Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Red Pill: Arbitrary Ethics

What is the difference between right and wrong? It is often said that parents teach this to their young children, but people who say this usually mean something subtly different. Sure, we’re generally able to classify particular actions as right or wrong. (Helping an old lady across the road – good. Running off with her purse – not so good.) But what is the crucial difference? What is it about an action that determines whether it is right or wrong? This question, concerning the foundations of ethics, is of profound importance. Yet some of the most commonly proposed answers turn out to be completely arbitrary.

An obvious example of this is cultural relativism, or defining morality in terms of the approval of a “society”. (Isn’t it possible for the majority to be mistaken? Why think that you should always follow the crowd? This is a moral theory for sheep, not for people.) It is arbitrary because “society” could potentially approve of just about anything. Yet societal approval is, in general, morally irrelevant. If a person suffers harm, the badness of this harm is not alleviated by getting others to approve of it. Nor was the original badness merely due to others’ disapproval. Human welfare is what really matters; societal approval is simply besides the point.

Further, cultural relativism cannot justify tolerance, as the intolerant can always respond, “tolerance might be good-to-you, but it isn’t good-to-us.” Unless we can find a more objective foundation for ethics, we’ll be stuck with Labour MP Ashraf Choudhary in claiming that it’s okay for Muslims to stone gays to death – just “not here in New Zealand.”

Many Christians try to avoid such relativism by defining morality in terms of divine approval. Few seem to realize that Plato refuted this theory before Jesus was even born, by asking: Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? In other words, does God have any reasons for preferring what he does? If not, then it is arbitrary – he might just as well have commanded us to torture babies, in which case that would have been “right” instead. Alternatively, if God’s commands rest on prior reasons (such as the badness of suffering) then it is those reasons, rather than God’s commands, which form the foundation of morality. Sophisticated theists should prefer this latter option. Although it makes morality prior to and independent of God, the alternative is a moral foundation every bit as arbitrary as cultural relativism.

Indeed, Choudhary’s comments reflected religious convictions, not cultural relativism. This highlights a common problem with religiously-based ethics. In fixating on words in a book, one neglects what really matters. Some religious conservatives seem more concerned about (morally irrelevant) sexual behaviour than all the real suffering in the world. Such gross moral mistakes can be avoided once we realize that ethics is properly grounded in a universal concern for human well-being. Anything else would be unacceptably arbitrary. Actions are right or wrong for a reason – not merely because God or “society” says so.

45 comments:

  1. You are still alive then Richard!

    I imagine you could sum up 'good' or 'right action' as loving your neigbour as yourself.

    But how does one justify that. Is it self evident?
    Is it because it ensures the greatest good for the greatest number?

    But then, why 'should' an individual be 'good' ? Why not obtain power and advantage and exploit or pursue your own interest's at everyone else's cost ?

    Perhaps one answer is that the good behavour or following rules is not an end in itself. Rather, it is part of a better way to BE.
    You will act 'better' and be happier if you are more open of heart and mind.

    Next questiion ... what is it that leads someone to be good or caring and loving.
    A given ? or does it require at least a 'faith' of some sort, or a sense of identity with other humans ?

    carry on ..

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  2. I challenge you to tell us how to tell a right action. Summing it as "loving your neighbor" tells me little. Those priests burning people at the stake thought they were being good neighbors too, taking care of wayward souls.

    Frankly, I don't think we know. I don't think there is a way for us to know, with certainty. We have a fallible gut sense, which helps, but does not guarantee anything. I think the whole philosophical ethics enterprise that says "find out what is right, and then do it" is based on an error!

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  3. Welcome back, Richard. I largely agree, but just as a small quibble, you move too swiftly between 'good' and 'right' in your rejection of the divine approval idea: a common view distinguishes between good and right, holding that God chose it because it was good, but it is right (rather than just one of several good possibilities) because God chose it. In other words, people often tend to regard 'right', but not 'good', as defined by rules, and the suggestion in the divine approval case would be that the rules are divinely originated. (Indeed, something like this idea lies behind the revival of virtue ethics; one finds an argument along similar lines in Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy," which has had such an influence: Anscombe argues that terms like 'duty', etc. in the final analysis only make sense when you can appeal to a divine legislator, and that those who don't wish to do that need to focus, like Aristotle, on something else.) And I'm not sure what your point is about the reasons as the foundation; the reasons could be regarded as necessary but not sufficient conditions for morality. In any case, it takes a slight bit more work to connect the Euthyphro problem to divine approval cases without equivocation.

    But that said, I essentially agree with you.

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  4. Hi Brandon, I agree that my argument here is somewhat hasty. (But bear in mind that these "Red Pill" posts are for a student magazine column, and so limited by that.)

    I wouldn't want to separate the right from the good too far. In the view you explain, why does God choose to rule a particular good action the "right" one? Is that arbitrary? And if so, why in the world should we care about such arbitrary "rightness", rather than simply permitting anything that really is good?

