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Philosophy 101 (ie can something be immoral?)

lightyear

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To keep this short, here is what I have trouble getting at. Just about everyone claims some actions are moral or immoral (right or wrong, good or bad). I've taken basic philosophy but only did well because i approached it like literature, it's what it is and does not have to be true. I still cannot answer the question why some actions are 'better' or 'more just' then others. Scientifically the creation of the universe and our species had no a priori reason (to our knowledge at this point). We can extract some moral standards out of evolution as beneficiary to our genome, but these can be treated as a code of conduct (with gaining self-awareness) we became advanced enough to disregard on choice (even if it leads to our extinction). (here is a post by someone not very profficient but he gets at most of what I want to say: http://forums.philosophyforums.com/t...ist-16173.html) When you ask someone why they feel something is immoral or someone else 'is a bad person' most of their logic comes from: church, culture, parents, personal hang ups etc. IE most people cannot formulate why there is 'the RIGHT thing to do'. I think this position is called moral relativism or something. So here we go, if you consider 'the greater good' or 'the right thing' to exist please explain how you rationalize this belief. Otherwise point being is that a savior is not better or worse then a murderer. He may be worse from SOCIETY's point of view, but that is simply a evolutionary-rational behavior. For those who want to be more specific the problem I have is this: Normative ethics can't be deduced from the observation of the Universe, therefore we have no reason to uphold them, less utilitarian application to maximize our own happiness. The dominance of the church and other cultural institutions did a remarkable job of convincing people otherwise (threat of punishment such as hell being one of the motivators). When answering keep this in mind: yes, ethical conduct has practical application (why we have law); something 'feeling right' often has biological explanations (to see what I mean read the 'train' anecdote in the link) and again does not constitute higher standards; yes you can say the world like this sucks and it's probably easier to be a good Christian then to ask why; this is not satisfactory evidence for why greater moral standard exists, 'should be' is not evidence for 'is'
 

musicguy

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Are you asking us to write a paper for you? I feel like I'm back in school with the way this is worded!
 

lightyear

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if you read the thread I linked for 5 pages people just questioned word definitons and critisised the way it was phrased. I want to avoid that, but all I am asking is "how do rationalize thinking actions can be immoral or 'bad'"
 

tagutcow

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There was an exhaustive thread on this subject that basically ended up as me and J.D. May batting moral subjectivists. Of course, our argument was most apophantic, since neither of us could precisely define what objective morality is, or what precisely makes it objective, only that it exists.

What does not make objective morality objective is the fact that someone asserts it to be so. A morality would not be objective even if everyone asserted it to be so. Confusing objective morality with an assertion of moral objectivity is usually what trips moral subjectivists up, and is why they usually end up defeating their own arguments. (See "We used to think slavery was fine, but now we know better, so therefore morality is subjective!")

The mere fact of the existence of an objective, exoteric moral code does not equate with any compulsion to abide by this code. "Every man does what he thinks is right", and not even the threat of imprisonment- possibly not even the theat of hell itself- will always deter a man who believes he is acting with ultimate righteousness.
 
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paging spb_lady. She has a whole degree in this stuff, she's spent years waiting for this moment
 

NameBack

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I'm not sure there is morality in a way that's completely external to subjective human experience, but I think we can arrive at something that may be reasonably called "rational" or "objective" morality.

All morality fundamentally hinges on some kind of hedonic principle -- preferable experiences are valued over unpleasant experiences. Even ascetic disciplines and codes ultimately are driven by a hedonic motive; suffering is never advocated merely for suffering's sake, but because it delivers a more profound pleasure. The quintessential form of this being the denial of "worldly" pleasures in order to gain spiritual fulfillment. A Buddhist monk does not suffer for sufferings sake, but because by abandoning simple physical desires, he achieves a greater peace and satisfaction.

That's actually one of the things I think religion really gets right -- that it's easier to determine your own emotional well-being and happiness by altering your perception than by altering your environment.

