Sunday, August 3, 2008

Universal truths

I was reading an article in the Economist recently. In it, the main idea is that we can explain moral principles in evolutionary terms. It provides evidence from studies of the social structure in other species that certain elements, such as treating others as you would like to be treated, and sacrificing for the greater good, are not merely human constructions arising from our superior intelligence, but are favoured for evolutionary reasons, and are present wherever social structures exist.

"Aha!" the non-religious people say "All that doctrine about goodness coming from God, and Religion being the path to greater moral/personal development/happiness - it's garbage! We don't need Church to be good people, as we've always said!"

I'd agree with part of that sentiment, and I'd say many religious people who have really thought about it would as well. Even the person who wouldn't even talk to me about my idea because it contradicted the bible said to me "I know the path to greater goodness isn't through the Church, but through God." (Paraphrase, but that's what she meant). It's entirely legitimate to reject religion, and yet still seek goodness.

But let's move away from the "moral/personal development" realm for a second, and consider how we approach problems in other areas of our lives. When you want to lose weight, do you do it alone? Most people get "exercise buddies", or tell their friends and family about their dieting plans and goals, so they're more motivated to stick to them. We get gym memberships and personal trainers. We buy into "proven weight loss strategies". Not everything we do works (in fact much of it doesn't, bad habits die hard) but we recognize that expecting we can know and understand every strategy and objectively evaluate its worth on our own is not realistic, and we recognize that having a group of people who share our goals and can provide support is valuable.

I turn away from religion because I don't think heaven and hell makes sense. I feel like a lot of religious people (although not all by any means) are just willing to accept most answers someone who leads their congregation gives them without thinking about them, because of their "faith in God" to guide what the leaders of the church say. And I don't know enough about other religions (or have access to a place where they're practiced, as far as I know) to even give them a try. I'm not now arguing that that's a wrong choice. But looking at religion as a source of good ideas, of "proven strategies" for greater happiness, makes more and more sense to me the more I consider it.

Religious people often say that after they joined a church, their lives showed improvement. The thoughtful ones can then explain why and how the strategies that religion or a church suggest work. And then, they go on and attribute their success to God, saying they could never have made the changes they have made in their lives on their own, and the non-religious people roll their eyes. But the fact is, it may be true that without going to church they would not have succeeded, because peer support helps a lot, and we don't have many other organizations that provide the same kind of support that churches do. But then, they often add a nice story about how when they prayed once, they received a burst of strength when they really needed it, and they believe without that they would have fallen back into their old habits. And the non-religious people walk away in disgust. To many of them, the credibility of this person's explanations and ability to think rationally is now compromised. They think that Church practices must be fundamentally based on ideas like this, so it's got to be garbage.

This approach is dead wrong. We're not perfectly rational, any of us, no matter how much we would like to be. So if you're someone who walks away in disgust, stop and think for a second. Consider that church practice in fact doesn't come from an idea that just popped into someone's head one day in a divine vision. Often it probably comes from people observing the world around them, seeing something that works, and saying "We should try this in our church". (And then attributing the discovery to divine providence... sigh. Not that I'm saying we shouldn't be thankful, and if you think God caused everything, thanking God is reasonable, but... just make sure to recognize your own role too.) And the practices that work get kept, and ideas that don't work out get dropped. Since this process has been going on for thousands of years, church is bound to be a source of good ideas. So, just like you should with any person, drop the rule of thumb that says "if one of their arguments is nonsense, they're irrational and not worth listening to." Consider that they might be right about some things and wrong about others, just like you are, and the smart thing to do would be to learn from the things they're right about.

Also, thinking about this makes me wish we had a general "non-religious support group" where we could go each week, with some basic values and strategies and practices that work, where being a good person was recognized and supported. Defining what values and strategies we should have is tough, but maybe after some time and some argument on this site I can make a summary that works...

16 comments:

Darwin said...

Wow, you manage to cover a lot of stuff in one post... I think there's an interesting common thread that might be able to use some thought, though.

One of the things that strikes me about the evolutionary and "this is what works best for society" explanations for morality that I've read is that they produce general guidelines, but not actual "always right"/"always wrong" rules.