    Vera - we can't know (almost) anything with certainty; ethics is hardly unique in that regard. But if something will promote human welfare, that's a pretty good indication that it's right. If it hurts a lot of people, that's a strong indication that it would be wrong. But the devil's in the details. It also pushes the problem back one step: we now need to discover what human welfare is and how to promote it. My view is that it comes down to desire fulfillment. So then we need to find out how best to fulfill various human desires. But that's now a purely factual issue, so we can pass that over to (social) scientists.

    Anonymous - Yes, alive but busy! In response to your questions, I refer you to my essay Why Be Moral? (and perhaps Consistency and Utilitarianism). My core argument there is that arbitrariness is rationally criticizable. It would be more consistent to treat like cases alike. But most human beings are roughly similar in most morally relevant ways. So it's too arbitrary to have moral concern for some people (e.g. yourself and your friends) but not others.

    (I actually gave a talk on this last weekend, so I might post a better summary soon.)

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  5. Just a few quick comments to throw into the mix...

    God, the creator of the universe, is good and righteous. Humans were created in his image.

    Jesus is God, and lived a morally correct, and perfect life.

    God defines what is good and right, and he has done so. It is not arbitrary, it is fundamental to the very make-up of humanity.

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  6. i choose to look at the problem from an evolutionary perspective.

    all that is in the mind is motivated by instincts. the most powerful driving force is the instinct to survive. although we aren't neccessarily conscious of it, every decision we make is motivated by a desire to make things better for ourselves i.e. increase our chances for survival. you are more likely to survive in a group, so the survival instinct motivates you to join one, have a family, look after people (help old ladies across the street). survival of the individual relies heavily on survival of the community, strength in numbers. this creates a drive to procreate. to procreate you must show alpha qualities because potencial mates are looking for someone that will aid their survival.

    the problem with human morality is that most of it is narrow minded and tribal. if i were to generalise i would say that human morality (especially religious) doesn't look at the bigger picture much of the time, simply because this doesn't aid their survival. notice how the church only changes it's policies when people threaten to leave the religion. religions are tribes who are defending themselves against other tribes. there 'moral law' is like a slogan for a company. by associating yourself with it, you are drawing strength from it. this strength is most often based on numbers. it's all mathematics!

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  7. Ben, take care not to confuse the motives of the person (psychological agent) with the metaphorical "motives" of their genes. The latter really don't imply anything at all about the former -- see here.

    Also, when you complain of "narrow minded" morality, you seem to be talking about the sociological norms that groups in fact happen to abide by. But that isn't what I'm talking about at all. Rather, I'm interested in the philosophical sense of 'morality', i.e. what principles these groups should (rather than "do") abide by.

    Once we make these two distinctions clear, I'm not sure that the evolutionary perspective has much to offer. Evolution can tell us about what is. But ethics is about what ought to be.

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  8. Anonymous #2: "quick comments" tend to be more valuable when they actually engage with the arguments that have previously been presented. Since you fail to do so, I am now forced to repeat myself.

    You say "God defines what is good and right". I ask again: does he have any reasons for choosing the particular 'definitions' that he does? If not, it's arbitrary (whether "fundamental to the very make-up of humanity" or not).

    For a concrete example: Might God just as well have made it "good and right" to torture babies? If so, morality is unacceptably arbitrary. If not, then morality must depend on more than whatever "definitions" God comes up with on a whim.

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  9. when it comes to genetic motives and psychological motives i am not confusing one with the other. i am merely stating that i believe genetic motives to be the underlying layer driving the psyche.

    i agree with vera, i don't believe that humans can percieve absolute truth. all we have is speculation and imagination. ethics are based on factors, we can only speculate about the best thing to do in a situation. i believe that genetics drive these decisions.

    we may be highly sophisticated, but we're not that sophisticated. it is a religious delusion to say that we know what is right or wrong, you only believe, or have faith that is based on genetically driven inner speculations. nobody knows anything.

    if we choose to say what 'ought to be' we becoming authoritarians. human truth will only ever be a concensus.

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  10. I wouldn't want to separate the right from the good too far. In the view you explain, why does God choose to rule a particular good action the "right" one? Is that arbitrary? And if so, why in the world should we care about such arbitrary "rightness", rather than simply permitting anything that really is good?

    It wouldn't be arbitrary, because this would just trace it back to one more level of good reasons. But even if it were arbitrary, there would be lots of reasons why we should care about it, just as there are lots of reasons why we should care about an arbitrary rule that says we should put such-and-such sort of garbage into Bin A rather than Bin B, on pain of being fined. Indeed, there would be more reasons to care about the divine case (e.g., since most partisans of this view would hold that God created us, God could have created us so that we, as a rule, would care about the sorts of things laid down in the arbitrary rules he devises -- and then most of the reasons one could give for caring as an ethical naturalist could be appealed to as subordinate reasons contingent on God's creating us that way). And at least some of the moral issues we really do seriously care about look suspiciously conventional: incest, cannibalism, necrophilia, and so forth. We usually get around this by giving good reasons why our natures might be set up so that we tend to regard these things as taboo; but that fits very neatly with what the divine approval theorist is saying. So divine approval theorists have lots of options available to them; even though it is a view that right and wrong are conventional, making it divine convention goes a long way toward getting the sort of thing one wants and needs. Not quite far enough, I think, but a long way.

