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Logic and Argumentation > Can Morality Be Objective?

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message 1: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments An issue that's been on my mind for a long time is whether morality is objective. A while back I read a number of philosophers who argued that whether something is moral can never be proven with logic or experimentation the way that a math problem or Scientific fact about the world could be - it always involves a subjective value judgment. I can't remember any good counter arguments that don't rely on God or some other supernatural or spiritual explanation, yet it's very hard for me to accept that something like murder for example is not objectively wrong. Thoughts?


message 2: by Cameron (last edited Jan 25, 2015 08:14AM) (new)

Cameron | 4 comments Morals have an objective component only insofar as facts regarding the thing in question are concerned. The rest of it is attitudes regarding that thing. E.g, murder involves the unlawful killing of another person, and death by definition, and entails pain, involuntary force, permanent destruction, ect. If you dislike these things, the action is wrong (or wrong in specific instances, if you dislike doing these things to a certain type of person only, rather than broadly everyone). You could delude yourself into thinking that murder does not entail pain or permanent destruction, and in fact is painless and causes the victim, who was merely pretending to dislike being killed, to enter a marvelous afterlife. In such a case, the action becomes more palatable than before, perhaps even desirable. The fact that people usually have similar values allows for meaningful cognitive moral debate of this kind to take place, otherwise people would hardly be able to agree or debate on any moral statement due to the huge variation of emotional responses to what an action entails or is.

Note: I don't consider the action of murder to be *always* wrong, due to the broadness of the term. A violent dictator could outlaw the killing of his abusive police, but the mere illegality of it doesn't automatically make it wrong.


message 3: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments There's a chapter in the book Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, ed. By Louise M. Antony – "If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" by Elizabetth Anderson which might be helpful in understanding the moral questions involving theism. Another good book to investigate is Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier.

Some people would conclude, base on Hume's famous remark, that you can't get ought from is, scientific objectivity has nothing to offer us when we go looking for an ultimate moral theory. However, science can provide a lot of solid information on what is good for people to live and to thrive. This does not give us a reason for actually preferring to provide that for people.

In the end, we need to choose our own values. We may choose to get these values from religion or philosophy, but it is our decision what to do with that knowledge. One of the things I choose to value is niceness. Once a value has been established, I beleive a good strategy for putting that value in to practice is to follow Aristotle's theory of the mean. In the case of niceness, the one pole could be nastiness and the one pole could be being walk all over. Practicing this self-chosen value contributes to a flourishing life for me (another Aristotle point). Again, Hume declares that we act morally because it feels good. I find this so true in being nice.

Relativism is a problem when objectivity does not exist. However, there are guideposts to follow. Pragmatism is one such guide. Maybe not in particulars, but by considering what works for a functioning society, where all humans are valued (not a goal for everyone).

A word (or more) about theism: If theism is based on revealed texts, than god would have to be considered a pretty nasty person. Of course, if that's what you choose to anchor your morality on, that's your perogative. Even so, belief in a moral law given by god does not give us an objective basis either. In this case something is moral because god says it is or god says it so because they are moral in themselves. In the first case, morality is arbitrary. In the second case, it isn't god who says it's so anyway. Most people would consider some moral notions in these texts to be of value, but so do lots of people who don't believe in theism. However, there are plenty of things which it is hard for anybody to condone. Finally, if your reason for doing a good act, or refrain from a bad act, is for reward or punishment respectively, I personally feel very sorry for you.

I will apologize in advance for any mistakes in fact or reasoning.


message 4: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments Thanks, those are really intelligent, well thought out answers. Steven, you say relativism is a problem, but there are guideposts to follow. Does that mean that you don't believe that moral relativism is completely true? Or are you saying that the guideposts make relativism not a problem?


message 5: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments Have either of you ever heard a strong argument in favor of what I'm calling moral objectivism? That is, that you can get an "ought from an is?" Or does that not have much support in philosophy.


message 6: by Cameron (new)

Cameron | 4 comments I've personally yet to see a persuasive argument for the ability to (rationally or empirically) derive an ought from an is. What you call "moral objectivism" doesn't seem like all that uncommon of a view though, from my experience.


message 7: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments H.M. wrote: "Thanks, those are really intelligent, well thought out answers. Steven, you say relativism is a problem, but there are guideposts to follow. Does that mean that you don't believe that moral relat..."

H.M., thank your for your questions. I believe moral relativism to be a problem for metaethics--unsovled as yet. For what we need to do in everyday living, we need to consider what would work given our moral inclinations--a general pragmatic orientation. I hope this clarifies my thoughts on this aspect of ethics.


message 8: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments Steven wrote: "H.M. wrote: "Thanks, those are really intelligent, well thought out answers. Steven, you say relativism is a problem, but there are guideposts to follow. Does that mean that you don't believe tha..."

absolutely, that makes perfect sense.


message 9: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments Cameron wrote: "I've personally yet to see a persuasive argument for the ability to (rationally or empirically) derive an ought from an is. What you call "moral objectivism" doesn't seem like all that uncommon of ..."

