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.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* Several groups are trying to encourage scientists and engineers to speak out in public debates and even run for public office. 
* Ed Kilgore reminds us that states’ rights are sacred to conservatives — except when it comes to fighting abortion and equal rights for gays.
* Legislation to implement school voucher programs is flooding GOP-led statehouses, even though they do not work, are fraught with problems, and might be unconstitutional. 
* The Economist discusses how Muslim thinkers have sought compromise between secular and religious law. 
* New research suggests chimpanzees are willing to help other chimps even when there is no direct benefit to themselves. 
* Why do Americans grant S&P any power or credibility
* Do yourself a favor and take a couple minutes to read this op-ed in the USA Today by Jerry Coyne, who argues convincingly for a secular approach to ethics.
* Researchers now say that cancer patients should not rest, but engage in at least two-and-a-half hours of exercising per week.


  1. If that is the best Jerry Coyne can do for secularized ethics than he should stick to biology. It's funny how these pseudo ethicists take a cue from evolutionary history and disregard the validity of social history. Eugenics is as much part of our social history as the bible's so-called justification for slavery (btw, if Jerry knew anything about the context of the Bible is was those who wrote the Bible that were the slaves!). I don't have time here but Jerry's argument is more of a justification for the institution of religion than it is against it. Even our 'secular' culture is so entwined with 'religious' ethics that it is merely a post hoc argument to assume that our communitarian tendecies arrive strictly from evolutionary drives.

    Is it true that other animals have some of the same social features as we do? True it is. But this argument is a slippery slope. For one, we do not use animal kingdom behavior to justify polygamy as many of our primitive ancestors do. Religion fosters the idea of sanctity within monogamous relationships and encourages fellowship within a universalistic/homogenous landscape that is liberalism.

    Okay, thats enough for me...I could write a counter essay but it would probably be misconstrued leaving me pegged as a theist loving atheist...

  2. Oh and Jerry conveniently leaves out the fact that most primate societies are hierarchical (unlike our enlightened society)...does he advocate this or like his theistic counterparts does he pick and choose what he gets to use from his ideological repertoire?

    The slope gets more slippy and steeper.......

  3. Zack, your first post is confusing and the second one is outright wrong. Jerry Coyne does not advocate for anything - he just points to possible and quite probable sources of human morality, including the kind that masks as religion based morality.

  4. Gralm, I agree that my first post does not make much sense..I need to clarify some things. Posting in haste I made some mistakes.

    Jerry Coyne picked the low hanging fruit that is slavery in the bible (As if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris have not does so sufficiently in the past). Hello Jerry, neoDarwinism is and has been used by regimes who have believed eugenics could make a superior race. It was also seen as an obstacle for pure socialism/communism and thus was used again in a more social homogenous way. Moreover, the Bible does not justify the morality of slavery; it is a guide for those Jews who are slaves. Slaves advocating slavery? Nope. Now the hierarchical relationship between white man and all others has existed for a long time. Slavery could be seen as an oppressive Christian practice but monarchies and anarchies and castes throughout history have been used to oppress members or the same religion and race. These were used to generate vast amounts of wealth. Christianity was used as a tool to justify despotism. Does that make Christianity the problem or greed? Maybe neither since hierarchies exist in nature and in our no too distance ancestors. They are also oppressive and discriminatory AND NOT ECUMENICALLY BASED.

    Why do I bring this up? Because Coyne explicitly mentions this juxtaposition by appealing to the perverted side of Christianity as a defense for his 'probable' evolutionary ideal.

    Now for arguments sake, lets say that Jerry Coyne was not 'arguing' per se for one metaethic over the other; granted. But that does not stop me from making some valid assumptions from the context of his article. He implies that smaller social groups are part of social evolution-surprise-we can call that a church here!

    But that aside, Jerry Coyne and the like need to realize that the problems we face in regards to ethics does not lie explicitly in watching monkey's and examining genes. In fact, we need not look very far for how our values and sense of good are shaped. It was Tocqueville who advocated for civic associations as places where individuals could learn to cooperate, take responsibility and establish a sense of what is good. This progressive rhetoric is carried on by great minds like Susan Wolf, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Micheal Sandel and Micheal Walzer.

    With great respect to his profession as a Biologist, Dr. Coyne, in my humble opinion is not really suited for the realm of ethics if his platform is the same opportunistically selective
    way of choosing the best from what his very small repertoire of valuable attributes and justifications for his point of view. I could list many traits from the animal kingdom that we may 'listen to', and I will be more than happy to revisit the slippery slope again...Thanks.

  5. I would also like to know if Coyne, being the scientist that he is, resorted to the rigorous investigation he is used to in his line of work to the correlation/causation distinction of the 'secularized' nations of Finland and Sweden; claiming them as being possibly more moral than the U.S.(I say "big deal" anyways.) Has nothing to do with economics, demographics, population size, geographical location, political arrangement, history, etc, etc. etc.?

    I am done diatribing. I read Coyne's book and liked it. Shermer should stay out of politics just like Coyne should stay out of ethics.

  6. Zack, I'm sorry to say your posts still do not make much sense. I happen to think Coyne's essay is flawed in that his rebuttal to the idea our empathic instincts are god-given is to point out evils (not just slavery) of the god of the literal reading of the Bible. The flaws are that even if the god is immoral, he/it might still have given us that empathic instinct; and also Coyne's audience might have many varieties of believers other than those who take the biblical text literally, and yet Coyne does not take their views' possibility into account. In short, this part of his argument is just logically invalid (particularly for the first flaw), but by that token so is your discussion about neo-darwinism.