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  11. Richard, problem is, we don’t know what will promote human welfare, and even if we do, it might still be not morally right. I think that we are heading for a huge global catastrophe, and I think killing off half of the planet’s humans would stave it off. Would that make it right? I don’t think so!

    I think barking up the human welfare tree is pointless, there will never be consensus on what it means. And we desperately need moral consensus at this time in our evolution.

    And since, as Ben says, choosing a "right" action is based on speculation, we need to put our focus elsewhere, not on futile attempts to find the right way to determine what is right. There just ain’t no such animal.

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  12. > I think barking up the human welfare tree is pointless

    the arguments against this like of logic seem to be the usual "we cant get it perfectly right so lets give up". This is a very weak argument.

    ben has a point regarding the evolutionary morals - I think they dominate philosophical truth however some of us can get fairly close to itas long as we are aware that those deep down instincts are probably evolutionary morals not philosophical ones.

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  13. <"we cant get it perfectly right so lets give up". >

    That's the Jumping to Conclusions fallacy. :-)

    What I am saying here is, philosophers have been trying to do this for millennia. No luck. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results! We need to do it another way.

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  14. Secular ethics is actually relatively young (the vast majority of work being done in the past couple of centuries), and much progress has been made in recent years. I highlight further grounds for optimism in my post on moral diversity.

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  15. >much progress has been made in recent years<

    Judging by what criteria?

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  16. Vera,

    Religious leaders have also been trying for millennia to create consensus by conquest and proselytizing and indoctrination. That hasn't worked either, so it would be insanity to keep trying that and expect anything different. So what's the completely new thing we should be trying?

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  17. Ben says:
    "Although we aren't neccessarily conscious of it, every decision we make is motivated by a desire to make things better for ourselves i.e. increase our chances for survival."

    This is such a wildly implausible empirical thesis it boggles my mind that thoughtful people continue to make it.
    In what way are the following decisions/motives based on people's (secret, subliminal) desire to increase their chance of survival(and reproduction):

    1)Watching excess amounts of television instead of engaging in a regular program of exercise.
    2)Eating lots of fatty and surgary snacks instead of a more healthy, balanced diet.
    3)Spending resources on recreation instead of medical insurance, security systems, saving for emergency, etc.
    4)Using birth control or watching pornography instead of actively trying to procreate.
    5)Taking risks (like driving in a car) for trivial errands or for the well being of strangers
    6)Engaging in abstract philosophical discussions.
    7)Blogging.

    My claim is not that there are no explanations for this behavior consistent with evolutionary theory. My claim is that the simple path from:
    selfish gene -> to secret psychological motive -> conscious motive -> action serving the selfish gene
    isn't even a close approximation.

    Also if "human truth will only ever be a concensus" then you don't have it, because there is no concensus in favor of this view.

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  18. Richard, the other thing I wanted to say was, the religious vs secular ethics has little to do with my criticism, as both approaches do the "find what is right and then do it" paradigm. So do both deontologists and teleologists. They just differ regarding the recipe on finding it.

    Derek: My angle on the new thing to try is to give up the efforts to find the sure right thing a priori, humbly acknowledge that we really mostly can't, stop trying to (morally) justify our actions, and instead take responsibility for them (a posteriori).

    As for the consensus bit, my solution is this: let us agree that there are three kinds of universal wrongs: harm to life, breach of trust, and injustice. All these three areas are richly supported by all sorts of traditions, both religious and secular.(Such agreement already exists, to a large extent. Intersubjective consensus.) And let us give each other plenty of slack in all other matters.

    Have you noticed that it is far easier to get consensus on "wrongs" than "rights"?

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  19. Vera, I'm not sure how your suggestion differs from mine in any significant respect. I suggested that harming people is what matters. You seemingly agree, then add injustice and breach of trust (which I would simply subsume under the broad heading of 'harm' in any case).

    I take it you hold that hurting people or lying to them is not right, so we shouldn't do it. That sounds to me a lot like "find what is right and then do it". I'm not sure why you think that's a bad thing. Surely it's better than remaining completely ignorant about morality, and just acting however one pleases!

    Anyway, we're getting rather off-topic here. To bring it back to my original point, let me point out that my focus on human wellbeing is far from useless. Indeed, it tells us immediately that the conservative hangup with other people's sexual behaviour is entirely unjustified. Morality is about harm, not arbitrary rules (biblical or otherwise). If homosexuality does no harm, then it cannot be wrong.

    Being able to reach this conclusion is a helpful consequence of my theory. What can you say, by contrast? If a conservative christian starts making claims about how gays are evil, etc. etc., how can you respond? Just shrug your shoulders and say "yeah, maybe, we don't really know anything about morality, after all." That doesn't sound very helpful to me!

    Ben wrote: "if we choose to say what 'ought to be' we becoming authoritarians."

