A moral universe?

Keith B Miller (kbmill@ksu.edu)
Fri, 5 Jun 1998 13:17:58 -0600

The following is a post from an ongoing discussion on the Templeton (Meta)
listserve on the origin of morality. I though this post might be of
interest to some on the ASA list. I think the gist of it can be followed
without the context of the larger discussion.


>Meta 111. 6/5/98. Approximately 151 lines.
>Please feel free to forward all Meta postings in their entirety.
>Below is a message from George Ellis continuing the thread on sociobiology,
>ethics, and the moral (amoral) nature of the universe. Ellis addresses
>previous messages from Mark Stuckey, Bob Schaible, Michael Cavanaugh, and
>Ursula Goodenough.
>-- Billy Grassie
>From: "Ellis, GFR, George, Prof." <ellis@maths.uct.ac.za>
>Subject: (Fwd) Responses to: Meta 105, 107 and 108
>Responses to Meta contributions 105, 107, 108 on Morality:
>1: In Meta 105: Mark Stuckey says "I would ... suggest we seek to
>acknowledge all philosophical assumptions in philosophical discourse" - yes
>indeed (this is one of the areas where present-day scientists often fail).
>He continues, "I infer rationality is necessary for viability .. If we
>don't assume rationality a priori, we might rather find evidence to suggest
>moral imperatives exist, but constitute an incoherent collection of axioms"
>and gives an example. I of course agree, but with one cautionary note:
>moral and religious views must be logical to make sense, and related
>rationally to experience and evidence, but the logic must be broad enough
>to comprehend paradox, which is central to some views of moral life.
>For example, central to my own view is acceptance of the paradoxical
>statement " he/she who would save their life shall lose it, he/she who
>would lose their life shall save it". Furthermore we are often presented
>with `either/or' positions (usually of a zero sum nature: either I win or
>you win) as if these were the only logical options, when in fact this is
>not the case: there may be a higher view that transcends such dichotomies,
>indeed the loving/kenotic option has precisely that nature. So in my view
>deeply moral and religious positions often embrace the concept of paradox.
>2: Also in Meta 105, Bob Schaible states "Relativism as I am meaning it
>here, says that in the final analysis we cannot REALLY KNOW that our way is
>right in the sense of having an objectively verifiable transcendent
>signified to endorse it ...relativism means quite simply, quite
>discomfortingly, that we are NEVER, finally free of the burden of debate
>and persuasion." I fully agree, indeed acceptance of such an uncertainty
>is central to my position on morality and metaphysics; but I note that
>this is not a statement about *reality*, but rather about *what we can
>know about reality*.
>In my view we can accept an ontological realism, combined with a
>(restricted) epistemological relativism - that is, reality exists and has a
>particular nature, but not all of it is accessible to our testing. In this
>way we avoid the extraordinary anthropocentrism of the logical positivists
>- "just because we can't indisputably prove it's there, it isn't there"
>(which indeed is false in modern cosmology, for example, because of the
>existence of particle horizons), but we also avoid the extreme
>relativistic position that anything goes. In fact on this view there are
>alternative viable/ useful views of reality, giving a reasonably accurate
>predictive description of some or other facet of its nature, but these are
>restricted by the nature of reality, and hence are related to each other,
>despite individual and cultural differences (the theory of relativity being
>an example here - the possible alternative views of physical quantities are
>strictly related to each other by the machinery of tensor analysis).
>3: In Meta 107, Michael Cavanaugh states "I agree with George's belief that
>morality requires a higher consciousness, if by that he means to say
>morality must be more than the whim of the individual " [and one should add
>here, or the historically established position of any particular culture],
>and then lists 9 proposed logical definitions for the concept "higher",
>nos. 1-5 based on the circles in society involved, and 6 on some precepts
>and inclinations that are part and parcel of our genetic heritage, ending
>up with 8: morality that is inherent in the structure of the universe, and
>9: a God-given set of moral principles.
>Well, 8 and 9 are my position [8 following from 9 because God is the
>Creator of the universe]. Then 1-5 are the variously successful attempts by
>different groups to apprehend this true nature of morality, these
>comprehensions indeed being subject to personal whim and to a major extent
