Friday, February 1, 2008

The Big One

What does moral behavior look like to you?

The difficulty of defining "morality" is an issue that I think is taken for granted entirely too often. We discuss what is "right" in abstract, complicated terms and at the same time make quick snap judgements about what behaviors are right and wrong.

Often, identifying moral or immoral behavior seems to be an easy task. We think of issues like "it's wrong to steal and murder" as good examples of how you really don't need a complicated, concrete definition in order to live well and be a good person.

But there are times when one person's obviously right behavior seems much less obviously right to the rest of us. A man from Borneo was interviewd for NPR today and said that people should uphold their traditions. While that may not strike you as a moral statement, I think it indeed is. Saying what we should or should not do is a moral judgement about what is right and wrong. Even "I think" statements regarding optimal human behavior are assertions about morality.

So, what do you think of morality? Is it a feeling? A philosophy? Is it a truth and we're just trying to define it, or is it a construction that we devise to help ourselves live?

How important is it to be moral?

Are there things outside the bounds of moral judgement; can there be things that are too subjective for a moral assessment to be made?


jennifer said...

morality is entire subjective, there is no universal moral standard nor should there be. different cultures, different passions, different moral standards... it's really a beautiful thing if you think about it. i guess we try and instill our morals in the ones we love, and we try and convince ourselves that our morals are the right morals, but in the end it's all pretty unclear.

Josh Leffler said...

Nico said...

though i do agree with jennifer (hi jennifer! welcome to infinite potatoes!), it's important to note that what we think suggests a kind of moral relativism.

what's interesting is that jennifer and josh brought up the two opposite ends of morals - pretty much a Mills vs. Kant kinda thing, which is great! this is at the heart of the issue!

in essence, we have two views here: morals are relative and contextual (post-modernist theory) AND there is such a thing as absolute right and absolute wrong (classical theory).

oh, but what do i think? i kind of cop-out of it with Renee Descartes. that is, use whatever system works for you, and the only way to know which is the right one is through trial and error.

Josh Leffler said...

nico how do you personally work out that trial and error process?

the more i study religion and humans the more i see common threads in moral thinking (browse the appendix of the book i linked, for example)

i mean generally unless you're philosophically committed to "entirely subjective morality" most people seem to have a sense of some sort of rightness and wrongness thats bigger then themselves, that they can appeal to in disputes, etc.

from the christian pov we've all participated in the wrongness enough ('no one is good, not one') that we're separated from God, and missing the real visceral day to day LIFE in abundance, and jesus is "the way" back.

i mean i don't really know anything. who does? but thats where i'm at right now.

Nico said...

I think my "trial and error" is simply just me being alive and applying moral questions to life situations.

I was also raised Christian, so in that case, "trial" would be listening to recommendations on behavior from things like, say, the Golden Rule, and finding that following it has in turn treated me nicely. "Error" would probably have come from consciously making bad decisions just because I skew my priorities temporarily, and getting undesirable results.

By default, I do think that right and wrong, as an idea, definitely exist as entities that are larger than people (that's why I bring up Kant's Categorical Imperative), but Kant also says that this hard definition, even for the faithful, is something that human reason can't really pin down or easily understood. This is where the faithful have somewhat of an advantage; they can trust that God is right, and don't need the hard scientific reasons to know that it is. However, in trying to define some kind of universal right and wrong, secularists are kind of left in the dark - and I believe that if you simply can't make them believe, there must be a way for them to live virtuously. And this is where we get into the dicey situation that is moral relativism. Of course, there are influences like social rules and regulations, codes of conduct outlined by governments or institutions, what our parents tell us, etc. etc., and unfortunately those structures can only be reduced to a state of being relative to one another.

SnrIncognito said...

i think that moral relativism has all but been disproven as a valid moral theory.

to say that morality is entirely relative is to say that we cannot criticize any behavior. EVER. it sounds nice and progressive and artsy to say that you we must appreciate others' beliefs and cultures should be respected. but to say that morality as a useful construct is fundamentally a matter of perspective means you can't criticize anybody in your own culture.

it sounds cute to say "all cultures are equal and their beliefs are valid" or even "genital mutilation is just a different way of dealing with adolescence", but it's a little less appealing to say "well, lynch mobs are just expressing their cultural beliefs. their behavior isn't wrong, it's just different."

sounds extreme and unreasonable? that's partly because its your culture and you can criticize it. but that's exactly the point. if other cultures can do no wrong, neither can yours. for that matter, culture is such a difficult term to define that just about any group of people with any set of behavior can define themselves as a culture and nothing they do will be wrong, according to moral relativists. as long as they think it's ok, who's to say they're wrong?

now, i don't believe in sin. i don't think there are any behaviors that are fundamentally wrong.

however... to say that morality is entire subjective is like saying everything is art. it renders the word next to meaningless.

and neither kant nor mill is relativist.