The style in the following article is slightly different from most LW articles, due to the fact that I originally posted this on my blog. Some folks on #lesswrong liked it, so I thought it might be liked here as well.

Our moral reasoning is ultimately grounded in our moral intuitions: instinctive "black box" judgements of what is right and wrong. For example, most people would think that needlessly hurting somebody else is wrong, just because. The claim doesn't need further elaboration, and in fact the reasons for it can't be explained, though people can and do construct elaborate rationalizations for why everyone should accept the claim. This makes things interesting when people with different moral intuitions try to debate morality with each other.


Why do modern-day liberals (for example) generally consider it okay to say "I think everyone should be happy" without offering an explanation, but not okay to say "I think I should be free to keep slaves", regardless of the explanation offered? In an earlier age, the second statement might have been considered acceptable, while the first one would have required an explanation.

In general, people accept their favorite intuitions as given and require people to justify any intuitions which contradict those. If people have strongly left-wing intuitions, they tend to consider right-wing intuitions arbitrary and unacceptable, while considering left-wing intuitions so obvious as to not need any explanation. And vice versa.

Of course, you will notice that in some cultures specific moral intuitions tend to dominate, while other intuitions dominate in other cultures. People tend to pick up the moral intuitions of their environment: some claims go so strongly against the prevailing moral intuitions of my social environment that if I were to even hypothetically raise the possibility of them being correct, I would be loudly condemned and feel bad for even thinking that way. (Related: Paul Graham's What you can't say.) "Culture" here is to be understood as being considerably more fine-grained than just "the culture in Finland" or the "culture in India" - there are countless of subcultures even within a single country.


Social psychologists distinguish between two kinds of moral rules: ones which people consider absolute, and ones which people consider to be social conventions. For example, if a group of people all bullied and picked on one of them, this would usually be considered wrong, even if everyone in the group (including the bullied person) thought it was okay. But if there's a rule that you should wear a specific kind of clothing while at work, then it's considered okay not to wear those clothes if you get special permission from your boss, or if you switch to another job without that rule.

The funny thing is that many people don't realize that the distinction of which is which is by itself a moral intuition which varies from people to people, and from culture to culture. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion of his finding that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find violations of harmless taboos to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were more likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes. At the time, moral psychology had mistakenly thought that "moving on" to a conception of right and wrong that was only grounded in concrete harms would be the way that children's morality naturally develops, and that children discover morality by themselves instead of learning it from others.

So moral psychologists had mistakenly been thinking about some moral intuitions as absolute instead of relative. But we can hardly blame them, for it's common to fail to notice that the distinction between "social convention" and "moral fact" is variable. Sometimes this is probably done for purpose, for rhetorical reasons - it's a much more convincing speech if you can appeal to ultimate moral truths rather than to social conventions. But just as often people simply don't seem to realize the distinction.

(Note to international readers: I have been corrupted by the American blogosphere and literature, and will therefore be using "liberal" and "conservative" mostly to denote their American meanings. I apologize profusely to my European readers for this terrible misuse of language and for not using the correct terminology like God intended it to be used.)

For example, social conservatives sometimes complain that liberals are pushing their morality on them, by requiring things such as not condemning homosexuality. To liberals, this is obviously absurd - nobody is saying that the conservatives should be gay, people are just saying that people shouldn’t be denied equal rights simply because of their sexual orientation. From the liberal point of view, it is the conservatives who are pushing their beliefs on others, not vice versa.

But let's contrast "oppressing gays" to "banning polluting factories". Few liberals would be willing to accept the claim that if somebody wants to build a factory that causes a lot of harm to the environment, he should be allowed to do so, and to ban him from doing it would be to push the liberal ideals on the factory-owner. They might, however, protest that to prevent them from banning the factory would be pushing (e.g.) pro-capitalism ideals on them. So, in other words:

Conservatives want to prevent people from being gay. They think that this just means upholding morality. They think that if somebody wants to prevent them from doing so, that somebody is pushing their own ideals on them.

Liberals want to prevent people from polluting their environment. They think that this just means upholding morality. They think that if somebody wants to prevent them from doing so, that somebody is pushing their own ideals on them.

Now my liberal readers (do I even have any socially conservative readers?) will no doubt be rushing to point out the differences in these two examples. Most obviously the fact that pollution hurts other people than just the factory owner, like people on their nearby summer cottages who like seeing nature in a pristine and pure state, so it's justified to do something about it. But conservatives might also argue that openly gay behavior encourages being openly gay, and that this hurts those in nearby suburbs who like seeing people act properly, so it's justified to do something about it.

