Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is morality rational, and is immorality irrational

People often see the moral life summed up in the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

So what if someone were to say "No. I'm me. Other people are other people. I will treat myself they way I want to be treated, and treat them in the way that best suits my happiness. If that means using them for my purposes and leaving them to suffer or die, tough luck for them."
Such a person, I take it, would not be a nice person or an ethical person. Would, however, that person be a person who is not listening to reason? Because that is the consequence of saying that morals are based on reason. If you say that, then you have to say that immorality is irrational.
If you think about "selfish b*****ds, do you think they have failed to be rational, or do you think that their hearts were two sizes too small. Or in asking this question am I bifurcating reason and emotion?


Ilíon said...

Is 'unreasonable' automatically or definitionally 'irrational?'

Steven Carr said...

You can always be 'rational' and say to hell with other people.

And end up blowing out your brains in a German bunker while a whole army is just yards away , intent on killing you.

Or you could be 'irrational' and love and cherish your loved ones, and be loved and cherished in return.

Or you could live in a cave for 30 years, worshipping your God and glorifying him.

The choice is yours.

I know which I would choose, so if this god thinks the meaning of life is to glorify his name, he will have to find a more 'moral' person than me.

Ilíon said...

What does it even mean for one temporarily ambulatory bag of chemicals -- soon to be worm-food, and immediately thereafter to be worm-dung -- to "love" another temporarily ambulatory bag of chemicals, likewise consigned to the same fate?

What does it even mean to "have a choice" when all possible results of all possible choices always end in the same utter non-existence?

And, even aside from that ultimate futility, what does it even mean, in this world of nothing but physical-and-mechanical cause-and-effect, to "have a choice?" Whence come these "choices," whatever that are and futile though they are?

Is it not amusing -- and egotistical! -- for the contingent being to strut around brandishing his puny fist at the being upon whom he depends for his very existence?

Ilíon said...

One envisions a three-year-old proclaiming in his impotent rage, "I'll beat you up, Daddy!"

unkleE said...

I think it all depends on our objectives.

Reason or rationality can refer both to one's goals and to how one goes about achieving them. So if our chosen goal is to please ourselves, then not caring about others may be rational - if one can survive without doing so. Certainly many people have lived that way more or less successfully. But if our goal is to leave the world a better place, then a different behaviour pattern is rational.

But how can we decide what goals are rational and which ones are not? Surely that depends on the metaphysical realities. If there's a God, pleasing him might be smartest, either out of fear (with some religions) or out of love (my understanding of christianity).

But if there's no God, the choice of objective becomes more subjective, even arbitrary. But I would have thought that any choice, from hedonism to altruism, would in the end be made because it pleased the person making it.

Doctor Logic said...

I agree with Unkle E up to a point. You can only speak of what it is rational to do with respect to some goal. I don't see how top-level goals can be rational or irrational.

If there's a God, pleasing him might be smartest, either out of fear (with some religions) or out of love (my understanding of christianity).Suppose I am a dictator with power over life and death. I love everyone, and give everyone free cable TV. However, those who don't return my love and devotion I deem worthy of torture and death. To those who love me I grant special status, and reward them. Resistance is futile... do you bring yourself to love me?

I find Christian notion of love to be very peculiar. If I love someone, I generally don't want to kill them or torture them when they don't love me back. In fact, even when I dislike a person, I don't want to do those things to them or allow them to happen.

Moreover, in 99% of cases, I would rather a wrongdoer gain an empathic appreciation for what they did wrong than that they be killed or tortured.

If your God feels love, it's not a variety of love I recognize.

This is not a proof your God doesn't exist, but a universe ruled by your God seems a lot nastier (and less significant) than a naturalistic universe that dies a long heat death.

Edwardtbabinski said...


These are kindergarten level questions and oppositions, "rational ethics," "irrational ethics."

You can't separate basic shared emotional needs, each individual's experiences of compassion or mistreatment and how they helped shape that individual, each individual's ability to foresee or at least gauge with some probability the future outcomes of their actions toward others, or the whole evolutionary history of our social, large-brained, species, from such questions.

You must open up the question of the natural world's involvement in helping explain the way we each recoil from physical, emotional and intellectual pains, and the way we each rejoice when physical, emotional and intellectual pleasures are shared.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Secondly just what part of any ethical system based on authoritarianism is "rational?"

Edwardtbabinski said...

The paradox of the golden rule

"Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you"

is not a perfect rule for the simple reason that if you were say, a believing Christian who believed that if you were in danger of hellfire you would "want" others to love bomb you back into the fold, or argue you back into the fold, or if that didn't work, scare you back into the fold, or ostracize you back into the fold, or persecute you via laws or torture back into the fold, rather than risk eternal hellfire, then you WOULD want others to do that to you, rather than spend an eternity in hell, and you would be equally emboldened to do that to others, taking a strictly rational view of the above saying.

