Thursday, August 03, 2006

Too goody-goody to be true

DM: Do we agree that as humans we have many basic needs and desires? This seems self-evident.

SH: Yes, we agree.

DM: I would argue that because we cannot fulfill all of our needs and desires simultaneously, or equally, that we must arrange our needs and desires into priorities, or order them, according to our values. It seems an unavoidable part of being human to have "first-order, second-order, etc., etc.," values.

SH: As long as you define “value” in purely pragmatic rather than moralistic terms.

DM: You do what is good in order to survive.


i) No, you do what is “necessary” in order to survive.

ii) In addition, many people indulge in unhealthy or high-risk behavior. They are prepared to shorten their lives if their lives are more enjoyable in return.

Except for the health nut who spends all his time in the gym or the organic grocery store, most of us are prepared to sacrifice a 32-inch waistline for an ice-cream cone.

DM: You don't rape, pillage, and steal because you recognize that you are less likely to be successful, and to pass on your genes, if you live in such a chaotic society, or if you are ostracized from it, or punished within it.


i) That makes sense up to a point, but it’s hardly a moral motive.

ii) Why should I, as an unbeliever, care if I pass on my genes? Indeed, there are many deliberately childless couples these days.

DM: Are you asking me why I should act virtuously?
Because we are in a prisoner's dilemma situation -- we all must work together in a societal structure, or we may as well have a "free-for-all" morally and otherwise. Assuming we will work together (which history has shown works 95% of the time), then exercising virtuous character contributes to the stability of society, and society, just like virtues, becomes a means to an end -- success in health, wealth, and reproduction.

SH: That sounds very logical in the abstract, but you know as well as I do that in real life, people do cheat to get ahead.

They figure that since the next guy is going to cheat, that gives him an unfair advantage, so, in order to level the playing field they had better cheat as well.

They know that since everybody does not play by the rules, it would be foolhardy for them to play by the rules all the time.

May the best cheater win!

DM: We have to start with some primary value around which we frame our ethics.

SH: As an arbitrary postulate?

DM: One of our obligations is to ensure the survival of our collective species.

SH: According to whom? To whom am I (as an unbeliever) thus obligated? Not to the dead. And not to posterity, since they don’t exist.

DM: Another to the survival of our society.

SH: Danny, you’re pontificating instead of arguing.

DM: And that the virtues and values we hold dear don't die with us.

SH: Why should I, as an unbeliever, care what happens after I’m gone? I have no personal stake in a future to which I’m not a party.

DM: Our species is capable of both virtuous and unvirtuous behavior.

SH: You’re begging the question.

DM: I am not sure what the categorical difference here is, or why you think it invalid to use our survival as a primary value, and ethics as a means to further it.

SH: I regard survival as a value. But I do so on my own grounds, not on yours. Your position is groundless.

DM: Do we disagree that ethical behavior in society leads to the most healthy and successful society, which in turn gives rise to the most healthy and successful progeny?

SH: Yes, but that depends entirely on how we define ethical behavior.

You’re defining ethics by success, and then defining success by ethics.

DM: Humans either go it alone or form societies. If they go it alone, they are much less likely to survive, or to live healthy, than if they form societies. Social contracts are one valid way to establish societies in which everyone agrees (a sort of prisoner's dilemma) to hold to ethical precepts to ensure the success of the society, and by proxy, the individual.

SH: Nice on paper. Doesn’t work out that way in practice.

DM: you are more likely to be on the receiving end and receive benefits from living in a society that agrees to put the "many" above the "few" at any given time, by virtue of statistics.

SH: Hypothetically speaking. Harsh reality is often otherwise.

DM: Thus, it certainly is in your self-interest to pledge in to such a society, and pledging to it is necessary to maintain its function, that if you should need to sacrifice yourself for the good of the many, you will.

SH: It’s in my self-interest to commit suicide for the good of the many?

Danny, this is a point blank contradiction.