Right. I feel like most of us need to operate like that just to make sense of it all.


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Derek Parfit is a strong defender of moral objectivity. The way he argues for it is by suggesting a convergence between some of the main universalist moral theories of Consequentialism, Deontology and Contractualism. Another way to argue for moral objectivism is to indicate overall moral progress that is made for humanity over time. I believe finding an objective basis for morality is difficult, but is the only hope for a meaningful sense of making moral and value judgements in a rational way.


message 11: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments I would recommend Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. If you accepted that human (and some other animals to a degree) flourishing is the end toward which morals move, than science can help to determine what helps this flourishing of life. I don't know if he has provided a proof of this moral end point, but he definitely presnets strong arguments for it. If you do not accept his moral view, than his sceince view may not help. I guess that this still leaves open what you choose as the basis of to morals.


message 12: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments J.D. wrote: ""Right" and "wrong" are subjective value judgments. Because morality is a system based on right and wrong, it is inherently subjective in nature.

You had said that you have a hard time believing ..."


Interesting. I wonder though whether murders might truly disappear, even if everyone accepted them to be objectively wrong. It seems to me that people are capable of doing things even that they believe are wrong, for reasons like "I just can't help myself," or "I'm going to hell anyway, so...." , or various other psychological reasons.

Also, I think there's a difference between objective truth and universally agreed objective truth. The latter is much harder to achieve. I feel like in the world today, a lot of people are willfully ignorant about even basic facts about the world. Or sometimes the question might just be too difficult. I think there are a lot of objective truths in calculus and physics that I am unaware of, and couldn't even become aware of if I tried. :)


message 13: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments Jonathan wrote: "Derek Parfit is a strong defender of moral objectivity. The way he argues for it is by suggesting a convergence between some of the main universalist moral theories of Consequentialism, Deontology ..."

Thanks, I'll look into Parfit's work. And I agree it's still a tough sell - but still so difficult to operate otherwise.


message 14: by H.M. (new)

H.M. Ada (charley_ada) | 8 comments Steven wrote: "I would recommend Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. If you accepted that human (and some other animals to a degree) flourishing is the end towa..."

Thanks, just added it!


message 15: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Is not Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, first proposed in Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) an attempt to remove subjectivity from ethics? Kant speaks of "moral laws of nature".

If I periphrase (and apologies if this is too flippant, and loses too much in the translation) he basically said: If I cannot want that everybody behaves in accordance with a particular maxim, that maxim is not ethical.

I do not want to open a huge can of worms and get back into the discussion whether Immanuel's Categorical Imperative achieves what he wanted it to achieve, but I think it is telling that he tried to banish precisely the subjective element from ethics that makes it so hard to talk about this elusive subject.


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Mark wrote: "Is not Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, first proposed in Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) an attempt to remove subjectivity from ethics? Kant s..."

Yes Mark thats right, he did attempt to achieve that, it is one of the main examples of the deontological approach. Many people are critical of it in some respects, but Parfit does try to include a modified version of Kants categorical imperative as part of his moral theory. I guess a problem some people have with it is that though it provides some feasible universal conditions for morality, it provides no motivation to act in accordance with those conditions.


message 17: by J. (new)

J. Gowin | 101 comments I thought that universibility is the logical underpinning of morality, and the survival advantage of civilization is the motivation for adherence.

Things like agriculture, medicine and division of labor make life much more tenable and comfortable. These things require a functional society to endure. Morality is how we maintain the quality of the social interactions which create civilization. While the immoral acts of a few are unlikely to destroy a civilization, if enough people act immorally...


message 18: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Jonathan wrote: "Mark wrote: "Is not Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, first proposed in Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) an attempt to remove subjectivity from e..."

I have a series of problems (or perhaps questions) myself. One problem is something that you alluded to - Kant's universilisation test [UT] appears to be mechanical to an extent. Even if a maxim passes this test, and an action is therefore pronounced "ethical", I do not necessarily know why it is ethical.

And the second issue I have is that the UT appears to convert categorical imperatives into hypothetical imperatives, ie their weaker counterparts. So for example, if I formulate the maxim "I shall always steal for personal gain", I can observe that this can never be a universal moral law of nature. If everybody stole, personal property would disappear, and stealing would become pointless - this is one of the paradoxes that Kant said would lead to an identification of the maxim as unethical.

But now I am no longer saying "I shall not steal" (a categorical imperative), but I am saying "I shall not steal because if everybody did so, the action would make no sense". And this is a hypothetical, weaker, imperative, no different in structure from, for example, "I shall not steal because if I did so, they'd put me in jail".

But now I am opening the can of worms that I said I was going to leave alone. My point is simply this: If my second issue does not entirely miss the point, even Kant's Categorical Imperative fails to remove subjectivity from ethical definitions, at least entirely. This may be a strong hint that ethics can never be objective.


message 19: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments Chris wrote: "I'm a moral objectivist, the reason being that I think subjectivists misunderstand the function of moral language. Consider the following:

Child: I want to kick the cat.
Parent: You shouldn’t kick..."


