Good news for people who like good news

In the long run, the arc bends toward justice and love wins. In the short run, things don’t often look quite so hopeful. But sometimes they do.

Here are some reasons to celebrate.

• “Rhode Island Becomes 10th Marriage Equality State.”

• “And Delaware Makes 11

Men demonstrate in support of women’s rights. And not just any men — fraternity brothers. And not just any fraternity brothers — Muslim fraternity brothers. And this happened in Texas.

• Maryland takes a big step toward offshore wind.

• And Cape Wind gives them some competition, winning billions in backing for offshore wind in Massachusetts.

(I’ll believe it when I see the turbines up and spinning. Based on America’s dismal track-record, I still doubt we’ll have any operating offshore wind farms until sea levels rise enough to swamp turbines now based on shore.)

Five evangelical pastors and a gay activist walk into a coffee shop

This is not a joke. Nor is that story a conclusive step in any particular direction. But it’s a good step, a good start, and good news.

• Bunk will give you a ride to the grocery store. To his grocery store, anyway.

Actor Wendell Pierce — who played Det. William “Bunk” Moreland on The Wire — started the Sterling Farms grocery chain to provide access to healthy, affordable food in underserved neighborhoods in New Orleans:

Pierce, along with his business partners, has been working to place markets and convenience stores in food deserts in his native New Orleans. Sterling Farms is not just putting nutritious, fresh food where there was none before — the people behind the business are working to figure out how to tackle the problem of food access from many different angles. One perk the stores offer is especially great — the chain gives free rides to those who spend more than $50.

• “Scientists find new key ingredient for anti-malaria drug

US scientists … said they had used baker’s yeast to make a key ingredient of malaria drugs, a feat that could iron out fluctuations in supply caused by sourcing the chemical from a Chinese herb.

One of the revolutions in malaria treatment in recent decades has been the advent of artemisinin drugs, whose active ingredient comes from a traditional Chinese herb, Artemisia annua.

But weather can affect harvests of the plant, causing shortages and price spikes.

This discovery could prevent those shortages and price spikes. Cool.

• “U.S. Infant Mortality Falling

Infant mortality in the U.S. has declined 12 percent since 2005 after holding steady for many years, according to data released … by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.The infant mortality rate in 2011 was 6.05 deaths per every 1,000 live births, down from 6.87 in 2005, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Greensburg, Kansas, is coming back. The town was hit by a massive tornado six years ago, killing nine people and leaving nearly all of its 1,383 residents homeless. They resolved to rebuild — and to do it right by making Greensburg the greenest town in Kansas, a model of sustainable living. And it’s working.

The HPV vaccine seems to work — at least in places like Australia, where it’s actually used and not rejected, as it is by many here in America, by those who feel that our daughters will turn into slutty little sluts if we remove the sexual deterrent of preventable cancer.

• People can be pretty cool: “College Athlete Gives Up Final Event to Save Someone’s Life

• People can be pretty cool, cont’d.: “Tender moments caught on Russian dash cams” (via)


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  • arcseconds

    Right, but that’s not asserting moral relativism as your own position, it’s just adopting it as a methodology.

    You can (and probably should) do the same with propositions about the natural world, too. You’re not going to get far understanding Aristotle’s views on biology or the chinese concept of qi or Wiccan views on magic if you keep harping on about But The World Isn’t Like That And You’re All Stupid.

    I prefer the phenomenological term ‘bracketing’ than ‘relativism’ for this kind of thing, because it’s more general (you can in principle bracket any set of beliefs, and also attitudes, etc.), because it’s more obvious you have and retain your own views on this matter (albeit suspended for the purpose of the exercise), and it seems more descriptive of the actual process (and suggests that it is a process, rather than a position).

    So the problem, as I would describe it, is not that these people believe in God and think they know what God wants, but rather they’re completely unable (or unwilling) to bracket those beliefs in order to try and make sense of someone else. Which means that they’re completely unable to make sense of someone else.

    And this isn’t true of everyone who’s an ethical and metaphysical realist who believes in God, obviously, so the problem isn’t their philosophical position, per se. It’s the death-grip they have on it.

  • arcseconds

    Well, it could be, but it seems more like a substantive difference to me :)

    At any rate, I don’t understand where you’re coming from.

    Yes, I think that there’s some kind of objective morality, although some emphasis needs to be put on ‘some kind’. I don’t think, for example, that there are definitive list of moral rules that God wrote in a book somewhere (or incarcerated in a platonic heaven) or something like that.

    One of the reasons I have for this is exactly what I told AnonymousSam: I don’t think moral relativism is a stable position, if thought through. I think it results in either realism (although maybe of a pretty minimal sort) or nihilism.

    Your stated objection to this idea seems like a non-sequitor to me.

    Why would you think that one’s position on relativism when it comes to morals should explain the diversity of moral beliefs?

    I mean, like most people, I think that there are facts about the natural world, and there’s nothing much that is relative about these facts, although potentially they can be described in different ways.

    It’s very evident that there’s considerable disagreement about what these facts are.

    But that by itself doesn’t seem like a reason to embrace reality relativism. Or, at least, it doesn’t to me. Does it to you?

    If not, why is morality different?

    The other thing I’m wondering about is whether or not you see moral relativism as being distinct from moral nihilism, as I suggested in my reply to AnonymousSam, and if so, how is it distinct?

  • arcseconds

    Moral realism isn’t the position that someone knows the true moral facts, though.

    That’s what i was eluding to before: moral realism means I (or you) could be wrong.

