Where Non-theists get Their Morality

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Ruv Draba

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Some non-theists do not drink, smoke, take drugs or have sex outside of marriage. Others -- like many religious folk -- do. But notably, crime rates among atheists are lower than among many popular religious faiths, and atheist divorce rates are lower than divorce rates in popular religions.

I'm agnostic, yet I have never had a drink or a smoke, never committed a crime, and the closest I have come to a drug is Hershey's with Almonds or Pepsi. I've been married for sixteen years and have never cheated on my wife. [...] I did not arrive at my morality from religion.

I think I derived some of mine from the good examples set by family and teachers. Some by mentors at work, including theistic and non-theistic people. Some came from thinking about stories, both religious and secular -- and not just Christian stories but stories from many other cultures.

Much of my morality isn't based on any religious influence though. It's based on trying to understand people, my impact on them, theirs on me, and on each other. It's also based on trying to improve my own life -- along the way I sometimes find ways to help improve others'.

If you are non-theistic, where does your morality come from? Has it produced anything interesting or unusual by societal standards?

If you're theistic, does your morality ever come from non-theistic sources? Why? Do people of your faith welcome that, or does it challenge them?
 

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I think I had a deep-seated empathy from the start, and I see it in my children, too. Naturally, we are all influenced by culture also, so it is impossible to tell how much came from what. I do know, however, that I didn't need anyone to tell me things like cigarettes or alcohol were bad; I could tell as a very young child just from the behavior and stench of my father just how bad they were. Same thing with violence; it doesn't take a genius to feel some pain from being hit to realize that hitting is not good.
 

Dommo

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Me it's because I tend to live a life based on a philosophy of probability.

I look at life as though I'm in a casino. In the end I'll end up busting (dead), but if I make smart decisions I improve my chances of having a good run. Nothing is certain in life, and just like in a casino a run of bad luck could mean the end of me, but I feel that by making smart choices I'm going to be a lot more likely to have a fulfilling life.

That's basically it. I don't steal because I don't see the value of stealing to be worth the consequences. I don't drink (not to get drunk anyway, I might have a glass of wine or something), or smoke, because I don't think the effects are worth the destruction I'm risking towards myself or to others(I don't know what I might do when I'm drunk).

I don't doubt that a few people might live relatively happy lives as crooks and murderers, but for the vast majority it's going to end in disaster. Look at the situation in Mexico with the drug cartels. Just because I could go down there, make 10k running dope across the border in a single day, doesn't mean it's a good choice. It's called "Risk of Ruin" in gambling terms. Basically, even if something might have a potentially high payout, it's not worth doing if you've got a really high chance of running into some catastrophic consequences(e.g. ending up in an unmarked hole the desert, or in a jail cell with Bubba).

It's a pretty simple way of looking at things, but I think it makes sense. Essentially, that's sort of where I derive my morality from. It's all about cause and effect.
 

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One thing I really like about non-theists is that we live for THIS LIFE. We don't believe there is anything else, or at least we don't worry about it, because in our understanding if a god or gods happened to be out there, they should be enlightened enough to only care that we do the best we can with our lives. So, we don't go around worrying about sinning versus pennance, or think that this life is essentially just practice for the real life that will come after; we live this life to the fullest with no expectations beyond that. That's my take anyhow.
 

Dommo

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I agree. That's why I sort of try to "min-max" my life. I try to get the maximum out of it, while minimizing the negatives. I work on the assumption that I'm just going to be worm chow when I die, and thus I might as well try to make the best out of my current situation.
 

AMCrenshaw

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If you are non-theistic, where does your morality come from? Has it produced anything interesting or unusual by societal standards?

I meet people, read a lot, and try to learn as much as possible about other people. I learn about myself and the people close to me. Naturally, I'm a sensitive person, and empathize easily with most people I encounter. My morality generally stems from the want to ease or lessen suffering and increase wellbeing most effectively and with fewest drawbacks. It's a tough thing. I get no reassurance on heaven or earth that my morality is a good one, that my actions are the right ones, but...

