In Search of Objective Morals without God

I’ll finish off the year here by addressing an issue that I promised some critics I’d eventually get back to back in October. My excuses for not writing about this matter sooner are a rambling tale unto themselves that I’ll leave aside for the time being. The question that I wish to consider though is what, if anything, outside of postulating the existence of the divine, can make a moral code “objective”?

While I don’t join such Christian apologists as William Lane Craig in using objective morality to prove that there has to be a God, I am a theist and I do believe that there are certain moral “facts” that are absolutely true, which have their root in what we might call, for lack of a better term, “the mind of God”. I don’t consider all morals to ultimately be objective matters and I freely acknowledge that religion is the source of much immorality in the world, but I still believe that those aspects of morality which are indeed timelessly and absolutely true can only be so if there are rooted in something beyond the contingencies of life as we know it and experience it on a day-to-day basis. I find myself part of a very respected and mainstream position in this regard, while at the same time finding that there are a vast number of ways in which relatively intelligent and well-informed people could reasonably disagree with me about such matters. But my point remains, search as I may, I can’t seem to find any convincing argument for morals being absolute without it coming back around to morals having their basis in the same transcendental realm as other principles of theology.

Discussing this in the autumn with my regular interlocutors on such matters, James and Aaron, I put it to them that I remain agnostic on the question of whether such an absolute but non-theological basis for ethics is “out there”, inviting them to give me reasons for believing in such. James’ style of writing about such things tends to be relatively dry and carefully structured. Aaron, on the other hand, tends to shoot from the hip, blasting away at the points he disagrees with in rapid fire mode, often missing, but making it perfectly clear what he has a distaste for.

Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Let me make it clear from the start here that if either of these gentlemen have serious moral flaws in their day-to-day life and behavior (and I don’t know them well enough to be aware of any such problems), I would not blame them on their lack of belief in God; nor, I believe, would they blame my moral flaws on my religious inclinations. On political matters we are more likely to agree with each other than I am with many fellow theists, than Aaron is with many fellow agnostics and James is with many of his fellow atheists. For instance, while none of us are prone to respect papal authority as such, I believe we would all agree with the Pope Francis’ recent statements that promoting nutrition, education and health care for children is a significantly higher moral priority than protecting the wealthiest citizens’ rights to their private property. The question here is not one of serious disagreement about practical issues then; it’s one of looking for mutual understanding on why children’s well-being in these areas is a moral priority –– and has that always been a “moral fact” or is rather something that has been emerging as a fact over the past couple centuries or so?

The analogy can be drawn with the heliocentric understanding of our solar system. It is generally accepted these days that, regardless of its not having been generally accepted in the past, the earth has for millions of years rotated around the sun, not visa-versa. That is a fact that humans have discovered, not invented. Can we say something similar about the “fact” that enabling all citizens to have access to basic education and health care is a higher moral priority than protecting millionaires’ exclusive rights to determine how all of their money will be spent? Obviously that is part of the teaching of Jesus, but equally obviously as of two or three centuries ago such a moral position was broadly considered to be a utopian absurdity. In our own day and age we still have Ayn Rand disciples (some of whom also, mistakenly, consider themselves to be followers of Jesus) who fundamentally disagree with the concept of such positive human rights. Does that make them any less “morally factual”?

Overall, are we humans in the process of making these into facts or are we in the process of discovering them as facts? And if they are something pre-existent that we are in the process of discovering, where and how have they previously (always?) existed, if not in/with God?

It is that last question that I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to among my atheist and agnostic “moral objectivist” friends. They would like to believe that there are grounds for believing that foundational moral principles are “facts” analogous to those in physics and mathematics in some respects, but that this has nothing to do with religious understandings of such matters. I have seen many unworkable variations on this theme, but so far none that I find completely workable. When it comes to the existence of such a rationally consistent, epistemologically defensible and morally binding ethical theory, I remain an agnostic: such might exist, but I have yet to see one. My purpose here is to explain why the ones I’ve been presented with thus far don’t meet the standards I’m trying to elucidate here.

Let me start by recalling my own variation on Karl Popper’s famous “Three Worlds” perspective (I actually wrote my earliest version of that essay years before I first encountered Popper’s perspective, but that’s beside the point): I believe that a fourth “world” is quite necessary, and when it comes to their ethical implications I don’t believe these worlds can reliably be put in a fixed hierarchical order. The additional necessary world would be that of the divine, or transcendental absolutes, which to one extent or another atheists and strict materialists make a point of categorically denying. From a religious point of view this transcendent “world” would contain the first cause(s) for all and everything in the universe. From an atheistic point of view, if it is acknowledged at all, it is perhaps seen as something of a culmination point for “World 3” matters, and at the same time as a set of principles observable in “World 1”, as Popper calls them.

This world’s exact content is difficult to quantify since, unlike the other three, it is not directly observable in any empirical sense, nor is it subject to change based on human volition. It can be approached in both “left brained” and “right brained” manners –– both rationally and mystically (or intuitively) –– and the elimination of either approach leads to rather warped perspectives. The content of this transcendent realm would include much that has been rejected as being “unscientific” but also much which has been acknowledged as “a priori”. This would include such mathematical concepts as the ultimate value of pi and prime numbers, theoretical concepts used in physics such as the properties of objects travelling close to light speed, moral ideals such as justice and inter-connectedness, and many of the vast varieties of investigations conducted in the name of systematic theology.

In addition to postulating that there must be at least these four “worlds” –– the transcendent, the physical, the individual consciousness and the social/societal –– I would theorize that our ethical structures, to one extent or another, depend on all four. We have some moral matters which concern necessary means of preserving our material environment, but it would be somewhat absurd to reduce all ethics to questions of sustainability. We have some moral matters which are questions of reducing personal suffering in practical terms for major portions of our societies, but that too is in many regards a seriously insufficient standard for morality. We also have moral standards that we conform to in order to protect the social structures we are part of –– be they ethnic traditions, cultural artifacts, patriotic exercises or constitutional procedures –– but those too are insufficient as comprehensive bases for ethics, at least as ends unto themselves. All of those relative and variable factors must be included in the pie we call ethics, but beyond that I too believe that there are some things which we must recognize as absolute matters of moral principle, belonging to the transcendent realm. These would include prohibitions on things we recognize as inherently evil or destructive of things we recognize as inherently good. How broad a category this last one turns out to be is a matter to progressively be discovered, but given its rather sublime nature the discovery process will always be somewhat complicated and methodologically problematic. Sad to say for some, but I believe that much of this discovery process will necessarily continue to fall under the heading of “theology”.

