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Moral dilemmas - a question for humanists

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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Jem
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Moral dilemmas - a question for humanists

#1 Post by Jem » October 6th, 2007, 12:50 am

I've just seen this posted on another forum and wondered if anyone here would like to comment on it. I personally think the poster is somewhat off the mark about humanism.

>>Correct me if I'm wrong, but Humanism contends that morality is subjective and that it exists to serve society's goals of general prosperity, and welfare. Society condemns theft as morally bad because people are happier when they are not busy worrying about losing their stuff.

Everyone loses when everyone acts selfishly, but when everyone does things that benefit society everyone wins. For instance, when everyone puts the effort into not pissing on the seat, everyone get's a cleaner bathroom.

This all seems to make sense to me and I think it is a very logical and clear way to refute theist claims that without objective morality we'd all be child molesters who kick puppies. However, beyond providing a basis for "take a penny leave a penny" jars, I don't see how humanism provides a basis for pure self sacrifice on an extreme level. Most people would agree that when a plane is crashing and there are only 2 parachutes for four guys the guys who volunteer to not have a parachute are making a better moral choice than the two dudes who leap out with them. But what is the logical basis for this self sacrifice? Is their behavior rational or irrational? It seems to me that this sacrifice is morally good but irrational and I was wondering what the Humanist take on their decision is?<<

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#2 Post by Chineapple punk » October 6th, 2007, 1:21 am

His/Her idea of morality seems a bit jumbled to me. The hypothetical situation used to illustrate morality may not be a very good one, as any moral or self sacrificing intentions tend to fly out the window when faced with a life or death situation. On the other hand, people have been known to be incredibly brave and self-sacrificing when faced with the same sort of circumstances. I imagine you just don't know how you would react until you were presented with a life or death incident. What you decide to do in the heat of panic may indeed be either rational or irrational.

To me, your own morality is something that you carry with you every day and it influences almost all the decisions you make in life. You pretty much know what you will or wont agree with, what you would do or not do, etc, based on your own moral and ethical ideas.

I don't know if I am making much sense but I know what I mean :) I think?
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#3 Post by gregory » October 6th, 2007, 11:03 am

Yes It is difficult to know what one would do in very extreme circumstances.
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#4 Post by whitecraw » October 6th, 2007, 3:09 pm

any moral or self sacrificing intentions tend to fly out the window when faced with a life or death situation
But these are the very situations in which one’s morality (one’s sense of right and wrong) and one’s courage (the disposition to act in accordance with one’s sense of right and wrong, whatever the consequences) are most severely tested. The response you describe, where an agent’s ‘moral intentions’ fly out the window when faced with a life or death situation, is cowardice.

That being said, I would disagree with the post from the other forum on a number of points.
Humanism contends that morality is subjective
This is a false generalisation. Some Humanists contend that morality is objective; that is, that there is some factual basis to the distinction between right and wrong conduct to which one’s morality either corresponds (and is therefore true) or does not correspond (and is therefore false). But other Humanists deny this and contend instead that morality is subjective; that is, that our distinctions between right and wrong conduct are based only on our personal feelings, like and dislikes, and/or the needs and mores of our societies. I don’t think Humanism as such has an official line on the matter.
Society condemns theft as morally bad because people are happier when they are not busy worrying about losing their stuff.
The fact that society condemns theft as morally bad does not necessarily mean that it is morally bad. As John Calvin pointed out while elaborating his argument in defence of civil disobedience way back in the 16th century: sometimes society behaves immorally, and in situations in which it does behave immorally it behoves a courageous man to stand against it. Which would suggest that it is not what society praises or condemns, rewards or punishes, that determines what action is right or wrong. People my be happier when they are not busy worrying about losing their stuff, but this is not what makes stealing morally wrong.
This all seems to make sense to me and I think it is a very logical and clear way to refute theist claims that without objective morality we'd all be child molesters who kick puppies.
This is not a peculiarly theist claim. There are atheists also who would contend that there is some factual basis to the distinction between right and wrong conduct to which one’s morality either corresponds (and is therefore true) or does not correspond (and is therefore false). Indeed, the writer of the post himself/herself seems to be contending that morality has an objective basis; namely, what is conducive to society. Also: to imply conversationally, as the post-writer does, that the claim that without objective morality we'd all be child molesters who kick puppies is a claim that all theists make is again a false generalisation. Some theists do claim that, without some factual basis for the distinction between right and wrong, there could be no morality and anything would go. But other theists don’t. Some theists hold the doctrine of ‘abandonment’; that is, the teaching that God gave us free will and with it the power and responsibility to set our own standards of conduct, a responsibility which we have paradoxically no choice but to accept and exercise in ‘good faith’ (i.e. without abnegating it in favour of some supposed ‘higher’ authority). As in the case of Humanism, theism as such is pretty neutral as to whether or not morality is subjective or objective.

