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Do contradictions in cultural moralities mean science cannot tell us what morality ‘is’?
Posted: 27 June 2010 01:37 PM   [ Ignore ]
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A related thread of mine (my first thread here) appears to be both too long and too confusing.

To make this post perhaps more interesting, I will focus on rebutting a contrary mainstream position (moral relativism?) provided by Occam: “Morality is a culturally and personally determined behavioral choice.  As such, it’s about as accessible to scientific definition as is my aversion to cucumbers.  Different societies have developed wide variations of what they defined as moral or ethical behavior.  Apparently, by your concept of science being able to inform us about or possibly define moral behavior, only one of these myriad behaviors would be considered moral.” 

It is fact that we can assemble representative examples of all known past and present practiced cultural moral standards (practiced over several generations by large groups of people).  Then it will be empirically true or false that the normal methods of science can extract any underlying, necessary characteristics from these practiced cultural moral standards.  If ‘true’ (provisionally true in the sense of truth from science) Occam’s position is refuted.

A promising hypothesis for being provisionally true is: “Virtually all cultural moral standards increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation in a group and are unselfish in at least the short term.” 

But ideally, science is independent of culture. If so, anything science reveals about moral behavior MUST ALSO BE independent of culture.  So the above hypothesis MUST be incapable of telling us, for instance, if a practiced moral standard that said women are morally obligated to be submissive to men is ‘really’ immoral.  This odious to us cultural standard is actually consistent with the hypothesis.  The groups who benefit are preferentially men, and to a lesser extent women (due to living in a society with rules rather than in social chaos), and the group morally obligated to be unselfish are women.  But all is not doom and gloom.

Moral philosophy provides a storehouse of tools for assisting us in understanding which contradictory moral standard is ‘actually’ the most moral. 

For example, moral philosophy could assist us making judgments about the ‘best’ size and the ‘best’ level of commitment (level of unselfishness) for groups that people belong to.  These various groups could include family, friends, co-workers, countrymen, all people, all conscious beings, and perhaps even all ecosystems.  Here, ‘best’ could mean the choice expected to best meet whatever the individuals in the groups define as their needs and preferences. 

That work could also include 1) determining the limits to what kind of benefits people can agree to pursue by cooperation and still be considered to be acting morally, and 2) choosing or deriving heuristics (cultural standards) like the Golden Rule that enable us to reliably make moral choices instantly. 

So science might provide an objective, culturally independent and arguably even species independent core (based on the above hypothesis for instance) and moral philosophy could then flesh it out into a full morality capable of effective moral guidance for humans.

But if a science based morality MUST have all this help from moral philosophy, what good is it?

The above hypothesis says that to be moral, behaviors must, on average, produce benefits – not burdens.  Second, since any such science based core of a morality is defined by the necessary characteristics common to virtually all practiced cultural moral standards, it is likely to be more consistent with our moral intuitions than any available alternative.  This means any such science based morality will likely be more consistent, for example, with John Rawl’s “reflective equilibrium” criterion for moral behavior.  (However, moral philosophy would have to be called on to advocate Rawls’ necessary companion “veil of ignorance” criterion.)  Defining moral behaviors in terms of benefits combined with the promise of greater consistency with moral intuitions (and therefore more likely to be consistently conformed to) could justify a group concluding that such a derived science based morality is more likely than any other available option to meet their members wants and needs (to be their rational choice). 

Ultimately, if Occam’s assertion can be refuted is an empirical question.  Can the above hypothesis, or something close to it, really be shown to be provisionally true as a matter of science?

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Posted: 27 June 2010 02:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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“If so, anything science reveals about moral behavior MUST ALSO BE independent of culture. “

By independent, I take you to mean “true or false independent of culture.”  The statement “do as the cultural norms indicate” is independent of culture.  What you should do is dependent on culture, but not the fact that you should do as the culture around you indicates. Discovering the fact that you should do as the culture indicates could be in your purview of “scientific”.  It could be the universal truth that you are seeking.

