Define morality
Posted: 17 May 2007 04:52 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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First, I request that contributors to this thread be in agreement with the following assertion: Human morality is specific to humans and is not Platonically/heavenly perfect, eternal or true in any natural or supernatural way other than as it might pertain to human individuals and societies. If you disagree with this assertion, I hope to see your analysis somewhere else. Such a separation may be just the thing that will keep supremely confident folks from falsely strumming each others beautifully tuned instruments.

What is morality? On what is it based? Where does it come from? How does continually (almost daily) revised Darwinian theory fit into the idea of morality? Much has recently been written on this forum about these questions. I'd like to attempt another take on things, and hope—perhaps futilely—that it appears inviting for further discussion. First, some quick definitions for the purpose of this discussion:

Morality is something that is commonly fought by certain people, though it often involves simple, everyday situations. When the answer to a situation is clear and obvious, then to do otherwise issues a private challenge to morality itself. When the answer is fuzzy, difficult or convoluted, chances are that such an answer relies on ethical consideration. Ethical consideration tends to corral attention to various or disparate circumstances attempting to align themselves into morality as it's perceived. People generally agree on moral issues and often disagree about ethical consideration.

I'd say that morality is clearly—though of course not perfectly—defined in modern societies. Theft, acting negligently or recklessly, harming others or their property, subjective killing (i.e., murder), etc. etc. all are heavily codified in print and tradition (court precedence) and punishments for the most part are appropriate according to the sensibilities of most people. Now we can drop back down one or two levels, switching from the macroscopic to the microscopic. What is morality to the individual? What causes one to follow its principles and what causes one to ignore them?

I've heard that if you place an ant into an environment that has ample food, water and—apparently—every other life necessity, the ant will starve to death. This is because individual ants have what amount to strong psychological needs involving working and socializing in specific ways. When they are kept from doing so, I suspect the result is comparable (if only distantly) to a toddler needing the attention of its parent, or even a fully grown and educated person needing the psychological support of family and friends. I bring this up not to compare cross-species moral systems, but only to emphasize that our views on reality are, by necessity of survival, not at all objective. In many ways we act like ants, failing to consider implications of—or even reasons for—our actions. Individuals of our species have lived and acted, for the most part, as we've needed to live and act rather than as though we act always out of divine-like moral perfection. I'm trying to emphasize that our morals are specific to us, not to nature as a whole. We feel their need and presence, we live by the laws they've inspired. Morals, in my definition, are not very flexible. But they are biological-cognitive constructs only. They hold no sway anywhere but within our souls. That's a level of literality that is perhaps unnecessary for this discussion. We can instead focus on real-world morality, as it pertains to humanity as a whole and as individuals.

In a general sense, morality obviously plays a key role in bridging the individual with the group. Human individuals rely on working together in order to survive, and instinct allows for and even dictates a need for empathy at times and lack of it at other times. It's such a strongly needed instinct that human societies have taken it away from the individual and placed it in public trust, in a sense. Now that we have laws and punishments, most of us don't really need to focus on morality. We do need to be informed about laws, and we need to consider ethics. Morality is fairly cut and dried. Ethics are anything but.

For anyone who might still be with me, I would next suggest that morality not be seen as though informed by anything such as spirituality or supernaturalism. I hope we can view it in light of exactly what it is. There's really nothing vague or mysterious about how our early instincts and eventual laws got to where they are today. We're repelled by looking down from a high height and we're horrified by the sight of a person being beaten or stabbed. Both tendencies are beneficial to us and our survival. Without them, societies wouldn't exist.

