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What do we replace Religious Ethical teachings with?
Posted: 19 August 2008 05:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 61 ]
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Occam - 18 August 2008 02:35 PM

I guess that’s why religion is so seductive to many people; they feel uncomfortable without an answer to “what ought to be the basis for ethical behavior.” 

I have my own ideas of the basis for ethical behavior, and were I able, I would be delighted to impose them on everyone else.  However, everyone else also have their own ideas of this.  Other than setting up some basic assumptions such as: it is preferable for social species to continue their existence,  defining some behaviors that work toward and some that work against that, then defining those behaviors as ethical and non-ethical, respectively, I don’t believe there is an answer to “ought”. 

The value of philosophy, as I see it, is not to answer these questions (theologians and politicians attempt to do that), but rather to raise them, examine them, and help clarify our thinking so we can decide for ourselves what answers we prefer.  I also recognize that the Categorical Imperative is questionable, Rawl’s sounds great, but is pretty damned difficult to put into practice, and it’s easy to optimize positive outcomes for all, but can we really define that as fair?

Your problem, PLaClair, is that you don’t have a big enough ego.  I KNOW[/B] what answers I have chosen and I am certain I’m right.  LOL

Occam

I’ve long been perplexed that the centrality of the life experience to ethics isn’t obvious to everyone. Any values system requires a valuer. It’s the capacity to experience life that makes value judgments possible in the first place. Rocks are indifferent. Therefore, the life experience has to be the core. That’s part “ought,” larger part “is”.

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Posted: 19 August 2008 11:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 62 ]
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I think I responded to the “ought” part in a prior post, however, the “is” part is, as you point out, even more important.  The problem is that ethics are not as central to most people’s lives are we might hope.  All of us have some set of social behaviors that could be called ethics.  The level varies dependent on whether one is a complete sociopath to an ethical philosopher who always practices as s/he believes. 

The difficulty is that we have personal desires that are often in conflict with the ethical framework we accept.  A powerful drive is certainly not indifferent, but it’s also separate from a value system.  As was pointed out in another thread a while ago, power, opportunity, testosterone, and alcohol were all factors which tended to shift behavior away from ethical. 

I don’t think I’ve responded to your last paragraph above, PLaClair, but I’m not sure of what you are saying.  Could you elucidate?

Occam

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Posted: 19 August 2008 01:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 63 ]
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Occam - 19 August 2008 11:51 AM

I think I responded to the “ought” part in a prior post, however, the “is” part is, as you point out, even more important.  The problem is that ethics are not as central to most people’s lives are we might hope.  All of us have some set of social behaviors that could be called ethics.  The level varies dependent on whether one is a complete sociopath to an ethical philosopher who always practices as s/he believes. 

The difficulty is that we have personal desires that are often in conflict with the ethical framework we accept.  A powerful drive is certainly not indifferent, but it’s also separate from a value system.  As was pointed out in another thread a while ago, power, opportunity, testosterone, and alcohol were all factors which tended to shift behavior away from ethical. 

I don’t think I’ve responded to your last paragraph above, PLaClair, but I’m not sure of what you are saying.  Could you elucidate?

Occam

I was referring to a sustainable ethical system that truly meets the ideals expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution (if one can somehow ignore slavery, the non-personhood of Native Americans, the inferior treatment of women and the excessive obeisance paid to property). That’s a little like “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play.”

You’re right. A critical mass of people don’t make ethics central to their lives, to such an extent that the practice of ethics is sporadic at best. Just the same, I still like to “Imagine” that one day it may happen. For me, that’s a big part of what Humanism is all about.

Ironically, I think that a major reason for the relative indifference toward Humanist ethics is that there’s no mediating myth. If people lived truly ethical lives, they’d have to do things differently. It’s easier to believe God loves you anyway.

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Posted: 19 August 2008 03:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 64 ]
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A critical mass of people don’t make ethics central to their lives, to such an extent that the practice of ethics is sporadic at best

Paul,

This struck me, and I find I’m not sure this is correct or fair. Perhaps a large portion of the population don’t make the conscious, intellectual study and examination of ethical principles central to their lives, but this is not to say they don’t have such principles and live by them to the best of their ability. I think ethical principles are intuitive for most people, probably arising from a combination of early learned systems (i.e. what your parents and peers teach you) and innate behavioral mechanisms (the sort of ethical grammar people like Marc Hauser are investigating). Is it necessary that people approach ethics as intellectuals like most of us here do? Don’t you yourself say we should consider spending less time talking and debating and defining everything to death? As you say, our ethics derive from our life experience and, possibly, from our innate predispositions. What should we be expected to do differently, then, to develop such systems? Understand me, I’m a big talker/debater/intellectual myself, so I understand the thought that life would be better if more people approached things like I do grin. But it almost sounds as if you’re saying people can’t practice real ethical action without this deliberate, rational approach to ethics, and I’m not sure that’s true.