This is why you are unable to square altruism with self-interest.

Sure, there are many cases in which the two overlap.

But if, as you have done up until now, you are attempting to justify altruism by appealing to the way in which altruism facilitates self-interest, then—in those cases when altruism is at odds with self-preservation—there is no reason for the unbeliever to put his head on the chopping block.

To the contrary, you’ve laid the foundation for the unbeliever, in cases where altruism and self-interest conflict rather than intersect, to opt for self-interest over altruism every single time.

Statistics are great when the stats are in my favor.

DM: We have to look at self-interest from the perspective of every individual in the society.

SH: Why do we need to do that, Danny? My self-fulfillment is not contingent on the self-fulfillment of every other individual in the universe.

Indeed, there are many instances in which my self-interest can be advanced by cheating.

Sure, if everyone cheated all the time, no one would win, and everyone would lose.

But that is why, in the real world—unlike your utilitarian utopia—most people are selective cheaters. It is in their self-interest to gamble some of the time. To take a calculated risk every now and then.

DM: If you are X, and the question is how many X's must die, then you certainly view as "self-interest" what appears to Y as "altruism". Obviously, we consider it "unselfish" to sacrifice our lives for many other lives, should such a dilemma arise, but from the perspective of the utilitarian, it is acting in the interest of our own society/species/kin, which retains selfish motive -- we want to further their survival because they are us: our children, cousins, whatever. Even other animals shown kin altruism (which makes it significantly less altruistic).

SH: This is special-pleading. You’ve qualified self-interest to the point where self-interest is interchangeable with self-destruction. Antonyms turn into synonyms.

DM:I just went through that a bit above with kin altruism, but this could also be formulated within the context of viewing your action's morality by its consequences: consider that if you do NOT do X, you are, effectively, killing many people, while if you DO X, you are killing only one.

SH: True, but the one is not just anyone. The one happens to be me. And I take a personal interest in me. I have a unique investment in my own survival.

DM: Part of our morality is to minimize the loss of life, so the ethical choice here is clear.

SH: It is not at all clear if you justify altruism by appeal to the way in which it promotes self-interest.

DM: Consider a social contract as well -- that while a priori the society cannot take a life (unnecessarily -- considering the trolley problem and other sorts of dilemmas), an inbuilt clause and understanding is that the success and stability of the survival promotes the greater good -- as it promotes the survival of the many -- and thus if one can choose to take their own life in order to contribute to this society's stability, they ought to do so. Obviously, this ethical onus would be followed only by those persons acting responsibly for the greater good. There is no guarantee that our inbuilt survival instinct could be overcome by all persons at all times, but the ethical choice remains clear.

SH: This is way too goody-goody to be true. You act as if you grew up in a broom closet. That’s not how real people reason.

DM: As with Christianity, ethics are a choice you make, whether to be selfish and thus cause harm (or death) to many, which is immoral, or to act unselfishly and thus alleviate harm and promote survival to many, which is moral.

SH. Moral…immoral. You continue to beg the question.

DM: Ah, but you see, this is where the atheist's ethics are so much different than the Christian's -- we choose to do the right thing only because it is the right thing, not expecting a cosmic reward or fearing a cosmic punishment. If you choose not to cause the death of many by allowing your own life to be extinguished, and the atheist knows that this is all they have (no afterlife), how much greater a sacrifice is this than dying for only three measly days (and knowing this beforehand), before being raised to life eternal? Who couldn't take that kind of "fall" for others

SH: If you choose to be cosmic fodder for the universe, play the fall guy for your neighbor’s genetic contribution to the future, or volunteer to be the lamb tethered to the stake, then you’re welcome to your opiate.

We’ll send a bouquet of flowers to your funeral and compose a florid eulogy for our fallen comrade.

DM: It is not a derived function, it is taken as an a priori commitment -- to the survival of our species, irrespective of race, IQ, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, etc. Since we are using human life as a primary value, there is no way to logically or rationally devalue some lives and add value to others.

