Wednesday, 28 November 2007

A simple partial and minimal moral approach

I want to summarize my thoughts on a simple and partial moral approach before I return to tackling real world topical issues.

The simplest and minimal moral approach I can come up with is the following two principles: the Proscriptive Golden Rule and Sophisticated Tit-For-Tat.

The Proscriptive Golden Rule: "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do to you". This, as I have discussed elsewhere, is preferable to other more assertive versions such as the Prescriptive Golden Rule and regardless is a minimal version that most people would agree to and find great difficulty arguing against (not that agreement is a prerequisite nor an argument for the "truth" of a moral approach  but it is certainly preferable). It is the accompanying guideline on one's proactive behaviours, those actions that one initiates. It can be summarized as Do No Harm to Others. The question of harm can be answered in two ways.  First some general guidelines can be derived such as (1) an aversion to killing, (2) an aversion to stealing and theft - of property and persons - slavery, (3) an aversion to violence, (4) an aversion to non-consenting sexual and unsafe relations; (5) and an aversion to dishonest conduct and communications. The justification for this big 5 is obvious and needs no elaboration here and again most would agree to it. These guidelines are just that and there are many cases, however rarely, if we are lucky, they may occur, where we might need to cash out harm in more detail. These guidelines do not block such an analysis and suffice to enable us to operate with such a principle in the majority of cases. The question of Other is rather simple, at least to state - everyone else who might be affected. Anything else implies a double standard - why this group and not that group and requires extra justification, if such justification is possible at all.

The Sophisticated Tit-for-Tat: "Reflect back to others what they have done that you would not do to them". This deals with the reactive behaviors that one responds to the initiations of others. The goal is to do this whilst, if possible, keeping to the Prescriptive Golden Rule. Still it certainly recommends action rather than inaction. The backing for this is the discoveries in Game Theory - the analysis of the Iterative Prisoners Dilemma which is a skeletal exemplar of the many situations, when considered in this context, that one faces when others do not follow the Proscriptive Golden Rule or equivalent - and the strategy known as Tit-for-Tat. The difference here being we have more than one way in how to respond. In extreme cases we may have no choice but to use violence and killing in acts of self-defense for ourselves or ones we care about. The purpose of this guideline is to minimize the likelihood of such extreme cases occurring. It would be nice to derive a few guidelines equivalent to the big 5 above but I am currently unsure of what these are and will think about that. In the meantime some ideas are if you do not want you or those you care about to be subject to random violence on the streets, do not remain quiet when you see it occur to others, at the minimum call the police. The problem is that many have been misled by poor strategies such as turn the other cheek - to which you will , sooner or later, get a broken jaw or a sore bum, depending on which cheek you turn! This is a poor excuse to let harm occur to others. So one can  and should act both directly and indirectly when harm occurs to others that you would not want happen to you, those you care about, groups you identify with and those groups that others (e.g bigots) identify you with, whether you do or not. I conjecture that the more people that follow this, the more those that do not follow the Prescriptive Golden Rule would repeatedly have a hard time and either they would change and get better or they would be dealt with earlier rather than later by our legal system. It seems to be rather the opposite at present.

Regardless of any moral or religious theorizing these two principles would be sufficient to make the world a more pleasant place to live in than the one at present. It is not in any sense complete nor am I making such a claim. Just that such an approach would create a less harmful world and therefore a better one. It is a progressive approach and certainly there is very little clarity and certainly not enough discussion on Sophisticated Tit-for-Tat  - a term I have invented and I would hope that other terms already exist that cover this  - so I do no have to re-invent too much. Anyway these principles are the ones I have and will use to identify double standards in society. Most of the time these double standards are self-refuting positions and so I do not need to invoke either of these two principles yet they do guide me as to what to focus on. In particular applying  Sophisticated Tit-For-Tat is I think a useful exercise and one I will make more explicitly in future analysis.

I could stop here but want to add a few notes on a few classic moral arguments, with the danger of drawing out all those moral philosophy commentors in the blogverse :-)  I can use bad and good in not just the generic sense, following Mackie, of "such as to fulfill requirements of the kind in question" which, alone, is pragmatically sufficient to answer Moore's so-called Naturalistic Fallacy and his Open Question argument. Once can go further and say that moral bad means "such as to cause or permit harm" and moral good means "such as to prevent or avoid harm" with suitable grammatical modifications where these terms are used. These are cognate - capable of being true or false claims. Whilst my definitions are arguably unorthodox they are easily communicable  and meaningful to others - indeed most of the time when they condemn the (moral) bad or commending the (moral) good this is what they mean, they are referring to "harm". As stated above harm can be cashed out - in naturalistic terms - which can be done on a case by case basis or following general guidelines as required. I suppose this makes me technically an ethical naturalist and moral realist and I am quite happy with that as this is the most compatible with my generic naturalistic world view.

