How do we know what is right?

27 02 2008

There’s a great discussion between Bruce and SB on the “Counter-apologetic pwnage” comments thread regarding religion and morality. Here are my 2 cents worth:

[SB:]The psychological theory you proposed (i.e. most people know what is right and act accordingly, and those that don’t know, or who know but don’t act on that knowledge are consigned to categories of the mentally ill) tells us why people behave as they do, but not what they ought to do. At best it may describe what they ought to do if they want to be like most others. It certainly creates problems when people have differing moral sentiments – how do we know which is right?

[Me:]That is a problem that existed already. The appeal to divine command or the assertion of the alleged “truth” of a religious (or ideological) set of dogmas merely postpones answering the question, and to some degree sweeps it under the carpet. If I just accept what my priest, pastor or imam (or Rick Warren) tells me are the “right” solutions to moral questions, then I don’t have to think about them. But all that has happened is that I am no longer thinking about these questions. Not thinking about them (or letting someone else do my thinking for me) is not tantamount to solving these questions. They’re still there.

So perhaps the best we are able to achieve is consensus. And there are, it seems to me, at least two ways of achieving consensus on moral questions. (Two that spring to mind, anyway.) One occurs if you belong to a religious or ideological community whose members are all of a mind (broadly speaking) on doctrinal matters, and are thus more likely to be all of a mind on how to address moral questions in accordance with the doctrine. (Those who aren’t able to get with the programme are likely to find themselves alienated, or marginalised, or shunned, or excommunicated, or imprisoned, or beaten, or tortured, or burnt at the stake, or beheaded.) The other way involves rational argument and evidence. Now, bear in mind that achieving consensus on a moral problem is not the same thing as solving it once and for all. But it strikes me that the second way is the better way to go in a plural society and–dare I say it–in a plural global community.

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22 responses

27 02 2008
SB

AV: That is a problem that existed already.

Yes, but it is still a problem.

Consensus may throw up some unpleasant results, even assuming you don’t mean the consensus of the lynch mob. It is more likely to be an issue in societies where diversity is fostered, for that very diversity will mean that people will be dissatisfied. Rational argument sounds like a nice solution, but given that rational argument can’t alone solve moral problems, it becomes necessary to agree assumptions at the outset. If that can be done, there may be some hope.

What is good about our society is that there is a legal framework in which to some degree people can exercise their own moral choices, which is far preferable to embodiment of private morality in law.

27 02 2008
AV

Yes, but it is still a problem.

Maybe it is only a problem if you hold that there is an Archimedean point from which it is possible to offer final answers to moral questions.

Consensus may throw up some unpleasant results, even assuming you don’t mean the consensus of the lynch mob.

I would include the lynch mob with all the other ways of policing consensus that various religious and ideological communities have explored over the ages. Obviously I wouldn’t endorse that method of achieving consensus, of course, or argue that it has a place in a pluralistic society.

Rational argument sounds like a nice solution, but given that rational argument can’t alone solve moral problems, it becomes necessary to agree assumptions at the outset. If that can be done, there may be some hope. [Emphasis added]

So your formula for solving moral problems would be shared assumptions (i.e. some kind of consensus–maybe even the dogmatic kind) + rational argument?

(BTW: I wasn’t offering rational argument as a (final) solution to moral problems. Reason is a method, after all, not a set of dogmas. I was suggesting that perhaps the task of finding absolute solutions to moral problems is beyond us, and perhaps the best we can achieve is some kind of (definitely non-final) consensus.)

What is good about our society is that there is a legal framework in which to some degree people can exercise their own moral choices, which is far preferable to embodiment of private morality in law.

What is also good about our society is the degree to which it fosters and facilitates democratic conversation–I mean as compared with places like Saudi Arabia, Russia or China. For mine, this is essential to negotiating diversity of opinion regarding moral issues.

27 02 2008
SB

The consensus must be to some extent dogmatic as there is no purely rational way of deriving the assumptions. As Bruce noted, a lot depends on psychology, and I would add culture.

I am concerned that enlightenment values are not* being passed on with the consequence that there is a resurgence of tribalism as people find it is impossible to coexist. It is disappointing to see so many small groups fighting for independence instead of throwing their energy into making workable inclusive societies. Equally disappointing is the discrimination against minorities that gives impetus to independence movements. On a world scale tribalism and religious fundamentalism make such conversations impossible.

What is also good about our society is the degree to which it fosters and facilitates democratic conversation

This is a very good feature of our society, and something that is more marked in societies built on immigration. Policy should be directed to fostering this and preventing subdivision into insular communities. Do you have any observations on the way the (less diverse?) Japanese society functions.

