top of page

Naturalism and the Convivial Social Life with Owen Flanagan

Dr. Owen Flanagan is the James B Duke professor of philosophy and Neurobiology at Duke University, where he co-directs the Center for Comparative Philosophy. Recently, he was also a Rockefeller Fellow at National Humanities Center, as well as a Berggruen Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Dr. Flanagan has written and edited 13 books, including The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World published in 2007, and The Geography of Morals published in 2017. His distinguished work concerns the philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and comparative ethics. In this podcast, we discuss the relationship between naturalism and moral realism.

APA Citation:

Cazzell, A. R. (Host). (2019, October 15). Naturalism and the Convivial Social Life with Owen Flanagan [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


NOTE: This transcript was automatically generated. Please excuse typos and errors.

Owen Flanagan: 00:01:24 So thank you, Amber, for having me today. Um, let's see. Moral philosophy to begin with. I grew up in a very, uh, traditional, uh, uh, Roman Catholic family. And I learned a lot as a little boy about, uh, good and bad and sin and mortal and venial sins. And I, my curiosity was, was right out of the gate, peaked on, uh, on issues of goodness and badness and, uh, uh, and things like that. So that was in the earliest years. Um, by the time I get to college and discovered philosophy and psychology, I, I by then realized that there were, uh, you know, uh, other ways to think about, uh, ethics and morality and that sort of thing. And, uh, then I did graduate work in philosophy of psychology. And, uh, right out of the gate, I often say my main interests are mind, morals, and the meaning of life. So, uh, as an earlier when I was about your age, I started to write on those three topics on the nature of consciousness and human nature, on moral philosophy and the connection between ethics and, uh, and in particular work in research in psychology. And, um, uh, and lately I've been interested in issues in comparative psychology and comparative ethics, how to different people in different cultures think about, um, moral topics.

Amber Cazzell: 00:02:48 Very cool. So with a background, coming from a Roman Catholic family. Was that, did you think about the world sort of mystically at that time or, or what?

Owen Flanagan: 00:03:00 Yeah, well, good question. I mean, I thought about the world. Um, I remember my dad when I was about 13, I was having a theological doubts and, uh, my father who had gone to college on the GI bill after that, he had been a soldier in the second world war, gave me Thomas-- an abridged version of Thomas Aquinas's proof for the existence of God. So I wouldn't say I was introduced to a kind of mystical Christianity, but I read with great interest, uh, Aquinas's five proofs cause I was curious about, uh, if there could be such a thing as a proof for the existence of God. Um, but um, so my, I wouldn't say it was a mystical Christianity. It was in terms of our topic for the day, it was a super naturalistic worldview. It was a worldview where God was creator and God in some sense had ordained the moral law and then God would reward or punish based on your compliance, uh, uh, with, uh, God's rules.

Amber Cazzell: 00:04:02 I'm sorry, maybe I misheard that you said it was a super, Oh, a supernatural. Got it.

Owen Flanagan: 00:04:06 Supernatural. Yeah. Yeah. Just distinguishing sort of contrasting what we're, what we're going to, one of the things we'll talk about today is what naturalism is in philosophy. And one way to contrast it is just to say, uh, if one believes, uh, that the origin of morality and the warrant, or the payoff for morality is eternal heavenly life. Uh, and that, uh, it's and the only reason or not the, but that a reason to be moral is God's commands. That would be what I would call a supernaturalistic. Yeah. A few things.

Amber Cazzell: 00:04:45 Yeah. So at what point, like were, was there any, was this purely a scholarly, scholarly endeavor that led you from sort of the supernatural worldview to a naturalistic worldview?

Owen Flanagan: 00:04:57 No, I would say it was sort of a, a familiar story. There's nothing exotic about my story. It was, uh, you know, uh, that, you know, at the age of, you know, as puberty came on the scene and, uh, there were, uh, you know, that was probably a sort of an internal drive to question authority and, um, and so on and so forth. I started to lose, uh, my faith, but I then was just, uh, it wasn't traumatic or anything like that. I just came to think that I was impressed by Darwin. I was impressed by science. I was, I thought that if there is an explanation for things, uh, it's gotta be an explanation in terms of, uh, unnatural world in which morality makes sense because, um, uh, it helps, uh, lead us to fulfillment and flourishing and to order and harmony, and that that was the best explanation.

Owen Flanagan: 00:05:56 I also become aware, Amber, of the fact that there was, um, you know, diverse religions and that, uh, uh, that if everybody grounded their morality and a religious vision, but the religions were different, uh, something had to give. And, uh, yeah, so I was sort of of a generation, uh, in, well I don't say I want to say a generation. I was just someone who became increasingly impressed by science and less impressed, although still, uh, uh, understood the role that religion plays in many people's lives. But I was skeptical that it could play, um, uh, the role that many people thought in terms of justifying why we shouldn't murder people, why we shouldn't commit adultery, why we shouldn't lie, why we shouldn't steal, why it's good to be altruistic and sympathetic and empathic. I thought there were other really good explanations for that.