I would also disagree with the presumption in the post that morality necessarily correlates with self-sacrifice. There are both altruistic and egoistic ethical views which produce different moral evaluations of actions and classes of actions. One might equally presume that morality correlates with enlightened self-interest, in which case the right thing to do in the circumstances described might be to claim one of the parachutes and let one of the others die… or not, as the case may be.

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#5 Post by Chineapple punk » October 6th, 2007, 5:24 pm

But these are the very situations in which one’s morality (one’s sense of right and wrong) and one’s courage (the disposition to act in accordance with one’s sense of right and wrong, whatever the consequences) are most severely tested. The response you describe, where an agent’s ‘moral intentions’ fly out the window when faced with a life or death situation, is cowardice.
Yes, I agree that you may act in a self-preserving or cowardly way or you may act in a brave and courageous way but I don't necessarily think this defines your morality. Do you have time to moralise in a snap moment? Or does instinct take over? You can speculate on how you think you would act in certain situations based on your morality, but this would not be proved unless faced with said life/death scenario. If you reacted in a self-sacrificing way does that mean you would respond to every other similar situation in the same way, and from then on be regarded as a courageous and moral person? A more meaningful test of someone’s morality, I think, would be reflected in how they conduct themselves in every day life. We are constantly faced with moral dilemma's when we have time to choose between certain options which may be beneficial to ourselves or to others, and we make choices accordingly. I think this better defines an individual's morality.
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#6 Post by Phaedo » October 6th, 2007, 5:52 pm

Chineapple punk wrote:
Yes, I agree that you may act in a self-preserving or cowardly way or you may act in a brave and courageous way but I don't necessarily think this defines your morality.
I think the emotive concepts of cowardice, bravery etc. are a bit of a red herring in terms of morality.
It's quite easy to imagine situations where what one group would regard as bravery another would regard as cowardice which would make the perceived morality dependent on which group you belonged to.
I get the impression that the general feeling is that courage and bravery are morally good and that self-preservation and cowardice are morally bad - but is this necessarily so?
True lovers of knowledge are temperate and brave...
Socrates

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#7 Post by Chineapple punk » October 6th, 2007, 6:06 pm

Thats a good question.

Sometimes what can be perceived as a brave action may actually be a very stupid one, i.e., running into a burning/collapsing building which you have no chance of saving anyone from, and killing yourself in the process. This is why the emergency services are trained to weigh up the pros and cons of dangerous situations, and taught when to step back or move forward accordingly.
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#8 Post by whitecraw » October 6th, 2007, 11:49 pm

