Am I an Egoist?
by Benjamin Studebaker
There was a very interesting tension pointed out to me yesterday in my moral philosophy. As regular readers know, I am broadly utilitarian–I think that we should try to promote the general welfare. I am concerned with the consequences of moral decisions rather than their motivation, and I do not think hard, fast rules forbidding given behaviours without regard to situational consequences are good ideas. I have, however, recently seemingly changed a position somewhere, because I now find myself embracing, in some situations, what looks like an egoist view. The egoist position is that a person should do what is good for them, not what is good for society at large. So how do I square this circle? Let me see if it can be done.
Firstly, where am I being an egoist? I was presented with the following case. Imagine that one lives in a country run by a terrible state–it commits genocide, it’s openly racist, and so on. Another state decides to intervene in your country to get rid of the terrible state. Suppose is has good reasons, that the terrible state also threatens its interests in some way. Now say that one is drafted into the terrible state’s army. Is one obliged to refuse to defend one’s state?
I say no. I say that it is permissible for one to take up arms to defend even a bad state against invasion. Why do I say this? Because, I argue, one is never morally required to commit self-harm. So if the terrible state puts a gun to one’s head and says “defend the state against invasion or die”, even though defending the terrible state will produce bad consequences for society in general, it is still morally permissible for one to defend one’s state on the grounds that one is not obliged to harm one’s self. This is pretty clearly egoist.
So how do I square this with a utilitarian view that says that all we should be concerned about is the collective social interest? Well, while I do think that citizens in bad states are permitted to contribute, both militarily and non-militarily (remember, farmers and manufacturers contribute to war efforts too) to the survival of the bad states, I do think that other people are permitted to coerce or kill them to prevent those harms. In other words, it is morally okay for a German citizen to contribute to the Nazi war effort, but it is also okay for me, as an allied state, to kill that person so as to coercively stop them.
Individuals are morally permitted to be egoist, but states are morally permitted to coerce egoists into acting for the social good.
When I think about this, I realise it is something I have long argued, though never recognising the position with this level of clarity. I often say that businesses are permitted to act to maximise profits as best they can and that only the state is responsible for coercively intervening in their affairs to prevent social damage. I often say that states are permitted to carry out their foreign policies solely with the interests of their own citizens in mind, paying no heed to the concerns of non-citizens in other countries. If we had a world government, I would say that that world government would be permitted to coercively intervene in state affairs to prevent global damage.
In effect, I have three levels of utility concern:
- Human Interest
- State Interest
- Individual Interest.
An actor at a higher level has the moral authority to coerce an actor further down the scale. So a world government has the moral authority to coerce a state in the name of the human interest, and a state has the moral authority to coerce an individual in the name of the state interest. People at the same level also can coerce each other. One state can coerce another state in the name of its own interest, and one person can coerce another person in the name of his own interest.
Now, there’s an interesting difference in the relationship between the human and state levels and the state and individual levels. In the former case, there is, as of yet, no human superstate. No organisation exists whose mandate is to look after the interests of everyone collectively, so there is no one to force states to concern themselves with the human level. As a result, states are never coerced into paying attention to the human interest, and I am completely okay with that. Why? Because any state that pays attention to the human interest, in the absence of a global superstate, puts itself at risk. If, say, we determine that it is in the interests of people everywhere that no one have automatic weapons, the state that disarms will have harmed itself, because, in the absence of a superstate, other states are free to take advantage of its lack of weapons and harm it for their own gain. A state cannot be under a moral compulsion to harm itself, so a state cannot be under a compulsion to act in the human interest in the absence of a superstate.
The state and individual case is not similar, because in the state and individual case, individuals are more or less uniformly subject to states. If we lived in a state of complete anarchy, it would be acceptable for individuals to act as states do. If you wanted to kill someone for your own gain, you could do that, because if you swore off killing people for your own gain, someone else would take advantage of you. Thankfully, we do not exist in a condition of anarchy so severe as that, so instead, your desire to kill someone for gain is overruled by a coercive state, which forces you to consider the second-level interest, the interest of the community as a whole, by threatening you with imprisonment, death, or other negative consequences, or by offering you incentives, subsidies, or other positive consequences for doing so.
