Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Babinski on objective moral values

Ed Babinski: Please continue to define "subjective" and "objective," and let me know where your investigation takes you.
VR: What is unclear about my definition of "objective" and "subjective/"In any event, I have discussed this on other posts. Something is objective just in case it has a truth value that is not person-dependent or society dependent. "Murder is wrong" is objectively true if it is the case that even if a person thought it was OK to kill anyone who really ticked them off, or a society approved of such behavior (say, so long as the person were in a privileged class), it would nonetheless be really wrong.

If we say, for example, that we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that we have those rights even though the powers that be are de facto denying them, then we are committed to an objective standard of moral values. If, on the other hand, we hold that we possess these rights only in virtue of residing in a society that secures those for us, then we have a subjectivist view of moral values.

EB: I mean, how "objective" (or for that matter "subjective") do you have to be to acknowledge that you, as a healthy happy life-loving human being don't really appreciate being murdered in your sleep, or having objects you have worked to obtain simply taken from you; or that you don't really appreciate being called names or spat upon?

VR: Of course, I as an individual, do not like to be murdered in my sleep (though actually, if you are going to do me in, that would be the time to do it), or be called names, or spat upon. The problem is whether I should care whether or not other people are murdered, stolen from, or spat upon. They are, after all, other people. Now maybe it is in by best interests to be concerned about others. But it may not. An ancient Greek Sophist philosopher named Antiphon once suggested that self-preservation is the law of nature, and that we should follow social laws when people are watching, but when we are alone (and can get away with it), the law of nature. If I just murdered someone, the lawss of most societies require that I submit myself to the authorities for incarceration or execution. But while this what my society might expect, it cuts completely against my self-interest.

EB: I also suspect that interactions between large brained primates who were members of social species demonstrated such basic likes and dislikes millions of years ago.

VR: And, as long ago as that, humans learned to ask the question, "What's in it for me?"

Oh, and congrats on the brevity of your response.


Edward T. Babinski said...

We are having difficulties communicating because you use the word "individual" like we're all monads. Perhaps that's the Christian view, damned monads, saved monads, but doesn't nature suggest more than just a monadic view of "individuals" and "society?"

To me an "individual" is a bit less definable, less a monad and more part of a "society" to begin with. For instance, each individual only BECOMES an individual via a socialization process. Each "I" is defined by "Others."

Without being born into a human society exactly how "human" would a person be? Keep them in a closet, don't let them hear human speech or interact with other humans and see what you get. But make sure they are kept that way till after the adolescent brain has finished its changes. Then see what you have on your hands.

Some Christian kings apparently kept some new born babies away from as much human contact and human speech as possible so as to avoid contamination by sinners and their "divided tongues" (since the Tower of Babel incident), and because they hoped to hear the children speak the "first" language, the "language spoken in Eden by Adam and Eve." The experiments as you can guess turned out horribly. The children could not speak at all.

So an "individual" is something that only comes about via being defined by others of a society in which that "individual" has been born, and then gradually that "individual" develops to become part of the give and take itself, of being further defined and ALSO adding to the definitions of others around him. And the "individuals" in that society also naturally share biological and psychological traits concerning pains and pleasures, such that shared pleasures increase our enjoyment, and sorrows shared help alleviate our sadness. The same may be said about the basis of social justice; it's not a "contract" though it can be made into one, it's first and foremost a social and shared recognition.

By the way, if you also want to believe that you can simply do whatever you want "when people aren't looking," see if that's truly possible. I think human beings have quite an ability to "read others," to see what they are feeling via body language and facial expressions, tone of voice, sweat, flushed faces, eye movements, and we have added to that our foresight, the ability to think ahead quite far including guessing other people's actions and thoughts and imagining the reasons behind them, and guessing other people's motives and finding clues as to their whereabouts and doings, etc. And, being a human being, we know that other human beings have similar abilities in all of the above areas of "reading" others.

