Ethics and morality in practice

The below discussions arose from conflicting views about the first Gulf war, but quickly transcended its origins, turning into a debate about ethics, morality, good & evil, right & wrong...

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Topic 98, note 178 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 6-MAR-1991 10:26
-< Charles, it isn't getting to be a habit, is it? >-

Oh, sure. I see the dangers of moral relativism only too clearly. My point really is that sticking to absolutes does not offer (to my mind) any improvement – as history proves more than amply.

On reflection, I suppose I am arguing the nowadays deeply unfashionable cause of "humanism" (in its wider sense). This holds that the only sustainable moral values are those that are rooted in our humanity. Let's not beat around the bush and state it bashfully, but plainly – those that are based on compassion. This is a very difficult credo to define, because it has to be defined and re-defined by each individual again and again and again... It is not absolute and it cannot be perfect. But its admission of its own imperfection is, to my mind, its greatest strength.

The standard objection to "humanism" is that it is either anthropocentric or, worse, no different from relativism. The first criticism is only as true as is one's mental horizon is narrow. The second one is much more serious. My answer to it lies in my conviction that Jung was right and that we all share a vast "undersea" reagion of our humanity, within the context of which humanist values are no longer arbitrary.

In its most primitive version, humanism boils down to doing onto others as one would others do onto oneself (and not doing onto others...). Even that is a good start, though really it is necessary to tamper this simple formula with empathy towards others - which is where all the complications arise.

I am sure you get the picture.

On the other matters – I am not sure that "advanced" is the opposite of "primitive", at least not as far as cultures go. As a former sci-fi omnivore, I have no difficulty imagining advanced primitive cultures and backward civilised ones!

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Topic 98, note 199 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 7-MAR-1991 14:18
-< Matters arising >-

"Undersea regions" have as such nothing to do with empathy and are in no meaning of the word "good" rather than "evil". They are simply pre-existing structures of the mind, which evolved just like the structures of our bodies did. (The idea that a child is a "tabula rasa" or that there is nothing in the mind that has not come in through the senses [or that nurture is all, and nature nothing] must have originated with bearded philosophers who never got anywhere near the messy and mundane business of child-rearing – they would have known better otherwise). What it does in the context of this discussion, is to make empathy possible, otherwise we would be truly Leibnitz's monads, forever alone with no means of knowing that we do understand anybody else. Put stupidly, we have the same kind of nervous systems, so that if somebody kicks you in the shin, I know what it feels like.

Absolute values. Sorry... "Love thy neighbour" etc are lofty ideals but the moment you try to apply them to real life you promptly get stuck in the essential messiness of the world. As I remember, Inquisition was burning heretics out of love, to ensure the salvation of their souls. Or, what about the occasional cases of a parent killing his/her children before committing suicide – out of love, to save the little one the suffering in this valley of tears which s/he could no longer bear?

Ok. Killing people is wrong. Sounds absolute? What about self-defence? What about defending the defenceless, against torture or death? If we accept that killing is wrong absolutely, then the allied war effort was evil because it killed people. But would it not be even more evil to stand by and do nothng? Worse yet, to enter into protracted negotiations, spun out by Saddam or his likes while the horrors continue?

I am not suggesting that if you think you have absolute values you are a narrow-minded bigot, that would be stupid. I do think however that if you attempt to implement your absolute values absolutely, then you are in a grave danger of becoming one. And of course "absolute" values just beg to be implemented absolutely. They are absolute aren't they?

"Do onto others..." Fine, but do you mean literally as I would they did onto me? Suppose the other happens to be "of a homophilic preference", now what? Or should I do it by projecting myself into the other's shoes and doing onto him as I would wish him doing onto him if I were him? Hang on, he might not like that! He might want me to do onto him, like he would be doing onto me, on the assumption that I like it by projecting himself into my shoes!

As for my putative agreement with Colonel Dogsbody – I regretfully rescind it. That was another nice principle (to judge all cases on their merits but not by introducing principles), but it's thoroughly impractical and hence (applied absolutely) wrong.

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Topic 98, note 231 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 11-MAR-1991 15:03
-< A ramble through the topic >-

Well, it serves me right for being off the net for a few days!

Before we get totally submerged in the abortion question, I'd like to summarise a few of my thoughts on the previous (wider) topic. My apologies to all those who have already said some of this.

First of all , there is no doubt that most "normal" people can agree on certain acts being definitely right and others being definitely wrong. I am not at all surprised that nobody tried to defend "evil absolutists". Similarly, I have a great deal of respect for people like the Amish and Quakers who try to live by their absolute ideals. I just wish I could be as confident that they do so with the full awareness of oversimplifying this wonderfully complex world. If they do, they qualify for a sainthood, but, as somebody pointed out, they are dead lucky to be able to stick with their principles and still live.