This means that when an individual acts in an egoist way such that society is harmed, I do not blame the individual for this behaviour, I blame the state for failing to create a system of laws, incentives, and deterrents such that pursuing the egoist behaviour was not more attractive than pursuing the interests of the wider community. Individuals who murder people are not to blame; states are to blame for not creating a climate in which individuals are coercively deterred or given incentive so as to prevent people from choosing to murder.
By the same token, I do not blame a state for aggressively pursuing its own interest internationally, I blame the lack of a superstate for this, because the absence of the superstate means that there is no comprehensive system of deterrents and incentives to encourage states to consider the global interest.
So in short, I am not an egoist, because I do not believe that egoism should govern society, I merely believe that egoism is acceptable at a given level but should be governed coercively by the next level up. And if we had a superstate? Presumably, unless we met an alien intelligence, that would be the highest form of the utility interest. If we were to meet an alien intelligence, we would unlock a fourth level:
- Sapient Interest
- Human Interest
- State Interest
- Individual Interest
It’s also quite possible that, once a superstate is created, it would relegate the current state system to the history books, turning what are presently independent states into more or less territories or provinces of the superstate. At that point, the human and state interests would merge. In this way, I think I have reconciled an egoism among entities at a given level with a morality that remains committed to promoting good consequences for people as a whole. Most importantly, I think that by doing this, I have made the utilitarian morality achievable. Utilitarianism is often criticised for being too demanding, because it asks people to put society ahead of themselves. By installing egoism at each level and permitting (even requiring) coercion from the top down, we avoid this.
If say, everyone except for me is about to die, and I have the opportunity to push a button that will kill myself but save everyone, I am not obliged to choose, of my own volition, to push that button. But if there is a state around, or if there is another individual around in the absence of a state, that state or that individual can grab my wrist and make me push the button. In the state case, the second-level interest is served, and in the individual case, another individual is merely acting on acceptable egoism in the absence of a state.
Does my reconciliation work and/or seem moral to you? Or have I gone astray?
[…] noticed an interesting consequence of the moral theory I outlined yesterday–if it’s true, it is not possible to be moral beyond a limited scope in the absence of a […]
“In other words, it is morally okay for a German citizen to contribute to the Nazi war effort, but it is also okay for me, as an allied state, to kill that person so as to coercively stop them”
I am not sure how I would act in a situation where I have a gun to my head, but if I was being coerced like this to contribute to the Nazi War effort, I would not consider it morally okay if I chose to help and avoid death. I would certainly hate myself for it and be haunted for the rest of my life, and there would be a reason for that. Because I knew it was an immoral decision. If it was an easy decision (or if I was a sociopath) that I wouldn’t feel that way. Just because someone is being self-preservationist does not mean they are being moral. How do you come to that conclusion?
No one is obliged to be other than what he is. If I am a lion, I am not morally condemned for killing the gazelle, because I am a lion and it is in my nature to kill gazelles. The instinct for self-preservation is inherent to being human; condemning people for not following it is setting them up to fail morally by asking them to defy their own natures. Do some people self-sacrifice? Yes, but they are not merely meeting their moral obligations–they are exceeding them, because they do so against nature.
theres a lot more to being human than the self-preservation instinct. your pessimism on is a little over the top and it seems like you’ve absorbed the opinions of a lot of philosophers who think the human race is an awful species with no capacity for being moral because of a desire to help people…a lion kills the gazelle for food….a man can kill another merely for money….theres no comparison..i would also say he is going against his nature..the person killing may perceive a benefit but more often than not the person who kills ends up being worse off for it no matter his intentionsand often hurts many more people in the process than just the person they killed. i believe we are with both the potential for good and evil….when we stray from the good is when we go against our nature…because most often it ends up hurting us and the people around us unlike you, i do not equate instant gratification with human nature.
