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Frustration with Consequentialism
Posted: 09 May 2012 11:18 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Hey, wrestling with a question that I can’t find the answer to, and I thought you all might be able to offer some insight.  First off, before I get flamed (as has happened in the past), I am a recovering theist trying to change my point of view.  As such, I might use terms or phrases that only make sense in a religious context (because that’s how I was raised), so please be patient in explaining my mistakes to me.  I’m doing my best to be open-minded!  Now, all of that said…

I understand the basic idea behind consequentialism, and it seems to make a lot of sense.  The definition I found was “Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences.”  That seems to sum it up nicely.  However, what defines what is “morally right?”  And how do you decide whether one moral good is more important/better than another?

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Posted: 10 May 2012 04:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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nobodyimportant - 09 May 2012 11:18 PM

Hey, wrestling with a question that I can’t find the answer to, and I thought you all might be able to offer some insight.  First off, before I get flamed (as has happened in the past), I am a recovering theist trying to change my point of view.  As such, I might use terms or phrases that only make sense in a religious context (because that’s how I was raised), so please be patient in explaining my mistakes to me.  I’m doing my best to be open-minded!  Now, all of that said…

I understand the basic idea behind consequentialism, and it seems to make a lot of sense.  The definition I found was “Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences.”  That seems to sum it up nicely.  However, what defines what is “morally right?”  And how do you decide whether one moral good is more important/better than another?

Well, assuming consequentialism is true, you’ve already given the definition of “morally right”, at least when it comes to action: it’s the action with the best overall consequences. That is the definition of “morally right action”.

Further, you decide whether one good is better than another depending on how good the consequences are. So if action A gives OK consequences, but action B gives great consequences, B is better than A.

A consequentialist will say something along the lines that this definition captures what we mean when we use the term “morally right”, at least in a large enough number of cases to be a correct theoretical definition of the term. It’s not that there’s any God or person who defines this by fiat, it’s rather a theoretical approach: just like with water, we find out (by experiment) it means H2O, with morality we find out (by conceptual analysis) that it means something about the consequences of our acts.

(NB: I’m not endorsing consequentialism here; in fact I’m not sure which the correct theory of morality should be).

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Posted: 10 May 2012 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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nobodyimportant - 09 May 2012 11:18 PM

Hey, wrestling with a question that I can’t find the answer to, and I thought you all might be able to offer some insight.  First off, before I get flamed (as has happened in the past), I am a recovering theist trying to change my point of view.  As such, I might use terms or phrases that only make sense in a religious context (because that’s how I was raised), so please be patient in explaining my mistakes to me.  I’m doing my best to be open-minded!  Now, all of that said…

I understand the basic idea behind consequentialism, and it seems to make a lot of sense.  The definition I found was “Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences.”  That seems to sum it up nicely.  However, what defines what is “morally right?”  And how do you decide whether one moral good is more important/better than another?

I’ll also add that many people who study consequentialism take a too narrow view of what consequences to consider. In addition to “of all the things a person might do” add “of all the things a person might experience.” We have to take into account our own nature as well as the consequences for others.

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Posted: 10 May 2012 03:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The thing about consequences, is that you don’t know for sure what they will be until they happen.  Much of our behavior is under the control of our personal history of acting and experiencing contingent consequences.  Establishing morality however, I think requires a group dynamic.  Moral rules could be constructed based on the probable consequences (of certain actions) for a social group. But the probablities can change as contingencies change. 

e.g., Perhaps avoiding eating pork was originally established as a moral rule because it prevented outbreaks of trichinosis.  But as methods of avoiding getting trichinosis developed, and the dire consequences of eating pork were much less likely, avoiding pork would be a moral rule that no longer made much sense.

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Posted: 16 May 2012 06:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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nobodyimportant - 09 May 2012 11:18 PM

... what defines what is “morally right?”  And how do you decide whether one moral good is more important/better than another?

That’s a common question for new atheists. Charles Darwin answers it:

“A man who has no ... belief in the existence of a personal God or of future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections…”

It’s as simple as that. Our feelings, emotions or desires are the only source of motivation that humans (and animals) have without a god.

Complete humanism = rational beliefs + emotional values.

Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell agrees:

“All human activity is prompted by desire. There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.”

So, you’re free. Go forth and feel. What could possibly go wrong? Heh heh.

Seriously, though, emotion as an authority is a little scary. Will our morals go the way of the jungle? Hopefully not.

Atheists (and people) generally fall into two sets of desires: liberal or conservative. Conservatives have more desires than liberals in their morality.

Professor Jonathan Haidt explains:
Jonathan Haidt: The real difference between liberals and conservatives
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs41JrnGaxc#t=282s

Haidt also did a podcast on this very website recently too.

