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So, it’s Sunday morning, and on Sunday morning I usually write a bit here and then go off and listen to harpsichords.

But this Sunday morning I have a lot to do, which means leaving the house by seven thirty.  That’s later than I leave the house in the middle of the week, but not by much.

And it’s not like I’m going to run out and do something and then run back.  I’m going to be gone most of the day.  So my mind is already boggled, if you know what I mean.

I was going to skip the blog altogether this morning, but I’ve got tea I’m waiting to cool down and some time here, and I thought I’d make something clear I’d never made clear before.

How do I get into these sentences?  Is it the time of day?  How soon it’s been since I woke up?  What? 


Yesterday, I got accused, in e-mail, of circular reasoning–of assuming what I need to prove.

That is, of assuming that there must be an objective basis for morality.

But my arguments of yesterday did not, in fact, require that there actually be an objective basis of morality.

They were arguments about why other arguments were invalid–and those arguments remain invalid whether we decided, in the end, that an objective basis for morality exists or not.

That means that even if an objective basis for morality does NOT exist, you can’t prove it by the kinds of arguments I outlined yesterday. 

The arguments themselves are false, no matter what might be the underlying truth or falsity of the proposition they are meant to “prove.”

There really are rules of rhetoric. 

But as to why I think there is an objective basis for morality–well, here it is.

First, you have only two possible choices.

Either human nature is largely fixed, or it is largely malleable.

That is, either we are born with certain predilections, responses, tendencies, and behaviors that no amount of education, training, or childrearing will change at their foundations.

Or we are born capable of being molded into anything at all.

I would think that it would be fairly obvious that the second option is wrong.  There have been dozens of experiments in attempting to “nurture” infant human beings into the kind of human beings we want them to be–to make them noncompetitive, without greed, withat attachments to their particular children or parents.

Every one of those experiments has not only failed, it has failed spectacularly.  Sometimes–as in the “shared child” policies of the early Israeli kibbutzim–such experiements have simply fallen apart.  Sometimes–as in the long night of Soviet attempts to raise “perfect citizens” in state orphanages–they have caused untold damage and pain.

But there is no indication anywhere, in experiment or in history, that it is possible that an infinitely malleable human nature exists.

There is no blank slate. 

But if there is no blank slate, then something else must be true–human nature must have fixed characteristics.

That is, there must be facts about human nature and how it operates that must be true.

And these facts are objective–they are not constructed by us, because if they were, we’d have that blank slate after all.

But if there are facts about human nature that are fixed–just as there are facts about rocks, and outer space, and the digestive systems of house cats–then we can both discover those facts and derive from them rules about how they will behave under certain circumstances.

Since there are facts about steel, for instance, we can discover those facts and then use them to answer the question:  can I use this stuff to make a platform strong enough to carry five articulated lorries?

And after we answer that question, we can answer the question:  what rules do I have to follow to actually make that happen?

The same is true of things that might seem, on the surface, less cut and dried than steel.

Language has rules that are also objective–that operate outside us, that are not merely a matter of “we want to.”

Even people who try to invent entire languages of their own–think Tolkein, and Elvish–find that, in order to produce something that can be made comprehensible in any sense, they must follow certain broad rules. 

And once they have so followed them, the language itself takes on its own internal knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be breached as long as you want language to remain comprehensible.

I can say:  the cat was wearing a jetpack and hoping to get chocolate in Moscow in the morning.

I can say:  pig iron can be basted in butter and used to make an excellent omelet.

I can say:  London is a city in Venezuela where pink penguins live.

I can say all those things, and they can be wrong and silly and even idiotic.  But they are all comprehensible.

But if I say:  marshmallow coldcuts running then upmarket mushroom as.

It makes no sense at all.  Languages are not infinitely malleable.  You cannot do anything at all with them and still have them work.

When I say there is an objective basis for morality, all I am saying is this:  human beings are not infinitely malleable.  There are facts about human nature–about the way human beings feel and think and respond to events and other stimuli–that can be known.

These facts are beyond our ability to change, but they are within are ability to know.

And once we know these things, we can formulate rules about the way they behave. 

And that, right there, is an objective basis for morality. 

What those facts cannot tell us, of course, is whether we want to build a bridge or a house or a SnoCone. 

But the laws of physics can’t tell us if we want to build a bridge or an apartment complex or a prison.

We don’t say that, since they can’t, there are no laws of physics.