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Posted: 19 August 2008 03:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 65 ]
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PLaClair - 19 August 2008 01:53 PM
Occam - 19 August 2008 11:51 AM

I think I responded to the “ought” part in a prior post, however, the “is” part is, as you point out, even more important.  The problem is that ethics are not as central to most people’s lives are we might hope.  All of us have some set of social behaviors that could be called ethics.  The level varies dependent on whether one is a complete sociopath to an ethical philosopher who always practices as s/he believes. 

The difficulty is that we have personal desires that are often in conflict with the ethical framework we accept.  A powerful drive is certainly not indifferent, but it’s also separate from a value system.  As was pointed out in another thread a while ago, power, opportunity, testosterone, and alcohol were all factors which tended to shift behavior away from ethical. 

I don’t think I’ve responded to your last paragraph above, PLaClair, but I’m not sure of what you are saying.  Could you elucidate?

Occam

I was referring to a sustainable ethical system that truly meets the ideals expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution (if one can somehow ignore slavery, the non-personhood of Native Americans, the inferior treatment of women and the excessive obeisance paid to property). That’s a little like “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play.”

You’re right. A critical mass of people don’t make ethics central to their lives, to such an extent that the practice of ethics is sporadic at best. Just the same, I still like to “Imagine” that one day it may happen. For me, that’s a big part of what Humanism is all about.

Ironically, I think that a major reason for the relative indifference toward Humanist ethics is that there’s no mediating myth. If people lived truly ethical lives, they’d have to do things differently. It’s easier to believe God loves you anyway.

Is that a john lennon reference PLaClair? “Imagine” Nice touch!

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Posted: 19 August 2008 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 66 ]
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That’s interesting, Brennen.  I didn’t see PLaClair’s post as indicating that people had to become more conscious of the basis for their ethics, only that he was suggesting that he felt we could function better as a society and a species if we were farther along the spectrum I described going from sociopath to practicing ethicist. 

Not that he recommends it, but I think PC is saying that some myth such as god seems to be a way of increasing the level of ethics in people.  I, on the other hand, do think we need more conscious ethical inculcation of children with rational reasons presented for its value.  While subconscious learning by example is well-worthwhile, I think it is greatly facilitated by reason and information.  Sort of like why abstinance and example don’t really work as well as sex education in preventing pregnancies.

Occam

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Posted: 20 August 2008 08:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 67 ]
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It seems clear to me that most all humans have moral intuitions of some sort (perhaps with the exception of psychopathic types).  But, keeping that in mind, it does seem peculiar that there is such disagreement across our species about what is and isn’t moral.  I think that Occam’s point about there being a range between reflected and non-reflected moral behavior is both right on and quite a useful observation.  There is little doubt in my mind that it is our capacity to apply reason to ethical situations that best assists us in matters of social utility and in matter of our own private consciences.

It is my hope for humanity and the world.

It is a challenge that most people remain stubborn about what they think is or isn’t moral because they pay a lot more attention to their feelings about moral matters than they do to their sense of reason.  Perhaps we can not change this.  But more optimistically, the relative similarities of moral perspectives within culture groups seem to illustrate that moral intuitions are largely shaped by enculturation.  Thus, while moral behavior most often occurs in humans at a deeply sub-conscious or intuitive level, it can in some sense guided and even shaped by events and ideas that occur at a much more conscious level.

Advocating rational moral positions via reason may not change most individual minds suddenly within a single discussion or argument.  But it seems to me that the presentation of such ideas can work to effect the zeitgeist that drives a culture simply by entering them into the public consciousness.  And through this process they can transform behavior.

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Posted: 20 August 2008 09:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 68 ]
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erasmus,

Advocating rational moral positions via reason may not change most individual minds suddenly within a single discussion or argument.  But it seems to me that the presentation of such ideas can work to effect the zeitgeist that drives a culture simply by entering them into the public consciousness.  And through this process they can transform behavior.

