Rejecting a mathematics of morals

In my post below where I outline what I believe are the appropriate parameters of eudaimonia I was obviously influenced by the inductive methods of history and natural science. Naturally this elicited a strong response from some quarters. This is no surprise (though the rude manner of comment is not necessary, long time readers of my various blogs have disagreed on this particular point for years without being uncivil barbarians. Reading Plato clearly does not make one a gentleman).

There are a few distinct issues here. I do not seem to engage with great pre-modern thinkers much in a direct manner. First, I suspect many people have already engaged Plato, and discussed his ideas in detail (if you have a university degree, you really should have, and I know most readers of this weblog do). In contrast, new findings from the modern sciences of human nature, provisional as they are, are generally not familiar to most. Second, the ancients, whether Greek or Chinese, have much to say about morals which is obviously valid, but they lacked the powerful systematic framework which is modern science. In the area of literature I am generally of the opinion that the moderns have little necessary structural advantage in relation to the ancients. In the area of the natural sciences the ancients are only of historical interest, excepting perhaps the mathematical techniques developed by thinkers such as Euclid. The moderns have absolutely superseded the ancients. It is in the domain of human sciences where one can have reasoned debates about the value of the moderns or the ancients. I think one can, for example, make the argument that the most extreme behaviorist psychologists of the 20th century had less genuine insight about the human condition than Confucius or Socrates (I agree agree with this contention). In some cases I would take the ancients over the moderns, and in other cases I would take the moderns over the ancients. I believe that psychology and other sciences of humanity have retreated somewhat from their ideological excesses, though only time will tell on this point.

Third, there is the issue of grand theorizing from first principles and the power of logic and system-building in a moral framework. I am skeptical of this. I know of its power in moral and political reasoning personally, I was earlier in my life a rather conventional Natural Rights libertarian in the mold of Murray Rothbard. My framework was elegant, and allowed for rapid generation of inferences and almost immediate evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of a particular policy position. But as I have grown older I have come to think that this sort of reasoning does not map well onto modal human moral sentiment, nor does it necessarily lead one to flourish personally. I know the power logic, and formal frameworks, I have a background in the natural sciences. What I see in other domains is generally weak tea in comparison; I have much more trust in specific empirical findings in psychology than grand theories of everything. Similarly, the systematic frameworks developed by the ancients are of historical interest, but I think that these towers ascending toward heaven always fall short. Banal and mundane particular observations and patterns are of less awesome scope, but I believe they lay closer to the heart of human nature. One short-coming of this “small-bore” approach is a certain sloppiness and incoherency, but if there is a Principia of morals, I have not encountered it yet.

Finally, I tire of the complaints that I do not address a particular set of eminences which any given rude barbarian demands that I engage. I contribute regularly to three weblogs. My interests range from evolutionary genomics to Neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty, cognitive science to literary analysis of Genesis. I am certainly aware of, and have read many of, the grand political philosophical systems constructed by the brilliant minds of the past (and present), but all are as substantial as the aether next to the scientific models which I have encountered in my education. I have no particular quarrel with anyone who believes that they have found the Answer, or the Truth in a Great Book. WHAT I DO HAVE A PROBLEM WITH ARE ACOLYTES OF TRUTH WHO BADGER AND HARANGUE SKEPTICS IN A CHURLISH MANNER. As it happens, I was learning Newtonian mechanics at the same time that I was reading Summa Theologica. If I had any doubts where I stood before, I certainly did not after.

One of the issues which I believe lurks behind any discussion about the existence of gods is that different individuals bring radically different presuppositions to the table. Some of the axioms are implicit, or ineffable. I have encountered many religious individuals who believe that their logic is transparently obvious, and that my own atheism can only emerge from a certain obtuseness. For myself, I attempt to maintain a more charitable spirit, and accept that my interlocutors are not obtuse, but perceive the universe very differently from me on a very deep intuitive level (this only applies to the non-stupid segment). I simply wish we would dispense with the talk of logic and reason when what is at issue are often truly matters of the heart at the root.* The same problems often are starkly evident with Leftists and Rightists attempt to engage each other in a spirit of discussion; invariably misunderstandings emerge because of implicit axioms which differ, or moral currency which can not be exchanged. This is simply an intracultural instantiation of the general pattern which occurs interculturally; there is no particular shame in seeing another as a barbarian, so long as they behave as a human. I do believe that most humans wish to civilize barbarians they meet, truth is preferable to falsity, but there is a limit to what can be achieved in many cases.

