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How would you define morality & justice? - Comments

Zelig's Avatar Comment 1 by Zelig

I think it's clear that neither "morality-in-itself" nor "justice-in-itself" exists. Such concepts are created, not discovered. "Morality", in my view, is an expression of the perceived conditions of preservation and growth, contingently encountered in the world by an individual.

But man is a political animal and a large part of one's individual morality will be determined by the social matrix within which one lives. As a social concept, the dominant moralities in a given society are expressions of the power relations at work within that society, representing a rather crude, net, aggregate equilibrium that the most powerful groups are (contingently) willing to tolerate.

So it is with "justice", which is the compromise position and relative equilibrium established by the most powerful societal actors. In a word, Might Makes Right.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 14:03:56 UTC | #851738

foundationist's Avatar Comment 2 by foundationist

I don't. That might sound strange, but I'm a scientist, not a philosopher. I'm pretty sure that - for evolutionary reasons that are becoming ever more clear - we are equipped with an inate sense of morality, an intuition of what is right and what is wrong, which is good enough to tell us in about 99+% of all situations what the moral behavior would be. Sometimes we may choose not to go for the moral option, because we are lazy or selfish or angry etc, but we almost always know what is right. Outside this intuitiion or the human mind the terms "right", "wrong", "good" and "bad" have absolutely no meaning, any definition can only be an attempt at pinning down this inate feeling.

There are as far as I can tell virtually no situations where right and wrong are really ambiguous and depend on the exact definition of morality or fine-grained distinctions between morality and justice. That is why in any discussion about morality people usually come up with far-fetched scenarios where you have to choose between, say, actively killing one child or passively letting twelve old people die, or similar stuff.

Well, I'm living in the assumption never to have to make such tricky choices, and it worked well for this past 32 years.

Love

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 14:10:42 UTC | #851742

foundationist's Avatar Comment 3 by foundationist

Thanks david2, you beat me to it and put it a little more neatly than me.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 14:11:47 UTC | #851745

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 4 by Jos Gibbons

"Right and wrong are just words; what matters is what you do." - Futurama

I sometimes see people claiming - though they don't usually explain the details - that "ethics" and "morality" (or "ethical" and "moral") are different, and therefore some issue under discussion fall under one category rather than the other. I don't know what linguistic conventions are at work there. If I recall correctly the claim is that ethics are about what is a good idea given considerations of various issues, wheres morals are more a matter of sticking to rigid rules. I'm not sure if I've got that quite right, but it would make sense of why people who step on others' fun for dubious ideological reasons are said to be "moralising" rather than "ethicising". At any rate I prefer to call these deontology and consequentialism.

Consequentialists bear in mind the implications of our decisions, though not necessarily in a utilitarian manner or one which succumbs to a felicific calculus. Deontology has more of a "We can't do that; it's against the rules!" attitude. I much prefer a consequentialist take on things, for numerous reasons. I won't go through them all here. For now, I'll just point out one implication of my position, which is that I don't entertain exceptionless generalisations particularly willingly.

I think the recent analysis of these issues by Sam Harris (let's not get into a discussion of whether science can achieve what he wants; that's a tangent here) is right on the money in noting that consequentialism can accommodate every concern we have, including justice; for example, one can dislike an option because we do not want unjust consequences such as those it would yield. In other words, matters such as emotions, pleasures and harm are not the be all and end all of the consequences we can bear in mind if we think consequences will be our basis for evaluating decisions.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 14:43:01 UTC | #851760

Sample's Avatar Comment 5 by Sample

Morality and justice can equally build monuments or hide the slain; like cement.

Mike

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 15:00:33 UTC | #851768

Alex, adv. diab.'s Avatar Comment 6 by Alex, adv. diab.

I'm not sure what the official definitions are there. I also make a distinction between ethics and morals. I use the latter to mean either a very personal or religious concept and therefore not useful for practical purposes. Now, personal ethics and ethics of state are a different matter. However, defining what is ethical at the state level, though everyone has an idea, is probably a matter of consensus (and it has to be!).

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 15:37:13 UTC | #851789

soggymoggy's Avatar Comment 7 by soggymoggy

I'm glad I saw Jos's reply before posting my own, because I'm about to make exactly the distinction that he objects to and for no very sensible reason.

