Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Golden Rule

Wittgenstein argued that one cannot have a private language. And by “private language”, I don’t think he meant a language that only one person knew. Tolkien invented an Elven language. (Actually, he invented two such languages.) Before he shared them with the others, he was the only one who knew them, the original speakers having died thousands of years ago...
— Roderick Long, The Moral Standpoint (video)

 I was thinking today about how people misuse the so-called Golden Rule of ethics.
        The Golden Rule states: don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. But a question can be asked: why not? What would motivate me not to? As Roderick Long puts it, “what is the force of that statement?” Oftentimes, when the atheist moralists try to explain this rule, they say: the more you do X, the more likely it becomes for X to be done to yourself. E.g., if you murder, you make the society more murderous and increase the probability of someone murdering you.
        Of course, that’s nonsense. Statistically, it works out on the level of a small community, but in a large community because I once steal someone’s wallet, the probability of my wallet being stolen will not increase visibly. Furthermore, what if I do my immoral act in a way that nobody knows about it (and such that it will not leak out). Or, if I am sure that the same thing that I am doing will never be done to me. Just because a Roman senator used slaves didn’t mean that he made it more likely for himself to become a slave. (Also, interestingly enough, when the Africans who had been slaves were freed or escaped from the slavery, when given a chance, they would enslave other Africans. Such way was the nation of Liberia founded — by former American slaves coming to Africa and enslaving Africans from other tribes.)
        Plus, such a definition of morality goes against the common perception of what morality is and against the definition of absolute morality. Such a “morality” is nothing but self-preservation. What atheists usually answer is: “Well, there is no such thing as absolute morality.” I think, again, that answer is nonsensical. Morality has to be absolute. One could say that there is no morality. But they are afraid to go out and say it in such an obvious way (partially because they do not instinctively believe that themselves).


I think on the emotional level, the Golden Rule works by allowing you to imagine what it would be like for you to be at the receiving end of your act. And by feeling emotionally disgusted by it, you can also feel emotionally disgusted to do the same act to others. But, in my opinion, the emotions are not a very solid foundation for morality.
        Just because you feel a certain emotion, does it mean everyone should feel it? Even if everyone feels it but one person — so, why should everyone judge this person for not feeling some emotion? With the emotions being subjective reactions, how can they be a basis for proclaiming something to be objectively moral or immoral? I dislike cockroaches. I find the idea of eating cockroaches disgusting. But do I find it immoral, kashrus and vegetarian issues aside?
        Although, actually, let’s not put them aside. Many people feel (specifically feel) that it is immoral to eat animals. They are disgusted by the idea of a human being eating another living being when he has a choice to eat plants. But many others don’t find eating animals disgusting in any way. (I, by the way, find the idea of eating very intelligent animals such as dolphins, whales or apes disgusting.)
        The same goes with experimentation on animals. Even when the animals are treated humanely (even using the strictest definition of that word) — these people believe that killing animals to find cure for cancer or schizophrenia (one of which I am partially involved in right now) is as immoral as killing people to find cure for cancer. But others don’t feel that way; in fact, they feel that not killing animals to save human lives is immoral. Are the people who feel a certain emotion superior to those who don’t? How do we figure out which of the emotions is right? (Is there even such a thing as a “right” emotion?)
        What if I said that I feel disgusted by the idea of robbing one group of people to help another group out? Many people certainly feel disgusted by this (even though they believe in private, voluntary charity). But many people feel disgusted by the government not robbing rich people to help the poor — in fact, some of these people feel disgusted by the idea that there are rich and poor at all and feel that the rich should be made equally poor, like it was done in Russia. Others find the idea of a bunch of thugs taking away one’s savings that he worked hard all his life to accumulate even more disturbing.
        What are we to do with all these conflicting emotions? Let’s imagine a person incapable of feeling emotions (who agrees that he is deficient in this way, but honestly tries to figure out what is the moral thing to do in each situation — let’s imagine he has enough emotions to care). How is he to figure out what the right thing is? Should he take a poll?


