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Postby Pangloss » Wed Aug 14, 2002 12:06 pm

A bit of applied philosophy here ...
as a moral framework for all society, assuming that an immoral act is one which inhibits another person from realising their own perfection, and that a moral act is anything else, does this allow for a society of free individuals or paranoid individuals constantly afraid of their every step?
What are the flaws in such a moral framework? Is it the morality that humanity is slowly moving towards? Is it universal in its application not only within societies, but in international relations? the questions are endless
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Postby JP » Thu Aug 15, 2002 5:59 pm

Well first of all you're going to have to define "perfection". I know it sounds like anal semantics, but depending on what you mean by perfection it could well change the way I approach your questions. I take perfection, generally, to mean "devoid of flaws": would that be suitable in this context?

That aside, having read your "This Debate Is Getting Spectacular" essay, I fear that your framework suffers for the same reasons mine (as presented briefly in the "Morality - Where Do You Stand?" topic) namely, that in presenting it as a prescriptive theory - that is to say, one you would quite happily will humanity into adopting - it does lead to some rather unpleasant consequences.

To refresh your memories, I simply said that morality is something that is developed independantly (most of the time) of rationalism or logic. This being the case, you should expect morality to be quite "illogical" at times, and thus any attempt at manufacturing a logically consistent system is doomed to failure. Thus, I argued that the best moral systems are those that describe morality as it is (descriptive theory) rather than those that are prescribed as being the most "preferable" theories for people to adopt (prescriptive theories). Virtually all moral theories I'm familar with take the latter, that is to say the prescriptive form and this is why they fail.

So, for instance, my ill-thought-out attempt at a descriptive moral theory was to say that the most moral actions are those that place the desires of others ahead of your own. Thus, if you wish to act morally, all you need to do is to put others ahead of yourself. Could anyone disagree?

So that is morality as I see it then (understanding how other people wish to be acted upon, and to grant them that wish). Now, obviously, if I were to advocate that as a prescriptive theory then we have some serious issues to do with freedom. If I continually put other people infront of myself, then obviously this will lead to self neglect, and the danger of not being able to define oneself or ones life in any way (though, if everyone adopted the same stance it would be slightly different, but I'm approaching the issue from an individualistic rather than a collective sense, as it would be nigh on impossible to force an entire population to adhere to a particular moral doctrine).

Given all this, I could never advocate my moral theory as a preferable one (i.e. as a prescriptive theory), because it denies us a very large chunk of our freedom. I still believe that the most moral action is that which panders to the wishes of other people ahead of our own, but I do not believe that this reality is necessarily right - and here lies the distinction.

As for your theory of determining morality as a means to allowing people to achieve their own subjective notion of "perfection" Leo, I see the same problem. In fact, now that I think about it, our approaches are very much the same, only that I am attempting to define a moral action (that which benefits another) whereas you are attempting to define an immoral action (that which hinders another from striving towards their own perfection). Thus, I will agree that in terms of describing what is "right or wrong", you are right in saying that an immoral action is that which hinders (adversely obviously) the desires of another, whereas a moral action (presumably) will be that which aids it. If, however, we were to take this descriptive theory and make it prescriptive, then we would have the same problems that I faced before - that is, either people too willing to help out others at their own, individual expense, or people too afraid to come in contact with other human beings for fear of stunting their path towards perfection. Either way, we could say that this state of affairs would be undesirable.

does this allow for a society of free individuals

As with my theory (if you wish to call my ideas a "theory") if the collective were - to the last person - to adopt the theory, then yes, it could grant us more freedom than we currently have. However, this is no utopia, and people are unlikely to collectively adopt any system of morality that differs from whatever morality binds us now. The practicial application of any moral theory makes it "prescriptive" by default, and is thus likely to be unworkable, for the reasons I mentioned above.

Is it the morality that humanity is slowly moving towards?

In a way, yes, Id say that it is. People are more concerned with not doing the "wrong thing", generally, than they are about doing the right thing and as such, we could see moral action as "that which does not hinder another". However, I see a more positive, proactive side to morality as well, that would necessitate acting morally (giving money to charity for example) that would probably be overlooked in a theory such as yours, which stresses an aviodance of doing the wrong thing, rather than actually doing the right.

