Author Topic: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.  (Read 5333 times)

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Offline penfold

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Secular ethics is a well-worn topic. My reason for dragging it up again is that I still have yet to see a satisfactory answer, and my own view is that as intelligent atheists we should be able to provide one.

The challenge to secular ethics is to try and outline a system which meets the following two requirements:

i) It does not invoke a metaphysical reality
ii) It is capable of guiding our behaviour in a meaningful way (in other words it is not completely relativist)


I will outline the two most common answers which people give and my reasons for rejecting them.

Utilitarianism

One approach often used in attempting to arrive at a coherent secular system of ethics is adopting some version of the principle of utility; that is an action is good if it provides the greatest x to the greatest number of people. The x can be almost anything from happiness (Mill) to pleasure (Bentham) to preference satisfaction (Hare); I will use ‘happiness’ for simplicity's sake, but what I say can be applied to any other version.

I have two main reasons for rejecting it; one practical and the other philosophical. The practical reason is that in most cases the consequences of actions are impossible to reasonably predict. Take, for example, a man having an affair. The dilemma he faces is whether or not to tell his wife. On one analysis he should because this will make him and his mistress happy as they can then conduct their relationship in the open, and also make the wife happy as she knows the truth. On another analysis it will make him unhappy because he will have to fight a divorce case, it will make his mistress unhappy because he will be, possibly ending their relationship anyway; and it will make his wife unhappy because she will discover she’s been cuckolded. There is no way of predicting which of these analyses is correct; and thus in this case (and I would contend in most cases) Utilitarianism fails to meet my second requirement – that any ethical system must be able to guide our behaviour in a meaningful way.

The philosophical reason for rejecting Utilitarianism is that it fails to attain its own goals without universal assent. The aim of any principle of utility is to attain the best possible outcome. I would contend that rather than guaranteeing such an outcome principles of utility provide a poor outcome unless everyone adopted them. Let us say I become a utilitarian; I have a couple of thousand pounds in my bank-account. However everyone else on my street is in debt. Being a good Utilitarian I give my money away to get people out of debt; in fact I am ethically compelled to do so, as long as I am better off than others. The end result is that I pay off a few pounds of everyone else’s debt until I reach the same level of debt as them. All I have attained is debt for myself! This seems like a trivial example, but the principle can be taken even more broadly. The utilitarian will find that if they follow their ethical system honestly (and the vast majority of self-identifying utilitarians do not - they tend to overvalue their own happiness) they will expend their resources making themselves unhappy and barely affecting the problems of others (though of course in aggregate the overall situation has improved by a miniscule amount). In other words Utilitarianism tends to enforce a very poor outcome on its practitioners. It may be objected that this would not be the case if everyone acted on the principle of utility, this is fair, but the notion of universal assent hopelessly unrealistic. I would argue that an ethical system which makes its practitioners worse off is philosophically flawed.

Common Sense Morality

The second common response to the challenge of forming a secular ethical system is to invoke a pragmatic ‘common sense’ approach. I have much sympathy for this line of thinking but as with Utilitarianism I think we have some grounds to reject it.

The problem here is that common sense morality (‘csm’) is that it gives us differing duties based upon our relationships to others. So csm will tell us that if we have a choice between saving the life of a stranger or a friend we will opt for the friend (even more so if it is family). This has the effect of opening up a set of interrelated problems when it comes to making moral decisions in groups (the most famous is the prisoner’s dilemma).

An example is found in the question of whether to privately educate your children. Let us take an imaginary situation I can send my child to State (‘S’) which has bad teachers but is free; or to Private (‘P’) which has good teachers but is expensive. Csm will tell me to send my child to P. However I also know that if no-one sent their child to P and everyone sent their child to S then S would attract the good teachers and be free. In other words Csm prevents us attaining the best outcome - where we have good teachers for free. Instead csm forces parents to can afford it to send their children to P and thus condemning poor children to S. Because csm gives us differeing duties to our friends and family it cannot attain the best moral outcome. Thus if we accept this line of reasoning we are left in a bleak moral world where the best outcomes are unattainable, a situation which is at minimum philosophically unsatisfying.

