Why do atheists believe in universal values?

 
 
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jerryp
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14 April 2012 12:34
 

Mostly @softwarevisualization [and I’m quoting some lines out of order], but I think this also applies to boagie’s response


Your response is quite interesting. I thought you were joking in parts of your earlier response, but apparently I misunderstood. I won’t respond to everything in this post; instead, I’d like to mostly ask for clarification because I don’t want to respond to something that you didn’t mean.

As I said, “there’s more of us than there is of you”.

Are you saying that “might makes right” or that the majority gets to determine morality? [When you said this in your earlier comment, I thought you meant it as a joke, but perhaps you didn’t.]

Re human suffering: Human suffering is shorthand for human disasters like disease, pestilence, famine, sensory and intellectual deprivation , lovelessness, etc etc where the nervous system of the human is registering pain because irreversible damage is being done to the human for no good reason.


I think this actually leads to an answer to the hypothetical situation that is different than you intended. If these aliens could successfully hook up all of civilization without anyone registering pain and subsequently entered everyone into an imaginary world where there are no human disasters, aren’t you saying that the aliens would actually be doing a good thing?

the relief of the suffering of nervous systems is a universal good and no nervous system is excluded from consideration except that it’s not practically possible to relieve that suffering


So, does this mean that you’re a vegetarian (and that everyone else should be as well)?

Actually the EXTERNAL justification you’re looking for - presumably from some framework OTHER than humanity and the facts of our shared biology- has all the reality of a unicorn.


There IS no other framework that is not a fiction, no mystical framework, no other-worldy framework no intellectualization ...


What I am saying is human suffering - (see below for what human suffering is) - is ultimately wrong and human happiness is ultimately right and things that lead to human suffering are always wrong and things that lead to human enrichment and fulfillment and happiness are always right.


This is an interesting response. You write with such confidence that human suffering is the ultimate moral guide. I wonder how you would weight suffering across humans. For example, let’s suppose for the moment that we could normalize suffering across humans and that each human could bear up to 100 units. Which situation is more moral: one in which 100 people each suffer one unit or on in which one person suffers 50 units and everyone else suffers none?


This isn’t a purely academic question in that it helps answer the question as to whether a tax policy should be progressive or not. It could also help answer the question of whether countries like the US should intervene in other countries where there is internal strife. A concrete example of the latter is whether or not the US should have invaded Iraq. It sounds like your framework dictates that if people believed that the suffering caused by the invasion and subsequent turmoil is less than the suffering that would have occurred had Hussein continued in power, then the US should have invaded (or at least intervened). Or, in other examples, that the US should do what it can to overthrow other governments if the subsequent regime is more likely to be people-friendly. Do I understand your morality correctly?

For the rest of us, with normal nervous systems and fully functioning brains, our hearts break to see human suffering in all its forms and we are motivated to relieve it just because we are and it doesn’t need any further justification. This feeling of compassion and its motivating power is something we all share, along with our other impulses such as those which lead us to find love and avoid suffering ourselves and achieve good works.  We are like this because of our biology.


This is also quite interesting—I get the sense that you feel that biology can do no wrong (in some sense). Biology causes us to feel more than just compassion. For example, what if resources become scarce and our (presumably biological) “fight-or-flight” response causes us to want to take from our neighboring country? (I would guess that there’s a fair amount of historical evidence for that.) Wouldn’t your framework imply that doing so is actually ok?


Or, what if it is found that the sociopaths that you talk about have a biological reason for their orientation? Is it simply that the biology of majority of the population gets to trump the biology of the minority?


Regards,
Jerry

 
 
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boagie
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15 April 2012 15:12
 

“To god all things are right and good, only to man some are good and others are not.” Heraclitus

“There is no such thing as right or wrong, only thinking makes them so.” Shakespeare

[ Edited: 22 April 2012 18:39 by boagie]
 
 
 
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jerryp
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27 May 2012 22:25
 

I was waiting for softwarevisualization to respond so I could answer in batch, but since a month has passed, I guess I’ll just respond to boagie’s most recent comment.

boagie - 15 April 2012 03:12 PM

“To god all things are right and good, only to man some are good and others are not.” Heraclitus

“There is no such thing as right or wrong, only thinking makes them so.” Shakespeare

The quotation from Shakespeare seems like a fitting note to close this thread. I originally came to this forum because Sam Harris made fun of Christians on a point of morality. Puzzled, I came to this forum to ask how is that some atheists can believe in absolute values from which to judge other systems of morality. (If you don’t believe in in absolute values, then preferring one system over another is a little like preferring one color over another—sure, you can say that one system is more efficient or fair, but you can’t say that efficiency or fairness were good in an absolute sense.) In the course of this thread, I came upon atheists who indeed declared that atheists cannot hold absolute values. Others have offered contradicting explanations (e.g. values rooted in biology), but when pressed, have either not responded, or in boagie’s case, seem to affirm the lack of absolute values.


It seems intellectually self-consistent to hold that atheists believe that there are no absolute values. In the absence of any absolute values, it seems intellectually dishonest for atheists to condemn other systems of morality as Sam Harris seems quick to do.

