moral nihilism

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Number Theoretic
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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Number Theoretic » 2012-07-17 08:20am

Straha wrote: Of course, even the idea of an 'axiom' as it's being discussed in this thread is obsolete in the modern post-structuralist ethical world. While I endorse certain axiomatic ideas as a matter of practicality, it needs to be understood that these come second to a larger ethical mindset that must always be inherently critical and questioning towards the validity of any axiom.
But even if those axioms are due to change or be "updated", you still need them, from a practical point of view. And perhaps you don't want to change the rules too often, otherwise people begin to lose trust in them, because they think "hey, the rules will change tomorrow anyway, so why bother following them?".
Which leads to an interesting idea: If you have a very complicated, utilitarian ethical system, why not use a deontological "approximation" of it for practial matters. That way you have a set of rules which can easily be understood and applied and you have also a foundation for these rules - namely the "complicated utilitarian system" from which they were derived.
(Also, while the moral imperatives I'm describing can perhaps be loosely understood as deontological in nature, any Kantian would sneer at the comparison. Deontological thinking takes at its root the idea that reason can be used to understand/universalize all ethics, whereas the sort of ethics I'm describing takes root either outside that enlightenment tradition, or in the anti-enlightenment tradition of the late-19th and 20th century that recognizes reason as being limited and seeks to account for those limits in ethical theorizing.)
While it is certainly not a bad idea to be aware of the limits of reason, what other mental tool do we have to derive ethical systems?

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Straha » 2012-07-17 09:25pm

Number Theoretic wrote: But even if those axioms are due to change or be "updated", you still need them, from a practical point of view.
You don't really. Again, post-structuralist ethical philosophy begs to differ and would probably say that the greatest danger arises from even having the axiom at all.

I endorse axioms as a matter of 'lies to children'. It's a way to introduce someone to ethical philosophy, but when you start doing higher level stuff they need to be gotten rid of (or change their usage in such a way as to no longer be what we would define as an axiom.)

And perhaps you don't want to change the rules too often, otherwise people begin to lose trust in them, because they think "hey, the rules will change tomorrow anyway, so why bother following them?".
This is a remarkably authoritarian view of ethics (certainly more authoritarian than anyone was directly endorsing in this thread), and one that tries to make ethics very inflexible. If we want to make ethics 'work', and want to avoid the atrocities of the past, we have to both make ethics universal in application but pliable at the same time, so that we understand it ought cover everyone/everything while at the same time being absolutely open to new ideas and concepts.
Which leads to an interesting idea: If you have a very complicated, utilitarian ethical system, why not use a deontological "approximation" of it for practial matters. That way you have a set of rules which can easily be understood and applied and you have also a foundation for these rules - namely the "complicated utilitarian system" from which they were derived.
I'm pretty sure something like that was being discussed before in the thread. (I'm not going to go back and reread it all to find where.) That strikes me as both more complicated than necessary, and inherently tautological.
While it is certainly not a bad idea to be aware of the limits of reason, what other mental tool do we have to derive ethical systems?
A. The Kantian argument is that all ethics can be understood in the abstract from reason. In other words, reason is so perfect that we can come to comprehend and understand all potential moral dilemmas and solve for them in the abstract through it and experience alone. (Kant is a little bit more nuanced than I'm giving him credit for here, but not overly more.)

B. Reason certainly has its place, but emotion, empathy, ignorance, and many other things also belong in ethics. Reason is important, but it must be tempered by the rest of what we have available, and what the world has available. Reason is good, but it should never be used alone.
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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Questor » 2012-07-18 04:44am

As one of the only people I recall arguing seriously for even a semi-deontological (literally "Duty-based) system, the only part of my ethics that are deontological that are duty based are based around the idea that one should take responsibility for ones actions.

