Sunday, 19 July 2015


The July meeting at Stockport was given by Derek McComiskey.  He presented a personal view of some aspects of morality – stressing that it is not necessary to know anything about morality in the abstract to be a good person. The Humanist concern to act morally is a key feature of our world-view.

He described how someone comes to build their understanding of morality in a series of layers. Firstly were are born pre-programmed to learn morality. This “hard-wired” predisposition almost certainly comes from our long evolutionary development as a social creature. Secondly we are socialised in a particular context. Then, when older, we can learn more formally. There is a strong analogy with language acquisition.

To make a moral judgement there is an interplay of Intuition and Theory. We can often make a judgement with almost no thought, as we have strong gut feelings, or intuitions. However, there are difficult issues where we need to reflect, and fall back on theories.

A brief discussion about whether we can rely on our moral intuition concluded that it works well most of the time. However Derek gave examples (primarily Disgust) where it seems to misfire. Also experiments show that pro-social behaviour can be altered by seemingly inconsequential factors: e.g. people are more helpful if there is a pleasant smell in the air.

But if intuitions can be “wrong” - can we find a reliable yardstick in Moral Theory? There are a number of theories which claim to have procedures for comprehensively settling issues. The main ones were discussed, along with situations where they seem to fail.

So both intuition and theory can let us down. There isn't a fail-safe way of knowing what the right thing to do it. Helpful in this predicament is American philosopher Bernard Gert. He suggests that harm to others (death, pain, disability, etc) is the basis of moral thinking. He says that all “moral agents” know that these things are wrong to do unless there is sufficient justification. He is clear that there need not be a unique moral answer to every situation. We need to use careful reflection and discussion with others to sort out the best solution to difficult problems.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has analysed attitudes according to five moral categories (1) Care/Harm (2) Fairness (3) Loyalty/Betrayal (4) Respect for Authority (5) Purity. People who are socially liberal stress the first two only. Social conservatives include them all. Our cosmopolitan society leads to us mix with different “moral tribes” - i.e. people who emphasise different moral categories to us. This illuminates why we often talk at cross purposes.

In the last 20 years there has been an explosion of psychological and neuroscientific research into decision making – including moral decision making. This is building up a body of knowledge about exactly how and why we make the decisions we do, and the factors that influence us.

Effective Altruism is a recent phenomenon grounded in consequentialist ethics. It applies reason and evidence to find out how we can do the most good. Oxford philosopher Toby Ord has committed to living on £18k and giving the rest of his pay. He set up Giving What We Can – and the website there has a calculator to work out how rich you are. There are charity evaluation site to make sure your donated money does the best good.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is attributed to Socrates. If things are good because God commands them, and for no other reason, then he could command terrible things and we would have to call them good. If God commands things because they are good – it suggests that moral judgement is independent of God, and that he is subject to it. Most theists find this difficult.

If you are in a discussion with someone who tells you that their God is necessary for Goodness – ask to take a look at what their scriptures say. It is hard to take lessons in morality from the god of the Old Testament or of the Quran/Hadith.

Finally, we looked at the argument put forward by a prominent Christian speaker about “Objective” moral values, and how this points to God. After much discussion - we didn't agree with him!


Websites: - Charity Evaluation - Evidence based giving information, and "How Rich Am I" calculator - Research for the Bible, Quran and Book of Mormon

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. Paul Bloom
Morality Without God. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
The Moral Landscape: How Science Determines Human Values. Sam Harris
Experiments In Ethics. Kwame Anthony Appiah

TED Talks:
(short clip from the above talk, re. monkey fairness experiment:

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