What is Morality? Or, is there a difference between being “Responsible” and being “Morally Responsible”?

(—This is an improved version of the original post — “Faithfully Play Their Part in Our Society“, that’s not happening as much as I would like these days.  Too many people are disappointing in this way.  How about you?  Disappointed, morally shaken?  Mass shootings, thinly veiled self-seeking, abuse of position, lack of personal courage: Is this the theme for our times?  It’s a moral failing.  It’s a lack of moral clarity.  What is morality anyway?  Maybe this post will help.  Please comment, I need to hear your thoughts and feelings!)

The Setting

Mr. Trump being sworn in.  This is an example of morality by its deficit.  He has pledged to serve our best interests but seems to serve his own, first and foremost.

A lot of extremely unfortunate things happen in our world.  They happen to people, and many are perpetrated by people.  We want to know, why?  We want to know, “can anything be done?”  It’s clearly wrong, we feel and think, but who is responsible?  Are they morally responsible?

Dr. J. Coyne uses “responsible” to mean, any series of causes that pass through you; i.e. you simply did the act/event , no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attached to it.  He is consistent with his position of “hard determinism” and contends nothing is added of any value by calling a behavior moral or not.  Our behavior just is.  It is determined by causes — from the neurology of your brain to the quantum state of the universe — to be what it is (or was), and there is no alteration of it nor personal control.  

Dr. Coyne is a biologist with the University of Chicago and the author of a blog, “Why Evolution Is True” (WEIT).   His blog has a following of over 20,000 and has some rip-roaring debates about Free Will.  Is Free Will true, or even possible?   Dr. C says “No!”  Everything, in a world best described by science, is caused, and this makes ‘morality’ an illusion.

I have often disagreed with the good doctor on these issues.  I support how we commonly use the word “moral” and “morally responsible”, by and large.



(The Bible– painting by Van Gogh —and Koran in Islamic calligraphy.  I do not support the often accepted idea that morality has a divine source.  In fact, this post argues for a naturalistic explanation of moral good and evil.)

“Moral” does add significance; it does add an enhanced and legitimate meaning to responsibility, I believe.  Actually, to my mind, “responsible” (the common use of it) often implies a moral sense, so “He is responsible” usually implies blame, or sometimes commendation: “He is morally responsible.”  Coyne’s use — a human act is just another cause and effect in a giant chain of those —  is artificial, an alteration, in my opinion.


If you are falling down an elevator shaft, it is happening to you (Coyne’s sense) but you are not “responsible” or better “morally responsible” for it.  It is an accident.  The doors opened, you weren’t looking, you stepped in, and the elevator was not there!  Your falling was an accident, but it did definitely happen through you, and to you.  In Coyne’s sense, you will be responsible for the mess at the bottom of the shaft (it’s what’s left of you), and, in the common sense use , we could loosely agree; but we certainly would not say you were morally responsible for it: You wouldn’t be a bad person, nor would we be shaken, disappointed, and even feel undermined by that unfortunate event, though it would certainly be considered horrible luck!

Sidewalk memorial in Dayton. (photo from Cincinnati Enquirer)

By contrast, Dayton is my home town.  Following the mass shooting there, I felt betrayed and angered.  People should not do that to other people!  Especially in the home town toward which you feel great connection!

Similarly, though less severely, if you are waiting in line at a traffic light and the car behind you doesn’t stop and rear ends you, you then hit the car in front of you; you are “responsible” for hitting it in Coyne’s sense (your car hit the car in front), but not legally responsible nor mortally responsible.  No cop would cite you.  The car that hit you — whether due to drunkenness, distraction, or in the midst of a heart attack — would be legally responsible, and morally responsible if drunk or distracted, but not if having a heart attack.

The Crucial Distinction

We are now getting to the point of the distinction between “responsible” and “morally responsible”.  It is amplified by Coyne’s rather artificial use of the word “responsible”.

“Morally responsible” points more explicitly to the element in these situations that involves Our Trust, Reliance, and Righteous Dependence on other persons to Faithfully Play Their Part in Our Society.  “Morally responsible” tries to ‘get at’ the element of our lives, our social lives, that, as much as we may say and think, is Caused, it is also a situation Agreed UponTo say someone is “morally responsible” implies that They did Not Have To Do It.  They could have reflected upon their life further and in a  better fashion; and thus done otherwise.

There are causes that bring us to live together — we were born this way, we know nothing different, it’s the way modern society (any society) works, people live together! — yet, we take it a step further, We Pledge Ourselves to It; we accept it, and this is the first step in our Reflection upon our self and others.

