Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Ethics:

I wrote this to GH for his recent post as a musing on the nature of ethics:


The issue with ethics is always the profit motive. If I can profit by being unethical, why shouldn't I?

The answer must be that in some way the 'profit' actually comes at a steeper cost.

The other issue is where one's ethical standards come from in the first place. How do we know they are valid? Subjective ethics do not work because they can only justify how you act, but you cannot use them to criticize the acts of others.

Orthodoxy has answers to these questions, but skepticism makes those answers impotent.

My answers: I value my own ethical integrity and that integrity is worth more to me than any monetary gain or whatever. I also believe that ethics are essentially discovered by mankind as codes that lead to good or bad things for people in society and society in general. We can tell whether an ethic is valid by observing its fruit.

But such experiments, as it would be, are tough to explore in many cases and so we must practically rely on the sustained wisdom of the ages, the sentiments of gifted individuals, and ultimately our own judgement.

The final issue is why should we even care about being ethical at all? Most people care about morality intuitively - an integral part of being human is caring about other people, but I have little to say that could convince a nihilist.

35 comments:

Kylopod said...

I'm with you on this issue. I wrote a post on it a while back, based on a much longer piece I wrote for a college course:

http://kylopod.blogspot.com/2006/06/promise-of-sound-resolution.html

GoingGoingGone said...

The problem is, as much as we don't like to admit it, our morality is subjective and for most people, even those who consider themselves inherently moral, without religion, it usually does only extend so far. And that's usually only to the extent that we can really feel like it affects us. I took an excellent ethics class and at the heart of it was that, as much as we hate to say it, it all depends on the environment one is in currently. When we displace yourself into a society that has as its values those things that you have been taught to abhor ethically, it's very difficult to uphold those values and to uphold those values can cost a huge price, both to oneself and to those who you are trying to force to live by your own ethics. Which always leads me to the philosophy that I hate - ethics is basically each person out for himself and the only reason we don't do bad things is because of fear of repercussions. Shiver.

Baal Habos said...

OP,
>My answers: I value my own ethical integrity and that integrity is worth more to me than any monetary gain or whatever.

Unfortunately, everyone has his price, and I dare say, even you. And that's where a religious system based on a personal God, where there's an external scorekeeper who will right all wrongs and reward you for your deprivation, has us beat.

Lubab No More said...

To some degree morality is innate. There are certain "values" that we are born with. I was never taught not to be a cannibal. I don't recall being taught incest is bad. Sure, there are civilizations with exceptions to these rules but they make a big deal out of these acts implying there is something inherently significant in them. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice
I believe some values are instinctual.

Miri said...

LBN-
I don't know about that...to paraphrase Herodotus, "Custom is the king." He mentions a story of a king who went to some Greeks he knew and asked them how much money would it take to convince them to eat their dead ancestors? And they said you couldn't pay them enough money to do it. The same king then went to a group of people (some ethnic group from India, my source is unclear) whose custom as to eat their dead relatives, and he asked them how much money would they take to burn their dead? (The Greek custom.) And they said they wouldn't do it at any price. Now I know this really isn't an intrinsically ethical issue, o maybe it doesn't quite apply, but I still think it's an interesting illustration of how the society shapes a person's values.

And, to quote Tobie who was quoting someone else, "Once there is no should, there is no should." Which means to say, I think, that once you remove objective morality you can't really say that anyone should or shouldn't do anything.

Orthoprax said...

Going,

I really don't think that true ethics can be deconstructed into a mechanism for self-interest. Personally I care about things that I know have no possible effect on me - like the fate of future generations. I've done things that I know will have no physical compensation.

What I didn't mention in my post was that while it is my integrity that keeps me from doing harm, it is my sense that an ideal life is lived righteously that provokes me to do right. That is not to say that I live morally perfect - far from it - but I have both the carrot and the stick that don't depend on anything but my own judgement of myself.

If I intend on living with myself then I have to like who I am.

As I see it, you can read selfishness into any act like you can read some pretend Darwinian selection into any behavior. They're all just-so stories that may sound reasonable even while they have no real substance to them.