 
 
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boagie
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30 May 2012 08:30
 
jerryp - 27 May 2012 10:25 PM

I was waiting for softwarevisualization to respond so I could answer in batch, but since a month has passed, I guess I’ll just respond to boagie’s most recent comment.

boagie - 15 April 2012 03:12 PM

“To god all things are right and good, only to man some are good and others are not.” Heraclitus

“There is no such thing as right or wrong, only thinking makes them so.” Shakespeare

The quotation from Shakespeare seems like a fitting note to close this thread. I originally came to this forum because Sam Harris made fun of Christians on a point of morality. Puzzled, I came to this forum to ask how is that some atheists can believe in absolute values from which to judge other systems of morality. (If you don’t believe in in absolute values, then preferring one system over another is a little like preferring one color over another—sure, you can say that one system is more efficient or fair, but you can’t say that efficiency or fairness were good in an absolute sense.) In the course of this thread, I came upon atheists who indeed declared that atheists cannot hold absolute values. Others have offered contradicting explanations (e.g. values rooted in biology), but when pressed, have either not responded, or in boagie’s case, seem to affirm the lack of absolute values.

It seems intellectually self-consistent to hold that atheists believe that there are no absolute values. In the absence of any absolute values, it seems intellectually dishonest for atheists to condemn other systems of morality as Sam Harris seems quick to do.

JerryP

Let us be honest with our words. ,When you say absolute values, you mean values handed down from the Big G,  such that there is no other authority, meanings and values are universal, concrete [absolute] . There is a kind of consensus across the board I think, that human societies wish to work towards a greater humanity, a greater biological expression of identifying with other, and the release of a greater compassion from which our actions might flow., The fact that we presently have functioning societies I believe indicates some success. I see all things man made as simply biological extensions of humanity, including his faith systems. So if some people wish to believe one of these faith systems is the source of our values and morality, we might be kind enough to be embarrassed for them—-just don’t let them lead your way through the storm—lol!!  After thought, all meaning is biologically dependent,, the physical world in the absence of said biology/consciousness is utterly without meaning—-thus, no values, absolute or otherwise. Morality is a group activity, and as Nietzsche stated,” Morality and autonomy are mutually exclusive.”

[ Edited: 30 May 2012 08:39 by boagie]
 
 
 
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mormovies
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31 May 2012 06:45
 

“There is no such thing as “right & wrong”. One person’s right is another’s wrong, especially where people of various religions are concerned.”

Very strange but not uncommon to hear this kind of talk in 2012.  There is an objective reality and there are is a basic objective morality, not based on faith.  We are human animals and have the EXACT SAME requirements to survive an live as do all other animals have a specific set of requirement on a species by species basis.

Based on our requirements for survival, we create values that we must act upon to survive.  Yes, most religions, cultures and political factions deny this and that’s why they suck and impede progress (positive forward movement.)

 
 
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mormovies
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31 May 2012 11:51
 

You’re giving us examples of human beings practicing distorted, irrational subjective values.  These are not universal, objective values you cited but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  The fact that there are universal rational values enables you to comment negatively on the very examples you cited!  Of course, irrational, non-scientific people and cultures will disagree.  That’s my point.

[ Edited: 31 May 2012 12:00 by mormovies]
 
softwarevisualization
 
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softwarevisualization
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31 May 2012 13:30
 

Sorry for the belated response I never saw anyone replied to me.

As I said, “there’s more of us than there is of you”.

Are you saying that “might makes right” or that the majority gets to determine morality? [When you said this in your earlier comment, I thought you meant it as a joke, but perhaps you didn’t.]

What I am saying is that morality is functioning in the majority of humans and the sociopaths are a minority and since sociopaths really just don’t “care” about people , there’s no talking to them. Since this is the case, the only thing left is the fact that we have the power (through our shared innate moral sense) to inflict   our will upon them, that’s just what it comes down to.

Re human suffering: Human suffering is shorthand for human disasters like disease, pestilence, famine, sensory and intellectual deprivation , lovelessness, etc etc where the nervous system of the human is registering pain because irreversible damage is being done to the human for no good reason.


I think this actually leads to an answer to the hypothetical situation that is different than you intended. If these aliens could successfully hook up all of civilization without anyone registering pain and subsequently entered everyone into an imaginary world where there are no human disasters, aren’t you saying that the aliens would actually be doing a good thing?

That is the movie the Matrix.  That’s a thought experiment I feel like it’s not worth answering. My answer to you is, how do you know yo’re not in the Matrix right now and everything YOU believe is just aliens injecting their thoughts in to you? See what answering questions like that is like? It’ s pointless. You can’t give a proof it’s not true, (anything can be an illusion by an evil demon) but you CAN give a very convincing proof it’s an uninteresting question.

the relief of the suffering of nervous systems is a universal good and no nervous system is excluded from consideration except that it’s not practically possible to relieve that suffering


So, does this mean that you’re a vegetarian (and that everyone else should be as well)?

Sort of but the fact is most of us count human suffering differently than pig suffering in at least some circumstances. You’d save your child before your pet pig. I think we all understand the limits in extremis and quirks of this kind of thing already.

