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Moral Subjectivity V.S. Moral Absolutism
Posted: 25 October 2008 12:20 AM   [ Ignore ]
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It seems to me that their are some “universal human qualities” which we could use to create some morals that are absolute. If many human qualities are in our genes than they should be nearly universal among all of humanity. Is it possible to have any moral absolutes or not?

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Posted: 25 October 2008 07:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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danlhinz - 25 October 2008 12:20 AM

It seems to me that their are some “universal human qualities” which we could use to create some morals that are absolute. If many human qualities are in our genes than they should be nearly universal among all of humanity. Is it possible to have any moral absolutes or not?

Dan:  It is a very good question.  One with which I have struggled for a long time.  For me morality or codes of conduct vary among human cultures and are somewhat arbitrary.  I am not sure whether I would use the term “absolute” with regard to morals at all.  I would use the word “fundamental.”  One “fundamental” value I can come up with is fairness.  Marc Bekoff in his book “The Emotional Lives of Animals” suggests that animals have a moral sense of fairness.  Franz De Waal in his book “Good Natured”  makes a similar point albeit more subtle.  I mention those references as some scholarly support for the notion of fairness as a fundamental moral sense transcending species.  I do not present them as “appeal to authority.”  I reference animals because they have more simple abstract thought processes and represent our evolutionary past.  It seems to me, watching my children grow up, remembering my life as I grew up, and dealing with college students, that “fairness” comes up frequently.  John Rawls in his “Toward a theory of Justice” essentially equates fairness with justice. 

Perhaps another fundamental moral value is fun, playing.  It is in the play of animals that their sense of fairness is easily observed.  I suggest that fun is one of the reasons why we use this forum.  In our case it is playing with concepts, words, sometimes poking fun at each other.  I am interested in other ideas on this subject as it is one of the great questions.

In short I suggest 2 fundamental moral values: fairness, fun. cool smile

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Posted: 25 October 2008 01:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Although this area has been covered in other threads some time ago, I’ll respond.  I believe some animals are solitary such as spiders and wolverines, and some are social such as ants, wolves, and humans.  The solitary animals demonstrate no behavior we would rate as moral.  Spiders are quite cannibalistic; wolverines only associate during mating.  It’s hard to envision a society whose members are driven purely by immediate self-interest.  The only way to protect yourself would be to isolate yourself otherwise you’d be killed by battling someone more powerful than you, or killed in your sleep.  That is, to avoid any social connections.

Social animals seem to have genetic drives to protect and care for the group and to work in concert.  I think this is as close as one can get to the idea of any facet of morality being absolute. 

While there are many activities humans engage in such as having fun, writing, playing, and enjoying music, a wide variety of other recreations that don’t seem to have any survival function, and more primitive versions of these can be found in other animals, I don’t think they are part of morality.

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Posted: 25 October 2008 08:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Occam - 25 October 2008 01:20 PM

Social animals seem to have genetic drives to protect and care for the group and to work in concert.  I think this is as close as one can get to the idea of any facet of morality being absolute.

At first glance, this point may seem a very limited basis for understanding morality.  But I think that it actually opens up and enormous arena for further reflection.

First, it suggests that there is solid biological grounding for social utility models of ethics.  Collective interests are in our own individual best interests due to our nature as a species.  Second, it suggests that there is an innate aspect to our conscience.  There is an instinctual basis for our capacity to empathize and feel for the needs and interests of others.

From these two points can be derived a whole series of implications.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Occam - 25 October 2008 01:20 PM

Although this area has been covered in other threads some time ago, I’ll respond.  I believe some animals are solitary such as spiders and wolverines, and some are social such as ants, wolves, and humans.  The solitary animals demonstrate no behavior we would rate as moral.  Spiders are quite cannibalistic; wolverines only associate during mating.  It’s hard to envision a society whose members are driven purely by immediate self-interest.  The only way to protect yourself would be to isolate yourself otherwise you’d be killed by battling someone more powerful than you, or killed in your sleep.  That is, to avoid any social connections.

Social animals seem to have genetic drives to protect and care for the group and to work in concert.  I think this is as close as one can get to the idea of any facet of morality being absolute. 

While there are many activities humans engage in such as having fun, writing, playing, and enjoying music, a wide variety of other recreations that don’t seem to have any survival function, and more primitive versions of these can be found in other animals, I don’t think they are part of morality.

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Occam:  If we restrict consideration to just social mammalian species particularly canids and primates there is evidence that those animals have a moral sense.  Of that there is little doubt.  There is more to some animal’s moral sense that just taking care of the family.  Dogs who are unrelated even very different in sizes and breed have a moral code about their play.  They agree to play fair.  When one violates the fairness rule play stops and may become a fight or it can continue with an agreement again to be fair. Sometimes one dog will “lie” and violate the fairness rule several times in a row during play.  After such unfair behavior the play stops and the offended animal goes to play with another or just wanders off.  Dog’s agreement to play and be fair begins with the “play bow” and occurs with all the canids.  Animal behavior is far more complicated that mere genetic drives.  Please consult the references I previously provided.