I think what your describing is that ethics has standards, not objectivity. I also think that when moral objectivity is discuss, it is usually framed as relativism vs objectivism, not as subjectivism vs. objectivism.

I also think that in your example, you are describing intersubjectivity and not objectivity. Consider this:

Child: I don't want to kick the cat.
Parent: You should kick the cat, it's right.

There is more of chance that most people would choose the parent's view in your example, than in mine. This is more an example of intersubjectivity, than objectivity.


message 20: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments Chris: I never said that they were opposites.

What are you appealing to when considering the difference between our two examples? Why would one be consider objective, and the other not?

I would mention that I am not opposed to objective standards. But, this I believe can only be justified in deciding what acts are moral or not. The trouble begins in what is called meta-ehtics (I think). Here, providing a proof of objectivty, I believe is not possible. This does not mean one does not attempt to arrive at a reasonable meta-ethics.

As an example, if I choose to define my meta-ethics by what is good in life, and putting forth, that life is good when it flourishes (in all its breathless wonder). After arriving at this postion, I could than look to facts (objective evidence), that would be helpful in reaching this flourishing life for myself and othrs.


message 21: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments Chris: I object to 2). Some people, especially religious, hold it a virtue to suffer.

I also have a problem with 3). If I have to take some medicine to cure an illness, this is good. But, the medicine has unpleasant side effects. I would maintain, that although the unpleasant side effect is bad, it is not necessarily undesirable, seeing that in the end my illness is cured. Of course, this might not make things equal.

Both of these would carry over to 6) and 7) mutatis mutandis.

By the way, I hold that kicking a cat is wrong when it is done intentionally. But, I've kicked my cat by accident, when he run in front of me. If you take it that kicking implies intentionality, the result is still the same. My cat has suffered, but I maintain that I did nothing wrong. Again, this might not apply when all other things are equal. And this is true even though I hold cats in high regard.

So, meta-ehtics, still might not have absolute firm ground to stand upon. I am not saying that no reasonable meta-ehtics can be given, only that it cannot be considered absolute.

With everyday ethics, even with agreed upon standards by which to judge an act, I maintain that a pragmatic approach is best. This, I believe, would make me partial to consequentialism.


message 22: by Mark (last edited Sep 13, 2015 12:43AM) (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "I'm a moral objectivist, the reason being that I think subjectivists misunderstand the function of moral language. Consider the following:

Child: I want to kick the cat.
Parent: You shouldn’t kick..."


Absolutely, Chris. But I do not think your example highlights the difference between a subjective and an objective moral benchmark. It does highlight how external ethical benchmarks act on subjective views, though.

From the point of view of the child, the issue is now solved. It will act in future in accordance with a hypothetical imperative: "If I kick a cat, mummy is going to be angry with me. I do not want that, so I won't kick the cat".

This is fine and no different from the law (a framework of restrictions ultimately based on ethics) or the decalogue (for example) but it does not teach the child why kicking a cat is unethical. Indeed, the child will grow up and perhaps happily start kicking cats once the authority of the moral benchmark (mummy and daddy) is no longer present.

Indeed, if we asked the parents why kicking cats is unethical ("wrong"), they might struggle to give us an answer that transcends a subjective perspective. If an objective standard exists, they would need to explain why kicking cats is always wrong, has always been wrong, and will always be wrong in all cultures, and in all circumstances. Objective ethical standards have to be invariant, just like physical laws of nature.

And these are hard to find. For example, my grandfather, who was a farmer, regularly kicked cats and dogs, not because he was evil, but because animal life on a working farm is not considered with as much reverence as perhaps elsewhere.

But I still think your example reveals perhaps one invariant ethical standard: "it is wrong to inflict harm" is pretty good. Trouble is my grandfather would have agreed with this wholeheartedly. The definition of "harm" is again subjective.


message 23: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Some observations on Steven's response to Chris (post 26)

Chris: I object to 2). Some people, especially religious, hold it a virtue to suffer.

Steven: I would suggest that they are simply mistaken."


I do not think you have to go there, Steven. Your argument still holds. It is the definition of "suffer" which is in focus here. If I "suffer", I endure an undesirable condition. A person who craves to bring about physical or psychological suffering as part of her religion does not "suffer" in the literal sense of the word. Indeed, not doing so would make her suffer in the literal sense, and somebody would act unethically if they deprived her of her freedom to engage in such conduct.

Chris: I also have a problem with 3). If I have to take some medicine to cure an illness, this is good. But, the medicine has unpleasant side effects...

I think this just shifts the goalpost. It is the net effect (curing the illness) that needs to be considered. Still, i think we can skip Steven's second and third points and collapse the argument into his point 1 and move on directly to point 4, rephrasing it as "Causing suffering is wrong".

