The “Law of Love”

April 27, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 7:14 pm   Category: Ethics,Ostler Reading,Theology

Good and evil can be defined solely in terms of the law of love… Good is whatever leads to greater love and unity in interpersonal relationships… A good act is one that leads to healing a broken relationship or growing in intimacy and meaning in existing relationships… In contrast an evil act is whatever injures or destroys a relationship; it is one that creates alienation. (Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2, 111-112)

Chapter 3 in Blake’s new book is called “The Relationship of Moral Obligation and God in Mormon Thought”. In the chapter he gives overviews of several ethical theories including utilitarianism and Kant’s moral theories. In the end he concludes that a Mormon theory of ethics (which he calls an Agape Theory of Ethics) would overlap lots of other theories to create its own unique model that is made possible largely from the belief that humans are co-eternal with God.

I like this “Law of Love” idea Blake sets forth as the Mormon version of an ethical theory. I think it provides Mormons with a solid answer to questions about the ultimate source of right and wrong in the universe. One thing that makes this theory uniquely Mormon is illustrated by these comments on page 114:

The law of love is objective and universal… the law of love is not a law instituted by God, although it is a law expressive of who and what God is. … There are eternal principles which condition even God.

The only quibble I have is that Blake seems to get a little loose and overbroad in his assertions. For instance, there is this on page 112:

In contrast, an evil act is whatever injures or destroys a relationship; it is one that creates alienation. The relationships at issue can be broader than relationships between persons, for it is evil to torture animals just as it is to torture humans. It is evil to destroy the environment. The relationships at issue thus include the broadest array of relationships, the relationship I have with others, with animals, with the earth, and with myself. An evil act is one that injures relationships or which leads to alienation or separation.

Hmmm… so animals and the environment are included here too? But I don’t want a relationship with some animals. For instance, if I find a scorpion in my house I will kill it on the spot. I won’t try to befriend it or let it roam free to sting my little children. I don’t think killing a scorpion in my house is an evil act even though I have chosen to injure the relationship I have with that animal and create alienation and separation between me and it. It seems obvious to me that if non-persons (animals or the environment or whatever) are to be included in the descriptions then more explanation and clarification by Blake would be in order. What is the proper amount of love to show to a scorpion one finds in the house? How does the law of love play in that relationship?

The other problem I have with Blake’s broad statements is that they leave little room for “tough love”. Often doing the things that are in the long term best interests of other people injure our relationships with them and create alienation and separation. The very act of preaching repentance can do this. Samuel the Lamanite was accused by the Nephites of the very kind of “evil” that could be drawn from the broad definitions Blake gives of evil in this chapter — they hated him and wanted to kill him for his preaching after all. Jesus Christ himself could be (and was) accused of injuring relationships and creating this kind of short term anger, hatred, alienation and separation through his preaching too. It seems to me that Blake would do well to be more precise and qualify some of these statements by talking about long-term alienation versus short-term alienation. “Tough love” is love too but it seems to be at odds with the unqualified definitions Blake gives in this chapter.

But despite my quibbles over overbroad definitions, I think Blake is on the right track. Just one more quote from page 113:

God gives us all of the commandments to teach us how to love one another, for all of the commandments are summed up in the great command to love God with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. God’s purpose in giving us the commandments is also to lead us to exalted happiness and joy unalloyed.

What do you think? Can all things that are good or evil be traced back to the building or destroying of relationships? If not then what makes good good and evil evil?

50 Comments »

  1. Thanks Geoff, particularly for the definitions :).

    I think your review of this principle is fine. I guess my first impression is that I might (ignorant fool that I am) prefer something like ‘Law of Happiness’ than love. But at perhaps all or nearly all levels the two words may be close enogh to not make much difference. Perhaps a desire for someone else’s happiness is a reasonable definition of love.

    I do think the animals and environment connection to ultimate good and evil seems a bit much.

    I also agree with you that all of this needs to be based on a long term, even eternal perspective, but perhaps that should be assumed. And yes, I think this is a good way to look at why God and his love and desire for our happiness is what makes Him good.

    I guess now that I think about it, the word love is a little to general for my taste. That is probably whay I might prefer the desire for eternal happiness. I feel a little petty stating this – who am I?

    Comment by Eric — April 27, 2006 @ 6:06 pm

  2. Geoff,
    I think I’m going to have to get this book, it seems quite good.

    I like this principle immensely. I agree that good and evil can be traced back to the building or destroying of relationships. I mean, isn’t that what Eternal Life essentially is? Many loving relationships? That’s my essential understanding of it.

    I don’t think he’s that far off with the animal bit. Remember that an animal’s instincts have a lot to do with this telestial environment it’s currently a part of. There’s no reason to believe that as exalted beings (humans, animals, plants) we will have mutual understandings and relationships. I’m not so sure that the scorpion will have a desire to sting your children. It seems Christ had relationships or at least an understanding with animals, plants and the elements.

    Comment by Rusty — April 27, 2006 @ 8:00 pm

  3. er, I mean there’s no reason to believe that as exalted beings we will not have mutual understandings and relationships…

    Comment by Rusty — April 27, 2006 @ 8:02 pm

  4. This is interesting and I agree with the ideas that the way to grow closer to God is to be loving and to build relationships with one another — even animals. This does not preclude me from killing spiders, mosquitoes, and flies, and from throwing rocks at the giant water monitor that frequents our yard on occasion. However, it gets really tricky. We have a lot of Chinese people in our branch and they often tell stories of how their families give them a really hard time because of their church membership. The members may refuse to drink tea with them or participate in a festival of some sort, and to their Old School Chinese family members, this equals huge disrespect — so far as it is even breaking down the relationships these members have with their parents and siblings. So… is it evil? I think keeping their baptismal covenents trumps it.

    Also, I may have mentioned this one before, but it stuck with me. I saw Sharon Stone (who I couldn’t really care less about) on a talk show once, but she was relating a story of when she was with a friend at the hospital. The friend “died” for a awhile and came back; an NDE. She asked the friend afterwards, what happened? What did you see? What was it? And (and here Sharon Stone started crying, so I kind of did too), the friend could only say, “It’s all about love.”

    I love that story. The meaning of life. “It’s all about love.”

    Comment by meems — April 27, 2006 @ 8:59 pm

  5. Very interesting post Geoff. Stingy, my pet scorpion, is lost. Have you seen him wandering around the house anywhere?

    Comment by Kristen J — April 28, 2006 @ 10:05 am

  6. Ummm, last time I saw Stingy he was swimming… in a clockwise fashion…

    Comment by Geoff J — April 28, 2006 @ 10:09 am

  7. Eric: Perhaps a desire for someone else’s happiness is a reasonable definition of love.

    I think this is true and this is seemingly what Blake had in mind.

    Rusty – I really like the idea too. Like I said, my quiblle is with the lack of qualifiers and definitions in this chapter. Blake seems to get a little more detailed in chapter 5 but I haven’t yet seen any more details on these issues of long-term vs. short-term alienating actions or on the animals thing.

    Meems – Great point and that is a good illustration of the sticky ethical situations life throws at us. Again, the lack of nuances is mostly what I missed in Blake’s chapter 3 discussion of the Law of Love (even though the direction seems right to me). I suppose that one answer might be that relationships must be ranked in our lives. My realtionship and responsibility to protect the health of my children trumps my relationship with the scorpion. Our relationship with God is supposed to trumps earthly relationships according to scripture:

    He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10: 37)

    Still, choosing to “injure or destroy a relationship” with one’s own family in order to preserve a relationship with God is a major decision and it seems to me that it should not be done in the absence of direct revelation to do so… (God might have a plan B or C to avoid it after all).

    Comment by Geoff J — April 28, 2006 @ 10:35 am

  8. While interesting and appealing, I think this is too reductionistic. I agree with your qualifications of Ostler’s theory, Geoff, except I think they do even more damage to the theory than you do.

