Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Let’s Do It All Again

with 12 comments

Okay, today I’m obsessing, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  It’s a little local obsession, but here I am, and it’s my blog.

To answer a couple of questions from yesterday:  the differences between politics and morality are vast.  Morality has to do with the individual.  Politics has to do with the state.

Of course, morality does impact politics–a world where everybody was relentlessly moral (in my sense of the term) would be a world in which no politics would be necessary.

Or police departments, for that matter.

But politics seeks to keep the peace, to order society in such a way that it can function for the people in it.  And, historically, the governments that do that best do it by being pragmatic rather than moral.  In a good state, a lot that is immoral is legal, and a lot that is illegal is not immoral.  It’s not a matter of morality, for instance, that you have to stop at red lights. 

I only started talking about societies because everybody else was. 

And I don’t think that binary questions are necessarily all that bad, or all that useless.  Ayn Rand did indeed pose one–that morality is your answer to the question: life or death?–and it works coherently with everything that came after.

When I think about morality, my tendency is not to worry about the big picture ways it affects society, but about the small picture ways it affects me.   A moral system that tells you you must put down an old person if she’s sick and dying anyway has very different practical results for my life than a moral system that tells you you may never do that, ever.

It has those results even if the society around it outlaws euthanasia.

Nor do I think that it is necessary for something to be “out there” for there to be an objective basis for anything, never mind morality.  The operations of your internal organs are not “out there,” and yet they provide an objective basis for the rules guiding heart surgery.

The same is true with language.  It’s not “out there” either, and yet there are base rules that apply to all languages and we can discover them.  And there’s a basis in the construction of the brain that says the possible variations are not infinite and that at least a small set of rules may never be broken if a language is going to function at all.

It seems to me that what people want–the ones here, anyway, who are arguing that there can be no objective basis for morality–is something that does not now and has never existed in the universe. 

You want an absolute certainty, without variations or contingencies, without the possibility that anybody anywhere could reject or challenge it. 

But this doesn’t  apply even to the hardest of the hard sciences.  It doesn’t even apply to mathematics. 

You don’t want an objective basis for morality. You want rules written in stone.  Short of that, you want nothing at all.

But the world is not like that.

All our knowledge is tentative–we could always be wrong. 

All our knowledge is partial–we’ll probably never get to the point where we know everything about anything.

Any knowledge that exists–no matter how firmly established–can become a matter of controversy.

Any knowledge that exists about living things is, of necessity, statistical.  That’s as true of what we know about the human digestive system as it is about morality.

So all I’m saying is this:  if  you want to argue that there is no objective basis for morality, then you can’t use a double standard.

You can’t reject such a basis on grounds that you accept as valid for other things.

If you want to say that there is no objective basis for morality because people have different ideas about morality–then you can’t accept evolution, because people have different ideas about evolution.

If you want to say that there is no objective basis for morality because any such basis is subject to anomalies and can only be expressed accurately in statistical terms–then you can’t say we have an objective basis for what we know and teach about human anatomy, either, because that, too, is subject to anomalies.

In almost every case, the arguments people have brought forward here against the idea of an objective basis for morality are arguments they would reject if they were applied to any other subject. 

In the end, the question comes down, to me, of why so many people, on both sides of the political and religious divide, want to apply completely idiosyncratic rules to morality that they would not apply to anything else.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious here, but this seems very strange to me. 

And I forgot all about my local obsession.

That’s all right.

It’s coming to a 24 hour cable news channel near you.

Written by janeh

November 4th, 2010 at 5:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Let’s Do It All Again'

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  1. Assuming an outside source for morality means a desire for absolute certainty? What a peculiar idea! And one that’s completely counter to a few millennia of competing ideas as to exactly what source of morality outside of humanity (or deep inside humanity’s soul, if a soul is real) might exist, and, even when there’s some tentative agreement as to where morality arises, there are disagreements – VIOLENT uncertainty – as to what the implications are!