>being shaped by cultural history. To some extent they have in the past been
>incorporated in our genes; but of course the whole point of morality is
>that what we want to do or tend to do is not necessarily what is right.
>He states, "Apparently we disagree only about morality's location within
>or without human history and experience (and since I claim an evolutionary
>emergence of morality, some pre-human history and experience must also be
>included)." My view is that this is the location of our comprehension and
>practice of morality, not of the existence of morality itself. Explaining
>the emergence of moral responses at this level of the hierarchy of
>explanation (in an evolutionary way) is an interesting and valid thing to
>do, but does not explain the nature of morality in ontological terms, which
>requires discussion at a higher level related to metaphysical and/ or
>religious issues.
>In a hierarchically structured system, we can have simultaneously valid
>explanations that reside at different levels in the hierarchy of
>explanation, and one should not confuse the lower level explanation for the
>higher level one: to do so is to implicitly take a reductionist stance
>which may or may not be correct. The key issue in terms of evolutionary
>explanations of particular human systems of thought is that they are valid
>but partial explanations, which have nothing to say on the validity of the
>proposed viewpoints in an ontological or metaphysical sense. Thus just as
>there is an evolutionary explanation (partly cultural) for human moral
>systems, so is there also for the humanly constructed subjects of
>mathematics, physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, nazism, marxism,
>literary criticism, astrology, voodoo, witchcraft, the I Ching, belief in
>UFO's, and so on. The existence of evolutionary [or cultural] explanations
>does not determine whether the resulting thought system gives a valid
>description of reality or not.
>So I would rephrase his claim as relating to an evolutionary emergence of a
>comprehension of morality [rather than of an evolutionary emergence of
>morality itself]. In looking at this I believe it is useful to distinguish
>low and high level concepts of morality. A utilitarian position -
>enlightened self-interest, relatively easily explained as being fully
>comprehended by an evolutionary origin - in my view represents a low-level
>comprehension of morality; whereas `deep morality' (i.e. a high-level
>understanding of moral issues) comprehends both that it is not just acts
>and their consequences that matter, important as they are, but additionally
>the effect these have on our character; and understands that
>self-sacrificial (kenotic) acts are the ultimate way both of transforming
>the situation to a higher level of meaning and morality, and of forming
>character in the most desirable way. Coercive views of morality are opposed
>to this persuasive view.
>The Christian basis for this `deep' kenotic view is the understanding of
>Jesus' life embodied for example in William Temple's book `Readings in St
>John's Gospel' (see particularly the Introduction), made a practical
>reality for example in the life of Martin Luther King (see e.g. Ansbro's
>book: `Martin Luther King: The Making of a Mind'), and of course such a
>view is also central to the concepts of satyagraha/ ahimsa as expressed in
>the life and thought of Gandhi. It is precisely this `deep' nature of moral
>behaviour - which can be shown to have taken place in particular cases-
>that is difficult, indeed probably impossible, to understand as arising
>from evolutionary effects alone.
>4: Finally, in Meta 108: Ursula Goodenough writes "Havel's and Ellis's
>remarks are all very well, but whose God, whose revelation, whose moral
>order do you go with?" My position on this has been outlined in the last
>paragraph: the litmus test of views of God, and of revelations, is the
>degree to which they comprehend this kenotic view of moral reality (which I
>believe occurs within all major religious traditions) and of the nature of
>God, rather than a coercive view. Once one has experienced the nature and
>power of a properly understood kenotic approach, it has great persuasive
>power and immediately comprehended rightness about it, even though it can
>be very costly to those who practice it.
>George Ellis
>George F R Ellis
>Mathematics Department, University of Cape Town
>Rondebosch 7700, Cape Town, South Africa
>Tel: (27) (21) 650-2339
>Fax: (27) (21) 650-2334
>Cosmology group web page: http://shiva.mth.uct.ac.za/
>Mathematics department web page: http://www.mth.uct.ac.za/
>UCT web page: http://www.uct.ac.za/
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Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506