Exploratory thinking: Individual and social ethics & morals for the Godless

“Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all of existence at one glance.”

– Walter Lippman


Part of the difficulty of going breadth-first over depth-first – being a fox over a hedgehog? – is that the usual societal-soup-available categories don’t precisely fit to the things you care about. Hence “thinking around” and not “about”. Philosophers have been debating ethics/morals for ever and I do not believe I’m much capable than the lot of them. Further, I buy Thiel’s axiom about competition being for losers.

But maybe if I refactor the themes I can make some headway. Maybe. It might also be that going breadth-first and trying to refactor things at your will doesn’t really solve anything ever, but I see way more people taking societally-available ontologies as given and then doing work inside of them – even in intellectual circles – so it seems worth trying this out, given that it is necessary for me to think about this.

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Introduction

Nietzsche was right

The God is dead/Nietzsche is dead trope is spun forward by idiots that haven’t bothered to read past the first subclause. I’ve bothered reading to the second one and hence can make fun of them.

“God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. — And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”

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As predicted by Nietzsche God’s shadow lives. Or, as I prefer: it was not dead in 1880 when Nietzsche proclaimed it and it isn’t dead now. God is and has been comatose for the past century.
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Muflax  summarizes GEM Ascombe essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” as “stop theorizing until we have solved psychology kthx”. A more detailed description follows:
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“Interest in the concept of eudaimonia and ancient ethical theory more generally enjoyed a revival in the twentieth century. Elizabeth Anscombe in her article “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) argued that duty-based conceptions of morality are conceptually incoherent for they are based on the idea of a “law without a lawgiver”.[9] She claims a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments depends on someone having made these rules.[10] Anscombe recommends a return to the eudaimonistic ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents, and can do so without appealing to any such lawgiver.”
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Ascombe’s primary charge in the “Modern Moral Philosophy” is that, as secular approaches to moral theory (Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, and Social Contract theories), are without foundation. “They use concepts such as ‘morally ought,’ ‘morally obligated,’ ‘morally right,’ and so forth that are legalistic and require a legislator as the source of moral authority. In the past God occupied that role, but” since God is no more, the theories “are lacking the proper foundation for meaningful employment of those concepts.
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There are two ways to read this article. The first is to read it straightforwardly as an indictment of the moral theories prevalent in the 1950s and a subsequent argument for the development of an alternative theory of morality that does not postulate a legislator, but then also does not try to keep the defunct legislative structure that naturally falls out of religiously based ethics. On this view we need to develop an alternative that is based on moral psychology, moral virtue, facts of human nature, and an account of the good for humans based on this approach. A major mistake made by modern moral philosophers is that they try to provide an account of ‘morally right or morally wrong’ that really has no content outside of the legislative arena provided by the divine. Anscombe writes: “It would be most reasonable to drop it. It has no reasonable sense outside a law conception of ethics; they are not going to maintain such a conception; and you can do ethics without it, as is shown by the example of Aristotle. It would be great improvement if, instead of ‘morally wrong,’ one always named a genus such as ‘untruthful’, ‘unchaste’, ‘unjust’ ” (MMP, 8–9).
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Thus, many take her to be arguing for this alternative—the alternative that, like Aristotle’s account, relies on richer, or ‘thick’ concepts such as ‘just’ as opposed to ‘thin’ concepts such as ‘morally wrong’ which—outside of a certain metaphysical perspective—lacks content.”
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GEM Anscombe is, as far as I can see, perfectly correct, and the fact that these foundationless secular approaches have survived only prove that God is not dead.
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This is all well and fine, but what would morality without God actually look like? What would morality look like if you took God out of the equation, seriously?
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I have no idea. But my thinking has been reaching for 3 attractors. I discuss these in turndialogue, virtue, and societal-focused ethics.

