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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What is the purpose of morality?

Over on the Center for Inquiry site, Ron Lindsay asks this question, which has also been occupying us here of late. Sample:

There have been innumerable articles, manifestos, and pamphlets that set forth some set of humanist values and principles that we are supposed to embrace. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the content of these lists of values and principles, but I am concerned that usually there is no explanation why a humanist or anyone else should adopt these values and principles. In other words, there’s little attempt to provide a method for approaching ethical issues. Sure, there is often a reference to using our reason, but although use of our reasoning powers is a good thing, by itself it doesn’t get you very far. If we are to be serious about developing a humanist morality, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to explain why we believe people should adhere to the values and principles that we advocate.

I am not proposing that we aim to develop a decision procedure that will generate the one right answer to all our ethical issues. Such a dreamy goal cannot be achieved, in part because there are a considerable number of ethical disputes to which there may not be one right answer. But we can develop a process of analysis and reflection that will provide some moral guidance by limiting the range of ethically acceptable answers -- which by itself would be a significant achievement.

One important element of our methodology should be a specification of the objectives of morality. If we can reach consensus on what morality is for , then it becomes a bit easier to resolve ethical dilemmas. One can critically examine a proposed course of action by considering whether it would further the objectives of morality.


Sam Harris would answer this question by saying that the purpose is "the well-being of conscious creatures", but that answer isn't obvious to everyone. (I've said before that I find it acceptable as an approximation, but even if that's right - and it's open to challenge - there's huge room to argue about "approximation to what?".)

Part of the problem is that it may be almost as difficult to get agreement on the answer to this question as it is to get answers to direct questions about which morality is "true". The purpose of something deliberately designed, like a car or a hammer, is pretty obvious in most contexts. When we're talking about something like morality, even the word "purpose" isn't quite right. Still, I think it's a good question, and you'll see me worrying at it further as time goes on. To me, it's one of the central questions of philosophy, as well as having practical urgency.

41 comments:

Zachary Voch said...

Since I've been looking for feedback (please!) on my ideas, I'll give a rather long comment.

The primary question is an empirical one: how does morality work? When forming moral opinions, do we consciously evoke or else habitually evoke some learned set of principles and deduce a conclusion, or are we reacting to vague feelings on the matter which might be tempered by learned principles? I suspect the latter.

At least in daily affairs, emotivism is very descriptive. With homophobia, for example, religious principles are generally invoked, but the question of "why homosexuals as opposed to disobedient children?" is more easily explained as a consequence of discomfort and even revulsion for homosexuality. This is why the term "homophobia" seems appropriate, though I usually hesitate to give clinical-sounding terms for stances.

In short, seeing two men kissing invokes a feeling of revulsion, but seeing parents not stoning a disobedient child does nothing of the kind. More strongly, the opposite scenario probably would invoke immediate discomfort but would, among supporters, likely need to be justified with principles.

So here a criticism of emotivism becomes relevant: why do people tend to treat ethical principles as factual claims?

This occurs when feelings conflict, a very frequent scenario. One might well be disgusted at the sight of two men kissing in a gay pride parade, but one might also be disgusted at the conduct of counter-demonstrators or feel threatened by anti-rights legislation. The deciding factor is the weight of feeling on the matter. If one is made so uncomfortable by homosexuality (and associated propaganda about Gay Agendas or whatever) that he is willing to compromise on individual rights in hoping to eliminate the negative stimulus, he is then resolving conflicting feelings on the basis of feeling, but invoking a principle to defend his feeling on the matter gives him a way of putting his subjective feeling into the objective sphere.

Though this may not be universal, it is my experience that moralistic principles are generally invoked based on feeling. They are ad hoc hypotheses.

This is not to undervalue or deny the utility of (or the possibility of a factual nature for) morality, but it is to say that attempts at universalizing any sort of methodology for resolving ethical conflicts will fail unless we have overwhelming consensus emotionally, and in this case, the principle hardly needs explicit application.

My favorite example is Christians who claim that scripture is the foundation of morality. They are clearly able to recognize, with little explanation, that many of the biblical stories, particularly the Old Testament ones, are problematic. Even one who opts for a voluntarist (Divine Command) answer to Euthyphro's dilemma nevertheless fails to have a voluntarist psychology. When it comes to explaining the problems with vicarious redemption, however, principles and comparisons often need to be invoked to explain the objection so that it is even recognized. Outside of philosophical circles, few require a set of principles ruling against genocide, but in Christian circles, a set of principles ruling against vicarious redemption often need to be invoked.

Why is this?

Zachary Voch said...

With genocide, feelings of shock and horror require no encouragement. For those involved in genocidal acts and similar crimes, prior "dehumanization" of the victims is almost a necessary condition, generally through propagandized principles or emotionally charged rhetoric. The victims of the Nazi regime were either conspiratorial enemies, like the Jews, or threats to national security by (racial) weakness and susceptibility to conspiracy.

With vicarious redemption, there usually is no such prima facie horror with a promise to bear the responsibilities of others. That in of itself is bloodless in appearance, nonaggressive, unthreatening, and etc. It comes across as charitable. However, when we take time to consider the implications of such a doctrine, we feel considerable unease. If we are to take it as a doctrine, imagine the consequences of transference of accountability! One sees the potential for disorder and abuse. One finds a principle that serves her purpose.

