Critique of TSW Part 24d The Mind-Brain Muddle: Ethics

Blog 20141203 

Bill has trouble with understanding ethics as critical road maps to navigating the social landscape.

I am ever so grateful to Bill Westmiller, whose comments are marked "BW: ". The quotes marked “TSW: “are from "The Scientific Worldview" and my comments are marked "[GB: ".

The Mind-Brain Muddle (Part 4 of 7)

TSW:  "An objective discussion of proper ethics is a contradiction in terms."

BW: Having said that, there's nothing more to add and the chapter could end. If there's nothing objectively true or proper about any ethical assertion, then it's all subjective, variable, whimsical, social norms ... without regard to any consideration of evidence, logic or merit. But, you proceed to argue in favor of certain objective ethical principles. Strange.

[GB: That does not mean, of course, that a subjective discussion of proper ethics is not possible. There are no such things as “objective ethical principles.” Scientists who have claimed to discover such have been unsuccessful.]

TSW:  "Ethics are guides to the relations between people and groups of people; they continually change as the relationships between people change."

BW: This is baffling. The relationships between people change every second, but that has no bearing on what is considered proper behavior in those interactions. Ethics is about beliefs, not relationships:

ethics (n)

1. the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation
2a. a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values
2b. the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group


[GB: The quote is true and is only common sense. Your statement that “the relationships between people” have “no bearing on what is considered proper behavior” is definitely not true. Do you think that ethics just pop up out of nowhere? All the beliefs associated with ethics are products of those relationships. Without people, no relationships, no ethics.]

TSW:  "Conservatives tend to ground their defense of the status quo in absolutism, while progressives ground their suggestions for change in relativism."

BW: Perhaps, but "status quo" isn't a discipline, principle, or theory of ethics. Most conservatives hate the status-quo; they want to restore the ethics their parents taught them. Progressives (relativists) don't believe in any universal criteria for good or bad acts: behavioral norms are purely a matter of collective (social) whim.

[GB: What is meant by “status quo” is simply the “state that exists.” It can be applied to any “discipline, principle, or theory of ethics” as well as to many other observations about the universe. BTW: You seem to have mistaken “conservatives” for “reactionaries.” In strict definitions, conservatives favor the status quo, while reactionaries favor a former period. Progressives favor what they believe will be societal improvements. To favor any one of these political positions, people obviously have to make decisions about what changes or nonchanges would be good or bad. Although “good” and “bad” cannot be used properly in science, I can’t imagine anyone not using those terms in politics. Your last sentence is clearly false.]

TSW:  "... rapid technological change has required dramatic modifications in ethics during the last few centuries."

BW: I don't see anything dramatic. Murdering people has been unethical conduct for millennia. Stealing has always been considered bad. Whether I steal a goat or an iPad has no relevance to ethics.

[GB: The statement is correct. Maybe you need to get out more. Ethics are society’s innumerable rules for acceptable behavior. Reducing them to just two does not come close to being suitable for getting along in any culture that ever existed.]

TSW:  "Puritans need not fear the release of the untrammeled human spirit, just as libertarians need not fear the permanent stifling of their desires."

BW: I don't understand the point. You seem to be saying that ethics change, but not much, so don't worry about it. You haven't even attempted to explain why puritans or libertarians are right or wrong about any of their ethical beliefs. Your characterizations are extremely vague: Puritans want a "trammeled human spirit"? Libertarians want no constraints on their desires? I don't think either assertion is true.

[GB: The statement was partly rhetorical, although it has quite a bit of truth. I did not think I would have to give the details. But here goes: The evolutionary purpose of religion (such as Puritanism) is to instill and enforce loyalty, which was advantageous for primitive societies engaging in war or any other form of competition. As a sort of breakaway sect, libertarians tend to favor freedom over loyalty. They chaff at the ethical strictures required for loyalty to the group. Libertarian ethics seldom stifle physical pleasures “as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.”]
BTW: I consider myself a libertarian, which is a philosophy of political ethics, advocating individual liberty. It doesn't advocate unlimited freedom, much less libertinism: the unfettered pursuit of physical pleasure.

TSW:  "... morals develop exclusively in the social context."

BW: Of course they develop among humans. I haven't noticed any monkeys debating the proper philosophical guidelines for monkey behavior. However, there are many individual ethical rules that have nothing to do with social interaction. Puritans consider masturbation to be unethical conduct (sin), which isn't normally a social event.

[GB: Puritanical restrictions aren't social? The appellation “sin” only arises in the social context. That is why certain acts, whether individual or group acts, are considered sinful in some societies and not in others. Looks like your absolutism and microcosmic thinking is showing.]

BW: It is true that incoherent ethics are useless (always love parents and hate thieves), but that's just an argument that at least one of those principles is logically flawed. It isn't a matter of "context", social or otherwise, but a matter of the rational consistency of those beliefs.

[GB: Boy, you must have never run into a contradiction in your life. Ethics have plenty of contradictions. Your duty to love your thieving parents is only one of them. We often have to “choose the lesser of two evils,” as they say. It is totally social context and no amount of rationality will present you with an obvious answer. Even the belief that rationality or objectivity can decide proper ethics is derived from the social context.]
TSW:  "The contradictions abound."

BW: Contradictions abound in ethical standards that are contradictory, usually because they're taken on faith, independent of evidence or logic. Or, they're simply imposed by authoritarian power (Earthly or Heavenly) that isn't obliged to offer any evidence, argument, or justification for their rules. Judicia ex cathedra; L'etat c'est moi.