* Its not the particulars of this story, but I wonder whether kids now get to consider things like “Life is merely froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone, kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own” and “As one lamp lights another nor grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness” both of which have stayed with me since I first heard them at my very rough and difficult public high school.

28 02 2008
finch

we know what is right by checking what motivate us to do stuff .

28 02 2008
pistolpete

One mistaken assumption people make about Christianity is that it is mostly about rules (perceiving and doing what is right). In fact, Christianity is more about a relationship (with Jesus Christ) within which we desire to do what is right. Christianity is less about discerning right from wrong, it is wanting to do what is right because we love the One who makes the rules.

28 02 2008
arthurvandelay

The consensus must be to some extent dogmatic as there is no purely rational way of deriving the assumptions.

Maybe not. Perhaps we can frame this question of how to derive these assumptions as a problem to be solved. Bruce’s negative utilitarianism is one example: how do we minimise suffering? Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” is another.

Another perspective is offered by Rorty in this lecture. Here he calls into the question the necessity of the Platonic search for an Archimedean point or skyhook against which morality can be measured, but nonetheless maintains that we can say that there has been moral progress in the same way that we can say that there has been scientific progress.

Its not the particulars of this story, but I wonder whether kids now get to consider things like “Life is merely froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone, kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own” and “As one lamp lights another nor grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness” both of which have stayed with me since I first heard them at my very rough and difficult public high school.

I think the particulars of that story are quite alarming, actually. I remember teaching a few Lit. classes on teaching prac a couple of years ago. There was a girl in the class who didn’t know where Adelaide was. Bear in mind–this was an English Literature class. Nevertheless I don’t think you can argue that enlightenment values are not being passed on just because certain texts are not being taught (or not being taught enough) and others are. It’s how they are taught, in addition to (of course) how well (or if) students’ critical thinking skills are being developed, that is important.

This is a very good feature of our society, and something that is more marked in societies built on immigration. Policy should be directed to fostering this and preventing subdivision into insular communities. Do you have any observations on the way the (less diverse?) Japanese society functions.

I’m not fluent in the language, so my observations are limited. But I think there is a fine line between fostering social harmony/unity and coercing or manufacturing it. One of my fellow teachers was telling me that a lot of teachers boycott their school graduation ceremonies, as a response to Japanese government attempts to force people to salute the flag and sing the national anthem (by punishing those who don’t). This is a vexed issue in a country like Japan, as you can imagine, because the flag and the anthem are associated with Japanese militarism and wartime propaganda–and there has been a resurgence of militarism and historical revisionism (re: events like the rape of Nanking–esp. how they are covered in school history textbooks) on the politically dominant Right. (Hmm . . . sounds familiar!) Discrimination against foreigners and minorities is still a problem here, apparently–there was a UN report on this published in 2005.

(Still, I feel safer walking the streets here than I did in Perth, and the locals have been friendly to me.)

28 02 2008
arthurvandelay

One mistaken assumption people make about Christianity is that it is mostly about rules (perceiving and doing what is right). In fact, Christianity is more about a relationship (with Jesus Christ) within which we desire to do what is right. Christianity is less about discerning right from wrong, it is wanting to do what is right because we love the One who makes the rules. (Emphasis added)

I wouldn’t want to strawman Christians by claiming that they all believe that it’s about following rules. And if you had stopped at “Christianity is [. . .] wanting to do what is right . . .”, then I could see how that could accommodate a rational approach to ethics (like consequentialism), since there wouldn’t be an insistence that “doing what is right” means following a particular set of rules. But you contradicted yourself at the end in the part in bold. If Christianity isn’t about following a set of rules, but about following rules because you love the One who makes the rules, then ultimately Christianity is all about following rules.

28 02 2008
Franklin Evans

Your discussion appeared on my WordPress page, and I’m posting to say that it is an excellent discussion and to offer a couple of points.

Practicality is a subset of rationality, and IMO should be examined in the discussion of consensus. For example, I would not agree that the lynch-mob result in group dynamics is at all connected to the consensus dynamic, but rather one of expediency. It is not rationally based at all, nor can it be considered practical. The possibility of such a result, however, can (and must) be considered a part of the consensus dynamic, as something to be avoided or prevented.

So one premise is that morality in part is a result of pratical considerations quite as much as one of right and wrong.

Another point is an examination of “rule sets” like religion as a means of conveying and enforcing morality, and not (necessarily) as the source of it. That, of course, opens the chicken-egg can of worms. There are other mechanisms for conveyence and enforcement — the “Great Experiment” of American republicanism being a prime example. In practical terms (all puns intended), our secular legal structure is in fact a moral structure. It all depends on one’s POV.