Actually the EXTERNAL justification you’re looking for - presumably from some framework OTHER than humanity and the facts of our shared biology- has all the reality of a unicorn.


There IS no other framework that is not a fiction, no mystical framework, no other-worldy framework no intellectualization ...


What I am saying is human suffering - (see below for what human suffering is) - is ultimately wrong and human happiness is ultimately right and things that lead to human suffering are always wrong and things that lead to human enrichment and fulfillment and happiness are always right.


This is an interesting response. You write with such confidence that human suffering is the ultimate moral guide. I wonder how you would weight suffering across humans. For example, let’s suppose for the moment that we could normalize suffering across humans and that each human could bear up to 100 units. Which situation is more moral: one in which 100 people each suffer one unit or on in which one person suffers 50 units and everyone else suffers none?


This is like the evil demon question. At this point in time it’s unanswerable in any meaningful way. No enough information is available to even say it’s a coherent question. Something like this goes on in the real world anyway, in the planning of defense they weigh things like the suffering of many people against fewer people. In healthcare the bean counters in the insurance providers play life and death decisions off against their yearly bonuses.  So it’s not like I suddenly created some new dilemma.

This isn’t a purely academic question in that it helps answer the question as to whether a tax policy should be progressive or not. It could also help answer the question of whether countries like the US should intervene in other countries where there is internal strife. A concrete example of the latter is whether or not the US should have invaded Iraq. It sounds like your framework dictates that if people believed that the suffering caused by the invasion and subsequent turmoil is less than the suffering that would have occurred had Hussein continued in power, then the US should have invaded (or at least intervened). Or, in other examples, that the US should do what it can to overthrow other governments if the subsequent regime is more likely to be people-friendly. Do I understand your morality correctly?

Yes something like that is clearly a part of the process, as I said earlier. These things are unquantifiable but that doesn’t mean that the idea that human suffering is the measure of goodness is useless. We still use it all the time across domains. It’s not only not a new idea, it’s the implicit value behind many decisions.

For the rest of us, with normal nervous systems and fully functioning brains, our hearts break to see human suffering in all its forms and we are motivated to relieve it just because we are and it doesn’t need any further justification. This feeling of compassion and its motivating power is something we all share, along with our other impulses such as those which lead us to find love and avoid suffering ourselves and achieve good works.  We are like this because of our biology.


This is also quite interesting—I get the sense that you feel that biology can do no wrong (in some sense). Biology causes us to feel more than just compassion. For example, what if resources become scarce and our (presumably biological) “fight-or-flight” response causes us to want to take from our neighboring country? (I would guess that there’s a fair amount of historical evidence for that.) Wouldn’t your framework imply that doing so is actually ok?

You’re using biology to mean “transitive feeling” or “circumstantial emotions” and I am using it to mean the REASON we have the ideals we have ,, even when we don’t live up to them. The fact that biology makes us want to , say. murder someone if we get angry enough doesn’t mean that murder is justified and i certainly am not saying that. I am locating the source of morality. That source is our shared biology, as opposed to some supernatural something else.

Or, what if it is found that the sociopaths that you talk about have a biological reason for their orientation? Is it simply that the biology of majority of the population gets to trump the biology of the minority?

In a sense but it’s not as trivial as you seem to think it is. Even in Sparta morality was not much different than it was now, excepting stealing and of course who the “out group” was that you could enslave (remember we just got done with slavery). I am saying that humans . At no time or place have sociopaths been defined morality . That’s non-trivial and means that they represent a minority and even diseased state of humans. Generally, morality intersects with rational thought (another biological process) and you can see definition of IDEAL morality from the time of Sparta going forward as a kind of extended dialectic where thinkers and science inform each other over time as we move towards a clearer notion of what it is our biologically based moral imperative requires us to do and not do.

HTH

 
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PainfulButTrue
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31 May 2012 16:42
 

Here is my shot:

jerryp - 31 October 2010 07:48 PM

...how can one value be elevated above another as a moral basis for all humanity


The keyword here is “humanity”. If you fall into this category then certain high fidelity assumptions can be made about your behaviour due to certain universal characteristics derived from our particular mammalian biological blueprint. In a very true sense what this means is that the structure of our DNA predicts how and when we feel. Good and bad in this sense is meaningless as they too are value laden words, so the distinction between what is perceived as happiness vs misery is best described in pragmatic biological terms.

It so happens that we evolved a mechanism which allows us to navigate successfully through time and space by associating coinciding electro-chemical reactions in the brain with actions conducive to the propagation of our DNA and potential threats to the same. These electro-chemical reactions are what manifest in our consciousness as likes and dislikes. At bottom if we depend on our base intuition we are relying on the downward slope of our natural inclination to gravitate toward our next meal through the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, endorphins & dopamine verses adrenaline, epinephrine etc. in fearful or aggressive drives.

Therefore asking why happiness is preferable to misery is tantamount to asking why oxygen & hydrogen come together as water, there is no other way for our DNA to prosper. For the sake of Sam’s and my argument happiness is held as an underlying axiomatic assumption, but hopefully you can see the cause being as natural as the air we breath.

