Moral Objectivity, Victor Reppert, Edward T. Babinski
Dear Vic (Victor Reppert for the sake of blog search engines *smile*),
I enjoyed reading your discussion at your blog on moral objectivity, along with comments left by others.
Is it me, or are you asking more philosophical questions concerning moral objectivity than you have in the past? Asking questions and analyzing the answers (interminably so, especially when such questions are large overarching ones) appears to be what philosophy does best.
VR: I have never stopped or slowed down in asking philosophical questions. It’s what I do. Though, if we have no prospect of getting an satisfactory answers, at least satisfactory enough to help us in making choices that guide our conduct, I’m not sure what the questions do for us. There are some things that I think are true philosophically; this does not mean that I ask any fewer questions than those who don't hold to any philosophical truths.
EB: On the question of "moral objectivity," I think that the most objective thing any of us can say with anything near certainty as fellow philosophical debaters is that we each like being liked and hate being hated.
We certainly like having our particular thoughts appreciated by others. And we are a bit perturbed when others don't "get" what we're saying, so we continue trying to communicate our views in ways we hope others might understand.
I also assume each of us generally prefers not having lives nor property taken from them, and generally prefer not being abused either psychologically nor physically.
I also assume that when one person has something in common with another, be it a love of a game (chess, golf, soccer), a song, the sight of a sunset/sunrise, a philosophical point of view concerning the big questions, or a religion, that liking the same thing tends to bring people together and increase their joys.
Therefore, I'm not sure that "objectivity" is necessarily what I am primarily after, nor what most people are primarily after.
VR: You were doing fine until you said therefore, and committed a huge non sequitur. We have a good deal to gain from appearing to me moral, appearing to be concerned about the welfare of others, etc. We are also “after” other things besides moral objectivity. The question I am posing has to do with whether moral values can be objectively true. If a society practices, say, female genital mutilation, can we say, not just that we don’t like the practice, but that it is really wrong, if in their society it’s thought to be a good thing. Is there some standpoint overarching us and those who approve of this practice that we can appeal to so that we can say that what they are doing is really wrong.
EB: But I will say that there is a marvelous article in this week's Discover about animals with feelings. One anecdote from the article involved a magpie (freshly deceased from an accident with a car) that lay by the side of the road surruonded by four live magpies that went up and pecked gently at it, then two flew off and came back with some tufts of grass in their beaks and laid it beside the dead magpie. Then they stood beside it for a while until one by one the four magpies flew off.
VR: None of my philosophical projects requires maintaining that humans are uniquely rational. As I said when I was interviewed on Infidelguy, for all I know there may be a whole colony of dolphins off the coast of Miami that make rational inferences, or make moral judgments. (The true Miami Dolphins!) There is nothing especially Christian about the Cartesian idea that animals are just machines. Bill Hasker, for example, is not a materialist about animals either. You simply are not going to get an argument going against any of the positions I have been defending over the years by telling me all the things Koko the gorilla can do.
EB: This anecdote sparked my own memory of another one that I read in a turn of the century book titled Mutual Aid by the Russian evolutionist, Kropotkin (his theory of evolution emphasized the benefits of mutual aid & cooperation). Kropotkin cited Australian naturalists and farmers who observed the way parrots cooperated to denude a farmer's field of crops. The parrots sent out scouts, then rallied the other birds, and they would swoop down quickly and devour the crops, but sometimes some of them got shot, and rather than simply fly off altogether the birds "comrades" (remember, this is a russian biologist speaking) would squawk in a fashion of bereavement, trying to remain as long as possible fluttering near the fallen friend and group member.
I also have read stories about the intelligence of crows, even their sense of humor. One naturalist mentioned seeing three crows on a wire, and one of them slipped, seemingly intentionally, and held himself upside down by one claw, which apparently amused the others. (I'd also read about experiments and anedcotes involving birds with amazing memories and vocabularies, even speaking and acting in ways one would consider appropriate for brief human-to-human exchanges.)
Elephants and llamas were some of the other animals mentioned in the Discover piece that reacted strongly to the death of members of their own species. Elephants have come back a year later to the spot where another elephant has died (as seen on Animal Planet) and they react strongly to the bones. I also recall reading in a Jan Goodall book about a young chimp (fully grown, not a baby) reacting so strongly to the death of his mother, that he simply climbed a tree and wouldn't come down and eat until he himself had died, apparently of grief.
The works of Frans de Waal (a famed primatologist), contain some touching stories about the compassionate behaviors of primates, notably of the most peace loving chimp species, the bonobo. When Frans took his own baby son (who was sitting in a forward facing harness strapped round Frans's chest) to visit some chimps at a zoo where Frans had gotten to know the chimps well, a mother chimp with her own young one saw Frans holding his baby up to the viewing glass, and the mother took her own baby's arms and twisted her baby around in a single movement so it was facing outward, and held her baby up to the glass so that the two babys could eye each other. Frans and the mother chimp also exchanged glances. Frans mentioned a case of a female photographing chimps on their little chimp island that had a moat around it. They were bonobos, a female dominated society, and food had just been given them, and they were portioning it out amongst themselves. The photographer wanted to get a shot but the chimps had their backs to the camera and were facing the food that had been delivered instead of facing the moat with the photographer on the other side, so the photographer started to wave her hands and scream and jump up and down to get the attention of the chimps. The other chimps looked round, except one who was suspicious and didn't turn around. So the female photographer continued waving her hands and shouting until finally that last female chimp turned around, and tossed the photographer a handful of food! The chimp apparently thought she was being asked to share her food! And well, she did.
In another case I've read about, Washoe the chimp was on a chimp island with other chimps, one of which climbed the fence and started wadding out into the moat surrounding the island (chimps can't swim, they sink, their bodies are denser than human beings since they have far less body fat). This chimp started to flail around in the water, drowning. Washoe saw this, clambored over the fence, and held onto some tall grass with one hand while extending the other to the drowning chimp, who was saved.
Meanwhile Robert Hauser (Harvard prof and author of Moral Minds) has asked a lot of people a lot of tough moral questions and found out how similar their responses were across the board regardless of whether the person was religious or not.
VR: This sounds really interesting. Gosh, science magazines can be a fun read. However, you seem to think I have defended some kind of human uniqueness doctrine, when I haven’t done any such thing. Where, in anything I have written, have I said anything that is precluded by any of these observations. Is there anything in Christianity that requires that animals just be machines.