    So moral realism has room for moral uncertainty and moral questioning. Am I really right about this? Was that really the right way to treat them?

    Whereas it seems to me that moral relativism, while often of course held by people who have a great respect for other people’s viewpoints, is quite compatible with complete certainty and inflexibility. After all, I know perfectly well what my culture’s norms are, and if there’s no further question about whether they’re right or not, I can just set about promoting them with gay (or rather heteronormative) abandon.

  • arcseconds

    Well, I evidently haven’t done a good job of explaining myself, because you seem to have thoroughly misunderstood my position, so this isn’t actually just a semantic argument. It seems worth clarifying.

    (this is my third attempt at doing so, because I keep finding different mismatches with how we’ve both approached this. )

    I’m not equating ‘irrational’ with ‘bad’.

    Although, I do think normally when someone says something is ‘irrational’, this is a complaint.

    I think we agree on this linguistic point, actually, because you’ve been noting that people often say that emotions are irrational, and you don’t like this, and you also mistook me for saying that the irrational is bad. I don’t like people saying emotions are irrational either, but for different reasons.

    (OK, not entirely different reasons. I agree that it’s usually a way of dismissing the reaction, and that this is a bad thing.)

    To stop this being a semantic argument, I’m going to adopt ‘reason’ (or its cognates) as a synonym for my ‘rational’. it’s not a perfect fit, but it will do. You can have ‘logical’, and you got the better deal :-)

    So, firstly, I don’t divide up the universe of discourse of into ‘reasonable’, and ‘unreasonable’. To my mind it’s a category mistake to say a rock, for example, is unreasonable: it’s just as absurd as saying constitutional democracy is massless, or gas giants are economically impoverished (none of them earns over the poverty line!). The things that can be reasonable or unreasonable are beliefs, actions, and people. A reasonable belief or action is one that’s done by employing reason, which as I said before, I view as much like a skill (or a set of skills).

    Now, I’d normally take it that beliefs should be reasonable beliefs, that you shouldn’t just believe anything whatsoever, but believe those things that are supported by reason. But that’s not the same thing as equating reasonableness with goodness. It may be that excessive reasoning makes people unhappy, and accepting some stuff on faith, or because it sounds cool, or just ’cause, might be good. Even if there’s actually quite a lot of good but unreasonable behaviour or beliefs, given my default assumption that it speaks against a belief that it’s unreasonable, if I say something’s unreasonable chances are good that I’m drawing attention to its badness. And that seems likely for anyone who shares this presumption. If we wanted to emphasize the goodness of a belief, we’d just say it was good.

    So emotions, in my view, are neither reasonable nor unreasonable. They just are. In this way, they’re like external perception — and in fact this seems very appropriate to me, because I think there’s a lot of parallels between experiencing emotions and experiencing sights. Being angry is therefore no more reasonable (or unreasonable) than seeing a bright light. And just like visual experience, they’re the input to the reasoning process, but not identical with it.

    And dividing the universe of discourse up like this for this reason seems useful. It means I can easily adopt the intuition that emotions are not reasonable, and the intuition that they don’t need to be. Whereas if I just had the class of reasonable things and the class of non-reasonable things, I’d have to put emotions in the non-reasonable things along with rocks, Hamlet, the Republic of San Marino, holocaust denial, and affirming the consequent. That class just doesn’t seem useful at all.

    If I get angry during an online discussion, then that’s what my emotional state is, and I have to deal with it, but in and of itself it can’t really be criticized from the standpoint of reason. However, if it results in me believing that everyone is out to get me, that belief is unreasonable, because me being angry doesn’t give me a reason (by itself) to suppose that everyone’s out to get me.

    Now, what we could say about emotions is that they could be appropriate or inappropriate (which is highly culturally bound), or that they lead us to be unreasonable (or, in certain circumstances, even lead us to be reasonable). There’s even a sense in which they can be said to be reasonable, but it’s a derived sense, and I won’t get into it now.

    The other thing I wanted to re-emphasize is that because I don’t think a conscious process is necessary for reasonableness, this means I can say that people who are masters of reasoning do a lot of it subconsciously, just like any other skill. It seems to me that what’s thought through consciously is of secondary interest. What we really want to know is whether someone is coming to conclusions through reason or some unreasonable process. So if we have three people who are thinking about a topic, and one person plods through everything step by step in a logical fashion, and another is a virtuouso who’s really good at this sort of stuff and just gets to the reasonable conclusion in a single bound, and a third who can’t reason their way out of a paper bag and comes to a conclusion because it fits with their prejudices and sounds really good, the most important distinction to make is to group the first two together.

    The problem I have with grouping the second two together is not that unreasonable = bad and we’re saying the virtuouso is bad. Maybe the unreasonable person here is coming to conclusions that are instrumentally good and dramatically awesome and morally praiseworthy. Maybe they’re even getting there in a cool way, because they’re really imaginative or something. Maybe they’re worth far more to society than either the plodder or the virtuoso. But whatever makes them awesome is very different from the case of the virtuoso, who is doing the same thing that the plodder is doing, just more fluently.

    by ‘highly reasonable people have a lot of irrational beliefs’ being an odd thing to say, I meant it in the sense that you call reasonable beliefs that have come about through a subconscious process ‘irrational’, so they’re distinguished from everyone else in having more irrational beliefs, not less. Same distinction as highly unreasonable people have!