Now go ahead, just go do whatever "YOU" want, and see how you truly feel about doing that thing you want to do, knowing how much others know, and also knowing how you yourself have GROWN AND DEVELOPED A FEEL FOR FEELING ABOUT SUCH THINGS. Go try doing harm to someone while wearing a mask, then run and flee, and see if that person does not react to the harm you have done them, and runs to others who console them, and they go to the magistrate, etc. That is the origin of morality, an origin that preceded the first laws of Hammurabi. We are a social species.

Einstein wrote: A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.


I have written elsewhere in your blog on this topic, and cited Mary Midgely's views on the topic as well (so just blog search for Midgley in your blog), and I have run into other philosophers who like her acknowledge sociology, the socialization process, and discuss and debate what constitutes "individuality," and effects of biology and shared evolutionary developements as well, etc. There are also eastern philosophers who have made similar points to those I have made above. But in the west, the "monadic" idea of the "individual" still seems predominant in philosophical discussions.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I hope my discussion above helps us communicate better. Note, I am not saying that the concept of "objective moral values" is invalid. Philsophically I'm sure it can be coherent and consistent. (Though of course once you begin claiming "objectivity" for your views, where does one draw the line leading from "objectivity" to "absolute objectivity," nay, "eternal absolutes" when it comes to moral laws, and viewing everyone else's views as being absolutely wrong about "this" moral issue or "that" moral issue, etc? It sounds to me like there's a spectrum along which people slide when it comes to such questions, or ought to be--just as there are fuzzy versions of logic, probability logic, boolean, etc. The world simply does not seem to want to be chopped up so easily into such well defined bits and pieces of morality--i.e., religious prohibitions and necessary religious devotional practices and sacrifices and beliefs being some of the most diverse and most controversial when it comes to asserting the "objectivity" of "moral values."

AND...might not other philosophical systems be equally consistent and/or work for humanity? (Or maybe they already ARE working for humanity, but so many humans have agreed to call their particular moral values "objective" that they just assume that's what such values are; just like some people assume the Ten Commandments are commands from God and inherently absolutely "objective")?

Put another way how can you be sure that attaching the name "objective" to a value is more meaningful and/or more workable than simply leaving off both the words "objective" and "subjective" and just calling moral actions those that we humans "value?"

Let me add mention of an experiment in psychology in which people were given options, such as
either 1) throwing a switch on train tracks to save the lives of three humans in the path of the train who would have surely died otherwise, but the train would be routed to another track that would lead to the sure death of at least one human, or, 2) having to push a fellow human being--a stout fellow--in front of the train to save the lives of three humans on the tracks. It didn't matter if the people being asked the question were religious or not. The second question got them all thinking whether they could put their hands on another human being, instead of merely pushing a routing switch, and push that fellow human standing next to them in front of a train in order to save the lives of three further on down the rails. Many said they could not do that. (Even assuming in both cases the results would be the same, three lives saved at the price of one death.) The answers given to that question and others, such as "if you were walking down a road and heard a young child spalshing round and crying in a pool of water about to drown, would you dive in and try to save them," were the same answers, morally speaking, whether religious or not.

P.S., I discussed the rise of secular charities in a recent blog post at my blog, "Edward T. Babinski" (and at the blog, "Debunking Christianity") and pointed out the following...

On charity and Christianity, or for that matter, civilization and Christianity, there are diverse opinions. But most would agree that Christianity's contributions in the arts and sciences peaked a while back. Today anyone of any religion or none can produce wonderful music, or impressive scientific research.