AMC
 

DeleyanLee

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My morality comes from the concept of responsibility. Basically: don't do anything you don't want to pay the price for. And do expect to pay the price for it.

That works into the whole set of laws, but it also deals with the emotional value of people I know, live around, work with, love, have relationships with and what makes living harmonious and my life easier to deal with.

No gods involved, no gods needed. It works for me.
 

Ruv Draba

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Thanks for comments to date. Here's a question that occurred reading through the responses...

There's a common theme of self-responsibility and recognising that bad actions have consequences. But we don't always pay the biggest consequences ourselves for our own bad actions. Let's take the environment, for instance. In eighty years most of us can expect to be 'worm chow' as Dommo put it, but the consequences of our decisions today can be felt by people who follow us. Climate change is an example, but soil erosion, destruction of species, some kinds of atmospheric pollution are also examples.

You're going to be dead, so you won't notice. Where does your morality lie on issues like that, and why?
 

mscelina

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Thanks for comments to date. Here's a question that occurred reading through the responses...

There's a common theme of self-responsibility and recognising that bad actions have consequences. But we don't always pay the biggest consequences ourselves for our own bad actions. Let's take the environment, for instance. In eighty years most of us can expect to be 'worm chow' as Dommo put it, but the consequences of our decisions today can be felt by people who follow us. Climate change is an example, but soil erosion, destruction of species, some kinds of atmospheric pollution are also examples.

You're going to be dead, so you won't notice. Where does your morality lie on issues like that, and why?

I care about what happens to my children and grandchildren after I die. I'm still young, but I'm making provisions for that even now--using investments and so forth to insure that my family benefits from my life and my work. As for the environment, et cetera, my answer of common sense applies there too. When I walk out my back door, I want to smell flowers and grass, not toxins and grass.

As I said, common sense.
 

ChristineR

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Honestly, I think theists and non-theists get their morality from the same place, and that's ultimately, on a very basic and visceral level, the desire to reduce suffering. A theist might tell you that they get their morality from a transcendent god and that true morality can't exist without the transcendence, but the non-theist can just as easily say that she gets her morality from the transcendent good or some such thing.

There's ultimately nothing about the idea of a god that forces the god or creator to be good. A lot of people combine the idea of ultimate goodness with an omnipotent being, but really, it isn't required and a lot of cultures have had concepts of evil or at least less than omnibenevolent gods and creators.
 

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Thanks for comments to date. Here's a question that occurred reading through the responses...

There's a common theme of self-responsibility and recognising that bad actions have consequences. But we don't always pay the biggest consequences ourselves for our own bad actions. Let's take the environment, for instance. In eighty years most of us can expect to be 'worm chow' as Dommo put it, but the consequences of our decisions today can be felt by people who follow us. Climate change is an example, but soil erosion, destruction of species, some kinds of atmospheric pollution are also examples.

You're going to be dead, so you won't notice. Where does your morality lie on issues like that, and why?

I am absolutely against the idea of raping the earth for whatever we want and consequences be damned. I have children and worry about their future, but frankly I would feel the same even if I didn't have them. It may sound strange, but I view the planet itself and the life on it as being more important in the grand scheme of things than the human race. If the only choice were allowing man to do whatever he wanted and the earth gets screwed, or remove man and let the earth flourish, I would choose the latter. To me, LIFE is what is great, not necessarily human life. Take man away, and another species will rise up, either without higher intelligence (like the dinosaurs) or with.
 

Ruv Draba

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It may sound strange, but I view the planet itself and the life on it as being more important in the grand scheme of things than the human race.
I feel similarly -- and that is not at all among the theistic beliefs of my culture.

I'm a humanist in that I put humanitarian concerns at the centre of my morality, but I see our species' existence as a means and not an end. Perhaps the end is to develop sustainable species that can understand and appreciate the place they live in. Humans might be that species, but they might not too.

I think I had a delight in life from a very early age, and my reverence for knowledge came at about the same time. For me the two things connect in a purposeful existence.
 

