Why Trust the Conscience?

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 16, 2009 in Ethics

homerangeldevilMost people answer moral questions with a hocus pocus method of closing their eyes and asking their “conscience” what is right and wrong. In a recent post I argued that we should not trust our feelings to give us moral truth any more than we should trust our feelings to give us truth about cell theory or astronomy.

To my knowledge, none of my readers agreed with me.

It is deeply unpopular to say that we should not trust our moral feelings. Even the most rigorous analytic philosophers compare ethical theories by how well they conform to our current moral feelings.

But my question remains. Why trust the conscience?

I’m sure this post won’t persuade religious people, who believe that moral values are spiritual properties, known through one’s direct perception of God through the invisible mental faculty sometimes called the sensus divinitatis, or else revealed in the Bible.

No, this post is written for atheists. My question for atheists is: “If you don’t believe in an undetectable sensus divinitatis, why do you believe in an undetectable sensus moralitatis? Why do you believe in a “conscience” that gives you direct and accurate apprehension of otherwise undetectable moral properties?

People in different cultures, and throughout history, have held very different moral views. If you had been comparing ethical theories just 300 years ago by how well they conformed to what your “conscience” said, you would have picked a moral theory that justified sexism, racism, and homophobia. Even the consistent parts of human ethics – for example the prohibition of rape in certain circumstances – are best explained by evolutionary theories which show that certain moral feelings are adaptive. Theories of an undetectable mental faculty that reliably perceives moral values through a “sixth sense” just don’t have any evidence to stand on.

Even recent books defending the role of emotions in gaining knowledge admit that feelings usually tell us which subjects we want to know the truth about, but not which of the available positions is true. Moreover, they admit that feelings are “notoriously fallible.”

So why should we we think that our feelings reliably point us to truth about moral facts, even though they don’t reliably point us to truth about any other kinds of facts? General relativity, quantum mechanics, and many other things have felt wrong, but in the end we have to go where the logic and evidence lead. If objective moral facts exist – if moral claims are true or false independent of our feelings and opinions about them – then why should we trust our feelings to give us the truth about moral facts?

My basic contention is that objective moral facts, if they exist, are best discovered by the most reliable methods we have for discovering objective facts: rigorous logic and evidence.


Let me consider some possible objections to my argument:

Logic and evidence can be applied to some starting assumptions, but they can’t give you the starting assumptions of morality. For that, you need a conscience.

If our best tools can’t discover the most basic moral facts, that doesn’t mean we should use bad tools to invent basic moral facts. At one time our best tools were incapable of providing a solid theory about what lightning is and how it works, but that didn’t mean “Zeus did it” was a good theory, or even anywhere near to the truth because it “felt” right.

This isn’t practical. If a logical and scientific ethical theory ends up promoting things that contradicts our moral feelings, we won’t be able to motivate people to ignore their feelings and do what the evidence tells them to do.

I’m not talking about what is practical. I’m talking about what is true. Many things are wildly impractical but happen to be true. If logic and evidence reveal moral facts that are unquestionably true but very impractical, that is no objection to the truth of those moral facts.

This is all pointless. Objective moral facts don’t exist, so logic and evidence can’t tell you anything about morality.

That’s fine if you believe that. All I’m saying is that if objective moral facts exist, we don’t have a “conscience” to inform us of them, so we shouldn’t trust our moral feelings to give us the truth.

It turns out that I do think logic and evidence lead us to discover objective moral facts, as explained here. But that’s a different issue. All I’m saying here is that if objective moral facts exist, only logic and evidence can reliably reveal them – unless we discover a reliably-functioning “conscience” in our brains, which we haven’t, and probably won’t.

Our moral feelings can inform us of moral facts for the same reason that feelings can inform us about the facts of consciousness: because moral facts are significantly about our feelings.

Now this is a good objection. In fact, I happen to agree with that last bit. Moral facts are about a kind of feeling: desire. Desires are the source of all moral value. So, this one type of feeling can inform us about moral facts.

Wait, haven’t I just contradicted myself?

No. Let me explain.

I maintain that we cannot know moral facts by way of our imaginary “conscience” – our moral intuitions. The only reason I think moral facts have to do with desires is because that is where logic and evidence lead me. It’s quite possible logic and evidence could have lead me to a theory where feelings have nothing to say about what is right and wrong. In that case, I would have followed the logic and evidence, not my evolved moral prejudices.

Second, according to the moral theory I happen to think is true, desire utilitarianism, our feelings do not tell us what is right and wrong. Rather, one type of feeling – desire – helps inform our moral calculus. I explain how in my book on the subject, but I must emphasize that the moral calculus comes from logic and evidence, not feelings. It just so happens that some feelings are morally relevant properties of the natural world. But that does not mean we should trust our moral intuitions to tell us what is right and wrong. There is still no reason to believe that.

