1. I strongly agree with DK’s modest view of philosophy as “clarifying” & not having absolute answers.

    IMO, people have largely been motivated, in constructing moral theories by the sense that some people — maybe most — have defective or deficient moral senses — e.g. the uneducated masses, those who won’t read philosophy — the “natural slaves”, etc.

    If we naturalize this, I think we find the roots of the apparent universal tendency to have all this moral discourse in biology — people are driven to construct, reconstruct, and/or maintain the local knowing of a coexistent group of people (bands of 50-100; extended tribes on the order of 1000 or some thousands). This local knowing consists of language, a theory of the world as one meets it in a particular place and clime, and theories of what one should and shouldn’t do; possibly not conceived in what we’d consider a moral tone — rather such-and-such a demon will do whatever to you if you trespass. Such theories maybe get all their “oughts” from “is’s” or make no distinction.

    More developed peoples with sophisticated religions will seem to get oughts from is’s in the manner of “God is the source of all rightness and truth” or “A righteous man will do X”, but I with my post-enlightenment mind view them as separate domains.

    I think Amartya Sen does a good thing at the start of The Idea of Justice with his flute parable, with cases to illustrate (1) distributive justice, (2) justice as getting to keep what you made/earned, and (3) utilitarian justice — regardless of who made to flute or who is most needy, it’s little good unless possessed by the one who can play it.

    and where he goes with this — we have irreconcilably contrary intuitions of justice, and the real harm is done by theoretically one to be the ultimate, which leads to a top down attitude to society because you have begun with a vision of what is perfect. He has a very different sort of individualism from the doctrinaire libertarian — he says, or this is my broad interpretation, remember that you are one single person, so think how, from that position where your actually are, how to make things better, so, there are so many cases where one sense of injustice is so extreme that the others hardly enter in, so focus on those cases, and they will keep us busy for a long, long time.

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  2. Hi Daniel Kaufman,

    So apparently on this recent New York trip, you were not only treated to a lovely evening at the home of Massimo Pigliucci (with his Risotto), but I now learn that you took Daniel Tippens out for an “Anthony Bourdain” type of night. I won’t pretend to not be jealous. :-/

    Speaking of your “best friend,” I’m still waiting for him to tell me if he finds my “empathy and theory of mind qualia” version of morality, very useful. If so then I’d be able to answer the question he presented for his “Repugnant Thoughts” post, from a definition that I personally find useful. I could actually use any coherent concept, however, to answer his question.

    Morality as I like to define it, exists as a product of the qualia that we experience when we think that others are thinking good/bad things about us, as well as the qualia that we experience when we perceive the good/bad state of others. It does seem to me that my preferred definition conforms quite well with what you’ve said here about morality, but please do make any alterations to my version that you consider useful.

    In the end my main concerns involve something which I consider much greater than “morality,” and so I’d certainly hope to gain your interest regarding this separate topic. I must be mindful not to upset you about this however, since the very concept may be considered quite radical to those who have beed traditionally educated.


  3. All in all, I say three cheers for the two Dans! Listening to conversations or interviews on this sort of subject often tries my patience, but I liked this one. Maybe the ones I’ve found tedious were trying to draw out a set of formal positions or propositions. Maybe it’s largely my mood. This seems to have the essayist’s spirit or that of old fashioned public philosophers. Too much philosophy seems simultaneously precious and gladiatorial.

    I am passionately drawn to the idea of social epistemology. We have a very practical need for a broad (among the population) base of effective and honest and cooperative inquiry about what is so, esp in the political and economic realm, and Gettier problems, and most of what I observed when I crashed some of Alvin Goldman’s workshops and conferences (I’ve had one bad course in philosophy in my life, so I’m quite a freakish little gate-crasher when I show up at such events) — the Gettier problems and other formalisms seem like a laughable response to a real emergency. With the old 3 networks and a mediocre but more or less responsible print journalism culture and a “Fairness Doctrine”, our collective intelligence was generally not up to electing really good presidents, but we seemed to muddle through and avoid the lemming-like behavior of the Germans of the 1930s, but I’m worried as to whether it will always be at least that good. The printing press dropped humanity into an unknown landscape generating many crises before it finally worked out for the best, and it seems we are again in such an unknown landscape, only things more a whole lot faster.

    It would be fair to say that we’ve never come close to mastering the culling and analysis of observations into a sane worldview on the scale of hundreds of millions of people; but then this problem is pretty short-lived — a matter of a few generations, so to say it’s never happened so stop dreaming that it ever will is bad council. I think we need to accept contingency; it could work out catastrophically, but there’s also the possibility of it working out pretty well.

    That was something of a tangent, so I should say something about something that was actually said in the conversation.

