Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science

Deepening the Dialogue: Further Conversations between Loyal Rue and William Rottschaefer

Michael Cavanaugh
[Michael Cavanaugh is an attorney, and Past President of The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (www.IRAS.org). His e-mail address is MichaelCav@aol.com.]

Abstract: In Zygon’s first formal effort to add value for its readers by sponsoring an on-line discussion of an article or symposium, both Loyal Rue and the authors who commented on his book “Religion is Not about God” participated with each other and with readers in a wide-ranging discussion. This is a report of that discussion, and it reproduces an exchange between philosopher William Rottschaefer and Rue which significantly expands and deepens what they said in the original symposium articles.

Key Words: intrinsic moral value, moral agnosticism, moral expressivism, moral nihilism, moral non-cognitivism, moral realism, moral skepticism, moral subjectivism, naturalistic fallacy, objective values, Religion is Not about God, Religious Naturalism, William Rottschaefer, Loyal Rue, teleonomy, ultimacy

In the last few years journals have sought ways to add value for their readers in light of the emergence of the Internet, and Zygon is no exception. For several years its editors have thought an on-line discussion of an article would add the kind of value they were seeking, especially if readers and authors could engage one another directly, through the medium of e-mail. Finally a perfect opportunity arose when Zygon published, in the June 2007 issue, a symposium of Loyal Rue’s book Religion is Not about God.

A total of 36 participants enrolled in the on-line discussion, of whom 16 ultimately made one or more comments. Several others have told this reporter they considered posting, but that the conversation was so engaging they were content just to be “lurkers”– Internet-speak for silent listeners. One delightful and unanticipated feature of the discussion turned out to be the exchange of private e-mails between participants, which were not meant for broadcast to the rest of the list but which kept a sort of “human touch” to the exchange.

It would be cumbersome to reproduce the entire conversation, which lasted 12 days and covers 50 pages. The conversation could have lasted longer, and my decision as moderator to end the conversation may have been precipitous. Nonetheless a surprising number of topics were touched on, including (without yet mentioning the topics in the exchange I reproduce below) the nature of theories of religion; reader reviews of the symposium book; sacrifice and sacrament and what “sacred” means; some comparisons of “Eastern” and “Western” religions and whether those descriptions are adequate; examples of naturalism in normally theistic contexts (e.g. a mainline Presbyterian church); how one might most meaningfully construct categories of morality; the naturalistic fallacy; whether Rue’s schema is compatible with pantheism; altruism and “superorganisms;” and how we might trim down theories in useful ways.

Almost any of these topics could constitute a section of this report, but perhaps the exchange which most usefully elucidated and expanded the original symposium, was between philosopher William Rottschaefer and Loyal Rue. If you read the original symposium, and then read the following on-line exchange between those two authors, you will have a much-deepened understanding of where they each are coming from, and I think you will also have a much-deepened understanding of where you yourself currently stand on these important issues – therein lies the true “added value” of having an on-line exchange like this, and I think Zygon would do well to host others in the future.

Now, before transcribing the exchange between Rottschaefer and Rue, a few editorial notes:

1. The first comment by Rottschaefer was prompted by a posting of mine, in which I purposely tried to provoke Rue and Rottschaefer by largely agreeing with Rottschaefer’s comments in the original symposium. That is why Rottschaefer’s post seems to be directed to me, and why it was entitled “Rottschaefer to Cavanaugh, and really to Rue.” And as you will see, Rue’s response was far more provocative than mine could possibly have been (in the positive sense of the term provocative – perhaps the better word would be “evocative”).

2. As you read the following, you may encounter references to postings you do not have in front of you. I have done some light editing to compensate for that awkwardness, and since you know some postings are omitted, I hope this won’t cause you any problem.

3. In one of the Rottschaefer’s most important postings, he used the e-mail convention of reproducing paragraphs from Rue’s posting, and commenting further on them. This turns out to be a difficult convention to render efficiently in a journal, but I have chosen a device which I hope will work, and that is to artificially insert titles Rottschaefer didn’t originally use. This may require you to glance back to what Rue said earlier, but I hope that won’t be too inconvenient.

