Morality

A couple of thought-provoking posts at Overcoming Bias about morality (among many there lately on the topic): The Moral Void and Is Morality Given. See also the comments.

From the first, the question is posed: “When you cannot be innocent, justified, or praiseworthy,” which course of action will you choose anyway?

And this, pointing to labelling and authority as it relates to morality, and to our propensity for letting someone else define ‘morality’:

“In 1966, the Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin presented, to 1,066 schoolchildren ages 8-14, the Biblical story of Joshua’s battle in Jericho:

“‘Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword…  And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.’

“After being presented with the Joshua story, the children were asked:

“‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?

66% of the children approved, 8% partially disapproved, and 26% totally disapproved of Joshua’s actions.

“A control group of 168 children was presented with an isomorphic story about ‘General Lin’ and a ‘Chinese Kingdom 3,000 years ago’.  7% of this group approved, 18% partially disapproved, and 75% completely disapproved of General Lin.

“‘What a horrible thing it is, teaching religion to children,’ you say, ‘giving them an off-switch for their morality that can be flipped just by saying the word ‘God’.’ Indeed one of the saddest aspects of the whole religious fiasco is just how little it takes to flip people’s moral off-switches. As Hobbes once said, ‘I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that everyone’s got a price, or the fact that their price is so low.”  You can give people a book, and tell them God wrote it, and that’s enough to switch off their moralities; God doesn’t even have to tell them in person.

“But are you sure you don’t have a similar off-switch yourself?  They flip so easily — you might not even notice it happening.”

Why, he asks, do we even listen to an “external objective reality” instead of to ourselves?

The second article is a staged debate about whether morality is a given, something beyond simply “human preference”? Here’s a little bit of it:

“Subhan: Once upon a time, theologians tried to say that God was the foundation of morality.  And even since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers were sophisticated enough to go on and ask the next question — ‘Why follow God’s commands?’  Does God have knowledge of morality, so that we should follow Its orders as good advice?  But then what is this morality, outside God, of which God has knowledge?  Do God’s commands determine morality?  But then why, morally, should one follow God’s orders?

“Obert:  “Yes, this demolishes attempts to answer questions about the nature of morality just by saying ‘God!’, unless you answer the obvious further questions.  But so what?”

“Subhan:  “And furthermore, let us castigate those who made the argument originally, for the sin of trying to cast off responsibility — trying to wave a scripture and say, ‘I’m just following God’s orders!’  Even if God had told them to do a thing, it would still have been their own decision to follow God’s orders.”

“Obert:  “I agree — as a matter of morality, there is no evading of moral responsibility.  Even if your parents, or your government, or some kind of hypothetical superintelligence, tells you to do something, you are responsible for your decision in doing it.”

“Subhan:  “But you see, this also demolishes the idea of any morality that is outside, beyond, or above human preference.  Just substitute ‘morality’ for ‘God’ in the argument!””

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