A Basis for Rational and Objective Ethics

Discussion in 'Ethics, Morality, & Justice' started by Merlijn, Sep 5, 2001.

  1. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

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    1,014
    "Evil is as objective a phenomenon as
    the suffering that it results in."
    C.W. Rietdijk (translated from Dutch.)

    "I have in mind such posits that it is better
    to be alive than dead, better to be healthy than sick,
    and better to be happy than miserable. On the basis
    of such assumptions it is possible, I believe, ... to
    construct a naturalistic ethics that avoids the absurdities
    of extreme relativism."
    Martin Gardner (The Night is Large)


    I have always been interested, often amazed, by the morality and ethics of human actions. What is it that makes one person altruistic and another remorseless? And I have wondered, are there no ethical values whatsoever that are independent of cultural and social backgrounds? I think, and hope, there are.

    Of course, different people have different needs, so a particular action could very well be a good deed in one culture or situation, where it could be a wrongdoing in another. Now, can not we conclude that there is nothing absolute about ethical values?

    Besides the heterogeneity of cultural and personal values, another fact may lead us to believe that there is no such thing as an absolute set of ethical values. It comes from biology. Organisms have evolved that can reproduce. Through time organisms learned to avoid death and other circumstances that will stop them from reproducing and seek out ways to increase the probabilities of producing offspring. Those that could not learn this have become extinct.

    So, evolutionary processes have resulted in the following situation: factors in the organism's environment that threaten the life, further development, or chances of reproduction of that organism are perceived as painful, and thus as bad. (This applies to the organism's external as well as its internal environment). The question is, can one conclude that ethics is just what our biology has learned to associate with probabilities of survival and reproduction?

    The answer to both questions is a strong "NO". Both conclusions are unfounded. To start with the latter, although I agree that evolution may well work that way, I do not think that this is a reason to assume that it is totally purposeless, or that life ultimately is without value. This is for the same reason why it is unsound to conclude the existence of God from the mere beauty of nature. Perceived morality needs a subject, but that need not mean that ethics themselves are ultimately defined by the perceiver.

    As for the relativity of ethics argument: the underlying wrongdoing in all situations is the deliberate frustration of needs. So, whatever the needs are, it will cause suffering if one denies another one of needs. Here, it is about not-inevitable suffering. The cause of inevitable suffering (e.g. the need to feed on other organisms, volcanic eruptions, diseases and the like) can hardly be considered "evil".

    I believe that it all comes down to one fundamental principle, a fundamental ethical law, as you will: Wherever possible, the well being of living creatures should be pursued. This also means that suffering and hazards to development must be avoided as much as possible. So here we have a basis for a universal ethics. I also believe that they are objective; meaning that there is Good and Evil as "platonic" truths. One may or may not believe in such objective truths, and as long as this remains a matter of believe, I will choose for the option that looks best to me. But I think one cannot deny the universal validity of the ethical values described above.

    Live long and prosper
    ~Merlijn
     
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  3. Captain Canada Stranger in Town Registered Senior Member

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    Interesting post that raises a few questions.

    Do you see, from your definition of Good and Evil, an ethical framework which follows?

    By using the term deliberate, are you suggesting that Good and Evil depend upon the intentions of agents? Or are we to separate intentions from actions?

    Do you see any difficulties arising through the problem of free will?

    One final question. How would you respond to the following in ethical or Good and Evil terms:

    Suppose my girlfriend and I are being held captive. I am given two choices: I can watch my girlfriend being tortured and ultimatley crippled for life (but not killed), or I can be tortured myself and then killed. I choose to suffer myself. My intention and action does not maximise life (one life is lost where it could have been saved), so is my act of selflessness not Good ethically? Clearly it is not Evil, but wouldn't it have been better to see my girlfriend subjected to torture rather than allow myself to be killed under your definitions? Is suffering rather than death the key here?
     
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  5. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

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    I do believe that intention is more important than action. But in the case of not-completely conscious creatures (that we are) it is difficult to draw the line between deliberate and not-deliberate.

    There are difficulties concerning ethics and free will. But I have at this moment not sufficient reason to either believe or not believe in "free will". It is really a hard question. Both possibilities seem implausible.