However, so long as we take it to be a descriptive rather than a prescriptive theory, it still seems - to me - to be pretty accurate.

Is it universal in its application not only within societies, but in international relations?

Can any moral theory ever be universal?
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Postby isobel » Sat Aug 17, 2002 11:15 pm

.....and does "morality" actually exist????
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Postby isobel » Sat Aug 17, 2002 11:17 pm

(machiavelli, machiavelli, machiavelli...)
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Descriptive moral theories

Postby Faust D. Fiore » Sun Aug 18, 2002 8:25 am

Well, this is interesting. Descriptive moral theories. An oxymoron. If a moral theory is not prescriptive, just what purpose does it serve? A moral statement contains the notion of "ought". That's just what a moral statement is. Does a "descriptive" moral theory say "This is what is, so this is what will be"? This is, of course, what Aristotle essentially did. But his moral theory sucks. "Descriptive moral theories" belong to meta-ethics, and can accomplish nothing but an aid to comparative ethics. Surely there is a descriptive element in any well-wrought moral theory, but if it stops there, no actual work has been done. Philosophy needn't be solely a review of current events. We have the Sunday papers for that.
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Postby Brad » Sun Aug 18, 2002 9:15 am

Without going into whether morality exists or not or Machiavelli (the 'messiah' has so many names, simply invoke it and all views magically disappear except your own.). :D

I also think we're tending to move in this direction, very slowly, easily reversable, but, yeah, there is some evidence (feminism, civil rights, etc.), but a positive approach to morality is extremely dangerous for it isn't just prescriptive, it's tyrannical, monolithic. This, I think, is Rand's complaint and while I'm no Randian, she does have a point here. She goes further, of course, and shows how a negative approach to morality ends up doing the same thing. Again, she has a point. Descriptions have a a strong tendency to become prescriptions but the reverse, while possible, seems rare. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," is not intended, I don't believe, as a prescriptive
dictum, it's a description of a society. Unfortunately, it effectively became a prescriptive one, but didn't do the work of returning to a description.

The trick then is trying to imagine a society where this is what people "naturally" do and "naturally" want. One way to do this is to assume that all the things an individual does is productive for a society unless they interfere with another person's right to do as they want. There's plenty of evidence, I think, to show that letting people do what they want is good for society as a whole, from each according to his ability, and therefore we should help others attain their goals, to each according to his need.

Two objections immediately present themselves:

1. The zero sum game: As long as we have limited resources, no one's appetite will ever be satisfied. It is inevitable that some will lose out and some will win.

rebuttal 1: If people were never satisfied, why do companies feel the need to promote consumption as such? Why are there times when people don't buy even when they do have money? Simplistic rhetorical questions don't really respond to the question, I know, but I think they are possible triggers to a more thoroughly worked out solution.

rebuttal 2: The zero sum game is not the result of a natural appetite. It is the result of a belief that those who have more also have better. Change the belief, the masses must become artistic, we must move from a 'keeping up with the Joneses' attitude to one where self-realization is the goal strived for and the zero sum game falls away.

But this leads to the second objection:

2. Our success is defined by the failure of others. Our very identity is predicated on our relationship with others and where we stand in a hierarchy. We are biologically designed to be competitive in one way or another. To think otherwise is foolish. Shut up and read some Faulkner, damn it!

Rebuttal 1: Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic. All hierarchies depend on the interdependence of the various groups. Such a tension inevitably leads to a mutual recognition and a valuing of the other. (Okay, historically were in some for explaining to do if we actually use this one. Luckily we're not talking about history we're talking about the future, but that doesn't get us off the hook, does it?)

Rebuttal 2: Our dependence on the failure of others is a mistaken view of how things work. If we accept the principle that all things that do not hurt me, help me, we will see and promote the proliferation of different views, different lifestyles, different ways of thinking, and different ways of doing. Heretofore, all societies have pressured their citizens to conform to a norm, a prescription, of what the 'good life' is. There can and should be mutlitiple heterotopias, not monolithic structures like State Socialism.


As unsatisfactory as I think these rebuttals are, I still think it's a start. I see no value in dismissing the question with the wave of a dictionary.
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Postby Matt » Sun Aug 18, 2002 1:38 pm

I don't think we live in a zero sum world. It's only material things that are finite, but there's plenty of non-material things that are infinite, like jokes, thoughts, social interactions, etc.

