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Questions about Ethics

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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16 July 2017 00:29
 

In each case I will give my own provisional answer in the most concise form that I can. I’m interested in your answers and any explanation you care to provide especially if you have detailed reasons for disagreeing with me. 


1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’ ? Yes.

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past? My answer is future.

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably? No.

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa? For me it is the former.

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else? I am an anti realist.

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue? I try to hold to one definition.

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good? No

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational? No.

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique? Yes.

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? I do.

Thank You

 
Ground
 
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Ground
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16 July 2017 08:19
 

Hi

1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’ ? A common sense distinction in that ‘Ethics’  and ‘The study of Ethics’ are different objects.

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past? I do not rely on ethics but on reason.

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably? yes, because both are based on belief.

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa? Reasoning necessarily is about generalities. Inferences can be applied to the particular.

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else? Too many categories of realism. I am not a naive realist since conventional reality is subject to rational analysis.

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue? . I’ll take Wikis: ‘Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.’

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good? No. Agreed.

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational? No. Agreed.

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique? ??

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? No.


Regards

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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16 July 2017 08:49
 

Thank you. To clarify #9 what I mean by uniquely unique is that ethics is distinguished from other subjects of learning. Lets pick a nominal set of physics, chemistry and biology along with their respective specialties. These are unique subjects but they are also unified, I think by a certain parsimony and surrender the proportions of nature. They have a similar value structure and are essentially nested within one another. I think we make similar examples with social science, aesthetics and other endeavors.

Ethics, by contrast tries to locate propositions along multiple axes in a manner that makes it not part of any other set. It is not simply unique but uniquely unique. I hope that makes sense.

 
Ground
 
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Ground
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17 July 2017 00:52
 
Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 08:49 AM

Thank you. To clarify #9 what I mean by uniquely unique is that ethics is distinguished from other subjects of learning. Lets pick a nominal set of physics, chemistry and biology along with their respective specialties. These are unique subjects but they are also unified, I think by a certain parsimony and surrender the proportions of nature. They have a similar value structure and are essentially nested within one another. I think we make similar examples with social science, aesthetics and other endeavors.

Ethics, by contrast tries to locate propositions along multiple axes in a manner that makes it not part of any other set. It is not simply unique but uniquely unique. I hope that makes sense.

Interesting view. I would say that physics, chemistry and biology are related in being natural sciences. But I would associate Ethics with ‘social science, aesthetics’ under ‘human sciences’. So I would answer question 9 in the negative.

 
sortof-jeffm
 
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sortof-jeffm
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17 July 2017 18:32
 
Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

In each case I will give my own provisional answer in the most concise form that I can. I’m interested in your answers and any explanation you care to provide especially if you have detailed reasons for disagreeing with me. 


1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’ ? Yes.

Yes.  Studying a thing is not the thing, for sure.

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past? My answer is future.

 

I suppose it depends on whether one is evaluating a past action or a possible future action. Both have worth, I think.

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably? No.

 

Sometimes.

I mostly use the term ‘Ethics’ in relation to some profession, since that is how ethics seems to be most commonly understood in society.  I feel most comfortable using the term in the wide sense, where it would matter more what professional hat some theoretical person is wearing than who person X and person Y actually are.

In my view, morality has overlap with ethics, mainly in the wide moral sense.  But when considering the personal moral sense, the word ‘ethical’ does not have the same ring as the word ‘moral’ for me.

I think alot of objective moral theory was couched as ethics back in Sidgwick’s day, since the theorist would run into some serious doo-doo with the Church if they used the term moral theory.

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa? For me it is the former.

 

Former.  You have general goals, and then implementation specifics?

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else? I am an anti realist.

 

I believe that some truths are irreducibly normative.  Does that make me an anti-realist?  I think so, but I haven’t looked into it.

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue? I try to hold to one definition.

 

I’m not sure what you mean.  What is your stable definition?

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good? No

 

Yes, hopefully, eventually.

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational? No.