In many minimal ways, and often wholeheartedly, we state our allegiances to others.  We state who we are: “I am an American; I am a school teacher, …a hockey fan, …an artist, …an Ohioan, …a Democrat, …a good person, …an atheist” . We say these things, and things like them, all the time.  These statements seem to be a mixture of simple fact and a choice, fact and a preference.  Or minimally,  fact and acceptance: as when I acknowledge, “I am a man; I am old; or hypothetically, I am an alcoholic, …a depressed person, …mentally ill.

I can not change the fact that I was born in America, that makes me an American at least in a minimal sense; but I do not have to continue to live here.  It’s a choice, a preference.  I became a school teacher (fact) through a series of choices, but I did not set out in life, early on, saying that is what I wanted to do and march straight down that path.  As a boy, I wanted (and tried) to become a baseball player, then an astronaut (read a number of books on the topic and followed space history avidly).  In the 5th grade, the nuns even had me ‘searching my heart’ to see if I had “a calling to the priesthood”!  Notice how I blame that on “the nuns”, but I can assure you, I was also a ‘willing’ — though young and impressionable — participant, for a while, in that scheme.  So, life is not all preferences and choices either.  It’s choices and facts.

I can not change the fact that I am old, but I can accept it.  This fact becomes Reflected in a conscious awareness of it.  I can, or should, or might, then do something about it.  I should go to the gym more often.  I might get my affairs in order.  I want to eat better.  And similarly, I may be a person with a mental illness, I accept this.  What can I do about it, what might I do, …should I do, …want to do about it?  Acceptance is the minimal position in a moral dilemma; it signifies the awareness of it.  It signifies the shift from something we are — something that is happening to us — to something we Know About.  This is a shift from a causal relationship to a relationship of Reference: I have ‘stepped outside’ the dilemma/the situation and now have Perspective, or Additional Perspective.  I have a point of view on it and some reflective separation from it.

Morality is about what you do and did, but more so it is about your reflection on that, or lack there of.


Faithfully Being With Others

Our participation in our social way of life is, generally and very significantly,  Accepted By Us even when it is seemingly and largely Forced Upon Us.  It is as if we have Taken An Oath to our fellows that we will Live Together in the mutually acceptable way.  Often we explicitly take Oaths that we will Do Our Part in relation to others Faithfully.

(Above we have various oaths being taken by people in various situations.  Starting at top left, a doctor swears to serve their patients, immigrants an allegiance to their new country, citizens joining the military of their country,  people swearing to tell the truth at a hearing or in court,  in marriage an oath to be faithful to each other, a President swearing to serve the people of his country and uphold their Constitution. — photos from the public domain)

That is what Morality is based in.  It is our commitment, above and beyond all the causes that have gotten us here, to this life together.  We make a commitment to it.  Our point of view of it, is, minimally, one of acceptance and basic respect. 

And our oath to each other need not be explicitly made.  In common and everyday situations, it is,  as if, we have Taken An Oath to our fellows that we will Live Together in some way, or state, above that of “a war of all against all”, as Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher, put it.  It is implicit in what we do and say, that we will behave with an agreed upon modicum of decency toward our fellows.

If you cannot do this, behave in this minimally decent way, options are available, if you can Reflect Upon It!  In fact, in our society, You Have The Obligation To Seek Help, and even to Remove Yourself From Our Company until your affiliation improves! Move to Idaho and live alone in a cabin in the mountains.  Stay in your apartment, if you live in the city, and come out as infrequently as possible.  Seek emotional counselling!  Write a novel or read poetry about your situation.  Join an alternative political party or religious sect.  Even, as a last and somewhat reasonable option, commit suicide.  But, you have No Right to disrespect others and undermine our faith in our togetherness in many of the ways increasingly common today: mass and random murder, the abuse of positions of power or trust, and the lack of courage to speak up for what is right.  That is being wrong, morally.


The Background of Morality in Nature, History and Religion

For people to live together in society, we have come to agree upon some accord, some standards of trust and compatible action.   There is no “social life”, in any positive and functional sense, in “a war of all against all”: Bellum omnium contra omnes (love my Catholic school-boy Latin).    “Disasters of War” etching by Francisco Goya (1810).

The Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, was one of the first (the 1600s) to explore and hypothesize about this idea of an oath to others, a Social Contract or Covenant. Significantly, he contended — and absolutely correctly, we here at naturereligionconnection.org believe — this oath is so important and functional that it establishes a new Level of Organization with new abilities that accompany it.  