Baal,

"Unfortunately, everyone has his price, and I dare say, even you. And that's where a religious system based on a personal God, where there's an external scorekeeper who will right all wrongs and reward you for your deprivation, has us beat."

Perhaps so, in a Hobbesian sense - but as a moral theory that's awful. It's the moral theory for scoundrels. Far better to serve an ideal for the validity you see inherent to it than for extraneous factors that compel you.


Lubob/Miri,

There is no doubt that both inherent human sense and social culture both invest a man with morals. But there must be a means to tell whether either of them are valid. Just because something is natural does not follow that it is necessarily ethical. The same goes, obviously, for social constructs. How do we tell if a more is valid? By seeing it's fruit. This is an objectively valid way of judging mores. Their origins is only academic.

Tobie said...

See this is all very well and good, but there's still no 'should' here. You say that you would not violate your ethics for profit and that's commendable- but you still don't have a should. All you have is a more complicated cost-benefit analysis which takes the satisfaction that you take from your own morality into account. So why exactly should they be called ethics more than intelligent self-interest?

Btw- I'm not sure that religion solves this either- you're pretty much going to be stuck with a 'why should I?' that keeps moving back continually- 'Why should I?' 'Because G-d says so.' 'Why should I listen to G-d?' 'Because He made the world.' 'Why should I have to obey Him?' and so forth.

Orthoprax said...

Tobie,

Imperfect motives don't remove the ethical truth of the actions. Even if my personal satisfactions were reversed the actions would still remain ethically valid.

In an analogy - even if I suffered no hunger and had no sense of satiety, eating would still be the correct way to continue living successfully.

Tobie said...

Ortho- sure, but then 'ethical' means nothing more than 'most efficient way for a society to run' and still is nothing more than utilitarian calculations. To steal your metaphor, eating is the most efficient way to keep on living, but there's still no reason I 'should' do it. Unless you think that one 'should' continue living or 'should' do what will help society run the best, in which case I would have to ask you why and based on what?

Orthoprax said...

Tobie,

I would say it's less an issue of efficiency than it is a matter of 'best outcome.'

Controversely, if you don't care about the outcome then it'll lead to death for the individual and ruin for society. I cannot convince a determined nihilist to value these things but they wouldn't exist in the first place if people didn't care about them. Seems to me that much people grasp intuitively.

Every system, moral or scientific or whatever, starts at some series of axioms that people consider self-evident amongst themselves. They are not always valid, but you can't forever be pulling the rug out from under yourself. I'm willing to say 'dayenu' when it comes to recognizing humanity, for example, as a foundational value in my moral system. And I think there is a considerable majority who'd agree with me.

Heck - I would bet you agree with me.

Shoshana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tobie said...

Well, of course I'm pro-humanity, as a general rule. But the thing is I still don't see what this discussion has accomplished, philosophically speaking. We tried to disprove that we are profit-driven, but in the end, our ethics are based on the best way of achieving the goal that we, for whatever innate reason, want most to achieve. And ethics still are nothing more than the best way of getting what we want.

I'm just not sure what this new way of defining your ethics is meant to refute, disprove, or accomplish. You asked 1)why should we be moral if it's profitable not to be? 2)how do we know what's moral? and 3)why should we care about being moral?
Your answers- if I understand correctly- are 1)it's not more profitable, 2)whatever is most profitable for society is moral (tested or guessed) and 3)we just do.

Which means ethics is whatever will most effectively attain results that we intuitively- but without rational basis- care about, and it's still profit-driven and it's still inexplicable. What have we accomplished?

jewish philosopher said...

I think there are basically two different types of ethics:

Religious ethics, based on whatever God thinks is ethical.

Secular ethics, based on whatever most people in my society think is ethical.

A Victorian atheist would probably have considered abortion terribly unethical. A Soviet atheist would have considered murdering a successful businessman ("capitalist parasite") highly ethical. A present day American atheist would say the opposite.

The best guarantee to being nice a person is: believing in God, believing the He commanded you to be nice and believing He will zap you if you aren't.

Keep that in mind when you raise your children.