We do have here, however, several voices aspiring to a realistic and benign absolutism. Clearly, if they are prepared to accept that absolute principles have to be interpreted "locally", as somebody put it, there is in practice little difference between their position and what I understand as "humanism". And yet, and yet... Once we leave the safe areas of entirely black and entirely white and consider the very large (do I dare to say fractal, rather than gray?) area in between obvious good and obvious evil, benign absolutists do worry me.

I've observed this before and I see it again in this discussion. Absolutists fail to (refuse to?) see the complexity of questions they pronounce upon. Hence the question of capital punishment, for example, is "simple". You just have to be satisfied that (a), (b) and (c). The fact is that nobody can ever be sure all of these conditions can be adequately satisfied. How can anybody seriously expect a reliable answer to the question "Is this man going to kill again?". Please note that the answer has to be 100% right, otherwise chances are that you will execute some people unnecessarily!

No, surely – and particularly in view of some celebrated cases, both past and present, where juries got it very wrong – it must be clear that capital punishment is too absolute a measure. It is irrevocable – you cannot say sorry afterwards! Yet absolutists tend to accept capital punishment "in specific circumstances". So there are differences.

Similarly, we are told that there is no problem with abortions. (I bypass here that nasty crack about anti-anti-abortionists being "pro-death"). It is apparently just a question of "when does life begin". Well, really! Life never begins. On this planet it began once – a long time ago. (Well maybe more than once, you know what I mean!). A human egg is just as much alive as an embryo or an adult. So what do you mean by "life"?

Furthermore, unless one sticks with literal creationism, there is no way round the fact that the embryo's development recapitulates the development of the species, yet I have not noticed all anti-choicers (humanists can get nasty too!) being – never mind vegetarians – extreme Buddhists! (Mind you, even Buddhists have the reasonable expedient of absolution open to them if they happen to squash a bug).

To return to my original point. Humanism does not claim to be rooted in absolutes and hence is much more inclined to accept that somebody else's truths may have something to them, without sliding into the morass of relativism. I have no doubt that should we ever really meet "venusians", we will badly need this openness.

My thanks to Smoking Jacket for .206 – again saved me some typing, even though I would be inclined to claim a much more "pro-active role" (as the current managerial saying goes) for the Unconscious. Perhaps I should consider publishing a discourse on "The Fractal Nature of the Psyche". The above reference to the fractal boundary between good and evil was meant as a joke, but I am beginning to wonder. It is a good way of putting it – so yet again science has given us tools for thinking about old things in a new way.

Finally, (definitely finally-finally!) I am somewhat worried by a reference somewhere above to "the nobility" of the humanist position. If that's what it impresses by, I may need to reconsider in a hurry!

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Topic 98, note 251 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 12-MAR-1991 10:33
-< The blinking cursor writes, and having writ, blinks on >

One thing baffles me. Why is it that a substantial fraction (possibly a minority – hard to tell) of anti-choicers think that it is necessary to be aggressive, or better still offensive, in presenting their views?

The usual justification is "moral indignation", but that's really just an excuse. Moral indignation is much more effective if it is controlled. The alternative is "moral indigestion".

Let's nail down another untruth that had slipped by somewhere above. It is not true that all great religions are really the same. It may appear so from a purely secular point of view, but taking that exclusive view simply misses the point of a religion, which is surely in its revelatory aspect. In that religions differ greatly, not to say fundamentally, which is a fact obvious to all "true believers". It is, of course, also true that the long term cultural impact of these differences often appear to have little to do with the actual religious doctrine, but that's a different story altogether.

Finally, yes, I would agree that the only rational abortion cutoff should be determined by the embryo's viability. However, even that is being changed by technology all the time. The real question here is when does a sentient being become a sentient being (please note – a being, not a human!). If we knew an even approximate answer to that, we would be much wiser than we are.

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Topic 98, note 317 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 14-MAR-1991 14:29
-< The Mirror of Her Dreams >-

.314 It is far too narrow minded to restrict the purpose of a debate to a mere mundane exchange of opinions. Discounting idle discussions (e.g. what weather are we likely to have this summer), I am hard put to recollecting a single debate which even attempted to serve as a vehicle for opinion exchange.

No, no... A real life debate (like this one) serves three functions, ordered roughly in the order of their apparent perceived priorities:

  1. For the participants to show off, or to shoot somebody else down.
  2. To clarify one's own thoughts on the metters discussed.
  3. To sway the silent masses of the (possibly) uncommited non-participating noters.

The effectiveness of (1) and (3) is difficult to evaluate, but (2) is what makes such debates really worthwhile as far as I am concerned.