28 02 2008
Oubaas

Pistolpete you hit the nail right on the head. Why people think that Christians got a different set of rules stays a mystery. Why they think that Christians are rich is another mystery. Lastly, why they think that Christians cannot laugh and have fun like ‘normal’ people is the greatest mystery of them all! 😆

28 02 2008
SB

pistolpete: One mistaken assumption people make about Christianity is that it is mostly about rules

Being a catholic, I prefer the rules. The main value of western christianity is that it is distillation of ethical rules based on long experience. It’s main function is to guide the life of its adherents. On this basis, it is well worth considering its rules. I like the two great commandments – to love god and to love your neighbour. They are effectively one commandment since the main function of the first is to provide a reason to comply with the second. Having the fundamental rule ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is a fine basis for a religion.

Now I ‘know’ this in the psychological way that Bruce was suggesting in the Aplogetic Pwnage thread. Sadly it seems I can never know it in the way that I know mathematical or scientific facts. That is why faith is central to religion, why it is filled with mysteries, clouds of unknowing and unanswered prayers. It is why there are so many species of religion and why it so open to manipulation by madmen and charlatans.

In the end I have accepted christianity, more for a better understanding of the rules than a personal relationship with christ. Also, I have overriding rules because in the end I agree with Bruce that it comes down to your gut for the basics, which then should be elaborated as rationally as we can. If the consequences produced by that approach appear to be revolting, then it is time to start again.

I don’t ignore other religions. For example there are aspects of islam that I prefer to their christian equivalent, such as that allah as an unknowable god cf the personal relationship with god preached by christianity. However, in coming back to religion I chose to go with the main religion of my culture. I hoped it would be a better fit for me. I am happy with this choice and happier than when chronic uncertainty dominated my life.

AV: Perhaps we can frame this question of how to derive these assumptions as a problem to be solved.

Agreed. I meant dogmatic in the sense of an answer that could not be proved by, say, a theorem, rather than as a permanent and arbitrary answer. It may be adopted, for the time being, by such a process as you describe (subject to later refutation or a future revolution in the relevant framework of ideas).

we can say that there has been moral progress in the same way that we can say that there has been scientific progress

The problem with this is that science is susceptible to more rigorous proof than moral ideas. A Tamil Tiger may think it is good to send some young people of to explode themselves among their Sinhalese enemies. Is there a proof that will convince him that the ends do not always justify the means? There is always a quest for new ideas. Science has the luxury of filtering them so that those that are also true are the ones that predominate. In morals (and in the humanities generally) the preference for the new is less constrained. I would not always count on moral ideas advancing, which is why i am concerned about the dimming of the enlightenment.

It’s how they are taught, in addition to (of course) how well (or if) students’ critical thinking skills are being developed, that is important.

This is a good insight. I usually see this from the point of view of a parent who reacts to the extreme cases my kids tell me about rather than knowing enough about what happens unexceptionally day in day out at school.

I feel safer walking the streets here than I did in Perth

The same may be true of many rigid monocultural societies.

29 02 2008
AV

Franklin:

Practicality is a subset of rationality, and IMO should be examined in the discussion of consensus. For example, I would not agree that the lynch-mob result in group dynamics is at all connected to the consensus dynamic, but rather one of expediency. It is not rationally based at all, nor can it be considered practical. The possibility of such a result, however, can (and must) be considered a part of the consensus dynamic, as something to be avoided or prevented.

I agree. What I was trying to articulate was that in the absence of an absolute morality, all we have is consensus. And if that is the case, then it seems to me that there may be two modes of consensus, two ways of achieving consensus. One involves (mostly) rational and and democratic conversation; the other involves (mostly) non-rational, non-democratic dogmatism. Perhaps it is better to think of these as two ends of a spectrum, since if SB is right, even where rational and democratic dialogue prevails some degree of dogmatism (e.g. about such notions as “inalienable” human rights) might be necessary in helping us to frame our means and ends as moral agents.

At the other end of the spectrum, the absolute truth of a given set of moral propositions is presupposed, and all that remains is the (practical) question of how to ensure that everybody toes the line. At best, this is achieved through sheer likemindedness; at worst, through coercion; and somewhere in the middle you have a variety of non-rational strategies of persuasion, from love-bombing to propaganda. While lynching would not be a necessary feature of the dogmatic mode of achieving consensus, any more than any other non-rational persuasive strategy one would care to name, it might be described (and this is an unfortunate choice of words) as a “useful” means of expediting consensus.

Being a catholic, I prefer the rules. The main value of western christianity is that it is distillation of ethical rules based on long experience. It’s main function is to guide the life of its adherents. On this basis, it is well worth considering its rules.

