toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sense and Goodness without God

I can't figure out what to do with ideas like should or ought. For instance from my readings in linguistics (a career path I long considered pursuing) it is impossible for me to think of proscriptive grammar as in any way meaningful. To paraphrase Steven Pinker, just like we don't "correct" a whale while it's vocalizing it's undersea aria, it just doesn't make sense to talk about "correct" grammar. It's valuable to have a shared grammar that we all conform to, but there is no sense in which it is "correct" or best.

This is how I see morality as well. We have a morality module that works a certain way and has a certain job. I know what people mean by right and wrong and ought. I just happen to think it's as meaningless as saying that French is a better language than German. You may have strong aesthetic intuitions about the subject, but at the end of the day it's a meaningless stance. Does this make me the worst kind of ethical relativist? Maybe. The strange thing is that when I discuss this idea with people it often turns out that we agree on how people "should" act and why they act the way they do, etc. So it's possible that it's just a big semantic disagreement. But I still feel like I just can't make sense of "ought".

Having been thinking about such things, it was interesting to run into this online video lecture of Richard Carrier (and also some notes of the event). He *does* believe in right and wrong and ought. And I found I was agreeing with almost everything he said. Yet I still can't make sense of "ought". I guess I'll have to watch the video again. In any case his book "Sense and Goodness without God" went on my reading short list.

If you've never read him before he's a great writer. His blog is worth following and he's got a butt load of great essays at




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