A common comment that will be thrown at you when debating or discussing with a theist will be that "if you don't get your morality from god, where do you get your morality" or "are atheists then immoral" or something else of that flavor. There are many way to address these comments such as discussing where morals come from and the definition of morals, which can be tricky, or that morality is intrinsic in each being and you don't need god to have them or that morals preceded religion and there are plenty of examples that can go along with that last point. These can all be very effective but I heard something the other day that I felt made a lot of sense.

When asked "were you a moral person", the person, who was an atheist said, "you're right I'm not moral because morals is a set of behavioral guidelines derived from authority whether real or imagined and I don't use morality in my day to day life to make decisions, however I'm a very ethical person, and I think that social ethics as they evolved out of social dynamics, are a better course to pursue then morality, because if you're being a moral person, and you are doing what the authority has instructed you to do,  that authority may not in itself be moral. So for me social ethics are the way to go."

Now I understand that by ethics are defined as moral behaviors. But the distinction is blurry to me. So I would like to hear your opinion on a) the differences between the two if there are any in your view and b) your preferred method to answer this question. How do you answer someone who comes at you with the "morality" argument?

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John Major, don't you think compassion can be grounded in logic if compassion is valid?  Perhaps once grounded it might be a little different... but I think the core of it can be grounded in logic.

@John Kelly. I'm entirely comfortable with basing ethics,in part, on emotion. As I said to Unseen, I'm not a robot.

Having said that, I feel I can make a good, logical argument for my ethical outlook and have done so before. I'll gladly post if you like, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion. Again, as I said to Unseen, the argument is not short. There seems little appetite here for developed arguments, as you may have found!

I am going to break the link here and post on the bottom since this is the most recent conversation anyway, and thread shrinkage is no fun...

Anyway, emotions are determined by perceptions.  Perceptions of values, which are determined by measurements of data.  Emotions can be highly logical.   It is just the chemical experience of reasoning.

@John Major

Well, I am not so,sure as,you that compassion is quite so time based, geographically based. But
let's set that aside for a time. What ethical basis do you have that passes the tests you set. I'd be interested to know.

Spartans had no problem with killing babies that were runts or malformed or ill. They threw them off a cliff. Mothers would send their sons off to battle with the exhortation to "Come home with your shield or on it." And yet, I'm sure they had their own local concept of compassion. I can't put my finger on it at the moment, but that's probably because their society was so alien to ours and I don't understand their way of life from top to bottom. Whatever it was, I'm pretty sure it's not much like our idea of compassion.

All ethics are local. What standards of mine doesn't that meet?

@John Kelly

John Major, don't you think compassion can be grounded in logic if compassion is valid?

Are you using validity a bit loosely? If you know anything about logic, and it sounds like you do, you should know that validity is a jargon term. It means that an argument is well formed such that if the premises are true, the conclusion follows with mathematical certainty. The truth of the conclusion depends entirely upon the factual truth of the premises. For example:

All women are men

All men are ice cream cones

Thus, all women are ice cream cones

is a totally absurd but perfectly valid argument. The only problem is that both of the premises are false. The same argument (in form) with true premises yields a true conclusion:

All rabbits are mammals

All mammals are warm-blooded

Thus, all rabbits are warm-blooded

Is this the kind of validity you were referring to? or were you using it as a synonym for truth?


Yeah, I forgot to account that valid is used to measure internal consistency in formal logic.  I mean truth.

Okay, now how does one make moral or ethical assertions factual and not simply an expression of an opinion or attitude? You seem to think that's possible.

As with statistics, the larger the sample size, the greater the accuracy.  It has to be a group effort.  Binding everything to logic though is the first start and acceptance of the direct link to it is the first start.  This is because a lot of these values we have are legitimate already.  That is why they work in society and make things better.  If we value something, sometimes all we need to do is figure out "why" we value it.  

A lot of people just take things for granted.  Not many people have the awareness to realize that when they want to cross a street they are doing complex math regarding distance and velocity ect.  I think that it is the same for values.  We don't just have them and a lot of them have reasons we don't really realize.

This is my logical argument for my ethical position, defending the following arguments:

1.  Killing sentient nonhuman animals is prima facie morally wrong (vegetarianism is thus morally obligatory, but can be overidden in certain cases).

2.  Eating sentient nonhuman animals is ultima facie morally wrong (vegetarianism is thus morally obligatory and cannot be overidden).

Why don't I just combine the two positions? Well, in certain cases, I argue that the moral obligation to not kill animals can be overidden. However, I also argue that the moral obligation to not eat animals cannot be overidden. The distinction between prima and ultima facie, and the reasons for why they apply where they do in my argument, will be explained shortly.