    That simply isn't true. Perhaps we ought to be liberal. That's certainly what I would say. It is just plain wrong to impose one's sexual ethics upon other people (if they are doing no harm). Again, what would you say to the homophobic consensus reached by conservative Christians and Muslims? Is it okay for them to stone gays to death, since that's what their "culture" approves of? This is precisely what my post was arguing against.

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  20. anon #1 just returned to find much comment.

    The intent to not do harm, or do positive good, is fairly straight forward … as long as one sticks to basic physical and mental needs.
    The general rule of ‘treating others as you would like to be treated ‘ then remains very adequate to me.
    (I have read - with examples, but without seriously researching it myself - that a similar rule is expressed commonly in all human cultures. )
    And it is a practical and rational rule, as long as you take humans as essentially dependent on a community .. and most able to flourish where talents, friendship and good will are most freely shared.

    But as Vera indicates, as soon as one starts considering more ideological/ theological beliefs with consequent imposition of will, then disagreement grows.

    It seems to me there are two cases here.
    One, where the rule is still being followed but is applied in ignorance and stupidity.
    Blame the ignorance here, …. not the rule.
    (Though how anyone , for example, could have tortured people screaming to death and not felt very serious misgivings about their own interpretation of ‘morals’ is beyond me. Maybe normal life and death involved so much pain in those days that it seemed alright ..aaugh! )

    The second situation.
    It’s like those psychological tests on the willingness of people under orders to hurt others - they subjugate themselves to the sensed authority of society, nation, or church or whatever, and cease to judge. The rule is not applied at all, but overuled.
    Again the rule is not at fault.

    And in fact, the way we criticize these extremes, indicates we DO accept the rule. That’s why we get worried about such things, for the harm we see done that we would most definitely not want done to us.

    And yes, I guess we may never have agreement about a lot of ‘moral judgements,’ but that is because people believe different things about that situation. So application of the rule results in ‘harm ‘ or not, …. because of the supposed facts.

    Anyway, is there any other contender for a general rule?
    I’m not suggesting it should be thought to have god like authority, it is just .. practical.

    It occurs to me that this matter of subordinating to authority is explanatory.
    Most of us want/ need to be accepted, recognised, part of a group. We get warm fuzzies about it, can become proud of it. We want to blend in .. maybe even do so on automatic response, far more tham we would credit. And on the other side, a sense of failure, rejection, or shame and guilt at failing the group.
    Sound like all the ‘moral imperative’ we need? Maybe a useful evolved response ?
    Would it lead to a mind that detected the rules of a community so as to help sustain it, and to sustain the ‘world concept’ which that mind and self had come to depend on?

    Maybe it depends on the width of the concept we have of community.
    While we might get caught up in some intense local group ( been there) we also retain a varying sense of the world and the rest of humanity to which we more generally belong.
    And this is likely to be the better source of a rule, and can ( it did) lead to a conflict of values.
    Hmmm. The things we say while waffling on!!

    Anway .. cheers everyone.

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  21. In what way are the following decisions/motives based on people's (secret, subliminal) desire to increase their chance of survival(and reproduction):

    1)Watching excess amounts of television instead of engaging in a regular program of exercise.
    2)Eating lots of fatty and surgary snacks instead of a more healthy, balanced diet.
    3)Spending resources on recreation instead of medical insurance, security systems, saving for emergency, etc.
    4)Using birth control or watching pornography instead of actively trying to procreate.
    5)Taking risks (like driving in a car) for trivial errands or for the well being of strangers
    6)Engaging in abstract philosophical discussions.
    7)Blogging.


    these activities are all things that an evolutionary psychologist would say are the pursuit of emotional survival. problem is that on the whole, most humans don't realise that materialism and hedonism will not make you happy. not all humans are philosophical! most people just want to be alpha males or females. maybe that's what we're doing here; competing over who has got the biggest... brain! in the past, physical strength was the primary alpha male quality, because survival was more about defending against nature, building huts etc. in the modern world, where everything revolves around money, then wealth seems to be the alpha male quality. i.e. fast car, suit etc.

    modern people are depressed. depression stops the release of good hormones that make you healthy, and more sexually attractive. it is the survival instinct coupled with ignorance that drives people to watch t.v., eat nachos, rant. we are trying to escape depression, trying to escape meaninglessness. people do this in different ways depending upon their genetics.

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  22. Sorry about double post. Blogger was on the fritz last night.

    Richard, we agree that certain harms are the key wrongs. Which was my point also.

    >I take it you hold that hurting people or lying to them is not right, so we shouldn't do it. That sounds to me a lot like "find what is right and then do it".<

    No. Let me explain. If I assume lying is wrong, that does not mean I do not do it. We all, alas, do lie. Any ethics worth its salt must acknowledge that fact, and help people know how to deal with it.
    My recipe is this: Do your best to make your decision, and when you realize you've done wrong, take responsibility.

    >Indeed, it tells us immediately that the conservative hangup with other people's sexual behaviour is entirely unjustified. Morality is about harm, not arbitrary rules (biblical or otherwise).<

    Look, this is a disrespectful approach, and so why should any fundie listen to you? These things matter to them, even if they don't matter to you. I say, let us divide things into public consensual morality, and private idiosyncratic morality, and focus on the first in public life. Then there is no need to insult people's private moralities as unjustified or wrong. Live and let live.

