• Welcome to the new Internet Infidels Discussion Board, formerly Talk Freethought.

MORALITY IS BIOLOGICAL

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Claim: morality (for living things) is biological and/or biochemical.

A weaker version of the claim could be to say that the basis of morality (for living things) is biological.

Example: ‘continued existence is right’.

This would mean that moral facts are biological/biochemical facts, and physical facts inasmuch as the laws of physics apply to living things. Variety and complexity in morality would then be due to and explained by biological variety and complexity. In other words, morality would be relative to biology. Morality would be sociobiological where a social species is concerned.

Furthermore, under the above claim, morality would not depend on the experiencing, by this or that species, of propositional attitudes towards or beliefs about what is either right or wrong. In other words, a behaviour could be independently right or wrong in relation to a biological fact, rule, drive, urge or desire (eg 'continued existence is correct', which is offered as a fact that is independent of species) independently of whether or not (a) that fact/rule/drive/urge/desire is consciously felt/experienced/understood by the living things to which it applies, and/ or (b) there are moral attitudes about the behaviour by this or that organism or species.

This claim is in addition to saying that morality is consequentialist (as described in another thread), pragmatic (that the relevant consequences are practical consequences) and relative.

In total, morality, at least for living entities, is consequentialist, pragmatic, relative and biological.
 
Last edited:

fromderinside

Mazzie Daius
Joined
Oct 6, 2008
Messages
15,514
Location
Local group: Solar system: Earth: NA: US: contiguo
Basic Beliefs
optimist
The topic has already been more adequately framed than from such as "existence is right".

Morality and Evolutionary Biology https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/#EvoMet

Whence morality? That is a question which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented. Two and a half millennia of debate have, however, failed to produce a satisfactory answer. So now it is time for someone else to have a go…Perhaps [biologists] can eventually do what philosophers have never managed, and explain moral behavior in an intellectually satisfying way.[1]​
This passage epitomizes a growing theme in the popular and scientific media, echoing claims made forty years ago with the emergence of sociobiology, when E.O. Wilson suggested that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized” (Wilson 1975, 562). For their part, moral philosophers will hasten to point out that they are not primarily in the business of “explaining moral behavior” in the sense of causally explaining the origins of our capacity for moral judgment or of various associated emotional and behavioral dispositions. If a moral philosopher asks “whence morality,” she is more likely to be concerned with the justification of moral principles or the source and nature of obligation. Still, there are important potential connections between the scientific explanatory issues and philosophical ones, opening the way for profitable interdisciplinary inquiry.
Section 1 provides an overview of the issues and a sketch of the connections between them, highlighting important distinctions we will need throughout. Sections 2, 3 and 4 then go on to explore critically the three main branches of inquiry at the intersection of morality and evolutionary biology: Descriptive Evolutionary Ethics, Prescriptive Evolutionary Ethics, and Evolutionary Metaethics.

I submit your "...at least for living entities, is consequentialist, pragmatic, relative and biological." ... woefully falls short.
 

Bronzeage

Super Moderator
Staff member
Joined
Apr 27, 2011
Messages
7,458
Location
Deep South
Basic Beliefs
Pragmatic
If you want this kind of discussion, you should offer a definition, or at the least and example of morality for consideration.
 

Wiploc

Veteran Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2002
Messages
3,407
Location
Denver
Basic Beliefs
Strong Atheist
[h=2]MORALITY IS BIOLOGICAL[/h]
Claim: morality (for living things) is biological and/or biochemical.

A weaker version of the claim could be to say that the basis of morality (for living things) is biological.

Example: ‘continued existence is right’.


I see the claim, but I don't see the argument in support.

A single counter-example should suffice to refute.

First, let's point out that many moralities are pro-death. Pro-lifers, for instance, kill doctors. Muslims kill sisters after they've been raped. Jehovah killed most everybody.

So I'm guessing your claim is really something more like, "The one true morality is biological."

Still, if we take your claim that continued existence is right, then, again, a single counterexample will refute:
  • Kevorkian would have to be wrong in all cases.
  • It would be wrong to put our dogs down when their continued existence would be miserable.
  • People with motor-neuron disease (like Steven Hawking had) would be wrong to want to suicide rather than be trapped in the solitary confinement of their minds, unable to communicate with anyone else.
  • Asrael (in the movie Dogma) would be wrong to think that nonexistence is better than eternal Hellfire.

(Sorry about the formatting. This is one of those instances when the quote button doesn't work.)

None of those work for me. I don't agree that continued existence is always right.

Nor is it obvious that biology is always right.





In total, morality, at least for living entities, is consequentialist, pragmatic, relative and biological.




Consequentialism: I'm more than halfway onboard with this.

Pragmatism: I've heard of this. I would entertain an argument, or a link to an article. I'm not trying to derail this thread.