I try and limit my preaching in this space because my own focus is elevating and refining the lives of those who broadly share my values and outlook. We all have the barbarian in us which needs to be tamed, and certainly the many of ancients agreed upon the importance of self-cultivation. One point which I suspect is a matter of humanity, as opposed to civilization or barbarism, is a sense of proportion in discussion and debate. Something which often is lost on the internet.

* Of course many religious individuals I have met understand this issue as well. Rather, I am speaking here of a small minority, usually young men, who are the inversions of the New Atheists in their expectation that all humans should cogitate in the same manner as they.

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16 Responses to Rejecting a mathematics of morals

  1. mnuez says:

    Another excellent post… until it occurred to me that you were actually making a moral argument! 🙂

    Very sneaky of you my dear Razib, very sneaky…

    Anyhow, while I disagree with the moral requirement to be polite (and am confident that you do too when not wearing a ill-fitting missionary’s outfit) I hear what you’re saying about preferring that sort of behavior from your interlocutors.

    I myself sometimes feel that way and sometimes prefer the raw human wrath that comes from the self-assured Knower Of Truth, but you’re Asian and thus by nature more civilized than I am – if I imagine that Asian means Oriental rather than the scion of hot-blooded Browns. Which makes no sense in this context. L’Chaim!

  2. Bradlaugh says:

    Far as I’m concerned, Mr. Hume, you could run for mayor at this point. You do, though, need to get a handle on the lie-lay, lay-laid difference. Description has NOT conquered prescription on this one, and a present indicative “lay” with no object clangs like a dropped anvil in the ears of anyone with a classical education.

  3. Susan says:


    A friend of mine with a problematic medical history was once interviewed by a reporter. In the course of the conversation, my friend said that he had “lain on many operating tables.” He was quoted as saying: “I have been laid on many operating tables.” He wrote a letter to the editor in which he pointed out that while this sounded very exciting, it had never actually happened.

  4. David Hume says:


    that’s why they don’t pay me the big bucks!

    I hear what you’re saying about preferring that sort of behavior from your interlocutors.

    there are many places to vent on the internet. stupidity is infuriating, but there’s no reason to subject oneself to it.

  5. 8 says:

    Mayor?? No, a Secular KING! King Razib of the shining city of Randopolis, and enslave all those wretched xtian rabble

  6. Aaron says:

    In defense of us rude barbarians, you do have to shout on the internet if you want to be heard. Will’s comments were direct, but I don’t think they were out of line. I think you should engage some of these philosophers (even the one’s you’ve already read) not because they’re philosophers, but because they’ve thoughtfully critiqued your own arguments, and many of those critiques are not invalidated by anthropology or sociobiology. As the over-used formula goes: you might not engage with Nietzsche, but Nietzsche certainly engaged with you. My impression from just skimming your earlier post (sorry, it was long) is that your thinking on this blog has changed and incorporated some of Nietzsche’s criticisms, which had been rudely shouted here by yours truly, whether or not that actually had any influence. In other words, your thinking seems to have changed as if you were engaging with Nietzsche, whether you were or not. And by the way, Nietzsche’s own attacks on the worldview of Secular Right were far more caustic than most criticisms posted here.

    I didn’t know you were interested in the literary analysis of Genesis. I think that would be a great topic for this blog. I highly recommend Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, if you haven’t read it already.

  7. Aaron says:

    I don’t think a dropped anvil would clang.

  8. David Hume says:

    Will’s comments were direct, but I don’t think they were out of line. I think you should engage some of these philosophers (even the one’s you’ve already read) not because they’re philosophers, but because they’ve thoughtfully critiqued your own arguments, and many of those critiques are not invalidated by anthropology or sociobiology. As the over-used formula goes: you might not engage with Nietzsche, but Nietzsche certainly engaged with you

    you’re position on this is well known. so is will’s. you’re opinion about whether he was within bounds is totally irrelevant, and if you don’t think it’s totally irrelevant don’t comment anymore. it’s tiresome. in any case, there’s no need to repeat over & over the same simple maxim, though i know this is a common tactic on most forums. you think i should engage with some of these philosophers, etc. etc. i don’t think i should. so you again assert, but you should! who cares? you aren’t me. this is a very basic issue which you don’t understand, or lack the politeness to understand. will repeats the same point over and over that many thomists or thomist fellow travelers have repeated (i saw some older comments from him, same tactic).

    here’s the structure of the problem:

    1) i do not think X is profound

    2) someone asserts: but X is! so you need to confront it!

    the problem with #2 is that if #1 is the state of the situation simply demanding attention totally ignores #1. you can’t simply demand attention, you have to invest labor and time to make a reasoned argument for why someone should take a second look at aquinas, or plato, or nietzsche. if it isn’t worth your time, then you don’t need to make the investment to persuade. but in that case, YOU CAN’T KEEP SHOUTING BECAUSE THAT’S ALL YOU CAN BE BOTHERED TO DO.

