Austin Dacey – Moral Values After Darwin

May 09, 2008

Austin Dacey serves as a respresentative to the United Nations for CFI, and is also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times and USA Today. His new book is The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Austin Dacey argues for the objectivity of morality from a nonreligious perspective. Maintaining that the conscience is prior to and independent of God and religion, he advocates an “ethics from below” that steers a middle course between an empirical “science of good and evil” and a transcendental religious ethic. While sharply criticizing what he sees as simplistic and misleading applications of evolutionary science to moral matters, Dacey defends a naturalistic understanding of the right and good. He explains the advantages of consequentialist moral theories that seek to promote individual well-being, and returns to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty to show that the belief in objective values is perfectly compatible with the social philosophy of secular liberalism. Dacey also responds to Chris Hedges’ assertions that secularists do not grasp the nature of evil and that the Enlightenment notion of moral progress is a myth.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 9th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. 

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The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for nineteen ninety five. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m happy to have my friend Austin Dacey back on point of inquiry. He’s CeaseFire’s representative to the United Nations and is also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and free inquiry magazines. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times and USA Today. 

He’s back on the show to continue a conversation. We began on his new book, The Secular Conscience Why Believe Belongs in Public Life. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Austin Dacey, thanks so much for having me back. This show just gets better and better each time I’m on it. 

Yeah, just out of it. 

I wanted you back on the show, Austin, to continue the discussion we started about secular ethics a few weeks ago. Last Friday on point of inquiry, we had Chris Hedges on the show and one of the most interesting parts of his book, I don’t believe an Atheist, was to me how he argues that the new atheists, you know, people like Sam Harris, Dawkins, et cetera, that they don’t fully grasp the reality of human evil, that they project evil onto religion while failing to admit, you know, their own capacity for human evil or you know that everyone can be evil, including the rational and secular type of people even go so far as to say that their enlightenment notion of moral progress is, he says, it’s a myth. In your book, you imply exactly the opposite. 

I listen to that episode and I thought that you responded well and that had just never really engaged your response. Or maybe it’s just that you’re an atheist. So he doesn’t believe in you that his judgment, Hatch’s judgment that there has been no moral progress is itself evidence that there has been moral progress for he’s able to denounce, you know, the atrocities of human history precisely because his moral sensibilities have progressed beyond that history. Now, this is not to say that human nature and that includes the nature of fame. Harris and Christopher Hitchens has been purged of its lesser angels. Goodness is fragile. It needs careful cultivation and the right environment. The new atheists, after all, they wrote books about religion. So that may explain why they focus on the evil that religion does rather than the evil that nonreligious does. But I actually do think that for many secular liberals, evil is kind of a term that dare not speak its name. I’ve met many, many secularists who think that when we give up God, we have to give up talk of good and evil or of objective moral values altogether. 

And that’s the main point of your book, that secular liberals need to come out and and engage on these ethical questions, not make it just a private matter. That’s right. 

A lot of secular minded people, they might say that science can answer all our moral questions for us in particular. There are some people who kind of argue that Darwinian evolution tells us all we need to know about right and wrong. In your book, Auston, which I want to say is one of those books worth reading over and over again. You take aim at the two camps who seem to get their ethics from Darwin. On the one hand, there are these evolutionary ethicists, those who speak of the science of good and evil. On the other hand, a lot of our ilk, they conclude that Darwinism implies that there is no objective morality at all since we descended from hairy tailed quadrupeds. As Darwin says, morality is just an adaptation for survival. Right. You disagree with both of these camps, correct? 