Relativism: I read some Ruth Benedict. She was confused. And of course I talk to Christians who equivocate on this term endlessly. The result is that I don't even know what is attempted to be suggested by this word. I don't even know of an antonym besides "non-relative." I know a lot of people oppose relativism to absolutism or objectivism, but those discussions start out in the swamp and just stay there.

Biologicalism: I don't get it. If it's not just an attempt to bypass the is/ought barrier, I don't see the point or appeal.
 

Wiploc

Veteran Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2002
Messages
3,407
Location
Denver
Basic Beliefs
Strong Atheist
It looks like we've covered you up in a dog pile of negative responses.

I posted before seeing those others. I'm just trying to help you tee off; I'm giving you opportunities to expand on your position, explaining, defending, selling.
 

T.G.G. Moogly

Formerly Joedad
Joined
Mar 19, 2001
Messages
8,751
Location
PA USA
Basic Beliefs
egalitarian
The OP states the obvious, as plainly as saying that water is wet. I don't see how it can be understood and explained any other way.

I might add a brief discussion about economics as morality certainly has an economic component, but yes, it's dictated, not decided.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Biologicalism: I don't get it. If it's not just an attempt to bypass the is/ought barrier, I don't see the point or appeal.
I meant, for example, 'the continued existence of the organism in question is right (or good if you prefer)' or its genes, or its kin, colony, group or tribe, possibly even species, but with the organism itself or perhaps its genes as being priorities.

In your case it would be 'my continued existence is right and/or good', as it would be in the case of an abortion-performing doctor who some anti-abortionists might want to kill.

Clearly, there are exceptions, suicide being the most obvious, especially suicide for an organism that has not reproduced first. There might be different ways to explain that. That the organism is sick or unhealthy in some way, for example. This type of explanation is often permitted for moral questions, such as that there are people who do not think it is wrong to kill others merely for pleasure, such as psychopaths.

I'm not saying that that is the reason for the exception.

There is altruistic suicide, where the continued existence of another or others takes precedence, usually relatives or members of a group or colony. Several species appear to do this.

Or it might be selected because the alternative is otherwise unendurable or pointless suffering, yes.

The bottom line might be genes. I doubt they ever commit suicide. For them the rule may be absolute. It could be said that in the end, organisms are merely gene-vehicles.

As for the is/ought barrier, yes it might collapse that. It would also decouple 'morality itself' from 'attitudes (about morality)'
 
Last edited:

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
The OP states the obvious, as plainly as saying that water is wet. I don't see how it can be understood and explained any other way.

One other possible way would be the sort of moral realism that would say there are externally independent, objective moral facts that do not even depend on living things, but that are discovered by them.

I'm not a moral realist (I think, it's hard to be sure in philosophy since there seem to be so many versions of every ism) so to me it is like saying water is wet, ie stating the obvious. But that ain't so bad. At least it offers a clear, simple answer to a key question about morality, and some would say potentially explains all moral issues.
 

fromderinside

Mazzie Daius
Joined
Oct 6, 2008
Messages
15,514
Location
Local group: Solar system: Earth: NA: US: contiguo
Basic Beliefs
optimist
Water is wet? Water is a fluid, can be empirically shown to be so. But only our senses tell us water has the quality of wetness which is 'proven' by circular argument. One can see the problem with wetness when one touches the fluid water verses when one touches another fluid mercury. Most of the indicators of liquid wetness are missing in the touch of mercury.

I don't want to get into squabble about peripheral issue discussions of quality when discussing properties of morality vis a vis the physical definition of life, living, or moral imperative.

I'm just opening a door on the daemons of discussing quality when discussing the claim: morality - a quality - using for living things - a quality - as an descriptive sleight of hand for empirically defined biological and/or biochemical things.

Are we going to substitute qualitative for empirical description when we discus morality in a shame discussion or are we actually going to root morality - provide an empirical description of that term - in biological entities.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Water is wet? Water is a fluid, can be empirically shown to be so. But only our senses tell us water has the quality of wetness which is 'proven' by circular argument. One can see the problem with wetness when one touches the fluid water verses when one touches another fluid mercury. Most of the indicators of liquid wetness are missing in the touch of mercury.

I don't want to get into squabble about peripheral issue discussions of quality when discussing properties of morality vis a vis the physical definition of life, living, or moral imperative.

Good point. I read 'saying water is wet' as meaning 'making a statement of the obvious' (eg 'morality for living things is biological'), but as you say it's arguably not a good way to say that.


I'm just opening a door on the daemons of discussing quality when discussing the claim: morality - a quality - using for living things - a quality - as an descriptive sleight of hand for empirically defined biological and/or biochemical things.

Are we going to substitute qualitative for empirical description when we discus morality in a shame discussion or are we actually going to root morality - provide an empirical description of that term - in biological entities.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean, or where you're coming from (although I know you often seem to come from this direction) so I can't answer.