To those atheists who really believe that humans happened to evolve an undetectable “sixth sense” that can accurately detect invisible moral properties in the universe, I can only say: please inform yourself via such books as Richard Joyce’s The Evolution of Morality.

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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk April 16, 2009 at 6:08 am

Good filmmakers are familiar with this territory. Many of the best films include <i>moral ambiguity</i>. Our conscience, just like our conscious thought, is riddled with flaws and biases. We tend to root for someone whom we know and like over a stranger. We tend to root for someone who had good intentions over someone who didn’t, regardless of what they end up doing. Filmmakers will use these biases by first introducing us to likable characters, then gradually ratcheting up their misdeeds until we find ourselves cheering for someone we realize we shouldn’t. It’s like turning up the heat on a frog in a pan of water. One good example of this: <i>Eating Raoul</i>.


Hylomorphic April 16, 2009 at 10:00 am

Or maybe there isn’t any such thing as an objective moral fact.

I’m not even sure I understand what the phrase means.


Happytikiman April 16, 2009 at 2:53 pm

I have trouble defining a conscience. When I think “voice in my head” I think of the voice that tells us things like I don’t want to work out because I’ll look dumb and fat, or you’ll never be as good as “so-n-so” because your just not (fill in blank)  enough. You know your ego.  I think religion has a very close connection with a persons ego.  That’s why a christian is so quick to express that they know something you don’t. Don’t get me wrong atheists do it too which is why I think people are quick to call atheism a religion.


toweltowel April 16, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Defenders of moral intuitionism are not typically thinking of intuitions as rooted in our sentimental nature, but rather as rooted in our intellectual nature. They are supposed to be more like the clear intellectual perception that 2+2=4 than like a gut feeling of disgust.

Also, no intuitionist I know of thinks that one’s intuitive faculties are capable of infallibly revealing the moral truth about every issue there is. Instead, claims of justification are typically limited to basic moral principles or perhaps simple artificial cases, and sophisticated intuitionists allow for fallibility and revisability in the face of reasoning, especially when it comes to any real-world moral case lying well downstream of principles accepted as intuitively plausible.

A perennial worry: your demand for an external justification of one’s intuitive faculties threatens to lead to global skepticism, for how could one provide an external justification of one’s faculties of (e.g.) sense perception or memory or introspection?

If you’re interested in defenses of intuitionism, consult Michael Huemer’s book on the topic (he’s put one very relevant chapter online here), and Robert Audi’s papers defending “moderate intuitionism”.

I’m not a moral realist, but I’ll say for the record that I think moral evaluation is absolutely impossible without the input of intuitive moral judgments, I see no reason to disagree with this input (indeed, I think nothing but an intuitive moral judgment could possibly count against an intuitive moral judgment), and I see no reason to give up moral evaluation.


Richard April 17, 2009 at 1:37 am

Luke, if moral “facts” could be logically derived from facts of nature, i.e. if you could derive an “ought” from an “is”, and if it could be done as easily as you think, then do you really think the vast majority of philosophers would have failed to notice this?

I think your time would be better spent if you stopped writing new posts which take this as a premise, and instead concentrated on justifying the premise.


blindingimpediments April 17, 2009 at 3:14 am

does this mean dumb people are more likely to be moral than smart people?


blindingimpediments April 17, 2009 at 3:15 am

sorry, i mean dumb people are Less likely to be moral than smart people? (lol.. i guess this means i’m less likely to be moral)


Reginald Selkirk April 17, 2009 at 5:29 am

Perhaps we could have an example or two of these alleged “moral facts.” That might be better done in a different thread.


lukeprog April 17, 2009 at 8:02 am


Thanks, I will read the Huemer and the Audi.

I will discuss the reliability of memory, introspection, etc. in another post.


lukeprog April 17, 2009 at 8:07 am


This post does not depend on the idea that moral facts can be derived from nature. It is merely an attack on some forms of intuitionism.

But yes, I do want to spend less time applying desire utilitarianism and more time defending it (or, finding out that it is false).


lukeprog April 17, 2009 at 8:07 am

blindingimpediments: does this mean dumb people are more likely to be moral than smart people?

No, I don’t see how that follows from anything I’ve said.


lukeprog April 17, 2009 at 8:10 am

Reginald Selkirk: Perhaps we could have an example or two of these alleged “moral facts.” That might be better done in a different thread.

Yes. Or in my book, which is far from a thorough defense anyway. But nothing I’ve said above depends on the existence of moral facts, as  I repeatedly said. All I said was that if moral facts exist, it does not appear that we have a evolved a reliable sense to directly perceive them.


