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gottaB Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-29-05 09:07 AM
Original message
What's your take on Good vs. Evil?
Do you reject moral absolutes? Categories? Does the Good exist? In what sense? How do you position yourself with respect to questions of good and evil?

Just curious.

For myself, I was once radically sceptical of the Good, and preferred to think in terms of a situational ethics. Lately I have become more tolerant of eidetic reductions. I don't know whether that's a form of absolutism. I don't believe it is, but I'm willing to entertain the notion that it is. I no longer reject idealism out of hand.

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SlackJawedYokel Donating Member (446 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-29-05 01:07 PM
Response to Original message
1. You can take them out but you can't make them behave.
Do you reject moral absolutes?
Yes.

Categories?
All of them.

If absolute morals existed, there should be evidence of absolute good and absolute evil.
No such evidence exists.

Humans cooperate to survive, altruism being a good thing.
But we also perpetrate the most heinous of acts against one another.
From genocide to the sexual predation.

Does the Good exist? In what sense?
Not absolute good.
Goodness exists within flawed people.
Without the flaws we wouldn't know if they were good.
Same with absolute evil.
Though perhaps evidence of extreme cases of psychosis could demonstrate persons without redeeming qualities, such people are not evil but ill.

How do you position yourself with respect to questions of good and evil?
I stand like this.
Or this.
But mostly I acknowledge that though I believe that we are inherently good because we are a cooperative species, some people are selfish and short-sighted which leads to much evil in the world.

Just curious.
We are all curious.
This is because we have such large brains.
Invariably this causes all sorts of problems as we are too smart for out own good.
Ignorance is, in fact, bliss.

For myself, I was once radically sceptical of the Good, and preferred to think in terms of a situational ethics. Lately I have become more tolerant of eidetic reductions. I don't know whether that's a form of absolutism. I don't believe it is, but I'm willing to entertain the notion that it is. I no longer reject idealism out of hand.
What does that mean in standard English, please?

Cletus
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gottaB Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-29-05 07:16 PM
Response to Reply #1
3. a little standard English
When you say no evidence exists for absolute good that is what I would call a radical scepticism. I no longer subscribe to that view wholeheartedly, because I beleive that the view that the good exists can be arrived at through inductive reasoning. From this point of view, it is difficult to predict with certainty how the good will manifest itself in various circumstances, but it does seem that appearances of goodness in various situations share essential qualities, such that one might reasonably claim that they are but manifestations or facets of a single phenomenon, which might be called an idea of the good.

Need this idea be an absolute? Not in the sense that one can deduce from it how people ought to behave in all circumstances. It is possibly absolute in other senses, e.g. in the sense that it cannot be solved by consciousness. See post #2 for an interesting attempt to solve. I don't accept that argument in its entirity. In my view the study of consciousness presents us with several possible explanatory modes, each of which offers insights into the nature of the good, none of which are definitive.
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SlackJawedYokel Donating Member (446 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-30-05 10:18 AM
Response to Reply #3
4. Thanks.
When you say no evidence exists for absolute good that is what I would call a radical scepticism.
Why "radical"?
Isn't that just regular old skepticism?

I no longer subscribe to that view wholeheartedly, because I believe that the view that the good exists can be arrived at through inductive reasoning.
Would you mind demonstrating how you derive absolute good from inductive reasoning?

From this point of view, it is difficult to predict with certainty how the good will manifest itself in various circumstances, but it does seem that appearances of goodness in various situations share essential qualities, such that one might reasonably claim that they are but manifestations or facets of a single phenomenon, which might be called an idea of the good.
Doesn't this depend on the concept of an absolute list/definition of good?
If so, please expound on this list/definition and how it differs from what I wrote.

Need this idea be an absolute?
Hmmm... wouldn't that "sharing of essential qualities" mean that it *must* be an absolute?
If not, please explain why not.

Not in the sense that one can deduce from it how people ought to behave in all circumstances.
So you reject the notion of absolute?

It is possibly absolute in other senses, e.g. in the sense that it cannot be solved by consciousness.
Limited absolute?
Umm... I'm no philosopher, but this doesn't make much sense to me.
Kinda like "sorta pregnant". :D

See post #2 for an interesting attempt to solve. I don't accept that argument in its entirity.
I'm not sure I follow how the two are similar.
Seems to me that post 2 appealed to similar biological processes that I mentioned earlier... what is the psychological but an aspect of our biology, after all?