Moral reasoning as a methodology is in thoroughly examining the possible or likely consequences of a set of actions and finding them agreeable or disagreeable. The only real epistemic ground in this case is in science and history used to determine likelihoods. The psychological desirability of these likelihoods motivates our choices of principles.

Here's a hypothetical. Suppose that a definitive proof is given that the only coherent, consistent, and comprehensive ethical system possible is one that mandates some disagreeable action, say euthanizing over-40s. Even if we were all in agreement as to the soundness of the proof and the unreasonableness of rejecting the proof, I still very much doubt that we would proceed to euthanize after every over the hill party.

Just as mathematical axioms are designed to capture intuitive ideas about math or a particular subfield of math, moral maxims are designed to capture our sentiments about our actions. This is why they invariably focus on actions which elicit emotional responses, say murder, as opposed to actions which do not elicit strong responses, such as the proper way to fold a t-shirt.

So, if it makes any sense to say that morality has a purpose, it is in clarifying and elucidating sentiments.

But then, might we ask whether or not sentiments are reflections of principles as opposed to linguistic devices capturing opinions?

Here is where cognitive dissonance is important. We feel discomfort when faced with internal contradictions, and one method of resolving that discomfort in coming to an ethical judgment is to prefer a principle to the weight of feeling. So, it is certainly possible to give more weight to a general principle when evaluating a particular scenario than the weight of sentiment on the matter. And with that principle getting us over the rough bits, familiarity alone is usually sufficient to lessen the weight of sentiment.

However, I still think it is the case that a principle overriding strong sentiment must be supported by some other strong sentiment. In this way, it is our discomfort with inconsistency which brings us to invoke principles against feeling. In short, morality serves to both enforce sentiment and temper sentiment, but it is nevertheless designed to capture emotion in either case.

Zachary Voch said...

That's at least a rough outline of the descriptive part of the case. But what does that leave us with for prescription? How then do we in some objective way justify a given principle?

Ethical norms are tricky because of their emotional motivations. For, in other matters considered factual, our feelings on the matter are considered irrelevant. No matter whether or not I find it pleasant that the Sun orbits the Earth, it does anyway. With empirical claims, "X has unpleasant consequences" is not considered a valid argument against the truth of X whether or not we agree with the statement or the "unpleasant" article. However, when arguing for an ethical norm, "Y has unpleasant consequences" is considered vital. Defense of Y then involves "consequences of Y are more pleasant than not" or "not Y has more unpleasant consequences," and so on.

In other words, some level of agreement about what is "pleasant" or "unpleasant" is necessary for any attempt to sensibly argue about a given norm. Since those considerations are always in flux and are dependent on culture, the ground is a bit shaky.

Since norms are concerned with behaviors and therefore dependent on compliance, we should expect practical success only when beginning with agreement. So, agreeing that "preventing genocide" is an agreeable goal, we may then sensibly argue about what norms should be instituted in order to achieve that goal. In this case, the purpose of morality is goal-oriented reduction or prevention of acts inspiring negative feeling. This was the motivation behind the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are not natural laws, but rather are things granted and defended out of feeling precisely because they are violable.

Zachary Voch said...

All of that said, it strikes me as an unappealing picture. I doubt that many would find it satisfactory. Correlating with the strength of our feelings, the strength of our wishes to have a concrete, objective, clear-cut system or method of assessing, and if necessary, punishing, the ethics of an action is overwhelming, particularly with matters of human rights.

However, our wish for such a simple system does not make it true. Even if such a system exists, we have to deal with the empirical realities of the emotional motivation of norms.

I believe very strongly in freedom of speech and that it is a universalizable standard. The first part is based on sentiment. The second part is based on a belief that if we apply our moral reasoning and assess the benefits and incentives rationally, then we will find almost all censorship indefensible.

If this outlook has the effect of only weakly supporting norms we like, it at least has the effect of at best weakly supporting norms we do not like. And better yet, it still allows us to form norms based on facts about the world and excluding claims which depend on a mythical outlook.

Zachary Voch said...

*Obvious correction to my third comment. The Sun does NOT orbit the Earth. Blegh.

NewEnglandBob said...

Zachary, your last paragraph of the previous post "Since norms are concerned with behaviors..." is the target of where I think we need to go. I am still digesting your last post because I do not (yet) agree that it is an unappealing picture.

Zachary Voch said...

NEB,

It's (widely considered, not necessarily for me or you) unappealing because it does not give us a way to say "you're wrong" when it comes to behaviors. For example, it doesn't lend authority for the punishing of noncompliance unless we have some standard of reciprocity or some contractual model. The point is that reciprocity in and of itself has to be taken as a widely agreeable tenet based on feeling and that we have to force those who might not agree with our feelings into compliance.

But, that's a necessary consequence of any ethical outlook, of course, but I would like (as many others would) to have a stronger basis for authority than "popular feeling."

David Leyden said...

To understand the purpose one must first understand the cause. Do other animals display morality? And what relationship does memory have with morality?

DM said...

and Russell...


we are going to GIVE YOU A GOOD KICK IN THE HEAD AS YOU DESERVE....

tildeb said...

The purpose of something deliberately designed, like a car or a hammer, is pretty obvious in most contexts. When we're talking about something like morality, even the word "purpose" isn't quite right.

I agree. I think the key to understanding morality in all its various forms and applications lies first and foremost in understanding what we call 'morality' as a biological function of the brain. Without this solid neuroscientific grounding, theories and explanations about morality can only be as well informed as, let's say, Freudian psychology: the explanations may look sensible and sound legitimate and seem reasonable, but are any of them actually true?