I don't like the word "morality", because for me it has inescapably religious connotations; this is probably an ingrained result of my regrettably Christian upbringing, and may or may not be fair. To me the word implies a set system of fixed and implacable rules, making no reference to circumstance, and which are too often used by the religious to "justify" sticking their noses into matters that don't remotely concern them (gay marriage, anyone?). On top of this, I also consider that the definitions of "right" and "wrong" behaviour as laid down by the Abrahamic religions - and by any other religion that requires its adherents to follow rules inconsistent with the actions of the putative deity - are in fact incompatible with what the rest of us would understand by the word "morality", which is unfortunate as they seem to have co-opted it rather successfully. For all these reasons, I prefer the word "ethical" to the word "moral".

So, how do I define "ethical" behaviour? Well, as others have said it's sort of fluid - if for no other reason than that the minutiae of circumstances surrounding a decision are subject to almost endless permutations. That sounds like a spineless cop-out, but it's the most honest answer I can give. There are a couple of "rules" I use (unconsciously most of the time, obviously) that can be applied to most situations, and I'll try to explain them:

1: From an objective viewpoint, MY self is no more important than anyone ELSE's self. This is the best summary I can come up with of why it's not OK to advance or improve your own well-being or happiness at the expense of someone else's - although there are circumstances to which this cannot apply, and obviously the world is so complex it's usually impossible to know the full effects of your actions anyway; all you can do is work with the information you have.

2: If a person's actions are doing no harm to anyone else [to an extent, I include animals in this], those actions are none of my business.

3: A "good" action is one that, on balance, increases the health and happiness of the world in general. A "bad" action is one that is, on balance, detrimental to the health and happiness of the world in general. There are some obvious problems with this one; if I were to add a strong happy drug to the water supplies of the world, that would obviously increase the happiness of the population in general, but it would be a very wrong thing to do. Possibly adding "freedom" to the "health and happiness" clause above would take care of this, but too much freedom can be incredibly dangerous as we know. Similarly, one could arguably "help" ten starving people by killing an eleventh for food, but this would be a clear example of a situation in which the rights of one person must outweigh the needs of the group - although from a completely objective POV, it's difficult to come up with a logical reason why as the decision could theoretically make the difference between ten out of eleven people surviving the famine and none at all surviving. One might consider that in this situation I would have the right to sacrifice myself for the general good, but not to sacrifice another, thereby robbing them of their freedom to choose. This rule has to be treated as a sort of simplistic baseline, I guess, to which one applies common sense and empathy.

This doesn't cover everything by a long shot, and I'm not even going to attempt "justice". It's just too complicated, but I wouldn't have it any other way; the complexities are there whether we acknowledge them or not, and they're a simple, inescapable result of the fact that we can never be in possession of every relevant fact. I'd rather struggle on with a few bendy and sometimes downright unhelpful general principles than artificially apply an arbitrary set of "rules" that can potentially be the very antithesis of ethical principle and behaviour, call them "morality" and then demand respect for my deliberate decision not to trouble myself with actually thinking about things.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 15:55:37 UTC | #851796

ShinobiYaka's Avatar Comment 8 by ShinobiYaka

Well, I'm an old fashioned kind of guy and I'm sure that my rather simplistic views will irk the more philosophical types, but in my opinion there is a difference between right, wrong, moral and immoral, both sets of concepts being distinct, that is right\wrong and moral\immoral, the problem philosophers have, which is sadly more common that it ought to be, is the setting of scope or as a physicist would say the frame of reference, ask a physicist what “speed” is and the first question he would probably ask is, in relation to what?

Morality is in practice the set our obligations, duties and consideration in relation to others that if wilfully neglected results in injury to others and if maintained furthers the common good, morality applies to our conduct in relation to others not ourselves, you cannot for instance perform an immoral act on yourself regardless of what might be claimed in scripture.

Also morality is only relevant when the injured party is itself a morally considerable being, but we have to be wary here and I can see the philosophical types sharpening their quills ready to pounce with “marginal” and “special” cases, but lets keep it simple, I would claim that moral consideration only applies to human beings on the grounds that humans are both self aware “and” capable of decoupled cognition, so are aware of being wronged in a morally relevant sense.

You can imagine all things moral\immoral as being a subset of all things right\wrong, justice is another matter entirely, when most people hear that term, they assume it to mean what is often called “natural justice”, something often confused with what is spoken of in our courts, but justice in that context simply means a fair arbitration of legal pleading.

Peace.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 18:04:38 UTC | #851864

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 9 by AtheistEgbert

@comment 7,

I think soggymoggy's explanations (1) and (2) approach the subject of right and wrong or justice, while (3) deals with morality (or what she might call ethics).

I think (1) is fundamentally true in the objective sense, but the further we become objective, the further we lose contact with what are subjective values, values that underpin why we do things.

