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Morality: relative or absolute?

Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by herb slocomb:
The other side of the equation is the similarities of morals from group to group. If morals were purely arbitrary social constructs I suspect you find much greater variation than has existed. If morals are not purely arbitrary, then what forces are guiding them? If those forces remain relatively consistant over time and place would it not be a convenient shorthand to label them as absolute?

Values are still human constructs though. It's possible they only exist because of the human tendency to want to avoid pain and our ability to empathise with the suffering of others (although social factors can even twist suffering into a virtue). If there are certain moral values that all groups generally share and enforce in fairly consistant manners, then they should be described as such. Absolute is simply the wrong word to use IMO. It implies a higher power or purpose which, for many people, simply doesn't exist.
Warren Dew
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Jason Menard:

What does this have to do with the whether morality is relative or absolute? I suspect nothing whatsoever.

It might. Most Americans would probably see web site blocking as unwarranted censorship. I'm sure the Chinese authorities just see it as enforcement of their version of the "be nice" rule, though. It may not be morals, but it's at least an example of differing values....
Warren Dew
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Frank Silbermann:

For example, a gay philosophy professor will talk about the relativeness of morality when trying to wean his freshmen from their bourgoisie notions. But he is certainly _not_ going to say, "We cannot judge the morality of capital punishment in Texas -- they have different notions of morality, and it would be wrong for us to impose our concept upon them."

I'm not so sure about this. I've recently heard the term "states' rights" used by yankees when bouncing ideas around about how to let Texas have the rules they want, while allowing California and Massachusetts to have the rules they want, with respect to certain otherwise intractable issues. The seeds of "live and let live" may have been replanted in some circles.

Certainly I would agree with your phrase within quotation marks above.
Warren Dew
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Richard Hawkes:

Values are still human constructs though. It's possible they only exist because of the human tendency to want to avoid pain and our ability to empathise with the suffering of others (although social factors can even twist suffering into a virtue).

Animals avoid pain and even seem to empathise with others at times. Are we so certain that only humans have values?
Richard Hawkes
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Animals generally can't help but act the way their genes dictate. Humans think about what they do (not everything, all the time though), even going against what might be considered natural behaviour. Lots of our values are taught and don't come about through personal experience alone. Because we can appreciate concepts such as loss, pain, sadness, we can appreciate and hold certain values that are explained to us.

It's a choice. I think *knowing* you have values is the distinction. I think if moral values were absolute, they'd be so engrained into our make-up, we wouldn't really be aware of them.
Joe King
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:
Animals generally can't help but act the way their genes dictate. Humans think about what they do (not everything, all the time though), even going against what might be considered natural behaviour.


I think a vast amount of what we do is because of animal instincts. Although we like to think of ourselves as being highly advanced creatures who do everything based upon our wonderful thought processes, but a lot of what we do in everyday life is down to instincts and emotions. Most of this gets ignored - we call it things like "human nature" and relegate it to the background, when in reality our instincts are one of the largest factors in how our society works.

One obvious example is sex. There is a huge instinctive push for people to want to attract a mate - even something as every day as selecting which tie to wear is driven by a desire to look good, which in turn comes down to sex. Even what people find attractive is down to primitive genetic reasons - good legs for running, breasts for feeding babies, strong arms for protection and hunting, good health and teeth for longer survival.

Another is the idea of tribe. Many other primates have the idea of tribe - when one tribe of apes meets another tribe of apes they jump around shouting at each other, trying to keep the others of their land. We're no different - from those primitive instincts we have developed the idea of nationality, national territory, international politics, and race. This is, at the end of the day, all about fulfilling our instinct to keep members of other tribes from getting on our tribe's land.

This same tribal instinct leads to bad things like racism - the almost instinctive distrust that some people feel for people of other races is because of their inability to get over the primitive instinct that says "other tribes bad, our tribe good. They different therefore bad".

Even much of morality is down to primitive instincts. Much of what we feel to be instinctively right is generally a good thing for the survival of the tribe or species. Why do we generally feel its bad to be nasty to family members? Because its a bad survival tactic for the family/tribe. Why do we feel incest is bad? Because its genetically bad for the species. Why do we feel theft is bad? Because a tribe that works together will survive better. And so on....
[ December 07, 2004: Message edited by: Joe King ]
Gerald Davis
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Joe King, how do you think, religion fits into the picture. Do you think each religion implements social control methodology,in the same way each programming lanugages implement OOP and design patterns.

Some peoople like sun's Java but hate microsoft VB but because they are implement OOP in more or less the same way, they have more in common then they would like to believe( especialy if ther is any materal gain to be made). On the same token, do you think religion is like this.
frank davis
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Richard Hawkes :
... Absolute is simply the wrong word to use IMO. It implies a higher power or purpose which, for many people, simply doesn't exist.


How about "non-arbitrary vs arbitrary" morality?

Is there some common force(s) shaping human morality in a general way or pushing it in a general direction? Nearly every culture, across time and geography, values honesty and non-homicidal tendencies amongst its members. Nearly every culture restricts sexual activity in some manner. Some of these standards of behavior (morals in short) are so ingrianed we never contemplate them, yet they are broadly similar amongst most cultures.