In my view the study of consciousness presents us with several possible explanatory modes, each of which offers insights into the nature of the good, none of which are definitive.
But, again, doesn't this run counter to the concept of an absolute?

Please offer some examples of what you're referring to so I can better understand where you are coming from.
Thanks.

Cletus
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gottaB Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-31-05 03:14 AM
Response to Reply #4
5. whew. okay, let's give it a spin.
NB: I thought you said you *were* a philosopher, and began crafting my reply with that in mind. :D Anyway, I'm not a philospher either, but in imho you are eminently capable of arguing these points, so I won't bother rewriting it.

a. Why radical scepticism? Because I have the sense of it being applied to all concepts indiscriminately, as if the first response to any question about a concept ought to be disbelief. Take a look at Bertrand Russel's definition of scepticism:

The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.


If Russel's scepticism can be said to represent a kind of regular old scepticism, then I would say that your scepticism is radical. Would you agree that philosphers have systematically made inquiries into the nature of the good? May we regard their opinions as expert opinions on the good? If we can agree on that much, then perhaps we might also agree that the experts are not agreed, in which case the regular old sceptic would be wise to regard opinions on the nature of the good as uncertain.

Of course, if it can be ascertained that "no evidence exists for the absolute good," then I would say that your scepticism would be a case of regular old scepticism. But I see two sets of problems wrapped in that: What evidence exists for the good? What evidence exists for the absolute nature of the good? I'm not sure that the same sort of evidence or investigative procedure can be applied to the two problems. I should think it rather depends upon what we are able to learn about the good, what it's nature is. But I may be quite mistaken.

b. I claimed that the good can be arrived at through inductive reasoning. It's absoluteness or lack thereof may be another matter. I shall attempt to illustrate. I have in my mind a vague sense that some things are good, but I'm not sure how to define it. It may be that what I think of good actually represents several different things, or a panoply of disparate phenomena. With those doubts in mind, I make some (imaginary) observations.


  1. An old woman is attempting to coax her cat down from a large oak tree. A boy walks by, notices the predicament, and volunteers to climb the tree and retrieve the cat. He does so.

  2. A young woman is given $100 as a Christmas present. On her way to the shopping mall, she sees homeless families struggling to keep warm. She uses her Christmas money to buy a coat which she donates to a charity organization.

  3. A tobacco smoker is aware that his smoking poses a health risk to him and his family. His doctor tells him that his lungs are in bad shape. The smoker gives it some serious thought, and decides to quit.

  4. A general has threatened to use nuclear weapons against an enemy. A third party informs the general of the known effects of nuclear radiation. The general withdraws his threat.



Now it would be easier if in each instance the protagonist explicitly claimed to be doing good. It shouldn't be necessary though. If we can provisionally agree that all four acts are for the good, then we have a basis for analyzing what we mean.

Is self-sacrifice a common element? Not necessarily, because the first case is not much of a sacrifice. It's been my observation that young boys enjoy climbing trees, and there could perhaps be an element of grandstanding at play. If that were true, would it still be for the good? Sure, if the cat were returned to its owner.

Is altruism a common element? Not necessarily, because the third case may be motivated by a concern for self-preservation, which only incidentally has a benefit for others. We may also wonder about the difference between altruism and pity, empathy and sympathy, and the like. We could introduce facts that would place the generosity of the girl in #2 in doubt, or rather the genuineness of the emotional motivation, because there should be no doubt that giving is in itself a generous act.

It's tempting to generalize here and say that giving is good, but it is not quite so simple. We must allow for cases in which giving is at best amoral. We must consider the possibility that giving should be understood within the context of systems of reciprocity, which may themsleves be for the good, or not. Acts of vengence also occur in the context of such systems, and it is much more difficult to say that vengance is for the good. Additionally, any particular instance of giving may have good and evil aspects. Would it be a good thing to give the former smoker a cigarette? That rather depends upon a lot of unknowables, I should think. Given all that, is it a reasonable generalization to view giving as good? I think so, but here we would appear to be at odds with the notion of an absolute good. We shall see.

Example 4, finally, is meant to illustrate that goodness need not signify a total absence of malice. The general may yet decide to completely annihilate his enemy. However, he is made to realize that doing so by means of nuclear devices would have harmful consequences for many, many others. His willingness to temper his sabre rattling and calibrate the use of force is good.