I don't know exactly how this sort of analysis might be useful, but it seems obvious to me that self understanding never hurts. I may see morality differently from how it's commonly spoken about, and hope to have my thoughts shot down by anyone who has even a minimum of ammunition. Please come after me, as I honestly don't want to walk around with false ideas rattling around in my head. At the same time, I propose that this thread be a polite discussion. If someone makes a point that seems flagrantly mistaken, let's just let it go in this thread with a simple correction. Let's play nicely for a while at least, while we look at morality on a slightly deeper level than how it's usually described and discussed. If any or all of my definitions seem incomplete or mistaken in some way, please explain. I don't think anyone is going to go after your throat for clarifying how you see the world of morality.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 17 May 2007 06:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I’m glad to see you’ve found a few minutes to write, homunculus!
Since I’m one of the few people around here who writes from the point of view of a theist, I’ll start by saying that I think a very big mistake of religion has been to mix up questions of ultimate truth with necessities for social control.
Ultimately, all forms are equal, but relatively, we live identified as human and concerned about human well-being. Human well-being is a purely practical concern, and has nothing to do with being closer to God.
You and I are both familiar with the Frans de Waal book ‘Good Natured’, based on observation of primate behavior, and that point of view seems to me a necessary starting point for a better understanding of our own behavior.
Then comes civilization and advanced technology - complications which stretch our ‘instinctive’ morality to the breaking point.
Last night I watched a dvd called ‘Crude Awakening’ about our dependence on oil and where this might lead. Morality is much more confusing in this context - with no intention of doing anyone any harm we have backed ourselves into a corner. How do I balance my desire to visit my friends in Colorado (which is very sociable) with my concern about the oil supply - not to mention how jet travel possibly impacts on the climate? Natural selection has not prepared us very well for such questions, and yet these are the questions that may determine the survival of our species.

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Posted: 17 May 2007 04:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Ethical consideration tends to corral attention to various or disparate circumstances attempting to align themselves into morality as it’s perceived. People generally agree on moral issues and often disagree about ethical consideration.

If I could take a shot at this, and Pat’s dilemma, one which is unfortunately going to become far more common, I’m afraid, I think folks tend to evaluate ethical issues depending upon where they see themselves relative to the community (world) as a whole.

I think most of us tend to seek a “balance” between our needs and those of the community (others).  Where we find this balance is dependent upon the size of our own ego, I guess, and I think most rational people shoot for “right sized.” 

As a Realtor, I sometimes get involved in “balancing” two sides of a transaction, trying to be fair with both sides.  This can be hard or easy depending upon the folks I’m dealing with.  Once ego (emotion) gets involved in the transaction, the two sides can end up fighting over real minor stuff (like a bad divorce).

Rationality, in my opinion, makes good ethics, as a “right sized” view makes the tough decisions easier.

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Posted: 18 May 2007 03:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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[quote author=“homunculus”]First, I request that contributors to this thread be in agreement with the following assertion: Human morality is specific to humans and is not Platonically/heavenly perfect, eternal or true in any natural or supernatural way other than as it might pertain to human individuals and societies.

I’m hip with that.

I find this whole morality thing gets less weighty if we put it in two boxes instead of one.

First box :

Among animals that live in social groups, a personal morality is an impression that grows from observing the behavior of others.
If the group develops a mutual impression of certain behaviors that are successful in achieving social integration, you could call that a social morality.
If there a fundamental ethic that informs animal morality, it is written deeply into our genetic code and beyond. (I mean regular physics) It is only with our best efforts that we can perceive it. (I mean science, mostly) I think this describes the case Mr. and Mrs. Athos were making in another thread. (we parted on the mostly)
This morality only describes the natural or organic part of our lives. It binds our physical body, and the part of our minds that is actually here. We experience this part of our lives (mental and physical) as a continuous series of flashes of varying accumulated states of biological existence in real time. This morality is felt.

Second box :

Unlike our animal friends, and for whatever reason, we have developed a secondary or second-story mentality that is capable of continuous experience within its own independent continuity. It is a self-created experience that is not actually there. It’s artificial, but that’s no reason to shrug it off. As long as it’s on, it answers only to its own artificial experience and it can be entirely isolated from emotions. Conflicts with physical experience, which still answers to nature, may arise.