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Attractor 1: Dialogue

“Perhaps the most important feature of the first half of ‘Knowledge and Decisions’ is simply its analysis of decision-making processes and institutions in terms of the characteristics and consequences of those processes themselves – irrespective of their goals. This approach rejects the common practice of characterizing processes by their hoped for results rather than their actual mechanics. ‘Profit-making’ businesses, ‘drug prevention’ programs are just some of the many things commonly defined by their hoped for results, rather than by… the incentives created by those processes.” Normative statements are usually named after their goal: to be normative descriptions. So let us ask the consequence of the characteristics and consequences of those statements, that is, what function do they serve?

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What normative statements are for

Non-Violent Communication claims that all normative statements in speech (“It is not right/moral/logical/likely/rational to do that) express nothing more and nothing less than needs. All normative statements are strategies to express a need. (“If you do that I’ll feel X because Y. Are you willing to Z?”)
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(NVC might not be the usual starting point to think about ethics, but all the usual starting points have lead to a suspiciously contemporary four-way split, the usual starting points won’t do.)
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I think that this analysis is right. Normative statements have been appropriated by philosophers, but their origin is in social discourse and when you see people using normative statements in their daily life – especially about others – it is clear that the goal is not to express moral imperatives, but rather to force a certain outcome.
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Although sometimes moral reasons are invoked (You can’t do that because it is just wrong, evil, morally wrong, makes you a bad person) sometimes other reasons are invoked of the pragmatic, aesthetic, and societal form. (It’s illegal, It’s ugly, It’s embarrassing).
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What is notable in the NVC analysis is that all of these statements are not even wrong. That is, they really are statements about the one making them, presented as if they were absolute statements about the object.
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“The first component of NVC entails the separation of observation from evaluation. When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying. NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations. Instead, observations are to be made specific to time and context, for example, “Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games,” rather than “Hank Smith is a poor soccer player.”
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Taking normative statements to be not-even-wrong, NVC crafted a process language that discourages static generalizations; instead, evaluations are to be based on observations specific to time and context.
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But one question is left open: if normative statements are not-even-wrong why have they come to exist in the first place?
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What is the evolutionary problem that normative statements solve?
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I claim that it is the adaptive problem of social justification. The same way that reason evolved for justification, so did normative statements.
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Normative statements serve this function to this very day; because it feels much more powerful to do or not do something because God ordered it so, or because it is the Right or the Wrong thing to do, than because some fellow human expressed a need for it.
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Jumping off the postulates that a) normative statements express imperatives, b) normative statements express strategies to get needs met, NVC takes a dialogical approach to need solving, by using as an axiom the idea that only strategies (to meet needs) can conflict, and that needs never can conflict. (This makes reaching an equilibrium  much  easier since one is not constrained by trade-offs of any sort, i.e., there must be a globally satisfying solution)
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For the more academically inclined, Error Theory proposes as well that any particular moral statement is not true and is not false and Habermas, dealing with the pragmatic problems of ethical and moral discourse has too reached a dialogical approach.
If we take the Kant out of the Habermas we are left with dialogue, which is what Habermas focuses on when he claims that ethical and moral discourse cannot be conducted by anyone except the persons uniquely concerned with the outcomes of that discourse.
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“Habermas summarizes his idealized conception of practical discourse in the “discourse principle” (D), which we might state as follows: A rule of action or choice is justified, and thus valid, only if all those affected by the rule or choice could accept it in a reasonable discourse. Although he first understood (D) as a principle of moral discourse, he now positions it as an overarching principle of impartial justification that holds for all types of practical discourse (cf. 1990a, 66, 93; 1996b, 107). As such, it simply summarizes his argumentation theory for any question involving the various “employments of practical reason” (1993, chap. 1). (D) thus applies not only to moral rightness and ethical authenticity, but also to the justification of technical-pragmatic claims about the choice of effective means for achieving a given end. Each type of practical discourse then involves a further specification of (D) for the content at issue. In developing his democratic theory, Habermas has been especially concerned with two such specifications: moral discourse and legal-political discourse. In distinguishing these two types of discourse, Habermas tackles the traditional problem of the relationship between law and morality. He also shows how to bring ethereal discursive idealizations down to institutional earth. We start with his account of moral discourse.