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as the basis of ethics, involving a mix of variable, absolute, subjective and objective considerations. So from this perspective the operative questions are,
1) How much of the field properly belongs in the absolute, objective, “factual” arena?
2) Can the “factual”, objective side of ethics be based in any other realm (or “world”, as Popper calls them) than the transcendent? and
3) To what extent is the transcendent realm, as defined here, inherently related to the person of the supreme deity –– “the one true God”?

Rather than further expanding on my own understanding though, let me move on to explaining why all meta-ethical theories I have thus far encountered strike me as inconsistent, unconvincing, culturally conditioned, theologically based, or some combination of the above. This does not imply any problems in terms of reaching cross-cultural understandings on what norms should be observed and respected within any given context. It’s only a problem if you feel the need to convince me that morality is an inherently objective and non-theistic matter.

In response to my question of what standards they would appeal to, from a non-theistic perspective, in saying, e.g., that slavery has always been inherently evil, Aaron replied, “There are dozens. Hedonism. Egoism. Utilitarianism. Kantian Deontology. Rossian Deontology. Divine Command. Natural Law. Virtue. Social Contact. Intrinsic value. Take your pick. Any one of them could be the rational, objective basis of moral facts.”

Fine, let’s take those ones to start with, one at a time, and see if any of them lead to a good excuse for seeing ethics as an absolute matter without inadvertently falling back on the old theological presuppositions of Western Culture, without coming back to human subjectivity and without theoretically imploding. I’ll necessarily be painting with rather broad brush strokes here, so forgive me for not covering as many details as fans of these particular theories might like.

Hedonism in terms of ethical discussions is going to be largely synonymous with Utilitarianism here. Skip it for now.

Egoism here can be taken as sort of like Utilitarianism with a greater emphasis on the good of the subject than the good of society at large, so it has no particularly unique merits as a basis of moral theory, especially if we are looking for objectivity here.

Utilitarianism then is the first point worth looking at seriously here. In its simplest form: pleasure = good / pain = bad, evil. Its particular distinctive teaching as a meta-ethical theory: the only measure of moral goodness is end results, not means of accomplishment. This, in a nutshell, is also the basis of would-be philosopher Sam Harris’ up-coming challenge. My simplest rebuttal: In Buddhist terms there is truth to the matter that life inherently involves suffering, and Utilitarianism offers no objective answer to the question of what is worth suffering for or how factors like freedom or self-respect figure into the equation. If/once those factors are taken into consideration, it is no longer a factual or objective matter.

Kantian Deontology is in many regards the most basic paradigm for absolute, objective ethics and it highlights the essential difference between Kant’s first and second critiques: The idea of a transcendent metaphysical reality “out there” is something about which our scientific investigations can say very little, but it is precisely this realm which must form the basis for our moral justifications. As one course book I had memorably put it, “what Kant took away [from theology] with his right hand, he gave back with his left.” It’s a long debate, but in the end it’s clear that Kant himself saw “moral facts” as coming from God, and using his theories as a jumping off point for atheistic moral philosophy thus has its own inherent problems.

Rossian Deontology, based on the thinking of William David Ross, to quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia article about him, “presents a unique and compelling form of deontology, according to which there are a plurality of both moral requirements and intrinsic goods. There is no one master principle that explains why the particular things that we believe are wrong/right are in fact wrong/right. Instead, there are a number of basic moral requirements which cannot be reduced to some more fundamental principle.” That seems to me a valid starting point, with much in common with my own intuitive perspectives. This, however, is built not upon objective standards and transcendent moral laws so much as on what Ross saw as the “moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people.” While I’m sure those were very nice people, the resulting standards will, by definition, not be objective in the way that theorists here are hoping for.

Divine command obviously is going to provide a theocentric view on moral absolutes. Enough said.

Natural Law is a predominantly Catholic intellectual tradition based on Aquinas developing Christian interpretations of Aristotle. There is little point in looking further there for grounds for absolute ethics for atheists.

“Virtue Ethics” is the label generally given to the neo-Aristotelian position on the subject. This is closely tied to the logic that Aquinas drew from Aristotle in formulating his 5 proofs for the existence of God. The principles from the Nichomachean Ethics, while not inherently theistic, they contain a rather vague description of the virtue that a good man should develop and trade on. This would tend to be taken as some combination of what Popper would call “world 3” factors and what I would call transcendental factors. It won’t give you absolutes without God in any case. If you don’t believe me ask Alstair MacIntyre.

Social Contract ethics, a la Hobbes and followers, is certainly a suitably atheistic in structure, but likewise it is nowhere close to meeting the standard for objectivity that these guys are looking for. It’s based on what societies’ members theoretically want as part of their rationalized greed, not some eternal principle to which they must conform. It will be by definition variable according to the same subjective bases that Ross uses.

Intrinsic Value is generally used as a more neutral term for the moral principle originally formulated in Latin as Imago Dei: because people are “created in the image of God” they are inherently deserving of respect, just due to the value they have as people. There are any number of variations on this principle, and I believe it would be fair to say that any system of thought which does not grant a certain amount of intrinsic value to people as people –– both individually and collectively –– does not deserve to be called “ethics”. But that leaves the matter unresolved as to why people are to be considered intrinsically valuable. No offence, but the less theological those rationalizations have been, the less rational and convincing they are.

