I’ve always found it difficult to discuss or even organize my personal views on things. They surface as my attention requires them, in a fashion that’s awful to explain. Naturally, I’ve censored myself because I don’t want to come off as someone who wants to rant for ranting’s sake or issue impossible manifestos to the Internet. Also, I feel the urge to apologize for my views before going into them, hence this preamble.
But I don’t have any other major repository of who I am. Should anything ever happen to me, I’d have this collection of scribblings on this blog as the deepest window into my malfunctioning neurons. They’re not even that deep. A ton of them have been deleted. I want to fix that, but for the longest time I haven’t been sure how.
So I just want to ramble a bit, and see what pops out. Starting with some broad personal philosophy.
If I could sum up how I want to treat others, it’s with a regard to avoid acting in haste or in too much dismissal of common humanity. It’s an impossible standard, one which is itself an artifact of a different impossible standard (my former religious views). Sometimes I have to respond to a stressful situation more rapidly than I’d like. Afterwards, I discover I didn’t take something into account that I wished I had.
There’s also trying to figure out what common humanity even is. It can’t be subjective, since it’s common to all humans. Thus, I can’t just tell myself to follow a rule of reciprocity like early human civilizations did. Additionally, I don’t treat myself very well, so I can’t use my own personal wishes for treatment as a good enough benchmark for treating the rest of the world. If I did, I’d hate everyone just as much as I hate myself.
People could (and have) argued that reciprocity doesn’t have to be that difficult. One could at least try to imagine what a reasonable person would desire in moral treatment. The jurist in me has to be somewhat drawn to that standard, as it would be conceptually like the hypothetical reasonably prudent person which governs many different negligence cases across the Common Law jurisdictions. Courts have been able to harness the collective opinion of communities to determine how people should govern their actions. Why couldn’t that get stretched to morality?
My short answer is that it would be no different than any religious standard. In fact, a religious standard would be preferred because at least it has the efficiency of claiming an arbitrary starting point for morality. All one has to do is assume its existence and two consenting people can operate from there. Just like with other problems of religious moral structures, the problem returns to actually defining moral action in a manner that’s uniform, coherent, or useful.
My problem is that morality doesn’t have the same bedrock as a scientific principle.
I’m not talking about the necessity of moral humans – that must exist in order for a society to exist. What I’m talking about is a mechanism to bring a moral hypothesis to a moral theory to a moral law in the way a scientific hypothesis can undergo the same apotheosis. The scientific method (ideally) allows people to uniformly test claims about nature in a way that ensures truth. If I owned a lab, and I didn’t believe the result of a published experiment, I can run that same experiment and compare results.
I don’t have to believe anyone or anything else.
Morality has always suffered from is/ought gaps manufactured by each beholder. One person might think theft is categorically wrong under all circumstances. Another might agree in principle but find excuses to change what words mean in the rule. Yet another might not care for personal property at all. Which one is right? What test can be conducted to show this? And even if that was possible, how could anyone ensure people are held to that standard?
I feel like at this point I have to justify why religious morality doesn’t satisfy any of this.
Religious morality only works as an idea if everyone agrees to be bound by the same religious principles. The entire world has a diverse set of religious beliefs that are ever-changing. With each distinction comes the possibility that a different group ethos will surface. This is why you could even have differences within religious groups themselves. A Latter Day Saint (read: Mormon) would probably disagree with a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint (read: polygamist cult) on how many spouses one can have.
All of this is in spite of internal faith-based claims to the contrary. And it makes sense, given that these are actually different communities vying for control of what morality ought to be. It turns religious morality into an obvious shorthand, a way of being able to make a general statement of how you’ll treat others without having to sweat the small stuff. Only when the small stuff gets questioned will there be a final say on how the group behaves. This happens regardless of what faith is involved.
Is something better even possible?
I think there could be. However, it would have to involve a way of changing how people look at morality. Instead of relying on how individuals feel about things, it would require a harder look at actions and consequences. Morality would have to involve cause-and-effect, and the application of decisions into that mix. Doing this would be complicated, and it would require people to devote more time to considering their actions than they might wish or be able to do.
Thus, there’s a practical limitation to morality. It can’t be so consuming as to take up too much time out of a person’s day. Simple decisions by necessity cannot take very long to complete. An ethos which interferes with this would result in indecision, which itself could have different moral consequences.
Anything short of that would make for a better informed society. Individuals would have a stronger grasp of how their actions affect others. And they would have a better understanding of why they could forgive the transgressions of others.
8 thoughts on “The World, As I See It”
Thus, I can’t just tell myself to follow a rule of reciprocity like early human civilizations did.
There’s a practical twist on this which I fell in love with when I first saw it: If I met myself, would I like myself?
