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Thread: can universal morality be proven?

  1. #1 can universal morality be proven? 
    Forum Professor marcusclayman's Avatar
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    I do not know what would be included in universal morality, so don't ask me to define it. I'm hoping someone who believes, has faith in, and/or understands what it is can explain it.

    There are some, like Darius used to, who claim that universal morality can be empirically proven to exist. But whenever I ask, these people never make any attempt to even begin to prove it. Nonetheless, it's such a common concept--although I can imagine usefull reasons why people would believe that their personal opinions are actually universal truths--i'm interested, and honestly suprised that there isn't more information on it.


    I am bias against universal relativism, but all signs point in that direction. If anyone has some good arguments against relativism, and/or for universalism, when it comes to morality: please share.


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  3. #2  
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    I shouldn't wander into philosophy. I am out of my depth before I begin. Anyway....

    Surely universal relativism is the opposite of universal morality. No? What am I missing. A universal morality would imply that morality is an absolute. Right? So relativism is the opposite.

    Moreover, since you are a disbeliever in both, what else is left?

    Confused and longing for the certainty afforded by a pleochroic halo in a biotite crystal.


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    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    If you mean - scientifically proven, there is a kind of bootstrap problem. Science knows no definition of moral right and wrong.

    If you set some criterion, some goal function, such as "an action is objectively immoral if it makes innocents suffer and/or die", than you have a starting point; scientific methods can, in principle at least, examine various choices and see how they affect the welfare or safety of the innocent.

    Lots of other criteria / goal functions might be proposed: promoting equality and freedom as opposed to oppression, increasing the sum total of (pleasure minus suffering) in the world, ensuring the survival of humanity (or of all species) etc etc etc. Many can be found at the core of philosophical systems or religions.

    But any such criterion will have to be set arbitrarily, I don't think you can give it any scientific foundation. At best, you can derive it more or less scientifically from another such criterion, deemed more fundamental. It's like the ancient image of the world resting on the backs of three elephants, and the elephants are standing on turtles, and the turtles.... the pyramid just has to end somewhere, on some absolute foundation.

    And yet I feel some choices/actions are absolutely wrong (examples of wanton cruelty come to my mind) while some are absolutely right.

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    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    The closest thing I can think of to universal morality is genetically based altruism.

    As I have said on other threads, human beheviour can be genetically based, environmentally driven, or some combination. Genetic base is characterised by universality. My favourite example is non verbal communication. A smile, and a scowl are universal. They mean the same everywhere on planet Earth. Hence they are genetically based.

    However, sign language means different things in different cultures. The sign that means "I am OK" in the English speaking west, may be a proxy for female genitals elsewhere and mean "get F#&ed!" Thus, communication by such signs is highly variable, and this shows they are learned, not genetic.


    Is altruism genetically based? I think it is, in its simplest form, since altruism towards those closest to us is universal. However, in its expression, it is highly variable, and hence culturally influenced. Some moral prohibitions appear universal also, and hence probably genetic. For example : the command "Thou shalt not kill." appears to be universal, though with numerous and varied exceptions.
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    Universality does not necessarily imply a genetic basis. It could be that certain mores are so clearly beneficial to all societies, that those which survived to the present time included them.
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  7. #6  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    To Harold

    I disagree. A similar behaviour is that of killing in war. Studies in WWII showed that trained soldiers had a serious reluctance to kill. Even those who were in a major fire fight tended to shoot over the heads of the enemy to avoid killing. Only 15% of soldiers, without specialised training, actually shot to kill.

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/m...8/ai_57476241/

    I quote

    "studies of ancient battles and more recent wars reveal an innate human reluctance to kill another human being. Studies conducted by the U.S. Army estimate that only 15 to 20 percent of infantry soldiers in World War II fired their weapons at exposed enemy soldiers.(3) Most feared being forced to kill another person more than they feared being maimed or killed themselves. In fact, those who did not fire still rushed into the open to save wounded comrades. They simply did not participate in the killing if they could avoid it."



    This, to me, is another example of inherent altruism. If 85% of trained soldiers will not shoot to kill, even in a fire fight, that shows a very powerful inhibition. And I would find it hard to believe that is due to culture, given our glorification of killing the enemy, plus the training to kill those soldiers went through.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    And I would find it hard to believe that is due to culture, given our glorification of killing the enemy, plus the training to kill those soldiers went through.
    Why is it hard to believe? If we are taught from childhood not to hurt other people, then it's going to be hard to overcome that training.