 

The goal of ethics seem to try to apply rational thought to human behavior.  Does that make ethics fundamentally rational?  I seems arguable, as long as we don’t pretend we did not make up a lot of the goals.

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique? Yes.

 

I’m running out of steam smile

Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? I do.


It usually depends on my internal state at the time.

 

[ Edited: 21 July 2017 21:36 by sortof-jeffm]
 
Kalessin
 
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Kalessin
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21 July 2017 16:26
 

There was something unsettling about these questions (they hint at a behavioural psychology exercise), but I’m game ...

1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’ ?
I think this is always the case, no?  You could replace “Ethics” in that sentence and it would still be yes - eg. “Is there an important distinction between Motorbikes / Medicine / Algebra / Love / Beethoven and The Study of Motobikes / Medicine etc. etc.”

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past?
This is another where the adjectives are not quite comparable, or at least could be more precise - speculative is not inherently temporal.  I can’t really see how anything takes priority, it depends on the focus of ones thinking at the time.

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably?
In day to day conversation it’s quite probable that I do, which is basically just casual (or lazy) use of language.  This question has prompted me to work harder at retaining the distinction between rules of behaviour (ethics) and principles of right and wrong (morals) as a shorthand.  However the separation is only technical given that ethics typically (or perhaps necessarily) arise from moral foundations, and any morality would tend to (or perhaps necessarily) engender an associated ethical code.

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa?
This could just be how I, or anyone, talks about things - do we like to use metaphors or analogies, or do we feel more comfortable with logical reasoning structures using concepts or algebra; do we habitually talk from our experience or attempt to start from a neutral position? etc. etc.  So I am probably slightly more abstract in my conversational style, which might make the ‘general’ a more regular starting point.

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else?
All these terms, or others such as rationalist/materialist/idealist and so on, have many connotations and ambiguities.  It probably depends on who I’m talking to (and whether it’s actually necessary or appropriate to ‘describe myself’ at all).  If pushed I make slightly qualified statements like “I am more or less an atheist these days”, or “I am pretty much a skeptic by default”.

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue?
In some conversations a carefully agreed definition of terms is necessary, in others there is room to go with the flow.  It all depends!

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good?
Conceptually ‘a greater good’ would also need defining and I can see lots of holes in any such concept, so I would probably go for something like ‘viable consensus’  or ‘working theory’ if I was looking to ground an overview somewhere specific.  I guess that means no.

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational?
I would have assumed the study of anything at least involves rational thought?

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique?
I’m not sure anything is unique or uniquely unique outside of a temporary context within a conversation.  I suppose you can say that where we have one example of something definitive, it is unique, such as a single verified fossil that shows a particular evolutionary chain, but I think words like this are always conversational rather than logical.

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? I
I think I experience significantly more angst on more superficial things, or indeed things with more mundane but meaningful day-to-day implications.

I hope this is useful for your research smile

[ Edited: 21 July 2017 16:31 by Kalessin]
 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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24 July 2017 15:57
 

I do appreciate the replies. In response to one concern: I am not attempting to psycho analyze anyone. I’m genuinely curious about peoples conceptual understanding and take all replies purely at face value. The questions are chosen for their relevance to issues I’m currently on the fence about and want to understand better.

 
NL.
 
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NL.
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24 July 2017 22:10
 

1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’ ? Not really. I think it’s like asking if there’s an important distinction between learning the technicalities of producing notes on a violin, and playing a song. You could parse those parts of the process but I see no functional reason to.

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past? I’d say they are equally important. The only form of empiricism we have in studying ethics is in looking at the lived laboratory of the past; the only reason we have to care about such things is the future.

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably? To an extent, although I feel they have different flavors. Ethics, colloquially, seems more manmade, morals, more universal.