We can view all these examples as manifestations of the good, or, agreeing that the outcomes are for the good, we may yet attribute the judgement of "goodness" to the observer, and maintain that the four protagonists had no intention of doing "good" or anything like it. That's another kettle of fish. If you are willing to stipulate, however, that these are indeed instances of good being done, then we can move the question of how one dileneates essential properties without subscribing to a notion of the aboslute, one that would presumably be an a priori.

So what essential qualities are evident here? Self-sacrifice? Not quite. Giving? Not exactly. Empathy? Concern for others? Partially, perhaps. We might say that it's good to act in such a way as to (a) please others, or (b) ameliorate the suffering of others, or (c) minimize the harm to others that would be likely to result from one's actions. Now with (c) in particular, some would see that as confirming the notion that the good cannot be an absolute, but must rather be determined situationally. I think that reflects a limited understanding of absoluteness. We could tackle that on an empirical level, for instance by examining the range of possibilities for goodness that lie between nuclear apocalypse and world peace. I think we might find that launching projectiles that cause massive death and destruction tend not to be good, and we could make statistical inferences here, though there are certainly arguments to be made for the goodness of particular bombardments, horrific as that may seem. In any case, I think the problem is rather one of philosophical approach, so I'd like to turn to that. (And I note that we have only scratched the surface of goodness here, and that many other attributes of the good might become apparent were we to fully investigate.)

Is it good to be aware of a situation? Is situational awareness a good thing? Can it be cultivated? I would say yes to these things because I have it in mind that it's of the nature of the good that it cannot be intended towards without also intending that one's actions minimize the harm done to others who share the space in which acts take shape, are carried out, and acquire meaning. (And by the same token, we might say that knowledge of one's self is a good thing, and that ignorance is evil. Willful ignorance especially so.)

Let's try to be direct. If the good is not an absolute in the sense that it applies equally to all situations, in what sense is it or could it be absolute? If the good is a kind of idea, for example an idea people have of what they intend the consequences of their actions to be, in moral terms, then its absoluteness might be a matter of the status, constitution or genesis of ideas. Do ideas develop from experience, or are they as it were preformed, the stuff of pure consciousness? I think there is evidence that both mental faculties and the lessons of experience are entailed in the process of forming ideas. We can inculcate ideas into young people, but we can't incultate ideas into potatoes. It seems obvious that an idea must necessarily have a thinking subject. It is not clear though what role experience plays in the formation of ideas. There are thousands of languages on Earth. Is there a universal grammar, as Chomsky hypothesizes? Are there other language universals? We know at least there seems to be an innate human capacity for language learning and grammatical categorization. Why *do* we speak different languages then? And if language is solely the product of history, why are there acknowledged patterns that might be considered to be universal? Are they simply vestigal? Why haven't any natural languages been invented that would transcend these? Or are there forms of mental construction that cannot be discarded because they are intrinsic to human consciousness?

But moral ideas may be entirely unlike "pure" ideations, because the intention of the dogooder may be less towards an ideal than towards other people in particular circumstances. (I happen to think language presents the same kind of problem, but at this crude stage of conceptualization, we can let that go.) And yet it does not seem inappropriate to treat them as ideas, in as much as they inform the conduct of conscious actors, and may be subject to deliberation like other ideas. Concrete examples. Is there a universal notion that life is good and that killing is bad? We could say yes, and then note the exceptions to the rule and chalk it up to either hypocrisy or fallibility. Or we could strive towards a more nuanced understanding of the prohibition against killing in various cultures. Even in warrior cultures where the killing of enemies is celebrated, excessive killing tends to be frowned upon. We see that there are classes of people (or animals) that should not be killed or that one should think well of not killing, such as friends, family, kin, totems, brethren, soulmates, priests, women, children, what have you. The particular classes vary, but the notion that some classes of people should not be harmed is universal--In fact, where it is absent, I would say that one is dealing with a pathological case, and not a culture, analogous to the distinction between a psychopathic killer and say a hitman who presumably has the ability to distinguish right from wrong. And again, even among warriors, the killing of enemies is frequently regarded as the least desirable course of action, and some will say that it is best to achieve victory without killing. This speaks to a universal sense of what is good, that it's good to let others live.

