Posted by: Mark Waser | Jun 13, 2010

Mailbag 2: “Objective” Good and Bad


Over at LessWrong, cupholder made the comment:

Yeah, I really disagree with this:

Evolution then is the bridge across the Is/Ought divide. An eye has the purpose or goal of seeing. Once you have a goal or purpose, what you “ought” to do IS make those choices which have the highest probability of fulfilling that goal/purpose. If we can tease apart the exact function/purpose/goal of morality from exactly how it enhances evolutionary fitness, we will have an exact scientific description of morality — and the best method of determining that is the scientific method.

My understanding is that those of us who refer to the is/ought divide aren’t saying that a science of how humans feel about what humans call morality is impossible. It is possible, but it’s not the same thing as a science of objective good and bad. The is/ought divide is about whether one can derive moral ‘truths’ (oughts) from facts (ises), not about whether you can develop a good model of what people feel are moral truths. We’ll be able to do the latter with advances in technology, but no one can do the former without begging the question by slipping in an implicit moral basis through the back door. In this case I think the author of that blog post did that by assuming that fitness-enhancing moral intuitions are The Good And True ones.

= = = = = = = = = = =

I think that this is an excellent restatement of the reservations that many people still have so I would like to repeat the reply that I made over there . . . .

“Objective” good and bad require an answer to the question “good and bad for what?” — OR — “what is the objective of objective good and bad?”

My answer to that question is the same as Eli’s — goals or volition.

My argument is that since a) having goals and volition is good for survival; b) cooperating is good for goals and volition; and c) morality appears to be about promoting cooperation — that human morality is evolving down the attractor that is “objective” good and bad for cooperation which is part of the attractor for what is good for goals and volition.

The EXplicit moral basis that I am PROCLAIMING (not slipping through the back door) is that cooperation is GOOD for goals and volition (i.e. the morality of an action is determined by it’s effect upon cooperation).

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