So for example, one can argue that the evolutionary need for tight social organization within primate bands has conditioned us to generally treat others the way we want to be treated: not steal from each other, lie, kill each other, etc. However, if you look at these social tendencies within animals or in a lot of historical societies, they were only enforced within a given band, tribe, or other social group. Thus, I don't steal from other members of my tribe, but I can steal from other tribes. Etc.

Now part of that changes in modern society where we live in a very fluid environment and don't have the same permanent insider/outsider dynamics, but there are still a lot of things we would consider moral issues only have to function most of the time in order to provide social stability.

For instance, in order for society to function we need to know that the right to private property is respected most of the time. But there can be a bit of low level theft in society without causing this to break down. If I know that theft is sufficiently uncommon that my stealing something won't destablize society, is it still wrong for me to steal?

Similarly, ethicists sometimes play with dillemas such as: Clearly the rules against adultery have a very important function in society. Human children require a very long period of education and nurture to reach adulthood, and thus men want certainty that they are only putting all this work into rearing their own offspring and women want the assurance that their mates will remain around for 18 years to help raise the offspring. Thus, marital fidelity became a moral value.

Let's imagine, however, that a happily married couple has already had three children and decided that's enough for them, so the husband has had a vasectomy. He loves his wife and will take care of her and their children indefinitely, but as they age his wife has less interest in sex and he decides to satisfy his more unusual desires by occasionally visiting prostitutes. He's very careful to avoid any STDs and he finds that this re-energizes him and helps him be even more attentive and romantic with his wife, who never finds out that he does this.

Is such a thing wrong?

I think we have a fairly innate desire to see moral laws as being absolute. If adultery is wrong, it's wrong even if it has no visible negative effects. If stealing is wrong, its wrong even if we don't do it enough to destablize society.

Now, there are several ways that we can get to absolute conceptions of morality. Plato did it in an essentially non-religious way, arguing that there was a single eternal entity which was "The Good" and which we had an inborn understanding of because we had experienced The Good and the other universals before birth. Various religions assert absolute moral laws either as commandments by God (or a god), or by asserting that God is Himself entirely good (as with the Platonic ideal) and that we are called to be one with or like God by being good ourselves. Yet others take a page out of Aristotle by asserting a "natural law" in which each thing or relationship has an object/goal/telos which defines how it is best done.

What all of these have in common is that they're non-materialistic/non-utilitarian bases for morality.

All of which is a very, very long way of saying that I think that in addition to religion providing long tested methodologies for "the good life" (for instance, see that traditions of monasticism in religious traditions ranging from Christianity to Bhuddism to ancient neo-Platonists and Epicurians) religion also often provides an absolute basis for moral norms which makes following them _every single time_ a higher stakes requirement than it would be under a utilitarian or evolutionary conception of morality.

Myron said...

Wow, you can cover a lot of ground in one comment! Thanks for taking the time, this is all very interesting.

I think one problem with the line of reasoning used here is that you are considering only a few evolutionary imperatives, and there may be costs and benefits you are missing. For example, you have missed empathy (from which you can derive the moral rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Empathy is an important drive and would flesh out the decision of what is “right” or “wrong” to bring it a lot closer to religious moral frameworks. Why exactly empathy is beneficial could be debated, but I think it has to do with the fact that low level theft, while not socially destabilizing, is not harmless to society. Also, I am extremely suspicious of “always right/always wrong” moral frameworks. I feel a discussion of complex and difficult issues such as assisted suicide may cloud this debate, but that issue provides an example where an “always right” answer might not suffice, and more careful and nuanced analysis of specific circumstances might be required. I think having an “always right/always wrong” way of framing moral issues based on religious teaching can prevent (some) people from developing the skills to think things through in these grey areas.

Let’s move on to discussing empathy as a drive for moral behaviour. First, it is indeed something we have evolved, and not something learned. Scientists have been able to pinpoint the area of the brain where this empathic processing takes place, by comparing scans of the brains of autistic children (who often show a lack of understanding of others intentions) with those of non-autistics. I suspect empathy confers an advantage in evolutionary terms because it reduces the costs of low-level theft and other “petty crimes”. For example, I read last year that 25% of all employment in the U. S. is for security related positions (security guards, police, commissionaires, etc.) Where low-level theft is more prevalent, the society can remain stable, but at a cost in manpower that could be otherwise deployed. So from a societal perspective, even low-level theft is wrong. Extending this example, whether or not it entirely destabilizes society, any action which is likely to cause negative consequences for a member of the group which outweigh the benefits to others harms the group as a whole, because the use of various countermeasures to provide personal security diverts resources that could be used to benefit the group. Even if no countermeasures are employed, the reduction of trust between members of the group can be shown to reduce productivity in many ways (more on trust when we discuss adultery). So even low level theft or other small transgressions are still wrong under evolutionary imperatives. You end up with something like the utility principle.

