02 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Coming to New Beliefs

The question of morality is always a sticky one. What is or is not considered to be ethical changes with each person you ask. Nevertheless, it is clear that the vast majority of human beings agree on a few so-called 'basic' moral judgments, such as the undesirability of killing one's own family without any professed provocation. Why there is agreement on such matters is not entirely clear. Some would say it is a product of evolution, while others would use it as evidence of a defensible moral standard. Bur regardless of how one views the evidence, it cannot be denied that such widespread agreement on some moral judgments does in fact exist, and it is the job of the ethicist to attempt a determination of what exactly these moral judgments may be reduced to.

It is in this spirit that my column is dedicated. Not because I wish to impose my own normative claims upon the world at large, but because what is most worthy of attention in this world of ours is to take stock of reality itself, which we all too often gloss over; and morality is by far the most important of all glossed-over ideas. After all, addressing moral issues, even if it is just in determining whether or not normative claims exist, is the pre-eminent ideal that comes before all else, even the concept of god. As Plato so astutely pointed out, if one places god above morality, then whatever god happens to consider good would be okay. Since we would not follow a god whose morality differs wildly from our own, then we must consider morality to be even above god.

The thing about morality, however, is that (assuming a sufficient level of sophistication) no matter how hard one tries, no one can ever change what you may or may not consider moral, unless they do so with social brainwashing (such as school, parenting, or the like). Certainly, I in particular cannot affect (or effect, for that matter) your normative standards merely by employng argument. Indeed, it takes something considerably more theistic in nature in order to manage another's views on ethics.

Nevertheless, by starting with the preconceptions and prejudices on morality one already has, along with an ideal of logical consistency, I can use 'mere' argument to force one into a logical contradiction that may only be resolved by 'working out' one's own moral system, and perhaps realizing that what they believed all along means something that they had never fully comprehended it to mean at all.

Effecting change in this manner is not an ability that only I possess. We all have the capacity to argue out of a logical inconsistency, and improve one's vantage point of morality in the process. In fact, if normative standards do exist, then it is of paramount importance that we educate both ourselves and others to the existence of such a moral standard -- so not only do we all have this capacity for introspection, but it is right and just for us to employ that ability at every opportunity.

In future editions of this column, I will be showing much of what is worthy of attention, yet goes unnoticed by so many. I will be taking stock of reality itself, and showing how the reality of the world you and I live in does not always jibe with the moral standard each of us claims to possess.

In the meantime, may we all look closer to our prime beliefs, and act accordingly each day that we live our lives.

Be well.

5 comments:

  1. "The thing about morality, however, is that (assuming a sufficient level of sophistication) no matter how hard one tries, no one can ever change what you may or may not consider moral, unless they do so with social brainwashing"

    I disagree. Assuming a sufficient level of sophistication, one should realize that nothing is gained by being right (or lost by being wrong) in a "moral discussion".

    Of course, such an assumption, made by both you and me, should not be made casually. With my current knowledge of society I think I can safely say that the majority of people do not have the sufficient level of sophistication you referred to, as demonstrated by most people's obvious lack of thinking in topics related to morality. I am not completely sure why people so adamantly defend their moral system as being "absolutely right" when that is so obviously a feeling and not a reasoned conclusion. I think it has something to do with their unconscious mind finding it dangerous to question the moral system, and thus instead the system is mentally reinforced.

    Once one does question their moral system, it begins to rebuild. This reaches a point where the person doesn't fear thinking about or discussing morality, since the moral system is now built out of logical reasoning, and it can only be changed by further logical reasoning.

    In between these two extremes there lies an area where one's moral system is mostly self-developed (i.e. not "brainwashed"), but the person is still not to the point where they are completely open to any suggestions. I believe that this group of people represents a small minority of the population (I'm thinking about 10-20%).

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    1. I agree that the vast majority of people do not have that "sufficient level of sophiastication", and I admit that when such people are questioned on their moral system, they begin to rebuild from logical reasoning. But even in this situation, there is still an underlying moral assumption being made, whether it is recognized or not.

