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Friday, 30 November 2007

"But I care about it anyway"

L.L. Barkat wanted me to expand on the conclusion of my post The Raft, where I said "Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway." She says:

I wonder about good and evil only existing in the mind. I think it opens up sticky issues like, if evil is just a construct, then what's to stop me from choosing evil ways (because if it exists in the mind only, then I get to define it)... or what's to make me listen to someone who feels I've worked evil against her (because if evil only exists in her mind, then she is defining it and I can disagree with the definition and be done with it).

I'm about to start arguing like a theologian and I know it and I hate the fact! A while back I found a book in the library called Belief or Nonbelief: A Confrontation. It's an excellent book, in many ways: a respectful dialogue between the atheist novelist Umberto Eco and the Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Eco asks all sorts of questions of Martini; Martini gets only one in reply. Martini's question, though, is the question, the one that always comes up: How is it that nonbelievers can still believe in some sort of morality?

Eco answers well, but nevertheless he certainly relies to some extent on his own ability to write in order to give his answer the force and seeming reasonableness that it does have, and frankly, while reading, I couldn't help feeling the similarity in tone to the Cardinal's responses on earlier issues. Yes, I think it's true: while atheists can defend their view of the world with the shining strength of reason and logic on almost every count, when it comes to morality, there are times when we're just arguing so as to make the question go away. We argue emotively. We argue from consequences. We argue in circles. We do everything we get mad at theologians for doing.

When I was first facing this problem of the lack of absolute morality built into the universe, I did consider belief in God as a solution. But it just really seemed like overkill. Accepting an even bigger uncertain proposition so as to get rid of the uncertainty in a proposition I really wanted to believe? Not on your life. If I'm going to believe something out of thin air in order to justify some notion of morality, then I'm not going to believe in God. Simple belief in morality will suffice. Why go further?

So that's my excuse. I'm about to give you some explanations of how atheists can be content to simply believe in morality and not in God. In theological fashion, I'm not going to face the issue on blank, even terms. Instead, to begin with, I'm going to deliberately choose the starting point that works most easily for me. This is LL's comment that:

And here's the other thing... as a person who has experienced the deep evil wrought by others (during my childhood), it is hard for me to let them off the hook with a thought of... well, it was, after all, only in my mind.


Let me tell you some other things that are only in your mind, LL. Love is only in your mind. Happiness is only in your mind. Hope is only in your mind. And guess what? Those things are all real anyway. So maybe morality is like love, and hope, and happiness. It's only in our minds, but life would be nothing without it.

It helps that my notion of morality is very directly predicated on happiness and hope. I'm approximately utilitarian. Explanation of where I vary from utilitarianism is too complicated for this post and will have to wait for another one, because I have yet to fully articulate it and so cannot yet summarise it neatly. Maybe after I write that post I've just unwisely promised you, quick and easy summary will be possible in future. But for now, let's stick with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that we should act in that fashion that produces the greatest total happiness for all people concerned. So, you see, I sneak the idea of the importance of happiness in with the perfectly certain proposition that happiness is real (I find it particularly beautiful that we can be more certain of the existence of happiness than we can of the existence of the external world. We experience happiness directly; the world is only observed through our senses, which might deceive us). For that matter, what is importance? Something is important if we think it is; 'importance' is an expression of value, and value is another one of those things that only exist in the human mind, but which it would be utterly stupid to discard.

So, you see, happiness is important in an almost universal sense because we all think it is important, pretty well every one of us. And since we're likely to be more happy if we band together and support each others' happiness, why not do so? Because, hey, if we act to promote happiness in general, there will be more happiness to go around.

(See the circular reasoning? We should act for maximum happiness, because if we did, there would be maximum happiness.

It's quite convincing even with the circles visible, isn't it?)

More to come, but please, give me some feedback now. How am I doing? Be honest.

17 comments:

the chaplain said...

Very nice post. Utilitarianism has some really good points. I like JS Mill's writings. He's very clear and logical, easy to follow, uses plain language. Post-mods could learn a bit about communication from him.

Since I've recently deconverted, I haven't given lots of thought to articulating my humanist basis for morality. It's one of the projects at the top of my list, however, and I've got several books on my reading list to get me started on it. I know Dewey will be part of the mix, as he wrote some good stuff about ethics. I'll have to review some of his stuff that I read in grad school. Maybe you'll give me some ideas too. :)

James said...
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James said...

(See the circular reasoning? We should act for maximum happiness, because if we did, there would be maximum happiness.

It's quite convincing even with the circles visible, isn't it?)