SH: Once again, you’re making things up. Pretty words that bear no relation to the common good.

The survival of our species—if that’s your primary value—is hardly irrespective of individual aptitude or achievement.

DM: In the outline above, self-interest demands that you agree to utilitarianism, because more often than not, your own life is furthered by the collective good, and thus statistically speaking, you agree to the potential need for self-sacrifice, as in the trolley car dilemma, ironically out of self-interest.

SH: Fine. Play the good German. Follow orders. Live and die for the Vaterland. Go ever dutifully to your destruction as your ears ring with patriotic jingles and jingoism.

What this has to do with secularism escapes me.

DM: Consider that statistically speaking, it is much more likely for you to be a part of the "many" the the "one/few" when it comes to dilemmas in which there is no way to avoid casualties. You sign in to the agreement/contract out of self-interest, and agree that just as you will more likely receive benefit from it the majority of the time, there is a potentiality for altruism.

SH: Yeah, sure.

Any atheist in his right mind would at that point tear his solemn contract into little bitty pieces and flush it down the latrine.


  1. Danny never solves the problem of when seperate societal contracts conflict (i.e. when it would be beneficial for one society to destroy another society).

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how atheist in their evolutionary worldview can never see that they cannot account for morality in the least. All they do is assume it. Like what girlie-man Danny boy is doing here. And to think that he's getting a PhD!

  3. The trouble is that Daniel appears to be a Rawlsian when it comes to his social contract. Rawls believed that humanity was 'risk averse', in truth, given that most Western countries have National Lotteries and Las Vegas hasn't gone out of business, I'd say that was a load of hogwash. Rawls assumes a level of risk aversion that does not exist in order to argue for egalitarianism.

    Equally, the trouble is that we cannot adopt the 'original position' behind the 'veil of ignorance'. We live in society with the skills we have. That means that some smarter chaps will decided to diddle the foolish.

    Remember, Frank, Daniel is pursuing a PhD in Chemistry, not Political theory, for which I do not blame him in the least (political theory is dull). We note that crime violates the social contract, and yet it has been a feature of all societies.

    Truth to tell, the idea of the social contract is no more than an attempt to account for laws and uniform codes of behaviour without reference to a divine lawgiver. Trouble is, this does not percolate down to the base of society. Behaviour that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago is now accepted as normal.

    Oddly, this change has followed a drop of twenty percent or more in Church attendance. I agree with Daniel that, if everyone accepted his social contract and acted accordingly, then morality would continue to hold up. Trouble is, your average practical atheist sees no problem in trying to get ahead however you can, so long as you don't get caught, speeding because they are a 'safe driver' or buying contraband, so long as they assume they won't get caught.

  4. Steve,

    Thanks for the polite response. I am leaving for Orlando this morning and won't be able to reply until Sunday.

    I'll reply at length (and more thoughtfully) when I'm not in a hurry, but I wanted to drop a few comments in response to your commenters here.


    The idea of morality is doing what is good...for "X", where X can be "me, you, you and I, our state, our nation, all of humanity...etc.". The majority of what I am speaking about here is admittedly intranational, not international. I am only using social contract as one framework to justify why humans relate to one another morally (ie in such a way as to promote their collective survival and success via society) when God is not considered. Note first, nothing I've said here necessitates atheism, this is a God-independent, secular justification for moral behavior. It is just as possible to attach divine significance to the value of survival, if you want, as not to. The value of life I am considering as a properly basic value.

    Now, in speaking of international relations, I haven't gotten into it because we were first discussing why humans would want to live in cooperation rather than in competition in one context. However, consider the states themselves as if they represent one individual (a collective view). When these states interact, just as when individuals do, they have basic needs and desires. It may indeed be "beneficial" for a society to destroy another one, but it may be more beneficial for the society to engage in trade with that country. It depends upon your measure of "benefit", and what we risk/pay to gain said benefit via one method versus another. Cooperation often entails greater collective benefit (sometimes for all individuals, rather than just an "average" collective good) than competition.