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    The situation described is the kind of situation you really would like to avoid. And that -unfortunately- similar situations do actually happen is the reason I can get REALLY ANGRY when I hear that some feel ethics are relative.
    AArggh there I go again. I REALLY really hate that point of view.

    anyway, that is much more interesting than my answer to that question. I think I would do the same, but on the other hand I would really want to deny her the guilt of knowing I let her live and sacrifice myself - which will make her life as much a hell as yours would be if you choose yourself to live and her to be tortured/killed. etc.... THAT is exactly what makes it a extremely difficult dilemma (to me).

    So my question is:
    Why would anybody believe that ethical values are truly relative.

    So far I have never heard sound reasons for that other than: we are just bunches of walking matter; killing/torturing/etc. are just actions that reconfigure the matter.
    Please do not give me the "do whatcha like as long as you do not annoy others"-crap.

    May all your journeys be happy ones.
    Merlijn
     
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  7. Captain Canada Stranger in Town Registered Senior Member

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    I think the idea of ethical relativity is popular for several reasons:

    First, it allows us to be flexible. We can give in to our desires and then purge any guilt that we might feel through a form of justification. The relativity of ethics (or good and bad at base) to each individual means there is no standard we need to compare our intentions or actions to, enabling us to comfortably arrange implausible value systems of self-justification. I believe this is linked to the society that is now emerging, but that is another question.

    Second, I think the absence of a truly universal ethical system is partly to blame. Where religion once dominated, the loss of belief has left something of a moral vacuum. Alternatives are tried and developed (humanism, altruism, even hedonism), but few are able to offer instinctive answers to complex questions. This loss of religious morality I do not view as good or bad, I simply suggest it as a plausibe reason for relativity.

    Thirdly, I think ethical relativity is a development of political correctness (for want of a better term). We are to no longer castigate other societies for their varied views on life. While you, quite rightly I think, suggested that this does not necessarily prevent an objective ethical system, it becomes all too easy to diflect difficult questions when defending alien cultures to say 'it's all relative'.

    I am not defending the relative position. Like you I would much prefer an objective conception of good and evil. I think there are also reasons why this may ultimately prove to be the true position.

    For example, if we believe all things good, in a relative world, are those that please us, it would be nonsensical to say:

    'I stole that money and had a great time spending it, but what I did was wrong'.

    To suggest that the pleasure you gained was not in itself justification of your action is an appeal to an alternative standard. Perhaps it is your own internal code, but I think that from an instinctive point of view we all recognise good and bad beyond our subjective view.

    While this has yet to find an adequate definition within a general system, that does not mean it doesn't exist.

    I have more to say on this, but I don't want to go on too much with a tedious post, so I'll see where any responses may take the debate.
     
  8. Hermann Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    162
    Rational Ethics

    This is a very interesting thread!

    We can really try to formulate a rational ethics, but we should not call this "absolute" and perhaps also not "objective". It will be just the view of rational minded people, which will have a wide base.

    By going this way we have to fight against all kinds of political and religious fanaticism.

    Lets take a simple but important example:

    What is better for humankind - a worldwide unrestricted human replication as the pope is favoring or birth control?

    The rational choice is certainly birth control. But do we have the power and the courage to fight against Christian fanaticism in our own countries?

    The only way to get a rational ethics accepted seems to be a consequent education for rational thinking, which is not biased by any irrational belief.
     
  9. Technar Registered Senior Member

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    49
    Why variety?

    The variety of ethics allows competition among them and, thus, natural selection of the least suited.
     
  10. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

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    1,014
    You may very well be right! But I believe that should read:

    "the variety of morals allows competition among them and, thus, natural selection of the least suited"

    Because ethics is a normative field of investigation, whereas morals are a descriptive/prescriptive field of investigation.
    Normative investigations only make sense if you believe that there are absolute values to be investiated.

    In fact "relativistic ethics" is an empty phrase, because it is a contradictio in terminis.

    all the best
    Merlijn
     
  11. Chagur .Seeker. Registered Senior Member

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    2,235
    Merlijn ...

    Your statement,
    confuses me.

    How do you determine 'intent' without basing it, at least to some degree, upon observed action?
     
  12. FyreStar Faithless since 1980 Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    229
    Greetings -

    The problem I see in this ethical basis:

    Wherever possible, the well being of living creatures should be pursued.