4. I will end the exchange without any formal conclusion, because as you will soon realize, this in an ongoing conversation, and indeed it is a central component of the broader science/religion dialogue which is this journal’s raison d’etre.

Let us begin with Rottschaefer’s posting of June 22, 2007 entitled

Zygon symposium posting # 14: Rottschaefer to Cavanaugh (and really to Rue).

Dear Michael,

As you have gathered, I think that there is good reason not to be a moral nihilist. I am not sure about whether a necessary condition for being a religious naturalist is that one be a moral realist. That is because I am not as clear as I would like to be about the ontological commitments of religious naturalism. I realize that there are and have been a variety of types of religious naturalism. Rue seems to be a religious naturalist and moral nihilist. Although I have not come to any settled view of the matter, my initial way of approaching that issue would not be to focus on the variety of views, but which, if any, of the views are more probable, that is, more likely to correspond to whatever is the case with respect to the features of the world and humans, if any, that count as religious.

I did struggle with trying to get my best take on Rue’s position on objective values. My wife is a big fan of Rue, and she kept referring me back to some of his claims in “Everybody’s Story” which do indeed seem to take on a realist slant about values, at least instrumental values. Your comment that I used more of his earlier works than “Not about God” makes me want to go back and read my own piece again to see how I drew my conclusion.

I am unclear about Rue’s use of the term “ultimate” in his response to me. Your reference to Weinberg’s view that the universe is ultimately pointless helps me to pin down what you might be driving at. Weinberg is probably right. I don’t think that there is any intrinsic moral value (including moral considerability) until there are living things. And I don’t think that there is any – or at least sufficient evidence – to say that the universe is a thing, let alone a living thing. But it seemed to me that Rue is denying a lot more than that. (I should add that I don’t know what to say about aesthetic value or, if there is such a thing, religious value that is independent of moral value.)

As a realist I am not fond of perspective-talk, if such talk is understood to mean that “p” is true means that what makes “p” true is the perspective of the holders of the perspective. However, if “perspective” refers to the sum of cognitive mechanisms employed by an individual, group, or species to find out what is the case, that’s fine. Then one should try to be as clear as the current science allows about methodologies, reliable mechanisms and so forth. We can hypothesize about a “god’s eye” perspective and – on some theories – that is a very good one to have! But I find insufficient evidence for the existence of any sort of god. So, if the existence of objective value requires ultimacy and god is its only source, then there are no objective values. But, it seems that we both agree that being ultimate is not a necessary condition for being objectively valuable. But, even if I changed my interpretation of Rue’s view on values to say that he denies ultimate objective values, I do not think that he and I would be in agreement about the nature of objective values.

Here’s why.

In his response to me, Rue says

“Rottschaefer points out that my account of religion is based in part on the view that there are no objective values. I think I would have been happier if he had added the modifier ‘ultimate.’ I certainly wouldn’t object to the term ‘objective values’ in a limited context. For example, I would agree that oxygen is essential for the life of any human being, and that human interests are therefore threatened by a deficiency of oxygen. In this context I would agree that oxygen is an objective value for humans who have an interest in living. If this is all that Rottschaefer is claiming for his moderate moral realism, then I don’t think we have much to disagree about.”

So it looks like Rue holds that oxygen is objectively valuable for humans since it is essential to life. And life is of human interest. But then Rue goes on to say that life is an objective value for humans who have an interest in living. That claim is ambiguous. Is life objectively valuable to humans because they have an interest in living? Or do humans have an interest in living because life is objectively valuable to them? My suspicion is that Rue would answer the first question in the affirmative and the second negatively. I answer the first negatively and the second affirmatively. On this interpretation, Rue answers Plato’s old question (in the Euthyphro) about why some action is right or wrong by making it dependent on subjective factors – because God willed it so or because we have an interest in it or … – fill in your favorite subjective factor. I answer it by making it dependent on objective factors. Subjectivists’ views about values – interest-based accounts of value would be of that sort – maintain that values claims can be true or false.