Is that a moral abosolute? No, but the idea of the good may yet be absolute, though the judgement of what is good varies depending upon the circumstances of its actualization. Turn it around. Is the idea of the good relative? Totally? I think if that were so, it should have occured to some group of warriors to completely destroy every last human being on the planet. Because war is the ultimate truth, and its good to kill, or some such. There have been ample opportunities for mass murder, and even the most heinous examples in recorded history have been limited in scope and duration. If I were seeking to generalize, I would have to say that the morality of killing has tended more towards restraint than towards abandon. Thus the argument that a moral absolute is like a pregnancy--and there is of course a tremendous dispute embedded in that example--in that it must be all or nothing strikes me as a bit of distortion. There appear to be limits to the elasticity of moral configurations.

Finally, while I am neither a biologist nor a psychologist, I feel strongly that these are two very different modes of inquiry, and object to the reduction of psychology to biology. The development of the psyche does indeed appear to have a trajectory and a logic that is quite distinct from what one normally considers under the rubric of ontogeny.
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fshrink Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jan-29-05 02:08 PM
Response to Original message
2. Freud used to say
that moral principles were self-evident. Which of course, was a short way of describing his "super-ego" agency and therefore that they come from the inside through history and not innate qualities. I agree.
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immoderate Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-31-05 04:26 PM
Response to Original message
6. If good were absolute...
then a situation could not be good for one person and not another. How would you differentiate that goodness from something that was good for everybody?

--IMM
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gottaB Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Feb-01-05 01:42 AM
Response to Reply #6
7. Not necessarily.
It could be that the people are in conflict, rather than a case of the good being contradictory. It could be a matter of people being wrong about a situation, about themselves, about others, about the good, or any combination of these.

You know it's quite easy for a person to say that she is acting for the good, but there doesn't appear to be a direct line between the idea of the good and good being done. The concsious agent always stands between them, perhaps in the role of some kind of mediator, or perhaps as the ultimate creator of ideas and actions.

So the question might be one of whether it is possible to imagine the good as anything but an absolute. Of course it is? That's what's being argued here, right? Well, imagine a conflict situation in which the parties are right about the situation, right about themselves, right about others, right about the good, and yet they remain in conflict. They might agree to hold that the good cannot be ultimately determined as long as the conflict is unresolved. They suspend judgement about the good. In this state of suspended judgement, it would appear that the good is not absolute. We might call it relative, perspectival, or indeterminate. But is this indeterminacy truly a property of the good? Or could it rather be a property of knowledge? Could it be an aspect of the way we understand situations, or the way our knowledge is put into practice? Beats me.
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immoderate Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Feb-01-05 07:07 PM
Response to Reply #7
9. Is it possible for something to be good one day and not next?
--IMM
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gottaB Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-02-05 07:17 AM
Response to Reply #9
10. yes, that's possible
It would reasonable to expect as much if (a) the good is completely relative, or (b) the good is absolute, but whether or not a particular action or thing should be viewed as good would depend upon situational variables, more or less.

It also seems reasonable to hold the notion, as I am exploring here, that although one doesn't know, and indeed can't know whether something is good before the fact, one nevertheless can orient oneself towards the good, which may be understood as an absolute.

An example. Morphine. Is morphine good? Is it a good thing to give morphine to a child? On most days that would presumably be a bad thing, but after a terrible scooter accident, for example, it might indeed be a good thing. Medical ethicists of course recognize many finer points regarding the use of morphine, such as the probablity that a patient will survive a painful injury or affliction, or the effectiveness of other analgesics, the known side-effects of those, and like considerations.

In many cases I think it would be wise to admit some doubt as to whether morphine would be a good thing. I have a hunch that many physicians who prescribe morphine for their terminally ill patients do not do so lightly, and may never be absolutely certain that it's the best thing to do. Yet they are guided by certain principles, "first do no wrong," or "I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous," (that's from the Adams translation of the hippocratic oath, but any will serve.) In fact the AMA's Institute for Ethics has developed a large corpus of guidelines on the administration of medicine in cases of "medical fultility," and I would expect these to inform the judgement of physicians who would consider whether to give morphine to a terminally ill patient.

