Skip

"a certain... moral flexibility would be the only way to describe it"
June 18, 2013 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts
We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.

Some Objective Moral Truths?
It also doesn’t show that our grasp of moral truth is tenuous. Lots of moral truths are completely obvious, and people have no problem with them. The point of varying the trolley problems is precisely to elicit confusion and inconsistency, by emphasizing different of the (very real) values that are at stake in the problems, which conflict in the circumstances described (as values do in many actual choices situations).
Moral Matter
Transduction induces both veridical representation and editorializing on the biological value of events and objects, such as fright at the apprehension of threat. Morality, perhaps counterintuitively, begins with editorialized sensation. To echo Locke, we curiously annex feelings of anger and disgust to the transgressive behavior of others.
How Your Moral Decisions are Shaped by a Bad Mood
These findings raise some further questions, some of which psychologists have been attempting to answer for a long time. Emotions and logical thought are frequently portrayed as competing processes, with emotions depicted as getting in the way of effective decision-making. The results here are another demonstration that instead of competing, our emotions and our cognitions interact and work closely to determine our behaviors.
Cooperation comes easily but thinking makes us selfish - "A set of ten studies suggests that intuition promotes cooperation, but rational thought turns us selfish."
Thinking Of Science Strengthens Moral Fiber
Science [paywalled]: Morals and Markets
In the experiment, subjects decide between either saving the life of a mouse or receiving money. We compare individual decisions to those made in a bilateral and a multilateral market. In both markets, the willingness to kill the mouse is substantially higher than in individual decisions. Furthermore, in the multilateral market, prices for life deteriorate tremendously.
Is that the answer you had in mind? The effect of perspective on unethical behavior


some via A Basis For Ethics, Bookforum
posted by the man of twists and turns (26 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
posted by the man of twists and turns

Eponysterical!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:24 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]




Very well, I contain multitudes.
posted by MOWOG at 6:31 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Title.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:34 PM on June 18, 2013


Well, yeah... who assumed otherwise? I sorta figured people with consistant 'values' nowadays were held to great suspicion.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:40 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Class can also play a role. ...upper-income people tend to have less empathy than those from lower-income strata, and so are more willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater good.

Yes, upper-incomes have no qualms in sacrificing lower-incomes "for the greater good."

*hears echos of deferment from the draft thread
posted by BlueHorse at 7:04 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


What about the people who insist that a belief in a judgmental God is the only thing keeping them from murdering, stealing and other grossly unethical acts? Could they be trusted with anything that entered our culture since their religion was founded? (modern medicine, electric powered devices, weapons more advanced than bows and arrows, widespread inter-social mixing)
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:14 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


> What about the people who insist that a belief in a judgmental God is the only thing keeping them from murdering, stealing and other grossly unethical acts?

Even among ardent fundamentalists, who is really saying that about themselves?
posted by planetesimal at 7:18 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Our default mode is a apparently a very complicated mode of situational ethics, the bane of Christian fundamentalists, in which ethical conduct is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, rather than a supposedly All-Purpose Moral Code (e.g. The Ten Commandments). The complication here is exponentially increased by the actor's mood at the time of decision-making, something even secular humanists might have a problem with, at least those who purport to live by a pretty solid ethical moral compass, something most of us believe in order to envision ourselves as moral and compassionate beings.
posted by kozad at 7:28 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even among ardent fundamentalists, who is really saying that about themselves?

Everyone who suggests that atheists can't be trusted.
posted by anonymisc at 7:34 PM on June 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


planetesimal: "Even among ardent fundamentalists, who is really saying that about themselves?"

In my experience, plenty. Aside from the standard apologist line about how atheists have nothing to prevent them going on a killing spree, there are plenty of folk on the evangelical motivational speaking circuit whose whole schtick is to talk up what egregious sinners they used to be and how only finding the lord ended their cycle of depravity (this has non-zero intersection with the Satanic Ritual Abuse scam).
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:06 PM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Even among ardent fundamentalists, who is really saying that about themselves?

Everyone who suggests that atheists can't be trusted.


Well, to play the Christian fundamentalist's advocate for a moment, the thing about a real God who lays down commandments is that it means a moral code exists which is external to the self. Grey areas will arise in which it is difficult for a person to know what course of action best adheres to that code. But the truth still exists as real and unalterable thing; if you chose wrong you chose wrong, and that's on you.

In godless and amoral universe, morality can only exist as an outgrowth of human society, in relation to human society. It's not true no matter what, there is no ump to call balls and strikes, and there aren't necessarily wrong answers.

Given that every human is often tempted to take the course of action most favorable to themselves, I can see where removing the external buttress might seem to someone of that temperament to put the whole edifice at risk...
posted by Diablevert at 8:12 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]




Yes, it turns out to be much harder than many philosophers have dreamed to place morality on a 'rational' basis.