Ninjas Love Nixon

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If you are non-theistic, where does your morality come from?

I think empathy and sympathy, coupled with scepticism (specifically the understanding that I could be wrong about anything); and having grown up and been educated in a society that was, at the time, strongly religious; plus making mistakes, hurting other people, being hurt, and wanting to make sense of it.

Has it produced anything interesting or unusual by societal standards?

I don't think I can answer that. I couldn't claim to know enough about what society's standards truly are. And if that something were unusual or even interesting, either the circumstances have not arisen to illuminate it, or it has been subsumed by everyday conditioning.

In eighty years most of us can expect to be 'worm chow' as Dommo put it, but the consequences of our decisions today can be felt by people who follow us. Climate change is an example, but soil erosion, destruction of species, some kinds of atmospheric pollution are also examples.

You're going to be dead, so you won't notice. Where does your morality lie on issues like that, and why?

Complex issue. As a non-theist, I view all of man's actions as entirely natural, and governed at larger scales by the effective rule of 'winners win', which underpins all evolutionary processes and requires no dialogue with external ideology to legitimate itself.

I am concerned with stupidity, however, and do believe that curbing self-destructive potentials should be on about the same level as breathing. Mankind is astonishing, amazing, possibly unique in all the universe. But we are not separate from the world. We are not even separate from our technology, which is as much a part of humanity as self-sacrifice, or love, or cruelty, or music, or anything, really.

Taken to its extreme, nothing becomes separable. Tigers are part of our cultural and racial identity. As are raccoons, bacteria. Twinkies. Stars. And beyond those things we readily see and recognise, there are the unfathomably complex interactions of the material world, all intertwined, even with us.

Preserving that is important, but preserving it all is impossible. Nature does not work that way. And at some point, the last human being will die too. All we can do is what we can sensibly manage, weighed against all other pertinent concerns, and be satisfied that the rest will take care of itself. Between these two, hope is always the bridge.

All imo, of course.
 

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Thanks for comments to date. Here's a question that occurred reading through the responses...

There's a common theme of self-responsibility and recognising that bad actions have consequences. But we don't always pay the biggest consequences ourselves for our own bad actions. Let's take the environment, for instance. In eighty years most of us can expect to be 'worm chow' as Dommo put it, but the consequences of our decisions today can be felt by people who follow us. Climate change is an example, but soil erosion, destruction of species, some kinds of atmospheric pollution are also examples.

You're going to be dead, so you won't notice. Where does your morality lie on issues like that, and why?

Well, I do have children, and I hope they have children, too, so naturally I want to leave them a healthy, safe planet.

But I'd feel the same way if I didn't have kids. I feel a moral obligation to try and not crap on the floor (metaphorically speaking) and leave it for someone else to clean up.
 

Ruv Draba

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I have no children either, but I feel an obligation to the generations growing up now, and to their unborn. I feel that they look to me and my generation in trust while they lay claim to their futures. I feel that to put my desires above their needs would profoundly betray that trust.

I don't know that they'd miss polar-bears, say... but I can remember the first time I saw one. I was just a child and I held my breath. I couldn't believe that a furry animal could be so huge-- it could have dwarfed a camper-van, its paws were bigger than my head, and it moved with a relaxed ease. The sun blazed white off its fur and its eyes were dark and serious. I could see straight away that while it was on exhibition, it did not see itself as an exhibit. It was working... a professional bear going about serious business. A younger bear was watching it, and it knew it was being watched. Whatever it was doing -- sniffing spoor, or eyeing the water around its island for possible fish, it was doing it to be learned from, not gawked at. I got to watch a Bear teaching Bear Ways and I was ashamed that we'd given it so poor a home, so meagre a classroom in which to teach.

Such experiences change and humble us. I don't know that the children born in 2080 would miss polar bears, but I do know that if the generations living in 2010 don't leave them any, they'll be much poorer for it.
 
