as you have quoted them don't seem to advocate slavish acceptance of some purpose; rather, they are calling for careful consideration of the implications if we are in fact designed for a purpose, and of the risks in doing things to thwart that purpose, given (I presume) the implied power of the designers.

The critque of DCT simply fails. DCT itself is based upon the idea of a god that is pseudo-Biblical. Namely, one that is constant and rational. DCT doesn't work with a fickle god, nor with one that hold that an act is both forbidden and required under the same circumstances.

Furthermore, the DCT claim that morality is defined by the creator-god independent of moral reasoning on our part does NOT imply that the creator-god lacks morality in reasoning, to the contrary, the theory itself is only tenable because of the presumption that the creator-god is moral.

Again, the Biblical god makes multiple express claims to constance, rationality (AND inscrutinability), and morality. I'ld hate to defend DCT as an ancient Greek.

If one wishes to argue, "DCT is nothing more than a fig leaf covering of your attempted moral imperialism", one may do so. But Biblical theists have already disavowed many, many potential creator-gods. I'm not constrained to defend DCT under one (or more) of them.

While I've not studied the ID people closely, I have been nervous about their approach precisely because they appear to be open to these sorts of critiques. The theory of ID can be made scientific. The meta-theory is much more sound if it is kept close to the source--Biblical theism.

I believe in the Stupid Designer theory. The great space lobster did a really crappy job, including allowing the development of nuclear weapons, bunions, and athelete's foot...

Of coures, it is just as rational a theory as Intelligent Design... )

Hal,

The argument you make applies regardless of whether we were designed or not. If the Centaurans show up with their FTL ships and their planet busters and ask us to hand over some Hal Finney steaks, it doesn't really matter whether they designed us or not, does it? The key factor at hand is that there is a threat. Note that this isn't an *ethical* theory, but merely a theory about self-interest.

Nathan,
"If one wishes to argue, "DCT is nothing more than a fig leaf covering of your attempted moral imperialism", one may do so. But Biblical theists have already disavowed many, many potential creator-gods. I'm not constrained to defend DCT under one (or more) of them."

I think this is they key point: under DCT how does one establish whether a creator god is one whom one is morally required to comply with? The mere fact that said god can establish that they did the creating doesn't get the job done, as the Centauran example shows. So, you need to make some set of assessments about whether an asserted creator's commands are in fact moral. This requires a moral theory prior to that of the creator's commands.

Incidentally, the claim to constance in the face of a pseudo-biblical god seems rather surprising. Modern Christians disavow all sorts of commandments which clearly are thought to apply to 5th century BCE Jew. Rather looks like god changed the rules.

This issue was first articulated in Plato's "Euthyphro", which starts with the question, "is something holy because the gods love it, or do the gods love things because they are holy." (The Euthyphro is still a good read today.)


I have to agree that the viewpoint that "if there is no god there can be no morality" strongly implies that morality is arbitrary and the moral is simply that which the god whims.


That leads straight to the obvious conclusion that we do not praise god because he is good but because he will roast us if we do not. We do not obey his commandments because it is the right thing but because it is what the fascist leader in the sky demands.

This is a fairly primitive religious structure, and a fundamentally unsatisfying world view.


I'm glad I don't believe in god, and am thus free to seek better explanations for moral systems and ethics that are not based in quicksand.

I thought the difference between creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) is that creationism says that God created life, but ID says that there is a Designer but the Designer is not necessarily God. This is how ID advocates try to argue that ID is not inherently a religious theory.

So, taking ID at face value, an atheist could conceivably believe in ID. Why an atheist would come to believe in ID is much harder to explain.

Note also that belief in God is not necessarily inconsistent with belief in evolution. Some people believe in a God who doesn't intervene directly in earthly matters. Such a God can exist in a world where evolution is true. Presumably He would want us to teach evolution in school; but he wouldn't step in to stop the Kansas school board from being foolish.

The problem with the ID'ers is they say "designer" when they mean "God".

If you try to ask about the Giant Intelligent Space Cockroach as chief designer (after all, Cockroaches are far more successful and plentiful than Man), they start to look at you all funny.

