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Have you ever considered where your ideas of “good” and “bad” come from?
I think most people don’t give it a second thought. Simple answers quickly come to mind like God, common sense, or mom and dad. Philosophers have discussed ethics for millennia, but sadly most Facebook comments today are completely void of them. All of our ideological battles of individualism vs. collectivism, capitalism vs. socialism, statism vs. anarchy and so forth can be judged by a single metric: Is it good?
Useful philosophy should be as universal as possible. Sadly, we’ve lost our way in even defining good. It’s normal for language to change over time, but some words are so foundational to our motivations and actions, if we change them, we change what it means to live a life worth living.
While on this ride, we should also think about what logical fallacies we might encounter along the way, something I hope to do with many of the posts on this blog. If you’re not familiar with YourLogicalFallcyIs.com, please make it part of your studies. Your search for truth will be greatly improved by knowing these concepts. Thoughts on this post will include No True Scotsman, Appeal to Authority, and Bandwagon.
Now that we’re geared up to avoid logical fallacies, let’s take a look at some common mechanisms I think people use to determine what is “good” and what is not.
I’ll stick with the religion I know best and spent 30+ years of my life in before losing eternity (though other religions could illustrate this point just as well). Most forms of Christianity claim to follow the Bible for just about everything, including morality. The challenge modern, moral Christians face, from my perspective, is how to live true to what they actually believe about morality in contrast to what they are supposed to believe according to the God of scripture. The truly devout (some would say, “fundamentalists”) will argue God can do and say whatever he wants because he created everything and our primitive minds can’t possibly understand him. They come up with (IMO) some rather creative mental gymnastics to justify and do away with the cognitive dissonance caused by exploring morality in the Bible.
From my perspective, the Bible (or the office of the Pope, if you prefer) gives us some pretty conflicting (i.e. not universal) perspectives on things like:
- Child Abuse
I could link out to many sources for my concerns above, but they are obvious to those who don’t see the scriptures as divinely inspired, and they are irrelevant for those who do since there’s always another interpretation and justification. You can Google for the same sources I did, but please don’t exclude results from RationalWiki.org or the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible if you’re truly looking for understanding, not just confirmation bias.
No True Scotsman fallacy shows up with regards to religion if someone replies with “But no real Christian believes that…”
What about using the law for our understanding of morality? On the surface, this might seem like a good idea and be the framework for civilization we all enjoy. Unfortunately, I’m too personally steeped in Voluntaryism to objectively explain how crazy I think this is (I’ve been on the roady to anarchy for a couple years now).
If you desire to be a good person and government law tells you what’s right, how many laws have you actually entirely read? Come to think of it… how many politicians who vote on the laws have actually read them? Yes, in theory, laws can and do change over time to be more adaptive to the consent of the governed, but the track record isn’t so great for things like:
The monopoly on the use of force within a geographic region (how I and others describe government) often uses the cover of “law” to do very immoral things. It’s amazing to me how in the United States in 2016 we actually lock people in a cage for growing a plant. We’re looking for universal philosophical principles here, so don’t even get me started with how screwed up law is in other countries around the world.
To me, some laws can be within the subset of morality, but they are not equivalent. There are laws that attempt to uphold moral ideals (don’t murder, don’t steal, etc), but the idea that morality can come from law is to me a classic Appeal to Authority fallacy as well as circular reasoning.
We might also call this category common sense. So much of our understanding of what is right and wrong comes to us in our early formative years. Those first five years of life are crucial as our brain may be wiring itself to respond to either a hostile, violent environment or a cooperative, peaceful one. Check out bombinthebrain.com for more info on the roots of human violence.
Here are some examples we get from our parents/tribe:
- Corporal Punishment (i.e. Spanking)
- “Because I said so”
- “Everyone is else is doing it”
This is basically the Bandwagon fallacy. We go along with whatever we see everyone else doing. If our parents thought spanking was a valuable form of discipline, and we “turned out okay” (in our own minds with no comparison set to use for justification), then we’ll probably be okay with spanking our kids (regardless of the studies which argue otherwise).