Correct. And I should say thank you for the endorsement. My book also is worth buying over and over again. I should ask, why divide these what you might call evolutionary skeptics about ethics into two different camps? There are egoists and subjectivist. Egoists would be people would say that evolution made us egoistic. We only care ultimately about our self regarding concerns. Evolution by natural selection, as your listeners know, is all about competition for survival and reproduction. And in this kind of contest, even our apparently altruistic behaviors say a mother’s love for a child or a neighbor’s assistance to a neighbor are selfish at the more fundamental level of the selfish gene. So if you don’t scratch my back, I’m not going to scratch yours. Well, to see the problem with this kind of evolutionary egoism, I think we just have to distinguish between two kinds of selfishness. There’s evolutionary selfishness and psychological selfishness. But egoism is a view about the psychological motives that cause one’s behavior. The US believes that our ultimate motives are always gonna be self regarding rather than other. Regarding, but it seems to me that it’s an open question whether a process that’s selfish in that evolutionary sense is going to produce an end product. That’s selfish in the psychological sense, because it might be that it’s in the interests of your genes to make you act in other people’s interests. And there are good grounds, actually, for thinking that evolution would have favored a kind of mix of self regarding and other regarding ultimate motives in life. It turns out that the best way for a mother to appear to care about her children is for her to actually really care about her children as the the actor Michael McKean once said. It’s all about sincerity. 

When you can fake that, you’ve got it made and what the other kind was. The Subjectivist, right? 

The Subjectivist. According to this view, our sense that certain things are are morally virtuous or odious is kind of on a par with our sense that certain odors are pleasing or repellent. It’s just an evolved response to an environment because we evolved from super social primates. Being nice just feels right. But, you know, had we evolved from gray nurse sharks say then cannibalizing our siblings would just feel right. And there’s no sensible question about who is correct, about the value of being nice or the value of cannibalism. Any deeper meaning of morality, as Michael Ruth once put it, is illusory that because dung beetles like dung and people like being nice. 

It’s just a matter of our taste. That’s there’s nothing they’re actually moral. It’s just kind of how we evolved to be. 

Exactly. Now, of course, it is true that the kinds of things we value has to do with the kinds of things that we are. And the evolutionary scientific account can help us account for the kinds of things that we are. But I think it does not follow that those values are on real or subjective in any way. And you can see this by looking at other evolved faculties like like vision, which is accomplished by some brain equipment that evolved because it contributed to our survival and reproduction. But that doesn’t mean that the things that we see are any less real. And in fact, it’s the reality of the things around us, the objects around us that helps to explain why we have the faculty to detect them. So it seems to me that evolved faculties can connect us with objective facts. And so I I think that both of these kinds of evolutionary attempts to deflate morality in the NFL. 

So those are the two kinds of evolutionary skeptics that you take aim at. And your book, on the other hand, there are those who try to get their positive morality from evolutionary sources. For instance, Michael Shermer, who’s been on the show a couple times, he argues that evolutionary psychology and neurobiology can give us a kind of science of ethics. 

All right. Well, first, we know what a science of ethics are. Signs of good and evil is not going to be like. I mean, we don’t expect physicists to one day to discover alongside the fundamental way of particles, the electrons, protons, muons, gluons and so on. Moral particle. Call it the moron, the magnitude of which could be measured in ordinary actions. And in order to determine how right they are, it’s not going to turn out that way. Now, surely there is a science, a growing science about good and evil, about our capacities as ethical reasoners. And there’s lots of it and more of it. Each day there’s a tradition of evolutionary game theory looking at the evolution of social cooperation and modeling different strategies like tit for tat. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. 

But that stuff just describes what’s going on. It doesn’t tell us the way things should be. 

Precisely. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. It describes how we in fact, think and feel our way towards what we ought to do. It made. And in some cases even explain the underlying psychological mechanisms. But as you point out, it’s another matter entirely to prescribe what we ought to do in a moral sense. Now, some evolutionary ethicists do propose that we can get prescriptive guidance from evolutionary science. But, of course, as philosophers for centuries have noted, this enterprise faces one big obvious obstacle. The fact that something has evolved doesn’t make it right, since natural selection does not have our best interests in mind. 

Right. It’s natural not to use a commode culture developed, you know. And we have civilization. Not just living in the woods. Right. 