    Morality may be practiced by humans individually and in groups, and it strongly influences politics in everything from the choice of priorities to the choice of actions to attain the priorities. But morality isn’t a physical object, or made up of a group of physical objects, like human anatomy. It isn’t even an idea about why a physical object behaves or develops the way it does, like Newton’s laws or evolution. It’s an idea about right and wrong, and how these should and do affect actions. You’re confusing categories, and assuming that procedures that work well with physical objects also work well with moral ideas. It’s like confusing facts and truth.

    I never was impressed enough with Ayn Rand to read much by her, so I can’t really comment on how successful her approach was.


    4 Nov 10 at 7:25 am

  2. Well, a couple of things here.

    First, language isn’t physical, either–although what makes it possible for us to develop language is a particular kind of brain development, which is–and yet we all accept objectively based rules of grammar and of rhetoric.

    Second, if morality isn’t about something physical–what is it about? I’m an atheist, as are several of the people arguing against an objective basis for morality here.

    That means we don’t believe in a soul or other non-physical aspect of the universe. The mind is something the brain does. It IS physical. It is the result of a physical process.

    Third, the fact that there are violent disagreements about where morality arises or the implications of that is NOT an argument against the existence of an objective basis for reality.

    It is, in fact, as irrelevant to that question as it is to arguments about gravity, evolution, or space travel.


    4 Nov 10 at 10:11 am

  3. Actually, we don’t all accept objectively-based rules of language, a lot of us would call that undesirably prescriptivist, and say that language is what people do, whether it’s ‘correct’ or not. I’m not in that camp really, but it does exist.

    Morality is about what should be and not what is. And of course it’s perfectly possible for atheists to ‘do’ morality – I expect a lot of moral philosophers are atheists. I just don’t think that they’ve proven that the assumptions on which they base their moral codes have an objective reality.

    And I didn’t put forward my comment about violent disagreements as part of an argument against the existence of an objective base for morality, so of course it’s irrelevant to that question. I put it forward as a response to your claim that ‘You want an absolute certainty, without variations or contingencies, without the possibility that anybody anywhere could reject or challenge it’. The very strong evidence of a complete lack of absolute certainty and lack of rejection and challenges among supporters of the no-objective-basis-for-reality camp must surely cast doubt on your assertion about our motivations.


    4 Nov 10 at 10:59 am

  4. Rand’s binary was sound. One is either alive or not, and presumably must choose one state over the other. She did her tap-dancing later on, when she tried futilely to “prove” that chosing life didn’t count if she didn’t approve of the manner of living.
    Your binary is a false choice. “Tabula rasa” and a completely fixed nature are points on a spectrum, not quantum states which must one or the other be true. Going to an individual instead of a societal level worsens this, because there is precious little that is true of every individual.
    And I’m holding to the same standard for “objective morality” I use for everything else: no special definitions, things are objectively true or false regardless of my–or your–opinion, and they only count in argument when the facts can be demonstrated.

    Set patterns of human behavior can be objectively identified–if you’re dealing with a large pool of people. Morality has to do with right and wrong, and, especially if we’re discussing individual morality–you can’t get from one to the other.

    I can describe and verify objectively the incidence of dozens of human behaviors from nurturing toddlers to war–but science won’t tell me whether the behavior is right or wrong. That’s not what science does. To have an “objective basis for morality” you have to redefine “morality” or redefine “objective.”

    This is starting to look like trench warfare. Are there no new books?


    4 Nov 10 at 4:03 pm

  5. And the nearest ANYTHING on television news is getting to me is a neighbor’s apartment. There are things in life I don’t have to put up with, and television “news” is one of them.


    4 Nov 10 at 4:07 pm

  6. So, first Robert says:

    >>>And I’m holding to the same standard for “objective morality” I use for everything else: no special definitions, things are objectively true or false regardless of my–or your–opinion, and they only count in argument when the facts can be demonstrated.

    And before I say anything else, I’d like to point out that “objective morality” and “an objective basis for morality” are not the same thing.

    But I complete agree with the definition above, sort of.

    My problem is that there are a lot of things that do not depend on your opinion or mine that cannot be nailed to “definitely either true or false.”