I.E. I make a mistake. I fix the mistake. I still have a responsibility to admit the mistake was mine, even if there is no objective benefit to anyone for doing so. EDIT again: And no, I'm not sure I can define why without resorting to edge cases. It's an aspect of personal ethics though, and I'm not going to hold anyone to that standard other than myself. And I freely admit that I don't measure up to my standard all the time.

EDIT: I should point out that that is not a strictly deontological system to say that "This cannot be justified in a reasonable scenario", which was my own starting point. "This cannot be justified at all" would be a deontological statement. I was not as clear at the beginning of the last clause in my argument, dropping it for simplicities sake.

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Number Theoretic » 2012-07-18 10:30am

Straha wrote:
Number Theoretic wrote: But even if those axioms are due to change or be "updated", you still need them, from a practical point of view.
You don't really. Again, post-structuralist ethical philosophy begs to differ and would probably say that the greatest danger arises from even having the axiom at all.

I endorse axioms as a matter of 'lies to children'. It's a way to introduce someone to ethical philosophy, but when you start doing higher level stuff they need to be gotten rid of (or change their usage in such a way as to no longer be what we would define as an axiom.)
Forgive me my ignorance, but i still don't understand how you can get rid of the need for axioms (if i understand you correctly. If not, please correct me). For example, i strongly agree with Questor's view that every sentinent being must take responsibility for it's actions. Formulating this as an axiom would be straightforward and i can imagine that many good rules would entail from this axiom. How would you "codify" this in a poststructualist framework which doesn't allow axioms?
And perhaps you don't want to change the rules too often, otherwise people begin to lose trust in them, because they think "hey, the rules will change tomorrow anyway, so why bother following them?".
This is a remarkably authoritarian view of ethics (certainly more authoritarian than anyone was directly endorsing in this thread), and one that tries to make ethics very inflexible. If we want to make ethics 'work', and want to avoid the atrocities of the past, we have to both make ethics universal in application but pliable at the same time, so that we understand it ought cover everyone/everything while at the same time being absolutely open to new ideas and concepts.
I was just hinting at an extreme, exagerrated situation which i saw could perhaps arise, when one's ethical system is too flexible. But don't get me wrong: In general i agree with you on the fact, that an ethical system needs to be open to new ideas, which for example arise from scientific progress. Otherwise it becomes remarkably obsolete. The Sunni interpretation of the Quran is an example for a moral framework which hasn't changed in centuries and now collides with other worldviews who have permitted more change over time.

However, the only way to make an open and flexible ethical system universal is by making it's claim of validity a universal one. Because it's very nature of being open hints at an incomplete set of rules or axioms: Those axioms cannot possibly cover every situation or case in which moral judgement is required that can possibly arise in the history of the universe. By allowing those rules to be changed and adapted, it can cope with this situation, but that means the rules themselves are not universal. Only the system's claim to be a valid and good system can stay universal.
Which leads to an interesting idea: If you have a very complicated, utilitarian ethical system, why not use a deontological "approximation" of it for practial matters. That way you have a set of rules which can easily be understood and applied and you have also a foundation for these rules - namely the "complicated utilitarian system" from which they were derived.
I'm pretty sure something like that was being discussed before in the thread. (I'm not going to go back and reread it all to find where.) That strikes me as both more complicated than necessary, and inherently tautological.
I read the thread before i posted here and wasn't so sure that this had been said before explicitly. Although Questor's proposition may have hinted at it. Perhaps it just has slipped my attention.
While it is certainly not a bad idea to be aware of the limits of reason, what other mental tool do we have to derive ethical systems?
A. The Kantian argument is that all ethics can be understood in the abstract from reason. In other words, reason is so perfect that we can come to comprehend and understand all potential moral dilemmas and solve for them in the abstract through it and experience alone. (Kant is a little bit more nuanced than I'm giving him credit for here, but not overly more.)