I like your example of adultery, because I think it illustrates where a more nuanced moral framework can be beneficial. In other words, is adultery always wrong? Perhaps I am an exception, but I do not seem to have the innate desire to see it as absolutely wrong in all circumstances.

The scenario you propose is as follows:

Let's imagine, however, that a happily married couple has already had three children and decided that's enough for them, so the husband has had a vasectomy. He loves his wife and will take care of her and their children indefinitely, but as they age his wife has less interest in sex and he decides to satisfy his more unusual desires by occasionally visiting prostitutes. He's very careful to avoid any STDs and he finds that this re-energizes him and helps him be even more attentive and romantic with his wife, who never finds out that he does this.

Is such a thing wrong?


Adding the principle of empathy to your analysis above, we would have to consider the effect on this man’s wife if she were to find out what he was doing. So to me, it is not the adultery itself, but the lying (or implicitly lying, as his wife assumes he is faithful) that is wrong. If the husband were to discuss with his wife what he planned to do, and she agreed, I would see nothing wrong with his course of action. In fact, if it helped him to be a better husband, it would seem to me to be an entirely reasonable thing to do. While it is only speculation why this might make a difference from an evolutionary perspective, it seems more difficult to successfully raise healthy children in a relationship where trust has been betrayed, regardless of the best intentions of either partner. And even infertile grandparents can have a role in raising children, so adultery matters regardless of the life-stage of those involved.

Also, I think there can be some confusion when we discuss “Evolutionarily based moral drives”. I think many people would say that the justification for whether an action is right or wrong would come from a “feeling” of rightness or wrongness. Similar to how religion suggests that we have an innate moral compass provided by God, others may suggest that instead of coming from God, this compass just comes from evolution. Analyzing the rightness or wrongness of an action based on whether we believe it will be an evolutionary advantage (or has been in past societies) may miss the point – this knowledge is innate, and detailed analysis may not be required. Personally though, as you may have noticed, I like detailed analysis. :) And my position is that it seems evolutionary imperatives can provide a workable moral framework, and following moral norms such as "adultery is wrong" every single time may not be the most beneficial course of action.

Myron said...

On the other hand, absolute frameworks are a whole heck of a lot simpler and don't require an hour of thought to determine whether you should cheat on your wife :)

JackieD said...

One problem I have with using empathy as a moral rule is that not all people have the same ability to empathize. You used the example of Autism as a severe lack of empathy, but although that's the far extreme, there are many varying levels, and many ways to use what empathetic powers we are given. What is a person to use as a rule when they cannot tell what the other would feel?

Also, I think using empathy as the final say in your moral compass assumes that each person has sufficient knowledge of human nature. The adultery example falls apart as soon as we apply real people to the situation. In the first case, when the woman is completely unaware of her husband's disloyalty, is it really possible for a man to completely love and respect a woman who he is constantly fooling?

You say that the wrongness of the situation is in the deception, but I don't think that's quite right. I don't think it is possible for a woman to completely and utterly consent to let the man she loves sleep with other women. She may say that she's okay with it, may even convince herself that it is true, but it would eventually poison both of them and probably their children as well.

Just because we can now look back on history and look at the society-driven basis of our morality does not mean we see all the angles. Adultery is not only wrong because of what it does to the wife or the prostitute, but what it does to the man committing it. Theft is not only wrong because it hurts society, but because it hurts the thief.

Myron said...

One problem I have with using empathy as a moral rule is that not all people have the same ability to empathize.
...
What is a person to use as a rule when they cannot tell what the other would feel?


The more I think about it, the more I think non-absolute moral frameworks require careful thought, which not everyone is willing and/or able to do, so in terms of "What's best for society" a list of simple absolute rules might qualify. I just see so many problems when those rules are applied in ways that don't make sense, but I guess that there might be even more problems if they weren't there at all.