    Either we don’t have all the necessary knowledge yet, or the knowledge is contingent (water is a liquid between 0 degrees C and 100 degrees C, a solid under 0 degrees, and a gas above 100 degrees–the answer to the question “is water a solid, a liquid or a gas” is “it depends.”)

    And “the heart is on the left side of the human body” has an objective basis, and that determination does not depend on our opinions one way or the other.

    But in some human beings, the heart is on the right side of the body.

    And yet we don’t say that our knowledge of human anatomy is subjective, or that it has no objective basis.

    Living things are subject to mutations and anomalies in a way that nonliving things are not, but that does not make them simply a matter of our desires or opinions.

    >>> can describe and verify objectively the incidence of dozens of human behaviors from nurturing toddlers to war–but science won’t tell me whether the behavior is right or wrong. That’s not what science does. To have an “objective basis for morality” you have to redefine “morality” or redefine “objective.”

    No, you don’t.

    You just have to stop switching from “objective basis for the rules” to “the rules.”

    You use the two things as if they’re interchangable, and they’re not.

    The laws of physics are not the rules for how to build a suspension bridge, but they ARE the objective basis of those rules.

    And the rules for building a suspension bridge are not “subjective” or just a matter of our wishes and desires, because they must adhere to the laws of physics or they won’t work.

    I’m talking about an objective basis, at this point–I’m NOT talking about specific moral rules.


    4 Nov 10 at 5:40 pm

  7. Jane wrote: “Second, if morality isn’t about something physical–what is it about?”

    That’s just it. Morality is NOT about anything physical. It’s about behavior. As Robert succinctly puts it, it’s about right and wrong, but not right and wrong physical objects, but about right and wrong behavior which may or may not involve physical objects.

    Look over there. There’s a man not eating meat. He may not have access to meat, in which case, no moral choice is being made. But if he could eat meat, and chooses not to because he believes it’s wrong, that’s moral behavior. Meat, in itself, is neither right or wrong. Nor is eating.

    Humans (and perhaps some cetaceans) alone give that kind of moral value to food. Animals will always eat food that satisfies their dietary needs, no matter what that food used to be. If Aunt Franny keels over and her cats get hungry, they WILL eat her, and have no qualms.

    The physical facts of nutrition, of ingestion and digestion are objectively true. You can even, regardless of the fads of the day, objectively put together some kind of ideal human diet (much like Dog Chow, completely balanced) that nourishes all humans nominally.

    That says nothing about why we shouldn’t nosh down on Aunt Franny alongside the cats. Sure you can get into that valuing human life thing, but she’s dead. And that avenue is a non-starter anyway. WHY value human life? Just because we’re human?

    Although I don’t believe you have to start with the supernatural to discover a basis for morality, you have to start somewhere. Objective physicality and pragmatics doesn’t do it. Your assumptions end up being your conclusions. Or vice versa.

    Then there’s behavior that doesn’t affect the physical world. There are plenty of people around (even non-religious types) who will tell you lustful thoughts are sinful. Or bad for you. Or just bad. What? Where does that kind of thing come from? There’s no objective investigation of physical science that’s going to explicate whether lustful thoughts are indeed right or wrong.

    I guess I don’t understand where you have to stand to say, “See, it’s objectively WRONG to eat Aunt Fanny after she’s dead, no matter what the cats think.” Or objectively wrong to murder, steal, or cheat at solitaire. Or objectively right to cultivate the earth, exterminate vermin, or eat pickled pigs feet.


    4 Nov 10 at 5:55 pm

  8. Lymaree said:

    >>>That’s just it. Morality is NOT about anything physical.>>>

    And I say:

    If it’s not about anything physical, it doesn’t exist.

    “Behavior” is the expression of neurons firing in the brain–an entirely physical process.

    It is not something special, supernatural, or otherwise disconnected from the physical world.

    It is a PRODUCT of the physical world, and of physical forces inside the brain.

    For behavior–or thoughts or ideas–to be NOT physical–well, you’d have to have a soul, or the supernatural.

    The mind is what the brain does.