For another neat example think about Global Warming in these terms; the best outcome is reducing carbon emissions, but csm tells me not to disadvantage my family/nation/self and so as individuals we never do - thus the good outcome of reducing carbon emissions becomes unattainable if we follow csm.

So any better ideas?
« Last Edit: April 15, 2013, 10:06:51 AM by penfold »
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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2013, 02:41:03 PM »
I don't see what "secular" has to do with this.  You won't find any better answers from religion, so why - other than a polemic against secularism - would you specify that?
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #2 on: April 15, 2013, 03:51:38 PM »
I don't see what "secular" has to do with this.  You won't find any better answers from religion, so why - other than a polemic against secularism - would you specify that?

By secular I simply mean non-religious. The problems with religious ethics are many, not least that they propose the existence of a bogus metaphysical reality and not being religious I don't want to discuss religious systems - this is the first reason I specified secular ethics. However that reality did have the advantage of giving ethical thinking authority; if one believes in a 'perfect' judge then ethics has the admirable quality of being absolute - ie what is good is good because god says so (apologies to Ethyphro). A secular system has honesty (it does not propose any metaphysical reality) but it risks losing authority. It is that problem which gives me my second reason for specifying secular ethics.

Once we reject God we should want to try and find some non-religious foundation to ethics - a secular system. My interest is simply in terms of moral philosophy; my aim is to find a secular ethical system which is based upon reason. As has been the goal of all secular ethicists since the enlightenment. My purpose in posting is that the two most vaunted secular ethical systems seem to me to be (for the reasons I outlined) very weak systems. All I was hoping for is that someone in the community has some alternative proposal. Unless of course we succumb to relativism which seems to me to be both dangerous and unsatisfying.

Also, I don't know if you spent any time reading my post but there is nothing polemical about it; it takes the form of argument.


 
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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #3 on: April 15, 2013, 04:46:38 PM »
My point is that the problem you describe - the lack of a universal ethical foundation - is a universal problem.  It's not a secular one.
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Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #4 on: April 15, 2013, 05:38:32 PM »
There is no universal or objective moral code.  Pretending there is one doesn't change that fact.

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #5 on: April 15, 2013, 09:00:22 PM »
I'm not quite sure if this plugs in to your aims, but I've always like the tenets of humanism:



We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.

We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms.

We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.

We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.

We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.

We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.

We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.

We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.

We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.

We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.

We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.

We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.

We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children.

We want to nourish reason and compassion.

We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.

We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.

We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.

We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.

We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.

We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.
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Offline Bereft_of_Faith

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #6 on: April 16, 2013, 12:14:47 AM »
I'm not quite sure if this plugs in to your aims, but I've always like the tenets of humanism: [snipped]

I have always thought of this as the best way to live one's life, and upon which to base a society.  I don't think there's a single point above with which I would take issue.

Offline magicmiles

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #7 on: April 16, 2013, 12:17:59 AM »



eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

Apart from the intolerable behavious....right?

Some good stuff in there which i heartily agree with.

The 2010 world cup was ruined for me by that slippery bastard Paul.

Offline dloubet

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #8 on: April 16, 2013, 01:09:11 AM »
Just because utilitarianism can't answer all the messy problems humans get themselves into, and doesn't bestow omniscience concerning the consequences of our decisions, doesn't mean it's useless or should be rejected.
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #9 on: April 16, 2013, 03:03:53 AM »
There is no universal or objective moral code.  Pretending there is one doesn't change that fact.

I don't think there is a universal 'code'; but I do think that ethics-as-such is universal; in other words while we may find cultural differences between what is considered to be 'good' all cultures retain some concept of 'good'. Apart from anything else our capacity to diagnose those who have an amoral pathology - sociopaths - implies that, at minimum, ethics has some biological basis.

So I agree that we can never really hope to state a particular 'rule' is universal, I do think we should be able to delineate a set of rational principles which feed into ethical thought. To argue we can't seems to me to run counter to our experience of animals with ethical sensibilities.

