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

Blog 20141210 

Bill has trouble with social control, supports ethical absolutes, and  gets mixed up on whether it was determinists or indeterminists who argued that there were genes for altruism.

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 5 of 7)

TSW:  "Any person or any group that unilaterally promulgates a moral code may be rightfully charged with committing an ethical offense."

BW: Still confusing ethics, morals, and political rules. To "promulgate" is merely to advocate. It may be wrong, but it can't be unethical. To use political power to unilaterally and arbitrarily *impose* rules is an ethical offense. Since you advocate a moral code, I guess you're admitting an "ethical offense".

[GB: Huh? Where in “The Scientific Worldview” did I advocate a moral code?]

TSW:  R. J. Ringer: "Your moral standards should be what you define them to be. Don't allow others to be so presumptuous as to set them for you."

BW: I agree with his intent, which is to discard authoritarian dictates (whether religious or political) and that every individual is responsible for "defining" and deciding which types of conduct are evidently and logically good or bad. However, I disagree with his emphasis on pure subjectivity and selfishness as a valid guideline.

[GB: Glad to see you don’t buy Ringer’s selfishness completely. Of course, the idea that one really could decide the difference between good and bad conduct completely isolated from everyone else and everything that went on before is completely bonkers.]

TSW:  "[Ringer] implies that morals are 'self-generated' and thereby acausal. They are formed in a vacuum ..."

BW: I don't think he says that, nor even implies it. My recollection of his writings is that he advocates rational analysis of what is proper (moral) human action, based on evidence of the natural characteristics of human beings and the logical means of achieving general human happiness ... hardly an acausal "vacuum".

[GB: Reread Ringer’s statement above and then tell me where he acknowledges the wishes of other folks at all. His statement implies that he and he alone decides what his ethics will be. That is totally delusional—one could not even drive down the street without acknowledging other drivers and the “ethics” that allow one to get a drivers license.]

TSW:  "Loeb suggested a few [ethical absolutes]: the 'instinct of workmanship, ... love of a mother for her children, ... struggle for justice and truth ... arising out of the compulsion 'to see our fellow beings happy.'"

BW: Your objection is that these aren't "absolutes" because people disobey them. Loeb isn't advocating some "hypothetical world" in which everyone complies with his guidelines: he saying that they *should* do those things, not that they actually *do* those things, so the objection is frivolous. I don't necessarily agree with Loeb, but it's no argument at all to say his ethics aren't valid because they aren't followed.

[GB: Sorry, Loeb presented those as “absolutes,” unchanging rules for all folks at all times, which you yourself acknowledge to be impossible. His ethics may be fine, but absolutes they ain’t. Folks can propose any ethics they wish, and the rest of us will take them under advisement, but they better not force them upon us as being better or more important than anyone else’s.] 

TSW:  "Whether they can be observed in reality is another thing."

BW: Simpson's views are ridiculous, but you haven't offered any alternatives. As best I can determine, you don't believe there is any human act that is inherently good or bad, it's all an issue of power relationships: whoever has the power sets the rules, so there is no such thing as true and valid guidelines to human behavior. If you can get away with "bad" conduct, that's just the way it is and should be.

[GB: Again, as scientists, we see no part of the universe as being good or bad. There are no “true and valid guidelines to human behavior,” absolutes that could remain unchanged for all time. For instance, in WA and CO the majority once considered smoking pot to be “bad,” even illegal, now it is “good,” and legal. All around me I see what I personally believe to be bad behavior perpetrated by those who proclaim ethical absolutes. The current religious wars are outstanding examples. Often, it seems the more aggressive and “absolute” the proclamation, the worse the behavior used to enforce it. As in the philosophical struggle between determinism and indeterminism, the struggle over ethics is interminable. Our progress toward civility continues as we replace the ethics of barbarism with the ethics of modern society. Its working too, if the decline in global violence is any measure (
Pinker, Steven, 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: New York, Viking).]

TSW:  "Our ethics are a result of all that has occurred in our past, not something we make up willy-nilly in spite of it."

BW: Obviously, they're based on past experience and knowledge ... they could hardly be a result of anything that might occur in the future. Babies are not born with an innate sense of what kinds of conduct are ethical ... they have to be taught. Because they are not innate - or even obvious - does not mean that one set of ethical principles is just as good as another. Blind faith and obedience to the authoritarian dictates of the past would be impossible: they are prolific and contradictory. The alternative is not to make them up "willy-nilly", but to decide which are right and which are wrong; which are true and which are false; which achieve survival and happiness and which do not. If you advise that we simply accept every ethical assertion we're offered as true, you're arguing for blind ignorance.

[GB: Agree, except I don’t see where I said that we should accept “every ethical assertion” as true. On the contrary, I am skeptical about most ethical assertions simply because they are often promulgated by the powerful to satisfy their own dubious ends.]

TSW:  "Morality is the inevitable result of past and present univironmental relationships that are not dependent on innate altruism or on an equally mysterious 'free will.'"