Now, I have to be fair. Of the categories we’ve looked at so far, this one at least seems the most reasonable to me. We do things which reward us with pleasure and avoid things which cause us pain. As social creatures, our communities provide for much of our pain and pleasure. The part where it loses universality, for me, is when it condones things which can provably be shown to decrease human well-being. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Why should human well-being matter?
Philosophy and Reason
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! I mentioned human well-being above because I think it might actually be a more universal framework for many of the other systems we’ve already explored.
If there is no God, why did humans independently, all over the world, (subconsciously?) create religions? Why did civilizations all throughout history form governments and create laws for their citizens to follow? Why do moms, dads, and tribes raising children attempt to instill morals?
I think the answer to all of the above could be summarized by it increases (or at least attempts to increase) human well-being. My personal favorite description for why morality based on human well-being matters is because this morality creates the world we want to live in. The philosophically minded readers here will recognize this as a form of Utilitarianism and should be quick to point out the many criticisms of Utilitarianism. That’s completely fine because utopia doesn’t exist in this world. Every few steps forward will involve a step or two back as we further refine and define what it is we’re talking about and, importantly, what we as conscious beings want out of life.
There are literally thousands of years of content to read when it comes to the philosophy of ethics, morality, and virtue. This is the hard stuff. To understand these concepts on a deep level takes many years of study, a journey I’m personally just beginning. Worse yet, understanding the philosophy of morality may disrupt the status quo in terms of our religions, our laws, and our view of our parents’ opinions.
It is worth it! Studying history, I would argue, suggests human progress depends on our pursuit of sound moral philosophy and communicating those ideas to each other.
The wikipedia page on Ethics outlines some key ideas which are worth getting familiar with:
- Meta-ethics: How we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong
- Normative ethics: The study of ethical action
- Virtue ethics
- State consequentialism
- Pragmatic ethics
- Role ethics
- Anarchist ethics
- Postmodern ethics
- Applied ethics: Attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations
- Business ethics
- Relational ethics
- Machine ethics
- Military ethics
- Political ethics
- Public sector ethics
- Publication ethics
- Moral Psychology: The intersection of ethics and psychology (moral development and the philosophy of mind)
- Descriptive Ethics: A value-free approach to ethics
Whoa there! That’s a lot to read through! It sure is… not only that, it’s only a subset of philosophy in general. So why bother with all that work? Well, as we’ve explored above, there are problems with other mechanisms for determining what’s good if we don’t have an internalized consistent framework of our own. Religious morality can lead to holy wars and inquisitions. Legal morality can lead to authoritarianism, world wars, and, as the Nuremberg trials showed us, “just following orders” is not a valid defense. Parental and tribal obedience doesn’t create forward moral progress and would still have us all owning slaves or condoning husbands beating their wives (to use just two examples from the last couple hundred years).
Doing the hard work of defining where our morality comes from and seriously questioning those foundations helps create a world for ourselves and our children we want to live in. It’s easy to complain about what’s wrong in society or politics or business but it’s much harder to define exactly what is “good” and what is “bad.” Without doing so, our complaints and the actions that stem from them many not lead to any improvements.
Without a solid foundational moral philosophy, our actions to bring about good might actually promote what is bad.
I’m tempted to end this post here, but I’d like to dive a little further into what personally interests me most right now concerning moral philosophy. I’m a big fan of the non-aggression principle (NAP):
The principle asserts aggression is always an illegitimate encroachment upon another individual’s life, liberty, or property, or attempt to obtain from another via deceit what could not be consensually obtained. For example, the NAP prohibits the initiation of force by one individual or group of individuals against another individual or group of individuals.
The NAP, for me, leads nicely into the concept of Voluntaryism which is a “philosophy which holds that all forms of human association should be voluntary.” I also value self ownership and the philosophy of liberty which comes from it. More on that in this 8 minute video, if you’re interested:
Another, more controversial aspect of morality I’m interested in is where it came from.
What roll does nature play in forming morality?
On a basic, biological level, what is the purpose of life? It is to survive long enough to reproduce the species. For conscious beings, survival involves being in a pleasurable state of consciousness. We have the ability to end our own life… so why don’t we? Because we’re happy. How do we stay happy? Well, that’s a unique thing for many individuals, but it’s easier to talk about the opposite and what makes us not happy. We don’t want to be aggressed against, and we enjoy autonomy to pursue things which increase our well-being. Did natural selection bring about this mechanism which seems to keep conscious species going?