But I have my doubts about the above subjectivist interpretation of Rue. That’s because of what Rue says next in his response to me.

“I intend to be as clear as I can in my reply, although I realize that I am running the risk of oversimplification. Let’s begin with a very simple argument:

(1) a high-fat diet increases the risk of fatal heart attack

(2) therefore, one ought not to eat a high-fat diet

This argument violates the naturalistic fallacy. Premise (1) is a statement of factual information, and the conclusion (2) is an evaluative statement. Yet the argument purports to derive (2) from (1). But as everybody agrees, you cannot validly derive (2) from (1) without first inserting a second (evaluative) premise, something like (1b):

(1b) death from heart attack is a bad thing

Now the conjunction of (1) and (1b) yields the conclusion (2) without fallacy.

I believe that one cannot show (1b) to be an objective value. It certainly won’t suffice to maintain that “death is bad” can be derived from “life is good,” for that would merely shift the focus of justification to “life is good,” which is no more objectively true than the claim that death is bad.”

In the above passage, I find three different possible readings of Rue’s position. He may be claiming that the objectivity of values cannot be demonstrated. That leaves open the possibility that there are objective values, but we cannot know about them. On that reading, he is a moral skeptic.

But, the final clause of the last sentence seems to end with something stronger – moral nihilism. The claim that life is objectively valuable (or that death is objectively bad) is not objectively true. (I am assuming that Rue intends the topic of the value of life to be just a stand in for any possible value.) On that reading, Rue is a moral nihilist. Another interpretive possibility, using the above text, is that Rue is an expressivist about moral values and that expressions about values are neither true nor false because they cannot be true or false. That is so because they are expressions of emotions. And such expressions can never be true or false.

So I find four different interpretations of Rue’s position and his rejection of my position: (1) moral subjectivism (Moral claims can be true or false and the satisfaction condition for their truth or falsity is some subjective state of the evaluator), (2) moral skepticism (We cannot know whether there are any objective moral values), (3) moral nihilism (There are not objective moral values) and (4) moral expressivism (Expressions of values are expressions of emotions, and such expressions can be neither true nor false). As far as I can see, these are incompatible positions. So Rue “must” hold for just one of them or for some other position. In my comment, I concluded that he is a moral nihilist. His response to my comment makes me wonder. But, maybe Rue is just bringing up objections to my view, without holding any views of his own. Maybe, he is an agnostic about moral values. Or I may be misinterpreting and misunderstanding Rue.

Yours, Bill Rottschaefer

Zygon symposium posting # 16: Loyal’s June 23, 2007 response to Bill

Believe me, if I thought I could do anything to help clarify our efforts at moral reasoning I would get right to it. But somehow I fear that matters can’t be very much improved.

I’m bringing along three items to the conversation:

The first is Aristotle’s admonition that we should not expect more precision in moral discourse than the subject matter will allow. Ethics is not mathematics, or physics, or even biology. Physics is algorithmically simple by comparison with biology, and ethics is about as complex, algorithmically, as it gets. Obscurity is to be expected.

The second item is recalled from a marvelous speech I once heard delivered by a midget, who cautioned her audience not to draw too fine a line between traits and disabilities. As deeply committed as I usually am to the idea of a universal human nature, there are moments when the diversity among us puts off all bets on our ability to say what the good is, let alone what makes it good.

Item three is the most perplexing irony I can fathom: that a completely dead and pointless universe has created lives with potential for meaning. I don’t know whether this is true, of course, but it pretty deeply informs how I see just about everything, including what follows.

The lesson from the first item is that we should lower our expectations concerning moral understanding. The second lesson is that we should question our confidence when we are tempted to say what it’s like to be a human being. And the third lesson is that most things are likely to be less intelligible than we think. Having said all this, I still think it is possible to make progress in moral inquiry – and it is conversations like this that make me think so.