Reginald Selkirk April 17, 2009 at 8:22 am

lukeprog: “No, I don’t see how that follows from anything I’ve said.

I read blindingimpedents‘ post as a response to toweltowel, who said something about moral intuition being intellectual:

“Defenders of moral intuitionism are not typically thinking of intuitions as rooted in our sentimental nature, but rather as rooted in our intellectual nature. They are supposed to be more like the clear intellectual perception that 2+2=4 than like a gut feeling of disgust.”


toweltowel April 17, 2009 at 9:22 am

About being smart, I don’t think an especially powerful intellect is supposed to be needed in order to see the truth of basic principles like “all else equal, pleasure is better than pain”. These are supposed to be like basic mathematical principles or facts, which everybody is able to see the truth of.

Of course, being smart will come in handy if you start engaging in complicated moral reasoning about complicated moral issues, but I think everyone (not just intuitionists) would agree on that.

Luke, just a question about Joyce. I’ve only ever read his Myth of Morality, so I don’t know what he says in The Evolution of Morality, but I’d be surprised if he thought we should stop making use of moral intuition. Is that his view? (Of course, I ought to just read the latter book myself anyway.)


lukeprog April 17, 2009 at 9:47 am

Reginald: ah, sorry, I misunderstood.

toweltowel: No, Joyce still sees a role for intuition, so I guess it’s odd for me to recommend his book. :) I just think his book leads to different conclusions than he took from it. I don’t have a problem with rational thought being applied to moral principles. What I object to is the appeal to moral intuitions to discover the most basic moral truths, as if they are knowable a priori or as legitimate basic beliefs.


toweltowel April 17, 2009 at 7:55 pm


I think you might like the work of Joshua Greene. He was trained as a philosopher at Princeton, but now does neuroscience and moral psychology at Harvard. He thinks (roughly) that you can show the superiority of consequentialism to deontological ethics by showing which neurological processes are implicated in certain intuitive responses—deontological intuitions get debunked as stemming from untrustworthy low-class parts of our psychology. You can find his dissertation on his website.


lukeprog April 17, 2009 at 7:59 pm

toweltowel – excellent!

What a kickass dissertation title! The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it


Luke April 18, 2009 at 2:28 am

You point to evolutionary theory to show that we shouldn’t take our consciences as infallible moral senses. But it seems to me that you have no right to pass judgment on consciences until we are clear on just what moral facts are. I realize you intend to do this later, but you haven’t done it yet, and the hypothesis should remain for now.
Also, I think there’s still a question floating around that you haven’t answered, which is: even if the conscience is not a moral sensing device, why is it that we take the deliverances of conscience to have moral character? You seem to take the line that these deliverances, or feelings if you prefer, are a kind of desire, but this doesn’t explain why we should so readily mistake it for a moral insight, whereas we do not mistake a desire for icecream, sex, or fame as a revelation of morality. This point isn’t as clear  as I’d like, but I hope you catch the drift.


dgsinclair April 19, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I don’t have time now, but you have reminded me that I want to write a series on the Biblical view of conscience.

Needless to say, it is not a simplistic ‘obey the inner voice’ concept.  It is actually a bit complex, and I think worthy of study.   Essentially, the bible teaches (and this is an overly simplistic summary):

1. We all have what amounts to a baseline conscience, which is not just an inner reflection of the moral law, but an organ of our spirits, if you will, that needs to be trained properly.

2. We ought to obey our conscience for our own sake, but also educate it so that it reflects what is truly good or bad, rather than feeling conviction for things that are meaningless (like women wearing pants or attending movies), or failing to feel conviction for things that are evil (like stealing, lying, sleeping around). 

So while the conscience is useful in helping us to decide rightly, and does come with a rudimentary set of inborn definitions, it can be miseducated, ought to be properly educated, and is not an infallible guide.  That’s why we have other means of determining morality, including the scriptures rightly understood (I can already predict the ‘genocide of the OT’ argument).


mikespeir April 19, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Many years ago I lived in Turkey.  I was a Christian at the time and came to know a number of young Christian Turkish men.  One continuing problem they suffered from was guilt over having betrayed Islam and consequently their families and society.

It is indeed simplistic to suggest we have “baseline conscience.”  (And, by the way, the Bible says no such thing.)  Those who would have us believe this put themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to justify which moral precepts inhere in this “baseline.”  Ultimately, they can do no better than suggest that the ones their religion prescribe come to us by way of birth and that contrary ones are perversions.  It isn’t necessary to answer bald assertions.


lukeprog April 19, 2009 at 3:50 pm

dgsinclair: That’s why we have other means of determining morality, including the scriptures rightly understood (I can already predict the ‘genocide of the OT’ argument).