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Exactly. Even worse is the thought that by letting even unattractive species die out, that may lead to the extinctions of others due to the whole cycle of effect.
 

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I'm an atheist, ex-christian, explorer of many religions, believer of none. I understand the pull of religion to our monkey minds, but I can't believe in it. In fact, I believe in nothing. I think a great many things, but I don't incorporate them into a belief system. So where do I get my moral compass? I use one of my own design.

To me most things considered by religion as moral, are simply social codes of conduct to live within a group setting. Without rules humans won't get along, thus causing issues for a society and the species as a whole. So we need rules, governments make rules or laws that societies have to follow with the consequence of removal from society should you break them, or monetary punishment.

Religions make rules with the consequence of removal from the positive eternal afterlife, hell, karmic reincarnation, or what have you, should you not follow those rules.

Parents make rules for children with the consequences of physical punishement (either corporal, manual labor, chores or other such types of punishment,) removal of privilages, removal from social settings (groundings.)

In general all methods of keeping social peace have consequences. A single person doesn't normally punish themselves for doing something that goes against the social rules if they don't get caught. Morals are self-imposed rules a person puts on themselves with the consequence of feeling guilty for breaking those rules. But in essence, these personal rules mean nothing except for how much psychological weight the person applies to them.

I have my own set of rules, I don't break social laws, because there is an external punishment, not because I have self-imposed punishments for things like going over he speedlimit. I don't cheat on my partner (straight-just not married) of eleven years, because the consequence is the relationship would end -- but also because I respect my man too much to do something like that. But, then is that really "morality" as it is often defined? Or is it simply a matter of not being a big, fat, jerk of a person?

Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, are all relative and very subjective terms. This is why ethics is such a debated topic, because what one person finds ethical, may not be the general consensus.

I treat people with general curtesy. I give people respect when they've earned it. And out of general curtesy and respect for others I do things accordingly. However, a disrespectful person will receive the like back from me. Those are the things that dictate my "morality." As for things like drinking, smoking and sex, well everything in moderation is what I think.
 

Ninjas Love Nixon

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But, then is that really "morality" as it is often defined? Or is it simply a matter of not being a big, fat, jerk of a person?

In the Taoist scheme, the idea of Virtue occupies the highest position of 'good' (though that word is extremely troublesome in this context). Virtue can encompass what, in a rigid moral schema, would be considered appalling acts, but if those acts are in accordance with Tao, then the world is proceeding truly.

Morality is somewhere in the middle because, while it operates mostly for 'good', it is not truly alive, and is blind.

Ritual occupies the lowest position, because it has no sense of right or wrong, and is truly dead.

From Bluebell's reply and others, the idea of 'virtue' seems to resonate most strongly.

It is also interesting to note the associations of virtue and nihilism (which is, generally I think, a deeply misunderstood term). You can look at nihilism in the works of the Sophists in ancient Greece, for whom the form of the argument was everything, regardless of what it meant; or in Nietzche, who, imo, misinterpreted earlier understandings of the term, but who nonetheless managed to dismantle the Enlightenment's driving argument; or in the Nominalists, like Occam (who invented the razor), leading in turn to the works of Descartes, Luther, and others, all of whom tried to grapple with the paradox of a benevolent, omnipotent God who purposefully allowed his creations to wallow in misunderstanding and ignorance.

In all these cases, morality is ascribed intellectual and emotional values, while nihilism and virtue are each an aesthetic. And I do think the majority of views here express aesthetic over intellectual/emotional values. But I could be wrong.
 

Ruv Draba

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In the Taoist scheme, the idea of Virtue occupies the highest position of 'good' (though that word is extremely troublesome in this context). Virtue can encompass what, in a rigid moral schema, would be considered appalling acts, but if those acts are in accordance with Tao, then the world is proceeding truly.
This is very interesting, and makes me want to ask another question...