But I did say in the OP that either morality itself or at least the basis for it is rooted in behaviours about which the organism need not have any propositional attitudes. For example, when a fox eats a chicken, it is (probably) not thinking about the morality of that.

Humans may well be the only species that ponder or agonise over the moral rights and wrongs of what they do. Other living things just seem to do stuff.

Granted, we can't read their minds (if they have them).
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Here's an example I posted in another thread:

One organism is killing and eating another organism:


5.jpg
The didinium is eating and killing the paramecium



By way of contrast:


 
Last edited:

fromderinside

Mazzie Daius
Joined
Oct 6, 2008
Messages
15,514
Location
Local group: Solar system: Earth: NA: US: contiguo
Basic Beliefs
optimist
Granted, we can't read their minds (if they have them).

Oh we can most certainly read them. Most advanced modern animals, fresh water fish through humans, show evidence of thinking of self from considering their own existence when viewing mirrors and reflections of other sorts to hesitations in social and predator prey situations. Many species, canines to waterfowl for instance, won't continue attacking after it's opponent offers surrender. Such range from more or less wired behavior to obvious considerations of options. Even teleosts show emotional chromatophore changes in aha situations.

So If this thread is going to play we need accept the high likelihood that morality is evolved, not emergent as a result of some unique human centered attribute.

Many species behave using obvious cognitively derived functions. Yes, ruby sparks, Joe Dimaggio thought about his relationship with Marilyn Monroe and the San Diego Killer Whale committed murder of his trainer in front of an audience on purpose.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Granted, we can't read their minds (if they have them).

Oh we can most certainly read them.

No we can't. What you describe is not that.

And I doubt a didinium even has a mind to read in any case.

So If this thread is going to play we need accept the high likelihood that morality is evolved, not emergent as a result of some unique human centered attribute.

I don't understand. I am totally accepting that morality is evolved. Nor have I said it is a unique, human-centred attribute, emergent or otherwise.

I am not talking just about human morality. My claim was explicitly about 'living things'. I even ruled out in the OP that it necessarily involves attitudes.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Biologicalism: I don't get it. If it's not just an attempt to bypass the is/ought barrier, I don't see the point or appeal.
I meant, for example, 'the continued existence of the organism in question is right (or good if you prefer)' or its genes, or its kin, colony, group or tribe, possibly even species, but with the organism itself or perhaps its genes as being priorities.

In your case it would be 'my continued existence is right and/or good', as it would be in the case of an abortion-performing doctor who some anti-abortionists might want to kill.

Clearly, there are exceptions, suicide being the most obvious, especially suicide for an organism that has not reproduced first. There might be different ways to explain that. That the organism is sick or unhealthy in some way, for example. This type of explanation is often permitted for moral questions, such as that there are people who do not think it is wrong to kill others merely for pleasure, such as psychopaths.

I'm not saying that that is the reason for the exception.

There is altruistic suicide, where the continued existence of another or others takes precedence, usually relatives or members of a group or colony. Several species appear to do this.

Or it might be selected because the alternative is otherwise unendurable or pointless suffering, yes.

The bottom line might be genes. I doubt they ever commit suicide. For them the rule may be absolute. It could be said that in the end, organisms are merely gene-vehicles.

As for the is/ought barrier, yes it might collapse that. It would also decouple 'morality itself' from 'attitudes (about morality)'

Just to add to this, Wiploc......

Are you a moral realist of some sort? I don't think I am. But again, there are so many variations it's hard to know for sure.

I am not the type that tends to think that moral facts exist externally to and independently of living things, that are only discovered by them, in the ways that the laws of physic or the rules of mathematics are (by humans in that case). But I guess I haven't ruled it out. It might be considered an additional issue and I'm sort of 'not going there'.

The question of exceptions throws it up a bit though. We might say, 'there are no exceptions to the laws of physics and 1 + 1 = 2 is always the case, no exceptions' and so on.

In practice, the best we seem to get for morality are rules for which the results are the same in almost all cases and for which there are only a small number of what appear to be outliers.

But, I think it's possible that moral facts, if there are any, might just involve much more complicated equations, involving variables (maths and physics have such equations) and, for example, one of the variables might be something like 'how much suffering is involved'. If some organism has a sufficiently high value for that, the objectively correct answer might be suicide. Counterintuitive, I know. I also doubt we could know what the equations are for morality. There might be a large number of variables, and each variable might be derived from another equation for that variable.
 

Wiploc

Veteran Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2002
Messages
3,407
Location
Denver
Basic Beliefs
Strong Atheist
Just to add to this, Wiploc......

Are you a moral realist of some sort?

Yes. I believe some behaviors are better than others. There are things we should do and things we shouldn't.