This is important in all moral calculations when you come to understand how to get from an is to an ought (in contradiction to Hume’s dilemma). The is, is the current location, the ought is the direction and the third ingredient, that is never mentioned when contemplating this conjecture, is the intention. So you get from the is (I) via the ought (O) to the intention (I)…(I-O-I). Therefore the ought is always the route. When you choose a route without considering the destination then don’t complain when you land up in Dodge.

Sam agrees with me that the destination (I) is happiness; so now that you have a vector (I) to which you can calibrate your scalars (O). In theory you could just as easily get to Calais from London via New York but that would mean the your intention (I) was the longest route, and in the same way if your intention is misery then you ought to reach this destination with a whole lot of pain. If that is the value you have chosen good for you, but be careful because it flies in the face of your own intuition and more important and dangerously those around you who will be preventing your interaction with their universe in this way.

So when we deliberate on whether an action is moral or not we must look at whether that action is more likely to yield an untended outcome or whether the likely intention is a deleterious one. So for instance when muslims insist on having woman wear body bags, and insists on leper-like gender segregated habitation, they have chosen their route but have not at all considered their likely destination, even when the misery and ignorance picked up en route is staring them in face. Perhaps their destination is clear but they erred in calculating the route, however this is unlikely as the route is prescribed. They have not nor will they reach Sam’s destination.

The same goes for all other zealots who navigate through life using an outdated atlas with missing pages and flat out incorrect directions. Very often these travellers ignore or reinterpret their directions to suit or rely on the secular signposts along the way.

Thats my view..take it or leave it.

 
 
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boagie
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31 May 2012 18:12
 

All of man\s creations are biological extensions of his/her common biology, common to gender and common to species. How indeed, could it be seen otherwise. Man’s creations are reflected back to him in his perceptions thereof, what he/she finds displeasing to his biological being, he will attempt to change. Other cultural norms, values and morality are often misunderstood by an outsider, In most cultures there is a common streak of human compassion, where it is not distorted by some wretched archaic mythology/religion, this common thread of compassion is due to our common biology. If indeed, as I believe the case to be, our entire apparent world is a biological readout, an interpretation and thus,a projection, it necessarily follows that all meaning is biological dependent, subjective and relational. Subject and object, stand or fall together.

[ Edited: 31 May 2012 18:23 by boagie]
 
 
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01 June 2012 04:49
 
gsmonks - 31 May 2012 06:48 PM

“Flat out incorrect directions?” That smacks of the clunker “incorrect thinking”.

You seemed to have taken my metaphor completely out of context. The metaphor relates specifically to folk who claim to mine their morals solely from a holy book. With the advent of science and the recognition of the enormous potential of human solidarity in the modern age we have been able to prove many “flat out incorrect directions” presented by the bible, koran, torah & bhagavad gita. For instance we know that the world is not flat, woman are not inferior to men, slavery is not conducive to happiness, murder for the sake of apostasy is mad etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. Many, many flat out incorrect directions, as I’m sure you will agree, be-litter these little treasures. Incidentally the second part of the metaphor addresses how the believers deal with these incorrect directions. Obviously I disagree with you about this being a clunker, am I wrong, or are you a theist?

gsmonks - 31 May 2012 06:48 PM

The destination is happiness? Nonsense. As a musician/writer, I hear that type of nonsense all the time. “Music is supposed to make you feel good,” is a clunker I come across almost daily.

?I was hoping for a more sophisticated interpretation of the suitcase word ‘happiness’ given the general context spelled out in the ‘Moral Landscape’. But for the sake of clarity I will tweedlate a bit more on it for my own happiness. Happiness is the destination and sometimes to get there, you will encounter peaks and troughs that define the only subjective route to this destination. So when you listen to music that might evoke memories of long lost lovers or family, it is always carried out with the long term goal of happiness in mind whether explicit (reminiscence) or implicit (unconscious experience of dopamine). I guarantee that when it starts to sound like nails on a chalk board you will stop, as this is itself is a form of torture (white noise).

gsmonks - 31 May 2012 06:48 PM

The fact of the matter is that music not only expresses all emotion, but in the hands of a skilled composer/arranger can bring you to places nowhere else possible. It’s not about happiness. That’s like saying happiness is the best emotion or the most desirable emotion. It’s neither. It’s just one of a set of possible emotions.

Again in the context of the ‘Moral Landscape’ and as expressed here, ‘happiness’ is a suitcase word, and instead of being a one dimensional term with a singular cardinality, it is a set made up of a taxonomic spectrum of blended emotions which have the effect of releasing the ‘positive’ neurotransmitters. Unfortunately the word has both a general and specific connotations. I mean happiness in the long term general sense as opposed to the short term specific sense. I will try to be more careful in future to spell this out…mea culpa.

gsmonks - 31 May 2012 06:48 PM

?People like to be scared witless. This is why horror/slasher movies and roller-coasters are so popular. The greater percentage of the population prefer these to blissfully gathering posies while listening to the tweedlebirds tweedlating and ruminating to the rhythms of Nature.

