Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part VI

10 May

In last week’s installment of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we discussed the difficulty which accompanies any attempt to positively determine the actual moral views of the majority within a given society.  But what if those views could be determined?  What then?  The difficulties for the moral relativist aren’t over!  This week, we conclude our examination of societal relativism as an adequate foundation for moral values with a look at whether the agreement of 50% + 1 (a simple majority) is really sufficient to determine what is right and what is wrong.

The question here is more philosophical than anything else.  What happens if 50% + 1 agree that euthanizing the elderly will provide a more productive and cohesive society?  Is that one person who tipped the scales really to be given the power to execute a death sentence upon portion of the population?  If not, how much of a majority is necessary to do so?  If 55% are in agreement, can we feel comfortable in accepting the verdict?  What if 60% or 75% concede?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to determining how much of the majority is necessary for a given moral view to prevail?  And who gets to decide?

You see, the problem with societal relativism is that it is… well, relative.  Moral views change over time as national boarders shift, ethnic groups merge or die out, and demographics are altered.  Popular opinion is swayed by an excellent orator, the rules which lead to societal cohesion move in and out of vogue, the powerful justify the oppression of those without a voice, and those with a voice determine the standards not only for their own societies, but for others as well.  And none of this can be said to be either right or wrong… because it’s all relative.  All, that is, except one universal truth: “It’s all relative.”

It is this universal statement of the relativist that proves the death knell of his philosophy.  If it really is “all relative”, then this statement, too, must be relative… but relative to what?  In the end, there is no moral center for the relativist view except the relativist, himself.  In essence, he becomes his own god – determining right and wrong based upon his own likes and dislikes.  But his godhood is limited, for as much as he may be able to declare moral absolutes for himself, he is equally incapable of making such declarations for others. A relativist may find himself robbed and beaten, but he is in no position to determine that the action of the violent party was wrong or ought to be met with justice.

In becoming his own god, the relativist becomes impotent to do either good or to declare what is evil.  What is right or wrong for him is right or wrong for him only and his views cannot rightly be forced or enforced upon anyone else either as an individual or upon a society as a whole.  His moral freedom has become a moral strait jacket.  Societal relativism as a basis for atheist morality fails.

Next week, we’ll examine another argument that some atheists use to defend moral behavior: the Law of Nature.  Meanwhile, please feel free to share your thoughts on societal relativism in the comment box below!

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6 Responses to “Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part VI”

  1. Vad May 11, 2013 at 04:33 #

    Oh, props for a comment box. It makes sharing thoughts easier.

    If your goal was to accurately portray and respond to an atheist view of morality, that is not a goal you have accomplished. Let me assist you by providing an short treatise of what at least one atheist actually thinks about morality, so that next time you’ll have something more substantial to argue against than trite misconceptions.

    I’m atheist and I would describe myself as a moral subjectivist, I guess, since I think morality is inherently subjective. (I literally just decided on this term, so if it’s already being used by some other school of thought, I don’t know about it.) First I must clarify my terms: subjective = dependent on the values/judgment/perception/feelings of subject (e.g. a human); objective = existing without reference to a subject OR without dependence on a subject. When I say “beauty is subjective,” I mean that beauty is an abstract concept by which we judge physical reality, and as a concept it only exists by *being conceived* which depends on the mind of a subject. Get it? So if every living thing died tomorrow, beauty would cease existing because there would be no subjects to conceive of it. I think morality exists in the same way.

    So beauty doesn’t exist “objectively” – or rather *independently* of a subject – as an inherent quality of an object/pattern. Technically, a rose isn’t beautiful: it’s perceived to be beautiful [by a subject]. But, on the other hand, the *concept* of beauty (though ambiguous) does exist objectively, because ideas have an actual, literal existence even though they don’t have an existence independent of subjects. Beauty exists as an idea in our minds. You still following?

    Oh, and I guess I should mention that I’m not asking to agree with the ideas I’m presenting here; I just want you to be able to understand how I think, so following = good; agreeing = eh, take it or leave it.

    What does all of this have to do with morality? Well I think morality exists in the same way as beauty: it’s a concept/value system that doesn’t exist independently of subjects or as an objective quality inherent in certain actions, but rather as an idea in the mind of subjects. Only when actions are perceived to be moral or immoral does morality (again, a concept) come into existence. We then project the idea of morality onto actions, which allows us to say things like “returning the wallet you found is moral,” similar to the way we project the idea of beauty onto objects and say things like “the rose is beautiful.” (Another way to say it is that we judge actions as being moral/immoral based on our understanding of morality, just was we judge a flower to be beautiful or ugly.) In sum: morality is subjective. (Mostly this seems to be a matter of position: when I say morality is subjective I mean it exists within humans and if you say morality is objectively you mean it exists outside of/independently of humans, perhaps in the mind or nature of God.)