    ..is simply that it is not a basis at all, it is a goal. To achieve this goal, we must break down our concept of morality into irreducable ethical primaries. For example;

    1. Each human being has the right to live.
    2. Each human being has the right to be free.
    3. Each human being has the right to his property.
    4. By breaching another's rights, you give up your own.

    These assertions and their corollaries are objective in that they benefit no segment of society more than others.

    What begins to make any ethical system collapse is the introduction of need as a moral consideration. Saying that the needs of one person outweigh the rights of another is a convoluted way of creating a slave/master relationship between the two, which clearly violates the assertions listed above.

    Captain Canada -

    The situation you describe does not involve ethics. It is simply a matter of personal preference. Would you rather see your loved one tortured, or be tortured yourself. Also, should you decide to take it upon yourself, it would not be a sacrifice, nor any other form of selflessness. A sacrifice is giving a dollar and getting back a penny. Your loved one's life would clearly be more valuable to you than your own, so you would be giving the penny in exchange for the dollar.

    Randomly back from limbo,
    FyreStar

    P.S.
    Anyone out there remember me?

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    tiassa? Cris? Anyone?
     
  13. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

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    Well in the same way I do as in everyday life. If you feel the need to know someone's intentions, ask them.
    Of course, in real life this implies a certain amount of trust when it comes to the intentions of others. But when it is about my own intentions, I guess I have ample 'observation' of them.
    when there is absolutely no way the intentions map onto actions, we have a problem. But I do not think that hapenes too often.
    The quetion was about Good and Evil. Since those are abstracta and the subject is a normative theory of those, I think it is ok to talk about intentions.
    This last statement directly relklates to the post of FyreStar:
    You are absolutely right. It have to admit this is a big mistake I have made. As those who have been reading my posts may know, I always stress the difference between normnatvve and prescriptive theories.
    My statement is prescriptive, and can therefor not be an ethical statement. I will have to rewrite the piece.
    Aw, it is quite annoying to make the mistake you are wary of.
    The normative variant could bve something like:
    "the best (in terms of persuing Good, avoiding Evil) is to pursue the well-being of all living creatures."
    This normative (ethical) statement iss te basis for the prescriptive (moral) statement: "whenever possible,, the wll being of creatures should be pursued."
    That is exactly what is missing in youre post, FyreStar, you also seem to have ethics and morals mixed up. As becomes clear from your stement "To achieve this goal, we must break down our concept of morality into irreducable ethical primaries. For example;"
    Still, I agree with you, one should build up from irreducable ethical princples. I did do that, actually, but I did not write it down just like that; for the sake of readability.
    Spinoza's "Ethica" is a formidable piece of work, but not very exciting to read.

    By the way, where do so many people get idea (4) from?
    "4. By breaching another's rights, you give up your own."
    What reason is there to say that. I think it is a 'medieval'way opf thinking. Not at all enlightened.
    And, oh... that is also makes clear why (4) is not a irreducable principle.
    I could go on and on about this very thing.. like, when does it not apply (e.g. in war, those who have killed in service do not lose their rights.)

    take care,
    Merlijn
     
  14. machaon Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    733
    Social and cultural backgrounds vs innate values


    If I remember correctly, the book "SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS" by Carl Sagan touches on that very subject. To make a long story short it merely suggest that altruism can be an adaptive trait. Since altruism was an adaptive trait among primate groups then it, naturally was passed down from one generation to another. I am sure I do not have to connect the dots here, which is a good thing because I do not have the ability to express these ideas as eloquently as I am sure Mr. Sagan could.
     
  15. Chagur .Seeker. Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    2,235
    Merlijn ...

    Does that statement imply that in most cases the observed actions of the other person makes their intent obvious, thus no need to ask?
    Trust in the 'stated' intent rather than the observed action which might be in conflict with the 'stated' intent?

    I'm confused.
     
  16. FyreStar Faithless since 1980 Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    229
    Greetings -

    ***Merlijn said:
    That is exactly what is missing in youre post, FyreStar, you also seem to have ethics and morals mixed up. As becomes clear from your stement "To achieve this goal, we must break down our concept of morality into irreducable ethical primaries. For example;"
    ***
    My apologies; I did put the two words in the wrong places here.

    ***Merlijn said:

    The normative variant could bve something like:
    "the best (in terms of persuing Good, avoiding Evil) is to pursue the well-being of all living creatures."