In other words--if we were to see a human as no more important than a cat or even a rock, we can quickly enter absurdities by diminishing our values. I think we all make judgements--whether we admit it or not--about what or who is more or less important--whether myself, family or friends.

Such discriminations are not necessarily wrong, in fact they are necessary in making many judgements.

As for point (2) I think this goes fundamentally to what justice is. In other words, it is related to preventing harm. [Although this clarifies what justice means, it also quickly leads to all sorts of complications once we understand that while acting to prevent harm, we may actually cause harm in the process.]

I think point (3) comes very close to defining morality, but soggymoggy recognizes the limitation and exceptions with such a definition. It is very close to Sam Harris's notion of well-being. I would say caring for others probably gives a broader explanation for morality, but also shows how morality & justice are separate categories, even if they are related.

@comment 1

Which brings me to david's Nietzschean interpretation in comment 1.

Again, health or as david says 'preservation and growth' are related to morality, but from an individual perspective. I assume that david rules out pity (or sympathy) as a morality detrimental to individuality.

I actually disagree with Nietzsche (or david) on this point. I actually think morality is very clearly related to care, pity or sympathy, but notice how completely impotent it is to evil or power.

It is this that leads me to see how morality and justice are distinctly different categories. People talk about morality, and yet actually mean justice.

We fundamentally make this error in society whenever talking about morality, when in fact we're actually talking about justice.

As for david's second point, he is entirely correct in showing that societies are dominated by power relations, and this is related to justice. However, this is not related to morality, because morality is powerless. Morality is the caring for the wellbeing or happiness of others. What we ought to do or should do, but if they are being harmed, then all our care and good intentions are irrelevant. Rather, we are called to act to prevent harm which is justice.

This also leads me to point out how social customs and traditions are forced upon us by minority or majority rule. If we are good because that is what tradition says is good, it only means I am good because otherwise I will suffer some kind of punishment. It is justice that makes people act morally, although clearly its not coming from within them, their own pity or sympathy wanting them to help others.

Humans do not need to be coerced into being moral, because we're motivated from within to be kind and caring. However, it makes us more and more impotent if we refuse to discriminate, caring for those who cause harm as much as those harmed.

A strong person who is not afraid to fight against injustices, will very quickly find themselves actually causing harm by preventing harm. They are then considered evil or bad, because they used violence or power to prevent harm.

Hence the neverending complexity and complications from what are really basic concepts. It seems to me that nothing we can do can possibly make a more moral society without making it more authoritarian. And if we want to live in a more peaceful and harmless society, we require violence and harm against those who are violent and harmful to society. It is like a catch-22 or trap, and possibly explains why we never appear to make any progress.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 18:10:16 UTC | #851865

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 10 by ccw95005

In the absence of a scorekeeper God, there is no absolute morality. But we evolved to have a sense of right and wrong, obviously because it conferred survival advantages, presumably because altruism and cooperation were beneficial to hunter-gatherer groups. Having a sense of what one ought to do (including considering the well being of others) and a desire to be "good" (to follow those moral precepts) - allows us to occasionally follow paths which are not in our best interest but are in the best interest of the group.

So most of us have an sense of right and wrong - a moral sense - and we instinctively believe that it is universal or should be universal - even though logic may tell us that it isn't. Each of us arrives at that moral system through empathy and community standards and the teachings of our parents and our church and so on.

The bottom line is that morality Is real but it's individual. Communities or religions or countries share many of the same rules and moral beliefs - but they may be very different from other communities or religions or countries.

So if we're going to argue about the morality or boiling lobsters or anything else, we really should establish ground rules as to what we're trying to accomplish or what standards to apply. Otherwise it's pointless, because there are no moral absolutes.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 18:27:28 UTC | #851868

ShinobiYaka's Avatar Comment 11 by ShinobiYaka

Comment 10 by ccw95005

I agree with most of what you say particularly in relation to absolutes, in regards to your comment on “ground rules” well its perfectly possible to debate good\ bad without once having to refer to that dreaded word morality, but when one does use the term, its scope really must be understood otherwise as you say, its becomes a rather pointless exercise.

Peace.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 19:08:09 UTC | #851885

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 12 by AtheistEgbert

@ccw95005,

I agree with the idea that morality is relative to individual judgements, and so it is not possible to construct an objective or universal system that imposes one set of judgements on what is good/bad or right/wrong.

However, I'm not so sure that selfishness and altruism are adequate in explaining the moral realm.

