Re: ESSAY: 'Debunking 'Hippy dippy moral philosophy'

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun Jun 20 2004 - 10:55:44 MDT

At 08:25 AM 19/06/04 -0800, John wrote:
>On Sat, 19 Jun 2004 "Keith Henson" <> said:
> > Subjective is what you feel inside.
>I agree.
> > Objective is what people can see and more or less agree about
>I don't agree. You would be very hard pressed to find a moral fact that
>100% of the members of even a particular species called Homo sapiens
>agree on; and even if you could that's not good enough. By "objective" I
>mean something that exists not only outside the individual but outside
>the species and even life itself.

I think you are loading "objective" with more than a standard meaning for
the word. If what you mean by the word is beyond what is here,

then I need to understand the way your are defining the word.

>I have never seen the tiniest scrap of
>evidence that objective morality exists,

I make the case that objective morality, that is a morality that is more or
less common across the human species, exists. Like all such psychological
characteristics our morality judgement systems were shaped by genes that
did better then alternative ones over evolutionary time in small
tribes. We have subjective feelings based on the outputs of evolved
morality brain systems. These systems have locations in human brains that
can be (or already have been) located by functional MRI if some researcher
can (or has) devise(d) an appropriate way to activate them.

>but let me repeat, objective is
>not the same as important and subjective is not the same as trivial, far
>from it.

I am in complete agreement with you on this point.

> > to take extreme examples, it is moral (from the viewpoint of
> > your genes) to defend your family against those who would kill them.
> From that same genetic moral viewpoint it would be moral to kill your
>son and grandson to save your identical twin brother, and your daughter
>is worth 2 uncles but not 3. As for me I'll make up my own mind and if
>my genes don't like it my genes can lump it.

Taking your examples, since identical twins are so rare, it doesn't seem
likely that humans would evolve a special importance to treating an
identical twin better than an ordinary brother.

I might add that when forced to make such horrible choices, such as saving
two uncles vs one daughter, the automatic/instinctive calculations are more
complex and situational. In a really nasty situation, the uncles might be
critical to the survival of all members of the tribe where a very young
daughter could possibly be replaced when and if things improved. Or it
could be reversed.

And indeed, genes *always* lump it. They build these survival machines and
shape their psychology the best they can when the only levers of power they
have are really indirect, ultimately *chemical.* They build brains and
bodies and "hope" for the best. If (on average) they have done right for
the environment they are in, the genes in question become more common. The
mind which you "make up" has been shaped foremost by genes, second by the
memes of your culture and last by your experiences (some might reverse the
order of the last two, but few on this list would argue against the
importance of the hardware substrate).

Of course, we don't live in the "environment of evolutionary adaption" at
present. So our instincts can be expected to be less than optimally adapted.

Unsurprisingly though, there is much in common with "objective" morality
based on what is good for gene survival and traditional morality.

Keith Henson

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