It's just that at this particular point in time we are living in a very much consumer world.

On a response to the why do people not buy even when they have money, it's because in this world money is seen as a good in itself rather than just as a means to an ends. This means it is treated just like material things, in that people acquire it just like any other luxury.

Also companies promote consumption not in general but of their products over others, it's just that we see all the companies doing this and so it looks like the comercial world is promoting consumption. They don'tsit there and say "Let's getting people spending money" they sit there and say "let's get them buying OUR product". It's only banks that say "let's get people in debt so we can make money" because their product IS money. (Not cynical, just true :-)

As me and JP have already grappled the morality subject before I hope I don't repeat myself, but I think that the type of morality that Pangloss' is talking about is exactly the same as the one JP was talking about, it suffers from the self-neglect problem. It would succeed in a universal setting, but as soon as you move away from the universal your self-neglect increases. However if you want something along those lines, just add the self into the sum. It's the measuring that's the hard part.
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Postby JP » Mon Aug 26, 2002 5:52 pm

If a moral theory is not prescriptive, just what purpose does it serve? A moral statement contains the notion of "ought". That's just what a moral statement is.

What I'm trying to get across, is that morality isn't solely a consequence of reason as Kant maintained and as most philosophers have been maintaining ever since, but that there is a distinctly latent almost "a priori" feel to it. Regardless of how this morality is developed (environment, genes, God etc.) I think it is fair to say, that most have a strong notion of morality before they develop the cognitive skills to adequately question and critique it. Without understanding why, I can think back to my earliest memories - my earliest flickers of true consciousness - and be almost certain that I would have had the conception then, say, that inflicting pain on other people is wrong. Even amongst children - who we should say are fairly unreasonable on a great many occasions - there are definate signs of ethical conduct that they would have adopted without even realising it.

Now if I am correct here in maintaining that the roots of morality have little basis at all in reason (or, at least, reason is just one of many factors involved in its conception and realisation) then we can take it a step further and suggest, with some confidence, that there is some part of morality - however large - that must necessarily be irrational.

Actually, I should point out that when I use the word "morality" as though I am speaking of an object, I really mean to use the phrase "moral outlook" which can be applied either to the individual or the collective. I just use the term "morality" to make things a bit more simple.

Anyway, it's this irrational part of morailty that makes me weary of prescriptive theories - or, at least, every prescriptive theory I've ever encountered. These theories have been contsructed upon the foundation of reason and are based upon the principle, generally, that so long as the tennets of the theory are self-consistent and consistent with what we find in "reality", that the theory can

Does a "descriptive" moral theory say "This is what is, so this is what will be"?

No, simply "this is what is".

"This is what will be" infers a notion of command or judgement, which would place it firmly in the "prescriptive" side.

Surely there is a descriptive element in any well-wrought moral theory, but if it stops there, no actual work has been done.


If one wishes to act morally, he must first understand what this involves. If morality, as I am suggesting, can be created and understood seperately from reason (at least partially) then it suggests to me that there is some part of morality that is nearly "a priori", in that we evoke moral behaviour before we are even able to ascertain how it is that it is so moral. We do not all start at zero and develop a moral theory using logic alone from nothing, we learn from the behaviour of others and we are latently social animals as well, so morality, I could argue, is a natural consequence of our evolutionary ancestory. Thus, dictating, by way of a prescriptive theory that there is a right or wrong mode of morality is akin to saying that there is a right or wrong mode of communication. How we learn to communicate is a combination of our latent ablity to learn how to speak and how to learn patterns of speach from others in our society. I believe that it's a similar deal with morality, in that we have a latent ability to learn and understand concepts like "good and bad" and we are taught the exact mode of what is considered "good or bad" by those we come in contact with. Conscience could be viewed as a natural evolutionary need for the members of a society to treat each other properly to ensure a greater survival rate (though I'm not really sure I should be treading down this path at this point in time).

Thus, if one can properly analyse what the basic laws governing the nature of human morality (as opposed to a particular system of human morality) are, then they stand a better chance of acting morally.

I realise here that I'm starting to talk about morality in an all too absolutist tone, but it's hard to get my ideas across properly at the moment due to extreme tiredness. :-?
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