    To me it seems pretty clear that the moral of “Abraham and Isaac” was something like: if God says do something you do it (troubling since the vast majority, if not all, of the people who think they’re getting directives from God are lunatics). God is so vastly beyond you and me that it is unforgivable arrogance to second guess him. But we can comfort ourselves knowing that God did not really want Abraham to slay Isaac, but then again whether he might have, for his own mysterious reasons, we can’t say. But just remember God didn’t really want Abraham to slay Isaac, so get over it, or maybe don’t get over it. I don’t think the story resonates all that much today, even in quite extreme sects. It’s a nice parable for Kierkegaard, and maybe would have served Calvin and the early Protestants who were very caught up in the unreasonableness of Christianity, so just bow and quake before the majesty of God. I’d worry more about other stories these days, like Hell and Revelations, and God’s utter loathing for Infidels which **you should share**(!).

    But Dan K, maybe not many people stay Vegans very long, but quite a few people stick with some frightening version of Christianity or Islam or even occasionally Judaism for a lifetime. Just not people you usually meet on college campuses.


  4. Some difficulty in communication occurs about half-way through the conversation, arising when DanK makes it clear he doesn’t think intuitions motivating ethical behavior in the concrete need be understood as beliefs, whereas DanT seems quite committed to a mainstream theory in contemporary philosophy that intuitions just are beliefs. It should be noted that if this is so, then intuitions can be stated as propositions for analysis; and that as statements they can be used for theory construction; thus intuition and theory would be co-dependent. But this is actually an over-sophistication of common experience.

    So I’m largely with DanK on this. Most people do not experience intuitions as thoughts, but as feelings. Often these feelings are quite vague and difficult to articulate. I walk into a room filled with strangers, and feel uncomfortable, leaving as quickly and as gracefully as I may. Why? ‘I don’t know, those people were just not my type.’ Can this be stated as a belief? possibly, but how meaningfully? to what end? Can background beliefs be uncovered? Also possibly; but those beliefs are not the intuition, they merely condition it as response.

    I do think there’s a place for ethical theory. Having experienced a highly dysfunctional upbringing, I’m not so keen on trusting to sympathy for assuring ethical responses. DanK questions the mental health of those who do not feel the sympathies that drive much ethical behavior. There is certainly a pathology to this. Unfortunately, in a society as diverse and fragmented as our own, such pathologies are quite wide-spread, even among the brightest. Some suffering this, recognizing their deficiency, may develop or learn appropriate responses through theory, which thus provides a kind of therapy. And there is some value in it as propadeutic, helping condition the feelings that we rely on in our actual behavior. And without a healthy public discussion on ethics, some would be left dependent on indoctrination – or on blind obedience to law. *Theory* of ethics may have limited value, but *thinking* about ethics is generally a useful endeavor, as long as one doesn’t obsess on it.

    Nonetheless: I remember I had read about Maimonides as a great ethical thinker; so I was surprised to discover, on reading the passages on ethics in Guide of the Perplexed, fairly common sense instruction to ‘be good,’ ‘act charitably,’ ‘don’t envy others,’ and like calls to heed the instructions of one’s elders. At first I was disappointed; but on reflection I realized that the richest wisdom is often the simplest and most commonplace. Much sound ethical instruction, however phrased, amounts to ‘be good;’ and that’s probably as it should be. Ethics is about what we do together, not esoteric schema that we talk about.

    (One last note: I can see no ethical content to the question of whether one ought, or ought not, eat chocolate – at least not until, as DanK notes, the issue arises as to how our health effects others. Ethics is always about others. If you’re not hurting anyone, and you accept the consequences, eat as much chocolate as you want. Really, I won’t judge.)


  5. Hal Morris wrote: Ethics is always about others.


    I can’t agree with this. It certainly is *more* true of moral theory — i.e. theories of obligation and duty — but even there, one finds duties to self. But in the broader realm of ethics — which includes virtue theory — the question of one’s own character is surely salient.


  6. Hal Morris wrote:

    But Dan K, maybe not many people stay Vegans very long, but quite a few people stick with some frightening version of Christianity or Islam or even occasionally Judaism for a lifetime. Just not people you usually meet on college campuses.


    A most fair point.


  7. Hi DanK&T, this was an enjoyable and useful dialogue, though it just knocked out an essay I was planning to write.

    My position/approach to ethics seems very close to that of DanK. One thing which wasn’t dealt with is a major reason people create and use moral theories, which is to justify their own feelings (usually condemnations) about others’ actions and to control future actions of others. It isn’t meant merely to describe but to advocate. The irony being that each moral theory (as well discussed) can only reflect a specific set of concerns and so never be in tune with all concerns and so intuitions at all times. The result is people tend to flip from one moral theory to another to argue their preferred action.