I think you're selling DCT short--or, more precisely, selling the alternatives long. The situation for people who want to behave ethically is fundamentally very grim. As with metaphysics ("what is real?"), there's no objective, methodical solution to the problem of ethics ("what is right?"). However, unlike metaphysics, which most people can comfortably shrug off with a blithe "who cares?", ethics has a way of actually making a difference to people--even people who are utterly indifferent to most aspects of philosophy--because they often find themselves deeply wanting to find the correct answers to ethical dilemmas whose answers are far from obvious.

DCT is basically a way to finesse the problem, by positing the existence of an infallible authority who can be relied on to answer the question correctly. Yes, that authority may decide that the right thing for humans to do is to allow ourselves to be eaten by aliens. (And more than a few such posited authorities have been claimed to demand remarkably similar sacrifices.) But before you mockingly dismiss that command as obviously unethical, ask yourself a simple question: do you really know it's unethical--and if so, how?

I claim that all past proposed answers to that question--"it feels wrong"; "I can logically prove it to be mistaken"; "it fails to meet my preferred empirical test for ethical behavior"; and many more--are in the end every bit as arbitrary as DCT. After all, they all require an important first "leap of ethics"--"my guts/axioms/empirical criteria are a good foundation for ethical judgments"--that requires a good deal of what can only be described as blind faith. One can, in fact, think of DCT as a kind of minimal assumption that one can make in order to solve all ethical problems: "I accept this particular alleged divine revelation as emanating from an infallible moral authority; the rest of my ethical system follows from that."

Sure, it's ugly. The sad thing is that the alternatives are no better.

The explosive growth of obesity in developed countries is obviously due to the designed in "marbleization" mechanisms of the bug-eyed Centaurians. Jenny Craig may be the only hope for our planet!

So, if purpose does not pervade life, and we humans ended up on this planet by the same occurrence or accident as cows, does the life of a human have more value than that of a cow? If not, can I start killing the humans I might have a reason to believe are tasty?

Dan,

I agree that there aren't any unproblematic ethical theories, but that doesn't imply that DCT is as good as any other. The point about human sacrifice is that most people who claim to subscribe to DCT actually do so in only some shallow fashion: they have some prior notion of "good" and they accept what they believe to be divine commands because they roughly accord with the prior notion of the good. When faced with an obvious conflict, they generally look for some way to weasel out of the divine command (e.g., it's satan, not God speaking).

In fact, this is well illustrated by the phrasing you choose: "infallible moral authority". There are two versions of "God says so, then it's right". The first (DCT) is that morality proceeds from God. The second is that God is some sort of oracle for determining some external moral code. I claim that in practice most people who claim to subscribe to DCT in fact subscribe to the second theory. The first theory is, as Smith observes, basically bogus, being simply a might-makes-right version of relativism. The second theory in practice depends on accord with one's moral priors and so doesn't let you make any progress in practice, because you first need some external theory in order to establish those priors.

Grumpy:
Obviously, this is a difficult question, though it's not clear that the god theory helps you here--after all, if there is a god, then we're all pretty much ants by comparison, so who says that we're more important than roaches? As Nick points out, the bare data about species prevalance suggests that this is the case. Sure, it's possible that god comes down and tells us that we're the important ones, but ID alone doesn't get you there.

EKR,


You've stated that ID alone and god-theory "doesn't get you there". Fine. I'll give you that. But what does get us there? Or do you believe that human life is no more valuable than that of a roach?

Grumpy,

This is a difficult problem without a consensus answer. Required reading:

Derek Parfit, "Reasons and Persons"

John Rawls, "A Theory of Justice"

Robert Nozick, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia"

And this is just the highlights of the modern era....

Nice of you to admit that Grumpy has hit on a difficult question. It is interesting to note how some people have answered it. It seems that people who believe in socialism favor the "(At least some) people are as valuable as roaches." This is suggested by the Germany before WWII, Russia with the man-made famine in the Ukraine, and Cambodia. (Not to mention the Netherlands today.)

I would rather live where people are considered much more important than animal, bugs, spotted owls, etc...

Thanks,

Jim

P.S. The quote below has intrigued me for a long time.