Yes people do, “like” to be scared witless. But as you may know it is more entertaining watching horror/slasher movies than snuff movies or gruesome news coverage…or maybe a beheading. Here’s a little note for you, if you enjoy watching beheadings then I strongly suggest to check yourself into the next psychiatric ward as your DNA might be too divergent from ours for you to get away with that fetish for too long before you become unstuck. No, the difference you are either ignoring or not appreciating, is that all of these actions require the user to carry out a mental risk assessment beforehand.  Once the actor realises that the activity is very safe (including stunts by dare-devils) they become cooperative in their execution…not before, unless suicide is the destination. But heres a really interesting fact when the action concludes safely the brain will be flooded with endorphins, and that is what you’re really after. Would you rather watch a slasher movie or be the next victim? Apples and oranges can’t really be compared.

gsmonks - 31 May 2012 06:48 PM

?There are times when whole populations just love to slaughter other whole populations.

This is a particularly pernicious statement, sorry to say, as it implies that the perpetrators are all psychopaths, and while there are no doubt always some present, I am certain no where near to the same extent as this statement implies. This is where memes play a crucial role in setting up perceived threats to their subjects. When you are led to believe that your existence is on the brink and you are kept in the dark and fed on shinona propaganda you cannot be surprised when turned into a mushroom. I do not doubt that there is a very nasty and violent streak in the human psyche, no different in principle to that of chimpanzee troops that hunt down and savagely butcher spider monkeys. Our species, however, have one fundamental difference that precludes this kind of behaviour from being rational and that is the presence of a reason engine. We can predict things that other mammals can’t which allows us to set up models in our minds of what certain behaviours are likely to yield in long term benefits. These people had their engines highjacked by a virulent and potent meme, but at no time were they pursuing ‘happiness’ from any rational calculated perspective…they may have had Calais in mind but because of their indoctrination they set off for it via New York.

gsmonks - 31 May 2012 06:48 PM

Sociopathy isn’t an anomaly or an illness.

Yes sociopathy isn’t a biological anomaly or illness in the same way as psychopathy is, but the memes from which they are derived are as much a part of the physical landscape as the churches & mosques in which they dwell. Memes have the same ability to release all the ‘happy’ neurotransmitters, whether they are based on reality or not as they are of driving relentless aggression. Here is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to moral discernment.

Values ARE memes and are therefore in a sense either physical obstacles or useful tools…and so when we evaluate them we must do so with great care as they have the potential of leading us to Kandahar. This, in my opinion, is the currency with which this article is trading.

 
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softwarevisualization
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01 June 2012 08:35
 

gsmonks

As of now sociopathy and psychopathy are not clearly distinguished.. People are discussing whether and when they should use two different terms . At any rate, sociopathy IS indeed a recognized disorder in the DSM. it’s implicitly defined in a peacetime context . What soldiers do in war time is irrelevant .. it’s like saying we’re all cannibals at heart because those guys ate those people in that Andes plane crash once….it’s circumstantial behaviour arising in only extreme circumstances. It’s interesting to note that sociopaths of course also get conscripted or join and they don’t stop being sociopaths and their behavior STILL stands out even in war time, even in extremis.


For one practitioner’s view of possible separation between the two states see this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy#Psychopathy_vs._sociopathy


As far as sociopathic tendencies I assume you know that the world is not mad of solid building blocks each one clearly labeled. Any biologically based property admits of degrees and sociopathy is no different. Maybe CEOs and surgeons rate higher, but that alone doesn’t make them sociopaths . Again it’ s category created by humans, with a shared definition in the DSM and it has to be used correctly. Blurring its essential properties (not at war or under external duress for instance)  then redefining it and then saying what you’re describing is not abnormal is   circular reasoning.


As far as it’s being a biological illness, the hell it’s not. There are underlying biological and social pressures attendant most diseases and absent convincing proof to the contrary this goes for all forms of mental illness especially.


On the original topic, what people are trying to say is happiness is a word and its referent is not. Smiling giggling people bereft of all pain of any sort is not what anyone is trying to describe.  That’s a straw man and attacking it not interesting.  There is no way to communicate with a single word the complex idea of human happiness.. so, yes it encompasses things like roller coasters and unhappy music., of course. 

There are other complications such as local vs global happiness. Local happiness may be a state a person gets into whereby if they make any change at all, they will be less happy. It’s a local maxima of happiness. Think drug addict. This is also sort of what’s going on with religion. It’s a palliative and leaving it probably implies a downward direction in happiness for the leaver, with the implication that “real” happiness, at least for society,  is elsewhere.

The question- what is good for us? is a tough one but does anyone seriously doubt it has a set of answers which clearly excludes some things? 

 

[ Edited: 01 June 2012 08:39 by softwarevisualization]
 
softwarevisualization
 
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softwarevisualization
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01 June 2012 11:43
 

 

War time is neither an exception nor irrelevant. So much of Human history is preoccupied with war- often with continual, prolonged periods of war spanning generations- that it can’t be dismissed as an exception. It only seems this way to North Americans, for whom war hasn’t been a conspicuous part of their heritage.

 


I am not arguing this point but it’s irrelevant to the fact of how sociopathy is defined in the DSM, which was my only point. If you want to establish that sociopathy is normative to the community of psychologist and psychiatrists then you are free to try to do so.  If and when you change their minds then I’ll be interested. Until then, I am with them- sociopathy as defined in the DSM is pathological.