    Now, you may be thinking: “why is she giving me a vocab lessons when I was talking about how atheists can determine whether something is right or wrong?” And that’s a valid question. The answer is that our fundamental disagreement is not over how to determine whether something is moral (I bet if we sat down and discussed it, our answers would turn out to be very similar), but what morality *is*. We need to sort that out before you can really understand my perspective. Your post doesn’t relate to what I believe about morality at all, partially because you’re interrogating my paradigm of morality using questions that only apply to your paradigm. If you believe morality exists “out there” as some objective standard, then your primary concern is discovering a solid foundation from which you can determine what that standard is. You need a measuring stick in order to call something moral. Does that sound accurate?

    So your post seems to ask “what is the atheist’s measuring stick?” and since you find majority opinion to be a poor measuring stick (I agree!) you conclude that relativism “as a basis” “fails.” In my mind that statement conjures up the image of a person building a tower in order to reach the Star of Knowledge of Right and Wrong.which sits low in the sky. Only the base of the tower is unstable and it collapses before you can get there, and you are left without knowledge. :( (See how that reflects the idea of objective morality, with a morality that is “out there” that you have to discover? And I’m gonna go out on the limb and say that in your view, a solid tower does exist to bring you to correct moral understanding and that tower is God’s Word, or something else religious.)

    In my paradigm, morality isn’t like that. It isn’t something that you measure, that you need a justification for, exactly. Ultimately, it just happens, and therefore is. The way I understand it, the “basis” of morality is human values. That is, I think morality comes from and is created, subjectively, by human values. When we value something as being “bad,” we call it immoral, and when we value something as “good,” can call it moral. You: “But that still doesn’t answer why you say some things are good and some-” Waitwaitwait. Stop. You can’t understood what I said. Valuing is something that just *happens*. Automatically. Beyond the will and reason. Even if you never sit down and explain to a child what “beauty” is, they are still gonna experience it when looking at certain things, even if they have no language for it, even if there is no objective basis for it in the thing they are looking at. The experience/perception of beauty is just something that occurs in the mind/emotions of our species. Evaluation is also something that simply occurs in our species. Someone hits us in the face and we don’t like that! We don’t sit around and consider it philosophically; we have an automatic reaction. Value=bad. Someone helps you out! Value=good. Somebody hits your baby sister in the face! Value=doubleplusungood.

    From a secular, layman’s perspective, I think that empathy, as a naturally evolved mental/emotional ability of our species, is the root of moral valuing. It’s easy to not like being punched in the face, but only through empathy are we able to imagine that “hey, it hurts when people punch me in the face. and wow, maybe my sister also feels pain when punched in the face, i can imagine that, i bet she’s just like me. and hmmm, i love my sister, so so, maybe i don’t won’t punch her in the face because she won’t like it and will be hurt??????” Congratulations, you have moral reasoning. Well, I say “reasoning,” but the evaluations that come most directly from empathy are automatic: you punch your sister in the face and you feel guilt, because try as you might, you can’t help but see her as a person like yourself who is hurt, and hurt!value=bad. I can’t will myself out of feeling guilt, I can’t will myself out of feeling empathy, I can’t will myself out of being physically and emotionally hurt if I was punched, I can’t will myself out of an emotional attachment to my sister, and the end result is that I cannot but help thinking/feeling indignation at the idea of my sister being punched in the face. I evaluate the action as (“morally”) negative.

    So my source of morality is human values, and (to perhaps oversimplify) the value from which all others ultimately stem (at least for me) is the evaluation of other people/beings as valuable in their own right, which I arrive at via empathy. I’m sure you don’t agree with this, but do understand that this *is* what I think, *and* I think it’s a more accurate understanding of morality than others I’ve encountered, including Christianity’s.

    From this simple, automatic starting point, my evaluation for what is and isn’t moral can grow quite extensively and the reasoning can become more conscious and deliberate. For example, I can sit down and consciously think, “hmmm, maybe even when i’m angry i shouldn’t punch my sister?” and ponder the issue, and I may come to mentally-emotionally affirm the moral value of not punching my sister even when angry. (Though perhaps I may break this value in the heat of the moment, but then I would feel guilt, because I have this value but I didn’t live up to it!) Also, my moral reasoning can be influenced by others, who may come along and try to persuade me to change my moral stances. If we can start from a shared moral value (punching family members = bad), they could perhaps convince me to extend that value, through mental/empathetic reasoning, to all people (punching any person = bad). Or perhaps I read something (like, hey, the Bible or the Dammapada) and that discussion of ethics causes me to change/expand/shrink my moral standards. Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to influence someone else’s moral views if you don’t start from a shared value premise, but whoever I’m talking with there are probably many values we DO share that can be used as a starting premise. (But then, if our very paradigms of morality are different it’s often still extremely hard, because we end up talking past each other.)

