Morality and such

The Atheist Experience posted about morality here. Rhology posted a nonsensical comment here. I responded to it here and here. Rhology responded to me here. I responded in his comments, but I’ve reproduced it below the fold. Go ahead and read the exchanges in their original locations, this is just here in case of deletion.
So one wonders why Tom would have a problem with my statement.

My problem is that the statement is nonsensical. What does it mean to be “worthy” of something that does not depend on one’s worthiness? If I say, “you are all worthy of feet,” I’m not making a moralist statement, I’m making a Dadaist one.

If he were to be consistent, he’d neither disagree nor agree.

Consistent with what? With my determination that “worthy of death” is a meaningless judgment? As I said in the quoted portion, “worthy of death” and “worthy of being killed” are different judgments–one makes sense, the other does not. There is no inconsistency here, only your incoherency.

There’s no “should” in his worldview, no way to prescribe nor proscribe the ‘right’ behavior for anyone to follow.

That’s a blatant strawman. The “should” is determined by society, and at its core, by the necessary elements required for society to exist. I discuss this later in the post.

Further, putting someone to death is simply enabling a natural process to take place. It’s the same as giving someone a carrot to eat. Or a slab of steak. Or a live hamster (if one were so inclined). Or brain from a living person. It’s all-natural. It’s all the same.

I suspect there’s quite a bit of equivocation going on here, but in any case, you’re wrong. Killing someone is not merely allowing death to take place; killing someone necessarily implies that death would not have otherwise taken place at that moment. It is taking a process that would have come about eventually and making it happen immediately. You fail to recognize, in your meandering, that time exists and is significant.

1) There’s no necessity that society exist.

There is if the species is to continue. Granted, there are those individuals for whom that’s not a concern. For the rest of us, that society exists is a given.

On naturalism, it so happens that humans evolved in such a way that living together in community aids in survival, most of the time.

No, living together is necessary for prolonged survival, all of the time. Last I checked, humans couldn’t asexually reproduce.

But of course, praying mantises have evolved in such a way that they hang out alone all the time, except when they get together for sex and dinner (in that order). So what?

So what indeed. What’s your point?

2) I’ve heard this claim many times and always I have wondered whence this social consensus comes. When and where did “society” get together and establish this moral agreement?

It’s not a one-off thing, nor is it a universal thing. Surprisingly enough, Rhology, morals evolve as society progresses. It’s why, unlike your favorite holy book, the general consensus in the industrialized west is that women are not property, slavery is not right, and unruly children should not, in fact, be stoned to death.

What % is a consensus, and what is the basis for pegging the % at that point?

The consensus is not a matter of percentages, and I’m sure you’re not stupid enough to think that it is. It’s represented in the ongoing conversations about rights, the progression of laws, and the overall changing social attitude.

3) What of those in society, such as anarchist protesters, murderers and other psychopaths, and M-16-toting, compound-dwelling Mountain Men, who have no and want no part in this societal moral consensus?

They’re generally free to band together and secede. In many cases, to some degree, they do just that, which is why there are such things as “compounds” and “enclaves” and “communes.” People seclude themselves from the larger social group in order to form their own small societies, based on their own consensus of morality. Hence why those of us in the urban world do not share the Amish belief that buttons and technology are morally forbidden, and why those at the YFZ compound do not share our moral outrage over raping children.

Whence comes the “should” in “these guys should have no say in our moral deliberations”? It’s arbitrary.

Not in the least. One, no one says they have no say in the moral deliberations. They have a say, so long as they’re participants in the society, but their voices may be drowned out by the general consensus. Two, we come again to the closest thing society has to moral absolutes: the conditions necessary for society to exist. A society as complex as ours is naturally going to have a lot of such necessary qualities, but the most basic is “killing people is morally wrong” (because society cannot exist if we cannot reasonably trust one another not to kill us when we stop watching them). There are others, naturally, but I’d rather keep this post as brief as possible.

The point, anyway, is that we can judge these variant viewpoints by comparing them to our society’s foundational moral principles. Those mountain men sure don’t seem to fall in line with the qualities we recognize are necessary for our society to continue, but hey, let’s give them a fair shake. We recognize that there’s a lot of murderous mountain men out there, what might happen to society if we agreed with their point of view? Well, we can imagine that it might fall apart pretty quickly. But we needn’t be so quick to dismiss it even now; what if we make an exception to the rules? Well, then we have to roll up our sleeves, get together as a society, and decide what the parameters of the exception will be.

And that’s where it does get arbitrary, which is why we come to an explicit consensus and codify it in law. Much of law is arbitrary–arbitrary boundaries drawn in sand by democratic plurality or dictatorial edict. They vary from place to place, and that’s not generally a problem. It’s not morally significant whether the highest speed limit in the state is 65 or 70 mph; the difference is arbitrary.

That the tiny details are arbitrary does not mean that there are not practical absolutes. That reasonable people can reasonably disagree on moral principles is a demonstration of their malleability and flexibility. More disparate cultures may disagree on more basic points, but even the simplest social animals have codes against killing members of the society and other basic, foundational principles.

4) What of entire societies who have gone “astray”? The Yanomamo, the Auca, the 3rd Reich, Vichy France (who willingly exceeded the quotas for sending French Jews to Germany set by the Nazis)… when was their moral consensus created? And was it OK? Tom Foss would probably say no, but on what basis? He has to be inconsistent with his own stated views to avoid the awful (and embarrassing) conclusion.

Don’t presume to speak for me, Rhology. You don’t.