People used to live with extreme violence as a matter of course- something us moderns are generally blissfully unaware of. For example, after butchering an English colony South of the 49th, some natives returned north over the border with a number of women prisoners. One of the women freed herself, after their captors got drunk and passed out, took a tomahawk from one of the unconscious captors, and systematically staved their heads in- every single last one of them. She did so as though she were killing chickens, with no thought for their humanity.


My answer is just that sociopathy is not defined around how squeamish you are about blood and guts and killing. It’s defined around the social norms in your in group - however you define it- and a bunch of other things which are orthogonal to that, like a tendency to become easily bored, a tendency to lie etc. etc. We all are liars and lie mutiple times a day depending on our environment. We are not all sociopaths however.


I recommend the wikipedia entry, The Sociopath Next Door and the DSM description itself which is very enlightening. All of these are not only informative, they’re in fact eye opening - it explains why that person or persons in your life who turned it upside down was they way they were, for me and I know for a lot of other people. I know people who fit the DSM to a T down to nearly every detail (unfortunately)  But mostly they are also entertaining, esp the DSM and the book. If you want to be happy, getting back to the topic at hand, you need to recognize and avoid these people in your life.

 

Happiness in any form was not a consideration for many or most people in those days. They lived an in-the-moment, get-through-the-day kind of subsistence.

It’s not true. You’re defining happiness too narrowly. People who transgressed their society’s rules felt anxiety. People bought into some larger picture of their place in society and the cosmos. These things were important to them. Living “right” is always important to nearly everyone (sociopaths excepted) . The world you’re describing did not even hold in prehistoric times. You’re relying on what might be termed (this is gong to hurt- sorry!) amateur, theoretical cross-epoch psychologizing. This is not an argument I am interested in because it’s subject to just so storyizing where the actors and actions are pure fabrication, as is what they felt, how happy they were what their motivations were and what their lives were like. It’s just not serious in a very fundamental way and I can’t take arguments from it seriously.


And with that, one of my cats just stepped in my coffee cup . . .

Fuckin’ me-OW!

Get a dog; they’re better. <—this is a scientific statement of fact, not a personal opinion wink

[ Edited: 01 June 2012 12:58 by softwarevisualization]
 
softwarevisualization
 
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softwarevisualization
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03 June 2012 05:41
 

I can’t keep up right now but I am interested. Glancing at this, it seems you have contempt for psychology borne of personal experience. Of course you’re clearly smart enough to know that such like can have a distorting effect on your judgement. I know it does mine ( I *really* hate religious types) . Psychology is a fascinating branch of science that very cleverly reveals a lot of counter intuitive things.  I will give examples and read your posts more closely when I get a chance if you’re interested in my take. Peace.

 
 
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jerryp
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17 June 2012 00:21
 

Hi everyone,


Thanks to those who have contributed—this thread has turned out far livelier than I originally anticipated.


I’ve spent some time trying to understand the various responses and I gather that the respondents agree on some issues and disagree on others. A number of questions remain.


@boagie


1)

boagie - 30 May 2012 08:30 AM

There is a kind of consensus across the board I think, that human societies wish to work towards a greater humanity, a greater biological expression of identifying with other, and the release of a greater compassion from which our actions might flow.

So, does that mean that you believe that universality of an opinion makes it right / true?


On the actual content of this point, my personal empirical experience doesn’t resonate with this as an overriding value. That is, people might want to connect with each other and work towards a “greater humanity,” but in general, people seem to be far more concerned about, say, building their own nest egg or raising children to be high-performers.


2)

boagie - 30 May 2012 08:30 AM

After thought, all meaning is biologically dependent,, the physical world in the absence of said biology/consciousness is utterly without meaning—-thus, no values, absolute or otherwise.

As I mentioned earlier, I think that’s a logically self-consistent position to take. It just seems inconsistent to take that position and then say “my values are better than yours”, which is what people on this thread have done.


From your response, I gather that you believe that biology provides some yardstick with which to measure values. But then, we get back to the is/ought dilemma. Biology is description and can tell us how something happens and in many cases why, but it cannot prescribe to us what the world ought to be. Biology does not say, for example, that the extinction of humankind is a bad thing, for it has not concept of “bad” (which, I think was PainfulButTrue’s and gsmonk’s point)—that seems like the whole point of “survival of the fittest.”


Not only that, but connecting with one another and greater compassion don’t seem like major themes in biology. If I were to just look at biology and try to derive some moral lesson, I’d probably conclude that it’s a cruel world out there, and different genetic material are vying with one another for dominance. The “nice guy” gene doesn’t seem to be a leading candidate as to what would thrive.


@PainfulButTrue
1)

PainfulButTrue - 01 June 2012 04:49 AM

Again in the context of the ‘Moral Landscape’ and as expressed here, ‘happiness’ is a suitcase word, and instead of being a one dimensional term with a singular cardinality, it is a set made up of a taxonomic spectrum of blended emotions which have the effect of releasing the ‘positive’ neurotransmitters. Unfortunately the word has both a general and specific connotations. I mean happiness in the long term general sense as opposed to the short term specific sense.


