where morals come from

From: Perry E. Metzger (perry@piermont.com)
Date: Sun Jan 04 2004 - 17:59:44 MST

Samantha Atkins <samantha@objectent.com> writes:
> On Sat, 03 Jan 2004 01:46:42 -0500
> "Perry E. Metzger" <perry@piermont.com> wrote:
>> By the way, I don't see any experiment that would tell us that it is
>> wrong to torture you (yes, you!) in order to turn your liver into
>> tasty meat, either. As it happens, I wouldn't do it because my
>> personal behavior code doesn't go for that sort of thing -- but I
>> can't see any objective way to determine that it is wrong.
> Please supply the following:
> a) what you understand morality or ethics is and what it is based on;

I don't think there really is such a thing. In general, we pick
rules of thumb for behavior to optimize our own goals (generally
things like survival). We pick such rules because it is impossible to
always consider all consequences of one's actions. Thus, one picks the
rule of thumb "don't kill people except in self defense" because it
happens to help you avoid getting into serious trouble that would lead
to your not surviving.

As it turns out, most people share a set of common goals (surviving,
reproducing, etc.) and thus it is possible for us to come to a common
agreement on ground rules that allow us to eliminate the Hobbesian war
of all against all, settle down, and build Safeways and tract homes
without worrying they're going to be looted or that our children will
be slaughtered as soon as we leave the homestead. Most people benefit,
except for the ones that really like eating people's livers, but there
are fairly few of them and they don't leave many offspring anyway.

We thus develop these elaborate personal senses of "good" and "bad",
meaning, of course, "that which promotes my goals" and "that which
retards my goals". As it turns out, many people often share goals, and
thus the phrases "good for me" and "bad for me" can get shortened
because often two people will share a sense of "good" and "bad" over a
wide variety of observables.

The issue becomes when we reify these rules into "Absolute
Moralities". Rather than recognizing one is dealing with evolved
rules of thumb that seem to work most of the time, one pretends that
they're universe-given absolutes that can be extended out of their
original context. "Good" and "bad" cease to be words used relative to
one's personal goals but instead Universal Absolutes.

We then start getting into fascinating edge cases and wonder why they
are problems "killing is wrong, therefore, killing a blastocyst is
wrong" is one fabulous such example.

Through the centuries, we've reified large bundles of rules of thumb
into "moralities". So long as one understands their limitations, there
is no problem -- but few people seem to understand that subtlety.

> b) what you consider "objective" to mean in context of (a).

What I was pointing out is that there isn't an objective
morality. Were there one, we could presumably measure the "moral
fluid" or do some other sort of experiment to assess whether nailing
Tommy's feet to the floor and force-feeding him to make his liver
tasty is "morally wrong". However, no such experiments exist, and in
fact it is neither "right" nor "wrong" to do that, since such concepts
are not absolute but relative.

What I was noting was that the absence of mechanisms that can
objectively settle moral dilemmas is evidence for moral relativism. It
is certainly not *conclusive* evidence, but a good Popperian dislikes
non-falsifiables, and Absolute Moralities have this problem that
they're not falsifiable.

> If it is only a matter of taste, so to speak, whether it is ok to
> not only murder fellow sentients but torture them so one can get
> more pleasure out of eating them, then truly we would be in a dark
> world where only might makes right and everything else is mere
> subjective preference.

It is all a matter of taste -- and perhaps Tommy's liver tastes very
good. (Maybe it doesn't -- I'm not a connoisseur of such things.) By
the way, to a PETA member, we do live in a dark world -- one where
people seem to be willing to do that sort of thing to things they
consider to be worthy of protection, like geese.

Now, why is it that most people don't find themselves the subject of
having their livers eaten, but many geese do? Largely because if you
try the experiment over and over again, you'll find that those humans
that are willing to eat other humans for dinner end up leaving fewer
offspring, and thus the impulse (whether genetic or memetic matters
little) seems to die out pretty quickly. However, no such consequence
appears to attach itself to eating goose livers, and thus the geese
get their feet cyanoed to the bottom of cages and become friends with
Mr. Funnel as they're force-fed into tasty-liverdom.

Perry E. Metzger		perry@piermont.com

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