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What is right and what is wrong?

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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Compassionist
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What is right and what is wrong?

#1 Post by Compassionist » May 17th, 2012, 6:34 pm

What is right and what is wrong? How do we know such things? Nature is red in tooth and claw. History is full of examples where 'might is right' was 'right'. How can we ensure ethical behaviour and justice in a reality like this?

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Dave B
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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#2 Post by Dave B » May 17th, 2012, 8:06 pm

I was going to say, "Nature may be red in tooth and claw but it is also totally innocent." but then realised that that opens up a nice philosophical discussion as to whether or not humans are still part of nature in their behaviour.

We "invented" ethics as a way of getting along together - is that natural? There are behaviour patterns in the rest of the animal kingdom designed to reduce conflict, which is surely one of the aims of ethics. But, like in any such system there are those other animals that may take advantage of the rules to get an easy meal. Can we blame them? No, I don't think so.

So, we humans have developed language and codified the rules and now complain when others transgress them. But there are rules and rules, what is ethical in one culture may be a sin in another. Were are, of course, "above the lower orders" in this - aren't we? Is it only that, extremely recent, codification that separates us from the grunting cave dweller out for a meal, no matter what he had to do to achieve it?

Are right and wrong are what we, as a bunch, decide they are? If God fearin' American troops can blast innocent bystanders to get at two baddies and claim it was essential is that good or bad? They had God on their side of course, just like the other guys did.

Is the concept of good and bad merely a human artefact, variable depending on the side you are looking from?
"Look forward; yesterday was a lesson, if you did not learn from it you wasted it."
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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#3 Post by Compassionist » May 19th, 2012, 6:47 pm

Dave B wrote:I was going to say, "Nature may be red in tooth and claw but it is also totally innocent." but then realised that that opens up a nice philosophical discussion as to whether or not humans are still part of nature in their behaviour.

We "invented" ethics as a way of getting along together - is that natural? There are behaviour patterns in the rest of the animal kingdom designed to reduce conflict, which is surely one of the aims of ethics. But, like in any such system there are those other animals that may take advantage of the rules to get an easy meal. Can we blame them? No, I don't think so.

So, we humans have developed language and codified the rules and now complain when others transgress them. But there are rules and rules, what is ethical in one culture may be a sin in another. Were are, of course, "above the lower orders" in this - aren't we? Is it only that, extremely recent, codification that separates us from the grunting cave dweller out for a meal, no matter what he had to do to achieve it?

Are right and wrong are what we, as a bunch, decide they are? If God fearin' American troops can blast innocent bystanders to get at two baddies and claim it was essential is that good or bad? They had God on their side of course, just like the other guys did.

Is the concept of good and bad merely a human artefact, variable depending on the side you are looking from?
I don't know if 'good' and 'bad' are just a matter of point of view and entirely relativistic and without any absolutes. Vegans would say that it is bad that non-vegans eat animals and use animal products. Non-vegans would vociferously defend their practice as their right.

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animist
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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#4 Post by animist » May 19th, 2012, 7:29 pm

Compassionist wrote:I don't know if 'good' and 'bad' are just a matter of point of view and entirely relativistic and without any absolutes. Vegans would say that it is bad that non-vegans eat animals and use animal products. Non-vegans would vociferously defend their practice as their right.
I don't think ethics is either purely relativistic (because noone in fact believes this - you cannot really act in a particular moral way and at the same time say that "it's all relative") or absolute/objective in some scientific sense (because you can't actually prove that something is right or wrong: "is" does not entail "ought"), but something in between. We need ethics to get along with each other, and different societies do this in different ways, but it does not follow that some ethics systems might not be better in some way than others (eg slavery seems to be reasonably condemnable, and this is because we know that humans are similar enough to make the total inequality that slavery entails to clearly be way out of line with our actual natures). In your example, there is I suppose that we are used to using animals, and it would be incumbent on vegans to show a strong increase in animal welfare in order to justify the considerable loss in human welfare which would result from the total abolition of animal-derived products.

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#5 Post by Compassionist » May 20th, 2012, 2:22 pm

animist wrote:
Compassionist wrote:I don't know if 'good' and 'bad' are just a matter of point of view and entirely relativistic and without any absolutes. Vegans would say that it is bad that non-vegans eat animals and use animal products. Non-vegans would vociferously defend their practice as their right.
I don't think ethics is either purely relativistic (because noone in fact believes this - you cannot really act in a particular moral way and at the same time say that "it's all relative") or absolute/objective in some scientific sense (because you can't actually prove that something is right or wrong: "is" does not entail "ought"), but something in between. We need ethics to get along with each other, and different societies do this in different ways, but it does not follow that some ethics systems might not be better in some way than others (eg slavery seems to be reasonably condemnable, and this is because we know that humans are similar enough to make the total inequality that slavery entails to clearly be way out of line with our actual natures). In your example, there is I suppose that we are used to using animals, and it would be incumbent on vegans to show a strong increase in animal welfare in order to justify the considerable loss in human welfare which would result from the total abolition of animal-derived products.
I used to be a vegan but quit due to health problems. Vegans have a significantly low ecological footprint due to their avoidance of animal products. I am rather confused by the various conflicting definitions of right and wrong e.g. some religious people claim that doing what their God allegedly wants them to do is right while other view certain actions as intrinsically right e.g. self-defence as right and murder as wrong. In order to increase my understading of morality I am currently reading The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer. Has anyone here read that book? Any more comments on what is the basis for right and wrong?