Now if morals were purely arbitrary, there would not be such similarities. Perhaps there are survival benefits, for the group, if certain moral codes exist. So Darwinian forces could be shaping moralities. Those groups with less internal dissension, due to certain standardized behaviors (morals), may obtain competitive advantages over other groups with inferior (from a survival standpoint) morals. Survival vs extermination could be seen as a type of absolute.
Frank Silbermann
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Originally posted by herb slocomb:
Now if morals were purely arbitrary, there would not be such similarities. Perhaps there are survival benefits, for the group, if certain moral codes exist. So Darwinian forces could be shaping moralities. Those groups with less internal dissension, due to certain standardized behaviors (morals), may obtain competitive advantages over other groups with inferior (from a survival standpoint) morals. Survival vs extermination could be seen as a type of absolute.
I think Darwinian forces also shape religion. It may be that in a religious society more people will respect the group's moral code even when no one is looking (because they believe God is looking). After all, a moral code is only as useful as it is obeyed. It also may make a moral code easier to spread when the negative consequences of immoral behavior are not obvious.
Gerald Davis
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Originally posted by Frank Silbermann:
I think Darwinian forces also shape religion. It may be that in a religious society more people will respect the group's moral code even when no one is looking (because they believe God is looking). After all, a moral code is only as useful as it is obeyed. It also may make a moral code easier to spread when the negative consequences of immoral behavior are not obvious.


Darwinian forces do shape religion. Fasting, meditation and chanting, the holy scripts. These are the control patterns that are at the hart of the most successful religions.

Even the notion of the devil and torment, is used for strengthening the religions position. Heaven forbid if the devil was to start creating army with the evil people instead of torturing them, this had never or will ever happen.

The reward for good deeds in heaven. Heaven forbid if god was to ever to put you in his army of good after you die , give you some holy administration in heaven, or even put you back on this cursed earth because you done such a wonderful job before. The religion has to look attractive to new subscribers.

Would a political party say that they would reduce all state pensions and med-care by the time you you retire, just before an election date even if it was true, if the did they would never get in power. The truth is so ugly we have to be protected from it.

�Things can only get better!, can only get better!, since I found god�. I sang that song in a church in New York, they loved me man, it was a good thing Tony Blair wasn't there.
frank davis
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Originally posted by Frank Silbermann:
I think Darwinian forces also shape religion. It may be that in a religious society more people will respect the group's moral code even when no one is looking (because they believe God is looking). After all, a moral code is only as useful as it is obeyed. It also may make a moral code easier to spread when the negative consequences of immoral behavior are not obvious.


From another perspective, Ayn Rand's objectivist morality starts with a simple axiom of using human life as the standard of value. Against that standard and its derivations everything else is judged. To the extent such judgements can be done, we move more towards an absolutist morality.

An attempt to devise a morality based on a few simple axiom and using pure logic is eminently appealing. Rand tried some limited aspects of it using formal logic :

"A moral value is that which one believes and acts upon. The question arises, what are the moral values of a man?
We quote Rand's proof of her famous theorem "Egoism as rational moral value of identity" from Formal Objectivism:

(1) |- man(x) <==> animal(x) & rational(x) [definition]
(2) |- man(y) [hypothesis]
(3) |- y = y [by Axiom of Identity]
(4) |- rational(y) [by (1) and (2)]
(5) |- knows(y, y=y) [by (3) and (4)]
(6) |- rational(y) & value(y, v) ==> v [Rational Value Theorem]
(7) |- egoist(x) <==> value(x, x = x) [definition of egoism]
(8) |- not(egoist(y)) ==> not(value(y, y = y)) [from (7) instantiating x = y]
(9) |- not(egoist(y)) ==> value(y, not(y = y)) [by not-propagation]
(10)|- not(egoist(y)) ==> not(y = y) [by (9) and (6)]
(11)|- not(egoist(y)) ==> false [by (10) and (3)]
(12)|- egoist(y) [by (11) ad absurdum]
(13)|- man(y) ==> egoist(y) [by (2) and (12) by ==> introduction]
Max Habibi
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Originally posted by Jason Menard:
FS: "We cannot judge the morality of capital punishment in Texas -- they have different notions of morality, and it would be wrong for us to impose our concept upon them."

Either something is moral or it isn't.



That's not really a nuanced definition. I think what you mean is that either something is moral or it isn't to you: and even that changes in context. For example, running into a burning building might be suicide, which is probably not moral by your definition. Yet, it's something that you, as a matter of fact, do.

But wait, you'll protest at this point, it's not really suicide. I would never run in if I thought it was suicide. But unless you're willing to concede that your perception of the situation impacts on it's morality( that is, that morality is relative), then the protestation is irrelevant.

I understand the attraction of absolutist morality. It very comforting, especially in an uncertain world. I remember reading somewhere that generally speaking, populations become more religious as their socioeconomic environments disintegrate. But I find that the older I get and the more I see, the more I come to find that things are, in fact, relative.

Of course, your perspective on this reality may vary. As a matter of fact, I suspect that it does

M
[ December 07, 2004: Message edited by: Max Habibi ]

Java Regular Expressions
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by Joe King:
I think a vast amount of what we do is because of animal instincts. Although we like to think of ourselves as being highly advanced creatures who do everything based upon our wonderful thought processes, but a lot of what we do in everyday life is down to instincts and emotions...

I don't deny our biological instincts, they are important. I just think people give them more credit than they deserve. We are more creatures of habit (learned behaviour) than instinct. Beyond eating, breathing and vacating my bowels, nothing I did yesterday could be put down to "natural" instincts; I got up early even though I was tired, I dressed smartly to go to an office where there are no females, I went outside even though it was pretty cold, I sat at a desk for hours even though my back was a little twitchy and I could have done with a nice walk. After getting home, I did the laundry, went to the gym, watched the latest Battlestar Galactica and then made myself go to bed early even though I wasn't tired!