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  23. Ben,

    We're getting a bit off topic for this thread, so I'll only make one quick rebuttle.
    We both agree that one reason we engage in these behaviors is that they make us feel good. So we both agree we are motivated to seek things that make us feel good. We can also both agree that for organisms with pleasure/pain patterns similar to our own (eating, sex generally feel good; being physically injured generally feels bad), having such a motive tends to promote survival and reproduction.
    In addition to this you want to claim that we're motivated to feel good because we're (secretly, subconciously) motivated to survive and reproduce. I say that we have no direct evidence of such a secret motivation, and that it provides no extra explanatory juice to the simpler explanation we both agree to. Hence there's no good reason to believe in such a secret motivation.

    To steer this back to the topic at hand: If all our underlying motives are selfish, and many of our apparent motivations are incompitent attempts at serving those secret motives, why should we suppose either provides us with a guide to what we *should* do?

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  24. "Live and let live."

    Exactly. I don't care what the fundie does or doesn't get up to so long as they don't harm others. What I do care about is them interfering with other people's lives. It is wrong of them to interfere in such ways. You draw a distinction between "public" and "private" moralities, but that is not one the fundie is going to accept. He things sodomy is wrong, and he wants to impose this view on everybody else. To prevent this, we must recognize that he is wrong to do so! Otherwise, why prevent him? Why not let a community of extremists stone gays to death, if that's their "consensus"? I don't give a crap if it's "disrespectful" not to let them kill people. We need to get our priorities straight here!

    As I argued in the main post, wishy-washy relativism is the enemy of genuine liberal tolerance.

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  25. Jeez, Richard. You are not listening. If the public consensus is "physical harm to others is wrong" how does that leave the stoning of gays as wishy washy???!!! Such a code condemns the stoning of anyone in no uncertain terms.

    What approach is the fundie more more likely to accept: being told they are wrong, period, or being offered a trade, hm? By a trade, I mean this: I will respect your right to your private morality, if you respect my right to mine. So lets stop dickering about who is bonking whom and how, and start together going after the real criminals of our world, the murderers, defrauders and other creeps that are harming us all, all the time.

    Or is it that you are really hankering at being able to do to them what you so resent them doing to us, which is looking down their noses at us as immoral?

    >He things sodomy is wrong,<

    He is entitled to think that.

    >and he wants to impose this view on everybody else.<

    Some fundies do. Many others don't, they just want to be able to live without having homosexuality shoved in their faces.

    Myself, I am heartily sick of people defining themselves politically by whom they bonk, and by everybody sticking their noses all the time into other people's bedrooms. Nuts.

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  26. "If the public consensus is "physical harm to others is wrong" how does that leave the stoning of gays as wishy washy???!!! Such a code condemns the stoning of anyone in no uncertain terms."

    But if you are grounding morality in "consensus", then that makes liberalism a merely contingent result. If we are lucky, then there will be a public consensus against stonings. But what if we're not lucky? What if there is a society which is far less tolerant? Would that make stoning "right"?

    I want to say the answer is "surely not!" But we can only say that if we ground ethics in something objective, like human wellbeing, rather than such arbitrary things as what society approves or reaches a consensus about. If you disagree with me on the foundational question, it isn't clear that you have the theoretical resources to oppose the popular extremist.

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  27. Actually I would suggest you are unlucky.
    There would be a solid global majority in favour of stoning or some similar form of death penalty in special situations.
    Oppinion would change depending on the question asked and the "set" that you define as society.

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  28. Argh. I am not getting myself across very well, am I? I am not grounding morality in consensus, any more than Euclid grounded his geometry in consensus. Euclid said, let us assume these postulates which seem to make a great deal of sense (to people who know a bit about geometry). And built a very successful, practical and elegant system out of these postulates. These postulates cannot be further defined. They are *basic* postulates. (Else you'd have infinite regress and never get anywhere.)
    Similarly, I choose to assume some basic postulates for my moral system. One of them is: harm to life, breach of trust and injustice are wrong. These postulates make a great deal of sense to anyone who's thought about these matters (as I think you will agree), and are supported by virtually all the various philosophical and religious traditions, as well as societal mores, gut feelings, moral intuitions and the like. That's good enough for me, and I have built a very useful ethics system.
    No moral system is a guarantee that some group somewhere will not breach it, and for example, will stone people and say it's right. Ethics is about taking a firm stand, and this is my stand. And I will condemn any society that breaches this basic postulate in no uncertain terms. Some of my other basic postulates provide additional reinforcements against such a group as well. My system provides carrots besides sticks, though, and one of the carrots is to offer peace and tolerance on all other issues. My private morality holds other things wrong, but I will not try to impose my will on anyone regarding these issues via laws or other forceful means apart from moral persuasion.
    >I want to say the answer is "surely not!" But we can only say that if we ground ethics in something objective, like human wellbeing, rather than such arbitrary things as what society approves or reaches a consensus about.<
    I say, ground your ethics in EVERYTHING! Not just human well being, but ALL the traditions and schools of thought. But choose carefully, and let the non-essentials go.
    >If you disagree with me on the foundational question, it isn't clear that you have the theoretical resources to oppose the popular extremist.<
    Extremist don't give a fig about theoretical resources. Are you going to argue philosophy with the Ted Bundys of our world? These folks we need to gang up on and disable, else soon there will not be much of a world to defend. And don't tell me this is stooping to their level. I am not saying that ganging up on murderous extremists is morally right. I am saying it is wrong, but must be used as a last resort to protect the web of life and the human community.
    >There would be a solid global majority in favour of stoning or some similar form of death penalty in special situations.<