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animist
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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#6 Post by animist » May 20th, 2012, 2:51 pm

Compassionist wrote:I am rather confused by the various conflicting definitions of right and wrong e.g. some religious people claim that doing what their God allegedly wants them to do is right while other view certain actions as intrinsically right e.g. self-defence as right and murder as wrong. In order to increase my understading of morality I am currently reading The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer. Has anyone here read that book? Any more comments on what is the basis for right and wrong?
it is tricky because words tend to have judgments built into them. Murder is wrong by definition (or the word would not be used), "God" probably etymologically relates to "good" (but see below), "self-defence" is almost a moral defence by definition, and so on; so in a sense there are things which are indeed intrinsically right and wrong, but only on a semantic level.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God
I just checked the etymology of "God" and in fact it is not at all what I said - must be a coincidence? I spent a long time trying to convince Theologicans that it made sense to at least question why we should necessarily regard God as good, but got bafflement in response

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#7 Post by Compassionist » May 22nd, 2012, 1:41 pm

animist wrote:
Compassionist wrote:I am rather confused by the various conflicting definitions of right and wrong e.g. some religious people claim that doing what their God allegedly wants them to do is right while other view certain actions as intrinsically right e.g. self-defence as right and murder as wrong. In order to increase my understading of morality I am currently reading The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer. Has anyone here read that book? Any more comments on what is the basis for right and wrong?
it is tricky because words tend to have judgments built into them. Murder is wrong by definition (or the word would not be used), "God" probably etymologically relates to "good" (but see below), "self-defence" is almost a moral defence by definition, and so on; so in a sense there are things which are indeed intrinsically right and wrong, but only on a semantic level.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God
I just checked the etymology of "God" and in fact it is not at all what I said - must be a coincidence? I spent a long time trying to convince Theologicans that it made sense to at least question why we should necessarily regard God as good, but got bafflement in response
I guess religious people are so brainwashed with the concept that God is All Good that they are baffled when anyone questions the notion. Given that most of the universe is hostile to life and that 99.99% of all life ever to have evolved on Earth are already extinct and that life is unfair and full of suffering I don't see how anyone believes that there is a benevolent and omnipotent God at the helm.

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#8 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 22nd, 2012, 2:45 pm

animist wrote:I don't think ethics is either purely relativistic (because noone in fact believes this - you cannot really act in a particular moral way and at the same time say that "it's all relative") ...
Why not? Moral relativists (meta-ethical ones rather than purely descriptive ones) claim that terms like "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions but are relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people (from Wikipedia). Moral relativists are individuals with at least some of their own traditions, convictions and practices, so are likely to have their own ideas about what's good, bad, right and wrong. "It's all relative" does not mean the same as "It's all arbitrary". Moral relativism doesn't rule out the existence of widely shared or near universal moral values.
animist wrote:We need ethics to get along with each other, and different societies do this in different ways, but it does not follow that some ethics systems might not be better in some way than others (eg slavery seems to be reasonably condemnable, and this is because we know that humans are similar enough to make the total inequality that slavery entails to clearly be way out of line with our actual natures).
Yes. I think that idea's compatible with a relativistic approach.
animist wrote:In your example, there is I suppose that we are used to using animals, and it would be incumbent on vegans to show a strong increase in animal welfare in order to justify the considerable loss in human welfare which would result from the total abolition of animal-derived products.
Hmm. A utilitarian formula. So are you suggesting that utilitarianism constitutes your "somewhere in between"? And how would you measure animal welfare in relation to human welfare?

In any case, you cannot assume that all or indeed any vegans advocate the total abolition of animal-derived products, especially not any time soon. I certainly don't. Though I'm inclined to believe that overall welfare, both animal and human, would be improved if human beings reduced their consumption of animal-derived products to the barest minimum. For some humans, in some circumstances (including me), this could be very close to zero without any loss to their welfare. For others (including Compassionist), it couldn't. That's why I believe that it would be wrong for me to eat animal products, at this time. But it doesn't follow that it's wrong for everyone else, or even for me in the past, or in the future if circumstances change. It's all relative, innit?