One of the things some theists like to say is that their morality is absolute. After all, it's Received and Documented (not true for Buddhism and Taoism, say, but certainly true for the many faiths where morality is codified as commandments, injunctions and taboos). On the other side of it, it's a popular perception that non-theists either have no morality, or import it from religion (I think we've clearly shown that this Ain't Necessarily So), or are moral relativists -- i.e. their morality wavers according to the situation.

So my follow-up questions are:
  • Do you see yourself as a moral relativist? Does your morality shift according to the situation? Why or why not?
  • Is there a problem with moral relativism? Or is it a sensible, good way to live? Why?
  • If you feel that there is some sort of relativism in your morality, how do you avoid applying the benefit of that relativism to yourself, and the cost to others? Or is that not an issue for you?
  • (For extra credit, NinjasLoveNixon, how do Taoists recognise Virtue and tell it apart from Morality or Custom or just pure Selfishness?)
Speaking personally I try to judge my deeds from what I expect them to produce, and then see if I was right. For me, custom and expectation are a tool, not a prison. I'll happily break them to do something good if the good is big enough, and I'll spurn them if I think I think they risk producing bad. That means that in the right circumstances, I can see some very disagreaable things as being virtuous -- so it has echoes of NJN's comments about Taoism and virtue -- except that I think that morality is about recognising Virtue, so I don't see myself as embracing a purely Taoist line.

I don't think I'm a moral relativist or a moral absolutist. I think that my morality isn't fixed but grows out of its own ignorance by enquiry. I also think that morality is not simply individual but collective. The role of ethics for me is to be responsible to myself and others for my impacts, my ignorance and my self-interest. Neither do I see morality and ethics as simply about avoiding doing harm (because sometimes I think we can't avoid it), but rather about learning from the good and the harm we do.

From that perspective I find it hard to define 'evil'. I can certainly describe 'bad' though -- anything that does avoidable harm. For me, 'evil' is what moral absolutists call any bad that breaks their taboos. There are certainly kinds of harm that shock, horrify and outrage me. I can denounce them, but I still can't bring myself call them evil.

So as an extra follow-up question:
  • Against the context of your morality, what if anything, does 'evil' mean to you?
  • Is it a personal, relativist definition or an absolutist one, or can you not define it at all? Why?

In all these cases, morality is ascribed intellectual and emotional values, while nihilism and virtue are each an aesthetic. And I do think the majority of views here express aesthetic over intellectual/emotional values. But I could be wrong.
I sometimes find it hard to separate the two. It's not that everything which delights me aesthetically is good (e.g. a bushfire can be stunningly beautiful but horrifically bad), but to the extent that good is shaped by our empathy then many goods are also inherently pleasurable (though not all are of that sort). Yet even in the cases where I try and achieve an abstract good (e.g. as a consultant I sometimes engage in producing organisational change), there is a kind of architectural aesthetic about it.
 

ChristineR

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Everyone is a moral relativist on some level. What I find in theists is that while they are in practice no more or less relative in their morals, they claim to have an idea of moral absolutism. That is, they say that if God wants something, it's absolutely moral, and if God doesn't want it, it's absolutely immoral. Their standards in practice (such as when killing is allowed) really have very little absolutism in them, and practically speaking, codes like the ten commandments have a lot of room for interpretation.

Now a non-theist can easily say "Good and evil exist and are absolute," and it's pretty much the same as saying "God exists and he is absolute and his will is good and against his will his evil." It's a metaphysical question, and ultimately I don't think the concept of absolute morality has anything to do with theism.

And to a large extent, one's idea of absolute morals doesn't have much to do with one's practical morals. Even what people call "moral relativism" has pretty strong taboos against the most heinous of acts, and even what people call "moral absolutism" can allow some pretty hideous acts in practice.

If you're looking for non-theistic moral absolutes, you can look at something like utilitarianism--the greatest good for the greatest number, or Kant's categorical imperative. Your personal moral system sounds to me a lot like utilitarianism, but you choose to see it in a non-absolute framework.