But, anyway, even such systems ultimately come down to some basic hedonic principle. The monk is, ultimately, happier than the non-believer. He is at peace, he is satisfied, he is free from the suffering that comes from desire.

Similarly, more prosaic dictums, such as "no pain no gain" or the Protestant work ethic generally are rooted in similar goals -- postponing immediate pleasures for greater pleasures in the future. Again, suffering is not merely for suffering's sake, but because it yields superior hedonic value in the end.

And indeed, fundamentally it's difficult to imagine the concept of choice or decision making -- of valuing at all -- without some conception of preferable and unpleasant states of experience. In order to make a relative statement of any kind, anything that invokes "better" or "worse" or some permutation thereof, we necessarily assume a variability of experience, with some states of experience being preferable and others being unpleasant.

The point here is that hedonic value can be accurately measured, to an extent. We are actually not so bad at determining if people are happy or not (self-reporting surveys have actually been demonstrated to be highly internally consistent, and to match well to brain imaging, indicating that self-reporting reflects with a high degree of accuracy actual physical pleasure mechanisms in the brain -- i.e., you can trust happiness surveys).

So, if all morality fundamentally assumes a hedonic principle, the objective or empirical approach to morality would be to look at moral dilemmas and perform rigorous and thorough study to determine which action results in a superior hedonic yield -- which makes people happier, more content.

That, I think, is about as close to "objective" morality as anyone can come.

If you reject the foundation of preference, then I suppose you can disagree, but you also sort of take yourself out of any moral discussion at all, so people in the debate really don't care what you have to say at that point. You're of course free to abandon the notion of morality if you choose, but I don't really see the point.
 

tagutcow

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Originally Posted by NameBack
So, if all morality fundamentally assumes a hedonic principle, the objective or empirical approach to morality would be to look at moral dilemmas and perform rigorous and thorough study to determine which action results in a superior hedonic yield -- which makes people happier, more content.

And if part of what makes people happy and content is the satisfaction of knowing they've acted morally rather than immorally, well, we're back at square one, aren't we?
 