As to morality, we can only try to reduce suffering in the world. If we keep focused on that simple rule (as imperfect as our focus might be) then we’ll be doing OK.
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Normally I’d agree in principle, but I’m trying to express my nitpicky unhappiness with expressing morality in more concrete terms. Science lets people dispute supernatural beliefs with demonstrable facts. There’s no analogous metric for measuring moral success.
I suppose if there was an empiric measurement of suffering, one could begin a new moral framework there. Until that happens, I’d be deluding myself into thinking my neurons are better at guessing moral conduct than anyone else’s.
But I really, really want that yardstick. I’m tired of people telling me they’re better guessers than I am because of their magic invisible friendships, only to watch them make morally bankrupt decisions left and right. Maybe it’s more of a slap in the face to people like me because I know what it’s like to hardcore invest in belief and then walk away. It’s entirely possible I’m just an intellectual amputee who’s feeling the ghost of a missing ideal.
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Not at all. I think you’re a deeply caring human being who can’t help but see suffering and not want to affect that.
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Yes! Reduce suffering and promote thriving. Working out what that will look like and how to accomplish it in the different scenarios we face does indeed take time in thought and effort. When I left my faith I realized I needed to think through a whole new morality based on something far kinder and more just than what the Bible offered. Well worth the effort!
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So true, especially when it comes to our fellow animals.
If I met myself, would I like myself? That’s a good question John, but for me not very practical as my first response is which self? Is it the self who is the real me, who I’m most comfortable with and who I like, but who society systematically bullies, belittles and discriminates against, or is it the self I attempt to pass at and who society finds acceptable, but I dislike pretending to be and find exhausting to act out?
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I think you just answered the question, Barry 😉
Really? I’m conflicted. For more than 60 years I’ve been told that the person I like is defective, broken, that not enough money is spent on finding a “cure” for what I am, that it would be better for all if people like me were aborted. When people such as myself are abused, although the law is on our side, public sympathy almost always goes to the abuser, not to the abused.
No matter how much I think I like what I perceive as the real me, a life long experience of being told that the real me is unacceptable, cannot help but cause self doubt. We are social animals, and what we think of ourselves is, whether we like it or not, heavily influenced by social attitudes and the actions of others.
The reasons for SB’s self-doubts are very different from mine, and yet there is a similarity. Our “conditions” are considered socially unacceptable, and if they can’t be “corrected”, they need to be isolated. My “condition” is autism and SB’s “condition” is atheism. This attitude towards autism, is probably not that much different from the attitude towards atheism that is prevalent in SB’s community. They are evils that must be eliminated. One doesn’t need to search far to find videos that demonise atheism in a similar manner.
I can understand why SB feels the need for a “yardstick” by which to measure morality. Previously he could rely on a set of rules that defined specific acts as moral or immoral. It was a comfortable crutch while he had them. He no longer has that, nor can he return to it. I believe he’s on the right track when suggests one should look at consequences (and perhaps intent) rather than the act itself.
I need to be careful here, because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m advocating a return to religion, but I would encourage SB to investigate further the notion of cause and effect on which to build a morality. My own faith tradition does not define any act in and of itself as being moral or immoral, sinful or good. If we were to define sin (which we don’t), it would probably be along the lines of sin being actions that involve exploitation of another person.
I think if I were to attempt to codify morality, it wouldn’t be on the basis of the act itself, nor directly on the outcomes, I would instead attempt to set up a set of criteria that one could apply in determining whether or not the outcome an act is immoral. As SB points out, we are not all equally endowed in resources or the will to be able to examine the morality of every action, especially if we take degrees of separation into account, so any tools that assist us to make good decisions relatively quickly and painlessly would be beneficial.
For example, at one time I determined it was immoral to purchase products from businesses that were involved in the manufacture or sale of military grade weaponry. If it was immoral for me to purchase products from such businesses, was it also immoral for other businesses and individuals to do so?, If it is immoral, how should I respond to their immorality? It quickly became evident that it was not practical (nor moral) to impose my morals on others.
In my case, I turned to the values promoted in the testimonies of our faith tradition, often referred to by the acronum SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewartship. Acts that promote those values, I consider moral, while those that go against them are immoral. If neither, then it’s not a matter of morality. How I respond depends on whether it’s at a micro or macro level event. A micro level event might be a person having an extra-marital affair while leading the spouse to believe they are in a strictly monogamous relationship. Another might be selling a product knowing it’s not fit for purpose. A macro level event might be a country unilaterally withdrawing from an international treaty that was being honoured by all the other parties, because that nation’s leader had a personal dislike for the treaty. Another might be country encouraging anti-government movements in other countries to use the illegal drug trade as a means of financing their causes.
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