Amber Cazzell: 00:06:56 Yeah. Yeah. So that brings us right to the point. So for those listening, um, I asked Owen to come on this podcast because as I've interviewed a number of scholars primarily from the disciplines of psychology and education, um, a common theme that has surprised me is this idea that theories of morality should be normative, but that that has often been combined with this sense that naturalism cannot account for theories of morality. And I, and so I thought that it that sort of a defense of naturalism and a distinction between naturalism and whether or not a theory can be normative was warranted. So that's what, uh, I want to talk about today with Owen. So Owen, could you give me just a general sense of what naturalism is and what sort of the different types of naturalism are?

Owen Flanagan: 00:07:55 Great. So thank you. Thank you for focusing so eloquently on the, on this topic. And, uh, it's of great interest to me because, um, I back in the 1970s, uh, uh, I was not one of the first people, many of us started to think of ourselves as naturalists. Uh, in philosophy. Uh, there was a tradition, uh, that probably goes back to Aristotle that is sometimes called naturalistic. So, uh, I'll use your question, uh, to try to make some distinctions that are not first pass rocket science, but our think will be helpful because one often hears what you said, that people will say that there is a very important distinction between is and ought that you can't define moral terms in natural terms. Uh, and so on and so forth. And uh, to a certain extent, uh, they're right. But these are, um, these are subtle issues.

Owen Flanagan: 00:08:52 Okay. So let's go back to what I said first pass about one meaning of naturalism is simply this. It's not supernaturalism. Now, what's supernaturalism? Well, you might just say supernaturalism is a general view of reality. It's a metaphysical view which says that God plays some important role in, and then you have to fill in the blank. Uh, one place to fill in the blank would be to say he creates a role in the creation of the universe. Another common role, of course, that's what many people believe. Another common role is that God plays a role in, uh, deciding on the afterlife. Now, what you'll notice, uh, in terms of afterlife is that they're almost always based on the moral quality of a person's life. In standard theologies. Uh, you go to the good place. Obviously, if you've lived a good human life, and that often involves abiding a typically involves not just having the right religious beliefs.

Owen Flanagan: 00:09:54 In fact, it often, hopefully in our world doesn't involve having those because after all, if it did, then most people could not be saved even if they were excellent human beings. Uh, but it often involves following the moral law. So the question that's come up in time and memorial in philosophy is that--and back to Plato, Plato did this is--what, uh, warrants what makes the arts of morality was just take the 10 commandments. Uh, what makes those moral laws? And one traditional explanation is that it's called divine command theory. It's the God ordained that these are the right things to do. Now that would be just so if you ask a question, why shouldn't I covet my neighbor's stuff? Uh, well, one answer could be, well, it's one of the later of the 10 commandments. I don't know what number it is. And then you say, well, why should I follow that?

Owen Flanagan: 00:10:49 And then the answer could come back. You ought to follow that because it's God's law. So naturalists' first pass, just deny that that's the best reason for why you shouldn't do that. Sometimes they deny it because they don't think there is a God. There are actually atheists that isn't necessary for being a naturalist. Other times they deny it because they realize that there's a problem. Then you have to then give an explanation for why you believe that there is a God. So it leads to what's called an infinite regress. If you say you should murder people because God said so, then you say, well, why should I do what God says? And then someone, and furthermore, why should I believe in God? You've got what? A beginning of an infinite regress. So that's what makes that kind of, so that's just one contrast between naturalism and supernaturalism.

Owen Flanagan: 00:11:39 One that psychologists and philosophers and ordinary people most often discuss is a different kind of naturalism. It's when, now in the philosophical literature, uh, this might help your listeners, there's something that's often called the naturalistic fallacy, which isn't, um, and I don't know if this came up. So what, strictly speaking, what's called the naturalistic fallacy is something that GE Moore discuss in 1903. And the question that he discussed was a definition question. Could you define the good in natural terms like that is do you take the concept of good and define it in terms of, for example, pleasure and Moore pointed out that no, the good, you couldn't define it as pleasure because there are some things which are pleasant but that are not good. Um, and uh, and now that was all, so that was called sometimes the definitional fallacy. The idea that you could define the good in terms of features of the natural world.

Owen Flanagan: 00:12:47 Nowadays people think that's not a fallacy at all because most things you can't define in terms of what are called necessary and sufficient conditions in the world. For example, try to define chair. Uh, does the chair have to have four legs? No. Does the chair have to have a back? Not necessarily. Uh, is it, what if you define a chair as something that you can sit in while you can sit on a table. The point is, it actually comes from work in psychology. There are a lot of natural things that you can't define in other natural terms. Um, so the fact that that words like good and right and wrong are not easily definable don't distinguish them from words, concepts like species, or whale, or human being. Um, the other fallacy though that is called often called the naturalistic fallacy is going from ises to oughts. So let's focus on that one. Yeah. So, so what is that fallacy? Well, it goes back to a statement and David Hume's treatise where Hume says this, it is impossible to go from statements of fact. Like for example, it's impossible to say this, uh, Amber is in Palo Alto.

Owen Flanagan: 00:14:09 Amber is getting hungry, therefore Amber should go eat lunch. It doesn't follow from uh, Amber is in Palo Alto is getting towards lunchtime to facts. Amber is hungry. It doesn't follow that she ought to go eat lunch because nothing follows from facts. You actually have to bring in an ought or a value such as this. When people are hungry and it's towards lunchtime, then it makes sense for then to go eat or they ought to go eat. That's what human was pointing out that you need introduce a value. Now that's not rocket science. That just has to do with logic and what Hume's pointing out that when people often say things that seem factual like this "Thou shalt not kill," where is that? What's the warrant for that? Well you might say something like this, people hate to be have themselves or loved ones killed fact, therefore you ought not to kill.