Yes, I agree that you may act in a self-preserving or cowardly way or you may act in a brave and courageous way…
And there’s the other possibility too. One may act in a self-preserving and courageous way. Courage consists in doing what one ought to do in a given situation – jumping into a river to save a drowning child, obeying orders by staying on the bank until someone who has been appropriately trained arrives, whatever – regardless of whether one wants to do that thing or not.
…but I don't necessarily think this defines your morality.
I wasn’t suggesting that acting courageously or cravenly defines one’s morality. I would only suggest that it defines one’s character. What defines one’s morality – one’s sense of right and wrong – are the ethical principles by which one decides how to act in situations that require a moral response; e.g. the principle that one should always do what one is told, the principle that one should always act in such a way that one could without absurdity will that action as a universal law, the principle that one should always act in such a way as to maximise the balance of pleasure over pain in the world, the principle that one should always act to one’s own advantage, the principle that one should always follow one’s instincts… that sort of thing.
Do you have time to moralise in a snap moment? Or does instinct take over? You can speculate on how you think you would act in certain situations based on your morality, but this would not be proved unless faced with said life/death scenario.
The ability to make a snap moral decision would depend on the quality of one’s moral training, just as a soldier’s ability to make a snap tactical decision depends on the quality of her military training or a surgeon’s ability to make a snap medical decision depends on the quality of his medical training. (Dearie me! I’ve come over all Socratic, talking of morality as if it were a craft rather than conformity to a set of pre-given rules or commands.) This ability – to make snap moral decisions and to act on those decisions regardless of how scared or intimidated or tempted to do otherwise one is – is the mark of a moral hero. (Of course, we’re talking pre-Christian meta-ethics here. Post-Christian meta-ethics produces what Nietzsche called ‘slave morality’, which has saints rather than heroes. ‘Slave morality’ is just doing what one’s told, whether by God through His earthly factotums, by society through Public Opinion, or by Nature through one’s instincts.) As to my speculations as to how I might act in stressful situations: I’d hope that, if the situation called for one, I would be able to make a snap moral decision and do the right thing regardless of how distasteful I found it or how many people were goading me with carrots and big sticks; but I won't know until my courage has been tested, will I?.
A more meaningful test of someone’s morality, I think, would be reflected in how they conduct themselves in every day life. We are constantly faced with moral dilemma's when we have time to choose between certain options which may be beneficial to ourselves or to others, and we make choices accordingly.
I can’t see why the same test that would apply in stressful situations couldn’t also apply in less stressful situations.
I think the emotive concepts of cowardice, bravery etc. are a bit of a red herring in terms of morality.
Apart from the fact that they are also moral concepts, I’d agree with you there.
It's quite easy to imagine situations where what one group would regard as bravery another would regard as cowardice which would make the perceived morality dependent on which group you belonged to.
It is logically possible for the same word to have different meanings in different language communities, so that what in one community is called ‘courage’ would in another be called ‘cowardice’. In which case the correct use of both these terms would depend on to which language community one belonged. Likewise it is in fact the case that different moral communities have different ethical principles, the having of which being what defines them as distinct moral communities, so that what is considered in one community to be morally permissible might be considered in another to be morally impermissible. But I don’t think there is any logical connection between the meanings of moral terms like ‘courage’ and the ethical principles by which the morality of a community is defined.
I get the impression that the general feeling is that courage and bravery are morally good and that self-preservation and cowardice are morally bad - but is this necessarily so?
Courage has always been considered a virtù or excellence in pre-Christian meta-ethics; that is, a peculiarly human disposition which one needs to cultivate in one’s own person if one is to realise in that person one’s full potential as a specifically human being. Rationality is another virtù, as is empathy and spirituality and creativity... the list is almost endless. And this is the reason that courage is to be pursued: not because acting courageously is ‘morally good’ or ‘the right thing to do’, but rather because courage is a mark of a ‘good’ human in much the same sense that keenness is a mark of a ‘good’ blade. Doing what is right irrespective of prospective rewards or dangers may be courageous, but it is and cannot without absurdity be the reason courage is to be cultivated in one’s own person. It is to be cultivated simply because it is a human excellence, an ontological rather than a moral good; that is, a good way for a person to be, just as keen is a good way for a knife to be or grammatical is a good way for a sentence to be.
Sometimes what can be perceived as a brave action may actually be a very stupid one, i.e., running into a burning/collapsing building which you have no chance of saving anyone from, and killing yourself in the process. This is why the emergency services are trained to weigh up the pros and cons of dangerous situations, and taught when to step back or move forward accordingly.
As a virtue, courage is covered extensively in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, its vice of deficiency being cowardice and its vice of excess being recklessness. The equation of courage with recklessness (‘running into a burning/collapsing building which you have no chance of saving anyone from, and killing yourself in the process’) is a mistaken one.

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#9 Post by Chineapple punk » October 7th, 2007, 12:34 am

And there’s the other possibility too. One may act in a self-preserving and courageous way
Yes, I agree, there are several possibilities or combinations of possibilities of how you may act.
The ability to make a snap moral decision would depend on the quality of one’s moral training,
Yes, I would like to think so but as you say-
I would be able to make a snap moral decision and do the right thing regardless of how distasteful I found it or how many people were goading me with carrots and big sticks; but I won't know until my courage has been tested, will I?.
Agreed, most of us don't actually know how we would act until the s**t hits the fan.
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#10 Post by Phaedo » October 7th, 2007, 11:35 am

whitecraw wrote: As a virtue, courage is covered extensively in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, its vice of deficiency being cowardice and its vice of excess being recklessness. The equation of courage with recklessness (‘running into a burning/collapsing building which you have no chance of saving anyone from, and killing yourself in the process’) is a mistaken one.
Whitecraw, I go along with what you say and to go possibly a little off thread Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics refers more to virtues rather than morals, and I'm not sure if you can use the two interchangeably. As you say he treats the courage/cowardice issue extensively and if I may use two quotes (necessarly abbreviated)..
The man who shuns and fears everything and can stand up to nothing becomes a coward. The man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger, becomes foolhardy.
To me, what he advocates as virtue here is moderation rather than excess of courage or cowardice.
and...
The brave man is the man who faces or fears the right thing, for the right purpose, in the right manner, at the right moment, or who shows courage in the corresponding ways.
Again he is very precise in how he addresses how courage is viruous (morally right?).
I think what he is saying here is that rather than actions being considered morally right or wrong the focus should more be on the motives behind the actions rather than the actions themselves. This, I believe will tell you much more about moral quality of the person. Unfortunately actions often mask the motives behind them and it is not always easy to define the motives.
True lovers of knowledge are temperate and brave...
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#11 Post by Oxfordrocks » October 7th, 2007, 12:56 pm

At the end of the day, the "Fight or Flight" instinct will prevail.
There are three fundamental questions for anyone advocating staying in EU.