It's easy to say that "anything that doesn't harm others should be allowed", but it's much harder to rigorously define harm, and liberals and conservatives differ in when they think it's okay to cause somebody else harm. And even this is probably conceding too much to the liberal point of view, as it accepts a position where the morality of an act is judged primarily in the form of the harms it causes. Some conservatives would be likely to argue that homosexuality just is wrong, the way that killing somebody just is wrong.

My point isn't that we should accept the conservative argument. Of course we should reject it - my liberal moral intuitions say so. But we can't in all honestly claim an objective moral high ground. If we are to be honest to ourselves, we will accept that yes, we are pushing our moral beliefs on them - just as they are pushing their moral beliefs on us. And we will hope that our moral beliefs win.

Here's another example of "failing to notice the subjectivity of what counts as social convention". Many people are annoyed by aggressive vegetarians, who think anyone who eats meat is a bad person, or by religious people who are actively trying to convert others. People often say that it's fine to be vegetarian or religious if that's what you like, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same.

Compare this to saying that it's fine to refuse to send Jews to concentration camps, or to let people die in horrible ways when they could have been saved, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same. I expect that would sound absurd to most of us. But if you accept a certain vegetarian point of view, then killing animals for food is exactly equivalent to the Holocaust. And if you accept a certain religious view saying that unconverted people will go to Hell for an eternity, then not trying to convert them is even worse than letting people die in horrible ways. To say that these groups shouldn't push their morality to others is to already push your own ideology - which says that decisions about what to eat and what to believe are just social conventions, while decisions about whether to kill humans and save lives are moral facts - on them.

So what use is there in debating morality, if we have so divergent moral intuitions? In some cases, people have such widely differing intuitions that there is no point. In other cases, their intuitions are similar enough that they can find common ground, and in that case discussion can be useful. Intuitions can clearly be affected by words, and sometimes people do shift their intuitions as a result of having debated them. But this usually requires appealing to, or at least starting out from, some moral intuition that they already accept. There are inferential distances involved in moral claims, just as there are inferential distances involved in factual claims.

So what about the cases when the distance is too large, when the gap simply cannot be bridged? Well in those cases, we will simply have to fight to keep pushing our own moral intuitions to as many people as possible, and hope that they will end up having more influence than the unacceptable intuitions. Many liberals probably don't want to admit to themselves that this is what we should do, in order to beat the conservatives - it goes so badly against the liberal rhetoric. It would be much nicer to pretend that we are simply letting everyone live the way they want to, and that we are fighting to defend everyone's right for that.

But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong", such as discriminating against gays. And that in this regard we're no different from the conservatives, who would likewise let everyone live the way they wanted to, as long as they don't do things the conservatives consider "really wrong".

Of course, whether or not you'll want to be that honest depends on what your moral intuitions have to say about honesty.

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For example, most people would think that needlessly hurting somebody else is wrong, just because. The claim doesn't need further elaboration, and in fact the reasons for it can't be explained, though people can and do construct elaborate rationalizations for why everyone should accept the claim.

I think this is a folk theory about how "moral intuitions" work, and I don't think that it is true, in the sense that it is a naive answer to a naive question that should have been dissolved rather than answered. For example, most people think everything "just because", and further elaboration is just confabulation unless you do something unusual.

Thinking that morality is a specialized domain (a separate magisterium?) leads to the idea of "debating morality" as though the actual real communication events that acquire that label are like other debates except about the specialized domain: engaged in for similar purposes, with similar actual end points, resolved according to similar rhetorical patterns, and so on. Compare and contrast variations on the terms: "ethical debates", "political debates", "scientific debates", "m... (read more)

I'm not entirely sure what you mean, or perhaps you use "dissolving" in a different sense from how I understand it. I thought that dissolving a question meant taking a previously mysterious and unanswerable question and providing such an explanation that there's no longer any question to be asked. But if there is a mysterious and unanswerable question here, I'm not sure of what it is.
Potential questions this essay could have been written to answer, that might deserve to be dissolved rather than answered directly: * How does moral reasoning work (and what are the implications)? * How do moral debates find ground in moral feelings (and what are the implications)? * Where does the motivational force attributed to pro-social intrinsic values come from (and what are the implications)?
I'm currently reading a book called Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality that frames the problem exactly like that. It's by Patricia Churchland. The view that she defends is that moral decision are based on constraint satisfaction, just like a lot of other decisions processes.
For what it's worth, I'd bet that your third question will be answered more or less directly, without dissolution. See Wix's reply for a step in that direction.
You're probably right. In some sense I just re-stated the same question a few times, dissolving more at each step :-)
Still not sure what you mean: questions one and two seem interesting but outside the scope of my essay, and I'm not sure I understand the third one. You said in your original comment that ...but I don't think I really answered any of those three questions in my post.
To be fair, this post does point out a reason why debating morality is different from debating most other subjects (using different words from mine): people have very different priors on morality, and unlike in, say, physics, these priors can't be rebutted by observing the universe. Reaching an agreement in morality is therefore often much harder than in other subjects, if an agreement even can be reached.

