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Moral Subjectivity V.S. Moral Absolutism
Posted: 26 October 2008 05:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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wesmjohnson - 26 October 2008 08:40 AM

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.

Interesting but I question why this should be labelled as a “moral sense” without question begging. A “sense of fairness” seems a less biased label and enables one to ask if this is sufficient and necessary for morality.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 06:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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.

AFAIK welfarist models best answers this challenge, but I regard that more as an empirical basis for rights whilst also thinking morality is about more than just rights. I do not support a rights-based morality, but rights are a part of this issue of course.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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.

Yup. (Minor quibble technically this is not the naturalistic fallacy but your argument that because it is natural is not a justification for what is moral is quite right)

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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.

Yes but those features need not play on moral factors. As a result of this different cultures might disagree on the meaning, scope and applicability of morals but surely using the argument you just used above, this too is not a justification that it should be that way. Plus I question that the boundary between the biological and social is a clear cut as implied here.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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).

Huh? At least you are using universal rather than absolute which is what I think the OP was gunning for really. Why does all culture need to be unified given, for arguments sake, a universal moral system? Cultures would still have plenty of scope for variation of many sorts. Surely such a hypothetical universal moral system would be a minimal, public, shareable code leaving differential scope for more expansive and private moral systems, including whether to label them moral or not - which is a subjective or relative choice and does not alter the underlying facts and data. Indeed is this not the challenge of pluralistic societies, admittedly looking for more local solutions (e.g. nation-wide) not quite the hyopthetical universalistic solution here but in effect it is a similar challenge.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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.

I fail to see how this follows from your previous point. We can comprehend a wide variety of different cultures and be able to see the causal, temporal, geographical etc. factors that made them the way they were, including their capacity to change. It does not look at all arbitrary to me. Different yes, many based on mistakes and misunderstandings with unsound or invalid solutions even given those mistakes but it still does not look arbitrary - I am reading that as random - do you mean something else?

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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.

As you know I have never been able to make sense of your position as it appears self-contradictory to me but lets not get side-tracked grin My question here is where is your argument that this is a fact - where is your evidence? Now if I grant that morality is only relative to beliefs and desires (the ‘only’ coming from previous conversations between us if I am not mistaken) your two conclusions do not follow or are not relevant.  Given what I think you mean by the relation between beliefs, desires and morality one could not make rational arguments nor conclusion based on empirical effects for certain moral principles - or have you become a cognitivist and realist since our last online banters?

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 10:52 AM

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.

Who in this thread has said anything about “perfect”? No perfect is most definitely not the same thing as objective, universal and absolute, at least not as I understand was implied by the OP and other respondents. If you are against that specific conception of “moral absolutism” well so am I too.  Your “perfect” comment just made my point about the dangers of equivocation when using the term “absolute” in moral discourse.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 06:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Empathy?

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Posted: 26 October 2008 06:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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danlhinz - 26 October 2008 04:46 PM

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

Huh? Altruism is a label or classification for evaluating certain genetic, biological, psychological or social interactions between members of the same species (typically). However what is regarded as altruistic depends on which dimension is being focused on (four just mentioned in the previous sentence) e.g. a certain action might be altruistic on the organism level but not on the genetic level and so on. I fail to see how this could be a “moral absolute” - what levels and aspects of altruism (e.g. individual, group, species etc. evaluated against survival or marginal income or what?) are you taking about and what do you mean by moral and absolute? Please explain how a (to be) defined (by you) set of altruistic features of humans create prescriptions let alone moral prescriptions.

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Posted: 26 October 2008 06:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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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.

On this point we totally agree grin

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Posted: 26 October 2008 06:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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danlhinz - 26 October 2008 05:17 PM

I use the word absolute because I want to believe that morals are justifiable and not just some subjective mish-mash of stuff.

On your intent I agree, I disagree that using the term “absolute” will help creat constructive conversation given its use and hiistory within morality. Why not just chose a less loaded term to serve your purpose?

danlhinz - 26 October 2008 05:17 PM

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.

