Tuesday, October 5, 2010


People criticize the idea of "rationalizing". They will say that humans can rationalize anything. If I am on a diet, I can find a reason for eating a piece of cake anyway ("It's such-and-such's birthday, I have to celebrate!", etc.).

The problem I have with this is that rationalizing is not bad. Anytime we are faced with a dilemma, we have an emotional reaction and an ethical intuition, then we seek to rationalize that response. This is much, much better than to NOT seek to rationalize our response!

Of course we rationalize - as if it were possible to have a completely neutral, unfeeling lack-of-response to an occurrence, and then to do some rational calculations and act on them. We would all live in a state of paralysis. We have to act according to our intuitions all the time.

So the question is not "Should I rationalize?". The question is "Is my rationalization successful?" If it is, then great! If not, then perhaps some personal exploration may reveal something that needs attention in ourselves.

But how do we judge our rationalization? By more rationalization and intuition (like the ones we first started to rationalize!) So really we must weigh our different ethical intuitions against each other using our reason, and decide what the best choices are.

In other words, I guess we do our best!


  1. What a very nice piece, accepting a realistic mode of decision-making. But do we then have to rationalize our rationization, etc and ad infinitum? I guess that is what life is all about, and finally we write a story about it all.

  2. Burk, thanks and no doubt!

    We would have to rationalize ad infinitum if we didn't ultimately rely on our intuitions.

    But not all intuitions are created equal. I suppose one view of rationality might be the process of weighing different, competing intuitions and deciding which ones are to be prioritized in order to create the most benefit.

  3. i agree that it's fine to rationalize. but what's the criteria for judging success? benefit or morality or just gain?

  4. My view of morality would be that it is ultimately about benefit and gain.

    Bad morality is short-sighted, narrow self-interest. Good morality is a more broad, enlightened self-interest.

    What do you think?

  5. There is certainly truth in your moral claim of broad-scale benefit versus narrow self interest. It gets hairy, though, if there's no grounding. Perhaps self interest could be considered the greatest moral notion since it would serve to perpetuate your own genes If everyone served their own interests, the strong would win out thereby serving the greater moral good. Serving others may actually perpetuate a weaker class and could be considered a moral evil on a societal or species scale.

  6. "Grounding" is always a tricky issue. I think the only true grounding can be in our ethical intuitions, cross-checked by our reasoning. Would we follow a divine command if we thought it was truly wrong? Would we follow the results of a scientific study that made a moral claim, if we deeply disagreed with the results?

    I think that self-interest is a form of grounding, though what is in our self-interest also depends on our perspective, so it's difficult. For instance, I would give my life for an immediate family member because it's more in my self-interest. I would (selfishly?) prefer to live only another 10 seconds of life, knowing that I would give myself up in the place of a family member, rather than live another 50 years with the knowledge that I did not do it.

    So I think acting with true morality is its own reward.

    Some who study evolution think that servicing the community over the individual has historically been a more effective way of replicating genes. But I don't think that natural selection can offer any prescriptive morality, though perhaps it can enlighten us about the origins of some of our motivations?

  7. Would you posit, then, that morality (in an absolute sense) is illusory? I can understand your thoughts on individual rationalization and the moral tie-in, but how should we go about legislating morality on a societal scale? As a society, it would seem that we can't act and then rationalize. Whose rationale would we use anyway? What acts as our societal grounding?

  8. One more thing... you mentioned having an "enlightened" self interest. Can you expound on this a bit? What does this "enlightened" notion mean exactly?

  9. I don't think that morality is illusory, but perhaps it is grounded in our intuitions, which are subject to reason and experience.

    As a society, I suppose we take our ethical intuitions and decide which ones should be legislated and which ones shouldn't, through majority vote. Murder is illegal, but lying to your neighbor isn't. Running red lights is illegal, but cursing someone out isn't. So legislation and morality are not one in the same, though they overlap. What do you think?

    On enlightened self-interest - The Buddhist notion of morality is not one of good vs evil, but rather one of understanding vs. ignorance. Words like good and evil are still useful, but they don't mean some abstract force that is beyond us.

    If I have never tasted anything and someone gives me a sugar packet, I would be very sure that this sugar packet is wonderful - perhaps the best thing ever. However, if there is a full Thanksgiving meal in the next room, that I am unaware of, then my love for the sugar packet is based on a lack of awareness.

