Friday, February 09, 2007

Morality

Where and how does power fit into morality ?

We say that "might makes right", but that's a comment on political reality, not about morals. If there is such a thing as God-given morality, is it because God can destroy us if we don't toe the line ?

I'm wondering about this because there are parts of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan where women are treated like sub-humans, and large parts of the world where women are distinctly inferior in the eyes of their cultures, and the law. About the horrors inflicted upon women in Africa, I don't even want to discuss.

If I were King of the World, I would immediately smash such abominable societies.

However, we've defined "morality" at this forum to be "that which most people agree upon", and most people in those places appear to agree that that's how women should be treated. (Women in such places have no power to agree or disagree, of course, and nobody's asking their opinion, but they could easily shove a knife into the guts of their sleeping husbands if they were truly opposed).

So if I were to install feminine equality by force, would that be moral, or not ?
And if it is moral to make everyone play fair, what does that do to the Daily Duck Definition of "morality" ?

24 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Maybe the rest of you, but I'm not conceding that morality is what people agree upon.

Coming down from the clouds, there are two objections to that definition:

1. It precludes the prospect of having a better morality than the first one, whenever that was; or

2. if moral values can change, then during the period of changeover from one moral concept (slavery OK) to its reverse (slavery bad), there will be an interregnum during which no one can have any moral opinion about (slavery) at all.

It's possible to argue to a workable moral conclusion without god, and without simply substituting Mills for the Big Spook.

I say 'workable,' not 'final.'

February 09, 2007 8:28 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oro:

Morality is the consensus of individual moral rules.

And it is also what works.

Cultures that subjugate women are failures compared to those that don't.

Over the long run (and, given 21st century, "long" may turn out to be "medium") those cultures will fail,

So if I were to install feminine equality by force, would that be moral, or not ?

How is the subjugation of women maintained, except by force?

NB: imposed ignorance, through prohibiting the education of women, is just one example of that force.

Speaking only for this Daily Duckster, the most moral state of affairs is what obtains after removing coercion from the realm of individual decisions.

February 10, 2007 4:28 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

There are so many angles to this quesion. I don't think that you can define morality either by the forced rules for conduct or by those rules that evolve in a society by the removal of coercion. Morality is not so much a set of rules as it is a subjective mental state that takes into account the feelings and well being of others.

There are two ways that a person can inject this concern for others into his actions. One, through first person interactions and the effects of those interactions on the other person. Two, it is by considering the long term ripple effects of one actions on second and third person interactions. That is, how do my actions affect society as a whole.

Now defining what works isn't as easy as Skipper makes it out to be. There are several ways of identifying "works". Repressive regimes can work, if you define work as stability. Most regimes throughout history have been repressive by our modern western standards. Even among the Duckians we can't agree whether the American gun culture works better than the English no-gun culture. These considerations always involve tradeoffs.

Our culture of sexual equality works from an economic standpoint, but has had the knock on effect of lowering birthrates to below sustainable levels in many countries. If an islamic society can outbreed and eventually supplant a technologically and economically superior western culture,then I think you'd have to revisit that "what works" criteria.

February 10, 2007 8:32 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'What works' assumes you have defined your desired outcome beforehand.

That is not how moralities are constructed by anybody, except maniacs like Marx or Chomsky.

But IF your stated desired outcome is (borrowing from Orrin) that everyone will worship the one true god, then it follows (per Orrin and Reagan) that a person like me cannot be 'moral.'

For a wide array of possible stated desired outcomes, this produces insane results.

I think you can produce, de novo, a usable morality by defining human life as an irreducibly protectable state.

This gives results that make people queasy. For example, I define the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (or the TNT bombing of any other important Japanese city) as moral because, although it takes some lives, it saves others.

And, via a related path of moral reasoning, some of those lives are judged 'innocent' and others 'not so innocent.' So we save the innocent preferentially, when given the dilemma of being unable to save all.

I believe that for most people, 'moral behavior' is just habit. Few have really thought through what they do.

February 10, 2007 12:02 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

It's been my experience, as well, that few people have considered reasons for most of what they do.

I, on the other hand, have considered reasons for everything that I do.