My background is mathematics.  All good mathematics is being highly skilled at finding non-obvious ways to skirt the rules =)~

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Posted: 27 June 2010 03:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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qutsemnie - 27 June 2010 02:45 PM

“If so, anything science reveals about moral behavior MUST ALSO BE independent of culture. “

By independent, I take you to mean “true or false independent of culture.”  The statement “do as the cultural norms indicate” is independent of culture.  What you should do is dependent on culture, but not the fact that you should do as the culture around you indicates. Discovering the fact that you should do as the culture indicates could be in your purview of “scientific”.  It could be the universal truth that you are seeking.

My background is mathematics.  All good mathematics is being highly skilled at finding non-obvious ways to skirt the rules =)~


qutsemnie It might be more correct if I had said: “moral behavior MUST ALSO BE culturally independent”.  This slight change may be needed because, obviously, the hypothesis is about the underlying, necessary characteristics of virtually all practiced cultural moralities.  If there were no practiced cultural moralities, then there would be nothing to form a hypothesis about.

Yes, my hypothesis is my most promising candidate for a universal ‘truth’ about moral behavior in the sense that science can tell us provisional truths.  That is, as much universal truth as there is.  The amount of universal truth about moral behavior appears limited.  This leaves a requirement for moral philosophy to fill out around the science based core (the core implied by whatever hypothesis ever becomes generally accepted as ‘true’ as a matter of science) in order to produce a useful morality. 

You said: “The statement ‘do as the cultural norms indicate’ is independent of culture.”  Yes, it is.  It also is similar to a moral relativism position which I am trying to refute. 

You also said “Discovering the fact that you should do as the culture indicates could be in your purview of ‘scientific’.”  Science can only tell us what ‘is’, not what ‘ought’ to be which, if it belongs anywhere, belongs in the purview of moral philosophy.  I take your statement to be an ‘ought’ statement which science is silent on. 

When I talk about why a science based morality might be of interest for adoption by a group, I only propose it will likely be the choice expected to best meet the individuals in the group’s needs and preferences (be a rational choice).  Science is innately unable to provide any source of justification, ‘oughts’, beyond long term self interest, for accepting the burdens of any morality. 

There would be no problem in logic if a group, as a rational choice, decided to adopt “you should do as the culture indicates”.  But there can be no justification from science, beyond long term self interest, for adopting this morality, or any morality.

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Posted: 27 June 2010 05:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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700 words for a 2nd post is really pushing my limit.  I normally refuse to read any over about 250 words.

A promising hypothesis for being provisionally true is: “Virtually all cultural moral standards increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation in a group and are unselfish in at least the short term.”

Second conclusion is false.  Most past societies were not egalitarian.  The powerful were selfish and the main benefits most of the citizenry (women, children, slaves, aliens, those of a different religion, etc.) got was not being killed or punished if they complied.

But ideally, science is independent of culture. If so, anything science reveals about moral behavior MUST ALSO BE independent of culture.

Sorry, but the second sentence is false as clearly stated by “ideally” in the first sentence.  Science has been fairly strongly controlled by religions, politics, and the powerful in most cultures.

. . . the group morally obligated to be unselfish are women.

Just because one is a servant or slave doesn’t mean one is unselfish.  If you need money and I give you some, I may be unselfish or I may fear the gun you are holding.   

‘best’ could mean the choice expected to best meet whatever the individuals in the groups define as their needs and preferences.

As I recall, I said, “Morality is a culturally and personally determined behavioral choice.”  The words “choice”, “needs”, and “preferences” seem to validate my point.

Science might provide an objective, culturally independent and arguably even species independent core (based on the above hypothesis for instance)

Sorry but you haven’t demonstrated that the hypothesis is true.

The above hypothesis says that to be moral, behaviors must, on average, produce benefits –– not burdens.