It establishes a new creature, contended this originator of social science. We here at NatieRel have called it “the human social organism” (see posts 4 and 5 in Freedom series); Hobbes called it “The Leviathan”That is how closely we are connected!  We function together as a single creature.

Hobbes’ Leviathan.  The King is the leader by being the “embodiment” of his state as a collective actor, Hobbes argued.  Imagine Donald Trump as the face in this famous illustration, and the citizens of the United States as his embodiment!  “He is Tweeting in my name”, we should rightly feel, and thus so many Americans are very, and Morally, upset by Our current president!

But this image and idea of “a larger embodiment” of individuals is not confined to politics and political philosophy.  It is also exemplified in Nature and its various highly social ways of living for many life forms.  We have flocks, schools, colonies, herds and packs.

(From top left, murmurating starlings, schooling sickleback, colony of army ants, herd of bison and pack of hyenas at bottom right.  None of these biological forms of social living are consciously committed to by their participants.)


We have “parliaments” of Burrowing Owls

and the Portuguese Man-of-War.






(The Man-of-War is a siphonophore, like a sea anemone (which also has stinging tentacles).  But, it is actually a Colony of 4 individual animals, called polyps.  Its gas-filled bag is one; it functions is to move ‘the animal’ as a sail.  Three other polyps hang below with individual functions of capturing prey, digest prey (the stomach for all yet its own animal) and reproduction (for all).  It’s a strange arrangement and not yet fully understood!  Photos and diagram thanks to National Geographic)

In religion, of course, participation in a larger embodiment/a larger unity is a prominent

Originating in the 13th century in Turkey, semazens  may complete as many a 2,000 turns during their sema ceremony.  Each turn is to “honor Allah and chronicle the spiritual path to enlightenment” and results in a trance-like state.  Quote from Viking Ocean Cruises advertisement!

theme.  Ecstatic and mystical forms of religion often involve the participant in forms of consciousness and ritual characterized by loss of individual self.  The Whirling Dervish of Sufi Islam, the Kabbalah of Judaism, and the tradition of “speaking in tongues” of Pentecostal Christians, all are examples.   Even in the more institutional and dogma based religions, images and beliefs of a larger unity occur.  


The tradition of “the mystical body of Christ”,  mystici corporis christi, is prominent in The Bible and one of the favorite themes of Saul of Tarsus.  From my Catholic school days, I still remember a piece of art with the exact theme of Hobbes’ Leviathan except instead of the King as embodied by his subjects it was Jesus embodied by his followers:  the Catholic Church as the Corpus Christi.


Ironically, when I first published this post, I did not explicitly consider the use of “God” in oath-taking.  An oath is a “solemn vow”and has generally invoked a deity, as witness, guarantor, retributive agency.  This theme may generate an additional post.


Going Beyond Biology and Religion

Kandinsky’s first abstract painting.  “Study for Composition VII”, (1913)

The human way of being together, starts with biology but goes beyond it.  Social animals are social via the evolution of their physical traits.  But, as with some other large-brained animals, in humans a new form (or organization, or design) of sociability began to emerge: Culture.   Humans are now most pointedly social, by being cultural.  Beyond our living in close proximity and our division of economic labor, we share thoughts!  A brain is an individual thing, but a Mind is connected brains working together within a cultural system.

“Memes” ‘infect’ our brains.*  We have language, the predominant form of meme.  We pass on our memes/thoughts.  We socialize our children (see post four in Freedom series-“Persons in the Human Social Organism”).  We discuss our thoughts, reflect upon them.  All this is somewhat like programming a computer, except here, we — the computers — are reviewing and revising our own program!

A malcontent, or one suffering from mental illness, often has opportunity to review their thinking; usually, they have a variety of influences upon them.  This provides Choice, Options.  Those close to them also have moral responsibility to the the ill or depraved person, to themselves, and to their society.  This is modern morality, the shared responsibility for our togetherness.

Individually, this process of review and revision is what we call, our personal history; but writ large — socially — it is Human History.  Thankfully, this process has brought us to Democracy and the social safety net provided by most democratic governments.  Currently, democracy is the most moral form of political organization but others are imaginable.**  In this way, we have developed the basic interpersonal, agreed upon, respect that characterizes “us” — our society — and distinguishes us from “them” — social ways of life foreign to us.  Ancient autocracies like those in Egypt and the Roman Empire, even modern drug and gang states that exist in Central America, are examples of living together without our kind of accord and characterized by fear, domination and manipulation.  Slavery is another such example.   The frequent and arbitrary outbursts of mass violence in America today extinguishes trust and civility, the Moral Basis that underlies “our” kind of modern society, at its best.  We are deeply shaken by it, for it strikes at the roots of our moral togetherness.  We no longer share thoughts, we receive bullets. 