Desiring to help people is great, but it’s a desire that comes from somewhere. Why do we want to help people? Because our moral norms tell us that helping people is the right thing to do, or because we personally benefit from our relationships with the people in question and want said people to be better off or to stick around. For what other reason do we help people? No person acts against himself. A person can desire to be helpful, but this is still a personal project, and individual goal ultimately for the gratification of the self.
Cats kill birds for pleasure without ever intending to eat them. Cats aren’t evil; that’s just their nature.
Why do you believe that people who kill other people end up worse off? Where did you learn this? In the absence of laws against killing or social exclusion for being a killer, the murderer can be much better off. In cultures in which murder is celebrated, the murderer can even be a prized member of the community. Murderers only feel guilty because they have been taught that murder is wrong. Now it is true that generally speaking murder is not useful and that people should not do it, but people do not feel bad about murder because it is not useful, they feel bad about murder because they have been taught that it is a taboo from which they must refrain to be accepted within their communities.
I don’t see how any of what I’m saying represents a negative view of people. It’s merely a metaphysical position that the good does not precede the community. In order for us to be good to each other, we have to first be in a situation in which being good has value, we have to be in a cooperative scenario, a situation involving multiple people in a power structure trying to achieve shared ends. If you lived in isolation and never knew any people (assuming you somehow avoided dying in infancy without assistance), you simply could not have moral beliefs, either for good or for ill, beyond an egoist desire to do whatever it was you were in the mood to do. There would be no one to apply them to, no context in which to imagine them. The brain cannot imagine a thing of which it has absolutely no experience.
I agree that the motivations for doing good are multifaceted, but how do you explain someone taking a bullet for someone they love? in that case the desire to do good has trumped self-preservation. and there’s no semblance of gratification for the self here. your gonna be dead in half a second.and please don’t tell me that the reason is because the person wanted to feel helpful for half a second. and certainly taking a bullet for someone is not a moral norm. Sometimes the desire to do good is just within the human being, and comes from love.
“Cats kill birds for pleasure without ever intending to eat them. Cats aren’t evil; that’s just their nature.”
humans are different from cats and all other animals because we are aware of the actions we take and the potential consequences, so you can’t compare animal motivation to humans. animals act on instinct…we don’t…we’re intelligent beings…we think through things.
“Why do you believe that people who kill other people end up worse off? Where did you learn this? In the absence of laws against killing or social exclusion for being a killer, the murderer can be much better off. In cultures in which murder is celebrated, the murderer can even be a prized member of the community. ”
If a culture is based on killing, then it is an immoral culture and will eventually tear itself to pieces and leave great devastation in its wake. humanity ultimately suffers from a culture like this. every single person…the people who kill and the people who are killed and people who are friends and family of the killed and killer. this actually comes from catholic social teaching….its quite interesting and insightful..and presents a refreshing perspective from different from consequentialism that really takes all of humanity into account rather that just the individual’s or cultures selfish desires. again i’m not talking about the immediate needs of the murderer…those are irrelevant here…you said in your original post that a murder can not be considered immoral unless the society deems it immoral. if the society doesn’t deem it immoral, especially a culture like you describe which glorifies killing, then the whole society is immoral and the whole society will be held to account when it eventually destroys itself….either that or it will progress morally and develop social norms which are better aligned with the common good and what is necessary for society to prosper…which is how the world has progressed.
When someone gets themselves killed for someone else, it is for one of three reasons:
1. The sacrifice loves the person so much that they do not consider life worth living without the person or could not live with himself if he caused the person to die through inaction (the case of one lover taking a bullet for another).
2. The sacrifice does not love the person, but nonetheless feels duty-bound to be a sacrifice so as to avoid survivor’s guilt (the case of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade).
3. The sacrifice’s self-worth is sufficiently low that the sacrifice does not have a normal valuation for his own life (the case of the depressed person who sees an opportunity to give his life meaning or value.
All of these reasons are ultimately self-serving; the consequences of inaction are deemed to be more unpleasant than death, or death is viewed as a kind of release or righteous martyrdom.
Being smarter does not make us inherently more moral. We can think through an action and realise that it is not socially useful or does not coincide with our moral norms, but we have no superior moral knowledge from birth to that of the cat. If cats were substantially cleverer, they would behave more morally as well.