I think the proper application of the Golden Rule is as follows. Suppose one already, for whatever reason, believed in the existence of absolute morality. I.e., he believed there is such a thing as good and evil. And not necessarily as a result of believing in G-d; libertarians, for example, claim to believe in absolute morality — they don’t deny the existence of G-d, but they don’t base their beliefs in morality based on G-d necessarily. (By the way, I think, whatever one says, most people’s view of morality is still absolute — at least in the Western world. Of course, it could be because of the cultural influence of Christianity.) This idea also exists in Judaism — that regarding some (or all) issues of morality, people should be able to figure what is moral and what is not without G-d telling us.
        So, in that case, one could say: what is good for you is also good for me. (Not at the same time. Meaning, if being healthy is a good thing for you, then being healthy is a good thing for me too. Not that being healthy for you is also automatically bringing me good.) So, a simple way to figure out whether something is good is to try it on yourself. If you know that it is something that you would define as something bad for yourself, then it’s also something bad for someone else, unless you can demonstrate that there is an objective difference between you. (E.g., eating peanuts may be a bad thing for me if I am allergic to them, but not for you if you’re not. Of course, then you could abstract and say: if having an allergic reaction is bad for me, it’s also a bad thing for you.)
        Notice that in this case I am not using emotions to justify morality. I already know (from whatever source — again, I am not clear on this) that there is such a thing as good and evil, and both good and evil can be absolute (or, as the philosophers would say, agent-neutral, such as with non-private languages). Emotions merely help me to identify some particular event or object as good or evil. It’s the same as being able to tell whether fish has gone bad by smelling it. What if someone doesn’t have a good sense of smell? Well, he can still agree that there is such a thing as fish going bad; he just can’t use his nose to identify that happening. The same way, a psychopath could still agree to the idea of good and evil; he just couldn’t use Golden Rule for an easy identification of what they were. (Although, a psychopath probably knows when something is bad for him — so, he could still maybe use the Golden Rule in such a case. Of course, his problem might be that even if he knew something was evil, he just wouldn’t care.)


A number of problems can be pointed out. For instance, if I am running for a political office, I wouldn’t like to lose an election. And neither would the person I am running against. So, should I just let him win? If you don’t like the idea of political elections (a libertarian could argue that the situation of majority oppressing the minority through political means is immoral; just like the idea of Windows users forcing Apple users to “come to the light” and start using the PCs would be immoral — why can’t there be multiple law systems in the society just like there are multiple OSs?), you can use the idea of competing for market. I certainly wouldn’t want people to stop buying my product when a newer and a better product is introduced to the market. So, if I can introduce a better product, which will reduce the amount of business for someone supplying an older product, is that immoral?
        Of course, one could answer that the amount of good I do by supplying the product well outweighs the amount of bad I do, but this is already a utilitarian approach which cannot work for praxeological reasons as well as the reason of definition of absolute morality (if killing one person benefits a million people, or if exterminating one particular ethnicity benefits all the others, should we do it?).

So, I suppose I am still thinking about it. One answer could be that the Golden Rule is after all not such a useful rule.
        Alternatively, one could say (again, quoting Roderick Long) that “if I consider my pursuit of my well being as legitimate for me, I have to view your pursuit of your well being as legitimate for you”, and that there is a difference between me pursuing my well being without actively trying to harm you (which may happen if we are pursuing well being competing for the same scarce resources) and me trying to actively harm you.
        Meaning, importantly, that both rules (about legitimacy of my pursuit of well being and of your pursuit of well being) are true true at the same time — and therefore cannot be placed in contradiction of each other. It is ethically permissible for myself to pursue my well being, but not in such a way that will harm your pursuit of your well being.
        How to deal with the situations when the are seemingly in contradiction is what the libertarian view on ethics deals with by basing ethics on the concept of property rights: I don’t have a right to take what’s already yours, but I do have a right to take something which doesn’t belong to you, even though by doing so I am precluding you to use it for yourself. Of course, this leads to a conflict of rights, but since one of us has to win — since both of us cannot use the same object at the same time (i.e., the object is scarce) — let it be the one who homesteaded the object first. But in the cases when there is no scarcity (such as, in the case of intellectual “property”) it is immoral for me to use force to preclude you from using the said non-scarce resource, since it goes against your legitimate right of pursuit of your well being (which, in this case, is not in contradiction with my rights).