Bill Rottschaefer is wondering whether I am to be read as a moral skeptic, a moral nihilist, a moral non-cognitivist, or even—as his admirable wife vaguely suspects—a moral realist. I will try to help out here, but I fear that matters will end up even more problematic than they already are. I’ll proceed by considering each position.

Moral Nihilism. Once, when cornered, I described myself as a celestial nihilist and a terrestrial biophiliac (see item three, above). I was trying to make the point that I do not regard the cosmos as a moral order. I see no reason to believe that there is any telos inherent in the fundamental nature of things that might support the claim than any moral value is either objectively true or false. I understand values and valuation in teleological terms, and I think there are good reasons to believe that teleonomy (goal governedness) has appeared only recently in the cosmos. Values and valuation presuppose living systems, and this (to me) implies a broad and inescapable perspectivism regarding ultimate values. If “objective” means “transcending perspective”, then I reject the claim that objective values exist. So: I should be read as a celestial nihilist. But then so should Bill Rottschaefer.

Moral Skepticism. I suppose that my confession to celestial nihilism with regard to – if I may – “transbiotic” values would rule out the position of moral skepticism, so it appears that nothing needs to be said here. But I’ll put something in anyway. I have confessed to being a terrestrial biophiliac, by which I mean a lover of life on earth. I value life. Yet I do not think that much can be said to justify this value to some latter-day Schopenhauer who thinks that life (qua life) is a bad thing. Is life a good thing or not? I cannot see how the question might be settled in any objective way. We could ask around and determine that >99% of respondents say “yes,” but that wouldn’t make the goodness of life objectively true. What could possibly render this value objectively true? We do not pity clay pots for not living. Nor do we pity dead persons for their lack of something good. We might, however, have compassion for those who do not value life—and we might even try to convince them of the value of life. By any attempts at this are pathetic – they always come out sounding like “life is good,” or “death is bad” (both question beggars).

Non-Cognitivism. What I’ve just written sounds very much like a non-cognitivist moral stance (expressivism or emotivism). Am I a non-cognitivist by default? Does the fact that I deny the justifiability of the value of life (while vigorously affirming it) imply the view that values are never either true nor false? Here things get really murky. I think we can give justifications for some values, that is, moral inquiry is pointful (up to a point). But note that all attempts to justify the truth of some moral value inevitably derive their force from some other moral value. So I might say, “Look Dorothy, if you value life then you’re objectively wrong not to breathe or take nourishment.” In this attempt I am carrying off a pretty good impression of a moral realist. But here I would insist that what makes “you should breathe” a true statement is Dorothy’s belief that life is good.

Moral Subjectivism. Oh dear! Now what I’ve just written appears to commit me to moral subjectivism – the view that what makes a moral claim true is the subjective state of the valuator. But the moral subjectivist claims that subjective states are the only things relevant to moral truth claims. Am I to be read saying this? I hope not. What makes subjectivism problematic is that it’s always relevant to ask about how subjective states get to be what they are, and very often subjective states can be shown to be the experiential consequences of biological adaptations – which came to be as a result of a lot of non-subjective events. We are to a certain extent biologically prepared to value some things and to devalue others, and our being thus prepared owes everything to objective factors. The world is not a moral order, but there are some moral values that are [demonstrably, objectively] inconsistent with staying alive in it – so if staying alive is a priority, then such values would count as false, no matter what the subjective state of the evaluator happens to be.

Now I’m about to sign off. I have the feeling that I’ve already said too much, but as I look it over I also get the feeling that I haven’t said anything very helpful. Let me finish by declaring some hybrid categories. I think I might confess to being a non-cognitive realist. That is, I believe that moral values are ultimately grounded in sensory and emotional phenomena, and once we start the process of giving cognitive justifications for the “objectivity” of our values we find ourselves in a regression where it can be demonstrated that the objective status of value R is based upon our acceptance of value S, the objectivity of which assumes value T, and so on, until we give up and say something unjustifiably emotive. This is ultimately a non-cognitivist moral stance. However … I also want to say that our sensory and emotional systems are very real, and they came to be by virtue of their reliable (but not infallible) performance as indicators of how things stand in the extra-mental and morally relevant world of objects, events, properties and relations. So there is just barely enough correspondence between our values and the objective world to justify the claim that values can be true or false, and that the objective world makes them so. This is a fairly robust concession in the direction of moral realism.