    Quite. As I said, dispatching murderous crazies may be the only option in some situations and makes sense. That does not make it morally right.

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  29. "I choose to assume some basic postulates for my moral system. One of them is: harm to life, breach of trust and injustice are wrong."

    These are not postulates, they're platitudes. We may all agree that harm to life is wrong, but we don't agree what harm to life consists in. It is even worse with 'injustice is wrong' - that seems to rise to the level of simple tautology.

    Your further contnetion that "These postulates cannot be further defined." because they are basic prevents us from even having a dialogue about what they mean.

    Consider a debate about the morality of abortion in which both sides agree to your plattitudes:

    ProChoice: It is unjust to force anyone to do something they don't want with their body - including carrying a baby to term. Moreover it is harmful to life to allow a baby to be born into a family that doesn't want or isn't prepared to raise one. It would be wrong to stop women from having abortions.
    ProLife: Abortion is a clear case of harm to life and is wrong. Moreover, killing the innocent in unjust. Abortion is wrong and must not be allowed.

    Similar debates can be constructed regarding physician assisted suicide, homosexuality, pornography, prohibitions on drug use, and pretty much any other issue on which you can find people who disagree.

    If you cannot discuss what constitutes injustice and harm, the platitudes can do nothing but give people slogans. There are even ambiguities in 'breach of trust.' Is it a breach of trust if I don't return a borrowed weapon to a friend who isn't in his right mind? Is it a breach of trust to lie to the Nazi at the door when asks if you are harboring Jews?

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  30. >We may all agree that harm to life is wrong, but we don't agree what harm to life consists in. <

    Look, one has to start somewhere. Hey, I got an agreement outa you, pretty cool! :-)

    >Your further contention that "These postulates cannot be further defined." because they are basic prevents us from even having a dialogue about what they mean. <

    Hogwash. Mathematicians have spent plenty of time talking about the basic postulates of Euclid, and even found ways to reevaluate some of them. Why should it be different for ethics?

    >Consider a debate about the morality of abortion in which both sides agree to your plattitudes:<

    So your attitude is, if you cannot see right off the bat how my ideas will resolve all big moral dilemmas all the way back to Methuselah, you are not interested?! (where is that roll-eye icon when I need it?...)

    >Abortion is wrong and must not be allowed. <

    Abortion is wrong. It must remain legal in order to prevent other evils. These are two different things.

    >If you cannot discuss what constitutes injustice and harm, the platitudes can do nothing but give people slogans. There are even ambiguities in 'breach of trust.' Is it a breach of trust if I don't return a borrowed weapon to a friend who isn't in his right mind?<

    There are ambiguities everywhere you look in life! So what? I am perfectly willing to discuss what constitutes injustice and harm. What I am not willing to do is NOT CONSIDER THEM WRONG. (You do have a point about injustice=wrong having a tautological odor about it. Will have to think it thru.)

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  31. >We may all agree that harm to life is wrong, but we don't agree what harm to life consists in. <

    Look, one has to start somewhere. Hey, I got an agreement outa you, pretty cool! :-)

    >Your further contention that "These postulates cannot be further defined." because they are basic prevents us from even having a dialogue about what they mean. <

    Hogwash. Mathematicians have spent plenty of time talking about the basic postulates of Euclid, and even found ways to reevaluate some of them. Why should it be different for ethics?

    >Consider a debate about the morality of abortion in which both sides agree to your plattitudes:<

    So your attitude is, if you cannot see right off the bat how my ideas will resolve all big moral dilemmas all the way back to Methuselah, you are not interested?! (where is that roll-eye icon when I need it?...)

    >Abortion is wrong and must not be allowed. <

    Abortion is wrong. It must remain legal in order to prevent other evils. These are two different things.

    >If you cannot discuss what constitutes injustice and harm, the platitudes can do nothing but give people slogans. There are even ambiguities in 'breach of trust.' Is it a breach of trust if I don't return a borrowed weapon to a friend who isn't in his right mind?<

    There are ambiguities everywhere you look in life! So what? I am perfectly willing to discuss what constitutes injustice and harm. What I am not willing to do is NOT CONSIDER THEM WRONG. (You do have a point about injustice=wrong having a tautological odor about it. Will have to think it thru.)

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  32. On closer reading you make a lot of sense vera. Although I think in your first two comments you did the same sort of "giving up" in relation to utilitrianism that richard did when confronted with your proposal.

