The Mystery of the Good

I happened upon a video where three philosophers engage in friendly debate over the nature of absolute goodness. The three each in turn give their positions, and then they debate three themes. This post captures their positions—until about 12.5 minutes—, and I’ll reserve the themes for future posts.

Video: The Mystery of the Good:
Is morality relative or absolute?
 
Naomi Goulder

The swapping an evaluative good over a moral goodness is a slight of hand or a head fake. As Naomi Goulder states, citing Nietzsche,

“Our weak, unmanly social concepts of good and evil and their tremendous ascendancy over body and soul have finally weakened all bodies and souls and snapped the self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men, the pillars of a strong civilization.”

—Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche

I won’t call Nietzsche on his facile belief in ‘self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men‘.

The problem is as much one of mathematics as well as of language. Good is a weasel word, so it is easy to equivocate over its meaning. I’ve commented on this before, so I’ll leave it here at the moment and focus on the maths. No matter what bogey we are attempting to maximise, we are left optimising across to dimensions: individual versus some group, such as society; and present verses future.

I’ll start there. Without regard to which normative function to optimise, we should recognise that what provides the most what I’d deem benefit now not also be optimised in the future.

If I have enough money for either an ice cream cone or bus fare home on a hot day—so even on a relatively short time scale—,and I choose an ice cream, my near-term satisfaction quickly fades when I realise I now have to find alternative means to get home.

In fact, I am not simply optimising across now and a few minutes from now. I am optimising across all possible future times across my lifespan. Plus, taking some choices are necessarily going to eliminate the possibility of others. Rational choice theory be damned.

Beyond the time dimension, we’ve got the individual versus group dimension. This is just as silly. Not only is the group undefined, we are likely to constrain it to our perceived in-group. As a citizen of the UK, I may not consider the effects of my choice on, say, Germany or Myanmar.

In effect, this becomes a system boundary definition problem. Just because I adopt a nationalistic boundary does not mean that I’ve chosen this correctly. The Germans who made this calculaus circa World War II learnt that being on the losing side of a conflict yields outcoems divergent from original expectations. Had Germany and the Axis prevailed, who knows how this might have changed?

My point is that, even divorced from the language problem, the bulk of this topic is mental masturbation. It is unresolvable because it’s not much more than academic sophistry.

Paul Boghossian

Paul Boghossian conveys three possible interpretations.

In the first he posits a strawman statement, ‘It is morally good to educate girls and young women’, a topic sure to get an emotional reaction from Western-indoctrinated people, assuming a moral high ground over fundamentalist Muslim beliefs. Proponents of this view claim that this can be assessed as simply true or false.

More fundamentally, he defends this approach in proxy by asserting that, ‘ultimately, there will be some normative claim at the bottom of that chain of reasoning which will either be true or false‘. It hinges on the expected role of the human, in particular the female of the species. Again, this is only true or false within some context, a context which is neither objective nor universal.

In the second, which he labels as relativistic, acknowledges the social contextual interpretation.

His last interpretation is nihilistic, wherein, ‘normative vocabulary is fundamentally confused; there is nothing in the world it answers to; if you really want to do things ‘right’, you just have to drop this vocabulary and find some other vocabulary—not itself normative; not itself evaluative—in which to describe these things that we call moral convictions or moral beliefs‘.

I subscribe to this last school, though I do not feel that language is fundamentally capable of this level of precision and even more fundamentally is not truth-apt.

He adds a fourth category, where preferences rule, which is weaker still, as preferences are not only normative but emotional and, I might argue, are somewhat arbitrary and capricious and subject to all of the weaknesses inherhent in preference theory.

Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse begins by downplaying the absolute notion of the good but then backtracks and defending something close to absolute by ‘taking it very seriously’.

He defends the believers in the quasi-absolute morality of good gods, ignoring the relative nature of that belief (and not to mention how to validate the objectivity). He goes on the defend Platonism but comes up short trying to assert the positive analytic notion of maths and a normative vantage where morality is objective.

I was pleasantly amused with his case where he highlights the inherent problem with a sexual morality formulated around a binary sex world if we imagine intergalactically a world with a ternary sex arrangement. We can observe this locally, as not all species are restricted by human sexual dimorphism.

For reference, the three themes discussed are as follows:

Theme One: Is there an absolute good?

Theme Two: Does morality apply to the act or the consequences

Theme Three: Should we strive for absolute truth

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Afterlife

My girlfriend’s mother with whom we live was raised a Catholic. She asked me what my religious beliefs are, and I responded that I don’t believe in gods, angels, divine anything, a higher intelligence or power in the manner people ascribe to gods. She conveyed that she had been upset with her husband but got the last laugh after he died.

As she related it to me, the night after he dies, he came to her in a vision and told her that he was wrong and she was right, so now she knows that there is life after death. I’m not entirely sure if he was heaven-bound in this scenario.