I also don't believe we have a moral sense or sense of justice, rather, we have emotions that allow us to make judgements in various situations. The only reason we think they're intuitive is because we're not consciously thinking about how we arrived at such judgements. We learn to make them based on our emotions, memories, social relationships and the culture we develop in.

Of course, if we're not consciously aware about why or how we're making such judgements, this explains why opinions vary so much. It all relates to how each person developed in their life experiences.

The lobster example illustrates the complexities that arise when we abstract away from individual judgements in terms of health/harm in boiling a source of food. Clearly it is healthy to boil lobsters rather than eat them raw, and it is healthy to eat rather than starve. But also we are causing harm to the lobster by both killing it for food and by torturing it if it feels pain. We find ourselves with a moral dillemma or conflict, and whether it is right/wrong or good/bad depends on weighing up all the factors.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 19:52:27 UTC | #851904

Reverend B. Worthington's Avatar Comment 13 by Reverend B. Worthington

My take on things:

Morality - I define morality as a scale invented in order to award motivations and actions a score. The scale has compassionate behaviour at one end and selfish behaviour at the other.

So by my definition a moral act is one that was motivated by compassion. With this argument, altruism can be described as moral because it is based on some level of sacrifice, and therefore is rooted in compassion, which then can be scored as moral on the 'moral-o-meter'.

On the other hand eating your neighbour's leg is selfish behaviour - you get a meal but at the expense of his leg. This action scores weakly in compassion, and as such can be marked down as immoral.

It's entirely possibly for immoral outcomes to come from moral motivations, but I would argue that as long as the initial motivation was made on truly compassionate grounds, then the motivation could still be thought of as moral, despite the outcome.

Justice - Given that an act of justice is an action that repays, rewards or punishes past actions of an individual, it must also be a system of accounting - one that is grounded in the idea that there are standards of behaviour to which individuals are expected to adhere to.

So in my view both are measurements of behaviour, marked up on imaginary score boards we have created for ourselves.

Justice though, would seem to be more concerned with consequences than motivations, and I would argue could at times be totally at odds with morality.

For example, if we follow the "eye for an eye" principle, and decide to execute a murderer, it could be argued that was an act of justice. However, unless the murderer wanted to die, the act of killing them could not be said to be motivated by compassion, and would hence be a selfish act on behalf of the executioner. Thus the execution would be scored as 'immoral' on my noisily beeping 'moral-o-meter'.

Justice is not necessarily inspired by morality either. Quite often the set of laws that will make up a system of justice will be devised with selfish motivations on behalf of the law maker, so by my criteria, this behaviour would not qualify as moral.

I think the most important thing to take from this subject though, is that although they are inventions, they do not lack any worth for being such. Morality especially, as a measurement for compassion is crucial.

Since from compassion comes altruism, and as altruism (despite what occasional nutjobs like Ayn Rand* might think) is central to both personal and societal well being, and I think is fundamental in building a world worth living in.

*Ayn Rand - an intellectually flawed woman with a failed grasp of what is is to be a functioning human being. The fact that her novel 'Atlas Shrugged' is said to be the second most influential book is the United States after 'The Bible' goes some distance towards explaining many of the problems associated with that country today.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:10:14 UTC | #851911

Zelig's Avatar Comment 14 by Zelig

Comment 9 by AtheistEgbert :

@comment 1

Which brings me to david's Nietzschean interpretation in comment 1.

While I am a "Nietzschean", it is important to stress that in all essentials on these topics Pascal, for example (a devout 17th cent. Christian), says the same thing (and sometimes says it better than Nietzsche).

I assume that david rules out pity (or sympathy) as a morality detrimental to individuality.

No, not at all. Only if one understands pity as the root and apex of all moral feeling (a la Schopenhauer) am I against it.

I actually disagree with Nietzsche (or david) on this point. I actually think morality is very clearly related to care, pity or sympathy, but notice how completely impotent it is to evil or power.

I don't know what you mean here? Are you making the distinction between an individual person and the society to which they belong?

As for david's second point, he is entirely correct in showing that societies are dominated by power relations, and this is related to justice. However, this is not related to morality, because morality is powerless. Morality is the caring for the well-being or happiness of others. What we ought to do or should do, but if they are being harmed, then all our care and good intentions are irrelevant. Rather, we are called to act to prevent harm which is justice.

What authority lies behind the contention that "Morality is the caring for the well being or happiness of others"? I also don't understand why morality is "powerless"? The implication seems to be that while an individual can be (what you consider) moral, a society cannot. Why?