    The constructive part of his essay, which argues that it is possible that empathy is an evolutionary product, works better and in no way suffers from observations regarding "how our values and sense of good are shaped" in the present. He wasn't *justifying* empathy on the basis of animal observations; as he indicated, he was simply rebutting the argument that empathic instincts would be impossible if we were products of evolution, and showing also that it is possible for atheists to behave morally. So I don't understand what you're going on about.

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  8. @Zack: Yes, he does say that, which goes to his defense that atheists can be moral - ironically more moral than religious institutions often can be. But his discussion of the empirical origins of ethics (as a social and mental phenomenon) does not breach the is/ought gap. Descriptive statements that concern normative propositions are themselves just that - descriptive propositions. (So the statement, "ethical instinct arose because of..." would be a descriptive one, because of the operative predicate.) You might be alluding to his equating of our ethical intuitions (such as anti-slavery intutions, etc.) with morality itself as a breach of the is-ought gap, but that idea is just an implicit assertion, and not a deductive argument, meaning it could not have breached the is-ought gap, which is a property of the non-explosiveness of logical deduction. It's really more an ethical axiom of his than anything.

    Look, there are several logically invalid points to his essay imo, such as his slight misinterpretation of the famous Euthyphro dilemma. There are many points you could criticize Coyne for, but you aren't making them. Personally I think he allows his rhetorical impulses to understate the degree religious institutions have contributed to morality (which perhaps is the point you're trying to get at), and I already mentioned the structural flaws his essay has.

    Nonetheless, your discussions just seem to go off irrelevant tangents. He mentions Denmark etc. to show their atheists do behave morally, and do not degenerate into lawlessness, and you go off about how it might be because of geography, etc. Well, so what? Coyne never posited their lack of lawlessness was *solely* because of secular morality (strictly speaking, he never posits a causal explanation for them at all, although I'll acknowledge it's implicit). He uses those countries to illustrate how the predictions that atheism yields lawlessness are spurious. And on and on for your other points.

  9. Amended......

    I am starting to get the feeling that I am the only one reading the article and reading my posts.

    Coyne goes beyond mere suggesting, he makes assertions. He claims that secularization, ie. rationalization has moved morality forward. Well, hello, McFly, the same morally flawed moves have been made on the side of rationalism...are their any faults with consequentialism, deontology, etc.? Of course there are. Slavery could just as well be justified by consequentialists as well as religious or Darwinists. Anyone heard of eugenics? Didn't that come from a perversion of Darwinism?

    Do you not see Coyne making the is/ought leap?

    Sigh...moving on...

  10. @Timothy, I amended my post that you replied to AFTER you had replied. I didn't realize this an would have left some of my more sardonic remarks out had I read it first.

    The point that I wanted to illustrate the most was that religion and rationalization in their context as part of Coyne's essay become two sides of the same coin. You make the astute observation that religion has contributed to morality and it is arguably values that arise from such institutions that contribute to the background of morality today..at least politically it would with the historical contributors like Paine and Locke.

    You also noted that Coyne uses Denmark and Sweden as exemplars. In other words, the societal decay that is posited by theists does not seem to be the case (as we already know a priori). My understand is that Coyne is demonstrating the reversal of moral decay through secularization. I took issue with the this sentiment even if it was not explicitly mentioned in the essay, though I think he does when he closes out his essay with " In fact, you can make a good case that those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America." This is the statement I was attacking. I preempted his "good argument."

    Perhaps I jumped the gun a little bit when I was going after deontology and consequentialism as possible non God, secularized ideals, as premises for this "good argument."

    I hope this clarifies things a bit. I really did write the other responses in quite a bit of haste.

  11. *sigh* I submitted comments and it said I couldn't access the page... hopefully this attempt will work. The one time I don't remember to "Ctrl+A", "Ctrl+C"... *grumble*

    >My understand is that Coyne is demonstrating the reversal of moral decay through secularization. I took issue with the this sentiment even if it was not explicitly mentioned in the essay, though I think he does when he closes out his essay with " In fact, you can make a good case that those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America." This is the statement I was attacking. I preempted his "good argument."<

    If by "Coyne is demonstrating the reversal of moral decay through secularization," you mean that Coyne is implicitly saying that secularization has yielded moral progress in society, then I agree, and I'd actually agree with Coyne's point. If that's the point you're arguing against, then all I'll say is that it does not advance your argument to offer instances (such as social Darwinism) where a secular theory led to immoral behavior. In contrast to those Christians who think their biblical deity is always moral, Coyne does not claim that each and every instance of secularization advanced moral behavior - which is the claim that individual counterexamples would undermine. Since he never makes whatever point he might have been implying here explicit, it is far too strong a reading to say he was saying secular theories are always good.

  12. And my point is that Coyne may be able to make a correlation but not explicit causation in terms of 'more moral'. The lack of religiosity, in my opinion, would be a stretch of an argument to make, the argument Coyne alludes to, being the CAUSE of those countries being more moral. Even more, that secularization has anything to do with social welfare programs. How could that argument be made?????

    Perhaps they have a DIFFERENT kind of liberalism/democracy than the United States but to say that their socialization of medical services makes them more moral is, again, an if/then stretch. Then to attribute it, implicitly, to non belief...?????

  13. Zack, I don't feel it's reasonable to expect him to offer such a (social-science) argument to defend a point you acknowledge he never even explicitly advanced, one that is only tangentially related to the points that he wrote his essay to address. If you feel your posts have precluded such an argument, well, then I can't say I agree. Causality is an issue social scientists have been very cognizant of for decades, and it is not true it's intractable.


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