If you are a stickler for details, Richard Carrier is your man:
Richard Carrier: Is happiness the Goal of Morality?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctfh3O7ofl0

If you are a recovering theist, also check out psychologist Valerie Tarico:
http://www.youtube.com/user/TrustingDoubt
http://awaypoint.wordpress.com/

And if you are still hankering for religious-like structure in atheism, Alain de Botton gives you some hope:
Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Oe6HUgrRlQ

Apart from that, welcome to reality! Enjoy your stay.

[ Edited: 16 May 2012 06:33 AM by mralstoner ]
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Posted: 17 May 2012 12:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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mralstoner - 16 May 2012 06:03 AM
nobodyimportant - 09 May 2012 11:18 PM

... what defines what is “morally right?”  And how do you decide whether one moral good is more important/better than another?

That’s a common question for new atheists. Charles Darwin answers it:

“A man who has no ... belief in the existence of a personal God or of future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections…”

It’s as simple as that. Our feelings, emotions or desires are the only source of motivation that humans (and animals) have without a god.

Your summary statement of the quote of Darwin’s, is not consistent with the quote.  The Darwin quote says that a dog acts according to “impulses and instincts”.  (Perhaps it is ok to substitute “emotions or desires”.) But the Darwin quote goes on to say that a man (unlike the dog) also “looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections…”

So your summary statement “Our feelings, emotions or desires are the only source of motivation that humans (and animals) have without a god.”  does not reflect the Darwin quote that you cited.

Your statement leaves out Darwin’s inclusion of a man’s ability to examine his past and future desires and his memories.

So you over-simplified the Darwin quote that you cited.  And I think that the Darwin quote, itself, is an over-simplification of man’s ability to establish moral behavior.  This Darwin quote does not elude to the social aspects intrinsic to the establishment of morals.  It also does not elude to the fact that much of human behavior is rule-governed.  (i.e., We are capable of, and often do, act out of accordance with current desires and instincts, based on having learned to follow rules.)

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Posted: 18 May 2012 06:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Tim, let me shorten Darwin’s quote for you:

A man who has no ... belief in ... God ... can ... only ... follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest ...

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. The difference between man and dog is just more reasoning ability for humans.

Of course morality is more elaborate than this brief quote. But we are establishing the foundation, the end goal of human motivation, the source of value, the impetus to action, the foundation of “oughts”.

Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have shown that emotion is the necessary spark that drives behaviour. Reason cannot function without the emotional drive.

I’m making a very simple point, so that we start off on the right foot.

“Reason is ... the slave of the passions” as philosopher David Hume said.

If you don’t recognise this fact then you’ve probably got a bad case of, ironically, motivated reasoning.

So I’d bet money there’s an emotional reason why you don’t want to acknowledge this fact. Mabye your identity is wrapped up in “reason”, as if often the case with atheists.

Maybe you’re afraid of subjectivism/nihilism.

Maybe you, like many atheists, have an anxiety attack whenever the word “emotion” is used, and jump to the wrong conclusion by thinking that I’m advocating emotional beliefs/knowledge (which I absolutely am not).

Maybe you, like many intelligent types, think something as simple as emotion cannot be the entire source of atheists values. So you go off inventing imaginary arguments that sneak the word “reason” in there.

Whatever. I’m arguing against a stereotype here, so forgive me if I go over the top. It’s not all directed at you, but at atheists in general.

“man’s ability to examine his past and future desires and his memories” is consistent with my viewpoint. We examine all our desires in the wisdom of past experience, and make future predictions about how best to satisfy our desires.

If you reject this emotion-driven model of human motivation then it’s up to you to state exactly what, if not emotion/feelings, provides the drive for human motivation.

David Hume:
“... reason alone can never be a motive to any action ...”
“...  impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. ...”
“... reason is nothing but the discovery of ... connexion ...”
“Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse ...”
“It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

That’s my point. Reason is inert without emotional goals to drive our behaviour.

[ Edited: 18 May 2012 06:30 AM by mralstoner ]
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Posted: 18 May 2012 06:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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mralstoner - 18 May 2012 06:06 AM

Tim, let me shorten Darwin’s quote for you:

A man who has no ... belief in ... God ... can ... only ... follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest ...

A man who has a belief in God also only follows those impulses and instincts which are the strongest. So what?

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Posted: 18 May 2012 06:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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dougsmith - 18 May 2012 06:14 AM

A man who has a belief in God also only follows those impulses and instincts which are the strongest. So what?

Yes, that’s true. Christians are also motivated by emotional goals: heaven rather than hell, the love of an imaginary god, fellowship with fellow believers, feeling good about charity work, etc.

The subject of this thread is atheist morality, so Christians are irrelevant, but it does reinforce the point that emotional goals drive human beavhiour - whether atheist, Christian, or any sane human. We differ only in our beliefs about the world, and how best to satisfy those desires.