A Final Example of the Difference Between “Responsibility” and “Moral Responsibility”, and A Holistic Perspective.

The general background for this position on morality involves, also, a very curious argument that some respected philosophers have currently advocated.  They contend that most of the things we believe must be true.  Most of the things we say must be honest.  A curious contention, but think about it; how would our lives and social lives be possible if they were not overwhelmingly true and real, our statements basically honest? Our consciousness would have no wheels that got traction; our togetherness  no gears that meshed into other gears.  It would all be spinning wheels — illusions — and manipulative or defensive interactions.   No opportunity for the large scale cultural progress that have characterized our history.

It’s a holistic argument.  Like wooden-ship sailors, who could replace a leaking plank or

Viking Long Boat

two in the hull while at sea, but they couldn’t replace them all at once!  We can tell some lies and sometimes violate our trust of others.  We can have some mistakes in our belief system.   In each case, we can revise our beliefs piecemeal and catch the few lies told in a democratic society, but there is no Reasonable Way to change all your beliefs at once, nor have a democracy fundamentally deceitful.***

Does that make sense to you?


“All is One”, it is sometimes said.  The Sacred Art of the Sand Mandala as practiced at the  Cooper Beech Institute in Connecticut.  Photo from their site.


Salesmanship is the final example.  It is not a very exciting example of human togetherness but telling nonetheless.  If a salesperson sells you a product that will do the job you want, if they do not lie about their product’s abilities, if they do not hide some significant defect, and if they allow you to make the decision to buy without undo pressure, that is moral salesperson-ship. 

Of course, we all know that the caveat, “buyer beware”— caveat emptor — applies; the buyer also has moral responsibilities to look out for themselves.  Each knows that the other’s interests are not completely symmetric with their own.  Each knows that the other is “under pressure”, but not caused, to make some transaction.  It is out of the independence of the two, buyer and seller, that their eventual moral interaction raises them to a new level of enhanced functioning.  They both benefit.  Each comes away with more than they would have separatelyIt is a win-win.  

Morality is the affirmation, or betrayal, of our trust in other persons.  It is the basis for the interaction of persons at their higher level of existence.

(Complex human interactions based on shared ideas and trust.  This is moral responsibility and activity.  From the operating room to the football field, from the organized flow of traffic to the stock market, from the classroom to voting, all are based on a foundation of trust—though with sanctions and penalties to re-enforce it.)



Most of us feel, and sometimes think, deeply about morality.  Our trust has been shaken by current events.  Can we live together?  Can we act in unison, and pledge ourselves to this?  Yes, we can and must!  Morally responsible action is the basis of our human life at its most rewarding level: we must struggle to maintain it.  

I hope this post helped clarify the Fact of Morality and bolster your preference for itYour reflection is necessary.  Today, a discussion exists; today the character of morality hangs in the balance, as it has at other times in our history.  Act now.  Human trust is worth the struggle.

Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932) depict life at the complex level of concerted action                                                       by socialized human beings.                                                                                       “Social unrest was in the air. On March 7 1932, the Ford Hunger March took place, during which laid-off and wage-slashed factory workers clashed with anti-union enforcers hired by Henry Ford. Four marchers were killed, while 60,000 people later took part in their funeral procession.”  It was that year, in the midst of the Great Depression, that muralist and communist, Diego Rivera and his new wife — Frida Kalho, came to town commissioned to paint by Edsel Ford, Henry’s maverick son!  And paint they did, producing what Rivera felt was his greatest work, “Detroit Industry”, detail above.  Thanks to “The Conversation” blog for quote and detail.
A very infectious meme, in 1932, and another form of cultural and historical based action.

(An estimated 4,000 workers rallied and marched for jobs and increased wages in Detroit on this cold day in March.  At the Dearborn city line, police fired tear gas and bullets.  Marchers scattered but then regrouped and pushed forward, throwing rocks and bottles, one mile into Dearborn heading for Ford’s largest auto plant.  From an overpass, police sprayed fire hoses on the cold and advancing workers.  Ford ‘security’ forces fired bullets.  22 were wounded by gunfire, 4 killed.  The march was then abandoned.)

Here is a meme I’m promoting.  Help secure our trust in moral interaction: Ban ARs!