A number of years ago, the renowned biologist (and evolutionist), Sir Julian Huxley (bio), grandson of Thomas Huxley (btw, also the brother of Aldus Huxley, the author of "Brave New World") made an interesting comment to an interviewer on a British television program. When asked why the scientific community quickly embraced evolution, Julian Huxley responded:

"I suppose the reason we leaped at The Origin of the Species, was because the idea of God interfered with our sexual mores."

I don't usually make a practice of defending socialism, but it's a bit strange that you specifically identify Germany before WWII. I seem to remember that during WWII there was some talk of some people being as valuable as roaches. Actually, this meme seems to be pretty common throughout history, not specifically limited to socialists.

The second theory in practice depends on accord with one's moral priors and so doesn't let you make any progress in practice, because you first need some external theory in order to establish those priors.

I don't understand this claim. Why does embracing belief in the divine perfection of a moral system require verifying it against some prior theory? On the contrary, I doubt that many people who adhere to a religiously-based moral system ever had a clear prior idea about what's "right" for a moral system. After all, why would anyone with such a well-developed conception of what a moral system should look like need to bother with a religious justification for it?

Indeed, most religiously-based moral systems I know of involve at least some elements that they concede are very difficult to accept, and require discipline, devotion and practice to internalize. (Think keeping kosher, "turning the other cheek", letting go of the material world, or martyrdom.) I doubt these elements match many people's prior ideas of morality.

I don't understand this claim. Why does embracing belief in the divine perfection of a moral system require verifying it against some prior theory? On the contrary, I doubt that many people who adhere to a religiously-based moral system ever had a clear prior idea about what's "right" for a moral system.

As previously noted, either morality proceeds from god (DCT) or god is simply an oracle for some external moral system. The first claim isn't any ethically stronger than any other kind of relativism. The second claim doesn't theoretically depend on accord with moral priors. You could simply take it on faith that god is an oracle. However, in practice, I don't believe that most people do that. When faced with a divine oracular pronouncement that *actually* contradicts their moral intuitions they decide either that they've misunderstood or that the pronouncement is wrong (e.g. from satan)--which is the point of the Centauran hypo.

I agree that most religious people don't have a well-developed moral conception, but I think they do have a bunch of primitive moral intuitions--the kind of stuff you learn in kindergarten: don't hit, share your toys, etc. It's these intuitions that the divine oracle needs to align with.

"After all, why would anyone with such a well-developed conception of what a moral system should look like need to bother with a religious justification for it?"

This is an unusual statement. It seems to me that the existence of deity (deities) is an epistemic claim that doesn't really have much to do with one's ethical system. If Jesus shows up and presents convincing evidence that in the beginning was the Word, etc., I pretty much have to accept his existence, even if he then tells me that the most moral thing to do is kill everyone I see. I just don't have to accept that he's right.


"Indeed, most religiously-based moral systems I know of involve at least some elements that they concede are very difficult to accept, and require discipline, devotion and practice to internalize. (Think keeping kosher, "turning the other cheek", letting go of the material world, or martyrdom.) I doubt these elements match many people's prior ideas of morality."

I'm not arguing that EVERY moral precept produced by the divine oracle has to match with your moral priors. Just that most of them do and that the remainder aren't shockingly offensive. That said, turning the other cheek and letting go of the material world actually match up pretty well with playground morality: it's not nice to hit and you need to be patient. Martyrdom is a little trickier b/c it's actually two sort of unrelated things, IMHO: the early Christian sense of passive martyrdom for one's beliefs and the current Islamic sense of martyrdom in the service of one's beliefs/clan. Certainly the second is a component of any number of primitive warrior cultures--not to mention numerous war movies--without any recourse to biblical/koranic authority.

EKR:
"I think this is they key point: under DCT how does one establish whether a creator god is one whom one is morally required to comply with?"

First, I think you misconstrued my meaning of the term "works". (My fault.) By "works", I mean "produces a morality that I could use as a guide with others to produce a stable society."

The real problem, however, is the misconstrual of type. DCT posits that a creator has a "Creator's Perogative" over his work. If one mortal creates another, this is little more than a royalist argument. But when a divine being creates, there is a type distinction. There is no "establishing whether a creator god is one whom one is morally required to comply with". Either the creator god has required compliance or not.

Again, there are multiple places in the Bible where precisely this claim is made.

Complaining against DCT because of the possibility of an divine creator commanding immorality fails both by the definition of morality under the theory and under the nullity of the existence of such a being.