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa? I generally think in gestalts, so for the most part, yes. That said, there is hardly any reason to care about ethics from a totally removed “computer program looking at the world” esque point of view, so I think in this case, more so than others, I tend to form big picture ideas from collections of personal vignettes, both from my life and from art, literature, etc. Ethics can only really be grounded in the rationale that subjectivity matters and subjectivity must be experienced in the first person. (I find the ethical lessons embedded in fiction for children particularly interesting. Most of my favorite moralistic children’s books - The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Little Prince, The Water Babies, At The Back of the North Wind, and so on, most certainly contained Western Reformation ideas about the nobility of individual character development. I find myself wondering now if these are simply classic archetypes, recognized at a deep level by the human mind, or if they could have been framed differently. Could Sara Crewe, rather than testing the mettle of her ideals against newly harsh and changed circumstances, have shown a humble collectivist submission to the new role society had assigned her? Would this have been a tragic ending in any human culture, or only ours? The arts are a tricky field, I think, in that they can ‘cheat’ a bit in a way that real life can’t, shaping characters into wholly sympathetic or unsympathetic caricatures.)

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else? Middle path, as always. Subjectivity is dream like, but so long as the dream is real, it’s consequential.

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue? I think it’s so context dependent that you simply have to lay a conversational framework and agree on various parameters for each individual dialogue on the topic.

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good? Yes

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational? So long as you’re sentient, yes.

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique? Ish.

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? What is thus far fundamentally irresolvable for me is the problem of suffering. This is usually framed as a religious question (How could God allow it,) but even in a secular sense, trying to talk about ethics in the framework of a universe that allows for the most hideous kinds of agony and suffering - on a routine basis - feels a bit like spitting into the ocean. This is why, for me, ethics is important but secondary to spiritual pursuits (or ‘mind training’, for those who prefer such terminology.)

 
 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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26 July 2017 09:36
 

Thanks to all who respond. To give some further context for my motivation our group is currently reviewing some graduate student work on the phenomenology of ethics. This sprawls from Heidegger to Levinas and back to Aristotle. The idea is to understand how moral prescriptions might be grounded in a hierarchy that begins with raw sense data. Perhaps moral goods have a necessarily associated qualia. If it can be argued that things like colors and odors have a hierarchy that extends through context, concept and sense data perhaps moral experience has a similar structure.

Right now I’m not sold on the idea. Its a pretty ambitious case to make but its an interesting project.

 
Giulio
 
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19 August 2017 14:52
 
Brick Bungalow - 26 July 2017 09:36 AM

Perhaps moral goods have a necessarily associated qualia. If it can be argued that things like colors and odors have a hierarchy that extends through context, concept and sense data perhaps moral experience has a similar structure.

Interesting.

There is something that it’s like to feel you are doing good, or not. Justice, injustice, guilt, self-sacrifice, ... all have their own qualitative feels. But they presumably are also very much influenced if not in some ways manufactured by our up-bringing. (Thinking about your tenth question, Dostoevsky obviously came to mind.)

Are there any ‘primary colours’ for ethics?

Tough question. Where does compassion (both in terms of ‘acts of compassion’ as a phenomenon, as well as ‘something that it’s like to feel compassionate’) sit for you in terms of ethics?

 
nate_kampeas
 
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22 September 2017 13:46
 

1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’? I suppose.

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past? Future.

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably? No, unfortunately.

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa? I would imagine it would be from the specific to the general.

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else? Realist.

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue? One definition.

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good? Probably not.

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational? Yes.

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique? I suppose. I don’t know exactly what this question is asking, though.

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? No.

 
 
Kalessin
 
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23 September 2017 18:04
 
Giulio - 19 August 2017 02:52 PM

Where does compassion (both in terms of ‘acts of compassion’ as a phenomenon, as well as ‘something that it’s like to feel compassionate’) sit for you in terms of ethics?

My current position - that I have come to relatively slowly, and may move on from - is that I now consider far less to be subject to ethical considerations as encompassed by normative descriptions such as “Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime”.(Wikipedia).