On health care/hospitals, it’s true, in the early 1800s, religion was still the monopoly provider. And the hospitals themselves were each devoted to preaching the religion of a specific religious sect, and could turn away whomever they wished on that basis, or forbid the sick from being visited by ministers or rabbis of a rival sect while at the hospital but had to endure preachments made by that sect’s ministers. Also in the early 1800s that system was failing—remember Dickens?—and the response came swiftly. Think of Florence Nightingale (a universalist Christian, a view others deemed heretical, who taught that hospitals should admit anyone regardless of beliefs and also allow them access to whatever minister or rabbi they wished), or think of the Red Cross (the American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton a universalist Christian, while the International Red Cross was founded by Andre Dunant--a gay man), Jane Addams and Hull House. New kinds of private, nonprofit organizations sprang up, as did unprecedented forms of government activity. It’s worth noting that most of the replacement institutions were not “lifestance organizations.” They weren’t other churches or fraternal groups. Indeed, they tended not to be the kind of organizations that sorted their members by lifestance at all. In a word, they were secular.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who spent years in Africa as a doctor and helped to publicize the plight of suffering Africans, was a liberal Christian and author of The Search of the Historical Jesus in which he concluded that Jesus was a man who preached that the world was going to end soon. And, Helen Keller (the woman who lost her sight and hearing to a bout with Scarlet Fever when she was very young, but who learned how to communicate via touch, and who proved an inspiration to generations of people suffering from severe disabilities) was both a Swedenborgian, and a member of the American Humanist Society.

TODAY, a vast number of charities (including organizations devoted to finding cures for diverse diseases) are secular, or of a non-Evangelical Christian variety. There is the American Cancer Society, The Heart Association, The Will Rogers Institute, and many others. There’s the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that Gates poured 30 billion into, and his friend Warren Buffet poured a little bit more than 30 billion into. (Both of those men being reticent and reluctant to connect themselves with religion.)

In fact, if it were not for a host of scientists, engineers and agriculturalists--who happened to be either lapsed churchgoers, unorthodox Christians, heretics, apostates, infidels, freethinkers, agnostics, or atheists--and their successes in the fields of agricultural and medical science, hundreds of millions would have starved to death or suffered innumerable diseases this past century. Those agricultural and medical scientists “multiplied more loaves of bread” and “prevented/healed more diseases” in the past hundred years than Christianity has in the past two thousand.

Likewise, TODAY, institutions of higher learning are mostly secular and non-Evangelical.

Richard Dawkins, an atheist, also has made a remark I find interesting: “If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?” [quoted in The Guardian]

As for famous atheists who have been mass murderers, yes they have. But they were driven not only by selfish ideals, but also religious-like ones, like promises of a “worker’s paradise,” or a holy book be it a “Communist Manifesto,” or in the case of Maoism, a “Little Red Book” with “verses” his people had to memorize. Such ideals and practices seem to motivate human primates en masse. (Absolute certainty is certainly a huge temptation.) Add the fact that the states and churches of Europe pounded the message into people’s heads for centuries, “Obey!” Some people were perhaps fed up with that. The Czar's pogroms, the Czar's lavish lifestyle while his people starved. And Marx was fed up with the system of state and church that was using and abusing people as interchangeable parts in factories, the same factories that Marx’s religious counterpart, William Blake called, “Satan’s mills.” As for Hitler and Stalin, apparently they both wanted to become priests in their youth. Stalin even studied at a strict seminary. (I suppose most seminaries where quite strict in those days.) And Stalin it appears was well versed enough in the Bible to be aware of the story of the betrayal of Christ by someone near him, and killed anyone he feared might one day become his Judas. Mao arose during the confusion and upheavals of a World War. (China also had a previous history of people following leaders from the Khan to one who formed his own version of Christianity and called himself God's son.) The Kymer Rouge I have read grew powerful partly in response to America’s war in Vietnam, especially as a result of illegal secret bombing missions conducted by the U.S. on the Cambodian-Viet Nam boarder. What I’m saying is that the history of human primates on this planet seems to have explanations of complex and varied sorts.

I think we were lucky that when Europe was going up in flames during the Thirty Years wars between Christian nation-states following the Reformation, they didn’t have modern weaponry.

About serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, I read that he was raised Christian and in his youth attended a fundamentalist Christian school. He reverted back to his chilhood faith in prison. I’m sure his victims wished he had reverted sooner. Perhaps the portrayal in his Christian school of atheists as evil teachers of total irresponsibility made him think that's all any atheist could or should be, and maybe he pawned off his own inclinations on "atheism," as an excuse, based on such teachings. Honestly, I don't know many atheists in America who would agree that a great way to make friends is to keep people's heads in your freezer.