    Anyway, all boys love to play with guns, play with toy soldiers, etc. I've never seen adults push that on their kids very much, beyond buying them the toys they are begging for. Isn't that born in them, or at least that kind of aggressiveness?
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  9. #8  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    Harold

    The reluctance to kill goes way back beyond our culture. Other researchers have found strong evidence that this applied during the Napoleonic Wars, and during the American Civil War. To some degree, it appears universal in time and geography. Thus probably genetic.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Harold

    The reluctance to kill goes way back beyond our culture. Other researchers have found strong evidence that this applied during the Napoleonic Wars, and during the American Civil War. To some degree, it appears universal in time and geography. Thus probably genetic.
    It's the last sentence I don't agree with, and for which you haven't made much of an argument, in my opinion.
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  11. #10  
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    Where, in American culture, is the domain of knowledge that we would identify as morality studied and taught?

    I suspect that if we do not quickly develop a science of morality that will make it possible for us to live together on this planet in a more harmonious manner our technology will help us to destroy the species and perhaps the planet soon.

    It seems to me that we have given the subject matter of morality primarily over to religion. It also seems to me that if we ask the question ‘why do humans treat one another so terribly?’ we will find the answer in this moral aspect of human culture.

    The ‘man of maxims’ “is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality—without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly-earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.” George Eliot The Mill on the Floss

    I agree to the point of saying that we have moral instincts, i.e. we have moral emotions. Without these moral emotions we could not function as social creatures. These moral emotions are an act of evolution. I would ague that the instinct for grooming that we see in monkeys is one example of this moral emotion.

    We can no longer leave this important matter in the hands of the Sunday-school. Morality must become a top priority for scientific study.
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  12. #11  
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    To Harold

    Re universality as being evidence of genetic basis of behaviour.
    I agree that this is not proof. But there is no proof in science anyway. I offer evidence. We know that having two eyes is genetic, since every human has two eyes. We know that having a pot belly is not, since not every human has a pot belly. Universality is a strong evidence, not proof, that something is genetic. The same applies to behaviour.

    Coberst

    I disagree with your thesis. I think morality is improving as time goes by. A big part of this is global travel and global communication. It is much more difficult to think of the Chinese as 'yellow devils' when there is a Chinese family living next door. The more contact we have with others, the stronger the altruism to those others will be.

    Today, deaths from warfare are lower than any time since the beginning of WWI. Willingness to assist the poor in other nations is greater than any time in history. How many of the people on this forum gave money to help the victims in Haiti? I know I did.

    That is not to say that we do not still have problems. Of course we do. There are still evil people around, such as Al Qaeda, and Bush junior. However, we are learning morality through contact with other people.
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  13. #12  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    To Harold

    Re universality as being evidence of genetic basis of behaviour.
    I agree that this is not proof. But there is no proof in science anyway. I offer evidence. We know that having two eyes is genetic, since every human has two eyes. We know that having a pot belly is not, since not every human has a pot belly. Universality is a strong evidence, not proof, that something is genetic. The same applies to behaviour.
    Hmm. Having two eyes is genetic, but having blue eyes isn't?
    Actually, I'm not opposed to the idea that there could be some kind of genetic tendency to altruism. There is probably also an tendency to wage war on outsiders, as well. That's pretty universal too.
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  14. #13  
    Forum Freshman boson31415's Avatar
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    No it cannot be proven
    The average person thinks he isn’t
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  15. #14  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    I suppose the OP may want to clarify his or her question, because, come to think of it, it can mean two things:

    1) Can it be proven that a certain set of moral standards is absolutely right (as in "absolute vs relative") and _should_ be followed by all humans, or even all beings (including aliens) capable of making moral choices?

    or

    2) Can it be proven that a certain set of moral standards is, rightly or wrongly, accepted by all human cultures and civilizations?

    Both are interesting, but we need to know which one we are talking about.
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  16. #15  
    Forum Professor sunshinewarrior's Avatar
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    To add to some of what has been said here:

    1. We can, perhaps, distinguish between absolute and universal morality. Absolute morality is that which applies regardless of circumstance (position, space, time, personality etc). Universal need simply be a morality that is universally accepted. The philosophical arguments regarding each are different.

    2. Altruism is supported even by sociobiology as a sophisticated evolutionary mechanism that feeds back into genetic 'fitnss' and therefore will be chosen for by natural selection in certain circumstances. he problem is that all that we see, of the cognitive mechanisms created by evolution, shows us that evolution also favours selfishness, cheating and cheat detection, and these characteristics compete with each other for dominance depending on circumstance, so that altruism alone is not a single principle favoured by evolution. Also, it means that selfishness is as universal a phenomenon as altruism - the two are not mutually exclusive (you can be altruistic towards your near and dear ones but selfish towards strangers, for instance, and be pretty logically consistent in your responses).