This is probably a convergence of many things.  One is that I no longer trust without hesitation my own (or others’) sense of righteousness or indignation arising from empathy, compassion, perceived injustice or other “feeling”.  Not that these feelings aren’t meaningful or worthwhile, or that I ignore them, but I no longer simply assume I know what’s right and that my first gut reaction is always the correct one (or even that there is a correct one).

Compassion is a reaction that can arise in situations that have no inherent ethical significance.  For example, you can have compassion for Othello while watching a great performance of Shakespeare; or with the losing player on a football team.  So in itself it is a kind of thermometer that measures a particular emotional state, and is subject to all sorts of arbitrary variations (particularly internal biases) that make it a very unreliable measure of any ethical meaning.

Empathy is more of a ‘willed’ act of cognitive association, but equally can be truly deceptive and inappropriate as a driver for moral judgement.  There is a fair amount of clinical research which shows the impact of biases on empathy, at the same time as studies which show that empathy employed as a device (through active listening and engagement in psychotherapy) has a positive causal effect on patient outcomes.  So it “does” something, and has meaning for both the empathiser and someone subject to empathy in person, but has no inherent reliability as a way of applying ethical perspectives.

I want to stress that this conceptual mediation is not the same as not feeling things, not caring, or not being motivated to act based on any of these feelings.  It’s simply a cautionary layer of reflection or analysis between those feelings and the immediate actions that seem to suggest themselves, and one that includes some internal calculi based on self-awareness ... so a fairly inexact science to be sure.

In terms of the “relationship to raw sense data” I would say that this is as mediated by psychology and physiology as any other interaction with sense data.  And if one thinks of any judgement based on raw sense data - for example, judgment of relative distances between objects - or assessments of previously experienced sense data - for example, how we remember particular situations - I see no reason to believe the same contingencies and caveats are not present.  We are never really in direct contact with sense data, and the extent to which that sense data would provide an a priori basis for ethics seems to me at least worthy of skeptical scrutiny.

Understanding of evolution, group advantage and other considerations also seem to me to counter any suggested 1:1 equivalence between material input and moral output.  There’s so much more I could say on this, but hopefully you can infer the general point. 

Finally, the specific reason why I have narrowed my own ethical spectrum and consider most things ‘tactical’ in terms of behaviour rather than moral (not that tactical results in bad moral or practical outcomes, perhaps just the opposite) is that ethics often become a kind an armour of invulnerability to rationality or even compromise, for obvious reasons.  If you are “right” and that comes from some genuine and absolute framework of good and bad of which you are convinced, there is no reason for you to listen to alternate views or care what anyone thinks.

... and I don’t want to do that. Unless I’m right of course smile

[ Edited: 23 September 2017 18:08 by Kalessin]
 
dhave
 
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dhave
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26 September 2017 18:56
 
Brick Bungalow - 16 July 2017 12:29 AM

In each case I will give my own provisional answer in the most concise form that I can. I’m interested in your answers and any explanation you care to provide especially if you have detailed reasons for disagreeing with me. 


1. Is there an important distinction between ‘Ethics’ and ‘The study of Ethics’ ? Yes.

2. Is your primary consideration of ethics more speculative or more retrospective? Which takes priority; future or past? My answer is future.

3. Do you use the terms ‘Ethics’ and ‘Morals’ interchangeably? No.

4. Would you say that your consideration of ethical issues most commonly moves from the general to the specific or vice versa? For me it is the former.

5. Do you describe yourself as realist or anti-realist? Or something else? I am an anti realist.

6. Do you typically hold to a single, stable definition of ethics or are multiple definitions employed in the context of a single dialogue? I try to hold to one definition.

7. Are the satisfaction conditions of ethical theories necessarily convergent? In other words is there such thing as a greater good? No

8. Is the study of ethics fundamentally rational? No.

9. Is the study of ethics uniquely unique? Yes.

10. Do you experience something like dread or religious terror or angst when reflecting quietly on large questions? I do.

Thank You

We probably agree 62%.

Regards,
Dave.