    I think it's the same with morality. People who are selfish, in the traditional use of the word, are choosing the sugar packet over the Thanksgiving meal. They are sacrificing community and relationships for a quick, ephemeral fix. And if we truly believe that morality is what is good, right and beneficial - then immorality must be based on a lack of awareness. If it isn't, then what grounds morality at all? It simply becomes arbitrary rules which aren't grounded in our thoughts and feelings of what is beneficial.

    I heard a preacher say once that the best place to be in the world is "right in the middle of God's will." Even if it means you are hanging on a cross. I agree (but soberly when considering that level of suffering). THis is because our sense of ourself, our awareness, our membership in the community trumps the immediate gratification of the body.

    Another way to think of it is this - the Eastern way of thinking teaches self-interest, but it also teaches that the "self" is much, much broader than we understand. You and I are a part of the same system, ultimately parts of the same self, and true happiness is achieved when we expand our awareness beyond our limited sense of self.

    But we can drop "enlightened" self-interest if that has too many mystical connotations and replace it with "aware" self-interest.

    Also, none of this is to suggest I have achieved any levels of success on these issues. I find them inspiring however, and I am trying.

  10. If we "ground" in our intuitions, it would seem that we're not grounded at all. Morality would be by definition relative to each individual. Some absolute morality would be an isoteric and rather meaningless concept.

    Am I to understand from your comments on eastern thought that you believe there is a moral "Thanksgiving dinner" out there to be discovered? As folks seeking enlightenment, is there a particular eastern country whose system of laws we should strive to emulate? It would seem that such a group would be more in tune with the turkey dinner.

    From your posts on Prop 9, I know that you are not aligned with the majority of voters in California. Should your moral intuition supercede that of the majority? Or should you attempt to align yourself with the moral intuitions of the majority? Which majority?

    If we could create a global polling system, do you think it would be a good idea to govern by polls? It seems such a system would grant us a better awareness and enable us to legislate in an enlightened way.

    I'm not trying to be glib. I am just struggling with these moral notions. How do we make ethics more than a description of individual preferences? How do we best tune ourselves in to that which is "good"?

  11. Hi, Randy-

    That is a super and perennial question. I think that Steven was pretty clear that morals boil down to that which make our lives as good as possible on the long term. It is up to us to decide what is good in that way, and since different people have different visions of what makes them happy, morals will vary between people and cultures.

    And as Steven also indicated, our visions of what is good can be educated and informed by experience, other cultures, by reason, etc. But their fundamental criterion is what makes us happy, in the broadest possible sense. Thus the criterion is ultimately internal. No absolute rules apply.

    This makes sense of how morals work in the practical level. We each have a personal vision of what is good, and sometimes that differs from what everyone else seems to want. Then we would not follow the herd and vote for prop 8, or whatever the issue is.

    On the other hand, instruction by others can be very influential in raising our consciousness of what could make ourselves happier. Cooperation with others is also a central ingredient in making a better world for ourselves, so this element also needs to be taken into account when we are tempted by wayward moral systems. And lastly, compassion for others is usually a central feeling that leads us to feel good as well as making a better world, so it tends to be influential for those who are thinking in a long-term way about morals.

    That was all from the individual perspective. As you say, polling (and voting) is one method we use negotiate what a common policy should be from among all the individual moral positions held by a population. Last I knew, we were living in a democracy, which had experienced quite thorough revolutions in its moral positions, most notably about slavery. Great change can take place in a "polled" moral system over time. We simply don't need any further "grounding" or absolute moral system to make this work (especially if such a system is, as I would argue, imaginary) ... it works if each of us is honest, thoughtful, well-educated, and given a voice in the moral order.

  12. Steve, you said: "...legislation and morality are not one in the same, though they overlap." I do agree that they overlap to some extent, but Randy brings up the difficulty presented when you are in the minority in a social setting with a strong majority. Are you wrong, or is everyone else wrong? This isn't usually a problem (to be in the minority), until it is REALLY a minority. And the majority is REALLY a majority. Meaning, when you represent the opinion of 1% of the room, and the other 99% of persons in the room are in complete disagreement with your 1%, it is much more likely that you will question your moral judgement. if you are the person in the 99% grouping, then why question your judgement? So many others agree with you that you just HAVE to be right, right? That is the problem with a strong majority. It can get lazy. Morals and legislation would probably mesh really well if everyone made a deep personal decision on the legislation, based on their own morals. However, too often, when in a group setting, we are influenced through someone else in the crowds charismatic voice, be it our own parents, a neighbor, a friend, a stranger, a TV voice, etc.

