Posted by: Mark Waser | Apr 14, 2014

On “the assertion that the entire concept of “good and bad” is inherently unscientific, or perhaps arbitrary/anecdotal.”

Inspired by First Author’s Note from Physical Ethics

“Morality” in human beings is primarily implemented through emotions, sensations and urges (ESU). Even so-called “rational” morality is necessarily grounded in and motivated either by personal ESU or a societal consensus based upon each individual’s ESU. The first problem with this is that each of these ESU is a separately evolved “rule of thumb” that is extremely beneficial in the vast majority of circumstances at the cost of being problematical in edge cases and/or when interfering with each other.

The second problem is that our normally excellent tool/technology of rational reasoning is frequently wielded against morality by selfishness. In order to do this effectively, we have evolved to self-deceive by hiding our own moral processes from ourselves. In order to protect ourselves against this, we have also evolved strong emotions and other defense to prevent skillful “rationality” of others from being able to overrule or alter our morality. While these two traits are, once again, extremely beneficial in the vast majority of circumstance, they do get in the way when we are trying to unselfishly use rational reasoning to improve morality.

Morality does not “want”* to be examined by rational reasoning and will deploy all sorts of tricks to prevent such examination. It will use rational reasoning, argumentation, emotion and every other tool in its arsenal to appear as if it cannot be examined fruitfully or to send seekers after wild geese and red herrings. The above assertion is one such ploy.

In small, well-defined contexts, the concept of “good and bad” is perfectly clear and scientific. That which serves the function or goal is good and that which gets in the way of the function or goal is bad. Good and bad only become unscientific or arbitrary when the function and/or goal are not well-defined. Hume’s “guillotine” is merely this complaint – that you must specify such. It is certainly not an uncrossable “is-ought” divide as many pretend/believe (don’t forget that self-deception).

The biggest problem with “morality” is that, for the most part, there is no consensus top-level goal or function. Until that a goal or function is specified, even if only conditionally, “scientific” progress is simply not possible (and part of morality “likes”* it that way). So, obviously, the first necessary step is to define the goal or function of morality.

Fortunately, noted social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done exactly that. He argues that the function or goal of morality is “to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible”. If that definition is accepted (even if conditionally), then scientific progress *is* possible. And, that definition is anything but arbitrary as it is the simplest definition of what the human moral sense is trying to achieve (another area amenable to scientific investigation).

So why don’t we temporarily accept this definition and see where it leads us?

* Oh yes, I will be covering intentionality and desires in far too much detail shortly . . . 😉


  1. Hello Mark,
    Thank you so much for setting up this discussion and presenting such a detailed post based upon the first author’s note to my Physical Ethics theory. While I’m not very well read on “big name philosophers,” I doubt any of them could have done better. But actually I am quite troubled by this! I was very much hoping that we could have a discussion that is not tainted by the various institutions found in standard philosophy. Have I not been clear about this? Regardless, perhaps it would be helpful for me to discuss how we might cleanse ourselves of the normal conventions found in standard philosophy, given that they have indeed failed us so far.

    Consider our “universe,” but with the exception that it contains no “life.” Here I presume you would see an existence where all events simply do not “matter” to anything that exists — the stars and molecules and such would be perfectly indifferent to their various states. I also presume that from your perspective the emergence of “life” would not inherently alter this perfect indifference, since bacteria and such might very well function without any personal relevance. With the emergence of “conscious life,” however, I do think that you would say existence begins to “matter.” It is this fundamental concept of “importance” associated with the consciousness dynamic, that I would need you to focus upon (rather than things like your previously mentioned platitudes of “morality,”or even that “ESU” concept).

    My theory should be quite possible for you to understand, but only if you can set aside your vast existing philosophy education (and presumed baggage). Here models would be measured solely against your personal experiences in life, which I think would give you plenty of evidence. I would provide you with all of the philosophical definitions necessary, which is appropriate since they would indeed pertain to my theory.

    I am obviously a troublemaker, as the folks at Peter’s “Conscious Entities” site have come to understand over the past few months. (I had thought it in the field of philosophy it would be quite simple to find debate partners, though many seem to go quite speechless.) Mark I cannot teach you how to build a conscious entity, but I can indeed provide you with a very functional model of the conscious human mind… and much more. To do this, however, you would need to consider my theory from the clean new perspective that I have mentioned. What do you think?

    • Hi Eric,

      Yes, you’ve been more than clear about your opinions about “the various institutions found in standard philosophy” — but that is an area where we differ strongly. While I agree that you can (and many individuals have) become “locked in” to a herd mentality, I strongly disagree that exposure strongly *taints* all discussion. Indeed, not being exposed to the “big name philosophers” means that you are missing out on a lot of work and a large number of tools as well as useful pointers as to why things that initially seem to be great ideas might not seem so great (those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it).

      You’ve thrown around a number of terms in this comment that label *your* concepts and demand that I immediately and unquestioningly accept your biases (“the platitudes of morality”). If you want to build new concepts from the bottom, that would be fantastic. If you want to point out (and debate) clear flaws in current ideas (which I don’t believe that you want to do), that would be great as well. But slinging insults, bragging about not being well read but being sure that you could do better, and proudly proclaiming that you are the brilliant troublemaker who will solve all problems if people will just check their brains at the door is what is making it tough for you to find debate partners.

