Sunday, July 27, 2008

Morality – Not from gods or from genes

You wouldn’t be surprised that I don’t see a supernatural basis for morality. You might be slightly more interested in a claim that our moral intuitions aren’t innate either. The key word is “innate”. I do indeed think that genetics plays a roll, as I believe they do in absolutely everything. However, the extreme differences we see in morality can only be explained in cultural terms, meaning that we have an ongoing battle to develop the best possible moral systems – and that some moralities are better than others.

You won’t be surprised at all that this video feeds directly into my view that cultural relativism is a horrible idea. Unfortunately, it’s an idea that comes from the part of the political spectrum that I most associate myself with – the left. Hopefully the difference between those of us on the left and those on the right is that we can be self-critical and self-improving.


The Exterminator said...

I've seen very little self-criticism on the Left during the Bush Adminstration. How many Democratic representatives are asking themselves: Why the fuck didn't we impeach that bastard?

Or: How can we support a presidential candidate who doesn't think the American people have any right not to be wiretapped?

Or: Why do we keep pandering to the religious zealots?

John Evo said...

I stand fairly reprimanded. But I still claim there is a difference, albeit a tiny one. Let's say it this way -

While virtually no one on the right seems happy with self-critique, there are some on the left who are willing to examine themselves.

Any better?

The Exterminator said...

I'd need names.

Ordinary Girl said...

I agree, this is an issue with our political parties in general. I'd like to hear about any politician that was self-critical and self-improving. I don't think anything like that has been included in the party line (in either party) in my lifetime.

PhillyChief said...

I think the closest to that is a candidate that says another candidate's plan (from the same party) is/was good, but that theirs is better.

I don't see this clip resolving anything. There still is the issue of different moral codes in different places. The issue of in and out groups has been true forever it seems, and certainly a lot of ideologies get pushed forward on that premise. Religions are a prime example. Of course my answer is going to be it all comes down to power, and moral codes are attempts to advance and restrain power. I can't accept that there's an objective morality, but just because a moral code is subjective doesn't mean it lacks legitimacy. It could still have a power advanced vs power restrained ratio that's superior for a society over other models, which would prove it's worth over other models. Perhaps such a model, having been proven superior, becomes a defacto objective morality, or it is an objective morality that has been discovered through trial and error.

It could be like Churchill's description of Democracy, "it's the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

John Evo said...

Chief said: Of course my answer is going to be it all comes down to power, and moral codes are attempts to advance and restrain power. I can't accept that there's an objective morality, but just because a moral code is subjective doesn't mean it lacks legitimacy.

I'm with you and I would hazard a guess that Jesse would too. I think that's a rewording of some of the points he made. But, yeah, it's still not resolved.

The Exterminator said...

I'm not convinced about the subjectivity of morals. I do think it's possible that some "morals" -- don't kill, don't steal, don't hurt others -- may have been evolutionarily developed. That doesn't mean the morals are present in everyone, just as the ability to distinguish colors may not be present in everyone. There are genetic defects. Just look at the Bush Administration.

In any case, barring some breakthrough discovery by science, we have to treat moral codes as if they're subjective.

But I don't think it's all about power, as Philly suggests. Yes, the most powerful will always have the opportunity in any society to overturn the prevailing moral code and advance one of their own. But I do think humans, over the long haul, tend to look critically at any activities that violate the so-called Negative Golden Rule: Don't do anything to anyone else that you wouldn't want done to you.

PhillyChief said...

Power is not just lording over another. That's merely one form. I can exert my power to help an old lady cross the street as well. That's not lording over her per se. It could be, in that I'm flaunting my obviously more abundant power than hers, but I could have done that by pushing her down as well, but instead I helped her achieve her goal.

The Golden Rule is all about power as well. I agree to restrain my power against you, hoping you'll reciprocate. Such a restraint of power can even be an exercise of power, for if you reciprocate, I've affected you to behave in a way I want. Together, with our reciprocal agreement, we may achieve more power and gain more opportunities to exert it than if we weren't in agreement. This, I feel, is what morality should be and largely is based upon. Where it fails is where some have an abundance of power to the point where they fail to see it as advantageous to restrain any of their power.

John Evo said...

Is this a more realistic version of the Negative Golden Rule?

Don't do anything to anyone else in your in-group that you wouldn't want done to you.

As Jesse Prinz makes pretty clear, and as has been well documented, there is a lot of harm done in every society and it is "harm" that is not defined as immoral by the majority of the society.

Let's just look at current day United States. We imprison more people than has ever been done (not just in sheer numbers, but in % of population), we allow wars of aggression, we allow torture, we allow large segments of society to forgo health care.

You might find some or all of these to be violations. But the majority of society apparently disagrees with you. Unless you think these things are being done at the barrel of a gun.

The point is, how "hard wired" is the rule, if we find so many ways to circumvent it? In fact, even if it IS hard wired, does it matter if many are apparently making a conscious choice (not just in the big picture, but also in their every day lives) to reject the genetic trait?

PhillyChief said...

The hard wired idea at times sounds no different to me than Douglas Adams' puddle analogy. Are we violent because we're hard wired or does the apparent quantity of violence appear as if we're hard wired that way?

As for "harm", you'd have to have everyone agree to a singular definition first, then you can address the arguments for allowing harm. We look at christians indoctrinating their children as harm, whereas they see it as inoculation. Likewise, our "failing" to do the same for our children is seen by them as harm. NAMBLA thinks having sex with boys is somehow good for the boys, whereas most of us would see that as harmful.

John Evo said...

Let's look at the notion of - it is always wrong to murder. It seems to be pretty universal. A "hard wire" proponent would say, at the very least, that it's part of the "don't do to others what you don't want done" mechanism.

But is it? We find many ways around it without a societal cry of indignation.

I say strapping a criminal to a gurney and willful injecting him with toxins that will take his life is murder. But most of you don't agree. Certainly an executioner is not seen as a murderer. But what of the executioner in an Islamic society where the "crime" is a woman having consensual sex with a man other than her husband. You and I now agree that it's an outrage, but few in the Muslim society agree with us.

But let's keep it here. After 9/11 we loaded up the guns and went to war. We didn't (at least in Iraq) go to war against people who attacked us. Hundreds of thousands were killed who didn't have a thing to do with terrorism. Even now, with the knowledge we have obtained about the Bush Administrations subverting of the truth in order to instigate that war, very few in our society see him as a "murderer". At most, they "disagree" with the military response to Iraq.

PhillyChief said...

You're upset over the last episode of Generation Kill, aren't you?

John Evo said...

No. And don't make any spoiler comments! I didn't see it yet. Bastard Chief - you always see GenKill before me!