B. Reason certainly has its place, but emotion, empathy, ignorance, and many other things also belong in ethics. Reason is important, but it must be tempered by the rest of what we have available, and what the world has available. Reason is good, but it should never be used alone.
I see. Good point you made there.
I should point out that that is not a strictly deontological system to say that "This cannot be justified in a reasonable scenario", which was my own starting point. "This cannot be justified at all" would be a deontological statement. I was not as clear at the beginning of the last clause in my argument, dropping it for simplicities sake.
Does that mean that the difference between a strictly deontological system and your standing point lies in their claim for universality? In your case, you employ a constraint of validity on "This cannot be justified", while in the pure deontological case, this constaint is not only missing but replaced by the rather strong quantor "at all".

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Straha » 2012-07-20 03:32am

Number Theoretic wrote: Forgive me my ignorance, but i still don't understand how you can get rid of the need for axioms (if i understand you correctly. If not, please correct me). For example, i strongly agree with Questor's view that every sentinent being must take responsibility for it's actions. Formulating this as an axiom would be straightforward and i can imagine that many good rules would entail from this axiom. How would you "codify" this in a poststructualist framework which doesn't allow axioms?
There are a number of ways of approaching this. The simplest is to understand why an axiom like " every sentinent being must take responsibility for it's actions" is problematic.

First, it relies on a definition of 'sentient' that is historically problematic and is tied very deeply to the dualist Cartesian subject. To use it as a guide for action, or 'judgment', is to embrace four hundred years of ignorance and a deeply skewed perspective on the world.
Second, the concept of 'responsibility' is also problematic. It ignores the way that the identity and perspective of the individual is socially constructed. To use a simple real life example: we all here (I hope) agree that using homophobic slurs is deeply problematic, but is an eight year old raised by fundamentalist parents responsible for using homophobic slurs? Are the parents? Who then?
Third, any attempt to re-appropriate these words will only carry the original meanings of these words embedded in them. Is there a way to formulate an 'axiom' without carrying through this pre-axiomatic discrimination? I'd contend no.

Any axioms we formulate now will only carry through these deeply problematic pre-axiomatix assumptions and prejudices. To get past these issues we have to endorse a system of ethics that is deeply personal, and one that challenges these pre-existing hierarchies and forms of privilege.

I was just hinting at an extreme, exagerrated situation which i saw could perhaps arise, when one's ethical system is too flexible. But don't get me wrong: In general i agree with you on the fact, that an ethical system needs to be open to new ideas, which for example arise from scientific progress. Otherwise it becomes remarkably obsolete. The Sunni interpretation of the Quran is an example for a moral framework which hasn't changed in centuries and now collides with other worldviews who have permitted more change over time.
I think your understanding of Sunni theology is deeply orientalist and out-of-touch with reality. There are countless theologians and philosophers in the Sunni world who deal with questions of 'modernity' and change in new and very interesting ways.
However, the only way to make an open and flexible ethical system universal is by making it's claim of validity a universal one. Because it's very nature of being open hints at an incomplete set of rules or axioms: Those axioms cannot possibly cover every situation or case in which moral judgement is required that can possibly arise in the history of the universe. By allowing those rules to be changed and adapted, it can cope with this situation, but that means the rules themselves are not universal. Only the system's claim to be a valid and good system can stay universal.
I'm not exactly sure what you're trying to get at. I have an idea of what it is you're trying to say, but I want you to clarify your comment before I respond at length.
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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Questor » 2012-07-20 04:36am

Straha wrote:
Number Theoretic wrote: Forgive me my ignorance, but i still don't understand how you can get rid of the need for axioms (if i understand you correctly. If not, please correct me). For example, i strongly agree with Questor's view that every sentinent being must take responsibility for it's actions. Formulating this as an axiom would be straightforward and i can imagine that many good rules would entail from this axiom. How would you "codify" this in a poststructualist framework which doesn't allow axioms?
There are a number of ways of approaching this. The simplest is to understand why an axiom like " every sentinent being must take responsibility for it's actions" is problematic.