For example, deontological ethics, so-called, the ethics of obligation and duty, comes from Kant. Kant's "Categorical Imperative" holds that an act is moral when the actor can sincerely will it as a universal law. For Kant, an act performed out of either self-interest or motivated by one's interests, such as sacrificing to protect your child, is not moral. The most powerful objection that I know of to this idea is that it fails to pick out anything uniquely moral. I could, say, decide never to use a salad fork on Tuesdays, and also will that this should be a universal law. Is it therefore a moral act to dine in this way? It does not seem so to me. So, the objection goes, there must be some other factor that tells us what is and is not even on the table for discussions of morality.
posted by thelonius at 9:02 PM on June 18, 2013


The Trolley problem provides glib fodder for theorists. Self-defense, the moral imperative, and all that. It's a safe topic because it's so obviously contrived.

Lost in the shuffle is that such choices do exist in the real world, and there truly is no reasonable moral solution to most of them. You are the actor, and you get to make choices, and somebody dies. In some cases it might be you.

Back to the trolley: In fact none of the choices can be said to be moral. The one where the lone worker allows himself to be hit by the train is downright heroic. The rest are what nightmares feed on, and they are morally indefensible. To act or not act are both decisions, so, unless you let the train hit you, you get to live with it.

Ask any combat veteran who's made a similar decision. He will tell you that he'd do it again, and if you don't like it, you can go fuck yourself sideways. Then he'll do the reruns every night for the next 40 or so years. There is no moral center of the kind logicians and philosophers are trying to uncover in these exercises.

I would speculate that more than a few fire fighters have made similar decisions: someone will die (and someone will live) because they had to make a choice. You can carry only one child to safety. Which is the right one? There is no right one, is the actual answer.

Morality is a fiction we are pleased to construct around self interest, which we can use to justify making such decisions when the heat of battle or raging flames aren't pressing us to get on with it.

Mostly what I saw in this were tautologies struggling with grammar, but then I don't claim expertise in that area. I do like to kick over rocks, though, and see what crawls out from under them.

It was a useful way to spend a couple of hours. Thanks.
posted by mule98J at 9:05 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Mule I don't think that pointing to the trolley problem as evidence that morality doesn't exist is a firm position. Defining morality by the times when it is not applicable (or when faced with an impossible situation where both choices are equally moral and immoral) doesn't get us away from the fact that most of people's day to day lives have clear moral rights and wrongs. It's like pointing to the liger as evidence that lions and tigers don't exist. Or the mule as evidence that horses and donkeys don't...

On the other hand I have a hard time believing that free will exists. Lack of free will would make arguments from morality little more than ex post facto ego rationalization. So there's that.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 10:12 PM on June 18, 2013


Nice title. One of my favorite movies.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:09 AM on June 19, 2013


the thing about a real God who lays down commandments is that it means a moral code exists which is external to the self

No, it doesn't. You cannot derive an "ought" from an "is," even if that "is" happens to be "there is a God with very strong opinions about moral right and wrong." In fact, the existence of a God actually complicates all moral propositions horribly. If God tells you to do something, is it always right to do it, regardless of the nature of the act (see Abraham and Isaac)? If so, then the existence of a God means the complete demolition of anything we would recognize as a "moral code." There is no moral code, there is simply blind obedience to "whatever God says." But if not, then what relationship is there between the moral code and God? If an act is "right" regardless of whether or not God tells you to do it then God's existence is irrelevant to the morality of a given act.

Another way of putting the same point: if God says "A is right and B is wrong," before I decide to act in conformity to his commandment from whence do I derive the necessary prior moral law "it is always right to follow God's commandments and wrong not to follow them"? What answer can you provide me to that that doesn't resolve simply to "do what he says because otherwise he'll hurt you"--which everyone recognizes is a situation in which all questions of "morality" simply fly out the window.
posted by yoink at 9:22 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mule I don't think that pointing to the trolley problem as evidence that morality doesn't exist is a firm position....."

I believe morality does exist, in the same way that a legal code can be said to exist. It's a system of ideas we use to frame our notions of what's right and wrong. There is no universal moral well, from which we all may come to drink. We just make it up as we go along.

The Trolley problem illustrates how this works. For example, consider the heroic actions of the solitary worker, who lowers his pistol and lets the train hit him, taking the consequences of the situation upon himself, instead of killing six other people so that he could survive. (Yes, I checked the boxes that said you are making a responsible decision if you decide to just stand there and watch--you are a willing accomplice.) You can moralize this from more than one position: His wife and special-needs child will be left without him (for example). What moral high ground can he claim for abandoning his family in favor of helping a bunch of strangers? It all depends on how narrowly you construct your premise.

As for the day-to-day issues, I find it hard to accept that clear-cut decisions are all that common. We mostly ignore, or are ignorant of, the variables. Put another way, decisions seem simple (the moral issue seems clear) mostly because any given context is narrow enough that variables don't seem to apply. Should I buy one brand of paper towels over the other? Well, offhand there doesn't seem to be any ethical concept involved. But if my brother works for Brawny, then maybe I should buy Brawny. Or if Brawny uses child-labor, maybe I shouldn't. Should I sacrifice my career so that my older brother can get his degree? That depends on my cultural bent.