46 comments:

e said...

I will say it loud and proud in the name of atheists everywhere: There is no such thing as absolute morality.

"Moral" and "immoral" are labels we attach to actions based on our experiences, the experiences or our ancestors, and many other reasons. These labels do not correspond to any property of the actions themselves (unlike, for example, the labels "effective" and "ineffective"). So it's hardly surprising that we can't come up with a consistent definition for them.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

How does this differ from saying that “inertai” is a label we attach to tendency of objects to continue moving (or being at rest) unless a force acts on them (and even then resisting this force) — a label based on our experience and the experience of our ancestors?

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Actually, an even better example would be some truth in mathematics.

e said...

not at all. "Inertia" refers to a property of an object which exists independently of our awareness thereof. "Moral" is like "beauty": both words describe properties which relate solely to how we look at things. It is not surprising that we can't find consistent or universal standards of beauty. Neither should we be surprised that we can't find universal or consistent standards of morality. You're searching for something which simply does not exist.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Perhaps “moral” also describes something objective about our behavior. Just like our behavior can be objectively constructive or destructive, effective or not effective, it can be more or immoral.

e said...

Any statement beginning with "perhaps" cannot be falsified and is therefore logically meaningless.

Mor said...

http://www.amazon.com/Abolition-Man-C-S-Lewis/dp/0060652942/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275600027&sr=8-1

so he sent the word to slay
and slew the little childer

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Well, I wasn’t proposing a system, just pondering.

Anyway, if we ever end up on a deserted island, I am killing you right away. Any atheist in such a situation can be presumed to be a rodeif.

e said...

Now I know that if I'm ever stranded on a desert island with an Orthofundie I should kill him right away, as your scruples maintain that I should be killed.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

My religion has nothing to do with it. What is stopping an atheist from killing someone on the deserted island when the situation calls for it (when it’s more profitable, not if the other person is attacking the atheist)?

e said...

The delusion we call "morality."

Mor said...

the Tao

A Suede Ḥossid said...

What is stopping a disillusioned atheist?

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Sorry, “disdellusioned atheist”. :)

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Non-delusional.

Mor said...

Good point. Atheists who are too insensitive to recognize the Tao have been known to hack old women to pieces. (Not possessing a sense of uprightness, they tend to target the weak and unsuspecting.)

A Suede Ḥossid said...

So, tao = sensitivity?

I admire the personal qualities of Sanya Grigoryev, but I don’t know the objective rational justification for them. Why is he objectively better than Romashka? (If we don’t have revelation of G-d telling us so.)

Mor said...

The Tao, as understood by Lewis, is a Platonic idea - a code of how a human being should behave - which every single culture - until ours - has been able to perceive through emotional sensitivity.
We are currently living in an era of "men without chests," who, since they cannot rationally discover a reason not to hack an old woman to pieces, do so whenever it is convenient.
Tao is an idea. Emotional sensitivity is how that idea is perceived. Like sight is how blue is perceived.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

[As a small quibble, not all cultures had the same emotional sensitivities as others. In certain cultures, the head of the family (pater familias) could kill any member of the family if he desired so. In others, it was enough to pay “blood money” to make one except from any charges of murder. In Japan, a samurai could kill any peasant for any reason — even a slight insult.]

I don’t see objective difference between emotional sensitivity, and, say, sense of smell. A person needs to shower so that people around him can be comfortable. I shower for this (among others) reason. I prefer the company of those people who shower and will avoid the company of those who don’t. (Incidentally, not all cultures are sensitive to body odor as modern Western culture.) But it doesn’t mean that I consider it immoral not to shower. It’s just “not my thing”. I am not compatible with people who don’t shower. If I am allergic to peanuts, and someone is allergic to everything but peanuts, well, we won’t make good company to each other.