So none of Aaron’s off-the-top-of-his-head suggestions on the matter really bear any fruit in terms of providing non-theistic absolutes as ethical foundations. From there he suggested that I go read a book or two by Russ Shafer-Landau and get back to him when I know more. That is the equivalent of an evangelical telling an agnostic that they could continue their talk after the latter had read enough of William Lane Craig to meet the former’s standards, but such is the nature of chats with Aaron at times. Anyway…

I’ve since done a bit of digging into Shafer-Landau’s thoughts on the matter, though probably not enough to satisfy my interlocutors here, and here’s what I’ve found: “Russ” is in many respects sets the modern Platonic ideal for how professors would like to see their students structure their arguments –– an ideal blend of ordinary language and formal logic, tying together “ivory tower” and “Main Street” perspectives. He’s an atheist but not the sort of “new atheist” who sets for himself the task of convincing others to share his enlightened lack of faith. Rather he comes across as a seeker of wisdom in the old model: finding rational justifications for what he personally believes, and framing the discussion so that those who believe differently can come to some mutual understanding with him as to where they each are coming from and what is important to them. In this way he earns significant respect from all who read his stuff and listen to his lectures. Beyond that he is the heir apparent to G.E. Moore’s meta-ethical empire, whatever label you want to put on it. So it would fall to Russ, if anyone, to provide a palatable answer to Bertrand Russell’s post-Moorean dilemma of: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it” (volume 11 of Russell’s papers, 310-11).

As I understand it, Shafer-Landau’s justification for believing in the sorts of objective, external, intuitively accessed, factual moral principles that he does, without any reference to God being relevant to the subject, is that these facts are what he considers to be self-evident: “such that adequately understanding and attentively considering just p is sufficient to justify believing that p.” That standard is more than a little bit problematic in itself. It effectively supports its favorite propositions by moralizing against the studiousness and/or the attention span of all who would disagree. His primary point seems to be blocking any ideas which may “conflict with our most important moral convictions and platitudes.” (Quotes from here.) Thus, as a proof that there must be something morally absolute “out there,” I don’t think Russ’s findings would come anywhere near changing Russell’s mind about the matter.

In a video series covering one of his guest lecture he where discusses his ideas’ relationship with religious ideas, Shafer-Landau divides the issue up into two questions: 1) Does objective morality depend on God in order to be viable? (a question of dependence) and 2) Do arguments against the existence of God also work as arguments against the existence of objective morality? (a question of parity). Each of these questions he in turn divides up into two separate aspects to be considered. The dependence question he divides up into consideration of the “authorship argument” and the “reason argument” which might also be called the enforcement argument.  The parity question he divides up into consideration of metaphysical arguments and epistemological arguments.

Regarding the authorship argument –– Can we have “laws” without a “law giver”, which in order for the law to be “objective” could not be human or societal law giver? –– Shafer-Landau argues that, yes we can, since we have the “laws of thermodynamics” operating in just such a manner. This seems to involve a fair amount of equivocation, however, when it comes to the difference between prescriptive and descriptive laws which he introduces later in the same lecture. I’ll come back to that.

Regarding the reason argument –– Can moral laws really make any difference in terms of compelling action without a divine judge to back them up? –– Shafer-Landau confesses that there are some popular atheist arguments against the premise of a divine judge being necessary that he would actually not accept because they would undercut his understanding of the absoluteness of moral standards. His preferred tack on this one is to say that if moral laws are true/factual, then whoever violates them becomes “blameworthy”, and avoiding “blameworthiness” provides a compelling motivation to follow the laws in question. This gives rise to the obvious question, Blameworthy before whom? There would seem to be three basic alternatives here in terms of how the blameworthy thing could motivate people to stay on the straight and narrow, corresponding with Popper’s three worlds: It could be a matter of damaging the material order of things, it could be a matter of falling into a rut of self-rejection, or it could be a matter of facing social stigma. It is “self-evident” however that none of those negative reinforcements are limited to those who have broken objective moral laws, and many who have broken such laws are handily able to escape from all of those consequent forms of suffering. The explanation doesn’t seem to cut it.

On the parity side, when it comes to epistemological arguments against being able to know if there’s a God, Shafer-Landau essentially admits that the same arguments work just as well against being able to know that there are such things as objective moral standards. Challenges to the mechanisms of knowing, factors of historical contingency in the understanding of the matter, the lack of scientific methodology in investigating the issue and the level of disagreement between leading believers in the subject area, he admits, have just as much bite against moral realism as they do against theism. All of these can be argued back against, but only at the expense of alienating some fellow atheists. His honesty in this matter is to be commended.

On the metaphysical side of the parity question, however, he does see essential differences between arguments against religion and those against objective morality. These he sees the challenges essentially as two: the problem of why evil and suffering continue to exist in unjust ways, and the problem of “parsimony”, better known as the Occam’s Razor principle. His argument for differentiating between the degree to which these critiques discredit his program of moral objectivity and to which they discredit the concept of the divine is to be found in the prescriptive/descriptive distinction mentioned above. Moral laws are not required to say how things are; merely to set standards for how things should be done. Religion, he believes, has a greater self-inflicted requirement to describe given states of affairs.

The problem here is that this lower standard for “truth value” for morals than for religion then undercuts their autonomous status with regard to the “law giver” issue. If we are talking about an idealized norm as something distinct from actual states of affairs, the only way that “language game” has any functional currency is if there is some form of consciousness –– be it human, collective, digital or divine –– in which those norms find their origin. The character of the consciousness which effectively institutes and maintains those norms would in turn determine the essential characteristics of the norms in question. So if you can accept the idea of moral laws being just a function of an emergent collective human consciousness, contingent on the various drives and flaws characteristic of that consciousness and not fundamentally aspiring to any higher standard than that, you don’t need any God to get there from here. But if you’re hoping for more than that…

Stopping to consider my interlocutor James, I’m under the impression from his ample writings that he would not like to distance himself too far from Shafer-Landau’s position on these issues. They also both have a certain fascination with terminological distinctions between themselves and their relatively close associates in their field, which seem analogous to the distinctions between “Arminians” and “Neo-Pelagians” or “post-millennialists” and “a-millennialists” in Christian theology. You’ll have to forgive me for not sharing that particular fascination. But I’ll close here with reference to one factor both Russ and James wish to raise in the process of distancing themselves from religious folk: Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue.

The dialog in question, starring Socrates as always, asks the basic question, “Is what is reverent reverent because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is reverent?” Reverence here is a sub-category of moral virtue in general, and thus the debate is taken as a classical investigation of the relationship between virtues and divine will, implying that the former cannot be dependent on the latter. There is one essential point of agreement between many theists and atheists on part of this matter: basing our moral decisions exclusively on what we take to be “God’s specific commands” is a highly problematic practice. Beyond that though, the relevance of this dialogue to the question of determining what is absolutely morally true and how that relates to the divine is somewhat limited and “challenged”.

