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Okay, let me see if I can clear this up, given the fact that my head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton balls.

This is the great inconvenience of teaching.  Students get everything, and they give it all to you.

First, ALL I was trying to say–so far–about an objective basis for morality was this:

a) human beings have a human nature that is largely fixed.  That is, human behavior, just like the human digestive system, is biologically based and outside our ability to change it at base.

Note the at base.  The general rule of thumb in the science is that behavior, intelligence and all the rest of it is 50% heritable–that is, that biology explains 50% of the differences we can see on the surface among populations.

The differences, however, are less malleable than you think.  My favorite example of this is:  most adolescent and young adult males exhibit high levels of aggressive behavior and tend to be both violent and tribal. 

In every society, everywhere, the vast majority of the violence is committed by males between the ages of 15 and 35. 

So what do you do about this?  You can’t just let them run wild, because they wreck everything.  Some societies decide to send them into war. 

We decide to send them into football.

This is not a small difference.  Life is much better for everybody if the potentially volatile, highly violent segment of the population has something to do that satisfies it and yet doesn’t result in raped women and houses burning down. 

But the fact that we successfully channel young male aggression into sports for a significant segment of our young male population does not mean that those young men are no longer aggressive, or that they are no longer violent. 

The core attribute remains.  We’ve just got it aimed better.

And, yes, I know, there are differences among individuals.  Like everything we can say about living things in any aspect of their aliveness, there will be anomalies.  Some people are born with their hearts on the right side.  Some young men are born without the testosterone levels that cause aggression.

On the ground, as in biology, anatomy and physiology, and even engineering, you have to deal with the individual case on an individual basis.

b) The fact that human nature is to a significant extent biologically fixed means that we can study it and describe it. 

We can formulate the rules by which it operates.

I’m NOT talking here about rules of morality.

I’m talking about descriptive rules, like the rules of physics.  “When the testosterone storms hit young males in puberty, we will see rising levels of aggression, physicality, and a heightened sexual drive.”

That kind of rules.

c) Once we know enough of those laws of human nature, we can use them to devise rules of behavior.

There’s nothing different here from, say, engineering.  The objective basis for the rules of building a bridge, or a house, are the laws of physics.

But the laws of physics are not the same thing as the rules for building a house.  They provide the data from which such rules can be derived.

And those rules are objectively based.

d) I think that what actually gets everybody worked up is not the rules themselves, or even the objective basis for the rules, but the core decision:  on what basis do we decide to build a bridge instead of a house or a conning tower.

Once I know the laws of human nature, I have the objective data on which I can base all kinds of sets of rules, depending on what I want to do.

This is, I think, where people really get worked up–they want an objective basis for making the core decision, not for the rules themselves.

For instance, if I take the data on human nature and want to build a warrior society whose highest purpose is to conquer societies around it and expand, then the rules I’m going to derive from the data will be different than the rules I would derive if I wanted to build a society whose highest purpose will be the honoring and maintenance of the old.

But in both cases–and even though the two sets of rules are different–the rules will have an objective basis in the laws of human nature.

The problem, for most people, is not that there is not objective basis for morality–but that they think there is no objective basis for making the choice between different goals that will then decide which objectively based rules to follow.

d) Morality is about individual behavior.  Politics is about societal behavior.  Morality aims to make each individual human being the best he can be as a human being.  Politics aims to keep societies together.

Yes, of course, morality will affect societies–and politics will affect individuals in their quest to be (or not to be) moral–but the fact that the two things affect each other does not make them the same thing. 

It’s more than theoretically possible that the best possible political code will not enshrine the rules of morality as law.  In fact, I’d say any society that tried to do that would kill itself. 

But that’s another discussion.

e) As to thriving societies–I’d say that up until the eighteenth century, there was a ceiling on just how well your society could thrive.  You got so far and no farther.  And everybody pretty much got to the same place if they managed to “thrive” at all.

Egyptian peasant farmers were not slaves, but they were subject to being enslaved at the whim of the Pharaoh, they could be beaten and robbed by the aristocracy without recourse, they could have their possessions taken away from them and their families destroyed.

What’s more, they–and the aristocrats above them–lived in a world where women routinely died in childbirth, where close to half of all children did not live to see adulthood, where epidemics raged through populations unchecked, where something as little as a papercut could mean death at any time, in any place.

And, of course, the poorer you were, the more likely you lived in a miserable mud hut that frozen when the weather got colder, that you huddled next to a fire–hell, the Medieval English kings did that much–when the snow came, that your food supply was uncertain and variable.

I could go on like this, but you must see my point.  I suppose that sort of thing could be described as “thriving” in a world before the scientific revolution–but we’re past the scientific revolution, and the simple fact is that only one kind of society has ever reached that point.

One.  Not thirty six.

There are not lots of different ways you can develop a scientific civilization, at least as far as we know.

g) I only know of one book on Aquinas of the type John is talking about, and it isn’t what he wants–it deals almost entirely with the theology.

But the point of Aquinas is precisely the way he used to go about thinking about these things.  Each argument is laid out carefully as an outline, so that you can see all the gears moving. 

h) As for the Nichomachean Ethics–Aristotle did, in it, for ethics, what he did in his book on natural philosophy for zoology. 

He set about trying to understand his subject by gathering all the available data.

Considering the fact that that was the first time that had ever been done–he could have taken Plato’s tack and just “thought” about it all–I think it’s worth quite a lot.

It may not be the end of the journey, but it is the beginning.  And you have to start somewhere.

I have a cold.

And Dahleks.

Written by janeh

November 6th, 2010 at 9:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Drifting'

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  1. Much better. If you’d left out “morality” altogether, and simply observed that workable social structures are built around what we know to be generally true of human nature, you’d be saying the same thing, and I wouldn’t argue the point.

    I will point out that one of the promising–and frightening–things about our advances in such understanding is that changing human nature on the DNA level is now no longer inconceivable. Where, after all, were the St Bernards and the Pekinese in Aristotle’s day? Sadly, the people most displeased with current human nature are often the ones I’d least like to see designing Humanity 2.0.

    Didn’t mean to disparage Aristotle, but to scale him back to what he had done, and not what you had claimed for him. He was able to place most vices as too much or too little of some attribute–a very classical Greek thing to do, and you’re right to observe that many Christians took that from him. But not only was that not “an objective basis for morality” it wasn’t the only way to sort the data.

    It’s a “risk” if you will, in doing things well. You move people down one path, and people don’t always see the alternative branches. (Notice how it wasn’t the highly literate societies which developed alphabets? Rethinking from first principles is really hard–maybe harder than invention.) A Nordic, observing the same behaviors, wouldn’t even have listed all the same ones as vices–and certainly wouldn’t have tried to force them into the mean/extreme format.

    Good luck with the Daleks. Spray, and put out traps.


    6 Nov 10 at 10:21 am

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