But Sanya doesn’t think that Romashka is just incompatible with him. Sanya doesn’t think that the way he acts is just pleasant to him and therefore that’s what he does (we could say that he just finds chivalry, good manners and good character traits attractive in himself and others, while cut-throat nihilism — not so much). He acts a certain way out of principle and looks down at Romashka as a lower-level organism for not having the same ideals and not behaving the same way.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

For example, in the clip that I posted, Sanya refuses bread with jam for having helped N.K. because he helped her for free. Now, why does he do that? He wouldn’t lose anything if he accepted the jam, including her view of him. (“I am not offering you money. You helped me for free, and I will give you some jam for free.”)

You could say that he did it because he liked chivalry. Maybe he found helping lishmah something that gave him pleasure (perhaps, deep inside, because it made him think of himself as a better person — although we’re getting a bit circular here).

You could also say that he didn’t want to dilute his spiritual brownie points by getting something in return for his favor (of course Sanya didn’t believe in G-d or karma, but he could say that doing something for free improved his character).

But I don’t think that was his reason (although A"R would disagree probably). He would say that he just did it out of principle — that’s objectively the right thing to do. Even if accessibility to knowledge of what the right thing to do was through emotional sensitivity, that cannot be the foundation of its objective existence.

Mor said...

Of course not all cultures have the same exact moral code. But there is a common denominator. The book is worth reading.
Your sense of smell point mixes metaphors. The smell equivalent of "I think it is ok to kill an old woman for absolutely no reason" is "I think that barbecue smells like roses." The point is that there is an objective binding code out there which can be sniffed out.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Most people like fish, but only if it’s fresh. I know some people who don’t like fish at all (shocking, I know). On the other hand, in Finland, shark meat that was allowed to “ripen” a bit is a delicacy. What is garbage for most people is a delicacy for Fins. (Also, I like caviar, for example.)

So, just like there is no “objectively” good tasting food, there is (acc. to this argument) no “objectively” proper way to act. You can act (or eat) to maximize your self-preservation or pleasure, but it is subjective.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

(There is a video with Gordon Ramsey and James May, but I can’t post it, because before they eat shark’s meat, they eat something much more untzniusdik.)

Mor said...

But everybody likes chocolate...
Really, the point is that there are variations but at the end of the day everyone can perceive something in common. I think that nobody normal would pull a piece of cooked meat out of a garbage dump where it had been for two days and eat it.
Similarly, nobody normal would say that it is not objectively wrong to steal. But different people in different cultures and even with within one culture might have different ideas about what constitutes stealing.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

I know people who don’t like chocolate.

If I was starving, chv"sh, I might. But under no circumstances, starving or not, would I kill a person (I hope).

What and who is “normal” is again subjective. Maybe most people were just brainwashed into believing this is right. You could say that no one normal today could imagine a society without a government — or no one normal could imagine a stable society without a king in 1775 (although you think that Revolution was a mistake, so maybe it’s a wrong moshol). Even if that was the case, so what? Ad numerum is not a good argument.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Sorry, I mean I wouldn’t murder a person.

Mor said...

You are carrying the mashal too far.
Just as everyone (to some degree) is repulsed by rotten meat, so too everyone (to some degree) is repulsed by the idea of becoming a murderer.
I don't think it is being brainwashed. I am certain that Lord of the Flies would never happen in real life. When somebody is completely missing the "sixth sense" we call him a sociopath. Since the disease is organic, it makes sense to say the trait itself is organic. (right?)

A Suede Ḥossid said...

I see non-sequitur between being repulsed by something and calling it immoral as a result. How does the first lead to the second?

Also, aderabe, we’re repulsed because it’s immoral. Not that we claim that it’s immoral because we are repulsed. I am repulsed (believe it or not) by killing a person. But I would kill a person in self-defense (or defense of another person), and I think it’s a moral thing to do.

Mor said...

Our innate repulsion leads us to discover objective morality which has always existed.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

But if repulsion is subjective, how do we figure it objective morality from it?

Mor said...

If being repulsed by rotten meat is subjective, then so is the perception of the color blue. We assume that because everybody shares an experience, they are all perceiving the same reality. Therefore, that reality must be outside of them. In other words, objective.

e said...

