In episode 01 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss our goals for this new podcast. We ask: What is morality? Does moral value really exist in the natural world? Can we know moral truths?
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Transcript of episode 01:
LUKE: Welcome to ‘Morality in the Real World.’ I’m Luke Muehlhauser.
ALONZO: And I’m Alonzo Fyfe.
LUKE: Alonzo, I saw this amazing clip on YouTube the other day. Have you heard about Hugo Tale-Yax?
NEWSMAN: 31-year-old Hugo Tale-Yax, stabbed as he tried to protect a woman from a mugger. This surveillance tape shows him bleeding to death on the sidewalk, as 25 people pass him by. In that hour and 20 minutes, one man takes a cell phone picture. Another actually lifts his body, sees the blood, and walks away. By the time paramedics got there, it was too late.
INTERVIEWEE: To just leave him there to die, that’s just… no morals, you know? No morals, no conscience.
ALONZO: Well, I haven’t heard of him specifically, but I heard a lot of stories like it in graduate school where somebody who was hurt and people just passed him by. As the one person interviewed in the clip said: “no conscience, no morals.”
LUKE: “No morals.” And it seems obvious that passing a guy who is bleeding to death on the sidewalk is wrong, but… I want to know: How do we know? What is right and wrong? What are we referring to when we call something wrong? Like when I refer to Starbucks, I’m referring to that coffee place across the street, but when I…
ALONZO: No matter what street you happen to be on.
LUKE: Right! But when I say something was morally right, what exactly am I referring to? It’s not like… Look, if we do an autopsy on Gandhi it’s not like we’ll find a glowing blue orb of “moral value” inside his heart of something. So what are we talking about? Is morality maybe just a matter of opinion, or are some things objectively right or objectively wrong?
ALONZO: To me that story raised the question: “How do I get people to call the police when I have been stabbed?”
LUKE: That’s an important question.
ALONZO: Particularly when you have been stabbed.
Anyway, those are the questions we’re going to explore in this podcast. Is morality real, or is it something we made up like religion? And does it matter?
LUKE: You know, Alonzo, when I start to ask these questions, I think of this guy Ajita Kesakambali who lived in 600 BC in India…
ALONZO: You think about him a lot, do you?
LUKE: Well, he’s got a cool name! Ajita Kesakambali. Anyway, even way back then, this guy said: “Ideas like generosity are the concepts of a stupid person. He who speaks of their existence, his words are empty and confused; a cry of desperation.”
And sometimes I wonder: was he right?
Alonzo, one of the crazy things about morality is that we’re all so sure that we know what’s right and wrong, and yet everybody has a different opinion – especially when you look at history. I mean, 200 years ago almost everybody thought slavery and racism and sexism were okay.
ALONZO: They didn’t just think it. They were certain of it. When I was in high school studying the civil war, I was struck by the fact that the people fighting on both sides were so certain that they were right that they were willing – even eager – to kill those who disagreed. It was the right thing to do.
LUKE: And in another 200 years everybody will probably think differently than we do now. Maybe in the future our descendants will look back at how we treat animals today like we look back on how rich people used to treat their slaves 200 years before us.
ALONZO: Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that all opinions are equally valid. Five hundred years ago everybody thought the Earth was the center of the solar system. Now, we know better. We literally know better.
LUKE: But that’s science. How do we know what’s really better when it comes to morality?
ALONZO: That’s one of those interesting questions you spoke about. Can we make moral progress in the same way we make scientific progress? Do we have more and better moral knowledge today than people had 200 years ago, or just different prejudices? Will people living 200 years from now know moral facts we haven’t discovered yet?
LUKE: And if there is moral knowledge, where does it come from? It seems like we know morality through some kind of inner feeling or inner thought – the conscience, like that guy in the YouTube clip said. We close our eyes and our conscience tells us what is right and wrong.
ALONZO: It seems that way, but think about this: A few years ago, I was collecting signatures for a ballot initiative. I met somebody who said he just knew that mixing the races was just plain wrong.