    I mean, this “agape”-type love is certainly amazing and wonderful and incredibly important. But it’s not the whole story. I think meems’s example is pretty difficult to incorporate into the model, and I’m not sure your explanation really does so. What it basically says is, “Do whatever strengthens your relationships with other people, unless God tells you to do something else.” Not a very clear-cut normative model. It makes it pretty easy to justify pretty much anything based on your understanding of what God wants.

    Also, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how this next thing is dealt with, but I think the tension between love that strengthens relationships and love transforms people and helps them be better is extremely interesting and complicated. I think transformative love can only come at the expense of the strength of the relationship, which is why it can only happen when there is a firm base of unconditionally-accepting love. In other words, helping someone become better than they are will be uncomfortable and will be inherently harmful to the relationship in terms of the relationship itself. I haven’t decided whether I think it permanently harms the relationship itself, but at the very least there’s a real tension there, and I don’t think this theory captures the delicious complexity of it all.

    But that’s just me.

    Comment by LoganB — April 28, 2006 @ 4:47 pm

  9. It occurs to me that I should clarify a bit.

    When I say I don’t like the “. . . except when God says to do something else” rule (which is basically how I characterized Geoff’s band-aid placed on Ostler’s theory), I mean that it makes Ostler’s model problematic as a meaningful model for prescribing behavior. I do think it’s a reasonable, if not terribly specific, description of how we should act. It says that we should act in furtherance of our relationships, unless something else is more important, and it at least points us in the right direction to determine what’s more important.

    But the problem with the agape-ethics theory, as I see it, is that it’s only partial.

    Is that clearer? Less clear? =)

    Comment by LoganB — April 28, 2006 @ 5:31 pm

  10. I think you might have misread my comment, Logan. I didn’t suggest that building relationships with others is paramount “except when God says to do something else”. I think Ostler is right that building relationships of love with others is eternally a Good. Rather, I suggested that when there must be a priority in which relationships come first. The first great commandment is to love God; the second great commandment is to love others. So my point to Meems was that when there is a conflict between our relationship with God and our relationship with others, it is always good to choose the relationship with God. (My qualifier was that often need not be a binary decision and that God can show us a way to enhance both our relationships rather than choose one and sever the other if we ask for his advice.)

    Comment by Geoff J — April 28, 2006 @ 7:20 pm

  11. I think the “Law of Love” captures most of what is entailed by ethical obligation, but not all. Consider an atheist stranded on a desert island with no hope of recovery. Does his relationship with others determine the morality of all aspects of his consequent behavior?

    For example, how does one explain the unquestionable morality of the instinct for self-preservation even when facing certain death?

    Or the ethics of improving and extending ones knowledge and ability when there is no one to share it with?

    Would we rather that the castaway idle out his time as a semi-slob, doing the bare minimum to sustain himself? Or jump off the nearest cliff?

    It is easy to explain this in a religious context with reference to a man’s relationship to God, but it is not clear that those felt obligations would dissapear if one were the only intelligent being in the universe, as terribly sad as that state would be.

    Comment by Mark Butler — April 28, 2006 @ 7:23 pm

  12. Mark: Consider an atheist stranded on a desert island with no hope of recovery. Does his relationship with others determine the morality of all aspects of his consequent behavior?

    Yes. His relationship with God could still be the determining factor of good and evil. In LDS thought every living person has a connection with God — the light of Christ — so professed atheism does not change that inner relationship with God. This relationship exists whether one acknowledges it or not.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 28, 2006 @ 8:52 pm

  13. Geoff, the problem is that definition of morality is the relational equivalent of the Divine Command Theory – in other words there is no rational basis for write and wrong other than how God feels about it. That may associatively be the case, but most reject the DCT because the causality is backwards. Especially in Mormonism, most conclude that there are fundamental aspects of Good that are independent of God. That is precisely what we mean when we say “eternal principles” or “eternal laws”, such those that lead to the necessity of a suffering Atonement.

    The classic Mormon expression against the DCT is the radical proposition that if God did not follow certain principles (namely the law of Justice) he would “cease to be God” (Alma 42:13,22-23). The DCT actually works (to varying degrees) in a theology were God is the author of atemporally eternal principles, e.g. the classical orthodoxies of Aquinas, Ockham, and Calvin, but doesn’t work very well in Mormonism, where God is embodied inside the universe, a Creator/Organizer to be sure, but generally not a being who created the fundamental laws of the universe out of nothing (although there is certainly room for maneuvering on that point – cf. D&C 88:13).

    However, if there are no fundamental laws, why does God command are respect? i.e. do we worhsip him because he is Good or because he is God. Do we worship him because he operates consistently with moral principles that in the end even he cannot override, or are we caught up in some sort of everlasting Stockholm syndrome?

    The orthodox Christian answer to this is to take away either all (Aquinas) or part (Ockham) of the temporality of divine discretion. There is certainly no heritage of that type of constraint on the divine will in Mormonism however, leading Orson Pratt so far as what Brigham Young considered quite a heresy – a quasi-worship for the attributes of God more than God himself. I generally agree with Pratt, but certainly abstractions are not worthy of worship, no matter how fundamental they are.

    Natural laws are useful precisely because they are immune to such considerations. If a law is not immutable, it is hardly natural at all. Is Maxwell’s Equation a divine decree to create order out of pre-material chaos? I don’t think so, but some do. Or to switch back to ethics, what would we think of the morality of a command from God to hate one another? Is God’s (or was God’s) opinion on the matter decisive?

    Comment by Mark Butler — April 28, 2006 @ 11:38 pm

  14. It seems I have a bad case of homonym substitution disorder, please substiute “right” for “write”…

    Comment by Mark Butler — April 28, 2006 @ 11:40 pm

  15. And then there is Calvinism, which strictly defines Good in terms of whatever God does, while holding God responsible for _everything_…

    Comment by Mark Butler — April 28, 2006 @ 11:47 pm

  16. Perhaps I can bring a bit of clarity. First, I have not provided an ethical theory — rather, I state only that I am providing a pre-theory or meta-ethic rather than an ethic. I explain what grounds moral obligation; not how a theory prescribes what we do. So Logan is partially correct that a good deal of work remains to be done with an agape theory. I am confident that it can be done.

    Second, healing relationships and injuring relationships are only descriptions of right and wrong, or good and evil. They do not state the moral maxim that I actually suggest governs an agape theory of ethics . What I actually state is that “the most basic moral law is that each person ought to so act so that each shall have the best life possible within the constraints posed by eternal conditions necessary for mutual self-realization.” The eternal conditions are those based upon the nature of intelligences to fully realize their potential to be as God is — and that is done by reflecting the type of love that the Father has for the Son in our relationships. It just so happens that whatever leads to human flourishing and self-realization is also what leads us to heal relationships and to refrain from injuring them.

    So let’s take a few of the examples discussed here. First, the tough-love idea. Remember that I distinguish between fellowship and universal love. Fellowship and intimate and abiding growth in relationship; universal love is commitment to the best interest of others.

    I argue (in ch. 1) that if a son is abusive, that his parents are fully justified in turning him out of the house — while continuing to be committed to his best interests and what would lead to his greatest self-realization to reach his divine potential. So they withdraw felloship but still always express universal love. They will never give up on him; but they may refuse fellowship as long as he insists on behavior that is harmful and abusive. The reason that this stance is an expression of the law of love is that the realization of the other family members is also valued — it is “mutual” self-realization that love seeks. We have friends — but not at all costs. The moment our friendship leads to destruction of us, we impair our ability to love and thus are justified in breaking off the friendship because it makes mutual self-realization impossible.

