About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Crimes, misdemeanors, and Gyges' ring

I recently led an informal discussion of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of Allen's best movies, which provides a good deal of food for philosophical thought. There are several sub-plots to follow, of course, but the main story concerns a successful doctor, played by Martin Landau, who is being blackmailed by his mistress. Forced into a corner, and facing losing everything he has, he arranges for her to be killed. While Landau's character struggles with his conscience for a little bit, in one of the final scenes (the only one where he appears on screen at the same time as Allen), he has clearly moved on, and -- quite literally -- gotten away with murder.

The story presents the same conundrum as the famous tale of Gyges, as told by Plato in the Republic. In that dialog, Socrates and friends are discussing the nature of justice, and one of his interlocutors, Glaucon, claims that the only basis for justice is the obvious (to him) observation that might makes right. Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd who finds a ring that can make him invisible at will. Given this great power, Gyges uses it to kill the king, marry the queen, and generally acting above any moral law. Glaucon's point is that morality is simply an excuse, something we claim to abide to only because there are repercussions if we don't. But given the opportunity to get away with it, we would use power to our own advantage and with no regard for any moral values.

Allen's movie struggles with the source of morality, featuring a fascinating number of characters ranging from the atheist philosopher (who in the end commits suicide) to the blind rabbi who cannot conceive of a universe without a moral structure imposed by God, to Judah (Martin Landau)'s father, who goes so far as claiming that "if it's a choice between God and Truth, I will always choose God" (apparently a position not infrequently taken by some guests of this blog).

What is Socrates response to all this? He claims that just behavior has its own reward because it is what helps keeping our soul in balance. Even if we can get away with immoral acts, not having to face external punishment, we still have to live with our own feelings about our actions. Indeed, most of us -- unless we have pathological brain damage -- do have an instinctive sense of right and wrong, which constitutes the biological basis of what we call "conscience." (Yes, of course, the specific contents of our conscience are to some extent the result of the culture we grow up in, but not entirely: to consider pork meat unclean is idiosyncratic to specific places and times of human history, but all cultures consider unjustified killing of others something to be reckoned with.)

Socrates' position, in turn, leads one to ask the obvious follow-up question: where does the ability of our soul to be thrown off balance, our innate sense of morality, come from? You guessed it: evolution. There is mounting evidence (for example from studies of social behavior in other primates) that a sense of right and wrong, as well as of punishment, is in fact common among social animals with complex brains. While human beings most certainly have developed such sense to a high degree of sophistication, and can even reflect upon it at least since Socrates, we can trace morality to our biological ancestry, just like we can trace our basic emotions (fear, joy), and our anatomy. Rather ironic, if one is a creationist.


  1. I will make this as succinct as possible. They are the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions.

    Longer answer: morality comes from the God Who created the Universe, not some fool half-baked notion of evolution. To believe that buncombe you have to believe a watch can be disassembled, taken to a beach, the parts tossed in the air, and they all fall into perfect alignment and the watch would keep perfect time thereafter. Creation: The thinking man's answer to the question of How We Got Here. We would remind Dr. Pigliucci of his debate with Dr Duane Gish.

    For the uninitiated:

    "Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, given enough time, will turn into human beings."

    Masterful prose from a Creationist that, to be as polite as possible, mastered Dr Pigliucci when he was in this part of the country.

  2. Maybe we should break it down a bit.

    "Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, given enough time, will turn into helium."

    Given the right conditions, of course. But that is step one.

  3. Who created the God who created the Universe?

    "Hydrogen is a colorless..." That is the epitome of simplistic jibberish.

    Maybe all scienticfic investigation should be abandoned and we can just revert back to the times of burning bushes, being swallowed, thence regurgitated by a fish (which turns out to be a whale), the Inquisition, bloodletting, and witch burning. Pick your era!

  4. Soryy I neglected to sign the above post

  5. Words have meanings - they can be traced back to something. What is the meaning of the word 'God'? To say "morality comes from God" is saying what, exactly? Since God is an unknown - an unverifiable, untestable, human hypothesis/idea, this statement can be more accurately phrased as "morality comes from the unknown" or better yet: "We don't know where morality comes from." However, a simple cost/benefit analysis of "being moral" combined with differential reproduction over millions of years provides a nice explanation - but there will always be cheaters.