Anonymous said...

ther are people who have no, or a very weak, inate moral sense. Waht is there for those people?

Moreover, it has been my experience that sometimes, even people with an inate moral sense can slip up. Nobody is perfect. When you add religious morality into the mix, it helps keep is inline.

Orthoprax said...

Tobie,

"We tried to disprove that we are profit-driven, but in the end, our ethics are based on the best way of achieving the goal that we, for whatever innate reason, want most to achieve. And ethics still are nothing more than the best way of getting what we want."

Ah, but you see the key here is with the 'we' being different from the 'I.' There is no problem being motivated for the greater good since it goes beyond the interests of the "merely personal."

What my perspective establishes philosophically is that morality is objective and theoretically testable which saves it from the impotence of subjectivism. What drives us to do the objectively correct thing is of lesser importance and only really matters in the academic world of measuring the nobility of our interests. Kant might not be satisfied, but it's good enough for me. The deed counts far more than the thought.


JP,

Osama bin Laden has religious ethics.

The point is that skeptics understand that what people believe about God's ethics is actually the expression of whoever said them in God's name.


Anon,

"ther are people who have no, or a very weak, inate moral sense. Waht is there for those people"

That's what prison is for. If morality isn't enough to keep you in line then society has emplaced other kinds of motivating factors.

Those are at the same level of motivation as believing in a wrathful deity. Pure self-interest.

Baal Habos said...

>>>My answers: I value my own ethical integrity and that integrity is worth more to me than any monetary gain or whatever.

>>"Unfortunately, everyone has his price, and I dare say, even you. And that's where a religious system based on a personal God, where there's an external scorekeeper who will right all wrongs and reward you for your deprivation, has us beat."

>Perhaps so, in a Hobbesian sense - but as a moral theory that's awful. It's the moral theory for scoundrels. Far better to serve an ideal for the validity you see inherent to it than for extraneous factors that compel you.


Maybe it's a bad moral theory and maybe it's better to serve an ideal (define better), but the bottom line is people behave better when there's someone keppeing score. Perhaps that's why religion evolved in the first place. Communities that believed in an external God fared better than those that did not.

jewish philosopher said...

Ortho, that's why I specified:

The best guarantee to being nice a person is: believing in God, believing the He commanded you to be nice and believing He will zap you if you aren't.

You may not like the idea of a Cosmic Cop, but have you got a better idea? I submit that without it, we are just primates whacking each other with sticks. Although today we have advanced from sticks to nuclear weapons. Without religion, and the right type of religion, we are lost.

jewish philosopher said...

And if you're worried about science having discredited religion, then fear not! Just visit my blog!!

My motto is: No Skeptic Left Behind.

jewish philosopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Orthoprax said...

Baal,

"...the bottom line is people behave better when there's someone keppeing score."

It's true, you can't argue with results. But it's also true that more people better respond to a kick in the pants than to thoughtful consideration.

"Perhaps that's why religion evolved in the first place. Communities that believed in an external God fared better than those that did not."

Doubtful since most ancient religions don't hinge morality on a deity in the first place.


JP,

"You may not like the idea of a Cosmic Cop, but have you got a better idea?"

What if the cop was an intangible dragon who lived under your bed and would do terrible things to you if you misbehaved? The point is that skeptics don't find your scenario very reasonable.

Though, to note, the concept of karma hinges morality on the fabric of the universe and not on any particular zapping deity. I'm not saying I believe in it, but it seems like an approach that works similarly to the ethical monotheism in the sense you propose.

jewish philosopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jewish philosopher said...

"The point is that skeptics don't find your scenario very reasonable."

The point is that amoral libertines don't find my scenario very reasonable. That needs to change.

Orthoprax said...

Whatever you say Sancho.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying above that jail is preferable to religion? Do you really believe that? So what if religion is self interest if that is what to takes to keep some people in line. Also, religion can keep good people form slipping occasionally. After all nobodies perfect. It is valuable for that reason. It can also serve to make good people better. Waht is wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

It could be argued that a person who is good because it makes him feel good is also operating in his own self interest. What else is an inate moral sense if not the fact that doing good makes you feel good, and helps you avoid guilt? Does a person who does good because it feels good deserve any more credit that a person who eats a donut because it makes tastes good? Maybe a person who uses religion as a means to overcome his natural inclination to not be good, (such people do exist) deserves more credit.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"Are you saying above that jail is preferable to religion?"