I am not the type that tends to think that moral facts exist externally to and independently of living things, that are only discovered by them, in the ways that the laws of physic or the rules of mathematics are (by humans in that case). But I guess I haven't ruled it out. It might be considered an additional issue and I'm sort of 'not going there'.

If such a "moral fact" was external to us, how would it be binding? How would it be oughty?




But, I think it's possible that moral facts, if there are any, might just involve much more complicated equations, involving variables (maths and physics have such equations) and, for example, one of the variables might be something like 'how much suffering is involved'. If some organism has a sufficiently high value for that, the objectively correct answer might be suicide. Counterintuitive, I know. I also doubt we could know what the equations are for morality. There might be a large number of variables, and each variable might be derived from another equation for that variable.

Rape is wrong because of its strong tendency to decrease happiness. We can imagine a universe in which people like being raped, a universe in which rape is good.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Yes. I believe some behaviors are better than others. There are things we should do and things we shouldn't.

Ok but do you believe there are externally independent rules about that? ‘Existence = good’ is the best I can come up with so far (in fact I didn’t come up with it, it was suggested to me) and I’m only citing that for living things. At this point.

If such a "moral fact" was external to us, how would it be binding? How would it be oughty?.
Externally independent wouldn’t mean ‘does not affect you’. Gravity is externally independent of you but you are subject to it.

I’m currently circulating the externally independent (to you) rule ‘existence is good’. If that’s a rule for you about your own existence (even if you are a didinium) then you ought to eat food.

I doubt the didinium itself experiences the sensation that a human associates with an ought though, or is even aware of the rule it’s operating under.

The four creatures behind the man in the trousers wondering what it’s all about (in the cartoon I posted above) are probably not actually thinking the things in the thought bubbles above their heads either, but they are all arguably obeying the rule.
 

T.G.G. Moogly

Formerly Joedad
Joined
Mar 19, 2001
Messages
8,751
Location
PA USA
Basic Beliefs
egalitarian
I’m currently circulating the externally independent (to you) rule ‘existence is good’. If that’s a rule for you about your own existence (even if you are a didinium) then you ought to eat food.

Actually you are saying that biological existence is good. We're all going to exist physically forever, changing a bit as we go along, but biologically we will definitely come and go.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
I’m currently circulating the externally independent (to you) rule ‘existence is good’. If that’s a rule for you about your own existence (even if you are a didinium) then you ought to eat food.

Actually you are saying that biological existence is good. We're all going to exist physically forever, changing a bit as we go along, but biologically we will definitely come and go.

Ok.

I won’t quibble and say that the qualifier ‘for living things’ already arguably covered that. 🙂
 

4321lynx

Veteran Member
Joined
Feb 15, 2006
Messages
1,384
Location
Ontario, Canada
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Are you a moral realist of some sort?
Wiploc
Yes. I believe some behaviors are better than others.
We all do. That doesn't make you a moral realist (in the, technical, philosophical sense).

Here's a bit of detail:

The latter states:

Many philosophers claim that moral realism may be dated back at least to Plato as a philosophical doctrine,[2] and that it is a fully defensible form of moral doctrine. A survey from 2009 involving 3,226 respondents[4] found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other)

I repeat

A survey from 2009 involving 3,226 respondents[4] found that 56% of philosophers
...

At least that many ( 3,226) "philosophers" in this sad world??? That's immoral in itself.
 
Last edited:

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Now can a chimp, or a poodle, even if is not thinking the words ‘eat, survive, reproduce’, nonetheless be experiencing oughts about these things?

I’d be inclined to say yes.

But not a didinium. I’d say a didinium is very unlikely to be having an experience of anything. Ditto a daffodil. For them the rule is just operating without them having any associated experiences about it.

And you might say that it’s got nothing to do with morals in that case. But I’m not sure about that. It might be that we humans are only mistakenly predisposed to define moral issues as ones that we happen to have the capacity to have certain experiences, thoughts or wonderings (or attitudes) about, like the man in the cartoon.

Or if that’s going too far (and I’m inclined to think it isn’t) then at least the rule is still the root or basis of what we think of as morality.
 

Wiploc

Veteran Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2002
Messages
3,407
Location
Denver
Basic Beliefs
Strong Atheist

rousseau

Contributor
Joined
Jun 23, 2010
Messages
12,156
I'm struggling with the term 'moral fact'. Not in a combative way, but I wonder what the definition would be.

'Morality is biological' sounds like a claim where the truth would depend on your definition of an array of terms. On the one hand I could see if we we take a loose definition of morality then it's clear that behavior with moral implications emanates from biological reality. On the other hand, if we wanted to get annoyingly pedantic we'd have to ask ourselves what the word morality actually means. It seems intuitively obvious, but when you look deeper it really isn't.