    So hopefully you’ll now understand my position better and why I like my way of drawing distinctions better than yours. As i don’t really understand why you think your way works for you, there could be something i’m missing, but I’m supposing I’m going to have to accept my continued ignorance on this matter.

  • arcseconds

    Wow, that looks a lot longer on the page than it did in my text editor…

  • Carstonio

    The Mormons raised money from donors across the country to get Proposition 8. I heard a few grumbles about out-of-staters manipulating California’s politics, but that was the same argument used by Southern segregationists. We applaud lawmakers in other states when they vote for marriage equality. The difference is that one cause is about safeguarding equality and rights for all citizens, and the other cause was about safeguarding inequality and lack of rights for some citizens.

  • Absolutely not in any way shape or form. Libertarians are socially liberal – UKIP have a few libertarian supporters but the party itself is hugely socially conservative

  • Alix

    I actually agree with your comment until the “emotions are neither reasonable or unreasonable” part, but I at least understand the whole thing, even if I don’t completely agree.

    I was thinking over my insistence that rationality is conscious, and I think the major reason for that is that if it’s not conscious, you have no way of knowing how you really arrived at a conclusion or decision. And we’re extremely good at rationalizing things after the fact, so just because you find a decision sound later doesn’t mean your subconscious arrived at it rationally, and you can’t prove that it did. You can only think of ways it might have done that.

    And, to me, reviewing a subconscious decision consciously to decide if it’s rational would basically amount to reconsidering it completely, and after that you could confirm a decision as rational. If that makes any sense at all.

    Thanks for the detailed explanation. It’s really helpful.

  • Alix

    Interesting. I would say that if one knows their own cultural norms and goes applying them with merry abandon, that’s very much not moral relativism.

    moral relativism . . . is quite compatible with complete certainty and inflexibility.

    I have honestly never heard moral relativism used to indicate any kind of moral certainty or inflexibility. It seems to me that those are entirely incompatible with the whole concept of moral relativism, which is that morals are, well, relative, and very much not certain and not inflexible.

    I’m kind of curious if you can elaborate on a context in which moral relativism does lead to certainty/inflexibility? Because I’m clearly failing to get something here.

  • Alix

    But that by itself doesn’t seem like a reason to embrace reality relativism. Or, at least, it doesn’t to me. Does it to you?

    Um. Funny you should mention that. Yes, to an extent, because in my experience people’s worldviews greatly impact how reality actually seems to them, moreso than a lot of people are willing to admit.

    On moral relativism vs. nihilism, I do see them as different. Moral nihilism, as I understand your definition of the term, is that all moral systems are equally worth nothing – I’d actually flip that on its head and say that moral relativism is that all moral systems are equally worth something, in that they clearly help people navigate their interactions with the world and other people. But I hold to a very practical notion of morality anyway, and I firmly believe that virtually all of morality is a human social invention, and that very little if any is innate.

    So in a way the question of worth when it comes to morals is almost nonsensical, and I really cannot wrap my head around the idea of a universal morality. I can maybe get behind a really sketchy, really simplistic universal framework – maybe. But, and I don’t mean this to sound combative, I’m genuinely curious, can you name me some examples of universal morals?

  • Alix

    LOL. That’s pretty much my response to every comment I’ve ever written.

  • Alix

    I’ve never heard of bracketing before. That’s interesting, and useful.

    I would say the concept of bracketing doesn’t actually encompass all of moral relativism, only part of it. The ability and willingness to bracket your own beliefs to understand someone else’s is a major part of relativism, but the other part is being open to reevaluating what you believe. It’s not just about understanding other people’s morals, but about recognizing that your own aren’t prioritized somehow as more obviously or objectively right or less a product of your culture.

  • Lori

    My point wasn’t about the legitimacy of the Mormon’s fund-raising, just the necessity of it for the anti-equality side. It should also be noted that the LDS is not only not giving money, it’s also not organizing volunteers. That’s probably almost as big a deal as the money. The LDS church is very well-organized and when it turns that organization to a particular cause it makes a real difference. They’re no longer doing that for anti-marriage equality fights. Not only is the church not doing it from Salt Lake, the hierarchy has actively discouraged local Mormons from doing it under the Mormon name. The church has apparently decided that there’s no benefit in continuing to make this an LDS issue in any way.

    Without them I don’t see the remaining anti-equality folks being able to mount effective campaigns in any of the remaining relatively easy states. Baring an unlikely ruling from SCOTUS i expect that by the end of 2014 we’ll have marriage equality in all the states that don’t have anti-equality amendments in their state constitutions. When we get to 20 + DC we’ll hit that amendment wall and progress will get a lot harder and slower again.

  • I don’t know that my morals are objectively right, but I am not sure I want to give up being able to say that some people’s morals are objectively wrong.

  • Carstonio

    No disagreement that organized resistance to same-sex marriage is crumbling, at least financially. I wasn’t accusing you of lending legitimacy to the Mormon campaign, but instead emphasizing that the campaign itself was unjust no matter where it originated.

    If Wikipedia is right, the non-amendment states left are Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Wyoming and New Mexico. Hawaii is trickier since its amendment only grants legislative authority to ban same-sex marriage.

    Michigan’s amendment leads off with, “To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children…” Too vague is the best thing I can say about that. I would look up what the amendment’s drafters meant by that, but their rhetoric would probably make me too angry.

  • Alix

    Well, what are you using as an objective standard?

    It seems to me that morals are subjective by definition, so objectivity in terms of morality seems really strange to me.