    The brain is a physical organ.

    Everything it produces–behavior, thoughts, dreams, you name it–can be expressed in physical terms, because they ARE the results of a PHYSICAL process.

    They do not magically become something else that is divorced from, or different from, the physical.


    4 Nov 10 at 6:02 pm

  9. I don’t think we are born with a blank state. I’d guess that evolution has built some constraints into us.

    A cave man who stole from the people sharing his cave probably came to an abrupt end. And a cave woman who neglected her children didn’t pass on her genes.

    That may generalize to avoiding neighborhood feuds but it doesn’t come to “Its wrong to kill” or “Its wrong to Lie.”


    4 Nov 10 at 6:06 pm

  10. Just a few quibbles:
    Even “relentlessly moral” people won’t escape politics, given there’s not a single moral way to pave roads or finance schools–or is your sense of the term even more special than I give it credit for?

    I will concede that the heart is mostly on the left side of the body. But I hope should the question arise that a physician would deal with the particular case before him and not the general rule. It’s something to consider as the “objective basis for morality” careens from “individual morality” to denouncing “stagnant societies.” A set of rules for individual behavior is not the same as a set of guidelines for making or sustaining a particular type of society. They’r enot unrelated, I grant you–but they’re also not the same.

    Which brings us back to “objective morality” vs “objective basis for morality.” Morality–yours, mine, anyone’s–involves right and wrong, or we’re just throwing out dictionaries and making up words as we go along. We can determine, objectively, the type of society certain individual behaviors produce. We can, generally, predict the individual consequences of behaviors. But this does not tell us whether the consequencs are desireable, let alone whether the behavior is right or wrong. (Anyone who can’t imagine right behavior leading to undesireable ends, please see me after class.) We can tell what is generally true of human behavior, but not on the individual level–which is where we each of us live. An “objective basis for morality” is a feasible thing only if one assumes that one chooses morality, not as an end in itself, but to arrive at a particular society–the “right” society being itself arbitrary. This shuffles the point of arbitrariness, if you’ll permit the phrase, a bit, but doesn’t eliminate it. And making morality a means to another end assumes what ought to be proven.

    But it can’t be. There are limits to reason, and this is one of them. Reason tells us how to get things. It can even tell us what things are good for the animal side of us–but the further we get from food and drink, the less reason can tell us what we ought to want. Freedom? Wealth? Love? Power? Glory? We’re a long way from food and drink here, and the chemists and the brain scanners don’t hold the answere.


    4 Nov 10 at 8:09 pm

  11. What Robert says.

    I guess I’m at the point I always got to in math class…I used to want them to stop telling me the formula and SHOW ME AN EXAMPLE!! WITH NUMBERS!! Other people seemed to be able to learn just from the formula, I needed to see it in operation a few times.

    So I get the part about the difference between an objective basis for morality and the moral rules that would derive from that. But I’m not going to be able to exend my understanding without an example of what rule(s) you think an objectively based morality would spit out. That’s where I can’t get, from “this is true about humans” to “this is right or wrong for humans.”


    4 Nov 10 at 9:43 pm

  12. Okay, thinking about the physical thing more, I come up with this. Morality is not physical. It derives from physical beings, us. Using the rules we call morality, we operate in a physical world, on physical objects and beings.

    But there is no physical entity one can point to that is “Right.” Or “Wrong.” One cannot extract it from a solution, map it in the heavens, perceive its operation on sub-atomic particles or derive its postulates mathematically. Right and wrong has exactly zero independent influence on reality. As my husband the engineer often says, “the universe does not care.”

    All morality that currently exists, derives from human reasoning (or unreasoning, often), but as a result of human thought. Whatever basis we use, religious, logical, self-interest or altruistic, it comes out of our heads.

    A society that killed its elders (say anyone over 90) would be just as likely to thrive, reproduce and invent vaccination (to take one of your favorite examples) as one that didn’t. So where is the objective reasoning for not knocking off granny?

    Okay, I’ll stop now. I need dinner.


    4 Nov 10 at 10:29 pm

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