    3. As Ayer pointed out, in Language, truth and Logic, it is difficult to make a claim for 'morality' as a topic for philosophical discourse - the idea of a "should" or an "ought" is neither locically necessary, nor an empirical one (how do you test for "oughts" floating around in the universe anyway?). Any notion that a single, universal morality (built from absolute or universal first principles) must exist is not now considered a worthy aim by most contemporary philosophers. Intead moral philosophy tends these days to focus on deliberately limited scenarios that are set up as per convention (see the Frankfurt type scenarios regarding free will, for instance, or Rawls' deliberately circumscribed take on political morality in A Theory of Justice).

    Do I believe an Absolute Morality 'exists'? No. I suspect the notion may be incoherent.

    Do I think a universal morality is possible. Perhaps? but not just one - all sorts of moralities might be capable of being made universal - it just depends upon how they're disseminated and enforced...

    Them's my takes, anyway.

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    Why do we seek moral absolutes?

    Let’s consider the moral argument that is often rendered to justify making abortion illegal.

    The argument goes something like this: murder (killing an innocent person) is morally and legally prohibited, the fetus is an innocent person, abortion kills the fetus, and therefore abortion is murder.

    This argument turns on the premise that the fetus is a person. The category person must be absolutely and universally understood and fixed to make this argument work. The category (concept) person must be either value-neutral or it must be based upon some absolute value. If such is not the case then each time we consider this matter, person can take on a different meaning.

    If each “application of the concept determines its meaning, either (1) we would need a rule for applying the concept in various cases (and this would be the same as saying that the meaning of ‘person’ is fixed), or (2) we would be left with the possibility that different people might apply the concept differently.”

    If the category person is a function of our personal value system then we can expect that our view of this matter would vary accordingly. We might avoid this variability if the concept person is value neutral and thus does not depend upon our personal value system. Another way is to claim that we all have access to some absolute or ultimate value that is binding upon each of us.

    Without absolute truths we recognize that we must depend on the judgment of fallible, and frail creatures living within constantly evolving communities; non critical individuals who are forced to make decisions with little training or understanding of critical thinking skills within what are typically highly ambiguous situations.

    “In sum, moral absolutism is motivated by a very widespread human longing for clarity, certainty, order, and constraint in a world that confronts us constantly with change, obscurity, doubt, contingency, and aggression.”

    Quotes from Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson
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  18. #17  
    Forum Professor sunshinewarrior's Avatar
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    coberst!

    This is a rare, but happy, occasion: I agree with pretty much everything you just said.

    cheer

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    Well, yeah, but we can't each decide for ourselves who is or is not a person, can we?

    I could turn Coberst's argument around and say the category of non-person must be absolutely and universally understood and fixed to make the pro-choice argument work.
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  20. #19  
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    A Leszek and others pointed out, what I'm asking isn't very clear.

    Morality, biologically speaking, is the weighing of beneficial and harmful actions. We might not think of it in those terms, because we may consider it immoral to think of doing something only because it's beneficial; but this doesn't make it harmful to us, NOT to think about benefits that are generally present when it comes to altruistic behavior.

    In just about any act of giving, between two humans, there will be an emotional response in the recipient of the gift. This emotional response will have an impact on that persons future actions, especially the actions that obviously effect the giver.

    The same can be said for giving things to non humans as well. Pets are the best example.

    BUT the emotional response, and the impact on future actions are not universal. So the value of gifts is not universal. Many cultures consider gifts, in and of themselves, to be disrespectful; just about every culture has standards as to what gifts are acceptable, and which ones are not.

    I think in understanding the psychology of gift giving, and recieving, can we best understand morality; at least in it's biological role for survival.

    Morality applies to much more than just what phisical gifts you give people. But when it comes down to it, every moral decision is a conflict between something you want, but have to work towards, and/or sacrifice something for; or something that someone else wants, that you have to allow to happen, and/or sacrifice something for.

    Is this accurate?
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by marcusclayman
    Morality applies to much more than just what phisical gifts you give people. But when it comes down to it, every moral decision is a conflict between something you want, but have to work towards, and/or sacrifice something for; or something that someone else wants, that you have to allow to happen, and/or sacrifice something for.

    Is this accurate?
    No. It is not accurate. My grandaughter wanted to spend last Sunday, her birthday, at an amusement park. I wanted to share that time with her. We all had a great time. Where was the sacrifice?
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  22. #21  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    Let’s consider the moral argument that is often rendered to justify making abortion illegal.

    The argument goes something like this: murder (killing an innocent person) is morally and legally prohibited, the fetus is an innocent person, abortion kills the fetus, and therefore abortion is murder.

    This argument turns on the premise that the fetus is a person.
    It turns on a couple of other premises as well, such as that killing an innocent person is immoral. While we all here (hopefully) agree on that, we'd be very hard put to prove it by scientific methods.