First of all there is the matter of Plato’s presupposing a polytheistic world, in which part of the problem was dealing with the discrepancies between the various gods’ desires. This debate then would be more analogous to a modern discussion between two men regarding the proper way to show a woman that you love her, given that it works a bit differently for each of them. But it still relevant to ask the general question, Are particular signs of love and respect for women taken as such because they fulfill the woman’s basic desires, or do they desire such things because they are seen as signs of love and respect? Underlying this is the question of what is it in general that is essentially pleasing to women, thus setting standards that all men would benefit from operating according to with regard to all women? A tough and mysterious question indeed!

Following through with that analogy then, we might say that, yes, women desire evidence that they are loved and respected more than they want, for instance, the convenience of having doors opened for them, or the sight and smell of flowers in the room, or maybe even the taste of chocolates. But we cannot jump from there to a conclusion that the challenge of expressing love to a woman can be met by following some abstract standard which fails to consider the desires of the particular woman in question!

From there the analogy could be applicable to a theistic understanding of ethics. A transcendent moral law based on “pleasing God” should not be doing so as a matter of blindly following what we take to be his commandments, but nor would it be a matter of following some abstract pattern which shows no consideration for the essential character of the one we are attempting to please.  What Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro does not prove in this regard is that the character of God would be irrelevant to ethical questions.

Beyond that it’s worth considering the debate in the context of the specific forms of “irreverence” that the Athenian democracy was, in this somewhat fictionalized account, punishing people for. In Socrates’ case his “irreverence” took the form of “corrupting the youth” in various ways. History leaves us insufficient evidence to determine whether or not pedophilia was one of the background factors in this charge being made, but that is a distinct possibility. Whatever the case, Plato’s opinion was clearly that the collective social conscience of the people, based in part on their religious inclinations, was an insufficient moral standard on the basis of which to condemn so great a man.

The character of Euthyphro, meanwhile, was using the same vague irreverence prohibition in Athenian law to prosecute his own father, raising quite a few eyebrows in the process. His father’s offence was nothing serious really; all he did was accidentally kill a slave. There was some question of whether or not the slave deserved to die anyway, and slaves were considered more or less disposable, so nothing was likely to be done about it otherwise. The only thing that gave the slave any form of protection was that particular forms of cruelty to slaves were considered to be punishable on the basis of being “irreverent”. So while from Plato’s and Socrates’ perspective this was a matter of some kid using a patently absurd provision in the judicial code disrespectfully condemn his own father, from Euthyphro’s perspective the issue was that the old bastard had killed another human being and no one else was going to do anything about it, so he felt that it was his moral duty to do so. The gods would not have it any other way.

Regardless of all his difficulty in arguing the meta-ethical foundations of his case with Socrates, in context of the crime in question I believe that any modern ethicist would have to say that Euthyphro was in fact morally in the right with what he was doing. The fact that Plato didn’t see it that way shows just how culturally conditioned his purportedly “objective” ethical standards really were.

I’m available to take this discussion further with any who are so inclined but the cultural standards I hold myself to say I should have found a way to finish this essay about 2000 words ago! So let me just summarize by saying:

–          I’m not arguing here that theists are inherently better people than atheists.

–          I personally believe that ethics needs to contain a mix of subjective, inter-subjective and objective factors to properly “work”.

–          In appealing to absolute and objective standards in ethics, philosophers need to be clear regarding how those standards fit into the rest of their meta-physical world view.

–          Thus far in western intellectual history I have yet to come across a workable absolute and objective ethical standard that does not end up leaning on theological premises or (other) subjective cultural perspectives in its basic formulation.

–          Thus, for the same reasons that Bertrand Russell abandoned G.E. Moore’s ethical system, I find it highly problematic for atheists to attempt to profile themselves as ethical absolutists.

–          Even so, I’m ready to let them pursue their seemingly irrational faith in this regard as far as they want to take it.

God bless all of you who have bothered to read this through, and may you all find ways to become “better people,” whatever that means to you, in this coming year.

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18 Comments

Filed under Basic logic, History, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Tolerance

18 responses to “In Search of Objective Morals without God

  1. Davidson Loehr

    This argument has become anachronistic. Ethology (especially) has shown convincingly that our sense of fair/unfair, good and bad, right and wrong, even empathy and compassion, is shared with many other species, and evolved millions of years before we did. Frans de Waal in particular has taken it as his mission to show that we get our goodness through evolution, and that religions don’t and can’t have much to contribute to the conversation because “They’re just too NEW.” Since these sensitivities are within and among us, we project them into our favorite stories, gods and religions. Our favorite plot is the victory of courageous good over powerful evil: Avatar, Harry Potter, Percy and the Olympians, Star Wars, The Matrix, on and on.

    We’re also at a place where “religious” arguments must be taken out of jargon and put into ordinary language. Words those of us in religion like to use — spiritual, Mystery, transcendent, God, etc. — are attempts to smuggle in our biases without having to argue for them in plain talk.

    This may get long, so if it’s too long I’ll break it into 2 or 3 comments. Many good quotes come to mind, here are just a few:

    1. Rudolph Bultmann’s justly famous essay of 1941, “The New Testament and Mythology”, pointed out that the Bible’s messages were framed within an ancient 3-story worldview that we now see as superstitious/supernatural. Since there’s nothing in that worldview that’s “religious,” he wondered whether, once the supernaturalism is removed, Christianity has anything relevant and important to offer to modern people. His question’s still on the table, though the steady decline in church attendance, and polls that show that 30% of adults under 30 now define their religion as “None” imply that the honest answer to Bultmann’s question is “Very little.”

    2. Or consider this well-phrased quotation:

    “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.” (From Obama’s “Call to Renewal” address on May 28, 2006. The full address is at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal/)

    3. Or this, from the Dalai Lama:

    “All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.” 
— Dalai Lama’s Facebook page, 2012

    It’s worth considering that, in our public discussions about ethics, theological language is not only not helpful, but also a menace when hiding behind its members-only jargon (including terms like God, etc.)