It is convincing. The pedant in me would prefer it phrased as "there would be increased happiness" as maximum happiness feels like an optimum that we can tend towards yet never reach.

But yes, that is still worth striving for.

Rousseau said [roughly], "[People] always love what is good or what they find good; it is in the judging of the good that they go wrong."

I think this is no less of a problem for theists than it is for atheists. I find that very telling.

ordinary girl said...

This may be a little off-topic, but the best argument I've read for forming morality from rationality is from an article I read by Steve Novella recently.

My primary criticism of Martignoni’s position is that even if there is a God who has an objective morality, it doesn’t matter, because no one knows objectively if God exists or, if he does, what his will is. Therefore, even in a world with objective morality we would still only have subjective morality because us mere humans do not have access to objective knowledge of such morality. In fact, all claims to objective morality are actually based upon faith and authority. So the real choice faced by humanity is a system of morality based upon one faith and the authority of those who lead that faith, or a system of morality based upon mutually agreed upon principles, carefully thought through and fairly applied.

I made the point that within such a materialistic model there can be a perfectly workable and reasonable system of ethics, morality, and law. Such a system can be based upon some self-evident and nearly universal first principles, for example that people generally do not want other people to do bad stuff to them. This is “objective” with a small “o”, meaning that it is not arbitrary or based upon someone’s personal choice. Rather it is held to standards of logic, fairness, and universality. But it is not “truly objective” in the way that Martignoni means - descended from God.

the chaplain said...

OG:
Thanks for the great link.

Lynet said...

Chaplain,

I hope to see some of your thinking on morality in your blog, then.

James,

The pedant in me would prefer it phrased as "there would be increased happiness" as maximum happiness feels like an optimum that we can tend towards yet never reach.

Good point. I guess I was a little sloppy, there.

OG,

Hey! That quote says some of the stuff I was about to put in later posts much better that I could have. Not fair! :-)

The Exterminator said...

You know, Lynet, when one starts discussing morality seriously, he or she somehow winds up back at the Euthyphro dilemma: "Is something moral because it's commanded by God or is it commanded by God because it's moral."

Would a religious person suddenly think that wanton murder and rape are "moral," if he or she found evidence that god commanded those acts? The answer, in most cases, thankfully, is "no." Well, why not?

I think the utilitarian explanation, as you've outlined it, works -- to a point. But I also believe that certain moral "precepts" are hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Our genes survive better in systems that recognize certain limits on what we can do to one another. We call those limits "morals." Different societies, and different individuals within each society, may disagree on what "morals" they choose to focus on. But it's pretty universal that murder and rape are no-nos, that civility is better than rudeness, and that my rights stop at your front door.

So, while good and evil may exist only in the mind, they do so, as does everything else that exists "only" in the mind, by virtue of our genetic make-up.

Alon Levy said...

I think a lot of the intellectual discourse about ethics is very similar to intellectual discourse about tying one's shoelaces. I'm deliberately not analogizing it to a real instinct, because to me, the people who talk about moral instincts come off as no different from people who talk about the instincts of tying shoelaces.

Moral philosophers seem to be under the assumption that there's any need for people whose job it is to tell everyone how to live, and moreover that those people should be selected based on their familiarity with existing moral philosophy. Both of these claims can be tested. For example, we could look at societies whose ethics derive from moral philosophers' prescriptions and societies whose ethics derive from another prescription, or from no prescription at all.

If you tested science this way, you'd find a clear difference: scientific knowledge is better in societies that use the scientific method to figure out questions about the physical world than in societies that don't, and moreover, when societies that do and societies that don't coexist, those that do will export scientific knowledge to those that don't. The Hutterites don't need the scientific method to use machine tools invented by scientifically trained engineers.

On the other hand, morality doesn't work that way. People behave morally with or without priests or philosophers or politicians telling them what to do. If you want correlates of moral behavior, you have to look for things like food security and child mortality. Investments in liberal arts colleges don't change the situation either way.

Ebonmuse said...

"People behave morally with or without priests or philosophers or politicians telling them what to do."

But, with all due respect, those are the easy questions. We don't need philosophers to tell us that child mortality is a bad thing. But there are plenty of more complex ethical issues to consider where it's not at all clear that the widely held intuitions will lead to the right answer.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Hi Lynet (and others here),

I find much in common in the world of human beings. There is a common sense of morality and ethics, even if not every jot and tittle is the same. I find this commonality to be best understood with reference to a common origin. And certainly this utilitarianism bent is something which I think is more than less common to all as well, even if certain other factors in human beings seem to negate it altogether. It's a factor humans find they have to reckon with, I think.