    I mean - to prove that such an act, say cutting the throat of a sleeping five-year-old, is wrong by some absolute standard which ought to be kept by all humans.

    I for one cannot even begin to think how such a proof would go from empirical data to a moral imperative, unless some initial moral imperative is already taken from granted.
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    i realize this thread died back in april, but i just found it now. and this happens to be a topic that i've obsessed over for at least 20 years now. fortunately, i don't feel like i've completely wasted my time.

    i recently wrote an article for my blog entitled 'vaulting the is/ought barrier'. in it, i present the concept of what i call a universal value legitimizing context, under which the truth-values of all moral claims can be determined. basically its a framework for a universal morality that opens up the realm of moral values to scientific inquiry, making a science of morality possible.

    i hope some of you might read it--i'd really like like to get some feedback on it.
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    There is no proof in philosophy.
    There is no way to prove something is universal.
    There is no way to prove the existence of a monolithic principle corresponding to "Morality".

    You can only prove a negative (Blaise Pascal).

    You can however argue on the behalf of such a thesis.
    If amorality is a moral (and it is), then ctrl-V Machiavelli and Nietzsche's work is about the best you can do.

    If you want to prove morality, you'll have to get as dodgy as Kant, and, believe me, that's not what you want to do.

    The inherent vagueness of "universal" and "morality" requires the philosophers to go to great lengths to provide adequate justification, which can be debunked with a mere "Lol, metaphysics is bullshit" - [Insert most German XIXth century philosophers here].
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    well, i'm not really trying to prove anything...

    what i have here is a theory. like the round earth theory. or the theory of evolution. though admittedly not as widely well-received as either.

    but my point is, there's no 'proof' for those theories either--just mounds of supporting evidence--and no contradictory evidence.

    and i'm a bit confused about what you mean by 'proving morality'. do you mean proving that there is a right and wrong?

    whatever it is you're getting at, part of what i'm arguing here is that there are certain conditions of life that are healthier than others. desiring unhealthy conditions is by definition unhealthy.

    i am also suggesting that metaphysical concepts such as good and evil can and should be recast in terms of healthy and unhealthy.
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  26. #25  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kfrancist
    whatever it is you're getting at, part of what i'm arguing here is that there are certain conditions of life that are healthier than others. desiring unhealthy conditions is by definition unhealthy.

    i am also suggesting that metaphysical concepts such as good and evil can and should be recast in terms of healthy and unhealthy.
    ...which will get you back into the realm of arbitrary definitions before you can say "categorical imperative". And you will have to work from scratch, after throwing away the millennia of thinking humanity has done over moral and legal (rather than medical) issues, tradeoffs, and compromises.

    Heavy drinking, smoking and reckless gambling are all unhealthy. So, by your definition, is desiring to indulge in any of the three. Should people be put in compulsory medical care just because they feel they would like to drink themselves stiff? Who is to decide?
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    ...which will get you back into the realm of arbitrary definitions before you can say "categorical imperative".
    you haven't really given an argument here. if you've got one, i'd like to hear it.

    And you will have to work from scratch, after throwing away the millennia of thinking humanity has done over moral and legal (rather than medical) issues, tradeoffs, and compromises.
    so be it. that's kinda the point, since a lot of that thinking has been misguided.

    and who said anything about compulsory medical care? just because we know what's right doesn't mean we get to be dicks about it! in fact, quite the opposite--we'd also know (one would hope) that such behavior would not lead to greater well-being for anybody.
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    and for realz this time:

    if any of you want me to hear anything else you have to say, you can find me at my blog., which i linked to in my op.

    thanks

    edit: i just realized this is an entirely different thread than the other one i started (the one entitled 'vaulting the is/ought barrier")

    so that explains why i got an email update--i've unsubscribed from the other thread, and completely forgot about this one.

    so, sorry if confused anybody. but i've decided to move the discussion to my blog if possible--and if not , oh well.

    i did link to my blog in my first post in this thread. but i believe that link goes directly to the original article--but the discussion is continuing in the comments to my article entitled 'an addendum' which is (as the title suggests) an addendum to my original article--which i'd encourage you to read. harold's commented over there a couple times already--so feel free to come join the fun!
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  29. #28 My thoughts 
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    Well... I see God as being the embodiment of all that is good. What I think you mean is, if God says something is good, is it because it is really good? In that case, why do we need to worship God to do good and whatnot? Good exists without God. In the other hand, if God says something is good because he said so, then he could say eating babies was good. That would be entirely random basis for good and evil. So I believe "God is Good" is very literal, God is the embodiment of good, he is the entity of good. Though this would emply (because we see antimatter and matter, space and time, positive # and negative #s created with one another), that a primordial evil entity existed with the creation of God, before the Devil. A true Elder God, of evil.... Interesting thoughts, I love philosophy.
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