I have several times on this blog gone over my moral framework. To sketch it quickly, I argue that acting morally means acting autonomously. I argue that to act autonomously necessarily means to do what one thinks is right, and that this is the most we can ask of people. However, I feel that I make an evasion in this account that I’m still trying to work out. My account lets me answer a problem that I believe many other accounts of morality find difficult to address. It gives an account of the nature and the source of normative. The normative is the force of our own autonomous desires. The account hinges on the notion that autonomous human nature is the good. In a certain sense I’m trying to pull off a trick in my account – I’m saying that the reason that we should be good is because that is what we truly want. To make good desirable I define it as our true desires.
There are two difficulties that I see with my own account. The first problem, which I consider relatively minor, is the fact that my account depends on the deep down goodness of human nature. I see this problem as minor because it seems to me that few moral systems can truly stand without assuming this at some level. There may seem to be a looming kind of relativism in my account that stems from the same problem, but I can address this at least to my own satisfaction. We each must act out our own autonomy, and I’m inclined to think that someone else acting autonomously cannot truly be considered an enemy to our own autonomous activity. Even when someone else stands in opposition to our actions, as long as they act autonomously they stand as a puzzle that we must integrate into the world within which we act.
The second problem is that I still run up against the is/ought distinction, despite all my attempts to evade it. I tried to get away from the is/ought problem by arguing that the normative is a part of our experience. Just as we experience texture and colour and so on, we also experience the ‘what is to be done with’ of things. The problem I feel this doesn’t address is what it means to give evidence for moral ideas. Strictly speaking when we argue we rarely point out the properties of things. I would never argue that something is red because it looks red. The true contrast of the is/ought gap is pointing out cause and effect. We can point out the conjunction of events to say that a relationship exists, and thus give the world properties beyond immediate sensation. If we want to point out ought, however, we can point to nothing but a brute feeling. Anything more then that is merely describing the circumstance that gives rise to the feeling of ought (e.g. ‘she is drowning therefore you should rescue her’ really means ‘I see a woman drowning, and this makes me feel an ought.) I would clarify the problem I am pointing out by saying that I’m not saying the brute feeling is invalid, but that it does not truly seem to be something that can be argued. The question I am currently wrestling with is what it means to argue a moral point. Does it mean we are merely debating the is, so as to have the proper feeling arise in response? Or is there some way in which these feelings can be debated between the autonomous?
Let me know what you think,
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‘God’s not Dead’ (trailer) is a bad movie and really wasn’t worth the time I took to watch it, though my brother and I got a few laughs out of it. I guess I can only hold this against the movie so much, its not like it held its cards close to its chest. The movie is about a young Christian university student who attends a philosophy class. The professor starts the class by declaring god is dead, a pronouncement to which our protagonist refuses to acquiesce. The professor therefore issues a challenge – give evidence for god. Based on the trailer I though that the plot would center on the debate itself. I wasn’t expecting the arguments to be very good, but I think I would have enjoyed the movie far more if that had been the focus. Instead the debates were short and mostly consisted of ‘gotcha’ sophistry. The rest of the film mostly focused on evil atheists being mean to nice Christians, and the Christians inevitably one-upping their prosecutors (often with the aid of pseudo-miracles). It all ends with a rock concert, and (spoilers) the evil philosophy professor getting run over by a car (don’t worry though, he gets time to convert before he dies).
The movie does bring me back around to one of my favorite topics: how should we converse with people who disagree with us, and to what end? It is a tiredly true truism that there are some people who are just not worth talking to – take what you can from their points, but don’t try to share yours. Unfortunately for those looking to do work upon the world, I’m inclined to say that the dogmatism of these people is fundamentally ingrained with many of the worlds problems. I don’t here mean to pick on Christians specifically. Atheism has its share of dogmatists, there are dogmatist scientists, there are dogmatists on the left and on the right. By my characterization, dogmatism is a common aspect of those who lack autonomy – those who let the world rule them. Dogmatism is such a problem because it is probably the fundamental barrier that stops people from understanding each other.
