Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 2 comments

Okay, I’m a little bemused–first John says it’s not possible to derive a moral code from our knowledge of human nature, and then he proceeds to derive a moral precept from our knowledge of human nature.

There are two problems going on here.

The first is the assumption, on the part of both Robert and John, that “derive a moral code” means “take one look at the evidence and come up with a complete system full blown that can never evolve, be amended, be questioned, in a situation in which we can never be wrong.”

You couldn’t attain that kind of knowledge about anything, anywhere. Ever.

Knowledge in the natural sciences does not have this quality.  Paleontologists pick up a fossil here and a fossil there, work with what they have to formulate a hypothesis about this particular creature, find other fossils, change the hypothesis…

Why should knowledge of morality be any different than this?  Knowledge is tentative–we do the best we have with what we have and remain open to change based on new evidence. 

The first paleontologists derived from the first fossils a lot of ideas that later turned out to be wrong, or only partial.  They corrected those ideas as new evidence came in.

The other problem is to give far too much weight to the fact that human beings can be perverse–that some individual human beings can dissent from, or actively oppose, whatever moral precepts we discover.

Human beings can dissent from or oppose any knowledge out there–they can declare that everything we say we know about tooth decay is wrong and that they can eat all the sugar they want and never brush their teeth (it’s bad for you!) and never get a cavity.  They can do it, but they cannot escape the effects of their decisions, because the knowledge we have in this case is not wrong, and it’s beyond their capacity to change.

Human beings can, of course, “decide” that any kind of thing is right or wrong.  What they can’t do is escape the consequences.  We do not define right and wrong in a vacuum.  Morality is a set of operating instructions for real human beings in a real world, and not all sets of operating instructions are created equal.

But the issue of whether a moral code differs in its precepts or in its definitions is not a small matter.  In fact, there are vast differences between the two kinds of discordancies.

And no, I don’t think that a difference in definitions is a small thing.  It’s a very large one indeed, and Christianity did an enormous thing when it redefined “human being” to mean “every single human thing that is biologically alive.” 

Still there’s a vast difference between a moral code that says “murder is okay sometimes” and one that says “murder is never okay.  But killing that thing over there isn’t murder, because that thing is not a human being.”

My guess is that there aren’t too many people reading this blog who would have a lot of trouble with the second statement, if “that thing” referred to a steer or a tiger or a Black Widow spider.   That it is okay for human beings to kill not-human beings who are biologically alive has been a moral precept in every single society that has ever eisted on this planet, and even now is only denied by fringe groups in very rich Western countries who are not taken particularly seriously by most of their fellow citizens.

And think of the Fruitarians..

There is no reason, either, why having nailed down a moral precept–murder is never acceptable–we should expect to be able to see, instantly, all its ramifications in all its side issues.  “Grains are part of a healthy diet for human beings” is something generally true, and I see countless declarations of this fact from government and institutional organizations trying to improve the health of twenty-first century citizens.  But some people are allergic to grains, and giving grains to them can cause all sorts of bad things, including death, some of the time.

Abortion is an issue of definition.  The death penalty is more interesting, because it rests on a valid question about response–if I know that grains will make  people healthy and fats will make them unhealthy, what do I do about it?  How do I set up my school cafeteria, my refrigerator at home, my tax structure as it applies to sales tax on food? 

The death penalty is a response.   When Sheila is proved to have murdered her husband for the insurance money, what should we do about Sheila?  How about Mickey, who murdered Craig because he thought Craig was coming at him with a shotgun, except it was dark and Mickey was wrong, and all Craig really had with him was a rolled up map of Nebraska? What about Clark, who murdered Larry, because–so Clark says–Larry asked him to, since Larry was dying of cancer and didn’t want to live any more?

Questions about response can only be answered by an investigation of the effects of such responses in the world at large.  The way we answer the kinds of questions posed above will determine many diverse things about the way our societies function, and some of those answers will provide for better functioning than others.

Real dissent from core moral principles–from the basic moral precepts found in virtually all societies–is a phenomenon of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and it has specific roots that did not exist anywhere before this in time.

I’ll get to that, eventually, but first I wanted to point out–in the Euthyphro, Socrates asks if we call something morally good because the gods have commanded that it is  good, or if we think the gods have commanded it is good because we already think it is morally good?

It’s an early form of just that kind of examination of the facts about the real world that John and Robert want, and it comes to an uncompromising conclusion–no matter what we say we’re doing, what we are in fact doing is first deciding what we think is good, and then giving the gods the credit for commanding it.  Not the other way around. 

What Socrates is discussing here, the tendency all people all over the world thorughout all of history have had to feel almost instinctively that some things are just “wrong”–and pretty much the same things–is what Aquinas would have called the “natural law,” and what the Catholic Church thought they meant by saying that God’s law had been written on the heart of every man, who could, if he consulted his conscience, discover it.

If we look throughout history at what each society has considered “moral,” we’d be able to come up with a skeleton of basic moral precepts that have applied to all people at all times–and I would argue that, in the case of precepts that honestly very widely in fact (and not just in definition), we’re then looking at peripheral or marginal issues.

The basic code–stripped down, skeletal, “mere morals”–would be famiiar to all of us and probably unexceptionable to most–except for one thing.

Tomorrow, I want to go into a book, just rereleased, called Forbidden Fruit. 

That, and the problem of women.

Written by janeh

June 29th, 2009 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Ummm?'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Ummm?'.

  1. I’m innocent–OK, not INNOCENT innocent, but I’m not guilty as chaarged. Let me rephrase my previous objection: knowing how the human mind is hardwired, at any given level of knowledge, only tells you that certain things can’t be made to work, or made to work well. That does not give us a moral code. It gives us a range of possible moral codes, some of them deeply opposed to others. Outside of philosophy and psychology, there can be widespread agreement on the broad outline of human character–but very deep disagreement on what is good, or the relative importance of various “goods.”

    As for saying that certain rules lead to a more successful society, I didn’t say it isn’t true, but I pointed out that it would require really rigorous proof, defining society, success and rights consistently in a very long survey of human society. Most authors cheat somewhere in there, and definitions give the game away. Saying that a society which favors free speech is more successful because it spread democracy is a useless as saying a car with a high horsepower to weight ratio is a superior car because it has better acceleration. It’s true, but it assumes the thing to be proven. What makes acceleration–or spreading democracy–the standard?

    We are no closer to that answer.


    29 Jun 09 at 4:31 pm

  2. I can’t help wondering which “Forbidden Fruit” this is. A quick look reveals a number of paperback novels, something about the underground railroad, a fable involving tomatoes, a “Classic Victorian Erotic Novel” by Anonymous, a tome on how we can get to paradise by becoming vegan, William Morris, American teenagers, women and books in art……


    29 Jun 09 at 4:48 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 800 access attempts in the last 7 days.