Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A softball question

I always thought that the question of whether it is possible to do the right thing if there is no God is kind of a softball question. Of course you can, since we have social motives for moral behavior. A more interesting question is whether anyone is going to be want to be moral if a) we lack sympathy for other people and b) we have nothing to gain socially from doing the right thing. 

8 comments:

Heuristics said...

The robinson crusoe thought experiment often tends to be a good guide in these matters. What would it mean to do the right thing on a deserted island?

When you remove the social expectations it's not so clear exactly how to build up a theory of obligations on non-theistic grounds. One is then even more clearly just some atoms drifting about through space.

John Moore said...

When you remove social expectations, morality becomes simple practicality. Whatever tends to help you achieve your goals is what you should do.

If Robinson Crusoe wants to survive, he should build his shelter and tools and everything. That's what morality means for Robinson Crusoe. If he wants to survive, he should not drink all the rum and lie around on the beach doing nothing. That would be "morally" wrong.

When you add in the social expectations again, morality is still the same practical goal-pursuit, but things get a lot more complex due to our very complex human social relations.

DougJC said...

" Of course you can, since we have social motives for moral behavior. A more interesting question is whether anyone is going to be want to be moral if a) we lack sympathy for other people and b) we have nothing to gain socially from doing the right thing."

What is meant by social motives? Is it a calculated weighing of how people will see your actions or is it an instinctive intuition that makes one sympathize with people and care about doing the right thing? The former describes sociopaths, the latter describes those warm-hearted people of all belief systems who always seem guided by an internal compass to do the right thing. I imagine there's quite a continuum in between but it seems most people are a ways away from the sociopaths.

B. Prokop said...

... and whence this "internal compass"?
That is the million dollar question.

Jezu ufam tobie!

DougJC said...

B. Prokop,

"... and whence this "internal compass"? That is the million dollar question."

Something like an internal compass could be from God or it could be from an evolutionary search for stable social organisms, but in either case people would feel certain crucial moral impulses from deep inside (instinctive) rather than having to coldly calculate moral behavior from social gain or punishment (imposed top-down).

B. Prokop said...

"or it could be from an evolutionary search for stable social organisms"

Whenever I read stuff like this, I have to restrain myself from guffawing out loud and disturbing the neighbors. What does that even mean? You know, Lewis Carroll was good at stringing nonsense syllable together, too. ("Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.") But he was better at it.

Using Evolution! like an incantation doesn't really explain anything. It's just a shorthand way of saying, "I don't really want to concede this point, so I'll just punt to jargon, and most people won't even notice that I haven't really said anything intelligible. Besides, it sounds so professorial. If I keep it up, maybe I'll even sell some books like my hero Dawkins."

Jezu ufam tobie!

oozzielionel said...

" evolutionary search for stable social organisms"

The use of the word "search" implies intelligent purpose. Perhaps, "search for" should be "stumble upon" for some rhetorical accuracy.

DougJC said...

B. Prokop,

"I don't really want to concede this point..."

What point? Insisting on the divine or natural origin of morality just isn't relevant to the thread. The question I raised is whether morality is best thought of as top-down or bottom up. It seems to me to clearly have significant bottom-up components (intrinsic) with some top-down (social conditioning). But are both of those being characterized as social motives?

oozielionel, you are correct.