Why do modern-day liberals (for example) generally consider it okay to say "I think everyone should be happy" without offering an explanation, but not okay to say "I think I should be free to keep slaves", regardless of the explanation offered?

"I think everyone should be happy" is an expression of a terminal value. Slavery is not a typically positive terminal value, so if you terminally value slavery you would have to say something like "I like the idea of slavery itself"; if you just say "I like slavery" people will think you have some justification in terms of other terminal values (e.g. slavery -> economics -> happiness).

So, to say you like slavery implies you have some justification for it as an instrumental value. Such justifications are generally considered to be incorrect for typical terminal values and so, the "liberals" could legitimately consider you to be factually incorrect.

So, to say you like slavery implies you have some justification for it as an instrumental value.

Well, let's ask some folks who actually did like slavery, and fought for it.

From the Texas Declaration of Secession, adopted February 2, 1861:

[T]he servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations [...]

So at least some people who strongly believed that slavery was moral, claimed to hold this belief on the basis of (what they believed to be) both consequential and divine-command morality.

It's not at all obvious if they really believed it. People say stuff they don't believe all the time.
As I side note, I'd like to say I'd imagine nearly all political beliefs throughout history have had people citing every imaginable form of ethics as justifications, and furthermore without even distinguishing between them. From what I understand the vast majority of people don't even realize there's a distinction (I myself didn't know about non-consequentalist ideas until about 6 months ago, actually). BTW, I would say that an argument about "the freedom to own slaves" is essentially an argument that slavery being allowed is a terminal value, although I'd doubt anyone would argue that owning of slaves is itself a terminal value.
That seems like a valid distinction, but what makes you think that it is actually the distinction that motivates the difference in reactions?

Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion of his finding that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find things like "not wearing a uniform to school" to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes.

Does he? The data in the source disagree (tables on 619-620). I haven't read all the text of the source, but it gives the uniform as the prototypical example of a custom and seems to say ... (read more)

Thanks, I edited the sentence to be clearer on that: "...that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find violations of harmless taboos to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were more likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes."
That's a fun result. Years ago, I had a "spiritual person" telling me about how god could help me if I prayed to him. Wishing to make a point by metaphor, I told him "it seems to me that god is just santa clause for grown-ups." "Yes," he responded, "santa clause gives kids what they want, god gives you what you need." If only clever repartee established truth, then Stephen Colbert would be the last president we would ever need. If the smarter you get, the more things you think are social convention and the fewer you think are absolute morality, then what is our self-improving AI going to eventually think about the CEV we coded in back when he was but an egg?
It isn't going to think the CEV is an absolute morality - it'll just keep doing what it is programmed to do because that is what it does. If the programming is correct it'll keep implementing CEV. If it was incorrect then we'll probably all die. The relevance to 'absolute morality' here is that if the programmers happened to believe there was an absolute morality and tried to program the AI to follow that then they would fail, potentially catastrophically.

There's a theory of ethics I seem to follow, but don't know the name of. Can someone refer me to existing descriptions?

The basic idea is to restrict the scope where the theory is valid. Many other theories fail (only in my personal view, obviously) by trying to solve universal problems: does my theory choose the best possible universe? How do I want everyone to behave? If everyone followed my theory, would that be a good or a stable world? Solving under these constraints can lead people to some pretty repugnant conclusions, as well as people rejecting othe... (read more)

There seems to be a parallel here, with the concepts of rationality and bounded rationality. Rational decision-making needs to solve problems like Newcomb's Dilemma, Pascal's Mugging, acausal outside-the-lightcone one-shot cooperation, and the trillionth digit of pi being odd with probability .5 when lacking logical omniscience. In contrast, bounded rationality recognises that these things are outside the scope, and concerns itself with being correct within its bounds. So perhaps you could adopt the name 'bounded morality'?
2drethelin I really like Muflax's post on this topic. For practical purposes, morality needs to be calculable.
Thanks! Muflax comes to this conclusion in that post: I agree that local theories are better than nonlocal ones - although "local" is in some degree relative; local theories with a large "locality" may be acceptable. This isn't specific to moral theories, it applies to all decision algorithms. This doesn't directly address my position that theories that only tell you what to do in some cases, but do cover the cases likely to occur to you personally, are valid and useful.