But I'm open to the suggestion that such a state is in some way fanatical or otherwise nuts.

February 10, 2007 2:16 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Good for you, Duck. I often feel when we broach this subject that the Duckians start the argument by finding a way to dismiss the voices of the very people they claim to want to liberate. No offence, Skipper, but you are the most prminent with your dismissing of Muslim women as "not autonomous", which calls into question their authority to know themselves what is best for them, whether you intended that or not.

Here is the problem. Western thinking, even conservative Western thinking, is now almost unanimous in equating formal, legal equality and androgynous interchangeability with respect for women. That conviction is so strong it even leads us to distort the reality of the plight of Western women in the past because we equate the reality of their lives with their formal legal status, which is not the way it worked at all in private life. My take is that women the world over are almost completely united about equality in public life, but very divided and ambivalent about private and family life. The very hard truth is that a poor woman with numerous kids doesn't need legal equality. She needs material support, legal and social protection, special status and honour for her status. Social libertarianism is a man's game.

We focus on the Muslim world because of the horror stories from the poor in those areas, but the refusal of Muslim women to renounce their faith or blame all their traditions is far too readily and simplistically dismissed. Sure it appalls us, but if you want really chilling horror stories and endemic misogyny, you should look elsewhere.

And BTW, do you not think women are complicit in all these familial traditions that so horrify you. Do you not think all these horrible oppressive men have mothers cheering them on? Know anything about Mediterranean culture in this regard?

Best perhaps to park the ideology and analyse this issue empirically from the bottom up.

February 10, 2007 2:58 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't see how finding an infidel example that is just as bad disqualifies any part of Skipper's remarks about Islam's treatment of women.

Nor do I ascribe personal autonomy to people who have no economic, legal, political or social power; and who, if one did shove a knife into her husband's gut, would be killed, probably with barbarous torture, and not hailed as a liberated widow.

You are dangerously close to the Victorian argument that the poor are shiftless.

Also to the po-mo argument that all systems are equally arbitrary and objectionable.

That's a perfecta that seldom runs home.

February 10, 2007 3:18 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

You are dangerously close to the Victorian argument that the poor are shiftless.

And you, Harry, are dangerously close to the argument that only enlightened folks who see clearly like you deserved to be counted.

I mean, what the heck is the matter with Kansas, eh?

February 10, 2007 4:15 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

That's my question in a nutshell.
Do only enlightened folks who see clearly like me deserve to be counted ?

After all, the West clearly "works" in a world-beating way, producing so much food and leisure time that we're mostly all fat, and producing so much military force that we pay for it out of the scraps left over after we pay for social programmes.

We have our warts, but they're hideous.

Why ought they have any voice ?

I guess that this question is similar to David's question over at his place, about how much deference to give to someone who believes differently than he does.

But in that case, both he and the opposition are participating in the same system, whereas here we and they occupy parallel universes, and they would smash us if they could.

Isn't turn-about fair play ?

February 10, 2007 4:41 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

"...but they're hideous" meaning "but the countenance of The Other is hideous."

February 10, 2007 4:44 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Oro,
Breaking up these patriarchal kinship networks by force will exact an enormous cost in blood, misery and chaos. That's pretty much what Mao did in China. It would be much more moral to nudge them toward our model slowly over time. Even though their system is repressive, it is orderly in its own way. You don't to any grup of oppressed people any favors by inciting anarchy.

Although women are not treated as property in our culture (except where they are) we've not addressed the negative knock on effects of sexual equality that I mentioned above. Per David's Sunday Brunch questions from last week, our main focus should be shoring up our own cultural infrastructure and not planning Cultural Revolutions for other societies.

Morality is often at odds with human nature. Human nature is brutal, and we shouldn't fool ourselves by thinking we can float free of it. Men are pre-wired to want to dominate women. Any study of a chimpanzee tribe will give you an idea of where we got our model for sexual relations. The dirty little secret is that this is the model that "worked" for millions of years of our evolution. What is moral and what works are not the same thing. Acting moral challenges people to go against the grain of their own natures. We have to find a way to make sexual equality "work".