Well yes, and a million other examples. Under what “context” is it morally good to slaughter children and rape the virgins of a nearby tribe, I wonder? That must be one hell of a “context.”


danielg April 20, 2009 at 9:28 am

>> MIKE: It is indeed simplistic to suggest we have “baseline conscience.”  (And, by the way, the Bible says no such thing.)

Could you tell us, then, what you think the Bible *does* say about the conscience?  I am prepared to back up my ‘baseline conscience’ claim, but I want to see if you really have a knowledge of what the bible might say on the subject.

>> LUKE: Under what “context” is it morally good to slaughter children and rape the virgins of a nearby tribe, I wonder? That must be one hell of a “context.”

The context is simple.  This nation was so wicked that it was sacrificing it’s children by burning them alive.  As a culture, they brought destruction on themselves and their own children.  They had putrefied beyond repair.  It’s like excising cancer.  The simple answer is – they had made themselves, including their children, irrrparable.  Same reason that the Bible says that God destroyed humanity in the Noahic flood. 

Now, as to why Israel (or Christians) are not called to destroy nations today, that is a separate question.  Needless to say, there are ‘reasonable’ explanations to such events, but you might not find them palatable. 

But you might ask, why did we drop the bomb on Nagasaki?   Perhaps that is a poor analogy, but that’s one possible analogy.

But it reminds me of the passage in which some men try to trap Jesus into saying that God is unjust – a bunch of people were killed in a tower collapse, and they ask him “Did this happen because they were all evil?”  to which he responds (my interpretation here) “Instead of worrying about whether or not God was being fair, YOU should repent of your own guilt, lest something worse befall you!”

I understand that you might have valid intellectual and ethical objections to the slaughter of the Canaanites, but regardless, that does not excuse you.  That’s what Jesus might say.


danielg April 20, 2009 at 9:29 am

And btw, did they RAPE the women or capture them?


lukeprog April 20, 2009 at 10:07 am

danielg: And btw, did they RAPE the women or capture them?

They spared the virgins so they could “take them for themselves.”


mikespeir April 20, 2009 at 10:50 am


The closest you can come to supporting your supposition is Romans 2:15.

But supposing the Bible did support your opinion?  You’re dealing with people here who don’t believe what the Bible says about metaphysical matters.  You’ll have to take a different tack.


toweltowel April 21, 2009 at 12:52 am


Even if a culture is unquestionably wicked, how on earth could that alone justify murdering their children and abducting their virgin daughters for sexual purposes? You write that the culture “brought destruction on themselves and their own children”, but that simply makes no sense: the wickedness of one person cannot somehow transfer itself onto a separate person who had no part in the wickedness. Moral responsibility applies to individuals. The atomic bombing of Japan is a clear example: no child living in Nagasaki, for example, could possibly bear the slightest responsibility for the wickedness of the military leaders of fascist Japan.

In the rest of your comment, you suggest that the issue is irrelevant, because we are in any case obliged to repent of our sin. But this begs the question of the truth of Christianity, which is precisely what is called into doubt when the authoritative texts of Christianity narrate an atrocity as commanded by a holy God. Surely you would not accept such a response from a Muslim apologist confronted with a similarly disturbing passage in the Qur’an.


mikespeir April 21, 2009 at 7:11 am

BTW, danielg, I just noticed I had your name wrong.  Apologies.  Not intentional.


Jack April 24, 2009 at 8:06 pm

On the original topic, I’m on board with you Luke, for what it’s worth. I’m most sympathetic towards a sufficiently-sophisticated formulation of Hedonistic Utilitarianism (what is there, really, but pleasure?).

Good Utilitarians go to great lengths to show that Utilitarianism yields the same results as “Common Sense Morality” in many many cases. But where they differ, it’s because Common Sense Morality is wrong. Once one accepts the Consequentialist premise, that the consequences of an action are the only possible thing that have any bearing on its rightness or wrongness, the rest is just obvious.


lukeprog April 25, 2009 at 6:13 am


Thanks for chiming in, just so I know there’s at least one other person in the world who agrees with me. :)


Richard April 26, 2009 at 1:50 am

Jack, are you saying you think the consequentialist premise is a demonstrable objective truth that can be derived without any reference at all to moral intuitions? If you do, would you be willing to give a brief sketch of the argument that delivers it, or point me to one on the web? (I’m not going to try to prove you wrong. I don’t want to get into another long argument like the one I’ve just had with Lukeprog!) ;)


Jack April 27, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I’m not very sympathetic to the idea that there are any “demonstrable objective truths” in ethics or any other realm of thought. I found the whole notion of objectivity incredibly suspect after reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and even more so after taking a class in the Philosophy of Science (even though the professor was a staunch scientific realist). It seems that the primary use of “objectivity”, especially in ethics and religion (and to a lesser degree in science), is to pass along subjective arguments under the guise of objectivity so that the hearer is fooled or bullied into accepting them. This intellectual dishonesty is often intentional, but it’s also very often completely accidental – the speaker doesn’t even realize that what they’re submitting as “objective” is nowhere near as solid as they’ve convinced themselves it is.