    Take the scorpion example. Take the darn thing and put it back in the desert where it belongs — and then marvel at its amazing structure and abilities. Don’t kill, but respect its life. That is the greatest mutual self-realization in this relationship. Living things have great value and honoring life in all of its forms respects that mutual value best.

    Take the example of a relationship with the earth — Mother Earth. The earth is a living thing in LDS thought. It is imperative that we realize that honoring the environment is a moral imperative and that harming the environment is wrong and evil. Where does this moral obligation come from? From the fact that our joint or mutal flourishing is promoted by protecting the environment and Mother Earth from harm.

    Take Mark’s example of the atheist stranded on a desert island. I think that the implication of his argument is supposed to be that the atheist is not in any relationships so how could he have moral obligations under an agape theory? Yet it is non-sense to suggest that it is appropriate for him to just waste away and fail to realize his own best interests. Well, he is not alone — the atheist is still in relationship with the earth and God (the fact that he doesn’t believe it doesn’t change it). So what will lead to his flourishing and his greatest self-realization in these relationships? Respect for the island, life surrounding him and his own personal growth.

    BTW Mark, DCT doesn’t work in any tradition. It can make some sense in other traditions that perhaps it doesn’t in LDS thought. But let’s admit that given God’s privileged epistemic and moral position, and given our commitment, love and covenant relationship to him, he can be a source of moral obligation in a way that mere mortals in our lives cannot. However, the moral obligation arises from the fact that we can trust him to be committed to our best interests because he loves us and thus it would be just stupid not to do what we asks us to do because he sees that it will lead to our greatest growth and flourishing. We have an obligation to not be supid and to love God — and thus to respect the commands of God because they all summarize the love command.

    Take the instinct for life. Should we act to preserve our lives even at the expense of others? Well, what leads to the greatest mutual self realization in such instances? We need to know more to answer the question.

    Let’s take the final question. If joining the Church will cause our parents to disown us, should we do it even at the expense of these relationships? Should we value the relationship with God more than family? I believe that Jesus states unequivocally that we should. However, only the Spirit can direct such decisions in each instance. I believe that if we ask what will lead to our greatest mutual self-realization in our commitment of love to each other, the question falls out fairly clearly. In most instances, to fail to follow God to join the Church amounts to a self-betrayal and positively damns us in our progress and mutual self-realization. Giving in to such control and manipulation is a failure to love in many ways. Giving in would merely enable parents to manipulate and dictate. However, such a decision should be made with all due consideration — and if the spirit whispers and we cannot bring our hearts to feel that joining the Church is correct, then follow that message.

    So I think that the agape theory has greater resources than have been suggested in this discussion. Maybe I’m just blinded by my own dazzling suggestions. In any event, I’ve enjoyed reading your comments!

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 12:54 am

  17. Thanks for clarifying a lot of this stuff, Blake. And for being so gracious about it. A couple points:

    I like your expanded “mutual self-realization” idea better, and I think that simple reframing solves a lot of the problems I had.

    An issue I still have is that I don’t think it describes “agape.” Agape, of course, has many meanings in many different contexts, but in the (neo-)Platonic sense (on which I know I’m no expert, so take this for what it’s worth), my understanding is that agape refers more to embracing the lower, or compassion. Embracing people and relationships exactly as they are is what I think of when I think of agape. “Eros” refers more to a creative or upward-looking love. This seems to be what your “self-realization” is talking about. There’s a real tension there, I think, that’s not easily resolved.

    In other words, conceptually, I think there’s real potential here, but I think it transcends the idea of “agape.”

    My interest is now piqued to read your book, though, but I’m slightly disappointed that you’ve only got a “pre-theory or meta-ethic.” The “mutuality” (agape, as I see it) and “self-realization” (eros) aspects are clearly crucial. The tricky part is getting into the nitty-gritty of how they interact!

    Comment by LoganB — April 29, 2006 @ 7:27 am

  18. Logan: I do not believe the distnctions of love as eros, agape and philos are the key to a Christian agape thoery — but love as Jesus taught it. The distinction is surely present in Greek thought; but it seems to me that human flourishing is based on what we are eternally and as a result what leads to the fullest realization of the highest in us. What leads us to be godlike? So I am not advocating a neo- or fully Platonic agape theory, but a theory that bases good and evil on what leads to our greatest mutual flourishing and realization in terms of being committed to the best interests of others and seeking fulfilling and dynamic relationships — covenant relationships that lead us to fully honor the choices of others about what their lives are about so far as it leads to the mutual realization of our divine nature.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 9:11 am

  19. I remember reading an early peek at this theory on the fair website (must have been over a year ago). It definitely has its appeal, especially to Mormons, who already describe exaltation through the extention of family relationships. However, I am hesitant in one respect.

    As a meta-ethic, the theory is trying to identify the fundamental ground of goodness—to define what it is that makes something good. I have always had leanings toward utilitarianism which says that “happiness” is the ultimate ground of goodness. Clearly I want loving relationships and also happiness, but happiness seems more fundamental to me. My problem with the theory is: it seems more reasonable to say that loving relationships are good because they make people happy than it is to say that happiness is good because it promotes loving relationships. Thus, happiness seems like the more fundamental ground for what it means to be good.

    Comment by Jacob — April 29, 2006 @ 9:14 am

  20. Jacob: I address my concerns with utilitarianism in this chapter. I suggest that happiness is a by-product of love and being in fulfilling relationships and thus love is more basic. However, it really requires dealing with my objections to utilitarianism or teleological ethical theories in general.I give four objections (there are many others) to utilitarianism. (1) There is no way to judge what will lead to greatest happiness or even an ability to do acts which simply make us happy per se; (2) human rights cannot be derived from such a theory and would sanction abuses of human rights if the greatest happiness for the many would result; (3) such a view sanctions innustice; and (4) such a view cannot make sense of genuine friendship. I give detailed arguments — which obviously I cannot recount here.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 9:34 am

  21. Mark (#13)- You lost me with this comment. I don’t see how my responses to your questions could be connected with Divine Command Theory. It does look like Blake and I are on the same page on this point since his response in #16 mirrors the ideas I had in mind.

    Blake (#16) – Thank you for filling in some of the holes in this conversation. I was hoping you would chime in and do so. It appears that we are seeing eye to eye on the correct responses to the questions Meems and Mark posed. Plus, it is helpful to be reminded of the comments you made in chapter 1 as related to “tough love”.

    Take the scorpion example.

    The idea that I should take every scorpion, or fly, or spider, or whatever pest that might invade my house and track it down and capture it alive in order to set it free in the wild is obviously untenable. My take is that there must be a hierarchy of relationships and some clearly trump others. Therefore, our personal relationship with God trumps other relationships in the rare instances when push comes to shove. My relationship with my family clearly trumps my relationship with bugs and pests that invade my house too. So while capturing bugs and setting them free while I “marvel at their amazing structure and abilities” is a good thing it also would take massive amounts of time — time that belongs to my family. So if I use that time on my relationship with bugs I am actually doing wrong because I have put a lower relationship ahead of a higher one. The upshot is that I think often killing scorpions, spiders, etc. is the best moral choice. It destroys one “relationship” (between me and the bug) but it is done to enhance a higher relationship by protecting my loved ones from harm or disease.

    I’m guessing you agree with this rather self-evident principle, but I wonder if you deal with this hierarchy of relationships in the book at all. I haven’t seen it dealt with in my reading yet…

    Last, I think you are right on with your approach to the relationship between love and happiness. Happiness/joy may be the end goal but loving relationships are indeed the only way to achieve that goal. You do an excellent job of showing this I think.