So I'll try to present my argument and then explain the logic behind each premise. Let's not get caught up in the difference between ethics/morals.

Argument for the Moral Obligatoriness of Vegetarianism:

1. Causing harm is prima facie morally wrong (assumed).

2. Killing sentient nonhuman animals causes them harm (already discussed).

3. Therefore, killing sentient nonhuman animals is prima facie morally wrong.

4. Eating sentient nonhuman animals requires the killing of sentient nonhuman animals.

5. Therefore, eating sentient nonhuman animals is prima facie morally wrong.

6. The moral wrongness of eating sentient nonhuman animals cannot be overidden.

7. Therefore, eating sentient nonhuman animals is ultima facie morally wrong.


1.  Killing sentient nonhuman animals is prima facie morally wrong (vegetarianism is thus morally obligatory, but can be overidden in certain cases).

2.  Eating sentient nonhuman animals is ultima facie morally wrong (vegetarianism is thus morally obligatory and cannot be overidden).

I believe that this argument is valid, i.e., the conclusions follow logically from the premises. I think that objections should therefore call into question the content of the premises, not the form of the argument. I will now explain premises 1-7 in further detail.

Premise (1) is an assumed moral principle: causing harm is prima facie morally wrong, not because it violates some right or because it fails to maximize utility, but simply because it is wrong. The moral basis for this assumption is grounded in compassion, not logic. So if you deny premise (1), then the argument is not applicable to you (commentary from John Kelly is welcome on the compassion from logic theme already raised)

However, if you accept premise (1) as such, but believe that it should only apply to humans, then the argument does apply to you.

Premise (1) includes the term "prima facie." By prima facie is meant that the moral wrongness of the harm caused may be overidden in certain cases. Conversely, premise (6) is "ultima facie" morally wrong because the harm caused by eating animals cannot be overidden. So why is premise (1) "prima facie" morally wrong  and premise (6) "ultima facie" morally wrong? An explanation for premise (6) will be
addressed at the end, but two examples will help demonstrate why premise (1) is prima facie:

1. The prick of the syringe needle during an innoculation procedure is painful (pain = harm), but the resulting immunization from disease serves as a compensatory moral good. 

2. The moral wrongness of causing harm is overidden in cases of self-defense; .e.g, you're attacked by an animal (human or otherwise).

3. The moral wrongness of causing harm is overidden in cases where sentience is absent (see below).

I thought that the claim that killing animals causes them harm might seem too obvious to warrant much discussion, although @Unseen seems to dispute this. However, its importance is directly linked to the definition of "harm." I define harm in two ways:

1. Inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on sentient beings.

2. Doing things which adversely affect the interests of other sentient beings, whether it be thwarting, setting back, or defeating those interests.

These "basic welfare" interests include, but are not necessarily limited to, the continuance of one's life, physical health and vigor, the integrity and normal functioning of one's body, the absence of absorbing pain and suffering, emotional stability, a tolerable social and physical environment, and a certain amount of freedom from interference and coercion. These welfare interests are the very most important interests, not only because they are definitive of basic well-being, but also because their realization is necessary before one can satisfy virtually any other interest or do much of anything with one's life. We cannot achieve our ulterior interests in a career or personal relationships or material gain if we are unhealthy, in chronic pain, emotionally unstable, living in intolerable conditions, and are constantly interfered with and coerced
by others. When basic welfare interests are defeated, a very serious harm has been done to the sentient possessor of those interests, no matter what species it belongs to.

We have here what is needed to defend the claim that killing sentient nonhuman animals causes them serious harm by defeating their basic welfare interests (premise [2]). Why do I restrict interests to
sentient animals in premise (2)? Let's define sentience.

The following two propositions are necessary and sufficient conditions for sentience:

1. The capacity to experience pain and suffering.

2. The possession of basic welfare interests.

These nececessary and sufficient conditions for sentience exclude (at the very least) plants. If the thing in question lacks sentience, it cannot have interests.

Why is sentience necessary for the possession of interests? Well, you need to have the capacity to consciously experience pain and other harms before you can really have an interest in not experiencing pain and other harms. Let's not delude ourselves: few people really think that plants are the same as sentient nonhumans. If I ate your tomato and your dog, you would not regard these as morally similar acts. As far as we know, plants are not sentient. They are not conscious and able to experience pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems, endorphins, receptors or benzodiazepines, or any other indications of sentience. Plants do not have interests, animals do. Unconvinced? Well, it is worth noting that much plant matter can be eaten without killing anything: most vegetarian fare consists of the fruits and flowers of plants which are not killed or are harvested at the end of annual life cycles.