    What are your thoughts? Did Germany really make a group moral decision to follow Hitler? Was this group morality? or group ignorance? How does that work? This is a great topic that I am really confused by. I'd like to say that our own personal morality supersedes any group legislation, but that also is a crazy thing to believe if you are telling Ted Bundy that.

    here is my question: Whose morality is purer? The individual, or the group?

  13. John,

    You asked the question much better than I did. I echo John's question.

  14. It's a very good question - I am also interested in people's answers!

    "Grounding" itself is a difficult term, I think. Does it mean resolving oneself to follow a moral code that ones thinks and feels is wrong? Surely not.

    Even if we have found some external moral code to believe in, say the Code of Hammurabi or something, we have judged it to be absolutely true using our own subjective resources.

    So I don't see a difference between judging an entire moral code to be right, and judging a single moral choice to be right. What has "grounded" our decision to follow the Code of Hamumurabi?

    But I do believe in an overall, objective direction to our morality. However, this requires some faith. This objectivity would only be revealed over time through the accumulation of our individual choices. And it will be two steps forward one step back through history.

    It's the same with aesthetics. Is Beethoven's 5th Symphony universally loved enough to be considered objectively good? Probably so. Is it aesthetically irresponsible to deride the piece without knowing it well? I think so. Is it above challenge? No. If I figure out what makes the piece great, put those criteria into a computer and generate another piece, is it good? Perhaps so - but only if people like it and continue to like it over time.

    So I think we all move from our moral intuitions, which may be more relative in practice (though we draw emotional support from others), and through our reason, which may be slightly more objective as we educate ourselves as to the opinions of others, but hopefully we continually carve out a more and more objective direction in our moral evolution.

    How does that help the 1 person against the 99? I am not totally sure. But majority rules, ancient morality codes, scientific moral prescriptions or words of dictators will probably not be enough in the long run. That's my hope, anyway!

    Highly enjoyable comments from everyone.

  15. Legislation is certainly majority rules though, at least in theory!

    I just meant by the fact that legislation and morality are not one in the same, that there is nothing inherently wrong at not stopping at a red light. But it's the law. There may be something inherently wrong in lying to a friend. But it's legal.

  16. >Are you wrong, or is everyone else wrong?

    I think this misses the major point of this thread. I don’t think we have seen a case for there being a single, correct, absolute right. In fact, I think the opposite case has been made quite well. Additionally, the opinions of a group have not been set forth as the rule maker, they have been set forth as one factor of many (intuition, reason, culture…) that can be used to inform moral understanding.

    The issues you bring up regarding majorities, minorities, and group dynamics have been long studied in fields such as social psychology and are very real. We have seen them addressed in politics with documents such as the Bill of Rights. Morality and group dynamics are complicated matters and it is unlikely that a super simple solution will cover all possibilities.

    Questions about whose morality is purer imply there is some clear standard of purity that equally applies in all cases. I am open to this possibility, but I have not seen a convincing argument that plainly indicates which direction moral purity lies (especially for all cases). If we are willing to share a conceptual direction for moral purity, such as human wellbeing (for example), at that point we can begin to determine which actions move in the direction of morality.

    What is good for the individual does not necessarily have to be good for the group. What is good for the group does not necessarily have to be good for the individual. Finding the balance is the difficult, yet important part.

    (also, I totally called Godwin’s law on this thread yesterday)

  17. I appreciate the honesty offered here. If we fail to ground morality, it ceases to have meaning. The "two steps forward, one step back" notion, for instance, only has meaning if we first acknowledge a moral destination; else, we're just stepping... the is no "forward" or "back"... just directional changes.

    We're starting to see the "hairiness" I referenced, though.

    Do we "ground" on happiness? Most people, it seems, can't even decide what would create their own individual happiness. We can hardly look to some societal happiness when societies are comprised of unhappy individuals.