I think Steven's first 4 points (or maybe a shorter version of two points) make some sense. I am guessing a maxim as "it is wrong to inflict suffering" or "it is wrong to inflict harm" is pretty close to an objective law of ethics.

Still, there is still a bit of doubt in my mind - as your chat reveals, clearly there are different definitions of "suffering", and also about what constitutes intentionality.


message 24: by Stephie (last edited Sep 13, 2015 04:28PM) (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments Chris: regarding 4) in message 24, if it is a tautology why do you need 1) - 3).

On message 26: This might be an aside. If there are false religious beliefs, are there any that are true? If you cherry pick (the Bible at least) you can choose those moral commands that fit your morals. If you decided not to follow those commands you dislike, than who needs god to direct them. (I am not assuming you believe in any god, this is for those that say what god says is good.)

Isn't the moral standard not to kick the cat because it's wrong normative. So how does that make your standard absolute. What if you had to kick the cat out of the way to prevent it from jumping into something that would hurt her. Here again arise my turn toward consequentialism

When you bring intentenionality into the mix, how can we know ours or someone's elses intentions are infalable. If this is so, how can we judge the moral actions of others and ourselves. Doesn't this argue against morals being absolute.

But, can you wait for the future, when life is in the balance. I don't think so. Sometimes you have to take the good and the bad. If you wish to seperate the two effects, than the side effects in themselves are bad. But, I still maintain that it is the total of the two that count in this instance.

Absolute and exhaustive don't have to be in conflict, as long as the moral sanctions you do have are absolute. This is not to grant that your moral sanctions are absolute. Your arguments so far do not give us that. All you've done is to provide an inductive case. Examine for instance, that pleasure (happines) is good. How can you prove this for all cases. I don't think this can be done. And I believe the onus is on you to do so. Your absolutes are cases of moral standards, but those standards must be supported by some general principles (meta-ethics?).

Another aside to consider: neuroscience has shown that emotions play a huge role in are moral decisions, so much so that a lot people never move beyond it to rationally consider their actions. This does not say whether the moral actions so done are morally good or bad, but on how and why people act morally. For a look at the neuroscience, I found Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique, 2008, by Michael S. Gazzaniga to be helpful. Another is Antonio Damasio's work.

Note - this post does not consider your message 30 because it was written before it was posted.


message 25: by Mark (last edited Sep 14, 2015 12:27AM) (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "Mark: I was no doubt at fault choosing an example with an inbuilt irrelevant complication (the child-parent relationship). This, as you point out, may give rise to a hypothetical imperative ("if I ..."

Chris, first of all I need to own up to something. Clearly I am unable to read, and before I tackle difficult problems of ethics, perhaps I should aim at basic literacy first :-) I confused the authors of the comments and did not realise the "4-point plan" was yours. I thought it was Steven's. Oh well.

As for the 4PP - I do like it. I think it presents a useful tool to probe the moral fiber of a given action. And your question "... is it possible to say why it is wrong" is clearly THE question.

Apologies for the misunderstanding - my argument was not designed to "dent the plausibility" of the 4PP. I am just wondering whether it achieves its goal in all scenarios. Concepts such as "bad", or "harm" do retain an element of subjectivity. A death sentence administered by stoning a person may be regarded as inflicting harm by some (I would be amongst them), but it is perfectly in harmony with the application of shariah law, and hence rooted in a specific interpretation of ethics shared by many in Middle Eastern cultures.

Those administering the stoning would still, presumably, agree that it is causing "harm", but it is again the intention that gives the action its moral substance. From "their" (whoever that is, exactly) point of view, the intention of inflicting this harm is to purge society of a threat to an overarching ethical value, and the action is therefore justified.

I have thought for a long time about this issue, and I would love to find a common denominator on which all humans can stand. I guess if I inflict harm on a living being for no other reason than personal pleasure, this may come close to an action branded as unethical by most. Now, the administrators of the stoning would certainly agree.

But would those engaged in foxhunting? Yes, probably. Because the hunt does not "harm" the fox, so the activity constitutes a harmless sport pursued in the countryside. Some may disagree, though. The hunt clearly does harm the fox, and for no other reason than the pursuit of personal pleasure. Well, does the hunt inflict harm? Or doesn't it? We're back to square one. I am afraid finding "objective" ethical standards is fiendishly hard.


message 26: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "Mark wrote: A person who craves to bring about physical or psychological suffering as part of her religion does not "suffer" in the literal sense of the word…

If someone craves suffering, then pr..."


Again, apologies - I am not attacking your 4PP. Indeed, I am saying that an objection to point 1 on the grounds that some believers wish to bring about suffering for themselves is not a relevant objection.

But this very point shows that subjectivity is not rooted out as easily as we might hope (certainly Kant wrote three heavy tomes to try, and I am still in doubt whether even he succeeded). Consider the old joke about suffering - I still think it is the most concise joke I have ever heard. I love it as a joke, but it highlights exactly the issue that even pain is a personal, and therefore subjective, experience.

