1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Morality

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by thirdwind, Jun 27, 2013.

    In the DOMA thread, the issue of morality came up a few times, and I thought I'd make a separate thread about this issue. There are several theories about the source(s) of our moral principles (evolution, the brain, religion, etc.), and I'm curious to know what you guys think influences our moral principles. Is a God-like figure necessary for morality? Or can we come up with moral principles using reason and logic?

    On a related note, I've been reading about moral nihilism. It's certainly an idea worth thinking about.
     
  2. Thomas Kitchen
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    The thing is, if people believe in evolution and the randomness of the Big Bang, surely our logic and reason would be random and askew as well? I am a Christian, but still, think about it logically (with a logic given to us by God): why should we trust anything in this world if all rules have been created by nothingness? We have been given morality by God, otherwise, what is right?

    But the way, I'm not trying to start an argument - far from it. Instead, I am interested to know why you believe in evolution, if indeed you are an atheist.
     
  3. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I don't think a god is necessary for morality. But then again I'm an atheist, this is my default position regardless of if I like it or not.

    I think morality does come from within, and is based in one way or another on judgement. I can respect the idea that it comes from the evolutionary process, and I do think it has had an influence but I'm not sure how much. I also am strongly convinced that morality is subjective, and is different in individual cultures (which might be more to do with the evolutionary experience than any sort of genetic morality, but this is pure speculation at this point) but consciously, I find my morality from observations throughout life, my home culture - as are even some things about myself that I don't like, I do have a lot of what's been called 'Britishness' that I'm not honestly very happy about that - and I also consciously try to use the idea of Kant's 'Universality'.

    'Universality' is basically where if you imagine an action and trying to decide if it is right, imagine a world in which literally everyone was doing this given the opportunity. If this doesn't seem like a good place to live then it's likely not a good idea to do it. At least, I think that was Kant's idea, as part of the Categorical Imperative, though I have to admit I didn't read all of his Critique of Pure Reason. I'll have to at some point, but I do remember that idea (or at least, my understanding of it) and I do remember it impressing me enough that I've decided to use it in my every day life.

    Logic I'm sure has a lot to do with morality, but it depends on what kind of logic you mean. Is it a somewhat unconscious form of logic, or an Aristotelian, systematized form of logic?

    About nihilism though, I can't say I'm a nihilist, I'm all for the opposite - an affirmation of life. I actually do think life has to be at least partly Dionysian. But that part of Nietzsche's philosophy will never leave me, even though the rest isn't as important to me as it once was. In the end, while I know which 'camp' I'm in, I guess I'm still making up my mind on the finer points, and those things often take the longest. I'll maybe never finish this quest I've set myself, to be honest, and I'm ok with that. I'm only human after all, and I think that there are some things the human mind just isn't built to handle. Not things we are not meant to know, and not necessarily things we cannot know, but just things our brains haven't evolved to cope with will.
     
  4. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I believe morality comes from within, which means the brain. Absolutely moral principals can stem from logic. I don't understand the idea above that believing in the big bang would mean that logic and reason would be random and askew -- I don't see how that follows.

    There have been studies showing that even young babies have some sense of fairness and of empathy. This has been shown in some animals, as well. In addition, there have been studies indicating that altruism can indeed be beneficial, conferring advantages to one's familial and cultural group. This will give altruistic groups an evolutionary advantage over those groups whose members operate solely on the basis of individual self-interest.

    As a practical matter, once people reach a stage where they are able to meaningfully think about such things, it is not so hard to understand that I should not murder or steal from you, if for no other reasons than that I don't want you to murder or steal from me, and that I would feel badly about depriving you of your life or property with no justification. I don't need the fear of burning in Hell or somehow suffering some sort of divine punishment for refraining from maiming, stealing, killing, etc. Conversely, I don't help others or give presents to poor children or give money to send children in other countries to school, or give food to a food bank because I think God will somehow reward me later. I do it because I feel grateful to be in a position where I can help them, and I feel somewhat of an obligation to help people when I can do so.
     
  5. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    I don't agree with the notion that morality is nature, I believe all morality is nurture.

    Think about it, let's assume that we are able to create a baby for an experiment.