mr bunbury

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Originally Posted by lightyear
Scientifically the creation of the universe and our species had no a priori reason (to our knowledge at this point).
My $0.02 on this issue is that this is the wrong starting place if you want to make sense of the idea of an 'objective' morality. In order to have some 'objective' idea of morality you need to step outside of moral philosophy and into metaphysics. You need a sort of morally 'naturalist' point of view, based upon a careful understanding of the relationship between human experience and the universe at large. I think Heidegger is the philosopher who talks about this the best. It's tempting to give the amoral universe priority - to say that the non-morality of the universe necessarily makes the human attempt at morality limited and silly. Oftentimes this argument will be advanced by pointing to some non-moral part of nature - like a mountain - and saying something like: "Look at that mountain. It exists on a geologic scale, and it in turn is part of a planet that exists on a stellar scale, and by those scales human morality is meaningless. Our right and wrong mean nothing to the mountain." The indifference of nature must mean that our attempts at non-indifference are incoherent. I'm never convinced by these kinds of arguments, though. Obviously our morality means nothing to the mountain, but that's because mountains are dumb rocks. There's nothing it's like to be a mountain. I would much rather be me than the mountain, just as I'd much rather be me than be the tables or chairs in my office. In fact, I think it'd be fair to say that I'm worth more than the mountain, at least in some ways - I exist more than the mountain, because I exist to myself, and the mountain doesn't exist to itself. It's not reasonable to reduce everything that exists in the universe, including you and me, to the mountain's level of being. To make sense of the things that exist and the way that they're related to one another, you need a hierarchy of the things that exist; you have to resist what Heidegger called the 'leveling' of everything. Actually human beings count more than other beings - that's why we mine mountains and eat animals and plants. We exist more than them, even if, on one level, we're all made up of the same kinds of molecules. To make sense of morality, I think you need to start by having a relatively flexible ontology, which admits that different kinds of beings have different kinds of natures and exist 'more' or 'less.' I think it's fair to say (as Heidegger would say) that of the things we know to exist, human beings exist 'more' than most other things. They have fuller, more multi-dimensional existences. From this point of view, the question you start with shouldn't be, "Did someone or something create the universe, and a moral order along with it?" (The answer to that is probably 'no.') If you start there, you're ending the inquiry before it begins. It should be (something like), "Is there an essential nature to personhood, and what is that nature?" - or, "Is there something called human flourishing, and what is that flourishing, and how do we further it?" - or "What is the nature of conscious experience, and how do we make that experience better?" - or "What are human beings like, what are their potentialities, and how do they express them most fully?" - remembering, as you ask these questions, that human experience and human being exist as much if not more than other kinds of beings. (Conscious, self-aware) human being is special - it's a pinnacle of what exists in the universe that we've encountered so far, because it exists to itself. These are the kinds of questions Sam Harris asks in his recent book. I didn't like that book, but they're also the kinds of questions asked by Aristotle or Heidegger. The main thing is that you don't want to fall into the trap of assuming that human beings and their experiences don't 'objectively' matter. That's an assumption. In fact it's possible to give them 'objective' priority. Now, if you've gone this far, you have a few different options. You can go one way and say that 'human flourishing' equals happiness - reduces to some kind of hedonic value (as NameBack says). Obviously there's a lot of sense to this, but if you're going to rely entirely on it, then you have to expand the idea of 'hedonic value' or 'happiness' to be pretty broad. This is the Sam Harris argument (you should look at his TED talk). I think it's useful, but also a stretch. It relies on an economist's idea of happiness or choice, IMO; it just won't accept the idea that things that don't make us happy can nevertheless have value. Another way to go - not a replacement for the hedonic route, but a supplement to it - is to try to think through the question of what human experience is, in its nature, and especially to think about the dimensions of that experience that are not strictly speaking about happiness or hedonic value, and which are maybe submerged or hard to see, but which are still just as real. This is the idea in _Being and Time_. So (to give on example), you might think that one of the elements of human being is knowing and experiencing things, and therefore that 'the good' involves knowing things. You can adopt a point-of-view that emphasizes 'the good' or 'the good life' and tries to derive it from some sense of what life can be. *Now* you're in the realm of moral philosophy, where there are lots of disagreements. I'm not even going to try to summarize this way of thinking, but if you read Polt's introduction to Heidegger, or Jonathan Lear's "Aristotle: The Desire to Understand," those are good introductions. Possibly this isn't the question you're asking. If the question is, "How can we objectively determine that Choice A is better than Choice B, or that Practice X is better than Practice Y," the answer is that we can't easily and finally determine that, although we can argue in a rational way about it, for sure. But if you're asking, "Does moral life exist?" or "Is there any reality to moral life?" then I think the answer is definitely yes. It's not an illusion or something like that - it's a complicated but, ultimately, real thing.
 

Piobaire

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Undergrad Gen Ed courses were such a heady time.
 

Groves

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I'm not a bad person because I don't feel bad.
 

caxt

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I attempted to write a conclusive answer to your question and then realized that I am nowhere near articulate to pull it off. So I would direct you to George Mavrodes "Religion and the Queerness of Morality." While not a perfect answer, it would seem to pose some criticisims against your statement.

(Now to move slightly off topic



What I would like to address and find discourse on, is the ethical ideas surrounding the "Train Situation" example you provided. For myself I would be assuming the humans do not exist in a "Russellian World" (Bertrand Russell), meaning that God's existence cannot be proven or disproved.

Because I find the argument of Evil to be ineffective in disproving the existence of God, and because I find Pascal's wager to be convincing I am operating on the possibility of the afterlife.

To the examples, which I have reworked a bit:

Suppose that collected in a building are a given number of people (say 100) that are completely and totally evil (think Hitler and Stalin). There is also one totally innocent person inside with them. You have the ability to blow the building to smithereens: in doing so killing some of the greatest human evil on the planet and ending one innocent life. If you choose not to blow up the building all of those evil men will escape but the innocent life will be saved. What do you do?