    Shall we "ground" on the future turkey dinner? As far as we know, the future is infinite and thus is not a destination at all. It also becomes moot when we realize that we have no insight on what this enlightened moral state looks like. If we presume the future is ever more enlightened than the past, we're back to square one... we've essentially "grounded" on our individual presumptions.

    Anytime we attempt to ground on our own individual rationale, we're simply describing our own experiences and inklings. The "ought" element disappears entirely. "Ought" is relegated to "is". Without "ought," doesn't morality cease to have any meaning?

    Steven, you asked whether we should look to some external moral code even when it differs from our own initial perceptions of right and wrong. I think we must. In practice, I think we do.

  18. Hi, Randy-

    Without "ought," doesn't morality cease to have any meaning?

    This is extremely interesting. Clearly, you have been led to believe all this .. that morality has to come from outside, from some authoritative source, and that we ourselves make of it is of little consequence (i.e meaning).

    I would urge you to consider that reality is quite different. That moral rules of yore are simply the best hopes and inclinations of those making up (writing down) the rules/scriptures at that time. If you study the Mormons and the Muslim scriptures, this process couldn't be more clear, with rather convenient morals being developed by randy men and taken by their descendents as the god's honest truth. It is not a pretty sight.

    But in Christianity as well, close study of what was put in and what was left out of scripture shows a nakedly political process, later chalked up to inspiration, etc. If it was so inspired and correct, why isn't everyone Catholic now.. wasn't that the one and true church?

    The history of Christianity is one of constant schism over what is right and moral as well as about what is theologically true. The only way one can get such differences is by people deciding for themselves what is right, and founding churches to reflect that. So the process is driven by individual reflection and interpretation, whether of scripture or of the reality before one's face and in one's heart.

    I know that it looks like an abyss to consider that we make our own meaning, but please consider it, because not only is it a seriously free-ing model of human existence, but it is also a deeply truthful one. Then it becomes the job of societies (like churches) to democratically develop norms of behavior and morality, to punish those who put their own interests too far ahead of others, and to always continue thinking about what they make of human existence and happiness.

  19. Randy,

    I think that perhaps “grounding” as you are using it may not be a useful concept. I can’t really think of what it would entail to arbitrarily choose an external source of morality (since we can’t trust intuition to guide us to which one), and then decide to follow wherver it leads, even if it leads to long-term misery or an eternity of suffering.

    What do you mean by external grounding? What “grounds” our moral decision to choose which external moral code to follow?

    I think Burk is correct here. There is a chicken/egg dance to morality, where individuals reflect personally and build up to a collective, which then dictates back to the individuals.

    But ultimately the only true grounding is self-interest, and, as I have written about, many traditions have discovered and taught that expanding the notion of the self is what creates true morality. I would distrust someone acting "morally" with the understanding that what he is doing is actually very bad for him in every way. I trust someone who understands that the difficult moral decision is actually in his own self-interest as well.

    After all, even if there is a God with an absolute moral code - why would we choose to follow it? Surely it must be in our best interest to do so.

  20. I am far from a moral philosopher, but I do find this topic interesting. I have also recently started the first chapter of Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape, so bear with me as I try to flesh out some thoughts.

    How do we give meaning to morality? Just like we give meaning to other concepts. For example, we do not have a free floating “ought” tied to physical health, but once we create a conceptual definition of physical health, then we can derive oughts. Of course there will be some disagreement over the specifics of how we define health, but taken seriously we will converge on axes relating to nutrition, disease, ability to do work, and so on. From a conceptual definition of health, we can say one ought to exercise and wash their hands if he wishes to be more physically healthy compared to doing the opposite as an alternative.

    Can we do the same thing with morality? I do not see why not. As the conversation progresses, we begin to converge along the various axes of well-being (fairness, compassion, thriving, mental/physical/social health…) From a conceptual definition of morality, we have meaning and we can derive oughts.

    We create meaning in morality in the same manner we do for other concepts. From gravity, to space-time reference frames, to happiness, to intelligence, there is no True Grounding™. Grounding only exists insofar it rests against an agreed upon background of assumptions.

  21. When I say "meaningless," I just mean that the term is descriptive rather than prescriptive in the human-centered models(ought -> is). There's nothing tricky or combative going on... it seems like we're basically in agreement.