I certainly hope so!

I guess I’m just a bit worried because I see one of our greatest failings as scientists/rationalists/intellectuals is failing to connect with people who don’t enjoy and value the deliberate application of reason and reflection. It’s unfathamoble to me that people wouldn’t find contemplation of the big questions and discussions such as this deeply interesting and emotionally compelling, but then I’ve been seen as something of a freak by my peers most of my life because I do, and if I wander out of my professional, graduat-school educated peer group I still am. Lots of these people are good, moral people, not religious extremesits, and many are quite intelligent but not inclined by temperment to abstract reflection and analysis.

So while I totally buy into the Enlightenment project of reason-guided, thoughtful, self-reflective living, I’m not convinced most people can or will (by temperment or ability as much as by aculturation and force of habit), and I wonder how to spread the fruits of such reflection among people who don’t share our inclination to think, reason, aregue, and reflect in the way we do. The philosopher king idea is appealing, but not a real answer wink. Encouraging a high status for science, as happened after WWII in the U.S. until the 60, might help, but we’re a society deeply suspicious of intellectuals and reason (see Gore’s Assault on Reason and Susan Jacoby’s Ameerican Age of Unreason), so I’m less optimistic than you seem to be. Still, one area in which I can only keep trying and hope to be wrong! grin

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Posted: 20 August 2008 09:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 69 ]
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I don’t really know how one can begin to get irrational people behave more rationally.  I have certainly caught myself behaving irrationally at times.  Maybe most people are truly incapable on a biological level.  I sure hope not.

Humanity is very frustrating at times.  For those of us who care deeply, it is certainly is a case of tough love.

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Posted: 20 August 2008 04:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 70 ]
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mckenzievmd - 19 August 2008 03:52 PM

A critical mass of people don’t make ethics central to their lives, to such an extent that the practice of ethics is sporadic at best

Paul,

This struck me, and I find I’m not sure this is correct or fair. Perhaps a large portion of the population don’t make the conscious, intellectual study and examination of ethical principles central to their lives, but this is not to say they don’t have such principles and live by them to the best of their ability. I think ethical principles are intuitive for most people, probably arising from a combination of early learned systems (i.e. what your parents and peers teach you) and innate behavioral mechanisms (the sort of ethical grammar people like Marc Hauser are investigating). Is it necessary that people approach ethics as intellectuals like most of us here do? Don’t you yourself say we should consider spending less time talking and debating and defining everything to death? As you say, our ethics derive from our life experience and, possibly, from our innate predispositions. What should we be expected to do differently, then, to develop such systems? Understand me, I’m a big talker/debater/intellectual myself, so I understand the thought that life would be better if more people approached things like I do grin. But it almost sounds as if you’re saying people can’t practice real ethical action without this deliberate, rational approach to ethics, and I’m not sure that’s true.

I wasn’t saying that, as Occam recognized. I’m saying that people find excuses to do what they want to do.

Even my own parents, who would sooner have cut off their own arm than harm an innocent third party, were incensed (as one small example) that I wasn’t allowed to participate in graduation exercises with my church’s Catechism class when I was graduated from high school. I explained to them that I had stopped attending Catechism in fifth grade, so the church was perfectly reasonable in limiting its ceremony to those who had stayed with its program. Years later, before I came out of the closet as an ex-Catholic, my family wondered whether I would ask that my first marriage be annulled if I wanted to marry again. The fact that I plainly did not qualify by the church’s rules made not the slightest difference to them. They wanted a certain result, and that’s what governed their thoughts and actions - not the God or the church they claimed to believe in, but raw self interest. 

In our secularist circles, I see some instances of profound irrationality whenever religious subjects come up. We don’t always apply the same standards to ourselves that we insist other people follow. Roughtly ten years ago I had a blistering public fight with a leader in another Humanist organization I was affiliated with. He essentially said I wasn’t a full-fledged Humanist. Because he was the group’s leader he was able to shut me out, with the group’s acquiescence. To this day, even after Matthew’s name has become well-known in Humanist circles, he hasn’t retracted his comments or apologized for them.

Whether it’s a matter of formal training or not, or easily expressed in philosophical language or not, people find excuses for themselves all the time. I’m no exception, but I try very hard, most of the time. I think in general people can do better if they want to.

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