The evolution section of morality on Wikipedia quotes some who argue morality as:
“a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups.” This suite of behaviors includes empathy, reciprocity, altruism, cooperation, and a sense of fairness.
There’s even a whole page on the evolution of morality. We can also get into the neuroscience aspects of morality and mirror neurons. The science of morality and ethical naturalism are two other aspects I’m really interested in, along with virtue ethics.
The takeaway here is we should all be exploring what “good” and “bad” mean to us. Before we judge, we should have a solid framework justifying our position. If not, others might easily manipulate us into promoting the very things we’re trying to change.
Where does your morality come from? Leave some comments below to keep the conversation going.
11 thoughts on “Where Does Your Morality Come From?”
This is certainly a thought-provoking firehose of a post. You raise enough issues and link to enough sites to take most people several weeks or months to evaluate thoroughly. Well done! 🙂
I certainly agree. I think there is so much short-term thinking about the immediate “feel good” thing to do that the long-term good is suffering greatly across the world.
It’s good to point readers to understand logical fallacies. It’s so easy to fall into one of these traps of false thinking when we hold various views passionately or for a long period of time. You’re right to encourage people to carefully consider assertions in light of accepted rules of logical dialog.
In your rejection of Religion as a source of truth regarding good and evil, you make some pretty broad assertions. I’d love to hear more specific details to have the chance to engage them more productively. For example:
What specific contradictions do you see regarding the “actually” and “supposed to” in the lives of believers?
After your list of pretty serious claims of Biblical endorsements of universally considered evil actions, you say:
I’m trying to decide how to interpret that line. Are you saying that people who hold to some level of divine Biblical inspiration are incapable of making rational arguments regarding the issues you’ve raised? If so, would that not be an example of a genetic or bandwagon fallacies (“oh, you’re one of those people so you couldn’t possible be rational”)? Likewise, here, you say:
Are you saying that these are the only sources for true understanding? If so, is that also not an example of confirmation bias, since these sites hold to one decidedly non-Biblical worldview? I think the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible has some of the most illogical interpretations of any literature that I’ve seen, regardless of whether you consider the Bible to be inspired. But, I’d welcome specific links to ideas you find logical, fair interpretations that would apply to any other written communication.
Core religious teachings of self-sacrificial love, treating others as you’d want them to treat you, and caring deeply for the poor, sick and hurting are fundamental to encourage “good” actions in those who follow faith systems that hold to them. Ten-commandments-like definitions of evil are universal as well. Since most people are unwilling to do the hard work of digging into the foundations for why certain things are good and evil (much like a 2-year-old can’t understand why they shouldn’t play in traffic), positive religious sources of these definitions are worthwhile, in my view. It would also be very much in line for a loving God to help guide mankind along a good path (“here is the way, walk in it”) for these teachings to be passed along in highly regarding writings.
Regarding your Law section, I agree that laws are not a foundation of good and evil. Rather, they reflect a shared understanding of a society’s values, and ideally, help keep those who would disrupt the peace of those who want to follow mutually beneficial paths from causing too much damage. We can appeal to the “better angels of our nature”, but some, out of short-term passion, will seek to better themselves at the expense of others, unless appropriate boundaries are in place.
I found your discussion of Parents/Tribe to be focused on the negative to the exclusion of many positive aspects of lessons that can be learned from our elders. From my father, for example, I learned integrity even when it costs you, how to treat your wife, how hard work pays off, the importance of great friends, and many such character traits. Good character isn’t natural; we are born believing that if we think of ourselves first we’ll be happy. The (hopefully) wiser adults in our lives help us see that we end up happier by helping others instead of helping ourselves.
You’re right, Philosophy and Reason are huge, deep areas of study regarding the source for good and evil. You list such a broad array of subjects it’s hard to know where to begin, and time isn’t my friend. 🙂 I’d just encourage a less negative view of some of the areas you listed:
Yes, but it can also lead to Mother Teresa-like self-sacrifice, establishment of the great educational and scientific institutions (see charters of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.), and some of the most amazing music the world has ever heard. 🙂
Yes, but if legal systems are properly structured and tuned, they can provide guardrails for society that provide a secure framework for human flourishing.
