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Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
Posted: 23 November 2010 08:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 181 ]
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“And where stands Habermas in the spectrum [moral realism/ antirealism/ quasirealism]?”

I didn’t know Habermas said a lot about ethics; i know him from philosophy of science. There’s a lot to read out there.
The division I gave is ‘jointly exhaustive’: if you’re not a moral realist, then you’re a non-realist. If you’re a non-realist, you’re either an ‘anti-realist’, the usual position, or you can occupy a half-way house recently erected by Blackburn and called ‘quasi-realism’, altho it hasn’t been promising. Look it up. There are many stripes of each of the three divisions, of course.

Replying generally to some objections you raised:
(1) Denying moral facts raises absurdities, or at least difficulties; positing moral facts poses difficulties, and maybe absurdities. I firmly believe there are few if any knock-down arguments in moral theory: you can be accused of absurdity, but rarely outright inconsistency or illogicality. Your intellectual conscience, properly informed, must be your guide as to which is the more absurd.
(2) ‘Absurd to Mr A’ is not the same as ‘Absurd in fact’. As you mentioned, it may take many discussions over much time to notice that one theory is really less absurd than another. As in the example, the society that happily discriminates against homosexuals finds arguments to the contrary absurd *to them*, but they would be incorrect. Not everything is just a matter of one’s feelings; there is such a thing as ‘right’ feeling. That is one of the hinges upon which minds are properly turned to adopt a better moral.

Chris Kirk

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Posted: 23 November 2010 10:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 182 ]
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GdB - 23 November 2010 12:26 AM

... (1)It is just that I do not think that science can deliver us the moral input we need to decide for an action. (2)Science delivers only ‘if ... then ...’ sentences. ‘If you want to increase the well-being of this person, then you should…’. (3)But do not forget to ask this person what for him well-being is…

(1) I sort of agree. I don’t think science is in a position to put well-being at the base of our values. But it can help us recognize that it already is.

(2) I agree, more or less.

(3) Hmm…we don’t seem to do this when it comes to health. Imagine the quizzical looks from his doctor when Joe Six-pack tells her with a straight face, “No, doctor for me cancer is extremely healthy.” We can imagine the doctor taking a measured breath before she responds, “Joe, you can smoke as much as you want but it isn’t healthy.” Why is she wrong?

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Posted: 23 November 2010 11:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 183 ]
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inthegobi - 23 November 2010 07:33 AM

If Hitler had been an evil-minded hermit, hiding up in the mountains of Berchtesgaden, you wouldn’t be killing him for any *actions*.

You’d be killing him for his future planned actions (cue Minority Report theme music). What might happen to a person (i.e. their potential well-being) is just as much of a factor in determining their general well-being as their current circumstances. In addition, we are likely better off stopping would-be Hitlers from their scheming because chances are they will follow through on their plans.

inthegobi - 23 November 2010 07:33 AM

Btw: We don’t typically call the killing of an evil dictator a murder, even if it is by his own people. Murder is always wrong, *ex definitione*; killing human beings isn’t always immoral, altho’ it may always be a serious thing.

Yea, that makes sense. Besides, assassination sounds so much cooler.

inthegobi - 23 November 2010 07:33 AM

A more interesting example is lying: Kant thought it was always wrong…

Unfortunately, I’m not nearly creative enough to follow that moral precept. grin

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Posted: 24 November 2010 03:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 184 ]
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Chocotacoi8 - 23 November 2010 10:37 AM

I sort of agree. I don’t think science is in a position to put well-being at the base of our values. But it can help us recognize that it already is.

Yes, it can. But whose well being? There are many examples where technology is just used for the well being of one person…

Chocotacoi8 - 23 November 2010 10:37 AM

We can imagine the doctor taking a measured breath before she responds, “Joe, you can smoke as much as you want but it isn’t healthy.” Why is she wrong?

She isn’t, sorry. I drink alcohol (I have discovered a great, (believe or not) Swiss single malt!), I smoke cigars and pipe. I know that it is not healthy. As long as no other persons are involved (beating my wife and children, passive smoking) morality is not involved.

GdB

[ Edited: 24 November 2010 06:52 AM by GdB ]
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Posted: 24 November 2010 03:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 185 ]
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GdB - 24 November 2010 03:25 AM

She isn’t, sorry. I drink alcohol (I have discovered a great, (believe or not) Swiss single malt!), I smoke cigars and pipe. I know that it is not healthy. As long as no other persons are involved (beating my wife and children, passive smoking) morality is not involved.

GdB

I don’t think this is right. I drink too much b.t.w, so I’m not preaching.