If Might is Right, which I believe it is, it is inevitable that the less powerful will be denied their preferences being actualised. This dominated group now understands its impotency as an injustice, but it fails to realise that if it were itself dominant the very same structural relationships would apply to those groups with antithetical aims. And this instability arises because different individuals and groups have different perceived conditions of preservation and growth.

e.g. I very much believe in free-speech, especially for the most insightful. I affirm this for several reasons, among them is an almost metaphysical sense of human dignity. Now, very many people disagree with me. They value many other things more importantly than free speech. I lose, they win. Not because they have intellectually better arguments but simply because they have more power.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:15:54 UTC | #851913

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 15 by ccw95005

Comment 13 by Reverend B. Worthington :

So by my definition a moral act is one that was motivated by compassion. With this argument, altruism can be described as moral because it is based on some level of sacrifice, and therefore is rooted in compassion, which then can be scored as moral on the 'moral-o-meter'.

Rev, that's sort of how I feel. But I don't fool myself that it's a provable point of view. It's internal to me and you.

Morality consists of two parts - empathy (or compassion) and rules. Churchgoers believe that God handed down a set of rules that must be followed. For them, that innate sense of right and wrong is largely guided by those rules. And they feel that in order to be good people they must follow the rules. By any measure that sense of right and wrong is morality, although it's not my kind of morality. For me and you, forget the rules. What guides our internal moral compasses is empathy for other people, dogs, cats, and lobsters. That empathy leads us in general to want the greatest good for the most people (or creatures) as a standard. But that "utilitarian" rule is going to be full of exceptions, too.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:25:44 UTC | #851920

Zelig's Avatar Comment 16 by Zelig

Comment 7 by soggymoggy :

So, how do I define "ethical" behaviour? Well, as others have said it's sort of fluid - if for no other reason than that the minutiae of circumstances surrounding a decision are subject to almost endless permutations. That sounds like a spineless cop-out, but it's the most honest answer I can give. There are a couple of "rules" I use (unconsciously most of the time, obviously) that can be applied to most situations, and I'll try to explain them: 1: From an objective viewpoint, MY self is no more important than anyone ELSE's self. This is the best summary I can come up with of why it's not OK to advance or improve your own well-being or happiness at the expense of someone else's - although there are circumstances to which this cannot apply, and obviously the world is so complex it's usually impossible to know the full effects of your actions anyway; all you can do is work with the information you have.

Your immediate objections to your own proposition render the proposition rather hollow. If I have a rival for my beloved's affections you can be absolutely certain that, if I followed your advice, I would be signing my own death warrant. Nor would my wife, children and closest friends be honoured to know that I considered their well being no more important than those I despise.

This (affected) self-diminution has never existed for a single day on earth among humanity, and is, moreover, psychologically impossible. This is secularised Christianity and practical nihilism, a symptom of a declining civilisation.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:36:12 UTC | #851923

ccw95005's Avatar Comment 17 by ccw95005

Comment 12 by AtheistEgbert :

I also don't believe we have a moral sense or sense of justice, rather, we have emotions that allow us to make judgements in various situations. The only reason we think they're intuitive is because we're not consciously thinking about how we arrived at such judgements. We learn to make them based on our emotions, memories, social relationships and the culture we develop in.

Doesn't "intuitive" in this case simply mean arriving at a judgment without consciously thinking about how we got there? As to whether we have a moral sense or sense of justice, I believe we certainly do, and in fact they are largely based on emotion, as you said. So I agree with a lot of what you wrote, but some of your conclusions may need fine tuning.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:37:25 UTC | #851924

ollipehkonen's Avatar Comment 18 by ollipehkonen

Morality is assigning personal evaluations like good/bad, right/wrong to actions. Ethics is the study of morality and is on an aggregate level, where morality is the personal manifestacion of ethics. I agree with the OP that justice is often used in a confusing way, when people actually mean moral or ethical. In many contexts it is thus helpful to keep in mind that a person might use ethical, moral and just as synonyms.

In order to generate a difference between the concepts and end up with 2 useful concepts, I will try to define justice in a way that is not synonymous to ethics/morals. I would define justice as having to do with a social contemporary context. A just action is one, where an agent uses de jure or de facto power to enforce the highest spirit of the legal system applicable to the context. An unjust action would be to use such power to act against the spirit of the law or to neglect the de jure or de facto duty of upholding that spirit.