Regarding evolutionary morality, there is a lot of interesting material here. To risk a broad generalization, since most who hold to materialism deny free will in nearly any sense (e.g. Sam Harris), I see the attempt to define morality through natural selection as quite challenging, even self-refuting. Much of this comes to definition of terms. Morality regards what we “ought” to do. If people have no free will, no ability to make choices or form intentions, then they have no responsibility for what they do, and therefore, no moral obligation.
One of the most significant influences on my thinking this way is Charles Grandson Finney (1792-1875). He was a lawyer turned Christian revivalist during the second great awakening where widespread Christian conversions became motivations for anti-slavery, women’s rights, education, and prison reform. Here are a few of my favorite Finney quotes:
Regarding morality, he says:
If you’re interested in some thinking outside of the framework you’re currently exploring, you might consider Finney’s Systematic Theology.
Thanks for thinking of these things and sharing your thoughts!
Hey Doug! Thanks for commenting.
Yes, that was by design. The original draft of this post linked out to a number of sources for my current view, but I decided to leave it open ended for people to do their own research. I’ve spent many years of my life using (what I now consider to be rather weak) apologetic arguments for moral problems in scripture which I’m fairly certain others of that same ideology would do as well. I’ve watched some debates as people try to engage on that level and it usually goes nowhere because people either start arguing about the definitions of words to the point of having a meaningless conversation or they pull the “God is God and can do whatever he wants” card which also effectively ends the discussion.
An example might be, “Do you condone slavery in any form?” No. “Does God condone slavery in any form?” Well…
A couple times in your comments it seems to me you might be misrepresenting my position or what I said.
But I said:
I think I’m more accurately saying those who “hold to” a position which can not and will not be swayed by rational arguments will not change their position by increasing or improving the rational arguments. I’m not suggesting people aren’t logical or rational if they believe in the Bible, I am saying there are some (not all), who hold to their positions on the Bible based on ideology / worldview, not based on reasonable argument. No amount of argument would change their position. The apologetics involved (from what I’ve seen) justify a position which already exists instead of starting from scratch to see what position is rationally justifiable (IMO). I try hard not to discredit someone because of their label or group (genetic/bandwagon), but instead by their actions and positions taken given the evidence.
No. I clearly said “please don’t exclude.” That’s a far cry from “This is the only place true understanding comes from.” Many (including myself) who are looking to justify their position don’t look at both sides. The Christian worldview, I’d argue, specifically excludes certain sources because some believe those involved have a “satanic agenda” or some such thing to poison what they see as “the truth.” As an example, I know Christians who won’t read Sam Harris because they have friends who are no longer Christian after doing so. That does’t look like the pursuit of knowledge to me.
As for the positive moral core religious teachings you mentioned, I agree there are many! I’d also argue versions of “do unto others” come from almost all the major world religions. We can either conclude there is only one truth from the God of the Bible and all the others are copying it (even if they came before the Bible) in order to meet the needs of created creatures as ordained by the Creator, or we can conclude there’s a lower level human principle explaining why these various religions around the world (over time) came to the some of the same conclusions about how to increase human well-being and therefore codified very similar stances on murder, theft, love, etc.
I think this is becoming harder to do in our digitally connected age. Win / Lose interactions are being shown as Lose / Lose interactions on a much shorter timescale than ever before. As an example, Empires maintained through military force and tribute are now more costly than mutually beneficial trade. I know my position here goes against Hobbes’ Leviathan argument, so I’m still working out my defense.
I purposefully didn’t include the many positive aspects of these categories because, again, I’m searching for universal philosophical principles. The negatives are what keeps something from being universal, so if we can find serious negatives, we should keep looking. Are there negatives to focusing on increasing human well-being as a framework for morality? If not (or they are minor compared to these examples) then that would appear to be a more universal philosophical principle.