Historically, most societies produced benefits for the powerful, and burdens for the serfs.  As I said earlier, their only benefit was living another day without being beaten or killed.  I’m sure neither you nor I consider that those societies were acting morally, but they were successful.

Look, Rawls ethical philosophy offers a very nice framework for the morals we hope to achieve in our society, but it can’t be claimed as any more scientific than utilitarianism. 

I believe we agree as to the desired behavior in an ethical, egalitarian society. However, as a retired scientist and a person who became strongly interested in ethics, I just don’t think there’s any basis for looking for some scientifically “correct” morals.

Occam

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Posted: 27 June 2010 10:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Occam - 27 June 2010 05:16 PM

700 words for a 2nd post is really pushing my limit.  I normally refuse to read any over about 250 words.

Mark: (as are all following first statements in each quote): A promising hypothesis for being provisionally true is: “Virtually all cultural moral standards increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation in a group and are unselfish in at least the short term.”

Occam: Second conclusion is false.  Most past societies were not egalitarian.  The powerful were selfish and the main benefits most of the citizenry (women, children, slaves, aliens, those of a different religion, etc.) got was not being killed or punished if they complied.

Some the earliest definitions of morality specifically include moral requirements for unselfishness in hierarchies.  The classical ‘pagan’ virtues aptly describe how to behave toward people of lower rank and include ‘magnanimity’ (unselfishness toward people less powerful than you).  ‘Christian’ virtues aptly describe moral behaviors toward superiors with unselfishness being a prominent theme.  Which side of the coin the two cultures emphasized appears to just be a product of their different circumstances.

Our subject here is what was defined as culturally moral, not if we judge the culture moral.  Are you denying that serfs were told it was their moral duty to unselfishly serve their local Lord and through him the King? Could you provide a counterexample of a morally admirable act, consistent with a practiced moral standard from the past or present, that is not unselfish?

The second “conclusion” (necessary characteristic of moral behavior) is not shown to be false by your argument. 

But ideally, science is independent of culture. If so, anything science reveals about moral behavior MUST ALSO BE independent of culture.

Occam:Sorry, but the second sentence is false as clearly stated by “ideally” in the first sentence.  Science has been fairly strongly controlled by religions, politics, and the powerful in most cultures.

The “If so,’ (meaning if science is independent of culture) before the second sentence means it is true as a matter of logic.  You would be ill advised to argue that religions, politics, and the powerful can alter whether momentum is conserved or what the first 100 prime numbers are.  You similarly would be ill advised to argue that religions, politics, and the powerful can change the mathematics of the class of game theory strategies which require being ‘unselfish’ at least in the short term in order to, on average and in the long term, exploit the benefits of cooperation.  That set of game theory strategies are the same ones exploited by our biological structures and cultural moral standards that promote cooperation.

The second sentence is true.

. . . the group morally obligated to be unselfish are women.

Occam:Just because one is a servant or slave doesn’t mean one is unselfish.  If you need money and I give you some, I may be unselfish or I may fear the gun you are holding. 

Motivations for being unselfish are irrelevant to this discussion.  What is at issue is which group (women in this case) are morally required to be unselfish in order to be morally admirable in that culture. 

‘best’ could mean the choice expected to best meet whatever the individuals in the groups define as their needs and preferences.

Occam:As I recall, I said, “Morality is a culturally and personally determined behavioral choice.”  The words “choice”, “needs”, and “preferences” seem to validate my point.

Well, we agree on something at last.

Science might provide an objective, culturally independent and arguably even species independent core (based on the above hypothesis for instance)

Occam:Sorry but you haven’t demonstrated that the hypothesis is true.

That’s why I call it a hypothesis.  I have, at most, described it as “promising”.  My present effort at demonstrating it is provisionally true is about 12,000 words.  The most I can do in a forum like this is post examples of explanatory power, predictive power, etc.

