Battlepanda: A metaphor for morality [updated]


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A metaphor for morality [updated]

UPDATE: Boy. Of all the posts to get gobbled up in the middle, it had to happen to this one. I tried to reconstruct it as best as I could. Sorry to all for the confusion. Everything before the asterixes belong to the lost original post. Everything after is related additional musings. Also, since there is new material, I changed the timestamp so that this post is on top.

Well, we certainly had some very spirited discussions over the nature of morality. In fact, I think I just had more philosophical discussions over a couple of days on the blogisphere than I did in four years at Amherst College. And for that we can all pat ourselves on the back.

Moving forwards, it seems like our arguments always turn to semantics. Some commenters are splitters while others are lumpers. We can never exactly agree on what terms to have the conversation. So let's leave all the terminology behind and...

Imagine life as a rough and roiling ocean. No individual have a chance for survival, so we band together and construct ships that helps us weather the storms. Some of the ships survive, while others are dashed on the shoals. Through trial and error, and ultimately insight, each group of humans managed to construct vessels that are seaworthy. Some became convinced that their vessels are simply the best. And that to prevent further shipwrecks all ships should be constructed after their model. I think we'd all admit that those folks are pretty foolish. They are closing themselves off to innovation, and leaving themselves vulnerable to changing conditions.

Then there are the folks with the humility to admit that their ship is not necessarily the best that can ever be built. They are constantly trying to improve their ships. Yet they still believe that there must be an absolute best way to do everything, because if you don't believe in that there exists a ideal, how the heck can you work on trying to achieve it? So even though they openly acknowledge that they have no hope of reaching that state of perfection, they maintain it must exist. The ideal ship, though elusive, functions as a shining light that motivates their improvements.

Last of all are people like me. We don't believe our ship is the best that can possibly be built. We don't even believe that there is such a thing as the perfect ship. Each new ship built is a refinement of the ship that has gone before it, so if we started with different kinds of ships, we're going to end up with different kinds of ships even if everybody's sea-worthiness is gradually improving. Over time, it might be that ships from different groups start displaying a lot of similarity as separate minds hit upon the same concepts of sails or rudders. And we are certainly not shy about stealing good ideas from others. If we see somebody try to build a ship out of marshmallows, we have no problems with pointing out to them that marshmallow are not a good thing to build ships out of, even if we openly acknowledge that there is not one material that is objectively best for building ships.

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Yeah, yeah. This metaphor is way cheezy. But it's my blog, right?

To me, being a moral relativist is a lot about humility. A lot about acknowledging that morality is a organic human response to our environment, not something abstract and rarified and holy and independent of us. I also see relativism as a more complete viewpoint than objectivism/absolutism, because instead of conceptualizing morality as being universal, and therefore limited to a set of issues that are broadly agreed upon (genocide is bad, raping and pillaging is bad, torturing babies is bad...), accepting moral relativism allows morality to encompass much more. For instance, Velleman puts everything that is not universal under the heading of 'cultural norms' rather than morality. To me, that just leave so much out of the realm of morality as to be totally ineffectual. For instance, I do not presume that there is an absolute sexual morality. I can concieve of effective and moral human societies based on polygamy, polyandry, complete celibacy, bonobo-like free-for-all and whatever other combination you can think of. Yet I also think it is an mistake to think of being faithful to one's spouse purely as a cultural norm issue with no moral dimension. It becomes an all or nothing game.

To give another more concrete example. I've noticed that people in this country tend to make a decision at some point -- either they decide that killing animal for meat is always wrong, and become vegetarians (with a tendency to be very sanctimonious toward meat-eaters) or they decide that meat-eating is obviously not a moral issue, and therefore shut their eyes to all sort of suffering going on in our factory farms, and will not pay any extra to get their meat free-range. (The ironic thing is, more cruelty probably goes on in the dairy than the beef industry because dairy is a more intensive operation.) I pay the extra for the cage-free eggs and the free-range chicken, but do not pay the extra for the organic milk and the free-range beef. My decision in this matter is moral, economical and personal. I believe that there is not one most objectively moral decision in this matter. Yet to say that it is not a moral decision at all is equally wrong.

What we have now in our society is de-facto moral relativism with absolute morality as a kind of unifying myth. John Emerson articulates this well and rigorously. When society is relatively static and isolated, this kind of absolutism is a useful fiction. When we are in contact with so many cultures and encompass so many subcultures within our own, this useful fiction becomes so many exposed fuses waiting to be lit. Am I isolationist? No. And I don't see how that is a pertinent question since one might just as well be a moral absolutist and isolationist. I am simply trying to call a spade a spade. Interestingly, I have not had much serious opposition to my contention that an absolute morality simply does not exist ontologically speaking. Just arguments positing it is an essential construct without which humanity cannot live. Perhaps I just give humanity more credit by believing that our morals stems from our values, which in term is derived from who we are and what is around us rather than some objective external source. And that despite of this, we will still have enough in common to enable us to live in harmony and progress.