There is a colloquial definition of the term which allows the every-day person to converse and easily find common meaning, make contrasts, comparisons, and judgements, but then we come back to the phrase.. moral fact. What is a moral fact and what would be it's source? If there can be moral facts, then there can be a formal definition of what is moral, but this is where I get hung up. I've only ever seen moral behavior as something that is strictly relative and subjective, so from what I can see there can only be moral interpretation, not moral fact.

Sounds annoyingly pedantic, and maybe it is, but this points to the importance of definitions in clarifying our thoughts. If we can agree that there is no such thing as a moral fact, then what is morality, and what is it's connection with biology? I'd argue that you can have a biological fact, and that a biological fact produces behavior with moralistic implications, but in practice there is no tangible connection with something called 'morality'. Morality is an interpretation of biological behavior in retrospect, and a social source of determining our courses of action. Our biology sets the framework, our behavior emanates from our biology and is constrained by institutionalized moral codes, but morality is only ever a useful description which we use in every-day discourse. So at most we can say something like 'there is behavior', or 'there is behavior which we interpret based on social code', or 'moral code springs forth from biology'. But in the strictest sense of the term the phrase 'morality is biological' doesn't seem coherent. The problem is ultimately that we're thinking about morality as something with a concrete existence, rather than a fluid aspect of culture.

That all sounds complicated but instead of writing a 500 page book like most philosophers would do, instead I'd simplify it all and say that 'morality' is just a construct of language which we use to define, judge, and control behavior. Inevitably the codes we use to judge behavior look biological, because what else would they look like, but at best they're a set of ever changing guidelines rooted in culture, with our biology as a framework.

All of that said it's just as easy to go back to the loose definition of morality and say that our moral codes are rooted in biology and leave it at that. This just leaves the term 'morality', and what is moral somewhat ambiguous.
 

fromderinside

Mazzie Daius
Joined
Oct 6, 2008
Messages
15,514
Location
Local group: Solar system: Earth: NA: US: contiguo
Basic Beliefs
optimist
No we can't. What you describe is not that.

And I doubt a didinium even has a mind to read in any case.

So If this thread is going to play we need accept the high likelihood that morality is evolved, not emergent as a result of some unique human centered attribute.

I don't understand. I am totally accepting that morality is evolved. Nor have I said it is a unique, human-centred attribute, emergent or otherwise.

I am not talking just about human morality. My claim was explicitly about 'living things'. I even ruled out in the OP that it necessarily involves attitudes.

First you need to accept that if morality isn't of the mind, but only of behavior, you need to accept that an Oscar showing chromatophore changes prior to acting shows mind state since mind becomes indiction of behavioral direction.

This claim is in addition to saying that morality is consequentialist (as described in another thread), pragmatic (that the relevant consequences are practical consequences) and relative.

In total, morality, at least for living entities, is consequentialist, pragmatic, relative and biological.

And as I wrote above what the fish does after changing color is controlled by the nervous system so since behavior a consequential element I can read the fish's mind.

The discussion is going to, is, very confusing because flopping from mind to behavior (see above) changes what is meant by pragmatic, consequentialist, biological, and relative.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
First you need to accept that if morality isn't of the mind, but only of behavior, you need to accept that an Oscar showing chromatophore changes prior to acting shows mind state since mind becomes indiction of behavioral direction.

This claim is in addition to saying that morality is consequentialist (as described in another thread), pragmatic (that the relevant consequences are practical consequences) and relative.

In total, morality, at least for living entities, is consequentialist, pragmatic, relative and biological.

And as I wrote above what the fish does after changing color is controlled by the nervous system so since behavior a consequential element I can read the fish's mind.
Can you know if a fish is or isn't pondering or agonising over the moral rights and wrongs of what it does?

That's what I said you can't mind read.

Obviously we can and do reasonably infer some stuff at some times. If I'm running at you holding a sword raised above my head and yelling 'god is great' you can reasonably infer something about that. And you might call that mind-reading. But you can't read my mind now, or work out what moral or other issues I'm pondering the meaning and implications of and agonising over, other than what I'm typing is a clue to some of them. You couldn't do it even if we were siting across a table. You and a poodle could stare at each other for hours and you wouldn't know it about the poodle either.

The discussion is going to, is, very confusing because flopping from mind to behavior (see above) changes what is meant by pragmatic, consequentialist, biological, and relative.

Can you give an example of how it changes that?
 
Last edited:

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
I'm struggling with the term 'moral fact'. Not in a combative way, but I wonder what the definition would be.

'Morality is biological' sounds like a claim where the truth would depend on your definition of an array of terms. On the one hand I could see if we we take a loose definition of morality then it's clear that behavior with moral implications emanates from biological reality. On the other hand, if we wanted to get annoyingly pedantic we'd have to ask ourselves what the word morality actually means. It seems intuitively obvious, but when you look deeper it really isn't.