Owen Flanagan: 00:15:17 Well it doesn't follow unless you think you say, well make a linking principle to the effect that when people really hate something happening to them, then you ought not to do it. So all Hume was pointing out is that you need to import a value to get from ises to us. But many times notice in the lunch case we think, well it's obvious that that's okay for a person when they have the, it's just part of human life that we import that value that you ought to eat lunch when you are hungry for lunch. So w w what warrants the values? Well, values are warranted by things like you need them for living a good life. You need them to have energy. You need lunch for energy, you need lunch for having a good life. And what the natural, all the naturalist says is that he never says you can go from ises to ouhts.

Owen Flanagan: 00:16:06 All the naturalist says in fact that the naturalist agrees with Hume. If you could go from is is to offs, then all the statements of morality would be theorems. It would be necessary truths. So all Hume is pointing out is a trivial logical point that the statements of morality are not theorems but what now? What are they? Well, they're things like this. Again, let's go back to the beginning of an imagined beginning of morality. So you and I are sitting around, we're among the first people when the ice melted at the end of the Pleistocene and we're hungry and we look across the river and we see food there now from the fact that we're hungry and the fact that there's food there, it does not follow that. We ought to go over across the river, figure out a way to cross the river to get the food.

Owen Flanagan: 00:16:55 It doesn't follow logically. What you need to add is something like this. If people have a sensible desire, like getting food and there's food across the river, then they ought to do what is necessary to get the food. But psychologists like crazy act as if we learned something that they're supposed to stay only with facts and they're never able to go to values. But we do it all the time and it's, it doesn't prove, uh, you, you ha, I haven't given a proof for the moral statement that when you have a sensible desire, you have to go and satisfy it. But it's something that almost everybody assumes is a good idea. And I think that the way to think about naturalism about morality is people think that basic going back against the Aristotle, basic facts about human nature like that we love to have friends and having friends doesn't seem to cause any harm means it's a good idea and you ought to have friends or people hate it when they get killed. Therefore you ought not to kill. So it's as long as you don't try to deduce oughts from ises, it just isn't a problem.

Amber Cazzell: 00:18:10 Yeah. So I mean, that's still seems to be, I, I, I'm still a little bit unsatisfied in the sense that like where are these values coming from? Like isn't naturalism concerned purely with the ises, I mean, do, do you see what I'm saying? Like where, where, how do you import these values?

Owen Flanagan: 00:18:36 Okay, so let's do it this way. So let's use their various tactics so I can, I understand that you're dissatisfied. That's good. So I mean, that's because you might say, well, don't the values just seem mysterious will notice they can they seem mysterious if they come from a divine being who says, uh, not killing people is a value. Well, at least they're mysterious in the following way. Did you say, well, why did God say that? And then someone says, well, God is omniscient and omnipotent. That starts to get pretty mysterious too. You have to admit, right? So here's the way the naturalist will do it. The naturalist is impressed by such stories as Darwin's about human nature. So the naturalist will say often, but by the way it was all the things I'm saying are contested even among naturalists, but often naturalists will say this.

Owen Flanagan: 00:19:30 Okay, what did evolution care about? It cared about. I'm a species of long living creatures who live long enough to reproduce and have convivial social lives. Right. That's, that's sort of a an end. So then the question is, well, what, what kind of values are conducive to having a convivial social life? Well, here are some values having enough food, clothing and shelter to survive in whatever social units we evolved to survive in probably initially small group under gather units, right? And w and in such units it makes sense that you had to do a little work to get, like we had to do Hunter hunting and gathering suppose and that you don't want the fruits of your labor to be uncertain. So you don't want to be taking stuff from each other because that leads to anxiety, distress disturbances. Plus you love some of these other people.

Owen Flanagan: 00:20:38 You love the babies and you might love your spouse and you love your aunts and uncles. So, and you will discover what Aristotle said, that one would choose to live without friends. Out of that kind of ecological setting, there would be certain basic values that would emerge and they would include just the value, the value of working in order to gain food, clothing, and shelter. So those things are good and you ought to do them right. That's not mysterious. And you say, well, where do they come from? They just come from the basic ecological necessities of surviving. Um, then then the, so just so you, you might say w then many people then have the reaction. Maybe you're about to have it Amber, that well, this makes things like not killing or something like a golden rule, which by the way, every single tradition I've ever studied has a form of the golden rule.

Owen Flanagan: 00:21:37 It's often in the form of what we call the silver rule. Thou shalt not do to another what you shall not have them did yourself. Notice that's an art. That's a moral imperative. And you say, well, why did that come about? And the answer is it just leads to so much more harmony stability. You can sleep at night and you can trust each other. And plus you might have some innate dispositions to want to live that way and to, um, uh, comply with such a norm. Sometimes you'll want to violate the norm. And that's why it's a good reason to put it into place. So these are all what are thought to be completely naturalistic reasons. And they do something like though many people respond, but that makes morality just like prudence. Like the same reasons you have to, want to eat food and go across the river are the same reasons that govern why you ought not want to kill people, why you ought not to covet thy neighbor's partner or their stuff. Um, but that is a common, uh, complaint about naturalism. But at least it's not the complaint that you're doing something fishy and claiming that these norms or values are good ideas because they lead to a kind of convivial well-ordered social life.