Fine but the fact that you needed to explain it here is indicative of my point. And the labelling of your intended product as “absolute” is indeed a subjective choice of yours grin

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Posted: 26 October 2008 06:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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faithlessgod - 26 October 2008 06:56 PM
danlhinz - 26 October 2008 05:17 PM

I use the word absolute because I want to believe that morals are justifiable and not just some subjective mish-mash of stuff.

On your intent I agree, I disagree that using the term “absolute” will help creat constructive conversation given its use and hiistory within morality. Why not just chose a less loaded term to serve your purpose?

danlhinz - 26 October 2008 05:17 PM

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.

Fine but the fact that you needed to explain it here is indicative of my point. And the labelling of your intended product as “absolute” is indeed a subjective choice of yours grin

Fair Enough how about “objectively determined morality”?

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Posted: 26 October 2008 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Faithless,

Yes, we’ve been over this gorund and may have reached the limits of mutual comprehension, but I’m always willing to try again. I do want to avoid dominating the conversation since everybody here has probably heard my opinon on morality more times than they care to! grin


My point about cultural differences was that they are integral to deciding what is or is not subject to moral judgements and how those judgements come out. What women wear, as long as their breasts and genitals are well-covered, isn’t a powerful moral question in most of the US, but it is a capital crime to wear anything but the burkha in some places. One culture’s esthetics is another culture’s morality. Lots of examples like this, so I think part of what makes morality impossible to universalize are these differences. If cultural differences were eliminated, then this wouldn’t apply, but as I said I don’t see that happening. I’m not saying this is how it should be but how it is. As for the idea of a minimal universal moral code with room for local variation, I see achieving that as improbable because of how deeply itnertwined culture and morality is and how strongly people feel a bout the moral dimensions to their cultural beliefs. Pluralism only works if the culture supports it, so it’s not a great example.

I know you don’t like my use of arbitrary, but all I mean is dependant on local beliefs that don’t of necessity have an intrinsic moral dimension. The difference in attitudes about women’s clothing is arbitrary in the sense that the issue has or does not have strong moral resonance for reasons related to arbitrary, culturally local conventions.


I’m not sure how better to explain what I mean about beliefs and desires. I think what we call morality is a set of principles and rules we intuit and then make explicit through reason. It arises from what we want and how we believe the universe operates. “Thou shalt not kill”  arises from the desire for life and to avoid violence and death and is elaborated as a rule by our understanding about the universe (God exists, God makes the rules, God wants us not to kill each other so this is a rule, etc). I agree with the notion that our desires are fundamentally determined by our biology for the most part, with perhaps a few more abstract desires arising out of the exuberant and not nexcessarily advantageous in evolutionary terms activity of our forebrains. Our beliefs are strongly shaped by our biology since they are predicated on how our senses and reason operate, but they are more indeirectly determined and less fixed. Some moral rules are common and probably have a basis in our natural history as social primates (not killing, stealing, a general aversion to violence for most, and perhaps a predisposition to it for others, etc). Other moral rules arise from desires and beliefs in a more complex and roundabout way, such as the dress taboos I mentioned.

I believe we can construct rational moral rule systems and then evaluate them empirically, but of course the kinds of rules we can make and the standards by which we evaluate them are limited by our biology and culture. The specter of non-religious ethics that encourage cannibalism, and such nonsense, is unlikely to be realized for sound biological reasons. Still, if we establish a simple moral proposition, such as “The greatest individual freedom possible that does not substantively interfere with the same freedom for others is a good,” then we can look at rule structures and evaluate them semi-objectively in terms of how well they meet the standard. So reason has a role to play, and there is a degree of objectivity possible, but yes the underlying principles are still conditioned by beliefs and desires and all the factors that inform these (biology, culture, historical accident, etc).

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Posted: 26 October 2008 08:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Why ever argue or judge any ones ethics if all ethics are subjective?