I do believe some of our more widely accepted and valuable morals are based on some of our natural instincts (those to do with alleviating suffering for example), but some moral values have little to do with survival. Also some moral values seek to enhance some natural instincts while others seek to curb them. Historically, whichever instincts are promoted or curbed by moral instruction seems to have more to do with who gets to decide the rules of behaviour.

On another note, definitions of beauty change over place and time and so to some extent beauty is socially constructed. If attraction were simply down to the most suitable reproductive mate, supermodels would never get a date because anyone who fancied them would be regarded as a fetishist
Jason Menard
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Originally posted by Max Habibi:
That's not really a nuanced definition.


You're right, it's an absolute one. I tried to explain what I'm trying to get across by way of my "blue box" analogy, although as Michael rightly pointed out, I should have prefaced that analogy with "given an absolute definition for blue yada yada frequencies of light yada yada reflection etc...".

MH: I think what you mean is that either something is moral or it isn't to you: and even that changes in context.

Far from it. My argument is that my perception and the context are independant from the morality of an action.

For example, running into a burning building might be suicide, which is probably not moral by your definition. Yet, it's something that you, as a matter of fact, do.

Then I would argue that the definition of the act is incorrect. For example, defining the act of a firefighter running into a burning building as suicide, while it may be perceived as such by someone, would be incorrect. The outside observer may view the act as suicide, but he is unaware of the intentions of the people running into the building and what it is they hope to accomplish. It's probably this intention that defines the act. If the intention is to rescue a child from a burning building, then that is not suicide, and that is the act which has the relevant moral value, not suicide which is a different act defined by its own motivations and intentions.

Given suicide as an example, it sounds like the definition being proposed here is something along the lines of "willingly committing an act likely to result in one's own death". I would however agree that the definition of suicide is (as stated on dictionary.com) closer to "the act of intentionally killing oneself.[/i] If it isn't the firefighter's intention to kill him or herself, then the act is not suicide. Point being, we have to correctly define the act in the first place.

But wait, you'll protest at this point, it's not really suicide. I would never run in if I thought it was suicide. But unless you're willing to concede that your perception of the situation impacts on it's morality( that is, that morality is relative), then the protestation is irrelevant.

My perception impacts on whether or not I believe an act is moral, but if an act is absolutely moral or immoral than I must allow that my perception of an act's morality may be incorrect.

I understand the attraction of absolutist morality. It very comforting, especially in an uncertain world. I remember reading somewhere that generally speaking, populations become more religious as their socioeconomic environments disintegrate. But I find that the older I get and the more I see, the more I come to find that things are, in fact, relative.

Of course, your perspective on this reality may vary. As a matter of fact, I suspect that it does


Of course, I never was that strong at philosophy (should have paid more attention) and I may just be arguing for the sake of somewhat intelligent conversation. To be honest, I'd love to point to the original article, but it wouldn't last long before going off to meet Oscar. Although come to think of it, the discussion has gone a different direction than said article was pointing.
[ December 07, 2004: Message edited by: Jason Menard ]
Warren Dew
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Richard Hawkes:

Animals generally can't help but act the way their genes dictate.

I think this may not give animals enough credit (or blame, as the case may be). Watch enough nature videos and it becomes clear that at least other carnivorous mammals have learned behavior - whether it be techniques killer whales learn from older whales on how to hunt seals in the surf, or lions teaching cubs how to hunt. People involved in reseeding captive animals into the wild have found that those animals have little chance of surviving unless they are taught how to survive there, where there aren't human tenders to depend on.

Lots of animal behavior is also learned behavior that becomes habitual, just as for humans.
Jim Yingst
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[Jason]: I tried to explain what I'm trying to get across by way of my "blue box" analogy, although as Michael rightly pointed out, I should have prefaced that analogy with "given an absolute definition for blue yada yada frequencies of light yada yada reflection etc...".

That's OK, I thought the blue box analogy (as stated) served as an unexpectedly accurate analogy for your belief in moral absolutes.

I'd love to point to the original article

Yeah, like we couldn't Google.

but it wouldn't last long before going off to meet Oscar.

True. But you've made some headway in getting some somewhat meaningful conversation going without any ugly fights breaking out so far - congrats!


"I'm not back." - Bill Harding, Twister
Gerald Davis
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:
Originally posted by Joe King:
[qb]I think a vast amount of what we do is because of animal instincts. Although we like to think of ourselves as being highly advanced creatures who do everything based upon our wonderful thought processes, but a lot of what we do in everyday life is down to instincts and emotions...

I don't deny our biological instincts, they are important. I just think people give them more credit than they deserve. We are more creatures of habit (learned behaviour) than instinct. Beyond eating, breathing and vacating my bowels, nothing I did yesterday could be put down to "natural" instincts; I got up early even though I was tired, I dressed smartly to go to an office where there are no females, I went outside even though it was pretty cold, I sat at a desk for hours even though my back was a little twitchy and I could have done with a nice walk. After getting home, I did the laundry, went to the gym, watched the latest Battlestar Galactica and then made myself go to bed early even though I wasn't tired!

I do believe some of our more widely accepted and valuable morals are based on some of our natural instincts (those to do with alleviating suffering for example), but some moral values have little to do with survival. Also some moral values seek to enhance some natural instincts while others seek to curb them. Historically, whichever instincts are promoted or curbed by moral instruction seems to have more to do with who gets to decide the rules of behaviour.