Amber Cazzell: 00:22:58 So when I hear about, when I think about naturalism, when I talk to people about sort of the naturalistic fallacy and so forth, um, it seems that often people who are very concerned about the fallacy are conducting their science from like this, this positivist framework. And that typically people who are unconcerned with it are operating out of a post positive positivist. Excuse me, framework. Um, and I wonder like it sounds to me as though you're operating out of this post positivist framework but still maintain that the naturalist fallacy is important to keep in mind.

Owen Flanagan: 00:23:45 Well, I guess I want to be careful cause we'd have to talk longer to see what you mean by, I mean I understand what I meant by positivism when I was studying it in graduate schools we'd have, we'd have to sort of figure out what we both need by that. No. Okay. Yes, I do think it's important, but only in a way that almost no one understands. Okay.

Amber Cazzell: 00:24:04 I'm sorry you think that, what is important?

Owen Flanagan: 00:24:06 okay. So starting with the fact, I do think the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy. Where are we? So we're talking now about the thing that really is incorrectly called the naturalistic fallacy, I think, which is the is, but I'm not going to win that battle by the way. But so just again, to remind your listeners what is in philosophy, strictly speaking, the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy about definition of term the term good. Yeah. It's not the is odd problem, although most people nowadays call the fact to value or is-ought naturalistic fallacy. That's just as a, if I were to educate people, I would just say, which I am an educator, of course you're wrong and how you're using the term naturalistic fallacy. But I lost that battle a long time ago. But strictly speaking,

Amber Cazzell: 00:24:56 yeah, I'm, I apologize. So I'll try to just avoid that term. Let's talk about the is ought-is distinction.

Owen Flanagan: 00:25:03 So the is-ought distinction is there is a logical fallacy that David Hume identified. Which is if anybody tries to go from is to ought, uh, without invoking a value or other ought, and they claim that they've produced something like a theorem or morality, they are wrong. They didn't do that. It's a logical mistake. And actually in the sections of Hume where he's worried about that, he is talking about priests and uh, people who do the following, they say, you, um, uh, you ought not to kill because God says you ought to kill. And Hume's point is that, uh, they've invoked an ought there. Uh, they've snuck in and ought. I mean he's so he, his context of invoking the naturalistic fallacy is simply to go to say that you can't go from, uh, you need to invoke something like one ought to do what God wants you to do to get from facts in the world.

Owen Flanagan: 00:26:08 Like that murder is bad. People hate murder. Murder causes untold suffering to murder is wrong. You have to insert, even in the theological case, a statement to the effect that one ought not to do what violates God's rule. In the naturalistic case, you do invoke a similar thing. You say one ought not to do what disrupts radically convivial social life and makes people miserable. So you're right, you invoke a value and you just have to hope the value passes as at work inspection and you imported a value, which is a theorem or an Axiom, although pretty often, uh, the values do pass that sort of inspection. Like you say, well, who would ever try to justify murder? Um, in any case? So there is a logical fallacy there. What unfortunately happens, I think, um, is this, that when psychologists say, well, we're just giving you descriptions, we're not saying anything normative.

Owen Flanagan: 00:27:12 They're doing something they don't need to do because psychologists are just as smart as philosophers about thinking what are good norms. In fact, they even have more evidence sometimes about what are good norms because they can often tell you things like, Oh, people who have by these norms or have these values in general flourish more than other people. They have fulfillment more than other people. They achieve you, eudaimonia more than other people. Um, philosophers sometimes can like the is to OD distinction because it allows them to say, okay, you social scientists stay over there in the department of ises and descriptions and we philosophers will tell you what you ought to do because that's our special domain. But the thing is that makes philosophers, philosophers are no better at making moral decisions or understanding moral values than anyone else. And sometimes we need everybody on board to discuss complicated moral issues.

Owen Flanagan: 00:28:15 So I would just encourage psychologists, you know, market when you're making a value judgment and why you're making a value judgment. But don't feel bad. Everybody has to make value judgments all the time. And they just come from observations about what's making the world work better or worse in terms of certain ends that we have. And you might say the ends are primitive, the ends like happiness or eudaimonia. Um, you know, that's Aristotle's word for flourishing human life. Those, everybody wants those things. So those are just taken for granted. And then what ethics and prudence and all the things in our life designed to, um, that are said in the language of oughts are there in order to advance that, um, advance that those projects.

Amber Cazzell: 00:29:12 So do you think that values are just an inherent part of the scientific enterprise or do you think that scientists are capable of examining natural facts about the world without their values getting in the way?

Owen Flanagan: 00:29:31 Well, two different questions, right? You might just say, let's, let's divide that question into two parts if you don't mind. One you might just say, are values just part of, uh, um, human life and does ethics do any more than sort of systematically point at an argue for different values? I'd say the answer to that is yes. Ethics are, that most values are pretty, pretty much come with human nature in the human predicament, things like that, we should cooperate, that other people suffer and we suffer and we shouldn't like suffering. We should do our best to mitigate it. Those are basic values that, um, appear in every single inventory of every culture ever invented. And they're pretty closely aligned with human nature. Some values though, are discovered. Um, and uh, uh, so some things, for example, like delaying gratification, like you work on adolescence, right?