As for empathy, I'd say my rule is "If you don't know and it has an impact on your decision, you're obligated to ask before making a decision." And if the wife says something that isn't true/doesn't understand her own motivation, well, you just have to make the best decision you can. So in that case, it might be doing morals your way: 1, my way: 0.

Also, I think using empathy as the final say in your moral compass assumes that each person has sufficient knowledge of human nature. The adultery example falls apart as soon as we apply real people to the situation. In the first case, when the woman is completely unaware of her husband's disloyalty, is it really possible for a man to completely love and respect a woman who he is constantly fooling?

Well, in the first case, where the husband is lying, no that doesn't indicate love and respect at all. It's wrong, end of story.

You say that the wrongness of the situation is in the deception, but I don't think that's quite right. I don't think it is possible for a woman to completely and utterly consent to let the man she loves sleep with other women. She may say that she's okay with it, may even convince herself that it is true, but it would eventually poison both of them and probably their children as well.

This one, I don't know. I'm a male and not a female, but here is how I would approach things if my wife (I don't have one, but if I did) wanted to sleep with other men, under circumstances similar to those described (we had different levels of sex drive, she was going to be careful)

Well... The thing is, if I was in a marriage, the way I would want it to work would be that I put my wife before myself, and trust her to do the same for me. That way we're both happy (the other person makes sure of that) without either of us being selfish - we've both living "other centered lives" in religious terms (I'm going to do a post soon on that, feel free to share any articles you might have discussing the beneftis).

And so, if my wife asked, I think I would let her, because she would be my first priority. But I would trust that she has the same sort of priorities, so I wouldn't be worried about cheating (we would have had a conversation about cheating in about week 2 of the relationship - I take a very strong line on it). But for me, letting her do something that makes her happy would be something I would be glad to do, not bitter about. You might be surprised that I don't consider sleeping with other men cheating under this circumstance. But in a situation where it's someone I truly trust, and whose needs I am not meeting, who I know will not run off on me with one of these prostitutes, then it would be OK.

Probably sounds nuts. But the thing is, I've been through enough to know there's really nothing someone could do to me that I couldn't handle, so trusting my wife not to cheat on me, and taking the risk that that trust will be betrayed, would not be a problem.

Now, when you put other people in the same situation, I expect many of them would react differently :). But for me, given the opportunity, the choice is simple: my wife comes first. And that's not something I think would harm our relationship, so long as she valued that sentiment the way it deserves.

Myron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darwin said...

Interesting thoughts.

A few things I'd toss out, with the understanding that I haven't fully thought some of these out yet, and we're clearly starting from somewhat different assumptions, which can make things tricky:

-On evolution-based morality, I think one of the things that becomes very difficult in trying to come up with these analyses is the naturalistic fallacy: How are we to know that an evolutionary tendency is "good" rather than "the way things are".

So for instance, empathy can help a group achieve greater social cohesion, but if we use empathy to refrain from getting rid of a psychopath within our band of primative humans, and he in turn kills several otherwise healthy members, our empathy has caused us to do something which is detrimental. Or if our empathy causes us to take care of a disabled person, who in turn has children who are disabled, have we done a good or a bad thing? Or, come to that, is it necessarily a "good" thing for all members of a society to thrive, or are there only certain members whose triving matters while the others are means to an end. (Historically speaking, very few societies have held that all people are equal and deserve equal treatment.)

So while it's easy for us to look at what we take as a working moral principle such as "treat people as you want to be treated" and come up with an explanation as to how that might be evolutionarily-based, I think it's nearly impossible to look at evolution and history and derive the right moral lessons a priori.

-On empathy as a moral principle, I think that one of the big difficulties here is that we often end up thinking "here's what I would want" or "here's what this other person _should_ want" rather than what the other person actually wants. Add to this the complication that very often people think that they want things which, once done or acquired, turn out to be the opposite of what they want. So basically, I think that a golden-rule formulation of empathy (when used on its own rather than within the wider context of absolute moral norms) often ends up suffering from the fact that we very often have highly imperfect information not only about others, but about ourselves.