I’ll repeat what I said yesterday:  if you judged any other human endeavor by the standards some of you want to apply to morality, you would end with a world of no science at all.

And no knowledge.

So that’s why I think there’s an objective basis for morality.

If you can make a case for the blank slate–for the idea that we are born with no fixed human nature, that human beings are whatever they’re brought up to be and nothing else (all nurture and no nature), go right ahead.

But nobody on earth has ever managed to prove that yet, and I’m not holding my breath.

I’ve got to go start the car.


Written by janeh

October 31st, 2010 at 5:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Definitions'

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  1. “When I say there is an objective basis for morality, all I am saying is this: human beings are not infinitely malleable. There are facts about human nature–about the way human beings feel and think and respond to events and other stimuli–that can be known.

    These facts are beyond our ability to change, but they are within are ability to know.

    And once we know these things, we can formulate rules about the way they behave.

    And that, right there, is an objective basis for morality.”

    NO. Cats, fish and ants have a fixed range of behaviors, too. But no one studying them speaks of “cat morality” or claims a deviant ant is “immoral.” The people who study them are “behaviorists” and some study people in a similar fashion. It’s an “objective basis for morality” only to the extent you can claim certain moral codes are literally humanly impossible. But the study of physics and physiology might tell us we can’t fly. Turns out they just tell is it’s tricky.

    “Morals” involves principles–right and wrong. And while you might claim that a particular moral code won’t endure because of the general rules of human behavior, right and wrong are different. Suttee? Infanticide? Promiscuity? Human sacrifice? All practiced in some cultures and successfully banned in others. Tradition or religion might tell us which is right, but studying human behavior can’t.

    But let me say a word for the hard sciences. Yes, certainly, physics tends to be true whether I believe it or not. I can deny it by clapping my hands over my ears and singing loudly, but it also has a series of observations and experiments–open to all and repeatable–indeed, generally repeated. Even the animal behaviorists have a long history of semi-fraud and backtracking, and most of our large-scale human trials are unique events which can’t–and shouldn’t–be reproduced. Setting aside morality, our notions of human behavior aren’t exactly the laws of thermodynamics or the periodic table of elements.

    What we’ve really got is more rule of thumb engineering–things like “sand makes a bad foundation” “be especially careful the first floor is level” and “keep water away from earthen walls.” You can build pyramids, roads and Hagia Sophia with no more than rule of thumb engineering, but it’s always tentative. “This is how bridges are built” means “we know how to build bridges THIS WAY.” “This river can’t be bridged” means “we can’t build a bridge across this rever THE WAY WE KNOW HOW TO BUILD BRIDGES.” Then some bright young fellow comes along, and if his seniors have the common decency to grow old and die, does things a whole new way.

    Sometimes we think we’re up against the fundamental physics of human behavior–only so many men can live within walking distance of the ecclesia, and only so many can make themselves heard, so a democracy can only be so big–when we’ve actually got an engineering problem solvable by ballots and representatives.

    There are things I regard as immoral. There are things which SO FAR haven’t been made to work in an enduring human society. But I’d be much more reluctant to say they CAN’T work, than to say they’re immoral. And some of the things I regard as immoral–slavery, for example, and foot-binding–have gone on for centuries in prosperous growing cultures.

    “Not right” isn’t the same thing as “can’t work.”


    31 Oct 10 at 10:00 am

  2. OK, I’ll admit that I’m Jane’s correspondent. She has asked me to reply by commenting in the blog. That is a problem for me because I’m a “hunt and peck” typist and hate the labor of getting ideas out of my head and onto paper. (for some value of paper)

    Robert has said much of what I would say. But lets consider the meaning of objective. There is a news group called sci.physics which is a waste of time for anyone interested in learning Physics. Its full of people saying “Einstein was wrong. I can prove it.” Mostly they object to the basic postulate that the speed of light is the same for all observers.

    Why do I ignore them? Because there are experimental situations where Newtonian Physics and Relativity make very different predictions and relativity wins.

    You may have heard of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe or the Tevatron in the US. Both are very high energy particle accelerators and they are designed using relativity. They would not work if Einstein was wrong. So I ignore the people who say Einstein is wrong,

    I agree with Jane and Robert that the blank slate theory is false. We do have instincts and built in drives. BUt they don’t yield what Jane wants,

    Consider sex as an example. Its a very powerful drive and if a group of people are to live together without constantly fighting, there will need to be rules governing it. One reasonable rule is no xex without the woman’s consent. But what constitutes consent can vary from society to society.