    Jacob – Chapter 3 is obviously much more fleshed out than this post. Blake spends a lot of time on the strengths and weaknesses of a purely utilitarian ethic.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 29, 2006 @ 10:13 am

  22. Fair enough, Blake. Regarding “a theory that bases good and evil on what leads to our greatest mutual flourishing and realization in terms of being committed to the best interests of others and seeking fulfilling and dynamic relationships,” I’m still not sure “flourishing and realization” can be adequately conceptualized “in terms of being committed to the best interests of others. . .”

    But I should probably read your book first, and nit-pick afterward. =) Thanks again for the discussion.

    Comment by LoganB — April 29, 2006 @ 10:17 am

  23. It seems to me that Blake’s theory falls victim to G. E. Moore’s attacks on Analytic Naturalism in his Principia Ethica. There are two points which Moore mentions which are worth pointing out:

    First is his Open Question Argument. We can define ‘good’ as ‘that which strengthens relationships, etc.’ but it still seems an open question whether ‘strengthening a relationship (Geoff’s case is a scorpion), etc.’ is good. It seems possible that the answer to this question can be ‘no’ and therefore we simply do not seem to have an analytic equivalence here.

    His second point is that in Analytic Naturalism there is no way of deciding who is right. Blake says that good is ‘that which strengthens relationships, etc’ while John Stuart Mill says that good is ‘that which is desired’. Clearly at least one of them must be wrong, but the problem is that we have no way of deciding which one it is.

    Furthermore, it seems that rather than saying good is ‘that which strengthens relationships, etc’ is simply seems more reasonable by my lights to say that whatever tends to strengthen relationships is good, rather than the other way around.

    I would also be curious to know if Blake draws a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘right’.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 29, 2006 @ 11:19 am

  24. Jeff. Good questions (as usual). I take the good be to that which is intrisically valuable and right is that which is valuiable because it is extrinsically valuable or draws its value because it leads to what is valuable in itself — tho making this distinction in pragmatic terms seems very difficult to me. In fact, I prefer to re-word both of these concepts into “what works and what doesn’t work to make mutual growth in fulfulling interpersonal relationships that flourish.” In this way, what works leads to the Law of the Harvest or reaping what we sew. What works leads naturally to expressing who we are, realizing what we are and blessing others as our primary goal through being both.

    Next to Moore’s suggestions. It seems self-evident to me that loving relationships are intrinsically valuable and pragmatically verified as fulfilling by our experience — but not because it is logically necessary or analytic but because it follows from the kind of beings that we are. We flourish and realize our greatest happiness and potential in loving relationships. Since love is the commitment to our mutual flourishing, it becomes “almost” analytic. But love ties into a number of moral intuitions as I outline in my book — and since I don’t believe that good and evil or right and wrong are arrived at analytically (pace Kant) Moore’s first argument isn’t really an argument against an agape theory.

    Moore’s second point doesn’t apply since agape theories of ethics are not analytically naturalistic theories. However, we could re-work his objection to say that there must be a rule for deciding which relationships govern or take preference (such as Geoff suggests) and such a rule will need a rule etc. That is why I don’t develop an agape theory as a set of rules (i.e., as the set of commandments given by God or the set of rules that fulfill love). Indeed, Jesus’ point was that approaching love as a set of rules is to miss its entire point. Love is known in the spirit of interpersonal relationship. It is “revealed” to us or “called out of us” by the other and is written into our hearts because it is already expressive of who and what we are. So what love requires us to do fits with an intuitionist notion of moral epistemology — I know what I am called to do because I sense and know it in relationship to the others in my life. In fact, what I am called to do cannot be universalized because what I am called to may differ in many respects from what you are called to do. Remember, love calls us to mutual self-realization, and what will lead to such realization requires dealing with individuals as individuals in all of their individuality as such. Thus, what works in discipline with my daughter definitely is not what works with my son. What I am called to do as my life’s purpose need not be your life’s purpose. What realizes my potential and gives me happiness may be different for you. So in an agape theory my duty is to honor your life’s purpose and choices and support you in them so far as they lead to your greatest growth as a person toward fulfilment in our mutual relationship. Remember, ethics is always an interpersonal endeavor — not a lesson in logic.

    For example, given who I am and my abilities, I express my love more fully by writing books than playing golf — that may not be true of someone else. One who loves me will support me and wish the best for me to realize what and who I am — and I will do the same for them. I love them as I love myself.

    So for your final point — that which strengthens relationships is good because it strenthens relationships and expresses love and not merely good in itself. I don’t see how you can avoid that conclusion. So you conclusion is backwards.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 12:03 pm

  25. Blake,

    After I had typed up my comment I realized that my focus on relationships rather than on love would provide an all-too easy escape route for you. While I am certainly comfortable calling love really good, I’m not comfortable with calling good ‘love.’ For starters, I’m not convinced that love is always a good thing, nor am I convinced that there are things which are good, but are not love. This would argue strongly against analiticity, which you admit isn’t entirely right here.

    I, however, don’t see analytic naturalism as being completely reduced to logic as it is in Kant. It seems clear to me that Mill’s analytic naturalism involved a significant degree of empirical considerations in it. What is analytic is making ‘good’ = ‘x’ where x is pleasure, happiness, loving relationships or whatever. It seems to me that any for of ‘good = x’ should be avoided in favor of something like Wittgenstein’s family resemblance.

    I should also mention that I have serious doubts as the existence of anything called “intrinsic good” if this is anything like Moore’s method of isolation. I think that goodness is necessarily a relation between an evaluator and some object. While I recognize your definition to be relational in nature, I grow suspicious when you call love as being intrinsically good. Another form of Moore’s open question argument might be “why is love good?”

    I also worry about your appeal to our actual natures. Yes, given our actual natures, loving relationships do tend to be good (whatever good might mean in this context). But it is not difficult to imagine a possible world were such is not the case. I imagine that at this point one can draw in some religious doctrine that states that our natures had to be this way, but this seems to be begging a big question. Why did our natures have to be such that love is good? If this was based in some kind of a decision by God, or His God, was that decision good? If so, what was the definition of good which was used to establish what our natures would be, natures which would determine what we would consider to be good?

    I know that you have consciuosly avoided such questions, but it simply seems to me that you are smuggling in a definition of good with a definition of what human nature is. This also seems to make the question “is human nature good?” meaningless, for good is defined in terms of human nature. (Maybe this isn’t a bad thing though.)

    It simply seems that your version of ‘good’ isn’t really a definition so much as a heuristic for making decisions and judgments. This is kind of what I was trying to get at by saying that although love is good, I’m not sure that good is love. The question I’m asking is “Is love an instantiation of good, or is good an instantiation of love?” If you respond that they really are one and the same, then all the problems which Moore brings up do apply. If they are not the same then it seems clear to me that love is an instantion of good, not the other way around.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 29, 2006 @ 12:43 pm

  26. Blake #20 I know you can’t rehash all of your arguments here, which is why I read your book :) Sadly, I can’t give a full blown defense of utilitarianism here either.

    Blake #24 You say: It seems self-evident to me that loving relationships are intrinsically valuable and pragmatically verified as fulfilling by our experience-but not because it is logically necessary or analytic but because it follows from the kind of beings that we are. We flourish and realize our greatest happiness and potential in loving relationships.

    You start by saying it is self-evident that loving relationships are intrisically valuable, but then appeal to the fact that we “realize our greatest happiness and potential in loving relationships.” Doesn’t this illustrate that happiness is intrisically valuable in a more self-evident way than loving relationships are.

    Your theory allows for a parent to send an abusive son out of the house (#16), which is a significant withdrawl in the closeness of that relationship (not a withdrawl of love, but the relationship must suffer in some way). Isn’t this precisely because maintaining the closeness of that relationship no longer promotes happiness?

    Comment by Jacob — April 29, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

  27. Jeff: I don’t believe that God decided what is good or evil, or that love would be good for us. As I said, God doesn’t decide what love is and God cannot make mayhem and murder to be love by fiat. Love is what it is and not even God could have it differently.