Roger said...

"we are going to GIVE YOU A GOOD KICK IN THE HEAD AS YOU DESERVE...."
Well, that tells us all we need to know about DM's "morality". Is DM short for Doc Marten?

On a practical level,it is better if morality is expressed negatively: "Thou shalt not..." gives a lot more scope than "Thou shalt..." and the emphasis should be not doing harm rather than doing good.

Mark Sloan said...

Russell, thanks for recommending Ron’s post. I’ve posted a comment on his site suggesting that the normal methods of science could provide a productive approach for determining what the purposes of moral behavior ‘are’ and have been.

I ended up making what I think is my best to date 790 word summary of this approach and my conclusions to date. That summary includes the conclusion that “As a matter of science, the purpose of virtually all moral behavior is to exploit the synergistic benefits of cooperation by being unselfish.”

Perhaps that summary might be of interest. In any event, I would be delighted to get any comments you might care to make.

DM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DM said...

Russell:

you are GOING TO BE TORTURED AND EXECUTED...

you are going to LEARN CONSEQUENCES...

Russell Blackford said...

Ho hum.

DM said...

see, this isn't one of your little WORD GAMES, russell...

blasphemy is a DEATH SENTENCE, fucker..

DM said...

this isn't one of your little WORD GAMES...

blasphemy is a DEATH SENTENCE





you people actually BELIEVE the BS you preach!

GOD 1 - atheists 0


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQcNiD0Z3MU


Atheists,

you are ENEMIES OF GOD AND ARE GOING TO BE ANNIHILATED...

Repent and turn to God or be destroyed...

YOU HAVE NO CHOICE...

my interpretation of the STATUE FIRE... it symbolizes the SPIRITUAL DEATH of atheism...



http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/topofthetimes/national/la-naw-0616-jesus-statue-lightning-20100616,0,4295974.story


http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/6/16/1276680110544/The-King-of-Kings-statue--005.jpg



http://www.latimes.com/media/photo/2010-06/54332292.jpg


http://friendlyatheist.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/butterjesus-1.jpg



PRINCESS DI IS WEARING A NEW DRESS!


http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/speechesandarticles/a_speech_by_hrh_the_prince_of_wales_titled_islam_and_the_env_252516346.html

______________________________

http://skepticblog.org/2010/04/06/would-i-ever-pray-for-a-miracle/

Shermer, I WANT TO SEE YOU BEG FOR A MIRACLE...
___________________


we do like your music Lady Gaga, but...


The B**BQUAKE - 911


Let me show you the FATE OF TRAITORS...


http://www.loiterink.com/photos/products/182_3424_500x500.jpg

they are incapable of telling the difference between SCIENTIFIC *FACT* AND RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL *TRUTH*... FATAL ERROR!

they also preach a *VALUE FREE SCIENCE* called *POSITIVISM* that ignores the inequalities of wealth and power in capitalist civilization...



for a sample taste of PZ Myers' GARBAGE...

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/06/sunday_sacrilege_imagine_no_he.php


HIJACKING IN PROGRESS!!!

http://hawaiiwebgroup.com/maui-design/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/website-hijacking.jpg


HIJACKING IN PROGRESS!!!

how can these HEADLESS IDIOTS BET AGAINST GOD!!!
________________________________________


what happens when you LOSE Pascal's Wager...


http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/pascals-wager.htm

_____________


you FIGHT PAPER MONSTERS...

the blood and bodies of the atheist movement...


you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!


this has more TRUTH then what Dawkins, Randi, Harris, Myers, and Shermer
combined have said in their entire lives...


http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=5R2wE8Sduhs&playnext_from=TL&videos=hht1U_19anc&feature=rec-LGOUT-exp_fresh%2Bdiv-1r-3-HM



they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION...

they LOST THE WAR......

you have FORFEIT YOUR SOUL, shermer... you have become an object in the
material world, as you WISHED...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUB4j0n2UDU

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/7/11792994_ffaaee87fa.jpg

we're gonna smash that TV...

They had become ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE AND OF GOD...
you pushed too much and *CROSSED THE LINE*

degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) - ATHEISTS!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRRg2tWGDSY

do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is

*WRONG*

THE BOOBQUAKE - 911!

http://dissidentphilosophy.lifediscussion.net/philosophy-f1/the-boobquake-911-t1310.htm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sx7XNb3Q9Ek

RUN, ATHEISTS, RUN!!!

-------------------

http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-information.html

the 9th and FINAL RING of Dante's Inferno is designed for little blaspheming traitors like you...

"This is the deepest level of hell, where the fallen angel Satan himself resides. His wings flap eternally, producing chilling cold winds that freeze the thick ice found in Cocytus..."


but at least FREE AIR CONDITIONING is included!

Necandum said...

TL;DR - Morality is based on biology, modified by culture. As it tends to be very personal and changeable, we should focus on lawmaking instead.
In making laws we should protect an individual's freedom of action and development and seek to minimise harm without causing any additional harm (material or emotional).

Long version:
I would agree with some of the earlies posters that morality (I'm going to call it a code of behaviour for clarity)is based upon our biology and is modified by environment.

We have 'gut feelings' as to which behaviours are acceptable and which are not. Initially, these instincts are imbued by genetics.