I think morality should include what you today, do to, you in the future. I think harming your future self can be wrong just as harming others can.

But it’s also true that if you become ill and need medical care others will be affected.

As you are increasing the risk of that happening morality is involved.

Stephen

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Posted: 24 November 2010 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 186 ]
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inthegobi - 23 November 2010 08:28 AM

I didn’t know Habermas said a lot about ethics; i know him from philosophy of science. There’s a lot to read out there.

See this article. Now you know by whom I am ‘infected’.

From there:

All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects that [the norm’s] general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests, and the consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.
...
(D)Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.
...
Habermas (unlike Kant or Rawls) formulates the moral point of view as it arises out of the multiple perspectives of those affected by a norm under consideration.
...
What (D) proposes is that moral principles must be validated in actual discourse and that those to be affected by a norm must be able to participate in argumentation concerning its validity. No number of thought experiments can replace a communicative exchange with others regarding moral norms that will affect them.

Bold by me.

What are all your theoretical consideration worth when they are not accepted by others? Habermas makes a kind of Copernican turn: moral norms are not the guarantee that we will agree in some unknown future, but the (fallible!) agreement is the point where norms arise, and not in some non-natural reality.

GdB

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Posted: 25 November 2010 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 187 ]
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Gdb, a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. I’m taking a break from cleaning and figuring out recipes.

All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects that [the norm’s] general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests, and the consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.
...
(D)Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.
...
Habermas (unlike Kant or Rawls) formulates the moral point of view as it arises out of the multiple perspectives of those affected by a norm under consideration.
...
What (D) proposes is that moral principles must be validated in actual discourse and that those to be affected by a norm must be able to participate in argumentation concerning its validity. No number of thought experiments can replace a communicative exchange with others regarding moral norms that will affect them.

Bold by me.

What are all your theoretical consideration worth when they are not accepted by others? Habermas makes a kind of Copernican turn: moral norms are not the guarantee that we will agree in some unknown future, but the (fallible!) agreement is the point where norms arise, and not in some non-natural reality.

Your emphasis seems right so far as it goes: ethics is part of practical science, along with politics, and regards actions; it’s not a theoretical science, which involves contemplation.
But where does Habermas fit into the scheme I gave? He’s effectively a moral non-realist, specifically a cultural relativist. Note the clauses that I’ve italicized. He basically restricts moral actions to those who get to participate in moral debate. It seems the disenfranchised, children, the infirm, the alien - they cannot participate in *our* moral discussions, and *so* we needn’t treat them morally if we all, within our debating-group, decide so. 

On Copernican turns. Well, poor Copernicus. “All the women want him, all the men want to be him.” I’m an ‘anti-scientific-revolution’ kind of guy: my motto for advancement is ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ Not even Copernicus was a revolutionary: he wrote within a long tradition; his heliocentrism was well-grounded, even mired, in the assumptions of his profession, the mathematical astronomers; his philosophical reasons for accepting heliocentrism were and still are controversial in the philosophy of science. Being prophetically right isn’t the same as being rational.

Chris Kirk

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Posted: 25 November 2010 09:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 188 ]
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inthegobi - 25 November 2010 06:50 AM

He’s effectively a moral non-realist, specifically a cultural relativist.

No, he isn’t:

(U) and (D) are catalysts for a moral learning process, which although fallible is not relative.

That is difficult to see, have no time to explain it now.

inthegobi - 25 November 2010 06:50 AM

He basically restricts moral actions to those who get to participate in moral debate. It seems the disenfranchised, children, the infirm, the alien - they cannot participate in *our* moral discussions, and *so* we needn’t treat them morally if we all, within our debating-group, decide so. 

But that is exactly what we already do! We decide about the norms that are valid for embryo’s, animals, and we would also with aliens, as long as we cannot talk to them. That they cannot participate, does not mean we do not treat them right, as (possible) sentient and feeling beings, according to our ethical discourse.

inthegobi - 25 November 2010 06:50 AM

On Copernican turns.

That’s a bit superfluous, isn’t it? It has the same meaning as with Kant, as a metaphor for completely turning the view on things, and has nothing to do with the historical Copernicus.


GdB

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Posted: 25 November 2010 02:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 189 ]
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GdB, hello.
I’m filled with my own turkey (which sounds like some deep metaphor about self-importance, but let it pass!), so pardon if I’m not interacting directly with your objections.