The definition of justice that I just presented separates morality and justice. Still, I can't easily come up with an example of an action that would be moral+unjust or immoral+just. I guess that is since in most contexts the spirit of the applicable legal system reflects the morals of the population at aggregate.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:45:20 UTC | #851929

Satyagrahi's Avatar Comment 19 by Satyagrahi

One needs to go through stages of increasing morality. The first rule concerning morality is that it is determined by us humans, unless some religions prescribe morality in a doctrinaire form. When one realises that there is no God to have dictated the sense of morality in people, one is forced to examine Nature and the needs of the human mind to assess what morals are best for a society. Every society is different and will have different morals depending on the stage of its development. As societies develop economically the first realisation is that human desires as expressed by the wishes of millions of people in the market place need to be fulfilled and one is therefore forced to choose an ideal means for the provisions of those goods and services.If one does not one has failed in the first step on the ladder of morality. Once those basic goods and services are provided in the most efficient manner which history has shown to be through free market capitalism, the other rungs of the morality ladder are climbed, as the needs of the human mind are then addressed as their spiritual needs. The second most important moral in the need to provide freedom to the individual in all kinds of ways except for the freedom to harm other people physically or mentally. This requires the institution of democracy as the first step, and freedom of expression as the second step. Then comes the third ladder of morality, which is the provision of basic health care and education to all people in the society. Since charity begins at home but does not end there the next stage is to treat humanity as a common issue for which one takes the global perspective. That is how morality should be determined in my view.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:59:16 UTC | #851934

Reverend B. Worthington's Avatar Comment 20 by Reverend B. Worthington

ccw95005 - Thanks for commenting on my post.

I am in full agreement with you about the moral code of the religious, and how many would say that their morality is founded in obeying the laws decreed by their deity. I view this myself as an extremely arbitrary way to build a moral code, as according to this argument, if new instructions were received they would be obeyed with similar obedience regardless of content.

Now of course people have killed for religion and will again, just as people have for many other ideologies - But personally I doubt that most religious people who refrain from killing people, stealing and generally being horrible would really run amok were they to realise their deity to be fiction. I think this is just another example of religious people not wanting to think things through.

I believe that the real reason that keeps these people from acting immorally, is the same thing that keeps us from doing it, our own moral codes.

Now this leads me to your assertion that a moral scale determined by compassion is only internal to some of us - I'm not sure this is the case you see. My argument is as follows:

I hope we can agree that empathy is the root of compassion, and that empathy is a feature of a healthy human brain, formed from our evolution as social animals as a survival benefit. If we accept this then it must follow that a normal human possesses empathy, and by extension compassion.

Now, humans also have a survival instinct which is rather strong. So now our empathy projects our survival instinct onto others, and tells us that they would not like being made dead.

I do not see this as a matter of choice. I hold that empathy is in effect constantly, without conscience demand. The default setting for empathy is 'on'. If you see a person in pain you think: "They are in pain - I know what pain is and it's not fun."

You then choose to act on the feelings that your brain is generating from the information it is receiving.

If this is the case - then for very extreme matters, like death and pain for example, isn't it logical to assume that for an average human, the actions of making people dead or causing pain without substantial justification - will be measured by their empathy as behaviour in conflict with compassion, and therefore as will be scored as immoral on a moral scale that I outlined in my earlier post?

So if the above is correct, then doesn't it mean that a basic moral code for humans (please note the - for humans - part) is actually universal, at least for 'easy empathy' issues such as pain and death.

Now of course I would concede that culture will influence a moral scale to a degree, but I don't think there should be massive variation really.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. I am not by any means shouting certainties here, just thinking aloud really, and an open to persuasion if you can show where you think I'm going wrong.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 21:53:25 UTC | #851948

Graxan's Avatar Comment 21 by Graxan

Consider a group of humans who have somehow grown up in isolation, perhaps very 'caveman' like in appearance and behaviour. How much 'morality' would they possess?They would no doubt be reduced to the level of the animal kingdom. Some sort of alpha member of the group will set the terms of its morality closely followed by those behaviours encumbant on survival.

I propose that if there is such a thing as morality, which I and other posters seem to doubt, then the answer will be found in observing animal groups.

This subject also appears to me to be the philospher's playground where examples of moral behaviour can be twisted beyond recognition. For example,

You see a woman being attacked by a man in the street, do you interfere? Well what if that woman had just murdered the man's child?

OR

Knowing that a new born baby will one day become a terrible human like Hitler do you commit child murder to prevent the future suffering of others?