Owen Flanagan: 00:30:31 This is something that when adolescence comes, we're not good at for a while. And, um, and um, you know, so learning that one ought to, uh, say no to certain desires and one or two to delay certain desires to appropriate times is something that we all have to learn. And again, there's a universal about learning that, but that's something that presumably humans had to discover over world's historical time. Um, the life goes better if we delay gratification of some desires and not with, so the second question, so that's the first question is yes, these are natural. All animals have values. All animals, um, have, uh, uh, uh, things that they need to do to make their lives go well. Uh, so values are ubiquitous, um, with respect to psychology. Well, yes, values, again, uh, uh, you know, presumably psychologists study in the case of psychologists who study human nature there already value that inquiry.

Owen Flanagan: 00:31:39 Uh, they're interested in human nature. Right? You know, and psychologists have as scientists, all the values that they have. Um, all the moral values, all the credential values, all of the aesthetic values, all the political values and on most naturalistic views, all those things. Interpenetrate. So, yeah, so I think, but I think scientists, you know, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are smart. They can detect when and if their values are in any way penetrating their science. And sometimes they ought to, again, I guess I would want to use, um, the kind of work you do, Amber. When people worry about adolescents, they're worried about adolescent wellbeing or adolescent health, those are normative concepts or take psychiatry, um, or a psychiatry's concerned with people's mental health. Uh, and someone could say, well, where do you get concepts of mental health from? Again, I think it's just by good people who are sensitive and reflective, reflecting on what makes lives go well and what makes lives go badly. And those are values. So, so the, so it's not just in the moral domain, it's all over the place. Medicine, psychiatry, child psychology, adolescent psychology, all of these things are normative through and through.

Amber Cazzell: 00:33:10 Yeah. So if they're, if they're normative through and through, and again, this is probably just fallacious that me thinking that naturalism goes hand in hand with sort of this, um, like dualistic idea of the objective and the subjective being separate realms. And it sounds like that's something that you probably disagree with. It seems like it's hard for naturalism to be practical if you're trying to separate your values from natural facts. Does that make sense? What I'm, what I'm struggling with here?

Owen Flanagan: 00:33:49 Say more.

Amber Cazzell: 00:33:55 So if we experience values and we study, you know, that our values are our even guiding the scientific questions that we're asking. They're guiding the interpretations that we make, the conclusions we draw. Um, how can we even uncover natural facts about the world? Um, and, and again, like this is coming from a very sort of dualistic paradigm. And maybe that's the problem with, with my question.

Owen Flanagan: 00:34:19 So, well, I guess a couple things. Let me just let, let, let's back up for one second and just say one more thing about what naturalists, what a naturalism is committed to. So there is a kind of, I want to go back to something you said and then I'm going to pick up the thread of what you've just asked. Now you, you mentioned positivism and uh, uh, uh, you know, post and pre positivism or positivism, there is a view of the world that says, and that could be argued are, I mean it's a kind of maybe naturalism where you can say, well, all there are is facts. We just live in a world of facts. Well, I don't hold that kind of naturalism. We live in a world. It's a, it's a feature of human nature that we have all kinds of values like when you get in a car or on a bicycle to ride.

Owen Flanagan: 00:35:14 Um, like today I took a bike ride and I put on my helmet. Okay. Now, uh, there's just certain facts about the universe that I accept like that there's an external world that I actually think that I actually was on a road and before I even got on the road, uh, in the natural world to go to the beach, which I did in fact do right before I spoke to you. Those are all facts about the world I put on my helmet. Now, why did Owen put on his helmet? Which is as I question, what's your answer, Amber?

Amber Cazzell: 00:35:43 Because you like having, a brain that's intact.

Owen Flanagan: 00:35:45 Thank you. Exactly. He cared about safety and what it could have been. You just say, Oh, he just loves the way he looks at a helmet. Right? That would be it. But, but we know that, right? I care about my brain and my wellbeing. Okay. So I care about, well, we just could call that safety. He cares about his safety. So as soon as you care about something, that's a value. But you know, so I just think what, so we need to separate that and then the observation that that's a value is now a fact that you and I just picked up on namely its irregularity about Owen's behavior and I hope yours too that when we ride a bicycle we a care about safety and that leads us. In fact there's generalizations we can make that leads us to do things like put on our helmets before we do stuff.

Owen Flanagan: 00:36:34 So you need the, you need to a, allow the fat, the values even into the description of human behavior to explain why we do all the motivated things we do. Because every motivated thing we do is an aim of some end or goal and a goal. Once you specify a goal, you have to have to start specifying what you ought to do next to achieve the goal. So these are things that are discovered by common sense but embedded in folk psychology. And then I think initially eventually completely captured in the sciences. Now what makes the human sciences different is the, the physicist doesn't have to study the behavior of agents who are normative animals. He just needs to know that this system obeys laws like the universal laws of gravity E equals MC squared, F equals MA. The speed of light shall not be violated. To explain human behavior, we need to understand and be able to describe human values once we describe human values, like uh, well sometimes come upon people who have values that lead them to suffer and have miserable lives or lead them to have OK lives, but leave the people around them to have miserable lives.

