Sunday, March 27, 2005

Moral Disagreement And Block Theory

This post is about my conception of how moral arguments can have meaning, despite the differing moral systems of those arguing. To explore this I will use my conception of Block Theory - that each belief we have is a 'block' resting on others, right down to the fundamental block or blocks.

Block Theory is not my idea. Maybe I have given it a new name or conceptualised it in a slightly more worldly way, but the ideas are generally not new. It has long been argued that our moral beliefs can be argued down to their philosophical underpinnings, beyond which there can be no further regression. At the end there are always fundamentals beyond which we cannot go. It can be seen as similar to mathematics, where there are undisputed axioms upon which the rest is predicated. The science of mathematics is to build it up from these (seven, I believe) axioms, into a comprehensive system.

Something similar can be done with morality. Of course, most of us have no clue of our hierarchy of beliefs. Rather than building them up from the basics, we often start with a large collection of beliefs and then are forced to reason backwards from them to the fundamental principles. It is fine to say that "killing is wrong" but then one day one might come across a situation where they do not see killing as wrong (like perhaps in times of war, to relieve extreme suffering or to punish for horrendous crimes - different people have different exceptions to the general rule). It is then that they are likely to reflect that "killing is wrong" is not in fact an axiom, but that behind it lies a deeper rule that is actually only engaged in certain cases, like the paradigm case of cold-blooded murder.

Digging deeper may cause one to re-evaluate their beliefs, as it may transpire that certain among them are contradictory. Seeking out an overriding rule can help to iron out contradictions. For me at least, the process of finding what is moral is mostly about considering the overriding rules, but since these were discovered from specific beliefs, if a rule I use gives a consequence I cannot sanction in certain circumstances, I am likely to re-evaluate the rule. The more uncertainty there is in a case, the more likely I am to allow my rules and principles override my gut feelings. However if, for example, a principle of mine allowed genocide, then I would work to define a better principle!

The practical application of Block Theory comes about during moral disagreements and arguments. Under the simple idea of fundamental axioms, two people with differing axioms will have great difficulty convincing each other of moral ideas. They would seem to be operating on completely different wavelengths. However, Block Theory allows that one can get around a difference in fundamentals by finding a shared block somewhere along the chain upon which they can both agree. For example, my fundamental block is Empathy, whereas another's may be the Word Of God. Let's say that the issue is gay marriage, and I am in favour (which I am, but that's for another post) and the other is against. There are many ways to approach such an argument using the idea of Block Theory.

One that is clearly available even if we do not use shared blocks, is the idea of arguing using the opponent's system, or "fighting on their turf." Here one argues based on the opponent's fundamental blocks. One must challenge the way blocks have been built up on top of them by finding weak connections. I might challenge my opponent that the Bible verses relied upon are not valid anymore, and so are not really the word of God. I may even argue that the Bible is not a reliable guide to the word of God at all. In this way, one can often make an argument in support of one's position based on their foundations. However, there are major problems with it. If no shared blocks are engaged, by necessity one must ignore one's own moral reasoning and simply use whichever reasoning is necessary to reach the desired conclusion. The end is used to justify the means. It is less likely that the reasoning used will be the best possible, as it is not used (in any sense) to discover the answer, but to jusitify a pre-existing one. There is no reason to think that different fundamentals should lead to the same conclusion.

Some of the problems of this are lightened if we start to use shared blocks. I might argue that Empathy is in fact one of the blocks necessitated by the fundamental of the Word Of God, based on certain things said by Jesus. However, even if this is accepted this might not be enough. The further down a principle lies, the more likely that it will override principles higher up. Empathy may well just be taken as the default position should the Word Of God not dictate otherwise. However, this is not the end of it. I could take the block of Compassion, which can be extrapolated from both Empathy and the Word of God, and then argue based on that. Again I would be arguing about what blocks should be built upon that. However, since it is a shared block, in theory both parties should be looking for the most logical blocks to build upon it. Therefore, both would have the same starting point and would then just argue the merits of their own interpretations. This would seem like a much more satisfactory and intellectually consistent method of morally debating.

I believe that it is in this way, by finding the similarities between ethical systems, we can have more meaningful and more worthwhile moral arguments. While there will not always be shared blocks, more often than not this approach will at least be helpful in some respects. In the next post, I will look more closely at the fundamental block of my ethical system, Empathy.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Relativism - The Lack Of Absolutes

In the previous post it was concluded that we can only judge moral statements as correct or incorrect if people understand them as refering to a universal moral standard, and if such a universal moral standard does in fact exist. Here it will be argued that such a standard does not exist, or if it does that it is far beyond us to recognise it. The basic way to see this is to question how there could be such thing as an absolute moral standard. How could something qualify? It would need authority. But how could something have the authority to make ethical rules binding? By nature, this will be a negative argument. It is notoriously difficult to prove that something does not exist. Therefore, I shall try to dismiss some of the main arguments that such an authority exist.