Mother Nature, among other things, has made us xenophobic, relatively polygamists myopic. So what do we do? We we disobey her. As Thomas Huxley put it, the enterprise of morality is less about the survival of the fittest than the fitting of as many as possible to survive. Well, the evolutionary ethicists today, they’ve read Oxly and they have a response. I call the kind of sleight of mind trick. They agree. They say, OK, an evolutionary origin alone is not enough to vindicate a practice that they already reject, like xenophobia. But then they go on to use evolution to vindicate a practice. Maybe the golden rule that they already approve, again, for non Darwinian reasons. But this is kind of a trick. I mean, if evolutionary origins can’t vindicate a practice that we rightly abhor, then neither can it validate one that we praise. So I maintain that our ethical reflection or ethical theorizing has to be informed by empirical scientists wherever possible and consistent with our best knowledge of nature. And we can call this a naturalistic ethics. But it’s different from a a science of ethics. Take, for example, Mark Houser’s work on a moral grammar, which was discussed not long ago on point of inquiry. Let’s suppose that that people like Marko’s are correct and that there’s a kind of universal moral grammar that shapes are our intuitions about moral cases. People everywhere intuitively judge, for example, that harms resulting from action are worse than harms resulting from omission. Well, what can we conclude from that, ethically speaking? Certainly this intuition doesn’t hold up in the case of, let’s say, someone who deliberately walks past a small child who’s drowning in the pool, whom he could save with no effort and and no risk to himself. In that case, it seems that refraining from saving is no better than causing the death. Peter Singer is famous, of course, for claiming that people in rich societies should use their disposable income to aid the sick and starving in poor societies. And he argues that there’s little moral difference between allowing these strangers to perish when they could be aided at no great cost to oneself and actually causing their deaths. 

Jim Underdown, he says, rich Western industrialized cultures, when we’re living it up and letting the Third World be the third world, that’s tantamount to murder morally. 

And interestingly, he uses Housers research to explain why that. The difference between causing and allowing feels so natural and so right to us, despite the fact that it’s morally indefensible. Upon reflection. So if our moral duties in this case are counter intuitive, Pinker says, it’s because of these moral intuitions arose evolutionarily to further the reproductive interests of our ancient ancestors who probably lived in small and relatively isolated groups. So there’s no reason to think that these intuitions are going to point us in the right direction today. So as this case shows, the evolutionary story doesn’t necessarily justify the moral norm. It explains why the norm seems justified, despite the fact that upon reflection, we can see that it’s not justified. And so in trying to figure out what what moral, what prescriptive lessons to draw from this research, we have to go beyond the facts, man. We have to we have to look at the matter from a common and impartial point of view. We have to check for consistency across cases and seek coherence with the rest of what we know. In a word, we have to appeal to conscience, right? 

Exactly. That’s that’s a that’s your book. Appeal to conscience. So learning about our human nature from fields like evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, it helps us understand ourselves may be why we have our moral intuitions or impulses that we do have, why we might be naturally xenophobic or have ingroup in our group tensions. But evolutionary psychology doesn’t show us how we should be. That’s your point. So how do we figure that out if there isn’t such a thing as the science of ethics, how do we know right from wrong? If you’re not appealing to supernatural. Authority, which you’re not, and you’re not appealing to some kind of scientific method of figuring out right and wrong, you just now invoke this idea of conscience, Austin, to tell us when our evolved nature leads us astray from our good. But isn’t talking about conscience in that way, isn’t it kind of sneaking in a non empirical, even a transcendental standard of rightness? I mean, what’s conscience? 

Well, it’s not straightforwardly empirical. But then again, neither is our knowledge of, let’s say, how to be a good parent or friend or business partner. Chef, sculptor. 

Right. You see in the book, there’s no science of friendship, but there’s no how. 