From a utilitarian perspective this is easy just like the train example. But operating of the premise that God exists and defines morality in a just / unjust fashion then the correct moral action would be to save the life of the innocent and let the killers go free.

But in that scenario the choice for inaction is not accounted for. The next scenario may have some of the "queerness" that Mavrodes referred to.

In this scenario you the individual are awoken with a panel in front of you and look to a room (blocked by soundproof glass) that holds two people tied to their chairs. The panel instructions explain that you have exactly 30 seconds to choose which of these people will die by hitting a button. If you do not choose both will die, and you along with them.

Again the utilitarian perspective is clear: one innocent life to save two is the greatest good.

But I would submit that in a universe where God could exist the correct moral action would be: inaction. Better to let all die then to have destroyed innocent life.

-But this can become trickier: swap one of the tied individuals out with a small girl; perhaps even a family member. In that case the situation really hasn't changed but now you might be so inclined to view the utilitarian perspective with more weight.

I'm not sure how this situation predicates moral truth or not. But just like Mavrodes I would have trouble conceiving of a world where zero moral obligations exist: I do not think that altruism and the like can be explained away completely by evolutionary psychology.

I would enjoy continuing to expose my thoughts on how the above situations might apply to the ethics of just killings, abortions, and death penalty (especially for the insane) or other tricky moral quagmires that we ourselves dealing with today.
 

NameBack

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Originally Posted by mr bunbury
Heidegger and shit.

I have some minor disagreements in here (which I'll bring up further down), but the overall point of relocating one's scale to that of humanity (down from some cosmic scale) is certainly important and worthwhile. I wholeheartedly agree.

Now, if you've gone this far, you have a few different options. You can go one way and say that 'human flourishing' equals happiness - reduces to some kind of hedonic value (as NameBack says). Obviously there's a lot of sense to this, but if you're going to rely entirely on it, then you have to expand the idea of 'hedonic value' or 'happiness' to be pretty broad. This is the Sam Harris argument (you should look at his TED talk). I think it's useful, but also a stretch. It relies on an economist's idea of happiness or choice, IMO; it just won't accept the idea that things that don't make us happy can nevertheless have value.
You're right, and I would define hedonic value in a rather broad fashion, but oddly also a precise one.

George Lakoff, for instance, suggests that there are a finite number of states of "experiential well-being" which are more or less hardwired into us. Among them are categories of well-being such as health (it feels better to feel healthy than to feel sick), or strength (it feels better to feel strong than to feel weak). Now, keep in mind that the experiential part is very important here.

That is to say, while one person may be objectively healthier than another, the less healthy person may feel healthier, if they have a different frame of reference (if the first person is a hypochondriac, say). But, interestingly, in such a scenario, the less-healthy person is actually the one with the greater hedonic yield.

This is not an abstract concept, either -- when asked to self-report how healthy they feel, on a scale of 1-10, Americans averaged a meager 3, while Columbians (a country with short life expectancy, many endemic diseases which are preventable, poor sanitation, high infant mortality, etc) reported an average of 6. Why is this? Well, there's a whole host of possible contributors, and it would be hasty to rush to judgment, but I think our conception of illness is probably a factor (in America, healthy is congruent with "optimal" or "peak," whereas in the developing world healthy generally means "not sick," which is what it once meant in America as well). But, maybe not. The point is, we do have to ask ourselves -- how useful are our many material advances if they don't translate into subjective, experienced, internal gains in various hedonic measures?

That's not to say that we should abandon our material gains -- I think many of them do have potential to have a greater hedonic value -- but it is important that we consider how they are perceived, as well as how they are objectively measured. This is something that has been largely ignored by national policy since...well, since the invention of the nation state.

But, in terms of precision, I think it is reasonable to believe that we could empirically and rigorously develop a taxonomy of preferential states of experience -- Lakoff's experiential well-being. And in turn, we can then measure the effects of circumstances or policy across the many dimensions of hedonic value that we have developed. It would be broader than mere emotional happiness (which is still an important aspect of the overall hedonic picture of course), but still precise in that it would be a well-defined taxonomy that can be measured.