(…)

Habermas’s (D)-Principle articulates this dialogical requirement. If one assumes this requirement, then one can arrive at Habermas’s specific conception of reasonable moral discourse by working out the implications of his argumentation theory for the discursive testing of unconditional moral obligations. What one gets is a dialogical principle of universalization (U): “A [moral norm] is valid just in case the foreseeable consequences and side-effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned without coercion” (i.e., in a sufficiently reasonable discourse) (1998a, 42; trans. amended). Habermas maintains that (U) can be deduced from statements articulating the pragmatic implications of argumentative discourse over moral norms (1990a, 86–93; 1998a, 39–45).

(…)

The (U)-Principle assumes that valid moral rules or norms allow for an egalitarian community of autonomous agents—as Kant put it, a “systematic union of different rational beings” governed by “common laws” (1785, Ak. 433; also 431).”

 
This second attractor makes sense to me for I believe two fundamental reasons: 1) it refashions the understanding of ethics as something that can be understood and used by any human instead of being the domain of specialists who don’t actually use it, only cognitively engage with it, 2) it takes the societal character of ethics as primary

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Attractor 3: Societal ethics

What morality and ethics are for

Above we asked what normative statements are for. The question now turns to the whole realm of ethics and morality. What function do they serve? I claim that morality and ethics are for running society. 

My main source of this idea is Natural Justice by Ken Binmore. “He reinterprets classical social contract ideas within a game-theory framework and generates new insights into the fundamental questions of social philosophy. In contrast to the previous writing in moral philosophy that relied on vague notion such as ” societal well-being” and “moral duty,” Binmore begins with individuals; rational decision-makers with the ability to empathize with one another. Any social arrangement that prescribes them to act against their interests will become unstable and eventually will be replaced by another, until one is found that includes worthwhile actions for all individuals involved.

Moral relativism indeed, but of a very persuasive sort. According to Binmore, fairness rules have evolved to help societies select between equilibria in various coordination games that arise in life. Societies that selected the more efficient equilibria have survived, resulting in our current and constantly evolving social contract. Or in the more eloquent words of Binmore: “Fairness is the social tool washed up on the human beach by the tide of evolution for solving […] coordination problems […]”.

He starts with individual rational-decison-maker (which we all are given enough evolutionary time) that can emphasise with each others. He then uses game theory to show how they will coordinate on some of the available social contracts. I maintain that morality and ethics are collections of norms that express imperatives in a categorical fashion appealing to higher constructs of some sort (God, Good) because those constructs are the ones with the most justificatory power for human minds.

It is simpler for everyone to behave in the same fashion by creating a Schelling point in the form of God or the Devil, than have everyone understand that society is playing massive iterated prisioner’s dilemmas and that defection will lead to the worse outcome for all, and we must actually all keep cooperating. I think that the solution that evolution (natural and cultural) struck upon is morals and ethics as a coordination mechanism. (Remember that they are originally from the province of Religion, which leads the figures to coordinate upon).

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Conclusion

All of these attractors move beyond there-is-no-God-ness and accept that there are *just* humans, in societies,trying to do the best they can to get needs met.

If my analysis is correct, the way to care about morality is at the individual level and societal level. At the societal level institutions are forced to make categorical decisions and create categorical solutions – and there is where the focus must be. But at the individual level, individuals are capable of making incremental trade-offs which is why in this case the way to solving moral issues is bottom-up, though dialogue, and thick concepts. (Abstract concepts that include many things must necessarily be thin).

It is notable that morality and ethics get taken as black boxes, whereas should this analysis be correct, although they interact, individual and inter-individual morality and group and inter-group (institution/societal) morality are two different things. The first appears to benefit from dialogue, honest observation and requests, virtue and thick descriptions; whilst the second appears to benefit from consensus, analysis of coordination points, categorical decision and thin descriptions.

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Future:
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