...and so on.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 22:34:38 UTC | #851954

Zelig's Avatar Comment 22 by Zelig

Comment 20 by Reverend B. Worthington :

My argument is as follows: I hope we can agree that empathy is the root of compassion, and that empathy is a feature of a healthy human brain, formed from our evolution as social animals as a survival benefit. If we accept this then it must follow that a normal human possesses empathy, and by extension compassion.

Now, humans also have a survival instinct which is rather strong. So now our empathy projects our survival instinct onto others, and tells us that they would not like being made dead. I do not see this as a matter of choice. I hold that empathy is in effect constantly, without conscience demand. The default setting for empathy is 'on'. If you see a person in pain you think: "They are in pain - I know what pain is and it's not fun."

Firstly, to argue that "empathy" and "compassion" derive from "survival benefit" is to take much of the gloss from the traditional and still very widespread interpretation of these terms.

Secondly, the whole of human history and the contemporary world testifies to the fact that "empathy" and "compassion" are not among our strongest drives. I don't think the countless millions of people who have suffered from the inhumanity of others would recognise the picture you're painting. I certainly don't.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 22:49:17 UTC | #851959

Reverend B. Worthington's Avatar Comment 23 by Reverend B. Worthington

Satyagrahi - I dispute your assertion that history has shown us that the most efficient manner to provide people with basic goods and services is through free market capitalism.

I would argue that what history, and indeed the present is showing us is that free market capitalism creates vast inequalities, huge injustice, poverty and want. For evidence (if any were needed) I can provide this link:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2006/dec/06/business.internationalnews

From the article:

"These levels of inequality are grotesque," said Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam. "It is impossible to justify such vast wealth when 800 million people go to bed hungry every night."

I'm aware that the article is a few years old but I'm confident not much will have changed these last 5 years, it was just the first example Google offered. But do we really need to argue this? I mean, come on - we know this anyway right? We know the world is full of extremely poor people and that most everything is owned by a very wealthy few.

So what can be done? Well, if we care, and that's a good question to start with by the way. Do we? Well for the sake of argument let's say we do. So if we do want to share the wealth more evenly, how do we go about it? what we need is a new economic system.

Alternatives have been postulated:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_economics

Given that capitalism is proven to create famine, poverty and injustice, I think the world we find ourselves in is evidence enough that we need to try something else.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 22:51:26 UTC | #851960

Reverend B. Worthington's Avatar Comment 24 by Reverend B. Worthington

david2 - Thanks for your thoughts.

In response to your points:

Let me make my position clear - My argument is that empathy is a survival benefit and that and compassion is a product of empathy.

My understanding of evolution is such that empathy must be a survival benefit or we simply wouldn't have evolved it. To be more specific, my view is that empathy promotes group cohesion which increases the effectiveness of the group against survival pressures - obtaining food, protection from predation and security from other groups etc... All this would be to the benefit of the individuals within the group.

If you think I'm missing something here, please let me know.

As to your second point, I think again the error is mine in not making my position clear.

I think a mentally healthy normal human will have empathy, and then by extension compassion, and these attributes bring about the creation of a moral scale in the individual's head. This scale is a mental construct only, but one that every human in working order should possess, and this facility will inform the user whether an action is compassionate (moral) or selfish (immoral) regardless of whether the user actually asks to know.

However, whether we choose to act on this information or not is a separate issue. As you have pointed out, and I agree with, acting with compassion is not something humans have a particularly good track record for.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 23:15:05 UTC | #851966

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 25 by AtheistEgbert

@comment 14 (davd2)

What authority lies behind the contention that "Morality is the caring for the well being or happiness of others"? I also don't understand why morality is "powerless"? The implication seems to be that while an individual can be (what you consider) moral, a society cannot. Why?

To me, david2--if it makes what I say any clearer--I view this entire subject psychologically, and thus what makes people do what they do is through their various motivations such as emotions or desire or some other motive. I see society as a collective, and also as the body of traditions and customs that are forced onto people in their psychological development. I do not see traditions and customs spreading themselves through compassion but more through fear or guilt or group identity.

An individual--meaning a person who has fully developed autonomy from society--is still driven by their biological motivations and emotions, but is not so overpowered or confused by guilt or fear or whatever force society impresses itself on their mind when making rational or moral judgements.

If Might is Right, which I believe it is, it is inevitable that the less powerful will be denied their preferences being actualised.

Since society works through power relations and not morality (or compassion), then you are indeed correct. However, justice also works through power relations, and so a society can be a fair or a just society. It can have a sophisticated idea of justice and enforce that sophisticated form of justice. Democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, equality and fairness are of course indications of a more developed civilization.