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  33. Vera, I'm no longer sure what you're disagreeing with me about. Perhaps it is here:

    "I say, ground your ethics in EVERYTHING! Not just human well being, but ALL the traditions and schools of thought. But choose carefully, and let the non-essentials go."

    There seems a tension between your suggestion that we take "ALL" traditions on board, and that we "choose carefully". Surely the point of choosing carefully is that we get rid of all the wrongheaded traditions that want to stone gays to death and such. Indeed, I would suggest that the "non-essentials" are everything but human wellbeing (broadly understood). So once we discard them, we're left with my position. Again, we don't want arbitrary considerations like mere "tradition" or "societal approval" to form the foundation of morality.

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  34. Vera,

    If we can talk about what constitutes harm to life and injustice and breach of trust, then I'm genuinely confused by what you meant by:
    "These postulates cannot be further defined. They are *basic* postulates."
    My understanding was that when mathematicians revist Euclid's axioms it's not to figure out what they mean but rather to see what happens if we change or eliminate one or more of the postulates. If I'm wrong about this, I'd have the same question for them - how are these postulates *basic* if they're to be defined and examined by reference to something beyond themselves?

    "So your attitude is, if you cannot see right off the bat how my ideas will resolve all big moral dilemmas all the way back to Methuselah, you are not interested?!"

    My problem isn't that your ideas don't solve all big dilemmas off the bat. It's that I don't see how such plattitudes can be at all useful in even illuminating any such dilemmas. But as soon as you start to give a more detailed account of what falls under each of those principles the apparent consensus in favor of them will quickly unravel.

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  35. Genius, thank you. Sometimes I despair of getting my message across. Maybe I did sound like giving up… I am irked by utilitarianism, but of course, paying attention to human welfare and consequences is hugely important in ethics (just not the only thing).

    >"I say, ground your ethics in EVERYTHING! Not just human well being, but ALL the traditions and schools of thought. But choose carefully, and let the non-essentials go."<

    Sorry, Richard, I see how ambiguous it sounds. What I meant is, do not ground your ethics just by one thing (or one school of thought). Ground it by everybody’s thing… let’s integrate Kant’s insights and Mill’s insights and Sartre’s insights and religious ethics’ insights and cultural insights, etc etc. I mean, these various schools of thought spent so much effort at finding the one true criterion… it does not exist. But there are several very useful criteria, and we already know what they are.

    By letting the non-essentials go, I mean stuff that offends people but does not harm life, or the web of trust (of which fairness maybe should be a part), and let the other stuff go… you know, stuff like incest and cannibalism and homosexuality and on and on whatever people get obssessed about when thinking about how annoying their neighbors are. The stuff I call private morality.

    Which would mean in practice, that we would interfere with cliteridectomies in Africa, but not with the eating of the dead in Borneo; we would interfere with gay-stoning in Montana, but not with polygamy in Utah, we would interfere with the diddling of altar boys but not with adult incestuous siblings. We already follow this principle a bit, but not nearly clearly enough, too much stuff gets tossed into the public morality pile that should remain in the private pile. And then we get confused about the stuff that we really do need to interfere with. You get my drift?

    > Surely the point of choosing carefully is that we get rid of all the wrongheaded traditions that want to stone gays to death and such.<

    Trying to get rid of wrongheaded traditions is the path that was taken by the Crusaders, the Inquisition, and the communists. Why you’d want to follow in their footsteps is beyond me. Think, Richard! What is the better strategy than "getting rid of evil"?

    >Indeed, I would suggest that the "non-essentials" are everything but human wellbeing (broadly understood). So once we discard them, we're left with my position. Again, we don't want arbitrary considerations like mere "tradition" or "societal approval" to form the foundation of morality.<

    Yes, I quite agree. Except for the human wellbeing; I include the well being of the biosphere too (but you could argue that it is in our self-interest to care for it and I would agree). And I prefer to delimit the wellbeing to only a few categories (so mine is narrowly understood, I think… otherwise every bigot will demand that his wellbeing be served by not making him uncomfortable.

    >"These postulates cannot be further defined. They are *basic* postulates."<

    Derek, it is my understanding that when Euclid came up with his basic postulates, he did not define them at all, he just let them hang. Later people came up with various definitions and clarifications, which changed over time, etc, but the fact remains that as long as they work, that’s all you need. When I say “basic postulates” it means stuff that is pointless to further define in a rigorous way, since your only result would be infinite regress. Basic postulates are the starting points of a system.

    >how are these postulates *basic* if they're to be defined and examined by reference to something beyond themselves?<

    They are examined as anything else in the universe is examined. They can be illuminated. They just cannot have any final rational justification. Heck, what I am trying to say is, they are not truth with a big T. They are simply useful. Which is good enough.

    >My problem isn't that your ideas don't solve all big dilemmas off the bat. It's that I don't see how such plattitudes can be at all useful in even illuminating any such dilemmas. But as soon as you start to give a more detailed account of what falls under each of those principles the apparent consensus in favor of them will quickly unravel.<

    Well, I hope you give my ideas a chance. Because my system works.

