The importance of deciding and being who you are, especially through your choice of morals; looking at ethics, moral subjectivity, nihilism and moral relativism - blog by Gurdur

 




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The importance of deciding and being who you are, especially through your choice of morals; looking at ethics, moral subjectivity, nihilism and moral relativism
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Posted 27-Apr-2010 at 05:40 PM (17:40) by Gurdur
Updated 29-Oct-2010 at 08:07 AM (08:07) by Gurdur

I've blogged before that ethics is a field that is a minefield for everyone, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or atheist, whether a bricklayer or a scientist. Ethics are not easy. But your choice of ethics, your choice of morals, is all part of your choice of values, and while changing that a bit is one of the most difficult tasks you can set yourself, since values are embedded so deep within personalities, it is still a very worthwhile task, since it really gets to the essence of you defining what you are through what you do (what people say is much less important than what people actually do). Defining yourself is making yourself a real person, more free from whatever programming or groupthink you had or took on board from your parents or peer group while you were growing up, and more free from whatever society around you says.

One of the biggest difficulties, perhaps the biggest one after the main difficulty of actually changing your values in action consistantly, is the problem of that no one moral can be shown by appeal to authority or by derivation from looking at the natural world around you to be better than another moral. Morals cannot be logically derived from simply observing the natural world, from looking at "what is".

Wikipedia link for David Hume David Hume pointed out this logical disconnect between what "is" and what "should be" back in 1739 A.D., over 270 years ago, the observation that you cannot validly derive a "should" from an "is", which means in the end you cannot prove logically that your morals are "more correct" than all other morals.

How does it mean that? Let's say I adopt Moral A, and we will call my overall morality Ethics System X. You have a competing Moral B, and your overall morality is Ethics System Y. Now, I can say that in my own terms that Moral A is in my opinion better than Moral B. I can also use science to predict what the social effects of my Moral A would be, and compare those predicted social effects with the effects of your contrary Moral B (though I cannot, and no-one can, use science to derive morals; morals cannot be derived from science, science can only be used to measure the effects of morals). But in the end, if your Ethics System Y is internally consistant, I cannot say that in your terms or in any genuinely objective terms that my Ethics System X is better than yours, and I cannot say my Moral A is correct and your Moral B is invalid. And just because it is only in my opinion (or in yours) does not make it valueless. My morals are my morals, and your morals are your morals; this is the point expressed by moral subjectivity. You see, you might appeal to the Bible, and I can show that the Bible was written by humans (and often is internally contradictory at that); you can appeal to the Wikipedia link for Qur'an Qur'an, and I can show certain contradictions in that, and point out it was also written by a human (and wait till we get stuck into the Wikipedia link for Hadith Hadith and Wikipedia link for Sharia Sharia, and then the party really goes to town!), or you can appeal to science, and I will rip your arguments apart for their utter unscientitific illogicality; you can appeal to Leonard Peikoff and Ayn Rand, and I will get unbearably sarcastic.

People very often get really emotionally hung up on this point; they think that because there is no way of empirically (i.e. through observation of the natural world) saying one moral is better than another moral, then all morals are equally "good". That is the idea behind the term "moral relativism"; the idea that all morals are claimed to be equal on moral grounds. Well, no, that's wrong, logically wrong, and it's a trap in thinking that many fall into.

Good is a moral term; it can only be used in a moral sense. You cannot use "good" in a factual empirical way. Science does not say that it is "good" that the leopard eats the gazelle; it does not say that it is "good" when the gazelle successfully evades the leopard. Any moral system can be used for judgment of other competing moral systems and morals. Under my morals, my ethics are morally better than sociopathy (the absence of any actual morality). The fact that I say that subject to my own terms does not make it less morally valid. I examine my morals, I try as best as possible to make them consistant with each other, then I judge myself first, then the actions of others, by my morals.

You decide in the end what your morals are, whether you like it or not; if you simply go with the flow, and refuse to examine your values, then you are still making that choice by choosing to go along with whatever was programmed into you, or what your society says, or what you can get away with.

This is why sociopaths, who are mostly not insane in any sense whatsoever, must be judged by normal moral standards (for example, in court). A sociopath knows that others have morals. A sociopath knows there are rules; it's simply that sociopaths break the rules when they feel they can get away with it and they think they can get something out of it (see, for example, the descriptions of sociopathy in Babara Kirwin, The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent : The Criminal Mind on Trial - Tales of a Forensic Psychologist). Nothing compels a sociopath to break the rules, to ignore commonly accepted social morals; it is entirely the choice of that sociopath.