February 10, 2007 5:34 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Please re-read this:

If an islamic society can outbreed and eventually supplant a technologically and economically superior western culture,then I think you'd have to revisit that "what works" criteria.

And think about it for a few seconds.

Done?

Then you must see how you (like Peter) have completely misunderstood the "what works" argument.

What I would have to reconsider is what I expect will work; in other words, the unwelcome gulf between what would become "is" versus my preferred "ought." I would find it thoroughly repellant that treating women like brood mares turns out to work better, but that would be no guide to morality.

There can be no doubting that the ensuing morality, based upon what worked, would be something you would find revolting.

Tough. Especially if you have concluded that women are autonomous human beings entitled to make their own decisions regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Which provides as good a segue as any to Peter's comment.

No offence, Skipper, but you are the most prominent with your dismissing of Muslim women as "not autonomous", which calls into question their authority to know themselves what is best for them, whether you intended that or not.

Absolutely no offense taken. However, to the extent there is coercion, there is no autonomy. I rather suspect that, in majority Muslim societies, there is plenty of coercion to go around. I can't say it any better than Harry did: Nor do I ascribe personal autonomy to people who have no economic, legal, political or social power; and who, if one did shove a knife into her husband's gut, would be killed, probably with barbarous torture, and not hailed as a liberated widow.

Salmon Rushdie still does not have the autonomy to consider Islam to be worth something less than whole hearted devotion. To what extent can a woman embedded in an Islamic community have any ability to for independent action?

I have no problem with Muslim women freely choosing to embrace their faith. But that doesn't mean we should shy away from the moral disgust that should attend just what that faith actually -- not some anodyne elision of it -- entails.

Do you not think all these horrible oppressive men have mothers cheering them on?

Sure. So what.

Are women entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

You invoke inductive reasoning, from the particular to general. Cheering mothers justify the actions of horrible, oppressive, men. Equally, critical mothers condemn those same actions.

I choose deductive reasoning. It makes the question of justification far more manageable, and less prone to self-inflicted contradiction.

The very hard truth is that a poor woman with numerous kids doesn't need legal equality. She needs material support, legal and social protection, special status and honour for her status. Social libertarianism is a man's game.

This is reminiscent of Orrin's "That's Why We Liberated Them" trope. Which is, by the way, not without basis.

However, I don't know where a libertarian outlook absolves one of accountability for one's actions. The law may do so, but that's a fault of the law, is it not?

Oro:

We have our warts, but they're hideous.

Some examples would be nice. Particularly in a compare and contrast exercise with available alternatives.

David did pose a very interesting question, but I suggested there that the question is rigged. What is particularly pertinent here is that you will very likely be offering deference to someone whose beliefs would prohibit offering deference in return.

February 10, 2007 7:03 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

A beginning of morality would be to leave people alone who are not bothering you, if we are talking about crosscultural morality.

I was not, particularly, but I guess I let that camel's nose into the tent with my example of the Japanese exporting their immorality.

I would be content to disapprove of, say, Muslim oppression of Muslims without caring enough to do anything to correct it if the Muslims were content to limit their misbehavior to their own.

It does get complicated, doesn't it? Even if I agree to be my brother's keeper, we still have to figure out how to define 'brother.'

Anyhow, I cannot think how to discuss power in relation to morality until I know the parameters.

February 10, 2007 10:06 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

What I would have to reconsider is what I expect will work; in other words, the unwelcome gulf between what would become "is" versus my preferred "ought."

Yes, this is the point I was making, that moral oughts aren't always workable in practice. You see that with the anti-war types who believe that all conflicts can be resolved through peaceful dialogue. I am thoroughly committed to the equality of the sexes, but I'm not totally sold on autonomy as a basis for a workable society. At least not absolute autonomy. We can't survive as a society without inculcating some minimal sense of duty in individuals.

As far as the "breeding" problem, I think we've done women and ourselves a dis-service by equating child-bearing with the breeding of domestic animals. Having children is a wonderful and necessary part of social life, and we owe the women who have and raise children all of the praise and respect we can muster. Yet it seems that our enlightened equality of the sexes mentality is focused on demonizing women who have children. We've just bought into a knee-jerk conclusion that an autononous woman would have no desire to have children, which is wrong.

