From: Friedrich Sent: 12/20/2002 7:04 AM
It is not all relative. If it were, then it would be “all relative” that it’s all relative.
Spacer kind of burned out, but I have had these arguments with many others of roughly the same middle-level of learning and rhetorical skill. (See the earlier discussions in this thread between myself and Ubermark, possibly an alter ego for Spacer, and others.) I have also debated the issue with far more sophisticated adversaries.
I think that there is such a thing as truth, as an external world, existing objectively and independently from us, that confirms or disconfirms our conjectures. I suspect that even those who deny this believe the same. Just as ethical relativists quickly become absolutists when someone steals their wallets.
The question whether moral requirements are universal comes up not only when we compare the motives of different individuals, but also when we compare the moral standards that are accepted in different societies and at different times. Many things that you probably think are wrong have been accepted as morally correct by large groups of people in the past: slavery, serfdom, human sacrifice, racial segregation, denial of religious and political freedom, hereditary caste systems. And probably some things you now think are right will be thought wrong by future societies. Is it reasonable to believe that there is some single truth about all this, even though we can’t be sure what it is? Or is it more reasonable to believe that right and wrong are relative to a particular time and place and social background?
The strong relativism which some people claim to believe, would mean that the most basic standards of right and wrong — like when it is and is not all right to kill, or what sacrifices you’re required to make for others — depend entirely on what standards are accepted in the society in which you happen to live.
This I find very hard to believe, mainly because it always seems possible to criticize the accepted standards of your own society and say that they are morally mistaken. But if you do that, you must be appealing to some more objective standard, an idea of what is really right and wrong, as opposed to what most people think. It is hard to say what this is, but it is an idea most of us understand, unless we are slavish followers of what the community says.
I suspect that we can reason about ends, we can figure out just relations between people, we can know that what we would not have done to us, we should not do to others. There is an objectivity or externality to human moral relations. There is no such thing as “subjective morality,” and it is not all relative.
From: Eddie Sent: 12/20/2002 12:32 PM
because it always seems possible to criticize the accepted standards of your own society and say that they are morally mistaken. But if you do that, you must be appealing to some more objective standard, an idea of what is really right and wrong, as opposed to what most people think.
Well Friedrich, I do appreciate the angles from yourself and others, but I am still unconvinced. Last night before bed I read some more from a few sources of cognitive psychology. During the night while on break at work I was quizing my self with a psychology GRE text. The evidence of the susceptability of human behavior by social forces is very high. This isn’t to say that we should blame society for Bob shooting his wife, but it is a mistake to not take into social factors that lead to Bob shooting his wife. Everything from face recognition to the malleability of memory to the conformity studies done by observing a point of light in a dark room (where it is stationary but people go along with the consensus that it is moving) to the famous authority studies done by Milgram.
Perhaps there is some agreement with your position within myself. After all I am not interested in sticking to a label, I use them only as short footnotes to a broader range of ideas. I do not see man as any different than “animals” in our origins or fate. It is a biocentric position of mine that the universe doesn’t care one iota if it is humans that inherit the earth or cats. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe there aren’t processes at work, natural selection, cooperation, etc… which give the appearance of order around us. But remember that the “design” that we see around us is the successful results of natural selection, and that we often miss the many many many many (poor grammar I know) failures. It could very well be that human evolution has taken us to an evolutionary plateau and that we cannot backtrack and continue.
As we are animals we do not subscribe to the universal ethics. Unless you want to count continue the species as an ethic. As we developed consciousness we improved the feedback loop between our brains and our environment. This small break was dramatic difference in the behaviorist stimulus/response model. For now we can pause, and in our self awareness, think about if we should do a thing or not at a much higher level than a dog caught in the moment where it ‘chooses’ fight or flight. It is this pause in our self awareness that gave rise to ethics, I believe. Because what is ethics anyway?
The danger that I see is that the notion of a belief in a universal right and wrong leads people into poor decisions. We should go to war with Iraq because it is the right thing to do. Is it? I am opposed to a war with Iraq. During Desert Storm I was for it because I believed it right. I’ve had different thoughts since then. I am ready to go for ’round two’, but not because of any righteous cause, but out of fraternity.
As I was saying, the belief in a universal good or bad is dangerous because it is very much like a parent’s final answer. Don’t do that Sam. Why. Because it’s dangerous. But I see Daddy do it all the time. Well he’s older than you are. Can I do it when I get older? No. Why? Because its bad (now shut up). The giving of “because it’s right” or “wrong” is supposed to be a final argument to any objectors. Why can’t I argue against McCarthy and his withhunt? Because he’s doing the right thing, and you’d be doing the wrong thing. This threatens our freedom to question everything. Perhaps its a freedom that I’ve blown out of proportion because of I am an American. But I believe whole heartedly that if we are fed up with Congress and the President (the system, not the people) then we should rebel and create a new form of government, as Thomas Jefferson said “with the cool head of philosophers” (evidently he’s never been to the philosophy cafe). It is our American Heritage to rebel for what we think is right. But was the American Revolution as saintly and enlightened as we think? Some historians that I’ve read have said no.
Because people hold onto the idea that there is an absolute good or bad, they give power to the “shut up and don’t question, its good” argument. Readining philosophy I’ve come across some doozies (as well as reading social theories, I think Bakura was a nut), but reading research in psychology has continued to show me that our reason is not infallible, that we do not act purely on conscious intent, that we do not have a link to what is right and wrong (but we’re pretty good at feeling fair and unfair), and that no universal good or evil exists.
However, like I mentioned before, we have the developed brain size to afford us conscious thinking and with this comes empathy. It might seem obvious to us that there is no need to discuss whether killing is good or bad, it just is bad, and so it is objective. But again, killing happens. Lions kill antelope, otters kill fish, we kill turkeys for thanksgiving. But killing other humans is bad. Male lions that take over a new pride (generally when the younger males are stronger than the old ones who have kept them at bay) they might kill and eat all the young lion cubs and begin to procreate their own. Mated pairs of ravens will chase off other ravens from their territory. If that means the chased off raven cannot find food, then too bad. The territory-less ravens then for a mob and seek to cooperate with each other and outnumber mated ravens. Ah, but these are just animals. So are we. Am I to conclude that we are anything special? That there is a god that created all of the earth for us? I do not. And the belief of such a god, of such a distinction from the rest of nature, the existence of right and wrong on an objective level, invites problems.
As humans, who have self consciousness and empathy, we can sit down and discuss rights and wrongs, and we can gain perceptual cues from the behavior of other people. The production line that I work at currently is like a field study. Everyone’s conversation seems to have re-affirming cues in it, seeking accpetance for a position or belief from the others. I’ve played with this rather deviously during break and will mention something like “communism” on one day and everyone is against it becaus as one guy said “because it is bad, that’s what I know”, to on another day discussing the company’s poor pay and long working hours and I’ll introduce some communist thoughts concerning workers. They are all for it. I’ve given out environmentalist claims (in a blue collar work environment) and have toyed with angles to get an affirmation from a guy, and watch as soon everyone agrees. Conformity is a powerful force indeed. We conform more than we realize. So too in our thoughts. But given all of this, it is possible for a generally accepted right and wrong to emerge. But it lives within our brains as products of the way we see the world and our place in it, and as such it is subjective.
I could go on, and I’ve not expressed things well at all, but I am pre-occupied and have to leave for a job interview.