EF:
DCT--Divine Command Theory--implies the existence of a divine being who gives commands, so Deism is pretty well excluded.

EKR:
Incidentally, the claim to constance in the face of a pseudo-biblical god seems rather surprising. Modern Christians disavow all sorts of commandments which clearly are thought to apply to 5th century BCE Jew. Rather looks like god changed the rules.

Well, just for the record, I HAVE broken with Christianity over this exact issue.... :)

I also know the position well enough to defend it: their position is that the moral rules remain fully in effect, while the ceremonial rules were set aside.

Kindergarten morality is a reflection of the preexisting moral order in the surrounding society. Get out a bit. Kindergarten in some places looks VERY different from what you might know.

Martyrdom ("passive martyrdom" in your parliance) goes back to the period of the kings in Judaism. Christianity just continued.

The Islamic sense is a suicide mission--a very different thing. Automartyrdom perhaps, but not martyrdom as it has been historically defined.

"The real problem, however, is the misconstrual of type. DCT posits that a creator has a "Creator's Perogative" over his work. If one mortal creates another, this is little more than a royalist argument. But when a divine being creates, there is a type distinction. There is no "establishing whether a creator god is one whom one is morally required to comply with". Either the creator god has required compliance or not.


Again, there are multiple places in the Bible where precisely this claim is made.


Complaining against DCT because of the possibility of an divine creator commanding immorality fails both by the definition of morality under the theory and under the nullity of the existence of such a being.

I've heard this assertion but I don't buy it. The complex of traits required to be a creator being (even an immortal omnipotent one), doesn't logically include moral perfection. Yes, I know the Bible claims otherwise, but I don't consider that dispositive.


I also know the position well enough to defend it: their position is that the moral rules remain fully in effect, while the ceremonial rules were set aside.


I don't think this holds up. Jewish law allowed for divorce, yet Jesus says it's impermissible.

This is an unusual statement. It seems to me that the existence of deity (deities) is an epistemic claim that doesn't really have much to do with one's ethical system. If Jesus shows up and presents convincing evidence that in the beginning was the Word, etc., I pretty much have to accept his existence, even if he then tells me that the most moral thing to do is kill everyone I see. I just don't have to accept that he's right.

Exactly my point. If someone has already developed, and has confidence in, an a priori ethical system, why would he or she trade it in for the one specified by some powerful--even all-powerful--deity?

On the other hand, if someone lacks such an a priori system--or lacks confidence in the one he or she somehow previously acquired--then it might make sense to look for an external source for one. And a purported universe-creator is as plausible a source as any.

I'm not arguing that EVERY moral precept produced by the divine oracle has to match with your moral priors. Just that most of them do and that the remainder aren't shockingly offensive.

Granted, lots of people no doubt are happy with the moral systems they've created, derived or learned. Such people have no need for a DCT. It's the ones who've actually recognized the ad hoc nature of their intuitive ethics that might find a DCT useful.

On the other hand, if someone lacks such an a priori system--or lacks confidence in the one he or she somehow previously acquired--then it might make sense to look for an external source for one. And a purported universe-creator is as plausible a source as any.
And as implausible a source as any. The fact that said deity created the universe doesn't grant it any more moral standing than any other random external entity. The arguments that it does mostly derive from various forms of the argument from force.


Granted, lots of people no doubt are happy with the moral systems they've created, derived or learned. Such people have no need for a DCT. It's the ones who've actually recognized the ad hoc nature of their intuitive ethics that might find a DCT useful.


But again, you're assuming that they actually are believers in DCT. I claim that they are in fact not and that the proof of this is that their intuitive ethics match the claimed divine commands in most major respects. What a surprising coincidence, no?

But again, you're assuming that they actually are believers in DCT. I claim that they are in fact not and that the proof of this is that their intuitive ethics match the claimed divine commands in most major respects. What a surprising coincidence, no?

I suppose some--perhaps even most--self-professed DCT adherents may in fact be insincere. But that's a knock against them, not DCT.

The fact that said deity created the universe doesn't grant it any more moral standing than any other random external entity.