On another note, definitions of beauty change over place and time and so to some extent beauty is socially constructed. If attraction were simply down to the most suitable reproductive mate, supermodels would never get a date because anyone who fancied them would be regarded as a fetishist [/QB]


You go to work so you can eat, the same as a seal has to hunt in cold water for fish.
The cold is only a warning telling you to take care, the cold will not kill you will it.
You dress up to impress someone, the costs involved in being smart don�t outweigh the possible benefits, would you dress up smartly if you was not going to leave the house and you expected no visitors? I think not.
Jason Menard
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Originally posted by Michael Ernest:
This assumes also that the meaning of the word "blue" is absolute and universal, which it isn't. The term "light radiated or refracted between the frequency ranges of x and y" might be closer to an absolute term, but "blue" by itself is necessarily insufficient.


Upon exacting scientific examination, it was found that light reflected by the box in question had a wavelength of 475nm and a frequency of 640THz. It was therefore determined that the box was in fact blue. As a result of these findings, Joe has been urged to seek the help of a specialist.
Jason Menard
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Originally posted by Jim Yingst:
That's OK, I thought the blue box analogy (as stated) served as an unexpectedly accurate analogy for your belief in moral absolutes.


"Unexpectedly accurate"... Is that one of those Rorschach insults?
Jim Yingst
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Is that one of those Rorschach insults?

Not really. (Though I appreciate the reference, thank you.) Did you notice the "approximate" in the link you provided? "Absolute blue", approximately. :roll: Tto say nothing of the fact that I've never even heard of this "usbyte.com" site you cite. And in the real world, boxes don't generally show up as a single wavelength. They show up as a mix of whatever lightsource is present (typically "white light", i. e. a bit of everything), minus whatever the "blue" paint on the box absorbs. The result averaages to some color, in this case "blue". But it's hardly an "absolute" blue..
[ December 08, 2004: Message edited by: Jim Yingst ]
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by Gerald Davis:
You go to work so you can eat, the same as a seal has to hunt in cold water for fish. The cold is only a warning telling you to take care, the cold will not kill you will it. You dress up to impress someone, the costs involved in being smart don�t outweigh the possible benefits, would you dress up smartly if you was not going to leave the house and you expected no visitors? I think not.

I didn't go to work to eat. It's only through the weird abstractions of modern society that I have to go through the long-winded process of exchanging hours of my time to get credits in order to exchange them for food. It's a long way from instinct I think.

Actually, I do shower and wear clean clothes even if I'm not expecting to meet anyone
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by herb slocomb:
How about "non-arbitrary vs arbitrary" morality?

But how do we seperate the non-arbitrary and the arbitrary?

Is there some common force(s) shaping human morality in a general way or pushing it in a general direction? - Globalisation is the only force at work here, a sharing of ideas, limited only to the number of people in existence and our imaginations. Morals exist to preserve societies, not humanity. Moral values expressions of how a particular group would like to exist, nothing more, nothing less. Values may appear to be consolidating, globally, slowly, simply because they serve the style of society that is seemingly becoming dominant in the world today. Other societies want the percieved benefits of a way of life they've been exposed to.

Again, I think it's a good thing to work towards a globally acceptable value system, I just don't see why we have to pretend they are mysteriously higher universal absolutes.
Joe King
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Originally posted by Gerald Davis:
Joe King, how do you think, religion fits into the picture. Do you think each religion implements social control methodology,in the same way each programming lanugages implement OOP and design patterns.


Um. I'll try to say this in a way in which I don't break the "be nice" and "do not be political" rules. Apologies if I don't quite manage it....

I think a lot of people like the idea of an absolute morality set down by an ultimate authority. There are a great many difficult decisions to be made within a framework of relative morality - its hard to determine if some things are right or wrong. Having a predetermined list of things that are definitively "right" or "wrong" is very appealing and comforting for some people. I think that is why religious morality is common, but the question of how they determine their morals is a bit more complex.

I think the moralities that are written in religious texts reflect the views of the authors of the text, and fall into several rough categories:

1) Morals derived from base "instinct". These are the kinds of things that many people across different cultures have in common. Most of these I think derive from primitive survival instincts, and examples are "Do not kill", "Do not steal" etc.

2) Morals based upon some good advice. For a lot of people in early times, religion was the main way of teaching things to them, and often religious writings were the only written materials available to them. It made sense to add some good habits into the religious texts so that people would follow them. One example of this is "Do not eat pork". While it may not have been felt by the author that eating pork was morally wrong, many years ago pork was often unhealthy to eat, so it made sense to tell people not to eat it.

3) Morals based upon the quirks and foibles of the author's culture. These are the ones that seem a bit odd to us today, but to the author would have been something that were more normal. One example of this is that a part of the Bible says that menstruating women should not be allowed out of the house. To us this seems strange, but to the author of that particular bit of the Bible, it was a law of his/her culture that he/she agreed with and therefore he/she wanted to add it into the text.

4) Morals designed to serve the religion itself. Both of the most popular religions in the world, as well as many others, do this - say things like "Other religions are wrong" and "Don't listen to people of other religions as they are liars". These are added mainly to dissuade people from being influenced by other religions.

Some people like sun's Java but hate microsoft VB but because they are implement OOP in more or less the same way, they have more in common then they would like to believe( especialy if ther is any materal gain to be made). On the same token, do you think religion is like this.