A quote from James Rachels' "The Challenge of Moral Relativism" which may be useful:

2.6 How All Cultures Have Some Values in Common
It should not be surprising that, despite appearances, the Eskimos are protective of their children. How could it be otherwise? How could a group survive that did not value its young? It is easy to see that, in fact, all cultural groups must protect their infants:
1. Human infants are helpless and cannot survive if they are not given extensive care for a period of years.
2. Therefore, if a group did not care for its young, the young would not survive, and the older members of the group would not be replaced. After a while the group would die out.
3. Therefore, any cultural group that continues to exist must care for its young. infants that are not cared for must be the exception rather than the rule.
Similar reasoning shows that other values must be more or less universal. Imagine what it would be like for a society to place no value at all on truth telling. When one person spoke to another, there would be no presumption at all that he was telling the truth for he could just as easily be speaking falsely. Within that society, there would be no reason to pay attention to what anyone says. (I ask you what time it is, and you say "Four o'clock:' But there is no presumption that you
are speaking truly; you could just as easily have said the first thing that came into your head. So I have no reason to pay attention to your answer; in fact, there was no point in my asking you in the first place.) Communication would then be extremely difficult, if not impossible. And because complex societies cannot exist without communication among their members, society would become impossible. It follows that in any complex society there must be a presumption in favor of truthfulness. There may of course be exceptions to this rule: There may be situations in which it is thought to be permissible to lie. Nevertheless, there will be exceptions to a rule that is in force in the society.
Here is one further example of the same type. Could a society exist in which there was no prohibition on murder? What would this be like? Suppose people were free to kill other people at will, and no one thought there was anything wrong with it. In such a "society," no one could feel secure. Everyone would have to be constantly on guard. People who wanted to survive would have to avoid other people as much as possible. This would inevitably result in individuals trying to become as self-sufficient as possible— after all, associating with others would be dangerous. Society on any large scale would collapse. Of course, people might band together in smaller groups with others that they could trust not to harm them. But notice what this means: They would be forming smaller societies that did acknowledge a rule against murder: The prohibition of murder, then, is a necessary feature of all societies.

http://faculty.www.umb.edu/steven.levine/courses/Spring%202010/Intro/Rachels.pdf

e said...

Point is: just because we all agree on some scruple, that doesn't mean that the scruple has an objective existence. It may just be that it's always expedient to adopt this scruple.

Mor said...

It is also convenient that everyone perceives lines in the same way. Imagine what a silly world we would live if different people perceived the contours of highways in different ways. Just because it happens to be convenient that everyone shares a perception, it does not follow that the curve of the highway is not actually there.

Mor said...

c.s. lewis: "I am not trying to prove [the] validity [of the Tao] by the argument from common consent. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it."
The point is that you cannot disprove that there is such a thing as objective morality. Certainly, simply stating that it does not exist multiple times accomplishes nothing.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Repulsion is just an emotional reaction.

Mor said...

and therefore what?

A Suede Ḥossid said...

An emotional reaction is subjective. It cannot be a rational/logical foundation of an objective phenomenon. For instance, I put sushi in my mouth, and it tastes good. When somebody asks me: "Why would you eat cold rice with raw fish?", there is only one answer: "Because it tastes good." It produces a feeling of pleasure in my brain when I put it in my mouth. That's it.

Now, if sushi tastes bad for someone (not that it is likely, since normal people like sushi, but let's imagine such a fantastic scenario :), such a person is not "wrong". Simply, because of a number of complex variables that created the person's detailed anatomy and physiology, the person's brain's circuitry produces a feeling of disgust in response to sushi. What is the person supposed to do?

Whether sushi is tasty or not has to do with the person, not with the little blob of rice and fish itself.

Now, it happens that many people have similar tastes, and as a result, it is possible to classify them and produce cookbooks. But not everything in every cookbook will taste good for everyone.