Well, "external" is an important word, here. How many at-least-partially-decipherable sources of moral authority do we have, outside of humankind? None, if you rely only on scientific evidence. Maybe one, if you're willing to accept one or another source's existence on faith. (And if you believe in more than one, you're making faith do more work than you have to.) So, by the process of elimination....

Why is it relevant that it has to be outside of humankind? I'm talking about external to you. Said deity doesn't have a status any more special than some random other person you run into on the street. Again, simply having power doesn't grant an entity that status.

Why is it relevant that it has to be outside of humankind?

If you're hoping against hope that there exists an infallible source of moral authority to rely on, then looking outside humankind has obvious plausibility advantages, because of the readily accessible knowledge we have about humans that makes them implausible as sources of moral authority. For example, if you believe yourself to need an external source of moral authority--that is, to be morally fallible--then it's an obvious inference to suspect the same of other human beings as well. The same leap is less direct for non-human sources, though, and it's therefore more plausible to hypothesize otherwise about them. Also, a source of morality outside of humankind may or may not have a vested interest in misleading you about what's morally correct. But a human is pretty much guaranteed to have such an interest, at least some of the time.

Uh, here's the fallibility thing again. This doesn't apply in DCT b/c morality proceeds from the deity, rather than the deity simply being an oracle. So, why is the deity any more of a source of morality than my cat?

Sorry, I was using DCT to refer to the "deity as a moral oracle" approach. If you're hoping against hope that there's an infallible moral authority out there, then a creator has several plausibility advantages over your cat. For one thing, he/she/it has demonstrated superhuman competence, and presumably has the ability to communicate unambiguously to his/her/its creations. He/she/it is also more plausibly unbiased by self-interest in offering its moral instruction. And you only have to believe in a single, unique creator/oracle, as opposed to having to worry about whether any cat is as morally expert as any other, and what to do if their admonitions disagree.

Suppose that a writer friend of mine were hard at work on a novel, and that I called on him one day and found him so furious that he was unable to concentrate on the book. He explained to me that he wasn't mad at me, he was mad at George, who had just got himself into jail again and left a one-year old child entirely without support. His wife, Alice, would have to try to find a job despite her crippled leg.


Now suppose I find out from him that George and Alice are characters in his book. Wouldn't you suspect that he might be cracking up?


Does the creator of the universe define its morality? He can't! It would be absurd.


I notice that talking about an infallible moral system is also absurd. Moral systems are going to be fallible, barring miracles, and the best way to find the best one is to look at a lot of them and then see how they work, not to try to get one from God. God won't give me a computer that doesn't crash, and won't give me a moral system that always works either.

Dan says...

all past proposed answers to that question [...] are in the end every bit as arbitrary


Exactly; they all are arbitraty, and for one main reason:
They're based on claimed attribution of ideas/desires/rules/whatever to God. God wants [X] because I (or you, or the pope, or St. Mark, or whoever) tell you so.

Look at how many people will come up with so many different claims about what God says, or what God does or doesn't want us to do. Which of them really speaks for God? Why should we think that any of them do?


From the originally quoted text:

Similarly, if life is an accident, why not alter it to suits our needs? If we can, why not make human clones?


This is, of course, the common argument, and results in the extended discussion here about the wisdom of changing God's plan. But even if we assume that God has such a plan, why shouldn't we think that our learning how to clone humans isn't part of that plan? The people who make this argument assume that since we didn't know how to make clones yesterday, God doesn't want us to do it, and because we DO know how to do it today, we have to be careful NOT to, to avoid changing the plan. Isn't it just as reasonable to assume that God's plan is for us to learn? Perhaps we're MEANT to learn to make human clones, and if we DON'T do it, we're in for disaster.


If there be a God, surely that God is not a micromanager. Surely, if he/she/it created all this, the "universe" as we know it, that universe was set up with "the way things work", and was then left to run autonomously, autonomically, automatically. It seems preposterous to me to think of a God that cares whether [X] sleeps with [Y] before marriage, or whether little Johnny is or isn't killed in that car crash, and the idea that God is listening to what Johnny's mother has to pray about and will intercede on her behalf because she asked for it is amazingly egocentric.


A lot of this, perhaps all of it, comes from our (collective) ability to understand things only in the context of our experience. If King George, say, wants to go to war with Iraq, say, we can go petition him, to try to change his mind, to try to convince him to relent. That is, we can pray, and maybe if our prayer be fervent enough, he will change his plan for us. We think God is like that, because it's all we know.