Sociopathy is a kind of moral nihilism; the idea that no such thing as morals need really be observed, and the biggest caution for you is simply not getting caught. While it seems that many sociopaths are born that way (see Barbara Kirwin's book again, or see Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert D. Hare; the term psychopath is often used as a synonym for sociopath), sociopathy seems also to be something you can actually easily talk yourself into; you can talk yourself into it by dehumanizing others, or by denying validity of any morals, and so on. Or simply getting badly mindboggled at the complexity of ethics and the fact that no appeal to authority is valid, and no moral derivation from empirical observations is valid, and feeling despair because of it.

For example, Robert Frost summed up that despair well in his poem, Design:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
......
What had that flower to do with being white,
....
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
Others have similarly talked of that despair, as did Wikipedia link for Fyodor Dostoevsky Fyodor Dostoevsky often in his novels, or Wikipedia link for Friedrich Nietzsche Friedrich Nietzsche in his philosophy writings.

So getting away from nihilism and back to moral relativism; saying that all morals are morally equal is wrong, since morals themselves are based on what is judged right or wrong, bad or good. Moral relativism is a wrong and illogical conclusion from the observation that morals on empirical grounds are equal, which is only true since Wikipedia link for empiricism empiricism (observation of natural facts) has no way of judging between morals, so all morals are equal to empiricism; since no appeal to authority nor any appeal to what is can show genuinely objective morality; morals are empirically subjective, but morally form the basis of judgment, including judging between the rightness or wrongness of other morals and so on.

One more difficulty is the complexity of morals, the sheer complexity of ethics in real life. Situations are quite often downright complicated, and you have to balance out different morals and different other perspectives. Some of your morals like mine will never be completely consistant with each other; they can only be balanced against each other, and where you strike the balance is itself a moral decision. Since situations can be so damned messy, and since some morals are more important morally than others, then a long while ago, the Christian Joseph Fletcher came up with the idea of Wikipedia link for Situational Ethics Situational Ethics, which was just a grand way of saying life can be messy and we need to make difficult choices sometimes. Amusingly, situational ethics was then attacked by other Christians, the more fundamentalist ones, who wanted to claim life was amazingly simple and all you had to do was follow the very simple principles claimed by those fundamentalist Christians to come from the Bible. The fact that those fundamentalist Christians were being dishonest or ignorant about what actually comes from the Bible is another matter; one typical main tenet of fundamentalist Christianity is a very strong condemnation of gays, yet if you actually look at the Bible, eating lobsters comes in for far more and far more forceful condemnations than do gays, and I don't see fundamentalists condemning eating lobsters in any big way at all (it would be fun to see Fred Phelps down in action in the Florida sea-front restaurants).

Fundamentalists were scared by situational ethics; they felt that if they admitted that the rules were unclear and life was so damned complex, they might give away all their authority and claimed objective ethics. Thus came about their over-reaction and condemnation of the allegedly relativist situational ethics.

Equally, you can see the same terror or antipathy at work when Richard Carrier or Sam Harris suddenly announce their plans to magically derive morals from science.

The complexity of ethics and the need to however make moral decisions, above all the concept of and need for justice, are things often discussed in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, like Hogfather, or Small Gods. One of my favourite quotes from Terry Pratchett, whether in his novels or in interviews, is about justice, that horribly thorny of ethical problems:

Quote:
"... JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING….TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—AND YET YOU ACT LIKE THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED. ..."

-- The character of Death speaking, in the novel Hogfather
So ethics is bloody difficult, but it's still necessary to make decisions. Those decisions and how you act on them determine what you are, what you become and what you eventually make of yourself.

Lastly, in connection to you deciding what you become, and showing how philosophy really gets to grips with the problems of real life, there's a great book recently come out, titled, How to Be an Existentialist: Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses, by Gary Cox; the full title says it all, really.

So, no matter how complex ethics can be, no matter how much work it is to change your own values and to put them into action, get out there and do it. That way, you will be much more your own person.

Quote:
It's vital to remember who you really are. It's very important. It isn't a good idea to rely on other people to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.

-- Terry Pratchett
Quote:
Sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.

-- Terry Pratchett, again
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  1. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    What a smashing post. Reading it I was reminded of the idea that our moral positions on things are only really meaningful when they relate to things that we can affect by our actions or failure to act. Something that Chomsky describes beautifully somewhere around the middle of this:

    Posted 07-May-2010 at 01:47 AM (01:47) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  2. Old Comment

    Objection to argument from Sociopathy

    I mostly agree with what you have written, especially with the point that subjectivity of morals doesn't imply moral relativism, a mistake all too many people make.

    What i disagree with is your argument from sociopathy - it will take more than simply calling people without morals sociopaths or psychopaths to convince me that morality is somehow necessary. Also, i think you make the mistake of equating morality with rules of society - laws. Especially since you mentioned Nietzsche you should put slightly more thought on this matter before making that (i think unjustified) assumption. Maybe this is the source of complexity of your ethics when applied to real life?