I would like to know your ideas specifically about the fundamental applicability and degree of universality for humans of “fairness.”  (I provided the animal based information as a reasonable source for our moral sense and as some support for the idea of fairness.  The thread subject is moral absolutes, perhaps fundamentals, for humans.)

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Posted: 26 October 2008 09:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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If we are to attempt to establish any sort of “taxonomy” of moral values, I think that we can presuppose that it is intended only as a device to help us understand certain concepts that we identify as important.  In other words, they are not commandments that are set in stone.  I say this as a disclaimer because some people shy away from any sort of listing of moral virtues.

At any rate, I quite like these from Paul Kurtz’s Forbidden Fruit...

1. Integrity (Truthfulness, Promise-keeping, Sincerity)
2. Trustworthiness(Fidelity, Dependability)
3. Benevolence
(Good Will, Nonmalfeasance as applied to persons, Nonmalfeasance as applied to public and private property, Sexual Consent, Beneficence)
4. Fairness (Gratitude, Accountability, Justice, Tolerance, Cooperation)

I would extend these principles at varying levels to also apply to other sentient creatures.

wesmjohnson - 25 October 2008 07:19 AM

In short I suggest 2 fundamental moral values: fairness, fun. cool smile

I quite like the inclusion of the term “fun” as a moral virtue.  It connects to many other so-called moral virtues and I consider the notion of living a moral life as inseparable from the notion of “a life well lived.”

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Posted: 26 October 2008 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Hmmm. I think there are different intertwined issues here which it might be useful to tease apart. I agree that sharing a common natural history and genetic heritage, humans are likely to want the same things, boradly speaking, and satisfying these wants can be a relatively objective foundation for moral rules. And I agree that we have probably evolved a rudimentary rule structure for social interactions that creates strong common moral themes between cultures. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean these common themes or our shared desires are the optimal foundation for a moral system; that would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. What we are evolved to want or to do isn’t always what we should do.

I also think the details of a set of social rules are often heavily influenced by chance and by local cultural esthetic principles, so there is an arbitrariness to them despite the underlying shared biology. I don’t see how this can be avoided and anything truly universal be created without either unifying all culture (which I don’t see happening) or imposing the universal everywhere for the good of all (which has some obvious problems). So I am highly doubtful that in practice a universal moral system can be built or employed that doesn’t partake of the subjectivity and arbitrariness all extant moral systems seem to contain. That’s not to say we can’t, or shouldn’t, spread certain ideas around because we believe them to be the best ideas. The fact that morality is, I believe, fundamentally relative to beliefs and desires, which means it can’t truly be universal until these things are, doesn’t mean we can’t construct rational arguments for certain moral principles or that we can’t examine the effects of specific rule structures empirically. I would argue that democracy and many of the basic enlightenment values have been very succesful because they have some inherent advantages over other values. The perfect (i.e. objective and universl or absolute morality) is unachievable, but it needed by the enemy of the good.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I agree with Brennen’s idea that we can’t come up with a perfect statement of which, if any, commonly recognized moral precepts are absolute and which are relative, which is why I described my idea in the highest abstraction level I could and focused only on a generalized genetic predisposition. 

I love having and generating fun and believe my life would be empty without it, but then I feel the same way about classical music and chocolate.  while these are all extremely important, I can’t really connect any of them with morals or ethics.

I can’t recall why, but fairness sounds very Rawlsian to me.  However, I see it still as fitting within my social animal paradigm.  Fairness is a balance between self-interest and sharing or interest in the others in the society. 

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Posted: 26 October 2008 04:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Just thinking about how the naturalistic fallacy could come in to play; sociopaths may often be genetically predetermined to be sociopaths thus making altruism non-universal among humans. Although sociopaths will do something altruistic if it will satisfy their interests in the future.

Can altruism itself be considered a moral absolute and a the core of all moral codes?

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Posted: 26 October 2008 04:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Well, then you have to define and limit altruism on some basis. How much sacrifice is required to count? Does it encompass doing what is good for others against their will? I think altruism is one of those nebulopathies like love that sounds great until you get into the details of what it really means and how it is to be enacted, then it disintegrates, so I don’t see how it could be the core of a set of moral codes.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 05:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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danlhinz - 25 October 2008 12:20 AM

It seems to me that their are some “universal human qualities” which we could use to create some morals that are absolute. If many human qualities are in our genes than they should be nearly universal among all of humanity. Is it possible to have any moral absolutes or not?

Yes there are many features and capacities which, as part of our biology, are shared, common and in that sense universal. However how can one create some morals that are absolute? Specifically why use the word absolute? It has multiple meanings in ethics and is far too often prone to equivocation. Such “absolute morals” would not be eternal nor unchanging, apart from anything else. Maybe you could expand upon your theme and avoid using the term “absolute” to minimize confusion?

