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Richard Dawkins - Absolute Morality - Comments

Thurston's Avatar Comment 1 by Thurston

Lovely. For what is a brief explanation of a complex subject, its just about unbeatable.

Sat, 01 May 2010 14:30:00 UTC | #464572

andrewsabatier's Avatar Comment 2 by andrewsabatier

Haven't we outgrown morality altogether?

Surely we do not need to make absolute decisions about right and wrong, no matter what the basis, religious or scientific. Rather we can make our way in the world by making assessments that tend to or away from any particular objective – as opposed to forcing judgements that require only either absolute praise or condemnation.

Sure, decisions need to be made in the heat of a topic but decisions can be made as tendencies relative to a stated agenda, an agenda that itself is up for continuous re-assessment on the same basis?

I don't want to be deciding about whether something is right or wrong. I'd rather be deciding whether something is moving towards greater health or away from it. I don't want to be hamstrung by judgements that force me to think in terms of right and wrong, the most direct expression of which is to speak and communicate with others in these terms. I believe, these terms are inherently religious and are not adequately informed by the three other equally valid existential systems available in the world: philosophy, art and science.

There is no right and wrong in the world. There is only what tends to work towards a particular goal and what tends to work away from that goal. The emergence of life on this planet as one such example.

On this basis I describe myself as post-moral.


Sat, 01 May 2010 15:08:00 UTC | #464578

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 3 by chawinwords

I agree with Dawkin's one hundred percent on the advancement of ethics and morality. I just wish he would explain it as an human evolution from a adolescent tribal state, based upon forms of superstition -- lots of competing tribal superstitions.

The rational aspect of the evolution is that there are measurable changes to be considered, and room left for improvements -- if, we can advance from the Age of Darkness, based upon faith in ancient tribal superstitions and stories.

Sat, 01 May 2010 15:36:00 UTC | #464590

Dragon Slayer's Avatar Comment 4 by Dragon Slayer

Very good answer. It is one of those questions which could be answered in so many ways and he touched upon all the correct points. The problem is that the kinds of people who would ask such a question have obviously no idea about religious morality. I once answered the question in a similar way to a relative and mentioned the biblical stance on homosexuality as an example of Christian values that we reject and he denied that such a stance on homosexuality was even in the bible saying "if that was in he bible i think more people would know about it."

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:04:00 UTC | #464600

F_A_F's Avatar Comment 5 by F_A_F

A joy to watch....a brilliant answer in only 2 minutes!

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:11:00 UTC | #464603

sirmailbox's Avatar Comment 6 by sirmailbox

The tendency amongst believers is to demand a sort of mathematical derivation of moral principles. Starting with the notion that the "good" is that which enhances life, and that the "bad" is that which destroys it, is seen as reasonable but still needing further justification. Their entire point is that, no matter how you build up your ethical system, you still have to rely upon axioms whose validity cannot be demonstrated in terms of more basic principles. In the sense that axioms are a sort of free parameter, non-theistic morality is ultimately arbitrary.

The crucial error in this argument lies in the idea that moral statements need to be so rigorously derivable and unambiguous. Of course one can toy with the definitions of evil, harm, or of human beings, or of intention. But this hardly means the castle doesn't have a foundation. Even in the logical systems believers wish their ethics to emulate, choice exists with respect to definitions and axioms. But logic and mathematics are about as rigorous as we can imagine. Demanding that ethical propositions be even more objective than propositions in those fields seems wholly unreasonable and unnecessary.

To see that this is true, ask a Christian about stem cell research, or gun control, or freedom of speech. Unlike adultery, theft and idol worship, these subjects are not specifically addressed in scripture. You might be able to use the Bible to GUIDE your feelings on those subjects, but ultimately you have to look to other sources: reason, precedent, legal and political philosophy, and the other sources Richard mentioned in this clip. The thing to notice here is that, despite not having a direct commandment from God on these issues, Christians still have strong opinions about them. And they are apparently comfortable with that. I think this demonstrates that an ultra-objective, infinitely justifiable chain of proofs is NOT necessary to assert and believe a moral proposition--and that believers know it.

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:20:00 UTC | #464607

Jay Cee's Avatar Comment 7 by Jay Cee

This debate was like putting a cunning fox into a pen full of spineless sheep. Put an honest passionate intellectual into a panel with politicians and he will always look strident.

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:24:00 UTC | #464611

ridelo's Avatar Comment 8 by ridelo

How simple it sounds when he says it. How simple is morality when it's freed of theological mumbo jumbo.

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:37:00 UTC | #464614

William Carlton's Avatar Comment 9 by William Carlton

"There's no morality without God."

This is such a common move, it is a must for any thinking person to have a good response handy. I tend to mimic Steven Pinker on this. I like to point out that a morality which is moral simply because God says so could conceivably include ANY commandment, such as to murder one's own child (I'm thinking of YOU, Abraham). If there is a morality which has good reasons for being observed, then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:44:00 UTC | #464619

Quine's Avatar Comment 10 by Quine

We'll be keepin' that bit.

Sat, 01 May 2010 16:46:00 UTC | #464620

Stafford Gordon's Avatar Comment 11 by Stafford Gordon

Now, how could that be described? Shrill, militant?

I dare say that chap wishes he hadn't asked the question.

I think it deserves to go viral.

Sat, 01 May 2010 17:05:00 UTC | #464623

Caivs's Avatar Comment 12 by Caivs

Great Professor! We must spread Dawkins words! =)

Sat, 01 May 2010 17:12:00 UTC | #464627

TehSpamMan's Avatar Comment 13 by TehSpamMan


Sat, 01 May 2010 17:20:00 UTC | #464633

mordacious1's Avatar Comment 14 by mordacious1

This was certainly one of the best responses (IMO, the best) in that entire debate. It's nice to see it without all the doo doo those other two debaters were spewing that day.