I’m not completely set on that view, though. I still haven’t read a book I have on Moral Non-Realism I was assigned in my first semester of the Philosophy of Ethics, and I’m in the middle of “The View from Nowhere” by Thomas Nagel, who seems to think that the radical subjectivists have gone way too far.


Richard April 29, 2009 at 12:30 am

Jack, thanks for your response (and sorry I didn’t notice it before now). I note that you are not fully set on a subjectivist view. But, to the extent that you are a subjectivist, I would say that you are not in agreement with Luke. I only brought this up because I suspected that Luke was misinterpreting you when he concluded you agreed with him.


CharlesP June 12, 2009 at 8:33 am

I’m still not sure this will get read since it’s an older post, but I think this is the appropriate topic for me to discuss the possible evolutionary basis for a morality “sense” (though I’ve not read everything here or at Alonzo’s blog to know for sure).   Lukeprog I look forward to your response and helping me clarify these thoughts because I’ve not read as deeply as you have on the subject (yet), and don’t have your formal training.  I’m intrigued by the Joyce book and will be looking into picking that one up.

This may be me splitting hairs, because in the end I agree with what I think is your basic premise, that our moral sense isn’t going to be reliable as a final arbiter of moral truth. Where I may differ (though it may just be clarification on my part to make sure I’m understanding what you’re putting forth) is that I think we have in fact evolved a moral ‘sense’ in much the way we evolved eyesight, touch, hearing, and taste; that is ‘to the level of practical adaptability’.

Just as our evolved eyes and ears don’t see or hear beyond a certain range of wavelengths, the human moral sense is an imperfect tool that allows us to intuit relatively close to ‘the truth’ of moral facts in most cases.  That doesn’t mean that the sense isn’t there, just that it isn’t “perfect” at measuring a moral fact.

The evolutionary reason I think this is true is because it would have been adaptive at a group level for individuals to be more inclined to make correct moral decisions due to the biological make-up of their brains.   Obviously this would be imperfect and could easily be short-circuited by other (stronger and more primitive) parts of the brain, but over thousands of generations of Homo XXXXX evolution the individuals with brain make-up which intuited a moral fact more close to reality would have been more functional in a group setting and ergo more likely to have greater opportunity to breed and pass along their genetic code.

I think this would fit in with the desire utilitarian structure as a reasonable means of describing how we got where we are, and yet aren’t ‘further evolved’ to match DU better (because the moral brain is in competition with the lizard and monkey brains).


lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Charles P,

I don’t understand why I should think that we have evolved a semi-accurate moral sense. What adaptive benefit should such a sense have conferred? Moreover, how do you make sense of that metaphysically? I know what the senses of hearing and touch and sight and all that is, and where it is in the brain, and how it works. What is this sense that detects invisible moral properties? What is a moral property, such that it can be detected by ANYTHING?


CharlesP June 12, 2009 at 8:05 pm

I’m going to be playing with this as I try and talk out what I THINK I have in my head, please pardon (but point out) if it gets incoherent.  I’ll probably say things that look like I’m making a formal argument for it, but I’m really not that sure of this stand yet to posit this as a formal argument… think of it as more me talking it out.  My journey to atheism led more through a scientific than philosophical path, so I probably rely on that more and haven’t fully developed the philosophical reasoning… furthermore I’m not sure my argument here will get further than a possible biological framework to explain altruism instead of what I’m aiming for, a moral “sense” (not a sense of morals, but another sense to go with the 5 usual ones).

(also please excuse the egregious overuse of parenthesis and quotes).

0. Wouldn’t any ethical/moral framework (including DU) require that a “moral good” be detectable in some way? Many/most would use the intuition or God, but even DU posits that a moral good could be detected with reason and logic doesn’t it?  If it can be detected by reason and logic it isn’t wholly unknowable.  I can’t recall if it was here or on Alonzo’s blog where there was a discussion relating to holding a true belief for a false reason… but I think what I’m positing is that even if we’ve not reached a moral understanding by logic and reason (the “right” way to reach it) there is a decent chance that we have some mental sense that gets us close to basic moral truths even if it’s just an evolutionary approximation.

