I'm a little unsure if we're even talking about the same points anymore. To give an example:
(i) ethics is a system which preferences particular behaviours over others
So here I'm saying what ethics is - the common thing between all the various ethical systems is that ethics is about showing which decisions are more or less preferable. If you say "ethics", this is what you are talking about. This is the definition part. Whether you want to talk about objective or subjective ethics, this part is the same, but the value of the preference will change.
My approach to ethics is different. I propose that we basically disregard definitions and concentrate instead on how any particular definition is applicable out in the world. And, realistically, relating to actual human interaction down on the ground, decisions are more or less preferable depending on your point of view.
What is objective is that every human community must have the equivalent of an ethical framework because every human community must establish rules of behavior.
But, beyond that, inter-subjective exchanges always rule the roost
. And this necessarily involves historical and cultural factors as well as individual preferences chosen over the course of actually living our lives. In other words, ethics, however defined
, is always situated
Multiple options for decisions exist - that's what makes them decisions. And we know that we have to choose one decision over others. So ethics is about asking, "Is there a best way to choose one decision over others?" The answer might be "yes" or it might be "no", but the question is as valid as, "Is there a best way to build a house?"
In my view, the "best way" to engage conflicting ethical narratives is within the democratic process. That way, at the very least, the rule of law can be invoked.
But building a house is considerably less subjective. Or, rather, it is if, as you noted, you want it to remain intact and standing over many years. Here one might get into a disagreement with another about aestethic values---what should the house look like? how it should be decorated?---but the construction of the house itself [like the performing of abortions] must be in alignment with the objective laws of nature.
Outside of that, however, there is no one correct preference.
And, just as a house serves its purpose, so too does a set of ethics. But, unlike a house, ethics often revolves, in turn, around things like religion and ideology. Or wealth and politics. And this is just another way of pointing out it revolves around power---around which agenda can be enforced
....the sun exploding is not unethical if it just happens in the course of physics, but if someone makes it explode then we can say that this is a situation where [we] can try to label it is ethical or unethical. It's not subjective to say that this is where we apply ethics, just as it is not subjective to say that below the Planck length is where we apply quantum mechanics.
I agree completely. But this just goes back to my point that whenever human beings congregate there are going to be conflicts. All of us have passions---deep-seated wants and desires---hard wired into our brain. We are driven to survive, to procreate, to defend oursleves. But these basic attributes of human interaction often lead to fierce conflicts [even conflagrations] over what should or should not be done. And we don't really need a philosophy of ethics to point that out to us.
iambiguous wrote:When a doctor performs an abortion, her decisons will be for the better or for the worse. But this is measurable. It is not subjective. Or, in any event, it is far less subjective than calibrating "better" or "worse" decisions when discussing abortion and ethical behavior.
Now here I am stumped. When the doctor performs the abortion, her decisions will be for the better or for the worse depending upon the definition and purpose for the abortion. Does she have to keep the mother alive?
For whatever reason an abortion is perform---and whatever factors you include in the procedure itself---it still must unfold strictly in accordance with human biology. If an abortion is performed to save the life of the mother you perform it accordingly. Or if you embrace the Catholic ethos that neither the mother nor the embryo/fetus should be given preference, you perform it taking that into consideration.
But I am equally as stumped here as you are. I'm not entirely sure what you are trying to conclude. On the other hand, I do know that in the abortion wars raging all around us there are those who will insist that even if the pregnant woman's health or very life
may be in jeopardy the unborn must be protected at all costs. But how do they back this up other than by invoking their own authoritarian narrative? There is no way anyone can demonstrate objectively that one side or the other is being more reasonable or more ethical.
I just don't see the definition of a house, an abortion and ethics in the same way. Why? Because, so much more than the first two, ethics points less to an actual "thing" than it does to the interpretation of relationships that can easily spiral out of control down on the ground.
What has changed in regards to free will since two and half thousand years ago? Well, the fields of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, causality and physics have all come a long way since then (not all of them existed, for a start), so I think there is considerably more knowledge about free will now than there was then.
If that is true, cite the general arguments that prevailed 2500 years ago and the arguments that prevail today. How has this accumulated knowledge inclined us more in one direction rather than another? Or, as with the case of astrophysics and quantum mechanics, has the increased knowledge merely disclosed instead just how much we still need to understand? For example, I recall reading an article about the Hubble space telescope. An astronomer pointed out all of the extraordinary new discoveries made because of Hubble. But he was also quick to point out these discoveries led only to deeper mysteries still.
