Re: A guest post on morality

Dustin (
Wed, 27 Aug 1997 18:03:15 -0700 (PDT)

I might as well just send this myself--Ernie assures me that you're not
overly Xenophobic. :-)

If I figured out the attributions correctly, '>' is Ron and '>>' is Uri.


On Tue, 26 Aug 1997, Ron Resnick wrote:

>...since Ernie's
> bringing in outside troops, I suppose I can do the same :-).

I'm a ringer. Cool.

> > The bottom line, though, I think, is that it's all kind of missing
> > the point, which is: it's kind of futile to have a learned discussion
> > about something which you either believe in or don't.

I guess I don't agree with this. I believe many things because someone
argued them well over my objections. I suppose the unfairness of it all
is that the proponent probably never realized that I found the argument
compelling, both because I have a habit of pushing proponent's arguments
to see what they'll support and because usually there is a long incubation
period before I really change my mind (there are fancy social-science
words for such things, but I'll have none of that).

I agree that abstract dorm-room style discussions are useful for all the
reasons Ron mentions, but I don't think it stops there.

> > By the way, the word 'hypocrites' made its way in their a few times.
> > Who are the hypocrites? The guys who preach goodness and act rotten,
> > or the guys who preach emptiness and pretty much toe the line in \
> > everything but rhetoric?

My knee-jerk reaction is both of them. The former case is much more
malignant than the latter, though. The latter case I view as being
'better than your beliefs.' In the former case, we could say that they
have given up the better half of their humanity for a lie, while in the
latter we could say that they have retained their better self even though
they have no justification for it. The latter is tragic, the former is

Ron equivocates that everyone is somewhat hypocritical, and that's fine.
We all have two selves which we cannot integrate, and that contradiction
means that we cannot be entirely consistent to either.

However, I have problems with the most common form of that formulation
even though I agree with the denotation. It's a fiddly distinction, but I
run into it so often in discussions of moral relativism vs. natural law
that I've come to the conclusion that it is important. It (often
unwittingly, I'm sure) sets up the standard relativist's straw man of
human morality (OK, I admit contrasting relativism with 'human morality'
is coining loaded terms, but it expresses what I think history shows). The
straw man is, I think, akin to Ernie's comment about how moral absolutes
are conventionally caricatured as absolute certainties. I think the main
reason the distinction sometimes seems fiddly is that our culture
conditions us to not make the distinction so it is difficult for us, just
as English has two different consonants both written 'p' and which very
few speakers recognize as distinct without help. (Exercise: find two
english words which use different 'p's and elucidate the
difference--surely some of you eclectic types will have no trouble with
this.) A similar implicit tautology is that moral absolutes imply that
all quantities are one bit--any given action is good or bad. No such
morality is usable in the real world, so the implicit equation with
natural law is a powerful way of casting ridicule on the whole concept.

The connotation I started off by refering to is a conventional,
tautological implication which is strong precisely because it is not
stated. It starts with, e.g. 'all men are hypocritical' and concludes
'therefore there is no sense expecting, valuing, or striving for
intellectual honesty.' Ron may well have intended nothing of the kind, but
similar implicit rules are bread and butter for popular relativism. When
you combine it with 'moral absolutes are identical to yes/no conclusions,'
you also reason 'people exhibit degrees of internal conflict, not complete
honesty or absolute dishonesty; since moral absolutes require binary
quantities, therefore the concept of moral absolutes is one which is
impossible to hold consistently.'

Stated that way, I trust the weaknesses are manifest enough that it is not
shocking that when I agree with Ron that no one really resolves the
conflicts of their two natures even though I reject moral relativism.
Sorry to really belabor what might be a minor point, but I really hate
ending up defending a position I don't believe in myself. One of them is
infallibility, either papal or personal. In *spite* of all appearances to
the contrary. :-)

I hadn't thought of connecting this to network agents as Ron does, but
it's an astute observation. I didn't catch whether he concludes that his
prediction is a *good* thing or not, but I would argue that it is. I
expect the net to cause a catastrophic loss of cultural diversity greater
than the loss of biological diversity being caused by industrialization,
so it's always nice to have compensating effects, at least until Ron comes
up with some further logical consequence I don't like so much. :-)

> See, I just don't get that part. 'Rational being', 'natural law'.
> What are those? The system is tautological.

I don't think so. Reason will go a lot farther than you give it credit.
I started trying to explain below, and it got so long that I'm going to
save it (at least) for a separate post. No sense wearing out my welcome
all in one message. :-)

>...As Uri notes, ultimately these
> things are matters of belief, not proof. How did he put it to me?
> You can't prove an 'ought' statement from an 'is' statement.

I would agree 100% with Uri on that point. I view that moral relativism
as a ghastly, inhuman philosophy in addition to being wrong precisely
because of this. The conclusion is a crushing one for the very many who
have intellectually accepted moral relativism but who cannot live by it
(in fact, I have often said I have never met a consistent relativist and
never expect to). They are better than their beliefs because they are
gold as well as clay, and so are forced to look very, very hard for a way
to derive an 'ought' from an 'is.' It just can't be done, and the
consequence of trying too hard is that their children accept in fact what
their parents accepted only in theory, and behave as though they really
were what their parents only said they were.

What was it Francis Shaeffer said? Something like "if materialism and
relativism is all there is, make room for me because I wish to destroy

> You look at the world around you and look inside yourself, and
> try to understand what you think and believe, and that's about it.

Don't sell yourself short on raw material. You can understand what others
have thought and believed, so as long as you are literate and humanity
does not burn all the books you cannot be entirely alone unless you make
it so yourself.

There are a couple of tremendously moving (for me) scenes in Alexander
Solzhenitsyn's novels dealing with more or less that point.

[[thank goodness for the York U. Russian Literature web page so I could
spell his last name half-decently.]]

>...I look around and see a world of
> bad guys who get away with it, far more than bad guys who get caught.
> Crime does pay, apparently. Where's the 'evidence' of natural law here?

Long-winded reply available on request. :-)