A lot of the time, people look to the rules of God as the absolute rules. As an atheist, obviously this does not work for me. However, I would argue that it does not make sense for anyone of whatever religion. This is not an argument that there is no god. It is an argument that even if there is a god, there is no reason why we should look to this god to tell us what is right and wrong. What authority would any conceivable god have to tell us what is right?

One might argue that God is omniscient, therefore he is in the best position to know what is right and wrong. While this seems reasonable, what this does is shift the question from God's rules to rules independent of God, towards which He is merely a guide. If this were accepted, then there would still be the question of trusting God to be this guide. However, more importantly the standards would not come from God, but from elsewhere, and so the criticisms of other sources of these standards can be used.

Other arguments posit God as the actual source of these standards. Therefore, the question shifts back to authority. Simply being powerful is not enough to give standards any weight in a pure, ethical world. It may be worth obeying the man in control for reasons of self-preservation, but on a pure ethical level there must be better reasons for the standards to be absolute. Equally the possibility of heaven and hell as reward and punishment do not in themselves give moral weight to the commands.

So on to the most persuasive reason why God might be able to set absolute standards. He might be able to at least set standards universal to the Universe because He is supposed to have created the Universe. The argument is that as Creator, he is entitled to the respect and obedience of His creations, and this entitlement creates an obligation of universal, absolute rules in accordance with His will. Is this true?

What is generally assumed in these cases is that the maker does have such an entitlement. The first problem with this is that this does not seem to follow from any general pattern. It can be said that a mother 'makes' her baby in some sense. Does that give her the right to decide in any way what it is right for the child to do? If she ordered him or her to kill, would there be a moral imperative to do so? The principle would seem ridiculous here. Equally well if a man created a robot programmed to understand orders, then ordered it to kill, would it be right for it to do so? The idea that making something means that we also create a moral system for it seems antithetical to the very universal system originally posited, as well as relativist principles. The maker principle seems only to apply to God, and there seems to be no good reason for this.

There are of course other reasons why one may wish to obey what one believes to be the will of God, including gratitude and reverence along with self-interest (with the possibility of Heaven). These would however not be in themselves reasons why God's commands would be moral absolutes, just reasons to use them in shaping what one finds good. One could of course argue that labeling an action as good is refering to God's stance on the issue. While in a way this answers the language argument, it does so by admitting that the standard to which it refers has no claim to be a universal truth. "Good" as "meeting God's standards" is no different ethically to "meeting Bob's standards" unless it can be shown that there is a particular moral imperative to do the former. Furthermore, the near-infinite number of interpretations of God's standards ensure that it does not provide a universal conception of good.

There are other possible sources whoch have been suggested as creating absolute values. The nature of the Universe (whether or not it was created) is one. It has been suggested that the Universe contains within it clear rules as to how to behave. However, there seems to be no scientific test for such standards. Often people will use selective statements about animal behaviour to suggest that such standards exist in the animal world. Firstly, they often conveniently ignore contrary findings (they will point to species which mate for life as reason for monogamy while ignoring the many which do not). Secondly, they make the mistake of imagining that what is defines what should be. If this were to be accepted, then practices which once were widespread (like slavery) would have to then be considered right, and now no longer right. This denies the very universal and unchanging nature of right and wrong which were posited.

A more specialised view of what is right stemming from nature centres on humanity, and specifically the views of the conscience. There are myriad problems with drawing any universals from the extremely varying values gleaned from the conscience, especially as it is largely influenced by culture, and shaped by evolution favouring groups. But beyond all this, there seems to be no reason why the conscience should have the authority to dictate universal standards. If instead of what we consider the conscience, we had some malevolent voice calling us to evil, it would clearly not make that right. At best the conscience could guide us to prociples created elsewhere, and that again leads to problems of authority.

In the end, authority is a human concept. Furthermore, while clearly whatever posits universal standards requires authority to do so for legitimacy, authority itself is merely a status given to one which allows him or her certain rights to do things and creates obligations on others to do other things. Rights and obligations are in themselves creations of morality, so in the end there is a circularity to the concepts. Morality is only underpinned by morality, perhaps underpinned by the acceptance of the people. In the end therefore, morality is dependant on the understanding of the people, and that can only mean relativism.

What should be seen therefore is that relativism is simply the acknowledgement that we cannot appeal to some absolute outside of human nature to justify our moral beliefs. It does not mean that we cannot have such beliefs. In the next post, I will consider what happens when different moral systems clash, and how such disputes can be argued meaningfully.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Relativism - The Argument From Language

What better way to start than on morality? It seems that, as the study of what one should and should not do, it would make sense to at least have the basics sorted before we look at what should and should not be done in law and politics. After all, normative descriptions of them by their nature require some understanding of morality, right?