In the last segment on murder, you seem to be agreeing with me. Where murder is not useful, it will be deemed immoral or result in the failure of the culture in question. I was pointing out that not all cultures have deemed murder immoral or not useful, which indicates that “murder is wrong” is not an inherent human view, but a learned moral norm. It happens, in most cases, to correspond with moral truth, but it is still a learned moral belief, not something we are born with. If human beings existed without the state in a social vacuum, murder would have no meaning because there would be no systematic, regular interactions among people. There would be no surrounding community of people to be aggrieved by the murder, because in order for a community to exist, there must be some minimum level of organisation, of a state, which has moral norms of behaviour that it encourages or discourages. If there’s no community and I kill someone, that someone had no friends, no family, he knew no one, and neither did I–we did not even know each other. I get whatever benefit I was seeking from killing him (maybe he had some food I wanted or a tool or something), he ceases to exist, and no one else is effected. I feel no guilt because I have no context for sympathy, as I know of no others like myself.
I agree with you on the motivations for sacrifice and I will concede that the ones you mentioned are ultimately self-serving
I think there’s a fourth that is not self-serving and you might disagree.
4. The sacrifice loves the person so much that they are willing to give up their life so that person may live on and find love and happiness again.
“Where murder is not useful, it will be deemed immoral or result in the failure of the culture in question. I was pointing out that not all cultures have deemed murder immoral or not useful, which indicates that “murder is wrong” is not an inherent human view, but a learned moral norm.”
again the question is the not whether the culture that is killing thinks that it is immoral…. I don’t care about what the culture thinks of its own practices….if war and murder and unchecked conquest, and torture is glorified in a culture then that culture will be held accountable because it will; eventually destroy itself….that or it will evolve and assume social norms which are more moral. i was trying to answer your statement “In the absence of laws against killing or social exclusion for being a killer, the murderer can be much better off.” I was trying to say that murder, beyond some sort of instant gratification which would be immoral, is not beneficial to the individual or society.
also if a culture deems murder moral than it is doing so under false pretenses because the fact is murder is not moral…no matter the circumstances…it may be necessary sometimes…but not moral…and certainly a culture which glorifies murder is not doing that out of necessity.
“Where murder is not useful”
When exactly is murder useful for a whole culture? that was my point that it could never be, because the society would eventually destroy itself…but that realization exists outside of the social norms…it is a fact of humanity that if we embrace a violent culture, eventually we will cease to exist or we’ll be forced to change because that is the only way we could ever remain a functioning community…that is why I believe violence is immoral and the fact that it is immoral remains regardless of the social norms. I think we’ll probably disagree on that…
also if a cat can’t think through the moral implications of an action then how could anyone ever label it immoral or moral? the label would imply that there is something for the cat to be moral or immoral about, which in the case of the cat is impossible..a cat is not more or less moral…it is devoid of morals…morality is strictly a human phenomenon
“we have no superior moral knowledge from birth to that of the cat. If cats were substantially cleverer, they would behave more morally as well.”
but the point is that they aren’t and therefore they don’t. and the reference is irrelevant to this discussion from my vantage point. its not that we have more or less moral knowledge…its that we have a unique capability to be moral or immoral and the cat doesn’t…
its as absurd as saying that a cat has less knowledge of physics than a human,…the cat has no capability of conceiving of physics from the beginning
I’m inclined to think that your 4th option for explaining sacrificial death is really a more optimistic formulation of my 1st. It’s more a matter of semantics.
If the culture permits murder, the culture is damaging itself, but the murderer within that culture is personally unaffected. The murderer is harming society, but society is rewarding the murderer for that behaviour, so he has no reason to have a sense of guilt or shame. Take the victorious gladiator, the priest who tears out the hearts of the sacrifices–these guys are harming their own societies, but because they are being praised for it, they individually flourish.
If murder is necessary, then it is socially useful, and if it is socially useful, then it is morally permissible. A necessary act cannot be immoral; that’s a contradiction. I do not think there has ever arisen a condition in which widespread murder for individual gain was socially useful (though it might be useful in the context of murdering those outside of the state or community–war), but, theoretically, if such a condition were to exist, it would be impossible for murder to be wrong.