Emma

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#9 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 22nd, 2012, 3:02 pm

Compassionist wrote:Any more comments on what is the basis for right and wrong?
I think the basis for judging right and wrong is a combination of emotion and reason. In particular, as I've said elsewhere, I think it is to a great extent the human capacity to empathise with others that has given rise to our having so many shared moral values [---][/---] not objective but inter-subjective.

I'm particularly interested in the idea of moral consistency, and I think it's a useful thing to think and talk about when discussing moral values with other people who have made different moral judgements from those one has made oneself. As a vegan, I find it interesting to establish whether a person believes (a) that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering; (b) that farming animals for food causes suffering to animals; (c) that consuming animal products is necessary. In my experience, most people I come across believe (a). There is more variation in belief, or professed belief, in (b) and (c), but there are still rather a lot of non-vegans who say they believe all three. And I find that interesting. But I have more time for people who say, "I know it's inconsistent, but I just love eating meat, cheese, etc." than I do for people who, trying desperately hard to be consistent, argue, for example, that there is no evidence that non-human animals suffer.

Anyway, I know that I am morally inconsistent. And though I can't be sure that the moral values I have are in some way "right", I can at least strive to be more consistent in my application of them. Still, that assumes that consistency is a Good Thing, which is rather an assumption in itself. But it's a widely shared one.

Emma

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#10 Post by Compassionist » May 22nd, 2012, 3:49 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote: I know that I am morally inconsistent.
Some time ago I took a test in the Psychologies magazine and discovered that I was inconsistent in my morality, opinions and behaviours. I can't remember which issue the test was in. I got others to take the same test and they, too, were found to be inconsistent. Perhaps that's the norm for humans?

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#11 Post by Alan H » May 22nd, 2012, 4:32 pm

Compassionist wrote:
Emma Woolgatherer wrote: I know that I am morally inconsistent.
Some time ago I took a test in the Psychologies magazine and discovered that I was inconsistent in my morality, opinions and behaviours. I can't remember which issue the test was in. I got others to take the same test and they, too, were found to be inconsistent. Perhaps that's the norm for humans?
I'm afraid if it was in Psychologies magazine, I wouldn't give it much credibility.
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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#12 Post by animist » May 22nd, 2012, 6:17 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
Compassionist wrote:Any more comments on what is the basis for right and wrong?
I think the basis for judging right and wrong is a combination of emotion and reason. In particular, as I've said elsewhere, I think it is to a great extent the human capacity to empathise with others that has given rise to our having so many shared moral values [---][/---] not objective but inter-subjective.

I'm particularly interested in the idea of moral consistency, and I think it's a useful thing to think and talk about when discussing moral values with other people who have made different moral judgements from those one has made oneself. As a vegan, I find it interesting to establish whether a person believes (a) that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering; (b) that farming animals for food causes suffering to animals; (c) that consuming animal products is necessary. In my experience, most people I come across believe (a). There is more variation in belief, or professed belief, in (b) and (c), but there are still rather a lot of non-vegans who say they believe all three. And I find that interesting. But I have more time for people who say, "I know it's inconsistent, but I just love eating meat, cheese, etc." than I do for people who, trying desperately hard to be consistent, argue, for example, that there is no evidence that non-human animals suffer.

Anyway, I know that I am morally inconsistent. And though I can't be sure that the moral values I have are in some way "right", I can at least strive to be more consistent in my application of them. Still, that assumes that consistency is a Good Thing, which is rather an assumption in itself. But it's a widely shared one.

Emma
there is much too much here to deal with all at one go. How do you know you are morally inconsistent - in what way? And when you talk of this, do you mean that your views are inconsistent with each other or with your behaviour? To answer your questions, yes to a, yes to b, and no to c. So I am very inconsistent between views and behaviour - I have been veggie but no more. Surely consistency really is a good thing - this is not in a moral sense but in a pragmatic one: if you are not consistent then people will take less notice of you than if you are, and you will be shown as either a fool or a liar (well, not quite that strong, depends on the circumstances) for having inconsistent views, or a hypocrite in the case of inconsistency between views and behaviour.

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#13 Post by animist » May 22nd, 2012, 6:19 pm

Alan H wrote:
Compassionist wrote:
Emma Woolgatherer wrote: I know that I am morally inconsistent.
Some time ago I took a test in the Psychologies magazine and discovered that I was inconsistent in my morality, opinions and behaviours. I can't remember which issue the test was in. I got others to take the same test and they, too, were found to be inconsistent. Perhaps that's the norm for humans?
I'm afraid if it was in Psychologies magazine, I wouldn't give it much credibility.
quite, who is to judge what is or is not consistent?