There is a colloquial definition of the term which allows the every-day person to converse and easily find common meaning, make contrasts, comparisons, and judgements, but then we come back to the phrase.. moral fact. What is a moral fact and what would be it's source? If there can be moral facts, then there can be a formal definition of what is moral, but this is where I get hung up. I've only ever seen moral behavior as something that is strictly relative and subjective, so from what I can see there can only be moral interpretation, not moral fact.

Sounds annoyingly pedantic, and maybe it is, but this points to the importance of definitions in clarifying our thoughts. If we can agree that there is no such thing as a moral fact, then what is morality, and what is it's connection with biology? I'd argue that you can have a biological fact, and that a biological fact produces behavior with moralistic implications, but in practice there is no tangible connection with something called 'morality'. Morality is an interpretation of biological behavior in retrospect, and a social source of determining our courses of action. Our biology sets the framework, our behavior emanates from our biology and is constrained by institutionalized moral codes, but morality is only ever a useful description which we use in every-day discourse. So at most we can say something like 'there is behavior', or 'there is behavior which we interpret based on social code', or 'moral code springs forth from biology'. But in the strictest sense of the term the phrase 'morality is biological' doesn't seem coherent. The problem is ultimately that we're thinking about morality as something with a concrete existence, rather than a fluid aspect of culture.

That all sounds complicated but instead of writing a 500 page book like most philosophers would do, instead I'd simplify it all and say that 'morality' is just a construct of language which we use to define, judge, and control behavior. Inevitably the codes we use to judge behavior look biological, because what else would they look like, but at best they're a set of ever changing guidelines rooted in culture, with our biology as a framework.

All of that said it's just as easy to go back to the loose definition of morality and say that our moral codes are rooted in biology and leave it at that. This just leaves the term 'morality', and what is moral somewhat ambiguous.

One way to at least narrow down the focus, I'm suggesting, and potentially cut through some of the crap and confusion, as it were, would be to consider the example rule or fact in the OP, "continued existence is right" (or is good, or is suitable, or desirable, or works for me, or whatever) specifically 'my/our' existence. This at least appears to be unchanging, independent of culture and even species, and applies to or is applied by (sometimes instinctively or automatically, sometimes not) all living things, and possibly even genes, anywhere, and as far as we can tell always has (with some exceptions in certain circumstances) and is therefore at least a biological rule, literally a fact of life, like having two hands is for certain species. We could think of it, perhaps, as a fundamental drive, which is, usefully, a 'mechanical' term, and of course drives (and even desires, assuming they are not effectively the same thing or very similar) don't have to be consciously-experienced, they can exist without that add-on feature.

Granted, we may need a more-extended-than-usual definition of morality to call it a moral rule or fact, but in the end the point might be that it answers the question "what is moral?" with "(my/our) continued existence", so maybe extending the definition is warranted. It may be that everything about 'right' and 'wrong', and/or what is considered to be either of those, follows from it and/or is merely commentary on it, for humans, chimps, poodles, fish, beetles, didiniums, daffodils and lichens. And an organism or species doesn't have to have sophisticated (or indeed any) mental experiences of or about the rule, such as 'feeling good' about it, though some will, and others won't, possibly because the latter merely lack the biological structures that allow the capacity to have experiences associated with their own behaviours, in this case alongside the operation of the rule, the rule that answers the question, 'what is moral' and by short extension 'what is morality?'
 
Last edited:

fromderinside

Mazzie Daius
Joined
Oct 6, 2008
Messages
15,514
Location
Local group: Solar system: Earth: NA: US: contiguo
Basic Beliefs
optimist
Can you know if a fish is or isn't pondering or agonising over the moral rights and wrongs of what it does?

That's what I said you can't mind read.

Obviously we can and do reasonably infer some stuff at some times. If I'm running at you holding a sword raised above my head and yelling 'god is great' you can reasonably infer something about that. And you might call that mind-reading. But you can't read my mind now, or work out what moral or other issues I'm pondering the meaning and implications of and agonising over, other than what I'm typing is a clue to some of them. You couldn't do it even if we were siting across a table. You and a poodle could stare at each other for hours and you wouldn't know it about the poodle either.

My fish example was one of those that indicated response emotional response to, in this case, an association with presence of a meal worm in response to it having nosed a test tube in the water. It usually happens on the third or fourth instance of those events.

OHMYGOSH then the oscar races to the furthest corner of the environment for a while then returns to the tube nosing and getting mealworms consistently. As with most 'mind' reading experience is the key.

It's something Thorndike observed and called association for which he developed a law of learning. Similarly fighting fish are confused by impulse to attack and mate which results in a to and fro waggle dance ritual in the presence of a male at her bubble nest. We found this resulted due to activity in the hypothalamus resulting in the release of adrenalin for both fighting and mating situations.

The discussion is going to, is, very confusing because flopping from mind to behavior (see above) changes what is meant by pragmatic, consequentialist, biological, and relative.

Can you give an example of how it changes that?