The above hypothesis says that to be moral, behaviors must, on average, produce benefits –– not burdens.

Occam:Historically, most societies produced benefits for the powerful, and burdens for the serfs.  As I said earlier, their only benefit was living another day without being beaten or killed.  I’m sure neither you nor I consider that those societies were acting morally, but they were successful.

Yes, the distribution of benefits in many societies has not been remotely egalitarian.  But that is irrelevant.  People in those societies could (and did) increase the benefits of cooperation within these societies by being unselfish in the short term.  By doing so, they unknowingly exploited strategies that would eventually be described in game theory, notably within the last 30 years or so, with mathematical precision.

Look, Rawls ethical philosophy offers a very nice framework for the morals we hope to achieve in our society, but it can’t be claimed as any more scientific than utilitarianism. 

I believe we agree as to the desired behavior in an ethical, egalitarian society. However, as a retired scientist and a person who became strongly interested in ethics, I just don’t think there’s any basis for looking for some scientifically “correct” morals.

Occam

The proposed morality’s consistency with Rawls’ highly respected proposal for making moral choices was provided only as an additional argument supporting a group choosing it, as a rational choice, as a moral reference.  No relation to science was intended.  But now that you mention it ....  That may be worth considering.

I expect we do agree about desired behaviors.  I issue I am addressing is that 1) there is no generally accepted secular definition of what the morality ‘is’ that advocates these behaviors, and 2) there is no generally accepted secular argument for why people should be moral when they expect doing so will be against their best interest.  I see no barrier to science telling us what the underlying, necessary characteristics of moral behavior ‘are’ and examining the possibility that they could reveal the useful core of a morality.  Perhaps moral philosophy will someday come up with a ‘better’ morality, but, till they do, I see no reason to not examine what science can tell us.

Occam, we have a long list of disagreements here.  Perhaps in your reply you might just focus on a couple in the hope we could resolve something with a focused approach?  Of course I would be glad to see even a short list of the above items you considered resolved (resolved except, of course, for the normal nits).

Mark

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Posted: 28 June 2010 07:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Ah, the failures of language as compared to thought.  While you feel you shot down my rebuttals, from your words, I don’t see any reason to change my thinking.  So I don’t know where to go from here.  All I can do is state my concept of ethics after taking a fourth year course in ethics from Socrates to McTaggart.  I’ve said it frequently in this forum, but I’ll do it again.

All animals are driven by self-interest (really continuation of the species).  Social animals give up short term benefits in return for the hope (often achieved) of getting greater long term benefits.  Those actions which contribute to the overall success of the species are usually considered moral, while those which damage the species are considered immoral.

Some problems exist from point of view.  For example, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan could be seen as damaging a great number of our species or it could be seen as preventing future damage to even more of our species.  I can’t see how some scientific way of defining morality can ever convince either the Israelis or the Pakistanis that they are behaving immorally.

Occam

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Posted: 29 June 2010 08:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Occam - 28 June 2010 07:22 PM

Ah, the failures of language as compared to thought.  While you feel you shot down my rebuttals, ... 


In one simplified form, my hypothesis could be restated as:  “Social animals give up short term benefits in return for the hope (often achieved) of getting greater long term benefits.”
 
Wait, that’s what you said!  The chief difference is I claim this class of behaviors is the class of virtually all moral behaviors.  Further, I can defend my version using the normal methods of science as described in my original post: 

“It is a fact that we can assemble representative examples of all known past and present practiced cultural moral standards (practiced over several generations by large groups of people).  Then it will be empirically true or false that the normal methods of science can extract any underlying, necessary characteristics from these practiced cultural moral standards.  If ‘true’ (provisionally true in the sense of truth from science) Occam’s position is refuted.”