    We have an eternal nature which God did not create — and the essential aspect of that nature is that it had capacity for growth in interpersonal relationships. There is nothing analytic, and there is nothing that God created such that loving relationships are good and what make us flourish as individuals. It just happens to be the way we are.

    Let’s say that there are humans* instead of the humans we are. And let’s say that what lead humans* to grow and realize their greatest potential were eating grass — and that is it. Well, then humans* would lack the great capacity for the greatest good that we know — loving and fulfilling relationships with the people in our lives. However, it also follows that humans* could not be ethically obligated to love because they lack the capacity to do so and because their natures are not fulfilled in so doing. In fact, humans* would be more like cows!

    If we were different, then whatever made us flourish would be different, but it would not alter the value of loving relationships.

    As for your last comment — you reify “good” as if it could exist on its own as an Ideal or Form. You speak of it implicitly as if it is instantiated in particulars. Well, I just reject that altogether. It assumes a form of Platonism — and you don’t accept that either so assuming it won’t work for either of us.

    You suggest that perhaps love is not always a good thing. Well, give a counterexample because I don’t there is such a case. Give me an example where genuine love not a good thing. Show me an example of where mutual flourishing in relationships because people are lovingly committed to the best interest of each other isn’t a good thing — a supremely good thing. Indeed, I suggest that considering such loving relationships reveals that agape as I have conceived it just is the greatest good or most worthwhile goal we can conceive or know through experience.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 1:09 pm

  28. Jacob: As I stated: happiness is a byproduct of mutual self-realization through loving relationships. One cannot have a duty to be happy or do what makes one happy because we just cannot specify such acts. I don’t deny that happiness is an intrinsically valuable state, or that it isn’t an appropriate end — it simply isn’t what moral obligation is based upon. Love is more fundamental. If you try to seek only your own happiness (as an egoistic ethic suggests) then you adopt a view that is massively and self-referentially incoherent. More importantly, it will lead to misery rather than happiness.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 1:12 pm

  29. I agree that Good cannot be instantiated by itself in isolation. (Platonic garbage, we all agree.)

    I am, however, convinced that lots of things which are good have nothing to do with loving relationships, even if all loving relationships are in fact good. (Though I cannot think of any counter examples to this last part, I’m not willing to buy into it whole-sale yet. I think that “love” is one of those concepts which, primarily due to its religious usage, has become so flexible that it can be used to describe most anything.)

    I guess I want to know if you draw a line between good and morally good? Railton considers that which is objectively, yet non-morally good, that which a person would wish for themselves if they could be endowed with perfect knowledge and rationality. He then goes on to say that moral good is that which promotes the most non-moral good from a social perspective. Thus Railton suggests that moral good is based in a non-moral good which comes logically prior to anything approaching a loving relationship.

    For instance, I think that eating sushi is not only good, but is great. (A cheesy joke of mine is that it is not only great, but is gr-nine or even gr-ten! I know, no throwing tomatoes.) Should such a good, which seems to have nothing at all to do with loving relationships, be considered morally good? I doubt it. It seems as it you are limiting your notion of good to a social sphere.

    Another question whcih I think needs to be addressed is how do you define “love” or “loving relationship” without smuggling notions of “good” into it? This is another way of expressing my fundamental doubt with your account, namely that although loving relationships can be defined in terms of good, I do not think that good can be defined in terms of loving relationships.

    I’ll tell you what I do find to be positive about your account though:

    Assuming you are only speaking of moral goodness, I’m not sure that morality exists in the context of the isolated individual. Your account seems to agree with this.

    I also appreciate your attempt to integrate motives into the account, a move which seems to square with human experience. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that such a move will ultimately be successful.

    Comment by Jeff G — April 29, 2006 @ 1:50 pm

  30. Blake: I hope you’ll agree that utilitarianism need not dictate that a person should “try to seek only [his/her] own happiness” (#28).

    Rather than press my original point (which seems to be leading to less mutual understanding rather than more), let me ask this: Do you think that the source of moral obligation must also be the basis upon which a person trying to act morally makes decisions? For example, when faced with a moral dilemma, should my thinking be focused on deciding which option seems to me to promote loving relationships?

    In my view, many (if not most) of our decisions are actually decided using duty-based considerations, which seems appropriate to me, even though I fully reject a duty-based meta-ethic. Your comment in #28 seems to assume that moral decision making will be based on one’s meta-ethic, which differs from my assumption.

    Comment by Jacob — April 29, 2006 @ 2:06 pm

  31. Blake,

    To what extent is your account motivated by the ontology of process theology. Is the relationship between individuals taken to be just as fundamental or even more so than the individuals themselves? How ontologically fundamental do you see love as being?

    Comment by Jeff G — April 29, 2006 @ 2:36 pm

  32. Jacob: I believe that Kant’s duty based ethic is far preferable to utilitarianism. I see teleological theories of ethics as actually a matter of social planning. Further, while the ground of ethics will not provide a rule or single maxim of set of moral maxims, those acts which are deemed to be morally obligatory must flow from or be explained by the what grounds moral obligation. So I see duty based ethics a giving much clearer statements of which actions are obligatory and those which are not, we also value and seek for certain ends like happiness. Both approaches are subsumed under an agape theory of ethics where our moral duty arises from the other and the relation we have witg the other.

    Jeff: My view of ethics is probably somehow related to process thought, but process thought aesthetizes morality. In other words, what is morally good is defined in terms of harmony or beauty of creative concrescence rather than moral obligation in process thought.

    I see love as fundamental because it is the means to other things that we value (like self-realization and happiness) and also as the most and only worthy end for which we can ultimately strive. Because we are the kinds of beings that we are, a godlike existence in indwelling love is the next step in our growth and realization (I would say our evolution, but that would probably lead to confusion). Love is so fundamental that when everything else is said and done, when life is staring down death and the question of its own continuation in the face, the only thing that really matters becomes clear — the love that we have for the people in our lives. When all else is said and done, the last and most valuable thing remains — the simple message to those closest to us in our lives by saying “I love you.” No other message matters in the end.

    However, I agree with you that there is a difference between the good and what is morally obligatory. Ummm, sushi. That is good. But it isn’t morally obligatory that I or anyone else eat sushi. Moral obligation is ultimately interpersonal. It arises in the face and call of the other. The Other makes demands on us and what is most valuable in response is realized by responding with what will lead to our greatest mutual self-realization in that relation.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 3:34 pm

  33. Jacob: You are quite correct that utilitarianism does not lead to egoism or merely seeking our own greatest happiness. But merely pointing to happiness as a worthy end doesn’t determine whether one adopts a form of rule utilitarianism, act utilitarianism or egoism. Do I seek my own happiness if it conflicts witt the happiness of others? Do I seek for the great amount of happiness for the greatest number — and if so, how do I calculate that happiness? Just taking happiness as a worthy end leaves wide open a number of ethical approaches generally labelled as teleological theories because what is good is defined in terms of consequences or ends brought about. I’m not at all clear which of these views you are pining for.

    Comment by Blake — April 29, 2006 @ 3:40 pm

  34. I’d absolutely love for one of you, (probably Jacob or Geoff) to read Steve Pinker’s recent NY Times article on morality and comment on its points of agreement/difference with your Mormon views of ethics. I would especially love to hear Geoff’s thoughts on the relationship and disconnect between biologically evolved moral intuitions and his recent claims regarding the unimportance of survival and well-being in this life.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 22, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

  35. Jeff: The supposed soundness of the speculations of evolutionary psychology never cease to amaze me. The leaps of logic and the absence of real evidence stun me – even in those who trumpet their scientific credentials as some reason to give them some weight. Look at what we have:

    Pinker: But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.

