The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Discuss the March 2015 book of the month, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Post Number:#1  Postby Scott » March 16th, 2015, 12:05 am

This topic is part of the discussion of the March 2015 philosophy book of the month, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer.

What do you think of the beginning of the book?

I appreciate as excellent philosophical form the stating of explicit definitions for the terms being used by the author as he means to use them.

How do you feel about those definitions?

Right off the bat, my concern is with his definition of moral. First he defines it as simply "manner, character, proper behavior". That seems not only incredibly vague but seems to make the mistake of using a mere synonyms to define the term, which simply raises the question what is proper. A good philosophical definition makes it clear what the author means by a term, citing basic synonyms fails to provide that. However, in his elaborations, he does seem to explain that it has something to do with helping other agents 'survive and flourish'. However, I doubt this corresponds to what many use the term to mean. I think more people would refer to a so-called "moral" person as simply someone who is nice by way of making or trying to make other people happy. Note the difference between making someone happy as opposed to merely helping the person survive and flourish, noting that the author defines flourish as that which leads to "physical and mental health" such as "adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding and social relations" which are different than happiness. Granted, there is probably much overlap. Giving a homeless person a house will probably make the person happier, but these are still two different metrics. I don't think the author's is the more common way the word is used.

Right at the beginning of the book as a sort of reasonable tangent to the definition, Michael Shermer makes the case for extending "moral" sympathies to non-human animals. As a vegetarian, I personally appreciate that very much. I appreciate it even more in that he makes such an extension with reason.

Shermer also wisely points out the unit of moral agency. I agree in conclusion but in reason. He argues for "morality" to be about helping individual people and animals and the grounds on grounds that "the discrete organism is the principal target of natural selection". However, that becomes suspect when we consider both last month's book of the month, The Meaning of Human Existence and Dawkins' selfish gene, which pit group selection against the gene, leaving individual organisms as a whole other issue.

What do you think?
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The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

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Re: The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Post Number:#2  Postby 3uGH7D4MLj » March 25th, 2015, 8:49 pm

Scott wrote:However, in his elaborations, he does seem to explain that it has something to do with helping other agents 'survive and flourish'. However, I doubt this corresponds to what many use the term to mean. I think more people would refer to a so-called "moral" person as simply someone who is nice by way of making or trying to make other people happy.

I haven't read the book but it catches my eye that you would define a moral person as one who is nice? by way of intending to make people happy?

Lynchings make people happy. (sorry, just the first example that popped into my head)


ok, you don't actually define it that way, but are you saying that this is a general definition that's more usable than the author's?
fair to say
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Re: The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Post Number:#3  Postby Scott » March 26th, 2015, 1:15 pm

3uGH7D4MLj wrote:Lynchings make people happy. (sorry, just the first example that popped into my head)

I believe the author and I share an understanding of how to respond to this point--an agreement which I think became clearer to me as I read more of the book.

I would put it like this: Human beings are not like 1-dimensional Disney movie characters. There are no deliciously 'evil' people going around wanting to do "evil". The people who did lynchings likely thought they were "morally good" and doing the "morally right" thing. In the book Michael Shermer often uses the example of Witch Trials to that point. Nazis are another cliche example.

The problem with lynchings, Nazis and witch trials is not that the people doing them were "morally wrong" per se but simply that they were factually mistaken. These things cause a lot more misery and suffering than happiness.

For those reasons, I think the author's definition worked well enough for most of his purposes.
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Re: The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Post Number:#4  Postby Robathan » March 27th, 2015, 6:09 pm

Is not the definition of a moral person someone who acts according to socially pre-determined shared values, but then who determines these values in the first place? Nietzsche believed that philosophers tend to believe that they have privileged access to the truth, but in so doing, delude themselves. This would suggest that there is no real definition of "moral".
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Re: The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Post Number:#5  Postby Renee » May 3rd, 2015, 11:18 pm

Defining morality is easy if you approach the task concurrently from three angles: from its appearance, from its functionality, and from the value we attribute to it.

Morality comprises first of all sacrifice. Admirable sacrifice.