On the value of absolute moral norms, there's a lot that leads me to think at a philosophical level that if right and wrong actually exist in any real sense (rather than simply being preferences) they have to be one and absolute (one of the basic rules of logic being that nothing can both be A and not be A), but I'm going to leave that for now as it would get impossibly long. One thing that does strike me as compelling at a personal level, however, is that we most need morality not in the obvious situations where we can snap in a second to knowing "this is what's right" but in the hard situations, whether either the situation seems conflicted or even more so where the cost to us personally for doing the right thing is great. Man being a rationalizing animal, we're very good at talking ourselves into thinking that whatever we want to do is the right thing to do. So the times when we are most desperately in need of moral guidance are often those times when we are least able to objectively and rationally evaluate what we should do.

In that regard, it seems to me that we _need_ clear and absolute moral laws, rather than general principles for evaluation.

Myron said...

All good thoughts, and there's a lot in this I would say we can agree on even though we come from different assumptions. This is what I like about these conversations - if we can determine that we agree despite differing starting points, I think we may have hit on something that's closer to objectively true. :)

But I've already got two posts in the works based on this conversation. I need to take a break and take some time to think some more (and do some housework - I'm getting behind because I'm intellectually over-stimulated :)). This also gives you time to think things out some more if you'd like, as these issues can get very tricky.

Myron said...

How are we to know that an evolutionary tendency is "good" rather than "the way things are".

I think it's nearly impossible to look at evolution and history and derive the right moral lessons a priori.

Agreed. Along the same lines, if we say that what we understand as “Good” is what has helped us to be successful in evolutionary terms, we can derive a very Machiavellian moral framework from that. For example, raping women during war is a highly successful strategy in terms of demoralizing the enemy and populating new territory, but it doesn’t stand as a moral example we ought to follow. An analysis of strategies that have been historically successful is not a good framework for deriving moral principles, as many of the strategies have been bloody and brutal.

An important difference between us is how we explain our impetus towards good. You might say that God put it there in you directly along with a soul, whereas I would say God (if he exists) may have used evolution and other natural processes to put it there in me. But the moral framework I follow is not based on historical analysis, it’s based on my conscience. Any other idea can be corrupted or incorrect (including absolute moral frameworks proposed by various religions), so I hesitate to accept them as guiding principles. In fact, I cannot absolutely prove that following my conscience is any “truer” than any other way of deriving a moral framework. However, I have found many instances where my intuition of whether something was right or not ran counter to the ideas and explanations put forward by those around me, often because they were rationalizing something or were accepting an element of a standard morally-absolute framework without thinking through the implications. By stopping and thinking about why my conscience was saying what it was, I have been able to gain a deeper understanding of certain moral principles than I would have done otherwise, and often I was able to convince those around me that their explanations of what was right or wrong in a certain situation were flawed. When it comes right down to it, when all of the explanations are stripped away, following what I think is right is my most basic moral principle, because I have found it to be more reliable than any other I have ever heard of. Yes, it’s subject to all of the rationalizations and biases that we are so excellent at as human beings, but I have found that when I listen carefully, there is always something inside of me that recognizes self-serving justifications. Having an interest in psychology and “how people work/what makes them do what they do” may help here, I suppose.

More to come...

Myron said...

On the value of absolute moral norms, there's a lot that leads me to think at a philosophical level that if right and wrong actually exist in any real sense (rather than simply being preferences) they have to be one and absolute

On the value of conscience as a guide, rejecting absolute moral frameworks proposed by others, there's a lot that leads me to think that if right and wrong exist in any real sense, following my conscience (trusting that whoever or whatever created the physical laws which gave me a conscience did so for a benevolent purpose) is the best way to consistently do good in the world.

Darwin said...

By stopping and thinking about why my conscience was saying what it was, I have been able to gain a deeper understanding of certain moral principles than I would have done otherwise, and often I was able to convince those around me that their explanations of what was right or wrong in a certain situation were flawed. When it comes right down to it, when all of the explanations are stripped away, following what I think is right is my most basic moral principle, because I have found it to be more reliable than any other I have ever heard of.

Let me just be clear here: I don't want to be seen as presenting an argument against conscience. Our conscience is most definitely our best way of understanding moral behavior, and indeed I would argue (and actually, this is a Catholic doctrine, but I'm trying to avoid getting too sectarian) that it would be wrong to do something in direct violation of your conscience even in an attempt to conform to some outside moral norm that you had reason to respect. In other words, I think you'd be doing wrong (in a personal sense) to do something that you _believe_ is wrong regardless of whether or not your belief is correct.