The joke shows a short conversation between a masochist and a sadist. The masochist speaks first.

"Hurt me"
"No"


message 27: by Mark (last edited Sep 14, 2015 11:06AM) (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris - many thanks for responding. I'll get back more in full later. Just saying that I do not think there are any objective moral standards. This is the issue... I wish there were some (if I was religious and for example believed in the Jewish or Christian gods, I'd have the decalogue to refer to as an external standard, but I am not, and so I am stuffed).

Ethics would be a much easier subject if there were objective standards. All we'd have to do is to discover them and that would be it. But I am afraid the attempt to banish subjectivity from ethics is a futile undertaking - what we need to achieve is to accept an element of subjectivity, and manage it responsibly.

The Golden Rule, btw, is pretty good - it survived the millennia as a popular ethical benchmark, precisely because it is simple to apply. But it fails often, and can't be applied to foxhunting. The reason is that it is not the conduct of the hunted, but that of the hunter that is under scrutiny. So any question such as "If I was the fox, would I like to be hunted" is farcical, I am afraid.

All just my personal views, of course - I am not claiming what I just said is "correct".

Let me get back with more reasoned points on this. I wont be around for a few days so just wanted to respond. Kindest, Mark


message 28: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments Chris: Here's my response to message 34. I hope the order is suffciently clear.

"If God exists, he is bound by the same moral rules as the rest of us." By this god becomes unnecessary for determining moral questions. This is fine by me, seeing how I beleive that god(s) do not exist. I use "believe" here in an epistemological sense. Because I believe atheists do believe in somethng - the non-existence of god, and theists (or any god(s) believer) do believe in god. I think I have finally have come to understand the agnostic position better. Agnostics hold neither belief. I had previously thought that since they don't believe in god, than by default they were atheists. I now see that this is not necessarily so. This is a case where the law of the excluded middle does not work. Even in logic one has to choose principles for which there is no proof. (Sorry for the digression.)

To clarify my stance on objectivity I do believe in objective moral facts. These facts are than used to determine the moral status of an act. They can even be used to support general principles. I just don't see them as being sufficient for this support. After all, I think we start our analysis of ethics with what lies at hand, like most inquiries. Even, something a "pure" as mathematics starts with facts. It is just that mathematics then sets down its basic principles (axioms and definitions) and works out proof of other mathematical facts from there.

I never claimed that you claimed that pleasure is always good. It was an example of a general principle. So the fact that this principe is false in some cases is an agrument against it as absolute. Another example of a general principle would be that moral actions should be in line with the flourishing of life (human and somewhat to animals). A moral act would be right when in line with this principle and a moral act would be wrong when it is not in line with this principle. For an "absolutely" reasonable defense of this principle see Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, which he then goes on to explain how objectivity comes in to play in deciding whether or not an act is morally good or bad. He also makes use of neuroscience. Your 4) would fall under a general principle catagory, and therefore in need of support. So, I actually reject it as a tautology.

On neuroscience, I don't think I was clear, that these emotional facts do not argue against moral absolutes, just as the problem with intentionality does not.

I also think you admiited exceptions to the rule (kicking the cat). This argues against moral absolutes and brings us back to consequentialism.

Aside- a few questions: if an act which is neutral, neither good or bad in respect to morals, is that act moral itself? Or, is such an act amoral? Can any act be amoral?


message 29: by Stephie (new)

Stephie Williams (stephiegurl) | 78 comments Chris wrote: "I see no problem at all in applying the Golden Rule to foxhunting. The Golden Rule in effect says, 'If you wouldn't like this done to you, don’t do it to others'. You wouldn't like being chased by ..."

I agree. After all, it is too hard to imagined someone wanting a fox to tear he or she apart. I wouldn't mind if I were dead though :). However, in the S-M case it might not apply, unless you believe that it is morally wrong in itself, like most Bible believers would. So much for their golden rule. By the way, I was taught a non-religious version of the golden rule--if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all. I think it applies to all actions, not just verbal.


message 30: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "I see no problem at all in applying the Golden Rule to foxhunting. The Golden Rule in effect says, 'If you wouldn't like this done to you, don’t do it to others'. You wouldn't like being chased by ..."

Chris, the Golden Rule is the classic example of invoking a subjective benchmark. It is by definition subjective, and deliberately non-objctive - that is the whole point of it, and that is why it has worked so well over thousands of years. It fails if your subjective benchmark is "not ethical", whatever that may mean.

Say I ask myself "can I cheat on my girl-friend and have an affair?" Let's apply the GR. "Would I want my girl-friend to cheat on me? Actually, I dont really mind. It's cool. So therefore, I can cheat on my girlfriend! Thank you very much, GR, you have solved a tricky ethical problem for me!"

But of course, it has not. George Bernard Shaw famously quipped "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same." Just so. That is the problem.