  6. I saw the debate Cato mentioned, and he is right. To put it politely, Dr. Pigliucci got his clock cleaned by Dr. Gish. When I finished watching it, I shook my head and thought "Is THIS the best the evolutionists can do?"

  7. Cato, your strawman is pitiful. Find me an evolutionist who claims any such thing? The watch analogy was shreded long ago. Try learning what evolution actually IS, before attacking what it patently is NOT.
    BTW, what relevance does "I am the Lord thy God" have to those of us who don't beleive in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, either...?

  8. to have morals only because I fear punishment by a paternal (or maternal) God, keeps my morality at a very childish level.
    It is tougher to act "right" when there are temptations, or quick and easy selfish solutions to moral dilemas.
    But growing up carries with it taking on the responsibility for ourselves, not staying moral children.
    the evolution of morality, like the evolution of everything else is NOT RANDOM. We survive better as species if we treat each other with respect, the way we would like to be treated. We can be moral or immoral, we have the capacity for both.
    And the stuff about evolution being random. Only the mix of genes issomewhat random. Natural Selection is cumulative, not random. Of course the results look designed, but some sloppy "designs" survive and some wonderfully complex "designs" don't.

  9. BTW, just to be sure there's no mistaking my stance...
    On the labor/union/contract thread I said I was in agreement with Cato. With regard to the topic of this thread (morality), I am diametrically opposed to Cato.

    re:"Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, given enough time, will turn into human beings."

    That isn't precisely correct, although it has an essence of correctness about it. It might be better stated "Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, given enough time, has turned into human beings." OR, "Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, given enough time, will turn into something more complex." The point being that humans are not a predestined outcome of the process.

  10. Well, at least it's refreshing to see that Cato is absolutely against all guns, abortion, the death penalty, and any kind of war, since all of them involve killing. No self-defense, no greater good, no justice. Absolute and immutable. Remeber: not a suggestion, a commandment.

    Primitive thinking asides, and following up on what BMK MD wrote earlier about the "childish level". It reminded me of something I read a few days ago in Michael Schermer's "The Science of Good and Evil". It's Lawrence Kohlberg's stage theory of moral reasoning, which says that, as people grow up (when they do, I'd add), they do the following "progression":

    1. obedience and punishment
    2. individualism, intrumentalism, and exchange
    3. good boy/girl
    4. law and order
    5. social contract
    6. principled conscience

    Well, it's simplified and seems like it's not universally the same in all cultures and all that, but it's interesting as food for thought. Unless you prefer not to think for yourself, that is.

    I'd guess that, most probably, the same person can be in any of those stages depending on the situation. Social contract today in situation A, fear of punishment in situation B tomorrow, etc.


  11. "Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that, given enough time, will turn into something more complex."

    The odds are that hydrogen is as likely (actually more likely) to turn into something less complex as it is to turn into something more complex. In this instance, what one factor pushes the chemical reaction in favor of "more complex" activity?

    I often hear the comment that the synthesis of evolution's principles does not follow the simple ---> complex paradigm anymore. Well, of course, physics does disfavor such a progression anyway . But that will basically make its (evoulution) central tenets largely indistinguishable from other ideas.

    Over time I've realized that to believe that evolution works on all levels of physical reality is an awful lot like going to the proverbial 'nature bank' and writing and attempting to cash a check for "free energy".

    Such a thing plainly does neither exist nor work. And thus, the way most people approach evolution has elements of mythlogy to it.


  12. Oh, dear... So it's not just biology suffering around here; physics seems to be in a tough situation too. I'm far from a physicist, but this one is pretty easy:

    The odds are that hydrogen is as likely (actually more likely) to turn into something less complex as it is to turn into something more complex.

    Might somebody tell me where such an idea came from? Is it common or just a statistical fluke here, like "nothing to say, so just invent something preposterous"?

    I've never seen hydrogen spontaneously turning into something less complex, it presumably takes pretty extreme conditions for it to happen. But just 8 light-minutes from us, 600 million tonnes of hydrogen turn into something more complex (596 mi. tonnes of helium) PER SECOND. Those missing 4 mi. tonnes are energy (a tiny fraction of each sustains us all, or almost), as E = mc2 will tell you.


  13. We all know right from wrong, whether it's within a religion or not. We as a society often, choose to use other reasons not to stick by it


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