My hypothesis implies an “under-determined” definition of morality based in science.  Being under-determined may be why you see it as difficult to apply.  But the difficulty or lack of difficulty of applying it in real world cases is irrelevant to whether it is ‘true’ as matter of science.  Difficulty of application, if there is any, would only make it less attractive for adoption by a group as a rational choice.

You also said:

Those actions which contribute to the overall success of the species are usually considered moral, while those which damage the species are considered immoral.

Social Darwinism was based on something close to this.  Such statements are now generally accepted to be based on both bad science and bad logic.  And they are flatly wrong in terms of what cultural moral standards actually ‘are’.

Since the classical Greek Philosophers, moral philosophy has reached no generally accepted conclusions about what moral behavior ‘is’ (in terms of necessary characteristics) or ‘ought’ to be.  Moral philosophy’s greatest success has been in producing arguments showing purported flaws in all answers proposed to date. It is a matter of logic that virtually all the contradictory answers proposed to date in moral philosophy are wrong.

[ Edited: 29 June 2010 09:20 AM by Mark Sloan ]
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Posted: 29 June 2010 08:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 08:01 AM

Since the classical Greek Philosophers, moral philosophy has reached no generally accepted conclusions about what moral behavior ‘is’ (in terms of necessary characteristics) or ‘ought’ to be.

No surprise on the ‘ought’ bit as it’s the gateway to some sort of spiral or another.  I always get a chuckle out of the idea of what moral behavior ought to be.

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Posted: 29 June 2010 09:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Occam - 28 June 2010 07:22 PM

Ah, the failures of language as compared to thought.  While you feel you shot down my rebuttals, from your words, I don’t see any reason to change my thinking.  So I don’t know where to go from here.  All I can do is state my concept of ethics after taking a fourth year course in ethics from Socrates to McTaggart.  I’ve said it frequently in this forum, but I’ll do it again.

All animals are driven by self-interest (really continuation of the species).  Social animals give up short term benefits in return for the hope (often achieved) of getting greater long term benefits.  Those actions which contribute to the overall success of the species are usually considered moral, while those which damage the species are considered immoral.

Some problems exist from point of view.  For example, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan could be seen as damaging a great number of our species or it could be seen as preventing future damage to even more of our species.  I can’t see how some scientific way of defining morality can ever convince either the Israelis or the Pakistanis that they are behaving immorally.

Occam

This seems fine except why continuation of the species? This seems too broad a reach in practical application. I would say continuation of the group.

The definition of the group though IMO is arbitrary/cultural. The group can be family, tribe, race, nation eventually perhaps coming to species however the over-riding point of first self-interest is the “self”.

However the consciousness expands on the idea of what the self is. For example the idea when a man and a women become married they become one. Have Children etc… However mentally conceptually the family becomes the “self”. You get friends, gather in a group. Their interests and well being become yours. I idea of the self expands to cover the group. The individual become willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the group.

Of course the group working together can survive and propagate. Still what is defined as the group is culturally defined. If one were to see the self as all of mankind then the individual would be willing to accept their own sacrifice to see the continuation/benefit of all man.

You can extend this into the benefit of animal-kind or the planet as a whole.

However when you see a species fighting against others of it’s own kind the “self” has not been define culturally to include the members of the other group.

So if morality is the idea of right or wrong actions to promote self-survival, then to promote the best chance of survival, dependent on the size of the group, you’d have to change the cultural definition of the self/group to be as inclusive as possible wouldn’t you?

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Posted: 29 June 2010 09:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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the PC apeman - 29 June 2010 08:43 AM
Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 08:01 AM

Since the classical Greek Philosophers, moral philosophy has reached no generally accepted conclusions about what moral behavior ‘is’ (in terms of necessary characteristics) or ‘ought’ to be.

No surprise on the ‘ought’ bit as it’s the gateway to some sort of spiral or another.  I always get a chuckle out of the idea of what moral behavior ought to be.


Asking what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be does appear likely to be a hopeless search.  Hopeless, that is, in the sense of ever being able to identify any secular source of justificatory force, beyond long term self interest, for an individual behaving morally when they expect doing so will be contrary to their self interest. 