Sat, 01 May 2010 17:36:00 UTC | #464641

William T. Dawkins's Avatar Comment 15 by William T. Dawkins

It was brilliant the first time I heard it and even more so now.

Sat, 01 May 2010 17:39:00 UTC | #464643

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 16 by Carl Sai Baba

Absolute morality: The doctrine which says that it doesn't matter which rules you follow, as long as you are absolutely certain that you are right.

Sat, 01 May 2010 17:49:00 UTC | #464648

mxmad2's Avatar Comment 17 by mxmad2

Excellent answer Prof. Dawkins

Sat, 01 May 2010 18:04:00 UTC | #464655

Stonyground's Avatar Comment 18 by Stonyground

This subject has just come up in the comments on the Proud Atheist website. I was hoping that someone would post a refutation so that I wouldn't have to but in the end, I had to weigh in. Oh how I wish that I could have been as eloquent as that.

It was very satisfying to see that guy get shot down in flames in public.

Sat, 01 May 2010 18:08:00 UTC | #464657

The Plc's Avatar Comment 19 by The Plc

This deserves to be the new "What if you're wrong?"!

Dawkins is similar to Noam Chomsky in this respect, both are great at rapidly and cogently dismantling hecklers .

Sat, 01 May 2010 18:35:00 UTC | #464664

rocket777's Avatar Comment 20 by rocket777

Not all absolute morality is bad. All absolute means is that some idea has lasted a long time.

For example, the act of murder has rarely been considered moral, except by certain criminal gangs and governments. This is pretty close to an absolute morality.

Actually, I think what is needed are a few basic principles, such as the principle that would find aggressive force (or threats thereof) to be immoral.

With such a principle in hand, one can more easily judge the morality of some act. The non-aggressive force principle would find that both murder and theft were immoral - even if a majority approves - e.g. as might occur in a democracy that votes to transfer wealth by force.

Sat, 01 May 2010 18:48:00 UTC | #464666

InYourFaceNewYorker's Avatar Comment 21 by InYourFaceNewYorker

Richard always makes good point after good point after good point. Keep it up!

Sat, 01 May 2010 19:01:00 UTC | #464671

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 22 by Chrysippus_Maximus

Oh for crying out loud... not this again...

Atheism has nothing to do with morality EXCEPT insofar as it requires rejecting divine command theory as a moral foundation. This doesn't entail rejecting moral foundationalism itself. The argument for that is something else entirely---resting on an account of normativity that renders values purely subjective.


(... Oh, uh, and Richard's answer was pretty good, for what it's worth.)

Sat, 01 May 2010 19:05:00 UTC | #464673

Enlightenme..'s Avatar Comment 23 by Enlightenme..

No, no, you're all wrong.
There is no Is/Ought problem.

My new avatar will be up in a couple of days:

V = F
-Dr Sam Harris.

9. Comment #485405 by William Carlton

That's a bit older than Pinker!
That's the Euthyphro dilemma:

Sat, 01 May 2010 19:15:00 UTC | #464677

at3p's Avatar Comment 24 by at3p

“Only the madman is absolutely sure”

Robert Anton Wilson

Sat, 01 May 2010 19:25:00 UTC | #464679

Quine's Avatar Comment 25 by Quine

Comment #485452 by rocket777:

Not all absolute morality is bad. All absolute means is that some idea has lasted a long time.
The questioner asked the classic moral question (although without the usual quote from Dostoevsky) in which "absolute" has a fixed meaning in this context. I get this from Christians all the time. They want a moral system that is absolutely true the way 2+2=4 is absolutely true, and they think that they can't have that if there is no supernatural law giver. They project a result that makes them afraid, and work that back to deny truth, a common human response. As Spinoza just posted, the two have no logical connection.

Of course, Richard points out that we have always had a relative moral system, and picking and choosing and reinterpreting are the ways we have always changed our relative systems while keeping a false front of absolute authority. Think about it, we have all these different religions that all claim to have the absolute authority over morality. Even if one does, all the rest (being false) have been going on for quite a long time on non-absolute authority, anyway.

Now is the time for us to "people up" and accept the responsibility to construct moral principles that give us the kind of mutually beneficial society in which we want to live. Again, it is not about Atheism. Folks can keep their churches and imaginary friends, but claims to absolute authority must be cast aside unless they can be supported by objective evidence.

Got evidence?

Sat, 01 May 2010 19:33:00 UTC | #464681

Charisma's Avatar Comment 26 by Charisma

Brilliant agian Richard!

Sat, 01 May 2010 19:46:00 UTC | #464682

epeeist's Avatar Comment 27 by epeeist

Comment #485452 by rocket777:

For example, the act of murder has rarely been considered moral, except by certain criminal gangs and governments. This is pretty close to an absolute morality.
No, it is universable, but this does not mean that it is objective.

Sat, 01 May 2010 20:00:00 UTC | #464686

William Carlton's Avatar Comment 28 by William Carlton

I love the way he takes off the glasses. Just short of a facepalm, too.

Sat, 01 May 2010 20:06:00 UTC | #464687

Mark Jones's Avatar Comment 29 by Mark Jones

Really splendid answer! Wish I could talk with such clarity.

Sat, 01 May 2010 20:09:00 UTC | #464688

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 30 by prolibertas


No right and wrong, just what's better and worse toward a particular goal? The latter sounds like 'right and wrong' to me, and if the goal is increasing well-being, then it's a moral right and wrong. This isn't post-moral, it's moral realism.

P.S- Please don't anybody bother to ask why increasing well-being should be the goal of morality. That question is too stupid for words.

Sat, 01 May 2010 20:16:00 UTC | #464689