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Scot Wilcox


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Do right and wrong exist?

I'm curious about objective right and wrong. If you believe in God, this is a no-brainer. Some things are wrong, some things are right, simply because God says so and He knows. But if you don't believe in God, can you still believe in objective morality? I personally don't think you can. I mean, what do you base it off of? How do you find out what's objectively right or wrong? (By objective I mean "existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality." from dictionary.com)
Sure, there's subjective morality. Any idea of right or wrong come up with by a human is by definition subjective. That's all well and good. Problem is that it only applies to people who believe in it and it gives them no authority to proclaim anything as "what we should be doing." Very often everybody disagrees with each other and we don't get anywhere. (Just look at Congress for an example of this.)
Maybe you disagree with me and you think there is objective morality but no God. That's fine. I would like to ask you to answer a question for me though. Let's pick an easy one. Why is rape objectively wrong? Don't misunderstand me, I can't think of a single instance where rape wouldn't be wrong. I believe very strongly that sexual abuse is one of the greatest evils in the world. Why is it evil? If you can answer me without using a God-based or subjective argument, I'll concede the point.
That point is this: Without God, there is no such thing as right and wrong, only the things we call right and wrong. And since nobody can agree on what to call what, we're all in a lot of trouble.


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    Feb 27 2013: The question you are asking is whether morality is learned.

    "From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. "

    Harvard psychologist Paul Bloom has looked for evidence of morals in babies.

    "A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone."


    Another way to approach the question is whether humans are the only animal that demonstrates a sense of morality.
    For aan answer we can turn to Frans de Waal, who studies primate social behavior.

    "Empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity -- caring about the well-being of others seems like a very human trait. But Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share."


    De Waal summarizes by saying, "I believe there's an evolved morality. I think morality is much more than what I've been talking about, but it would be impossible without these ingredients that we find in other primates, which are empathy and consolation, pro-social tendencies and reciprocity and a sense of fairness."
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      Feb 27 2013: I agree we seem to have an evolved morality, but suggest with an overlay of cultural programming.
    • Feb 27 2013: I don't know. I've read the articles regarding children and primates with regard to empathy and morality but to me it boils down to simple common sense.

      Imagine being a caveman. You are alone and starving and need to eat. You come across another caveman, you can either fight, which is just fine, or you can team up and hunt together. Teaming up and hunting together sounds more appetizing than killing the other caveman and eating them. Something about roast Woolly Mammoth, mmm mmm good. You two assumes that anything you catch will be split 50/50, why, because that is what is FAIR. No one likes unfairness. Being fair is MORAL. Anyway, as soon as you team up you have just now entered an agreement with each other. You expect the other one to tell you the truth if he sees an animal to hunt. If he lies to you and you go off for miles hunting what was a lie (didn't actually see the prey) you will be pissed off beyond belief. Why? Because he lied to you, it's that simple. Lying is immoral. Telling the truth is MORAL. Now what if you two finally caught something and the other one decides to cut you out of your 50/50 agreement and take more for themself? You would be pissed off beyond belief! Why? Because doing unto others things which they do not agree to is IMMORAL. Lastly. Say that you two, as you are hunting, see an injured caveman. He will live but he needs shelter, some rest, and some nourishment. Do you keep on walking or do you help him? I'd help but I wouldn't blame someone else for not helping. Empathy, being strange, is to be measured by the individual wielding it. I can't speak about others' empathy but I can speak all day about others' lying or doing things to other people that they don't agree to.
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        Feb 27 2013: I'm not sure how much common sense young children have, but they seem to have an innate sense of fairness at a fairly young age. I would be surprised if this is a product of reasoning.

        But I agree with our adult human reasoning faculties we can see how cooperation, fairness and other group dynamics humans have (and some other mammals, especially primates) would benefit survival, so if there is any genetic disposition involved it would be likely to be promoted by natural selection.

        I don't think other mammals are using reasoning to conclude they should work as a group. It is innate.

        Just to be a pain, but I suggest sometimes it is moral to do something to others that you wouldn't want done to yourself, and that they don't want you to do to them. If someone is a threat to society it is reasonably moral to lock them up in my view. I don't want to be locked up and neither do they, but it makes sense for the greater good.

        If that other caveman was an enemy that killed your mate would you still help him?
        • Feb 28 2013: No, I wouldn't help the caveman who killed my mate. I'd probably finish him off.

          A criminal has already done harm to someone else that didn't agree to it. Their punishment is restraint from doing it again and also just rehabilitation. They may not agree to their punishment but then they shouldn't of harmed another person. I don't want to be locked up myself so I don't commit crimes against others.
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        Feb 27 2013: This whole scenario that you have described is a subjective fabrication, it suggests that you hold a strong internal sense of what is right and wrong. This is a subjective morality. Where is the evidence of an objective morality?
        Do you see a form of morality in other animals? Is it learned? What forms of morality do we se in babies? Do animals and babies deceive or lie? Do they have a sense of fairness?
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      Feb 27 2013: The research whether animals have morals begs a question. We can determine that animals have empathy, that empathy is evolved, etc. But we need to presume that empathy is moral. How do we know that?
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        Feb 27 2013: To be clear, de Waal states that morality evolves out of several things which he sees in other animals:
        1. Empathy and consolation
        2. Pro-social tendencies
        3. Reciprocity and fairness.

        He states: "If you ask anyone, "What is morality based on?" these are the two factors that always come out. One is reciprocity, and associated with it is a sense of justice and a sense of fairness. And the other one is empathy and compassion. And human morality is more than this, but if you would remove these two pillars, there would be not much remaining I think. And so they're absolutely essential."
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          Feb 27 2013: Theodore, I have no doubt that scientific research can show that animals have the three items you list and that they are a product of evolution.

          By the way, accepting that all living creatures are a product of evolution implies that all traits they have are also a product of evolution.

          I also agree with the reasoning that morality is based on reciprocity and compassion. However, this statement does not come from science. To make this statement, we need to already know what morality means, and this knowledge is not scientific.
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        Feb 27 2013: Its very interesting.

        What is morality from a human perspective?

        I guess it often but perhaps not always relates to group dynamics, favoured behaviours, social cohesion etc. Perhaps the cultural overlay might add some complexity that might not fit.

        If it is about groups, then might not other similar animals have a kind of proto morality?
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        Feb 27 2013: What is the origin of the word "moral?"
        Morals are concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We are differentiating between to types of morality, objective and subjective. De Waal is observing a basis for objective morality and identifies empathy and reciprocity. It is this basis that requires a scientific investigation, such as Bloom's inquiry into babies behaviors.
        The rest is just rule making and subjective: ( morals) a person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do : the corruption of public morals.
        • standards of behavior that are considered good or acceptable.

        see ethical, honorable, righteous, virtuous

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