Which, I’d argue, allows babies to survive. If they didn’t cry, they might not get fed because it’s inconvenient for the mother. I think that’s more a description of the early formation of the brain than anything else (and our tiny hips, but that’s a larger story). For example, I read something which talked about how the concept of empathy and the parts of the brain we attribute to creating it (mirror neurons, etc) don’t fully develop until around the age 25 in women and early 30’s in men. It’s simply a matter of brain development. That’s an important reason to have a strong tribe and great parents, but I don’t think it’s a “human nature” kind of thing. If we “think of ourselves first” while recognizing everyone else is also doing the same thing via empathy, we can then better create voluntary, win/win interactions. Altruism, for example, doesn’t (IMO) work as well because it either makes assumptions about what others actually want or need or it fools someone into thinking they are being selfless when they might actually be making rational decisions based on their own value system (even if that just means creating the world they want to live in).
Finney’s Systematic Theology sounds really interesting! I’ll take a look.
As for your critique of determinism, do you have a specific example of how its self-refuting? How will you respond if, for example, our ability to understand cause and effect down to the atomic level leads us to one day assert our understanding of “free will” was actually wrong and every decision we make can be traced back to a previous atomic configuration? If we then “decide” human well-being should be paramount (again, a desire which itself could been put there via deterministic natural selection), can’t we then change the inputs to the system to impact future changes for better outcomes in human well-being?
Sometimes it seems to me those who are uncomfortable talking about determinism aren’t that way because of a scientific understanding of cause and effect, but because of what it could mean about their judgements towards what is “right” and “wrong” and also how we treat criminals and celebrate moral heroes. That would be a fun topic to discuss further. 🙂
Hi Luke! I appreciate the dialog.
I certainly didn’t intend to misrepresent you, so thank you for clarifying. I appreciate you working hard to try and remain open to a rational presentation of alternative viewpoints—I’m trying to do the same. It’s hard not to fall prey to the fallacy-fallacy: thinking that because someone holds a particular viewpoint for illogical reasons that their viewpoint is invalid. Someone may claim the earth is round because a squirrel told them it’s round. Nobody would say the earth is flat because of the invalid squirrel cosmology theory.
Regarding determinism being self refuting: this is a deep topic. I’ll start with my very unsophisticated version: I don’t think it passes the “emperor has no clothes” test. Virtually all healthy people experience free will as self-evident. I envision it this way: a group of adults are discussing how cause-and-effect brought each of them to the party to have this very discussion. One of their kids is bored, picks up some crayons, and decides to draw a house, dog, and a cat. The child knows she could have decided to play with Legos or pick on her sister instead. When she overhears the grown-ups say their freedom to choose is an illusion, she laughs at them, knowing she’s free to do whatever she wants.
More seriously: if everything is determined, it seems to me that we cannot even discuss whether things are determined. Our ability to reasonably evaluate ideas depends on our freedom to weigh options and consider them. If free will is an illusion, reason is an illusion, so discussing the merits of logical arguments falls in on itself. C.S. Lewis famously said: “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?” How can we say that a thought process only bent on its survival can evaluate truth in any objective way?
Additionally, proponents of determinism regularly express the difficult of living with the consequences of their view. Marvin Minsky, the famous AI researcher, wrote this in his Society Of Mind:
To me, attempting to prove our lack of free will through complex scientific arguments is like denying that we have the ability to think abstractly while drawing a diagram of a theoretical alternative to abstract thought. It’s internally self-contradictory.
This is more than a theoretical discussion. Both you and I are trying to make the world a better place. We want people to think better so they can help make the world better, albeit from different worldviews.
Andy Andrews says that “Thinking determines choices. Choices create actions. Actions yield results. Results determine culture.” We can choose what we think about. The input that goes into our minds changes how we think and therefore what we choose to do. We all know we can choose to read this book or that, watch some mindless reality show or an educational documentary, go for a run or drive to the donut shop, blow our money or save it. These choices have consequences. If we’re going to improve the future, we have to believe that people can learn to make better choices. Otherwise, what’s the point of discussing any of this?
Got to love the fallacy fallacy!