    • Davidson, let me just say that my reasons for being a believer in God have nothing to do with getting a license to be part of the “in crowd” with the privilege of judging others, and it’s quite possible that I’d see your overall perspective on ethics as being more internally consistent than Shafer-Landau’s. To restate, my argument is not to prove that there has to be a God here, but rather to demonstrate why I’m not prone to believe that *absolutist* ethics and atheism are completely compatible. And this really isn’t a dead issue in that regard.

  2. While I understand how the notion of an objective morality arises from a theistic worldview, I can’t for the life of me see what good it is as a notion of ethics. There’s no conceivable way we can acquire any verifiable information about an objective morality, so if I say “x is objectively wrong” and you say “no it isn’t”, there’s no way to resolve the argument. So the idea of an objective morality doesn’t seem to serve any function whatsoever: it resolves no questions that subjective ideas of morality as social construct doesn’t, and instead adds a whole slew of unanswerable questions.

    So in other words, I can’t see an objective morality as anything other than a nonsense hypothesis. It’s Russell’s teapot: we can’t observe it, it doesn’t interact with us in any way, it doesn’t explain anything we can’t explain through other means. Actually, it’s worse than Russell’s teapot, because I don’t even understand in what sense an objective morality can even be said to exist.

    So unless the existence of an objective morality is posited as a theist article of faith, it seems to be complete a priori nonsense.

    • Michael, don’t turn to me to defend it! If you want to chat with someone who’s into that sort of thing then start here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/, or run your own search on Russ Shafer-Landau’s work. I don’t think they’re onto anything important, but I’m not going to write them off as flakes either.

      • Oh, I don’t expect you to defend it! I did click on that link, though, and it is the most complete garbage. That stuff is childish apologetics for God, with God swapped out and objective morality written in instead. The writer appeals to intuition and common sense to support the existence of something he can’t observe, prove or even define. Pure nonsense.

        Based on what I’ve seen so far, I am in fact perfectly comfortable dismissing the lot of them as kooks. To take the first example that springs to mind, the blog you linked to gives wanting to avoid pain as a moral fact. What does that mean in any practical terms? Certainly masochists don’t agree. So by not avoiding pain, they are violating objective morality. And so what?

        To take objective morality seriously, I would need a definition of what it is, how it can be said to exist, and how it interacts with the world. Clearly moral facts aren’t analogous to physical facts: I can violate just about any moral law, but so far I haven’t been able to levitate. If I step off a ledge, gravity will pull me down; if I push someone else off, unfortunately no moral gravity will stop me. What happens when a masochist violates objective morality? Apparently nothing. What happens when a non-masochist doesn’t? The same thing.

        So what’s it good for?

  3. Michael Halila,

    That stuff is childish apologetics for God, with God swapped out and objective morality written in instead. The writer appeals to intuition and common sense to support the existence of something he can’t observe, prove or even define. Pure nonsense.

    I am the author of the objective morality piece on ethical realism, and I did not say that I proved objective morality exists in that piece.

    Can I observe, prove, or define secular types of moral realism? Perhaps, but that is not necessarily what I was doing there.

    The question is why we should think that theistic moral realism is so incredibly plausible and such a better view than any secular version of moral realism. Read what philosophers actually say about meta-ethics. Pretty much none of them think theistic moral realism is the best view of meta-ethics or of moral realism.

    Based on what I’ve seen so far, I am in fact perfectly comfortable dismissing the lot of them as kooks. To take the first example that springs to mind, the blog you linked to gives wanting to avoid pain as a moral fact. What does that mean in any practical terms? Certainly masochists don’t agree. So by not avoiding pain, they are violating objective morality. And so what?

    I didn’t say wanting to avoid pain is a moral fact. Read the piece again.

    Masochists do not say that pain is intrinsically good or worth having for no benefit at all. If they did, then why would you even think they are really feeling pain in the first place?

    You want to dismiss what philosophers have to say as “kooks” when you don’t understand what they are talking about. That is not a mature response.

  4. Michael Halila,

    While I understand how the notion of an objective morality arises from a theistic worldview, I can’t for the life of me see what good it is as a notion of ethics. There’s no conceivable way we can acquire any verifiable information about an objective morality, so if I say “x is objectively wrong” and you say “no it isn’t”, there’s no way to resolve the argument.

    So you think there is no use studying ethics at all? You think all beliefs about ethics are equally good?

    I am surprised that David doesn’t want to defend ethical philosophy at all.

    Does ethics require objective morality? Not necessarily. I think we can do philosophy of ethics and try to determine which decisions are best without assuming objective morality is real. Maybe morality is really about the type of social contract that we would mutually benefit from.

    Is moral realism plausible at all? A lot of atheist philosophers are moral realists, and they have a lot to say about it. Simple answers in a blog comment are not going to be satisfying. There are many different views of meta-ethics, and you probably have beliefs about meta-ethics. One option is just to think all philosophers are idiots and continue to have your own beliefs. Another option is to actually study meta-ethics and to try to have an informed belief.

    Not all philosophical issues are resolvable at this point in time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total waste of time. Some beliefs people have are self-contradictory and are irrational for various reasons. I don’t think ignoring philosophy is the best way to have philosophical beliefs.

    • James, where I would actually agree with Michael more than you is in terms of:
      1) Seeing the avoidance of suffering as particularly weak grounds for determining the difference between good and evil
      2) Seeing your idea of objective moral standards as what Rorty would have called one of “God’s doubles”
      3) Not seeing any epistemological reason for believing your beliefs are accurate, and
      4) Not seeing any particular advantage to your “greater level of objectivity” over Haidt’s more “emergent” theory.

      I also find your tone in scolding him (“That is not a mature response.”) rather silly sounding. I’m not calling you a kook, but it’s up to you to demonstrate that you’re not one.

  5. James, where I would actually agree with Michael more than you is in terms of:
    1) Seeing the avoidance of suffering as particularly weak grounds for determining the difference between good and evil

    I don’t remember saying much about good and evil. Moral realism doesn’t require us to talk about the difference of good and evil because there might be no such thing as evil (and what “goodness” refers to is ambiguous).

    There is a question about what view of meta-ethics is best. I have argued that pain is intrinsically bad before. If it is intrinsically bad, that’s enough to prove there is at least one moral fact.

    Are there other moral facts and what is the best view of morality as a whole? That’s another issue. I have talked a little about that issue and many others have as well.

