Thursday, January 25, 2007

Moral Ends

"And "we make our own purposes" may sound nice, but it's pretty clearly not an answer to the question.

Survival would, from a Darwinian perspective, appear to be a 'legitimate' purpose. All other purposes, from that perspective, would have to be artificial constructs. It would seem to me, then, that there could be no objective way of evaluating their relative merits beyond their respective capacities to amuse me."


'Survival' is just an urge we have inherited from our Darwinian origins, if you want to look at it that way. But why should we follow the dictates of some inefficient natural system anymore than we should insist that we cannot use technology since it was artificially created?

Artificial just means "man made" not "fake."

As I see it, pursuit of a greater human society in conjunction with pursuit of the greatness of the individual is the goal of morality. And so much of what makes us great - or can make us great - are things artificially created. In fact, the things that make me most proud of being human are things that human beings have made and done and not the powers we have inherited from nature.

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"Rather high-falutin' stuff, Orthoprax. But I have some difficulty distinguishing it from anybody else's high-falutin' stuff.

In the end, Plato, Gandhi, Stalin, Hitler, Jefferson and a host of others all sought a "greater human society." To some extent or another, each relied on exalting one or more individuals to attain his end. I need more than that kind of phrase to evaluate whether a society is great, or a philosophy is any good."


Indeed, but where they failed was in understanding the basic equality and fairness that must logically be employed for essentially identical objects. All people are essentially the same in this moral sense and therefore ought to be treated similarly.

It is only when you are operating under bias or incorrect data that you can conclude that some minority should be treated fundamentally differently - and therefore unfairly - from the majority.

This, of course, though is only a general principle and there are exceptions - like age or mental handicaps and so on where the minority is truly different and therefore deserves distinct standards.

The point is, and I think I made this clear the first time, that the greater human society is not a moral goal by itself but only makes sense with the complementary goal of the greatness for the individuals who compose society on their own terms. There is a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society and pursuing one at the expense of the other ultimately damages both.

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From here.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

As sympathetic as I am to your approach, your argument works in theory a heckuva lot better than it ever has in reality...

You note the past failures to produce some kind of "greater human society" and note that they faltered because they did not understand the "basic equality and fairness that must logically be employed." This was possible because:

It is only when you are operating under bias or incorrect data...

But that describes you, and me, and everyone. We are all biased. Our data is inherently imperfect. What you see as "essentially identical objects" someone else might see as "significantly different".

You will never find a truly objective person. You can't escape human nature.

Orthoprax said...

LT,

I think we have the power to learn from history. And I think the gross mistakes of the past - think slavery (Jefferson) and genocide (Hitler) - have sensitized us to actions and policies in the present.

It is true that we may not be free from bias or ignorance and we may still yet err, but I think we have learned, as a civilization, from our worst errors.

But still, the theory is sound even if people often fail in practice. It's no secret that people sometimes fail to live up to their moral best in this world.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: pursuit of a greater human society in conjunction with pursuit of the greatness of the individual is the goal of morality.

That'd be fine if you could get more than ten people to agree on what that meant... The problem with trying to move to a more perfect society is that I would think it impossible to decide on a route never mind the destination.

Whenever anyone had the power to 'build a better world' it normally ended in flames and battlefields strewn with the dead. But hey... there's always a first time for everything...

Anonymous said...

LT,

I think we have the power to learn from history. And I think the gross mistakes of the past - think slavery (Jefferson) and genocide (Hitler) - have sensitized us to actions and policies in the present.


In the short term, perhaps some parts of civilization have the power to learn *some* lessons from history. But you paint with far too broad a brush here. A progressive living in 1920s era Germany would be convinced that their society had learned from the mistakes of the past and was constructing a new, more enlightened society. And even as the Western world absorbs certain sensitivities, many other parts of the world exploit that sensitivity as a weakness.

Throughout history, mankind has committed shocking atrocities, on an ever-widening scope. How can you ignore the weight of thousands of years of history and hold steadfast to such an irrational and unsupported belief that man can still construct a peacefully harmonic society in the long run?


PS - truth be told, I'm partially playing devil's advocate here. I tend to want to agree with you... and I have faith that civilization does have a chance to really build something great. But I also recognize that in keeping this faith, I'm ignoring the evidence and believing something I want to believe.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"That'd be fine if you could get more than ten people to agree on what that meant... The problem with trying to move to a more perfect society is that I would think it impossible to decide on a route never mind the destination."

It is a moral principle. If you are truly acting in such a way that you believe it will lead to a better world then I think you are generally going to be acting on a good course of action. Now there are plenty of exceptions here. Plenty of people have done horrible things based on the belief that it will lead to a better world. So for this we must learn from history.


LT,

"progressive living in 1920s era Germany would be convinced that their society had learned from the mistakes of the past and was constructing a new, more enlightened society."

Indeed. The Nazi crimes still perplex me. That those people were able to undermine centuries of civilizing attitudes with monstrous immorality confounds my understanding. It could only have been symptomatic of the Nazi ideology which claimed morality - as well as the value of the individual - itself as a weakness.