I don’t know how there’s practical wisdom, which is neither strictly scientific nor transcendental. And similarly, we don’t need to get ethics from on high. We can get ethics from below Jim Underdown from human capabilities to human interest or really the interests of any beings that can be harmed or benefited in in doing this and constructing an ethics from below. We do get ingredients from our evolved natures. First is just the fact that we are region guided creatures that we have the ability to to take and give reasons for action to each other. And second, we are empathetic creatures. We have the ability to project ourselves into another’s perspective, to feel another’s pain, and therefore to sometimes take the true interests of another as our reasons for action and by conscience. I don’t mean anything mysterious, but just the capacity that we have to judge what we have most reason to think or do. All things considered, taking into consideration often the interests of others as well. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you could purchase a copy of the secular conscience Why Believe Belongs in public life through our website point of inquiry dot org. Austin, this conscience that you’re talking about, not transcendental. You’re saying these ethics, right? You actually argue their objective. How can they be objective? How can they be testable if there’s no absolute right and wrong? I mean, for most people, ethics without God because there are no absolute truths. It means that everything just dissolves into subjectivism, that that there’s no objective right and wrong. 

Yes, I’ve heard that. But the first thing to say is that ethics with God is in exactly the same boat as ethics without God or before God when it comes to trying to construct on objective morality. Your listeners may or may not have heard that the Vatican recently issued a kind of upgrade to the seven deadly sins. Have you heard about this? There are now like 14. The original Deadlee included such things as gluttony, greed, anger, envy, gluttony, lust and my personal favorite fluff. The new sins appropriate to our age of biotechnology and globalization include alleged social vices, such as contributing to excessive poverty, accumulating obscene wealth, despoiling the environment. Trafficking in hard drugs are taking hard drugs. And this is interesting, conducting morally debatable experiments or manipulating genes. Well, the good news first that I don’t know about you, but almost everyone I know has been angry, envious, greedy, gluttonous, lustful and philosophy, or at least one in the last month. But almost no one I know has been trafficking in illegal narcotics or modifying the human genome. 

Moreover, I know no one who was obscenely wealthy. 

Right. So I guess that by by doubling the number of sins the church may have inadvertently made, most of us roughly 50 percent less sinful. 

But this is just a side effect. 

Notice that the mediæval could not have anticipated global warming and the importance of collective action to save the environment. This illustrates a problem with trying to get your ethics from above, from a list or a decree or set of tablets. The list is necessarily incomplete. It can’t anticipate future moral dilemmas. 

What you’re saying is even biblical morality or morality. Founded in the supernatural even. It changes over time. 

It changes. And in order to anticipate and tried to deal with future moral dilemmas, one needs to look beyond the list. And moreover, the list is not self vindicating or self authorizing. It can answer the question, why should I follow this list rather than some other? If you’re in doubt about whether to abide by the Ten Commandments, it’s not going to help to add an 11th saying, oh, by the way, you should abide by commandments. So both when it comes to locating the authority for any list or set of commandments and also generating new and novel moral guidance from that last one has to look beyond it. And the question then is, where are you looking? I argue that even the religious must look to conscience. Christopher Hitchens has challenged religious believers to name a single moral action performed by The Believer, which could not have been performed by the unbeliever. But I want to take this further and say that if the believer has any good reasons, any sound moral reasons for what she does, then those reasons are equally open to the non-religious and that they should be allowed in the public square just as much as any other reason should be. And so that really, contrary to the conventional thought, that conscience depends on on faith. Unless there is such a thing as a secular conscience, there can be no such thing as a religious moral conscience for conscience comes first. Even before God. Now, as for absolute standards, there’s a lot of confusion here because absolute could mean almost absolutely anything. On the one hand, it could mean kind of rules that are exceptionals or indefeasible, as philosophers might say, always told the truth. No exceptions. That would be one idea of absolute. Now, clearly, that’s that’s asking too much of ethics. There are certain rules of thumb which nevertheless can give way to counter veiling moral reasons to a greater good. Exactly. And the fact that the rule has exceptions actually proves that a rule at a deeper level applies. Now, sometimes absolute is meant as certain knowledge know something that that can’t be doubted. As with maybe the eternal verities of religion. But of course, certainty is not a standard that we that we ask even of scientific knowledge. 