But as you may have noticed--a more sophisticated and free society is not necessarily a more moral society. In fact, it can even be a more immoral society, where care and compassion become diminished, as well as the external motives such as fear or guilt that limit immorality.

I do actually think we live in a more immoral society, however it is a more fair and free society. But this strange contradiction is another subject for another discussion, although if we see justice and morality as separate, we can perhaps see why such a contradiction exists.

This dominated group now understands its impotency as an injustice, but it fails to realise that if it were itself dominant the very same structural relationships would apply to those groups with antithetical aims. And this instability arises because different individuals and groups have different perceived conditions of preservation and growth.

Yes agreed again. This is about the formation of group identities, which of course form because of percieved threats from outside. Once dominant, threats are percieved from within. But the group identity or society itself is still based on power relations.

As I said earlier, justice is prevention of harm. If you are part of a group-identity, it means prevention of harm to the group-identity, even if it means sacrificing individuals or martyrs from the group. Causing harm on the enemies of the group is of course percieved as justified. However, I am sure that you and I are not part of a group-identity, and so it is in our interest to promote a free and fair society.

Ultimately, it is reality and our biological motives that dictate what societies and civilizations we make. No group identity, society or mass-delusion can withstand the might of reality.

Wed, 20 Jul 2011 23:20:08 UTC | #851970

soggymoggy's Avatar Comment 26 by soggymoggy

This (affected) self-diminution has never existed for a single day on earth among humanity

the whole of human history and the contemporary world testifies to the fact that "empathy" and "compassion" are not among our strongest drives

They value many other things more importantly than free speech. I lose, they win.

Quote all the philosophers you like, but "might is right" as a mentality carries exactly the same problem as the religious dogmatic definition of morality, in that under this definition "right" is comprehensively stripped of any claim to being synonymous with ethical or moral.

My acknowledgement that my "rule" is not perfect or all-encompassing is just that; ditto my acknowledgement that I am not perfect. Neither of these facts constitutes a good reason to give up trying and rather Byronically declare that there is no such thing as "right" in order to get myself off the hook. Forgive me for disagreeing with you on the "tragic view of existence".

(I also did not for a moment intend my first rule as "advice" for anyone; it's ironic, given the nature of the sentiments expressed, that you should attribute this intention.)

Thu, 21 Jul 2011 00:11:47 UTC | #851981

Zelig's Avatar Comment 27 by Zelig

Comment 24 by Reverend B. Worthington :

david2 - Thanks for your thoughts. In response to your points:

My understanding of evolution is such that empathy must be a survival benefit or we simply wouldn't have evolved it. To be more specific, my view is that empathy promotes group cohesion which increases the effectiveness of the group against survival pressures - obtaining food, protection from predation and security from other groups etc... All this would be to the benefit of the individuals within the group.

If you think I'm missing something here, please let me know.

I think what you're missing is the primacy of "out-group" as well as "in-group" drives.

Thu, 21 Jul 2011 00:36:55 UTC | #851986

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 28 by Schrodinger's Cat

I also notice that all such discussions confuse morality with justice, leading to all sorts of strange contradictions.

What conceivable meaning can morality have without justice ? If there are things that a person 'ought' not to do, and they do them, and there is absolutely no consequence for having done so.........then in what conceivable sense 'ought' anyone to do anything ?

Thu, 21 Jul 2011 00:39:56 UTC | #851987

Reverend B. Worthington's Avatar Comment 29 by Reverend B. Worthington

david2 - Please elaborate on how you feel this will effect my assertions.

Thu, 21 Jul 2011 00:50:49 UTC | #851990

Zelig's Avatar Comment 30 by Zelig

Comment 25 by AtheistEgbert :

. . . This is about the formation of group identities, which of course form because of perceived threats from outside. Once dominant, threats are perceived from within. But the group identity or society itself is still based on power relations.

I don't wish to stray off topic here, but there are interesting parallels at work between the power relations at work within groups/societies and the diversity of conflicting drives within the single individual. You may (or may not) be interested in this online paper by Prof. John Richardson (click 'Nietzsche's Freedoms').

As I said earlier, justice is prevention of harm. If you are part of a group-identity, it means prevention of harm to the group-identity, even if it means sacrificing individuals or martyrs from the group.

Of course, no one owns the word "justice", but I would be wary of characterising it as you do, if only for the reason that it seems rather too ascetic, unless one is a follower of Jainism. i.e. some forms of harm are indispensable in the dialectic of joy, beauty, happiness, etc.

Thu, 21 Jul 2011 00:59:24 UTC | #851992