Yes, I think a lot of religions have a lot of things in common. The morals in category (1) are the most common ones that a lot of people (religious or not) agree with. The morals in category (2) are often also agreed by many people, even if not for moralistic reasons. Its the morals in (3) and (4) that cause the problems, as they are often causes for disagreement.

My worry with religious derived morality is that it has two main problems. Firstly it doesn't encourage people to think about why something is wrong, as they are just told that it is. Secondly it leads towards a dualistic view point of the world where by things are divided into two camps - right/wrong, good/evil, us/them. This kind of view is not helpful in situations where negotiation, compromise and adaptation are needed. In truth the world is made up of many grey areas, with little or nothing certain, and a dualistic view point doesn't seem to match this very well.
[ December 08, 2004: Message edited by: Joe King ]
Ray Marsh
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I believe that morality is set by God and that it does not change based on social whim or any individual�s faith or lack thereof. As far as social control, morality is only personally profitable if the individual decides by an act of will to adopt the principle for themselves.

Forced morality is necessary in areas where the "good of the people" is concerned. Like laws against murder for example. I personally am glad that it is illegal. Even lying in certain situations is illegal. Under oath, for example. However, a persons aversion or apathy towards lying is an independent choice. They choose to lie or tell the truth and live with the consequences.

It is that way with all moral choices. Whether the act is against the state's law or God's law, we have to choose to obey or disobey. If we disobey then we receive the consequences of our actions.

That is also why I am glad for mercy. For without it I would be in big trouble.


Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength. – Charles Spurgeon
frank davis
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:

...
Globalisation is the only force at work here... Morals exist to preserve societies, not humanity.
...


If globalization is the only force at work, how do you account for similarities in morals between groups who have never had contact, direct or indirect ?

If morals do "preserve" societies in any degree, then why wouldn't there be Darwinian forces at work?

The Darwinian argument cannot be dismissed out of hand. Morals influence behavior, behavior influence survival.

Evolutionary speculation :

http://www.plebius.org/article.php?article=679

Even in the animal kingdom, many groups of social animals have standards of behavior that could be called morality :

http://www.stnews.org/archives/2004_january/live/highlts_research_0104.html


All humans, as members of the same species, share the same basic nature. We could call that fundamental, unchanging human nature an absolute. Certain behaviors both on an individual level and within a group, are more or less in harmony with that human nature than others. Perhaps we could say those behaviors in harmony with thtat nature are moral. If so, then we have taken steps towards establishing a morality based on an absolute.
[ December 08, 2004: Message edited by: herb slocomb ]
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by herb slocomb:
If globalization is the only force at work, how do you account for similarities in morals between groups who have never had contact, direct or indirect ?

If morals do "preserve" societies in any degree, then why wouldn't there be Darwinian forces at work?

The Darwinian argument cannot be dismissed out of hand. Morals influence behavior, behavior influence survival....

...All humans, as members of the same species, share the same basic nature. We could call that fundamental, unchanging human nature an absolute. Certain behaviors both on an individual level and within a group, are more or less in harmony with that human nature than others. Perhaps we could say those behaviors in harmony with thtat nature are moral. If so, then we have taken steps towards establishing a morality based on an absolute.


I would take issue with the statement that we all share the same nature. Even within one society, people have different "natures". I see what you're saying and I agree that behaviour across many cultures is shared. I can only explain it, clumsily, as being down to *most* people generally wanting not to die or be in pain and wanting an easier existence. We all "feel" the same in some respects, therefore it's not too hard to see how some values are similar between seemingly alien cultures. Even so, people have many different priorities in what they value. As one of your linked articles suggests, people may be *naturally* more altruistic or more hard-nosed, or both, or neither. Moral rules exist precisely because people's nature can vary so much.

Globalisation--or perhaps simply interaction between societies--I see as important because of this: there are societies that exist today that while celebrating male sexual desire, also define female sexual desire as wrong. In the worst cases female circumcision is practised. As another example, I saw a documentary about a tribe that believe the only path to manhood is by ingesting semen from an adult, therefore the rite of passage includes fellating the elders (I can't remember where, and I'm not Googling fellatio at work!). These are extreme examples, but it seems that only when these societies come into contact with other societies that their ideas are challenged. It's quite possible that if they remained in isolation nothing would chang--why would it? We could imagine a society that wholly believes in the practise of the last two cases, and *also* believes that hard work, honesty, and respecting the right to live are equally morally correct. There is nothing to suggest that they would magically come to recognise that some of their practises could be done away with. Remember, even the burden of upholding moral values is often part and parcel of the value itself, so even despite being able to empathise with other's pain and desire, they will still continue to engage in questionable acts.

One of your links provided an interesting example about how shunners, defectors and co-operators can exist together, but ultimately it only shows how these "types" exist in relation *to each other*. Even within the context of the example, shunners could suddenly act completely charitably for no reason, allegiances could shift between defectors, or everyone could decide to become completely co-operative. Or none of the above. Basically, honesty, respect for life, helping others through compassion, etc, are not necessary for the survival of humanity or even necessary for some types of society to exist. Humanity can, in desperation, rely purely on its most basic instincts of finding warmth, finding food and breeding. Morals are just ideas to make our lives more structured so that a societies can exist. Societies exist because they make most people's lives easier, but easier isn't the same as something being absolutely necessary for survival. Sure, lets attempt to find values that make as many people as happy as possible, but as far as I'm concerned, moral values are not out there waiting to be discovered like physical laws, because they are all made up.
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by Joe King:
I think the moralities that are written in religious texts reflect the views of the authors of the text, and fall into several rough categories:....