 
 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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26 September 2017 23:21
 
Kalessin - 23 September 2017 06:04 PM
Giulio - 19 August 2017 02:52 PM

Where does compassion (both in terms of ‘acts of compassion’ as a phenomenon, as well as ‘something that it’s like to feel compassionate’) sit for you in terms of ethics?

My current position - that I have come to relatively slowly, and may move on from - is that I now consider far less to be subject to ethical considerations as encompassed by normative descriptions such as “Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime”.(Wikipedia).

This is probably a convergence of many things.  One is that I no longer trust without hesitation my own (or others’) sense of righteousness or indignation arising from empathy, compassion, perceived injustice or other “feeling”.  Not that these feelings aren’t meaningful or worthwhile, or that I ignore them, but I no longer simply assume I know what’s right and that my first gut reaction is always the correct one (or even that there is a correct one).

Compassion is a reaction that can arise in situations that have no inherent ethical significance.  For example, you can have compassion for Othello while watching a great performance of Shakespeare; or with the losing player on a football team.  So in itself it is a kind of thermometer that measures a particular emotional state, and is subject to all sorts of arbitrary variations (particularly internal biases) that make it a very unreliable measure of any ethical meaning.

Empathy is more of a ‘willed’ act of cognitive association, but equally can be truly deceptive and inappropriate as a driver for moral judgement.  There is a fair amount of clinical research which shows the impact of biases on empathy, at the same time as studies which show that empathy employed as a device (through active listening and engagement in psychotherapy) has a positive causal effect on patient outcomes.  So it “does” something, and has meaning for both the empathiser and someone subject to empathy in person, but has no inherent reliability as a way of applying ethical perspectives.

I want to stress that this conceptual mediation is not the same as not feeling things, not caring, or not being motivated to act based on any of these feelings.  It’s simply a cautionary layer of reflection or analysis between those feelings and the immediate actions that seem to suggest themselves, and one that includes some internal calculi based on self-awareness ... so a fairly inexact science to be sure.

In terms of the “relationship to raw sense data” I would say that this is as mediated by psychology and physiology as any other interaction with sense data.  And if one thinks of any judgement based on raw sense data - for example, judgment of relative distances between objects - or assessments of previously experienced sense data - for example, how we remember particular situations - I see no reason to believe the same contingencies and caveats are not present.  We are never really in direct contact with sense data, and the extent to which that sense data would provide an a priori basis for ethics seems to me at least worthy of skeptical scrutiny.

Understanding of evolution, group advantage and other considerations also seem to me to counter any suggested 1:1 equivalence between material input and moral output.  There’s so much more I could say on this, but hopefully you can infer the general point. 

Finally, the specific reason why I have narrowed my own ethical spectrum and consider most things ‘tactical’ in terms of behaviour rather than moral (not that tactical results in bad moral or practical outcomes, perhaps just the opposite) is that ethics often become a kind an armour of invulnerability to rationality or even compromise, for obvious reasons.  If you are “right” and that comes from some genuine and absolute framework of good and bad of which you are convinced, there is no reason for you to listen to alternate views or care what anyone thinks.

... and I don’t want to do that. Unless I’m right of course smile

I appreciate the detail and agree on several points but I need to ask… would you consider yourself a dualist in whatever sense of that word feels most immediate? I don’t identify that way except in very specific and isolated ways. If you do, I think think it would account for most of what we disagree on. If not I would want to a few more pointed questions about your analysis.

Thanks.

 
NL.
 
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27 September 2017 07:20
 
Kalessin - 23 September 2017 06:04 PM

Compassion is a reaction that can arise in situations that have no inherent ethical significance.  For example, you can have compassion for Othello while watching a great performance of Shakespeare; or with the losing player on a football team.  So in itself it is a kind of thermometer that measures a particular emotional state, and is subject to all sorts of arbitrary variations (particularly internal biases) that make it a very unreliable measure of any ethical meaning.