    2) Seeing your idea of objective moral standards as what Rorty would have called one of “God’s doubles”

    Where’s the argument? You think this, but it needs to be argued for.

    You said that the same objections work against moral realism as work against God.

    Let’s check. Does saying pain is intrinsically bad lead to the problem of evil? Nope.

    Does saying that pain is intrinsically bad mean that a mind can exist before the universe exists? That a person can do something outside space and time? Nope.

    Does saying pain is intrinsically bad mean that a mind can exist without a body? Nope.

    Does saying pain is intrinsically bad lead to the problem of divine hiddenness? Nope.

    Is saying pain is intrinsically bad queer and explain nothing? I think it does explain something actually. If God explains something in a satisfying way, then maybe we should believe in God. If so, we can have that debate.

    3) Not seeing any epistemological reason for believing your beliefs are accurate, and

    I have given reasons. If you need help to find them, then ask.

    Let’s say you know of no reason to agree with quantum mechanics. Does that mean there is no reason to agree with it? Nope. Sounds like an appeal to ignorance.

    4) Not seeing any particular advantage to your “greater level of objectivity” over Haidt’s more “emergent” theory.

    Then why don’t you give up on objective morality and just agree with Haidt?

    Haidt is not a meta-ethical philosopher and I don’t think his view is as informed as other types of meta-ethics. However, there are very informed views of meta-ethics that are different from mine. I have argued for my views and I can argue against the other views. Maybe they are right and I am wrong, but to just declare victory does not impress me.

    I also find your tone in scolding him (“That is not a mature response.”) rather silly sounding. I’m not calling you a kook, but it’s up to you to demonstrate that you’re not one.

    He did call me a kook and didn’t prove that I am one. If he thinks I am one, then I think it is up to him to prove that I am one.

    • *sigh* I would expect, as a first language speaker of English you would know this already, James, but since academic philosophy has apparently caused you to forget how everyday speech in this language works, let me remind you: The terms “bad”, “evil”, “unethical”, “immoral”, “naughty” and “nasty” can all be used to refer to something which is weighted negatively in an ethical sense. Likewise the terms “good”, “virtuous”, “ethical”, “moral”, “nice” and “proper” can all be used to refer to something which is weighted positively in an ethical sense. I frequently use such terms synonymously when speaking in non-technical terms. Thus if you “don’t remember saying much about good and evil” that would mean you haven’t had anything significant to say about ethics as a whole. While that might be the case, I wouldn’t openly declare it if I were you…

      I have argued that pain is intrinsically bad before. If it is intrinsically bad, that’s enough to prove there is at least one moral fact.

      The fact that when you stub your toe you seem to place negative moral value on the event actually proves nothing. Calling such things “moral facts” does not strengthen your case.

      (re #2 above):

      Where’s the argument? You think this, but it needs to be argued for.

      I’m not sure on what moral basis you believe it “needs to be argued for”. If you’re not familiar with Rorty’s work it’s a simple matter to look it up. If you are familiar with such its relevance to the matter would seem rather self-evident here. This was intended to provide a form of “properly philosophical” support for Michael’s case that “the idea of an objective morality… resolves no questions that subjective ideas of morality as social construct doesn’t, and instead adds a whole slew of unanswerable questions.”

      You said that the same objections work against moral realism as work against God.
      Let’s check. Does saying pain is intrinsically bad lead to the problem of evil? Nope.

      Aside from the “intrinsic bad” of pain being somewhat of an empty, perhaps nonsensical proposition, if we were to assume that it has any meaning at all it would have to imply that there is some form of sanction against the causing of pain “out there”. To the sceptic there is absolutely no evidence of such: pain serves as a deterrent from doing things that reduce one’s chances of survival and continued reproductive success. Beyond that it is apparently meaningless in the big scheme of things. To prove that there is something “morally factual” about the prevention of pain would be to prove that there is somehow more than this to it. If there would be such a factual system in place, we must ask, why does it make so little difference to life as we know it? Why does it fail to stop so much pain? So the “problem of evil” does have very direct implications against your theory. Schafer-Landau actually seems to get this…

      Does saying that pain is intrinsically bad mean that a mind can exist before the universe exists? That a person can do something outside space and time? Nope.
      Does saying pain is intrinsically bad mean that a mind can exist without a body? Nope.
      Does saying pain is intrinsically bad lead to the problem of divine hiddenness? Nope.

      The extent to which it does NOT say those things is the extent to which it remains an essentially vacuous proposition. If it is “intrinsically bad” then the obvious question from there is, In whose mind, or in what reality? If it’s just a matter of how it makes James feel, that trivializes the whole concept. If it can be *proven* to be based on something more than that then it brings you precisely into the metaphysical claims you just denied.
      [re: epistemological justifications]

      I have given reasons. If you need help to find them, then ask.

      For reasons just stated, I’m inclined to see all of the reasons you’ve given as rather subjective and trivial. Feel free to try again if you’re so inclined.

      Let’s say you know of no reason to agree with quantum mechanics. Does that mean there is no reason to agree with it? Nope. Sounds like an appeal to ignorance.

      So you’re saying that your “expertise” in meta-ethics makes you the equivalent of a quantum mechanic, and those who don’t see the “soundness” and relevance of your arguments are necessarily ignorant?! Things which make one go Hmmm…

      Then why don’t you give up on objective morality and just agree with Haidt?

      That’s basically what I’m asking YOU! If you want to keep things metaphysically simple, not proposing what in Popperian terms we could call “the fourth world” involving God and all, Haidt’s approach would seem to be the best fit for you.

      Haidt is not a meta-ethical philosopher and I don’t think his view is as informed as other types of meta-ethics. However, there are very informed views of meta-ethics that are different from mine. I have argued for my views and I can argue against the other views. Maybe they are right and I am wrong, but to just declare victory does not impress me.

      You seem to postulate that you have won some sort of argument here with your vacuous claims regarding pain… and that others have a moral responsibility to be impressed…

      He did call me a kook and didn’t prove that I am one. If he thinks I am one, then I think it is up to him to prove that I am one.