February 11, 2007 6:11 AM  
Blogger EVadvocate said...

Oro:

Let me preface this with an assumption: There are many moral philosophies and they do not all agree. Given the same situation, “good” people can arrive at completely different “good” answers. That, however, does not mean that every action can be justified as “good,” only that there are multiple morally correct answers.

The original question was:

Where and how does power fit into morality?

My answer to that is: Power allows us the ability to exercise our version of morality.

When we are subject to the rules of others we can exercise our morality only so far as those rules allow us. The more power we have, the more of our version of morality we can realize.

We say that "might makes right", but that's a comment on political reality, not about morals. If there is such a thing as God-given morality, is it because God can destroy us if we don't toe the line?

“Might makes right,” IMO, means that the person or entity with the most power gets to decide which version of morality is in play at the time.

I'm wondering about this because there are parts of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan where women are treated like sub-humans, and large parts of the world where women are distinctly inferior in the eyes of their cultures, and the law. About the horrors inflicted upon women in Africa, I don't even want to discuss.

If I were King of the World, I would immediately smash such abominable societies.

If you were “King of the World” you would be the one dictating which moral system was in play. If your ethics stipulated that: “We have a moral obligation to free oppressed peoples,” your actions would be morally justified. It is certainly a defensible position.

February 12, 2007 7:51 PM  
Blogger David said...

At some point, each individual has to be willing to say that he is right and everyone else is wrong or he's not even much of an individual.

February 12, 2007 8:07 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Yes, this is the point I was making, that moral oughts aren't always workable in practice.

That reminds me of a line, used in a different context (about communism), but applicable here. Just as there is no such thing as a good theory that doesn't work in practice, there is no such thing as a moral ought that doesn't work in practice.

My assertion that "what works" is the sole basis for morality is really just a different way of saying that the victors write history.

I am thoroughly committed to the equality of the sexes, but I'm not totally sold on autonomy as a basis for a workable society. At least not absolute autonomy. We can't survive as a society without inculcating some minimal sense of duty in individuals.

Those aren't the choices on offer, though. Harry has said a few things that have really stuck in my memory. One of them, just as there is no such thing as a lone ant, there is no such thing as a lone human being is both true, and appropriate here.

The option of absolute autonomy just doesn't exist. What we are really talking about is degrees of coercion.

... we owe the women who have and raise children all of the praise and respect we can muster. Yet it seems that our enlightened equality of the sexes mentality is focused on demonizing women who have children.

Absolutely. But send the memo to NOW. Outside that unnecessarily toxic outfit, I think you will find demonization pretty thin on the ground.

EVadvocate:

“Might makes right,” IMO, means that the person or entity with the most power gets to decide which version of morality is in play at the time.

True, if not taken too far. If that person or entity travels too far off the moral reservation -- not all invocations of morality work equally well -- then that power will not last.

Mao had absolute power, and a decided version of morality.

Too bad for him that it didn't work.

February 13, 2007 6:00 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oro:

So if I were to install feminine equality by force, would that be moral, or not?

If you take as your entering argument a universally applicable assertion substantiating such an action, then it is "moral."

For instance, by asserting that all people are individually entitled to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, using force to obtain that end is "moral."

Of course, it also matters what you mean by "force." There are plenty of cultures out there that already think they are being forced to adopt our cultural norms.

Could have something to do with the fact that they work, which has pretty forceful consequences.

And if it is moral to make everyone play fair, what does that do to the Daily Duck Definition of "morality" ?

Tougher question; but it hinges on what you mean by "make."

If our culture works so much better than all others, than "make" takes on a different meaning than if we had to impose by armed force.

Since I presume the former, then all that does is substantiate that what works becomes what is moral.

February 13, 2007 6:08 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Define 'might.'

In the context of 'whose morality?' it cannot simply be the one with the most political power.

Otherwise, no Luther could arise, nor Herzen, nor Gandhi (to pick three moralists of whom I do not much approve).

There is a very funny book called 'Hustling on Gorky Street' which is the memoir of a small-time hoodlum in Odessa in the '50s and '60s. 'Soviet morality' was backed up by as much might as anyone could ask, but people evaded it all the same.