As we grow, they are changed, expanded and clarified by our upbringing and culture. Constant reinforcement can make these instincts very strong indeed.

Then comes, for some, a time when we begin to rationally reflect upon our instincts and codify them in a philosophy. The philosophy tends to be far more sophisticated and complex than the instincts which provided its foundations.

As Zach said, one main use for our philosophies is to resolve a conflict of instinct, when our 'gut feeling' does not provide a clear answer. However, I also believe that for those who follow their reasoning to its logical conclusion, they will often arrive at a conclusion contradictory to their instincts. This is where our reason is pitted against our intuition, sentiment versus principle. Who the victor is depends, of course, on the individual.

But I think its a good idea to make a distinction between 'Laws' and a code of behaviour. The former is enforceable, the latter is something we think we 'ought' to follow but non-compliance should not incur official sanction.

I think it is upon laws that we should be focused, not a socially enforced code of behaviour that may or may not be consistent or beneficial.

'Morality' is simply too changeable and personal. Depending out which premises you start out with and what your biases and preconceptions are (everyone has their own and they are deeply ingrained)will change the resulting code of behaviour that you come up with.

That is not to say that we should not attempt to influence the codes of behaviour of the people around us, as social norms obviously seriously affect individuals.

However, it is ultimately laws that are ultimate arbitrators of behaviour and are often effective at modifying our personal codes of behaviour. I think the various civil rights acts of the last century are a good example.

Still, this is just passing the buck along somewhat, because the question is raised, what should the goal of our laws be?

I think I'll attempt a short and rough answer:

1) To safeguard each individual from unjustified* harm.
2)To allow each individual a great deal of freedom in their development and progress. I.e not setting limits on their potential and providing opportunities for personal advancement.
3)Mediate disputes and agreements between individuals, to achieve *fairness.

The goal? Here, I think an axiom needs to be introduced:

To reduce pain, harm and suffering, without causing any more which is *unjustified.

* Then there's the problem of defining these terms. Oi vei. I think I've rambled on long enough. Apologies for the long post.

Zachary Voch said...

@Necandum,

No need to apologize for long posts (at least I hope so!). You've introduced where I was thinking of going next, i.e. social norms and laws.


"...[a code of behavior] is something we think we 'ought' to follow but non-compliance should not incur official sanction.

I think it is upon laws that we should be focused, not a socially enforced code of behaviour that may or may not be consistent or beneficial."


Agree on the first part. "Conversational intolerance" comes to mind. For the second, I partially disagree, as I believe that the success of a given goal-oriented law depends very strongly on the popularity of the goal. For civil rights legislation, public opinion acts as a prerequisite with the law serving as sanction of that opinion. With civil rights, the law has served to cement and broaden something which already had a wide acceptance. With somewhat representative governments, this is a vital step.

Let's take another example: teaching evolution and excluding creationism from public schools. Has this lead to wider acceptance of evolution, or has it lead to a popular reaction against science and public education? Has it lead to a greater understanding of evolution overall, or has it done little to nothing to break the cement of denialism?

These questions are capable of mixed answers, but the reactionary presence is a very clear one. With civil rights, the reaction was briefer and died more quickly because moral sentiment for equality grew strong with familiarity. In the histories I have read, the presence of media was vital, the differences made by images of hoses and police dogs powerful. With the teaching of evolution, the emotional reactions in question are largely neutral or else are negative, given the strong emotional ties between believers and doctrine and widely propagandized "consequences of evolutionism (Ken Ham's Evolution = Atheism = Abortion = Nazis/Stalin sort of thing)."

When education is itself the object of attack, attempts to educate are themselves preempted. So in this case, norms and popular perceptions are more important than the law if the goal is acceptance and understanding of evolution in particular and modern science generally. The proper approach to this is where we find our "accommodationism vs. new atheist" dispute.

The American war on drugs is another great example. I don't feel the need to elaborate here.

Laws have little or at least a very slow effect on changes in norms unless they serve a purpose in line with popular sentiment. Even in cases where we expect strong moral support, such as the abolition of slavery in the US, a war is sometimes necessary.

Zachary Voch said...

(cont.)

This can be explained by the weight of interest in public law and propagandized myths (e.g. blacks are happier under their masters than free, racial slavery is biblical, racialism generally, etc.)

This is not to say that you ignore the power of emotionally-driven norms, as in the following...


"That is not to say that we should not attempt to influence the codes of behaviour of the people around us, as social norms obviously seriously affect individuals.

However, it is ultimately laws that are ultimate arbitrators of behaviour and are often effective at modifying our personal codes of behaviour. I think the various civil rights acts of the last century are a good example."


...but you'll notice that the second paragraph needs more qualification. Unless there is a strong and readily accessible emotion to which a law appeals, laws will be ineffective or else enact change so slowly as to be almost irrelevant.


"The goal? Here, I think an axiom needs to be introduced:

To reduce pain, harm and suffering, without causing any more which is *unjustified."


I think Mill's Harm Principle is still a workable axiom. But as your axiom is, utilitarianism in practice is a very subjective thing. For example, a religious voter who believes in a system of eternal awards and punishments must then only vote for theocrats who have secularly harmful policies. Any level of worldly cruelty is justified in this system. This axiom will be found to conform with individual sentiments which disagree, resolving little or nothing even if widely practiced. But even if we were to append "secular" to your axiom, the subjective weighing of harms and goods is almost worthless unless we have a wide consensus, in which case, the axiom is again practically redundant. It does nothing to change a person's opinion, i.e., they call their preconceived benefits and preconceived disadvantages of a law "good" and "bad" and are already quite made about about how the scales balance.