Right. You don’t need certainty in order to have reliable knowledge. 

Exactly. Fallible knowledge is knowledge nonetheless. Third, sometimes absolute is meant to refer to universal norms that are applicable across different cultures. True for all time and space, because God said so right now, I think that without God we can have a kind of universality. We also have a kind of relativity. Well, maybe we can talk later about how if we make up our mind about ethical matters based on the consequences, that is on on the one hand, a universal rule. On the other hand, it’s sensitive to context and sensitive to time and place. 

And it’s human nonetheless. It’s relative to human interests. Absolutely. And so those are ways that people talk about morality being absolute. But you say that even if it’s not absolute, morality can be objective, not just testable in the real world. What do you mean by objective morality? 

Well, we want ethical claims to be objective. Just in the sense that they are made true. By the way, the world is not just the way that we happen to feel about it. We want moral entities to be real. Not in the sense that physicists can observe them in a cloud chamber, but just that they don’t go away when we stop thinking about them. I believe that ethics is objective and in the further sense that it is open to evaluation and scrutiny by others in that sense is public and and also open to revision. 

But, Austin, there’s widespread there’s deep disagreement on moral questions. Does it really make sense to argue like you are, that there is such a thing as objective moral knowledge? If it were so objective, wouldn’t we all agree about what’s right and what’s morally wrong? You’re saying that moral knowledge is in no sense different from any other kind of knowledge, yet there aren’t units of right and wrong, as you admitted earlier, that you can weigh in a scientific lab. So I’m trying to wrap my head around objective moral knowledge. 

Well, the first thing to say is that that knowledge is compatible with a complex subject matter with uncertainty. As we noted, and with deep and lasting disagreement, even among experts, first, nobody knows how many blades of grass there are in in Yankee Stadium. But no one doubts that there is a determinant number of blades. And it could be discovered. So just as a first thought, disagreement in and of itself does nothing whatever to show that there is not some right or wrong or better or worse answers in some domain of inquiry. Now, even in the moral domain, this seems to be the case in all other domains. So it should be our our default assumption in the moral domain. Now, on the other hand, if ethics were subjective, if there really were no right or wrong answers, if moral claims were mere expressions of attitude or emotion, then in fact, disagreement would be impossible. If if your moral opposition to the death penalty and my moral support for it were akin to you liking strawberry ice cream and me liking Neapolitan ice cream, then in fact there would be no disagreement. You’d be expressing your attitude and I’d be expressing mine and never the twain shall meet because there’s no disputing matters of taste. 

You know, people can like what they like, but moral arguments aren’t just a matter of preference. 

Apparently not. People do take their differing expressions to amount to real disagreements about a shared subject matter. And so the the obvious fact of moral disagreement is actually evidence for the objectivity of morality rather than for the subject devotee of morality. But another thing to remember is that, as Derek Parfit says, the history of non-religious ethics maybe only just beginning. That theology has been separated from morality in a kind of a formal disciplinary way for several centuries. And so there’s. 

Which is a short amount of time. All things considered, it is. 

And we have seen a lot of convergence in in the relatively short history of non-religious ethics. And we can expect to see more more than that. I believe that contre hedges, perhaps, that we have seen a kind of convergence in the history of moral practices. 

And it’s that it’s a convergence in the direction of the moral importance, the moral primacy of what we might call individual well-being, and an expanding of the moral circle, the moral community to include the well-being of more and more kinds of individuals, including maybe non-human persons. 

That’s right. Now, extending beyond the human species and so beneath the manifest diversity in moral practices across time and across cultures. I believe it’s not just me. Of course, I believe that we can find a kind of convergence in the direction of individual well-being for. For more and more kinds of creatures. 

You talked before about judging behaviors by the consequences. And just now you’re talking about moral knowledge. Moral knowledge is the stuff we develop these moral theories out of. Your favorite moral theory that you expound in your book is what they call consequentialism. Talk to me about consequentialism. 

