Moral Pragmatism

It appears you are interested in the workings of morality from a practical perspective.

This statement occurred in a discussion thread on The Philosophical Hack.

I don’t feel there is another perspective. It is a human construct of language, but, in particular, it’s a social construct. By definition, language is arbitrary (though not capricious), any anything within language is necessarily arbitrary, too.

Morality and its cousin, ethics, are essentially normative rules of conduct, so they are, foundationally speaking, pragmatic: what is the best system for a society to flourish. This implies some goal or goals. In essence, this becomes an optimisation problem that involves systems thinking, and humans are particularly poor at systems thinking especially when faced with complexity. Along our evolutionary path, managing complexity was not a huge survival factor. Kahneman and Tversky identified two systems: System I is the sort of automatic reflexive system and System II is for advanced functions. System II requires a lot of energy and upkeep. For most humans, it’s not well-developed or maintained,and System I appears to be the arbiter and has right of first refusal, so it attempts to solve heuristically something that should be assessed analytically.

Why the ramble? Morality is a complex system with boundary conditions and dynamics: precisely what humans are poor at. Just defining the boundaries is a challenge. Perhaps this is why some people simply attempt to define the boundary as universal, but this creates its own challenges. And many reject universal morality, opting for smaller moral domains—nations, states, municipalities, communities, schools, churches, families, peer groups, couples. To Hegel and Nietzsche, the main concern is authenticity for the individual. And Nietzsche didn’t feel that there was any one-size-fits-all morality to begin with. I could operate with different moral imperatives than you. This was most evident in his Master-Herd distinction.

But since I reject the notion of objective morality, it is necessarily normative or relative or subjective. Here, we end up trying to optimise an equilibrium model, but the trick is what to optimise.

In the modern age, the consensus is to maximise happiness or utility, but, as I’ve mentioned before, we are still left in a quandary: do we optimise personal happiness or group happiness, and what group? A nationalist might choose to draw a boundary around the nation. This will maximise happiness within the borders without concern of whether ‘people are starving in Africa’.

Of course, there are multiple dimensions to any morality. If there are two people and one has $100 and the other would feel happier to take it, in a utility optimisation model, there is nothing to defend not taking it. Prospect theory within behavioural economics provides some rational insomuch as humans tend to value loss over gain, so the $100 received is perceived as having less value than the person losing it. This is further complicated if the person receiving it is poor—perhaps s/he has no money—and the person relinquishing it is Jeff Bezos, to whom it is nothing more than a rounding error.

I mention these because we could have a positive sum game (borrowing from game theory)—the gain to the poor person would outweigh the loss leading to a net positive gain—, and yet Pareto optimisation disallows this. Of course, happiness and utility cannot be measured in the first place and they are not persistent in the second place.

My point in all this is to argue that humans are woefully ill-equipped to grasp these topics, and so most of this is not much more substantial than mental masturbation. And this leads me full circle to me original contention that morality and so-called moral truths are nothing more that rhetoric, the ability to persuade that your position is the truest truth.

6 thoughts on “Moral Pragmatism

  1. If you reject objective morality you reject civilization. Civilization cannot exist beyond the extended family / clan / tribal levels without a basis in objective morality – for what else can call a broadly accepted consensus on right and wrong that transcends those population boundaries?.
    The issue, if there is one, is that subjectivism is applied to objective morality and ends up expanding the (mis)conception of it into realms and acts that ARE particular to individual cultures.

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    1. Of course, this is not accurate, as there is no objective morality, and we have civilisation. Perhaps, this is why we have certain international conflict. One group trying to assert it’s moral concepts upon another. The key question here is the same that Nietzsche made and has been vilified for it: If not God, then whence comes this moral authority? It was easy when most people (1) believed in a supreme being and (2) believed that this being was the source of moral truth. Even under this scenario, the question is still how does one authenticate this so-called objective Truth? Any claim of authenticity is not falsifiable, as the Positivists found some 100 years ago.

