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.