I have been corrupted by the American blogosphere and literature, and will therefore be using "liberal" and "conservative" mostly to denote their American meanings.

You could use “left-wing” and “right-wing”, whose meanings (across the First World at least) are more consistent.

Our moral reasoning is ultimately grounded in our moral intuitions

I don't accept the premise. Moral intuitions play a part, but the ultimate constraints come more from the nature of rational discourse and the psychology of the discoursing species. For extended arguments along these lines (well mostly the emphasized part) see Jürgen Habermas and Thomas Scanlon.

Isn't "the psychology of the discoursing species" another way of saying "moral intuitions"? Or at least, those are included in the umbrella of that term.
Yes, they're included. Well said. I believe this way of putting it, however, supports my criticism of the phrase "ultimately grounded in our moral intuitions;" the phrase is badly incomplete.

Change you link to a better version of Haidt's paper. Your current link doesn't have searchable text.

Thanks, changed.

I would compare ethics to swimming in a giant tub of ice cream (all the same flavor) with the rest of humanity. Everyone has a favorite flavor which their intuitions pick for them, but the world can't fit everyone's tastes. Some flavors are acceptable deviations, but others are painfully unbearable. It only makes sense to try and fill the tub with your personal preference.

Front page, I suggest.

Thanks, I moved it. Let's see how it does.
I agree.

So what about the cases when the distance is too large, when the gap simply cannot be bridged? Well in those cases, we will simply have to fight to keep pushing our own moral intuitions to as many people as possible, and hope that they will end up having more influence than the unacceptable intuitions.

We're not stuck with our moral intuitions, unless we have "faith" that they're "true."

  1. Doesn't it seem odd, Kaj_Sojala—even irrational—that we should push our "moral intuitions" when that's all they are: intuitions—which don

... (read more)
And why should you do that?

I have an impression that most of the explicit thinking about "morality" gets sabotaged by conditioning. The type of thought that allows you to eat the last piece of cake is associated with eating cake, the type of thought that leads to sense of guilt is associated with guilt.

Subsequently a great deal of self proclaimed systems of morality are produced in such a manner that they are much too ill defined to be used to determine the correct actions , and are only usable for rationalization (utilitarianisms, i am looking at you).

Meanwhile, there is ... (read more)

-1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Can you clarify this/give some concrete examples?
Morals are significantly restrictive and influence personal pleasure (to the point that thinking about your own action produces guilt, a pain-like feeling, and the morals stand in the way of getting what you want). Subsequently the thought is subject to reward/punishment conditioning. If you rationalize why you should have more cake than the other, you get cake, which is reward, if you think too clearly about your ill-doings, you are hurt by feeling of guilt; if you engage in particular form of thought whereby you do not ensure correctness of the reasoning and do not note the ways how your argument may fail (implicit assumptions etc) you can easily rationalize away the things you did wrong. Basically, you are being conditioned to feel good about bad approach to reasoning - where you make huge jumps, where you don't note the assumptions you make, where you just make invalid assumption, where you don't search for faults, etc., and feel bad about good approach to reasoning. Your very thought process is being trained to be sloppy and broken, with only very superficial resemblance to the logic - only sufficient resemblance that the guilt circuit won't be triggered. There is some minor conditioning from the situations where you received some external punishment or reward, but those are too uncommon and too inconsistent, and the reward/punishment is too delayed, and at the very best those would condition mere avoidance of being caught.
-1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
My initial response to this was "that seems completely untrue," so I decided to hunt for examples. I think you're right, because I was able to come up with an example of myself doing this, namely downloading music and movies for free from the Internet. I do consider this kind-of-vaguely-like-stealing, but the "kind-of-vaguely" part is a good indication that my thinking is deliberately fuzzy in this area. When I think about it, I don't know why–I don't consume enough entertainment materials that paying for it would be a significant pull on my finances, and I'm hardly financially strapped. I think it's because the usual strong positive reinforcement I would get for knowing I was "doing the right thing" despite wanting Thing X really badly is outweighed by the knowledge that several of my friends would make fun of me for paying for stuff on iTunes. Which...if I think about also a pretty selfish reason! You may just have convinced me that I should start paying for my music and movies, as a way of training my moral thinking to be less "sloppy"!

FWIW, I don't actually want to let everyone live the way they want to.
Ideally, I would far prefer that everyone live the way that's best for everyone.