These categories might help define what Herb referred to as "non-arbitrary" and "arbitrary" moral values.
Gerald Davis
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:
Originally posted by Gerald Davis:
[qb]You go to work so you can eat, the same as a seal has to hunt in cold water for fish. The cold is only a warning telling you to take care, the cold will not kill you will it. You dress up to impress someone, the costs involved in being smart don�t outweigh the possible benefits, would you dress up smartly if you was not going to leave the house and you expected no visitors? I think not.

I didn't go to work to eat. It's only through the weird abstractions of modern society that I have to go through the long-winded process of exchanging hours of my time to get credits in order to exchange them for food. It's a long way from instinct I think.

Actually, I do shower and wear clean clothes even if I'm not expecting to meet anyone [/QB]


Isn't it the same thing? if I don't work I don' eat and I become an unsuitable mate because my ospring will not have enough to eat.
Michael Ernest
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:

It's only through the weird abstractions of modern society that I have to go through the long-winded process of exchanging hours of my time to get credits in order to exchange them for food. It's a long way from instinct I think.

You're also a long way from getting trampled by things that you instinctively hunt for food. Count your blessings, o inmate of modern society.


Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.
- Robert Bresson
frank davis
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:


I would take issue with the statement that we all share the same nature. Even within one society, people have different "natures".


No, all people have exactly the same nature. Human nature, by definition, is that which we all share in common; our essential and distinguishing human characteristics. Because one person has a preference for vanilla ice cream and another for chocolate does not mean they have different natures; they are both still human, and that which makes them human is their human nature.

Just as chemical elements have distinctly distinguishing characteristics and properties, although there are isotopes with varying numbers of neutrons, and even though a limited number of characteristics may be held by other chemical elements, yet each are distinct with unvarying, absolute identities.

Humans, although more complex than our current ability to completly understand, still have a number of definite chacteristics that are held in common by everyone in our species. This sum of our unique and common characteristics, is our nature. It is absolute and essentially unchanged since our species began. This is the basis for a rational and absolute morality.


I see what you're saying and I agree that behaviour across many cultures is shared. I can only explain it, clumsily, as being down to *most* people generally wanting not to die or be in pain and wanting an easier existence.


Although you are having trouble articulating it, and have not developed this line of reasoning sufficiently, I think you are starting to agree that there is something that exists called human nature.




We all "feel" the same in some respects, therefore it's not too hard to see how some values are similar between seemingly alien cultures.


Aha!, all of us humans do have a human nature. Astounding!


Societies exist because they make most people's lives easier, but easier isn't the same as something being absolutely necessary for survival.


Individuals not in groups/societies had greatly diminished chances for survial and breeding.

Hunting in groups is more efficient and effective than individually. The same for food gathering and agriculture. Also there is the problem of sickness and injury; an individual alone is in trouble without the help of a group. An individual alone will fall more easily prey to other humans. Historically, for all of recorded history, constant warefare was the norm, not the exception. Extermination for the losers was not uncommon. At the very least, Darwinian pressure forced the losers to the fringes so that there are very few amonsgt us today that are the descendents of losers.


Sure, lets attempt to find values that make as many people as happy as possible, but as far as I'm concerned, moral values are not out there waiting to be discovered like physical laws, because they are all made up.


Since we agree that humans do have a human nature, that nature has a specific identity we have in common. Some behaviors will be harmonay with that nature (starting to sound Taoist) and others will not be. This is the beginning of absolute morality. I'm not saying all behavior can be classified as moral or immoral based on human nature; I'll leave open the possibility of some behavior being amoral. In fact, our human nature may only determine a general tendency of morality in a broad specific direction and for relatively few universally condemmed acts (murder of parents, incest between parents and children, etc). Neither am I certain that we have enough understanding of human nature to know what is in harmony with it and what is not. BUT, I do have a conviction that morals cannot be purely arbitrary because humans do have a specific nature even if poorly understood AND we have evidence for this in broad similarity of morals amongst differernt cultures.
[ December 09, 2004: Message edited by: herb slocomb ]
frank davis
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:


These categories might help define what Herb referred to as "non-arbitrary" and "arbitrary" moral values.


Well, no. The whole point of every post thus far is to posit a non religous basis for morality.
Warren Dew
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Joe, I think your classification has some validity. I'd like to pick a few nits, though....

1) Morals derived from base "instinct". These are the kinds of things that many people across different cultures have in common. Most of these I think derive from primitive survival instincts, and examples are "Do not kill", "Do not steal" etc.

Are you saying they codify instincts, or counteract them? I think attacking something that you're mad at, or taking something you want, is quite instinctual. It seems to me rules in this category are there to restrict those instinctual impulses, so as to prevent a breakdown od society.

2) Morals based upon some good advice.... One example of this is "Do not eat pork". While it may not have been felt by the author that eating pork was morally wrong, many years ago pork was often unhealthy to eat, so it made sense to tell people not to eat it.

This is especially true for unobvious good advice. Marvin Harris' Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches has a good analysis of why religions that started in arid regions tend to ban pork consumption, for example; it's not so much that it's unhealthy for the individual - that kind of advice doesn't need religious weight for people to take it - but that it's unhealthy for societies in such regions.

4) Morals designed to serve the religion itself. Both of the most popular religions in the world, as well as many others, do this - say things like "Other religions are wrong" and "Don't listen to people of other religions as they are liars". These are added mainly to dissuade people from being influenced by other religions.