No, I'm saying that human derived punishment for wrongdoing is in the same category of motivation as deity derived punishment for wrongdoing.

"So what if religion is self interest if that is what to takes to keep some people in line."

I'm not arguing with you. I recognize the utility, but for those skeptical of the whole construct it just doesn't work. And for those who don't believe it, it's going to be tough to convince them to promote what they consider a lie.


"What else is an inate moral sense if not the fact that doing good makes you feel good, and helps you avoid guilt?"

I would say that it's more than that, more of a sense of right and wrong that is not necessarily bound to emotional motivators.

"Maybe a person who uses religion as a means to overcome his natural inclination to not be good, (such people do exist) deserves more credit."

Perhaps, though I'll let you make that judgement call. I see the one who is afraid of punishment as totally self-concerned while the naturally good person has their sights on doing good for others even while they are following their internal motivators. In any case, both of your given options fall short of the ideal where people act right for its own sake.

Anonymous said...

How about doing a mitzva lishmo, and not for the sake of a reward?

Anonymous said...

How could a sense of right and wrong be anything other than an emotional motivator. Waht is any inate sense other than a emotion? You do soemthing good because it feels right.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"How about doing a mitzva lishmo, and not for the sake of a reward?"

Sure, what of it?

"How could a sense of right and wrong be anything other than an emotional motivator. Waht is any inate sense other than a emotion? You do soemthing good because it feels right."

A sense of right and wrong can exist independently of the emotional motivations to act rightly or wrongly. For example, we recognize that murder is wrong even without guilt aversion ever being a factor in our thinking.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you think murder is wring because you where taught that way. How else would you know, unless you feel it emotionally.

Orthoprax said...

I've been taught lots of things, that doesn't mean I don't think critically about them. In any case most people, even without consciously thinking about it, intuitively conclude that murder is wrong. This intuition is not the same as emotion.

In an analogy - I know intuitively how hard I need to throw a ball if I want it to hit a target. I know this without any emotion being involved. Emotion may come into play when I decide to actually throw the ball - the potential sense of satisfaction when I hit the target, but the knowledge of how to do it is not emotional.

Anonymous said...

Throwing a ball is a motor based skill that is rooted in the cerebellum. Moreover, there is motor skills learning.

What is intuition if not a feeling, e.g. an emotion. It just doesn't feel write.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

Not all feelings are emotions. Intuition is a sense of knowledge not founded in strict rationality, but that is not the same as emotionally driven responses. Common sense is like this. There are many examples of things where people have an intuitive sense of knowledge. What emotion is that?

A motor based skill is an example of subconscious knowledge too. And the more experience one has, the better one's muscle control gets - likewise do our intuitive judgements improve with experience.

Do over! said...

The knock on religious 'absolute' ethics, is that if the whole thing isn't true (as many here believe) then who says that 'they' are getting it right. And once it an act that I might find as being unenthical is determined by a posek to be 'mutar', the frum Yid is absolved of making their own moral judgement and will do the unethical act without batting an eyelash.

I have a neighbor whose wife is extremely nice and kind. They are 100% 'da'as Torah' jews. They were doing some work on their house and they pulled some shtick so as to circumvent a particular zoning regulation. I raised my eyebrow and she said that her husband asked their Rov who told them that it was mutar. Had this lady never become a BT, she would never of thought of doing this shady act. But since it got the kosher 'shtemple' from their Rav, her moral judgement was suspended.

This is sad.

Anonymous said...

Dear Do Over!

Maybe the zoniug regulation is wrong, or just some bureaucratic non-sense. Regulations vary from state to state, and from municipality to municipalty, so whose to say withc is right. Moreover, no-frum people violate zong regualtions all the time, and they don't even bother to ask their Rabbi. Just pick up a newspaper.