(1) GdB noted that “No, Habermas isn’t [a cultural relativist]; (U) and (D) are catalysts for a moral learning process, which although fallible is not relative.”
Both the process of learning (the subject of your sentence) and the products of that discussion (what shall we call moral?) are indeed relative: relative to the group of speakers as italicized above in U and D. Habermas’ ‘U’ and ‘D’ give no ground beyond those speakers. (NB: the ‘cultural’ in cultural relativism is meant broadly - it doesn’t have to be a culture in the common sense of the English word). The italicized portions are quite chilling IMO: thus might Hitler and his cronies have spoken; thus might LePen and his party speak if they were in power. Thus a group of slave-owners would theorize; thus (many of) the Pilgrims and Puritans thought of the American Indians.

(2) Inthegobi (me) noted that Habermas “restricts moral actions to those who get to participate in moral debate. It seems the disenfranchised, children, the infirm, the alien” therefore have no place in moral actions.
GdB replied:
“But that is exactly what we already do!”
What we *happen* to do is not identical to what we *ought* to do. Habermas’ theory - never mind how ‘nice’ Habermas himself would be - makes obviously immoral acts in many cases moral ones!

(3) You claimed Habermas’ theory is a complete turn of view. Look now, I agree that only we speakers with something in common can *discuss* what we shall do for, or to, those who cannot participate in our discussions. And only those of us with the power can carry out those rules. But sometimes, at least, we have to discuss theory; and without a ground to our morals outside of a *subset* of humanity, the group lacks any good reason to listen to any minority view even *within* that group (since a minority view is just the poor man within the group, so to speak). To me, Habermas’ own theory is about as conervative as can be, for it’s the opposite of radical to codify what people in power already do.

BTW: Copernicanism is often used in modern mythology for some groundbreaking change in ‘worldview’. If neither Copernicus himself nor most of his contemporaries saw it that way, we should be cautious about propping him up as the banner-bearer of some cultural revolution. I’d claim there was *not even a Scientific Revolution* in the natural sciences, if we are going to take seriously an analogy to political revolutions. Every hip college freshman thinks there’s a Copernican revolution going on, usually in his most recent term-paper.

Chris Kirk

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Posted: 26 November 2010 07:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 190 ]
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inthegobi - 25 November 2010 02:33 PM

Both the process of learning (the subject of your sentence) and the products of that discussion (what shall we call moral?) are indeed relative: relative to the group of speakers as italicized above in U and D. Habermas’ ‘U’ and ‘D’ give no ground beyond those speakers. (NB: the ‘cultural’ in cultural relativism is meant broadly - it doesn’t have to be a culture in the common sense of the English word). The italicized portions are quite chilling IMO: thus might Hitler and his cronies have spoken; thus might LePen and his party speak if they were in power. Thus a group of slave-owners would theorize; thus (many of) the Pilgrims and Puritans thought of the American Indians.

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
Well, at least you made it till here. wink

I noticed already that it is difficult to understand Habermas for Anglosaxon philosophers, even for those who did read them. I’ll try to explain H, with the risk of being too short.

(I hope you know Kant… Shouldn’t be a problem for a philosophy teacher.)
As Kant introduced his transcendental subject (no magic meant!), one could say H introduces a transcendental ‘inter-subject’. Instead lying truth in the categories of the reason, H lies the truth in the rules of communicative action in the human discourse. Every meaningful utterance is associated with at least one of 3 validity claims: truth (that’s about states of affairs), moral rightness (that’s about actions), and truthfulness (authenticity). An utterance can only be claimed as valid, when the one who does the utterance is prepared to discuss his utterance with every possible discourse partner under the following conditions:
1. Every discourse partner is allowed to start a discourse about validity claims
2. Every discourse partner is allowed to bring the discussion on the level of a background discourse against which the validity is judged
3. Every discourse partner is allowed to discuss the background against the fitness of this background for our cultural aims.
4. Every discourse partner agrees that the discourse is held under the conditions of the ideal speech situation

Ideal speech situation:
(i) no one capable of making a relevant contribution has been excluded,
(ii) participants have equal voice,
(iii) they are internally free to speak their honest opinion without deception or self-deception, and
(iv) there are no sources of coercion built into the process and procedures of discourse.

This speech situation is an ideal, not a fact. But according to H, every validity claim has this ideal of this discourse, otherwise it does not count as a validity claim. To give an example: manipulation based on intentional giving wrong information. Such a person is not truthful, has hidden claims. Also, no violence counts, this does not belong in an ideal speech situation. (So if somebody tries to shoot you, he left the discourse, and you are not obliged to keep to it. But you might be able to defend yourself in a moral discourse afterwards that it was OK to shoot him.)

inthegobi - 25 November 2010 02:33 PM

What we *happen* to do is not identical to what we *ought* to do. Habermas’ theory - never mind how ‘nice’ Habermas himself would be - makes obviously immoral acts in many cases moral ones!