Even with such a large body of institutional knowledge and guidance, a certain moral authority (or lattitude) is left to the judgement of the physician. Does that mean that the AMA or its members necessarily subscribe to a relativist view of the good? Not at all. They simply hold that in their profession the good of the patient is paramount, and that what that means for the physician will depend upon a number of circumstances which he must evaluate to the best of his judgement and abilities. A physician who loses sight of the goal of providing beneficial care for the patient may be found guilty of malpractice, stripped of his license, or face other criminal charges. (Actually, I think most malpractice cases focus on the quality of the physician's judgement, and cite as evidence his adherance to established guidelines and procedures, but there are of course notorious cases of evil doctors, serial killer nurses and such.)
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Mr. McD Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Feb-01-05 12:11 PM
Response to Original message
8. There are no moral absolutes; good and evil do not exist per se.
Good and evil are labels we use to describe extremes of human behavior. These labels are often artificially applied to non-human and imaginary objects. Eg. animals, demons, etc.
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gottaB Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-02-05 08:00 AM
Response to Reply #8
11. Question: Does a cube exist per se?
I have in mind Sartre's example of the cube in The Imaginary (trans. Jonathan Webber), Part I, "The Intentional Structure of the Image," "Second Characteristic: The Phenomenon of Quasi-Observation." The first four paragraphs of that (with my Americanized typographic changes):


When we began this study we thought that we would be dealing with images, which is to say with elements of consciousness. We now see that we are dealing with complete consciousnesses, which is to say with complex structures that "intend" certain objects. Let us see whether reflection cannot teach us more about these consciousnesses. It will be simplest to consider the image in relation to the concept and to perception. To perceive, to conceive, to imagine: such are indeed the three types of consciousness by which the same object can be given to us.

In perception I observe objects. It should be understood by this that the object, though it enters whole into my perception, is never given to me but one side at a time. Consider the example of a cube: I do not know it is a cube unless I have seen its six faces; I can possibly see three together, but never more. It is necessary therefore that I apprehend them successively. And when I pass, for example, from the apprehension of faces ABC to faces BCD, it always remains possible that face A disappeared during my change of position. The existence of the cube will therefore remain doubtful. At the same time, we must notice that when I see three faces of the cube together, these three faces are never presented to me like squares: their lines are flattened, their angles become obtuse, and I must reconstitute their nature as squares starting from the appearances in my perception. All this has been said a hundred times: it is characteristic of perception that the object never appears except in a series of profiles, of projections. The cube is indeed present to me, I can touch it, see it: but I can never see it except in a certain way, which calls for and excludes at the same time an infinity of other points of view. One must learn objects, which is to say, multiply the possible points of view on them. The object itself is the synthesis of all these appearances. The perception of an object is therefore a phenomenon of an infinity of aspects. What does this signify for us? The necessity of making a tour of objects, of waiting, as Bergson said, until the "sugar dissolves."

When, on the other hand, I think of a cube by a concrete concept, I think of its six sides and its eight angles at the same time. I think that its angles are right angles, its sides squares. I am at the center of my idea, I apprehend its entirity in one glance. Naturally, this is not to say that my idea does not need to be completed by an infinite progression. But I can think the concrete essences in a single act of consciousness; I do not need to recover images, I have no apprenticeship to serve. Such is without doubt the clearest difference between thought and perception. That is why we can never perceive a thought nor think a perception. They are radically distinct phenomena: one is knowledge conscious of itself, which places itself at once in the center of the object; the other is a synthetic unity of a multiplicity of appearances, which slowly serves its apprenticeship.

What will we say of the image? Is it apprenticeship or knowledge? Let us note initially that it seems "on the side of" perception. In the one as in the other the object gives itself by profiles, by projections, by what the Germans designate by the apt term "Abschattungen." Only we no longer need to make the tour of it: the imaged cube is given immediately for what it is. When I say "the object I perceive is a cube," I make a hypothesis that the later course of my perceptions may oblige me to abandon. When I say "the object of which I have an image at this moment is a cube," I make here a judgement of obviousness: it is absolutely certain that the object of my image is a cube. What does this say? In perception, knowledge is formed slowly; in the image, knowledge is immediate. We see now that the image is a synthetic act that links a concrete, not imaged, knowledge to elements more properly representative. An image is not learned: it is organized exactly as the objects that are learned, but, in fact, it is given whole, for what it is, in its appearance. If you turn a cube-image in thought to amuse yourself, if you present that it presents various faces to you, then you will not be more advanced at the end of the operation: you will not have learned anything.


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Mr. McD Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-02-05 01:01 PM
Response to Reply #11
12. Thinking of a cube is not a cube.
A cube is an object; it has a defined number of sides. It can be observed and perceived through the senses.

A concept, (such as good and evil) on the other hand is not so easily perceived. A concept is not a sensual experience but a mental perception. The mind perceives and interprets a concept based on that persons experience. With exposure to new or differing viewpoints concepts are subject to revaluation and change. In this sense one can never be able to grasp a concept or an idea like you can grasp a cube or another object.



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