Morality comprises most amount of selfless good minimizing selfless bad. Good and bad here adhere to how the moral act affects the social or if you like, wider, biological environment.

Morality is sourced from an inner urge, it is not possible to resist moral behaviour.

Morality -- when you really think about it -- always commands one to, ultimately, preserve the possibility of the self's DNA or the DNA of the closest approximation to that of the self, to survive, prosper and propagate. --------------

Humans and cats save their children from fire. We actually walk into fire to save our children. Are we, cats and humans, wont of regularly walking into fire? No, not the least bit. But walking into fire to save our offspring gives us a better chance of having our genes propagated down to posterity than not walking into fire. So we do walk into it.

Generally, a moral person will always sacrifice some benefits due to the person, in order to maximize survival chances of those who can carry on his or her legacy of DNA.

A human will kill a dog to save a human, a human will remove a drowning dog from water, a human will sacrifice his own child for god.

This part has spoken for the practicality of morality.

How does it feel though? We, humans, like all other species, have behaviour compelled by our urges. For instance, we eat because we feel hungry, not because we consciously figure out that food sustains us. (Exceptions exist, like always: I used to have a bulimic girl friend, who had go so unused from normal eating, that she had to figure out her daily caloric and other nutrient intake on charts, (at first, later from memory) and eat the calculated amounts and types of food to sustain herself. She had no sense of biological feedback mechanisms to guide her self-sustenance. She had a good figure, too.) Similarly, our moral behaviour patterns and acts are not driven by what philosophers tell us, but inner urges tell us.

In this aspect, inner urges will tell us to share our bread, to save the drowning, to save our children from fire. We do these things without thinking. We are not even compelled to do these acts, they are automatic. (A compelling feeling has a resistance to overcome; there is no resistance to our own actions when we act morally.)

A moral action is viewed as a noble act. This is a group phenomenon. Moral behaviour is promoted by groups, because in evolved nature there is always more than one feedback loop to guide behaviour (be the behaviour voluntary, or involuntary). Voluntary-seeming moral behaviour is guided by our inner urges, and is reinforced by a secondary, group-based feedback loop. We even give awards to moral behaviour, sometimes posthumously, to affect those who survived the lifespan of the saints. A third feedback loop would be also group-related, but involves the help, invokes the help, of supernatural beings -- gods, to be exact. Pleasing a god is good, moral behaviour.

My own, private, definition of moral behaviour rests on the thesis that all humans 1. crave eternal life and 2. are willing to do anything to attain it. One way to eternal life, so the belief goes, is always acting morally. Another way, to act selflessly. These unfortunately oppose the survival tactics we need to employ in life. So life is a struggle of keeping a balance between survival-benefitting selfish behaviour, and survival-detrimental unselfish behaviour. Some morality is socially heavy, some is individually heavy. For instance, rape and pillaging is socially unacceptable, but feels good to do. Sharing your bread, working for the common good, fighting for your fellow human's rights feels good, but not in a selfish way. After pillaging, or eating a lot at someone else's expense, you go home with the feeling that you "cheated the system". After a day of community street cleaning, or church fundraising, or charity work, you go home with a good feeling of having paid your dues. You can't survive with just one or the other type of behaviour.

In my private opinion, an inner moral guide will tell each human how to behave morally. There is no resistance to moral behaviour. If you want to describe or refer to the core of moral behaviour, I say it's a behaviour that the individual feels will help him or her get to a pleasant afterlife. Selfish behaviour, expecially on the expense of denying or violating moral behaviour, tends to tell people that they will go to hell. (So to speak.)

Heaven and Hell are therefore not exclusively Christian-created concepts. In pre-christian religions we find no references to them; but behavioural references always existed between good and bad morals, and those included the need of one to serve his or her god.

Christianity's developing the concepts is not an innovation, but an innovative use of human's inner moral world views. Humans always think and have and had thought of things as "good" and "bad"; Christianity simply institutionalized these notions into the conceptual creation of Heaven and Hell.