    You say that morality, if it is “relative,” becomes impotent, because you can’t force others to adopt your positions. Ultimately, yes, I can’t force you to adopt my position. But that hardly makes my moral evaluations (from a subjectivist position) impotent. You can definitely try to influence others’ morals and persuade them to adopt your own. And – here’s the kicker – with a strong enough moral conviction, you will feel *compelled* to persuade others to adopt your value or to otherwise prevent them from committing immoral actions. Like, if someone’s about to attack your sister and you say “but wait! punching people is bad!” and the attacker says “sorry, i don’t hold that value” you’re not gonna say “oh sorry, carry on!” or sit around having a philosophical debate with yourself about whether you’re entitled to convince someone to adopt your moral perspective. No. You’re gonna call the police. And if the police show up and say “oh, but he doesn’t share that value so I don’t think I should stop him” you’re gonna say, “forget you!” and bodytackle that mother to ground.

    When you make posts about how the “basis” of my morality has “failed” as if… now I can no longer make moral judgments because I realize my morality is too “unstable”???… I just stare at the screen with glassy eyes and have literally zero idea what you’re talking about. Because, for me, morality isn’t a fundamentally a question of “where’s the measuring stick?” or “what is the best foundation?” It’s not a dispassionate philosophical debate. (Don’t get me wrong, I love ethical discussions, but this isn’t what morality is *primarily*.) It’s an immediate experience and evaluation and *conviction*. And far from being impotent, it can be an incredibly strong motivator of action, whether I’m trying to persuade you to adopt my view, or lobby to have laws passed that reflect my convictions, or physically prevent you from doing something I find morally abhorrent. I would compare it to what I once heard a Christian classmate say about evangelism: one could argue with him all afternoon about why he should not proselytize and how it’s fine if other people have different religions and he should just live and let live, but at the end of the day, there are certain beliefs he holds about reality (e.g. about Jesus), and terrible consequences he thinks will come from *not* holding those beliefs (i.e. hell), and he cannot help but try to convince people to adopt his beliefs (which he thinks are true) in order that they may be spared from those consequences. For him, it wasn’t “the Bible told me I have to do this;” it was “hell is real; I have to do this.” For me, it would be “I value this; I have to do this/convince you of this.”

    So, while you have your tower leading up to the Star of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the visual representation of my understanding of morality is more like a large clump of dirt, with a tree growing out of it, floating in space. Yes. A floating space tree. The “basis” of my morality is human values/empathy, which is the large clump of dirt (which I guess is held together by it’s own gravity? idk don’t question it your morality is a star you’re building a tower to you have no right to judge). Values are either present or not; there’s nothing else they logically stem from and therefore they’re simply free-floating. Out of the fertile soil of human values grows a tree. The tree is morality. The roots of the tree are the “premise” values – the most basic moral values you hold that can’t be backed up or justified any further by reasoning: you either hold them or you don’t. For me, it would be something to the effect of “beings/people have value [and therefore what is good for them should be cultivated and what is harmful discouraged].” And from those roots grows your personal tree of morality. Closer to the truck the branches are thick and simple: these are the moral values that spring most readily from your premise values (e.g. punching my sister is bad). Toward the extremities of the branches, they get thinner and convoluted as they branch off and grow in complicated ways, and these are the answer to moral philosophical questions (e.g. but what if my sister asks me to punch her? but what if someone said he was going to shoot her if i didn’t punch her? would it be okay then?). So I’m floating through space as my personal moral tree, but even then I also exist as a member of a floating forest (i.e. society), and all of our morality together makes a larger morality and… well… obviously morality exists on more than just an individual basis, but this paragraph is already so long.

    So. Yes. In conclusion, don’t be like “Yes! Just blasted down that foundation for atheists’ morality! Their tower will crumble and they will have to use ours to get to the star!” Because, like. My tower doesn’t even have a foundation you can hit, because I don’t have a tower, I have a floating space tree.

    You feel me bro?

    I realize this was long, but I think it was exactly as long as it needed to be to cover everything you obviously didn’t know about my position. Oh, and I don’t speak for all atheists. Or even most atheists. But thanks for reading and at least getting to understand what *one* atheist thinks.