Yes. Religions without such rules presumably lose more adherents than they gain, and die out. An interesting test will be to see if the Unitarians are still around a few centuries from now.

My worry with religious derived morality is that it has two main problems. Firstly it doesn't encourage people to think about why something is wrong, as they are just told that it is.

Yes. Knowing the 'why' as well as the 'what' helps in determining which rules make sense for one's situation. A ban on eating beef may make sense in places like India where one needs something to pull the plow, but less sense in places like Texas where ranching is the best use of the land.

Secondly it leads towards a dualistic view point of the world where by things are divided into two camps - right/wrong, good/evil, us/them.

I personally, agree - I'd rather see tolerance and diversity. It's possible that may viewpoint can't survive cultural selection, though. Until then, though, Richard Hawkes:

Again, I think it's a good thing to work towards a globally acceptable value system, I just don't see why we have to pretend they are mysteriously higher universal absolutes.

Can you expand on what you mean by this? In my experience, people who say they want a global value system tend to mean they want others to adopt their value system, and not vice versa. Would you like a global value system even if it meant you had to give up your own most cherished values, and perhaps adopt some of the stranger ones that Herb mentions?
[ December 09, 2004: Message edited by: Warren Dew ]
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by herb slocomb:
Well, no. The whole point of every post thus far is to posit a non religous basis for morality.


I was thinking Joe's categories could be used for morals generally, not just religious ones--I should've made that clearer. I think the list shows, on the surface at least, degrees arbitrariness(?), those that strengthen a religion (or society) being more arbitrary, those based on human survival being less (tho' not necessarily absolute ).

Originally posted by herb slocomb:
No, all people have exactly the same nature. Human nature, by definition, is that which we all share in common; our essential and distinguishing human characteristics....Humans, although more complex than our current ability to completly understand, still have a number of definite chacteristics that are held in common by everyone in our species. This sum of our unique and common characteristics, is our nature. It is absolute and essentially unchanged since our species began. This is the basis for a rational and absolute morality.


Still not convinced this is true (beyond the very basic of instincts; "feel" was meant in a very literal sense--pain, hunger, etc). The farthest you can take this shared nature idea, IMO, is that *most* people share aspects of various natures, not the same as all of us sharing one. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, the desire to dominate, the desire to serve, the desire to have babies or the lack of that desire, the will to include or exclude fellow humans based on random principles, to fit-in or to stand-out, these are all aspects of our "shared" human nature. *If* all humans shared the same desires and temperaments, we'd be entirely products of our environment, and not even the most hardened (but still respectable) sociologist--one who would credit biological difference as having only the slightest of influences on society--would discount biological forces entirely. Besides, even assuming our natures were identical, once you factor in chaotic external forces at work, we turn out differently anyway. The nature/nurture relationship is so complex, I don't think we'll ever create any moral absolutes (except through the usual channels of ideas fighting for dominance), let alone pin down any "essence" of humanity. It's a worthy excercise to try, because trying to understand ourselves makes us better off, but failing to answer "What is right?" in any absolute sense isn't problematic for me.
Richard Hawkes
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Originally posted by Warren Dew:
Can you expand on what you mean by this? In my experience, people who say they want a global value system tend to mean they want others to adopt their value system, and not vice versa. Would you like a global value system even if it meant you had to give up your own most cherished values, and perhaps adopt some of the stranger ones that Herb mentions?


The important part of that statement was "work towards". The act involves dialogue, awareness, understanding, tolerance and education. It's the way we discover questionable values and get feedback on our own acts. People would (hopefully) adopt the best ideas and reject bad ones (who's dreaming now...).

It'd be impossible to remove all coercion from value systems due to our differing human natures, so a "conclusion" maybe less desirable than intended but that would depend on the power checks in place. It might seem daft trying for something that's probably impossible, but since society (and evolution) are dynamic forces anyway, I think it's a pretty a good policy.
Joe King
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Originally posted by Warren Dew:
Joe, I think your classification has some validity. I'd like to pick a few nits, though....

Excellent, nits and their picking are the food of thought. Isn't metaphor mixing wonderful?

Are you saying they codify instincts, or counteract them? I think attacking something that you're mad at, or taking something you want, is quite instinctual. It seems to me rules in this category are there to restrict those instinctual impulses, so as to prevent a breakdown od society.


Yeah, sorry not very clear. What I meant was that they are instinctive at the group level rather then at the individual level. Not killing fellow members of your group is a good survival tactic for that group. Groups of animals (and our animal ancestors will have worked in groups) that develop an aversion to killing each other will have thrived more, hence the "do not murder" moral which pops up in lots of places. Another example is incest - its genetically bad, so groups that evolved an aversion to it will have thrived more.


This is especially true for unobvious good advice. Marvin Harris' Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches has a good analysis of why religions that started in arid regions tend to ban pork consumption, for example; it's not so much that it's unhealthy for the individual - that kind of advice doesn't need religious weight for people to take it - but that it's unhealthy for societies in such regions.


Its true that this advice doesn't need religious weight now, but back in more primitive times it will have made a lot more difference. In may earlier cultures people weren't very educated and tended to look towards their priests for guidance on a lot of every day issues. By codifying some good advice as a religious commandment or recommendation then it makes it more likely that the priests would pass it on to the masses. Later on in time this effect also came about through writing - a large amount of early writing is religious in nature and a lot of poorer people would only have read religious texts. Again it made sense to put good advice into the religious texts to ensure its wide spread take up.