    This is true even within rather hardline belief systems, such as fundamentalist religions. There are usually enough passages to argue one interpretation over another for each case, as one needs to justify or condemn to suit a personal preference/intuition. If religious instruction was clear and singular there wouldn’t be differing sects and schisms.

    In general, I think most commitments to specific moral theories (including religions) have less to do with a rational decision it delivers right calculations, than representing a set of social concerns. Mainly one wants to ally oneself with a group, and such and such rules (whether lip service or actual practice) are identifiers for that group. One wants to belong to and be identified with a group and so doing X in situation Y becomes important for that reason.

    I liked the description DanK gave of looking at the other person and questioning their mental health or well-being. I think this is the more natural way of considering judgments rather than simple right or wrong. One begins to judge the character of the other based on an action, and how it would affect one’s future relationship with them (obviously based on one’s own interests). Likewise one looks at one’s own actions and beliefs to judge one’s own character and the likely future one has with oneself.

    Where I would start to deviate with DanK are on apparent suggestions there is a “human nature” underlying our character, or if there is such a thing that somehow sociopaths and psychopaths fall outside that nature. But that is the subject of an essay I am still planning on writing.

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  8. Hi DbHolmes,

    It seems to me that this post should actually serve as a great primer for what you seem to be planning. Furthermore you’ve suggested an answer that I personally find quite instructive. Why do we have “morality”? In practice this must surely be so that we are able to openly judge others in the attempt to alter their behavior to our own interests — yes perhaps it’s a social tool. I hope that I haven’t “spilled your beans” here, but then if this is indeed your position, it would surely still be one hell of a fight to make the notion mainstream. In practice the mainstream likes to consider “the moral” as those altruistic individuals who place the interests of others above their own (yes, like the wonderful Peter Singer). No, we’re actually just a bunch of selfish bastards, though some of us do seem to be very good liars to the contrary. And while it may not technically be “a lie” when something is actually believed, how much of the altruism which we display to others, is truly believed?


  9. Hi Dbholmes,

    “Where I would start to deviate with DanK are on apparent suggestions there is a “human nature” underlying our character, or if there is such a thing that somehow sociopaths and psychopaths fall outside that nature. But that is the subject of an essay I am still planning on writing.”

    Looking forward to seeing your essay! 🙂

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  10. Hi Philosopher Eric, well the essay I was talking about deals with the concept of Human Nature itself. But yes my view has repercussions for my own ethical theory, and I do view normative moralizing as largely a social tool, though it can have personal applications as I suggested. That will be yet another essay 🙂

    I want to be clear though that I am not claiming everybody is selfish, particularly selfish bastards. That would mean all concerns and intuitions are about serving oneself to the exclusion of others. The point is that we have personal characters which involve a mix of concerns (or to be consistent with terms in the video, intuitions). Some of these will be more altruistic than others, and for some people those concerns are more important (involve more intense a feeling) than for others. So altruism and altruistic acts can be authentic, though I suppose someone could still argue it is “selfish” because it relies on the personal feeling one gets out of the act (note: I would disagree with that charge).

    Regarding mandated super-altruism, I have no idea if Singer truly has the level of altruistic feelings he claims to be objectively right, but that is pretty extreme and out of character for most people. Certainly I would look at Singer-ites and wonder about them. I don’t think I’d be comfortable hanging out with them for long, and vice versa.

    Hi DanT, thanks! I’m glad these dialogues are working well. Though I hope at some point you get to move out of the flowhood 🙂


  11. Thanks for the reply Dwayne — neither of the two Dans seem to have jumped into my car quite yet. The analogy would be that if you decide that you don’t like where it is that I’m taking you, there may be a long walk back home! It seems to me that I’m not traveling very much further than what you’ve said above however, though that is a subjective view.

    So from my own definition of morality, this exists in us as a product of our empathy and theory of mind forms of qualia. Thus if a person who fully understands the pitiful suffering of another, is not qualically affected by this whatsoever, then perhaps this is because he/she lacks the “empathy” side of morality. Furthermore if a person understands that he/she is being widely laughed at and ridiculed, but feels no qualic effects about this, then perhaps it’s because he/she lacks the “theory of mind” side of morality.

    While I would now like to drive you safely back home, I must also quickly say that the reason I’m able to provide such a concise definition for “morality,” is because it was built from a far broader theory. I call this “subjective utilitarianism,” and it means exactly what the name suggests — that qualia defines good/bad for any given personal or social subject. Furthermore since we don’t yet have a formal understanding of that which is most essentially good/bad for us, we should neither be able to understand ourselves very well, nor have a basic model from which to effectively lead our lives and structure our societies. I mean for progress to occur in this regard.