A more explicit rule, the platinum rule would be,

do unto others as they want done to themselves based on the best of your knowledge of such.

Google my article online, "golden rule" babinski

Ilíon said...

LOL ... The "platinum rule"

Some fool "consultant" tried to lay that one on us at one of the ongoing seminars at my former employer (he also claimed something like, to paraphrase, "I don't mean to disparage the 'Golden Rule,' even though it's so old"). And I, who am tongue-tied in person was still able to convince most all my fellow employees (including, it seemed, a VP who is politically "liberal" on all the hot-button issues) that the man was spounting incoherent non-sense.

Ilíon said...

Edward "The Platinum Rule" Babinski: "do unto others as they want done to themselves based on the best of your knowledge of such."

Now, a "strictly rational view" of following the above "rule" shows us immediately that we must treat the megalomaniac consistently with megalomania.

Does the 'Golden Rule' *need* to be "perfect," whatever that word is supposed to mean? Or, does it simply need to "work," given the natures of the beings to whom it is given as a rule?

Ilíon said...

Come to think of it, I think the fool consultant actually said something more like (again, to paraphrase), "I'm not at all disparaging Christ, but did he live so long ago and we know more now."

Ilíon said...

And, by the way, the fool consultant is (or was) a professor at the local university branch, and goes by the title "Doctor."

unkleE said...

Dr Logic:

Thanks for your comments, and the partial agreement. I want to follow up on your main point, where you say: "However, those who don't return my love and devotion I deem worthy of torture and death."This is a caricature of christian belief, although admittedly a belief held by many. But it is not my belief and not, in my understanding, a Biblical belief, certainly not Jesus' teaching. We all die, and Jesus taught some of us receive life in the age to come (="eternal") and some do not. The torture bit comes not from Jesus' teaching but from the imagery of the garbage tip which Jesus used (he often used very vivid imagery, like mountains being cast into the sea), and from the Greek idea of an immortal soul, which is not a Biblical idea.

So the deal is this. There is a kingdom of those who love God, and we all choose, by what we choose to believe and be and do, whether we want to let God be our God and live in that kingdom. Those who don't want that still get the blessing of this life, but miss the greater blessing of life in the age to come.

Because God is forgiving, his love and this new life isn't primarily dependent on our ethical behaviour, and hence our ethical behaviour is a response to him.

I understand that you don't believe as I do that this God exists, but perhaps you can see that because I do, the rest follows?

Doctor Logic said...

Unkle E,

Thanks for your comment. I've heard a variety of beliefs about the afterlife, from fire and brimstone to universalism.

I suppose the large cultural footprint of the fire and brimstone view may be due to the, er, colorful personalities of its preachers.

For me, your view seems inconsistent with a loving God.

A few months back, the FCC extended the deadline for switching to digital broadcasts because many citizens had not yet upgraded their boxes or redeemed their coupons. Now, there are many reasons why people had not yet obtained a a digital converter. Certainly, some of them don't want TV, and are willing to let their access to TV expire. However, I suspect that most people who didn't have cable or satellite were busy with other things, were confused by the rules, etc. The government extended the deadline, knowing that many people who lost signal during the switchover would have been victims.

I assume the point of my analogy is pretty obvious. God is far less known to the public than the digital broadcast switchover. And, dying is a much greater loss than a TV station. Finally, the pain felt as a result of the death of loved ones seems a lot less than the pain felt when a loved one loses TV. Yet we thought it kinder and better to use our very limited resources to give folks more time and more information.

I totally understand the human psychology that says "to hell with those guys" (even figuratively), and I can see how some people read that attitude into God's behavior (e.g., in rejecting God in whatever fashion, we deserve to die, have our TV signal go out, whatever). It just doesn't make any sense to me for a being with infinite ability and compassion.

Now, I assume the Christian God is sufficiently loving to satisfy Christians (or they wouldn't be Christians), but, to me, God even falls short of humanly attainable ideals. The Christian God seems more like the absent prankster than the competent parent.

Of course, this whole discussion is aesthetic, and if we devise some interpretation of God that we like or don't like, that shouldn't impact our belief in the likelihood of said God's existence.

unkleE said...

Dr Logic:

I think you are assuming that many people don't have a chance, but I don't think that. Yes, most christians believe that salvation is only through Jesus, but that doesn't mean the saved person necessarily has to have heard of Jesus - otherwise Abraham, Moses et al would miss out.

Many christians (including CS Lewis, perhaps the most influential western christian of the last century) believe God's grace will extend to those who haven't grown up in christian societies - you'll notice I said: "we all choose, by what we choose to believe and be and do, whether we want to let God be our God and live in that kingdom".

CS Lewis said "the gates of hell are locked on the inside". I don't believe in the hell he believed in, but I believe that is the case. People will miss out because they choose to.

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