[ Edited: 18 May 2012 07:18 AM by mralstoner ]
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Posted: 18 May 2012 11:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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mralstoner - 18 May 2012 06:06 AM

Tim, let me shorten Darwin’s quote for you:

A man who has no ... belief in ... God ... can ... only ... follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest ...

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. The difference between man and dog is just more reasoning ability for humans.

Of course morality is more elaborate than this brief quote. But we are establishing the foundation, the end goal of human motivation, the source of value, the impetus to action, the foundation of “oughts”.

Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have shown that emotion is the necessary spark that drives behaviour. Reason cannot function without the emotional drive.

I’m making a very simple point, so that we start off on the right foot.

“Reason is ... the slave of the passions” as philosopher David Hume said.


If you don’t recognise this fact then you’ve probably got a bad case of, ironically, motivated reasoning.

So I’d bet money there’s an emotional reason why you don’t want to acknowledge this fact. Mabye your identity is wrapped up in “reason”, as if often the case with atheists.

Maybe you’re afraid of subjectivism/nihilism.

Maybe you, like many atheists, have an anxiety attack whenever the word “emotion” is used, and jump to the wrong conclusion by thinking that I’m advocating emotional beliefs/knowledge (which I absolutely am not).

Maybe you, like many intelligent types, think something as simple as emotion cannot be the entire source of atheists values. So you go off inventing imaginary arguments that sneak the word “reason” in there.

Whatever. I’m arguing against a stereotype here, so forgive me if I go over the top. It’s not all directed at you, but at atheists in general.

“man’s ability to examine his past and future desires and his memories” is consistent with my viewpoint. We examine all our desires in the wisdom of past experience, and make future predictions about how best to satisfy our desires.

If you reject this emotion-driven model of human motivation then it’s up to you to state exactly what, if not emotion/feelings, provides the drive for human motivation.

David Hume:
“... reason alone can never be a motive to any action ...”
“...  impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. ...”
“... reason is nothing but the discovery of ... connexion ...”
“Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse ...”
“It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

That’s my point. Reason is inert without emotional goals to drive our behaviour.

Look, you are going overboard when you insist that all behavior is “emotionally” motivated.  Yes our behavior, foundationally speaking, is a function of drives and capacities to respond to stimuli. However we also are born with the capacity to learn new behaviors according to experiences.

Certainly we often experience emotions in conjunction with responding in accordance with our basic drives and capacities.  This fact, however, does not lead to your apparent over-generalization that there can be no higher order learned behavior built upon the foundation of baser instincts and impulses.

It only takes some simple self reflection to gather subjective evidence that some of our behavior is a function of rules or of having learned to behave in “moral” ways and that sometimes behaving in a “moral” way is not in accordance with one’s emotions.

BTW, are you British?  I notice that you spell behavior with a “u”.

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Posted: 20 May 2012 01:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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TimB - 18 May 2012 11:55 AM

... your apparent over-generalization that there can be no higher order learned behavior built upon the foundation of baser instincts and impulses.

It only takes some simple self reflection to gather subjective evidence that some of our behavior is a function of rules or of having learned to behave in “moral” ways and that sometimes behaving in a “moral” way is not in accordance with one’s emotions.

How do we learn?

A - We find more efficient/effective ways to satisfy our desires; or
B - We adjust our priorities to favour some desires over others.

That’s it. That’s a crash course human psychology. Only a desire can curb another desire.

David Hume:

“Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; ... Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense.”

So, regarding our learned moral behaviour, children grow up and try to conform to social norms because the desire to conform is strong.

Conservative adults will try to preserve such norms because they desire homogeneity or stability.

Liberals will trash social norms because they desire freedom.

Desire/emotion/feeling is always the drive.

If not, prove it. Give an example of rule-based or learned behaviour that is not motivated by desire. You can’t do it. Emotion is the subtle drive behind all intentional action, you’re just not mindful enough to see it, so you describe it with other words.

(I live in Australia, we use the “u” too).

[ Edited: 20 May 2012 04:38 AM by mralstoner ]
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Posted: 20 May 2012 10:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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TimB - 18 May 2012 11:55 AM


It only takes some simple self reflection to gather subjective evidence that some of our behavior is a function of rules or of having learned to behave in “moral” ways and that sometimes behaving in a “moral” way is not in accordance with one’s emotions.

 

I would have thought that isn’t true. If we behave morally and we don’t emotionally like it much we do it because we emotionally like doing otherwise even less.

Stephen

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Posted: 21 May 2012 11:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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StephenLawrence - 20 May 2012 10:41 AM
TimB - 18 May 2012 11:55 AM


It only takes some simple self reflection to gather subjective evidence that some of our behavior is a function of rules or of having learned to behave in “moral” ways and that sometimes behaving in a “moral” way is not in accordance with one’s emotions.