Consequentialism is a family of moral theories, which starts from the fact that some things really matter to us, that we encounter goods or values in the world, and that we encounter them as objective. And among these values is what you might call a person’s good or well-being. What makes their life go well? We’re all familiar with caring about how our life goes, and we tend to think that this matters, not just because we happen to think it matters for after all, whether we enjoy or appreciate. Value, what happens in our lives often depends on whether we think it has some mattering beyond just our caring about it. So we’re familiar with that in our own case. And it seems that other people think of their lives matter, too. And there’s nothing morally relevant that’s different about other people. They may not share my name or my skin color or my nationality. But that doesn’t seem to matter from a moral perspective. So if my interests matter, then their interests matter as well. Consequentialism is the view that we should treat all values equally and that the natural and default thing to do with goods is to promote them, to try to bring about a world in which there is more rather than less of those goods, at least up up until the too much of a good thing point. So if you value education or learning, the natural thing to do is to to try to get more of it. And in the same way, if people’s interests or well-being really matters at all, then the natural thing and the consequentialist thing to do is to try to promote those in a way that’s that’s impartial across persons. 

I want to quickly get into the aspect of consequentialism where you’re testing actions by their consequences. I mean, you’re looking at whether or not something’s right and wrong based on how it plays out in the real world. And if that’s your litmus, if that’s what you’re figuring out right and wrong, by, doesn’t that let you go through all the other moral theories throughout time and just pick and choose which of them or which aspects of them serve your purposes? Some would argue that that’s the opposite of being moral. It’s kind of the smorgasbord approach to right and wrong, which, you know, just strikes, I think, most people as immoral. 

One of the most appealing things about consequentialism is its resourcefulness and that it can take advantage of those moral systems or art or narratives or ideals which had been found in the past to actually promote the goods that we care about. So, for example, the ancients had a great tradition, which is now called Virtue Ethics, which asked not about the rightness or wrongness of particular actions, but it asked about the status of character of persons. So for the virtue ethicist, it’s not about what I tried to do, but what kind of person ought to be. Right now, the consequentialist can sort of incorporate and cannibalize all of the good things about virtue ethics by leaving aside the incomplete things or the misleading things we can say, for example. Well, if you care about courage or if you care about charity or humility, then we can think of these as goods, which, along with all other goods, we often to try to promote. Now, what this means is that the consequentialist has to be a pluralist about values and goods, and it means that there won’t be any easy solution, since often our moral choices are not between right and wrong, but between right and right. Their choice is between two or more competing goods. We may have no obvious way to balance and adjudicate those goods. 

I see that as the biggest tension within consequentialism that you begin all of these sentences with. If if you value human flourishing, if you value that, then these are the kinds of goods that you should promote. Or these are the kinds of actions that should result if you value strong family life. 

Let’s say, then these should be the behaviors that result. But it doesn’t really. Give you a set of values. Right. It only says if these are your values, then these are the things you should do. 

That that seems to be without a compass for for a lot of people looking for answers to moral dilemmas. You know, they they they want to hear behave like this or here’s a list of what you should do. 

Many people think that morality should be such that if there are any moral facts, then these facts would have to motivate everyone to follow them. Just in virtue of being a rational person, going back to our conversation about absolutism, this might be seen as one more notion of absolute that if there is a moral fact, then everyone must be moved by it. This in the book I call The Theory of Everyone and talk about how ethicists have been searching for a kind of theory of everyone in the same way that have been searching for a theory of everything. The theory of everyone, which show that everyone merely in virtue of being a rational creature, has a reason to do the morally right thing. Now I argue that the theory of everyone was asking too much and actually asking more than we need to get a viable morality off the ground. We can see that it was asking too much by noticing that there are people who are as rational as you or me, but they don’t give a damn about morality. They may even recognize what their duty is, but they don’t care. Morality is dead to them. These are called sociopaths and they’re responsible for thousands of murders every year. They often actually have a highly developed sense of propriety and sociality, and they use it to exploit and manipulate others. This shows that in order for moral reasons to get a hold on people, they have to be getting a hold of something within that person’s desires and an ends and goals. Now, that’s bad news. The good news, of course, is that the desires, the goods and the goals that that morality begins with are such that they can be found in basically all people who aren’t sociopath. We all accept that our own interests, our own good, gives us reasons for action. Right. 

