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Too Early

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Too early is what it is at the moment.  It’s election day in the US, and I got up very early in order to get started very early in order to get to my polling place before seven, because I usually leave for school at seven, and…

Well, and.

I got to the polls before six thirty, voted in no time flat because there weren’t all that many of us there, got all the way to school before seven, got up to the office before the secretaries had opened the division, got all my coping done…and now it’s not even eight, or not as much as five minutes past eight, or something, and here I am.

It’s beginning to look like an interesting evening, at least in this state.  And I discovered something I hadn’t known before–turnout here in midterm elections usually tops 60%.  Which is a higher percentage than most states manage even in Presidential years.

But that’s not what we’re here for.

I will say that I’m a little too addled at the moment to go into the entire set of arguments I’ve been organizing over the past couple of days, but there are a couple of things I can’t pass up.

First, as for John’s thing about how he doesn’t count on anything humans do is interesting on a number of levels.

To begin with, it’s not true.  He’s had medical care in his life, I know that for a fact.  He does expect the medicine aimed at his body to be objectively based, even though it’s not based on anything “out there,” but only on what’s going on inside human bodies.

What’s more, since he can read and write intelligbily, he must accept the objective basis of rules of language, too–he must accept that there are some ways languages “work” and some they do not, and that what “works” is set irrespective of our wishes and desires. 

But the real kicker here is this:  in order for the human mind and human behavior to be as arbitrary and beyond the reach of general formulating rules as John says it is, God would have to exist.  Or something like God would.  Because what that would mean would be something like the existence of the soul in the most radical definition of the term–a part of the human being that is entirely divorced from nature.

“Objective” is not the same as “out there.”  It means “operating independently of our whims and wishes, something we discover, not something we invent.” 

Robert says this:


“When I say there is an objective basis for morality, all I am saying is this: human beings are not infinitely malleable. There are facts about human nature–about the way human beings feel and think and respond to events and other stimuli–that can be known.

These facts are beyond our ability to change, but they are within are ability to know.

And once we know these things, we can formulate rules about the way they behave.

And that, right there, is an objective basis for morality.”

NO. Cats, fish and ants have a fixed range of behaviors, too. But no one studying them speaks of “cat morality” or claims a deviant ant is “immoral.” The people who study them are “behaviorists” and some study people in a similar fashion. It’s an “objective basis for morality” only to the extent you can claim certain moral codes are literally humanly impossible<<<<

And to that I say–YES.  That is an objective basis for morality.  It tells us not only that certain moral codes are humanly impossible, but also that certain moral precepts will result in certain largely predictable forms of human behavior. 

And that–that predictability, however difficult it is to put it into practice–is, indeed, exactly an objective basis.

It matters not a flaming damn who considers what to be “immoral.”  Throughout the ancient and Medieval world, people routinely assumed both alchemy and astrology to be science–not supernatural, not a matter of magic and incantations, but actual science, part of the attempt to understand the natural world in natural terms.

They were wrong, but the fact that they were wrong does not mean that there is no actual science, or that science is impossible.

Or, as Lymaree put it:

>>>People CAN be taught that all sorts of terrible things are not only acceptable, but desirable and yes, moral.<<<

But people can be taught that the moon is made of green cheese and that if you sail your ship too far to the West, you’ll fall off the edge of the world.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t objectively based facts about the moon and the shape of the earth.

I’ll say it again:   most of the people involved in this discussion have an absolute passion for the ad populam fallacy, at least when it comes to this one thing.  The entire argument against an objective basis for morality so far amounts to “well, lots of people think different things are moral and immoral.”

Lots of people think that the earth is flat and it was created ex nihilo in the last ten thousand years.  So what?

The big deal, though, is the constant assertion, by more than one poster, that–to put this as Lymaree did–

>>We know that humans individually and societally, can and do live, thrive and reproduce with foot-binding, genital mutilation, slavery, suttee, and all sorts of morally objectionable behaviors<<<

Let’s put aside what should be obvious: morality concerns individuals.  It only concerns societies collaterally.  So I’m not talking about what effect knowing the moral rules will have on societies. 