Of course, I don't know that there is any such way-to-live, and I certainly don't know what it is, or how to cause everyone to live that way.

I might end up endorsing letting everyone live the way they want to, if I were convinced that that was the best achievable approximation of everyone living the way that's best for everyone. (IRL I'm not convinced of that.) But it would be an approximation of what ... (read more)

That can also backfire with charges of "disingenuous".
Well, yes. I mean, it is disingenuous. If I'm going to successfully pretend to be doing something I'm not, it helps to not get caught out.

I don't have much to contribute here personally; Just want ton ote that Yvain has an excellent diagram on the "inferrential distances" thing:

(Also, the place he linked it from: is probably the more obviously relevant thing to moral debates in politics and the like.)


I probably have very different sense what's moral and what isn't from the author (who claims to be American liberal), but I agree with pretty much everything the author says about meta-morality.

The author doesn't claim to be American and in fact is, as far as I know, Finnish.
Potentially "American liberal" is American-flavour liberalism, and not an American who is also a liberal.
Though it should probably be noted that I used "liberal" mostly a convenient shorthand to characterize my views regarding gay rights, rather than as a characterization of my political views in general. I expect there to be a number of issues on which my views map badly to the views of the typical American liberal, though I don't actually know American politics well enough to know exactly what views those are.
Damn ambiguous natural languages, you may be right.

Moral intuitions (i.e, 'kneejerk reactions') are what fuels many people's opinions. Can we do better on LW? Meta-ethical systems (consequentialism, deontology) are often used as post-hoc rationalizations for said moral intuitions, but can we do better?

For these kind of problems I especially like Kant's approach -- can we come up with a rule that underlies our opinion on something, and would we be willing to follow that rule, even if it goes against our immediate intuitions in some other case? And the more specific a rule gets (ie., 'this only applies to green people', the clearer is the sign that we're doing some special pleading.