You’re right. That self-interest. Self-interest. That’s a good argument everyone can buy. 

Right. It seems to me it’s just a reality that people do have concern for others and that this concern is not something that would extinguish or go away. The more they thought about it and reflected on it, but rather it’s something that that survives reflection and doesn’t cause them regret Indian. So the reality of of other regarding concern or really is love doing something for another for the sake of the other. This seems to me as much a reality as self-love, as self regarding concern. And there’s nothing more mysterious about how the good of another generates reasons for us than that the good of ourselves sometimes generates reasons for us. Now, if these basic desires and interests are found in almost all people, then we have confidence and hope that morality. And so the the broader Klans of a consequentialist ethic can get a grip on almost everybody. Mm hmm. 

I want to finish up auston we’ve been talking about secular ethics. We began talking about your criticism of both the skeptics of ethics who are skeptical because of their being informed by Darwin. And on the other hand, those people who are informed by Darwin and think they develop a whole ethical theory from Darwin. But you know, we’ve really gotten into talking about secular ethics. And one of your main points in your book that we talked about last time is that non-religious secular people have given up the fight for their secular ethical ideals. They’ve given it up to the religionists. Well, here you just argued for kind of a robust secular, a consequentialist ethics objective ethics. Do you think that these kind of moral reasonings, these secular moral reasonings? Do they really belong in the public square, right alongside religious moral arguments? In other words, you’re kind of issuing a rallying cry for people to get more involved, advancing their ethics in politics or in public policy, etc.. 

I argue that the secular liberals have failed to do this, have refrained from doing this for many reasons. But the one I focus on is something I called the Liberty Fallacy, and it can be seen by looking at one of the great architects of the open society, John Stuart Mill, in his book On Liberty. In which he articulates his famous harm principle or to put it more happily. The Liberty Principle, the liberty principle, of course, just says that we’re only justified in coercing a person in order to prevent him from harming others. That’s the only time when restrictions of liberty are worthwhile. Now, many secular liberals have sort of taken the liberty principle and run with it. I think this is really all we need to know about morality. The point of an open society is that moral questions are private. We’re not going to coerce anyone about it. They’re not on the communal table for decision making. No one gets to tell anyone else what to think on moral matters. 

And so that tolerance means live and let live and don’t question anyone else’s beliefs. 

And that the questions which you and I have been working our way through are things that really we don’t need to decide or talk about together. Our public institutions are devised to bracket them and place them on the side without taking sides and leave them up to each individual. And people might take the liberty principle as a kind of philosophers gloss on this popular thought. But if you actually go back and look at on liberty, you’ll find something quite different. As soon as he has articulated the principle, he’s quick to point out that it’s not one of selfish indifference, he says, which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, or that they should not concern themselves about the well-being or well doing of one another. Human beings owe each other, he says. Oh, each other help to distinguish the better from the worse and encouragement to choose the former rather than the latter. The only thing for M. that is forbidden by the harm principle is coercion or force. But the reason why we want to keep our moral beliefs free from coercion is not so that they may be free from judgment, but rather so that they may be free to be judged so that we can open up in public spaces. A place for conversation, truth seeking conversation about matters of morality, where the best ideas, the best arguments can rise to the top. So liberty for Mill is not based in subjectivism, but in fact it’s not only compatible with, but I would argue requires objectivism about morality. 

Thanks very much, Austin, for getting into this with me and for coming back on the show. 

Thanks so much for having me, T.J.. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.