Most human beings do not go to the trouble of thinking–really thinking–about moral principles. They simply carry out moral norms–they’re not morally independent. Their moral independence would itself be immoral, because it would not be useful. If every person were required to think about morality enough to have moral views significantly distinct from the moral norm, our agricultural, industrial, and scientific efficiency would be substantially undermined and our ability to have laws that most people broadly agree to would be seriously debilitated by frequent moral disagreement. Most human beings are just acting the way they have been taught to act, and we are better off for that. Are they really so different from cats, who also do not think very hard about right and wrong?
We are certainly not all equally capable of moral reasoning. Some of us have more capacity than others, and even those of us who have capacity must, in large numbers, refrain from using said capacity so as to have time to do other necessary and useful work.
Correct me if I misinterpret, but I think you’re broadly agreeing with me on the point of contention upon which we started–you seem to agree that human beings do not have intrinsic knowledge of the true morality from birth, but are taught fallible moral ideas that may or may not be in tune to some degree or other with what is truly moral. You say we have the capacity to be better than cats, but seem to admit that we start out the same way. So now we are really arguing about whether or not the theory as I present it has more optimistic or pessimistic implications for people concerned with the moral goodness or badness of the communities in which they live and to what degree they have agency in altering those moral states of being.
Why would stealing in order to survive be immoral? Morality divorced from necessity or usefulness has no basis in utility of consequences and becomes arbitrary. The notion does not originate with me, either–the notion of usefulness being central originates with Hume.
Cats think about morality, they just think about it in a very immediate and basic way. For a cat, what is “right” for it to do is what makes it feel good, and what is “wrong” is what makes it feel bad, and what feels good for a cat is what the cat deems useful, and what feels bad for a cat is what it deems not useful. Cats have interests; things can happen to cats that are bad for them or good for them, and what brings about pleasure for a cat may not necessarily be what is good for the cat and vice versa. A cat can act in a way that is useful or not useful to us, we just cannot deem the cat immoral in consequence because the cat has no sense of community or allegiance to our social interest in the first place.
Some human beings can think seriously about their moral views, but most are trapped by intuitions, what they have been taught. They do not reason about morality, they feel about it. A thing “feels right” or “feels wrong”, and they cannot say why. Very few people have consistent moral systems the contradictions of which they have ironed out. This is both because most people are not intellectually capable of this and because most people do not have the time to give it sufficient thought–they are not capable or not willing to defy moral norms in an intellectually progressive or consistent way. When they do defy moral norms, it comes with guilt, not the self-satisfaction of having reasoned the norms to be wrong. Agency, for most people, is extremely limited, and even those of us who do have some of it are limited in our scope by our backgrounds. Even the most brilliant of moral philosophers has some misgivings about crossing various moral norms, which is why even brilliant people from different time periods tend to think very differently about morality.
I’m not arguing that we should adopt a violent set of moral norms; I broadly agree that a violent society is not a more moral one. All I’m saying is that in radically different circumstances what is useful and consequently moral can differ. If I am being attacked by a man, it is useful and moral that I use force to repel him, but if I am being hugged by him, the same response is not useful and consequently not moral. As a result, I set down no hard moral principle of “this action is always good” or “this action is always bad”, but examine situations in context with a view to doing what is most useful and promotes the best consequences. In so far as our moral norms tend to be deontological and reject that kind of moral nuance, I think they are off-base.
“A necessary act cannot be immoral; that’s a contradiction.”
Since when is “moral” synonymous with “necessary” and “useful” That must be your own definition.
I’ll give an example. Suppose a kid who is hungry steals from a store and never gets in trouble for it. People would be inclined to not judge that kid harshly and say that his act is not immoral. Now I would not judge the kid harshly at all, but at the same time i would say it is an immoral act. Why? Because in a society of interconnectedness and where humans always affects another human’s actions, one can find a chain of immorality. A kid on the street with no food who has to steal to survive is immoral, but its still necessary. the kid’s family who has no job because of an economic recession, that is immoral. A society where the economic system allows for growing inequality over a long period of time between rich and poor which caused that family to lose their jobs, that is immoral. It is a chain of immorality. certain immoral acts down the line may be necessary because of greater immoralities higher up in the chain, but its still immoral to steal.