  • arcseconds

    But there’s no guarantee that reasoning through something consciously will mean you have done things correctly. People make reasoning mistakes consciously all the time.

    Both the plodder and the virtuoso can make mistakes, although the virtuoso is much less likely to. Either one might later find that their conclusion was wrong and have to go back and reconsider things.

    Remember I’m basing this in part on my own experiences with symbolic logic, and also (I didn’t mention this before) with mathematics — not so much my own experiences in that case (although a little bit), but reading and hearing about the experiences of mathematicians. The experience of the intuition coming first and the explicit proof coming later is very common. And it happens on a smaller scale when producing a proof, too: one is often able to see five or more steps ahead. There’s no way this is random luck or post-factum rationalization or anything like that: it’s a manifestation of a very high level of skill. And if that skill is a lot greater than yours, it seems like magic.

    (also, one typically doesn’t care personally too much about the validity of an argument when it’s just a mass of symbols! )

    Yes, with informal reasoning about things you value frequently people rationalize things after the fact. But just because this is a possibility doesn’t mean we can ignore the other possibility, that some people are very good at this and almost always make the right moves without having to think about it much.

    Keep in mind that the way this typically works is that the logician or mathematician spends a lot of time doing step-by-step work (although there is the odd prodigy). You seem to be tempted by the thought that after they no longer need to depend on the step-by-step work they’re somehow back in the position of a naïve person, but the opposite is the case: they’re now more capable than both the naïve person and the novice.

  • Alix

    But there’s no guarantee that reasoning through something consciously will mean you have done things correctly. People make reasoning mistakes consciously all the time.

    That’s … a complete non-sequitur.

    And we’re going round and round again. You’re basing things off your own experiences; I’m basing things off mine, which are clearly very different. I understand your point, still don’t agree, and still found this whole thing valuable, but at this point I really am bowing out. :) Thank you for taking the time to explain things for me.

  • arcseconds

    Well, there’s two different questions here in the natural case, right? Of course, if you want to understand someone’s beliefs about the natural world thoroughly (in order to understand them more thoroughly), you will probably need to do some bracketing of your own beliefs. I mentioned this to AnonymousSam: you can’t understand ancient greek natural philosophy if you keep plonking the results of modern science on the table and getting all het up because what they say doesn’t agree with it.

    But that’s a different question to who has the correct picture, or at least a more accurate picture, yes? I mean, we don’t think the world is ruled by two opposing principles Love and Strife, or that a lot of things (maybe everything) has small amounts of fire in them, or that this fire is trying to get to its natural place in the sphere of fire.

    And we don’t think these things because in the last four centuries or so people went to a lot of effort to investigate how the natural world works — it’s not simply that intellectual fashion has changed.

    The question of who has the behaviour and nature of fire right comes in not so much when we’re trying to understand people, but when we’re trying to design our homes to be fire safe, say. If you were doing this, would it be best to consult Heraclitus and Aristotle, go with your own intuition, or consult a fire engineer?

  • Alix

    (Here’s hoping I’m following the thread right…)

    If I’m right and this is in response to my views on the subjectivity of reality, I sort of agree?

    Thing is, as I mentioned to Foelhe somewhere in the comments here, I’ve had a number of extremely weird experiences, some (most?) of which flat-out defy how the world “should” work. And because this whole topic makes me crazy edgy, I’m really only willing to keep talking about the example I already brought up, that of out-of-body experiences.

    I’ve heard all the skeptical arguments against OBEs. I’ve honestly, seriously researched and considered them. And I still don’t find that they match the reality I’ve experienced. Can I prove that experience happened? Nope, but that’s the problem with experiences.

    So I either have to basically decide I can’t trust my own mind and go with what everyone else tells me is fact, or trust my own mind and roll with my own lived experiences. I … frankly, I can’t not trust myself. If I don’t, I have no starting point for anything. That’s where I was going with the subjective reality thing.

    On an entirely different topic, can you point me to any good overviews of bracketing? The whole concept really intrigues me.

  • arcseconds

    Well, it seems to me that you, in fact, believe in objective moral principles and values. You certainly talk as if you do.

    You appear to think, for example, it’s a universal moral principle to respect other people’s cultures, and to hold back from inflicting your own moral values on them.

    You also seem to think that helping people navigate their social worlds is a good thing — although it’s not quite so clear in this case.

    And this is the usual impression I get from people who say they’re moral relativists. They’re really moral realists who believe in the principles of tolerance and mutual understanding.

    This is just the ‘well, what if I’m a Nazi?’ cheap shot, of course, but in this particular case i think the cheap shot has some substance to it :]

    A really thorough-going moral relativist wouldn’t give ‘respect other people’s cultures’ any special status. That’s a value held by lefty pinko liberal arts western subculture (amongst others). And enforcing conservative Christian values on everyone is a value held by the conservative Christian community. One is not more justified than the other.

    That doesn’t mean that you (or we) don’t hold back from combating cultural imperialism. And it also means we need have no qualms about trying to foist our principles of tolerance on other people: we’re just doing the same thing as Christian conservatives are, with the same justification, and for much the same (or maybe parallel) reasons.

    (edit: oops, pressed post a little early there).

    Which is why I think moral relativists can be consistently moralists of the worst sort. If their culture’s values are to be moralizing, it’s fine!

  • Alix

    Interesting. Three things:

    1. I’m not sure I’d phrase the respecting others’ cultures or helping people navigate their social worlds as moral, though, but practical. I don’t tend to think of them as good/bad but as useful/not useful. Then again, I can be pretty damn dispassionate about morality in general, so I may be splitting hairs here.