1. What, precisely, are the significant and tangible benefits of staying in the EU?
2. What damage to the UK and its citizens will be caused by leaving EU?
3. Should the supreme court ruling on British subjects be based in UK?

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#12 Post by Maria Mac » October 7th, 2007, 3:23 pm

My initial thoughts on the hypothetical situation were that the "best moral choice" would be based on utilitarian considerations: whose death would have the worst impact and whose survival would be for the greater good. But when I tried to imagine being in that situation myself, the notion of "fairness" began to intrude: Even if my own death would have the worst impact for the greatest number, at least I've had 50 years of life. What if one of the others were half my age? Wouldn't it be fairer for them to have the chance to live as long as I have already lived - and would sacrificing my life for this reason make it more "moral"?

It also occurred to me that in a situation where a decision has to be made in a few seconds, this could well be the knee-jerk response from me: let the younger people live or fight for my own right to life if I'm up against a couple of OAPs. I don't think my conscience would let me have any peace after the event if I'd let a young person die in place of me.

All things being equal and with nobody volunteering, I suppose drawing straws would be the only civilised way of making the decision - I'm not sure where morality and reason would come into it.

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#13 Post by whitecraw » October 7th, 2007, 9:43 pm

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics refers more to virtues rather than morals, and I'm not sure if you can use the two interchangeably.
No, you certainly can’t. In pre-Christian meta-ethics, ‘éthika’ pertains to ‘matters of character’, with ‘moralis’ being the term that Cicero coined to translate ‘éthika’ into Latin. In post-Christian meta-ethics, ‘morality’ is conforming one’s behaviour to some rule or law which defines ‘right conduct’ in any given set of circumstances. The two things are not the same. It is difficult to find in pre-Christian ethics anything resembling a universal moral law: as far as pre-Christians are concerned, each society has its own standards of behaviour and what post-Christians call ‘morality’ consists in conforming one’s behaviour to the standards of the society that gives you life; there is no universal moral law, in other words, to which all people are subject (or are to be subjected if they’re a bit recalcitrant), but only various local customs. What is more, pre-Christians consider themselves to be ‘above’ any particular social rule of behaviour, insofar as the well-being of one’s own character takes precedence in any conflict that arises between that well-being and prevailing customs.
To me, what he advocates as virtue here is moderation rather than excess of courage or cowardice.
Yes… The word that is usually translated as ‘virtue’ (which has in post-Christian ethics acquired a moralistic flavour, thanks mainly to the Church’s adumbration of a system of ‘cardinal’ and ‘theological’ virtues – roughly, what is good in the way of behaviour and belief) is ‘areté’, which means something like ‘excellence’. An excellent or ‘virtuous’ person in pre-Christian ethics isn’t someone who is ‘morally’ good in the post-Christian sense; that is, someone who (as the Catholic Church has it) ‘tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; [who]… pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.’ An excellent person in pre-Christian ethics is rather analogous to an excellent argument or an excellent axe: an exemplary example of its kind; an instance of something that realises in its own particular being all that it potentially can be as the sort of thing it is. Thus an excellent person is like an excellent axe. Just as an excellent axe will exhibit all the virtùs of an axe (all the characteristics that make an axe a good axe), so an excellent person will exhibit all the characteristics that would make him or her an exemplary human being.

In Aristotle’s case, he lists among the human virtùs or excellences courage, which he reckons to be the mean between recklessness and cowardice, recklessness being an excess of courage and cowardice being a deficiency of courage. He gives a similar analysis of the other virtùs or excellences peculiar to our species which, according to his reckoning, define an exemplary human being: generosity, fair-mindedness, self-respect, ostentation, intelligence and wit, to name but a few; characteristics which we need to cultivate in our own persons if we are to ‘flourish’ as human beings. It is in this ‘flourishing’ that ‘happiness’, or making a success of one’s life (‘eudaimonia’), consists.
I think what he is saying here is that rather than actions being considered morally right or wrong the focus should more be on the motives behind the actions rather than the actions themselves. This, I believe will tell you much more about moral quality of the person.
I agree that the focus in Aristotle’s ethics isn’t on whether actions are morally right or wrong, but I don’t think it’s on the motives behind the actions either. I think the focus is rather on the character that is revealed in – or defined by – the manner in which a man conducts himself, and whether or not that character is the character of a ‘good’ or proficient human being.