*For presentation on Memes, see D. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, chapters 10-11.  The concept of Meme is a cross between concepts of a Thought, a Gene and a Virus.  It allows Dennett to discuss Cultural Evolution and its changes of intellectual themes with great latitude.  By contrast, Hard Determinism has virtually no ability to discuss the complexity, marvel and effectiveness of our intellectual lives except in vague platitudes about ‘adaptions to environments’ and ‘future neural discoveries’.

**Plato argued, with some plausibility, for a government by Philosopher-King.  In general, the theme being explored here is that the origin of morality is closely associated to the origin of language.  Both of these are then connected to the beginnings of Reflective Thought.  Themes to be tackled in the future (Oh joy!?).

***There is a strange movie about a man who has no memory, long term (?) or short.  He is totally freaked out, and, of course being a movie, determined to find out What happened, but also, Who did this to him!  He has few lasting ‘connections’ to who he is and what he is trying to do.  So, he takes a lot of notes, for himself, including tattooing some really important info on his body!  “Memento” released in 2000.                              Nor is there a reasonable way to think that all, or most, of our beliefs are wrong.  To think that consciousness is illusion, gives us no avenue to consciously come up with that idea.  The argument undermines itself.

Detail of Detroit Industry Mural by Diego Rivera.

        “This is modern morality, the shared responsibility for our togetherness.”


Logo drawing by Marty

23 thoughts on “What is Morality? Or, is there a difference between being “Responsible” and being “Morally Responsible”?

  1. This article might help clear up some of the ways we think about things.

    We do have a sense of morality … it is aligned with our sense of shame, guilt etc and on the positive side pride and the nice feeling of helping people and other actions we may carry out. But these are illusions in the same sense that I think of my kitchen chair as red. I feelings of redness, shame pride etc. But to for my action to be considered moral or immoral in some way … I must be able to do otherwise.

    A determinist (hard or soft) must understand what Dorian did to the Bahamas has fundamentally the same physics as the events that occurred in Dayton.

    Couching things in terms morality allows our outrage to fester and grow.


    1. “How might we be changed by dwelling intensely on the view that ultimate responsibility is impossible?”

      Read your suggested article and it was a decent presentation of the issue, but can’t say I learned much. Thanks though for my new awareness of that site. As far as the above quote, i guess my past has led me to feel no inclination to dwell on this possibility, so i don’t; nor have your arguments or Strawson’s. Apparently your past is necessitating your dwelling on the topic. Let me know how that goes, if you can do so politely.
      For example, your statement “My concern with statements like this is that some passing reader might take this as an accurate or even knowledgeable statement” is just rude. I would assume that most readers would assume that these are my opinions and are as accurate and valuable as their argumentation and citations make them. I do not feel your help in needed to protect them.


  2. By contrast, Hard Determinism has virtually no ability to discuss the complexity, marvel and effectiveness of our intellectual lives except in vague platitudes about ‘adaptions to environments’ and ‘future neural discoveries’.

    My concern with statements like this is that some passing reader might take this as an accurate or even knowledgeable statement (as opposed to opinion). The difference between hard and soft determinists is not the ability to marvel, but it is a purely semantic issue and not some ability to marvel or discuss as you suggest. You have no idea of what I marvel at and what for you are ‘platitudes’ are for me the building blocks of the universe.

    A hard determinist recognizes that as we go through the scales of existence … from the subatomic to the meso and beyond, our deterministic descriptions of the universe become increasingly accurate. Now some systems, like human beings, are so complex an accurate description is difficult if not impossible. Soft determinists are no different.


  3. “My concern with statements like this is that some passing reader might take this as an accurate or even knowledgeable statement” is just rude

    My apologies; but, was not meant to be rude.

    My problem (notice the word “my”) is that in our discussions that hard a soft determinists accept the same causal chain, I don’t get the sense that you do. I have mentioned that the determinism is true for both camps, but you have not acknowledged this once, or at least I don’t recall. This could be a common starting point; but, we seem to have missed it. We can label various bits pieces as complex, emergent, synergic, structured, whatever, the underlying causal determinism (or indeterminism) does not go away. Perhaps we can start here.

    And to be fair, when I wrote that ‘harsh’ line I was a little annoyed. So perhaps in retrospect, we’ll see if I can take that into my programming. But if we are giving out suggestions, I would suggest we don’t speak for hard determinism, or at least ask a hard determinist on the matter whether Hard Determinism has virtually no ability to discuss the complexity, marvel and effectiveness of our intellectual lives except in vague platitudes about ‘adaptions to environments’ and ‘future neural discoveries’ would be true for a hard determinist rather than stating it as a fact. Perhaps you might see that your comment also might come across as ‘rude’, though I don’t think that was your intention. But we might be able to see it as disparaging. Nevertheless, my apologies again.