    2. But “moral relativism” to me does imply that there needs to be a base of tolerance and mutual understanding, or at least non-judgment. Your argument sounds, to me, akin to the old “but you’re not tolerating my intolerance” thing thrown at people espousing tolerance – in the case of both tolerance and moral relativism, there are some underlying assumptions that the terms require.

    3. I am honestly still not sure what you mean by “moral realist,” because it still sounds to me like what you mean when you say that is what I know as moral relativism.

  • arcseconds

    Also, why would objective moral principles have to be innate? there’s no reason I can see to suppose innate beliefs would be correct beliefs. In fact, I’d be extremely suspicious of innate beliefs, if we had any of them.

    Most of our pre-theoretical intuitions about the natural world or mathematics or any other area are just plain wrong.

  • Alix

    This whole thing, actually, is why I sort of hate policies hinging on moral arguments. Yes, people do have differing sets of morals, sometimes wildly. And no, I don’t think it’s fair to sit in judgment, especially because that almost always implies one’s own beliefs are obviously superior.

    Which is why policies should be exercises in practical compromise.

    More to the point, I see moral relativism as explicitly combating moral absolutism.

  • arcseconds

    A moral realist is someone who thinks there are moral principles that aren’t relative to a particular culture, that in some sense transcend or stand outside cultures.

    As you are prevaricating about the word ‘moral’, I’m going to change that to ‘normative principles’ — anything that is supposed to direct our actions.

    It doesn’t matter what those principles are. Someone who believes that the only normative principle is to aim at increasing one’s own happiness is just as much a moral realist (assuming they really do think it’s a normative principle) as a conservative Christian who has any number of things that God wants us to do as the objective moral principles.

    And it sure sounds like you are a moral realist by this definition, I’m glad you agree :].

    I’m not really objecting to the term ‘moral relativism’ for your position too much, as there is a sense in which it is relativistic — most normative principles are relative to a certain culture, or so it sounds like (although we could have a further discussion as to what you mean by that) and have value within those cultures. But it’s a form of moral realism nevertheless because there do seem to be principles that stand outside culture in some way.

    But you’ve got an argument against moral realism: there’s widespread disagreement about morals, so how could there be any universal moral principles?

    There’s widespread disagreement about tolerance, too. So why does that disagreement not prove that tolerance, too, has no particular special status, but rather just something that some people believe in and others don’t?

    It seems to me that your arguments work just as well against tolerance and the other values and principles you want to apply across cultures.

    I’m not going to let you wriggle out of this just because you’ve decided to use terms like ‘practical’ where i would use ‘moral’ and ‘needs to be a basis of tolerance of mutual understanding’ where I would say ‘there is an objective moral principle of tolerance and mutual understanding’ :-)

  • Alix

    See, this is interesting to me, because you’re the first person I’ve ever encountered who uses the term “moral realism.” Thank you for the explanation.

    As you are prevaricating about the word ‘moral’, I’m going to change that to ‘normative principles’ — anything that is supposed to direct our actions.

    Well, I’m not lying or intending to deceive, so I don’t understand how I’m prevaricating. :/ (I keep getting the sense in a few of your comments that you’re … kind of talking down to me. And, well, it’s of course your right to think I’m stupid, but … it bothers me, a little, or I wouldn’t be bringing it up. :/)

    I also don’t know that “moral” can be redefined as “anything that is supposed to direct our actions” – “moral” to me has very strong connotations of right/wrong in a good/evil sense. Which is one of the things that gives me fits in discussions of morality, and it’s why I do like moral relativism, because to me moral relativism is basically the position that no moral system is inherently more good or evil than any other. As I said, it’s a position against absolutism.

    tolerance, too, has no particular special status

    I’d agree, with a caveat. As a moral principle, tolerance has no particular special status. But in practical terms, it’s generally best for everyone (assuming a pluralistic secular society, which is admittedly a huge assumption) to practice tolerance over applying more restrictive beliefs to whole populations that disagree with them.

    IOW, if you want to hold or practice less tolerant beliefs yourself, fine, as long as they don’t cross any legal lines or infringe on the rights of others. The latter two aren’t moral positions so much as necessary compromises for living in a pluralistic society.

  • arcseconds

    I don’t have time to write anything more right now, but no no no I don’t think you’re stupid! You’re clearly extremely smart.

    I tend to have a bit of an ironic and sometimes playful way of expressing myself, which might come across as ‘talking down’, but isn’t intended as such.

    On this topic, though, I’m going to be honest and say I reckon I am better equipped than you are (which I should be, given I studied this stuff for several years) and I think there is a bit of confusion in your view as you’ve stated it. On the other hand, I’m not sure I fully understand it, and you have mentioned some things I haven’t thought of before.

    So that might be coming through as well, but that doesn’t mean I think you’re stupid, any more than you getting to sound authoritative about the ancient mediterranean means you think other people are stupid. I’m sure I often say dreadfully naïve and ignorant things about the ancient world, and may well have done in our recent conversation!

    I just looked up ‘prevarication’ — I thought it was basically a synonym for ‘equivocation’ (which is listed), but its primary meaning does seem to carry overtones of dishonesty. That wasn’t what I intended to convey, so I’m sorry I used the word. Learn something new every day!

  • Alix

    Oh, okay! I’m not really very good at telling tone, in person or in writing, so I generally find it better to just ask. Thank you, by the way, for taking the asking well.