David sez: 'At some point, each individual has to be willing to say that he is right and everyone else is wrong'

A curious point. Where would one go to find people preaching a morality that said the opposite?

Oh yeah. The Vatican.
Or al Azhar

February 13, 2007 8:48 AM  
Blogger EVadvocate said...

David:

True, and point well taken. I feel that my ethics are superior to all others. I see morality as a self-guiding principle however, and it does little good to apply it to others. Part of my moral code is that: I accept others as moral not only when they act in accordance with my morals, but when they act in a manner which is consistent with a logical and rational morality.

Who then is immoral? Those who act contrary to their own moral principles and those who cannot justify their actions with a coherent moral philosophy.

Skipper:

Not all moral codes hold equal merit to be sure. The morals of Mao or Stalin or Hitler may have been coherent but they were at the same time repugnant. The question though is not, “is there one moral code which is superior to all others?” but “whose moral code is in effect?”

We all seek live in accordance with our own morals as much as possible. The extent to which we have the power of self-determination we will exercise our personal morals.

Societies do not have morals, only the combined morals of individuals. Therefore, governments may act in ways that are inconsistent with a rational philosophy.

February 13, 2007 9:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Societies do not have morals'

You obviously never lived in the South.

Jim Crow was a morality, adhered to by everyone whether it fit their personal beliefs or not, until suppressed by outside power.

There's one approach to the original question: morality and power?

February 13, 2007 10:49 AM  
Blogger EVadvocate said...

Harry:

More accurately, the morals displayed by societies are the morals its supporters allow it to display. Individual moral decisions can be and are affected by other people’s expressed morals.

Some people are very committed to a moral philosophy which has been carefully thought out and is strictly adhered to. Others hop between moral codes like a bumble bee pollinating a field of flowers. These event-based moralists select pieces of moral philosophy like entrées from an all-you-can-eat buffet without considering how they fit together.

Those of the “roast beef, pizza and tuna salad” variety of moralist do not have a great ability to drive society’s moral compass but they do have the ability to keep a misguided ship moving forward.

That’s why we all try to generate support for our own philosophy. The more people who believe as we do, the less likely it is that we’ll have to live by someone else’s rules.

February 13, 2007 11:44 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not necessarily true.

Example: USSR, officially atheist, actually mostly Orthodox. Everybody lived atheist, though.

Example: American South. In some counties -- and the entire state of South Carolina -- the majority of residents were black, but they enjoyed Jim Crow all the same.

February 13, 2007 9:21 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

EVadvocate:

Not all moral codes hold equal merit to be sure. The morals of Mao or Stalin or Hitler may have been coherent but they were at the same time repugnant. The question though is not, “is there one moral code which is superior to all others?” but “whose moral code is in effect?”

That response demonstrates that the closer one gets to trying to define morality, the further away it becomes.

That's no slam, by the way, as my initial response to Oroborous's question was chock full of contradictions and questionable assumptions.

Just so here -- in order for what you wrote to hang together, you are taking as true that which hasn't been proven. Not all moral codes are equal? Okay, which ones, and why? Communist morality in theory has the advantage of being both coherent and attractive; in practice, though, because it had nothing to do with human nature, it was repugnant.

Which is why I assert that the only way to know which moral code is superior is to view which one produces the best material results. The EU has a much more communitarian moral code than the US; theoretically, it is much more morally attractive. Too bad it just doesn't work very well.

My theory is that any moral code that is at heart a symmetry argument (of which Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is a perfect example) is completely consistent with human nature, and will therefore produce the best material results.

Consequently, while the ensuing individualistic, competitive, capitalistic results may not be esthetically pleasing, and contradicts any number of Biblical passages, it becomes a superior moral system not because of its theoretical attractiveness, but because it works better.

However, my theory could turn out wrong. The material consequences of such a moral system could include a plunging birth rate because women, provided enough wealth and education, will simply not choose to have enough children.

With the end result being a morality that treats women like brood mares.

The Story of the Moral, spurred on by one of the best posts I have ever read, covers this territory much more thoroughly.

February 14, 2007 5:07 AM  

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