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Beyond Rules Based Morality

No absolutes

At my friend Rhiannon's wonderful weekly course on our philosophic precursors we've been working up to last week's lecture about the categorical imperative. This is the idea that we should only do things that would be good if everybody did them.

This follows on earlier lectures about morality that involves the concept that we are free because we have a Will which enables us to decide what to do.

Moral actions are what people with good Wills do. (I'm paraphrasing of course) So the lecture on the categorical imperative sort of terminated a long argument with the idea that you can tell which people have good Wills and therefore are moral by checking whether there moral actions satisfy the categorical imperative.

That seems easy enough a nice objective check but there's a fly in the ointment it's pretty hard to apply because it's an absolute principle. Wouldn't it be great if nobody ever lied and we were used to that and lived it as our normal way of living? Every time I've participated in a discussion about trying to live without anyone telling a lie nobody thinks it works.

For instance sometimes a lie has a harmless result and prevents a harm.
For instance, if your sweetie asks if you think she looks good, the proper answer is "Yes".
Believe me it doesn't work to get into an open discussion about what "looking good" means I've tried :-(
Is it more moral to not tell the white lie?

Why? It's not obvious to me.

I don't want to debate that now that debate is still going strong after hundreds of years (maybe for thousands depending on how you interpret people) and we only have an hour. These kinds of problems arose for Kant and he was working in a very old intellectual tradition of trying to ground morality in some sort of absolute necessity. Morality was seen as being so ungenuine if it wasn't absolute it wasn't worthy of being called morality.

Kant was trying to base morality in logical necessity that morality MUST logically have certain characteristics.

The ancient Greeks thought about morality from a different context. They based morality on the dictates of gods and concepts about the meaning of perfection and what it means to be human.

I'm sure they ran into the same sorts of problems our contemporary world runs into when it comes to the dictates of gods; different gods dictate different things. But they also dealt with more philosophic problems.
For instance; is a moral dictate good because it comes from a god, or did the god dictate it because it was good?
The problem is circularity. Why does a god think anything is good?
Is it just playing on a whim?
And if not is the god really the source of morality?

I don't know all of the ways people have tried to solve the problems raised by the concept that morality is a matter of absolute rules. I am of the impression though that thousands of years of effort had lead to no solution to the problem. Finding no solution to very tricky problems for a long time is no reason to give up on them. But an interesting thing has happened among thinkers who think about morality there has been a paradigm shift an implication of that shift is that the ancient problems about morality become just irrelevant in the new paradigm they aren't even wrong.

We can now conceptualize morality within an evolutionary context instead of a rules based one. It's not about a different thing than morality the kinds of concerns that are considered to be moral are the same in both paradigms.

But the account of how it is possible for those concerns to be moral concerns is very different.
Instead of moral concerns being grounded in logic and necessity moral, concerns are seen to be grounded in the attitudes and capacities we have to have to live as we do as social animals.

Our moral capacity is not seen as separate from our other cognitive capacities. One of the cognitive operations that we do all the time in many different contexts is interpret. Data comes into a system and is interpreted and goes out as meaning. That meaning can easily become data for other interpreters in a cascade of many layers. Neuroscience shows us that the neocortex is just that sort of cascade of interpreters on a physical level.

Sometimes we interpret things in terms of reality we see objects and smell smells and hear sounds and respond to those interpretations of data. Sometimes we interpret things in terms of language the sounds and things we see get interpreted and become meaningful in a linguistic wayand there has to be ambiguity in that because sometimes the same sound can come from different sources.

If I hear a sound that might mean "I keel you!" I have to understand something about what made the sound. If it comes from the TV set it means one thing. If it comes from the person before me it means another thing. And if comes from the wind blowing up a canyon it means something else altogether.

There is no absolute meaning to sounds that we interpret in a linguistic way. It seems that morality works the same way. We get information and interpret and that interpretation varies a lot according to circumstances and is prone to illusion and misinterpretation.

The difference between an evolution grounding for morality and a rules base is that the former is not based on absolutes and so doesn't run into paradoxes. Conflicting interpretations are a natural outcome of a system that works like that and aren't a problem for it.

We know perfectly well what it's like to live in a world where people have all sorts of conflicting interpretations and why the interpretations differ. We gave up on the idea that somehow words have intrinsic meaning long ago. Isn't it time we lost the idea that morality is about things that have intrinsic meaning?

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.