On the more narrowly immediate subject, suppose I were a mad scientist (yeah... OK... very droll!... not that kind of mad, and not that kind of scientist!) and invented an artificial womb and decided to have offspring with its help, 'cause children offer a sort of immortality but the conventional method (from what I've hypothetically heard of it) is tiresome, messy, time-consuming and (shudder!) involves women!

I strongly suspect that all the arguments would suddenly get inverted (probably on all sides) and I wouldn't be a self-reliant individual, sufficiently self-confident not to need a woman as an emotional prop and a menial servant. Rather I'd become the immature wimp, too terrified of a real emotional involvement with the Other, to be entrusted with the life-bearing functions of true motherhood.

Yeah... All right... It's a caricature. Or is it?

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Topic 98, note 441 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 27-MAR-1991 10:27
-< Catching up... >-

Hm... A lot of catching up to do again, I see. A few random thoughts...

Pack, you are often thought to sound like the "moral majority" for a very simple reason. You tend to take a reasonable point of view and then over-simplify it quite outrageously – to the point where it ceases to be reasonable. Just as an example – somewhere above you claimed that it is all "very simple", being the matter of balancing (a) the right of the individual to do as s/he would and (b) the right of the society to do enforce what's good for the majority (I paraphrase, not too inaccurately I hope).

The problem lies in the second point. After all Communism was built on it. (And I am sure many other un-democratic regimes too). You see, the problem is (1) how do you decide what's good for the society as a whole (and it is an undemocratic fallacy to believe that what's good for the majority is good for the society as a whole!) and even more importantly (2) who decides it. "The society" (whatever that is!) cannot decide anything at all – it's this little problem that all structures of representative democracy evolved to cope with. If this decision-making winds up in the hands of people without wisdom, vision and compassion – the results are dire, as I had the misfortune to experience at first hand. Back at home – everything was done in the name of the good of the society, as derived "scientifically" from the precepts of Marxism-Leninism.

Prohibition. It may indeed succeeded in controlling alcoholism, but it equally certainly brought about an increase in criminality and violence. (Or am I just echoing the received wisdom? Are there any statistics proving otherwise?)

I am inclined to agree with the view Goddes and Nobody Really have been expounding in these notes in their individual, and not always compatible manners. I particularly like Goddess' point about the responsibilities of adult- and parent-hood radically changing one's attitude to things, bringing one down from the lofty hights back to the muddy earth. I would just add (flying high again!) that it is also necessary to retain the gut feel for the lofty hights, while being stuck in the mire of reality. For some people this means religion, but I submit that this is not the only (or the best) solution possible.

Why do people insist on their right to get addicted? Hmmm... It is certainly true that many do, as was proved in Russia many a time. If needs be, Russians will brew alcohol out of any organic matter. (I must add, though, that a friend of mine back in Czechoslovakia bemoans the fact that alcoholic drinks contain alcohol - he likes the taste but not the effect, so the liking for maximally clean alcohol is not universal; besides vodka is nowhere near as clean alcohol as somebody around here was trying to claim.) I think there are two reasons. One, alcohol inhibits one's mental facilities. The general intelectual capacity of human brain appears to outstrip the functionally required levels by orders of magnitude (though how and why did that happen is another mystery altogether) and a majority of people on this planet simply do not have enough education (in the most general meaning of the word) to employ this capacity to any significant extent. Unused, it is like an itch – the deadly itch of boredom, which is easiest to handle by extinguishing the very faculty that causes boredom. Obviously, elephants get bored too.

Secondly, if one were to become fully aware of the whole overpowering misery endemic (epidemic?) in our world, one would have to go raving mad, commit suicide or found a religion. "Healthy" individuals have the ability of building schizophrenic fire-walls to block this devastating awareness off the everyday consciousness. So called (so-misnamed) consciousness altering drugs appear to help keeping this awareness at bay or even to transmute it into an epiphanic experience. Personally, I have me doubts about such solutions, but that's me.

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Topic 98, note 452 of 656 – "Grand Duke Arnautoff" - 27-MAR-1991 18:01
-< Let's bark up the right tree, eh? >-

Simplifying is necessary – oversimplifying is deadly. Vitamin A is necessary, but if you eat nothing but carrots – you die!

As a scientist, I must handle simplifying assumptions, while retaining the awareness of the nature and the scope of my simplifications. (That's, incidentelly, what I think makes me a good programmer). Somehow this approach is thought almost shameful in the philosophical, social and political spheres of discourse. Perhaps one of these days I'll hear a politician to say "of course, what I have just said is a gross oversimplification, but I believe that the conclusions drawn from it apply in reality because..." – but I won't hold my breath.

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Mike Arnautov (10 November 2022)