      No matter how much I argue with you on matters of morality, I can never cause you to change your fundamental moral beliefs, unless it is done with social brainwashing. I stand by this statement because any arguments I may make are essentially deductive arguments: if this, then that, and since this, then that; either this or that, but not this, so that; etc. But pure deductive arguments may not create any new moral beliefs -- they may only show what moral beliefs you already have will logically point toward.

      So I would say that 100% of moral systems are not only originally built from "social brainwashing", but have been modified over the years only through additional social brainwashing. Any changes in moral belief that followed from reasoning rather than brainwashing could not possibly be a fundamental change in moral beliefs; rather, it was just a realization of what the moral beliefs that were already held would logically require.

      That said, I would agree that most people's moral systems are self-developed to a point -- nevertheless, this self-development arises solely from social brainwashing.

      Thankfully, social brainwashing is widespread enough at this point in human evolution that the vast majority of us do agree on some so-called "basic" moral judgments. So we all have a starting point from which we may begin deductive reasoning and come to an understanding of morality that will be shared by most everyone who is willing to listen.

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    2. I suppose that your ability to not change my moral fundamental beliefs is inherent in the situation, because for me to believe in any logical moral system, I must take some sort of leap of faith to believe in it and (desire to) practice it. In other words, if I were to constantly change my fundamental moral beliefs, they wouldn't be fundamental beliefs, just pillars of logical moral systems.

      "So I would say that 100% of moral systems are not only originally built from 'social brainwashing'"

      Are you referring to societally implemented moral systems? I would then agree with this statement, because it would be impossible for all members of a society to individually arbitrarily believe in the same moral system.

      "Thankfully, social brainwashing is widespread enough at this point in human evolution that the vast majority of us do agree on some so-called 'basic' moral judgments. So we all have a starting point from which we may begin deductive reasoning and come to an understanding of morality that will be shared by most everyone who is willing to listen."

      I think this should be termed a more specific type of morality, since the study of morality is not restricted to solely societal analysis. I disagree on your saying that we all have a "starting point"; there may be some vague statements people could agree upon, such as "murder is wrong". However, when this belief is to be deal with more specifically, we see there must be exceptions. So we have "murder is wrong, except"; and then we could have any combination of "as punishment for a crime", "in war", "when animals are involved", "when humans are not significantly mentally developed", "in self-defence", and many others. And, for each of these 'murder sub-beliefs', there are further specifications that need to be made. There is not a set of these 'sub-beliefs' that is universally accepted, and this is what leads to moral debates on issues like war, capital punishment, aboriton, protection of animals, etc. Thus, these moralists would be essentially debating the same issues as the unsophisticated people do, just on a different level (and hopefully in a more meaningful and less sophistic manner, though I don't think the moralists would get very far with this). I don't think the moralists could come to an agreement on what is "logically correct", since ,independent of social brainwashing (which is not prominent enough to dictate a clear answer in these cases), it is arbitrary to believe in any of these moral sub-beliefs. I think the most that could be done would be for the moralists to show contradictions in peoples' moral beliefs; or, given an incomplete system of moral beliefs, show which beliefs would logically follow.

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  2. hmm i wouldnt agree to this.. but i dont see the need to go into detail since the last few comments have. it was entertaining though.. and good writing. You guys are fun.
    -arielle
    (again.. okay so im just up really late and bored)

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  3. Whyever would you attempt to point out logical inconsistencies in a moral or belief system? Either, they should come to find these on their own, or they have no intention of doing so. Scholarly debate aside, it's exceedingly unproductive. Perhaps you feel a social responsibility, but as any good parent, god, or watcher knows, often the best course of action is to let them figure it out for themselves.

    Keep in mind, that existing systems could be considered a 'me' which keeps things running smoothly. Not everyone can rationalize not killing one another randomly without some illogical justification, and are not farsighted enough to see the consequences thereof. People need this kind of discipline at a level they can understand; would you tell a child, "Don't touch the stove because the component molecules on the range until are zipping about with such frequently that it's sure to cause cellular damage!" - I hope not, but knowing you Eric, it's always a possibility.

    Anyway, to wrap & recap - absolutely unnecessary to waste energy and time trying to point out errors in a belief or moral system, so long as the person in question is a functioning member of society. That's the useful effect of morality. You're not held up to their standards, and there is no reason to hold them accountable to yours.

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