Since becoming civilized, we humans use our self-conscious minds to moderate and over-rule our natural or organic behavior. That process, or discipline, can be as complex as we can stand it. Once we manifest the process as information, we can call it a morality, too. Most conscious disciplines are highly effective at training the unconscious mind. Except when it screws up or sins, which is usually because something happened too fast for it, or we needed the neuron power for more immediate brain duties and had simply switched it off.
The more civilized and cerebral we are, the harder it is to switch off. Except in the direst of circumstance, such civilized types rely entirely on their artificial morality and ethics. Results have varied.

Conclusions:

1. These egos we use are piloting around a highly sexualized ape with more leisure time on its hands than evolution was prepared for.

2. Results will vary.

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Posted: 18 May 2007 04:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I’ll say this, Nhoj. If you can manage to harness whatever is in that second box of yours, you’ll soon be delivering pizzas worldwide via the fiber-optic network.

Of course, only the very wise will be able to eat them. :D

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Posted: 18 May 2007 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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h,

You draw a distinction between ethics and morality and I would like to hear more about the nature of this distinction.  You say, for example:

People generally agree on moral issues and often disagree about ethical consideration.

Morality is fairly cut and dried. Ethics are anything but.

I think that often people use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ as roughly synonymous.  I’m not convinced that they are.  In any event, I was just wondering how you understand the distinction.

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What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.
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Posted: 18 May 2007 09:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Thanks for all your replies, folks. I’ll try to write something this weekend, or maybe just post part of a dialog I wrote a couple of years ago that reflects on the cognitive-physiological nature of morality, as I see it. I’ll be surprised if anyone agrees with my p.o.v., and l expect to be taken to task for it. In fact, I’ll welcome it, though I’ll probably argue some, as well.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 18 May 2007 11:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”]I’ll say this, Nhoj. If you can manage to harness whatever is in that second box of yours, you’ll soon be delivering pizzas worldwide via the fiber-optic network.

You said a mouthful!

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Posted: 19 May 2007 07:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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All I’m saying—if you’ll allow me—is that many people believe in God not necessarily to explain how life got started, but to associate themselves with goodness.

Systems of belief are not so cavalier.

Are we back to defining words? Let’s not forget that all “belief” is accompanied by significant doubt, otherwise it would be known as “knowledge.”

And in your warped perspective, morality is immoral.

I wouldn’t put it quite that harshly, but the current progressive-scientific view seems to be embodied in Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil. Shermer says that morality consists of “right and wrong thoughts and behaviors in the context of the rules of a social group.” He goes on to claim that ethics involve the scientific study of those thoughts and behaviors.

Somehow I get the feeling that you disagree with Shermer.

Definitions certainly change over time, and at some point we may start calling what is now referred to as “morality,” something else. But the more I talk about morality with you today, Larry, the more I realize that with ethical consideration having developed as far as it has, morality of a sort actually does remain in humans and it seems to be imbedded in our nervous systems. A new definition of morality might be something such as, “Approval or disapproval on a visceral level, not directly open to instruction or challenge.” Such a definition dovetails nicely with my definition of “mind,” which excludes what is visceral and reactive.

So a person has no mind when reacting viscerally?

That’s right. No choice equals no mind, in my definition. If you’ll remember, we touched on this a few hours ago. Mind is what’s left over, in a sense, after a direct interaction of some sort. It’s the reverberation—the echo—that lingers as reality gets artificially formulated in response to those split-second interactions with nature and others.

Nature doesn’t include “others”?

Some people are natural. I don’t want to get too bogged down with words here, since anyone can fine-tune definitions of mind and morality, and what we’re left with will always be the same entities. “Mind” steps back from the senses, as does ethical consideration. So in an attempt to act in ways that reach beyond unthinking morality, a person can step back from his prejudices, honestly evaluating each situation. Of course, this does not take into consideration that some people are thieves. People who steal from others need to be rehabilitated and/or imprisoned.

Nice touch of humor. What sort of rehabilitation actually accomplishes anything?