Given the time-frame, I don’t think the “rules based on long experience” argument is a good one. The world that produced these rules was vastly different from the world in which we live today. And from a 21st century perspective it is difficult to see how at least the first three of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt have no gods before me” (which in the Catholic Catechism includes the rule about no graven images) “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” “Thou shalt keep the sabbath holy”) have anything to do with morality. It is difficult to see what purpose is served by rules regarding one’s conduct towards one’s slaves, in a world in which slavery is deemed immoral. The concept of wifely submission seems quaint at best in a post-feminist world, and given the success of the gay rights movement progress is being made (slowly, and in the face of strong resistance by many Christians) regarding the idea that intercourse with someone of your own sex is an abomination.

I like the two great commandments – to love god and to love your neighbour. They are effectively one commandment since the main function of the first is to provide a reason to comply with the second. Having the fundamental rule ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is a fine basis for a religion.

I agree that it’s a fine basis for a religion. It’s also a fine humanist ethic, and manifests itself in a variety of religious and non-religious ethical systems (e.g. Buddhism, Bahai, Kant, Rawls, utilitarianism, etc.). Belief in (let alone love for) a deity is not a necessary precondition, and I think it would be greatly disappointing if one required a belief in/love of a deity in order to love his or her neighbour, whatever that entails.

I would not always count on moral ideas advancing, which is why i am concerned about the dimming of the enlightenment.

I think Rorty would have responded, regarding your suicide bomber example, that even though the rate of progress is not uniform, we can still say there has been moral progress.

The same may be true of many rigid monocultural societies.

Which is nice enough for AV the Australian tourist, but not so nice if it masks a lot of social dysfunction.

29 02 2008
SB

AV: I don’t think the “rules based on long experience” argument is a good one. The world that produced these rules was vastly different from the world in which we live today.

Two points: Although the world may have changed human nature has changed less. Some of the insights (original sin and redemption) work well for me.

Secondly, many of the specific rules are no longer relevant. A lot of them were always quite vile. I have always been revolted by the story of Abraham being asked to kill Isaac. It is virtually a license to kill for every loony who hears voices in their head. Christians should never merely obey religious authorities but to listen carefully to their own consciences.

It’s also a fine humanist ethic, and manifests itself in a variety of religious and non-religious ethical systems (e.g. Buddhism, Bahai, Kant, Rawls, utilitarianism, etc.).

True. But the decision to seek guidance from one or more or none of the above is ultimately personal. It is about what feels right for us. Some will be revolted by the historical actions of a group or indeed the current actions of some of its members. Others might see some beauty there and be inspired by the particular attempt to make sense of the world.

29 02 2008
AV

Some of the insights (original sin and redemption) work well for me.

I think the concept of original sin has to be one of the most ridiculous ever produced within the Christian tradition. As Phillip Kuchar puts it, we’re innately “guilty” of this sin–and therefore deserving of eternal punishment–simply by virtue of being born human. Modern science, especially evolution, has only served to make it look more ridiculous.

29 02 2008
SB

I didn’t mean in the strict sense. It explains that people are liable to behave badly from time to time, including ourselves. Redemption indicates that we can always try to overcome our shortcomings. Some of the best movies are about redemption. It means that we should fight our bad impulses and that we should be forgiving of others’ shortcomings in the hope that they also will improve.

One of the truest statements about human nature is that people will not forgive you for the wrong things they do to you. That is they will blame you even though they caused the problem as it is a way of justifying their behaviour to themselves. An alternative would be to immediately recognise that we are all capable of bad behaviour and to do something about it which is where original sin and redemption come in handy, not as strict religious doctrines, but as a way of understanding and remedying our bad behaviour.

29 02 2008
AV

Sounds reasonable, now that you put it that way, and quite compatible with the fallibilist outlook I support, once you jettison the notion of sinning against a deity or an abstract set of dogmas. I find it interesting that the concept of original sin is actually a Pauline invention, based on Paul’s reading of Genesis, and is not to be found within Genesis itself. And different Christians in turn have taken this reading in different directions. Some–and I am guessing you would fall into this camp–see the relevant Bible stories (Genesis, and perhaps even the Gospels) as not necessarily historically true, but as narratives that help to demonstrate certain “truths” about human nature, just as some might claim that Shakespeare or Homer does. Others, especially fundamentalists, have taken it in an entirely different direction. I wonder what Paul would have made of this?

1 03 2008
SB

I’m definitely more the former than the latter.

3 03 2008
Blogus interuptus « The Thinkers’ Podium

[…] The first is at Five Public Opinions. I’ve completely lost track of the conversation but it started out with that ludicrous question “If not God, where do your morals come from?” as if God somehow gains default status by fiat, rather than by justification while all other sources require justification* (also a disingenuous question loaded with the inference that the Godless are somehow immoral) and morphed into the far more sensible (and unloaded) question “How do we know what is right?“ […]

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