    In these models, we write down the basic notions of how people act and what people perceive to be "good" as a majority. We dictate the majority whims to the minority. Then we do it again every so often... kinda like software upgrades (Morality 4.0). What was "evil" yesterday is "good" today. We describe our societal preferences like good little stenographers and if you choose not to prefer the same things as your society, we fine you, lock you up, or kill you. Voila. Morality.

    I'm not certain where church history plays into the discussion, so I'll leave that one be.

  22. Interesting !

    Let me try to summarize what I read:
    a) We all do post-hoc rationalization (PHR)
    b) PHR is not necessarily bad
    c) PHR can be deceptive
    d) PHR is better than no Rationalizing skills (PS)
    e) To protect the deceptive side of PHR, we just need to use our PS.

    I would subtly tweek your analysis (if I was accurate). Because I think the analysis I wrote is still vunerable to the correct criticism that "humans can rationalize anything."

    We need to Triangulate (self-promoting, name of my site!!). We need to check ourselves with the experience of others and of tools that measure. The more confirming perspectives we have, the more comfortable we can be in evaluating our PHR.

    All to say, skepticism toward PHR is the first step to true knowledge. Science [in the true sense], is the essential next step -- not more PHR.

  23. I am not good on moral theory or politics -- though I have opinions as many as the next person. :-)

    (1) But some contend (Luke at commonsense atheism) that their is a possible rational basis for morality (desirism). I am not thought deeply about this.

    (2) Steven wrote:
    "Legislation is certainly majority rules though, at least in theory!"
    Fortunately in the USA legislation is not only majority rules -- there is check and balance --> first, a document limiting the majority (our Constitution -- which hopefully is "grounded") and the other 2 branches of government as well as the free press and free people who can revolt because they can own weapons.

    Just as in my first comment, having these methods of "triangulations" keep this fickle human animal a bit safer. :-)

  24. One quick point of disagreement: I do think that we have a "free floating" ought when it comes to health. Physical health, unless I'm just horribly mistaken, has always been about maximizing longevity. Longevity is the grounding point there. It's tangible and measurable. Let me know if I didn't quite grasp your point, Cameron... that is certainly a possibility.

  25. Thanks for good, though-provoking comments.

    Even though we all must move forward from certain first principles (or intuitions) that can't be strictly defended, this doesn't mean they are all equal.

    We move forward from them and then judge them by their success. So we trust our instincts, but our instincts are modified by the facts on the ground. Back and forth.

    I think we, individually and collectively, are all a flashlight in the dark, trying to get a look at the flashlight itself. So we can never get ourselves directly into the beam of light - so we move forward on intuition, or faith, and then revisit our first principles if facts on the ground seem to suggest we should (based on our level of success).

    Randy, I would still like to know how a truly external grounding would work. If you have some time, I would like to read a sketch of that. I just don't see how you could model it without ultimately appealing to an internal first principle of some sort.

  26. (This post turned into something a little book-report-ish. As I mentioned before, I am trying to flesh out some thoughts in relation to The Moral Landscape which I am currently reading. While this post may not represent Harris perfectly to his liking, I make no claim of originality as I have borrowed heavily.)

    I must mention a bit of uncertainty regarding what is intended in meaningless, descriptive, and prescriptive. And I largely suspect it is because of my unorganized thoughts on the matter rather than anything on anybody else’s part. But the way I am approaching it, prescription is derived from how the concept is defined.

    Anticipating the next step of questioning how we ought to go about defining, we will turn to questions of ‘why ought we value logical consistency’ or ‘why ought we value evidence’ and so on. These are assumptions are built into this conversation just as they are build into any other serious discussion. A person who does not share these assumptions can safely be described as not having the same conversation. Just as we can talk about physics or mathematics without first grounding logic in logic, the same is done in conversations of other concepts.

    The definition of morality isn’t any more arbitrary than the definition of physical health. This is where I think too much emphasis is being placed on the majority and not enough emphasis on the concept under review. Just as you can ground physical health with longevity, morality can be grounded in well-being.