But just to confuse things further, I will add this: I’ve just said that the objective world provides a measure of grounding for our values. That is, value X may be said to be true because of the way the world is. But can we really say this? Do we really have the correspondence between values and the world that it takes to make us confident moral realists? Wouldn’t it be more precise to say that value X feels true, and it does so because of the way the world WAS? Evolution endows creatures with traits that are better suited to the past than to the present. And how can we be confident that the new (real) world is not sufficiently altered to render moral truths false?

Finally, I will confess to being a skeptical progress realist. This category is more familiar in philosophy of science than in moral theory, but I think it makes sense across the board. A progress realist will be skeptical of any truth claims advanced about moral values. But at the same time s/he might be willing to say that “value X is a lot closer to the truth than value Y.” This is the way things often play out in the sciences, where investigators are often confident about progress in understanding nature but reluctant to endorse any theory as final. Some scientists think it is unhelpful to use the notion of truth in any strong sense. I feel much the same about moral understanding. We have, today, a better understanding of the conditions for living well than we did a generation ago (thanks largely to scientific advances in understanding human nature). This is not to claim, however, that we are (or ever will be) sufficiently wise.

Loyal Rue

Zygon symposium posting # 37: Rottschaefer response to Rue (June 26, 2007)

Dear Loyal and all,

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Loyal. I found that they helped me a lot in understanding your position. I now believe that we are closer than I had earlier thought on the issues under discussion. I look forward to your and others’ responses.

Now, as to Loyal’s three introductory observations and the lessons drawn from them, I think these are good lessons. One way I have tried to incorporate them into my scientific naturalistic view is epistemological. I modify the traditional Anglo-American account of knowledge. A strong version of the A-AAK is that knowledge is certain justified true belief. I do not think that humans ever achieve certainty, even in logic or mathematics. So I drop that requirement. Another strong version is that A-AAK implies knowledge of knowledge, that is, one knows only if one knows that one knows. I drop that also. Next I limit the notion of justification to empirical and scientific modes of justification. I thus reject a-priori modes of justification as well as most appeals to introspection and internal experience. I do so because they are unreliable sources of justification. As you noted in your response to my comment, I prefer talking about reliable epistemic mechanisms rather than justification because the latter is associated with internalist epistemologies that maintain that justification require the epistemic agent to provide justification on the basis of some sort of internally generated rational or psychological process. I am an externalist with respect to justification. One can be justified in one’s beliefs without being able to justify one’s view. That can happen because one is using a reliable epistemic mechanism without knowing it, for instance, children using their perceptual capacities. I do hold a correspondence theory of truth, but as fitting for a modest realist, it is a modest one! Deflationist theories of truth—like Tarski’s disquotational view: “p” is true if and only if p – lack, I think, sufficient explanatory power. In the case of moral agency I don’t think that deflationist views are sufficient to explain moral action.

Finally, as you well know, correspondence theorists do not claim that they are able to ascertain whether they have a true claim by comparing their claim to the reality about which the claim is made. Rather, the reliability of epistemic mechanisms serves as an indicator of whether one is getting closer to the goal of knowledge, which is, on my view, truth. All these modifications lead me to agree with the lessons you bring to our attention. I take it that they are reminders of our limited epistemic capacities and consequently are limited abilities to ascertain what is the case.

Moral Nihilism. Yes, I think that we are in agreement on this point.

Moral Skepticism. I also agree that saying that some things are valuable implies that one is not a moral skeptic. Nevertheless, I am glad that you go on to discuss moral skepticism. I do not remember the details of Schopenhauer’s arguments to be able to address them directly. So I will comment on the general issue.