    • acgheen May 11, 2013 at 08:36 #

      Vad,

      First, I want to thank you for this fabulous reply! I wish more people would approach a controversial discussions the way that you have (and by people, I mean – anyone who comes from any point of view about anything). You’ve done a wonderful job of not only explaining that you disagree with me, but why.

      As far as debunking all of atheist morality, that would be a big goal indeed. I selected the two points of view that I did (societal relativism and the law of nature) because they are the perspectives held by the majority of the atheists whom I have personally encountered. I recognize that atheism (like the belief in a deity or deities) encompasses a huge range of beliefs and that individual atheists may vary in their views as much Judaism varies from Shamanism. I appreciate your own willingness to present a different perspective and hope that, if you’re willing, I can ask a few more questions to clarify it.

      That said, please don’t envision someone sitting behind a keyboard thinking “Aha! I’m gonna trap an atheist in their tracks! They’ll see their error, convert, and start “climbing the tower” (as you put it). I hate those types of dialogues largely because they lack respect for the other person’s value as a human being. In the end of our discussion, we may still have disparate views – and that’s okay. My goal here is to understand yours a bit better and, perhaps, give readers of my blog a better comprehension of a view that I haven’t addressed in the current set of posts.

      I actually believe that you’re right about us sharing a great deal in common as far as our views are concerned. I agree that there is much to be said for the idea of treating human beings as valuable. From my own faith-perspective, I see this sense of value for one another as having been original and innate, instilled in us by God. We ought to value other beings because God values them. Regardless of the many ways in which Christianity has failed to reflect this, the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Bible do. He hung out with plenty of people who society saw as “less” than the rest: tax collectors, prostitutes, people with incurable diseases, etc. and taught His followers to do the same.

      I’d like to lay that view aside for a moment, however, and hear what you have to say about the origins of human value. In your reply, you mentioned that morality (like beauty) does not exist external to the person who perceives it, but that many people may have the same perceptions. I’d be interested in better understanding where you believe these common perceptions come from and how you explain the behaviors of those who do not share these common perceptions. (Two year-olds left alone in a room, for example, seem more likely to come to the conclusion that if they hit someone and get hit back, it’s more appropriate to either hit that person again or run and hide because the other person hit them harder. This behavior seems to have more to do with self-preservation than any actual concern for the other person and it is clear that none of the parties involved share quite your perspective on human value unless that human is them.)

      As far as whether anyone who holds to a relative view of morality has the right to force that point of view on anyone else, I’ll hold to my point on that one. If one moral perspective is equal to the next, then we must all simply accept that other people have differing views and the right to express their morality as they choose… whether it results in what we deem to be harm to others as not. Since what you expressed in your reply was a bit removed from this view (that is to say, you do seem to believe in an objective right and wrong based upon the value of human beings rather than a truly relative concept of morality), I propose that we take the subject off the table.

      I look forward to your reply and a deeper understanding of your perspective!

      Blessings,

      A. C.

      • Vad May 11, 2013 at 15:35 #

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply! It has certainly disabused me of any notion that you were looking to trap atheist readers. Although in my defense it was very late when I wrote that bit and I was being a bit flippant. I share the goal/values you have for these types of conversations, which is wonderful. (I do know, however, that I tend toward wordiness and a “let me tell you my view!” mindset, about which I can only ask for your patience. >..<

        I appreciate that you’ve tried to base your understanding of atheist morality on your encounters with atheists, but (respectfully) I’m skeptical as to how well you’ve understood the atheists you’ve encountered. I have never heard a moral relativist (atheist or otherwise) or even an atheist of any moral persuasion argue that individual morality should be determined by what the majority of a particular population believes. Never. In fact, form the various atheist blogs (and comments and articles and books) I’ve pursued, I’ve found that 1) vocal atheists tend to have a very strong sense of morality and 2) the vast, vast majority of vocal American atheists *perceive* (conservative) Christian morals as being the ones held by the majority of the population, at least in the South where I’m from. (I live in Texas and went to school in Oklahoma.) Also I’d like to mention that, being a Women’s and Gender Studies major, I interacted with a lot of other feminists. I can’t say that all of these were atheists, but I would bet that all would affirm, to some extent, that morality is relative or culture is relative, and again, all of them also perceived conservative (Christian) morals as being the ones held by the majority of the people in the state/country.

