My Take on Morality

A rambling set of musings

I'm now going to take a risky dive into contemplating morality, ethics, social behavior, or just plain getting along. The standard justification of morality you hear is "God said so." People seem to think that, without a the existance of an omnipotent, omniscient, (you can add in omnipresent, omnibenevolent, or whatever else you want here) being, that society would be chaos and people would do whatever they felt like.

But why? Most people don't like a chaotic society. And most mature people who grew up in stable homes (as well as most mature people who grew up in any situation, I imagine) realize that you can't do just whatever you want without bad consiquences. There's no need for any supernatural intervention here, except that most people have been told for so long that we need it that they can't think of any other way.

Now, if we're looking for simple justifications for rules, why not just say "Society says so?" Some might argue that this is little different from "God says so," which in a way is true, however, I'll point out that society is at least an entity which has substantial empirical evidence pointing to its existance. Beyond this, others argue that we shouldn't blindly follow a set of rules, anyway. The idea of not simply blindly following rules, also known as moral relativism, is, I think, at the same time misunderstood by those who object to it, and missapplied by those who follow it.

I think a good way to think about this is to look at the analogy of classical and relativistic physics. Now, of course, I'm an expert in neither ethics nor physics, so take all I say as mearly the musings of an educted layperson (personally, I have the utmost respect for educated laypeople).

Newtonian physics basically works, and it works for any situation that 99% of the population is likely to encounter in their day-to-day lives. It is, however, inadiquate for bizarre (from our perspective) situations like traveling near the speed of light or for very large masses and for the interactions of individual atoms.

Similarly, what we could call clasical morality, or "do what society says" works in the vast majority of situations we encounter. Of course, a scientific study of ethics similar to a scientific study of physics doesn't exist, so there aren't always good rules for the bizarre situations. It's also good to consider that humans are better evolved at dealing with other humans than we are at dealing with theoretical physics.

However, this actually brings me to a good place to further this analogy. Humans evolved and lived in small bands of at most a few hundred people for the vast majority of their existance. So, even traditional civilizations, such as what existed until a few centuries ago in the agricultural areas of the world, are to some degree artificial, and larger-scale than humans are used to dealing with. Probably one of the reasons that laws, regulations, and religious morals developed was that our intuitive morality and ethics started breaking down in societies of even a few thousand people.

Where am I going with the physics analogy, though? Well, people appear to have more or less instinctive intuitions in many areas, including ethics and physics. Our intuitive physics work fine for most situations, and even in our modern lives, work for us probably the majority of the time. In the same way that intuitive physics works until you think a little or look closely at what is happening (like, "heavier things fall faster," which is false, but seems to work if you don't test the idea). Similarly, for small groups, intuitive morality generally works well enough ("He hit me so I'll hit him back," which falls appart when you don't necessarily know who it was who hit you, and so forth)

So, both intuitive physics and intuitive morality fall apart on close inspection. In both cases, more recent developments helped to somewhat iron out these problems. However, there are still the bizarre cases. I'm not simply talking "What if there was no one else left on earth but you and 5 others and..." Although this would certainly count as a bizarre case. I also mean cases involving new technology. We were clearly not evolved to deal with recent technology, so obviously we can't necessarily just go with our intuitive gut reaction (since these reactions often haven't been productive since the dawn of civilization, so to speak). Similarly, most moral and legal codes in existance today were developed well before modern technology. Using, say, the Bible to decide on the ethics of cloning is something along the lines of using Newtonian physics to build a nuclear reactor.

(Please note--Newtonian physics can lead to the development of physics necessary to build the nuclear reactor, so I'm not outright dissing the Bible. Also, for the moment I'm treating physics and ethics as completely separate, hermetically sealed realms. I'm not trying to get into any debates on the ethics of nuclear energy.)

I'm going to stop here for now. I can't say I've come up with answers for everything. Consider this my idea of a good starting point for thinking about things. I realize I haven't actually addressed the idea of moral relativism. In fact, in some ways, I don't even really describe moral relativism. My point is that not accepting traditional codes of behavior doesn't mean rejecting codes of behavior. It simply means thinking through and revising codes of behavior where necessary.

And now, I will really stop, or else this page will get very long.

June 24, 1999

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