You wouldn't like being chased by dogs and torn to pieces; so, according to the Golden Rule, you shouldn't do this to any other sentient being. Well, foxes are not sentient. You have to be sentient to be a moral agent. That is why you cannot apply the GR.


message 31: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "In message 26, I allowed myself to be persuaded to insert the word 'intentionally' in my point 4). I now think this was an error: I failed to distinguish between the moral value attaching to the ac..."

No I think intention is key. If I shoot somebody with a gun, and I pull the trigger, and then discover that I forgot to put bullets in, my action is still unethical. And the reason is purely that I intended to shoot and kill. The fact that i did not pull this off is irrelevant.

I must also admit that i cannot now think of an action that is unethical in itself, independent of intent (of course I realise I wouldnt be able to since I cannot find any objective moral laws, so I may merely re-discover my own philosophical bias).

Would you be able to give an example of an action that is unethical independent of intent?


message 32: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris,

you clearly are a very self-aware person, and I believe your comments evidence that you hold yourself to high ethical standards. I would personally apply the GR in the same way as you did. But the point is that the GR is not a foolproof tool. It is possible to apply it in the way I showed. There is nothing in the application of the standard that urges the responses you gave. I could quite easily say this, and the GR would allow this fine:

Q Would the net effect on my girl-friend if I cheated on her be desirable or undesirable?
A I have no idea. I dont know what she thinks is undesirable. Also I dont give one. Who cares?
Q Would I want someone to do something to me that I dont like?
A Course not! I'd like to see them try! But if she cheated on me, wont matter to me - so there goes. Bring it on.

The GR is a reciprocal standard, and it works purely off subjective moral benchmarks. That is not to say that it does not work - I do think it is in the main a powerful tool. But it is not designed to discover any objective standards. I think that is why Kant sounded quite miffed when he refuted an argument that his Categorical Imperative is like the Golden Rule (it's a footnote in the Groundworks, I forget where, but it is really amusing).

Foxes are not sentient

Yes you are of course right! I read your post too quickly, and my response is rubbish. If you replace "sentient" with "conscious", however, you have what I meant. Foxes are not conscious to the same degree as human beings (let's not get into the fiendishly difficult subject of how we can know this - unfortunately we cannot know this, but let's be pragmatic for a moment. It is a plausible assumption that they are not). As they are not, the reciprocal rule cannot be applied. I would have to ask myself whether a sentient [this time I mean it.. :-)] being that is less conscious than I perceives the world in the same way as I, and then explore the implications of that. I am sure we can agree that this exercise will not be successful, and because of that reason, I cannot apply the GR in cases where the "counterparty" cannot be a moral agent (or in short, if you apply the GR, you anthropomorphise animals).

And even I didnt think that was an issue, the GR could still fail. You could say in response "Actually I dont mind being hunted. If I was as cunning as a fox, I'd show them - I quite enjoy beating the silly humans at their game". And of course I deliberately constructed this statement to prove the GR wrong, but the point of me making it is to demonstrate that the GR does not disallow it!

On intentionality, I am confused - sometimes you seem to argue that intention of an action is a pre-requisite to make it ethical or unethical, and sometimes you argue the opposite? I am convinced I misunderstood something in your posts - just to clarify, in your view, is intentionality key or is it not? I think it is.


message 33: by Mark (last edited Sep 18, 2015 04:32AM) (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "-the GR only applies if you have reasonable grounds for believing you understand the effects of an action on the person you are acting upon
-the GR is about desirable and undesirable effects of actions on people, not about actions themselves."


Chris, apologies for being a bit flippant in my version of your Q&A. Let me just step back and say this:

I believe it is possible that you go beyond the essence of the GR in your interpretation. The GR takes an individual's subjective interpretation and makes that the benchmark to decide whether an action is ethical or not. It is by definition not about other people. "I will treat others like I want to be treated" is the essence of the Rule.

I don't want to be kicked in the face so I wont kick others in the face. I don't want my stuff nicked so I won't nick other people's stuff. I want to be treated courteously so I will treat others courteously.

But this is basically it. It doesn't do more than that. Its simplicity is its strength and at the same time its weakness. It is a strength because it can be used as a simple yardstick to decide how to treat others. That is why it basically has been around forever, and is still around, although considerably more complex systems of ethics have been developed (eg ethical systems reflected in some religions, Kant's Groundworks).

But it is a weakness because it elevates subjectivity as a benchmark. If you don't care to be treated courteously, but prefer a direct approach, then you will treat others in this way if you follow the GR (mind you, I do not refer to being downright rude, more like the difference between these two phrases: "Excuse me would you mind awfully standing over there" versus "Stand over there", or "Please stand over there")

It seems to me that you are developing the Rule further, and go beyond its original purview. You seem to be saying "Treat others like I would wish to be treated, provided they would also want to be treated like that". The Golden Rule is a reciprocal rule, the "Chris Rule" appears to be an iterative rule.