On a personal level, Rhology, I would say that these “astray” societies were obviously doing morally wrong things, since I, and the society of which I am a part, consider oppression, murder, pogroms, and so on to be morally reprehensible.

But what about those societies at the time? Certainly in 1945 we could have judged Nazi Germany to be in the wrong; their actions were–again–contrary to the moral values that we hold in the US. Moreover, they were contrary to the foundational values that are necessary for society: killing bad. Applying the same metric we used for the mountain men, we can imagine that a society where folks went around killing anyone they didn’t like would fall apart pretty quickly. So maybe they wanted to get together and make an arbitrary guideline about when an exception would be warranted–and they did, making an arbitrary exception to the “no killing” rule that applied to anyone who wasn’t Aryan. And we, and others, were able to judge that arbitrary decision to be morally incorrect, based on our own values and some pretty basic applications of reason and logic.

I’m curious, though, how much the actions of Nazi Germany actually fell in line with the moral consensus. Just because a government does something or codifies a law doesn’t mean that those actions or codes are in line with the moral consensus of the people.

Said actions were, however, well in line with the moral views of many folks here in the US and abroad, based on judicious applications of anti-Semitism. And much of that anti-Semitism stems from some supposed book of morals which suggests that homosexuals ought to be put to death (which the Nazis did happily) and that Jews deserved to die based on their treatment of some magical God-man centuries before (which was a handy moral justification).

Wow, all that, and without invoking the principle of least suffering or the ethic of reciprocity, both of which are about as foundational to our society (and most others, for that matter), and would probably shortcut the whole “how do you judge the Nazis” question.

I’m sure most of this will fall on deaf ears, Rhology, but I post it anyway.

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7 Responses to Morality and such

  1. Paul C says:

    “Deaf ears” doesn’t even begin to describe Rhology’s problem with comprehending basic philosophical issues.

  2. Jon says:

    “I’ve heard this claim many times and always I have wondered whence this social consensus comes. When and where did “society” get together and establish this moral agreement?”Rhology actually stumbled (quite accidentally, I’m sure) across one of the oldest criticisms of social contract theory, that being: “What contract? I never signed a contract? How do I get out of that contract?” But since it is the oldest criticism of social contract theory, it’s also the first objection every social contract theorist addresses. Of course, as you point out, it happens all the time. 1215, 1776 and 1788 were some red-letter years in your history books. But, of course, our public moralities change every day. But when did we draw up these contracts? In Thomas Hobbes’ estimation, the social contract is as old as existence itself. Go back to the stages of moral development: humans, and conceivably our proto-human ancestors have an understanding of reciprocity; we develop a very basic concept of equality by observing the fact that thing we can do, can be done pretty much by anybody. If I can steal food from the other proto-humans, it stands to reason that they can steal food from me. If I can kill them, they can probably kill me. Of course, fear plays a role in this as well. For as quickly as we learn that anyone can do anything we can do, we also learn that someone can probably do it better. So we very quickly see that it is to our advantage to enter into a contract with those around us that protects our freedom, lives and property. It’s a decision we reaffirm every day, and one we tacitly agree to by living in the society, and taking advantage of the benefits of that civil order. What many people will never understand is that we don’t punish crime because it’s immoral, we punish it because crime is a breach of contract, and a threat to the social order. Morality has essentially nothing to do with it, as even animals can form societies despite their lacking any concept of morals. Rhology’s examples of societies gone astray is a flailing attempted argument, that ultimately shows a lack of understanding. Two of the societies he mentions — the Yanamamo and the Third Reich — continued to be functioning societies, despite their deplorable choices. These societies functioned perfectly in doing deplorable things, so they have no place in this discussion. Vichy France was a puppet regime, and more or less a total non sequitur. And the culture Rhology calls the “Auca,” which is actually an slur for the Huaorani, is a society that collapsed, not because they were immoral, but because their mechanisms for enforcing the social contract collapsed. It is in many ways consistent with what went on in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Ultimately, Rhology’s statement that society doesn’t need to exist is laughable. Everyone’s convinced that they can completely isolate themselves from society; all they need is the gun that Winchester made, their Jeep that Chysler made, the gasoline to keep it running, a commercial generator of some sort, a phone with GPS, some form of entertainment made by books, radio or TV, society’s commonly recognized currency so they can buy it all and, of course, the protection of the law to make sure no one steals it. No, Rhology, society doesn’t need to exist at all.

  3. Rhology says:

    Did you really not know that I responded two days later? If so, sorry, but I should think you might want to pay attention to a guy’s blog when in a conversation. Feel free to answer anytime. I’d appreciate a heads-up when you do.

  4. Doubting Tom says:

    I guess you just don’t get blog etiquette, Rho. See, when you respond to a comment thread on a separate page, you usually put a link to that separate page in the comment thread. You know, like you did for the initial post. I haven’t the interest nor the pain threshold to follow your ravings regularly.

  5. Rhology says:

    Yeah, I did blow it that time. I usually leave a link, but it must have just slipped my mind. My apologies. Feel free to respond when you have a chance, and we can pick up where we left off.

  6. Doubting Tom says:

    Well, that’s certainly refreshing, Rhology. I posted my response here (as well as in the relevant comment thread), and it’s pretty acrimonious, I’ll admit. I think I’m justified, but it’s nice to see some evidence that you admit mistakes and can change your position. That makes me a lot more optimistic about conversation.To that end, I apologize for some of the rancor in my reply; I hope, though, if the conversation continues, that it can do so with a bit more intellectual honesty.

  7. Rhology says:

    No worries, I’ll get to it when I can. And sorry again for my screw-up.

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