    I would say that Jane’s approach will lead to “There have to be rules governing behavior A and behavior B” but it won’t lead to a specific set of rules.


    31 Oct 10 at 2:05 pm

  3. Binary choices, particularly regarding humans, are rarely adequate. It’s not all “fixed or malleable, pick one.”

    Any engineer can tell you that any physical system has fixed limits, but within those limits, nearly infinite variation of expression is possible. A building has to have support sufficient to resist gravity, weather, earthquakes, and the loads and uses of the inhabitants. But that says NOTHING about what the building looks like.

    Humans, likewise have certain fixed limits. They have to take in sufficient calories and sufficient nutrients to run their metabolisms. Whether those calories and nutrients come from vegetables alone, cute little bunnies, or cannibalism is largely irrelevant to the metabolism. We all have opinions about whether each of those choices is moral or not, but the metabolism doesn’t care. Within the limit, the human is nearly infinitely malleable.

    Humans need a certain minimum of nurturing behavior and attachment to a caregiver when they are infants. Experiments have proven that institutional environments are unlikely to provide this. But whether it’s a mother, a grandmother, or a houseful of uncles that provides real love and nurture is really irrelevant. The form of the satisfaction of the need is flexible, while the absolute existence of the need is not.

    I guess the part of all these discussions that stumps me and always has is how one gets from knowing the absolute limits of human needs and behaviors (such as no human can survive indefinitely on inadequate nutrition, or no human can go more than 10 minutes without air) to deriving moral principles.

    That baffles me. So what? We know that humans individually and societally, can and do live, thrive and reproduce with foot-binding, genital mutilation, slavery, suttee, and all sorts of morally objectionable behaviors. Some participants even embrace what we consider victimization. People CAN be taught that all sorts of terrible things are not only acceptable, but desirable and yes, moral.

    The whole argument is like the apocryphal big chalkboard covered with mathematical symbols, where in the middle of the huge equation is written “Here, a miracle occurs.” We know how people behave. They behave in massively contradictory ways, in different places. What is good and moral in one place is eternally hell-fire immoral in another. The basic needs in each place aren’t different, but they sure are expressed differently. So reveal to me what’s behind that miracle spot in the equation.

    How does discovering how people act in response to events and other stimuli lead to morality? It leads to information, in my experience. But that says nothing about what SHOULD happen. Only about what DOES.


    31 Oct 10 at 2:17 pm

  4. Knowing that there is a basic human nature is only the first step to objectively defining morality. The second step is having a measure of outcomes. If you have a way to measure, and say that one set of rules leads to better outcomes than another, then you can choose the first set of rules as better, or more moral. But how to define better? There’s the rub.


    31 Oct 10 at 6:39 pm

  5. I’m more awake now so I’ll try again and perhaps be more coherent.

    Jane asked why do I want consensus on moral rules when I don’t ask for consensus on scientific theories. The answer is that scientific theories deal with things outside of humans and can be tested by experiment. I require cosistency with experiments, I don’t require that a particular theory be accepted by everyone.

    But I see nothing in the universe that involves human beings. If everyone died tomorrow, apples would still fall from trees, earthquakes would still occur and hurricanes would still hit coastal areas.

    Looking objectively at the human species, I see a social animal that lives in groups. Pregnant females are slow and awkward, the children take a long time to become self sufficient and the species has a lot of technical skills which need to be passed on to the next generation.

    Any society which lasts for more than a generation must develop rules which reflect those characteristics.
    But I doubt that there is a unique set of rules for a given situation. As Cathy says, some rules may guve better results but how do you define better?

    I don’t beleive there is a morality “out there” in the sense that there are electrons or light waves. To me, morality is an idea invented by human beings to make it possible for them to live and raise children in a complex society.


    31 Oct 10 at 7:03 pm

  6. I also doubt that it is possible to create an objectively-based system of morality. An objectively-based structure for a culture, sure. They’ve probably been created since humans started being able to think about their innate tendency to live in groups, and became unsatisfied with their current situation. And maybe some moral codes are used to shore up essentially political or social structures. But it’s not the moral code that comes first; it’s the decision that if your way of life is to continue, you have to discourage the killing of others (at least, of others within the group) as much as possible.

