Ought From Is
By: Barry Belmont

I recently wrote the following article about morality for the Sagebrush where I am putting forth the idea that not only can we extrapolate from the the way the world is to the way the world should be, but that we must do this. I am putting forth the radical notion that there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong” answers to questions of morality. As this seems like the kind of group that might have something to add to this, I post the unedited version below:

“If you walked through campus these past two weeks, no doubt you came across that Crazy Screaming Christian Guy (CSCG) telling us that we all “deserve hell.” Alongside CSCG’s claim that homosexuality is like putting gasoline in your exhaust pipe and describing cunnilingus as sticking pineapple pizza up your nose, he pronounced that science cannot address morality, that science deems us all amoral apes with no responsibilities to no one, and that only (his) religion can save us.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in this belief. It’s generally accepted that questions of morality are questions to which science provides no answer. Science may tell us how to get what we want, but it can lay no claim on what we ought to want. More broadly it is thought that the way the world “is” cannot tell us how it “ought to be.”

However, this is completely wrong as all systems of morality are reducible, ultimately, to a concern for the well-being of conscious entities. This concern places “value” on behaviors which increase well-being while decrying those that do not. Since values correlate to the real world effects science can indeed answer these fundamental questions. This is not to say that all possible questions of morality will one day be answered by a supercomputer or derived using axioms or equations, but rather to say that questions of human morality have right and wrong answers.

Some might object that the notion of “well-being” is open to interpretation and it is therefore impossible to develop an objective science of morality. Consider though that “food” is also open to interpretation but there is clear distinction between food and poison. The same logic applies to the concept of “health”: obviously there is a difference between healthy and dead. These differences matter.

And just as there are many ways to become healthy and many kinds of foods, there are many ways to answer moral questions objectively. Just because there are many right answers, does not mean there are no truths to be known, whether it be in studies of health, food, or morality.

Some others might object, wouldn’t an objective study of morality necessitate the exclusion of exceptions? In other words, a universal moral truth can’t admit of any exceptions – if it’s wrong to lie, it’s always wrong to lie. But why should this be true? For example, in the game of chess (a realm of perfect objectivity), a principle like “don’t lose your queen” is a good rule to follow. Sure, there are exceptions, there are times when losing your queen is a smart move, but the fact that there are exceptions does not change the sound principle of retaining your queen.

Not only can science answer questions of morality, it must answer these questions. For too long, the fundamental questions of human well-being have been suffocated by religious dogma (like CSCG says it should remain) and political expediency. This is why we spend more time talking about gay marriage and illegal immigration than we do about alleviating poverty and ending genocides.

It is through science and reason alone that we can come to know and shape all aspects of our world. Simply by admitting this we will have advanced the conversation about morality by millennia.”

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6 Comments Posted in Science
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  • Aosteel23

    Currently reading “The Science of Good and Evil” by Michael Shermer. A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813259644 facebook-813259644

    I wonder if you have heard of or read Stefan Molyneux's Universally Preferable Behaviour – A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. He is a current but lesser known Libertarian philosopher who takes a stab at making the ought to is jump.

    Anyways, I think the appeal to universal moral truths has been a failure because of how unrealistic they are, not because of their logical incoherence. There were probably quite a few Nazi's in their day who could rattle off about Kant's categorical imperative and then send some Jew's to the gas chamber the next day, so I think we have to remain skeptical about how useful the appeal to a universal moral truth is. That isn't to say we cannot accept things like 'murder is always wrong', or we cannot understand such claims through scientific means, but I wonder whether accepting such a universal axiom would actually have significant implications unless it is applied to everyone, kept present to mind, etc. In my mind much of morality can be solved without an appeal to any notions about total objective truth by simply asking the question 'what would we prefer', or shifting the burden of proof to those which make claims in the positive. That is to say, asking simple questions like 'why does the government claim to know what is better for me than I do'? Lately I have come to think that the absence or skepticism about affirmative or universal appeals to morality is precisely what can make one moral. I think the worst atrocities throughout history haven't been committed by those who weren't engaged with or thought about universal moral principles. Rather, these atrocities seem to be committed by people who were quiet confident about what they thought was moral. Again, what I am driving at here is that I think a lack of confidence or skepticism towards what is moral can often produce just as (if not more) moral a person as the one who claims to know morality.

    Because of this I am skeptical about the use of “science and reason alone” advance the conversation about morality for millennium. Isn't this what people like Kant and Descartes claimed to do, and yet can we say (broad generalizations permitted), that the 18th and 19th centuries were any more morally advanced than the previous centuries?

    Just some thoughts, ethics is a very interesting area to me, and the only thing which seems consistent is that I'm usually skeptical about most claims besides obvious ones (like murder is wrong).

  • http://www.unrforliberty.com/ Barry Belmont

    Awesome! Michael Shermer is amongst my favorite people. I have read his entire “Belief trilogy” (along with the fourth installment The Mind of the Market) on more occasions than I could count. Everything he stands for (science, skepticism, reason, etc) is everything I could ever hope to stand for.

    I was actually lucky enough to see him (and Sam Harris) debate against Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston recently. It was filmed by Nightline and can be seen here (http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/god-futur…) …in fact…you might even recognize someone around the 5 minute mark or so…

  • http://www.unrforliberty.com/ Barry Belmont

    I feel that there are universal moral truths. I feel these actually exist. Whether we can know them is a different matter, but, as we should be apt to notice, the reality of the world exists independently of how we choose to interpret it.

    Now that's just a bunch of words, so let's see if I can't clarify it with an example. There exists a reality and a correct, simple, numerical answer to the question “How many mosquito bites occurred worldwide April 2, 2010 from 1:00-2:00 PM EST?” It is undeniable that there exists a real answer to that answer, regardless of our ability to know it. So I just wanted to plant that flag there to point out that in the discussion about the unrealistic nature of universal moral truths.

    That said, I reiterate, there are universal moral truths. And as I understand them, I think you and I actually agree on this point. Clearly the proposition “do not kill” is an example of a moral principle that can be seen objectively to be a good principle. This does not mean that since there are times when killing might be a good thing (slitting Hitler's throat for instance), it simply means that most of the time in most situations it is a good principle to live by.

    As I pointed out in the article the principle of trying to keep you queen in chess (or maintaining your back row in checkers) is a good principle to hold to most of the time. Sure, there are exceptions, but this does no disservice to the idea of universal moral truths.

    Let me emphasize, I'm not saying I have the answers to every conceivable moral question, nor perhaps, even do I have a grip on the majority of them. What I am saying is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, that moral relativism is false. We can say, with a fair amount of certainty, that the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Dahmer have vastly different answers to questions of morality. One thinks treating all living things with respect and kindness and decency and charity is a good idea. The other believed torturing and killing teenage boys was fine. Clearly one of these two men is wrong.

    And just by admitting this we will have advanced the conversation about morality.

  • Aosteel23

    That is now officially my favorite thing I have ever heard you say…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813259644 facebook-813259644

    With reading your recent post about how opinions can of course be objectively wrong (and should be shown to be if they in fact are), I think I get where you are coming from. I agree with you that universal moral truths exist, and I think people should be shown the massive amount of logical (and evidential) incoherence which comes with trying to maintain a relativist position.

    I just think a moral humility can be just as useful as maintaining and showing that there exists universal moral truths in trying to lead a moral life.