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Theological (?) Discussions Over The Weekend

This weekend I had an interesting discussion about morality with a Catholic. What was interesting about it wasn’t just the conversation in and of itself; this guy was ironically in the Economics PhD program at UPenn with my ex-girlfriend and knew her, though about three or four years behind her (he didn’t finish the program). Small world!

Anyway, we started talking about morality and stuff: Dialoging about what constitutes morality from a non-theistic and from a Catholic perspective. He even mentioned Leah’s infamous conversion to Catholicism. He claimed that she was never really an atheist and I rejoined that she was an atheist, just not a well informed one (she even admitted this herself in her “about” page on why she started her blog). An atheist is just someone whose actions don’t reflect god-belief; essentially why Nietsche claimed God is dead.

Anyway, the thing I took from the conversation was that, from his Catholic perspective, morality is about self-improvement. The reason you don’t, say, murder people was because this would normalize murder and you’ll do it more and more. From my point of view, morality was about a social contract. Do in Rome as the Romans do. To explain this, I put forth my desert island analogy for where morality comes from:

Say there is a man living alone on a desert island. No other people or animals around. Can we list some things that this person can do that are immoral?

For a secularist, the obvious answer is “no” since there is no one to be immoral to, yet his answer to this was a “yes” since there are still things that he could do that could be considered “immoral” from a Catholic perspective; things that are damaging to the self.

I also likened morality to language, as a sort of cultural language. To take the desert analogy further, if the man had grown up on the island without anyone or any other animals around, would he have developed language? The answer is no if we look at feral children, so analogously I assumed the same would happen with morality.

We agreed that the end results of both of our views of morality lead to the same things, but he took morality itself as a First Principle, much like why Leah converted to Catholicism. Of course, I don’t agree with that First Principle so that is where we diverged. My first principle, I would say, is that I exist.

Why I think the conversation panned out the way it did without any animosity or confusion was because I made a conscious effort to “taboo” any potential conflict words or words with multiple possible interpretations, and I asked him to do the same. It made for a longer conversation, but also a more transparent one. Also, in person, people are much more likely to hold back their more offending views so that probably contributed to it as well. It might have also been some sort of Halo Effect since he really admires/d my ex for her intellect and work ethic.

Of course we didn’t actually finish the conversation (I would have liked to ask him some form of the Euthyphro Dilemma and why not take an empirical approach about self-improvement instead of assertions from Catholicism (Aristotle/Aquinas); we started heading in the direction when I asked him why working out and being healthy isn’t considered moral) because we were at a birthday party. But, at least it was fun to do that IRL and not on the Internet for once. Oddly enough, he never mentioned “god”. Probably because I’m pretty well known in my circle of friends for being an atheist. Though I only “came out” so to say when I started this blog… which was due to situations like this.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in objective morality, objectivity, rationality

 

The Paradox of Objective Morality

Here’s a thought experiment.

Let’s say there’s only one person left on the planet. Kinda like that guy in one of the Twilight Zone episodes where he was the only living thing left on the planet so that he had all the time in the world to read. So this one guy is left on the planet – can we list some things that he can do that are immoral?

Of course not.

Morality is all about how we interact with out fellow human beings. Something is “immoral” only if it causes harm to another sentient being, harm being defined by the wronged being. Basically, there has to be an affected “other” in order for morality or immorality to exist. If there was only one person on the planet, then everything is amoral: morality doesn’t exist.

Keep that in mind. Morality can only exist if sentient beings that can be wronged exists.

Now what about objectivity? Here are some definitions:

1. existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

2. undistorted by emotion or personal bias; based on observable phenomena;

So the key component to “objectivity” would be something that exists independent of thought, independent of an observer, independent of emotion and of personal bias. So, grass being green is objective. While the color that we have in our heads when we think of “green” might not be objective (since it’s subject to our perception), grass will always absorb every color of the wavelength except for the wavelength that we’ve deemed “green” – even with no humans around to perceive it and call it “green”.

Now, let’s put these two words together: objective and morality.

This would be a system of morality that’s independent of biases and emotions (objectivity), yet dependent on biases and emotions (morality)! Morality can only exist if there are beings who have biases and emotions, yet objectivity can only exist if all biases and emotions are removed. Morality is subject to any sentient beings’ biases and emotions.

The two can’t possibly coexist; meaning that the phrase “objective morality” is about as meaningful as a square circle.

Some believers might invoke “god” at this point, but if god has emotions and biases then it’s not objectivity. Unless the god being invoked is a non-personal, pantheistic god, it also brings up the immorality of the Sovereign Defense. If “objective morality” is being dogmatically assigned to a being with agency (like the Christian god), then immoral acts are bound to happen.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2010 in morality, objective morality, objectivity

 
 
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