Ultimately it will come down to some fundamental axiom or axioms that the person has chosen and it is unlikely to change those unless you can convince them it is in their own best interest to do so.

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Posted: 27 October 2008 02:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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danlhinz - 26 October 2008 06:59 PM

Fair Enough how about “objectively determined morality”?

That is a definite improvement. Still this brings to mind the product/process distinction - there is a difference between the thing (that is determined) and the determination (of the thing).

I think we agree on the weakness of moral subjectivity - I think it is moral nihilism with window dressing to make it palatable.

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Posted: 27 October 2008 02:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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danlhinz - 26 October 2008 08:52 PM

Why ever argue or judge any ones ethics if all ethics are subjective?

Yes that is the paradox of moral subjectivity. However the supporters of this position in this forum all appear to be reluctant to take it to its logical conclusion of normative relativism - that one cannot judge others and so can make no definite claims such as the X (e.g. the Nazis) were wrong. Still it is not sufficient to say one (implicitly subjectively) thinks X is wrong, as others are just as justified on such a model on thinking X is right. That is no justification either way!

danlhinz - 26 October 2008 08:52 PM

Ultimately it will come down to some fundamental axiom or axioms that the person has chosen and it is unlikely to change those unless you can convince them it is in their own best interest to do so.

Yes but I do not think this is morality per se. People all the time on all sorts of issues (creationism anyone?) have opinions but that does not alter underlying facts.

Just because someone defines morality one way - with certain axioms as you put it - and another another way - with different axioms- does not mean it is subjective, only that their understandings of it are - epistemologically. Is Pluto a planet or not? The definition of planet is subjective or relative, but the object being referred to still exists and certain features that are unaltered regardless of the definition of planet. The same goes in morality unless someone can show how this is qualitatively different and special and to date no-one has.

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Posted: 27 October 2008 03:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Hi Brennan, long time no speak grin

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

Yes, we’ve been over this gorund and may have reached the limits of mutual comprehension, but I’m always willing to try again. I do want to avoid dominating the conversation since everybody here has probably heard my opinon on morality more times than they care to! grin

I agree wink both ways that is grin.  I would like to brief in my reply but you, as usual, you make too many contentious but nevertheless interesting points that need addressing wink

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

My point about cultural differences was that they are integral to deciding what is or is not subject to moral judgements and how those judgements come out.

I disagree. Many cultures, past and present have been mistaken about facts of the matter. What is different when it comes to morality? As a subjective term it can be subjected to all sorts of manipulations and distortions to suit one group over another. I need an argument - beyond such observations - of why this is immune to analysis, evidence and arguments that work in just about every other aspect of life. I would be delighted if you could give one, but have not seen one from you nor anyone else who defends such a thesis like yours.

I am not arguing for the elimination of cultural differences, far from it, I welcome the diversity of clothes, music, dance, art,  food and so on. That is culture to me. There is nothing that could be wrong there only differences and different preferences. Morality instead -coming from just about every different moral approach - does have one key convergence, namely the principle of universalisability. That is about the only starting point - maybe the OP’s fundamental axiom is too strong a notion here - still that is where one starts.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

Pluralism only works if the culture supports it, so it’s not a great example.

No this is work in progress. Many cultures recognize the need to deal with this “inclusively”. Just that the current solutions e.g in the UK, have often been (very) poor. Why do you want to summarily dismiss any real attempts to deal with this?

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

I know you don’t like my use of arbitrary, but all I mean is dependant on local beliefs that don’t of necessity have an intrinsic moral dimension.

Well I deny there is such a thing as an “intrinsic moral dimension”. That is the challenge I have presented to you. You both seem to deny it and affirm it - the “specialness” that I noted in previous comments, which is why I think your position is self-contradictory.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

I’m not sure how better to explain what I mean about beliefs and desires. I think what we call morality is a set of principles and rules we intuit and then make explicit through reason. It arises from what we want and how we believe the universe operates. “Thou shalt not kill”  arises from the desire for life and to avoid violence and death and is elaborated as a rule by our understanding about the universe (God exists, God makes the rules, God wants us not to kill each other so this is a rule, etc).

