Blueprint by Nicholas ChristakisSocial scientists can approach the study of human culture, broadly, by either focusing on differences or similarities. All too often, they choose to accentuate the differences, elaborating on what divides us and on our more aggressive and sinister behaviors. Since cultural differences are so obvious, the countless cross-cultural variations in human behavior would seem to dispel the possibility of cultural universals.

In Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis makes the opposite case: that our genes code for universal traits—the social suite—that underlie all superficial variation in human behavior and provide the foundation by which we form social networks. Christakis uses the metaphor of viewing two mountains from a 10,000 foot plateau, noting that one mountain appears three times the size of the other, until you descend from the plateau. Then, you realize the two mountains are 10,300 and 10,900 feet tall, and are not so dissimilar from this enlarged perspective.

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Mere Morality Dan BarkerIn his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis attempted to strip Christianity of all it’s superfluous elements to identify the “mere” minimum that can be shared by all Christians. In like respect, Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian preacher turned atheist, has attempted to do the same with morality, in his latest book titled Mere Morality.

In doing so, Barker has demonstrated that not only does religion have nothing to do with morality, but that all of the “good” parts of religion are in essence humanist principles. To see how, we should first consider the definition of morality.

Continue reading “In Reason We Trust: Why Morality Has Little to do with Religion”

Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam SmithWhen considering the foundations of morality, the place to start, which is often overlooked, is in answering the following question: why do moral problems present themselves to us in the first place? Other animals don’t seem to ponder the moral implications of their actions, but humans do. Why is this?

To answer this question, a useful place to start is with theory of mind, which is the ability to mentally switch perspectives and to imagine the beliefs, needs, feelings, and desires of others. Children develop this capacity around the age of 4, and you can test for it by using the false-belief task. Here’s an example of how the test might go:

Continue reading “Adam Smith, Interchangeable Perspectives, and the Origin of Moral Problems”

What We Owe Each Other by T.M. ScanlonIn the previous post I tried to show that grounding morality in objective, universal principles is difficult if not impossible. Rule-based systems are destined to fail because there is always a conflict between consequences and duties, utilitarianism and deontology. General principles will always conflict with patriculars, and vice versa. But the question still remains: how can we avoid the trap of relativism and ground morality is something workable?

That is the intent of this post, to propose a workable theory of quasi-objective morality. I won’t pretend that this is easy, but after thinking on the subject for some time, I’ve made my best effort to put something together that is flexible enough to accommodate the complexity of moral dilemmas yet specific enough to have explanatory and practical value.

Continue reading “Contractualism as the Foundation for Morality”

Sam HarrisSam Harris and Jordan Peterson recently engaged in a debate at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on June 23rd (the first night) and June 24th (the second night). The discussion centered around metaethics (specifically moral epistemology), which focuses on the foundations of ethics. In contrast to normative and applied ethics, which argue for specific actions in specific circumstances, metaethics asks: how can we ground morality in something objective? (If this is in fact possible.)

Both Peterson and Harris made the attempt to answer this question, both asserting that there are objective moral facts and that moral relativism, which asserts that all moral claims are equally good or valid or true, is false. Let’s look at both Peterson’s and Harris’s metaethical positions, starting with Peterson.

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Aristotle's Way Edith HallVirtue ethics, as practiced by Aristotle, can appear foreign to us because it stands in such sharp contrast to modern moral discourse. We are accustomed to thinking in terms of universal laws, the calculation of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” or the adherence to some vague sense of natural laws or obligations.

We ask, “what is the foundation of morality?” as if there exists a scientific answer or source of authority that can resolve the issue once and for all and for all time. But ethics is more personal and complex than this. Edith Hall, in her latest book Aristotle’s Way, shows us an alternative view of ethics established by Aristotle that takes into account this inherent complexity.

Continue reading “Aristotle on the Connection Between Morality and Psychological Well-Being”