    Longevity is tangible and measureable in principle and in practice. It is proposed that well-being is tangible and measureable in principle and perhaps measurable in practice; however, there may be some practical intractability arising out of extremely complex relations. But just because in practice we cannot measure the insects currently in flight across the planet, this does not mean there is not a factual answer to this question. In the same way, we may have a difficult time quantifying well-being in practice, but there does not seem to be any difficulty of measuring well-being in principle once we admit there are facts about this world that increase or decrease the well-being of conscious creatures.

    So is morality grounded in well-being similar enough to physical health grounded in longevity? Harris argues (and I am currently enjoying the way he puts it) that meaning, values, and morality must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. He invites us to consider the alternative. Is there a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual or potential experience of conscious beings? How can anything that cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other) be related to morality?

    Once conscious well-being is established as a not an arbitrary starting point we begin to see that morality really does relate to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures. And just as various behaviors can impact longevity, so can various behaviors impact well-being.

    “My” (used loosely) version of Harris here is admittedly somewhat sketchy, but it begins to illuminate an important aspect of how we proceed not by defining “objective” from the top down but from the bottom up in all serious areas of inquiry. I am going to continue to consider these matters more and I look forward to more discussion.

  27. Hi, Randy-

    "Then we do it again every so often... kinda like software upgrades (Morality 4.0). What was "evil" yesterday is "good" today."

    Empirically speaking, this is indisputable. Right now we are busy trying to install an upgrade in Afghanistan. How well it is going, it is hard to tell. But the idea is certainly to change the social and moral norms there.

    And at home a prime case is homosexuality. Once bad, even unspeakable. Now not so bad, at least to many.

    So the question is whether we are only recognizing a pre-existing moral order with ever-greater fidelity and discernment, or whether perhaps our very ideals are undergoing change with time. I think there is a case to be made for both views simultaneously. War as long been intensely and highly valued- as the ideal male pursuit, best form of death, etc. Ancient Greece was very big on this. This is an area where big shifts have taken place in our basic moral conceptions. We contain multitudes, and sometimes value some over others.

    On the other hand, much of the recent moral "progress" in the west can be chalked up to simply taking seriously our inner conscience, such as extending full in-group humanity to fellow races, genders, and sexualities. This could be viewed as exposing deep-seated human social instincts in ever-more consistent and rational ways.

    So insofar as there is a rock (or grounding) to our morality, it seems to be human nature, which we can attend to with sensitivity, or suppress in the interests of putatively pressing xenophobic conflicts, fights for survival, etc., but it is always there.

  28. I'm still struggling here. Some thoughts offered by the group and some additional questions:

    "We move forward from [first principles that can't be strictly
    defended] and judge them by their success."

    "Forward" relative to what? Successful how?

    "Just as we can talk about physics or mathematics without first
    grounding logic in logic...."

    Right. We first hold to an absolute grounding. We presume logic then
    proceed forth. From logic, mathematics is given meaning. Would we not, in the same fashion, be forced to presume an ethical standard in order to give morality meaning? Using the math analogy, we could not allow numbers to be defined by individuals and still arrive at meaningful answers to mathematical equations. The "answers" would have no meaning.

    "...morality can be grounded in well-being."

    What is the logic-esque equivalent of "well-being"? Whose well-being?

    "How can anything that cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or any other) be related to morality?"

    Can you expound on this a bit? I'm reading what seems to be a false
    dichotomy and I'd like to see this notion expressed more fully before

    "...human nature... pressing xenophobic conflicts, fights for survival, etc..."

    It seems that the "human nature" to which we should attune would be
    the source of these "xenophobic conflicts" and "fights for survival". If both notions have the same source (human nature or human thought), what makes the "deep-seated human social instincts" morally preferable to human-originated xenophobia or the combative nature of humans?

  29. Hi, Randy-

    "If both notions have the same source (human nature or human thought), what makes the "deep-seated human social instincts" morally preferable to human-originated xenophobia or the combative nature of humans? "

    Yes, you touch on the difficult issue. This is where reason comes in. Our constitution, for instance, embodies numerous anti-democratic principles that form a brake on headlong majoritarian rule. It is our collective wisdom that lets us say that, even though we might not like a particular X, (speech, religion, guns), we should put up with it out of general principle, justified by the long-term good we receive in return by living in such a free society.