        So obviously many people who affirm that morality is relative do not believe that morality should be determined by what the majority of the population believes. Yet throughout your series you seem to conflate an affirmation of the former with belief in the latter. I wonder if you drew this conclusion yourself, or if perhaps you didn’t understand what your atheists meant by “morality is relative”? Because I have solely seen the phrase used descriptively, not in a proscriptive sense or as a *basis* of morality. That is, it’s an observable fact that people in one culture may largely hold one type of morality and people in another culture a different type of morality, and which you consider moral depends on which culture you are in. In the third paragraph of the last post in the series, what you describe is what moral relativism primarily means to people (at least in my experience): a description of the state of relative morality between cultures. *Not* a proscription to adopt the majority held opinion of whatever culture you are in. (Although this observation does often come with the moral proscription that “we should just leave other cultures alone,” but this still doesn’t say anything about which other values we should adopt for ourselves.)

        Okay, I think… those were my final concerns and clarifications I had regarding your series.

        As for the origin of human value, I’m afraid I can’t be super specific about this because I’m not a neuroscientist and I’ve only had one course in human psychology. The question of why two-year-olds seem to have different moral reasoning then adults is because they do have different moral reasoning, since their brains are still undergoing development and they are still being socialized. I’ve been led to believe that the theory and research of childhood/adolescent moral development is fairly well developed. I heard that parts of the brain responsible for reasoning aren’t actually fully developed until our twenties, so it makes sense that reasoning, including moral reasoning, are different for children. I believe that the ability to emphasize and see other people as existing beyond their relation to oneself is also something that continues to develop through childhood, but isn’t something that exists fully from birth.

        I do think that empathy and the ability to evaluate are produced neurologically (like consciousness), but I have never looked into the details, and that they have come into existence within our species through an evolutionary process (again, I would say, like consciousness). I think the development of empathy is related to the fact that we are a social species: from an evolutionary point of view, it would have been an ability that was “selected for,” though the phrasing misconstrues what happens in the evolutionary process. As a species, I think we share the basic evolved trait of empathy, and since, in my view, values ultimately develop from an ability to empathize, it makes sense that despite cultural differences, humans tend to share basic values, like a prohibition against murder (however that’s differentiated from simply killing). Other common values might have more of a psychological backing or may have arise from social concerns shared across most cultures throughout history (i.e. what to do with the dead, who to have sex with, what/how do we eat): while these question may be answered differently by individual cultures, they’re something all cultures have to deal with and therefore might be loci of morality. I also think that culture (as well as religion) plays a huge role in shaping which values we hold.

        Also, I agree with your assessment about Jesus. I’m reading the Bible cover-to-cover and am currently in Matthew (though I’ve also read parts of the other Gospels before). I do prefer Jesus’ teachings over, hmm, the most salient aspects of Christianity that are visible in American culture today. Also: THE PROPHETS. Nobody even told me those were in there. I loved the concern with social justice/morality, and also the inwardly-directed criticism toward Israel. I belong to some communities (atheists and LGBTQ folks) who could do with a little more self-criticism (ironically enough, mostly regarding how they talk to and about conservative Christians).

      • acgheen May 12, 2013 at 20:13 #

        Greetings Vad!

        You began your last note with a question concerning my comprehension of the views of my atheist friends. I can understand your concern and can only reassure you that I’ve received positive affirmation regarding my ability to reiterate their personal views regarding the foundation of morality. That said, I am not entirely surprised to have heard from atheists who do not share, nor have even heard of the societally relativist view of morality. Atheism, like the belief in a god or gods spans a wide variety of perspectives. Undoubtedly, you could share a few views from my “camp” which I have never heard of either.

        I also agree that the majority of the atheists I have encountered do have a very strong sense of morality and that it is often very similar to my own. (Though it would be difficult to prove that this perspective is held by the majority, I think it can be agreed that it often does direct the laws which govern our land.) My societally relativist friends are quick to take a stand when they feel that someone is being unfairly treated and are guided by a strong sense of justice. The purpose of addressing their views in such detail was not to consider whether they held to accepted moral views, but rather to examine whether those views logically follow the premise given. (It is my belief that they don’t.) I hope that this clarifies my purpose for these articles and why I believe that this is an important topic to address.

        That said, I’d like to ask for further clarification concerning your own views. You mentioned that empathy is something that develops as humans age. On this, I agree, but I am not entirely certain how this empathy connects to the value of individual humans, i.e., are humans valuable because they are able to empathize (and if so, does that make humans who struggle with empathy less valuable than other humans) or because others are able to empathize with them (in which case I wonder whether empathy is something which has the ability to assign value across species – for example, does a cow become as valuable as a human simply because we feel empathy for its eventual plight as our next meal?).