As I’ve previously noted, one of the biggest challenges in overcoming dogmatism is recognizing it in ourselves. If we accuse others of not changing to our side because they are dogmatists, we have really said nothing at all. To bend an analogy I have heard said of evolution, we all build our belief boats at sea because we never have a solid foundation to build upon. Since we can never objectively ground ourselves we can never push against the beliefs of others without being pushed ourselves. That all being said, at a certain point we must take a stand or go insane.
So, the problem. The people whose opinions cause the most harm are dogmatists, but changing the minds of dogmatists is mostly a futile task. The only real ‘solution’ that I have come up with on this ‘problem’ is that we should really focus on improving our own beliefs, and others will do as they will.
Let me know what you think,
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My philosophical question for this post is ‘is intentional progress possible?’ By this I mean progress on a large societal scale, but this progress must be created by autonomous action. Non-autonomous development is ceaseless; the gears of the world never stop, for good or ill. Progress, however, must be intentional. It can not simply be better, but it must be better that we have caused.
Progress is difficult to define at a societal level in terms of autonomy. At the individual level I see three elements of progress – we can progress towards autonomy, we can progress in the development of their autonomous ends, and we can progress our environment through action. The second two are symptomatic of the first, the more autonomy we have the more that we develop our ends and realize those ends. To the degree we are autonomous we do the second and third, though the actual influence that we can exert is only somewhat related to our degree of autonomy. Here rests the distinction that I would make between personal progress and world progress. At the individual level I would define progress either as progress towards autonomy or progress towards autonomous ends. World progress, on the other hand, obviously does not have the ends of an individual. You can ask of an individual how satisfied they are with the world, but that is quite a different question. I am aiming here at something more like ‘can the world objectively be improved?’ though I hesitate strongly at the word objective.
I see two options for defining world progress. The first option is to define it democratically. By this definition, the more that people (autonomous or not) are content/satisfied with their world the more it has progressed. The second option is to define progress by the amount of autonomy in the world. As I said before though, each must have the additional qualifier that it must also have been brought about by autonomous action. This makes me inclined to prefer the second definition over the first because I’m inclined to think that the spreading of autonomy is a value in common to the autonomous, while other particular states may be under much disagreement.
So, is intentional progress possible? Based on this exploration here, I’m inclined to say it is possible, and indeed possibly inevitable. If autonomy truly breeds itself, then autonomy creates positive feedback for itself. That being said, the world strongly resists autonomy, so progress would be quite slow.
Let me know what you think. Do you agree with my definition?
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In several of my previous posts I have advocated the notion that we should focus on others less and on ourselves more (most notably in this post here: an ethics of excellence). My premise or idea or whatever is that in focusing on the other we run from autonomy – we should do things for ourselves, not in reaction to others. A thought came to me today while listening to a podcast on Hegel that seemed important to explore in relation to this previous concept.
Joining a long and respectable tradition, it seems inescapable to me that any conception of self is inherently social. Our ‘self’ can only exist in opposition to ‘another’. This seems to be in opposition to the notion that I have forwarded that we should turn inward in our pursuit of excellence. This is not my notion alone, by any means. I have read many articles and seen many videos set to inspiring music that explain that we can make ourselves very unhappy if we focus on competing with and comparing ourselves to others. But what can it possibly mean for us to do otherwise? The ‘other’ is necessary for any meaningful notion of striving – it is only with community that we can gain any sense of success, failure, the good life, the bad, etc.
What does it mean, then, to turn inwards in pursuit of excellence? Is it a sensible notion? The core idea that I and others seem to be getting at is that it is negative to use others as measuring sticks for ourselves (the trending idea I’ve been reading about lately is how we should not compare our lives to the idealized ‘facebook lives’ of our friends and associates). There seems to be a certain falseness to the movement, to me. The very notions which we are pursuing (self esteem, autonomy, self-actualization) can only exist in a social context. We can only come up with them, and meaningfully think about success, by making those around us our measuring sticks.
That all being said, I’m mostly playing devils advocate. I think that the problem is simply the matter isn’t as simple as it initially appears. Fairly much any activity oriented on our perception of self is social, there just are positive and negative ways to conduct ourselves within the social. The facebook idealization is really a reality check – people are not as far ahead of us as they may present themselves.
Thank you for reading,
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