 

I would have thought that isn’t true. If we behave morally and we don’t emotionally like it much we do it because we emotionally like doing otherwise even less.

Stephen

Emotions are transient, rules, not so much so.  Certainly emotions influence the likelihood of individuals doing certain behaviors at any given time, and may, at times, lead to behaviors that are not in accordance with learned rule-governed behavior.  But we clearly do behaviors at times that are primarily a function of having learned to do it, either despite a current emotion, or because of having learned to follow a rule.

e.g., In combat a soldier may be experiencing the emotion of sheer terror while carrying out actions that he/she has learned in training.

My main point is asserting that emotions are not the cause of all behavior, as seems to be the position initiallly promoted in this thread.

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Posted: 21 May 2012 12:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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mralstoner - 20 May 2012 01:24 AM
TimB - 18 May 2012 11:55 AM

... your apparent over-generalization that there can be no higher order learned behavior built upon the foundation of baser instincts and impulses.

It only takes some simple self reflection to gather subjective evidence that some of our behavior is a function of rules or of having learned to behave in “moral” ways and that sometimes behaving in a “moral” way is not in accordance with one’s emotions.

How do we learn?

A - We find more efficient/effective ways to satisfy our desires; or
B - We adjust our priorities to favour some desires over others.

That’s it. That’s a crash course human psychology. Only a desire can curb another desire.

David Hume:

“Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; ... Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense.”

So, regarding our learned moral behaviour, children grow up and try to conform to social norms because the desire to conform is strong.

Conservative adults will try to preserve such norms because they desire homogeneity or stability.

Liberals will trash social norms because they desire freedom.

Desire/emotion/feeling is always the drive.

If not, prove it. Give an example of rule-based or learned behaviour that is not motivated by desire. You can’t do it. Emotion is the subtle drive behind all intentional action, you’re just not mindful enough to see it, so you describe it with other words.

(I live in Australia, we use the “u” too).

If your argument is that certain “drives” ultimately underly our behavior, then that is true, though so broad as to be a rather superfluous point.  If your argument is that emotions directly control any given behavior that we do at any given time, then that is not true.

I do not view emotions and drives as synonymous.

If you have ever bungie jumped for the 1st time, perhaps you decided to do so, with some subtle emotion influencing your decision to do so.  In my case, I don’t recall having any strong emotion influencing me to do the jump.  In fact, the strongest emotion that I recall is fear in just considering it, and the emotion approached what I would call terror when I was on the precipice.  I jumped only because I had decided to do so, in advance, and was able to countermand or over-ride the extraordinary emotional desire to not jump.  At the moment that I jumped, I recall experiencing intense fear and no other emotion.  (Fortunately, for me the fear left the moment after I jumped).

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Posted: 21 May 2012 12:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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TimB - 21 May 2012 12:28 PM

If you have ever bungie jumped for the 1st time, perhaps you decided to do so, with some subtle emotion influencing your decision to do so.  In my case, I don’t recall having any strong emotion influencing me to do the jump.  In fact, the strongest emotion that I recall is fear in just considering it, and the emotion approached what I would call terror when I was on the precipice.  I jumped only because I had decided to do so, in advance, and was able to countermand or over-ride the extraordinary emotional desire to not jump.  At the moment that I jumped, I recall experiencing intense fear and no other emotion.  (Fortunately, for me the fear left the moment after I jumped).

We tend to view fear as a negative emotion. But it’s not all negative. Many, if not most of us, actually enjoy being scared. That’s why bungee jumping exists, along with thrill rides, horror movies, and ex-wives. (Sorry about that one!  cheese )  It’s a rush. I’ve never bungee jumped but I like coasters. The first time I rode the Diamondback at King’s Island, I nearly crapped in my pants. The first drop is about 200 feet at 80 m.p.h. at what seems like 90 degrees, and it is configured such that every seat is like being at the front and there is no traditional shoulder harness—just a handle at your lap to hold onto. So when I started down the first drop, my lizard brain was convinced we were free falling—that’s exactly what it is designed to make one feel. I remember thinking, “Okay, I am now officially too old for this shit. If I survive, I will never again ride a coaster like this.” You know what I did right after I got off? Yep—I got right back in line.  LOL

What’s my point? I’m not sure, but I think emotions drive what we do more than you are crediting them. And a lot more than I used to think.

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Posted: 21 May 2012 01:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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TimB - 21 May 2012 11:59 AM

e.g., In combat a soldier may be experiencing the emotion of sheer terror while carrying out actions that he/she has learned in training.

 

Yes but this will be because the soldier feels emotionally most comfortable with this response to the situation, I think.

Stephen

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