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  2. You know, I think you just put forth a good theoretical backing to what I have thought of recently as “preference”.

    When it comes to a “good“ society — and I mean here, good, in the sense of this particular society, whatever it is, that we are indeed in that we want to keep because we think that it is a good thing or that we have some something going that is good that we like, and I mean to indicate the United States and similar type systems —- it doesn’t really matter whether God exists and, or whether women have an absolute right to their bodies or the fetus at six weeks has a right now also. It also doesn’t really matter whether or not Trump is a good president or he’s a shitty one, or whether the Republicans are being honest and the Democrats are being politically manipulative — these absolute kind of truths that people want to stay in their corners and argue vehemently against the other side of it somehow the other side is morally problematic of someway— these truths are secondary to the fact that we love our way of life. Now, I don’t mean to be too philosophical in this sense except to say that indeed our life is pretty good here at least in the United States. And so these kind of polemical absolute beliefs or whatever you would want to call them really should come secondary to the fact that we love our way of life in so much as we have to admit that are way of life has come about not due to these polemical assertions of propriety, but indeed due to the system where we agree that it is big enough and strong enough to handle these political ideas within a certain kind of logistical containment.

    And so I have suggested here and there that really it’s more about what we prefer rather than what we think is absolutely true. Whatever we might think is absolutely true, in order to remain in this good society that allows us to have this belief of these absolute truths, we have to admit that we love the system in which we are allowed to have these views and not be killed for them necessarily.

    I think I’ve made my point around that. And so it seems like you have a pretty good theory that seems to support what I’m saying.

    So what I am saying is that there is no arguing with what you’re saying: The only way that I can argue with you as if you might be wrong or incorrect in some manner of assessing or stating the issue, is to assume that there is some sort of common arena that we are both involved with that we are not recognizing, that it is not some sort of individual agency or some divine spirit or soul that each of us as individuals have that allow us to debate with one another and construct societies and such; Rather, it is more of that there is some unrecognized arena that we are relying upon that Grant says this if you upon the world where my opinion is just an opinion and so is yours and we can talk about it through some other aspect called rationality or reason or whatever and we can be open minded are close minded and we can come to grate heady solutions or we can pull out knives and guns and try and kill each other. The only way that we can have such a situation as that is if we are relying upon an invisible and unknowable common arena that supports it.

    Now, I am not suggesting that there is not this common place. I am not stating that situation to thereby suggest it’s false or that I have a better idea about how it might be possible that we can negotiate with one another either peacefully or violently. Personally, I think the very simple idea is that there must be an unknown encompassing field or arena where and we are be able to behave in this manner.

    I am not arguing that that is incorrect, I am not arguing about any sort of metaphysical structure about what that Rena Rena is or anything. I am simply stating a logical fact. Now, if you would want to say it’s not really a fact it’s just some sort of opinion that I have, then I would say again… and I would have to refer you back to the thing that you’re arguing against and say that the only way that you’re arguing against me is to rely upon that unknowable invisible arena in which we both exist.

    What I’m saying is that arena is not the only place. And you could go to the comment I made on your other post last night for the argument there.

    I am not saying that everything Hass to reduce to an either or situation.

    And if you read one of my posts there about reason and emotion where I talk about the quantum, it is a classical, or what I call conventional philosophical view, a particular orientation, a particular way of viewing the world, that must reduce everything to either or state.

    And when you take that statement the meaning of that statement out to its end, we have with some philosophers have called “the last reduction“ or “the last instance”, and then you get into the more contemporary continental realist philosophies and indeed non-philosophy that came just slightly before it and continues now.

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  3. Dude, we should just make a Google dock and you and I can discuss things on there because this kind of posting and commenting for the kind of discussion that I enjoy and that it seems you might enjoy it and that it seems we’re having…
    Maybe it might do you well they just open a Google doc or something c😄

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