    i do not for example attempt to persuade theists that their beliefs are false. i don’t care what they believe so long as they leave me alone.

    as for having to shout on the internet, i’ve run weblogs for nearly 8 years now. and i take a hands on policy in the comments, and attempt to maintain a certain level of discourse. mostly i filter out retards aggressively. this naturally dampens the conversation because retardation comes cheap, but i’m not really interested in most conversation. on this weblog i take a more laissez faire attitude because i’m not the principal, though i’m generally more restrict on my own posts.

    in any case, some commenters have changed or altered my views. invariably they were not shouters, rather, they were the types who actually took a lot of time to construct an argument. i may be atypical, but i really don’t think i am.

    (there is a reader of my weblogs, j mct, who has been commenting for years, and seems to have a thomistic bent. he hasn’t convinced me, but he’s polite and every now and then actually exposits at length. i doubt he’ll convince me, but there’s a chance he might because i haven’t banned him for rudeness these 5 years)

  9. John Farrell says:

    Excellent post, Razib.

  10. Bill says:

    Razib writes wonderfully and draws upon a consistently interesting set of authorities and disciplines. None of this, however, should blind readers to the fact that (still) Razib is not capable of actually mounting an argument with an identifiable premise that could be argued or disagreed with. I take it as revealing that he will typically revert to claims about sentiment or the “heart” (or “prejudice” or “custom”) when grasping for a foundational principle. These are important and candid admissions. All the scientific and historical window-dressing in the world can do nothing to reinforce an argument based on such views. In fact, given such appeal, we are not only incapable of arguing with him, we are ultimately incapable of truly understanding what he’s saying, since he’s not saying anything with objective content. So I have an easy question for Razib, one which requires no appeal to theology or religion or revelation. Is there a foundation for morality in human reason? If his answer is Yes, then I would be interested to hear his argument, which will require him to lay down the unnecessary apparatus of scientific literature, etc. If the answer is No, then by his own confession his posts on the subject are nothing more than “gassing,” as the snarky philosophical jargon goes.

  11. David Hume says:

    see, it was easy not being an asshole, right will? (for readers: will-the-asshole simply changed his email to avoid the ban, and also changed his conversational stripes and purged explicit dickishness) in any case, of course morality is not founded ultimately on reason. it is ultimately founded on instinct. i’ve stated it many times over the years, and have gotten into the same argument over and over (see “j mct” above). at this point the acolytes of Truth will declare victory and demand that those of us who accept our ultimate animal basis shoot ourselves in the head because Nothing Matters and we could eat our own feces for all we care because God is Dead.

  12. mnuez says:

    Razee ~

    Most Excellent.

  13. mnuez says:

    That old lady at the Pageant of the Masters said it best:

    Also: cutoffs.

  14. mnuez says:

    Don’t let this unfortunate fact upset you though because…

  15. Aaron says:

    Razib, actually I hadn’t understood you before. There are lots of reasons for ignoring someone’s critique of one’s argument. Saying that you’ve read my (Nietzsche’s) critique of your argument and don’t think it’s at a level to merit a response is actually giving helpful information, since there could have been lots of other reasons for not responding to comments on the internet. So, thanks for the, uh, helpful response.

  16. David Hume says:

    Saying that you’ve read my (Nietzsche’s) critique of your argument and don’t think it’s at a level to merit a response is actually giving helpful information, since there could have been lots of other reasons for not responding to comments on the internet.

    look, another issue is i’ve had this discussion with people ~10 years ago. a lot. i’m at the “agree to disagree” stage on a lot of issues, and this is one.

    the only reason i have revisited the issue generally is that many people, religious and non-religious, think that not engaging that viewpoint means that you concede its presuppositions, as if it was a structured debate. i don’t concede the presuppositions, i have rather different presuppositions.

    arguing at the level of fundamental presuppositions can be very exhausting in my opinion. this applies generally to a lot of issues, not just this.

    some of our disputes over semantics are probably presuppositional ones too. i assume that my earlier frustration with you had to do with the fact that i am pretty OK if you have different presuppositions and logics, but you don’t seem to comprehend that by the structure of my response i am either

    1) retarded
    2) have different presuppositions

    of course the above is in broad sketches.

    the problem is much more evident in the case of thomistic christians and such, whose positions i know of in the broad outlines. it is less clear when i engage with other people since there’s a wide variety of disagreement on a range of topics.

    anyway, i guess we’ve resolved that 🙂

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