Owen Flanagan: 00:37:58 And I take it that not wanting miserable lives or wanting satisfying lives or wanting it to have successful human lives involves endorsing certain values. And that's just what the natural, this takes for granted and says you can give a naturalistic genealogy. At least you can give an explanation that would explain why groups of people have the kind of values that they have.

Amber Cazzell: 00:38:25 Yeah. Thank you. So, so just checking, was there more you wanted to say specifically about the positivism post-positivism or

Owen Flanagan: 00:38:35 If you want to talk about that. I've got, yeah, say more about what you're thinking about that.

Amber Cazzell: 00:38:40 Well, I again, I, I guess just coming back to the, I tend to think of this, this is my gross, um, caricature causation of what I've seen in talking with educators and psychologists primarily. And it seems like there tends to be this thought that there are sort of two broad camps. One is this camp that believes in, in positivism that you can establish sort of these facts that are immune to values or, or, or bias that are just absolutely true and that that positivism goes hand in hand with naturalism and relativism. And then there's sort of this post positivist, again, this is a very gross caricaturization and maybe you'll disagree with me because you've seen, um, the disciplines of all far more than I have, but I, but I have the sense that then there's this post positivist camp that's like, you know what, we can't really separate our values from our science. And furthermore, we don't even think that reality is such that there is the objective and the subjective, it's more based on just experience, experiential claims and so forth. And that that tends to go hand in hand with normative claims. And maybe that's, maybe that's a false grouping of

Owen Flanagan: 00:40:03 Oh. Good. Well, you're getting at, uh, that's interesting. So you, I will, uh, I'll just use you, Amber as my authority on the, uh, the people you've been talking to. So, um, so let me just say a little bit about my own experience of this. So there was a view, um, uh, famously endorsed in a book that I read in graduate school, which is still a classic by AJ Ayer called Language, Truth and Logic. Hmm. And he was a great positivist. And, uh, um, so, uh, what AJ Ayer said in that book was that he gave in it. So at that time, the, there were two schools of w in philosophy, what were called the positivists, uh, the Berlin and Vienna schools of positivism. And they were worried about the foundations of psychology and they thought, okay, the way to make psychology scientific is to, uh, make sure that we can ground everything in observation and people like BF Skinner.

Owen Flanagan: 00:41:11 Fred Skinner. I knew, um, uh, and uh, he was influenced by positivists as well as even had John Broadus Watson before that. And the idea was that the only way to make psychology scientific would be to deal with observable behavior and, and so on and so forth, and not say anything beyond what be observed, not build theories. And so on. AJ Ayer in language, truth and logic took the position, but it wasn't required by positivism that ethics was, When people express their ethical values, what they were mostly doing was emoting. So they were hurrying and booing. So if I say I believe in capital punishment, the way to analyze that is all I'm doing is saying, hooray for capital punishment. If Amber says she's against capital punishment, all she's done is say boo for capital punishment. And that was, uh, a Mo, a period of time in philosophy where people who would have called themselves naturalists, uh, were led by positivism to think, to be believers of what was called emotivism in philosophy.

Owen Flanagan: 00:42:27 And that probably went with relativism and it probably went with, um, even nihilism about ethics. There were no ethical values you could securely Brown. And that was very influential in psychology for a long time. Hmm. Although it started to become less influential once cognitive science, uh, began, uh, in the, uh, late seventies and early eighties, because people started to think, okay, I need to build theories about unobservable processes and write algorithms that will explain how we get from these stimuli to these responses in, in case. Meanwhile. Meanwhile though, um, I want to focus on something that, um, so if the first school of thought that you identified with positivism is still around and they still say something like, we think you can get at the objective world, um, and have, um, you know, reliable psychological knowledge and psychology can be scientific. That seems perfectly plausible to me.

Owen Flanagan: 00:43:35 Even if you also think that you're coming at your research with values. I don't see why they're incompatible. If they say that they can come up with infallible knowledge, have an objective world that just seems kind of silly and an overreach. Why do you need to say that? Right? Um, you know, why, why do you need to say that? Because we all know the scientific method is supposed to be self correcting and you could be wrong and so on and so forth. Furthermore, it seems to me that some findings in psychology, we know this now through the replication crisis, might not have been eternal psychological truths about people, but they might be more things like a local generalizations about how a certain group cohort of people think about something or behave in a certain way and so on. So they wouldn't be timeless generalizations. They would have just captured, you know, a moment of human social psychology.

Owen Flanagan: 00:44:33 And I take it that we know that since you're a social psychologist, the social world keeps changing. So human behavior keeps changing. Um, with respect to whether or not values do any harm in psychology. You know, I would say, uh, as long as psychologists are aware of their values, I don't see how it's particularly harmful. Um, one area I do think that values can cause trouble is not so much in the behavior of individual psychologists, but sometimes in the behavior of funding agencies. Um, you know, that that can really weight things heavily for good and bad. I mean, you know, who could complain about money for AIDS, HIV, uh, or who can complain about money for cancer, but, you know, uh, there are opportunity costs and, and, and in psychology, uh, foundations like Templeton, uh, you know, really, uh, can, uh, can because of the large amounts of money can push psychological research into an area that they wouldn't have gotten into otherwise.

Amber Cazzell: 00:45:48 Yeah. Do you think that that has happened?