Empathy is more of a ‘willed’ act of cognitive association, but equally can be truly deceptive and inappropriate as a driver for moral judgement.  There is a fair amount of clinical research which shows the impact of biases on empathy, at the same time as studies which show that empathy employed as a device (through active listening and engagement in psychotherapy) has a positive causal effect on patient outcomes.  So it “does” something, and has meaning for both the empathiser and someone subject to empathy in person, but has no inherent reliability as a way of applying ethical perspectives.


Sorry to interject, but this is an area that really interests me so wanted to share what I believe I’ve learned about it thus far.


I think both compassion and empathy are qualities that exist to some degree in everyone and can be willed / trained in everyone. I usually see this referenced in approximately two basic units in articles on the topic (with some variation, of course,) - “simulating” and “mentalizing”.


Simulating is just what it sounds like - an emotional simulation. To my mind, there are strong ethical implications to the idea that emotional simulation is foundational to human development, because it means that any human with more or less normal cognition, who has learned language, the ability to act independently in day-to-day situations, and so on - inherently has the capacity for empathy, and is actually using this capacity all the time. It might be buried or distorted by other forces, but if it wasn’t there, what you would see would be a severe cognitive disability, not sociopathy. Obviously this appeals to me as it aligns with Buddhist-y thinking.


In early development, a proposed role of simulation / emotional mimicry is that it is key to learning, development, and socialization. Think of the way neurotypical babies lock eyes on a human face, even given the reams of other stimuli their new little minds are presented with and could focus on. And in many ways subjective response is the code that unlocks meaning in everything from language to the complex daily interactions of humans. A phrase as simple as “Uh oh!” has little meaning to an infant unless they can figure out what their communicative partner is likely attending to - and not only that, but what feature of that scene their communicative partner is attending to. Otherwise, the choices for what ‘uh oh’ means could be infinite, it might refer to literally anything happening at the moment. Maybe ‘uh oh’ is a label for the act of sitting in a highchair, maybe it’s a name for eggs, maybe it’s a label for the floor, maybe it refers to the color of a small jar on top of the cabinet, or the shape of that jar, or the lid… For an infant to understand that it has something to do with his breakfast being tossed out of his highchair and landing on the floor already requires a fair bit of emotional synchronization and imitation.


Mentalization is the portion of empathy that is not a visceral imitation, but is a hypothesis-led process that helps shape visceral responses. For example, if you feel vicarious embarrassment for someone who doesn’t know they ‘should’ be embarrassed (they have a huge hunk of broccoli in their teeth, are reading the wrong notes at a meeting, are talking about the boss’s pet peeve that they are unaware of, etc.,) if you simply imitated that person’s state, the message you would get is “Everything’s fine.” In that case we still feel the subjective pull that generally rewards helping behaviors, but without direct mirroring.


A note - I’ve never read anything about this, but just from my own observation - it seems that we are probably wired more strongly for some mentalizing functions than others. It is very easy to feel vicarious embarrassment. It is very difficult not to feel some compassion for inanimate objects that look adorably sentient, like stuffed animals. So I doubt the mentalizing ‘override’ switch is all or nothing, it seems likely that its settings align with our evolutionary past.


Finally, I recently saw an article comparing the reactions of children with autism to the reactions of children with aggressive conduct disorder when viewing others in distress. Although both groups, initially, were prone to showing a lack of helping behaviors, children with autism did show an empathic response once distractions were controlled for and the distress was amplified and made very obvious. Teens with conduct disorder, on the other hands, when placed in an MRI scanner, showed activation in ‘reward’ centers of the brain when viewing intentionally inflicted pain on others. While the thought of sadism manifesting in the minds of teens who haven’t even reached adulthood is (to me at least,) pretty disturbing, in a way it may actually point to something positive - that what one is viewing is more the behavior of an addict seeking pleasure than someone who inherently lacks empathy.