    We need to get specific here for me to try to analyze what you're saying. Present an argument, like, "Social contract theory only entails what happens within one society. Daniel is not able to use the same principles and systems of justice and reciprocity in how these societies relate to one another...because...X, Y..."


    What I'm simply discussing here is what motivates human beings to employ the same natural social behaviors that we all admit that we have. I, of course, see these same behaviors in chimps and gorillas, and find nothing supernatural about our empathy. I think that empathy can be used to explain why (most of us) avoid situations in which we may inflict pain on someone with no necessity. Empathy can be added on to risk aversion as an additional factor in considering why people want to live in a stable, successful society, and thus repress their primitive urges in order to promote their own long-term and greater good.

    Yes, crime exists. It is also true that there are animals in nature that behave erratically. The question isn't whether people can perfectly abide by this (or any other) ethical system. The question is whether or not we can make sense of why people act ethically (and how we define what "ethical" is). And it is this question that I have attempted to answer -- that in considering the value of our own survival, individually and collectively, we act in such a way as to promote a stable and successful society. That is the condensed justification for moral behavior.

    Now, this sort of explanation doesn't address things that become "value-neutral", such as making an old lady stand up on the bus, rather than yielding your seat to her. It certainly does address why you wouldn't steal from her, or beat her. In a society in which these rights (life, liberty, property) are not respected, it is symmetrically applicable -- you are just as likely to be robbed, raped, etc.

    Trouble is, this does not percolate down to the base of society. Behaviour that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago is now accepted as normal.
    It really depends on specifics here -- if you're referring to, for instance, homosexual behavior, then that is "value-neutral" -- it does not infringe on anyone's rights (as given by the social contract). Obviously, if no one propagates the species, we're in trouble, but we all know that homosexual relationships constitute a small fraction of human relationships, and low reproduction rates have never really been an issue for society until modern times, in which Western cultures wait to marry until later in life (due to education and career priorities). And still, the population is sustained, even with low birth rates, due to extended life expectancy and medical science.

    I agree with Daniel that, if everyone accepted his social contract and acted accordingly, then morality would continue to hold up.
    This is the question I was addressing: can we develop a rational justification for why people ought to act a certain way?

    Trouble is, your average practical atheist sees no problem in trying to get ahead however you can, so long as you don't get caught, speeding because they are a 'safe driver' or buying contraband, so long as they assume they won't get caught.
    Um, first, I don't think your average practical Christian or Muslim or anyone else are any different in this respect. But here we've again moved from moral frameworks, where we justify why something ought to be done (or avoided) to pointing out human beings' inability to abide by it.

    I see little difference in this sort of protest and this sort of protest: that the behavior of Christians invalidates the moral framework they insist is valid.

    At any rate, the more restrictions we put in the social contract, the more likely that people will violate one of them. The principle that keeps things in balance is justice -- reciprocity and symmetry. Civil law has never been based upon God. Everyone understand this -- that a completely society-minded set of laws can be enacted which justify themselves in their protection of the society and the individual. If you break a speeding law, you take away that person's right to drive (or infringe upon it). If you abuse animals, you take away the person's animals and fine them and disallow them to own pets.

    I am quite libertarian in much of my social outlook, so much of government regulation (not so much speed limits, but more like contraband/marijuana laws and a lot of other stuff) I see as an excessive infringement of liberty, which confers no benefit to the individual, but serves some "purpose of the state". We may see eye to eye there.

  5. Daniel, to be honest, the idea that my words might apply to homosexuality hadn't occured to me (which goes to show that communication between cultures is hard). The great issue here in Britain is 'respect', that is, that the young are increasingly ignoring moral norms and doing things, such as shoplifting, disrupting classesn in school to the extent that teaching in some schools is next to impossible, treating the disabled and elderly as objects of scorn, while crimes that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, such as children breaking into churches, mosques, etc and desecrating them for fun, take place.