Apart from anything else I know that if I stole from you, you'd feel aggrieved, so no matter how much you may intellectually reject ethics, you, like the rest of us, have some innate access to notions of justice.
« Last Edit: April 16, 2013, 03:13:29 AM by penfold »
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #10 on: April 16, 2013, 03:05:51 AM »
I'm not quite sure if this plugs in to your aims, but I've always like the tenets of humanism:

I agree this is a great set of standards; and ones I hope I uphold in my own life, however what I am looking for is some rational foundation which implies I should follow these standards - something more than mere personal preference. If my only defense is personal preference then I could in theory justify any behaviour.
« Last Edit: April 16, 2013, 03:14:02 AM by penfold »
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #11 on: April 16, 2013, 03:11:49 AM »
Just because utilitarianism can't answer all the messy problems humans get themselves into, and doesn't bestow omniscience concerning the consequences of our decisions, doesn't mean it's useless or should be rejected.

I don't think utilitarianism is useless, in fact I think there are some situations where it is clearly the only course. For example if my job is to assign the budget of a hospital, I would have to look at what is needed to attain the best possible outcome for patients which would require a principle of utility.

My issue is that this kind of situation where outcomes are clearly numerate is a minority of ethical dilemmas. It is no accident that the two greatest proponents of Utilitarianism Bentham and Mill were primarily concerned with the ethics of policy making; Utilitarianism started off as an ethic for governments, where, by and large it is appropriate.

For the individual however Utilitarianism is pretty weak; firstly because most every day ethical situations cannot be easily analysed (or analysed at all); and secondly because if one were to really follow a utilitarian ethic at a personal level you would be forced to seriously disadvantage yourself. (see OP).

It is not that I reject Utilitarianism in all cases, merely that it is at best a small part of the answer to finding a rational basis for ethics.
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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #12 on: April 16, 2013, 04:16:33 AM »
There is also the problem that rules-based utilitarianism (ie. policy-making) will usually require that individuals act against their own specific-act-based utilitarianism.  The two will conflict if both are held in a society.

I don't think there is a universal 'code'; but I do think that ethics-as-such is universal; in other words while we may find cultural differences between what is considered to be 'good' all cultures retain some concept of 'good'.

That would be required in order for groups of people to form what we would consider to be a culture.  So, kind of circular reasoning here.

Apart from anything else our capacity to diagnose those who have an amoral pathology - sociopaths - implies that, at minimum, ethics has some biological basis.

That, and humans form cultures while lizards do not.  I suspect the basis for that is biological, too.  For that matter, when it comes right down to it, everything about us is biological, since we are biological organisms.

So I agree that we can never really hope to state a particular 'rule' is universal, I do think we should be able to delineate a set of rational principles which feed into ethical thought. To argue we can't seems to me to run counter to our experience of animals with ethical sensibilities.

Agreed.  This is what I usually mean when I say tha held values are subjective, but how they interact and function once they are held is not.

Apart from anything else I know that if I stole from you, you'd feel aggrieved, so no matter how much you may intellectually reject ethics, you, like the rest of us, have some innate access to notions of justice.

Where did Razel reject ethics?
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #13 on: April 16, 2013, 04:47:50 AM »
...  For that matter, when it comes right down to it, everything about us is biological, since we are biological organisms.

So I agree that we can never really hope to state a particular 'rule' is universal, I do think we should be able to delineate a set of rational principles which feed into ethical thought. To argue we can't seems to me to run counter to our experience of animals with ethical sensibilities.

Agreed.  This is what I usually mean when I say tha held values are subjective, but how they interact and function once they are held is not.

I find this line of reasoning appealing. However there is a problem. If we take your 'structural' approach then we may well end up with a good description of how we behave ethically; however what I am seeking though is some guidance on how we ought to behave (and it was in this sense I thought that Razel was rejecting ethics - though it is not explicit in his post so I may have done him an injustice).

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics compares living ethically to playing an instrument well. Obviously there is no universal rule which dictates exactly how I should play a flute, but through practice I will find, for example, I get a better result when playing with my mouth rather than my bum!