Mind you, not that I disagree with you, or believe you are wrong in saying this. I am just saying the GR is the least appropriate tool if we wish to hunt for invariant (objective) ethical tenets. But the Chris Rule is difficult to apply. How do I know what others would like? Maybe we need to incorporate all of mankind into our thoughts? Ah but that's been done already. Notably by Kant, who tried just that with his formulation of the Categorical Imperative.


message 34: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments So I'm trying to decide whether to cheat on an exam by copying the answers from the person next to me. We are the only two taking the exam. I would be happy to have him copy my answers, because it doesn't hurt me and it will benefit him. Thus, following the AGR or the EGR, this kind of cheating is fine. Nice to know .


message 35: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments It's not harder than it looks, its impossible. The number of possible effects of letting him cheat, and their probabilities, are incalculable. Let's take some simple possibilities. He passes the test, celebrates, gets into an accident while driving drunk and kills a young family. Or, he passes the test, gets a scholarship to a great school which he otherwise would not have gotten, and becomes a renowned voice for morality who removes the scourge of fox hunting from the entire world. Or, he passes the test, gets caught cheating, sees the error of his ways, becomes deeply religious as a result, and founds a charitable organization that ends up feeding hundreds of thousands of starving people.

No one could exhaust "all the possible effects" which you say I need to consider. So, on this account, even if your moral compass was entirely objective, it would be impossible to apply to any action at all.

Also, I want to point out that your EGR, which you say is the true meaning of the Golden Rule, now appears to be more akin to a strong form of utilitarianism, where we need to consider the effects of an action and choose the course that maximizes the benefit to the most people while minimizing the harms.


message 36: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "Mark: May I refer you to the Wikipedia article on the GR? "

Chris - outstanding! I had the same thought. We interpret the GR differently, and indeed our discussion started to focus on the GR, not on the original topic of the thread.

Just to make one thing clear: I tried to pay you a compliment when I named your interpretation the "Chris Rule".

I still believe your iterative interpretation goes beyond the narrow spirit of the GR and develops it into a more refined ethical tenet. And after all, is that not what philosophers do? Think about an existing concept, and develop it? Not many people can do that - it is easier to analyse and understand existing concepts than to go beyond them and develop something original.

I still think the very example you gave, though, again emphasises the subjective essence of the Rule. Leviticus mandates to love your neighbour as yourself! Not like they wish to be loved. Can you point me to the empathy quote on wikipedia? I did not find that - this would indeed be an example of an iterative rule.

Now let's move on from the Rule. But with your permission, I will not refer to it with the two abbreviations you used. I believe my interpretation of the Rule is simply the classical interpretation and does not add anything to it. I will therefore simply refer to it as the GR, but I understand your interpretation (although I do not believe it is rooted in any of the two basic formulations of the GR).

Still. Back to objectivity. Where were we on this? :-)


message 37: by Mark (last edited Sep 19, 2015 08:25AM) (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Duffy wrote: "So I'm trying to decide whether to cheat on an exam by copying the answers from the person next to me. We are the only two taking the exam. I would be happy to have him copy my answers, because i..."

Precisely. The GR leaves a lot of leeway. Of course, the example you gave is actually amusing. If I contemplate copying answers from my competitor, presumably I am not doing too well in the exam. Hence, the GR may not really work: Would I like somebody else to copy my answers? Yea sure be my guest! They're complete rubbish anyway, so you are welcome to them.

However, that is a bit too simplistic, even for a simple tool as the GR. The question should be "Would I want that somebody stole something from me?" Does not matter what - intellectual property is also property. If I do not want that, I cant cheat. But if I do want this, and if I have a proselytising need to spread this view around (for example because I am Julian Assange), then an appropriation of my competitor's answers is positively mandated by my ethics.


message 38: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Chris wrote: "Duffy: Yes, I think that on analysis, the EGR does turn out to be utilitarian - though the details of the felicific calculus are still to be worked out, and if there are fundamental desirables/unde..."

Can you apply your tool to the example Duffy gave? Is it ethical or unethical to cheat, and why?

There is something that bothers me about all of these three benchmarks (subjective, utilitarian, absolute [this is Kant's Categorical Imperative]). None of these methods are able to probe the moral essence of an action, it seems to me. They are all hypothetical imperatives (strangely, this is also true of the CI, I think - I know that is contentious, of course).

The GR says "I will not steal because I do not want others to steal from me".
The utilitarian rule says "I will not [will] steal because my course of action engenders the highest net common weal"
The CI says "I will not steal because if everybody did so, stealing would no longer make sense. I can therefore not will stealing to be a universal moral law of nature and therefore stealing is unethical"

None of them says "I will not steal because I understand that it is wrong to do so and here is why: ..."