      Yes, and I’m sure that was quite painful for you. Anyway…
      I think I can speak for Michael in saying that he did not use the term as a distinctive theoretical or medical category, but rather as a colloquial term for someone he significantly disagrees with and who doesn’t seem to have anything relevant to say about life as he knows it. He doesn’t have any moral responsibility to prove anything about that to you as near as I can tell. To the extent that his perspective makes any difference to you (for instance in terms of proving to you that you’re not succeeding in convincing the world of the value of your perspectives) it’s up to you to prove that you’re NOT a “kook”. Beyond that it’s irrelevant.

      It’s hard for me not to match condescension with condescension here, thus this debate is rapidly loosing interest for me. Unless you have some new sort of argument that you can present without any presumption of superior expertise in the presentation, perhaps we need to leave it at this.

      • casmilus

        “The terms “bad”, “evil”, “unethical”, “immoral”, “naughty” and “nasty” can all be used to refer to something which is weighted negatively in an ethical sense.”

        But they are used in a graded way, with some representing a more extreme case than others. They are not simply treated as equivalent. “Killing children is naughty” would sound ridiculous.

        If you’re going to bother bringing ordinary language in to a discussion, you may as well recognise its nuances. Those terms are not simply a box of equal-sized Lego bricks that can slot in anywhere that any one of them will go.

      • “Casmilus”, I do agree with your evaluation of the nuance differences between the terms in question. My comment was in response to James’ claim that “I don’t remember saying much about good and evil,” when any form of ethics, pretty much by definition, inherently deals with determining what might be considered good and what might be considered evil, albeit many times using different academic idioms. Would you agree with this assessment of the ordinary language use of the terms?

      • casmilus

        “Would you agree with this assessment of the ordinary language use of the terms?”

        It’s quite correct that ordinary language uses those terms. It’s also true that James didn’t use them in his remarks. I’m more concerned about this line from you:

        “I frequently use such terms synonymously when speaking in non-technical terms.”

        – then I’d expect you to face awkward moments and stares when you treat “naughty” and “evil” interchangeably, which they aren’t in ordinary (non-technical) ethical discourse.

        What I don’t understand is why anyone finds it obvious that objective morality and theism are compatible. Unless they are making the same switch that vitiates Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, in which we hear an argument against subjectivism but then get palmed off with just another version of subjectivism, with the overall effect of nothing.

        Of course if someone thinks that there is not much more to the concept of God than the very idea of an objective morality, then obviously they will find James’ position incomprehensible or absurdly irrelevant. But that’s only one view of God, though it seems to be received wisdom amongst certain groups of modern westerners. One of the problems with Richard Rorty is he tended to take such things at face value, even when he was posing as an historically-informed critic.

      • To the extent that I do use “naughty” in practice as a synonym for “evil” it would probably be limited to a more playful explication of Ayer’s perspectives, for instance. I would be careful to recognize the distinctions you point out. I also agree with your critical perspective on Rorty by and large. It’s been over half my life ago since I read “Mere Christianity” so I won’t take a position on that one way or another.
        Regarding the (indirect) insult exchange between Michael and James, I’m not inclined to moralize against either, and you are right about turn-about being fair play. I’m more concerned with a condescending tone limiting the potential for fruitful exchange. In that I’m perhaps more worried about slipping into it myself than allowing others to talk to each other in such a way here, but anyway…
        Thanks for your contributions.

      • casmilus

        I also think James is perfectly entitled to describe a response as immature if it comes from someone who has already dismissed him as “childish” without attempting much detailed examination of what he wrote, and apparently having little to offer beyond naive verificationism.

  6. You said,

    The fact that when you stub your toe you seem to place negative moral value on the event actually proves nothing. Calling such things “moral facts” does not strengthen your case.

    I think it is correct to interpret the experience that way. If pain is intrinsically bad, that’s a moral fact.

    I’m not sure on what moral basis you believe it “needs to be argued for”. If you’re not familiar with Rorty’s work it’s a simple matter to look it up. If you are familiar with such its relevance to the matter would seem rather self-evident here. This was intended to provide a form of “properly philosophical” support for Michael’s case that “the idea of an objective morality… resolves no questions that subjective ideas of morality as social construct doesn’t, and instead adds a whole slew of unanswerable questions.”

    You said above that you are a moral realist. Is that for no reason at all?

    I think that anti-realism is incomplete. One example is that an anti-realist would not be able to say that pain is intrinsically bad. Does finding out pain is intrinsically have any relevance to ethics? Yes.

    Aside from the “intrinsic bad” of pain being somewhat of an empty, perhaps nonsensical proposition, if we were to assume that it has any meaning at all it would have to imply that there is some form of sanction against the causing of pain “out there”. To the sceptic there is absolutely no evidence of such: pain serves as a deterrent from doing things that reduce one’s chances of survival and continued reproductive success. Beyond that it is apparently meaningless in the big scheme of things. To prove that there is something “morally factual” about the prevention of pain would be to prove that there is somehow more than this to it. If there would be such a factual system in place, we must ask, why does it make so little difference to life as we know it? Why does it fail to stop so much pain? So the “problem of evil” does have very direct implications against your theory. Schafer-Landau actually seems to get this

    We would we expect the fact that pain is intrinsically bad to prevent pain?

    The problem of evil exists because an all good god would want to prevent all needless pain, and an all powerful God could prevent all needless pain. It has more to it than that, but that’s the main idea.

    Pain being intrinsically bad doesn’t mean anyone would want to prevent all needless pain or that anyone could prevent all needless pain.

    For those of us who do care about intrinsic value and doing what is morally right, we do have a reason to want to prevent needless pain. We have a reason to dislike pain.

    The extent to which it does NOT say those things is the extent to which it remains an essentially vacuous proposition.

    This is just an assertion. I need a reason to agree with it.

    Consider Aristotle’s final ends. We can have goals and try to achieve them, but in the end there is no point if none of the ends matter. Saying that there are intrinsic values is a way to have goals that matter.

    You said that you think humans have value. What kind of value? Intrinsic value? Is your belief that humans have value meaningless? I don’t know why you would think your belief has meaning, but mine doesn’t.

    If it is “intrinsically bad” then the obvious question from there is, In whose mind, or in what reality? If it’s just a matter of how it makes James feel, that trivializes the whole concept. If it can be *proven* to be based on something more than that then it brings you precisely into the metaphysical claims you just denied.