How is coming up with a rule based on our moral intuitions and then following that rule even when it means violating our intuitions any better than just following intuitions in the first place? How is it better to replace following intuitions with following an imperfect simplification derived from an intuition? I have been thinking these past months that I could somehow be immune from or outside of the necessity of having my intuitions dictate my values. Someone pointed out to me that it was essentially an intuition of mine that separating from this source of morality would be a good idea, and since then I have been trying to figure out how to live with being just an evolutionarily determined set of arbitrary (to anyone outside the system) values.
You can't get away from your intuitions. We contemplate our moral intuitions and intuitively abstract rules from them, and have the intuition that such rules should be followed. Yet the rules may turn out to violate other intuitions. The problem is not rules against intuitions, but intuitions against intuitions.
Well, deriving and following a rule can allow for consistent behavior across sets of situations where my intuitions are inconsistent. If I value consistency, I might endorse that.
If you value consistency, AND your moral system is derived from your moral intuitions and nothing else, AND your moral intuitions are inconsistent... If it walks like a science and it talks like a science but it is astrology, is it worth doing the calculations?
When you consider that "doing the calculations" is how astronomy was ultimately derived from and separated from astrology quiet possibly.
Good point. So we have now had astronomy for more than 2000 years, thanks Astrology! What have we gotten from doing Ethics? What has moral realism delivered? I suppose you might say a population easier to rule, and that would be something indeed, but before I put words in your mouth, you tell me what you get for having tried to systematize morality for 4000 years?
Yes. Though not more than once. Incidentally, I don't accept that adding the "and nothing else" clause preserves the meaning of my original comment. Which is fine; you're under no obligation to preserve that meaning, I just wanted to make that explicit.
Since we are talking about how to form a system of morality, where it might come from, and what might be good or bad about doing so, if there is some source of morality that youare presuming that has not yet entered the discussion, by all means, please, let 'er rip. I would prefer knowing what it is than to merely knowing that you may or may not have one in your pocket that you haven't stated.
I have not claimed a hidden source of morality, nor do I possess one, so you can rest easy on that score. But deriving a rule, or a consistent set of rules, or a system of morality based on my moral intuitions and my knowledge of the world is different from deriving it based on my moral intuitions and nothing else, even if my knowledge of the world is not itself a source of morality.
Its better if you tell me what you think and I don't have to guess. I don't see how a moral intuition could ever even appear absent some knowledge of the world, these are feelings which arise in response to situations we find ourselves in and (at least we think) comprehending. Ir your systematized morality is "better" than your non-systematized moral intuitions, please tell me, at least through examples, 1) How it is different and 2) How you know (or at least why you think) it is better.
I'm not asserting that moral intuitions can arise without any knowledge of the world. But not all of my knowledge of the world plays a significant role in the formation of my moral intuitions, for various reasons, any more than all of my knowledge of the world plays a significant role in the formation of my physical and social intuitions. And (as I've said repeatedly) taking all of that knowledge into account along with my moral intuitions when deriving moral rules can lead to a different set of rules than deriving those moral rules based on my intuitions and nothing else (as you initially framed the question). As I said in the first place, the potential value of a systematized moral framework is that it can allow for consistent behavior across sets of situations where my intuitions are inconsistent, and some people value consistency. If that's not clear enough to preclude the need for guesswork, I apologize for the lack of clarity. If you have specific questions or challenges I'll try to address them. If I'm just not making any sense at all, I'd prefer to drop this exchange here.
Well, in mathematics and science we made a lot of progress when we stopped doing the latter and started doing the former.
Yes. In science and math we had reality against which to measure our progress. What do you measure your progress against in coming up with a moral system? If it is the extent to which your moral system matches your moral intuitions, you will never do better than just following your intuitions. If you are measuring your progress against something else, do say what it is. I know I have been searching for decades for some way to make morality objective. If there is nothing against which to measure your progress, than following your intuitions is immeasurably better or worse than making up a system based on SOME of your intuitions.
I would say that for someone who accepts liberal ideas (counting most conservatives in western countries), this seems like a very useful argument for convincing them of this: If we always used intuitional morality, we would currently have morality that disagrees with their intuitions (about slavery being wrong, democracy being good, those sorts of things). Of course, as a rational argument it makes no sense. It just appeals to me because my intuitions are Consequentialist and I want to try to convince others to follow Consequentialism, because it will lead to better outcomes.
Except how do you measure something against reality in a way that doesn't (at least implicitly) rely on your intuitions? Well, this is more-or-less what we do in mathematics.
I can routinely travel thousands of miles in a few hours at extremely finite cost. Our modern society gives US citizens on average the benefit of 25 humans worth of energy usage (that is, the amount of energy per day used by the average american would require 25 slaves to generate if human slaves were used to generate energy). Even in math, I can build my understanding in to circuits which by working, verify my mathematical reasoning, and more importantly, verify that the reasoning stands independently of my own feelings or intuitions about it it. I routinely calculate things and then build software to implement them that 1) either works as I expected from my mathematical calculations, or 2) doesn't, in which case, so far, I have always been able to find that I made a mistake in my calculations, or in my interpretation of how my implementation was related to my calculations. I'll admit some theoretical intuitive component to understanding the connection between science/math and real benefits that come from it. But it isn't just that I am privileging math/science in a way I refuse to privilege moral reasoning. It is that I don't even know what benefits for systematized morality you are claiming. What do I expect as my payoff for systematizing morality, that I may perhaps have to make some intuitive leaps to notice? What does systematized morality offer us that merely relying on moral intuition in a non-systematic way doesn't do just as well? This is a real question, not some rhetorical question to say "see, I am right." What do you get out of throwing your faith behind moral realism and systematizing it?
That is a good question. I think determining some underlying rule can help me make (subjectively of course) better judgements, which have a much better chance of being consistent (as TheOtherDave mentions). It's much too easy for the emotional machinery in our brains to be hijacked by images of baby-seals, terrorists, etc., and I feel my judgements are better if I can use some underlying rules rather than my intuitions.