The same with art and music. You can classify the rules. And some rules are more common than others. The major triad of notes will sound pleasant when played together -- the notes will "harmonize" -- for almost every single ear on the planet. But saying that the notes harmonize merely describes the subjective reaction that each human's brain has to the notes. It doesn't describe the intrinsic properties of the notes. You can imagine a brain circuitry of an alien that will respond with pleasure to other combinations of ntoes. For him, those notes will harmonize. (Also, as my chavrussa says, if a contemporary of Chopin listened to Tchaykovsky, it would sound like terrible noise for him. But for a contemporary of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart would sound like a terrible noise. It doesn't mean that the nature of the sounds themselves changed. The brains of people and their reactions to the music changed -- not necc. as a result of changing genetics, but as a result of changing culture and common experience which changed the circuitry of the brain appropriately.)

Mor said...

Excerpts from an amusing essay by Chesterton called "The Pseudo-Scientific Books."
But I am no more awed by the flying fashions among prigs than I am by the flying fashions among snobs. Snobs say they have the right kind of hat; prigs say they have the right kind of head. But in both cases I should like some evidence beyond their own habit of staring at themselves in the glass. ...Where this sort of scientific writer is seen in all his glory is in his first abstract arguments about the nature of morality. He is immense; he is at once simple and monstrous, like a whale. He always has one dim principle or prejudice: to prove that there is nothing separate or sacred about the moral sense. Professor Forel holds this prejudice with all possible decorum and propriety. He always trots out three arguments to prove it; like three old broken-kneed elephants. Professor Forel duly trots them out. They are supposed to show that there is no such thing positively existing as the conscience; and they might just as easily be used to show that there are no such things as wings or whiskers, or toes or teeth, or boots or books, or Swiss Professors.
The first argument is that man has no conscience because some men are quite mad, and therefore not particularly conscientious. The second argument is that man has no conscience because some men are more conscientious than others. And the third is that man has no conscience because conscientious men in different countries and quite different circumstances often do very different things. Professor Forel applies these arguments eloquently to the question of human consciences; and I really cannot see why I should not apply them to the question of human noses. Man has no nose because now and then a man has no nose—I believe that Sir William Davenant, the poet, had none. Man has no nose because some noses are longer than others or can smell better than others. Manhas no nose because not only are noses of different shapes, but (oh, piercing sword of scepticism!) some men use their noses and find the smell of incense nice, while some use their noses and find it nasty. Science therefore declares that man is normally noseless; and will take this for granted for the next four or five hundred pages, and will treat all the alleged noses of history as the quaint legends of a credulous age.
I do not mention these views because they are original, but exactly because they are not. They are only dangerous in Professor Forel's book because they can be found in a thousand books of our epoch. This writer solemnly asserts that Kant's idea of an ultimate conscience is a fable because Mohammedans think it wrong to drink wine, while English officers think it right. Really he might just as well say that the instinct of self-preservation is a fable because some people avoid brandy in order to live long, and some people drink brandy in order to save their lives. Does Professor Forel believe that Kant, or anybody else, thought that our consciences gave us direct commands about the details of diet or social etiquette? Did Kant maintain that, when we had reached a certain stage of dinner, a supernatural voice whispered in our ear " asparagus "; or that the marriage between almonds and raisins was a marriage that was made in heaven? Surely it is plain enough that all these social duties are deduced from primary moral duties—and may be deduced wrong. Conscience does not suggest " asparagus," but it does suggest amiability, and it is thought by some to be an amiable act to accept asparagus when it is offered to you. Conscience does not respect fish and sherry; but it does respect any innocent ritual that will make men feel alike. Conscience does not tell you not to drink your hock after your port. But it does tell you not to commit suicide; and your mere naturalistic reason tells you that the first act may easily approximate to the second.

Mor said...

Of course, this does not disprove Rachel's assertion that human beings are merely animals, and every part of the moral sense is merely a species survival instinct.
From my perspective, nobody who has received a real education could have the hava amina that Rachels is right, but whatever.

Mor said...

Rachels equals Freud. That people like this should have the chutzpa to call anything else pseudo-science...
http://www.algemeiner.com//generic.asp?ID=6613

A Suede Ḥossid said...