You’ll probably disagree with me on this whole chain of immorality
“Most human beings are just acting the way they have been taught to act, and we are better off for that.”
Again, humans are able to think about their thinking…we are able to reason about our actions and sometimes, as a result, defy social norms which you say are the end all be all determinants of human action
cats don’t think AT ALL about right or wrong. again its not that they think less hard or more hard about right and wrong. Our mental capabilities are different.you cant judge an animal on human terms…its purely a waste of time
“Correct me if I misinterpret, but I think you’re broadly agreeing with me on the point of contention upon which we started–you seem to agree that human beings do not have intrinsic knowledge of the true morality from birth, but are taught fallible moral ideas that may or may not be in tune to some degree or other with what is truly moral. You say we have the capacity to be better than cats, but seem to admit that we start out the same way. So now we are really arguing about whether or not the theory as I present it has more optimistic or pessimistic implications for people concerned with the moral goodness or badness of the communities in which they live and to what degree they have agency in altering those moral states of being.”
Again your not getting my point….which you are may may not disagree with…that’s fine, but at least define it correctly
Certainly babies are not born with intrinsic knowledge of morality. we are taught social norms which have questions of morality attached to them….whether they are moral or not stands outside of the social norms…again I do not care about what the individual or society or social norms THINKS is moral or immoral because the individual is fallible and so is the society and therefore so are the societal norms…anything which is immoral is something that violates the dignity of the human being….whether or not it is a social norm is irrelevant to me and would only serve to demonstrate to me where the given society is situated in its moral progression….this is the main point which we will most likely disagree on….and cats remain the same way for their whole lives in terms of ability to reason and make decisions attached to morality(that would be “never able to to do so”)…….we don’t…and are consequently able to defy social norms when need be.cats only progress in their instinctual ability based on their biology….yes of course we are taught….but we are capable of reasoning through a process of defiance…now whether that defiance will turn out to involve moral or immoral actions and end results obviously depends on the situation
“I present it has more optimistic or pessimistic implications for people concerned with the moral goodness or badness of the communities in which they live and to what degree they have agency in altering those moral states of being.”
If people have agency in altering moral states of being, which I agree with, then how can you say that the ultimate determinant of morality is social norms? People have agency, therefore they can defy social norms and adopt more moral states of being. logically, it follows, that the morality, must exist outside of the social norms. How can you see it any other way?
think about what is better for a society? to coexist peacefully with other nations or adopt violent social norms and try to conquer other nations. history reveals what happens to the nations that act immorally. that’s why the world is less violent now that it was 500 or 1,000 years ago. we have progress in terms of our moral reasoning…therefore our morality has transcended our previous social norms to form a more cohesive, cooperative, peaceful society…we have learned how to right past wrongs.
i guess the difference between you and me is that I think about motivations not just consequences and you don’t, although I can’t see a good reason why you would not think about motivations
Much good can be done from bad motivations and much bad done from good motivations. The community should judge whether to embrace or reject one of its members not based on intent, but based on whether or not that member is actually a good citizen. The person who hallucinates that god wants him to shoot up a school has very good motivations, but he is nonetheless extremely immoral and dangerous. By the same token, if I were a German person and I wanted to shoot Hitler not for any good reason but just because when we were children Hitler used to make fun of me, my motivations are quite arbitrary but the result is nonetheless benign.
and pertaining to cats, my friend you need to study the differences between human and animal motivation….i think its been widely studied and documented and experimented upon…it is a fact that cats do not think about morality. thats not debatable. and i’ve presented ample reason for why it’s not. so a cat does something that makes it feels good…why does that have to mean its acting morally or immorally…again morality requires something to be moral about….the cat is not capable of conceiving that…you are purposely transferring your own capability of moral reasoning to a cat by only citing the consequences of its actions and forgetting about the motivations, which is logically foolish…motivations for cats are purely instinctual…no ifs ands or buts about it…again this is the pitfall of only thinking about consequences and not motivations…
“I’m not arguing that we should adopt a violent set of moral norms”
I never argued that you argued this
“Why would stealing in order to survive be immoral?