    To have a moral code, you have to have some ideal outside humanity. Maybe a god, maybe an idealized view of humankind (rationality vs animal nature, for example), but SOMETHING. If you’re just saying ‘humans often behave in such a way, therefore, if I want a peaceful society, I have to have a moral code that forbids killing, you’re doing politics, and your initial aim (in this case, of a peaceful society) is already based on some moral code.

    That being said, I skimmed but did not read carefully an article claiming science was getting better and better at modelling human behaviour eg predicting what kinds of attacks an enemy would make. So maybe it will be increasingly possible to predict what people en mass will do in different situations, and maybe even individuals. But deciding which action is the moral one depends on something outside the system – as does choosing which outcome you want to favour.

    I think it was in another blog post that you said something about people not liking the idea of an objective moral code because deep down they’re afraid that they will have to admit they’re bad people because they will be forced to admit that they will do what they shouldn’t (shades of St. Paul!).

    I think something else is beginning to happen, though. Many people have extremely strong negative reactions to some traditional Christian religious language ‘wretch’, ‘sinner’, etc. That’s not me, they say. What some of them mean is that they are convinced that they’re pretty decent people, not much worse than anyone else, at any rate, and their judgement on the matter is the only valid one.

    They’re not going to take very kindly to ANY external morality that conflicts with their internal one, and their rejection isn’t due to a fear that they’re really worthless, but to a conviction that they’re really good.


    1 Nov 10 at 7:55 am

  7. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is an objective basis for morality. I am not one of those atheist liberals who says, “Oh, if FGM is OK in their culture, then we shouldn’t interfere!” But I know that we will struggle to figure out how to measure what is a successful moral code.

    Here’s the analogy I use. When we design homes for animals, and we take their essential nature into account, they are healthier physically and emotionally. So, if you design a zoo so that the carnivores have to hunt for their food, they are healthier and happier. If you make sure that a dog has a pack and a constructive job to do, it is happier than if it lives alone in luxury. If you make sure that a horse has a herd and gets to graze, it displays fewer behavioral problems. Et cetera.

    Similarly, when we design a society for a human, we need to take its essential nature into account. We are also pack animals, so we need access to social support to develop optimally. We are also thinkers, though, so freedom of conscience (expression, religion, etc.) becomes part of what we need to be healthy and happy.

    We also have to take into account the different roles in society. A society is better, or more moral, if you would be healthy and happy rolling the dice and taking on any role. So maybe being a Taliban warlord is pretty cool, but being born a girl baby under the Taliban is not so good.

    I’m not enough of a philosopher, though, to say how you can rigorously define “healthy and happy” or how you weigh the different roles or whatever to compare whole societies.

    But to give me a basis to make initial judgments, it’s working for me. I think it’s pretty obvious, even if I can’t demonstrate it rigorously, that a society in which murder, rape, or mutilation is sanctioned is not a moral or healthy society. Another clue we can use: If people are fighting to escape or stay out of the society, it’s probably not good!



    1 Nov 10 at 5:57 pm

  8. But surely providing the necessities for a healthy life isn’t a moral problem, it’s a political or medical one!

    Making rules about what you must do because it’s right, not because it will produce a particular social structure, is making a moral code.

    Making rules about what you must do because it makes you happy is not making a moral code, although deciding that personal happiness is the aim of life can be the foundation of one. It’s not something you could prove rationally, though.

    Also, saying that ‘you would be healthy and happy rolling the dice and taking on any role’ is an opinion, not a moral statement. It’s not one I agree with, either. I’d not be particularly healthy or happy taking on any number of useful and necessary roles in my own society, even though I think my society is one of the best in the world for someone like me. But why wouldn’t it be? I was partly formed by it.

    Moreover, barring an actual shooting war going on at the time, I bet a lot of people born and raised in a taliban-like society – even women – are healthy and happy, just as a lot of people born in our free-er society are unhealthy and unhappy.

    AAAARRRRGH! I’m just going around and around. What I think I’m trying to get at is that there’s a difference between liking some society and proving it’s morally superior. Even fighting to escape only proves that there’s something about the abandoned country the abandoner doesn’t like – people have abandoned the US for the old USSR and vice versa, although of course in much greater numbers in one direction than the other.

    A MORAL question would be ‘Should I leave my country or stay and change it?’.


    2 Nov 10 at 7:21 am

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