The problem with this analogy is that with a musical instrument I have a clear goal ('telos'), that of producing aesthetically pleasing sounds. With ethics deciding what our telos should be is tricky. We might, as your post suggests look to biology to provide a telos, but looking at the history of eugenics I am wary of such an approach. If we could find some ethical telos dictated by our reason (which, of course, is part of our biology) that woulds be helpful but I am at a loss to know what it would be.

If however we do identify a telos, then the kind of structural approach you seem to have would be highly useful because we could generate the following ethical rule: we should act in a manner which best attains our ethical telos; and we could discern this by looking at various strategies employed by people and seeing what works best. Just as the musician looks to the techniques of others to work out how to play their instrument well...
« Last Edit: April 16, 2013, 04:50:09 AM by penfold »
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Offline Graybeard

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #14 on: April 16, 2013, 05:10:55 AM »
The problem with Utilitarianism is (a) as you propose, (b) it can lead to mob rule and (c) it requires a homogenous society such that there is an initial definition of “what is right”. Of course, if we had that, we would not require Utilitarianism.

The problem with “Common Sense Morality” is that it suffers from a complete lack of definition. We each carry our own morality with us. That we are a society shows that there is a general consensus but, examined at the edges, there is no agreement – the devil is in the detail.

The problem with all moral philosophies is that they put themselves forward as a “one-size-fits-all” solution, and they never do. Thus for the imposition of a moral philosophy, a regulating authority is required. The authority requires some people to go against their “natural common sense.” This creates tension and then leads to dissent and rebellion and hence the collapse of that system.

Societies are dynamic. A successful moral code is one that is lax but concerns itself with people being reasonable. Reasonableness = the willingness to have imposed changes to meet changing circumstance and outlook, but only to the degree with which society feels comfortable at the time.

Summary:
One size never fits all.
Be reasonable.
Nobody says “There are many things that we thought were natural processes, but now know that a god did them.”

Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #15 on: April 16, 2013, 07:01:11 AM »
I'm not quite sure if this plugs in to your aims, but I've always like the tenets of humanism:

I agree this is a great set of standards; and ones I hope I uphold in my own life, however what I am looking for is some rational foundation which implies I should follow these standards - something more than mere personal preference. If my only defense is personal preference then I could in theory justify any behaviour.

Personal preference is how all people derive their morality.  You could justify any behavior with them, but you won't, because that isn't your preference.

Morality has no inherent goal or priority.  You have to define what your priorities are yourself, and then rationalize what morals you need to uphold them.  For some people, it's "minimizing loss of human life" or "reduce suffering".  For fundamentalists, it's religion.

Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #16 on: April 16, 2013, 08:17:49 AM »
Personal preference is how all people derive their morality.  You could justify any behavior with them, but you won't, because that isn't your preference.

Morality has no inherent goal or priority.  You have to define what your priorities are yourself, and then rationalize what morals you need to uphold them.  For some people, it's "minimizing loss of human life" or "reduce suffering".  For fundamentalists, it's religion.

I strongly disagree with this. I will outline a couple of reasons for thinking it is a poor account of ethical psychology.

What you propose is a branch of reductionism; you are claiming that a statement of the form "x is good" can be reduced to "I prefer x". This raises a number of issues. Firstly it fails to match our language; when I say "x is good" I mean far more than "I prefer x"; I am also being prescriptive "we should x" and making an objective claim "everyone should agree x is good". I may, in fact fail to follow my own advice. So I may say that "lying is wrong" but still prefer in some situations to lie.

However there is a deeper problem with the 'preference' account of ethics (this argument is not my own but taken from Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue).

If I say "I prefer kippers to poached eggs" my preference is one related to the taste of food. If I say "I prefer brunettes to blonds" my preference is one related to sexual partner's hair colour.

Now let us consider the ethical case. I say "I prefer altruism to egoism", what does my preference relate to? There are two options:
i) It relates to nothing
ii) It relates to ethics

Option (i) is clearly spurious as all preferences must be preference of some standard. Option (ii) makes your argument circular as you wish to reduce ethics to preference. If you admit that ethics can be reduced to ethical preference all you have given me is a truism and the topic of how we assign ethical preference (the topic I am interested in) remains untouched.