Premise (3) follows easily enough from the acceptability of (1) and (2), so let's move on to permise (4). Note that premise 4 allows for the consumption of animals who died due to accidents, natural causes, or
other sources which do not involve the deliberate actions of moral agents (humans).

We've seen how killing is a serious harm to basic welfare interests, so further explanation of premise (5) is unnecessary. The next step is to link the moral wrongness of killing nonhuman sentient animals with
the wrongness of eating them. This, I hope, should be clear. If killing animals harms them, then eating them is equally harmful.

The final point to consider is premise (6). Why is eating sentient nonhuman animals "ultima facie" morally
wrong (a moral principle which cannot be overidden)? Three common objections for the prima facie acceptability of meat-consumption are often given: (1) tradition-culture; 2) convenience; (3) nutrition. Let's
address each of these "justifications" in turn.

1. Animal-eating is a social practice which is deeply embedded into modern culture. Slavery, the oppression of women, and institutionalized racism also once had this status; however, few if any suppose that this status is what makes these practices morally right or wrong. Animal-eating (speciesism) is wrong for the same reason slavery is wrong: it requires the persistent exploitation, coercion, and degradation of non juman animals with basic welfare interests. So the fact that a practice has the weight of tradition on its side and a prominent place in a given culture is morally irrelevant.

2. The convenience of animal-eating is also one of cultural practice, but again, this says nothing about whether animal-eating is morally permissible. Vegetarianism may inconvenience the lifestyles of
meat-eaters to a negligible extent, but so what? I'm sure the abolition of slavery in the antebellum South financially "inconvenienced" white plantation owners as well, but this has no relevant bearing on the
question of whether we should extend the scope of our moral concerns to other races (or species).

The reasoning which employs convenience as a moral weight in denying a particular race its interest to not be enslaved is morally and logically indistinguishable from the kind of discrimination which denies the interests of other sentient species to not be systematically slaughtered and eaten.

3. With the exception of a very few people on planet Earth, human beings can live extraordinarily healthy lives as vegetarians. And for those unfortunate few who cannot, affordable supplements are readily
available. Does vegetarianism seriously endanger an individuals' health and well-being? No. Nutritional case-studies are available upon request. Let's also not forget that meat-eating (especially red-meat) has been linked to serious debilitating diseases, as well as obesity and heart conditions.

I conclude that none of (1-3) serve as a sufficiently compelling reason to override the moral wrongness of harming the nonhuman sentient animals eaten. Therefore:

1.  Killing sentient nonhuman animals is prima facie morally wrong (vegetarianism is thus morally obligatory, but can be overidden in certain cases).

2.  Eating sentient nonhuman animals is ultima facie morally wrong (vegetarianism is thus morally obligatory and cannot be overidden).

Well, any argument based on the notion that an opinion or attitude is unexaminable and assumed to be true falls flat on its face right there.

Your argument is only for those who don't want to examine whether that assumption is also a fact and until you deal with that it is on a par with all other assumptions.

Here's just one problem you have:

If I'm attacked by a bear, and I have a powerful gun with me, your arguments say it would be morally wrong to defend myself.

After I kill the bear, your arguments imply that I must waste it's flesh and not eat the bear.

This fishy prima facie-ness of yours is a bit too strong to pass the most basic test of practicality.

BTW, what's your stand on keeping a pet? It's slavery according to your worldview, isn't it? Even if you treat the animal well and even if it seems to enjoy being a pet, it really deserves to have the life nature intended out in the wild.

i covered your bear issue. I mentioned self defence. As I said above, eating the meat of an animal killed in self defence is not morally wrong.

I think a lot of people, though not you, would assume causing harm is prima facie wrong. It's linked to compassion, to recognising the evolutionary thrust to survive. I'm not sure how you support your ethical position on a subject and not include an opinion. I know you believe ethics are subjective, isn't opinion implicit?

Surely we all make lots of assumptions when forming ethics? Don't we assume others feel as we do, react like we do. This is all assumption, probably a good assumption, but something beyond proof.

It is a practical argument, one believed and put into practice by many who share an ethical objection to eating meat.

I assume some things. I assume my senses aren't deceiving me, at least most of the time, that my belief I'm a male human living on the shore of Lake Erie in Ohio is a fact, that my hair won't grow back, that I know what blue is, etc. But those are all beliefs and thus are not facts. I can't build an argument on them and build to a conclusion that is anything but tentative and opinion-based.

However, if you want to build an ethical system, it needs to be right or it can't lay much of a claim to being ethical.

BTW, you didn't affirm that pet ownership is slavery.


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