The fact is, they should have learned from the past, but they chose to not give a damn.

"How can you ignore the weight of thousands of years of history and hold steadfast to such an irrational and unsupported belief that man can still construct a peacefully harmonic society in the long run?"

Anything is possible. I think anyone would recognize it as at least possible that humanity can live harmoniously. And if we all wanted it badly enough, it would arrive.

We must either learn to live in peace or we will eventually destroy ourselves. I am making a moral stand that I will strive to realize the former.

CyberKitten said...

OK... Now I'm offical confused.

Orthoprax - How can you reconcile these two statements you made:

If you are truly acting in such a way that you believe it will lead to a better world then I think you are generally going to be acting on a good course of action.

and:

Now there are plenty of exceptions here. Plenty of people have done horrible things based on the belief that it will lead to a better world.

So... *believing* that you are acting for the betterment of mankind is a good(?) general indication that you are indeed doing the right thing... but there are *many* examples of the perversion of this principle...

I can't help but wonder how you can tell the difference *before* the killing starts...?

Orthoprax said: for this we must learn from history.

Well, I guess that there's always a first time for everything... [grin].

Orthoprax said: We must either learn to live in peace or we will eventually destroy ourselves. I am making a moral stand that I will strive to realize the former.

Good luck to you. I do hope that you're right. Personally I think that our species is just too dumb to live...

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

I should restate. It's not that acting by that principle you are ensuring correct action, it is that that principle is the idealized end that should come about from moral action. It is the overreaching goal behind morality.

So how do we know what will get us there and what won't? The first part would be to learn from history and not repeat the mistakes found there.

It is not enough to simply believe doing X will lead to a better world, we also need to be smart about it. If you mix that simple principle with bias or ignorance then you are going to see history repeat itself.

alex said...

"As I see it, pursuit of a greater human society in conjunction with pursuit of the greatness of the individual is the goal of morality."

Let's say we achieve that greatness, both societal and human. Then what?

alex said...

I could tweak my last question a bit, if you think it will be more challenging to answer:
"Let's say we achieve what in *your* personal opinion is that greatness, both societal and human. Then what?

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax - I agree with your sentiment, but I question your level of optimism. Quite clearly individuals may indeed learn from history but equally clearly nations and cultures do not.

Dreaming and working for a better world are both worthy goals - just don't expect them to work out the way you hope.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

Greatness is also meant on the individual level, where the individual has the ability and the free opportunity to develop and express his or her talents and natural powers to their utmost potential. So as long as humanity has people in it - especially new people, I do not see this task as ever coming to absolute completion.

Furthermore, if we ever do get to this idealistic point, let that be the worst of our troubles.


Cyber,

I am speaking of idealism at its finest. Strictly speaking, when it comes to, say, modern politics, I am much more the realist. But I think we do need ideals in order to direct our goals as individuals, as societies and as a species.

It amazes me that people are able to have apparent political and moral views without any underlying conception of what those words mean.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: But I think we do need ideals in order to direct our goals as individuals, as societies and as a species.

Such ideals are very nice to have, but as you have said yourself they have little to do with the 'real world'.

How would you translate the building of better worlds with better people in them into practicalities? What exactly is this better world we should be striving for and how do we get there from here? Until those answers are available the idealism you express has limited value.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

It's a value statement, not a political platform. I have my own ideas about how to do things, but I'm open to debate. As long as we're all talking with this sincere ideal in mind, "l'shem shamayim" as one might say, then I think we'll be on the right track.

CyberKitten said...

I'm certainly in favour of a better world. I think we'd all agree that this one could do with some improvement!

alex said...

"So as long as humanity has people in it - especially new people, I do not see this task as ever coming to absolute completion."

This statement can be balanced against some words you wrote a post a long time ago:

"In this sense I believe that we, as a species of moral, intelligent consciousnesses, are capable of progress on all fronts and may one day reach a "Messianic" age where all of humanity lives in peace with one another and where each individual's life is free from fear, hunger, pain, and need."

Back to this current post:
"Furthermore, if we ever do get to this idealistic point, let that be the worst of our troubles."

I believe my earlier question, "then what?" could elicit a fine answer from you.

alex said...

Just to add one quote of yours from that same old post: "I do think that one day the world will find peace through mutual respect and brotherhood and not through fear of the sword." (I remember being curious whether that was a more of a belief or a confidence, or more of a hope.)

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"I believe my earlier question, "then what?" could elicit a fine answer from you."

Right, so like I said, at that point of societal perfection (or near perfection) you still have each individual's goals and aspirations through which they can fulfill their respective lives. I do believe that a person's individual capacity for growth is practically unlimited.

"(I remember being curious whether that was a more of a belief or a confidence, or more of a hope.)"

Depends on the day. It's always a hope, but I live my life through its confidence. For if the goal is futile then I don't know if I'd have the courage to stand against the tide.