Yes but implicit in all this is the assumption that this is dependent only on beliefs and desires. I have seen no argument that this is the case. Observing that people have differing opinions, individually or culturally, is just so trivial and cannot lead to the conclusion that is al there is to morality.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

I agree with the notion that our desires are fundamentally determined by our biology for the most part, with perhaps a few more abstract desires arising out of the exuberant and not nexcessarily advantageous in evolutionary terms activity of our forebrains. Our beliefs are strongly shaped by our biology since they are predicated on how our senses and reason operate, but they are more indeirectly determined and less fixed. Some moral rules are common and probably have a basis in our natural history as social primates (not killing, stealing, a general aversion to violence for most, and perhaps a predisposition to it for others, etc). Other moral rules arise from desires and beliefs in a more complex and roundabout way, such as the dress taboos I mentioned.

Now here I see another practical contradiction. Now I grant that your use of the word arbitrary allows for this - but why then use such a word that is open to confusion and equivocation then? Still an evolutionary argument above, even as I disagree with it on other points, contradicts that morality is just about beliefs and desires. Evolution provides all sorts of constraints on how these work so one has to look outside beliefs and desires to understand these. You seem to both want to exclude any external factors - such as evolution - yet then drop them in as it suits you. It just looks very inconsistent to me.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

I believe we can construct rational moral rule systems and then evaluate them empirically, but of course the kinds of rules we can make and the standards by which we evaluate them are limited by our biology and culture.

OK fine but how does such a “rational moral rule system” work? Is it entirely rational? I think not and think you agree on that but that still does [edit] not [/edit] prevent analysis and the drawing of conclusions. If one assume means-ends rationality - as I and I think you do too - then how to you evaluate ends rationally? I have given an answer to this before and will, if requested, again, but I have seen no alternate proposal from you. Without something, it does not matter how much you “believe” it is possible, you do not know how to do it.

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

The specter of non-religious ethics that encourage cannibalism, and such nonsense, is unlikely to be realized for sound biological reasons.

Wow you lost me there. Cannabilism does exist - more likely from the anthropological studies I have read from at least partly religious type of thinking. What on earth has this do with non-religious ethics? There is one point that I can think of. I like to say “do not sacrifice truth on the alter of comfort” by that I mean we might find unpalatable uncomfortable truths if we look properly and (not but) that is not an excuse to ignore them. For sure a more realistic culture-independent moral framework would lead to uncomfortable results for some. But that has always been the way in any discourse and is not a reason to avoid it here. 

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

Still, if we establish a simple moral proposition, such as “The greatest individual freedom possible that does not substantively interfere with the same freedom for others is a good,” then we can look at rule structures and evaluate them semi-objectively in terms of how well they meet the standard.

What one earth does “semi-objective” mean? Granted such an “axiom” one can achieve epistemic objectivity in analysis - once one has disambiguated the notion of freedom (e.g. Berlin’s positive versus negative freedom). The question really is what is the set of ethically substantive principles to select - such as your illustrative (I assume) “freedom”  one above - or does one need to do so at all?

mckenzievmd - 26 October 2008 07:21 PM

So reason has a role to play, and there is a degree of objectivity possible, but yes the underlying principles are still conditioned by beliefs and desires and all the factors that inform these (biology, culture, historical accident, etc).

Is this what you mean by semi-objective? The fact that these are “conditioned by beliefs and desires and all the factors that inform these” would be incorporated into such an analysis and not a post-process modifier and none of this makes it “semi-objective”.

[ Edited: 27 October 2008 03:06 AM by faithlessgod ]
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Posted: 27 October 2008 05:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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I get the impression that some on our forum are insisting that we point to a solid physical source for morality… that there must either be some replacement or equivalent to the notion of the “first cause” or else there is no point in discussing morality whatsoever.  I am really not being so grandiose here.

