“Moral values aren’t absolute, but aren’t arbitrary either” (reblog)

One of my favorite posts of yours as of yet; I appreciate you really making your case against the blank slate with appeal to physiological/psychological theories (staying true to a recent post of yours on the need for scientifically informed philosophical theories).

It still seems to me that the findings that confirm these instincts are consistent with objective values. (We should be careful with the term ‘absolute’ which implies that they are a value, as absolute, would always command us to act in a certain way – not all moral realists subscribe to a view like this, but rather think that varying moral values give us different amounts of reason for action such that no one value is absolute. It does seem that the utilitarian is committed to the absolute value of pleasure, though.) If we are born with “powerful instincts, urges, desires and motivations” then it doesn’t necessarily follow that morality arises from these, only that, given these innate pro-social instincts, it would be irrational to act immorally. In a previous comment I noted that these instincts might create the underlying motivations that explain our moral psychology. That still might be the case, but now I am starting to think that if these pro-instincts are so deeply engrained, as you have argued, then these instincts give us reason to act morally.

Perhaps the most important debate between Hume and Kant was Hume’s thought that we could only be motivated to act morally if we had certain desires, and Kant’s response that this was not so because it could be rational to act morally from beliefs alone. One way we’ve made philosophical progress from the arm chair is in realizing that Hume and Kant were talking about different things, Hume on motivation and Kant on rationality. The opposite of Hume’s claim that beliefs are not sufficiently motivating would be that beliefs are sufficiently motivating, but that was not Kant’s claim, rather his claim was that beliefs are intrinsically reason giving, and the opposite of that view would be that beliefs are not intrinsically reason giving, which is not what Hume maintained. What is miraculous about this is that it means a theorist can hold that both Hume and Kant were correct (Russ Shafer-Landau is a notable proponent of this view, and David Brink flirts with it, while, I myself, think there is much to commend in the idea). So, before I thought your view was mainly of the Humean tradition, but today’s post has lead me to think that your view might fit with the Kantian tradition as well.

But the most interesting part of your essay is your central postulation that moral disagreement disproves the existence of objective moral truths (I don’t see how disagreement about an answer to a question shows there is not an objective answer to that question, so I’m not convinced by that argument in the slightest as I think it is invalid), but cultural relativism strikes us as too arbitrary because morality arises from evolutionary instincts. But your view seems to be a version of cultural relativism. Different moral belief are true for different societies of persons, it is just that those beliefs are rooted in evolutionary instincts. I think your view is great in that it might lead to a solution to a problem that has long plagued cultural relativistic views: how do we delineate cultures and societies? That task has proven near impossible, but your view suggests the solution that we use lines of evolutionary progress to differentiate current societies; I think it’s a theory worth pursuing. So, cultural relativism doesn’t deny that there aren’t grounds for the current moralities of societies; it just denies that that the moral grounding is the same for all societies. I think your view is very close to this, so I still think your view is a version of cultural relativism.


I’m working on another post with details about foundational moral instincts, but after some discussion on the ‘Morality arises from instincts‘ post, I realized that I failed to make a couple of things clear.  So, I’m inserting this additional post to do that.

First, let me clarify that, in these posts, I’m being descriptive, not normative, not prescriptive.  That is, I’m not discussing how I want things to be, but attempting to describe how things are.  (At least according to mainstream evolutionary psychology.)

If I were to be prescriptive, it would be to recommend virtue ethics, that is, the philosophy of developing habits and qualities (virtues) that promote the good life, while avoiding or minimizing those habits and qualities (vices) that hinder it.  I like virtue ethics because it takes into account human nature, and makes no bones about being geared for the betterment of the adherent.

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