    Here is the interesting part — Pinker suggests lining up with the brain damaged who apply only utilitarian considerations. He sides with what he magisterially labels “rationality” over moral judgment. Kant is rolling over in his grave to have his very rationalist deontological theory treated as a mere illusion because it is not what Pinker calls rational — a consequentialist non-ethic.

    Here is the real problem — Pinker: Most of the moral illusions we have visited come from an unwarranted intrusion of one of the moral spheres into our judgments. A violation of community led people to frown on using an old flag to clean a bathroom. Violations of purity repelled the people who judged the morality of consensual incest and prevented the moral vegetarians and nonsmokers from tolerating the slightest trace of a vile contaminant. At the other end of the scale, displays of extreme purity lead people to venerate religious leaders who dress in white and affect an aura of chastity and asceticism.

    The problem is that all “moral sense” becomes an illusion on this view. Morality is really just the accidents of the brain physiology as it evolved. It is always a throwback to a situation where our physiology dictated the outcome. In other words, it is irrational. It is necessarily irrational because everything is — even Pinker’s own conclusions are the result of the physiology of his brain. However, for him it makes sense to make scientists the philosopher kings of Plato.

    Is the new “wrong” a failure to keep the five modules of moral reaction in the brain separate? Is the new “right” to heed the neuroscientist who can tell us that our moral sense is merely a conflict between brain modules and the neuroscientist is the one who can tell us what moral rationality really looks like? Yup, that is what Pinker is saying: Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

    And how does Pinker know what the “right” is? Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.

    Sounds to me like a good old fashion self-promotion that tells us that our sense of right and wrong, good and evil is a deeply mistaken illusion as proven by science and the “science of moral sense” will deliver us. The real problem? Nothing is left of morality and the all of the hand-waving toward morality is really just social engineering as the Pinkers would like it.

    Comment by Blake — January 23, 2008 @ 7:27 am

  36. I have to disagree with you on a number of points here, Blake.

    First of all, I don’t see this account of morality as being a part of the evolutionary psychology program, although the latter may be supported by the latter. The authors of the 5-part morality theory are cultural anthropologists, and it is from their surveys across numerous cultures that they developed this theory.

    Regarding his equating rational thinking with consequentialist thinking, I think you may have good grounds to raise a red-flag, but I’m just not sure what hangs on this point. All the example is supposed to show is that there is more to moral reasoning than the calculation of harm/benefit. I simply don’t see what importance his use of “rational” in this context is supposed to have. Sure, it shows that Pinker is probably a consequentialist, but so what? This piece is certainly not meant as a defense of consequentialism.

    I think that Pinker’s use of “moral illusion” is basically the same as his equating rational with consequentialist. He might think that the immorality of washing a toilet with a national flag is a mere illusion, the piece can hardly be considered an attack on patriotic sentiment. Indeed, I suspect that this is simply another case which follows from Pinker’s consequentialism.

    “Morality is really just the accidents of the brain physiology as it evolved. It is always a throwback to a situation where our physiology dictated the outcome. In other words, it is irrational.”

    I see this statement as being confused on a number of points. First, who said that our moral sentiment was an accident? If anything, this is where an appeal to evolutionary psychology is a good thing, since selection is anything but a random, accidental process.

    Second, why must it be that if something is physiological, it must be irrational? When we look at the design of the heart or the eye we never think “irrational”. Why should it be anything different for our moral intuitions. I can understand if you simply want to take this kind of evolutionary psychological reasoning with a grain of salt, but here you seem to be actively arguing against it.

    “Is the new “right” to heed the neuroscientist who can tell us that our moral sense is merely a conflict between brain modules and the neuroscientist is the one who can tell us what moral rationality really looks like?”

    While Pinker’s writing can lend itself to such a conclusion, I think that there is a lot more charitable way to read him. (I should mention that I have read some of Jonathan Haidt’s work on the 5-modal morality.) Each of the 5 moral domains should be seen as a source of morality, no one being more illusionary than the others. We can expect these domains to come in conflict with each other. We have no right to expect advice on which domain ought to give way in such conflicts from the neurologist, etc. However, we can use these understandings to better understand the moral conflicts which arise in the public sphere.

    When Pinker says that the new science of moral sense can show us how evolution has saddled us with moral illusions, I certainly agree that he is getting more than a little carried away. However, to conclude that Pinker is advocating a strong elimination of morality altogether seems highly under-motivated.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 27, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  37. Jeff: who said that our moral sentiment was an accident? If anything, this is where an appeal to evolutionary psychology is a good thing, since selection is anything but a random, accidental process.

    I said that Jeff. I said that it is the logical implication of basing morality on the kinds of assessments Pinker really thinks are determinative: physiology and culture. Moreover, the chief feature of the survival of the fittest, the sole engine for evolution, is that it isn’t based on some teleological plan. When you speak of the design of the heart or the eye I have to protest that there is no “design” about it according to evolutionary psychology. It’s just more nurture and nature explains everything lingo. If moral judgments are the results of populations of neurons and how they interact is determined by non-teleological causes like natural selection, then morality is an accident of what leads to survival and not based on anything that could be morally binding on us. If I simply reject all morality, when then? I may violate the law or some social norm, but how could you call it a violation of morality? There is no morality over and above cultural norms (which vary widely) on this view.

    Second, why must it be that if something is physiological, it must be irrational? I shouldn’t have said “irrational,” since it doesn’t leave open the possibility that there is a rational explanation for our moral acts — they evolved from brain physiology. But the focus isn’t the explanation of what causes us to have the moral intuitions that we do, but the rationality of believing that our moral intuitions are really based on morality at all rather than physiology. To believe that there is anything morally obligatory in the deliverances of our moral intuitions is irrational on this view. Your argument is based on a category mistake. I am discussing the moral content of our moral intuitions and you attempt to misdirect the issue by focusing on whether the biological explanation of so-called five moral modules rational. They are not the same. There is a rational explanation for what we do — our bodies were determined or randomly came up with the illusory moral demands. However, there is no rationality to the morality beyond the physiological and cultural determinations. Moral obligation is therefore a-rational — it is not grounded in moral considerations but in physiology.

    You expose this confusion when you say: Each of the 5 moral domains should be seen as a source of morality, no one being more illusionary than the others. The problem is that they are all illusory, so saying that one isn’t more illusory than another is like saying that one type of death is just as much death as another.

    Comment by Blake — January 28, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  38. Jeff G,

    FWIW I have been meaning to respond since you put up the link to Pinker, but I haven’t gotten time yet. I still hope to.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 28, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

  39. “When you speak of the design of the heart or the eye I have to protest that there is no “design” about it according to evolutionary psychology.”

    I would certainly disagree with this. What evolution shows is that design does not require a designer. While many evolutionists shy away from calling the products of evolution designed, I simply think this is a mistake. Even if one protests that something which does not have a designer cannot possibly be design, I would have to insist that a third category be invented. After all, even if the heart and eye aren’t designed, their elegant complexity and function sure as heck aren’t accidents either.

    “… then morality is an accident of what leads to survival and not based on anything that could be morally binding on us.”

    You are going to have to say a lot more than this. First of all, what do you mean by morally binding? You will have to remind me what you take the semantic, epistemological and metaphysical nature of moral claims to be. Second of all, why cannot evolution produce something which is morally binding in whatever sense you intend?

    “But the focus isn’t the explanation of what causes us to have the moral intuitions that we do, but the rationality of believing that our moral intuitions are really based on morality at all rather than physiology.”

    Here seems to be the big rub which always exists between us. You see folk psychological explanations (beliefs, desires, rationality, etc.) and physiological explanations (evolution, neurology, etc.) as somehow being in competition with one another such that if physiology explains behavior then psychology is out the window. I simply do not see things this way, nor have I ever been exposed to an argument for why I should think otherwise.