    Let me elaborate. There is an approach which is surprisingly simple, although subtle since it requires a lot of reflection and investigation about meanings and sources of concepts which most people take as self-evident.

    If you know you can't derive morality from reality, and aren't willing to delude yourself into believing that it can be set by authority, isn't the simplest logical conclusion that moral concepts themselves are unreal, made up by humans, mere cultural artefacts conditioned into us during childhood? You already noted that this is the case with particular moral rules, but could it be that the very concepts of good and evil, right and wrong themselves are likewise just cultural conditioning?

    While this line of reasoning might lead to nihilism, it is not necessarily so. Nihilists, thought i think unknowingly, still share one critical assumption with moral people - that morality must be the main source for decisions. Since they realized the arbitrariness of morality, that the emperor has no clothes so to speak, they are faced with a great void, disappointment, with lack of basis for decision making, which might indeed lead to a form of sociopathic behavior.

    But once you investigate this deeply held assumption, you can see that it has the same source as morality itself - it is conditioned into us during our childhood. When you drop this assumption, things suddenly get much simpler. At this point, it takes just a little reflection to see that we don't use morality as a source for most of our day to day decisions anyway. Imagine for example a decision what to take for lunch - an apple pie or pasta? You make decisions like these all the time, without being concerned by good or evil, whether it is the right or wrong thing to do. Why not use the same mechanisms for all decisions, including social ones?

    You see, while you can't derive morality, that is true good and evil from reality, you certainly can derive simple rules of behavior from it. Simple rational self interest would do for a start, but that is not all that is there - we have emotions and feelings too (for example empathy). Why not simply rely on your emotions and intellect, instead of illusions about concepts which have no basis in reality anyway?
    Posted 17-Aug-2010 at 10:26 AM (10:26) by Unregistered1
  3. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar

    Objection to argument from Sociopathy

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Unregistered1 View Comment
    .... What i disagree with is your argument from sociopathy - it will take more than simply calling people without morals sociopaths or psychopaths to convince me that morality is somehow necessary.
    ....

    Why not simply rely on your emotions and intellect, instead of illusions about concepts which have no basis in reality anyway?
    Hi, Unregistered1,
    I think I will make a new blog post soon to answer your comments you made here, since you raise all sorts of interesting questions.
    Thanks!
    Posted 17-Aug-2010 at 11:57 AM (11:57) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Hi Unregistered1,

    I'd pretty much agree with your view here on what morality is. They are cultural constructs, born out of our evolved empathy and associated interpersonal behaviour. They are arbitrary in their origin - in that they could be other than we have come to make them. But they are somewhat consistent now, within the range of human biological and cultural variation (which includes .

    I might be slightly at odds with you on the extent to which they exist - not sure I've understood the extent to which you think they don't exist. I see this view being similar to the view that consciousness or free-wiil doesn't exist. What we really mean when we say these things don't exist is that they don't exist in any independent sense, either as independeant objective morals, or as a divine moral gift, or as some dualist consciousness, soul, spirit. This is the aspect that is illusory. But they are very real in the sense that they are behaviours of humans - they are what we do.

    Some of my posts on the subject(s):
    http://ronmurp.blogspot.com/2010/08/morality.html
    http://ronmurp.blogspot.com/2010/08/...am-harris.html
    http://ronmurp.blogspot.com/2010/05/free-will.html
    Posted 26-Aug-2010 at 02:39 AM (02:39) by ronmurp ronmurp is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Hi Gurder,

    Alonzo on Hume's is/ought here:
    http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/...-deriving.html

    I don't see the barrier to the 'is' of 'oughts'. But I reach the same conclusion - you can't prove logically that one set of morals is better than another. There are two ways of looking at moral relativism: observational, and action. I observe moral relativism, because all moral values are arbitrary outside the human context; but my evolved/learned behaviour drives me to impose moral values on behaviours, to construct my morals (or have them constructed for me).

    So, the variety in human behaviour (empathy being a behaviour in this context) allows us to construct different moral values from each other - they become subjective. The degree to which we are prepared to tolerate moral relativism in our acts is determined by the strength of feeling we have for issues, and this is what dictates our morals. So, collectively the majority of modern Western humans might find homophobia immoral - but that is only a way of saying our empathy for homosexuals, as fellow humans, outweighs any distaste we have for homosexuality. For others the distaste for homosexuality and the submission to religiously constructed morals outweighs the empathy for homosexuals. For yet others there is cognitive dissonance - their religion opposes homosexuality, but they have empathy for fellow humans, which leads to the mixed mode of thought whereby they detest the act, but 'love' the person.

    "or you can appeal to science, and I will rip your arguments apart for their utter unscientific illogicality" - I'm not convinced.