Please note above that I restricted my comments to observations relating behavior to observed underlying neural activity whereas you jumped from behavioral signals. Agonizing over is one of those things we infer from introspection of our own behaviour which, as I've pointed out many times in the past isn't empirical at all because it's self reference.

How can one be pragmatic, for instance, when one 'explains' what is observed through self reference. You are trying to connect empirically explained world using 'emotions' or self-reference. In so doing you are resorting to accepted philosophical tools which have been discredited by the very empirical rule observation based explanations you are attempting with which to relate with the moral. Such died with Erasmus Darwin's fiction of Evolution being replaced with his grandson's Theory of Evolution.

Bottom line: Either you are going to treat the empirical world as a rational world stipping it of it's foundations, or you are going to promote the rational world to the empirical without the the supporting experimental evidence necessary to do so.
 

ruby sparks

Contributor
Joined
Nov 24, 2017
Messages
9,167
Location
Northern Ireland
Basic Beliefs
Atheist
Agonizing over is one of those things we infer from introspection of our own behaviour which, as I've pointed out many times in the past isn't empirical at all because it's self reference.

Ok so are there no independently distinguishable patterns of neural correlates for different types of human cognition? Consider me very surprised. I might even go so far as to say 'balderdash'.

How can one be pragmatic, for instance, when one 'explains' what is observed through self reference. You are trying to connect empirically explained world using 'emotions' or self-reference.

Well, again, I'm not doing that because I'm not limiting what I'm saying, in the OP or since, to humans or even living things that think. In fact I specifically ruled it out. As I said before a few times already. I've even posted an image of one single-cell organism ingesting another one, ffs. :)
 
Last edited:

rousseau

Contributor
Joined
Jun 23, 2010
Messages
12,156
I'm struggling with the term 'moral fact'. Not in a combative way, but I wonder what the definition would be.

'Morality is biological' sounds like a claim where the truth would depend on your definition of an array of terms. On the one hand I could see if we we take a loose definition of morality then it's clear that behavior with moral implications emanates from biological reality. On the other hand, if we wanted to get annoyingly pedantic we'd have to ask ourselves what the word morality actually means. It seems intuitively obvious, but when you look deeper it really isn't.

There is a colloquial definition of the term which allows the every-day person to converse and easily find common meaning, make contrasts, comparisons, and judgements, but then we come back to the phrase.. moral fact. What is a moral fact and what would be it's source? If there can be moral facts, then there can be a formal definition of what is moral, but this is where I get hung up. I've only ever seen moral behavior as something that is strictly relative and subjective, so from what I can see there can only be moral interpretation, not moral fact.

Sounds annoyingly pedantic, and maybe it is, but this points to the importance of definitions in clarifying our thoughts. If we can agree that there is no such thing as a moral fact, then what is morality, and what is it's connection with biology? I'd argue that you can have a biological fact, and that a biological fact produces behavior with moralistic implications, but in practice there is no tangible connection with something called 'morality'. Morality is an interpretation of biological behavior in retrospect, and a social source of determining our courses of action. Our biology sets the framework, our behavior emanates from our biology and is constrained by institutionalized moral codes, but morality is only ever a useful description which we use in every-day discourse. So at most we can say something like 'there is behavior', or 'there is behavior which we interpret based on social code', or 'moral code springs forth from biology'. But in the strictest sense of the term the phrase 'morality is biological' doesn't seem coherent. The problem is ultimately that we're thinking about morality as something with a concrete existence, rather than a fluid aspect of culture.

That all sounds complicated but instead of writing a 500 page book like most philosophers would do, instead I'd simplify it all and say that 'morality' is just a construct of language which we use to define, judge, and control behavior. Inevitably the codes we use to judge behavior look biological, because what else would they look like, but at best they're a set of ever changing guidelines rooted in culture, with our biology as a framework.

All of that said it's just as easy to go back to the loose definition of morality and say that our moral codes are rooted in biology and leave it at that. This just leaves the term 'morality', and what is moral somewhat ambiguous.

One way to at least narrow down the focus, I'm suggesting, and potentially cut through some of the crap and confusion, as it were, would be to consider the example rule or fact in the OP, "continued existence is right" (or is good, or is suitable, or desirable, or works for me, or whatever) specifically 'my/our' existence. This at least appears to be unchanging, independent of culture and even species, and applies to or is applied by (sometimes instinctively or automatically, sometimes not) all living things, and possibly even genes, anywhere, and as far as we can tell always has (with some exceptions in certain circumstances) and is therefore at least a biological rule, literally a fact of life, like having two hands is for certain species. We could think of it, perhaps, as a fundamental drive, which is, usefully, a 'mechanical' term, and of course drives (and even desires, assuming they are not effectively the same thing or very similar) don't have to be consciously-experienced, they can exist without that add-on feature.