i gave you my reasoning…i don’t wanna try to explain it again. i think we just have to agree to disagree at this point…but good discussion
“Agency, for most people, is extremely limited, and even those of us who do have some of it are limited in our scope by our
I never said that agency wasn’t limited. You keep bringing up points that I haven’t argued against, and distracting from the key points of your original argument. Of course agency is limited, but we are capable of it and therefore transcending social norms to morally progress…or we not? If we hadn’t been able to then society would be just as violent as it was 500 or 1000 years ago
“All I’m saying is that in radically different circumstances what is useful and consequently moral can differ.”
Yes and I understand what your saying. but I’m not tying what is moral to what is useful, and your refusing to answer my reasoning to that point..instead you have repeated yourself again…i’m trying to answer what you say..try to make a logical argument against what im saying….i think the problem is i’m not a consequentialist and you are and we’ll probably never reconcile that…
Cats don’t think about morality the way we do, but they do consider, in their rudimentary, instinct-driven way, what is the most useful course of action for them to pursue. That is a moral question. Cats have very limited ability to answer the question with sophistication, but they do answer the question in so far as they do come to decisions and act, with consequences that can be in their interest or not in their interest. While I would never blame a cat for its action, I nonetheless think that morally good or bad things can happen to cats, and that cats can do things that are good for them or bad for them, and that they have some minimal understanding of whether their actions have resulted positively or negatively, even if such understanding is purely restricted to registering pleasure and pain.
You didn’t give me a reason for stealing to be immoral, you just said that there was a previous immorality (the poverty) that caused the stealing. That seems to me to be a reason for the stealing to not be immoral–it is the unavoidable, necessary consequence of unfortunate circumstances, and, in its absence, the social outcome is worse, because, while the victim of the theft retains property, the one who does not steal dies. Society is harmed more by death than by theft.
My point in so far as agency goes is that we cannot morally blame individuals in a society for abiding by the social norms in which they live, because they individually benefit from abiding, even if their communities as a whole are being harmed. It is the state’s responsibility to correct the failure of norms, not the individual’s responsibility to be moral even in the absence of good norms. The state’s job is to create conditions under which the social interest is served; the individual is not responsible and is permitted to look out for himself under the guidance of the communal norms.
I suppose the fundamental question I must ask is, if an action’s morality is not determined by its usefulness, by the consequences it produces, what determines whether or not a thing is good or bad? That’s the argument that I am looking for and not finding in your responses.
“The person who hallucinates that god wants him to shoot up a school has very good motivations.”
How do you figure this a good motivation? because he thinks God told him to do it?
I’m done with the cat thing haha.
I think your confusing the idea of a good consequence with usefullness. Again i’ve mentioned the question of whether something is instantly gratifying or not as not a good test of whether the action taken was moral or not.
and you still haven’t answered my reasoning as to why morality exists outside social norms in that it is capable of transcending social norms through the actions and motivations of people who want to change social norms…perhaps they will make the society overall less moral or more moral but that is besides the point.
“I suppose the fundamental question I must ask is, if an action’s morality is not determined by its usefulness, by the consequences it produces, what determines whether or not a thing is good or bad?”
I already answered this…whether human dignity is violated or not…this comes from catholic social teaching…this is different from usefullness but i will concede it is a consequence…see that’s why I could never be a utilitalitarian…because what is usefull at the moment can have immoral motivations and therefore will have ultimately bad consequences which violate human dignity as in the example below…you may not be satisfied with this answer because you seem to be committed to the utilitaritarian ideology
think about what is better for a society? to coexist peacefully with other nations or adopt violent social norms and try to conquer other nations…which really is a form of crude instant gratification with no regard for human life and motivated by pure greed. history reveals what happens to the nations that act immorally. that’s why the world is less violent now that it was 500 or 1,000 years ago. we have progress in terms of our moral reasoning…therefore our morality has transcended our previous social norms to form a more cohesive, cooperative, peaceful society…we have learned how to right past wrongs.