The simple fact is that the quotation above is wrong.  We do not know “that humans individually and societally, can and do live, thrive and reproduce with foot-binding, genital mutilation, slavery, suttee, and all sorts of morally objectionable behaviors.”

In fact, we know exactly the opposite. 

Take a look at those societies, historically, that practiced the kinds of things you’re talking about.  What do you see?  They can certainly reach a level where their aristocracies are fairly comfortable.  Most of their citizens, however, live those “nasty, brutish and short” lives Hobbes spoke of.

What’s more, those societies are largely stagnant.  They constitute worlds in which wealth is something you have, not something you do.  Not a single one of them developed anything like what we now call science.  Most of them were either entirely ephemeral–ah, to Shelley’s giant head in the sand–or utterly stagnant. 

Hell, take a look, today, at societies with different and alternate codes of morality–you can start with North Korea, for instance, which consists of a small ruling clique that’s eating and a population that’s slowly starving to death.  Or you can go for something pleasanter to look at, like Saudi Arabia, where there’s lots of money, state of the art medicine and all the rest of it–it’s just that it’s all bought from, built by and run by foreigners with different moral codes and political convictions. 

Physics can tell you what the rules are if you want to build a bridge.  It cannot tell you if you want to build a bridge.  But the if question is another subject.  The rules for bridge building are objective.  If you follow them, your bridge will stand–and only to the extent that you both understand those rules and do follow them will it stand. 

And yes, you can certainly build a rickety bridge on partial information.  But so what?  The rule remains.  To the extent that you undersand and follow the rules, you will build a bridge that will stand.

Virtually every poster to this blog would take exactly the opposite tack they do here on morality if the subject were, for instance, politics and government.  Most of you expect that certain kinds of actions in the world–overregulation and taxation by governments,  for instance–will yield predictable results in national economies.

If you didn’t assume that, there would be no point in going out to vote today or any other day.

Hell, if we didn’t assume that, there would be no reason to resist attempts at founding a Communist state–after all, if human beings can thrive and prosper willy-nilly, then there’s no reason they couldn’t thrive and prosper that way.

I’ve got to stop doing this.  I’m practically catatonic, and I’m teaching Shakespeare and Yeats today.

That’s always interesting.

Written by janeh

November 2nd, 2010 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Too Early'

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  1. Standing fast. Whether certain moral precepts will result in predictable behavior is further than I would go. But surely certain behaviors–punishments and rewards–result in other behaviors in a generally predictable fashion when done on a society-wide level.

    But this doesn’t get you to morality. It doesn’t even set as many limits on possible societies as you’d think at first. It only tells you that certain things can’t be done directly or easily.

    Morality is concerned with what is right and good. When you aren’t asking questions about what is good, but only what is possible, you’re not a moralist. You’re a behaviorist. It’s not a disgrace, but it’s not the same thing. Saying “there is an objective basis for morality, but it won’t tell you whether incest, rape or cannibalism are good or bad things” does not advance the argument. It just adds some linguistic confusion to the mix.
    You can say “those societies are stagnant” and imply that “stagnant” is bad. I would even agree to both–but you don’t have an OBJECTIVE way of making “stagnant” bad. It’s just that if you liked it, you’d say “stable” or “enduring.”

    Wanting an “objective basis for morality” to be possible is perfectly understandable. But as I’m sure we agree, wanting something to be true–or possible–doesn’t make it so.

    And are we reading different comments? I don’t recall anyone saying that an objective code of morals would require universal assent. Of course, before we get too carried away with behaviorism as the equivalent of physics, I’d like to note that my physics and chemistry textbooks never said that the laws of thermodynamics were true most of the time or over the long haul, nor that the whole one proton one neutron thing was true of “most” Hydrogen atoms.


    2 Nov 10 at 4:15 pm

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