    I’ve … tried to study this stuff. My first go-round at college (long story short: had to quit because finances) was at a weird liberal-arts college where we discussed the philosophy of everything, but the discussions were so freeform and self-directed it actually made it harder (for me, at least) to learn. And I’m perennially interested in pretty much everything to do with the human mind, philosophy, and especially human culture (‘s why I’m now working towards a history degree), but … yeah. Mostly self-directed, with all the scattered stabs at it that implies.

    I’d actually be really interested in any resources you could point me to, if you have the time (or, hell, even if you could just let me know if the wikipedia pages are reasonably accurate) on … well, anything we’ve discussed, even the rationality/logic thing. (I just … have this pattern where I need to take breaks from discussions to mull things over. It doesn’t mean I don’t find those discussions interesting.)

    I think there is a bit of confusion in your view as you’ve stated it.

    Oh, knowing me, probably. I’m not always very good at putting things into words, and I’ve gotten the distinct sense throughout this entire comments section that I’m missing key vocabulary.

    you have mentioned some things I haven’t thought of before.

    And you’ve mentioned things I haven’t thought of before, which is half the fun.

    On the whole morality subject, though – I do feel rather in over my head, often, because so many people seem to have an intuitive grasp of morality, and … I don’t seem to. So I feel sometimes like I’m trying to talk in a language I only half understand. If nothing else, this conversation has already been valuable because you’ve introduced me to terms like bracketing and moral realism (which is a concept I’m still turning over in my head).

    Thanks for being patient with me. :)

  • I think it’s the latter. The argument technique seems to be attempting to invert clobber verses. They’ll say something like “I could never belong to a religion which upholds slavery,” and if the Christian tries to protest that on any grounds, the atheist argues “Then you aren’t a real Christian, because your Bible clearly says that it does.”

    I’ve seen this in about a dozen iterations now. The worst one recently was where the atheist was arguing that the Christian had to believe that all atheists were going to Hell. I just kept thinking, “Why are you arguing this? Don’t you know how like a fundamentalist this sounds, seeking reasons to feel persecuted, viciously offending people based on a heartless and condemning interpretation of the text?”

  • I had to take awhile and chew this over. It’s been awhile since I debated these kinds of subjects and I’m not used to thinking so hard about it. ~_^

    I wasn’t actually aware that relativism was a position, rather than a tool. For me, it’s always been something like what I imagine empathy to be, mentally placing one’s self in another’s position to see things from their point of view. Since it doesn’t come naturally to me, anything related to the concept is an intellectual exercise — sort of like running a mental simulation. I usually do such things when interacting with people, trying to determine what kind of reaction I might get if I said something.

    I’m not actually sure how my morals were formed or even really how to describe them beyond that they’re still in a state of growth as I expand my way of thinking of others to encompass more and more people instead of those with which I directly interact. My goal is to leave the world a better place than before I came, which I want to do by contributing emotionally, intellectually and in some cases physically to society. I suppose my morals are shaped around actions which seem to be most likely to further this goal.

  • Alix

    why would objective moral principles have to be innate?

    I … don’t think I said that. But if morality is not innate (and I agree that while it may have some innate mechanisms backing it, like empathy, moral codes themselves are not innate) that means they’re products of human culture. And what moral relativism tries to get at is that no one human culture has cornered the market on “right.”

    And besides, I still can’t think of a single real example of a universal moral. It’s quite possible I’m missing something obvious, but I don’t see that there is anything humans universally agree on, morally speaking.

    You brought up how I as a relativist must see tolerance as universal. I actually don’t – it’s obvious to anyone who looks at just the US that it’s not, and you pointed that out yourself. I think tolerance is the best possible compromise, but that’s a different thing, and I’m fully open to the notion that there are times when tolerance is not a moral thing.

    But I just reread this conversation, and I’m almost wondering if we’re talking two different things. There are plenty of people out there who think that their own moral codes are obviously right/superior/whatever, and others’ are just as obviously wrong/evil, and that therefore those other people are stupid at best and monsters at worst. Moral relativism only exists in response to that argument, and says no, nothing’s obvious when it comes to morality. It’s all learned and shaped by culture, and therefore it’s all equally open to questioning.

  • Alix

    I wasn’t actually aware that relativism was a position, rather than a tool.

    I see it as something of both. A tool in the way you describe it, and also a position against the kind of moral absolutism that, for example, fundamentalist Christians have.

  • Alix

    Atheists keep telling me that they know more about Christianity than Christians do. In my experience, that’s not really true – most atheists are just as ignorant about Christianity as most Christians are, and stories like yours underline that.

    (Obligatory caveat, in my personal experience, generalizations, doesn’t apply to every possible configuration of atheist and Christian, etc. etc.)

  • arcseconds

    I don’t think it’s a non sequitor.

    You say that someone might not arrived at something rationally if they didn’t consciously go through all the steps, and we’d have no way of knowing without going back and going through the steps.

    But going through the steps consciously has the same problem: just because you’ve gone through a series of steps consciously, does not mean you’ve arrived at a rational conclusion!

    You think you’ve arrived at a rational conclusion, because you think you made every step correctly, but you can’t be completely certain of that. You may have made a mistake, in which case your conclusion isn’t rational.

    So I don’t see any difference between conscious and subconscious reasoning here. Either can be wrong, and either might require double-checking.

    Also, what about logic that you did six months ago, that you only dimly remember doing, but you remember the conclusions? Do they remain logical conclusions, even though you can’t remember the logic? Of course, there’s a possibility of mis-remembering here, too.