I talked enough.
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Re: The Moral Arc - Beginning and Definitions

Post Number:#6  Postby PrincessNell » August 10th, 2017, 10:28 am

Does the community in which the definition of morality is created take as given that souls exist and there is a continuation of life after death? I would be surprised if we could take this for granted and use it as a basis to define morality. My understanding of Nietzsche's point in Beyond Good and Evil was that we could no longer use religion or some sense of a soul or inner guide as a foundation on which to build arguments about the good life, the good community, or what morality is. And, further, just as philosophers have continually tried to define the contours of justice through various methods such as Rawls' veil of ignorance, utilitarianism, or an interpretation of Darwinism as a social imperative and yet have had others build on it, these arguments evolve as our understandings of the natural world, ourselves, and our values change.

The first question I want to ask is, do we think that morality is a thing that exists outside of the firing of synapses in the brain - something like an external rule book that different minds seem to have read more carefully than others. I would argue probably without much protestation that no, morality, is a socially defined thing. I'm willing to give it a definition: morality is a set of rules that individuals and societies create to decide what is right and what is wrong. Nazi morality wasn't wrong in an objective sense - I'm not sure what is meant by "they had the facts wrong". Nazism is a morality in which rightness is equated with physical traits and genes. If your interpretation of what is right and wrong is that a perpetuation of all human genes is right, than in your rule-book, Nazism in its value system and implementation of those values might be a poor method to achieve this. We would like to condemn Nazism, but ultimately, we have to reference a different rule-book to make such a judgement. The problem is that those that adhere to the rule-book of Nazism are unlikely to accept the premise of an argument based in a different morality. This is what makes politics so interesting!

I don't think that natural evolution and our understanding of our brain's circuitry and its origins can yet support a functional definition of morality. In other words, our understanding (or scientists') of why behaviors developed throughout human history can not be reduced to the "natural selection" explanation. Some theories of why brains developed as large as they did in homo sapiens is simply as a by-product of changes in diet and metabolism. The bigger point is that natural evolution does not explain why we have such large brains! Having bigger brains that consume a lot of calories requires a trade-off for smaller muscles - just compare yourself to the apes at the zoo. Survival of the species can take many forms physically and socially. Survival did not push humans into caring for each other. If you read Jared Diamond's account of New Guineans before their contact with the Western world, you get a very stark example of how humans behaved towards those living in in- and out- groups in very close proximity to each other. I'm quite sure that the moral code that they adhered to is quite different than the one you generally have in mind when you think about morality ("happiness of others", etc). In order for morality to exist as a thing across these different social groups and across such variety in individuals, it must be vague in content, if not empty. So, while I think that morality is a rule-book, I am totally agnostic about what those rules are.

But to counter this, one might suggest that all moralities have had such similarities such as to first, relate those rules to behavior about how to treat oneself and others, and second that those rules intend goodness towards oneself and others. So, it cannot be agnostic toward the scope or content of that rule-book.
The more interesting questions to me are how individuals reconcile personal rules to social rules; no man is an island. In other words, how does the rule-book that a person adopts/creates reconcile personal needs with societal needs. At what point does my rule-book require that I give up some of my hard-earned income to provide for the needs of those who are less fortunate. Do I have a moral obligation as a company to pay my employees a living wage, when it hurts my bottom-line?

And, second, how does that rule-book define in-groups and out-groups. As in the comment above, lynchings make some people happy. The morality in which lynchings are a moral good is one in which the in-group is narrowly defined to those in one's racial heritage group. It takes another morality, one in which the in-group towards whom behavior must be well-intentioned is much wider, that finds lynchings are wrong. This strikes anyone who finds comfort in an external rule-book as dangerous. Does that mean that all values are subjective and it is not possible to unequivocally condemn genocide? Do you accept the principles of democracy? If so, you already live in a world in which you must make public arguments about public values that you hope to use to persuade others of the rightness and wrongness of your rule-book.

A few more comments: morality, or as I'm stating, a rule-book for behavior and intentions is socially and personally constructed. It comes from church; it comes from school; it comes from parents; it comes from life. It is not always internally consistent. Individuals can violate their own morality and reconstruct it throughout life. It can be more or less well-defined. And, so, sometimes morality is not that interesting to talk about.
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