Alon said...

But there are plenty of more complex ethical issues to consider where it's not at all clear that the widely held intuitions will lead to the right answer.

Sure, but on the other hand, on those issues the experts argue even more and more vehemently than the lay public.

Lynet said...

Ext,

Seems like every vague idea I had for continuing this is coming up in the comments! I shouldn't be surprised. But yes, I may end up looking at 'Euthyphro' in my mext post on morality.

Alon,

Moral philosophers seem to be under the assumption that there's any need for people whose job it is to tell everyone how to live, and moreover that those people should be selected based on their familiarity with existing moral philosophy. Both of these claims can be tested. For example, we could look at societies whose ethics derive from moral philosophers' prescriptions and societies whose ethics derive from another prescription, or from no prescription at all.

Actually, I think that having people think about their morality is generally a good idea. Knowing moral philosophers' influence on me, I myself would not wish to discount them.

And face it, priests do influence the local conception of morality. Philosophers reach a less broad audience, but I bet they have an influence, too. I'm sure there are left-wing politicians who have been greatly influenced by Rawls, for example.

However, I don't think philosophers usually think of themselves as "telling people how to live". They'd be more likely to think of themselves as trying to articulate something that is to some extent perceptible to others, rather than handing things down from on high and expecting people to care.

Ted,

I find this commonality to be best understood with reference to a common origin.

Which you identify with God, yes? But it could just as easily be because of the similarities that exist between human beings as a result of the fact that we belong to the same species.

Alon Levy said...

And face it, priests do influence the local conception of morality. Philosophers reach a less broad audience, but I bet they have an influence, too. I'm sure there are left-wing politicians who have been greatly influenced by Rawls, for example.

I beg to differ on both counts. Priests who preach a morality that's significantly different from the one around them are doomed to irrelevance. Courts and legislatures have the legal power to compel the system to go their way even when they disagree with the general population; churches never do.

And as far as I can tell, liberal politicians say and do things that are very non-Rawlsian. Policies that lift the poorest 10% of society while screwing the middle 80% correlate with conservatism rather than liberalism, which in the developed world defines itself mostly around the middle and working classes. In addition, they almost invariably start from capitalism and then mitigate its excesses by introducing regulations and income redistribution, while Rawls starts from perfect equality and introduces inequalities only in order to improve growth at the bottom.

Now, I know philosophy isn't generally about telling others how to live. The philosophers I've read don't do that; they talk about the world as it is, not about the world as they believe it ought to be. Even Rawls goes to great pains to show that his ethical system is reverse engineered to accord with liberals' intuitions. But some of the more popular people, like Peter Singer and Linda Hirshman, pride themselves on telling everyone how to behave.

Lynet said...

Well, Peter Singer believes what he's saying, doesn't he? I'm not familiar with Linda Hirshman.

Alon Levy said...

Yeah, he does...

Linda Hirshman is a philosopher whose main shtick, at least in popular circles, is telling women that they must work outside home. At one point she even compared herself to Socrates when questioned about her moralism. Remarkably, that didn't get her fired or make her unemployable for life.

Stentor said...

I find it particularly beautiful that we can be more certain of the existence of happiness than we can of the existence of the external world. We experience happiness directly; the world is only observed through our senses, which might deceive us

There's actually a big argument among psychologists on this issue. According to some folks (can't find their names ATM), it is in fact possible to be mistaken about how happy you really are.

L.L. Barkat said...

Thanks for taking so much time with this, Lynet. (Finally, someone who can read my mind. ;-)

I was quite struck by Alon's comment about irrelevance. It made me think of the prophets. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Hosea. And so on. They preached a morality that was significantly different than the morality around them. Now, why did they do that?

I'm not really going to try to answer my own question. It just goes back to the issue of evil in an interesting way. Isaiah says, "Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!" (Isaiah 5:20-21). Then he prophesies their destruction, which comes as sure as day follows night.

This man was eventually put in a tree trunk and sawed in half, for speaking out to a whole social group that could only see happiness in a life filled with injustice. I suppose he was viewed as irrelevant.

Still, I find his words a marvel. And strangely linear. Evil-->injustice-->destruction. What I wonder is, why does humanity so easily get on this path, when it is surely counter to our survival. (I say this with a hunch that even if we call the points in the path by different names we can see the dynamics. Maybe an atheistic nomenclature would look like this... antisocial thinking-->anti-social behavior-->destruction ?)