BW: Strange. I read this as: "Don't ask *why* a moral guideline is true, just accept it as an evolutionary fact." Discard rationality, evidence, reason, and every criteria you might use to judge whether something is right or wrong: the rules you adopt will always be determined in advance by social dictates.

[GB: The quote is correct. That is exactly how ethics evolve. It includes our propensity to question moral guidelines, using rationality, evidence, reason, and our judgments about right and wrong. The rules we adopt will always be determined by social dictates, which we will be partly responsible for. Again, ethics evolve in the social context, with each of us making our tiny contributions. That is why ethics tend to be conservative, with often needed changes occurring slowly (e.g., the elimination of racism, sexism, and homophobia).]

TSW:  "Social control is obviously what ethics are all about."

BW: Not by any of the common definitions (above). Granted, ethical values are frequently applied to laws, which are imposed on people against their will, but that isn't ethics. In fact, it isn't even ethical, if virtue can only be found in *willfully* doing good. Do people try to impose their ethics on others? Sure, but that's only because their ethics condone coercion "for a good purpose".

[GB: The quote is correct. Every social interaction involves social control, ethics. As a social road map, ethics continually remind us of the behaviors we should use to be successful in our various relationships. Thus, when meeting someone new, you are expected to shake hands even if that is against your will. Nowadays, laws are the black and white versions of ethical rules favored by the majority. The fact that a minority might be opposed to a particular rule instituted by a vote that was against their will does not make the rule unethical. The ethics signified by that rule reflect the power relationships in society. The stop light on the street corner provides necessary social control. Most of us consider it unethical, or at least “bad behavior,” to go through the intersection when the light is red. Reread your definitions of “ethics.” Everyone of them involves social control.]

TSW:  "For the indeterminist, altruism is a microcosmic, absolutely unselfish regard for the welfare of others."

BW: That is essentially what it means:

al.tru.ism (n)
1: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
2: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species


Your sentence assumes that morality is solely comprised of altruism, which is not necessarily the case. It also characterizes the altruist ethic as "indeterminist", when it is explicitly endorsed by most determinists who consider it a "natural evolution" of animalistic empathy.

[GB: I don’t see how you got that out of it. I was using the words “microcosmic” and “absolutely unselfish” to highlight the tendency for indeterminists to ignore the univironmental social relations that actually produce altruism. Altruism is neither indeterministic nor deterministic. I can’t imagine how you could think otherwise. On the other hand, maybe you really do believe that altruism pops up out of nowhere and that it really is a “microcosmic, absolutely unselfish regard for the welfare of others.”]

TSW:  "For decades indeterminists have argued that there are genes for altruism."

BW: Actually, *determinists (materialists) have argued that case for decades. Dawkins, an atheist, is the most extreme proponent of the idea, but nearly all "secular humanists" consider altruism a de-facto "social ethic" that is independent of mysticism or acausality. They also tend to be subjectivists, in the sense that any particular set of beliefs are neither right nor wrong; they simply happen to be the social norm adopted by a majority. I disagree with them, but they are NOT indeterminists, who believe that altruism is a moral obligation demanded by God.

[GB: A bit off point, don’t you think? Here is the context:

“For decades indeterminists have argued that there are genes for altruism. According to sociobiologists, altruism can be inherited in the same way as physical traits such as body size and hair color. Instead of viewing altruism as a univironmental interaction, they view it as a property of the microcosm. It is the neovitalist story all over again. But if the movements of microcosms are in every case toward univironmental equilibrium and if only one reaction is possible for each movement, then actions seen as altruistic must be regarded as the only ones possible under existing conditions. Each microcosm provides a macrocosm for other microcosms. By its movements, each microcosm controls the movements of others.” (“The Scientific Worldview”, p. 267)
Next: Ethics (Part 6 of 7)

cotsw 054


Westmiller said...

GB: Huh? Where in 'The Scientific Worldview' did I advocate a moral code?

From your comments above: "Our progress toward civility continues as we replace the ethics of barbarism with the ethics of modern society.", " (e.g., the elimination of racism, sexism, and homophobia)".

I'm pleased that you consider racism barbaric, but your position seems to be that it was "ethical" until 51% of society said it was unethical.

My position is that racism and racist laws were always barbaric and contrary to any civil principles of ethics long before they were repealed. Laws may be ethical or unethical, something we can determine by evidence and logic, even while the rest of society disagrees. Of course, we still bear the burden of persuading them that those laws are "bad" or "wrong" in order to achieve progress.

A key word is "civility", which is an ethical position in itself. What we seek is to reduce or eliminate coercion from society, except in retaliation against one person's use of force or fraud against another. That is an ethical and moral code, which ought to apply as much to government acts (or laws) as to the acts of individuals.

Glenn Borchardt said...

Of course, racism was always barbaric, and so was slavery, although slave owners probably did not think so. Your strictly democratic rule (51% vote) seems simplistic, but it just might be of use in ethics. Some would call that a "tipping point" similar to what happened when indoor smokers became a minority. The majority then kicked them outside--so much for your idea that ethics will "reduce or eliminate coercion from society." The real world uses plenty of coercion. It just changes from one type to another. I now think I will coerce someone to not coerce me to do the dishes...