    On another post, "Point out that science cannot tell you if it is wrong to rape or enslave someone, and they evade the point." - but the point as put is meaningless. If you first determine goals, such as least harm, then there is no reason why rape can't be evaluated for the harm it does; even scientifically. We can't yet, I'd admit. But it isn't necessarily out of reach.

    "Good is a moral term; it can only be used in a moral sense." - 'Good' is a measure - a very vague one, but nonetheless a measure. 'Good'/'bad' are simply classifications of behaviour, and as such can be used empirically, without necessarily being too precise. Many manufactured components are made with machines capable of working to certain tolerance X; and the output components will vary within X, but can be graded by accurate measurement into categories of tighter tolerance Y. So, our complex behaviours can be classified in some vague manner as being good or bad. But we need some prior measure to determine what is good about a good behaviour, and what is bad about a bad one - good/bad don't exist out there waiting to be discovered.

    "Under my morals, my ethics are morally better than sociopathy (the absence of any actual morality)." - Only by convention, because we have the tendency to view our morals as better, or the fact that some people make moral judgements at all implies they are more moral as a result. In this context the sociopath's 'absence' of morality, compared to ones own, is arbitrary - though statistically more of us may have morals similar to yours than a sociopath, simply because there are fewer sociopaths. It could have been otherwise - the brain behaviour of scoiopaths could have been the norm.

    In fact when we see people that are overly empathetic, or who have more restrictive moral codes than our own we see fault in them, even to the extent that we might say their strict moral standards are immoral, because they limit personal freedom, say. Gregory Koukl makes something like this point, which can be made against moral relativists, and even to liberals such as myself.

    "I examine my morals, I try as best as possible to make them consistent with each other, then I judge myself first, then the actions of others, by my morals." - So, is that making this specific behaviour, the attempt to improve your morals, itself a moral good? And if so why?

    "You decide in the end what your morals are, whether you like it or not; if you simply go with the flow, and refuse to examine your values, then you are still making that choice by choosing to go along with whatever was programmed into you, or what your society says, or what you can get away with." - Yes, but is any of this good or bad, better or worse?

    "saying that all morals are morally equal is wrong" - What is happening in the brain when we apply our moral judgement to our morals?

    "so all morals are equal to empiricism" - No. All morals are arbitrary to empiricism. And though the +ve/-ve of electrical systems is an arbitrary sign it doesn't stop us measuring electricity - the flow of electrons. So, even thought morals are arbitrary they aren't necessarily subjectable to empirical investigation.

    "One more difficulty is the complexity of morals" - Only because everything humans do is complex on some level. But we do manage to simplify our behaviours by classifying them and labelling them.

    "they can only be balanced against each other, and where you strike the balance is itself a moral decision." - Only if we choose to make it so. We can turn a moral decision into one of preference quite easily.
    Posted 26-Aug-2010 at 02:41 AM (02:41) by ronmurp ronmurp is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Will answer all of this a little later, pardon delays.
    Posted 26-Aug-2010 at 11:19 AM (11:19) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  7. Old Comment
    Correction: So, even thought morals are arbitrary they aren't necessarily not subjectable to empirical investigation.
    Posted 27-Aug-2010 at 09:21 AM (09:21) by ronmurp ronmurp is offline
  8. Old Comment

    An intersubjective morality?

    I do not see my view of morality reflected, it goes a little something like this:

    1. All humans favour certain states of experience, or an absence of those states. (simplistically, pain and pleasure, but also more broad concepts like suffering and fulfillment)

    2. Most humans have these states dependent on the states of others, that is, if you are in a state of suffering, then I am likely to feel some negative emotion in response.

    3. Therefore to maximise fulfillment, we should act in a way that is conducive to total well-being, as decided by observable universalities in the conscious experiences of sentient beings.

    We cannot derive what is good from what is so, but we may reach a point of agreement that well-being is intrinsically good, intersubjectively speaking. Then we may say to realise this collective value, we must act in a way based on other facts of conscious existence.

    I think with a few qualifying steps, one can get from "is" to "ought". it "is" the case that some actions reliably cause suffering in many species throughout most time periods and throughout all cultures. It "is" the case that most people want to prevent suffering, and derive fulfillment from doing so. It "is" the case that the vast majority of people refer to well-being and fulfillment as "good", and it "is" true that if they wish to cultivate their ability to experience the aforementioned, there are clear steps to take.

    "Ought" they? Only upon granting these assumptions, and only to the extent that they are valid.
    Posted 27-Sep-2013 at 04:37 AM (04:37) by Tom
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02-Sep-2011, 08:24 PM (20:24)
hatever is your moral code. But why is that a moral code in the first place? As Gurder says, “Ethics are not easy“. Quite right. The whole subject of metaethics is testament to that. Try wading through this,

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