First, it relies on a definition of 'sentient' that is historically problematic and is tied very deeply to the dualist Cartesian subject. To use it as a guide for action, or 'judgment', is to embrace four hundred years of ignorance and a deeply skewed perspective on the world.
Second, the concept of 'responsibility' is also problematic. It ignores the way that the identity and perspective of the individual is socially constructed. To use a simple real life example: we all here (I hope) agree that using homophobic slurs is deeply problematic, but is an eight year old raised by fundamentalist parents responsible for using homophobic slurs? Are the parents? Who then?
Third, any attempt to re-appropriate these words will only carry the original meanings of these words embedded in them. Is there a way to formulate an 'axiom' without carrying through this pre-axiomatic discrimination? I'd contend no.

Any axioms we formulate now will only carry through these deeply problematic pre-axiomatix assumptions and prejudices. To get past these issues we have to endorse a system of ethics that is deeply personal, and one that challenges these pre-existing hierarchies and forms of privilege.
I'd also like to point out that Number Theoretic has misunderstood my point. As I said, the responsibility thing was a personal ethical determination. The axiom proposed under that statement is not that "Every sentient being must take responsibility for it's actions." It is the both subtly and non-subtly different, "I must take responsibility for my actions.

The difference is that I'm a nearly 30 year old person, who'd like to believe that I have a decent grounding in the theoretics and practical applications of my choices, and I would also like to think I do a pretty darn good job of educating myself about major decisions and actions I take. I have chosen to try (as I said, I'm not perfect, and there have been times where I have not lived up to my own standard) to take full responsibility for my own actions. I find that for me this works well. For others, it might not.

This is not, for many reasons, a generalizable situation. Analogously, I have made a decision not to drink alcohol. My decision in this case is not an ethical choice, but one related to mental health, healthcare, and weightloss. I do not judge others for the decision to drink alcohol, and in fact I could be argued to enable it with my standing offer to act as a designated driver for my friends.

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Questor » 2012-07-20 04:50am

Ghetto edit (It's probably gonna be less confusing than what I originally wrote):

Outside of those personal ethical choices, my ethical system tends to the virtue ethics concepts, with a dose of utilitarianism giving priority and structure.

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Luke Skywalker » 2012-07-20 06:25pm

hongi wrote: The purpose of morality as you state it there is subjective. What you choose as the purpose of morality, that is 'to protect all members of society and allow for their continued growth and happiness', is actually a subjective choice. As you said yourself by calling it subjective morality. You could choose to value something else, like the purpose of morality is 'to destroy all members of society'.
If we adopt the humanist moral approach of defining morality as "happiness is good, suffering is bad", which seems to be the most sensible philosophy I know of, we still inevitably scorn certain actions that we instinctively deem immoral, even if they cause no objective harm.

For example, most would condemn a man who cheats on his wife, even if she never finds nor suspects it. What harm is done here? What if you spit on a man's grave and piss on his bones? If nobody is around to be offended by it, is this unethical?

Also, how do we justify the superior consideration of human life over nonhuman life? If we define it by sentience, how do we justify giving intensive treatment to heavily retarded humans, and not to monkeys of comparable, or superior, intellect?

I suspect that the purpose or as I prefer to think of it, motives for Stalin's morality was that he valued himself and family and the people he liked over people he didn't like.
Nitpick: Stalin's family was fucked up, and if I recall correctly, he once called his mother a whore in public.

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Straha » 2012-07-20 08:18pm

Luke Skywalker wrote:Also, how do we justify the superior consideration of human life over nonhuman life?
You can't. :wink:
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Re: moral nihilism

Post by amigocabal » 2012-07-23 12:41am

hongi wrote: But I think child rape can also be called morally right.
The Lord God JEHOVAH, who is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, who does as He pleaseth, whose might maketh right, says otherwise.

if you disagree...well, remember that he has unfettered power to cast His enemies into a Lake of Fire, where they will be tormented day and night in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, the smoke of their torment arises forever and ever, and they shall have no rest day nor night. You can not stop Him from casting anyone into the Lake of Fire, nor rescue anyone from the Lake of Fire.