[GB: So, let me get this straight. If everyone followed evidence and logic, there would never be any ethical contradictions? What, pray tell, is the evidence for that?]

TSW:  "... ethics reflect the power relationships in society."

BW: There's a difference between political rules and ethics. Ethics are philosophical beliefs about what is good or bad, whereas "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," (Mao) whether the acts of the state are good or bad. The only "guideline" is to do what you're told or die. Strictly speaking, ethics is not about the power to *enforce* any arbitrary rules, but rather the *justification* for believing particular human acts are good or bad. It isn't sufficient to simply assert that ethics are ethical if they're effectively enforced.

[GB: Remember that ethics are road maps for getting along in society. They are neither good nor bad, just successful or unsuccessful. This applies to all social relationships, whether more political or less political. The judgment about whether a particular behavior is seen as “good” or “bad” depends on who is making it and what power he has over others. Again, ethics, like all road maps, are constantly changing. There can be no ethical code that is absolute, “logical,” and fixed in the way that the absolutist desires. In science we avoid using subjective terms such as “good” and “bad.” That is why scientists are no better than anyone else when such terms must be used. On the other hand, historians, sociologists, and other scientists may be useful in enlightening us about the success rate of various ethical road maps that have been used in the past.]
BW: So, in a sense, I agree with Hegel (zounds!) that "Coercion and enforcement belong to the world of nature, not to the world of freedom, which is the world of morality." Most religions only consider acts virtuous or evil when they are freely chosen, rather than coerced.

[GB: Egads! So I guess you believe Hegel’s BS about the natural world being coercive and the moral world being noncoercive? Sorry, but religions belong to the “world of nature,” because they instill and enforce (coerce) a belief in free will and other indeterministic nonsense. Thankfully, since there is no free will, societies reward and punish behavior without much speculation about whether it was “freely chosen,” “coerced,” or determined by past events. The act that got you in jail certainly was not “freely chosen,” but the authorities still are not going to let you out to do it again.]  
Next: Ethics (Part 5 of 7)

cotsw 053


Westmiller said...

[GB: ... All the beliefs associated with ethics are products of those relationships. Without people, no relationships, no ethics.]

I agree with the latter, but ethics are not merely the "product" of relationships, they are beliefs about which kind of relationships are beneficial and which harmful. Those beliefs don't necessarily change with every variation of each individual relationship.

[GB: ... BTW: You seem to have mistaken “conservatives” for “reactionaries.” In strict definitions, conservatives favor the status quo, while reactionaries favor a former period...]

I hadn't considered that distinction, which may have some merit. In common usage, I find the word "conservative" applied to those who want to "conserve" historic principles, which are jeopardized by "progressives", or are diminished in the "status-quo". I've always thought of "reactionaries" as those who merely react (negatively) to any proposed changes in the status-quo. It's a fine distinction.

[GB: ... Ethics are society’s innumerable rules for acceptable behavior ...]

That seems to diminish ethics to a study of what is merely distasteful, frowned upon, or otherwise offensive. I'm not sure that mere sentiments can be construed as ethics, which requires *some* logical coherence or justification.

[GB: ... to instill and enforce loyalty, which was advantageous for primitive societies engaging in war or any other form of competition ...]

Loyalty doesn't tell you toward who or what your devotion should be aimed. In primitive societies, it was purely submission to the stronger force, without regard to the merits or logic of what they may require. I would hope that most of human society has moved beyond that barbaric relic of ethics.

[GB: ... Ethics have plenty of contradictions...]

Yes, contradictions abound, which is evidence of error in at least one of the premises. Logic and evidence are critical to forming a *valid* system of ethics, rather than one that's merely handed down by powerful authorities or religious apostates. I vastly prefer the former to the latter and disagree with your statement:

[GB: ... The judgment about whether a particular behavior is seen as “good” or “bad” depends on who is making it and what power he has over others ...]


Glenn Borchardt said...


Thanks so much for the comment and your forbearance as I provide rather direct answers to some of your challenges.

Yes, I agree that ethical road maps are not always the immediate results of relationships. The beliefs that you point out as important are the products of previous encounters.

Strictly speaking "reactionaries" are those who react to a particular change, although the word has a right-wing connotation. I actually prefer the regressive-conservative-progressive designation. That is why I use the word "regressive" in describing the indetermistic aspects of modern physics.

Surely you understand that ethics describes only acceptable behavior and that it has little to do with logic.

Sorry, but most contradictions in ethics are not resolvable. The rabbit sees the fox as bad and the fox sees the rabbit that gets away as bad. Paradoxes, on the other hand, have at least one underlying assumption that is false.

Westmiller said...

GB: "Surely you understand that ethics describes only acceptable behavior and that it has little to do with logic."

Ethics is a system of abstract moral principles dictating what is good or bad human behavior. The principles are either true or false, which we can determine by observing consequences and applying logic.

GB: "Sorry, but most contradictions in ethics are not resolvable. The rabbit sees the fox as bad ..."

That's not ethics, which are only possible for humans. Lower animals only do what they must do: eat or be eaten. We can characterize that natural instinct as "pure pragmatism", with no abstract rules, principles of propriety, or systems of thought ... but that's just a euphemism.

Granted, many humans are unethical animals, doing whatever pleases them, without regard for the consequences or any logical consistency. Those in civil society consider them primitive savages: sentient, but deliberately not sapient.

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