    Starting at day one, we expose the child to murder. We let it watch scenes of murder and let's assume we can bring in 'subjects' to be murdered by the parent. Eventually, we would allow the child to murder themselves, and perhaps we laugh about it, or treat it like something we do out of habit, before breakfast or something.

    In this scenario, would the 'natural morality' fight against the 'nurtured morality'?

    I've actually thought about this for a book plot before.
     
  6. GHarrison
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    GHarrison Senior Member

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    Morality is the principal of knowing right from wrong. It is subjective.
    [MENTION=50537]Thomas Kitchen[/MENTION]: The Big Bang Theory is not about randomness. Morality and astronomy are completely separate items.
     
  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    The latter.

    There's a difference between moral nihilism (nothing is intrinsically good or bad) and existential nihilism (life has no intrinsic meaning or value).
     
  8. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I've not formed anything like a formal theory on this, but I tend to split moral actions into moral actions consciously made, and moral actions unconsciously made. I don't need to, for example, keep reminding myself that stealing is wrong, but at the same time, I have made the conscious decision that inaction can at certain times be in itself an immoral act.

    Ah, in this case I can definitely claim that I am a moral nihilist, when I lost my faith in god this was actually the first conclusion I made as an atheist, but I am not an existential nihilist. :)
     
  9. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is a good point. I actually think both are at work. There are always examples of people who believe things that are completely opposite to what their family or immediate culture believe -- in both good and bad ways. There are people who grow up in murderous or violent cults who don't conform, as well as people who become murderous or violent, despite being raised in a nurturing home and community. At the same time, culture has an undeniable effect on most people.
     
  10. Thomas Kitchen
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    I understand that morality and astronomy are separate consciously, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. You may think that you (if you are an atheist) are making choices when you want to, but if the Big Bang created you through millions of years of evolution, how is it even you thinking those things? The Big Bang created the universe's rules, so surely it controls your own thoughts?
     
  11. Wreybies
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    This makes The Big Bang into a god, an entity with an agenda and a motive. The Big Bang was an event, not a being. The rules that sprang from the dynamics following The Big Bang can be argued to have an effect on how we view the universe and thus morality, but this effect is so remote and abstract as to make of it an intangible. I could as easily say that the sun controls me and my morals given that my existence is much more tangibly indebted to it.
     
  12. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    Well, I mean what is morality? Is it a set of actions given the label of 'good' and 'bad'?

    In a wolf pack, the younger wolves are not allowed to mate with a female against the alpha male. If the young wolf does, he is physically attacked. Here we have action and negative consequence. Would this be a type of morality or is it just instinct?

    Or is it just learned behaviors molded by negative consequences?
     
  13. GHarrison
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    GHarrison Senior Member

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    The Big Bang didn't create the universes rules. It was a result of the rules that govern the universe. And nothing controls my thoughts aside from my personal experiences.
    What you are describing above is more like astrology. Horoscopes and whatnot. Also the time between now and when the Big Bang happened would have been Billions of years, but that's nit picking...
     
  14. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Oh! I know, I know!

    What can we conclude from the evidence? First you have to know where to look, and which questions to ask.

    Where does morality come from? Is it magical? Pixie dust in your face? Big sky daddy whispering in your ear? An ancient conglomerate of rules in texts or stories passed on down through the generations and interpreted differently by different people at different times all over the world? Is it only learned behaviors?

    The evidence does not support any of those hypotheses.

    First, very young children demonstrate moral thinking independently of their backgrounds, in other words, independently of teaching and at ages where one has not yet had time to learn:
    Here is one example and the same has been repeatably found in many studies. I bolded the key points to notice:
    Conceptions of Moral, Social-Conventional, and Personal Events Among Chinese Preschoolers in Hong Kong
    In other words, a very young child knows the rule, don't kick the puppy, is qualitatively different from the rule, don't eat in the classroom. Other studies have shown when you tell the child the rules have changed, you can now eat n the classroom, they're fine with that. But tell that same child the rule has changed and you can now kick the puppy, they are not OK with that.

    Moral thinking is present in childhood.