I wish I could be as funny to others as you seem to think I am. Empathy therapy works wonders. But I won’t digress now, except to say that my idea of theft is much more stringent than current U.S. laws provide for.

Tell me about it.

A man who lies to a woman, for instance, in order to obtain her body would, in my world, be susceptible to criminal prosecution.

Now you sound even madder than usual.

Maybe, but if honest guys like us ever want to get laid on a regular basis, we need to start rethinking such issues.

Your desperation is showing. Let’s get back on track, please.

Organized morality, on the other hand, celebrates and documents our prejudices. This is the historical role of religion. If you feel that humanity remains as it was before written history, literature, ethics and psychology, then I would suggest that you fit with what fundamentalist churches have to offer.

So is morality a friend or foe to you?

It’s a dear old friend who often leads us astray. In an ideal world, ethics get codified and morality remains as an involuntary reaction that helps drive our ethical views.

You seem to be expanding the definition of morality to include individual acts of every person on the planet, since everyone is born with a unique nervous system.

Larry, I realize your approach to this issue is Platonic by way of Christianity. I can appreciate your approach philosophically, but I don’t see any way of structuring it via scientifically-informed epistemology. For the sake of the discussion at hand, I hope you can appreciate that—or argue against it, if you prefer.

I envy your spiritual naiveté. If only life were as simple as Darwin’s descriptions imply.

Simplicity can be revolutionary in its effects, yet struggle against stone walls of already established and executed complexity.

I should have known better than to give you an inch . . .

Hear me out. What I’m proposing is that Darwinian-inspired theory should revolutionize concepts involving ethics and epistemology, but it has yet to do so in the minds of most philosophers and moral teachers. So you’re correct in the sense that I am expanding the number of moral acts to exceed the number of humans on the planet. In fact, that is the epistemology I propose. I’m simply describing nature at work. Our morality is entirely based on what we’ve inherited from our ancestral species.

I suppose we mysteriously inherit ethics, as well.

Ethical consideration is a technique to temper the Darwinistically severe morality that inhabits our involuntarily-acting nerve cells.

Wouldn’t a proper atheistic stance involve nurturing and abiding by our inherited tendencies?

It might seem so to you, but not to me. Atheists are as fully human as Christians. By designing ethical systems, we defy, on a superficial level, Darwinistic morality. But on another level, we are actively—cognitively—taking part in the process of evolution.

How so, specifically?

Any individual is free to choose to attempt to alter his or her natural disgust at a disfigured face, or a fat person, or racially-mixed marriage, and so on. Our neurologically-derived morality instructs us in many ways that are invalid, and it’s up to each of us to attempt to ameliorate the offensive ones.

What? It turns my stomach to hear you describe morality as being something negative and, in fact, sinful.

I don’t like it when you’re sick, as I feel a great deal of empathy toward you. But the fact is that some of the most highly moral people in the world are serving life sentences in prison. Allow a known child killer to mingle among any group of such prisoners, and watch them single him out for strict, highly moral punishment. Prisoners regularly kill murderers of children. So too, it must be remembered that the Bible is filled with morality lessons that are currently considered to be highly unethical, even by religious leaders.

Every word of the holy Bible remains as valid instruction from God, and always will. And most religion instructors, by the way, would agree with the idea of executing child murderers.

You’ve missed my point. My example is intended only to inform you that prisoners tend to be highly moral people.

I’m sure they’d appreciate your vote of confidence.

I’m not saying that prisoners tend to be highly ethical people. Morality tends to submit to popular opinion. For most of human history, it was an unquestioned fact that interracial marriage was immoral. Slavery has historically been considered proper. Today’s religionists offer various apologies and excuses that allow them to maintain their faith in Biblical authority, but the fact is that certain actions that were once forbidden are now ordained as proper and certain other actions that were once morally upright are now considered abhorrent.

All I have to say is that if you think that nerve impulses equal morality, you are unfit to live among the rest of us who know better.