My general view is that a scientific naturalist – and perhaps no one– can overcome skepticism, including moral skepticism, if that latter claim is that “It is logically possible that there are no values or moral values.” I think that this moral skeptical claim is correct and irrefutable. Of course is does not follow from the fact that it is logically possible that there are no moral values that there are none. Unfortunately, many philosophers feel obliged to refute the former claim. So they get involved in all kinds of discussions about possible worlds, demons, brains in vats and other thought experiments that involve appeals to intuitions. I don’t think any of that is very helpful. Have you read Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s recent book “Moral Skepticisms?” This is a very sophisticated attempt to argue for Pyrrhonian moral skepticism. It succeeds, I think, because it sets the standards for knowledge very high, beyond, I think, human competence.

I agree that surveys that establish widespread agreement about moral values will not in themselves justify claims about moral values. However, they can serve as data. Such data need to be accounted for. So one formulates various hypotheses about how to account for the data. As you know empirical moral psychologists proceed in this fashion.

One does need to be vigilant about question begging. Question begging can involve one in a vicious circle. (So then you get hung and die. And that could be bad!) I tried in my original Zygon response paper to show how vicious circles can be avoided, pp. 392-395. Very briefly, the idea is, for instance, that the claim that life is good is a hypothesis. Taken in an objectivist realist fashion, it must out compete its metaethical competitors: moral nihilism, non-cognitivism, subjectivist realism, etc., both in terms of its predictive and its explanatory power, as well as other criteria that make for good hypotheses and theories. So in claiming that life is good, one does not necessarily beg the question. Nor does the nihilist who says that it is neither good nor bad. Nor does the Schopenauerian who says that life is bad. None need make the error of supporting their claim about life by another claim (X) and then supporting (X) by their claim about life. The central issue is which, if any, of the competing metaethical theories best explains and predicts the relevant phenomena.

Non-cognitivism. Yes, I think that things do get murky as one attempts to move up the ladder of justification to higher level moral theories and hypotheses in the sense that one becomes less sure of one’s justifications and so less sure about whether one’s claims are true and so less sure whether what one is talking about is really the case. Sometimes the data will confirm the hypothesis and sometime not. Sometimes the theory causes us to reassess the data. All metaethical hypotheses have to meet these sorts of criteria. I, of course, think that the objectivist realist does the best job. But, it is not only logically possible that that view is incorrect. Various theories of both nature and our cognitive emotive capacities might persuade us that it is incorrect. For instance, if emotivism (non-cognitivism) were correct, that would be bad for objectivist moral realism. But, I think that the evidence is against the correctness of that view.

Moral Subjectivism. I think what you say here is very important. I agree that the problem with subjectivist views is precisely that they make the truth of moral claims dependent only upon subjective factors. There are in fact objective factors that influence the kinds of subjective (in the sense of being capacities of the agent) cognitive, motivational and emotional capacities that are involved in the determination of what is objectively morally valuable and acting to attain it. My moderate moral realism is distinguished from maximal moral realism (My Response Paper, p397) precisely because of what you point out.

I have also wanted to note since I read your original comment on my response that I think that only some values are biologically based. Indeed, I think that most moral values are not biologically based. As I mentioned in my original response, there are a number of levels of selection operating on evaluative and moral capacities (Pages 399-400). I think most values are culturally selected for. I do not think that biological natural selection can get us much beyond moral capacities that enable moral behavior toward family, kin and close by, familiar neighbors.

Thus, I agree that there are certain values that in some situations rightly take precedence over the value of life. I take the claim to mean in part that life is not the only moral value and not necessarily always a primary moral value. Thus, the life of an individual remains morally valuable, even though in some instances there are other moral values that take precedence over it. One gives up one’s own life to better the non-biological welfare of a stranger. My life remains an objective value, but other objective values take precedence. In my terminology values are neither true of false. They are either real or not. Claims about values are either true or false.

(And by the way, I disagree completely with your feeling that you haven’t said anything very helpful. On the contrary, I have found what you have said very helpful!!)