A more practicable axiom would be "the likely effects of any policy must be made explicit and announced nationally/locally prior to its enactment." Prejudices would still act upon it, but inconsistent principles and mixed feelings are at least more likely to be discovered by way of inquiry.

Kirth Gersen said...

“As a matter of science, the purpose of virtually all moral behavior is to exploit the synergistic benefits of cooperation by being unselfish.”

I think you're on exactly the right track there. Humans evolved in communal groups; we're wired to recognize instances in which this synergy is being encouraged or violated, but those recognitions are hazy and indistinct.

It seems to me they could be codified, in terms of a much-expanded branch of game theory -- how to avoid the "tragedy of the commons" and encourage net gain scenarios, in which the fundamentals of "gain" involve a minimization of net suffering.

tomh said...

Zachary Voch wrote:
For civil rights legislation, public opinion acts as a prerequisite with the law serving as sanction of that opinion. With civil rights, the law has served to cement and broaden something which already had a wide acceptance.

Certainly not the way it worked in America. Things like school desegregation and especially interracial marriage were opposed by big majorities of the American public. Laws and court decisions came first, public acceptance came slowly over a long period of time. In some place acceptance has never come. The laws are necessary to enforce behavior regardless of public acceptance.

Stacy Kennedy said...

@David Leyden
"To understand the purpose one must first understand the cause. Do other animals display morality? And what relationship does memory have with morality?"

A good case is being made that the elements of morality, in particular empathy and reciprocity, can be found in other animals. Social animals need to get along together somehow, despite competing individual interests, power and dominance struggles, and the like.

I recommend Frans de Waal's book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals and his more recent Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are.

Zachary Voch said...

@tomh


"Certainly not the way it worked in America. Things like school desegregation and especially interracial marriage were opposed by big majorities of the American public. Laws and court decisions came first, public acceptance came slowly over a long period of time. In some place acceptance has never come. The laws are necessary to enforce behavior regardless of public acceptance."


Thanks for the correction. It is true that the courts have made decisions against wide public opinion and that acceptance slowly followed. I think that it has mostly come as a result of familiarity in these cases, but law certainly has to be credited with allowing that to grow.

I suppose that much of my comment that you responded to has to be revised to more specifically relate to interplay between legislature and population. As intended, the Court occasionally strikes down laws which are essentially sanctioned public opinion.

The Courts threw an iron bar into my spokes! But thanks for catching me on it. With lifelong appointments, the Courts gain a partial immunity to my analysis.

Anonymous said...

Wow, great discussion! I'll have to check in when I can do more than skim.

@David Leyden:

To understand the purpose one must first understand the cause. Do other animals display morality? And what relationship does memory have with morality?

Do humans display morality? Everyone seems to take it as a given that they do, but it seems to me that humans act the way they act, and ex post facto, people call actions they like "moral" and actions they don't like "immoral."

What does a complete lack of morality look like? If there is no animal behaviors that can be classed as "moral" or "immoral," then we have to accept that the diversity of "amoral" actions is more than likely quite enough to encompass all human behaviors as well. We see male lions eating their live young and female dragging dead offspring around with them, and every conceivable action in between. The fact that we're even asking if animals have a moral sense should indicate something a little unnerving about human beings.

-Dan L.

Anonymous said...

"are no animal behaviors" and "female primates dragging dead offspring". Sorry.

-Dan L.

Necandum said...

@Zach
"For the second, I partially disagree, as I believe that the success of a given goal-oriented law depends very strongly on the popularity of the goal. For civil rights legislation, public opinion acts as a prerequisite with the law serving as sanction of that opinion."

Depends on the precise case. As has been mentioned, in America it was law first, opinion second.

But what I was getting at was precisely what you said, that' acceptance comes from familiarity'. As humans lack a hive mind, we get our information about was is and not acceptable from those around us, the media and the official code of conduct in whatever environment we find ourselves in. Thus, laws being a universal code of conduct for a nation, they set a sort of standard which can sway a person's opinions, especially if those are not yet set solid.

It also introduces into the equation the instinct to obey authority and the law, which most would feel quite strongly. On any given topic where the law has its say, the instinct to obey does battle with whatever other opinions the person might have, the stronger winning out in the end.

So I guess we're basically agreeing with each other but the details are hard to convey in the given format.

"For example, a religious voter who believes in a system of eternal awards and punishments must then only vote for theocrats who have secularly harmful policies. Any level of worldly cruelty is justified in this system."

True, that's why I threw in the qualifier to not cause any more harm in the process. Basically, the government should seek to increase utility only when conflicting decreases are truly trivial. I could do some more ranting on this subject as well, but its tangential, so I'll refrain...for now.

So, as an example: seatbelts and vaccines, which are very beneficial, but whose harm is very small. Though I think making the latter compulsory in the present climate would be a Bad Idea.

So if we take the above statement as an axiom, the 'War on Drugs' is a very bad piece of legislation indeed. It causes incredible amount of harm and does almost nothing to alleviate any harm whatsoever (well, it funds the gangs). If nothing else, this might get one fired about it

Personally, I'm in favour of legalisation and privatisation/government running of the drug industry, with careful regulation to make sure the products aren't too dangerous (too small difference between effective and fatal doses, harmful impurities and additives) and that their side-effects are well known.

