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.


chiseko said...

Very interesting, glad to see you starting writing. :)

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