That said, we don't get a conscience out of nowhere, we form our consciences based on our moral beliefs, which may involve just personally thinking through the issues, or it may be primarily emotional, or it may be drawn from some particular philosophy or creed.

Let's take a fairly obvious example. Anyone who's not a psychopath is going to have an aversion to killing in most circumstances. There are several elements to this: disgust as the physical act, emotional and empathetic recoil from it, a sense that we would not want to be killed, etc.

Now, I have partly formed my conscience in response to my understanding of Catholic teaching, and as such I take "thou shalt not kill" to mean that you may not "murder" as in take innocent life. Thus, although I would still emotionally recoil from actually killing someone or watching someone killed, I don't have a moral problems with killing in self defense, in a just war, or in certain instances of capital punishment. I know other people who have formed their consciences differently, and believe that we never, ever have the right or duty to take a life, that it's always wrong.

Now both of us have formed our consciences on this issue, and we can both make a lot of arguments either derived from the natural human experience or from history or from religious traditions. But at root, our consciences disagree, and while I would say that at a personal level it would be wrong for a pacifist to violate his conscience by killing in self defense, and wrong for me to violate my conscience by standing by and refusing to protect someone by means of lethal force if necessary -- there must be some _right_ answer to the question. It cannot be that both of our consciences are correct, because they contract each other.

At least, not if we take right and wrong to have an objective existence.

On a side not:

You might say that God put it there in you directly along with a soul, whereas I would say God (if he exists) may have used evolution and other natural processes to put it there in me.

I wouldn't hold that there's necessarily any difference between saying that God somehow infused us with a moral sense and saying that He allowed it to develop in us naturally through the evolutionary process. I do think that morality is something which does objectively exist, but it may be that our natural understanding of morality (what a Catholic might call "natural law" or "natural virtue" is to morality as our eyes are to light. Light really is out there, and would exist whether we could see it or not. But we developed the ability to perceive light through natural means.

Myron said...

I would argue (and actually, this is a Catholic doctrine, but I'm trying to avoid getting too sectarian) that it would be wrong to do something in direct violation of your conscience even in an attempt to conform to some outside moral norm that you had reason to respect.

So we basically agree - where there is a conflict, conscience takes priority. I really have no problem with the existence of moral codes, they do serve a useful purpose as a starting point for moral discussion, and a point of reference in difficult circumstances (and they have many other uses - working on a blog post on that topic). But if conscience takes priority, then absolute moral codes aren't really absolute, are they? If they perfectly represented objective goodness, then any individual's dissenting conscience ought to be viewed as damaging to society, and individual conscience ought not to take priority. It is that position I would disagree with.

Perhaps it wasn't clear, but in my conception of existence, objective good exists and is expressed and enforced through physics and other natural laws. Which means it can be found and determined just as well by science as by religion. I think the difference is science hasn't been around for as long, but given more time we may find that the type of holes you are finding in the ideas of understanding morality as derived from evolution may be closed. Perhaps this is optimistic, but I see it as possible that at some point in the future we may look at our understanding of nature and conclude that what we consider morally good is in fact also in our best interests for a reason we can explain by application of the laws of nature. As for religion providing a basis for an absolute moral good (your original comment), I would say that an idea of God provides that basis, and it is very difficult to argue for objective goodness without some intentional ordering of the universe by a god-type force. Religion and religious thought is seperate, however, and I am not certain any religion has developed a set of rules which fully captures objective good. Religious ideas of goodness are certainly worth studying though (perhaps that was the point you were trying to make), and I would be arrogant to suggest that our current discussion of moral principles could have taken place without the groundwork laid by religious thinkers.

I think what throws me off is lines like this:
If adultery is wrong, it's wrong even if it has no visible negative effects.

The way I see things, something that has no visible negative effects (by which I mean no negative effects which could possibly be observed, regardless of whether we have observed them or not) could not be wrong, since the objective moral good does derive from the same principles which give rise to the rest of the observable universe. So studying the natural world ought to lead us towards a greater understanding of moral goodness, and deriving our idea of goodness from things like evolution should become more practical as our understanding grows.

Darwin said...

Hee, hee. This is too fun to leave off. I hope you'll forgive me if I'm taking up too much of your time. (Hint: If one stops feeding the philosopher, he quiets down...)