    I also don’t really understand your point about me basing these things off my experience. The point about mentioning my experiences is to point out that there are people who are capable of impressive feats of subconscious reasoning very reliably. We have every reason to think this is a result of their training, so it’s strongly connected to step-by-step conscious reasoning, and isn’t simply guessing or thinking something’s right because it fits with their prejudices.

    On the other hand, obviously a lot of people do just guess or grab hold of ideas that the like for whatever reason and call these ‘rational conclusions’ or ‘the truth’ or whatever, and I’ve experienced that too, so I see why you’re concerned about this, but it’s not the only possibility.

    How do your experiences differ from mine in this area? And why are those differences relevant? Do they, for example, conflict in some way?

  • arcseconds

    the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is usually pretty good:

    Wikipedia is it’s usual mixed-bag sort of self.

    My vocabulary is very much shaped by contemporary western analytic philosophy, and this sort of stuff is its bread-and-butter.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean it necessarily matches the way other people in other disciplines use it, and there’s not even agreement over terms within analytic philosophy.

    Having said that, my use of ‘moral realism’ is pretty standard.

  • arcseconds

    Oh, and it totally doesn’t feel like I’m being patient with you :-)

  • Alix

    I feel it’s a non sequitur because I never said all thinking is rational or logical. In fact, I explicitly denied it, and it seems like you’re saying that somehow all reasoning is rational? Which seems really weird to me.

    I have to think about this. My own experience of the world is as a deeply weird, deeply irrational place, and my experiences both of my own mind and the way other people around me act supports the idea that rationality is nowhere near the bulk of human experience, but a particularly small slice of it. It is also my experience that the vast majority of people claiming to be logical/to be thinking rationally … aren’t. So.

    And so, to go waaaaay back to what generated this whole monster thread, I find calls to prioritize rationality over every other way of being and of experiencing the world often (not always, but often) deeply alienating, because such a call seems to be not only denying that I might find anything of value in the irrational, but also that any other way of dealing with the world/self is invalid. And I really cannot stand that.

    FWIW, having a broader concept of irrationality has actually helped me get a grip on my weird experiences, something that pure rationality hasn’t, because IME, such prioritization of rationality essentially requires me to deny reality as I’ve experienced it, and thus undermine my own mind.

    I joked upthread somewhere that to me, embracing the irrational is a rational decision, and in a very real way, that’s not really a joke.

  • Alix

    It does from my end. :) Most people give up on my annoying nitpicking pretty quick.

  • Alix

    Thanks for the link!

    I have to admit, I love wikipedia, because it is hilarious. And usually intriguing. But yeah, I’ve been tempted to put my fist through the screen a time or two, surfing that site.

    contemporary western analytic philosophy

    Okay, this is probably a really dumb question, but could you point me towards some terms or people to look up? If this thread hasn’t made it abundantly clear already, I haven’t the first clue about this.

    my use of ‘moral realism’ is pretty standard.

    Interesting! I’ll definitely be doing some reading this week, because this entire branch of philosophy apparently completely passed me by. (The danger of hanging out with people interested more in things thousands of years gone, I guess…)

  • arcseconds

    Well, often people do seem to be treating it as a tool. Or as both a tool and a position. Or they’ve conflated a tool with a position.

    Which is exactly why it’s useful to distinguish the tool from the position!

    The fact that ‘-ism’s tend to be positions, not methodologies, doesn’t help.

  • arcseconds

    Bracketing is a term of Edmund Husserl’s. Husserl was a phenomenologist, which means (at least in his case) he was trying to describe the structure of human experience. It turns out this is pretty difficult to do. At a given point in time, what is it that you experience? Certainly not flat regions of colour you consciously assemble into 3-dimensional shapes: you experience them as already 3-dimensional.

    You can spend hours looking at objects on your desk trying to work out what you’re experiencing and what you’re assuming :)

    One of the important things he wants to bracket in the process of doing phenomenology (the ‘phenomenological reduction’) is the ‘natural attitude’, which is the kind of common-sense somewhat scientifically-informed (for those of us in Western society, at least) view of the world we all have (or most of us, at least). The ‘natural attitude’ involves the assumptions that the world is external to our experiences, that we’re a part of the world, and that sort of thing.

    So, crudely put, when engaged in phenomenological reduction you’re sort of a solipsist (although I have a feeling Husserl does think that we don’t end up experiencing other people as simply objects, even in the phenomenological reduction).

    But it’s important to stress that Husserl isn’t a solipsist or a sceptic about science.

    Unfortunately I can’t give you any decent references on this. Husserl wrote rather a lot, he changed his mind a fair bit, and he’s difficult to read. I’ve read a couple of introductory books on him, and frankly I found those a struggle, too. You could give Stanford a try, but it’s not exactly transparent either.

    Normally I’d say if you want to actually get right into philosophy, you should be prepared to do a bit of toe-to-toe with the primary texts, but I think in Husserl’s case it might be better to find a decent expert who can explain themselves clearly and stick with that. And I haven’t found one yet.

  • Alix

    Thanks for the info! I’ll definitely have to dig into this; it all sounds really interesting.

    if you want to actually get right into philosophy, you should be prepared to do a bit of toe-to-toe with the primary texts

    That’s generally been my approach, but I’ve shot myself in the foot that way enough times that I now usually try to find a good intro text to read prior/with the primary texts. I guess I’ll just have to do some preliminary reading, take a deep breath, and muddle through. Sometimes, that even works. ;)

    If you ever do find a good clear explanation on all this, please let me know.