And the child has a provably under developed brain. I often see my kids making connections to unrelated things in order to create meaning out of them, and it makes me laugh every time. Every “decision” is a complex interaction of electrical signals between neurons and chemical reactions to determine if the right composition is there to fire this neuron connection or that one. Yes, it’s complex, but on a very simplified level, that’s all that is happening. Even if we argue there’s an element of randomness in the system so one time we chose one thing and another time we chose something else, then the system is still deterministic in the sense that the random generator has properties with statistical outcomes we can know about. Just because we don’t (yet) fully understand how all those billions of neurons firing turns into a thought or a decision doesn’t mean we won’t know it someday. I’d argue someday soon, actually. Guys like Ray Kurzweil think this stuff is just a decade or two away.
I’m not sure I agree. I think this is the story we tell ourselves, but if we’re deterministic machines, all that matters is the input (which, I think, changes the system itself as it works through the machine via neural plasticity, etc). The next time the same input shows up, we might get a different output, but that doesn’t mean the system isn’t deterministic, it just means it’s complex.
We can’t! That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned over the last couple of years, and why I’m so interested in the concept of epistemology and the need for healthy skepticism. Our brains fool us more than most people realize (see the show Brain Games, or the books Predictable Irrational and Thinking, Fast and Slow). The best we can do is learn about how our brains fail us and build systems for being fooled as little as possible (such as the scientific method).
I actually think it opens us up to be less dogmatic, less sure of own opinions and ideologies and more open to ideas which better describe reality. If I think what I think now because of the inputs up to this point and you think what you think because of your inputs up to this point, then neither of us are “wrong” or “bad” as much as we have different models of the world shaped by different inputs and experiences. Have you ever had great conversations with someone and were continually surprised to see how similar your views on a wide range of topics are only to later find out you read a lot of the same books and had some similar experiences growing up? I see determinism a bit like that. Also, I think it makes us less judgmental towards those who do things which decrease human well-being because, if we were in their place and we were literally “them”, then we would have done the same thing because we would have been them.
I love Andy’s perspective, but I disagree slightly with the “We can choose what we think about” view. Again, our thoughts are a result of chemical and electrical interactions in the mind and, someday, I think we’ll have enough visibility there to better understand it. Good marketers do this to some extent today already. Mind control might simply be understanding someone’s ideology/worldview and providing the right inputs to get the desired output. People used to believe all kinds of crazy things about human hearts, but then they finally did open heart surgery and all that went away. I really enjoyed the movie Something The Lord Made and blogged about it almost 4 years ago. Check it out on Netflix, I think you’ll like it.
Or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves. I think education is like a rewiring of the deterministic machine. Did you know that even retrieving a memory can alter that memory? Our brains are constantly changing. Saying it’s deterministic isn’t also saying “nothing we do matters to change anything.” On the contrary, I’d say we should (given our desire to improve human well-being) understand these mechanisms in even greater detail so we can give the right inputs to the biological machine for creating the desired output.
Related to that, you might find this website interesting: http://changingminds.org/ (I especially liked this section on belief.)
Good stuff, Doug!
Luke, you’ve given me a lot to read, think about, and respond to. I bought Thinking Fast & Slow, and will read your other references before I respond further. It may be a little while, but I’ll be back. 🙂
Hey Luke, I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I’ve made a job and mission change over the past several weeks and that has taken most of my head space, though I have been slowly reading through Thinking Fast & Slow, among many other things.
I like what you said above about being less dogmatic, sure, and ultimately, humble. Everyone is wise to hold their views with open hands, attempting to be as objective as possible. I also share your desire to learn more about how our minds are influenced by input so that I can help people have better lives by overcoming destructive messages and embracing helpful ones. The idea of being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” is powerful, and what I was trying to say in quoting Andrews above. I think we have the ability to choose our input, and by that input, influence our future choices.
I decided to write an article on my blog to share why I think determinism is false and self-refuting even after doing the reading you suggested above, as I had a lot of ground to cover and hoped to be more complete. It’s obviously a huge subject with many considerations, so even my article is just a drop in the ocean. I appreciate your inspiration to think about these things and read more broadly.
I’m interested in your thoughts after reading it, whether here or in comments on my blog. I especially wonder how you work out what I perceive is the irrationality of reason under determinism. How can you know you’re being reasonable? You said you’re interested in epistemology, and I am as well. It seems to me that by accepting materialism at the level you’ve described, you’ve removed any foundation to think we have the capacity for rational thought. I this very discussion proves that we do have free will and the ability to be rational, understanding we all come with certain biases, desires, constraints, and all the rest. However, at the end of the day, if you say our perception of free will is an illusion, and our minds were built by unguided processes with only the goal of survival and procreation, on what basis do you make further rational claims?