The Hybrid Categories. I am not clear why, given the view that you presented in your book, that you end up by saying something unjustifiably emotive? I understood from what you said above, that you are a cognitivist about moral values. Dorothy’s belief that life is valuable is true because she believes it is true. This account of Dorothy’s moral belief is cognitivist because it can be true or false. As it stands, of course, she does not have much justification for her claim. If that is right, then you hold that moral claims can be true or false. I would take the claim “Life is good” to be non-cognitive and emotivist if the claim turns out to be “Yummy, yummy!” That sort of expression cannot be either true or false. It is merely the expression of an emotion, feeling or preference. There are, of course, second order emotivist theories that make justification a function of whether or not the first order expression of emotion is a fitting one (for instance, Gibbard’s and D’Arms and Jacobson). So even if Dorothy’s claim is given an emotivist reading, it is not necessarily the case that it is unjustifiable. I classify these sorts of theories as subjectivist realist theories about values. But it doesn’t seem to me from what you’ve said that this is what you have in mind.

Moreover, the theory of emotions that you use widely in your book (Lazarus’ appraisal theory) is noted for being a premier cognitive theory of emotions. I think also that the other scientific findings about emotions that you appeal to (Damasio’s, for instance) also points in a cognitive direction. This makes me think that when you arrive at the emotional level, you take emotions to be cognitive. The value expressions that they engender can be true or false. So the issue concerns, it seems, to me, the reliability of the emotional mechanisms. I take it that you hold that some of the evolutionarily based mechanisms were reliable in at least the environment of evolutionary adaptation. But, perhaps, they have become less reliable in the current environment?

So this raises some questions in my mind. Do you think that since we are in a new environment the evolutionarily based emotional mechanisms that were indicators of moral value have all become completely unreliable? Do you think that individual learning, social learning and cultural learning has provided us with no other reliable moral mechanisms and that these sources have not been able to refine our evolutionarily based emotional reactions in a way that enables them to track the moral values of a new environment? If your answers are affirmative to these questions, then our claims become unjustified, not, I would think, unjustifiable, since if we had better mechanisms we might be able to justify them. But, I do not understand how on your view they become non-cognitive.

However, on the basis of the scientific sources that you use in your book, I think that you can claim that basic emotional reactions remain sources of moral cognition, but sources that need to be monitored given new situations and that need to be guided by moral capacities that have been acquired in individual, social and cultural learning, including the refinements to are emotional reactions that such learning provides.

(Have you seen Jesse Prinz’s “Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion?” I recommend it very highly. He does an excellent job of giving a cognitive account of emotions that combines appraisal theory with a version of the James-Lange theory. I think that it also provides a great basis for developing an account of emotions as reliable moral mechanisms. However, Jesse does not do that in the book and has told me that he does not see a way to do it using his account of emotions. Oh well, no one can be perfect.)

From the above, I surmise that overall I may be more positive than you about the reliability (and, thus, justificatory power) of our cognitive, motivational and emotional moral capacities. But then I read the next part of your comments and I began to wonder.

On the reality of our sensory and emotional systems. I agree entirely about this assessment of our capacities. I would put it this way. There is enough reliability that we can infer correspondence. I take cognitive claims to be capable of being true or false and values to be either real or not. But, as you insist, our capacities are very fallible.

On “X feels true, and it does so because of the way the world WAS.” I think that this is an excellent point to bring up. I see no problem in thinking of feelings or emotions as potential justifiers. And, of course, if we are talking about evolutionarily based emotional mechanisms, then their reliability is relative to their environment of evolutionary adaptation. As you know, it is a difficult job to pin down what exactly those environments were and, consequently, what exactly was the evolutionary problem that was being solved. As a result it is difficult to determine what the evolutionary component of a particular emotional capacity is. Then, of course, we realize that individual, social and cultural learning shape our emotional capacities. Thus, in any particular attempt to appeal to an emotion as a justifier, it is not clear what exactly is the emotional basis to which appeal is being made. Thus, it is not clear whether the value claim that is being justified by an appeal to an emotional mechanism concerns some biological value or some other non-biological value. Nor is it clear whether the emotional mechanism is merely biological or more than that or other than that. All that would need to be worked out in particular cases.