It's simpler if we just believe that we are right and they are wrong, but I'm not convinced that any given "we" exists, who can claim to be in close enough contact with, say, the Cosmic Muffin, that they can spell out what that baseline might be. I do accept it that there are bad actors, but I have to acknowledge that some belief systems will conflict with others, and no elevation of the human perspective will show a common objective that would resolve the conflict--some or both parties will have to abandon a tenet here and there if they are to get along.

You may correctly infer from the above that I also struggle with the notion of free will.
posted by mule98J at 1:38 PM on June 19, 2013


the thing about a real God who lays down commandments is that it means a moral code exists which is external to the self

No, it doesn't. You cannot derive an "ought" from an "is," even if that "is" happens to be "there is a God with very strong opinions about moral right and wrong." In fact, the existence of a God actually complicates all moral propositions horribly.


Well, before I attempt to respond to this I should like to emphasize that I am neither a Christian nor a fundamentalist nor a believer in God. So, preface everything I'm about to say with "as an utter non-expert in Christian theology..."

If God tells you to do something, is it always right to do it, regardless of the nature of the act (see Abraham and Isaac)?

Yes?

If so, then the existence of a God means the complete demolition of anything we would recognize as a "moral code." There is no moral code, there is simply blind obedience to "whatever God says."

And? The starting premise here is that an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent creator actually-for-real-no-shit exists, yeah? So, whatever God says is perfect and good. What's the problem?

If so, then the existence of a God means the complete demolition of anything we would recognize as a "moral code." There is no moral code, there is simply blind obedience to "whatever God says."

Surely if it were possible to determine with 100 percent correctness they absolutely most moral action in any given situation, then performing that action 100 percent of the time would always be the most moral choice?

Another way of putting the same point: if God says "A is right and B is wrong," before I decide to act in conformity to his commandment from whence do I derive the necessary prior moral law "it is always right to follow God's commandments and wrong not to follow them"?

Faith that God exists and is perfect and good?

What answer can you provide me to that that doesn't resolve simply to "do what he says because otherwise he'll hurt you"--which everyone recognizes is a situation in which all questions of "morality" simply fly out the window.

I believe the recommended answer is "do what he says because he knows better than you, and otherwise you'll hurt yourself." God the Father, non? A child does not always comprehend the reasons for his parent's actions, but is expected to obey them nontheless. So man with God.
posted by Diablevert at 1:44 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that believing in some God as the ultimate arbiter of morality has some strange implications.

The good news is that there is an unchanging absolute moral code!
The bad news is that you can't know it or understand it!

It also seems like God's moral code is worthless to human beings.

Is murder wrong? Of course not! God sometimes commands it! It's only mostly wrong.
posted by jclarkin at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2013


the thing about a real God who lays down commandments is that it means a moral code exists which is external to the self...

posted by Diablevert at 10:12 PM on June 18



No, it doesn't. You cannot derive an "ought" from an "is," even if that "is" happens to be "there is a God with very strong opinions about moral right and wrong."

posted by yoink at 11:22 AM on June 19


Well, yoink, you're right that logically, it doesn't follow from "there's a real God with strong opinions about right and wrong" that we morally ought to do anything, but I think the Judeo-Christian concept of God is supposed to include and represent the idea of an "objective" view of reality.

It's possible to believe in a god who is just a really powerful guy with subjective opinions, and it's possible to be an atheist who thinks morality somehow exists as part of the fabric of the universe rather than as a set of agreements among humans. But for many people, giving up a belief in God includes giving up on the idea of the objective moral edifice that Diablevert was talking about.
posted by Mila at 3:08 PM on June 19, 2013


Morality, like any sufficiently strong axiomatic system, is incomplete, in the sense of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.

There are moral actions that cannot be proven to be moral, and vice versa. The trolly problems and the like simply expose the inherent incompleteness of morality.
posted by Freen at 2:46 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Demon Hill. The Most Dramatic Evidence You'll Ever See About the Limits of Human Rationality.
But here’s the problem. When you walk into Demon Hill and the inputs of your balance system conflict, maybe you get nauseous or dizzy. But when you enter the process of risk perception and those inputs conflict, while you don’t get sick to your stomach, you may end up making judgments and decisions that are dangerous. You go with what feels right, and you end up less worried than you ought to be, or more worried than you need to be. When your feelings fly in the face of the facts and you act on what you perceive to be true, despite the evidence, it can be downright dangerous, to you and to the broader community.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:27 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cognitively Impenetrable

Ah. I finally found the name for my band.
posted by mule98J at 7:11 PM on June 21, 2013


Faith that God exists and is perfect and good?

That's cool and all, but the proposition was that the existence of a God clarifies the question of what the morally correct thing to do is. But if you can have "faith" that there is a morally perfect God, why not just have "faith" that there is a clearly correct moral order to the universe? In other words, the proposition "God exists" adds nothing, logically, to the claim "there is a certain moral order to the universe." And, indeed, the faith you posit--that there is an infinitely wise and benevolent God, is premised upon the idea that there is some clear moral order that defines what an omnipotent "benevolent" being would do--an order which is logically prior to the question of God's existence or otherwise.
posted by yoink at 9:39 PM on June 21, 2013


« Older I Know What You Think of Me   |   Form and Landscape Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post