So I guess the one conclusion we can draw from this is that I disagree with hume and you don’t
Assuming he also thinks that god is morally good (which he likely does, if he is a Christian), then he believes he is doing the lord’s work, which is by definition good stuff.
I agree that morality exists outside social norms–there is a “true morality” defined by what is actually useful, as opposed to the social norms most people live under, which represent the general moral principles supported by the community. It is truly moral for a starving child to steal bread, even though our social norm tells us that stealing is generally bad. The starving child will likely feel guilty as a result, even though he has done nothing wrong.
What do you mean by dignity? Traditionally, the Latin “dignitas” was a virtue about having social esteem, honour, rank, etc. I don’t think you mean it in that sense. It is not clear to me what a moral system based around a principle of dignity looks like.
I agree that violence is generally not moral, I just do not accept that it is never moral, and I think a good comprehensive system should make distinctions rather than ruling violence out in its entirety such that people fail to use it in those rare instances in which perhaps they should.
To answer your first question there is no religion out there that advocates violence, expecially not Christianity….now people are morally fallible and therefore their immoral interpretations of a moral religion can be used to justify anything…that doesn’t mean he’s actually following the religion and doing God’s work as Christianity would define it….
the Westboro Baptist Church thinks its doing the Lord’s work…doesn’t mean they are
the radical sects of any religion distort the true religion for their own selfish purposes, bigotries, and biases…which are all a form of violence…i argue in one of my posts from a long time ago that religious radicalism is ultimately as anti-religious as atheism…just on the opposite spectrum
plus he is, inyour example shallucinatory and delusional which probabaly means he has a mental illness of some sort so you can not seriously trace back his motivations to actual Christian doctrine….that would be absurd.
Most religions advocate violence under some circumstances–holy wars, stoning the blasphemers, beating slaves, there are quite a few cases in which holy texts prescribe or permit violence. I do not think they are correct in most (if not all) of those instances, but it is certainly not the case that no religion advocates violence at all under any circumstance.
If you’re going to define “being Christian” as “being anti-violence” regardless of what the various religious texts say, you will of course reach the conclusion that religions are inherently non-violent, but you will have done so via a circular argument.
Doesn’t Christianity permit the notion of revelation? Aren’t people’s claims of having had things revealed to them by god meant to be evidence of the truth of various religions? A person who thinks god tells him to kill people surely has some religious grounds for believing it might be true. A god who could not reveal things would not be omnipotent and consequently would not be a god.
“Individuals who murder people are not to blame; states are to blame for not creating a climate in which individuals are coercively deterred or given incentive so as to prevent people from choosing to murder.”
you assume we’re all so terribly bad, that we need to be incentivized not to commit murder?????
Where do you get that idea???
Everyone does not act on a system of rewards and punishments in every decision they make…i do not need to be incentivized not to commit murder and I take full responsibility for that….
And you do realize that in the beginning of time there was no state…it was just a group of people coming together to form small societies..humans have a built in desire to form communities and get along with one another….that’s why solitary confinement drives people, even murderous people crazy-no human contact….. we don’t have an overwhelming desire to murder eachother…….states are result of individuals coming together….A state is made up of individual human beings….
your outlook on human motivation expressed in this post is way too pessimistic
I get the idea from history. Primitive civilisations were extremely violent and full of death (think of the Aztec sacrifices or the Roman gladiatorial games); we are only better today because the state has done a lot of work indoctrinating us from a young age to believe in certain moral ideas deontologically without respect to consequences or circumstances. Why do we believe it’s not okay to murder people? It’s not because it is never advantageous to murder people, but because we have grown up surrounded by the deontological ethic as imposed morally upon the people by the churches over centuries via the state.
Tribes and families are primitive states, in so far as they impose moral norms on citizens in the pursuit of wider collective goods over and above the individual good.
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