    1. Thanks rom, apology accepted. It is interesting for me to learn how seriously you take these topics. That’s cool, I take them pretty seriously too. I’ve been looking at the Naturalism.org site. It is very well done and I have been thinking about some of their contentions. Thanks for the heads up.

      You are correct that I haven’t written much about the determinist part of my views, but did so early in my “Humans as machines” post. Partly because I think that part of the argument is fairly straight forward and true, but it is the reconciliation of some sense of Agency that is most difficult. I will write more on this soon. I thought Strawson’s statement in that article was a good one, to the effect that, ‘we have very good reasons to think that all we do is determined from beyond ‘us’, but nonetheless when we choose we must think the future is up to us.’ How do you go through life thinking you don’t choose? That truly would be a radical shift.

      You said: “we’ll see if I can take that into my programming.” I like that way of putting it. Like my post “humans as machines”.

      Lastly, I should use more quotes from Hard Determinists to illustrate my contentions as to what that position logically amounts. I will do that more in the future.
      thanks Greg.
      p.s. is that Strawson related to the famous Brit philosopher PF Strawson?


    2. Thanks for your revised thoughts.They put things in a better perspective in today’s world. Reflecting on morality, I am always forced to think ethicalism ( is there such a word ). From a business perspective, I needed to deal with both. My short thoughts are that what morality is or what is morally right or wrong is beholden on the society we grow up in. To some what is morally correct in their circumstances might be considered immoral to others. Is it not about what is right or wrong? Who is to judge? Ethical thoughts, ideas and decisions are perhaps more considered on a business level ( as larger corporations have engaged personnel specialized in “ethics” to guide the organizations. Hard not to mention our politics ( in both our countries ) but my wish would be that more thought, reflection and action be taken in a better “ moral “ direction. How about climate change? The youth of our generation are sending some strong messages around the world about the consequences of leaving things as they are with respect to climate change. How will this be reflected in history on all of us ( as the parents , grandparents, and great grandparents.


      1. Thanks John. I agree with many of your points. Ethics is a difficult row to hoe, especially when it involves other people who believe differently than you. Take the Gun issue and the Trump issue here in the states. It’s crazy how different people “see” the right and wrong of them! Am I foolish to think that there is some ‘truth’ to it that all should agree to?

        Look at Slavery, for example. What a massive war was fought here over that issue, but now it is almost unanimously believed to be an evil. In philosophy and in general, it is often thought that the only “things” that can be ‘true’ with some kind of privileged status,”True”—capital T— are “things” that are “found’ or ‘discovered’ “outside us. Those kind of “things” are thought to be independent of us. They are contrasted with “things” that we make, like art works and ethical rules. Since we have too much to do with these, they are considered “subjective” and containing arbitrariness and too much disagreement,; So, not “True”, at best only “true”???

        I got into a discussion on a different site (WEIT) recently, and tried to defend the position that great art was objectively “great”, with truth to it. Maybe that is all that we should really believe in, small “t” truths. In all of our “truths”, we play an important role in making them. A corollary of this is that —– Its A Mistake, a Problem, To Draw a Line Between Inside-Us and Outside-Us in any Absolutist Way. That is a major theme here at “The Connection.” “Things” are outside us and objective in different senses and at different times and for different purposes. Could even be that all things are a part of us in some sense. Whoa, Greg, slow down.

        Thanks for your thoughts! “Who’s to judge?” I guess we are, depending upon what we can convince ourselves is correct.
        Thanks John, sorry for the slow response.


      1. Good news … I’d forgotten I’d ordered a book from Amazon … Things That Bother Me … by Galen … It will keep me company on my business trip next week.


  4. I skimmed through this again … and your comment:

    I do not support the often accepted idea that morality has a divine source.

    In part I agree with but then I googled some thing like can we be good without god and more or less the first link was William Craig and I hate to do this but I think Craig has a valid view:

    So whatever definition of morality we might come up outside of the divine is just that something we have come up with … literally an invention (collectively or individually).

    So what you are doing here is applying the label of moral to certain actions or inactions. No doubt other people do this too. I would tend to look at these actions in an amoral fashion, and try to evaluate against the desirability. Now I too have to be careful and assess where these desires have attached themselves to me.