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#14 Post by Ted Harvey » October 7th, 2007, 10:01 pm

I generally dislike extreme made-up scenarios as much as analogies - mainly because I often find that the constructor of the scenario or analogy asserts that it is just offering a way to test, or find, a truth, but in reality they have their own pre-conceived agenda or conclusion to 'be arrived at'.

The scenario in this case also raises an issue I often think about. Is there any link between morality and physical courage? In asking this I’m talking about physical courage and not some concept of ‘moral courage’. Faced with an extreme choice some of us will instinctively be less able to deal with sheer fear or even terror - but would that make us 'less moral' than a physically braver person who could better deal with the fear and arrive at another (more admirable) decision?

Put another way, some people who commit some heinous crimes are at the same time very physically brave - indeed such bravery may be necessary for the carrying out of their crimes.

My own view is that people can have a moral conscience and know the right moral decision in a situation, and want to make that decision, but find themselves overcome with fear or terror. Nevertheless, I find that in a lot of literature there is an automatic assumption that physical bravery is part of 'being moral'.

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#15 Post by tubataxidriver » October 7th, 2007, 11:10 pm

Getting back to the nub of the argument for the moment - is morality subjective or objective? This is the wrong question. the correct one is "what is the origin of morality?"

The Brights movement is working on a more scientific and evolutionary approach at the moment, based on the hypothesis: "Morality is an evolved repertoire of cognitive and emotional mechanisms with distinct biological underpinnings, as modified by experience." There are several academic studies which are pointing towards this being true.

What this means is that, if this hypothesis is not falsified, then we are effectively programmed by evolution to have a sort of morality - i.e., it is a bit objective and a bit subjective. How each of us would act in a certain situation is not really predictable.

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#16 Post by Jem » October 10th, 2007, 9:59 am

I'd like to thank everyone for their very thought provoking responses - I feel I've learned something from this thread. The hypothetical scenario sucks, really, I think it would have been more useful without the short time limit because that alters everything. The question of what criteria we use to decide someone's worth and therefore whose life should be spared is the one that really interests me. That said, I think Ted's point about physical courage and morality is a very important one and one that hadn't occurred to me.

It's interesting to know what the Brights movement are doing, if only because I didn't realise the Brights did things like this. It's always seemed obvious to me that there are some moral absolutes but that morality is mostly subjective so I'd be pleased to see the hypothesis proved.

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#17 Post by Jem » October 15th, 2007, 2:45 am

From the original OP on the other forum.
Jem wrote:But what is the logical basis for this self sacrifice? Is their behavior rational or irrational? It seems to me that this sacrifice is morally good but irrational and I was wondering what the Humanist take on their decision is?<<[/color]
I think the discussion on this thread has focussed on morality. I've been keeping an eye on the thread in the other forum and they seem to be getting bogged down on the issue of rationality with the poster of the above quote insisting that making the ultimate sacrifice can never be a rational decision.

Willingness to die for a cause or for the greater good of humanity is, in his view, unreasonable, irrational and illogical.

Is he right?

I realise this raises questions about the meanings of these words and this is something I am also interested inexploring.

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#18 Post by Firebrand » October 15th, 2007, 4:13 pm

To me it would seem rational to sacrifice my life for my children. It's too late for me to have any more. If I have to sacrifice my life for the greater good of humanity, it seems that my children would benefit too, so I think this makes it a rational decision.

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#19 Post by whitecraw » October 15th, 2007, 9:57 pm

Willingness to die for a cause or for the greater good of humanity is, in his view, unreasonable, irrational and illogical.

Is he right?
Depends... 'Unreasonable, irrational and illogical' relative to what? Self-interest? Perhaps. A prior commitment to some self-transcending principle like 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'? Not necessarily.

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#20 Post by Maria Mac » October 16th, 2007, 7:23 am

Thank you, fb and wc. Those were exactly the points I've been making on that particular thread but it's like banging my head on a brick wall so I've stopped now. The other poster is coming from what I think is a Randian perspective and simply won't countenance any possibility that a rational person can sacrifice themself for a greater good. He also has trouble with the notion that when I argue something, I am speaking for myself alone and not for all humanists who may actually have different ideas.

To make the whole thing even more tiresome, we now have a Christian coming in and arguing that the trouble with my claiming to be concerned with the future of humankind is that this isn't logical "if the world is governed solely according to the forces of evolution" whereas he "knows" the reason that he cares about humanity is because of God's love.

:headbang:

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