But if we wish to find "objective" ethical tenets, do we not need to understand the moral essence of an action / inaction? I still do not think objective standards exist, or if they do, I have no idea how to find them.


message 39: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments So if I apply the Golden Rule, which is a rule of thumb, you tell me I have to consider all the possible outcomes of my action. But then you say, there is no need to consider all of the possible outcomes because we have these nifty approximations, like the Golden Rule.


message 40: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments By the way, if you are going to take an intellectual property approach to my example, then my wrong answers are original and unique, and this qualify as my IP. The right answers, however, are things that were covered by the teacher or appear in the text. Thus, you end up with the strange situation where it is stealing to copy wrong answers from another, but perfectly OK to take the correct answers because they are in the public domain.


message 41: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments Going back to my example. I have two rules of thumb I might apply. By the Golden Rule, I am fine with others cheating off me, so it's ok to cheat. But I suppose there is another rule of thumb about cheating on exams which says its wrong. Give this conflict,I am left to examine possible outcomes, of which there are countless varieties that extend as far as the power of my imagination. Thus, it seems I am left with no clear guidance.

On your truths, there are a host of situations where suffering is good. Picture the suffering of an inmate who finds redemption, of the fasting person who finds enlightenment, of the addict who goes through withdrawal, of the sick person undergoing treatment,or the injured athlete undergoing a therapy that may or may not work. So, sometimes suffering is desirable.


message 42: by Mark (new)

Mark Hebwood (mark_hebwood) | 129 comments Duffy wrote: "By the way, if you are going to take an intellectual property approach to my example, then my wrong answers are original and unique, and this qualify as my IP. The right answers, however, are thin..."

Sure - I think that's right. Taking things that are in the public domain is not stealing and therefore ethical. I could never understand why people go to the effort of appropriating answers from another student, or making notes on little pieces of paper from which they would copy them out in the exam, when it was so much easier to just understand the stuff when it was offered in the first place. :-)


message 43: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments In most of my examples, suffering is a product of a means to some end. So yes, to the extent that one can achieve the same end without the suffering, I suppose most would prefer it. I'm not quite so sure in the cases of punishment and redemption. Dostoevsky for example seems to think that certain kinds of suffering are a positive force for good. And of course, in the case of retributive punishments, suffering itself is the end sought.

Utilitarianism strikes me as a monstrous doctrine. It can lead to results like executing the innocent if it causes enough pleasure to enough people. In the Roman Circuses, was it ok to feed an innocent slave to the lions. When answering the question, do we need to consider either the appetite of the lion, or the size of the audience enjoying the spectacle?

On top of that you have my basic skeptical objections about our ability to weigh happiness of various people, and our ability to forsee consequences. On both accounts I think people are not up to the task.


message 44: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments My skeptical objection to utilitarianism is not because people couldn't follow the rules, but because the doctrine lays out requirements that I consider impossible. Chief among those are predicting all of the consequences of an action. Secondarily, there is the idea of creating some sort of calculus of happiness. I think both are deep mistakes.

And I am uneasy about the idea of objective moral principles that are unknowable, at least in application. It's kind of like saying that there is a God, and he has created a firm set of moral requirements, but he is not telling.

I don't agree that my disdain for feeding slaves to lions is the same as saying I don't like the practice. I'm perfectly willing to say that I think the practice was monstrous, and you can safely infer from that both that I don't like the idea of the practice and I think it was wrong. I don't think, however, that that makes me an objectivist, nor yet a subjectivist.


message 45: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments When I say feeding slaves to the lions was wrong, I think I mean the Romans shouldn't have done it. Somehow, I think this answer is not going to satisfy you. But I'm willing to play this game for a brief while. I have two questions in return.

1) Do you not understand what I mean when I say feeding slaves to the lions was wrong, and the Romans should not have done it?

2) If you do understand what I mean, do you agree or disagree?


message 46: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments Let me ask one more. Are happiness and suffering objective or subjective?


message 47: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments I find the last comment a bit impenetrable. It sounds like you are saying the suffering is both subjective and objective. When you say the suffering is subjective, do you mean how bad it feels is subjective? And conversely, how good something makes someone feel would also be subjective?


message 48: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments So, how happy or sad an event makes a person - how much it makes them feel - is subjective. But my objective moral rule requires me to calculate how much happiness and sadness my action will cause. That requires the quantification of a lot of subjective and inherently unknowable information. It appears to me that you objective rule is not as objective as you have claimed.


message 49: by Duffy (last edited Sep 23, 2015 09:46AM) (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments Yes, it is possible for something to be a fact and for a person not to be able to discover that fact. But what you are saying is that we must make moral choices on the basis of facts that are, by their nature, undiscoverable.


message 50: by Duffy (new)

Duffy Pratt | 147 comments How good or bad an event makes someone feel is subjective. This subjective quality is known and felt by the individual, but unknown to others. But your moral calculus requires you to know this, to weigh the changes of one persons subjective feeling of happiness against everyone else's, and come up with a grand total of everyone's subjective change.

That is different from my point about not knowing the outcomes. There, I objected that there were an incalculable number of physical outcomes which might result from my letting my friend cheat, which included him killing a family while driving drunk, and him putting an end to the scourge of fox hunting. The difficulty of knowing those outcomes is of a different kind than the impossibility of weighing everyone's subjective feelings.


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