But if conscience takes priority, then absolute moral codes aren't really absolute, are they? If they perfectly represented objective goodness, then any individual's dissenting conscience ought to be viewed as damaging to society, and individual conscience ought not to take priority. It is that position I would disagree with.

I would say that there is both, actually. There is an objective standard of goodness, to which one's conscience may or may not conform. This is the sense in which it is our duty to correctly form our consciences. (If you think about it, this is a no brainer. If someone insists that his conscience tell him that some reprehensible thing is just fine, there is clearly some standard by which we can so "no, you're wrong.")

However, as moral creatures we are judged (Christian terminology here, obviously) according to whether we do what we believe to be right. I'll try to take a person-to-person example: Say that I am, for some reason, angry at my wife. I think that if I take a certain vase of hers and smash it and throw it away, I'll succeed in hurting her. I do this, with the express intention of causing her pain. Thus, I'm clearly wronging her, or sinning against her, in that I'm doing something with the express intention of hurting her. Say, however, that I've completely misjudged. She hates the vase, and she wanted to get rid of it. So when I tell her that I destroyed it, she laughs and hugs me.

Now in an objective sense, I didn't hurt her or do something against her will. I didn't "wrong her". But I meant to wrong her, and so I'd say that I did indeed sin against her even though I wasn't doing something that was objectively wrong according to her thought.

Thus Catholics would say it is with God: If you do something that is wrong, but in the earnest belief that it is right, you may have objectively sinned, in that you did something against the moral law. But God will not hold this against you since He knows that you thought you were doing good. Similarly, if you do something you think is evil, but which isn't really, you sin against God in intent, and are just as guilty as if you had actually done something wrong.

So the objective morality exists, and yet there is also a primacy of conscience. Make any sense?

The way I see things, something that has no visible negative effects (by which I mean no negative effects which could possibly be observed, regardless of whether we have observed them or not) could not be wrong, since the objective moral good does derive from the same principles which give rise to the rest of the observable universe.

You've probably heard the joke: The masochist says, "Hurt me!" But the sadist says, "No!"

In effect, the joke is based on two disordered desires. The masochist wants to be hurt, even though people are not supposed to want that. And the sadist wants to hurt him. So the sadist does what someone ought to do (not hurt someone else) in order to hurt him.

Now if we admit the idea that we are "meant" to behave certain ways, then it's possible to want something other than what we're meant to want.

With that frame of reference, I'd say that the question of whether something can be wrong even if no one is hurt by it depends on what one means by "hurt". To take your example of adultery which isn't "cheating" because you and your wife discuss it before hand -- I'd say that even if none of the parties involved felt that they had been hurt, and in fact the adultery "hurt" all of you because marriage is "meant" to be truly faithful. Or if I stole something from someone who never even realized that I'd stolen anything from him, it would be wrong because even if he never knew and I enjoyed doing it, it was something which I ought not to enjoy, and he should not have his property taken even if he never knew that it happened.

So in the absolute sense (which I think is how you mean it, unless I'm missing something), I agree with you: something cannot be wrong if it does not hurt anyone. But that means taking into account "hurt" in a sense that none of the participants may know about.

Myron said...

So the objective morality exists, and yet there is also a primacy of conscience. Make any sense?

It does, and I agree with your position that, given we do not have perfect knowledge of what the consequences of our actions will be, we ought to be judged (by others, in my view, and we ought to judge ourselves) by our intentions, as well as whether we have made all reasonable attempts to get relevant information before making a decision. It is legitimate to say that doing something with the intention of hurting someone is wrong regardless of whether it actually does so, because applying the same logic in subsequent situations is likely to lead to people being hurt.

To take your example of adultery which isn't "cheating" because you and your wife discuss it before hand -- I'd say that even if none of the parties involved felt that they had been hurt, and in fact the adultery "hurt" all of you because marriage is "meant" to be truly faithful.

And here is where our fundamental disageement may be. I would say that we do not yet have a full understanding of God's intentions. So to say that because the Catholic church says marriage is meant to work a certain way in 100% of cases, this represents absolute objective truth and cannot be questioned is wrong. I think of the religious understanding of morals like Newton's theories of gravity. It leads to correct conclusions in almost all cases, but it may not represent objective truth perfectly. If someone came to you with an example of when adultery may be right, it seems to me you would be likely to reject it based on Catholic teaching, even though it might be correct.