Regardless, it seems to me that secular people commonly follow their moral beliefs even when they expect doing so will be against their best interests.  This is a bit puzzling.  Understanding why people do this could be very helpful in producing a generally accepted secular morality.

[ Edited: 29 June 2010 10:21 AM by Mark Sloan ]
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Posted: 29 June 2010 10:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Gnostikosis - 29 June 2010 09:05 AM

This seems fine except why continuation of the species? This seems too broad a reach in practical application. I would say continuation of the group.

The definition of the group though IMO is arbitrary/cultural. The group can be family, tribe, race, nation eventually perhaps coming to species however the over-riding point of first self-interest is the “self”.

However the consciousness expands on the idea of what the self is. For example the idea when a man and a women become married they become one. Have Children etc… However mentally conceptually the family becomes the “self”. You get friends, gather in a group. Their interests and well being become yours. I idea of the self expands to cover the group. The individual become willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the group.

Of course the group working together can survive and propagate. Still what is defined as the group is culturally defined. If one were to see the self as all of mankind then the individual would be willing to accept their own sacrifice to see the continuation/benefit of all man.

You can extend this into the benefit of animal-kind or the planet as a whole.

However when you see a species fighting against others of it’s own kind the “self” has not been define culturally to include the members of the other group.

So if morality is the idea of right or wrong actions to promote self-survival, then to promote the best chance of survival, dependent on the size of the group, you’d have to change the cultural definition of the self/group to be as inclusive as possible wouldn’t you?


Gnostikosis, any biological structures in our brains connected with empathy, shame, and other components of our moral intuitions exist (almost certainly) because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors.

But this is the only solid link between moral behavior and reproductive fitness.  Most of our moral behaviors are defined by cultural moral standards that may or may not increase the survival of groups or our species.  For instance, moral rules about chastity may reduce reproductive fitness.  Supposedly moral judgments in the past have led us to living just a few misjudgments from possible extinction by nuclear weapons.  Also, modern cultural moral standards in cultures that enjoy the rule of law and access to money appear to be much more about increasing the emotional benefits of cooperation rather than reproductive fitness.  In fact, increasing your personal reproductive fitness can even be argued to be immoral in a world where overpopulation threatens us with a dystopian nightmare. 

Making the definition more inclusive of who is in your group has been perhaps the main way that cultural moral standards have improved (become more effective at increasing the benefits of cooperation) since pre-civilization times.  But it would make no sense to treat everyone in world with the same level of concern you have for your immediate family.  We each belong to many groups, family, friends, co-workers, countrymen, everyone in the world and so forth.  What moral philosophy should be doing is making sense of is both “Who should be included in each group?” and “What level of moral concern (level of unselfishness) should we commit to each group?”

Increases in reproductive fitness of the group are highly relevant to why and how moral behavior came to be.  But that is not a reason to conclude that is or ‘ought’ to be its current purpose.

[ Edited: 29 June 2010 10:23 AM by Mark Sloan ]
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Posted: 29 June 2010 10:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 09:44 AM
the PC apeman - 29 June 2010 08:43 AM
Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 08:01 AM

Since the classical Greek Philosophers, moral philosophy has reached no generally accepted conclusions about what moral behavior ‘is’ (in terms of necessary characteristics) or ‘ought’ to be.

No surprise on the ‘ought’ bit as it’s the gateway to some sort of spiral or another.  I always get a chuckle out of the idea of what moral behavior ought to be.


Asking what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be does appear likely to be a hopeless search.  Hopeless, that is, in the sense of ever being able to identify any secular source of justificatory force, beyond long term self interest, for an individual behaving morally when they expect doing so will be contrary to their self interest. 

Regardless, it seems to me that secular people commonly follow their moral beliefs even when they expect doing so will be against their best interests.  This is a bit puzzling.  Understanding why people do this could be very helpful in producing a generally accepted secular morality.