Put another way; I can agree with your statement that "all ethics are based in preference" and still ask the question "how should we assign ethical preferences?"
« Last Edit: April 16, 2013, 08:34:13 AM by penfold »
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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #17 on: April 16, 2013, 08:20:22 AM »
You'll never reach an end of that "should" chain.  You'll always need at least one starting, a-rational axiomatic "should" to reason from.
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #18 on: April 16, 2013, 08:28:04 AM »
You'll never reach an end of that "should" chain.  You'll always need at least one starting, a-rational axiomatic "should" to reason from.

Possibly so. Though I find this terribly bleak. It seems to me that given we are ethical creatures we should attempt to find some way of being ethical in a meaningful manner rather than just shrugging our shoulders. I do not want to concede that intellectually we have to be morally ambivalent, I want to be able to judge and to be judged. I want to be able to say that this system of government is better than that, or that certain ways of behaving are wrong and others are right.

We should be honest here. If we do not accept God because it is a bogus metaphysical reality we cannot justify, then we should be as hard on ethics. It would be unfair to proclaim to the world that we should reject the notion of God, but cling to our equally unfounded notions of right and wrong. It seems to me finding a way of justifying ethics is genuinely important.

It may be that we never will be able to do so, but I really hope not, and I'm not ready to give up just yet...
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Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #19 on: April 16, 2013, 10:06:02 AM »
I strongly disagree with this. I will outline a couple of reasons for thinking it is a poor account of ethical psychology.

What you propose is a branch of reductionism; you are claiming that a statement of the form "x is good" can be reduced to "I prefer x". This raises a number of issues. Firstly it fails to match our language; when I say "x is good" I mean far more than "I prefer x"; I am also being prescriptive "we should x" and making an objective claim "everyone should agree x is good". I may, in fact fail to follow my own advice. So I may say that "lying is wrong" but still prefer in some situations to lie.

Doesn't have to match our language.  You may mean "x is objectively, universally, and divinely good", but that doesn't mean it is.  If you were raised in a different culture, time period, or family, you would have some very different ideas about what you believe to be good.

And yes, people fail to follow their own morals all the time.  Often without noticing.

Quote
Now let us consider the ethical case. I say "I prefer altruism to egoism", what does my preference relate to? There are two options:
i) It relates to nothing
ii) It relates to ethics

Option (i) is clearly spurious as all preferences must be preference of some standard. Option (ii) makes your argument circular as you wish to reduce ethics to preference. If you admit that ethics can be reduced to ethical preference all you have given me is a truism and the topic of how we assign ethical preference (the topic I am interested in) remains untouched.

Put another way; I can agree with your statement that "all ethics are based in preference" and still ask the question "how should we assign ethical preferences?"

Preferences typically aren't something you assign to yourself.  You don't just decide to like kippers over eggs one day.  Likewise, for ethics, you have a set of core principles that are usually static (although converting/deconverting from a religion tends to shake it up a bit).  You may change your opinions on some things if you find out that they violate your principles, but those principles tend to remain unchanged.

I suppose if you want to try assigning ethical preferences, find people with similar values, and then debate on how to uphold them.

Quote
Possibly so. Though I find this terribly bleak. It seems to me that given we are ethical creatures we should attempt to find some way of being ethical in a meaningful manner rather than just shrugging our shoulders. I do not want to concede that intellectually we have to be morally ambivalent, I want to be able to judge and to be judged. I want to be able to say that this system of government is better than that, or that certain ways of behaving are wrong and others are right.

Don't be too worried.  Your core principles are mostly based on emotions.  You'll (probably) feel strongly about them regardless of whether or not you acknowledge that there is no inherent rational source for them.  Your emotions are how you decide what you want.  Even if you intellectually acknowledge that your ethics aren't universal or objective, you're going to feel a sense of injustice when something violates them.

Offline screwtape

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #20 on: April 16, 2013, 11:10:06 AM »
I agree this is a great set of standards; and ones I hope I uphold in my own life, however what I am looking for is some rational foundation which implies I should follow these standards - something more than mere personal preference. If my only defense is personal preference then I could in theory justify any behaviour.