    Next we can look at the evolution of morality.
    Moral thinking has been found in non-human primates and dogs. One can see evidence of how the eye evolved by looking at all the transitional eyes in nature, from light sensitive cells to the fully developed mammal eye. Researchers are doing the same looking at the moral decision making in other animals. In particular the emotional sense of fairness has been a target of recent animal research. These studies have been in the news and can easily be found online so again, I'll just link to a single study:
    Nonhuman Species’ Reactions to Inequity and their Implications for Fairness
    Moral thinking is present in non-human animals.



    Finally, moral thinking changes with damage to specific brain structures. Phineas Gage is the classic example.



    So there is clear evidence that moral thinking evolved, is a function of our biological brains, and, the evidence does not support moral thinking having a basis in any magical source like edicts from gods. People have a harder time seeing how empathy and a sense of fairness, and our sense of right and wrong are similar to other emotional functions of the brain. Things make one feel joy and sadness, as well things elicit the emotion of sense of fairness and sense of right and wrong.

    There is no universal set of absolute morals and there is considerable individual variation just like there is no universal beauty or comedy. There is however, something akin to a bell curve for morality and it is possible to study the 'nurture' side of the nature-nurture components, revealing how, despite our morality being based in nature (biology), social-psycho-cultural factors impact one's moral thinking.

    One can teach a child that empathy is not applied to animals, for example. I've seen animals commonly mistreated in some poverty stricken parts of the world. So an aversion to cruelty to animals might not appear to be based on any innate morality. But if you tease out that it would be, if the child is not conditioned to not apply empathy to the puppy, it explains such observations. You still end up with morality being a function of the brain, not of any external magical inexplicable source needing a god of the gaps to explain.
     
  15. GHarrison
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    GHarrison Senior Member

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    Morality is a set of principals guiding one's opinion of right and wrong, subject to change and influence, of course.
     
  16. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    Wait, so Ginger, is there universal morality or not? Because it sounds like you said both.
     
  17. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Universal morality occurs as a distribution of moral beliefs rather than a single set of absolute moral beliefs.

    Rather than a single point on a line, you can find a set distribution with something akin to a bell curve, most likely. Most people hold the moral beliefs in the center of the curve but you will also find a rare few out on the tails of the curve.
     
  18. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    But what hapeens to morality in a vacuum? Or can there be morality in a vacuum?
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    From what the evidence suggests, if two people grew up in the Blue Lagoon, they would grow up with a full set of morals that were just as much a product of the biological brain as the ability to feel joy and sadness is. Even with very little nurture, perhaps the tiny amount they'd encounter interacting with each other, moral thinking would develop. We know this from the evidence that morality is a brain function, it's not something instilled externally like filling up the tank with gas.

    Now if you are asking about morals existing in the Universe, separate from the animal brain, no, there is no such thing.

    I'm really sorry, JJ. Produce some evidence, even a rational hypothesis (emphasis on rational, i.e. explains the evidence: morals are found in very young children, in animals, and can be specifically affected with brain damage that is predictable) that morality comes from a source external to the human brain and I'll consider it.
     
  20. JJ_Maxx
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    I'm just trying to get a better understanding of what morality actually is.

    The biological brain, as we know, requires stimulus in order to develop. The brain itself creates the pathways that make up our thoughts and it uses past experiences to judge future ones.

    So, falling off a cliff is bad. Don't do that. Eating the purple berries makes you sick. Don't do that. Eating the orange fruit makes you feel good. Do that.

    So it boils your actions down to positive and negative reinforcements.

    If a single person that has no other human contact then it makes sense not to 'kick the puppy' as you said because what benefit would a person derive from doing so?

    Morality can't be defined by self-preservation because self-preservation can cause us to over-ride our morals. (Two men, one escape pod.)

    I personally believe that morality was created by God and all the evidence for early-childhood morality is evidence to support that. Humans are not animals, we are different than every other creature we have ever discovered. We can look around at our amazing cosmos and ask ourselves where it came from and who created it. No other creature has this self-awareness.

    Even a person who has never heard of the Bible or God will recognize the supreme Creator in his handiwork on this Earth.
     
  21. chicagoliz
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    Not always. What if the two men are father and son? What if one is old and one young? In both cases, the younger one has a greater chance to reproduce, thereby perpetuating the genes of the father, or the group or species of the older man. In addition the father or the old man might decide it is for the greater good or more important for the younger one to live.

    How do you know this for certain?
     