One thing that I've never seen explored in the question of absolute vs. non-absolute is whether there's any practical difference. What I mean is, that if you got a roomful of people who call themselves utilitarian relativists and a room full of people who call themselves Christian absolutists, and you presented them with various moral dilemmas (like the one about pushing the fat guy in front of the runaway train, or the one where you go back in time and murder Hitler), would you be able to tell which is which? You might need to exclude questions about gay sex and idol worship, but even some of those might not be terribly enlightening. (Would you approve of gay sex if ninety percent of the world's females died? Would you worship an idol to save the life of your family?)
 

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I've only read the first couple of comments, but I really have to make an input right now!

What the blip blip blip does smoking and drinking have to do with morals????????????

And if so; what about all the other things people do; gambling, shopping, eating, bragging, cheating, lying, etc, etc, etc. Is everything human immoral? And if so - Why this thread?

Morals, as it seems to me, are a set of rules set by either religious, philosophical or ethical rules determined by a kind of society, political or religious power that happens to rule rather a narrow part of the map which people just happen to inhabit.

So my being a smoking, drinking, apolitical, atheist, nonconformist, heterosexual, twice divorced, left-my-child-in-the-care-of-his-father, reactionary, republican must seem like the very lowest of the low dirt to you, oh soooo moral people.

Well, I tell you what;

I've never cheated, I don't lie, I volunteer hours on end for good causes, I donate money, I think through every choice, I respect (most) people, I firmly believe in every humans right to choose whatever religious or political conviction that is right for them, I applaud gay marriage and I honestly believe that to choose your own time of death is your right.

But because of my smoking and drinking etc, I am immoral to you??????????????????

Get a grip, people!!!!!!!!
 

Ninjas Love Nixon

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So my follow-up questions are:
Do you see yourself as a moral relativist? Does your morality shift according to the situation? Why or why not?

Hijack and tangent incoming.

We are all moral relativists. Regardless of whether we ascribe to a group that claims to believe in or practice moral absolutes, that is not the case in reality. Rather, the appearance and acceptance of such is an aspect of the amazing power of words to make meaning and distinction disappear.

No matter where a moral law comes from, it exists within an individual or individuals, each of whose life experiences inform interpretations that must necessarily vary. (Thou shalt not kill. But what about war? Self-defence? Abortion? Thou shalt not steal. But what if you are starving? What if it will save a person's life? And so on.)

If we could somehow ascribe meaningful values to each person's deep interpretations of these laws, we could construct a diagram or continuum in which all people were placed and related to each other in terms of those values. And as no absolute truth can exist in a system based in language, there could be no over-arching authority to legitimate any position over any or all others. The system is unavoidably reduced to (or, really, can exist only as) one of relativism. Social norms will take care of the rest.

Language in this case (in most cases) can only hint at the truly intended meaning. Communication is the transmission of really small, general pieces of information across channels that tend naturally toward high entropy. As such, they cannot be too precise, or the system becomes unwieldy and untenable. Language as a tool is based in carving understanding out of all possible interpretations (again, crazy entropy). It cannot be precise, though we often mistake it for such.

That said, it generally doesn't matter, because we're used to it.

The power of words in this case is to provide, in effect, a banner to march under, organising group effort to meaningful action. A group can say they practice the absolute word of God as much as they like, but the rules that govern language and communication say they cannot, because absolutes are strictly forbidden, or are utterly trivial, in those arenas.

Now, as a summary, this does a disservice to the immense complexities involved. And 'can of worms' doesn't even begin to describe it, so I hope you will forgive any and all gaping holes in the above.

Anyway, back on subject:


Yes, I view myself as a moral relativist, though perhaps not in the negative sense the term has acquired.

I believe that my morality probably does shift according to situation (mood, hormones, physical state). But then you're into the tricky area of defining the boundaries of morality, and back to words annihilating meaning again.

Is there a problem with moral relativism? Or is it a sensible, good way to live? Why?

Well, I think it's unavoidable ;) The distinction here might be do do with the notion of 'self-aware' morality, with the implication that an entity in possession of such faculties can and will act almost sociopathically, and then use some Sophist-like argument to justify any and every course of action. I'd like to think, however, that those people are just sociopaths.