(The question of why this profile appears is also an interesting one. I assume it reflects our evolutionary history as creatures who had to suppress empathy in order to be ready to fight or compete in inter-group power struggles, and at the extreme end of that trait spectrum you end up with so much suppression that you get antisocial behaviors and a downright preference for anything that depicts another person being aggressively dominated. This seems to correlate with the fact that antisocial disorders are much more common in men. Even so, there are interesting correlates in other places. I never understood ‘funny video’ shows where people laugh at videos of others - often little kids - falling on their face or getting hurt, but apparently perfectly nice, empathetic people do in fact enjoy that sort of thing for whatever reason. And then there is empathy suppression that is prosocial - the first responder, say, who finds scenes of devastation an interesting problem to solve [interest being, to some extent, a positive or pleasurable emotion], or the caregiver who feels a rush of love and affection [again, a positive emotion,] upon viewing an upset child. In some ways those turn our intuitions on their heads - it would be a horrible thing if first responders went into spasms of grief and panic that mirrored those of the victims; or if caregivers were prone to constant temper tantrums and meltdowns - and yet there actually is something very similar in that dynamic overall, in terms of structure.)


Anyways. That’s my two (or three or four or five,) cents - again, sorry to interject, but I did think some of that might be of interest in thinking about the role of human empathy / compassion in morality. I think there’s a constant dynamic tension between ‘perfectly equitable world’ scenarios - which are hypothetically the fairest but do not align with human nature and thus probably doomed to fail - and ‘perfectly pragmatic world’ - which work well with human nature but do not better human whims at all - in thinking about morality (and ultimately, I think that’s how we should think about morality - as a process, a blueprint for growth, not a static system.)

 
 
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Brick Bungalow
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27 September 2017 16:45
 
NL. - 27 September 2017 07:20 AM
Kalessin - 23 September 2017 06:04 PM

Compassion is a reaction that can arise in situations that have no inherent ethical significance.  For example, you can have compassion for Othello while watching a great performance of Shakespeare; or with the losing player on a football team.  So in itself it is a kind of thermometer that measures a particular emotional state, and is subject to all sorts of arbitrary variations (particularly internal biases) that make it a very unreliable measure of any ethical meaning.

Empathy is more of a ‘willed’ act of cognitive association, but equally can be truly deceptive and inappropriate as a driver for moral judgement.  There is a fair amount of clinical research which shows the impact of biases on empathy, at the same time as studies which show that empathy employed as a device (through active listening and engagement in psychotherapy) has a positive causal effect on patient outcomes.  So it “does” something, and has meaning for both the empathiser and someone subject to empathy in person, but has no inherent reliability as a way of applying ethical perspectives.


Sorry to interject, but this is an area that really interests me so wanted to share what I believe I’ve learned about it thus far.


I think both compassion and empathy are qualities that exist to some degree in everyone and can be willed / trained in everyone. I usually see this referenced in approximately two basic units in articles on the topic (with some variation, of course,) - “simulating” and “mentalizing”.


Simulating is just what it sounds like - an emotional simulation. To my mind, there are strong ethical implications to the idea that emotional simulation is foundational to human development, because it means that any human with more or less normal cognition, who has learned language, the ability to act independently in day-to-day situations, and so on - inherently has the capacity for empathy, and is actually using this capacity all the time. It might be buried or distorted by other forces, but if it wasn’t there, what you would see would be a severe cognitive disability, not sociopathy. Obviously this appeals to me as it aligns with Buddhist-y thinking.


In early development, a proposed role of simulation / emotional mimicry is that it is key to learning, development, and socialization. Think of the way neurotypical babies lock eyes on a human face, even given the reams of other stimuli their new little minds are presented with and could focus on. And in many ways subjective response is the code that unlocks meaning in everything from language to the complex daily interactions of humans. A phrase as simple as “Uh oh!” has little meaning to an infant unless they can figure out what their communicative partner is likely attending to - and not only that, but what feature of that scene their communicative partner is attending to. Otherwise, the choices for what ‘uh oh’ means could be infinite, it might refer to literally anything happening at the moment. Maybe ‘uh oh’ is a label for the act of sitting in a highchair, maybe it’s a name for eggs, maybe it’s a label for the floor, maybe it refers to the color of a small jar on top of the cabinet, or the shape of that jar, or the lid… For an infant to understand that it has something to do with his breakfast being tossed out of his highchair and landing on the floor already requires a fair bit of emotional synchronization and imitation.