    It is through our wisdom that we weigh the full implications of any moral system which proposes to get us to a happy state. History is full of unfortunate detours on that road, and while scriptures are often well-distilled storehouses of such wisdom, sometimes they aren't, and it is ultimately up to us and our current wisdom to judge when to part company with them, and when & where to follow them, in pursuit of the perennial and common goal of human happiness.

  30. Burk,

    Thank you for a thoughtful response. I think perhaps my questions are less clear than I'd like. You brought up this notion again of the end goal of happiness. My trouble here is threefold:

    1. Happiness is fleeting. Look at a young, blissful married couple. They are happy to the very core. But there are even odds that they'll not be happily married ten years down the road.

    2. We can be terribly ignorant on what makes us happy. Let us return to our married couple. As a society, we sanction divorce with minimal justification... after all, we wouldn't want people to stay in an unhappy marriage. Marriage/Divorce studies, though, tell us that the couple who is committed to "grind it out" report much, much greater happiness than even those who find spouse #2... not always, but as a rule of thumb.

    3. Beyond the fact that neither the individual nor the society seems to know what will produce happiness, the happiness of the individual may often be suppressed by the society. Whose happiness, then, do we cater to?

    I'm again having difficulty with the idea of basing moral guidelines on what seems to be a moving target. "Ought" ceases to be relevant when the standards (as it appears in this case) cannot be readily defined.

  31. Randy-

    You point to precisely the problem of social existence.. we can't live with people, and we can't live without them! Morality is typically the tradeoff of personal wants for communal existence, and this is what generates endless internal (psychic) and external conflicts. Perhaps we want out of a marriage, but the ramifications of divorce go far beyond the immediate couple, so this pits relatively pure (and perhaps short-sighted) selfishness against a wider set of responsibilities... whose satisfaction tends in the end to bring greater happiness anyhow, as you point out.

    So you make my point in #2- that it is the deepest sense of happiness we are after when we try to "be moral". If that takes immediate sacrifice, so be it. If its takes a life spent scrimping and saving, so be it. If that takes a life of misery, one might question what kind of deep happiness one was after. But hermits of various sorts have made their joys out of extreme privation, so it is certainly a subjective matter.

    You are absolutely right that this is something of a moving target- both because humans differ by nature, and because they are endlessly influence-able and caught up in complex cultural projects & settings. That is why morals really do change with time, and should change. This is not something to be feared, but is a natural working out of the nature-culture relationship. The guidelines of yesterday shouldn't be binding. So we shouldn't be looking for new guidelines/standards, either!

    Another example is the difference between China and the west. Do the Chinese really do experience a higher level of social solidarity and desire to give up personal freedoms for collective happiness? I doubt it, but can't say for sure. Each society has to make these decisions as best it can. We certainly, in our military, have plenty of social sacrifice of the few for the many going on as well, out of rather high morals. So morality is extremely complex in practice ... I was not trying to say otherwise. I was just trying to make clear what the criteria really are, and say that looking for absolute rules rather than working them out for ourselves collectively isn't the most honest and truthful way to go about it.

  32. Let’s step back to the concept of physical health again. How did we go about presuming the longevity standard in order to give physical health meaning? Also, it seems we failed to point out whose longevity we were talking about. What exactly is it that prevents us from using the same process for morality?

  33. Interesting comments all around. Really fun stuff to read.

    I don't have a lot to add to it.... except a couple of short things. Then perhaps over the weekend I can do another short post to continue the conversation on another thread.

    Logic - if this is an absolute ground, then why? It's because of its success towards our well-being. If we obey its "rules" then we tend to see returns on that bet, in the form of greater control, predictability and, therefore, greater well-being and security. So it seems that there is an even deeper ground than logic. Something more fundamental that would give us cause to study and care about logic.

    So at some level, any system requires a level of boot-strapping to get it off the "ground" (ha ha).

    Randy, what is the alternative form of grounding that you have in mind? I cannot think of another system of "grounding" that would avoid the good deconstruction you are applying here.

    And what does "success" mean, we might ask? It comes down to how we are hardwired - positive feedback, a sense of well-being, a sense of identity. So that leads us down into our deepest feelings, which I have called intuition here.

  34. Burk,

    We're on the same page... moving target.