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#14 Post by animist » May 22nd, 2012, 6:23 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:I don't think ethics is either purely relativistic (because noone in fact believes this - you cannot really act in a particular moral way and at the same time say that "it's all relative") ...
Why not? Moral relativists (meta-ethical ones rather than purely descriptive ones) claim that terms like "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions but are relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people (from Wikipedia). Moral relativists are individuals with at least some of their own traditions, convictions and practices, so are likely to have their own ideas about what's good, bad, right and wrong. "It's all relative" does not mean the same as "It's all arbitrary". Moral relativism doesn't rule out the existence of widely shared or near universal moral values.
Emma
can you explain the difference between relative and arbitrary? MR does not rule out the existence of shared values, but logically the fact of being shared would not be an argument for them, surely; otherwise morality would be some sort of popularity poll. The problem with MR, as you express it, is that if you insist on evaluation of a moral opinion in relation to the prevailing ethos of the host society, you get into the position of justifying slavery, discrimination or whatever if these are the prevailing mores of that society. There is also the tu quoque/inconsistency argument that a MR, by taking a particular ethical position, is breaking his own rule - MR is itself a moral system, I suppose, because it is telling people not to interfere with the genuinely held views (and actions) of others

There was a focus issue of Philosophy Now on ethical relativism. Just a thought, but, given that you, thundril and I, and probably others here (Compo obviously), like to chew things like this over, I wonder if we could somehow pay for a TH online sub to PN - it would have to be in Alan/Athena's name (we would pay them!) and I don't know whether it could work, but it would be nice if one could download articles without infringing copyright

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#15 Post by Compassionist » May 22nd, 2012, 8:22 pm

Alan H wrote:
Compassionist wrote:
Emma Woolgatherer wrote: I know that I am morally inconsistent.
Some time ago I took a test in the Psychologies magazine and discovered that I was inconsistent in my morality, opinions and behaviours. I can't remember which issue the test was in. I got others to take the same test and they, too, were found to be inconsistent. Perhaps that's the norm for humans?
I'm afraid if it was in Psychologies magazine, I wouldn't give it much credibility.
I see your point. I don't know whether the test in the magazine had solid research behind it or not.

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#16 Post by Fia » May 22nd, 2012, 8:25 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote: As a vegan, I find it interesting to establish whether a person believes (a) that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering; (b) that farming animals for food causes suffering to animals; (c) that consuming animal products is necessary. In my experience, most people I come across believe (a). There is more variation in belief, or professed belief, in (b) and (c), but there are still rather a lot of non-vegans who say they believe all three. And I find that interesting.
Cognitive dissonance is a wonderful tool - ask any smoker :wink:
I have tried to reduce this in my carnivore youngest by talking through the issues and buying a piglet, who is living well on an organic smallholding. We have discussed a, b and c at great length. We regularly 'meet the meat'. We are aware of our inconsistencies but also of the things we can do to reduce that to something more morally comfortable.

If we didn't live in the 'developed' world we'd probably be delighted for some meat whatever its provenance. We are privileged to be able to make some such moral decisions. It's sad so many who could make a difference don't.

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#17 Post by Compassionist » May 22nd, 2012, 8:26 pm

animist wrote: There was a focus issue of Philosophy Now on ethical relativism. Just a thought, but, given that you, thundril and I, and probably others here (Compo obviously), like to chew things like this over, I wonder if we could somehow pay for a TH online sub to PN - it would have to be in Alan/Athena's name (we would pay them!) and I don't know whether it could work, but it would be nice if one could download articles without infringing copyright
What's PN?

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#18 Post by Alan C. » May 22nd, 2012, 9:19 pm

compo
What's PN?
Philosophy Now magazine.
Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#19 Post by animist » May 23rd, 2012, 8:03 am

Emma Woolgatherer wrote: Anyway, I know that I am morally inconsistent.assumes that consistency is a Good Thing, which is rather an assumption in itself. But it's a widely shared one.

Emma
it is hard to keep personalities out of this. My perception of you is of a very unusual person who has strong ethical values and acts on them (which is why I queried why you think you are inconsistent). I am now going to kind of contradict this by opining that if you take an ethical relativist view, you are indeed being inconsistent: I don't think that you can say that eating animals is wrong for you but not for anyone else, and I feel that this opinion (assuming I have got it right about how you feel) reflects your non-judgemental personality (and seems to tie in with your unwillingness to accept free will and moral responsibility/blameability). I suppose that most moral philosophy I read at university was influenced by an assumption that whatever was right would be right for everyone: R. M. Hare's analysis of moral language was that it was prescriptive and universalisable - so this does not leave room for "this would be wrong for me but you go ahead".

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Re: What is right and what is wrong?

#20 Post by Compassionist » May 23rd, 2012, 9:34 am

Alan C. wrote:
compo
What's PN?
Philosophy Now magazine.
Thank you Alan C.

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