Thursday, March 05, 2009

Changing Morality

Here is an interesting question from the studio audience.

[D]oes [the fact that the malleability of desires change] mean that what was wrong (right) in the past can become right (wrong) in the present due to the maleability of desires?

The answer is, Yes. What is right or wrong can change over time.

Now, actually, we have to look at different levels of morality here. At one level, what is wrong (right) does not change. It is always the case that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed. What is wrong is still what a person with good desires would not have done. At this level, morality is constant across time, and across situation.

However, what a person with good desire would do depends on the circumstances. A person with good desires would tell the truth, generally. However, she might not tell the truth to the Nazi soldiers who are looking for the Jews that used to live in town – Jews that she is hiding in her root cellar.

More to the point, however, what counts as a good desire can change over time.

In a society with scarcely any water, and which is particularly dry or particularly cold, it may be worthwhile to promote an aversion to bathing or even to getting wet. However, if this same community should suffer a change in climate, where rains become pleantiful and temperatures become warmer, they may discover that it is now best to promote a desire for bathing and an aversion to having gone more than a day without a shower or bath.

One of the principles of morality is that 'ought' implies 'can'. It makes no sense to say that agents 'ought' to have a particular desire that they cannot have, or ought not to have a desire they are compelled to have. However, as scientific research increases the range of possibilities, it increases the range of options that are available for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

One thing that is important to note is that the fact that a fact changes over time does not prevent it from being objective. For example, another thing that has changed over time is my age. It has changed at approximately the rate of one year per year. Yet, at any particular time, there is an objective right answer to the question, "How old are you?"

Similarly, at one time I was shorter than my mother. For a brief period of time I was the same height as her. Now, I am taller. However, the fact that this relationship has changed over the years does not in any way prevent claims about our relative height from reflecting objective fact.

Also, whether something was right or wrong at a specific time does not depend in any way on what the culture believed or what their 'values' were at the time. People in the Middle Ages might have thought it wrong to bathe. However, the fact that bathing helps to prevent the spread of (desire-thwarting) disease means that they were wrong to believe this. They should have been promoting a desire to bathe, not an aversion to it. Morality is neither individually nor culturally subjective. It is, instead, relationally objective.


Anonymous said...

Your example regarding changes in morality are quite weak. The question about morals and ethics is a very important one. What determines the morals of an atheist? Ultimately: self. It does not matter how you live your life on this earth... there is no ultimate sense of justice. Your example of 'taking a bath and not taking a bath' is a huge problem. Firt of all, it is very trivial, but I know what you're trying to say. But what if the problem is not water... what if it is jews? What is Hitler convinces the German people, as he did, that we have too much of something. Is it immoral then, to kill the jews? There is not enough water... don't bathe... there is plenty of water... keep bathing a plent. Well, there are too many jews... let's wipe them out! If you don't have an absolute moral standard outside of self then you really have not moral standards it would seem.

Anonymous said...

Funny I consider myself more moral than some say like Pat Robertson or Oral Roberts, or the high number of divorced people in the bible belt without prescribing to any supernatural security camera on me 24/7.

What the religious say is that without god they would suddenly run around killing, stealing and raping.

Anonymous said...

well changes in morality is a big concern and i believe its because people have let little things slip an example is in clothing a mere 50 years ago wearing a mini skirt was unthinkable and there was a proper length for the skirts to be and if it was within those requirements it would be moral .... but over time a few people decided "we will not were skirts to our socks but instead to our knees" and then over more time knee length was acceptable and it just got worse and worse becuase people were allowed to get away with small things and i know clothes is not a major problem but the same principle the same way peoples opinions and morals related to sex about 50 years ago sex before marriage was the most rebelious act you could perform and it would often result in the person being exculded from their family but as the generations went through when the person who had sex before marriage is now a parent and thinks that sex before marriage had no major effect on them decides that they wont worry about their child and they can have sex before marriage if they want .... and it got worse and now thousands of kids before the age of 15 have already have sex ... and the age before having sex is decreasing over the years ... and if the world continues to follow this path all morals will just go out the window and anything will be acceptable and any new immoral thing will be counted as something fun and interesting to try ...