    Does this have metaphysical implications? Yes. I never said it didn’t. But there are different views of ontology that might make sense out of intrinsic value. Reductionistic naturalism, non-reductionistic naturalism, non-naturalism, Platonism, etc.

    Intrinsic value is not just about what a person desires. That’s the whole point. I have written about this in detail and information about intrinsic value is also available elsewhere.

    Perhaps there is a way to understand intrinsic value in an anti-realist way. If so, let’s look into it further.

    The extent to which it does NOT say those things is the extent to which it remains an essentially vacuous proposition. If it is “intrinsically bad” then the obvious question from there is, In whose mind, or in what reality? If it’s just a matter of how it makes James feel, that trivializes the whole concept. If it can be *proven* to be based on something more than that then it brings you precisely into the metaphysical claims you just denied.

    You said that intrinsic value is meaningless because it doesn’t say various things. Let’s take a look.

    Saying that pain is intrinsically bad does not mean that a mind can exist before the universe exists.

    Saying that pain is intrinsically bad does not mean that a mind can exist without a body.

    saying that pain is intrinsically bad does not lead to the problem of divine hiddenness.

    What’s meaningless about pain being intrinsically bad not saying these things? Minds exist right now. Pain exists right now. I think pain has a property that I call “being intrinsically bad.” That means the world is better off with less pain and worse off with more pain. That means we can help a person by helping the person avoid needless pain. That means animals are also helped by helping the animal avoid needless pain. It also means we hurt people by causing them needless pain and hurt animals by causing them needless pain.

    The result is that something like utilitarianism is true, but utilitarianism could still be complete. If there is more to morality than intrinsic value, then perhaps some type of deontology is true instead.

    Is utilitarianism meaningless? Not for those of us who want to do the right thing and make the world a better place.

    Do you think morality requires that a mind can exist before the universe exists?

    Do you think morality requires that a mind can exist without a body?

    Do you think morality requires divine hiddenness?

    If you think meta-ethics is trivial unless morality requires that a mind can exist before the universe exists, and/or that morality requires that a mind can exist without a body, and/or that morality requires divine hiddenness, then I want you to argue for your position. Why would moral realism be meaningless or trivial without these things? If you have already written about it, you can send me a link.

    For reasons just stated, I’m inclined to see all of the reasons you’ve given as rather subjective and trivial. Feel free to try again if you’re so inclined.

    I interpret that my pain experience is intrinsically bad, and I think anyone who experiences pain experiences it in a similar way.

    Is that subjective? Let’s assume it is. If so, what makes it subjective? That it requires me to interpret my experience and requires introspection? In that case the evidence of all pain experience is subjective. How can we know that our experiences are best described as involving pain? I think it is based on the experience of pain itself.

    Perhaps you have something else in mind, but you didn’t make your argument clear.

    Is that trivial? Might depend what you mean by that. I don’t think it’s trivial.

    So you’re saying that your “expertise” in meta-ethics makes you the equivalent of a quantum mechanic, and those who don’t see the “soundness” and relevance of your arguments are necessarily ignorant?!

    No, that’s not what I said. If you aren’t convinced by my arguments, that’s fine, but what do you want me to do about it? Repeat my arguments over and over? I think it’s up to you to actually explain what is not convincing about my arguments. I have premises and conclusions.

    Nothing I wrote here is going to be a very good argument for intrinsic values. I realize that because it’s a big issue and a lot would need to be said about it. However, I have written about it elsewhere in much more detail. If you want a link, I can send it to you.

    If you say my view is false because you don’t understand my view, that is an appeal to ignorance. I am saying my view is not false just because you don’t understand it.

    That’s basically what I’m asking YOU! If you want to keep things metaphysically simple, not proposing what in Popperian terms we could call “the fourth world” involving God and all, Haidt’s approach would seem to be the best fit for you.

    I didn’t say I wanted to keep things metaphysically simple. My point is that I can have beliefs about meta-ethics without knowing everything about how reality relates to morality. I don’t think moral realism requires a meta-ethical view that describes everything about moral ontology.

    I do have views about moral ontology. I thought I made that clear already. But there are perhaps multiple views of moral ontology that could make sense of other beliefs I have about meta-ethics.

    For example, I don’t think moral realism requires God. Why not? Well, there are many different views of ontology other than God that I think could make sense out of moral realism. That doesn’t mean I know for sure which one is correct (if any).

    You seem to postulate that you have won some sort of argument here with your vacuous claims regarding pain… and that others have a moral responsibility to be impressed…

    Why do I seem to do that? I said that there are meta-ethical views that philosophers argue for that are more qualified than I am. Perhaps I am as qualified as Haidt to talk about meta-ethics, but I suspect that he has not studied philosophy as much as either of us have.

    I have already responded to various arguments given by Haidt. I do not find all his claims to be persuasive. However, I do respect his work in social psychology, and I have read Righteous Mind. I think there’s a lot of good information in there.

    If you have written a lot about meta-ethics already (such as why you think each type of secular moral realism is problematic), then give me a link to those arguments, or go ahead and argue in detail about it here.

    If you think your own view of theistic moral realism is superior to all alternatives, then go ahead and argue for that or tell me where I can find more information about it.

    So far you say that secular types of moral realism have problems. There are objections to them, and the debate continues. But there are objections to just about every view in philosophy. Do you think that secular types of moral realism are so much worse than any other controversial view in philosophy?

  7. David, the relevant post that shows up on my website about “objective morality” does not argue that objective morality exists. I think that’s what Michael read. I didn’t say morality is objective there. I don’t think it is appropriate to tell me that I’m a kook for believing in objective morality based on that piece.

    I never said Michael or people in general have to find my argument for objective morality persuasive, and I don’t know that you have even read any of my properly written essays about that.

    I also think it would be appropriate for people to try to understand my meta-ethical view (and arguments for it) before they decide I am a kook. None of that means anyone has to agree with my view.

  8. The extent to which you are talking past me, James, is getting too laborious to sort out now that the holiday season is over and working routines are back under way. I’ll leave it to the readers here to make up their own minds how much of a kook you are. If, however, you wish to provide a link here to an essay of yours which provides better evidence in favor of your prefered position (better than the one Michael apparently read) please feel free to do so.

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