Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Chat: About This Blog

Okay, yes, I took the day off. The world seems to be having a calm couple of days, with the exception of the rekindling of civil war in Sri Lanka.

I think that it would be a good day just to get a nice cold glass of Diet Dr. Pepper, sit back, and have a pleasant little chat, just to take stock of where things are and where they are going.

So, why am I here, writing this blog? I have given the core reason several times. When I was in high school I resolved that I would leave the world better than it would have otherwise been. Unlike a lot of people who are out advocating a particular political position or policy, I felt that I needed to understand what 'better' meant. So, I actually went through 12 years of college studying theories of value -- particularly moral value.

Now, if I were to sift through all of that education and come up with the most important things that I could say about value, it would be this:

1. Values are real.

Yes, values depend on desires, and if no desires exist than no values exist. However, desires are real. Therefore, values are real. It is just as true to say that there would be no moons without planets. However, planets do exist. And, as a result, we live in a universe that contains a few moons. So, people who talk about value, like those that talk about moons, are talking about something real.

2. It is possible to bridge the is-ought gap.

There has to be a bridge out there somewhere. The real world, the world that can be described with 'is' statements, is the only world that exists. Anything that can't be reduced to 'is' statements is not real. It is fiction or make-believe. So, value statements either have to be reduced to 'is' statements somehow, or all value statements are make-believe.

As somebody who has first hand experience with value, I would like to assure you that the phenomenon is real. I have had first-hand interaction with value, and I suspect that you have as well.

I think one of the most damaging ideas out there comes from those who accept the standard interpretation of Hume's claim that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is'. Separating 'ought' from 'is' means removing 'ought' from the natural realm (because that is the realm that 'is' statements describe), and putting it in a supernatural realm outside of the reach of science and rational analysis. To think that there is such a realm is problematic at best.

Besides, I don't think these people have Hume right. Hume did not say, "You cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'." He said, "You cannot derive 'ought' from 'is' without mentioning the passions." I convert the word "passions" to "desires" and say the same thing.

These "passions" or "desires" are real. They are very much a part of the natural world. As such, they are very much capable of being captured by 'is' statements. As such, there is a link between 'ought' and 'is' that makes 'ought' as much a natural property as anything else in the universe.

This means that we can study it, apply reason to it, and determine which 'ought' claims are true and which are false.

3. Moral value has little to do with the passions of the speaker.

People like to look at their own feelings to determine right and wrong. We even have a saying that you should "let your conscience be your guide."

Actually, no. That's not right. People view their own "sense of right and wrong" as being more reliable than it is in fact. The only thing these internal sensations tell you is what you like and do not like. They tell you how you have been taught to react to things, without much analysis as to whether you have been taught well or poorly.

The problem with looking into one's own heart to determine right from wrong is captured by the fact that "I like" does not imply "You ought". Nor does "I do not like" imply "You ought not." How is it that you get from an internal sentiment -- something planted (to speak in Hume's terms) in your own breast, to what other people ought or ought not to do? This chasm is much more insurmountable than the gap between "is" and "ought".

I recognize that a lot of people like the idea of linking what is in their own heart to what is right and wrong. It makes it easy to do the right thing. One only looks at one's own inclinations, and goes with them. However, no matter how many times people make a particular invalid inference, it remains invalid. "You ought" and "You ought not" cannot be derived from "I like" and "I like not".

I have no doubt that the 9-11 hijackers, suicide bombers, and other terrorists are confident that they are doing the right thing when they blow up a bus full of innocent people. These people were as skilled at letting their conscience be their guide as the rest of us are. I have no doubt that those who are repulsed by the thought of two people of the same gender in a sexual relationship are feeling a genuine sense of revulsion -- and that it is no different from the revulsion that others feel at the thought of two people of different races having a sexual relationship.

Mark Twain captured the full sense of "let your conscience be your guide" in the book Huckleberry Finn. Huck helped the slave Jim escape, and felt guilty about it through the entire book. He was taught to view blacks as property, and he was taking somebody else's property from them and setting it free. The whole book concerns his guilt over this, with Huck finally deciding that he is a bad person, but he would not turn Jim in. He felt that he had to simply accept the fact that, unlike others, he was born to sin by aiding in Jim's escape. If he had let his conscience be his guide, he would have turned Jim in.

4. Morality is not found in what societies do reward and punish.

To study right and wrong, you have to get outside your own mind.

To understand morality, you have to realize that it reflects facts that existed before you were born, and facts that will persist after you are dead. Morality has to do with what society has reason to praise or condemn, to reward or punish.

This is not what society thinks it should praise or condemn, reward or punish. A whole society can be caught up in the false belief that there is a God that will destroy them unless they promote the misery of a certain segment of their population -- such as women, homosexuals, or "unbelievers". Whole societies can believe that they have reason to segregate the races, treat diseases with prayer rather than medicine, and reject the theory of evolution.

Entire societies can be wrong.

So, we cannot look at what a society does or does not praise or condemn, reward or punish, to determine what morality requires. This only tells us what they think that morality requires. They can be wrong.

So, the quest to do the right thing is not discovered by looking into one's own heart, nor is it discovered by looking at what societies praise and condemn, or reward and punish.

5. Morality has to do with what it makes sense for a society to reward and punish

Morality actually has to do with what it makes sense for a society to praise and condemn, reward and punish, whether they realize it or not.

Freedom of the press, for example, would have been a good idea for any society, from ancient Babylon to the present, long before anybody actually wrote it into a Constitution. The reasons why societies ought to praise freedom of the press and stand ready to condemn and punish those who would violate this principle are the reasons it got written into the Constitution to start with. If the press is chained, then those who hold the key will manipulate it to promote those fictions that consolidate and expand their power, while "convincing" others of their need to sacrifice their own good.

Freedom of the press is one of those things that was a good idea long before I was born, and will be a good idea long after I die, that retains its value to society even if I did not exist. These are the types of truths that morality seeks to expose.

These are the things that I try to identify in this series of essays -- things that it would be wise for society to praise and reward, and that it would be wise for society to condemn and punish. I offer my reasons for suggesting that society would be wise to do these things.

I suggest that it would not be wise for any society to accept the claim that the legislative, judiciary, and executive powers of government should be combined in one office, in the body of one person. Yet, as Bush claims the right to rewrite all of the laws, and to be the sole judge of the legitimacy of his own actions, that this is the type of government we are heading towards.

I suggest that it would be wise for society to keep church and state separate. Because, to the degree that it is not, to the degree that one religion is given power to compel that others accept theirs as the dominant religion, to that degree we can expect conflict and strife. We have seen it throughout human history. And we will see it again, if we are not careful.

I suggest that it would be wise for society to condemn an administration that sends negotiators out to conferences, such as the Climate Change conference, under the arrogant presumption that we have nothing to gain or to learn by negotiating with the rest of the world.

6. I can be wrong.

There is a particular attitude associated with those who think that morality is not something to be derived from one's own sentiments, regarding the opinions of others. It means that, when somebody steps up and says, "I think you are wrong," then I have to allow the possibility that I might actually be wrong. I need to listen to their reasons for saying that society would not be well advised to do what I suggest. If there is a fact of the matter, it would be arrogance to assume that I know without the possibility of error what that fact is.


So, it is my hope that I am providing something of value with this blog. I hope that the years of education have taught me something useful, and that I can actually do something useful with what I learned. Societies actually can be made better, and they can be made worse. By looking seriously at the options, and discussing them, hopefully we can continue to move closer to the former, and away from the latter, over time.

And, yes, these are the types of things that I sit back and contemplate when I take a day off.


soihgior44 said...

I thank you Alonzo.

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