Another way to go - not a replacement for the hedonic route, but a supplement to it - is to try to think through the question of what human experience is, in its nature, and especially to think about the dimensions of that experience that are not strictly speaking about happiness or hedonic value, and which are maybe submerged or hard to see, but which are still just as real. This is the idea in _Being and Time_. So (to give on example), you might think that one of the elements of human being is knowing and experiencing things, and therefore that 'the good' involves knowing things. You can adopt a point-of-view that emphasizes 'the good' or 'the good life' and tries to derive it from some sense of what life can be. *Now* you're in the realm of moral philosophy, where there are lots of disagreements. I'm not even going to try to summarize this way of thinking, but if you read Polt's introduction to Heidegger, or Jonathan Lear's "Aristotle: The Desire to Understand," those are good introductions.
Personally, I'm not sure this is necessary. I'm not sure there's anything particularly meaningful about human experience, so much as conscious experience (this is the nitpick I alluded to at the beginning of the post). In which case, we have to examine questions that are now important to think about, because of our technological capabilities -- like, "how can we modify what it means to be human, to experience as a human being?"

And no, I don't mean fruity transhumanism fantasy -- in fact this questioning has already begun with the development and vast popularity of psychiatric drugs, including antidepressants. Antidepressants are, in a way, religious asceticism in a pill -- the idea that to eliminate suffering we must search within, to alter perception, not endeavor to fulfill external desire and alter our environment.

So, personally I would prefer not tying morality too closely to human experience, because from a hedonic perspective, perhaps the most moral action could be altering the very essence of what it means to be human.

Possibly this isn't the question you're asking. If the question is, "How can we objectively determine that Choice A is better than Choice B, or that Practice X is better than Practice Y," the answer is that we can't easily and finally determine that, although we can argue in a rational way about it, for sure. But if you're asking, "Does moral life exist?" or "Is there any reality to moral life?" then I think the answer is definitely yes. It's not an illusion or something like that - it's a complicated but, ultimately, real thing.
I agree that it is real, but I do think that, because we are all necessarily operating on some hedonic level, you could develop an empirical way to determine the morality of action by starting with the universal assumptions that valuation requires (preferential states of experience are better than unpleasant states of experiences), and measure how various policies/actions/circumstances affect various measures of hedonic value. The greater yield is the more moral policy.
 

ConcernedParent

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Originally Posted by lightyear
When you ask someone why they feel something is immoral or someone else 'is a bad person' most of their logic comes from: church, culture, parents, personal hang ups etc. IE most people cannot formulate why there is 'the RIGHT thing to do'.

I think this position is called moral relativism or something.


Yes. If you are supposing that morality is extrapolated from one's experience (i.e exposure to parents, culture, church, blah blah) then you are supposing everyone's "relative" morality to be true for them. This is problematic because it then would follow that everyone's own moral code is correct because there is no objective measure to deride one as "wrong"... of course this is logically impossible since essentially EVERYONE will disagree with EVERYONE ELSE on some point or another. A position can not be both right and wrong (right for them, wrong for you) at the same time. The argument falls apart on itself. If say, Parent X agrees with A and Parent Y agrees with B, the antithesis of A; and you follow B, are you not rejecting A as wrong? This is no longer moral relativism if you hold that A can be wrong (even if its just for you).

If you are supposing morality to be synthesized by the individual from "experience" by way of influence... why did you not simply adopt ALL of their moral inclinations? Firstly, it is impossible as I have explained in the first paragraph. Secondly by the act of choosing some and rejecting others, you have acknowledged moral intuition (your rationale for favoring one over another).


Originally Posted by lightyear
So here we go, if you consider 'the greater good' or 'the right thing' to exist please explain how you rationalize this belief.

Just because people disagree on the nature of morality or do not arrive at an universal code does not follow that it cannot exist.
 

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