Yes. Religions without such rules presumably lose more adherents than they gain, and die out. An interesting test will be to see if the Unitarians are still around a few centuries from now.


Perhaps Buddhism is an exception to this rule, but by and large its probably true that those religions that scorn others are more likely to survive. An example of this was early Rome - the many subsets of their pagan religion didn't really have much against people worshiping other gods, tolerance (by the priests, unlike the political leaders) of other religions was higher. When faced by the clever propaganda/marketing that Christianity and Islam had, they didn't really stand a chance.


Secondly it leads towards a dualistic view point of the world where by things are divided into two camps - right/wrong, good/evil, us/them.

I personally, agree - I'd rather see tolerance and diversity. It's possible that may viewpoint can't survive cultural selection, though.


The problem with the dualistic view point is also that it leads to a similar view point in other aspects of life. It seems to me that people who have a more fundamentalist religious point of view also have a more dualistic view point of political issues - they see things as being more politically good or politically evil. I am quite concerned by how much this kind of view is increasing. Recent elections in a certain highly religious western country showed a surprisingly high level of vehemence between the two main sides in the election. It appears as if the religious background that teaches definitive rights and wrongs has lead to a belief in definitive rights and wrongs in areas such as economics and foreign policy. I'd better stop there though, getting a bit political
Joe King
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:
It might seem daft trying for something that's probably impossible, but since society (and evolution) are dynamic forces anyway, I think it's a pretty a good policy.


Sure. I think quite a lot of our aims are probably impossible, but that doesn't stop us doing it. One good high level definition of economic policy is that it attempts to make everyone happy. That is either impossible or extremely unlikely, but we aim for it all the same.
frank davis
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Originally posted by Richard Hawkes:


The farthest you can take this shared nature idea, IMO, is that *most* people share aspects of various natures, not the same as all of us sharing one. I don't think we'll ever ... pin down any "essence" of humanity.


Obviously we share common characteristics with animals and are influenced by our environment, but isn't there anything innate that distinguishes us from animals?

I believe Aristotle said reasoning capacity is the distinguishing characteristic, and called man the rational animal based on that. There is certainly evidence that our capacity for reasoning is on a completley different level than all other animals, so that seems like a good start. Maybe more could be added to the list.But for the sake of discussion, could we build any type of rudimentary ethics based on such a small foundation?

Perhaps we could start with a simple, reasonable axiom that it is good to promote human life. Obviously this makes murder and other violent acts bad. But promoting human life would have to entail knowing humans and about their nature, since human life is more than just human respiration. We would have to take into account our human essense; our capacity to reason. Any actions that pervert, distort, renders useless, or suppresses the capacity for reason would be bad. Therefore lying and fraud are bad because they subvert the reasoning process of others with misleading facts...
[ December 10, 2004: Message edited by: herb slocomb ]
Frank Silbermann
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Originally posted by Joe King:
It seems to me that people who have a more fundamentalist religious point of view also have a more dualistic view point of political issues - they see things as being more politically good or politically evil.
... It appears as if the religious background that teaches definitive rights and wrongs has lead to a belief in definitive rights and wrongs in areas such as economics and foreign policy.
Among American Jews it seems to me that the theologically liberal Reform and unaffiliated Jews are far more likely to believe in definitive rights and wrongs in areas such as economics and foreign policy. It seems even more true about many gentile non-fundamentalists in Hollywood and the media such as Michael Moore and Sean Penn.

In fact, ever since I can remember (going back to the mid-60s, it seems to me that religious free-thinkers have been extremely judgemental and self-righteous with respect to their opinions on issues in foreign policy and domestic politics. The difference is that when I was young the Right was more accomodating, seeking only to inject a bit of caution and moderation into the Left's agenda of progressive change.

What seems to have happened is that the conservatives and religious fundamentalists have grown tired of losing ground, and their approach to politics has become more like that of their opponents. This trend has been strengthened as the Right is joined by vociferous and intellectually powerful "neoconservative" ex-Marxists. (This latter group also tends to be religiously sophisticated and modern.)
Stan James
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When morality (and religious thought) is absolute you just can't stand the guy next to you being so wrong ...
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off. -- Emo Phillips


A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of the idea. John Ciardi
Warren Dew
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herb slocomb:

I believe Aristotle said reasoning capacity is the distinguishing characteristic, and called man the rational animal based on that. There is certainly evidence that our capacity for reasoning is on a completley different level than all other animals, so that seems like a good start. Maybe more could be added to the list.But for the sake of discussion, could we build any type of rudimentary ethics based on such a small foundation?

I believe you could. However, basing the ethics on rationality might have corollaries that some might disagree with, causing them to question the original premise that rationality should be the basis of ethics.

If we were to encounter aliens with a similar level of rationality, for example, such ethics couldn't very well contain any rules privileging other humans over the aliens. If they were significantly more rational, we might be obligated to sacrifice ourselves for their good.

Closer to home, if we were to discover new evidence showing that, in fact, Elephants or Sperm whales were as rational than man, we would have to be prepared to give them equal rights. Such a system of ethics could also imply discrimination among humans on the basis of relative rationality.

We would have to take into account our human essense; our capacity to reason. Any actions that pervert, distort, renders useless, or suppresses the capacity for reason would be bad. Therefore lying and fraud are bad because they subvert the reasoning process of others with misleading facts...

These would certainly seem to be among the implications of such a system ... perhaps among the less controversial such implications.
 
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