Then you need to explain what morals are for.  Why do we have them?  What do you want to achieve with them?  Right now, whether they are based on religion or not, they are rules that promote group cohesion for survial and prosperity of the group. 

Emile Durkheim, as explained by Jonathan Haidt, said, "morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective entity."[1]

Do you wish to continue to use morality in that manner?  What morals are for shapes how you justify them.
 1. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt07/haidt07_index.html
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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #21 on: April 16, 2013, 02:55:07 PM »
Possibly so. Though I find this terribly bleak.

Why?  And is that a reason to reject the idea?

It seems to me that given we are ethical creatures we should attempt to find some way of being ethical in a meaningful manner rather than just shrugging our shoulders.

I do not see how that follows from accepting the subjectivity of value.

I do not want to concede that intellectually we have to be morally ambivalent,

"Have to be" according to what moral standard?  Your reaction to acceptance of moral subjectivity only makes sense from a perspective of belief in moral objectivity.  In other words, this is only a problem if you don't accept it - this is also me speaking from experience as one who has.

I want to be able to judge and to be judged. I want to be able to say that this system of government is better than that, or that certain ways of behaving are wrong and others are right.

You can.  To be honest, you just need to include, or have it understood that you are assuming, a particular standard against which that judgment is made.  Include the goal.

We should be honest here. If we do not accept God because it is a bogus metaphysical reality we cannot justify, then we should be as hard on ethics.

Ethics clearly exist, as we have made them.  They are encoded in our brain matter and in our actions.  They just aren't metaphysical entities of some kind.  And if they were, then they wouldn't do what you want them to do anyway.

It would be unfair to proclaim to the world that we should reject the notion of God, but cling to our equally unfounded notions of right and wrong. It seems to me finding a way of justifying ethics is genuinely important.

I do not see that it is important that right and wrong be objective.  That approach seems to me to be utterly irresponsible.

It may be that we never will be able to do so, but I really hope not, and I'm not ready to give up just yet...

Did you approach the question of the existence of deities in the same way?
« Last Edit: April 16, 2013, 03:00:57 PM by Azdgari »
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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #22 on: April 16, 2013, 07:05:21 PM »
   It is the great irony of life.  While there certainly seems to be no deity, and all we see is what evolution  has produced, we are nothing but dust in the wind.  Morals and ethics that keep the human species going are the best we can hope for.  I suppose some would say that the idea of a god helped for some time,  but IMO, that is grasping at straws - we do what we do as programmed by evolution - if intellectually that is not enough for us, oh well, there really is nothing more.   Once you get past that, and can, because of the irony that absolutely nothing matters, even more  enjoy the taste of strawberries, or your favorite music, or sitting by the ocean, or doing the right thing, life can become very easy, very comfortable.
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Offline Razel

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #23 on: April 16, 2013, 10:26:51 PM »
Once you get past that, and can, because of the irony that absolutely nothing matters, even more  enjoy the taste of strawberries, or your favorite music, or sitting by the ocean, or doing the right thing, life can become very easy, very comfortable.

As long as there are people who care, there are things that matter.

Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #24 on: April 17, 2013, 02:52:09 AM »

Now let us consider the ethical case. I say "I prefer altruism to egoism", what does my preference relate to? There are two options:
i) It relates to nothing
ii) It relates to ethics

Option (i) is clearly spurious as all preferences must be preference of some standard. Option (ii) makes your argument circular as you wish to reduce ethics to preference. If you admit that ethics can be reduced to ethical preference all you have given me is a truism and the topic of how we assign ethical preference (the topic I am interested in) remains untouched.

Put another way; I can agree with your statement that "all ethics are based in preference" and still ask the question "how should we assign ethical preferences?"

Preferences typically aren't something you assign to yourself.  You don't just decide to like kippers over eggs one day.  Likewise, for ethics, you have a set of core principles that are usually static (although converting/deconverting from a religion tends to shake it up a bit).  You may change your opinions on some things if you find out that they violate your principles, but those principles tend to remain unchanged.

I suppose if you want to try assigning ethical preferences, find people with similar values, and then debate on how to uphold them.