" more practicable axiom would be "the likely effects of any policy must be made explicit and announced nationally/locally prior to its enactment.""

Semantics, but I would call that a procedure rather than an axiom. An axiom should tell us what ends we should seek with our laws, while procedures are the best implementation we can come up with.

So an axiom is the premise which we assume in constructing our enforced code of conduct. Depending which we pick, and the choice should be virtually unanimous, depends what kind of system we come up with.

If the axiom was 'to make more cheese', then crime such as murder would be fine as long as they didn't impact cheese productions. Twisted, but there it is.

But otherwise, I agree it would be an excellent idea.

Although it might get tricky in practise. Not all effects can be predicated and many predications will be biased. I'm pretty this is what happens now anyway, with all the political shows and columns floating around.

Necandum said...

@Dan L.

This is why I think it best to refrain from throwing around the word 'moral' too much and instead state explicitly what you mean by it.

I define morality* as a code of behaviour which we think we ought to follow. Thus, humans and animals (some of the social ones, anyway) indeed have morality.

But if your definition is different then obviously your conclusions about what it is and who has it will differ.

*As opposed to Law, which I define as a code of behaviour, mostly negative, that we think we must follow. Ideally, laws should be based upon a few basic and simple axioms, which most everyone agrees on, and should be the best means that we can come up with for achieving the goals implied by those axioms.

Zachary Voch said...

@Necandum

"Depends on the precise case. As has been mentioned, in America it was law first, opinion second."

Yes, another commenter corrected me on the civil rights. My qualified followup to this correction would have been this:

"But what I was getting at was precisely what you said, that' acceptance comes from familiarity'. As humans lack a hive mind, we get our information about was is and not acceptable from those around us, the media and the official code of conduct in whatever environment we find ourselves in. Thus, laws being a universal code of conduct for a nation, they set a sort of standard which can sway a person's opinions, especially if those are not yet set solid."

I would add a bit to this, namely that laws as bringing about acceptance through familiarity still depend on emotional responses to what is being made familiar. But if I go too far with this, I stray into truism or unfalsifiability. "Law had no effect because many disobeyed it" would be a bit of a catch-all, but Prohibition comes to mind as an example of a moralistic policy that could not stick.

"It also introduces into the equation the instinct to obey authority and the law, which most would feel quite strongly. On any given topic where the law has its say, the instinct to obey does battle with whatever other opinions the person might have, the stronger winning out in the end."

Respect for authority is a very strong factor even against emotional reaction (the Milgram experiment comes to mind). Another factor is the simple fear of punishment, but I think that recognition of authority is a bigger factor.

Zachary Voch said...

"So I guess we're basically agreeing with each other but the details are hard to convey in the given format."

True, but you have successfully convinced me to lay more emphasis on the importance of laws as possible prior factors to acceptance of norms. And I think we agree through the rest of your comment until here:

"Semantics, but I would call that a procedure rather than an axiom. An axiom should tell us what ends we should seek with our laws, while procedures are the best implementation we can come up with."

Procedures can be axiomatic, but then, my background with the term "axiom" is in mathematics. I think that our proposed axioms are interconnected in this way especially: your `goal' axiom implies my `procedure' axiom. For me, the trouble with a utilitarian axiom is the nature of the claim (which returns us to many of the original problems brought up) which as of yet does not lend itself to consensually accepted behaviors. My axiom, on the other hand, avoids the subjective weighing of "harm" and "good" and instead allows moral principles to act as clarification of the feelings concerning the results of such an inquiry. In other words, the weighing is implicit, and as I argue that a utilitarian axiom will be made to fit personal prejudices in practice, a consensus will be formulated based on feeling/principle consensually concerning all the relevant information discovered.

"Although it might get tricky in practise. Not all effects can be predicated and many predications will be biased. I'm pretty this is what happens now anyway, with all the political shows and columns floating around."

And here you point out the similar problems with my own idea. And imagine any serious attempt to convey all likely major consequences of, say, a healthcare system to a large and ideological population. The problem could be lessened by widespread acceptance of relevant expert communities, but expertise in fields like economics is a compromised and disagreeing business.

Zachary Voch said...

@Necandum

From a different commment:

"Ideally, laws should be based upon a few basic and simple axioms, which most everyone agrees on, and should be the best means that we can come up with for achieving the goals implied by those axioms."

Just curious, but by "based upon" do you mean laws as deduced from premises in accordance with evidential considerations, or do you mean restriction of possible laws to those consistent with a set of axioms and their consequences?

The latter is analogous to the bill of rights in the US. But by "axioms," one usually means principles and rules from which propositions are deduced (and in this case, empirical facts thrown in which function as tentative axioms are added into the mix).

The problems I see with this view are mostly repetitions of things I said in the previous comments, but there is another question of the sheer variability of circumstance which makes any useful system that does not tacitly conform to norms and reduces to the previous "consistency interpretation."

Zachary Voch said...

**Correction:

"but there is another question of the sheer variability of circumstance which makes any useful system that does not tacitly conform to norms and reduces to the previous "consistency interpretation."

I rewrite more coherently as:

"but there is an additional problem when we consider the variability of circumstances surrounding a given action. For example, the different considerations brought to bear in judging a killing. Was it the result of negligence, intention, self-defense...? I see the number of axioms involved exploding, and a desirable level of completeness for any such system is hard to imagine. In such a case, it would in practice become extralegal social norms filling in details with possible laws limited by consistency with a small set of axioms, as in the first interpretation."