Both the above principles are (philosophically) prescriptive, principles one ought to follow. As far as the Hume's is-ought distinction goes, this is no "vulgar philosophy" making a hidden jump from is to ought. I am starting with such principles and if one starts with such general  oughts in the premise, coupled with the case specific details in the other premise, one can trivially derive an ought or specific recommendation to do in that circumstance.  So this approach avoids the is-ought distinction issue. This does not prevent one arguing about these two principles but this is a different type of argument and one I would welcome, in particular analyzing and comparing differing reactive strategies, if something works better empirically than my Sophisticated Tit-for-Tat then I want to hear about it.

As for the fact-value dichotomy, well I agree that that there are no values independent of human intentions, deliberations and volition. Along with Mackie I therefore reject moral objectivism, there is no intrinsic prescriptivity or value in objects or states of affairs. We do not need Moore's non-natural mysterious faculty of moral intuition. Once you allow for human intentions, interests, preferences, desires and ideas as part of the real world then one can have the two principles discussed above. Of course, there is nothing intrinsic about them, they can and need to be empirically and pragmatically justified as should (a quite deliberate should) any other moral code.

It follows that I also reject moral subjectivism since it is not the case that whatever one feels (emotivism) or one's opinions (expressivism) are all that counts as morality - that way lies anarchy! Similarly relativism fails as one can judge different culture by a moral standard such as that proposed by the two principles above. Some cultures do cause empirically more harm than others and that is a fact Some deal with this better than others and that is a fact. If one rejects the step from the harm done to moral evaluation then how can one argue for any form of progress? (If one is not interested in progress then one has nothing to contribute anyway). As soon as one is looking at improving any society one is participating in evaluation and judgment. One can dispute a metric based on harm - both internally a schedule, ranking, priority, specification, measurement of harms and so on  or externally by proposing  something empirically and pragmatically better. Either way once one has entered such a "game" one is already playing by the rules of a form of moral judgment, it is unavoidable.

Finally, of course, I reject any moral system based on a fantasy or fiction such as god or karma. Socrates dealt with this satisfactorily 2500 years ago with the Euthyphro Dilemma and I have not seen any argument that remotely handles this since. Indeed many religious moral systems simply avoid alerting their followers to such problems which is highly morally suspect in the first place. Most religious moral systems (although I think that is almost an oxymoron) incorporate many of the flaws of systems over-viewed above. These are more wrong than other moral approaches (but karma is generally superior to god based morality - at least it can be a "useful fiction") - but why dwell with such poor approaches when there are better ones? If one is truly concerned about morality one would focus on that rather than on god - yet when push comes to shove it is clear that most of the religious moralists are more concerned about god than morality - which means that harm to others comes a poor second to supporting their belief in god.  Enough said for now. On to see what is happening in the world now in future posts.

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Apple said...

In your third paragraph from the bottom, you said "I reject moral objectivism." To that, I would agree if I understood you accurately to mean moral intrinsicism. I also agree to your statements about rejecting moral subjectivism as well as relativism.

I'm for moral objectivism, as defined by Ayn Rand, an objectivity that is neither subjective nor intrinsic (i.e., "objective" in the Scholastic tradition). I recommend you check out her work. The place where she analyzes the subjective-intrinsic-objective trichotomy is in her essay "What Is Capitalism?", in her book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. Although this next is not a substitute for reading the essay, I would also recommend reading this short exchange: an Objectivist study group recently studied the essay and documented a transcript of the exchange at aynrandcenter. org / wordpress / ?p=36

martino said...

Thanks for this.

On the point of moral objectivism this is usually taken to mean intrinsic value theory which we both reject. Instead I use use moral realism and do have a theory of value, namely that values are relations between states of affairs and human agents. These relations are real hence moral realism and also ethical naturalism since these values are reducible to relations between states of affairs and human agents. However I do not wish to present and defend this view here. I only want to present arguments I wish to defend and these will be on the theme of double standards.

To say this another way, I am loathe to turn this blog into yet another moral theory blog. I am focused here on identifying and developing tactics for dealing with double standards in society. I have just tried to do the minimum work to support that focus.

I will pursue this interest elsewhere and if you check under "My Comments Elsewhere" in the right hand column you will see where I am active including my current views on Randian Objectivism.

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

martino said...

Hi Paul

The link you gave fails to resolve the two horns of Euthyphro and the dilemma still stands.

That author correctly rejects Divine Command theory and proposes some sort of limited relativist answer, where the triune god can agree with itself as a means of recognizing "goodness" within itself. This is completely question begging and is still an obfuscated version of command theory. So the author both rejects and accepts command theory, leaving him saying nothing in the end and Euthyphro dilemma unaffected.

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