Sorry I don't think I made my point clearly enough. I accept that we can talk of ethical preferences, but that is not necessarily the end of the story. So kippers vs eggs, my preference is one that relates to taste; which is mutable and personal. However there are other preferences where one preference is better than another. For example; if I have an aim (x) and two possible ways to attain it (f and p) then I can compare f and p to see which best attains x.

So even if we accept that ethics is based upon preference that does not entail that ethics is no more than personal taste; there may well be ethical systems which are better at attaining our goals. For more on goals see my response to screwtape (reply #26).
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 03:31:07 AM by penfold »
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Offline Hierophant

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #25 on: April 17, 2013, 03:11:27 AM »
I can't help but note that intuitionism is not being represented so far, so... I'd like to throw that hat in the ring as an evolutionary intuitionist (although I have already been an intuitionism in general for a while, Brian Zamulinski's book convinced me that his position is probably the right one). I believe that intuitionism, and evolutionary intuitionism in particular, provide us both with an explanation of ethics (as well as ethical error) and a valid system of ethics, insofar as it goes.

I also reject utilitarianism, for what that's worth.

I am not sure if you meant "common-sense morality" to be a representation of EvoInt. At least you seem to be referring to Zamulinski's desire-dependence principle when you talk about privileging friends over strangers. Tell me if I am off base here. Either way, it is a poor representation of EvoInt, since it clearly states that it is wrong to sacrifice others, even strangers, for the benefit of our loved ones.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 03:15:24 AM by Hierophant »

Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #26 on: April 17, 2013, 03:14:43 AM »
Then you need to explain what morals are for.  Why do we have them?  What do you want to achieve with them?  Right now, whether they are based on religion or not, they are rules that promote group cohesion for survial and prosperity of the group. 

Emile Durkheim, as explained by Jonathan Haidt, said, "morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective entity."[1]

Do you wish to continue to use morality in that manner?  What morals are for shapes how you justify them.
 1. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt07/haidt07_index.html

This is a really pertinent question. My suspicion is that in addressing this question a coherent rational system of ethics may emerge.

My own view on the aims of ethics is that in order to claim any authority they cannot be set by the ethical system itself. To do so would necessitate a circularity of reasoning (as by rejecting the ethical system I also reject the aims of that ethical system).

If ethical aims cannot be set by ethical systems then how should we set them? Here I think we must look to rational systems. Interestingly most enlightenment ethical thinkers started from a rational principle of egoism: that it is rational to behave in a manner which benefits me most and it correlate it is irrational to behave in a manner which harms me. However there are problems with this approach. Let us say I want to become a great ballet dancer; to do so I must practice daily and put serious stresses on my body which will almost certainly lead to long term harm - thus rational egoism which says it is irrational to behave in a manner which harms me would say that my goal cannot rationally be achieved.

Perhaps a better way of looking at this is to adopt a 'softer' rational principle, that first proposed by Aristotle. It is rational for me to flourish as a human being - that final phrase (a rough translation of the Greek word eudaimonia) is pretty vague and would require elucidation. However we can give it some clarity by arguing from analogy. Take our earlier example of becoming a great ballet dancer - there may be many possible approaches, but there will be some set of approaches which allow me to attain my aim better (such as learning from other great dancers and daily practice - as opposed to say working alone and practicing only once a week). So if we can discern what it is to flourish as a human being (and I would contest this is perhaps simpler than it sounds); then we could discern how best to attain that goal, and that would be our ethical system. While this system would not have the stark authority of the principles of mathematics, but it would have the authority of a ballet training program; it would be based upon the collective ethical expertise of a given culture.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 03:32:56 AM by penfold »
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #27 on: April 17, 2013, 03:29:03 AM »
...

Ethics clearly exist, as we have made them.  They are encoded in our brain matter and in our actions.  They just aren't metaphysical entities of some kind.  And if they were, then they wouldn't do what you want them to do anyway.

...

I do not see that it is important that right and wrong be objective.  That approach seems to me to be utterly irresponsible.

Azdgari, I do enjoy you Socratic methodology of taking my posts and asking multiple questions, but damn does it make it hard to craft a coherent reply  :) I apologise in advance if I have missed out a question you wanted answered, please feel free to re-pose it.