    “But the focus isn’t the explanation of what causes us to have the moral intuitions that we do, but the rationality of believing that our moral intuitions are really based on morality at all rather than physiology.”

    I believe you are referring to the distinction between discovery/creation and justification. In other words, just because we can tell a story of where some norm came from does not justify the norm. It is here that I see evolutions strongest contribution. The evolution by natural selection of something is both a story of creation and justification all at once. Something was selected for some justifying reason. Of course this is a have vague statement which would require a significant degree of unpacking, but I think you get the basic jist.

    My main point here is that if we do not have some process in which the creation and justification mix in some way, we are left with a Euthyphro problem. One can always ask one more time, where did those norms come from and what justifies them. This goes for self-existent moral laws as well; even if they never were created (which is quite the cop-out if you ask me) one can always ask what justifies them. In other words, what makes our norms, or God’s norms, or the self-existent Universe’s norms non-arbitrary. Evolution by natural selection with its appeal to justification by historical selection is the best explanation I’ve ever heard.

    It is for this reason that I see morality which is derived from evolution to be the least illusory morality of all. In other words, until somebody can tell me how morality and rationality could be ultimately justified by anything other than evolution, I simply don’t see many options available.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 28, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

  40. Jeff: You are going to have to say a lot more than this. First of all, what do you mean by morally binding? You will have to remind me what you take the semantic, epistemological and metaphysical nature of moral claims to be.

    Actually, it is incumbent on you to do this since you are the once claiming that there is some sense of morality that can be equated with mere biological brain systems and culture. What do you assert is the nature of morally binding obligation? It so happens that I have already discharged the task you ask of me in my second volume, ch. 3.

    Something was selected for some justifying reason.

    This is just non-sense. There was no reason involved in the selection. There is an after-the-fact explanation based on the same mantra always given in evolutionary theory — it just so happens that the accidents coincided so that is what was most conducive to survival. End of story.

    It is for this reason that I see morality which is derived from evolution to be the least illusory morality of all.

    It is for this reason that what you see as morality just ain’t morality at all. There is nothing morally obligatory at all in such a system. There is only what is that leads to survival. End of story. Once again, I have already given a meta-ethic that explains the incumbency of moral obligations. Your view doesn’t explain anything about moral obligation at all. You have a morality without moral obligation because it has no way of explaining how the mere accidents of evolution could lead to something morally obligating. Once I see that my moral choices are just competing sub-brain systems mediated by culture, I see that there are really no moral obligations but just cultural norms. Cultural norms don’t equal morally binding principles.

    Comment by Blake — January 28, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  41. You act like I’m attempting to disprove a paper you have written, when in fact I am defending Pinker from your attacks. The burden of proof is on you, my friend. As for you book, I haven’t read it, nor do I own it. I know that asking for a brief summary of such a big question/answer is difficult, but if you are really going to refute Pinker’s claims, you are going to have to say far more than you have.

    “There was no reason involved in the selection. There is an after-the-fact explanation based on the same mantra always given in evolutionary theory — it just so happens that the accidents coincided so that is what was most conducive to survival. End of story.”

    Your kidding, right? Selection is all about reasons and nothing about accidents. That is the whole point of the adaptationism debates. All parties in the debate agree that some biological features are due to selective reasons and some are simply due to accidents, the only question is how much of each is involved. It is for this reason that Dennett and Millikan attempt to base intentionality in the process of evolution. It is the reason why evolution by natural selection is not tautological and empty as it would be if your account were correct.

    You need to be a bit more specific about what you mean by “survival”. The survival of what? The individuals, their kin, their genes, their in-groups members, the norms themselves? Furthermore, I’m not sure what survival has to do with your main problem as I understand it. Basically, you are asking why each individual should be moral? This is a tough question which Pinker’s paper doesn’t even attempt to address. If you are going to use this unanswered question against Pinker, I sure hope that your own theory can answer the question better than Pinker’s does.

    This is why I ask you what your meta-ethical position is. You seem to mean something very majestic by “morality.” While I admit that the evolutionary view of morality is somewhat deflationary, this modest deflation purchases a significant degree of plausibility. You, on the other hand, hold out for what I called “majestic morality” but such a form of morality seems utterly implausible to me.

    Let me sum things up a bit. I think it is generally acknowledged that the evolutionary account of morality is somewhat deflationary. However, it is also seen to be the most robust theory which has any air of plausibility at all. Your objection seems to be that the evolutionary theory is not robust enough. This objection is not going to carry any weight at all, unless you can present an alternative which is not so deflationary and at the same time plausible. At minimum, you are going to have to slow down and show why, exactly, the evolutionary theory cannot be robust enough.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 28, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

  42. Jeff: All parties in the debate agree that some biological features are due to selective reasons and some are simply due to accidents, the only question is how much of each is involved.

    Jeff, you’re kidding, right? What counts as an adaptive “reason” is merely an accident of what the environment happens to be and the accidents of mutations. What mutations occur is a matter of totally random chance. You just don’t get Dawrin’s Dangers Idea, do you? There is no design about it. There is no “reason” about it. (There wasn’t even a possibility of reasoning being involved because on your view their wasn’t a creature who could come up with, recognize or articulate a reason).

    By “morality” I mean something that could be obligatory for us. By being obligatory I mean that there is an overriding duty to do the act. Moral obligation is elementary to moral responsibility my dear Watson.

    Jeff: Let me sum things up a bit. I think it is generally acknowledged that the evolutionary account of morality is somewhat deflationary. However, it is also seen to be the most robust theory which has any air of plausibility at all.

    You’re kidding, right? Seen by whom? By youm? It isn’t merely not robust enough — it isn’t a moral theory but an explanation of why we act as we do. A description of why we do what we do does not entail in any way what we ought to do. It is the difference between is and ought. That is the basic category mistake that your evolutionary approach commits. By explaining why we do what we do, it fails to explain any basis for why we ought to do any of it and in fact gives us good reason to see that it cannot be obligatory at all. It is all a matter of the accidents of nature.

    Comment by Blake — January 29, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  43. Your account of adaptationism is entirely wrong, though I suspect this is because of your forced dichotomy between “intentionally-designed” and “accident”. While mutation certainly is fully accidental under the traditional neo-Darwinian reading, selection certainly is not. This is why it is called the non-random selection of random mutations. To me, “accident” means random and anything which is non-random is non-accidental. Accordingly, selection is a non-accidental process. Which mutations do or do not get selected in not just a roll of the dice. There is a reason why giraffes with long necks out lived those with short necks. This is what Dennett called a “free-floating-rationale”. It is a reason which is not in anybodies mind, but a reason nonetheless. While Dennett might take his metaphors a little more seriously than other biologists, his account of non-accidental selection is spot on.

    “there is an overriding duty to do the act”

    Could you unpack this a little more, metaphysically? Is this overriding duty independent of what anybody, including God, might think?

    “It is the difference between is and ought.”

    Well if this is your objection to Pinker, then so be it. He is merely attempting to describe what our moral intuitions are and where they come from. His article is simply not geared at saying what we ought to do with these intuitions.

    As I understand it, Pinker is saying “this is how we make ought-claims on each other and ourselves”; he is describing how we prescribe. What you want to argue is that given Pinker’s description of how we prescribe, such prescription don’t have enough force. (You would say that such prescriptions have no force at all, but this seems wholly exaggerated in my mind.)