If all you have to base your moral system on is your intuitions, then the best you can hope for in a "consistent" systematization is to do no worse than flipping a coin when you have conflicting intuitions. I suppose what I am really reacting to is that it strikes me that carefully systematizing morality makes as much sense as carefully systematizing astrology. The details and the calculations and the cogitation serve to give the illusion of there being something there while in actuality... all you have is Rationality Theater.
True, at some point intuitions come into play (unless you are some kind of Spock), to determine your personal moral bedrock. But at least for me, these intuitions are not all born equal, and not all intuitions are part of this bedrock. A typical example would be: 'Cute animals are more important', which may conflict with some deeper rule in some situation. Instead of just following my intuition with that first rule, I think my moral judgements are better when I take a step back and try to use the deeper rule.
Well, the same problem exists in science but that hasn't stopped us from making progress.
You are on to something, science in some sense is taken on faith and morality in a similar sense is taken on faith. But the faiths are different. The faith of science is a testable faith. Either you build stuff that works or you don't. if your musings about thermodynamics lead to a steam engine and later to an air conditioner, and your musings about electrons in a semiconductor lead to a transistor and later to a smartphone, well, that is what your high priests of science can bring you. What is the test of a faith in moral realism? I don't wish to answer with a strawman that I will knock down, I really want to know, how do you evaluate if your moral system is doing a good job? Do you measure fewer inconsistencies in intuition? Do you get elected to the senate? Do people vote up your karma? Science leads to jet aircraft and HD TVs and hip replacements. 2 out of 3 Abrahamic religions lead toenjoyable promises of an eternity of bliss. What is the promise of a moral system? What is the thing it claims to give me that I don't have just following my intuitions in a non-systematic way? I know what the high-priests of science are claiming for their mojo, and it sure seems to me they deliver. (And they don't require me to believe in their mumbo jumbo "induction" stuff in order to use their jet aircraft and smartphones). What are the moral realists offering? And even more important, what are they delivering?
The best answer I can give you is that a moral realist today is currently in the same situation as a physical realist was before the development of the scientific method. There were lots of competing not-quite coherent theories of what it means for something to be real, but if you asked 100 people they would all agree on whether something was a rock or a glass of milk barring weirdness. Similarly, today there are lots of competing not-quite coherent theories of what it means for something to be moral, but if you asked 100 people they would all agree that killing an innocent person is wrong barring weirdness. (The above is paraphrased from another comment that I can't locate right now.) I realize that the above may not be the most satisfying answer, especially if the history of philosophy isn't available for you.
So perhaps we still await the development of "the moral method." It does strike me, and I mean I have not thought of this really until right now, that law and government are the engineering branches of "the moral method" of "moral realism" as "the scientific method" corresponds to "physical realism." Economics and Sociology may be the Physics and Chemistry of "moral realism." The progress that law and government have enabled are an economic productivity contributed to by billions of people (or at least 100s of millions) which dwarfs that of our predecessors in the same way that our technology dwarfs that of our predecessors. There are at least a few interesting things about this idea. One need not "believe" in science to use the fruits of it, whereas plausibliy a belief in science is necessary to contribute to developing its progress. One can be an anarchist or a communist or an ignoramus or a nihilist and benefit from the modern economy and unprecedented levels of personal security in society. Presumably any "realism" would have implications that did not depend on the state of belief in the thing which is real. What my off-the-cuff thesis lacks is any neessity for the truth-or-falsehood of moral statements. "You ought to obey the law" or "killing in a way which is against the law is wrong" are NOT required to be meaningful statements with an objective truth value. Or are they? In some sense, the truth value of scientific statements require the assumptions of logic and induction. One could say that it is not necessary to have a truth value associated with "all electrons repel each other" in order for me to build a smartphone which will only work if its untested electrons act the same in the future as the very very few electrons I have actually tested in the past. So perhaps "de facto" as it were, the practitioners and advancers of the law and government have a belief in "the moral method" just as non-philosopher scientists and engineers seem to have a "de facto"
Given the current state of economics and sociology I'd replace chemistry with alchemy in that metaphor. Also, foundational systems like utilitarianism and deontology are the equivalent of astronomy/astrology before they got separated. A better analogy might be someone who believes that he can develop a physical theory simply by introspection without looking at the world. (It was a popular philosophical position before the scientific method was developed, after all that's how mathematics works and it had been successful.)
Doing this is, of course, a major project in philosophy. Many attempts have serious problems.
I can see that... one of the obvious problems that we can find some case where the meta-ethical systems go against our moral intuitions. This sometimes leads to attempt to make the meta-ethics incorporate this case (and then some more), but I feel it quickly becomes rather obvious that we cannot come up with any consistent system that also satisfies our intuitions. I'm a bit pessimistic philosophers will resolve this problem soon... On a more happy note, I have found Kant's reasoning very useful for my own personal opinion-making, by constantly reminding me that if I find X about, say, genetically-modified food, nuclear energy etc., I really need to make my opinion in terms of a rule that doesn't include the particular case, and I try to think what this same rule would mean for other opinions I hold.
Reasoning about, e.g., mathematics or physics has the same problem, and yet in those fields we can still build the system on our intuitions while accepting that they're sometimes wrong.
It seems to me that Utilitarianism can be similar to the way you describe Kant's approach: Selecting a specific part of our intuitions- "Actions that have bad consequences are bad"- ignoring the rest, and then extrapolating from that. Well, that and coming up with a utility function. Still, it seems to me that you can essentially apply it logically to situations and come up with decisions based on actual reasoning: You'll still have biases, but at least (besides editing utility functions) you won't be editing your basic morality just to follow your intuitions. Of course, as mwengler notes, we're just replacing our arbitrary set of moral intuitions, with a cohesive, logical system based on... one of those arbitrary moral intuitions. I'm pretty sure there's no solution to that; the only justification for being moral at all is our moral intuitions. Still, if you are going to be moral, I find Utilitarianism preferable to intuitional morality... actually, I guess mainly because I'd already been a Utilitarian for awhile before realizing morality was arbitrary, so my moral intuitions have changed to be consequentialist. Oh well. :/