1. We posit that morality is “real” under a desire utilitarian framework such that “that which is moral is that which tends to satisfy more desires than it thwarts” right? I realize that’s a bit of a simplification of the theory, but essentially DU would posit that because desires are real, and we can determine (or at least estimate) if an action is satisfying stronger/more/etc desires than it is thwarting than the action is “moral” or “good”?

2. We know our own desires, and because there is a significant portion of our primitive brain which contributes to our desires we can have relatively accurate prediction of what others desires are. A sort of “I like to eat when I’m hungry, it’s a fair bet that others would like to eat when hungry too” sort of thing.

3. At some point on the evolutionary chain of development the person with a better intuition as to what others desires are (and propensity towards helping to satisfy them) would have a group selective benefit. The individual with undesirable desires would be selected out of a group breeding pattern and less likely to pass on their genes.  The “easy” ones are always rape and murder. If in primitive society (where we began to encounter scenarios where our biological fitness began to be related to our ability to relate to not just our desires, but to those around us) an individual had a genetic desire for rape (a rape gene as it were) then that individual might breed once, but because they have thwarted desires of the person raped AND the rest of the group to live in a society where they’re safe from rape, that person’s genes will not be passed on to the next generation.  The converse of that is that the individual who has “good” moral desires is going to work better in a group setting, social context, and will then increase their chance for breeding and passing along their genes which would/could have a slight propensity for the brain to develop with a sense of reason and empathy that would by default make more “good moral” decisions.  At some point the adaptive benefits move from “I survive long enough to pass on my genes” to “I’m more attractive to the opposite sex and can continue to pass on my genes”… in social creatures such as humans, that would include empathy (understanding and appreciation of other’s desires) and a propensity to act upon that empathy.

4. Have we gotten all the way to a moral sense yet? Probably not, but it seems that we have gotten to a point where genetically the higher brains of most people are going to be structured in such a way as to make their default desires to be ones which aren’t specifically likely to thwart other’s desires.  There are still significant swaths of brain real-estate taken up with the lizard brain that just wants to eat and reproduce, but just because those are strong doesn’t mean there isn’t a part of the brain that gets a close approximation to “moral”.  I think that’s why most people don’t generally have strong desires to murder or rape somebody.  That moral sense may not get us all the way to equal rights for men, women, children, straight & gay, but it should likely get us relatively close to “treat others as you would wish to be treated”.

In that sense I think the conscience and “moral sense” function in a way much like “visible spectrum light” vision does in bats… it won’t get us all the way to food, but it has a decent shot at keeping us from running into that wall or off that cliff.


lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 9:17 pm


0. I wouldn’t say that I “detect” moral properties. Rather, I perform a conceptual analysis on what humans tend to mean by morality, I test various theories of morality against this meaning and against the facts of the universe, and choose the best theory. In this case, the best theory happens to claim that moral value is a particular thing which can be measured scientifically, but I couldn’t have known that in advance of finding a proper theory by means of conceptual analysis.

1. DU claims that a good desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. A right action is one that an agent with good desires would perform.

3. As far as I know, scholars of prehistory seem to agree that our history was full of rape and murder, and indeed that rape and murder often led to power, not personal extinction. And if the “easiest” examples fail, I’m skeptical that you could generalize your argument to show that we evolved a predisposition to know moral truths independently of studying the facts of the universe. Also, what about counter-arguments, for example the extreme variety in moral sentiments?

Even if we had evolved a moral sense that detected moral values about 40% of the time (and that’s being generous, given the moral diversity found even in a single culture, like the USA), that still gives us no confidence in our moral sense. We’d be better off flipping a coin.


CharlesP June 15, 2009 at 11:13 am

Please pardon me for “arguing” this point without having read Joyce’s book as it may well contain or answer any of the ideas I present here and I don’t desire to waste anybody’s time.  I’m not intending to argue against your main question of “why trust the conscience?” because I don’t think we can trust it as a means of arriving at an objective moral truth. Rather my contention is only with the position that we don’t have any moral sense.
Before I start to respond let me reiterate that even if we do have a moral sense I’m not positing that it would be reliable enough to have confidence in it as an arbiter of moral value.  My interest in this discussion is primarily to increase the precision of speech regarding the possible moral sense such that if a compelling case were to be made that a moral sense exists (in a debate setting for instance) that this wouldn’t undermine the DU stance regarding the means of assessing moral value.
That said, I’m going to be trying to make the case that we’re relatively early in the process of evolving a moral sense, but that there is reason to believe it possible (maybe even probable) that we do have one, however primitive.
On detection:

detect: to discover or find by careful search, examination, or probing

Were I to use the word “detect” in the context of sub-atomic particles I could clumsily re-phrase your statement as:

I wouldn’t say that I “detect” sub-atomic particles. Rather, I perform a conceptual analysis on what humans tend to mean by atom, I test various atomic theories against this meaning and against the facts of the universe, and choose the best theory. In this case, the best theory happens to claim that atoms are a particular thing which can be measured scientifically and are defined by the number and type of their sub-atomic particles, but I couldn’t have known that in advance of finding a proper theory by means of conceptual analysis when the term atom was defined as “without parts”.