Do you see the circularity in a question like ‘what ought morality be?’  Recognizing how often this trap slips in to words and thought strikes me as the greatest obstacle in productive discussions on morality.  A cold look at what the things we describe as morality are is the way toward coherent answers.

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Posted: 29 June 2010 11:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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the PC apeman - 29 June 2010 10:53 AM
Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 09:44 AM

Asking what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be does appear likely to be a hopeless search.  y.

Do you see the circularity in a question like ‘what ought morality be?’  Recognizing how often this trap slips in to words and thought strikes me as the greatest obstacle in productive discussions on morality.  A cold look at what the things we describe as morality are is the way toward coherent answers.

No, I don’t see it.  Could you explain it?

We certainly agree that looking at what moral behavior ‘is’ is likely to be far more profitable than trying to figure out what it ‘ought’ to be. 

Do you see any reason not to use the normal methods of science to help us understand what moral behavior ‘is’?

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Posted: 29 June 2010 11:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 11:05 AM
the PC apeman - 29 June 2010 10:53 AM
Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 09:44 AM

Asking what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be does appear likely to be a hopeless search.  y.

Do you see the circularity in a question like ‘what ought morality be?’  Recognizing how often this trap slips in to words and thought strikes me as the greatest obstacle in productive discussions on morality.  A cold look at what the things we describe as morality are is the way toward coherent answers.

No, I don’t see it.  Could you explain it?

We certainly agree that looking at what moral behavior ‘is’ is likely to be far more profitable than trying to figure out what it ‘ought’ to be. 

Do you see any reason not to use the normal methods of science to help us understand what moral behavior ‘is’?

Not at all, science is my tool of choice for producing explanations.  But I think one needs to make a decision about what is to be studied.  For example, the use of the ‘moral’ qualifier before the word ‘behavior’.  Is it describing the behavior of an actor or the reaction behavior of an observer?

The circularity comes from the idea that morality is all about the oughts.  To ask what morality ought to be is to ask what ought one ought to do?  It doesn’t get you any closer to understanding what oughts are about.  It’s kind of like losing a little on every sale but trying to make it up in volume.

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Posted: 29 June 2010 12:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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the PC apeman - 29 June 2010 11:30 AM

Yes, it is a problem to define exactly what is being studied when using science to tease out the underlying, necessary characteristics of moral behavior.  I think that problem can be adequately overcome by using all past and present cultural moral standards as the data base to be studied.  There is still a question of how to exclude past and present cultural standards that have little to nothing to do with moral behavior.  I’ve opened a new thread on just this topic:

What is the best way to judge if a cultural standard is a moral standard?

Ok, I see what you mean about circular.  But are you concluding from this that moral philosophy is fundamentally unable to ever tell us what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be (where ‘ought’ implies justificatory force beyond rational choice)?

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Posted: 29 June 2010 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Mark Sloan - 29 June 2010 12:57 PM

Ok, I see what you mean about circular.  But are you concluding from this that moral philosophy is fundamentally unable to ever tell us what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be (where ‘ought’ implies justificatory force beyond rational choice)?

I think the “what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be” question is as non-sensical as “what color is color” and therefore science has no work to do there.  Where science can be put to use is when we point to something that we label morality, or color.  Science can then put together an explanation for what we observed.

Are you uncomfortable with the idea that ‘ought’ statements express nothing more than the speaker’s preferences and predictions?  eg. You ought to do X. = I propose you do X (because I feel doing so will bring about conditions that I, or perhaps you, will prefer).  Preferences and predictions are what brains churn out all the time.  If science someday explained all ought statements in this way, would you be satisfied that it has provided an explanation for what morality is? (Meaning no other ingredients are necessary.)

Edited for clarity.

[ Edited: 29 June 2010 02:37 PM by the PC apeman ]
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