      Debate normally proceeds by one person making a point and then the other person addressing that point. My perception of how you’ve addressed my post is a) thank you for the post but b) you’re not focusing on the right things and c) you’re also wrong though I won’t point out why (like “Why is morality a ‘platitude’?”). That response provides very little value to me and general does not encourage further participation unless one enjoys provocation (which, actually, I do — as long as it is unique and useful provocation).

      So . . . . you put the term “life” in quotes. What do you mean by “life”? Is it limited to the biological? You also put “conscious life” in quotes. Is it possible to have consciousness without life? Why or why not?

  2. Mark I suppose the essential question here is, am I indeed a jerk?… which is to say, do I have the kinds of personal issues which would naturally make me want to dominate others through philosophical argumentation? I doubt this is the case, however, since I do generally seem quite happy. In fact I suspect that my own life is reasonably similar to yours: My wife and I each have decent jobs that keep us busy, and our son attends a nice suburban elementary school. Beyond work I’m virtually always available to them, since my theory is all that I really “do” (and my project did become quite mobile in 2007 when I started working from a keyboarded phone). Surely you also have a happy work and family life, but can’t wait to get to your academic projects whenever you can.

    Rather than wanting to put others down, I think the issue is just that I happen to be very proud of my theory, and it does imply that many standard concepts in the field of philosophy are simply not basic enough to help it enter the realm of science. Thus by explaining what I think needs to be fixed, others do tend to feel that they are being attacked. I suppose that last time I was too “big picture,” so let me try a specific argument right now.

    “Morality” is a great example of a very common idea in philosophy that I believe has major associated “baggage.” What irks me most are the “judgements” which it implies (though I do hope that some serious thinkers are at least able to set this standard connotation aside). Of course it was your point that we throw this term around without a consensus understanding, so I shouldn’t actually need to convince you of much here. If “platitude” doesn’t sit right, I’ll just say that this term is amazingly “loaded.”

    Furthermore let’s take Jonathan Haidt’s function or goal of morality as you’ve mentioned: “…to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible”. I will go along with this as general premise from which to run a society, but it still leaves us clueless about what the nature of “good” might actually be. I was hoping to interest you in a fundamental concept of “good” in my last comment’s scenario regarding “punishment/reward,” “personal relevance,” “importance,” and such. (If you know of any philosophers that go directly to what “matters” rather than reference “morality,” I’d certainly love to look them up.) To me this is crucial — we must finally get to the most fundamental concept itself: personal relevance.

    The quotations for “life” is something that I’ve adopted because I don’t have a functional definition for what “lives.” As for “conscious life,” I might have just stretched this here. Regardless, I don’t believe that consciousness is required to be “biological,” though I do suspect that humanity will always be too stupid to indeed build it.

    That “First Author’s Note” was actually directed at people other than yourself, since I doubt that you have either of the noted objections to the very concept of my project. There are plenty of meaty chapters to consider however, if you are indeed still interested. There is no question that I respect you, as you have a vast field of information that I do not, and I’m quite sure that you’re far more intelligent. I will need people exactly like you in my corner if I am to succeed. But rather than being doomed to repeat the mistakes of history, is it not possible that by spurning standard convention in a still failed field like ours, that it’s actually me that is now assessing history as it should be?

  3. The topic of whether you are a jerk is neither fruitful nor interesting.

    For the Nature of Good (and Bad and Evil), see

    How can you possibly assess history if you haven’t read what you are assessing? Would you like to assess quantum mechanics as well?

  4. “to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible”

    That still has ‘cooperative social life’ as a fairly ill defined term. I mean, the nazi’s had a ‘cooperative social life’ to a degree.

    I’d suggest both moving away from there being just one way of cooperative social life and instead multiple models – further, describe the model in more of a boardgame like, moment to moment instructions for what people are doing from this minute to the next.

    Which I know is unattractive – it’s more attractive to go with the ambiguity of ‘cooperative social life’. That is because of (and I agree with this) your point ‘(and part of morality “likes”* it that way)’

    Ie, the feeling it needs to be more than just a boardgame…it needs to be, like, cooperativly social and…*insert more ambiguous terms*

    • Reply has been promoted to a “mailbag” post instead. Thank you very much, Callan!

  5. “So why don’t we temporarily accept this definition and see where it leads us?”

    Because as Callan alluded, cooperation is not necessarily always moral. Gang members cooperate just fine in committing terrible acts they might never commit alone. Autonomy (selfishness) and cooperation are two sides of a potentially complementary picture. Every living cell needs it a defining boundry (like a cell membrane) that can interact with it’s environment, yet in multi-cellular organisms many cooperative compromises must be made by individual for the larger organism.

    Morality will never be defined by such a narrow concept. Every event will have unique characteristics. Understanding of how the various aspects of a given situation inter-relate will always be pre-condition to moral action.

    • Seth, name *anything* that you believe is necessarily always moral. Your gang member example is exactly the previous Nazi example — They are moral to each other. They are tremendously immoral to the world at large. What is the problem with that? Autonomy = self-interest selfishness.

      So what better concept/definition do you propose?

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