Saturday, September 22, 2012

Absolute vs. "discovered" morality

On a forum, one author wrote the following:
The intimation of [an article by David Gordon] is that the facts of moral realism are embedded into the very structure of the Universe at a level transcending humanity itself. But there is no reason to believe this is actually the case. What we observe is that the conditions for moral facts reside entirely within the human social order. That is, morality is not a question that has anything to do with the Absolute or the Universe as it would appear to an omniscient being. 
Rather, moral facts are facts merely about the human social order, about human nature. They are facts about human brains, human bodies and terrestrial biology and our terrestrial environment and the particular facts of our situation in this corner of the cosmos. Is it immoral for Martians to kill Martian children? I have no idea. But I know that it is immoral for humans to kill human children. That's because I know the facts about human beings relevant to human morality but I don't know the facts about Martians relevant to Martian morality.
In other words, morality is not absolute. It's something that can be discovered by observing human society. Later, the author explained that we can observe how human societies function (and human nature in general) and derive from those observation the rules of ethics -- rules of how to achieve satisfaction for a human being.

So, for instance, "human beings like company of others; human beings do not like to keep company with people who annoy them; if human beings want satisfaction in their lives, they should not be annoying to other human beings" (obviously, among other things). In this sense, being an annoying person in unethical, but being a nice person is ethical.

In all my conversations with atheists, this was basically their description for "G-dless" basis for morality.

My response:
As I see it, morality needs to be on the one hand applicable to the individual (you can't make a moral prescriptive statement that addresses the needs or goals of a society, since it is the individuals who make choices) and on the other hand universal (we can't say that a serial killer acts morally, since his actions bring him the greatest satisfaction). What's left then? It seems to me that what's left is precisely the Absolute Moral Truth -- applicable to individuals but regardless of their individual preferences. If adultery is wrong it's wrong for everyone and always.

(Of course, there can be built-in conditions. Lying is wrong, but lying to save someone's life is right, since saving life takes moral priority.)

It also seems to me that libertarian morality is based on the assumption that nothing changes between two people existing in a state of nature and them existing in a society. To see whether something is wrong or not, we have to ask: would it be OK for me to do that to you on a deserted island? For instance, would it be ok for me to steal from you, when there is no society around us? If not, then why is it ok for me to steal from you when there is a society, with the society's help?

But if there is no Absolute Moral Truth, then, indeed, why is it wrong for me to rob you when we are alone on a deserted island if I calculate that it is a greater benefit for me to do that than co-exist with you peacefully? Also, if my actions even in a society are secretive enough, I can get away with doing them without changing the society itself. So, one can say: "people's happiness will be the greatest if they live in a society where children are not killed". But what does this have to do with me personally making a decision whether or not to kill a child secretly? Presumably my actions do not affect the society I live in. Also, while a law against child killing (that benefits the society) could exist on a societal level (applicable to all citizens, enforced by all law agencies of the society), it would still not be a moral law, since it would say nothing as to why I need to keep it at all times and in all circumstances.

I have once heard a joke: If you're stranded on a deserted island with limited food and water in a company of either an atheist or a statist, you should kill them immediately, for your life is in danger. Neither of them can conceive of what is moral or right outside of the society. If they are sufficiently liberated from the traditions of their upbringing, they will reason the justification for killing you very easily.
Obviously, one can define "morality" as "a set of rules to achieve satisfaction". (You can define morality as whatever you want -- for instance, "eating meat from time to time"; in that case, a vegetarian is acting immorally.) Therefore, if you are like most people in that you like company of others and it is true that (most of the) people around you don't like jerks, it is immoral to act like a jerk.

But what happens if you don't care about the company of others, but it gives you satisfaction to cause misery to others? Then it suddenly turns out that acting like a jerk is not immoral for you. As I said, you can define morality whichever way you want, but I just don't think that this fits most people's innate understanding of morality.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Keynesians are honest in their confusion


I can see why Bernanke and the rest of Keynesians are genuinely confused. They just don't get the point... which is: you shouldn't be able to print it easily, and it should have intrinsic value. That's real money.

Of course, that's just words. I might as well say: "cars should not have safety belts, and motorcycles should have only three wheels".

So, to see what gold standard is all about, read this. If you don't feel like reading a lot of background and introductory theoretical info, you can skip to this: The "Proper" Supply of Money.
Now we may ask: what is the supply of money in society and how is that supply used? In particular, we may raise the perennial question, how much money "do we need"? Must the money supply be regulated by some sort of "criterion," or can it be left alone to the free market?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Chai Ellul

There is a Chassidic saying that 18th of Ellul, "Chay Ellul", the birthday of the founder of Chabad movement, Alter Rebbe, brings chayus, life, into the month of Ellul.

What does this mean? It means that teachings of Chabad allow one to have his Ellul with chayus, with life and energy. Ellul stands for "ani l'doidi v'doidi li" -- "I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me", which corresponds to our relationship with G-d. This relationship, expressed in Judaism, must be done with chayus, with life and energy.

A person must realize that Torah and mitzvos are not a "lifestyle". They are a living, breathing relationship with the Creator of the world. Every time a person does a mitzva, every time he learns Torah, he must not do it as a habit, as a rote, as a part of his "lifestyle" or "identity", but as an aspect of an ongoing relationship with the Eibeshter.

And the same way, every aspect of his life, from his work and his hobbies to his family to, obviously, his davening and learning and mitzvos, one must strive to connect to G-d. When something happens to a person, or when a person does something during his day, no matter how mundane, he must ask: "How is this a part of my relationship with Hashem?" And if he doesn't know the answer, he must search for it.

There is a story told about Mitteler Rebbe, Alter Rebbe's son. One year, Alter Rebbe was away for the reading of the Torah portion where all the curses that would befall the Jews if they did not keep Torah were listed. When he heard the curses being read out loud, he fainted and fell so ill that it wasn't clear if he would be able to fast on Yom Kippur.

People eventually asked: "What happened? You hear your father read the same Torah portion every year." He answered: "When my father reads this, I only hear blessings."

What's the point of this story? One of the major ideas expressed through the teachings of Alter Rebbe is that G-d is benevolent towards us. There are many mystical and philosophical ways of understanding it, and one must learn them all, but the bottom line that one must keep in mind every day is that anything that happens to one is a direct gift from G-d, whether or not it is a revealed blessing or a blessing in disguise.

May we be worthy of reaching very soon the time when our relationship with Hashem is revealed in this world on all levels.