    So what is (are) the benefit(s) of seeing things through a moral lens? Manipulating people. Trump has been described as amoral … I wish he were. People throughout history believed they were doing the right thing.


    1. sorry so long for the reply, but I have been rereading Carroll. I thought my post made the point that the benefit was a commitment to the other humans in your society. Pretty much an oath, to abide by certain agreed upon standards of behavior. We have been caused in many ways to be social, but morality is a conscious acceptance of it and a conscious commitment to it.

      From my point of view, causes are not enough. What makes our human position more valuable and meaningful is our apprehension and reflection upon our position in nature at our unique level of complexity, our emergent level.

      I better get back to Carroll to see if I can defend any of the above from his point of view. thanks rom


  5. And I have made my point clearly too, I thought; the hand waving we call ’emergence’ not does not eliminate physics and chemistry. Did you edit your reply … it is not as I recall? If I break my oath or agreed upon commitment to eliminate a certain race is that someway immoral?

    So we end up playing a semantic shell game here.

    So when you say our complexity is “more valuable” you are saying, I think, that our luck is more valuable. Because you are in no way responsible for that complexity or its capability. I point you to Strawson’s Luck Swallows Everything again.


    1. sorry for the late reply, once again. I’m trying to make sense of Carroll’s Big Pic.
      As I recall Strawson, his “luck” is the alignment of the universe shortly after the Big Bang that is still working its way out at this point deterministically. Luck is just what this long chain of causes has brought and that includes the existance of you/me and all our good or bad.

      Carroll says that such an explanation, as true as it is, does not really give us much explanatory satisfaction. What caused me to become a teacher? What caused the origin of life, the Industrial Revolution, the warming of the earth? None of these do we say “the original alignment of particles” or “Strawson’s luck”.

      In my own life, I understand it as a sort of Narrative Continuity, a combination of causes and choices. The Indust Rev is understood much the same. Even the origin of life is understood as the emergence of an agency not seen in inanimate objects.
      To you what is that? How much of those stories/explanations change when you pull out key elements like “choice”, “agency”, “responsibility”, “morality”? I find it hard to imagine them not shifting radically and I’m not sure to what effect.

      If your comment is about genocide, I agree that Nazi’s pledged to other Nazis, and many early N. Americans pledged to eradicate indigenous peoples…. If they broke that pledge, they were seen as violating morality by their former cohort, but not by us today. I have argued that emergent properties have an open-endedness to them — they are what they are only in light of what becomes of them. Maybe that is the answer. I think Carroll contends that perspective also; a thing is emergent from some later/following development. I will try to find that in his book.


  6. As I recall Strawson, his “luck” is the alignment of the universe shortly after the Big Bang that is still working its way out at this point deterministically

    Not necessarily to the big bang … just before you were born will do. His point is you are not responsible (in an ultimate way) for who you are because ultimately that is just luck. And whether the university unfolds deterministically or indeterministically that point too is moot. In that we don’ actually control that.

    Narrative Continuity

    Yes Strawson does rail against this narrative, I haven’t got my mind around that yet. But one of the questions I ask myself is: when we say things like, the reason I chose to become a teacher, chemist etc, I do wonder how much I confabulate. I can point to a certain chain of events that led me to my career. But it is a lie … not in the sense of commission; but, certainly in the sense of omission.

    Oh … just the comment was just not about a specific genocide, not just a Nazi flavour. Could have been a that of a Vietnamese village, Hiroshima, Dresden, induced famines Stalin style, spreading of infected blankets. There are a few examples about race specific examples in the twentieth century.


    1. Thanks, rom, and especially for your forthright statements.

      I think”you are not responsible (in an ultimate way) for who you are” is the kind of comment that puts you and Strawson out on a far limb. I don’t need or want to be “ultimately” responsible for my life, only significantly responsible or reasonable responsible, and I will let myself and my wife and friends or a tribunal of my peers or those and some input from some psychologists (as in court) decide if I am Responsible Enough for who I am..

      I know I am jiggling your use of “ultimately” a little, but I don’t think responsibility is an all or nothing condition. Compatiblism allows/needs a gradual and vacillating movement between being determined and being free. Persons are not ultimately free or ult determined but an interesting mixture of both— at least that is what many modern educated persons seem to have come to. That is what a large percentage of good novels are written about. That is what makes any good personal narrative interesting, IMO, the mix and what is done with it by that person.