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  36. Vera,

    How does it work? Consider 'harm to life'. Which of the following does it include?
    - Killing people
    - Killing nonhuman animals
    - Killing plants
    - Killing (any of the above) for food
    - Killing for self defense
    - Killing as punishment
    - Killing one to save many
    - Maiming (humans/animals/plants)
    - Interfering with the growth of (humans/animals/plants)
    - Letting (humans/animals/plants) die

    Until we start to specify what is meant, we can draw no useful conclusions from 'Harm to life is wrong.' It is not something that is "pointless to further define in a rigorous way"; it's scarcely a principle at all without such further definition.

    You claim it is not true but useful - useful for what? It is certainly not useful in creating consensus, since the consensus on an empty plattitude is only the illusion of consensus. And it will only be 'useful in preventing harm' if it operates with the 'true' definition of harm.

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  37. Vera, when I said to "get rid" of the wrongheaded traditions, I meant from within our own morality. Those are traditions that we should not be endorsing or acting upon. That's an entirely different matter from "crusading" and forcefully excising those traditions from the external world -- I never suggested any such thing.

    Really, I don't think we're disagreeing at all. I say wellbeing matters. You just have a long winded way of saying the same thing. (Take everything into account, and then get rid of everything that has no relevance to wellbeing.)

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  38. >Consider 'harm to life'. Which of the following does it include?
    - Killing people
    - Killing nonhuman animals
    - Killing plants
    - Killing (any of the above) for food
    - Killing for self defense
    - Killing as punishment
    - Killing one to save many
    - Maiming (humans/animals/plants)<

    All of the above. If it looks like harming life, if it smells like harming life, if it quacks like harming life, then there is a good chance it’s harming life. Pretty simple, no? No mystery here, and no fancy toe-tapping needed.

    >Interfering with the growth of (humans/animals/plants)
    - Letting (humans/animals/plants) die <

    I don’t know what you mean by these… we die whether or not you let us… ;-)

    >You claim it is not true but useful - useful for what?<

    Euclid postulates are useful for building a system for measuring fields and building silos and all that geometry is good for. My postulates are useful for building a system that enables people to make sound moral decisions. That’s what ethics ought to help us with, no?

    Richard: Oh, so you meant excising them from one’s own moral system? I get it now. Communicating ain’t easy, eh? :-)

    >Really, I don't think we're disagreeing at all. I say wellbeing matters. <

    I do too. And to finish the thread, I would like to say that I read your essay again and something you say caught my eye. You say: "If a person suffers harm, the badness of this harm is not alleviated by getting others to approve of it." Yes and yes. This is a key concept in my system as well.

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  39. All morality ends up with the same problems your "letting go of the non essentials" doesnt solve that problem because it cant be solved.

    But then again it looks and smells like utilitarianism. The only connection you dont seem to be making is hte fact that actions have very obscure effects - therefore EVERYTHING relates to some sort of "essential harm".

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  40. I completely agree that actions have obscure and often quite unexpected effects. That is why I argue that the recipe "find out what is right and do it" is nonsense. To find out how well we did, we must look at the results. (Intentions matter, but elsewhere.)

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  41. But finding out "how well we did" is only useful if it helps us find out "what's the right thing to do."

    On your own accoun, the "right thing to do" seems to be to take responsibility for the consequences of our action.

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  42. Thank you for putting it so well, Derek. Indeed.

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  43. "Harm to life is wrong." I have nothing profound to say about this, but I think it is important that "removing life" is kept separate from "harm to life." In other words, I do not regard the preservation of life as itself morally superior to the destruction of it - provided no living thing suffers as a result. This may be a little off topic, but I wonder how other people respond to this assertion (if this string is not entirely dead) - those people whom I have tested it on so far have by and large responded with outrage.

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  44. I can't imagine why. A more appropriate response might be to simply kill you painlessly. :P

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  45. The question of ethics is what has intrinsic value. That being, having value due to it's nature, not extrinsic, due to external factors.

    An entity with only extrinsic value is a means (thing), example: a fan has utility to create a cooler room. Outside of that is has no value, and it is a means to an end.

    Intrinsic value is unconditional, categorical. Example: a human has value because he is rational. He is an end unto himself, his value is detirmined internally, not by external factors. So whatever has this kind of value creates the moral law:

    "Treat all persons as ends, never merely as a means" - Kant

    Happiness does not have intrinsic value, for it has value only to those that feel it, this requires another agent, so extrinsic. Or it requires empathy, but that is another agent again. Happiness does not have value by itself.

    This is why subjectivism is wrong, for such laws are conditional, if a being says so, not categorical. Also nothing can have intrinsic value subjectivly, for this requires another agent to view it and value it.

    Lastly, sexual morality is real, for sex goes into the very core of our being intrinsically (rape vctims prove this to be a fact), and we ought to be good on our insides as well in our actions. Interior vices are intrinsic vices, meaning you are one with evil. So they do matter.

    Overall I agree with the author, relativism is garbage.

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