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Posted: 26 October 2008 05:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 04:52 PM

Well, then you have to define and limit altruism on some basis. How much sacrifice is required to count? Does it encompass doing what is good for others against their will? I think altruism is one of those nebulopathies like love that sounds great until you get into the details of what it really means and how it is to be enacted, then it disintegrates, so I don’t see how it could be the core of a set of moral codes.

I think it is the core of all moral codes but it is so vague as to be interpreted widely to mean all kinds of things. Most moral codes are against murder, that is a form of altruism in that you could kill someone else for personal gain. When you break moral codes down to their bare bones tenets they usually have some aspect of altruism.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 05:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 04:52 PM

Well, then you have to define and limit altruism on some basis. How much sacrifice is required to count? Does it encompass doing what is good for others against their will? I think altruism is one of those nebulopathies like love that sounds great until you get into the details of what it really means and how it is to be enacted, then it disintegrates, so I don’t see how it could be the core of a set of moral codes.

Man,I wish I had that word so many times in the past.“Nebulopathies”.I am probably guilty of using nebulopathies at times myself,but man,what a great word!If only this forum had “nebulopathy filters”.
The whole idea of moral codes or morality is nebulous.This topic is going on in another thread right now too.It is popular,I’ve seen it on this forum before too.
Morality lies somewhere between intrinsic animalistic behavior and the judgement we place on one another.It fluctuates in between those points.It is affected by culture,and societal conditions.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 05:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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faithlessgod - 26 October 2008 05:11 PM
danlhinz - 25 October 2008 12:20 AM

It seems to me that their are some “universal human qualities” which we could use to create some morals that are absolute. If many human qualities are in our genes than they should be nearly universal among all of humanity. Is it possible to have any moral absolutes or not?

Yes there are many features and capacities which, as part of our biology, are shared, common and in that sense universal. However how can one create some morals that are absolute? Specifically why use the word absolute? It has multiple meanings in ethics and is far too often prone to equivocation. Such “absolute morals” would not be eternal nor unchanging, apart from anything else. Maybe you could expand upon your theme and avoid using the term “absolute” to minimize confusion?

I use the word absolute because I want to believe that morals are justifiable and not just some subjective mish-mash of stuff. I don’t think they are absolute in the sense that they are eternal, they should be a reflection of the reality of human nature and change as human nature changes.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 05:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Occam - 25 October 2008 01:20 PM

Social animals seem to have genetic drives to protect and care for the group and to work in concert.  I think this is as close as one can get to the idea of any facet of morality being absolute.

This looks like modern group selection (multi-level selection) and/or kin selection and reciprocal altruism? Still and in addition to the free rider/cheater problem, this looks like selective reasoning, emphasizing certain features (e.g. altruism) over others. I do not see how this can get one to a facet of morality, let alone some form of absolutism, again also not being clear what you mean here. 

Occam - 25 October 2008 01:20 PM

While there are many activities humans engage in such as having fun, writing, playing, and enjoying music, a wide variety of other recreations that don’t seem to have any survival function, and more primitive versions of these can be found in other animals, I don’t think they are part of morality.

It is not clear why these other activities are not part of morality. Some moral systems suppress such activities (remember the Moral Majority versus over music?) and such suppression has been a motivator to reject those moral systems. Anyway you imply that morality has to have a survival function? I fail to see why we have evolved to be moral - there is plenty of evidence to the contrary - and I think it dangerous to equate survivability with morality, at least I have seen no good argument to that effect. Would interested if you had one.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 05:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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erasmusinfinity - 25 October 2008 08:00 PM

First, it suggests that there is solid biological grounding for social utility models of ethics.

Agreed but a causal explanation is not a justification for any moral system.  It could descriptively show what is and is not possible but not what should be the case within those constraints.

erasmusinfinity - 25 October 2008 08:00 PM

Collective interests are in our own individual best interests due to our nature as a species.

Hmm. What do you mean by “collective interests”? Welfare consequentialism works by identifying what is in everyone’s interest - whether they understand, recognize, agree or not - starting with such basics as air and food - but this is quite a different, at least to me, notion to “collective interests”.

erasmusinfinity - 25 October 2008 08:00 PM

  Second, it suggests that there is an innate aspect to our conscience.  There is an instinctual basis for our capacity to empathize and feel for the needs and interests of others.

Yes but so what? Just because it is innate cannot be the basis for a prescription. Anyway the capacity for feeling the needs of others can be used to help or to take advantage of those others.

erasmusinfinity - 25 October 2008 08:00 PM

From these two points can be derived a whole series of implications.

I fail to see how any biological/evolutionary causal model could imply anything about moral models except to specify constraints on what is possible and more or less feasible. This is important and needs to be incorporated but is not at the core of moral models.

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