To that end, we can detect light easily because we have highly evolved light sensing organs (eyes). My tentative position is then that we can occasionally detect moral truth because we have evolved some level of a moral sense. I wouldn’t come close to claiming our moral sense is as evolved as our eyes, more that a portion of our brain has evolved an ability to detect moral truth occasionally in much the way a near-blind mole might see something right in front of its face without having the ability to see anything at great distance. It is ostensibly the same function (or a related one) of our brain that can intuitively calculate (aka detect) “more than” that can, with thought and eduction, calculate A^2 + B^2 = C^2
I think that the term “detect” is appropriate here, but I can understand why you might not agree as it can be used in a way that implies shades of psychic ability .
Delving in:

Desire Utilitarianism claims that a good desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. A right action is one that an agent with good desires would perform.

This would seem to imply that a right action and good desire would both be things which would increase the intra-group dynamic of a society and ergo increase the individuals’ within that societies chances for successful group interaction which would include breeding opportunities. This would be the case because less of the individual’s time would be taken up in counteracting the desire thwarting actions of the other members of society.
In a biological framework based on small family groups or individuals the propensity to rape and/or murder would be beneficial to the propagation of your genes by direct reproduction (rape) or reduction of competition (murder). However once our ancestors evolved into a slightly larger group animal (think a pack of bonobos) the benefits of those actions was diminished. The members of the group had an interest in preserving their own life and choice of sexual partners, hence the members with a propensity for rape or murder were gradually weeded out.  If your monkey genes include a propensity for rape/murder, and you’re then shunned by the larger group (with its more readily available breeding partners) then your genes are less likely to be passed down to the next generation.  This is ostensibly how in group cooperation developed.  The kill it or mate with it part of the brain is strong as it was around for much longer, but the group co-operative portion of the brain is still there.
Once you have reached the level of the primate pack and begin to move into the early pre-human sphere there becomes, over the centuries and millennia, an increasing group selective pressure that members of the species who are both better able to recognize and act in the interest of the desires of their pack mates, eventually to the tribe and village level.
It would seem that a moral sense which is only reliable 10% of the time would be useless, not as good as flipping a coin, but in fact as it would increase the likelihood of a member of a group spreading their genes marginally over those who’s only sense was of family connection, and somewhat more than that over those who only exhibited self interest.
This propensity would become more and more beneficial the larger a society got.  Though there would be likewise benefits to a propensity to deceive and exploit, that wouldn’t negate the benefit from a moral sense any more than any other system which can confer a benefit (being smart can help your breeding options as well as being pretty can).  While rape and murder were common in prehistory, the propensity for them was to some degree bred out of us for a reason. The temporary power and breeding benefits they conferred was not great enough for them to have continued once the groups reached a certain size.
There could certainly be an argument made that this is in no way a genetic predisposition and the only thing creating this false selection is the artificial construct of society and that these benefits are only contained therein. I would primarily reject that argument on the grounds that even if it is an artificial selection happening (were it not for society’s rules there might be more rapists and murderers in the world) it is still selecting, ever so gradually (as evolution does) those members of a society who have a better propensity for making moral judgments.
Once again I’m not positive this argument is completely compelling, but as I’m not trying to say “trust your conscience”, just that we have evolved greater than zero percent accurate moral sense I don’t feel I’m terribly far out on a limb.  After all, it was marginally above zero percent accurate/functional sense of light that eventually led to sight.
Is it possible that the apparent ability to generally recognize the “wrongness” of kill/rape/steal-ing is merely an illusion that comes from some other self interested mental propensity? certainly.  That said I think it is likely we have a moral sense which is rather primitive and needs to be trained through logic and reason.
I also don’t see how it would undermine the validity of Desire Utilitiarianism either way, nor do I think that because there is a chance we’ve evolved a morality detector (which is probably the term I should’ve used all along as moral sense seems ambiguous) that we have reason to believe it to be accurate enough on its own to trust it in the analysis of anything approaching “objective moral facts”.
All that said, now I need to go read the book you recommended (trying to decide if I pony up the $15 to amazon.com now or hit my local used bookshops first)… though I’m so far behind on reading now that I’m not sure when I’ll get caught up (I’m going through some philosophy and parenting books now, and of course have The Illusion of Conscious Will, Blind Watchmaker, The Atheist Way, Darwin’s Cathedral, and a few others waiting on me… AND I need to work on science & philosophy curriculum for my kids for next year).
Thank you for your time and responses lukeprog.