        I’d also like further clarification regarding whether you see empathy as a more highly evolved trait than, for example, the impulse towards survival. If so, what has led you to this particular conclusion?

        Please feel free to correct any misunderstandings I may have regarding your views. I agree that there is much to be learned as we take the time to understand (and empathize with) those who do not share our own perspectives and look forward to hearing all that you have to share!

        Blessings,

        A. C.

  2. Vad May 13, 2013 at 02:44 #

    I’ll have to take your word about your atheist friends. Though if I even met them, I’d certainly have a bone to pick with them. But this is true of most atheists I meet, for one reason or another. As you say, many differences of opinions among atheists, and most don’t hold my subjective view of morality.

    I don’t think the ability to empathize (or being empathized with by another) *makes* humans valuable, objectively. As I said, I do not think that humans, or anything, have inherent, objective value. Rather, we *value* other humans. We naturally and inevitably make subjective value judgments about people – I would say based primarily on our empathy for them – and thus confer (or fail to confer) value on them. Value exists in the mind of the beholder, as it were, and when I say that I think humans are valuable, I just mean that I value them. This is why I make the analogy of human values being a “free-floating” basis of morality: I DON’T think human values “connect” to the things being valued in an objective, measurable way. If you attempt to trace a particular moral proscription back to its source, eventually you will end up with a human evaluation.

    Say, for example, that I’m trying to find out why some people think that eating animals is wrong. Perhaps I would trace the reasoning back to the belief that “causing living being needless suffering is wrong [because the quality of life of beings is valuable/important]” or “taking life needlessly is wrong [because life is valuable/important].” But you can’t back up the moral reasoning any further than that. If you ask “but why is causing needless pain wrong?” or “but why is it bad to take life?” there isn’t really a meaningful answer they could give except that “it just is [because I value it so].” Obviously, this is assuming the person you’re asking is atheist. You might say that it’s because God instilled these values in us, but I say that we just naturally value (and tend toward certain basic values due to empathy).

    Further, once we have the value that causing needless pain is wrong or that the taking of life is wrong, we feel a moral obligation to not do these things ourselves AND a moral obligation to prevent other people from doing these things. Perhaps. I mean, most vegetarians aren’t gonna yank that piece of chicken from your hand to prevent you from eating it. But if someone saw you mercilessly beating your dog they might feel compelled to come over and stop you, even though it’s “your dog” and you can “do whatever you want to with it.” We feel compelled/obligated/entitled to ‘force’ our morality on someone else, because the obligation we feel toward the dogs, as a motivator for action, trumps the obligation we feel to respect your “property” or to “mind our own business” or even to “not force my morality on others” which could be a value we hold to an extent. And all this I write descriptively, as in I think that, realistically, this is actually what’s going on when people act out their values. I don’t necessarily mean that you ~~should~~ actively prevent others from doing anything that you find morally objectionable; what I think “should” be actively prevented of course depends on what values I hold. The point of all this is just to further elaborate on why I don’t see subjective morality as being impotent because it is subjective. I understand you didn’t really ask about that, but I felt it followed naturally from my earlier point. X)

    In order to respond to your question about assigning value across species, and particularly whether other animals are/can become “as valuable as” human beings, I’ll need to give a little (alright, a lot) more background “theory” about our ability to empathize and create moral values. This is more of my personal moral theory, but I think if I looked into it, would be somewhat backed up by psychologists/behavioralists. Okay, so. We can empathize with other human beings. So we share/imagine the feelings of another. One of the feelings – and I think the one most salient to the production of morality – is this desire to live (well) and sorta entitlement to be alive (and with a certain quality of life). This is a feeling that (most) people experience and we (often) experience it very strongly. Looking at this description I’ve just typed up, I don’t think it does any justice to what I’m thinking of, but let’s say that the feeling/conviction is at least somehow related to a (self-reflective?) desire to live/flourish and avoid unnecessary pain, and let’s say that this feeling also relates to the concept/experience of “personhood.” (Obviously this theory could stand to be developed a little more.)

    Okay, so I think I’m a person, I experience and posses “personhood” and that’s meaningful to me and I value it as something good in its own right and not to be destroyed. And empathy allows me to share the feelings of other persons, right? But I don’t literally share the feelings of the other person; they have their feelings and I have my own and I can only literally experience the latter. So what I’m actually doing is imagining what they’re feeling, based on how I could feel. I project the imagined feelings onto that other person, since I think/imagine that they are also feeling whatever it is I imagine they’re feeling. For example, if I see some trip and fall down the stairs, and I’ve tripped and fallen down stairs before, then I have a memory of what that feels like, and perhaps in the moment even feel a little echo of pain and humiliation. I then project that feeling of pain and humiliation onto the other person by thinking/imagining that they are actually feeling it. That make sense? (Maybe that was incredibly obvious, but it’s important to understand for the next point so I thought I should explain it thoroughly.)