Firstly, I'm a relativist. And no, contrary to popular belief that does not mean that I have no morals. If I did, I doubt that I would bother with this blog, just to say "do whatever you feel like, it doesn't matter either way." For me, relativism is a belief of fact. I keep my normative views separate. What this means, in essence, is that I don't believe that there are objective, absolute, universal standards of good and evil. Neverthless, I have my own standards, and attempt to convince people of them in order to bring other people in line with them.

To an extent this is a mix of the views of A J Ayer and R M Hare. For them, making an ethical statement like 'murder is wrong' is not actually a truth claim, but a very personal thing. For the former it was an emotive statement, showing disdain for the action of murder. For the latter it was more than this, it was a universal prescription, insisting that everyone follow it. Thus, it would order that no-one murders. The opposing view is of course that there is a universal standard of right and wrong, and that when one makes an ethical statement its validity can be judged by this standard. Thus (probably) "murder is wrong" is a correct moral statement.

So how can I argue against that? Well firstly, the argument is from language. Language is something developed as a means of communication. It conveys information, and does so by shared meanings. Thus if I direct someone to a sheep, the other can rely on the advice based on the shared conceptions of directions and sheep. Language therefore, is based on people's understandings. This leads to a problem. If for example I talk about "an ear," do I mean a human ear, or an ear of corn? Well, I almost certainly mean something, probably one of those things. What I mean is based on what I understand myself to mean. That is the closest we can come to objective understanding of words. They mean what the person saying them meant. So "good" and "evil" will only have the meanings given to them by the person saying them. Just as it would not make sense to call me wrong if I mean "ear of corn" as opposed to "human ear," it does not make sense to call me wrong for a different understanding of "good."

Even if I say "sheep" to describe what most of us call the ear, we can only judge it wrong based on the community standard. We cannot say objectively that there is a universal standard tying the ear to the word "ear," especially as then all other languages would be wrong! Equally, the best we can do is condemn a conception of "good" as being contrary to what is widely understood. That's still relativist, but relative to the culture as opposed to the individual, so that each individual subjects his or her views to those of the group.

That is fine as far as language goes. But what if, as the counter-argument would go, when we make moral statements we are not merely stating our own views, but refering to a universal standard? What if the widely-held conception of moral terms was in regard to this standard? If that were true then we would indeed be making a fact claim. Of course, this requires people to conceive of such a standard, and further for there to be one. Even if the former were true, the latter would be more difficult. If it were true, then the meaning behind the words would refer to something which was fixed regardless of words. It would not be enough merely that each individual had a conception of absolute good, as the meaning would still change with the individual's conception. It requires that there actually is such a set of absolutes. In the next post it will be argued that this view is untenable.


So this will be my first post. I'd just like to briefly introduce the purpose of this weblog, since that seems the best introduction possible!

I suppose you could say that law, politics and morality are three of my great interests. I have views on each one which I will put forward here. I do not claim to be unbiased, in that I have opinions which are at times strong. I will certainly in many cases be trying to persuade people of a point of view, although sometimes I may just wish to ask for consideration of a matter. Clearly, I do not have all the answers. Personally, I never wish to feel that I do have all the answers, because I think that trying to figure out for oneself what is right is part of what makes us human. With that in mind, I welcome reasoned criticism, and may well modify my views - I certainly have in the past, and it is quite probably that I will in the future.

I suppose that one might reasonably ask what are my qualifications for discussing these topics, and it is true that they are not the most obvious.
For law, I am in the first year ofstudying for a degree in Law (Jurisprudence - BA) at Oxford University, UK. I intend to qualify and become a barrister specialising in human rights law.
For politics, I am a member of the Liberal Democrat party. I follow the political situation here in the UK, and that in the USA (with some despair I might add). Upon becoming a barrister, I intend to make my way into politics, hopefully becoming an MP and (in my ideal world) leading the Lib Dems to a sterling victory in the elections!
For morality, I studied Religious Studies at A Level, which was split into Philosophy and Ethics. The latter taught me about some of the main school of thought on morals and ethics. More importantly, perhaps, I constantly strive to find what is, to me, right, so that I can endeavour to do so. Not that I am perfect, far from it, but it is much easier to shoot at the goalposts if you at least know where they are!

I would like to mention at this point Legal Fiction, a blog for which I have much admiration. Unfortunately it looks like the writer, Publius, may well have blogged his last. It is a great shame, and I would recommend reading through some of his archives, as he has made some excellent points with a legal expertise far, far in excess of my own. I did not always agree with his opinions, but I always had respect for the methodology. In any case, while Publius focussed on the USA, any comments on current events here will often consider the UK. However, I intend generally to look at thinks from a point of view somewhat more abstracted and timeless. I do not usually have the time to catch up on all the latest stories.

So the introduction is already long enough. The last point I will make is that I will generally not refer to my life (it is not excessively interesting!) but certain things with a baring on the subject matter here may crop up from time to time. Now I shall move on to making my first post!