CharlesP June 15, 2009 at 11:14 am

Well… that posted strangely… probably due to my cut and paste into/out of MS Word because I was being lazy on spell-check.  Sorry.


lukeprog June 15, 2009 at 5:44 pm


I’m a bit confused. Have you defined “good” as “what is expedient for the propagation of our genes”? If that were the case, then yes I can see how we might have developed a tendency to do things that propagate our genes, and believe that doing such things was “good.” I just don’t agree that the propagation of our genes is, necessarily, good – i.e., I don’t think gene propagation has intrinsic value or any such quality.


CharlesP June 15, 2009 at 7:10 pm

No, not saying that propagation of our genes is good, but that
A) the propagation of a gene which infers a “moral detector” is a likely requirement for there to BE a moral detector.
B) once the group level of selection has reached sufficient mass (above that of the smaller tribes at least, but most likely approaching what might be considered civilization) then behavior which is morally good (actions which fulfill more and stronger desires than they thwart) will also increase a tendency to for the genes to propagate.  To get to that level of civilization where that selection can occur the framework is less about moral good than it is about a movement from smaller benefit (self and family) to larger benefit (clan and tribe to village, etc), but eventually a framework is there (within the brain structure) which is continually being selected for in larger societies.  The key being that we are still evolving (there is a case for ADD and Autism spectrum disorders being manifestations of the selection we’ve done at a societal level as specialization has become the prevalent means of “success”), and though it is slow, it’s not unreasonable to assume a marginally different framework for homo sapiens than there was in the very beginning.
All that said, I thought a bit more about it on my commute home and I’m not sure that the case wouldn’t be stronger for a selection that would propagate a genetic propensity for a mental framework to allow the overlay of moral thought upon it. The metaphor would then be akin to a graphics card for a computer. It is designed for a specific type of processing (graphics), but has no intrinsic programming on it only a framework which is amenable to a specific type of programming being overlaid upon it.  We may have only evolved the blank bit of hardware which can be coded with a moral/ethical framework.


CharlesP June 15, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Incidentally I think a tertiary train of thought here would be that part of the uphill battle the atheist movements have is that there are people who have a genetic predisposition to believe, and people with a genetic predisposition to be skeptical. It’s not that a “believer gene” will keep that individual from doubt or disbelief, just increase the chance they will stay religious all other things being equal. In that scenario (which I think accurately describes reality) the atheist movements have to contend with atheists breeding at relatively low rate and religious people breeding at a not-insignificantly greater rate (just look at the Duggers on TLC).


CharlesP June 19, 2009 at 6:11 am

For all that talking, I think the best way to summarize my “point” (if I have one) is that:
At some point in the growth of human society, an ability to intuit, and act in accordance with, a moral good would become beneficial to the propogation of genes.
That’s not saying we have a highly evolved moral sense, just that the liklihood that humans are in the process of breeding a genetic propensity for mental structures that would empathise with others, intuit a moral good, and act upon said good.   If a sociopath has a mental predisposition to not detect/intuit/etc a moral good, then the other end of the genetic part of the brain development spectrum should eventually breed stronger and make up a higher percentage of the population.
Of course, again, the genetic predisposition could be for a functional mental framework to accept and develop a moral understanding (which could be built upon with socializing factors), vs one which has some sort of moral inclination “built in”.  I’m sure it would take a vast amount of further research (sociologically and neuroscientifically) to determine which is the case.
I may be arguing a point which doesn’t matter for your current discourse, as I don’t think this effects the metaphysics of the ethical argument as much as it effects how one might integrate those ethics into a larger framework of a worldview (which would, I think, be where the phrase “Common Sense Atheism” would be brought full circle into practical terms).


lukeprog June 19, 2009 at 7:07 pm


I’ll come back to all this in later posts – hopefully we’ll make some progress then.


Luis August 23, 2009 at 12:55 am

Jonathan Haidt made a series of experiments in which a series of ethical dilemmas were presented to people of different cultures.

The conclussions were surprising: There is a heavy consensus about basic moral rules (for example: nobody shoud be used as a mean to obtain some result without his or her conformity), independently of the culture and education received.

When asked to explain their moral decissions, participants gave different explanations. Some of them even said they didn’t know why, but that their response was the “good one”.

Probably, the explanation of this fenomenon is evolutionary. Societies whose members have a more developped “moral sense” have better chances to grow and survive.

But I have to agree with you: Some individuals may lack this moral sense, or have a different one, and thus their moral decissions could not be accepted by the majority.

Are they deviant or ill ?


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