When we list moral virtues, or decencies, we are not proposing rules or commandments.  We are brainstorming for rules of thumb that most human beings share in common, across generations and cultures.  When we examine our list, most of us will find it remarkable how similar these principles are, despite the diversity of human populations in diverse ethnic and geographical settings.  It is truly dumbfounding how amazingly similar we all are.

Listings of moral virtues are not be specific moral prescriptions, but they hint in the right direction.  I will add this one to my list.

Ecrasez l’infame! - 26 October 2008 06:29 PM

Empathy?

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Posted: 27 October 2008 05:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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faithlessgod - 26 October 2008 05:37 PM

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.

I have not proposed a moral system as yet.  I have only agreed with others here that there is a biological basis for why humans are driven to be moral, in general.  And that this lends itself to much further examination.

faithlessgod - 26 October 2008 05:37 PM

Just because it is innate cannot be the basis for a prescription.

Why not?  Again, I have not proposed any prescriptions as yet.  But I think a consideration of the implications of biology is at least part of the basis for determining what most people’s interests are.  This is particularly so as the gap between biology and psychology becomes increasingly bridged.  I think that you will at least agree that the satisfaction of certain of our interests and/or certain aspects of our interests is absolutely essential in determining what is and isn’t moral.  No?

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Posted: 27 October 2008 06:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Hey Erasmus long time no speak too grin

erasmusinfinity - 27 October 2008 05:15 AM

I get the impression that some on our forum are insisting that we point to a solid physical source for morality… that there must either be some replacement or equivalent to the notion of the “first cause” or else there is no point in discussing morality whatsoever.  I am really not being so grandiose here.

Yes and no. Very simply if there no physical effects then what on earth is everyone arguing over?  I do argue that Morality is a physical process. However this comes from being a naturalist, so rejecting dualism and so not assuming or presuming any “specialness” to morality until it has been shown - which I have never seen without fallacious argument.  The default would be to look for some sort of physical basis, that is my starting point and I find that this tentative approach can lead to provisional and thereby defeasible conclusions. 

erasmusinfinity - 27 October 2008 05:15 AM

When we list moral virtues, or decencies, we are not proposing rules or commandments.

Surely that is because virtues (and vices) work completely different to rules, let alone commandments? As I see it the only basis for virtues and vices is prior to such judgement (as to what they are). That is the features these judgements apply to (fallaciously or not) we could call character traits and these are not rules or commandments. This is the domain of virtue ethics and, you might recall, I have a particular take on that (I think I have posted on that in this forum in the past).

erasmusinfinity - 27 October 2008 05:15 AM

  We are brainstorming…

Are we?

erasmusinfinity - 27 October 2008 05:15 AM

... for rules of thumb that most human beings share in common, across generations and cultures.  When we examine our list, most of us will find it remarkable how similar these principles are, despite the diversity of human populations in diverse ethnic and geographical settings.  It is truly dumbfounding how amazingly similar we all are.

I agree. We have far more in common than we grant. However we also have much knowledge about heuristics and where they work and where not. Just because we operate with certain heuristics does not mean, in our current state of the world, that is the way it should be. We know how to update them them in many ways, for example through such therapies as CBT and REBT and, arguably, philosophical counselling - in persons where these heuristics have become chronically debilitating. If it works to a statistically significant degree in extreme cases, there is no reason to suppose it does not work in less extreme ones. Then again what is marketing and advertising about? grin

erasmusinfinity - 27 October 2008 05:15 AM


Listings of moral virtues are not be specific moral prescriptions, but they hint in the right direction.  I will add this one to my list.

Ecrasez l’infame! - 26 October 2008 06:29 PM

Empathy?

I do not see “empathy” as a moral virtue, a cognitive and affective (i.e. emotional) capacity yes. How this relates to the virtues needs to be decided and for that one needs to know how to judge what is virtuous without question begging.

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