Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Science of Good and Evil

Michael Shermer in the book The Science of Good and Evil develops a theory of provincial morality. The moral theories that have been developed have tended to one of 2 extremes complete absolute morality or completely relativistic morality. Rather then tending to to either of these 2 extremes and rejecting the Aristotelian dichotomy of A or not-A, Shermer attempts to approach the issue from a middle ground.

Humans have moral sentiments, guilt, shame, pride, etc. that encourage us to act in a moral fashion. In order to be viewed as trust worthy, since humans can detect deceit we must not just fake being moral we have to actually be moral. These moral sentiments or emotions come into play even when there is no possibility of reciprocity.

To determine what is moral and what is not, Shermer has a set of principles. Since an action cannot be determined to be immoral in an absolute sense but only determined to be immoral for most people in most places most of the time, the first principle is to ask other parties involved. Is adultery immoral? Ask you spouse how they would feel about it. Some couples have open relationships because both partners have agreed to allow extramarital affairs.

Of course simply asking is not enough without a means to measure the relevancy of the other person's response. The second principle is to not pursue happiness at the expense of someone else's happiness. If an action would reduce other people's happiness, it would not be moral to do it.

The next principle is to not pursue liberty at the expense of another person's liberty. The last principle is to avoid extremism. When innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue and moderation in the defense of anything is no vice.

Since laying out a system of morality is meaningless if there is applicability, Shermer goes on to apply these principles to adultery, pornography, abortion and animal rights. in doing so he attempts to avoid absolutist claims that any of these are always wrong or always right but that there are shades of grey.


Friar Tuck said...

"Some couples have open relationships because both partners have agreed to allow extramarital affairs."

May I ask where the logical coherence is in this. We are faithful to being unfaithful?

"in doing so he attempts to avoid absolutist claims that any of these are always wrong or always right but that there are shades of grey."

I think you have mischaracterized Aristotle in some ways. He would certainly agree that there are grey areas and ethics is an imperfect science. But will you concede that there are actually intrinsically evil acts, such as killing an innocent person?

Verl Humpherys said...

The logic is simply if both spouses are not hurt by extramarital relationships, then there is no reason to consider it immoral. Though I agree in principle, this particular issue is more complex. Open relationships are most commonly for the benefit of just one person. Though that person may say they are okay with it, that does not mean there is no resentment or hurt feelings. However, Penn & Teller did an episode of their show Bullshit where they interviewed 2 couples who lived together and shared spouses. Under traditional Christian morality, this would be wrong. However, the people were happy with their relationships and there is nothing wrong with it.

The comment about Aristotle is directly from the book. I am not familiar enough with Aristotle's work and assume that Shermer is.

I think there are times where killing an innocent person is justified. There is the classic scenario of the train hurling down towards 5 people and you could divert the track so that only 1 person is killed. Most people agree that they would divert the train and kill the one.

Friar Tuck said...

Let me try to make the logical incoherence more obvious:

We agree that we will lie to each only to the extent that we have agreed.

Or consider a contract that read: We will break this contract only in so far as we have agreed.

We will be faithful to our unfaithfulness, doesn't even make logical sense. Once fidelity has been broken, why should either party expect that it will broken in a way that remains faithful to the original agreement?

Further, your two criteria for the good: consent and no harm, don't make sense to me. They certainly are a part of the moral good, but are only a part.

What this does not consider is what is owed a person as being a person. When people first fall in love, they realize that this is real and they want it forever. "I want you and only you." A person is deserves love by the shear fact he or she is a person. To merely use a person violates their personhood.

What this minimalist morality does is that it turns people into objects. I will use you when I want and another person when it benefits me. There is no authentic love for the person as person.

If a wife consents to spouse abuse, is this moral? Of course not. Does being surrounded by unfaithful people and liars good for a person? Of course not. And consider the children. How negatively will they be affected by realized that a marital vow can be broken solely if it is consented to? What kind of society does this create, where truth is a lie?

Extramarital relations do greater damage then I think you're willing to admit, even if they are consented to. If two people consent to an evil act, it does not minimize or eliminate the objective evil of the act.

This is one of the presuppositions of Libertarians that is deeply confusing to me, i.e. we are automous human beings. We are not autonomous human beings. Our actions don't just affect us. We are social beings, deeply and immediately familial. Our actions impact everyone around us and especially our family.

As for the train scenario. Is the death of that person not still an evil? I will grant the question of the morality of the decision is dubious, but I cannot grant that the death of the person is not evil. This I think distinguishes what is moral and what is good.

The morality of an act is not solely based on the objective evil of the act. It must be intended as evil to incur guilt. So, the man on the train are not intending the death of the innocent person, but the safety of the five passengers. This does not change the fact that killing the innocent person is intrinsically evil.

Or consider a person who has a sudden spasm and pushes someone off a bridge. This was not immoral, because it was not intended. But the act itself was evil.