      Any good Compatiblist will end up with the “reality” (or story or theory as Carroll puts it) of ourselves as Persons as being based in a sociological situation — a certain kind of social structure that is self-enclosed in its own terms. I do not believe your narrative of your career choice (or mine) is a “lie” of either sort. Our story may have wholes, may be self-serving to some extent (unless you are D. Trump, then it is pathologically s-serving), but then I would suggest going back to the peer groups mentioned above if you have doubts and work it out. Get their feedback and reflect on your own perceptions of yourself.

      Persons that have some agency exist in that context, and not in the context of sub-atomic particles or neuroscience or chemistry. These “layers” of complexity lay ‘on top of each other’ and are correlated with each other but not caused by each other. The firing of neurons only, and significantly, cause other neurons to fire and neural signal to be launched down neural pathways. Some specific set of firing neurons is not “human freedom”; that belief is a category mistake. Human freedom, for example, occurs to varying degrees in the interactions of persons through socialization, education,, political and economic systems and historical ideologies. Some allow more, some less freedom for groups of individuals to reflect upon themselves and their options and help make themselves.

      This is my best shot, at this time. Hope it makes some sense.


  7. In your opening paragraph, you very carefully do not address whether you think we are “ultimately” responsible for who we are … or as philosophers put it causa sui? Are we really self made men? While whether you want to take on responsibility, have a need or you find certain flavours of responsibility sufficient, while interesting is irrelevant.

    Whether you are not jiggling with the concept of responsibility is interest … but it is no worse than looking at degrees of proximate cause as responsibility. There certainly are degrees of proximate cause, they eventually might become secondary or tertiary causes, even nth degree causes. It’s these nth degree causes that make our stories a lie. Sure we can usually point out the big actors, but we miss the subliminal. Trump is a product of the unfolding universe as much as you or I. We can pile our dislike and think him morally responsible as much as we want, but as determinists we understand he cannot do otherwise.

    Compatibilism requires sematic subterfuges.

    People may well feel they have agency. But when we speak of agents we beg the question. We presuppose the answer in the question. The layers of complexity are a product of cause and effect, They interact through cause and effect. I must admit I find your human freedom argument muddled. Giving these interactions names like socializations, education etc are still cause and effect and are written in the substrate of neurons firing or other physical phenomena. Saying these allow freedom is simply pointing to our ignorance. Calling our blindness to the constraints freedom.


    1. Anybody creating a narrative of their own life, or a narrative of historical events, is writing about the boundary area between what is set and irreversible, and the options they see available to them (that which they see as under their control and not yet determined).

      Trump is proving himself to be significantly pathological; he may not be able to do otherwise than what he always does. Strawson’s idea of an infinite regress of causes is only one way we have of looking at reality. The human social world is set up after all these years of evolution to be based in choices. Good luck in trying to get us to think it is otherwise. I will give you a good example of this from Carroll in my next post.

      Finally, until you can give me real predictions of the outcomes of complex human behaviors, you are simply stating again and again your faith in science in the face of much evidence that scientism has yet to cash the check it has written.


      1. Rom, I mean by scientism, the belief that only science is knowledge, science is the only form of knowledge. But there are many things we know that we do not know scientifically. I have been helping raise my 4 yr old grand daughter. I know what I am doing but it is not sci kn.
        Are you saying that I only think I know and don’t really until sci finds the physical laws of “child rearing”?? Like the physics or chemistry of “child rearing”?

        Further, physicists cannot predict your movements or mine in any normal daily situation. I believe that “in principle” our movements are compatible with the laws and objects of physics, and that leaves enough room for us to “talk” and “theorize” about emergent objects/actions like child rearing in other “effective” (Carroll’s term) ways.
        Or something like that. I am really interested in your answer to the child rearing question.


  8. Anybody creating a narrative of their own life, or a narrative of historical events, is writing about the boundary area between what is set and irreversible, and the options they see available to them (that which they see as under their control and not yet determined).

    We are talking past one another here Greg. My point remains when we construct narratives, future and past they contain huge quantities of

    Good luck in trying to get us to think it is otherwise

    What it is, is relevant. Not what we want it to be or think it is.

    Finally, until you can give me real predictions of the outcomes of complex human behaviors, you are simply stating again and again your faith in science in the face of much evidence that scientism has yet to cash the check it has written.

    This Greg, I found hugely disappointing, if not insulting. Here you use “scientism” as a pejorative. It is plain you do not understand what I am trying to say, otherwise you would not suggest I have faith in science. This is the language of theists.

    If cause and effect are true then we cannot do otherwise … determinists soft and hard agree on this. If cause and effect are false, then I am not causing any effects and cannot be held responsible.


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