    I think we can all agree that one can create a framework for moral behaviour that does not include God. The real question is whether one can contruct a reason why someone might actually follow said moral behaviour in this increasinly atomised world. Too many social contract theories were written in an age when evryone knew everyone in their neighbourhoods, and when people lived and died within the same communities as they were born in.

    Increasingly, I see a lack of empathy and a lack of risk aversion in this society, young adults seeming to see the world as existing for their personal entertainment, anti-social behaviour becoming the norm rather than the exception. I mean, a basic failure of empathy is the neighbour listening to loud music after midnight, and that happens all the time. Equally, binge drinking is clearly risky and anti-social, but I live in the binge drinking capital of Wales. Sadly, I see too much behaviour that is selfish, if not almost criminal to agree with your analysis.

  6. Oh, and with respect to contraband, what about cocaine and heroin? Besides, may not the state have a purpose? Being an old-fashioned Tory, not a libertarian, I fear we must there, too, agree to differ.

  7. I wonder if Stalin's and Mao's victims received this speech before their lives were snuffed out. For the supposed good of their respective societies that is.

    Consider a social contract as well -- that while a priori the society cannot take a life (unnecessarily -- considering the trolley problem and other sorts of dilemmas), an inbuilt clause and understanding is that the success and stability of the survival promotes the greater good -- as it promotes the survival of the many -- and thus if one can choose to take their own life in order to contribute to this society's stability, they ought to do so.

    Did they choose to take their own lives I wonder?

  8. Trouble, of course is that some social contract theories lead to just that. Atheists like to believe that Christianity leads to persecution and tyranny, truth is, any idea that is bigger than individuals carries within it the risk that it may be used to justify crimes against the individual.

    Does that mean all people should become radical individualists? No, for that way lies anarchy, the wrong sort of individualism. Social contract theorists understood this point, hence their theories tried to construct a non-theistic model of the state, to explain using reason alone, why people should obey the state. Hobbes, the first of such theorists justified tyranny, explaining that all people had to obey the state, no matter what. He had his eyes on the English Civil War, essentially fought on the question of whether the King had the right to force his will on the nation, or whether he was subject to the law, like any other man.

    And it was Christians like Rutherford, Hampden and Cromwell who articulated the belief that the monarch was subject to the law. If it hadn't been for these men, you would still be living in the British Empire. You might even all be Canadians (or Russians if you live in California, or French, etc.) right now. Now, Rousseau equally justified tyranny. Locke was better, as he was a believer (look at his work on toleration if you don't believe me), and Rawls, I'm afraid, is inconsistent.

  9. Hiraeth, exactly. Daniel could rightly argue that utilitarianism does not equate to nor would automatically result in communism. I would even concede that under many 'theocratic' governments similar atrocities have been committed (though I don't believe on a similar scale). However I feel that the utopian hypothetical he presents neglects to consider that each society has deep philosophical underpinnings. And although this may work within small communities it is often the ruling classes that determine who should live and who should die 'for the greater good of that society'.

    On one level he has explained a non-theistic reason for this, however, in every real life example a common theme is greed and for a large majority of people they are coerced into the contract as opposed to simply opting into it.

  10. On one level he has explained a non-theistic reason for this, however, in every real life example a common theme is greed and for a large majority of people they are coerced into the contract as opposed to simply opting into it.

    As I said earlier, the question was whether or not I could "account" for how I act, and whether or not non-theistic reasons exist, and were rational or not, for behaving morally.

    Greater men than I have argued along similar lines that adding egoism + society can work out quite well -- that we behave certain ways in cooperation with one another in order to achieve what is within our rational self-interest, and limit our behaviors so that we do not disrupt that which benefits us.