I can accept all of that. Early in my post I mentioned that I believe it comes down to how you're defining various things. For example, what you're calling a moral fact, I'd call a biological fact. IOW, there are biological constants which color the moral realm. Both explanations point to the same process, but use different wording.

Underlying morality there is a constant socio-biological physical process, and a person can really call it anything they like. So basically I agree with the process you're suggesting, but I'd probably confine morality to the cultural, with a tight coupling to the biological, rather than define morality as intrinsic to the biological.
 

Wiploc

Veteran Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2002
Messages
3,407
Location
Denver
Basic Beliefs
Strong Atheist
That doesn't make you a moral realist (in the, technical, philosophical sense).

Then I'm a moral realist in a non-technical non-philosophical sense.
And a non-communicative sense. :D


:D

I thought I was clear: I believe some behaviors are better than others. I believe that there are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do.

This is my understanding of moral realism. Kindness is better than cruelty. I ought not to rape. To the extent that I am a racist, I ought not be proud of that, and I ought to try not to pass my racism on to the next generation.

These are real rules, moral facts. I'm a moral realist.

If you still think I'm being uncommunicative, perhaps ask me some pertinent questions.
 

Wiploc

Veteran Member
Joined
Dec 9, 2002
Messages
3,407
Location
Denver
Basic Beliefs
Strong Atheist
I'm struggling with the term 'moral fact'. Not in a combative way, but I wonder what the definition would be.

I know you're in dialogue with Ruby. Feel free to ignore these comments if they aren't helpful.

I'm a utilitarian, so I believe that morality is about increasing happiness and decreasing unhappiness. Given that, it follows that it's a moral fact that rape has a strong tendency to reduce happiness.

We could phrase it another way. We could say, "Rape is wrong." That's a moral fact.

If you don't want to grant that "Rape is wrong" is a fact, then it still seems that, "Rape has a strong tendency to reduce happiness," is a fact pertinent to morality. A moral fact.


I've only ever seen moral behavior as something that is strictly relative and subjective, so from what I can see there can only be moral interpretation, not moral fact.

Isn't it a fact that Republicans think unbalanced budgets are immoral when Democrats are in office?




Sounds annoyingly pedantic, and maybe it is, but this points to the importance of definitions in clarifying our thoughts. If we can agree that there is no such thing as a moral fact, then what is morality, and what is it's connection with biology?

If there are no moral facts, then moral philosophy has no subject matter. If there are no moral facts, then Ruby is wrong when she says we all agree that some behaviors are better than others.

I think she's wrong anyway. I imagine that noncognitivists and nihilists think all behaviors are equally good. They probably don't recognize any moral facts. Or maybe they think the only moral facts are that morality doesn't make sense, and that all behaviors are equally good.
 

The AntiChris

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 22, 2002
Messages
571
Location
UK
Basic Beliefs
Positive Atheist
If you still think I'm being uncommunicative, perhaps ask me some pertinent questions.
No, I'm just suggesting you're going to confuse some people if you self-identify as a moral realist on a philosophy forum.
 

rousseau

Contributor
Joined
Jun 23, 2010
Messages
12,156
I know you're in dialogue with Ruby. Feel free to ignore these comments if they aren't helpful.

I'm a utilitarian, so I believe that morality is about increasing happiness and decreasing unhappiness. Given that, it follows that it's a moral fact that rape has a strong tendency to reduce happiness.

We could phrase it another way. We could say, "Rape is wrong." That's a moral fact.

This seems to align with my interpretation above, with room for a little grey area. I believe morality is predominantly cultural with a tight coupling to biological reality. But with this tight coupling you can get something that looks like a moral fact, and in a certain sense acts like one (grey area), but still can't be completely consistent. So for practical purposes utilitarianism is a pretty good heuristic, which I think is the point of moral ideas, but needs an addendum some of the time, making it not a true fact. That's the take home of my analysis - morality is fluid and changeable with tendencies coupled to biology, rather than directly biological and concrete. IOW, morality depends just as much on context as it does biology.

Where the mind works in the moral realm social code acts as a general guideline, but needs to be overridden where appropriate. So our biology is a kind of general-purpose tool, even possibly with in-built, moralistic instincts, whereas our moral ideas primarily exist in the social sphere, and those that we are enculturated with are those that work most of the time - like your utilitarianism.
 

fromderinside

Mazzie Daius
Joined
Oct 6, 2008
Messages
15,514
Location
Local group: Solar system: Earth: NA: US: contiguo
Basic Beliefs
optimist
Agonizing over is one of those things we infer from introspection of our own behaviour which, as I've pointed out many times in the past isn't empirical at all because it's self reference.

Ok so are there no independently distinguishable patterns of neural correlates for different types of human cognition? Consider me very surprised. I might even go so far as to say 'balderdash'.

I didn't say that. I said one can't get there by introspective means.
 
Top Bottom