This comes back to what I said in my "What I think" post. Thinking we have the answers stops us from asking questions which might lead us to a greater understanding of things. The answers the Church provides may be easy to understand, and correct in 99.9% of cases, and in that way they have a great deal of value. Similarly, Newton's theories of gravity can be taught to junior high students, while Einstein's theories cannot, because they are far more complex. But if we concluded that Newton's theories represented absolute truth, we would never have the understanding of the universe that we have now. So we ought not to conclude that any doctrine of morality we currently possess is correct in an absolute sense. It ought always to be open to questioning. The answer to "Can adultery ever be morally right?" shouldn't be "No, never", it should be "Perhaps, but you need to provide very convincing evidence."

Sorry about the multiple copies of this comment (if anyone is receiving comment notifications in e-mail). I noticed that in my first attempt, I said "Can adultery ever be wrong" when I meant "Can adultery be right?", and then when I copied and pasted things in it stripped out the formatting which distinguished things I had quoted from Darwin from things I wrote myself. I wish there were a way to edit comments, instead of deleting and re-posting.

SteveG said...

The way I see things, something that has no visible negative effects could not be wrong….

Apologies if this has been covered in the discussion already, but I think there is a thread in here that highlights the fundamental problem I have with what you are proposing.

It causes me to ask…

Negative side effects toward what end?

Simply defining something as ‘negative’ implies already that you are testing it against some underlying principle or goal that is really what you are deriving your moral code from, rather than from evolution, or from empathy as has been suggested.

There seems to me to be some unspoken, assumed ‘greater good’ that you may be taking for granted against which you test whether something has ‘negative’ effects or not.

But before one can do that, one has to justify the underlying assumption first. Under relativism, that is not possible.

Most often in discussions I’ve seen the underlying principle stated as something along the lines of survival of the human species. But even that is simply a
subjective preference rather than something that can be objectively claimed.

Is my objection making sense?

Myron said...

SteveG:

Your objections make sense, but I think I have answers for them. This is just my off-the-top-of-my head response (and then I'm taking a break on posting until Friday evening at the earliest) so you might find things wrong with it, but:

Negative side effects toward what end?

Correct, without some kind of God-type force intentionally creating the universe for a reason, it is difficult to argue for a non-relativist moral "good". My thought is that objective "Good" exists, although I'm sceptical of the idea that God gave a perfect conception of that good to any religion to teach to its followers. I think the strategies which will lead ultimately to our greatest long-term success by the natural laws (physics, evolution, etc) will also be "Good", which is why we are increasingly able to explain morality in scientific terms. Explaining Goodness doesn't diminish its existence, it just makes it more understandable. So understanding nature and the strategies which maximize things like long-term utility will lead us to a greater understanding of moral "Good", because this moral good is at its root God's intention for how we should act, just as physical laws lead us (or compel us, in fact) to act in certain ways. To suggest that we can derive better moral principles from evolution than we can from the teachings of a church would be flawed however, because churches have been studying morality as derived from our thought processes, and how our thought processes work can tell us a whole lot more about what evolution is driving us towards than our as yet very limited understanding of our evolutionary history can do. Also, we've been studying things from a religious perspective a lot longer than from a scientific one, so we're likely to get insights from religion that we can't explain in scientific terms yet, but are still true.

In summary: "Toward what end?" We don't know yet. Neither religion nor science has the full answer, and even taking all of human knowledge in all areas, we still don't have the full answer. But it's out there, I think, still to be fully discovered. But, in Darwin's words:

How are we to know that an evolutionary tendency is "good" rather than "the way things are".


My thought is that Good is the way things are (which is compatible with the idea that God has a plan and everything happens for a purpose - if that is true, what is currently happening, and all of what has happened in the past, must in some sense be "Good"). Understanding why things are the way they are, from any and all perspectives, will lead us to a greater understanding of how God thinks. Because physical laws force us to act in certain ways, we will always act for the greatest good, whether we realize it or not. But as our knowledge grows, as we increasingly understand why we act the way we do, we will come to an increasing understanding of what Good is, and will be less likely to fight about what the future should look like, because we will simply be able to say "This both feels right and is in our best interests".