Necandum said...

@Zach

With Prohibition, I think one could say it was a case where the desire for a substance and the potential for profit outweighed the instinct to obey authority, the fear of punishment (thanks for reminding me of that one) and any negative opinions of the substance itself.

Hmm, so yes indeed, an important variable is not only the instinct to obey authority but also personal feeling for or against law. If the feeling is too against and too widespread, there's not a hope if hell of it getting accepted except by brute force on behalf of the government and perhaps not even then. So I think we are now pretty much agree in this.

As for axioms, I would define them as premises we must assume/postulate before we can bring our powers of reason to bear and come up with a conclusion (laws). Depending on the method uses, evidence admitted and so for, will change the details, but as long as one starts from the same premises, the results should be rather similar.

"but by "based upon" do you mean laws as deduced from premises in accordance with evidential considerations, or do you mean restriction of possible laws to those consistent with a set of axioms and their consequences?"

I think I'm leaning towards the former. Basically, I think we should consider what we hold valuable and important (axiom) and the best way to achieve it (law).

So an axiom could be:
"Humans* have a right to live and not be the victims of substantial cruelty**."

From that, we can make laws outlawing murder, rape, assault ect. We also take practical considerations into account. I.e what is the best way to achieve it and how can we proportion punishment to fit the crime to avoid falling foul of the axiom ourselves ect.

Without actually going through and creating a system in this way, I guess it would be hard to say just how many axioms you would need. As I said, ideally they would be few and simple. In practise, as you said, it would probably be much more complicated.

###

Tangent:
I guess where I'm coming from is that in reality, the universe is cold, harsh place. A dark void that cares nothing for humans or anything at all. In a million years, who shall remember us or our petty lives? Ultimately there is no meaning, no purpose to our existence, except that which we assign it. If we were perfectly rational beings, and we did not make any assumptions, assumed no axioms, then we would have nothing to use our reason upon, nowhere to start the train of logic. We would just do nothing, for eternity.

Necandum said...

But we are far from perfectly rational. Why do we eat? Because we are hungry. Why is being hungry something that needs to be alleviated? It causes suffering. Why does it do that? Because hunger causes an imbalance in our systems which impacts its ability to survive and reproduce and so the system seek to return to equilibrium. Those systems which did not seek to return to equilibrium, have not survived to the present day, leaving only those that do. Its virtually a tautology.

These basic axioms which we take quite for granted then go a long way to determining which actions we will take. I.e those that relieve hunger and thirst, that quench the various desires that have been 'programmed' into the human machine.

###

So we need to make some assumptions to give us a starting point for further action. Like we can get calculus from assuming 1+1=2 (and maybe a few other things), after enough deriving.

"your `goal' axiom implies my `procedure' axiom. ... My axiom, on the other hand, avoids the subjective weighing of "harm" and "good" and instead allows moral principles to act as clarification of the feelings concerning the results of such an inquiry."

As you say, the goal implies the procedure. If the goal was to keep as many people ignorant as possible, your procedure would not then logically follow. So I think it could be safely said the procedures are derived from 'goal axioms' (hmm, that might be a new term ).

Also, don't quite understand what you mean by the last sentence.

"For me, the trouble with a utilitarian axiom is the nature of the claim (which returns us to many of the original problems brought up) which as of yet does not lend itself to consensually accepted behaviors."

Good point. What is harm for one person may be beneficial for another.

So I think the whole idea would to be to avoid any grey areas and legislate only when the objective (material) harms and benefits are clear and direct. The main purpose of laws should be to mediate interactions between individuals and provide for a framework of common action. Legislating about what individuals can or cannot do on their own dime and time should be avoided unless it -strongly- in an indirect manner on society and the costs are trivial. I.e seatbelts save lives (taxpayers) and emotional suffering for a lot of people, but cost the individual no freedoms and pose minute risk which is far outweighed by the benefit.

"clarification of the feelings concerning the results of such an inquiry. ... [A] consensus will be formulated based on feeling/principle consensually concerning all the relevant information discovered."

Maybe I'm just a bit out of it, but unfortunately I don't quite understand you. Use smaller words perhaps? =D

"In other words, the weighing is implicit, and as I argue that a utilitarian axiom will be made to fit personal prejudices in practice"

I guess it depends on the precise case, what other assumption one makes, just how prejudiced someone is ect. I think this is the point where concrete examples need to be introduced, otherwise it gets a bit too abstract. Not to mention its a whole 'nother kettle of fish.


* A problem of definition arises here. What is the definition of human and how is to decide whether any given being meets that definition?

**Another problem of definition. What should be defined as 'substantial cruelty'? Where do we draw the line in amongst a bad-break up, being fired and the rack?

Zachary Voch said...

@Necandum

"Maybe I'm just a bit out of it, but unfortunately I don't quite understand you. Use smaller words perhaps? =D"

Ah, well, the sentence was a bit of a mess, so forgive me. By "clarification of feeling" I was referring to my earlier proposed purpose of moral principles. I was arguing that my procedure axiom would, through exposing all likely consequences of a possible law, implicitly function as your axiom. In other words, once somebody has made an opinion based on the information, the utilitarian "harm" v. "good" weighing has already been done. Unless one feels apathetic or detached from a particular law, pointing to a principle of moral cost/benefit analysis without any specific machinery means that they will match the utilitarian ethic to their position.