The release of ‘positive’ neurotransmitters is an observable short-term phenomena (assuming we have or will have the science and the technology to do so). What do you mean by the “long term general sense” of happiness?


2)

PainfulButTrue - 31 May 2012 04:42 PM

Therefore asking why happiness is preferable to misery is tantamount to asking why oxygen & hydrogen come together as water, there is no other way for our DNA to prosper. For the sake of Sam’s and my argument happiness is held as an underlying axiomatic assumption, but hopefully you can see the cause being as natural as the air we breath.

Just to make sure I understand your perspective—do you believe that anything that causes our DNA to prosper (and I assume you mean propagate) is happiness?


@softwarevisualization


1)

softwarevisualization - 31 May 2012 01:30 PM

You’re using biology to mean “transitive feeling” or “circumstantial emotions” and I am using it to mean the REASON we have the ideals we have ,, even when we don’t live up to them. The fact that biology makes us want to , say. murder someone if we get angry enough doesn’t mean that murder is justified and i certainly am not saying that. I am locating the source of morality. That source is our shared biology, as opposed to some supernatural something else.


I don’t think I follow how you get from biology to morality. Are you saying that:
a) our genes cause us to gravitate towards making up moral frameworks, or
b) that biology dictates that if we want to live, we shouldn’t kill each other (which is an example of morality), or
c) something else
?


2)

softwarevisualization - 31 May 2012 01:30 PM

the relief of the suffering of nervous systems is a universal good and no nervous system is excluded from consideration except that it’s not practically possible to relieve that suffering

So, does this mean that you’re a vegetarian (and that everyone else should be as well)?

Sort of but the fact is most of us count human suffering differently than pig suffering in at least some circumstances. You’d save your child before your pet pig. I think we all understand the limits in extremis and quirks of this kind of thing already.

So, are you a vegetarian?


3)

softwarevisualization - 01 June 2012 08:35 AM

On the original topic, what people are trying to say is happiness is a word and its referent is not. Smiling giggling people bereft of all pain of any sort is not what anyone is trying to describe.  That’s a straw man and attacking it not interesting.  There is no way to communicate with a single word the complex idea of human happiness.. so, yes it encompasses things like roller coasters and unhappy music., of course. 

There are other complications such as local vs global happiness. Local happiness may be a state a person gets into whereby if they make any change at all, they will be less happy. It’s a local maxima of happiness.

The “smiling giggling people bereft of all pain of any sort” that you object to seems to describe pretty well to me the release of ‘positive’ neurotransmitters that PainfulButTrue mentioned. Putting aside the so-called straw man, does your morality permit others to impose happiness on others even if those others don’t want it?


4)

softwarevisualization - 01 June 2012 08:35 AM

The question- what is good for us? is a tough one but does anyone seriously doubt it has a set of answers which clearly excludes some things?

“The question- what is good for us?”—is an excellent question. Here’s the gist of what I’ve gotten from this thread:
Q: “What is good for us?”
A: “Happiness.”
Q: “Okay, what is happiness?”
A: “It’s related to the release of neurotransmitters, but it’s not the giggling type. It’s long-term and complex.”
Q: “How do you know it exists?”
A: “Are you kidding?”

This reminds me a lot of the economists’ can-opener (“let’s assume we have a can-opener”). How do you know that happiness (not the giggling type, but the long-term complex type) actually exists?


@gsmonks

Your story with the psychiatrist is a sad one. I’m glad to hear that your condition was resolved. I am not intimately familiar with those types of conditions, but I can begin to imagine how hard it must have been.


Hope everyone is having a great summer.

 
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softwarevisualization
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17 June 2012 05:06
 

softwarevisualization - 31 May 2012 04:30 PM
You’re using biology to mean “transitive feeling” or “circumstantial emotions” and I am using it to mean the REASON we have the ideals we have ,, even when we don’t live up to them. The fact that biology makes us want to , say. murder someone if we get angry enough doesn’t mean that murder is justified and i certainly am not saying that. I am locating the source of morality. That source is our shared biology, as opposed to some supernatural something else.

I don’t think I follow how you get from biology to morality. Are you saying that:
a) our genes cause us to gravitate towards making up moral frameworks, or
b) that biology dictates that if we want to live, we shouldn’t kill each other (which is an example of morality), or
c) something else
?

a) is clearly true.

 

b) our biology doesn’t dictate so much as “strongly advise”. Self-preservation is intimately tied up with species preservation and the two can’t be clearly separated under all circumstances. I can’t survive without other people and this fact dictates or “strongly advises for most people” what we think of as good and bad, moral or immoral.  If you want to delve into the world of how our genes and evolutionary pressures intersect with our cultural practices, sociological norms and individual behaviour, I refer you to the works of Konrad Lorentz , Richard Dawkins and other writers from a sociobiological perspective. Their works ar really compelling and present a mountain of evidence that our shared genetic inheritance as formed through aeons of evolutionary process “strongly advises” what we think of as moral or immoral.

c) definitely something else. There’s always something else.



I read the entire post but excerpted only the parts that you addressed to me.


Before I answer you questions directly, a couple of things I noticed.