If you feel that there is some sort of relativism in your morality, how do you avoid applying the benefit of that relativism to yourself, and the cost to others? Or is that not an issue for you?

It always has to be a temptation I think. But there again, I am a frothing maniac for fairness, so the idea of giving anyone preference (at least in principal) is offensive to me. I hate pandering, I hate giving people false hope, or expectation, or whatever, and I hate feeling like I didn't try hard enough myself. I guess it will be different for each person though.

(For extra credit, NinjasLoveNixon, how do Taoists recognise Virtue and tell it apart from Morality or Custom or just pure Selfishness?)

I'm not a Taoist, so this may be going well beyond my capacity to answer.

Taoism (at least as I understand it) is about individual action as opposed to an organised and over-arching social program. Kind of like a cross between a hive-mind and a perfect anarchy. Totally realised, all people operate in harmony, want little, and create no strife.

On a more analytical level, from what I can surmise, it works on a principle of performativity. If it turns out the action brought peace, happiness, and stability, it was good. If it didn't, it was bad. The sage is just a person who gets it right all the time, and, at the highest levels without ever necessarily realising so (or particularly caring - he or she just is, in perfect harmony with the will of the world).

There is quite a famous little epigram about how one becomes a sage that goes along the lines of 'Sit down. Extend your consciousness to encompass all around you, so you feel the heartbeat of the world. Then forget you are there.' I tried it. Sadly, I'm not a sage yet.

The distinction between virtue and morality, however, as far as I can gather in the Taoist view, is that morality is a code. Virtue is not. Between Virtue and Selfishness, I think the performative criteria comes into play, though an action can, I believe, be both selfish and virtuous simultaneously (I don't believe the distinction would have any credibility in the Taoist view). I'm not a scholar on the subject, however, so I'd take anything I say with only a metric ton of salt.

Speaking personally I try to judge my deeds from what I expect them to produce, and then see if I was right. For me, custom and expectation are a tool, not a prison. I'll happily break them to do something good if the good is big enough, and I'll spurn them if I think I think they risk producing bad.

Ditto.

That means that in the right circumstances, I can see some very disagreeable things as being virtuous -- so it has echoes of NJN's comments about Taoism and virtue -- except that I think that morality is about recognising Virtue, so I don't see myself as embracing a purely Taoist line.

Yeah, we're hitting a semantic border here, where we would need to rigorously define 'morality' to bring the discussion further. Even then we'd have problems. Language, I tells ya. It's evil.

I don't think I'm a moral relativist or a moral absolutist. I think that my morality isn't fixed but grows out of its own ignorance by enquiry.

But if every situation is novel, can you be genuinely sure you are learning at all? Or is that itself an illusion?

I also think that morality is not simply individual but collective.

Bam. Fantastic. Yes. Facepalm moment for me. Why did I not realise this before? And that is another distinction that can be applied between morality and virtue. Virtue resides in the individual. Morality does not. Which hopefully ties together a ton of flailing loose ends from my ramblings above. Thanks Ruv!

The role of ethics for me is to be responsible to myself and others for my impacts, my ignorance and my self-interest. Neither do I see morality and ethics as simply about avoiding doing harm (because sometimes I think we can't avoid it), but rather about learning from the good and the harm we do.

Agreed.

From that perspective I find it hard to define 'evil'. I can certainly describe 'bad' though -- anything that does avoidable harm. For me, 'evil' is what moral absolutists call any bad that breaks their taboos. There are certainly kinds of harm that shock, horrify and outrage me. I can denounce them, but I still can't bring myself call them evil.

I dunno. The wilful and self-aware infliction of unnecessary and extreme harm on others might qualify. But, as always, where the borders?


Against the context of your morality, what if anything, does 'evil' mean to you?

The wilful and self-aware infliction of unnecessary and extreme harm on others. Best I can come up with right now. But as with things like racism, sexism, and so on, I think you need to talk to the victims to decide.