As it happened, at just about that time an interracial couple walked by, and he could see just by looking at them that this was wrong. He could feel it. Did his intuitions represent moral knowledge? Or did they just represent his prejudices?
LUKE: You know, I thought about these kinds of questions a lot right after I became an atheist.
ALONZO: You used to be a Christian.
LUKE: Yeah, so back then I thought morality was whatever God said it was. Whatever he wanted, that was the right thing to do. So when I lost God, I didn’t know what to think of morality. I thought, “Is morality just a fairy tale, too? Is there any evidence for it? I don’t see any evidence for it.”
ALONZO: So what did you do?
LUKE: I went on a search to see if any theory of morality could stand up to the test any better than God did.
ALONZO: Which it did.
LUKE: No, it really didn’t.
All the theories of morality I found made bad arguments. For example, utilitarianism is this moral theory that says that happiness has intrinsic value, so we should maximize it as much as we can – you know, do whatever produces the most happiness for the most people. But nobody ever showed me a shred of evidence that happiness has intrinsic value. Why not collecting marbles? How do you know happiness has intrinsic value instead of collecting marbles? Nobody could ever tell me.
ALONZO: Certainly, somebody told you that you knew that happiness had intrinsic value simply by experiencing it. If you could experience it in the right way, then you would know…
LUKE: Yeah, but that’s just like the argument that we experience God or that intuition tells us that God exists. Well I had experienced God, and my intuition did tell me there was a God, but I was way wrong about that. So if I can’t trust inner experience or my intuition when it comes to God, I wasn’t about to trust inner experience or intuition when it came to morality. I need better evidence than that.
ALONZO: It is strange that when atheists talk about God, they say that subjective experience and intuitions are unreliable, and we should depend on science instead. But when it comes to morality they ignore their own standards and depend on their subjective experience or intuitions. In fact…
LUKE: Exactly! And I just couldn’t embrace a double standard like that, so until somebody could give me a good argument or show me some good evidence, I couldn’t believe in morality anymore.
ALONZO: Luke, if you don’t believe in morality, why are you doing a podcast about morality?
LUKE: Well, I changed my mind.
ALONZO: You seem to do that a lot – change your mind.
LUKE: That’s because I’ve been wrong about so many things; I’m probably wrong about a lot of things right now, unfortunately I just don’t know which things I’m wrong about right now. Anyway, yeah – about 9 months after I had given up my search for a true theory of morality, I interviewed you for another podcast and what you said about morality in the real world actually made sense to me.
ALONZO: Thank you.
LUKE: So for me, I’m doing this podcast because I want to explain what it is that turned me around about morality. I want to explain why I used to be a non-believer in morality, but now I think there might be something to it.
ALONZO: To be honest that makes me kind of nervous. I don’t want to convince anybody of something that turns out to be wrong. But, I would like to present some ideas where people can look at them and think about them. Maybe I got a few things right.
LUKE: So Alonzo, what’s the point of this show? Is this just a podcast of abstract thinking for wannabee philosophers?
ALONZO: Not for me. I studied morality because I have always thought of it a practical subject. If somebody stabs me I want at least one out of 25 people to call the police. In the case of Hugo Tale-Yax, morality broke down and it cost him his life. There are literally lives at stake here.
Which is exactly why there is – and should be – some anxiety over the possibility of being wrong about morality.
LUKE: So here we are: we’re atheists and naturalists. We accept what science says about who we are and our place in the universe. But we think there really is moral value in the natural world, and there’s nothing spooky about it.
ALONZO: That’s right. If morality exists, it has to make sense in the real world. This is a podcast about morality in the real world.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- News clip on Hugo Tale-Yax
- Raga Shivranjani on an Indian bamboo flute
- “I” from Kings of Time by Magyar Posse
- “Satz: Ebene” from Irrlicht by Klaus Schulze
- “Sigur 2″ from () by Sigur Ros
- Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki
- “Lisbon Maru” from Tarot Sport by Fuck Buttons
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