Owen Flanagan: 00:45:50 Yes. Uh, here would be an example. Um, uh, and I don't even think this was necessarily bad, but a few years ago, maybe it was as long as 10 a Templeton put out a call for research on humility. Maybe it was both moral humility and intellectual humility. I believe it was both. I didn't, uh, I, um, I should say, by the way, I've gotten money from Templeton, so I'm not, but so all of a sudden I noticed got all the philosophers and psychologists that I knew we're applying for grants and many of them got them to work on humility. Then the journals started to have a lot of articles about humility. So humility became like a cottage industry. And you might just say, well, you know, was that the most important virtue to work on? You know, if I had my druthers, would I put my money behind humility or would I put it beyond, you know, um, you know, uh, tolerance of other people in a multicultural, I guess I, I'm the kind of guy who probably would've said, let's put it to tolerance and love and respect in a multiculture.

Owen Flanagan: 00:47:07 But my point, my point really isn't to complain about any particular funder, but I think that money can really have huge effects on the direction of scientific research and the values towards which it orients itself.

Amber Cazzell: 00:47:21 Yeah, I agree. So, so returning to kind of your statement, um, about how you're, you're interested in, like, you would be more interested in tolerance and multicultural values and things like that. You had mentioned before that now you're more interested in comparative ethics. Um, could you tell me a bit about like specifically what that means? I, it sounds like you're comparing ethics across traditions or cultures.But maybe there's more to it?

Owen Flanagan: 00:47:50 Exactly. And that's great. And that's a good way for me to also say something about, uh, Oh, a question you asked and I sort of moved away from that was very important, which is, is there a connection between naturalism and relativism? Okay. Um, so, so let me tell you, so about, um, 20 years ago I was invited by the Dalai Lama and his people to go to Dharamsala India to talk about the topic of destructive emotions and how to overcome them. Just notice right away the word destructive, right? I mean, it's a, uh, it's a normative concept, right? We might just say emotions you ought not to have. And then again, we can start with our question that you've been pushing so nicely on today. Well, who has the authority to say we ought not to have these emotions.

Owen Flanagan: 00:48:46 Okay. But anyway, it was destructive emotions and had overcome them. And I became very interested in the fact that, you know, we as Americans have all kinds of a normative, just like we have body language that's distinctive probably of Americans and so on and so forth. And facial coding that's distinctive. Um, other cultures have different ideas about, you know, which emotions you ought to be expressing, which ones make you suffer. So anger, for example, is a big emotion that Tibetan Buddhist think there should be less of. And um, so I was interested in that because it was at the same time that America is becoming such an angry or the angriest I've ever seen it since 1968 and in 1968 it was anger, uh, uh, warmed by hope. Now it just seemed to be so, um, around the same time I developed friends in Eastern South Asia.

Owen Flanagan: 00:49:44 So I started to do a work that led to a book I published two years ago called the geography of morals. And so here's an interesting question for a naturalist is morality relative as a sort of a factual question, right? You just might say, well, is it, you know, does some people, you know, we say eating babies is wrong. Do some cultures say even babies? Okay, right? We say, we say you ought not to "thou shalt not kill." Do other cultures say it's okay to kill a and so on and so forth? And so, so I've been working the last two decades on two different questions. One is descriptively, what's going on in the world is their moral agreement or is their moral disagreement all over the place? There are some moral disagreement. We know that because think about debates like abortion or capital punishment in our own country, right?

Owen Flanagan: 00:50:41 We know that there's disagreement about certain big ticket items that are highly consequential and shouldn't be trivialized. On the other hand, if you think about it, in America, most of the 10 commandments, even among nonreligious people, people agree with that, right? We think you shouldn't kill people. And we think it's bad to covet other people's stuff or partners, um, and so on and so forth. So basically for someone like you as a virtue theorist, I'll tell you this in general, I already said this. You'll find the golden rule everywhere. In every culture. It's usually written down in a famous text. So not only do you see it in a Bible, but you see it in Confucius's Analects. You see it in, um, uh, Hobbes and Locke and Hume among White men thinkers. You see it in John Stewart mill, you see it in India and Hindu texts.

Owen Flanagan: 00:51:41 So that's a universal everybody has hit upon. That is a solution to certain problems of being living socially. Hm. Um, there is, uh, although in co in many cultures, the list of virtues, like let's say you were take to take the top five virtues, um, you will across cultures see variation in what are the top five virtues. What you will almost never see is that a virtue in one culture is, uh, is a, uh, vice in another, almost never. So here's an example. Um, filial piety or respect for elders, um, is a high Confucian value. It's not in the top five among Americans. Yeah. On the other hand, most Americans think that respect for elders is a value. Right. I mean, and I'm respecting your parents is a value. Um, a freedom is a top American value. It's not on the top list. And among Buddhists, justice as fairness is a top value for us.

Owen Flanagan: 00:52:52 It's not in the top five among Buddhists, but Buddhists have something which can do the work of that which is compassionate and loving kindness. If everybody compassionate and loving kind, then you don't need as many rules and regulations governing property distributions and you know, fairness. But again, no Buddhist would say, Oh, justice isn't important. It's just that they don't mention it in their top five. It's sort of in their top 10, we'll say. And I, I find that again and again now that, so the point there would be that what that shows is that although relativism could have been something that's out there, it's not. And why is that? I think it's cause basic human nature constrains a lot of things that we, human ecologies have many of the same problems. There are problems of trustworthiness, problems of sharing, problems of pain, problems of suffering, um, uh, problems governing having good economies that are efficient and humans hit upon some of the same solutions and make them into norms and virtues and values.