Is it a personal, relativist definition or an absolutist one, or can you not define it at all? Why?

Necessarily relativist.

And omg, wall of text.

Edit: And going back to the moral/intellectual values versus aesthetic/virtue thing: Moral/intellectual values cannot meaningfully reside in the individual, because they are a property of society and require a frame of reference to be sensible; aesthetic/virtuous values can meaningfully reside in the individual with no external discourse required.
 
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Ruv Draba

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What the blip blip blip does smoking and drinking have to do with morals????????????
The word 'vice' is in secular use today, for example many police functions include a 'vice squad'. The word comes from the Latin vitium meaning 'defect, offense, blemish, imperfection', in both moral and physical senses.

Historically, certain behaviours have commonly been seen as vices: selfish, pleasure-seeking indulgences arising from or admitted by insufficient respect of self, others and traditions. These have included taking recreational drugs including alcohol and tobacco, gambling, having casual and uncommitted sex with prostitutes, strangers, people in other relationships, or outside socially-approved bounds.

Despite a liberalisation of social tradition, many of the above behaviours are considered dangerous to self and others even today. Most activities are still regulated through both criminal and civil laws -- when and where you can do them, with whom, and under what circumstances.

Does tobacco-use link to morality? I'd say certainly, under some circumstances at least. If parents gave their children tobacco they'd be administering a toxin, and I'd call that a moral concern. Is self-administration of tobacco also a moral concern? Under what circumstances? That's currently under debate, Melisande.

Morals, as it seems to me, are a set of rules set by either religious, philosophical or ethical rules determined by a kind of society, political or religious power that happens to rule rather a narrow part of the map which people just happen to inhabit.
Would you say then that you're 'amoral' -- without morals? Does your own conscience alone inform what is good, or do the opinions of others matter too? Why or why not?

So my being a smoking, drinking, apolitical, atheist, nonconformist, heterosexual, twice divorced, left-my-child-in-the-care-of-his-father, reactionary, republican must seem like the very lowest of the low dirt to you, oh soooo moral people.
Since you're railing at other peoples' opinions, I couldn't call you apolitical. :) But I don't think that everyone is criticising you whom you imagine to. Since we don't have an agreed definition of 'moral', I don't see how we can assign the word 'immoral' to anyone.

I've never cheated, I don't lie, I volunteer hours on end for good causes, I donate money, I think through every choice
So you have a code that some would call a moral code. What do you call it? Why don't you cheat or lie? What makes you decide to volunteer for causes? How do you feel about your smoking or drinking?

By way of disclosure, I don't smoke, and dislike gambling, but I do drink alcohol. I most often drink it with good food, but I also drink it in social circumstances, and sometimes when I've exercised intensely or have drunk too much coffee and am anxious and irritable. So sometimes my alcohol consumption is hedonistic; sometimes I use it more psychologically.

I think that there are moral issues associated with alcohol consumption, because I think that one's health and social responsibility are moral issues. That doesn't mean that I feel that everyone who consumes alcohol is immoral or amoral, but I feel the same about people who chew tobacco or coca-leaf. From an ethical perspective, I feel that I am accountable to others in where, how and with whom I consume alcohol. Absolutely.
 

Dommo

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You missed the point completely Melisande.

The idea was that some our philosophies of ethical conduct and morality are due to cause and effect types of views on the world. I don't view smoking as necessarily immoral (it's debatable if it's done around children who don't have a choice but to experience exposure to it), but that it's a choice that offers little benefit for me given the drawbacks. I don't steal, partly because I think that the consequences of the action aren't worth it. I don't want to justify allowing others to steal from me for one, and secondly I don't feel like getting it put up my ass by Bubba in the state pen for 5 years.

So that's the idea. I don't do certain things, because by either legitimizing them, or just plain getting caught, the result is likely to be BAD for me. It's sort of like that saying "those who live by the sword die by it", because the idea is that by legitimizing violence as a tool to be used, you better be ready for it to be used on you. That's basically how I look at the situation.
 
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