Such impulses may not be morals, but you can’t deny that they are the basis for morals.

I can and do.

The fact remains that 21st-century people have trouble reconciling 19th- and 20th-century concepts into their worldview. Apparently I failed to explain myself adequately regarding my distinction between mind and body. First, I agree with Descartes in that I do see a sort of difference between the two, as one consists of what is referred to as “matter” and the other is constructed of illusion. Sorry, but the English language, as far as I am aware, offers me no better word choices. Of course if brain and other nerve tissue is examined closely enough—say, at the level of sub-atomic particles—both are illusion. Secondly, when I say that mind is what’s left over after a direct interaction with its environment, I’m referring not so much to passing time, but rather to physical interaction that often parallels mental processing. For instance, when I ride a bicycle, my entire body takes in vibration, wind, temperature variation, and more as I pedal along the road, thinking about entirely different things. My leg muscles also interact with the environment of tissues within my body. Some of this interaction impinges on my mental awareness, but most of it doesn’t. All of it has an effect on various parts of my nervous system, which processes it with casual, robot-like objectivity. But instead of describing a bike ride, I could just as easily describe myself sitting in the cello section of an orchestra, reading the part on the stand in front of me, keeping an eye on the facial expressions and arm movements of the conductor, while synchronizing my arm, hand and fine finger muscles with the players who surround me. My mind focuses my awareness to where it’s needed at any given moment, and it allows me to interpret possible musical intentions of the composer.

Obviously you’re trying to confuse me. But don’t let me interrupt.

Sorry for the shift. I’m only trying to point out that simple activities, such as riding a bike, and more complex ones, such as playing in an orchestra, involve the body operating in ways that are automatic. I’m setting up the concept of our entire nervous system interacting with its environment, rather than just the brain.

Why on earth make such a distinction?

Relax. I’m giving you background information to a central point I’m making.

That point being . . .

Simply that when I refer to my nervous system, I’m not only referring to my brain. When I say “visceral,” for instance, I’m being metaphorical. It’s not the viscera themselves, but the nerve tissue attached to the viscera. Lots of other tissues are involved, especially those that involve blood flow and hormone dispersion—again, always involving the nervous system. These nerves take on a life of their own, so to speak. Much of the body-environment interaction I just described in riding a bike or performing chamber music takes place outside of mind, in my definition. But mind carries on with its activities in parallel with brain and other anatomical nerve structures.

And our nerves provide us with our morals?

Quite simply—yes. But we can choose to abide by them or ignore them. It’s up to each individual to decide which aspects of morality are ethically reasonable and which need to be discarded or amended.
___________

Edited to delete a quote from S.C. I’d poorly transitioned into. (Thanks for the help.)

[ Edited: 09 June 2007 08:16 AM by ]
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Posted: 09 June 2007 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“homunculus”]Anger can be seen as an option rather than an autonomic response.

It’s not so clear cut. Sometimes I address people very bluntly because I conclude they are talking nonsense. Or at the very least, they cannot demonstrate that they are not talking nonsense.

Try to make me feel uncomfortable about that. Just an example, but I think you get my drift.

Nobody has to buy what I’m telling them, and probably, they don’t even have to listen. They still cannot demonstrate that they are not talking nonsense.

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Posted: 09 June 2007 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”][quote author=“homunculus”]Anger can be seen as an option rather than an autonomic response.

It’s not so clear cut. Sometimes I address people very bluntly because I conclude they are talking nonsense. Or at the very least, they cannot demonstrate that they are not talking nonsense.

Try to make me feel uncomfortable about that. Just an example, but I think you get my drift.

Nobody has to buy what I’m telling them, and probably, they don’t even have to listen. They still cannot demonstrate that they are not talking nonsense.

Salt Creek, I wasn’t trying to convey the above. I left out a transition and never got around to correcting it. My apologies.

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Posted: 09 June 2007 08:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Okay, I made the correction. Sorry about the unfortunate ambiguity.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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