Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Thou Shalt Not

with 2 comments

Okay, before I get going, I’d like to recommend this


that I picked up on Arts and Letters Daily today.  Because, when I get back to “college” education…well.  Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

But as to the comments:

There are only “many ways to build a bridge” if you define “bridge” as broadly and as fuzzily as possible.

If I say, “we want to build a bridge across the Cuyahoga River at exactly this point, in such a way that it will be able to carry this traffic at peak usage hours and last this many year”

then the ways to build a bridge are very limited. 

And the optimal way to build that bridge will be even more limited.

Yes, we may not be able to get to optimal because we lack knowledge that we will only discover later–but that doesn’t change the fact that the optimal answer to that question above is not “many ways” but “very few ways, and possibly only one.”

What’s more, the very few ways to build that bridge will share a few things in common:  they will have a common set of things that cannot be done. 

Some things that you can try will fail, because they will defy the laws of physics.  The objective basis of this set of rules for building this particular bridge cannot be defied at all. 

That’s why we say the rules of engineering are objectively based.

Those things that cannot be done are the “thou shalt nots.” 

The thing about “life” is similar–although it’s more like all the talk of “successful” and “thriving” societies.

It all depends on what you mean by “life.”

If you go to Rand, what she would say is this:

Human beings survive to the extent that they practice a particular set of moral rules.

If you, yourself, do not obey these rules, you have two choices:  find somebody else who is and use his work and effort to save yourself, or die.

If your society privileges the people who appropriate the work of others to survive, your society will get so far and no farther.  The extent to which producers are able to produce without punishment will determine how far you will get.

If your society looks like indigenous aboriginal Australian culture before the arrival of the Europeans, it is breaking a lot of moral rules.  If it looks like New York in 1950, it’s breaking a lot fewer.

She goes into it in much more detail, and since her moral rules are mostly not about things like sex–for Rand, morality is about honesty, integrity, and productivity–the system makes sense. 

As other people besides me have pointed out here, I think Rand is the only person ever to have made even a half successful attempt at constructing an entirely secular moral system.

But to get back to the issue at hand:

Cheryl points out that scientific knowledge is tentative.

Yes, of course it is–and knowledge of morality must be tentative, too.  In fact, it can only be tentative. 

Our knowledge of anything we must discover rather than invent will be subject to the limitations of time and place.   We learn, we try, we learn some more, we change.

But I do think that the radicalism of such change gets exaggerated quite often, and it gets ridiculously exaggerated when it comes to the rules of engineering–the thou shalts and the thou shalt nots.

We may have changed out understanding of what an atom looks like on the subatomic level, but that hasn’t much affected the rules for engineering those bridges.

When something does come along to affect those rules, it tends to be something new in the technology–we have this neat new material now, tempered steel, and it doesn’t work like iron, so we need rules that take it into account.

This is how we go about discovering the laws of nature and applying those laws to contemporary purposes–to building bridges and houses, to making pudding, to find our way to the North Pole or the Moon.

There is no reason at all why we should not go about discovering moral rules in exactly the same way, and everything to say that doing it would be an advance over where we are now.

The simple fact of the matter is that there are some ways you simply cannot build a bridge, any bridge–or a house, or a pudding.  There are limits to what will work on any level at all.

And of the ways left to build a bridge, some of them will be bad ways–inefficient, unstable, overly expensive, unworkable.

And at the base of it all will be a list of thou shalt nots that will be unbudgeable no matter what you do.


I’m going to post the thing about comments and go get some work done.

It’s Monday.



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Written by janeh

November 15th, 2010 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Thou Shalt Not'

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  1. Actually, there should be at least four “optimals” as you optimize for labor, money, materials and time. (One of my favorite buttons reads “GOOD, FAST, CHEAP: PICK TWO.) But could we not stop before we exceed the rated capacity of the bridge metaphor?

    The point is sufficiently made, that the more you know exactly what you want, the more limited your choices are.

    The point is also sufficiently made that this does not tell you what you want–or should want–except in a subordinate sense. If my first requirement is that a society be prosperous, I may know several ways to achieve that–and many ways that won’t. But there is still the matter of setting that first requirement.

    We have also shifted from morality to law–or custom, perhaps, but social rules nonetheless: what makes a superior polis or nation–setting aside how we define superior–and not what makes a superior man.

    I can draw up a dozen societal optimums for which honesty is a requirement–both truthfulness and respect for property. I can easily do as many for which it is better for me to live in that honest society. But why should I be honest? For my own benefit, and for some levels of societal benefit, it is surely sufficient that I not be caught.

    Rand tended to tap-dance a little around why I should obey the rules if I can successfully evade them.

    She also never owned up to the big question. She wanted a particular type of society–prosperous, educated, free and democratic, with minimal government. And she wanted certain things done–security of property, for instance–and certain things not done–regulations on speech or sexual conduct, progressive taxes or a welfare state. She always insisted that this was one thing–that the rules would create and sustain the society.

    So they might. But we do not know this. I think, when you reach the point of advocating a set of laws or customs, it’s appropriate to decide and say so. Either “I am advocating these rules to attain a certain society, and if they won’t take us there, I will advocate other rules” or “I believe these rules will take us toward a certain kind of society, but if they don’t, they are still the rules under which I wish myself and others to live.”

    I’ve heard “false choice” used much too freely lately. If the rules we like produce the society we like, well and good, but before we starve to death, we should settle on one particular bale of hay.


    15 Nov 10 at 5:32 pm

  2. I’m still not getting from objectively defined rules (for optimal building of anything) to morality.

    The other day Jane said: “And if I define my goal as “minimizing the pain of conscious creatures” (as Sam Harris does) I can get to SHOULD NOT eat meat in no time at all.”

    Well, no. There are plenty of ways to raise meat animals such that they are happy, contented, and fulfilled as animals right up until the moment of death. There are plenty of methods of slaughter that cause no pain at all, in any sense. So producing meat doesn’t necessarily cause pain. Producing CHEAP meat probably does. If minimizing pain is your goal, you can still have your steak, if you’re willing to pay for humane husbandry and slaughter.

    After all, if we didn’t raise cattle for food, there would be about 6 pet cows in the US. The fact that there are millions is due to our wanting to eat them. For the cows as a species, being tasty has been a very successful move. Robert Heinlein (I think) once wrote that if we ate eagleburgers, eagles wouldn’t be endangered.

    And it’s good to note that although I’ve been tweaked about it, I’m not the only one who keeps sliding from talking about individual morality to talking about social rules.

    What’s the objectively derived reason to choose to minimize the pain of conscious creatures? That (or any other similar rule about honesty, etc) seems like the stumbling block in this whole thing. It’s very near to what I have settled on for myself, but I don’t try and fool myself that I’ve got any reality-based reason for deriving it.

    I live the way I do in the hopes of teaching others (in particular my children) how I hope to be treated myself. I have no expectations of success, though, and so take appropriate measures to protect myself from those less enlightened, and to comply in public with those public customs and laws that would cause problems I don’t care to confront if flouted.

    My choices seem most likely to gain me what I want, but I recognize that they’re not the only choices that would do so. In fact, I could probably succeed much better if I just wanted less.

    But I recognize that the source of my own moral system is internal, based on my own particular constellation of wants, needs and capabilities. That it includes things like integrity, honesty, kindness and hard work is just lucky for the rest of you.


    15 Nov 10 at 9:26 pm

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