Amber Cazzell: 00:54:04 Yeah. So it sounds like in your survey across cultures, there are some differences, but overwhelmingly there are lots of similarities and that that can kind of inform a normative ethics.

Owen Flanagan: 00:54:21 That's right. I think that's right. And because again, it shows up what I was talking about, about the justification side. You say, well, why does everybody, you know, why does everybody hit upon every single culture has a rule that says this, thou shalt not kill. And then you have to add in parentheses, innocence and different cultures define innocence differently after all, in Chris, among Christians, we have just war theory. So people do think you're, it's okay to kill people sometimes in a just war, sometimes people have very narrow chauvinistic views about who are the people that you ought not to kill. But by and large, everybody has come upon that as a general value statement. And, uh, but I wouldn't under F emphasize the differences. There's huge differences in sort of emotional regulation, huge differences in like, again, you know, back to things like anger, there's some cultures in which really anger is thought to be terrible.

Owen Flanagan: 00:55:22 Um, uh, and the most disruptive emotion, other cultures in which is not so expressing anger can be a normative violation in some cultures. But overall, in terms of the big ticket items, I think you'll find a lot of cultural agreement. There are two examples that I've come on. Uh, well there's one example that I think is going on now in America where something, which in almost every other culture they would have said is a, is a, a vice is almost becoming a virtue in America. And it's avarice. Becoming a it's not called avarice, but, and it's not sort of described in the terms of Gordon Gekko greed is good, but it's related to that. A person shows ambition, conscientiousness, if they're an entrepreneur and a go getter. And I think it's, uh, it's, it's, it's a rediscription of a greed or way in a way that's somewhat positive. So I've got my eye on that. And again, I wouldn't think that that's a bad thing for psychologists who are applied psychologists to have their eye on either cause a, you know, we want to contribute to a better world. And if that's getting out of hand, we want all hands on board psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and everyone.

Amber Cazzell: 00:56:47 It seems, it's interesting you say that because to me it seems like they, yeah, maybe that is touted as a virtue, like go get 'em go be successful, make money, all that stuff. But um, at the same time it seems like there's a lot of outrage at things like income inequality and, maybe, maybe not. Maybe anger is a little too strong, but certainly frustration with people who are very wealthy.

Owen Flanagan: 00:57:22 Oh yeah. I agree. It's being contested. Uh, I agree. I agree with your description 100%. It just that enough people who are, uh, there are, there are many people who feel pretty comfortable and self satisfied about their lives despite the fact that there's that pushback. So I agree with you. It's contest is contested.

Amber Cazzell: 00:57:44 So as just a final kind of question, how would you hope that psychologists and educators, social scientists, how would you hope that social scientists can take some of your work in comparative ethics and apply it to inform their own theories?

Owen Flanagan: 00:58:01 Oh, thanks. That's a nice question. Um, and, and I don't know if I've thought about that. Well, I guess I always have. I must've thought about that cause I always have wanted since the beginning of my career, you know, I've been always writing for more than one audience, not just for philosophers, but also for, um, psychologists and social scientists and cognitive scientists. Well, I think the good thing now about psychology is the increased sensitivity to the fact that, um, many of our findings in psychology, uh, may have, um, uh, sampling problems or representativeness problems because we know that they've been done mostly on Western educated, industrialized, rich, democratic populations of people. So it's actually quite an interesting and informative, uh, thing to do to start to use the resources of psychologists who knows something about say, Chinese philosophy or Indian philosophy. At the same time, there are psychological studies being done to try to get sort of a fee, uh, a view of the lay of the land.

Owen Flanagan: 00:59:10 How are people across the world different? And this is especially important in cities where, you know, multicultural cities like the, you're in the San Francisco area, uh, I think it's 40% of the people in New York, maybe it's larger, are born somewhere else. That's kind of amazing, right? So we live in these cosmopolitan, multicultural worlds. And one way, one thing to think about is that we need to understand people, not people are not completely the same. They have different ways of being in the world. There are different norms, there are different, uh, uh, values to certain extent. And when there shared values, they're not always the same ways of expressing or enacting them. And that leads to sometimes misunderstandings between groups of people. Um, and one thing I think is sometimes we underestimate the degree to which we could learn from other people. I mean, I think again about using the anger example, um, Americans are angry and um, sometimes people land on our shores, um, who come from traditions in which they have other ways of problem solving than just anger.

Owen Flanagan: 01:00:20 And a, we can learn from them sometimes and learn from other philosophical traditions. So I think these are sort of the possibilities. The subtitle of my book, the geography of morals is varieties of moral possibility. And the idea is that when we meet up with other people, we see not differences in basic values or basic virtues, but different hierarchies. And that leads to having different ways of being human within the range of not a complete relativism, but as space in which a people are again, usually working with the same sort of types of ecological problems, getting by, living well, being healthy, having good relationships with other people and so on.

Amber Cazzell: 01:01:07 Wonderful. Well, thank you so much Owen. I really appreciate this conversation. I've learned a lot and um, kind of look forward to reading some more literature with fresh eyes.

Owen Flanagan: 01:01:20 Thank you very much, Amber. It's a pleasure.


bottom of page