It seems to me that Chesterton is making a straw-man argument. For instance, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb does not say that we have no conscience. But that conscience cannot be relied upon. If to some people their built-in sense of self-preservation tells that cherry is good for them and to others (under exactly same circumstances, including state of health, quality of cherry, influence of cherry on one’s body, etc.) it says that cherry is bad for them, then this built-in sense is useless. The best way to figure out if cherry is really good or bad for them is define objectively what “good” or “bad” means (e.g., improving or damaging health), and determine through scientific method the causal relationship between cherry and the phenomena that may be “good” or “bad”.

The fact that to me human sacrifice seems subjectively repulsive, but to Aztecs it was a righteous act means that we cannot rely on our built-in intuition about what is righteousness. How am I supposed to tell, objectively, who is right? Note that I am not talking about something subjective, like taste. If fish tastes good to me, but tastes bad to you, well, we got our answers: I should eat fish, and you shouldn’t. But with objective characteristics, relying on subjective response seems unwarranted.

I do agree with him that just because Muslims believe in one thing and Christians believe in another that by itself does not discount the concept of absolute morality (he didn’t say that, but I assume he would agree). But it does discount the concept of following one’s “belief” to get to the absolute morality.

Who is Rachel?

A Suede Ḥossid said...

Not that I agree with Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s argument either. He says: sometimes doing X over Y seems the proper action for you intuitively. But then, with passage of time, you look back and realize: hmm, I should’ve done Y. (For instance, when you give an advice to your friend, and then, with passage of time, you realize that the advice was not nice. :) So, how can you rely on this built-in intuition?

Well, that’s ridiculous. Sometimes I take a rational decision to take a highway exit. And then sometimes I realize I made a mistake. (In fact, when I was just driving to NYC, I stopped at a gas station off I-91 to get something. Then I started driving back and completely rationally took an exit to go north. Only after a while I realized that NYC is south of Boston.) Does this mean my sense of direction is unreliable in principle? Maybe, but more likely it means sometimes people make mistakes.

Also, I’ve done thousands of mistakes in Math problems. Sometimes in basic addition or multiplication. I would write something to the extent of 4 + 10 = 40, stare at the problem and have no idea why the final answer makes no sense. I think most Math students have done that. It doesn’t mean that we cannot rely on mathematical logic; it means, sometimes we will make mistakes.

Besides mistakes, sometimes there is ambiguity. Sometimes people completely rationally decide that it’s better to take one course of action vs. another. For example, doctors disagree on their patients’ treatment (just watch Dr. House). It doesn’t mean they are using emotions to make a decision. They have limited information and their brains use slightly different logic to come up with different answers.

Mor said...

Chesterton is responding to somebody who claimed that the fact that different people have different views of what is moral proves that people have no built-in sense of morality and that morality does not exist. He was a religious Christian, so I think that he would agree with you that operating just based on conscience is not the best option. He is just trying to prove that people have moral senses that are real, and that there is a concept called morality that is real, and that talking about variations between cultures has no bearing on that.
I would expand that to say that if they refine themselves enough then they can intuit the truth about Hashem's will (like Avraham avinu). So different people see morality in different ways because of more or less timtum hanefesh and/or more or less education.
Rachels is the last name of the guy quoted by e.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

My biggest problem with conscience and morality are not the above arguments, but that there doesn’t seem to be a consistent, coherent definition of what “good” and “bad” morally is, and any strong argument why I should do this good or bad.

In fact, I don’t even agree with what I said in this post about the Golden Rule. I said: once I assumed that absolute good exists, I can just try some action on myself — if it feels good to me (if I would categorize it as good regarding myself), it’s good regarding others (correcting for different effects that an action can have on different people — using the famous example of pain being unpleasant to some, but pleasant to others; but feeling something that causes pleasure is equally good to all).

But that does not necessarily follow. First of all, I am equating my subjective feeling of good with the absolute good. But who says what feels good to me is actually absolutely morally good? Maybe something is morally good even if it feels bad to me? Also, just because something is good when applied to me, who says that automatically means that it is an objective moral good when applied to others? There seems to be a non sequitur here that is easy to overlook.

Mor said...

You are right that conscience is unreliable because of timtum etc. But it is there, and it is connected to something very big and very real.
Meaning, obviously revelation is better.