    But say that, in this theory, one of the prerequisites for having feelings such as “humiliation” (and maybe even “pain”) is “personhood.” Persons feel humiliation (and pain) as a subjective experience. So by projecting the feeling of humiliation onto the person who has tripped and empathizing with them, we at the same time necessarily project “personhood” onto them, since only by imagining that they are a person could we imagine that they feel humiliation. Or, to flip it, by imagining that they feel humiliation, we are imagining that they are a person. Yeah? So we project “personhood” onto other humans.

    But we do more than that because we are capable, as imaginative, empathetic creatures, to project “personhood” onto literally anything. Most obviously we project it onto other animals. For example, we project “personhood” onto a dog by worrying about whether she is happy being locked up in a crate while we’re at work: we think it’s meaningful/significant whether or not she is happy, because we imagine that she is a “person” and the feelings of persons ‘matter’ in our evaluation. I do think that many animals experience emotions such as happiness, but I doubt all do. I doubt that spiders do, for example, but if I find one in my room and kill it for no other reason than that I don’t want it to be there, I may feel a tiny little bit of guilt, because I don’t think I should senselessly kill living things/”persons.” Many people project “personhood” to a lesser extent onto the environment, when we imagine that the environment is valuable in its own right (a quality of “personhood” in my theory) and that we shouldn’t do certain things to it. That’s why statements like “they’re raping the environment” make sense to us despite having no literal meaning. We can even project feelings and “personhood” onto inanimate objects which, no matter how we define “person,” inanimate objects do not actually qualify. Children especially tend to do this (I read once that very young children couldn’t really differentiate non-sentient from sentient things) and I remember when I was younger feeling guilty because I imagined my beanie babies were sad that I didn’t play with them very much.

    The reason I’ve laid this all out for you is that, according to my theory, we (only) feel ethical obligations toward other “persons,” i.e. beings whose existence and quality of existence we think is valuable in its own right. When I see another human, I empathize with them: not just with specific emotions but with their very experience/evaluation of being a person. When I see my “personhood” reflected them, I also imagine that they are entitled to the same things that I, as a “person” feel entitled to, and therefore I feel an obligation to either provide or at least not hinder them from obtaining those things. (The kind of ‘thing’ I’m thinking of is, like, the feeling that I shouldn’t be murdered, raped, or robbed.) I think that is the root of the subjective experience of ethical obligation. Thus I would say that morality is essentially social, as it only exists between persons (or between a person and what is imagined to be a person). (And just to clarify, I don’t think anyone or anything is actually, objectively entitled to anything. Again, this is just about what we value. If I value unnecessary suffering as bad, then I would typically think that people are ‘entitled’ to live free of unnecessary suffering).

    Wow, I am just constantly amazed at how long-winded I am. I don’t actually talk this much in real life.

    SO TO BRING THIS BACK TO ANIMALS. Yes, through empathy we can assign moral value (i.e. “personhood”) to animals and in our minds they could become just as valuable as a human (and some people do value all animals as highly as humans). BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. When we ‘project personhood’ onto other beings – or ‘extend ethical obligations to them [based our valuing them as “persons”] – we don’t do this to the same extent for all animals and people. Even among humans we extend ethical obligations to people to different extents, or value their needs differently. For example, I feel more ethical obligations to my immediate family and friends than I do to complete strangers. I will feel obliged (and want) to take care of my parents when they get old, but the obligation I feel to support any other individual old person that I don’t know is significantly less/non-existent. In a similar way, we value and extend ethical obligations differently among different species. To humans we extend the most ethical obligations, and to animals I extend different/less obligations. Among different animal species we extend different obligations. Many people in our culture would feel moral revulsion at killing and eating cats or dogs but don’t feel the same moral revulsion about killing and eating chickens. This is because we value cats and dogs differently (“more”) than we do chicken, and imagine that they are “more like” people, having emotional and social lives that interact with our own. So most people value/project “personhood” onto cows differently than we do with humans, and thus don’t feel an ethical obligation not to eat them, even though we can still empathize with them and feel the ethical obligation to kill them humanely. We can also value/project “personhood” onto the environment, and may feel certain ethical obligations to it.