I'm not for "writing off" further progress that will be made. I just don't see the progress made thus far getting us any closer to resolving these things. And suppose one day science is able to unravel all the mysteries embedded in free will only to discover we have none? And, as you note, if we have no free will what does it really mean to speak of ethical
iambiguous wrote:What can we know objectively about aborting the unborn that will lead us to a more solid foundation?
This is both a good question and one designed to muddle the argument. It is a good question because we would all like the answer. It is designed to muddle the argument because neither of us knowing the answer doesn't prove anything either way. No one here is claiming to have all the answers.
Yes, but suggesting that answers "in princple" may be forthcoming someday doesn't much change the fact they are not here today. I see this as Sam Harris's argument. He is let off the hook regarding the past and the present because he can always cling to the future.
And, true, there is no argument I can raise that would dispute that. But meanwhile out in the world of actual flesh and blood interactions moral and political disputes rend us as they always have.
And there is always the danger that alleged
moral truths [whether from philosophers or scientists] will become the basis for tyranny. Did not Marx base Communism in part on the "scientific" understanding of dialectical materialism? Did did Artistotle include slavery and misogyny in his Ethics? Did not Nazis invoke Kant's philosophy in the construction of the Third Reich?
iambiguous wrote: Imagine...you set out to determine all the information we would need to know in order to ascertain whether or not Barack Obama's policy in Afghanistan was justified on ethical grounds. Or if his compromise with Republicans regarding the tax cut extensions reflected the most rational policy.
Immediately you would be confronted with all manner of conflicting and contradictory narratives regarding what is or is not rational, just and ethical
There's a lot of stuff here.
Yes, and that is precisely my point. There are many, many, many interwining variables across both time and space. I doubt the world's most sophisticated computers could grasp them all. And then put them in the most "logical" order?
What to leave in, what to leave out, what to weight?
Firstly, about history and culture. Is it important to look at the history of every situation and the culture of every situation in order to make an ethical examination? Some people would argue yes, and others no. I think you are working from the top down when you assume history and culture are included in ethics in some way, and even more if you assume how.
How would someone broach the question of ethics and Afghanistan without being fully informed about that nation's history and culture? Just factoring these two variables into the role the global economy plays there today would be a staggering task. And it is the supporters of Harris [science] and Kant [philosophy] that want to approach this from the top down. In other words, they want to dismiss the historical evolution of culture and capitalism in Afghanistan and merely deduce the most rational [and thereby ethical] behaviors that apply to all
men and women. If this is done we can dispense with history and culture altogether. But can
it be done?
Tom Palven and I have been attempting to show our workings from the bottom up, trying to start with the basics and see what must be included, and trying to throw out as many assumptions as possible along the way. It is very difficult to work from the top down, because when you make your definition you tend to assume the conclusion.
I'm still not clear what you mean here. How does one work from the bottom up in resolving the conflicting moral and political narratives that swirl about America's involvment in Afghanistan? What assumptions can be thrown out there?
Or take the case of Schapelle Corby. How would we determine the extent to which she is ethically culpable here? Wouldn't that entail encompassing the most rational drug laws? And what might they be? What assumptions can be thrown out here?
In other words, how can we possibly make this analogous to 1 + 1 = 2? Describing the most rational drug policy is incalculabe to me. And that's because everyone makes different assumptions about drugs based on different points of view about existential relationships that are not necessarily calcuable rationally.
And this is all before
our emotional and psychological reactions kick in.
....I see people asking questions about ethics and saying, "That's too hard, there must be no answer" and then giving up on the process of reasoning and just labelling it "subjective". If we don't know then we don't know, and we should be agnostic about it. And for most ethically agnostic people, using subjective ethics is fine. But if you're going to post a question about it on an ethics forum, you should be prepared to question your assumptions about it and spell out a chain of reasoning.
I did present a chain of reasoning above.
But allow me please to clear up a couple of things:
What my arguments about ethics are always aiming towards
is moderation, negociation and compromise
. I believe we must abandon the illusion of an objective ethics. And, if we do, we can, through a democratic political process predicated on the rule of law
, legislate public policies that take as many different points of view into account as possible. And we can see the practical results of this in places like America, Canada, England, Europe, Japan, Australia. And increasingly in nations like India and Brazil.
What my arguments are always warning against
are precisely those who insist that, through philosophy or science, we will one day desribe ethical interaction as we describe the parts of an internal combustion engine. That, to me, is a very dangerous road to go down. Those in power are always looking for ways to rationalize their policies. They are always searching for folks able to offer up ways to convince the citizens it is their solemn duty to behave one way rather than another.