    Physical health is basically just defined as that which yields individual longevity. The longevity of the individual is not at odds with the longevity of the society. The question is not, "should we ground on something else" in this case; rather, it's "is longevity a ground-able notion?" Unlike some things, the notion of longevity never changes, so I would say yes.


    "Logic - if this is an absolute ground, then why? It's because of its success towards our well-being. If we obey its "rules" then we tend to see returns on that bet, in the form of greater control, predictability and, therefore, greater well-being and security"

    Logic is absolute because it never changes. You can remove the quotes from "rules". You can't even converse without logic. Look at the language you incorporate above:
    "success towards our well-being"
    "returns on that bet"
    "greater control"
    These notions must be logically defined before they can be used as a yardstick. Hence, you need logic to define logic. Absolutely. :)

    "Randy, what is the alternative form of grounding that you have in mind? I cannot think of another system of "grounding" that would avoid the good deconstruction you are applying here."

    You already know "where" I propose we ground morality. I don't want to go off on a tangent, though... we can explore this in our email chain. I'm trying to get a handle on how morality is meaningful when "grounded" on what Burk agreed was a moving target. Is "morality" any different that "convention" or "preference"?

    Group question: Can you think of anything that is always evil and has always been evil for any culture? Another way to phrase this: Is there an act for which one must always provide justification (i.e. [act] "for fun" would never be countenanced anywhere)?

  35. Randy,

    I am not saying that logic is not a grounding for knowledge - rather, I am saying that the reason we have discovered this ground is because it has led to success for us.

    So if there is a morality that is absolute, we will discover it through its success - individually and collectively.

    If logic is a true reality, then it is there for us to discover. If morality is a true reality, then it is there for us to discover. We don't necessarily need an external rule book. Right?

    I can see that my communication is not always the best on this stuff. In a sense "success" is an absolute ground because if something is not successful (it doesn't work), then we don't think it is true. BUT, success is the means of discovering truth - we find things that work, and then those things that work can be "grounds".

    I do lean towards an absolute morality - it is that which brings things together. If a person uses the word "God", then I think it is quite appropriate here. But theological words like "god" or "natural law" do not give a person an advantage in discovering true morality.

    If we "ground" morality in God, then do you mean that God gives us a feeling from which we derive our morality? Fair enough - I call it our intuition, but it's the same idea. One person says these feelings are created in us by God, another says they are hard-wired into us by natural selection and cultural conditioning. That is fine - it is different words and explanations for the same process of determining what is moral.

    As far as specific acts through history - I don't think moral grounding will be found in the letter of the law (specific acts) but rather in the spirit of the law.

  36. New post up about logic and morality. Thanks all!

    Feel free to continue here as well of course.

  37. Randy,

    To assert that the longevity of the individual is not at odds with the longevity of the society suggests a lack of consideration of the effects of your assertion. Consider the social and economic impacts that may be associated with extended (or shortened) longevity. I maintain the point, as it appears that you are applying a different standard towards morality than you apply to other concepts. Please consider how you come up with the definitions, why you insert “individual” in one definition and why you see it as problematic in another, and consider what it is that makes the concepts so different. Recognize that difficulty quantifying in practice is not the same thing as impossibility of quantifying in principle. Consider the necessary relationship between morality and being.

  38. Cameron,

    I apologize for my brief treatment of this topic... it led to a misunderstanding of what we were addressing. When you talk about societal longevity, you're delving beyond physical health. I had meant to keep the focus on physical health. By introducing the term "longevity," I inadvertently expanded the scope beyond simply living longer in the physical sense. I recognize that societal longevity is more than that. For this discussion, assume I'm speaking simply to average age of death (i.e. Luxembourg is "healthier" than the U.S.).

  39. The societal/individual distinction clears up an adjacent misunderstanding. So now we know we are talking about the longevity of the individual (or mean of individuals), in the same, way we know we are talking about the well-being of the individual. I don’t see the problem.

    There is variance in the way of living, at least, along the lines of longer or shorter relative to alternatives (actualized or not). This variance is referenced in the definition currently adopted for physical health.

    There is variance in the way of being, at least, along the lines of better or worse relative to alternatives (actualized or not). This variance is referenced in the definition currently adopted for morality.

    Again, keep in mind that difficulty quantifying in practice is not the same thing as impossibility of quantifying in principle.