As for the two points you raise above. I think there is a tension here. On the one hand you seem to argue that ethics do not have any objective truth vlaue (a fact I entirely agree with you on - see below); on the other hand you do seem to want to claim that their subjective existence as instantiated in our behaviour is sufficient to attain our belief.

I don't actually think this is coherent. Of course we are ethical creatures and so behave in ethical ways. So we are entitled to describe actions as either ethical or non-ethical, or say egoistic or altruistic. What you do not allow for is the capacity to say this action is better than that action or that this person is good and that person is bad. If we follow your reasoning when I say such things I am only stating my subjective preferences. This means that just as I can say "religions exist" I can say "ethics exists"; but just as the former does not entail "religions possess truth" so the latter does not entail that "ethics possess truth".

In other words it seems to me that you are advocating a moral relativism where any ethical judgement is equally valid (or if you prefer equally invalid).

My own view is that there is a middle way. Just as there are better and worse ways to perform any activity (eg playing an instrument, playing a sport) so to there may be better and worse ways to behave ethically. There is no objectively correct way to play football, but the teams that are disciplined, practice regularly, have a good esprit de corps etc.. will tend to get the best outcomes. Thus as long as we can find rational aims (see my response to screwtape on this topic - reply #26) it seems to me we can develop an ethical system which, while not being objective in the way the laws of mathematics are, is still not completely relativist.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2013, 03:31:27 AM by penfold »
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Offline penfold

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Re: Secular ethics - why Utilitarianism and Common Sense Morality fail.
« Reply #28 on: April 17, 2013, 03:58:27 AM »
I can't help but note that intuitionism is not being represented so far, so... I'd like to throw that hat in the ring as an evolutionary intuitionist (although I have already been an intuitionism in general for a while, Brian Zamulinski's book convinced me that his position is probably the right one). I believe that intuitionism, and evolutionary intuitionism in particular, provide us both with an explanation of ethics (as well as ethical error) and a valid system of ethics, insofar as it goes.

I also reject utilitarianism, for what that's worth.

I am not sure if you meant "common-sense morality" to be a representation of EvoInt. At least you seem to be referring to Zamulinski's desire-dependence principle when you talk about privileging friends over strangers. Tell me if I am off base here. Either way, it is a poor representation of EvoInt, since it clearly states that it is wrong to sacrifice others, even strangers, for the benefit of our loved ones.

Yes by csm I am referring to intuitionist positions. I have not read Zamulinski but I am surprised to find an intuitionist arguing that we don't bear intuative ethical preference towards friends and family members. There is very good data to support the claim that at the level of intuition we do (see for example cross-cultural studies of the trolley problem). Moreover there is strong evolutionary theory to back up the claim that we owe greater duties based upon personal proximity (which is a rough analogue of genetic proximity) - see, for example, Dawkins' Selfish Gene.

Perhaps you could run the argument from EvoInt that says we owe the same ethical duty to the children of others as to our own children?

Apart from the problem of differing duties which, as I pointed out in the OP, leads to sub-optimal results in group ethical behaviour, there is a deeper philosophical problem with intuitionism.

The central tenet of intuitionism is that there is some simple quality of actions we call 'good'. In Moore's understanding this simple term resists analysis as he says in Principia Ethica "good is good and that is all I have to say about it" (funnily enough he still has a whole book's worth of further things to say but hey ho...)

There are two options here:

i) Good exists as a simple metaphysical entity in line with Platonic thinking.
ii) Good exists as a simple conceptual entity in line with Moore's thinking.

I would contend that both are deeply unsatisfying. The former it ontologically obese, proposing the existence of immaterial entities which are by their very nature unfalisfiable. The latter does serious disservice to the richness of ethical behaviour; it is far too reductionist trying to equate the 'good' of a charitable act, with the 'good' of a beautiful piece of art, the 'good' of the birth of a child, and the 'good' of an alcoholic's recovery. Of course you could argue that there are different 'goods' but then you have actually moved away from intuitionism by analyzing 'good' thus rendering it a complex term.
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