  22. JJ_Maxx
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    True, this only shows morality which is created by emotional attachments (son) or genetic pride. (gene furthering)

    It's funny how we always come back to murder as the standard-bearer for universal, or at least most-accepted as 'immoral.'

    Well, so far humans are the most cognitive creature we have discovered. They are in a league all their own, set apart from the rest of the animals. Are there aliens? I personally don't think so but the science behind it is sound enough.
     
  23. GingerCoffee
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    I don't know how much you know about the neurobiology of the brain but you have a few things wrong.

    Some things, language in particular, require stimulation at a critical time to develop. But for most things that isn't the case. Brain's a sponge, ready to go as long as the body gets fed past the infancy/toddler stage

    Interestingly we start with a better set of operating instructions than that. Much as learning plays a key role in human development, we do come with an operating system. You could learn a lot reading about how much infants know without being taught.

    I don't want to say the same thing to you that you said to me, that I don't know the Bible. I do know the Bible, quite well thank you. But this Skinnerian belief of yours, that's it's all about stimulus-response, demonstrates a serious lack of understanding about the brain. You are leaving out the critical part, the stimuli are acting on a very capable framework (the brain).

    Ah, but here's the kicker that research shows, empathy for the puppy is included in the operating system.

    Right, because the very old grossly oversimplified understanding of evolution, "survival of the fittest", has long ago been replaced with a much more sophisticated version, "natural selection pressures acting on random mutations".

    So the big sky daddy whispers in the kid's ear? Or your version of God built morality into the human brain?

    Again this is simply ignorant of the advances we've made in science in the last century. One of my favorite subjects is the amazing intelligence of non-human animals. Octopi, crows (corvids), even dogs never cease to amaze me.

    I have to tell you a story here, after all, we're writers. So we were car camping on the California coast and chased some raccoons away that were raiding the back of my station wagon. So, being the wildlife lovers we were, we put some piles of oatmeal on the ground next to some candles so we could watch the raccoons eat. A raccoon arrived in no time and to our delight, picked up each of two candles with their cute little hands and turned them over, snuffing the candles out. They didn't knock the candles away, they purposefully snuffed the candles out in the dirt. How did they know to do that? Surely they didn't learn it from past experience.


    Bet you those people in the Blue Lagoon won't come up with the Christian god belief. They might come up with a Cargo Cult belief, or maybe they'll decide some kind of mythical being lives in the lagoon and controls the weather. Unless the evangelists arrive on their shores, they aren't going to come up with the same god belief as you.
     
  24. The Peanut Monster
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    I think the question we are grappling with in this thread is:Where does morality come from?

    For me this seems to have only two possible answers. It could be internal and universal (part of our "nature", either because of our humanness or because it is endowed by God). This is really linked up to Kantian ethics (sometimes called deontological ethics) which says that there are some intrinsic principles of moral goodness which should be obeyed all the time, because the principle in itself is what defines morality. Kant says that how we find the specific moral rules is by extrapolating the act out to the rest of humanity (this is the categorical imperative). Take lying for example, where we have to ask would you be happy if this were a universal law against lying? If so, then for you "don't lie" is part of your Kantian moral code. In a way, the Bible is an example of a Kantian code. It gives us rules, and the rules themselves are what matter. I think this is quite appealing in its simplicity, and ideal by which I try to live my life, but probably fail, ha!

    Alternatively, morality can be derived externally and contextually (i.e. informed by social norms, necessity, circumstances). This is more about utilitarian (Benthamian) ethics which look at the effect that a moral rule has. Ends-justifies-means sort of thing. A modified version of this, sometimes called act-and-rule-utilitarianism I think comes closest my own personal view on how to determine moral rules; but that is probably informed by my legal background which makes me think everything is a grey area and that rules help us sort out what shade of grey things are :p

    Obviously if anyone has actually studied this stuff in depth, I defer to you and apologise for not doing your field (and these authors) justice into two short paragraphs :)
     
  25. JJ_Maxx
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    Big sky daddy? If you have no intention of acting like a mature person, then I have no reason to deal with you. Your sarcasm and childish tone just shows your own immaturity. You don't respect others and it oozes out of your posts. I respect your views but I do not need to accept your antagonistic attitude.

    Peanut Monster - That is interesting! I am definitely going to do some more research on Kantian ethics.
     

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