Oh, God …

I’ve just been watching the entire run of the “Blackadder” TV series — about which the only problem with it is that it’s just way too short — and I think that one of Blackadder’s common phrases is about the only way to sum up this latest post by Jerry Coyne on a “review” of his book by Michael Shermer: Oh, God …

Shermer wants to argue that science can determine moral values. Coyne’s counter to this starts rather badly here:

Well, how about using reason and philosophy, as well as innate preferences, to determine meaning and morals?

Well, first, because you concluded in your book that philosophy can’t produce truths and can’t produce knowledge. So if it’s at all important for us to determine meaning and morals, and therefore important for us to know that we have the right ones (even given innate preferences), we have to use science, and not philosophy. Second, your view on free will denies that we have moral responsibility on the basis that determinism makes morality meaningless, so you pretty much actually have to deny that morals exist by your own logic. So, essentially, if we take two views that you are deeply committed to and pretty much form the nucleus of either your book or your strongly stated positions, this question makes no sense whatsoever. Not a good start.

He then tries to challenge Shermer with this moral challenge:

Certainly science can help us determine the best ways to realize our preferences, but can Shermer tell us, for instance, whether it’s immoral to shoot coyotes that are suspected of eating livestock?

Well, presumably, if Shermer has any kind of objective moral system in mind, he surely can do so. This is an amazingly odd question because this isn’t exactly any kind of strong moral dilemma at all. I mean, is he worried that the coyotes would be killed without getting a fail trial? That perhaps the coyotes will rise up against their oppressors and protest their poor treatment? That the livestock are lying to cover up some conspiracy to murder their leaders and take over? Where’s the moral conundrum here? Coyne goes on to perhaps justify it this way:

How do you weigh the different varieties of well being (if that’s your currency for morality), and balance them against each other? How can that ever be more than a judgment call?

But I don’t really see what different varieties of “well-being” are in play here. Well, if you take it as being that of conscious entities and note that coyotes are conscious entities, then maybe you can make a case for that … but if you do that, then you have to accept that the coyotes are killing other conscious beings — livestock are surely as conscious as coyotes are — and that the only way to stop them is, in fact, to kill them (well, maybe you can move them but if there aren’t places where they can kill food then they’ll starve to death, which is hardly better) then that argument doesn’t wash. The closest you can get to an argument is an animal rights argument that they shouldn’t be killed just to preserve the property of humans … but the only way that argument sticks is if you can provide a way to prevent the killings without doing it. So since only the most rabid animal activists will argue that it is wrong to kill the coyotes when they are a demonstrable and credible threat to livestock, there’s no moral conundrum here. If Shermer reads the example, I can only imagine that his response will be similar to mine: why does he think that this is a problem that I should worry about. I suspect that Coyne had just come across this issue somewhere and so it was on his mind, which is why he used such a poor, confused and confusing example to try to hoist Shermer on.

And so, in conclusion, I repeat: oh, God …

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