    You are going to have to explain to me a little more carefully why such prescriptions cannot possibly have enough force to count. I admit that I cannot give a very detailed account of why such prescriptions do have moral force, if only because I haven’t thought about it all that much. Nevertheless, I see no reason why they couldn’t. Indeed, this account seems to be typical run of the mill Social Contract theory, a theory which certainly seems to be alive and well.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 29, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  44. Jeff: Usually you’re not this obtuse. Look, that the environment was such that long necks would lead to a survival advantage is an accident. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t designed. What Dennett calls a “free-floating reason” is a conditional reason. There is an explanation for why giraffe’s have long necks given random factors such as mutation rate and environment. That this explanation explains is due to random factors of interaction between environment and the purely random nature of mutations. Given that a state of affairs S occurred, there is a reason why mutation X was advantageous. That state of affairs X occurred is random and so is the X mutation. If there were no trees but only grass, then a long neck wouldn’t be advantageous. That there are trees rather than grass isn’t why giraffe’s developed long necks; rather, there were trees and random mutations that led to an adaptation. If some random event had occurred, such as a forest fire, then the random mutation wouldn’t have been selected.

    You are finally seeing that Pinker is explaining merely why we do what we do; his explanation doesn’t explain why we should consider anything to be a moral obligation. Further, once we see that his explanation is the biological accidents of evolution, we can see that we cannot be morally responsible in any way for such accidents and the reason why we do what he labels moral acts isn’t because they are moral or obligatory, but because we are predisposed by non-moral considerations to act that way. That is, there is only an “is” and not an “ought.” His explanation eliminates acting for moral reasons or obligations and thus eliminates morality altogether. If you claim that you returned the money that you stole because you felt it was the right thing to do, or because it would benefit the greatest number, or it was your duty, and I explain that the real reason was that your brain physiology was in a certain state and that your brain physiology was in that state was completely out of your control, then I have negated your claim to have acted for the moral reasons you claim. (whew long sentence).

    Comment by Blake — January 29, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

  45. “Usually you’re not this obtuse.”

    Ha! I was think the exact same thing about you. ;-)

    So you agree that evolution non-accidentally suits us to our environments, but object that our environments are mere accidents. To this I say, so what? Let’s take the case of our 5 evolved moral senses. They work pretty darn well in the mortal and social environment in which we find ourselves, surrounded by others who have the same 5 senses. I wouldn’t expect or want those same senses in an utterly different environment in which adherence to such a morality was practicality incompatible.

    This reminds me all too much of E. O. Wilson’s account of what the mound-building termites of Africa would say if they ever evolved the abilities of higher cognition:

    It is now possible to express the imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of th ecolony life amidst the richness of war and trade with other colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal rights (the colony is ALL!); our deep love for the royal siblings allowed to reproduce; the joy of chemical song; the aesthetic pleasure and deep social satisfaction of eathing feces from nestmates’ anuses after the shedding of our skins; and the ecstasy of cannibalism and surrender of our own bodies when we are sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eath).

    I wouldn’t expect our moral sense to work very well for such advanced termites nor would I expect the moral sense of these termites to work very well for us.

    What seems to be your real issue is the very idea of explaining morality at all.

    You: Why is it that X and not ~X?
    Me: Because, Y and not ~Y.
    You: Ah, but why Y and not ~Y?
    Me: I don’t particularly care, it just is.
    You: Ah hah! You haven’t explained X at all, then, have you?
    Me: Yes, I have. I just haven’t explained Y.

    The fact of the matter is that the repetition of “why” has to end somewhere, and this end will always be “it just is”. Your explanation ends at the same point my does, I’m almost sure. Why are the self-existent laws regarding moral behavior as they are? They just are.

    Now which explanation seems less satisfying to your ears? A: Our physical environment just is the way it is (we will ignore the fact that we do have a rough explanation of why it is the way it is). B: Moral laws just are the way they are. I’m guessing B is less satisfying than A is.

    I will address you next paragraph in my next comment.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 29, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

  46. Jeff: I wouldn’t expect our moral sense to work very well for such advanced termites nor would I expect the moral sense of these termites to work very well for us.

    You still just avoiding the issue, aren’t you? Why call it a moral sense at all? We don’t act for moral reasons but for reasons having nothing to do with what we take to be moral. We act because of our brain physiology over which we have no control. Thus Pinker is right, in his view, to call all moral reasoning illusory. We don’t do anything because of moral reasons on this view, we just do it.

    Comment by Blake — January 29, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  47. Jeff: So you agree that evolution non-accidentally suits us to our environments, but object that our environments are mere accidents. To this I say, so what?

    Sheeesh! I don’t agree that evolution non-accidentally suits us for anything. I agree that given the accidents of what the environment happens to be accidentally and which mutations happen by random accidentally interact to explain why some mutations are adaptive and others not. That is all. There is no “reason” or “design” or “rationality” to it. There is merely an explanation of why the accidents interact the way they do.

    So what? So the notion that we are somehow fitted for moral reasoning by evolution is false. We don’t engage in any reasoning, let alone moral reasoning on such a view. We act solely because of a-rational causes grounded in brain physiology of which we are unaware and over which we have no control. That cannot be called acting for moral reasons without engaging in the very illusion Pinker thinks he is uncovering.

    However, I understand your reluctance to actually engage this problem. It is absurd. We are not moral agents or persons at all. We are just totally clueless automatons acting as dictated by physiology just like ants and butterflies. I repeat: your world view is absurd.

    Comment by Blake — January 29, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

  48. “You are finally seeing that Pinker is explaining merely why we do what we do”

    Of course, I never claimed otherwise. Nor, as far as I can tell, did Pinker. He’s not moralizing, just presenting why the world is the way it is.

    Why is it that every time science explains something, in your mind it has eliminated that thing? Why can’t it just reduce it? Is there not a difference between explaining something and explaining it away? I assume this question gets at the heart of your proclivity to invoke Wittgenstein and say “it just is and that’s that” so often.

    “If you claim that you returned the money that you stole because you felt it was the right thing to do, or because it would benefit the greatest number, or it was your duty, and I explain that the real reason was that your brain physiology was in a certain state and that your brain physiology was in that state was completely out of your control, then I have negated your claim to have acted for the moral reasons you claim.”

    Who cares what the explanation for why you thought those morally relevant thoughts was? Why should the fact that these thoughts have an explanation which is quasi-moral, at best, mean that they are not themselves moral all the same? In other words, I object to your use of “real”, as in the “real reason” why such and such. Why is the physiological reason for your a-moral behavior any more real than the psychological reason for your moral action? This is exactly the rub which I have with your arguments for LFW as well, so a detailed response on this point would be VERY helpful in clearing things up between us.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 29, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  49. Jeff: Here is the problem: is does not entail ought. However, when we do things for unconscious motivations that are not morally, but biologically motivated, we don’t do moral actions. We don’t do it for the moral reasons we think, we do it because of brain physiology — and thus our morality is illusive as Pinker sees and you just don’t. Further, you are right that your response and the interaction with LFW is very interesting. Not even the most ardent compatibilist would say that we are morally responsible for unconscious biological acts like my heart beating or my bladder filling up with liquid. When we act out of unconscious brain activity we are not legally responsible for it — not any more than the person with Turrett’s syndrome who swears.

    Comment by Blake — January 30, 2008 @ 6:47 am

  50. Jeff: A good deal of work has been done on moral responsibility. One thing nearly everyone agrees on, however, is that if a mechanism is implanted in our brain makes us act the way we do, without our knowing it, we are not responsible for acts caused by such a mechanism. After all, how we act is not up to us, not in our control and for reasons of which we are unaware — just like Pinker is suggesting. What Pinker describes is like the Frankfurt scenario where the scientists always act to control the actions of Jones by controlling Jones’ brain activity, even though Jones doesn’t know and thinks he is acting for reasons he thinks he is coming up with. So are yo willing to say that we could be free even when scientists implant such mechanisms in our brains? In fact, it is like the scenario in which we cannot act unless someone actuates the mechanism in our brains that makes us act, tho we don’t know about it. No one I know or have read would say we are or could be morally responsible in such circumstances. Your view is absurd to me.

    Comment by Blake — January 30, 2008 @ 6:58 am

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