You are completely right in your first sentence. But that is an ought already. You defend to be be moral on moral grounds. Not too bad, only superfluous. We cannot have a moral discourse with beings we cannot communicate with. But we can behave morally correct with them, based on good grounds according to our preparedness to enter a moral discourse with anybody

inthegobi - 25 November 2010 02:33 PM

(3) You claimed Habermas’ theory is a complete turn of view. Look now, I agree that only we speakers with something in common can *discuss* what we shall do for, or to, those who cannot participate in our discussions. And only those of us with the power can carry out those rules. But sometimes, at least, we have to discuss theory; and without a ground to our morals outside of a *subset* of humanity, the group lacks any good reason to listen to any minority view even *within* that group (since a minority view is just the poor man within the group, so to speak). To me, Habermas’ own theory is about as conervative as can be, for it’s the opposite of radical to codify what people in power already do.

You are heavily leaning on the metaphor of a building that needs a base, even independent of the human discourse. In ethics we talk about what is ‘good’, as virtue, or actions. But why do we need norms outside the discourse? It just does not make sense.

inthegobi - 25 November 2010 02:33 PM

BTW: Copernicanism is often used in modern mythology for some groundbreaking change in ‘worldview’. If neither Copernicus himself nor most of his contemporaries saw it that way, we should be cautious about propping him up as the banner-bearer of some cultural revolution. I’d claim there was *not even a Scientific Revolution* in the natural sciences, if we are going to take seriously an analogy to political revolutions. Every hip college freshman thinks there’s a Copernican revolution going on, usually in his most recent term-paper.

Sorry, “Copernican revolution” has become a phrase in philosophy with a clear meaning, independent of historical facts. If your ‘freshman’  is right or wrong in his paper has nothing to do with it. You know what he means, and mostly you will be completely right that is not a Copernican revolution. But you can only say this on basis of you knowing the meaning of it, the meaning I gave it here.

GdB

PS Nearly everything written by heart, in English which is not German (H’s language), nor my native language (Dutch).

[ Edited: 26 November 2010 07:55 AM by GdB ]
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Posted: 28 November 2010 10:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 191 ]
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@Gdb: Ok. Let me try and explain myself a little better. I am trying to draw a parallel between how we already view health with how I think we should view morality. I’m trying to compare the two ways of thinking. They are two different things, although they overlap to some extent (though if they didn’t I would still draw the parallel).

1. Health (forget about morality for the time being)

We humans seem to like avoiding pain and death. We seem to enjoy being free of disease, strong, and able to accomplish what we need as individuals without our bodies failing us. Our attempt to achieve these things is a fact about humanity and makes up the very core of the general endeavor that we call “health.”

In their most rudimentary form these goals are rooted in our DNA. We mostly do not have a choice but to value, at the very least, our immediate health. Indeed, actively sabotage your own health and your body will attempt to punish you using every evolutionary tactic at its disposal until you stop or death takes you.

The doctor (in my example) can tell Joe he’s being unhealthy because Joe shares these goals as much as any other person. The doctor isn’t playing some game with words that Joe can escape just by redefining “health” to mean something else. What she means is that his behavior is moving him in a direction that is antithetical to the above goals and she’s using terms that most people use in order to convey that fact. His thoughts and opinions change nothing about the consequences of his actions. Whatever words he chooses to use, his behavior is dramatically increasing his chances of experiencing pain, disease and an early death. This is a fact. His “definition” of health matters only to the extent that he wishes to engage in a dialogue about this topic with his fellow human beings, which will be increasingly difficult the farther and farther he moves from the definitions used by the rest of us, but it changes nothing about his underlying condition.

It is worth noting that people aren’t required to behave in a healthy manner by any natural law or anything like that. They just need to engage in healthy behaviors in order to be considered healthy.

2. Morality and Well-being (forget about the above for the time being)

We humans also, in addition to caring what happens to ourselves, seem to care what happens to others too (not necessarily everyone, but at least some others). We want them to be better off and living the best life possible in the same way that we want to be better off and living the best life possible. To a certain extent, this too, is hardwired in us. We often do not have a choice but to value the well-being of many of our fellow humans. It is a fact of our existence.

Morality is how we codify these goals. It is a code of conduct, but it is a code of conduct with a purpose. The point is to behave in a certain way so as to secure a brighter future for ourselves and others (remember, we ought to do something because we think we will be better off by doing so).