The only way we can understand how a car got there, or a shirt, is if someone MADE it. So God MADE this rock, that cloud, the universe... in the same way that we would make a shirt, or a building, or a city. We think God does things that way, because it's all we know.


On the other hand, if we accept that there are things we don't understand, and CAN'T understand, because they are so far our of our realm of experience, then I think we allow ourselves to come to very different conclusions.

Cola:
Does the creator of the universe define its morality? He can't! It would be absurd.

Your statement is premised on your analogy of God as an author of a book. In this analogy, the characters lack moral agency. They have no morality at all. Even the most extreme of Calvinists don't hold to this view.

EKR:

It's interesting how much our assumptions can slow communication when they aren't shared.

The Bible claims that our sense of morality proceeds from the Divine. That without the Divine influence, our morality would be no different than that of the animals.

If the creation is such that its sense of morality is built in by the Creator, then by definition, that original sense is the true morality, and any deviation is morally inferior. Note that in the Biblical view, the Man is created morally perfect, but falls, and in so doing condemns his offspring to starting life in a morally inferior state, from which they can only be lifted by the aid of the Creator.

As for the issue of divorce, the text doesn't state it, but Jesus is supporting the position of one of the leading rabbies of the prior generation. The text does quote Him as stating that divorce was allowed as a concession to the human condition, but note, "from the beginning it was not so." The Law "of Moses" contains restrictions on a number of activities which are not permissible under original morality (OM), but which had become so prevelant that the people would not have submitted to an outright abolishment. Slavery, divorce and bridenapping are at the top of the list.

Please consider the following scenario:

A king goes to war, and drives his enemy from his capitol. Entering the palace, he systematically finds, kills, and eats any of the children of the prior king who are young enough to still require much attention from their mothers. As for the mothers, they are forcibly impregnated.

What is the moral status of the king's activities? Why?

Does it matter if the king is a gorilla? This is what occurs whenever a new silverback takes over.

Under DCT, the gorilla, lacking a moral sense, is amoral, as are his actions. A human king, however, would be condemned by almost any modern ethical system. But upon what basis does the atheist make the distinction?

After all, is not the species strengthened when the strong have many offspring? Has not the king demonstrated his superior strength? Should not the offspring of the weak be kept from competing with those of the strong?

Aren't we taught to treat the extinction of any species as a moral abhorant, to be avoided at massive costs to thousands or even millions of our own species? (Think birds, DDT, and malaria) How does the atheist draw the line?

Actually, your king-gorilla analogy presents a very easy way for the atheist to make the distinction. Gorillas are not that successful a species compared to humans. Therefore, it might simply be selection pressure that determines morality.

If the king follows the eat and impregnate strategy, he may disseminate his genetic material more widely initially, but undermine his ability to secure cooperation from his forces and his new subjects. This lower cooperation could decrease the overall chance of passing his genetic material further down the line (e.g., increase the chances of a revolution).

There's been some recent psycho-economic and neuro-psychological research that indicates humans may be wired for cooperative behavior. So it may simply be that our innate sense of "playground morality" is nothing more than a very successful adaptation.

So you define moral behavior as anything which improves the fitness of the species? What's your position on DDT & why?

We most certainly are hard-wired for cooperation. So are wolves and lions. And gorillas and chimps. Like gorillas and chimps, however, we show extreme individual variability in cooperative behavior.

I still argue that playground morality in Western civilization is significantly different from playground morality elsewhere.

There was a reason that I limited my condemnation to "modern ethical system"s. It's not been that long since the standard was kill/neuter/rape. That standard still pretty much exists in certain quarters (and alleys) today.

I can certain argue that the Judeo/Christian ethic which replaced that practice is superior. Do you agree? Why?

Assuming you mean DCT, my position is that it appears to confer to no additional benefit beyond playground morality.

As far as I can tell, our cooperation in general has been limited by purely technological factors. Large cooperative societies have dominated ever since we invented agriculture. They've become larger as communication and transportation improved.

Bhuddism, shintoism, and hinduism have similar playground level morals to Judeo-Christian ethics and those societies seem to be doing reasonably well.

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