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Which is what we’ve got a lot of outside my window.  I’ve started sitting around wishing plaintively that we’d have just a day or two of half decent weather so that the cold, now mostly on the way out, won’t just come back again.

Of course, there are students, so there’s that.

I’m feeling, this morning, a little flabbergasted.

The ten commandments, the most famous moral code in the world, is suddenly not morality at all, but “rules for behavior,” which is somehow different from morality.


A moral code is a set of rules for behavior.  That’s what it is. 

I’d say that those rules always have an objective basis in the facts of human nature, relative to the teleological framework they’re meant to express.

In other words, morality isn’t anything we want it to be, willy nilly, because we feel like it on Thursday.

It’s the engineering for a specific project–to obey the will of God, to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, to recognize the status of human beings as radically individual…

There are a lot of proposed teleological frameworks, but the teleological frameworks are not morality.   Morality is the rules for human behavior, derived (objectively) from the facts of human nature, meant to express those frameworks.

The study of human nature is the science.  Morality is the engineering.  The teleological framework is the decision of what to build:  a bridge, a house, a road, a garden.

Back a few posts ago, I said it drove me crazy when everybody started jumping the gun, going from the first steps in this outline to the last.

And that’s what going for the teleological framework is–it’s the end point of a longer discussion. 

But it’s very important, I think, to keep the various strains of the discussion separate. 

The teleological framework is not morality.  It is the decision about what kind of morality to have. 

But there’s nothing odd about this, and nothing peculiar to philosophical questions.  The laws of physics won’t tell you if you should build a bridge or a house, and neither will the rules of engineering.  Before you know what the proper rules are, you have to make a decision to build something in particular.

But the laws of physics remain objective, as do the rules of engineering.

But here’s the thing:  I don’t think the choice of a teleological framework is entirely subjective, either. 

For one thing, for all the superficial variety, I think that the available teleological choices are actually rather small, and the available teleological choices that will not result in what is essentially a form of suicide are even smaller.

For one thing, as I said, even if we look at just the rules, there’s actually less variety in them than there seems to be on the surface.

Part of the problem is that societies tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their “morality,” including a lot that isn’t actually morality at all.

In most areas of study, we prune away this kind of thing and define the field.  For some reason, we just accept anything anybody anywhere says is “morality” and then fret that there’s nothing but chaos and nothing makes any sense.

I don’t know why we do this. We don’t find it difficult to see what makes this sort of laisseiz faire attitude counterproductive in most fields.  We don’t care if the Strange Colorful Hill People declare that finding the spiritual dimensions of toothache is a form of chemistry.  We don’t declare that it’s impossible to know what chemistry really is since the SCHP feel this way.  We just point out that they’re wrong, and why, and get on with it.

That said, there are indeed some moral rules that are close to universal, and that are universal in every literate society.  As somebody pointed out, there’s always a version of the Golden Rule.  There are also almost always strictures on the sexual activity of women (not always of men, but always–until very recently, and then only in the secular West–of women.) There are rules against murder, and theft, and rape. 

And these rules come in varieties, yes, and the terms of defined differently–when murder is murder and when it is not, for instance.

But the real differences between the basic level of moral code isn’t in the idiosyncracies in those codes.

The idiosyncracies are largely explained by something else:  by how and what the codes define as “human.”

The human race has been remarkable consistent about what behavior we owe other human beings.

Where it has been varied is in the field of people who are defined as actually human.

When you begin to look at the anthropology that way, you find far less variation than you’d think. 

Aristotle had a point–and so did Aquinas.  There does seem to be some kind of internal clockwork in most people that tracks the moral law, a kind of basic conscience.

What there isn’t is a universally acknowledged, single definition of “human being.”

And now it’s raining, and I’ve got to run.

Written by janeh

November 17th, 2010 at 7:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Rain'

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  1. I can’t contribute much to this debate except to agree wholeheartedly with the above, Jane. Cheryl said something yesterday to the effect that the 10 commandments came from God. This, of course, is what all of us raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition were taught from an early age. Yet, somehow some versions of those 10 commandments plus or minus a few reached deep into places and societies that existed long before Moses and the Jewish tribes ever existed.

    In general terms, they have existed for eons in the laws and customs and taboos in the remotest tribes in Papua New Guinea and among the even more primitive and remote aboriginal tribes in Australia. Therefore, the only rational conclusion I can come to is that those commandments simply encapsulate a distillation of ancient wisdom as to the essential basic rules of survival of the species. Just as I believe that man created God in his own image (contrary to the religious belief), I also believe that the commandments themselves are of human origin, and that the bit about Moses and the tablets of stone and all that jazz is really a bit of theatrical special effects designed to give Mr Moses a bit of street cred in parlous times.

    So, basically, for what it’s worth, I agree with Jane, and not only because what she is saying is essentially what I was taught in religion class in my Catholic high school, lo these many long decades ago.


    17 Nov 10 at 7:39 am

  2. I didn’t say that the ten commandments weren’t moral laws. I think they are – because they’re based on something outside the people who try to follow them – the will of God. And even if you don’t believe in a God, the basis on which the ten commandments rest is that belief. Without that basis, there’s no particular reason to try to follow those particular rules. There are other bases for rules, including non-deist ones, and within those systems, those are moral rules. And those moral rules can be derived more or less objectively from the starting assumptions – the existence of God (or gods), the primacy of the human individual, the primacy of reason, whatever. What I don’t think you can do is prove the basis of the moral laws objectively, and yes, I know that far greater thinkers than I am would disagree with me on that.

    It’s terminology again. You’re using ‘moral rules’ for any rules guiding human behaviour. I’m using the term to mean rules based on some very basic assumption – an unprovable and unproved assumption – about the purpose (if any) of human existence.

    And as for Rome – you might have a point if Rome existed at a different point in history than it did. If you went back in time somehow and set up a civilization with all our philosophical and political beliefs and the same level of knowledge about science/ natural history as the Romans had at the same time that their civilization was at its height, it’s not a foregone conclusion that our civilization would suddenly make all the scientific advances the Romans didn’t. It’s at least as plausible, if not more so, that the Romans would do as well – maybe better, since their social structures were obviously mostly very effective at dealing with other societies of the time, from the Roman point of view, anyway. You can’t single out one or two characteristics of a society (slavery!!) and say that’s why the Romans didn’t have antibiotics. It took not merely the political forces necessary to keep us out of anarchy, but literally millennia collecting, analyzing and speculating about natural phenomena, lots of different ideas about just how to do that kind of work, and the simultaneous development of technology to help out with the work to get penicillin. The Romans couldn’t have done it if they’d organized themselves just like us and we sent Fleming himself back to teach their top scientists.


    17 Nov 10 at 7:47 am

  3. going back to Jane’s comment of yesterday, I will point out that if you define technology as the germ theory of disease, you would have to say that anything before about 1880 was low technology.

    And if you add antibiotics to the requirement, then anything before 1940 was low technology.


    17 Nov 10 at 5:53 pm

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