Posts tagged values

Shermer v. Pigliucci, round three

Recently author and prominent skeptic Michael Shermer contributed to’s collection of essays on the question, “What Should We Be Worried About?”

Shermer’s answer: “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” 

That article prompted philosopher of science (and friend) Massimo Pigliucci to respond with an essay of his own, in which he explains why Shermer’s position on the relationship between science and morality is unsupportable. 

And now Pigliucci’s response has prompted Shermer to pen a response of his own in which he seeks to “restate (his) argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.” For example: 

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Here we find a smooth transition from the way natureis(the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way itought to be(given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals).

I am told Pigliucci will have another response up next week. Round four, here we come.

Even good values have their limitations

Remember the axiom “too much of a good thing can actually be bad”? Well, that doesn’t just go for material things like food and sex. It also goes for immaterial things like our beliefs. Or so says, Tauriq Moosa who in a thought-provoking post on his blog Against the New Taboo warns us from becoming too obsessed with specific moral values: 

We have a tendency to fetishize moral virtues: respect, tolerance, love, etc., are generally regarded as good things. It is good to respect and be respected, it is good to tolerate and be tolerated, and so on. However, being human, we have tendency to mistake tools for walls. Thus, when you respect something or love someone too much, it becomes obsession, a kind of deification; the object and/or value becomes something inviolable, beyond criticism or dissent from outside perspectives. This gives it a property of absolutism, of one kind or another, and therefore distorts it.

2011 American Values survey

The nonprofit research organization Public Religion Research Institute yesterday released the 2011 American Values Survey, the newest edition of its extensive annual survey that gauges Americans’ beliefs on important issues at the intersection of religion, values, and politics. Here are a couple of the most interesting findings:

  • A strong majority (60 percent) of Americans agree that the country would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal, while 39 percent disagree.
  • Seven-in-ten (70 percent) Americans favor “the Buffett rule,” a proposal to increase the tax rate on Americans earning more than $1 million per year, compared to only 27 percent who oppose it.
  • A majority (53 percent) of Americans believe that one of the biggest problems in the country is that everyone does not have an equal chance in life. Four-in-ten Americans say that it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance than others.
  • Two-thirds of voters say that it is very important (39 percent) or somewhat important (28 percent) for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. However, roughly 1-in-5 (19 percent) voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who had strong religious beliefs if those beliefs were very different from their own.
  • A majority of voters (53 percent) report that they would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon serving as President, although 42 percent say that a Mormon president would make them somewhat or very uncomfortable.

You can read the full report here.

The happy, meaningful, and moral life

Many people have a tendency to lump together three important concepts: happiness, meaningfulness, and moral goodness. There are several ways in which people link these concepts. Here are a couple basic examples:

To posit some view of happiness is also to posit some view of meaning (or life purpose) and morality (how to treat one another), either for a person or society.

To posit some view of meaning is also to posit some view of happiness and morality, either for a person or society.

To posit some view of morality is also to posit some view of happiness and meaning, either for a person or society.

However, Susan Wolf, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina, is skeptical of attempts to lump together these three concepts. She argues in her new book that “a meaningful life … is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one.”

While I don’t expect you to read an academically inclined book, you might take a couple minutes to read philosopher Todd May’s new essay on Wolf’s views in the New York Times.

Here’s a taste:

… meaningful lives don’t always coincide with good ones.  Meaningful lives can be morally compromised, just as morally good lives can feel meaningless to those who live them.

We should not take this to imply that there is no relationship between meaningfulness and morality.  They meet at certain moral limits.  An evil life, no matter how intense or steadfast, is not one we would want to call meaningful.  But within the parameters of those moral limits, the relationship between a meaningful life and a moral one is complicated.  They do not map directly onto each other.