So, as she finds comfort in this belief (and of the other spectres she’s seen, heard, and felt, I just nod and smile and say ‘that’s nice’). I try my best not to sprain anything as I roll my eyes on the inside.

At least Descartes admitted that his senses might be deceived. No such thing here. One of the issues I have with so-called religious tolerance is that it is not politically correct to call BS on nonsense like this. Of course, I am not about to jeopardise my relationship with my girlfriend by mocking her mother.

My girlfriend is a different story still. she was raised in a Catholic household but was not subjected to the church or parochial school like her mother, but she was still fed a diet of religious nonsense growing up. To her, hell is real. The fear of a hell actually influences some moral decisions. To the righteous, this is a fine consequentialist approach, the ends (of normalised behaviour) justify the means (of believing a lie).

To me, the lie is immoral, but to some, they actually believe it (or believe it enough) that they don’t see it as a fabrication. I suppose it’s easier for people like me who consider morality to be fabricated from whole cloth.

Greater Good

A particularly overworked trope is that of greater good.Greater good‘ is a Utilitarian concept wrought with the same problems as other specious Enlightenment ideas. I’ve written about this from several perspectives. As with many foundation concepts springing from the Enlightenment, ‘greater good’ is founded more on platitudes and some specious ideal than reality. It’s more wishful thinking for a gullible population.

The word ‘gullible’ is not in the dictionary

Gradeschool Humour

Philosophy students learn in early ethics classes of the paradox of the Trolley Problem. But there is no paradox; it’s just the result of accepting a faulty framework, and so we left with a host of concepts from politics to economics.

The problem is that there is no consistent definition of good—or at least the value judgment is subjective; there is no accounting for taste—, and there is no measurement of it, a problem with Utility Theory in general.

Dead End — Road Stops Here

Is Utilitarianism a thing?

I stumbled across this video this afternoon, and it got me thinking….

I’ve always found all normative ethical foundations to be lacking, from virtue ethics to deontology and consequentialism, each for its own reasons. Utilitarianism falls under consequentialism and is the foundation of much economic theory, the concept that people maximise this notion of pleasure. Aside from the other issues in utility theory, pleasure is not measurable.

But if emotions are also the result of social construction, what would be optimised if we could even maximise in the first place?

Emotions are not what we think they are.

Neoclassical Morality

 

Episode 8 of The Moral Foundations of Politics with Ian Shapiro was another difficult lesson to watch—rather to listen to—the student responses. Evident is the degree of indoctrination or brainwashing these students have been through. I want to document some pieces I feel are relevant to my position.

  1. The fact that morality is perniciously imposed and infused on the unsuspecting
  2. The fact that property rights change over time
  3. The fact that legal interpretation changes over time

The responses were primarily knee-jerk responses anchored on institutional indoctrination. Whilst it makes sense to indoctrinate a group, I am opposed to imposing an obvious relative morality but passing it off as absolute.

Asking how prostitution could be illegal when sex and commerce are both legal, the responses—to be fair, only a couple people responded—were about how it might somehow ‘harms’ women or society as a sort of negative externality, be violent, have been coercive or a form of slavery, have involved a married or otherwise committed spouse, or have involved an under-aged person. These were poor man’s strawman arguments at best, each potentially with merit, but each a separate issue from the question.

In fact, we can likely find evidence of each of these in a ‘typical’ employment situation: coercion, under-age, a threat of violence, implied or expressed; the spousal issue doesn’t fit these situations, but even if we want to legislate keeping people safe from their own actions, it is as illegal for unmarried persons, so the rationale is insufficient.

The point I hold is that prostitution in and of itself is no more exploitative than any other source of employment, a source income. Given that Western society imposes income as the primary means to support one’s self, the wrong here is that artificial barrier. Were income not a veritable necessity, prostitution to earn money (or use as a barter) would also be unnecessary. This is not to say that the other aforementioned objections would be resolved; this because, as I mentioned, they are different issues.

Next, we are told that marital rape originally not considered a crime because a woman was considered to be chattel property transferred patriarchally from her father to her husband. As I’ve written previously, I do not subscribe to the notion of property in the first place, but taken that as given, it is obvious that property is determined through whimsy. Property rights change over time, whether receding as just noted or expanding to include intellectual property and the expanse of patentable ideas. It’s disconcerting that application of the law can be so arbitrary and, though perhaps not capricious, frivolous. And given it is all open to interpretation, the pendulum can swing in the other direction, as the women of Iran and other fundamentalist theocracies has experienced.

Apparently, I’m done ranting. Basic income has been mentioned as a solution to some prostitution, as some women participate out of desperation. Though I feel that this might kerb some prostitution, some women would still seek to supplement this base income, if only to advance their personal standard of living.