    The objection I would make to this sentence is in certain cases it would have to handle. There are a number of actions that benefit one man while harming another. Also, it states that the well-being of man is to be pursued, but it does not give any information as to the means by which we may pursue it.

    ***Merlijn said:
    By the way, where do so many people get idea (4) from?

    Because without it, concepts such as Justice become meaningless. Without it, what is the distinction between good and evil? Part of a person's right to life is their right to defend their life against attacks.

    ***Merlijn said:
    What reason is there to say that. I think it is a 'medieval'way opf thinking. Not at all enlightened.

    And by enlightened you mean...? Whatever time period it comes from, it still needs to be disproved before it can be dismissed.

    ***Merlijn said:
    I could go on and on about this very thing.. like, when does it not apply (e.g. in war, those who have killed in service do not lose their rights.)

    Of course it doesn't apply in war; depending, of course, on which side you are fighting. Defending your country from assault is no different than defending your own rights. Wars of conquest, however, are indeed immoral.


    Thanks,
    FyreStar
     
  17. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

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    1,014
    FyreStar,

    "My apologies; I did put the two words in the wrong places here."
    tyhat's ok. It can happen, I'm sorry to have mentioned it.

    "The objection I would make to this sentence is in certain cases it would have to handle. There are a number of actions that benefit one man while harming another. Also, it states that the well-being of man is to be pursued, but it does not give any information as to the means by which we may pursue it. "
    Well that would make the thing prescriptive again. And that is just what we wanted to avoid for now. Just have some normative statements.

    "Because without it, concepts such as Justice become meaningless. Without it, what is the distinction between good and evil? Part of a person's right to life is their right to defend their life against attacks. "
    with all due respect, this is invalid. No logic to this.
    Justice is not defined by the punishments applied when you do not live up to the laws of the system (however you would like to define that).
    Part of a person's right to life is their right to defend their life against attacks. that may be true, but that is still no reason why e.g. a murderer looses his/her the right to life.
    If you are a christian, how would you combine that opinion with the word of Love?
    I know many say they can, but so far I have heard no sound arguments.

    And thiw is exactly the reason why it is not enlightened. I believe for an idea to be enlightened, it should be in the spirit of the teachings of (among others) Jesus.
    Please do not give me bibnle quotes as an answer i know the bible... I when I say "in the spirit of" I mean "in the spirit" not "in the words of".


    Chagur
    "I'm confused."
    I know you are. lol
    But seriously, most often, intentions are observable in actions Not always, so when in doubt, ask.
    "Trust in the 'stated' intent rather than the observed action which might be in conflict with the 'stated' intent? "
    Did it never happen to you that you intended smething, but it just went wrong and later on you state you intentions, explain that things went wrong, and apologise?
    I was referring to those cases.
    apparently that wasn't obvious. And woith that it becomes an example of itself.

    take care,
    Merlijn
     
  18. FyreStar Faithless since 1980 Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    229
    Greetings -

    ***Merlijn said:
    Well that would make the thing prescriptive again. And that is just what we wanted to avoid for now. Just have some normative statements.

    Unfortunately, then, we must dismiss it, since it does us no good in its present form and cannot be modified without making it prescriptive.

    ***Merlijn said:
    Justice is not defined by the punishments applied when you do not live up to the laws of the system

    Indeed. What I said included nothing about punishments.. it merely stated that for a crime, punishment is not immoral.

    ***Merlijn said:
    If you are a christian, how would you combine that opinion with the word of Love? and I believe for an idea to be enlightened, it should be in the spirit of the teachings of (among others) Jesus.

    I'm not a christian, I'm an atheist.

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    So, we may have to settle for a difference of opinion here on this point.

    Thanks,
    FyreStar
     
  19. Chagur .Seeker. Registered Senior Member

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    2,235
    Merlijn ...

    But seriously, most often, intentions are observable in actions Not always, so when in doubt, ask.

    My position has always been to respond in a way I considered appropriate to the observed action. I honestly didn't give a damn what the intent was; it was the action that mattered.

    Did it never happen to you that you intended smething, but it just went wrong and later on you state you intentions, explain that things went wrong, and apologise?

    Yes, it never (to the best of my knowledge) did. But what has occasionally happened is that the person's response made it apparent to me that my intent was not apparent to them. In some cases it was as I had intended; in others I felt that an explanation was in order and provided it - but never an apology.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2001

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