    In conclusion, while we could value all species exactly the same, we don’t. And I personally don’t feel a moral obligation to value all species exactly the same: I find nothing inherently wrong with the idea of extending ethical obligations differently. Some people may think that moral values must be universal, that if I feel ethically obliged to do something for a family member, I should feel an ethical obligation to do it for every human, or that if I feel an ethical obligation not to eat a human, I should feel an ethical obligation not to eat any living animal. I disagree. While I extend the ethical obligation to “not cause needless suffering” to both cows and humans, I only extend the ethical obligation to “not kill and eat” to humans. I simply value them differently, and I haven’t yet been convinced that I should value cows the same way I do humans or that there’s anything wrong with valuing them differently. To give a more controversial example, I think that abortions are ethically acceptable (before the third trimester or perhaps before twenty weeks or perhaps even a little bit earlier, the point is that I’m not opposed to the concept). In part, this is because I just don’t value/project “personhood”/extend the same ethical obligations to embryos/fetuses that I do to babies or even to fetuses later in pregnancy. It’s not that I ‘choose’ to value them differently; I simply lack a conviction that embryos/fetuses are of equivalent value to a pregnant woman. Which is not to say that I don’t value them at all. I just value them differently (“less”), and I value the bodily autonomy and what I would call the “reproductive rights” of women much more highly than I value an embryo/fetus in its own right. We could argue all day about whether a human entity “should” be considered a “person” from the moment of conception, but at the end of the day some people will hold the value that they should be and others won’t. You might say they are people whether I think they are or not, and I might say that a woman’s desires are the most important thing to take into consideration whether you think they are or not, and ultimately (from my perspective) none of these things have any objective value whatsoever outside our minds, but damn if we don’t think they are important.

    (And just to continue on this issue I bit, I think one of the reasons discussions major controversial issues like these go so poorly is that each side fails to understand that the other side is acting based off of sincerely held values. So people on my side of the abortion debate might say that ‘oh, those conservatives hate women and want to impose their sexual morality onto them and punish them for having sex,’ thereby 100% failing to understand that if you sincerely think an embryo IS A PERSON, it’s actually a pretty big deal that people are killing them and not necessarily a question of whether that person should have had sex in the first place. Or perhaps some conservatives might say, ‘oh those liberals all think it’s okay to kill babies,’ thereby failing to understand that no, I actually feel pretty strongly about people killing babies, I just don’t think an embryo/fetus *is* (morally equivalent to) a baby. Within my moral framework, a deep division of strongly held moral values is not something to get too upset over. First we try to persuade the other side to adopt our values. In this case it’s rather difficult, since you either think embryo = baby or you don’t. The next thing to do would be to try to persuade the government to pass policies that reflect our values: in your case, a policy that would regard human entities as “people” from the moment of conception regardless of what people like me think. My side would of course try to combat this, but if tomorrow every state adopted such a policy, the next “step” in my moral framework would be civil disobedience. If I still felt very strongly that women should be able to have abortions and that a moral injustice was being committed in denying them access, I would perhaps decide to provide them to women illegally, and accept whatever legal consequences there were if I was found out. That’s what I imagine an ethical ‘progression’ of morally-motivated action to be: attempts at persuasion > attempts at legal backing > civil disobedience. This would be in contrast to an unethical progression, e.g. attempt at persuasion > shooting you if you don’t agree.)

    As for empathy being a “more highly evolved trait”: chronologically speaking I think empathy evolved later than, for example, a simple will to survive. I think that a certain level of brain complexity (i.e. having a certain level of mental/emotional/social experiences) is a physical prerequisite for, or perhaps comes along with, an evolved trait like empathy. But beyond perhaps complexity I don’t think it’s appropriate to judge evolved characteristics as being “high” or “low.” I mean, obviously human have incredibly complex mental, emotional, and social lives, but who is to say that that makes us more highly evolved? I mean, birds have more efficient lung systems than mammals do. Does that make them more highly evolved? (The answer, obviously, is that we assign much more value to social/mental/emotional complexity than we do to lung efficiently, so many people think of humans as being “more evolved,” but that’s not objective in any way.)

    • acgheen May 20, 2013 at 11:52 #

      Vad,

      Sorry for the delay in my response! I totally agree with you regarding controversial issues. The world would be a better place if more people were able to recognize the deep sincerity of those who hold opposing perspectives. Regardless of their religious or political position, I’ve rarely encountered anyone who truly desired to hurt others – even in the process of benefitting themselves.

      That said, I’d like to thank you for the time you’ve taken to clarify your own point of view. It is my hope that my readers will be positively impacted by the manner in which you have presented yourself and find themselves encouraged to present their own perspectives with similar thoughtfulness and generosity.

      Blessings,

      A.C.

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