Thanks again, Luke, I appreciate the dialog, and am learning a lot!
Sweet! Thanks Doug! I’ll check out your post and reply there after reading it. As to “on what basis do you make further rational claims?” we defined the word “rational” to begin with (in English, no less), so there’s a lot which is open to our own interpretation. As we understand more about the physical nature of the brain and how that impacts our understanding of “self”, I think we’ll not only have a more accurate understanding of ourselves and consciousness but also of the reality we’re attempting to interpret. From a purely philosophical stance, I don’t think we can ever “know” because neural networks are based on probabilities that the neuron will or will not fire which may or may not trigger other neurons which lead to a memory or action or thought. We can’t “know” the laws of physics will continue to function tomorrow, we just have probabilities and shared history to work from. The art, I think, is being comfortable in that space which doesn’t know and yet can still build useful things using probabilities and assumptions which seem to (so far anyway) lead to beneficial outcomes.
Thanks, Luke! I’ll look forward to hearing what you think, no rush at all, as I was very slow. 🙂
I have great respect for neuroscience and am just a casual reader of articles about it. However, as a software developer, I see our current understanding of the brain as not far beyond infancy compared to our knowledge of computers. Imagine trying to understand the math involved in a video decoding algorithm by measuring the electrical impulses across a computer logic board. We’d see high CPU activity when 3D graphics were rendering, or high network activity when streaming video. However, without an understanding of the language of the data, we wouldn’t have a clue about what was actually happening inside the computer. I think that’s where we are in our understanding of the brain.
It also seems to me that thinking our brain processes are entirely physical and based on probabilities is question-begging too: it assumes physicalism, and validates it by only by evaluating the activity of the physical neural networks and related brain structures. Again, what if we used a hardware-only approach to understanding computers without being open to the fact that there is software, intentionally written to perform certain functions because of a programmer’s design, not because of physical laws or probabilities. If we approached that by saying “there are only hardware and physical processes”, it seems like that constraint would limit us from seeing how the system really works.
We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. To the degree that we can objectively know what is good for us and what is bad for us, morality is objective.
A person of moral intent seeks the best good for others as well as himself/herself. To achieve this good they may apply many tools. They may share their food with those who lack it. They may teach others the skills to provide for themselves and contribute to society. They may heal the sick, advance science, or do many other things that improve the overall good and reduce the overall harm.
One of the things a person of moral intent will do is to seek to discover the best set of rules to live by. A moral code is a set of rules intended to achieve good results for everyone. Rule systems include manners, mores, customs, rules, ethics, and laws.
Moral judgment compares two rules (two ways of doing things) by weighing the expected benefits and harms that everyone will experience if we follow this rule versus that rule. For example, will we all be better off with laws that enable slavery and protect the slaveholder’s ownership, or will we all be better off with a law that abolishes slavery altogether?
After the consequentialists make the moral judgment and establish the new rule, the deontologists take over the dissemination of the rule, using rhetoric invoking God or Nature to bring the crowds along.
The beauty of the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:35-40 is that it captures this relationship between morality and ethics. As a Humanist, I paraphrase Jesus this way, “Love good. And love it for others as you love it for yourself. All of the rules are judged by how well they serve this love.”
The main problem I have with the non-aggression principle is that it is often used to defend racist segregation and to fight against paying one’s taxes. It comes down to a matter of identifying which party is responsible for the “initiation of force”.
For example, a racist restaurant owner puts a “Whites Only” sign in the window. A black man comes into the restaurant and orders a cup of coffee. Which one has initiated force? I say that the owner placing the “Whites Only” sign has initiated force.
Same with taxes. A man refuses to pay his taxes, in the mistaken belief that he owns all of the money he earns. He has sufficient funds to pay the tax, but refuses out of “principle”. The judge orders the police to arrest him. When the police arrive he opens fire. Which one has initiated force? I say that refusing to pay his taxes initiated force.
How do you assess these two cases?