And that is why you are wrong in claiming that "child rape can also be called morally right".

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Scrib » 2012-07-23 12:17pm

Luke Skywalker wrote: If we adopt the humanist moral approach of defining morality as "happiness is good, suffering is bad", which seems to be the most sensible philosophy I know of, we still inevitably scorn certain actions that we instinctively deem immoral, even if they cause no objective harm.

For example, most would condemn a man who cheats on his wife, even if she never finds nor suspects it. What harm is done here? What if you spit on a man's grave and piss on his bones? If nobody is around to be offended by it, is this unethical?
Because it's better to not set a standard of doing something that potentially has bad consequences? That man cannot always know for sure that his wife won't find out, so it's best for society to give him an instinctive dislike of the concept because otherwise, he may do so and get caught. Well that and I think that the way we learn morality is simply skewed towards "X bad" and not "X bad unless Y is true." in cases like that that involve other people's emotions.

It's like the story about the people on the island. They have no food, and there's a small chance of rescue, so they eat a wounded member of the group since he was merely bogging them down. Now all of a sudden, against all probability a ship comes out of nowhere. They all fucked up. That's the thing,the constant enforcement of laws even when they hurt no one is meant to make sure that when someone actually has more to gain by breaking a law they don't because society probably loses.

As for the spitting on the grave example, you're hurting the family members basically, that and some grandfathered mysticism and other deep-seated irrational bullshit.

Also, how do we justify the superior consideration of human life over nonhuman life? If we define it by sentience, how do we justify giving intensive treatment to heavily retarded humans, and not to monkeys of comparable, or superior, intellect?
Well, we have more hardwired connection to human beings I think, and it's not in the interests of parents to create a situation where their chiildren can be treated badly for retardation. Since they care, they try to create a situation where their children benefit. I could make the argument that humans are more useful or have more potential in general, but there are times when that's not the case, and then the rote memorisation part of morality and connections to people come into play.

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Re: moral nihilism

Post by Spoonist » 2012-07-25 02:59pm

amigocabal wrote:The Lord God JEHOVAH, who is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, who does as He pleaseth, whose might maketh right, says otherwise.

if you disagree...well, remember that he has unfettered power to cast His enemies into a Lake of Fire, where they will be tormented day and night in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb, the smoke of their torment arises forever and ever, and they shall have no rest day nor night. You can not stop Him from casting anyone into the Lake of Fire, nor rescue anyone from the Lake of Fire.

And that is why you are wrong in claiming that "child rape can also be called morally right".
Judges 21
17 And they said, There must be an inheritance for them that be escaped of Benjamin, that a tribe be not destroyed out of Israel.
18 Howbeit we may not give them wives of our daughters: for the children of Israel have sworn, saying, Cursed be he that giveth a wife to Benjamin.
19 Then they said, Behold, there is a feast of the Lord in Shiloh yearly in a place which is on the north side of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goeth up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.
20 Therefore they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, Go and lie in wait in the vineyards;
21 And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.
22 And it shall be, when their fathers or their brethren come unto us to complain, that we will say unto them, Be favourable unto them for our sakes: because we reserved not to each man his wife in the war: for ye did not give unto them at this time, that ye should be guilty.
23 And the children of Benjamin did so, and took them wives, according to their number, of them that danced, whom they caught: and they went and returned unto their inheritance, and repaired the cities, and dwelt in them.
24 And the children of Israel departed thence at that time, every man to his tribe and to his family, and they went out from thence every man to his inheritance.


Deuteronomy 20
10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.
11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.
12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:
13 And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
14 But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.
15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.

Deuteronomy 21
10 When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,
11 And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;
12 Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
13 And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
14 And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.

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