However, a key issue seems to me to be whether or not there are moral values that are non-biological. And I am remembering that in your book that you appeal to more than values selected for in our environment of evolutionary adaptation. (As I mentioned above, I believe that there are such values.) If so, one can appeal to these values. And one can do so by means of the reliable mechanisms by which these values are tracked.

Thus, I read the following claims as all compatible with the views that you presented in your book and in your discussion comments. General sorts of values claims that were made in the past could now well be false. For instance, the welfare of my children and kin is the only thing that is morally valuable. With the discovery of more moral values, value conflict increases. And it can turn out that the morally good decisions of the past are no longer the morally good decisions of today. The realm of moral values is dynamic and relative to environments. I agree with all of this. Do you?

So I think that these are all important points to bring up and that they do not confuse matters. I am glad that you did.

Skeptical progress realism. I am not familiar with the phrase “skeptical progress realist.” So I do not know what philosopher(s) of science you might have in mind. I take it that the skeptical part is trying to pick up on the idea of fallibilism. The idea of being closer to the truth makes sense to me. I would understand it to mean that as our methods of justification improve, we have more confidence that we are achieving our goal, true claims. We know, of course, that we need to be cautious. We also know that we can never refute the skeptic. So I think that this is a very good way to look at things. I have tried to develop this theme in my book The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency (Cambridge, 1998)

Thanks so much for your comments, Loyal. I have found them very helpful and fruitful. I think that we are rather close in our assessment of the metaethical issues.

Bill Rottschaefer

Zygon symposium posting # 42: Loyal’s Final posting on June 29, 2007

(Moderator’s note: After expressing thanks to Bill Rottschaefer and the various other participants, and a couple of notes to tie up certain loose ends of other conversations, Loyal returned to the thread with Rottschaefer.)

One very minor point to begin: in several places throughout my last posting I carelessly referred to values are being either true or false. Your usage is, of course, more precise and far less misleading – i.e., values may be regarded as real or not, and claims regarding values may (on a cognitivist reading) be judged true or false.

I’m happy to see that we are not so far apart as I had initially led you to suppose. I rather suspect that our most consequential differences are stylistic, especially concerning attitudes toward, and commitments to, received philosophical positions. Toward the end of my last posting I offered some hybrid categories (ill-considered, I’ve decided, thanks to your remarks), as a way of suggesting that one’s judgments about the reality of values might depend upon (or at least be sensitive to) the particular values in question. Here’s an analogy: I might confess to being a robust realist about the chair I’m sitting on. Further, I might confess to being a realist about the molecules composing the chair I’m sitting on. When it comes to atoms I might confess to a form of critical realism. But when it comes to electrons, quarks, strings, and the like, I might switch my commitments to reflect an instrumentalist position. My point is that one needn’t commit once-and-for-all to a philosophical position (e.g., “that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it”), regardless of the subject matter at hand. By “stylistic differences” I mean that you appear to have a greater tendency to be a philosophical party loyalist, while I tend to be a philosophical ticket-splitter.

Finally—thanks again to everyone for taking part in this. I’ve found it both exhilarating and instructive. I’ve come away with a lot to think about.


Braxton, Donald M.; Klemm, David E.; Marsh, Leslie; Rottschaeffer, William A; and Rue, Loyal. 2007. “Religion is Not about God—Responding to Loyal Rue.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42:317-422.
D’Arms, Justin and Jacobson, Daniel. 2006. “Sensibility Theory and Projectivism,” pp. 186-218 in The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (David Capp, editor). New York: Oxford University Press.
Gibbard, Allan. 1990. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Prinz, Jesse. 2004. Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rue, Loyal. 2000. Everybody’s story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———. 2005. Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature and What to Expect when They Fail (2005). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. 2006. Moral Skepticisms. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rottschaefer, William. 1998. The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology). New York: Cambridge University Press.

initially prepared October 31, 2007

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