I could be wrong, though. I would be interested to see if pointing to that principle would do anything to change minds. I only see it occurring where the issue has not been carefully thought out already.

"So an axiom could be:
"Humans* have a right to live and not be the victims of substantial cruelty**."

From that, we can make laws outlawing murder, rape, assault ect. We also take practical considerations into account. I.e what is the best way to achieve it and how can we proportion punishment to fit the crime to avoid falling foul of the axiom ourselves ect."

Ah yes, but that would also outlaw war. Prisons as well, if the measure of substantial cruelty is in resultant suffering.

"I think this is the point where concrete examples need to be introduced, otherwise it gets a bit too abstract. Not to mention its a whole 'nother kettle of fish."

Exactly! We (usually) have an easy time deciding particular ethical dilemmas, but we have a terrible time finding any general ethical principle with any substance or practical efficacy. This is part of what lead me to believe that the "consistency interpretation" of your axiom system would be the inevitable product of the "deduction interpretation" in practice. It's also why I think we draw ethical judgments almost entirely from feeling, not principle.

If we're to discover substantial axioms that are general and successful, we need to focus more on psychology and how the emotional sense "works." This is the exciting next direction. However, we already know that we are predisposed to behaviors considered immoral (ingroup v. outgroup mentalities) and that it is dependent on upbringing, so I have doubts that the naturally agreeing moral sense of the consensus might be cited as a concrete solution.

Necandum said...

"Ah yes, but that would also outlaw war. Prisons as well, if the measure of substantial cruelty is in resultant suffering."

I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, that's a dang good idea.

What should be the purpose of the justice system? To alleviate harm, to both victim and offender (as per that axiom).

As the victim has already suffered, the only option here is to force the offender to make whatever reparations are practical and work to prevent re-offence.

On the offender's side, we must avoid causing pain and suffering simply for the sake of vengeance. It may be satisfying but is ultimately pointless and so creates two victims where there was previously one. The focus should be for the punishment to act as a deterrent (preferably short and sweet) and a reforming/educating process.

Prisons don't really work well. They just isolate criminals from society and waste years of possibly productive life and taxpayers money at the same time.

True, if a criminal is so violent or unreformed that it would be impractical to integrate them back into society, prisons would be the only solution. However, I would think that these sorts are in the minority.

"Exactly! We (usually) have an easy time deciding particular ethical dilemmas, but we have a terrible time finding any general ethical principle with any substance or practical efficacy."

Probably true. But to test our general principles, we need a situation to try them on.

"In other words, once somebody has made an opinion based on the information, the utilitarian "harm" v. "good" weighing has already been done. Unless one feels apathetic or detached from a particular law, pointing to a principle of moral cost/benefit analysis without any specific machinery means that they will match the utilitarian ethic to their position."

I don't think I still quite understand you.

Are you saying that we should avoid forming a universal framework of behaviour and instead announce possible laws and let public opinion sort the bad from the good? So instead of being geared towards any specific aims, the goal is dissemination of information.

Something like that?

Necandum said...

"Probably true. But to test our general principles, we need a situation to try them on."

Addendum: Also, from analysis of real life situations, we gain more data about works and what doesn't. So we then would have a better idea of what goal axioms we could assume.

Zachary Voch said...

We certainly agree about prisons and war as things which are undesirable (and prisons as largely worthless or else counterproductive).

"Are you saying that we should avoid forming a universal framework of behaviour and instead announce possible laws and let public opinion sort the bad from the good? So instead of being geared towards any specific aims, the goal is dissemination of information."

Not necessarily. I'm saying that the utilitarian ethic in practice is already applied. It doesn't give us what is "harm" or "good" in any concrete sense, so people assign those values to what is emotionally appealing.

I think we should have a universal framework of behavior, albeit one that is concerned with essentials beyond which variation is tolerable. It's analogous to the early idea of religious toleration in England... various types of Protestant would be tolerated, so long as they agreed on "essential" points of doctrine.

I am of the opinion that we share as a species a largely agreeing moral sense. So, on essential items like freedom of speech, the "more good than bad stuff" weighing is the result of awareness of "stuff." So, education and dissemination of information relevant to X are the priority as opposed to convincing others of value motivating X. This idealized "aware public" won't necessarily sort the `good' from the `bad,' but it will be able to determine what values are widely held and therefore form a meaningful consensus. In these cases of consensus, we expect the resulting laws to work in practice. They would be enforceable and deviation would be just that: deviant.

Again, much of this echoes of the Bill of Rights or some sort of Harm Principle. I guess the only novelty (so far as I'm aware) that I am proposing is this "Norm of Information." That is, any ethical system should have a procedural norm wherein all of the "is" relevant to the "ought" is made available.

Obviously, this is still a broad idea that needs more fleshing out.

Necandum said...

"Obviously, this is still a broad idea that needs more fleshing out."

Pretty much. Thinking is hard >.>
But hey, thanks for conversation, its been interesting.

Zachary Voch said...

Thanks to you as well, Necandum. I'm sure we'll see each other in comments around the blogosphere more in the future, as I've decided to lurk less post more.

MI said...

L'il b brian ? are you here?

Try to take it easy, bro. and concentrate on your family and fellow believers. And your own soul.

Let not anything fowl emanate from you as you are a precious gift made in the image of God himself.