Mentalization is the portion of empathy that is not a visceral imitation, but is a hypothesis-led process that helps shape visceral responses. For example, if you feel vicarious embarrassment for someone who doesn’t know they ‘should’ be embarrassed (they have a huge hunk of broccoli in their teeth, are reading the wrong notes at a meeting, are talking about the boss’s pet peeve that they are unaware of, etc.,) if you simply imitated that person’s state, the message you would get is “Everything’s fine.” In that case we still feel the subjective pull that generally rewards helping behaviors, but without direct mirroring.


A note - I’ve never read anything about this, but just from my own observation - it seems that we are probably wired more strongly for some mentalizing functions than others. It is very easy to feel vicarious embarrassment. It is very difficult not to feel some compassion for inanimate objects that look adorably sentient, like stuffed animals. So I doubt the mentalizing ‘override’ switch is all or nothing, it seems likely that its settings align with our evolutionary past.


Finally, I recently saw an article comparing the reactions of children with autism to the reactions of children with aggressive conduct disorder when viewing others in distress. Although both groups, initially, were prone to showing a lack of helping behaviors, children with autism did show an empathic response once distractions were controlled for and the distress was amplified and made very obvious. Teens with conduct disorder, on the other hands, when placed in an MRI scanner, showed activation in ‘reward’ centers of the brain when viewing intentionally inflicted pain on others. While the thought of sadism manifesting in the minds of teens who haven’t even reached adulthood is (to me at least,) pretty disturbing, in a way it may actually point to something positive - that what one is viewing is more the behavior of an addict seeking pleasure than someone who inherently lacks empathy.


(The question of why this profile appears is also an interesting one. I assume it reflects our evolutionary history as creatures who had to suppress empathy in order to be ready to fight or compete in inter-group power struggles, and at the extreme end of that trait spectrum you end up with so much suppression that you get antisocial behaviors and a downright preference for anything that depicts another person being aggressively dominated. This seems to correlate with the fact that antisocial disorders are much more common in men. Even so, there are interesting correlates in other places. I never understood ‘funny video’ shows where people laugh at videos of others - often little kids - falling on their face or getting hurt, but apparently perfectly nice, empathetic people do in fact enjoy that sort of thing for whatever reason. And then there is empathy suppression that is prosocial - the first responder, say, who finds scenes of devastation an interesting problem to solve [interest being, to some extent, a positive or pleasurable emotion], or the caregiver who feels a rush of love and affection [again, a positive emotion,] upon viewing an upset child. In some ways those turn our intuitions on their heads - it would be a horrible thing if first responders went into spasms of grief and panic that mirrored those of the victims; or if caregivers were prone to constant temper tantrums and meltdowns - and yet there actually is something very similar in that dynamic overall, in terms of structure.)


Anyways. That’s my two (or three or four or five,) cents - again, sorry to interject, but I did think some of that might be of interest in thinking about the role of human empathy / compassion in morality. I think there’s a constant dynamic tension between ‘perfectly equitable world’ scenarios - which are hypothetically the fairest but do not align with human nature and thus probably doomed to fail - and ‘perfectly pragmatic world’ - which work well with human nature but do not better human whims at all - in thinking about morality (and ultimately, I think that’s how we should think about morality - as a process, a blueprint for growth, not a static system.)

What a lot of this translates to, for me is that rational compassion should not and cannot be rationed in favor of those with whom we naturally identify. There is an almost Christian insight that says psychological limitations are just as problematic as physical limitations and often more so. When we encounter people who are not naturally lovable we have the responsibility to press the issue… not for some religious or altruistic reason but because they need it more. We need it more. The common interests of the community are neglected when we neglect to help those in need of help. People who cannot feel compassion are, in a sense worse off than those who cannot feel their lower torsos.

 
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