One is that you’re taking what any number of people are saying and assuming that they’re all coming form the same place. I can’t answer for what someone else asserted, only for what I am asserting. I can’t account for what PainfulButTrue said and our statements juxtaposed together do not and are not intended to form a coherent theory of morality.


A second is that you seem to be unconsciously caught caught trying to arrive at an operational definition of morality whereby for any given situation or action you can apply that definition and arrive at a moral / immoral or perhaps a rating of the morality involved. Questions of the form “so you are telling me X, does this then imply Y about Z” are attempts to acquire information about some aspect of the the physical world through an act of pure reason- i.e. through a purely deductive process. 


This is always wrong. How the world is is not a deductive question but an empirical one.  Only math and logic are purely deductive (and their ultimate referents are just themselves). So this is not any way to arrive at an evaluation of whether Z is moral or immoral.


Morality is not an act of pure reason, it’s an ongoing process of discovery. That one generation thinks of as moral is deemed immoral by future generations who know more about the world .  This is in keeping with the empirical nature of the thing under investigation- the morality of Z.


So in the extreme cases,  things like slavery get re-evaluated. Things like murder don’t .


So what is the ultimate referent here what makes thing good and one bad? It is our biology, as I said before, in just the way I said it and which you can re-read. Could an alien have a different biology and a different morality that permits him to see us as lunch, or batteries ala The Matrix? Sure. Stephan Hawking actually used that as an argument against trying to contact ET.

softwarevisualization - 31 May 2012 04:30 PM
the relief of the suffering of nervous systems is a universal good and no nervous system is excluded from consideration except that it’s not practically possible to relieve that suffering

This is always wrong. How the world is is not a deductive question but an empirical one.  Only math and logic are purely deductive (and their ultimate referents are just themselves). So this is not any way to arrive at an evaluation of whether X is moral or immoral.

So, does this mean that you’re a vegetarian (and that everyone else should be as well)?

 

This is irrelevant. If I am, then what follows, the rightness of my argument? If I’m not , then what follows, the wrongness of my argument?

 

3)
softwarevisualization - 01 June 2012 11:35 AM
On the original topic, what people are trying to say is happiness is a word and its referent is not. Smiling giggling people bereft of all pain of any sort is not what anyone is trying to describe.  That’s a straw man and attacking it not interesting.  There is no way to communicate with a single word the complex idea of human happiness.. so, yes it encompasses things like roller coasters and unhappy music., of course.
There are other complications such as local vs global happiness. Local happiness may be a state a person gets into whereby if they make any change at all, they will be less happy. It’s a local maxima of happiness.

The “smiling giggling people bereft of all pain of any sort” that you object to seems to describe pretty well to me the release of ‘positive’ neurotransmitters that PainfulButTrue mentioned. Putting aside the so-called straw man, does your morality permit others to impose happiness on others even if those others don’t want it?


The smiling giggling people definition of happiness is what I explicitly rejected, so you’ll have to address what PaintfulButTrue said to PainfulButTrue.


As far as imposing happiness on others, society right now does that and considerably worse than that. We impose all kinds of laws for your own good - i.e. happiness- and the general public good and take away people’s happiness- in the form of legal punishment.

We attempt to impose and take away happiness on others every time we do some consensus thing with the reason that it’s in the long term - or short term good- of society.


Now does Z actually tend to promote the general welfare, i.e. long term happiness of large numbers of people? Who knows, we would like to know. For now this is adjudicated through a process which is well known to you; it’s called “politics”.

4)
softwarevisualization - 01 June 2012 11:35 AM
The question- what is good for us? is a tough one but does anyone seriously doubt it has a set of answers which clearly excludes some things?
“The question- what is good for us?”—is an excellent question. Here’s the gist of what I’ve gotten from this thread:
Q: “What is good for us?”
A: “Happiness.”
Q: “Okay, what is happiness?”
A: “It’s related to the release of neurotransmitters, but it’s not the giggling type. It’s long-term and complex.”
Q: “How do you know it exists?”
A: “Are you kidding?”
This reminds me a lot of the economists’ can-opener (“let’s assume we have a can-opener”). How do you know that happiness (not the giggling type, but the long-term complex type) actually exists?


OK saying “how do you know this noun X actually exists?” where the noun X in question possesses a complex aggregate referent and is routinely referenced by, and accepted as meaningful by, all members the society of speakers / hearers you live in is NOT a form of being clever or skeptical or scientific or revolutionary or Socratic or penetrating or even an example of “thinking radically outside the box”. Its sophism. If you want to disambiguate various uses, articulate meaningful distinctions, discoverer some underlying process which radically re-frames our knowledge of the world so as to account for, and perhaps dispose of, the aggregate noun then that’s interesting. What’s not interesting is the non-contribution of “yes, but how do you know it REALLY exists…. at all!!!!”.

 

The actual answer is- no one knows what nouns in casual usage “exist” in the deep epistemological way you mean and that doesn’t impede the process of science, including physics, chemistry, but also sociology and psychology and the law and other humanities one bit. It’s not a game-upender to posit the question : “how do you know happiness exists?” . We proceed with the notions we have that seem a best fit to the world until and unless something better comes along.

 

[ Edited: 17 June 2012 06:05 by softwarevisualization]