Perhaps we should view our moral intuitions as yet another evolved mechanism, in that they are imperfect and arbitrary though they work well enough for hunter gatherers.

When we lived as hunter gatherers, an individual could find a group with compatible moral intuitions or walk away from a group with incompatible ones. The ability or possibility that an unpleasant individual's moral intuitions would affect you from one valley over was minimal.

One should note, though, that studies of murder rates amongst hunter gatherer groups found that they were on the high side compared to industrialized societies.

Dear everyone, please stop talking about "hunter gatherers". We have precisely zero samples of any real Paleolithic societies unaffected by extensive contact with Neolithic cultures.
Can you elaborate on this? I mean, can you give me a reason that using the phrase "hunter-gatherer" is a mistake? I understand your second sentence but I don't understand why that's a reason.
People make all kinds of stuff about how humans supposedly lived in "natural state" with absolute certainty, and we know just about nothing abut it, other than some extremely dubious extrapolations. A fairly safe extrapolation is that human were always able to live in very diverse environments, so even if we somehow find one unpolluted sample somehow (by time travel most likely...), it will give us zero knowledge of "typical" Paleolithic humans. The label has also been used on countless modern and fairly recent historical societies which are definitely not living in any kind of Paleolithic-like conditions. Like agricultural societies in Papua New-Guinea. And banana farmers Yanomami (who are everybody's favourite "hunter gatherers" when talking about violence in "Paleolithic"). etc. Or Inuit who had domesticated dogs, and lived in condition as climatically removed from Paleolithic humans as possible. With pretty much 100% rate of statement being wrong when anybody says anything about "hunter gatherers" due to these reasons. That's a great example of all these fallacies put together. Murder rates of some people who were actually not hunter gatherers (my bet is they refer to Yanomami), after fairly significant amount of contact with civilization (so not even in their "natural" state, whatever that might be), in one short time period when research was conducted (as we know 1939-1945 murder rates are perfectly extrapolable to entire European history), among people who are not really hunter gatherers in the first place, was found to be fairly high. This is then generalized to what all humans must have been like in prehistory. With such a clusterfuck of fallacies happening every time anybody says anything about "hunter gatherers", let's just stop.
Assuming your premises, how the heck would you know?
I think that that paragraph before the one you quoted counts as "presenting evidence." That just leaves hyperbole - which I'm sure you've never used yourself.
I try to avoid self defeating ironic hyperbole.
I don't approve of taw's tone - as you note, it is more off-putting than persuasive. But "ancestral environment" is an applause light in this community. I don't see what your comment adds beyond reinforcing the applause light.
"Ancestral Environment"? I thought he was talking about the phrase "Hunter Gatherer". The former phrase isn't even in the comment!
The meaning is, however, found in the original context. stcredzero: That's a reference to ancestral environment. That's a reference to present-day hunter-gatherers, with the implication that what we see among modern groups so described is what happened among humans generally in the Paleolithic, when hunting and gathering were the only ways that people had yet invented for getting their food. This is the fallacy that taw is talking about when he says: To which stcredzero replied by quoting: And so on.
-2stcredzero Please explain to me how Bushmen picked up the above from industrialized society. It strikes me as highly unlikely that this pattern of behavior didn't predate the industrial era. Did you consider precisely what you were objecting to, or was this a knee-jerk reaction to a general category?
Bushmen lived in contact with pastoralist and then agricultural societies nearby for millennia. The idea that they represent some kind of pre-contact human nature is baseless. "Industrialized" or not isn't relevant.
I suspect that this was much less true among hunter gatherers than it is now. From what I have read of groups in the Amazon and New Guinea, if you were to walk away from your group and try to walk into another, you would most likely be killed, and possibly captured and enslaved.

From what I have read of groups in the Amazon and New Guinea, if you were to walk away from your group and try to walk into another, you would most likely be killed, and possibly captured and enslaved.

What groups? Low-tech tribal societies in the Amazon and New Guinea aren't necessarily hunter-gatherers. Both regions have agricultural societies going back a long way.

Perhaps this varies because of local environmental/economic conditions. From my undergraduate studies, I seem to remember that !Kung Bushmen would sometimes walk away from conflicts into another group.
Yes. That's true of many other mobile forager societies as well.