When the Taliban’s “version” of morality conflicts with another “version,” it isn’t because the crux of this goal is different. Rather, the two disagree (whether they realize it or not) about the means to an end, i.e. how to achieve the best life for themselves and those they care about. This disagreement is grounded in real facts about the well-being of people, various states of their consciousnesses and various states of the world. It is thus open to observation and comment by science. So, if we were to observe the Taliban engaging in behaviors that diminish people’s well-being, their behaviors could be classified as immoral regardless of their particular definition of “morality” or “well-being.” Definitions do not change the underlying facts of the world, they just change how we talk about them. The logic of my health example above should guide our thinking here.

And again, it is worth noting that people aren’t required by the universe to behave in a moral way, they just need to behave morally in order to be considered moral.

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Posted: 29 November 2010 03:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 192 ]
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Hi Chocotacoi8,

Can I reduce your parallel to the following?
1. Science shows us how we should behave when we want to be healthy.
2. Science shows us how we should behave when we want to promote well-being for others.

To 1 you add: Science can show that we mostly aim for personal health; and the definition of ‘healthy’ is objective: it can be measured by the quantity of pain in a human life and the length of a person’s life.

To 2 you add: we mostly aim at well-being for others, and science can tell us if our means to reach this work out. And, as in 1, science can help us to objectively observe if somebody is in a state of well-being.

But doing so, you put yourself completely on the side of teleological ethical theories, opposed to deontological. However, most religions are deontological, i.e. in the deliberation if an action is morally correct, there are arguments independent of the outcome of your action; or better, the measurable outcome of your action. So when a muslim extremist kills himself in a suicide attack, his argumentation is teleological (I get 72 virgins after my death, so it is in terms of the positive outcome (but only for himself!)), from the outer perspective it is deontological: he uses considerations that are not valid in terms of measurable well-being. As far as I know only some brands of Buddhism are teleological, in the sense that it’s all about happiness: in the first place your own happiness, with the immediate addition that you maximize your own happiness by striving for happiness for all sentient beings. (One could say that Buddhism in this form is one of the most profound forms of ethical egoism.)

So the muslim extremist can use science to optimise his suicide attack (he uses semtex instead of gunpowder). But science has no access to his deontological argumentation. We cannot argument with him that he will not get 72 virgins, or that he should pity the suffering he causes on his victims. So we simply do not share the same goals. I think the same holds for less profound versions of ethical egoism: my aim is to reach a maximum of well-being for me on the short time. How can science show me I am wrong? I am not ‘most of all people’! With these 2 extremes, I think we have quite some explanation why we have so much trouble to agree on communal action for the best of all of us.

For short: two presuppositions cannot hold your positions
1. That most people strive for health
2. That all people strive for the same goals

GdB

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Posted: 29 November 2010 03:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 193 ]
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GdB - 29 November 2010 03:41 AM

For short: two presuppositions cannot hold your positions
1. That most people strive for health
2. That all people strive for the same goals

GdB

If I can ponder a little bit here…

We have
teleological - the end goal determines whether a action is right or wrong.
deontological - Right or wrong depends on whether a actions meets a ethical code of some kind.
consequential - the result or consequences of an action determine it’s moral standing.
ethical egoism - As long as I end up happy then my action is morally justified.

Is there an idealism I’m missing?

I think my idea of right is to do what I want while causing as little unnecessary harm to someone else as possible.

I usually find myself falling into all 4 categories in deciding what action is right. However I arbitrarily judge the action and although I’ll listen to someone else’s opinion I don’t feel an obligation to meet someone else’s expectation of moral action.

If someone can provide a convincing argument as to why my actions are bad I’ll listen. I suppose that makes my concept of morality based on rational argumentation? Science can be used in support of a rational argument.

However there is more involved then scientific data IMO in determining right and wrong actions. My goals for one thing. I’m not exactly sure everything involved in determining what my goals are. It depends a lot on circumstances and past experiences. Right actions are dynamic and adjust depending on the situation. That’s why I can’t agree with a concept of absolute or universal morals.

A right action is right at the moment and maybe wrong under different circumstances. If someone else views my action as wrong it seems usually because they have limited information.

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Posted: 29 November 2010 04:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 194 ]
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Consider emotivism, or non-cognitivism in general.

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Posted: 29 November 2010 05:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 195 ]
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the PC apeman - 29 November 2010 04:06 PM

Consider emotivism, or non-cognitivism in general.

Seems a way of coercing emotional agreement.

I can understand moral ideas being used as a manipulative declarative. Especially effective when a lot of passion is used.

Personally I see morality as a self judgment of right/wrong action. An individual can be persuaded emotionally into accept a moral position, however I don’t see myself being emotionally persuaded.

Still you have to ask what caused the initial determination of right and wrong action. Some event or consequence of action to cause the feeling of disgust or approval.

I suspect this is the view of morality by those who don’t like the concept of morals?

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