  • arcseconds

    We must be really talking past each other here. I don’t think all thinking is rational either, and I don’t know why you think I’m saying that.

    I thought I’d adopted ‘reasoning’ as my term for what I’d normally call rationality, to try to avoid having a semantic argument over the definition of the word ‘rationality’ but this doesn’t seem to have worked! Now it seems like you’re treating ‘reasoning’ as a synonym for ‘thinking’… I’m not sure how I can explain myself if you keep pulling the semantic rug out from under me. Do I have to invent an ugly neologism to keep you away from my terminology? :)

    I also thought I was fairly clear that I wasn’t prioritizing rationality over every other form of experience or being. I’m not even prioritizing it over irrationality, necessarily!

  • Alix

    Okay, let me see.

    On the reasoning thing – sorry, I was unclear. I guess my assumption was that if your reasoning/rationality is faulty, it is by definition irrational, and so I don’t really see why faulty rationality would still be rational.

    On the prioritizing of rationality – well, I did get a bit of that impression from you, but that part of my comment was more trying to explain my own experiences with rationality advocates, with reference to something mentioned by someone else way upthread. You’d asked about my own experiences with reasoning and how they colored my view of rationality, and I was trying to explain as clearly as I could. And, clearly, not really doing that good a job of it. :)

  • arcseconds

    Thinking hard is good for you! but don’t worry, I don’t charge…

    Empathy means a variety of related things, as far as I can tell:

    1) feeling what someone else is feeling
    (also 1.5: not feeling what someone else is feeling exactly, but feeling happy if they’re having a good time and bad if they’re having a bad time – but not necessarily feeling excitement or grief alongside them – I’d normally call this ‘sympathy’)
    2) being able to tell what someone else is feeling
    3) caring about what someone else is feeling

    Now, normally if someone says ‘so and so is very empathic’, they mean all three, but they don’t need to coincide. We could imagine people who are very empathic in sense 1 who don’t really care about other people and find it troublesome to be constantly feeling other people’s pain, so they just stop associating with people who are having a bad time of things, and only hang out with happy people.

    I suppose it could mean ‘putting yourself into another’s shoes’ as well, but I’d probably say that’s something different, although I’m sure empathy helps the process. It requires a lot more than perceiving someone’s emotional state: you also have to understand their worldview and values and that sort of thing. So it requires a lot of imagination and straight-up reason as well as emotional perception.

    I can imagine someone knowing another is in pain, and caring about it, and wanting to relieve it, but making horrible mistakes because they can’t really see things from the other person’s perspective. And i think I’ve seen things along those lines happen from time to time.

    I certainly know that while I don’t have any particular difficulty knowing what other people are feeling (although I don’t think I’m astoundingly good at it either, and no-one gets this right all the time, and online is much harder of course so don’t expect to see any great displays of empathy from me!) understanding why they are feeling that way and what I should do about it don’t necessarily follow.

    Incidentally, do you have trouble with all three of the above?

  • To your question, less so these days than if you’d asked me a couple of years ago, but it’s something that’s still developing and growing. I feel at this point that I have a habitual, simplistic form of artificial empathy where I automatically glean how a person feels and give them the appropriate reaction, but complex displays usually require asking a few questions (not always with tact) to figure out exactly what’s going on.

    (The scenario I live in fear of is when a friend no longer has someone in their life, but they’re simultaneously sad and happy because of things that person did. When my significant other’s mother had a second stroke, it was “Sad! This is very bad! Oh, wait, the brain damage turned her into a horrible monster for over a decade. So… happy? But sad. Hapsad. Sadplyhapad.”)

    I’m getting better about caring, though, since I’ve made efforts to internalize the value of other people. Now it more directly impacts me that someone else feels good or bad, because, at the very least, if they feel bad long enough (let alone because of something I’ve done), then that person will stop being around for me to enjoy. It’s very egocentric, but I have to trick myself into being concerned that way. Left up to nature, my automatic response would be “SO? That’s not me!

    These days, depression makes the first two even harder than they would be anyway, since there are days when I’m unable to muster an emotional response to anything, but I like to think that a sincere effort to respond appropriately is, at some level, similar enough to responding appropriately that I’m not a complete monster.

    (That’s another fear, again tricked out of my system. I might have trouble caring what people think of me, but what about what I think of me? What if I hold myself to higher standards than that? Well, then I guess I have to muster the effort to interact like a human being.)

  • Haven’t you heard? Atheists know what christians believe better than christians do.

    Hell, I’ve had people here tell me that, with citations.

  • I suppose my morals are shaped around actions which seem to be most likely to further this goal.

    That sounds a lot like Utilitarianism to me, a view which I hold myself. The idea is to not view an action as necessarily moral or immoral in itself, but rather see whether that action can be reasonably expected to serve some stated value of moral good or not. Suppose for example that you value the preservation of life as a moral good, then actions taken that can be reasonably expected to aid this goal can be considered moral, while actions which interfere with this goal can be considered immoral. It is not so much about intention, nor the moral value of any specific thing, but evaluating each thing as it fits into a larger framework.

    That said, the moral hazard of Utilitarianism lies in falling into an “ends justify the means” kind of rationalization. The ethics considerations enter when one is prepared to take actions which damage one held value in the name of serving another held value. This kind of conflict happens more often than one would like and one needs to set priorities to resolve it (being able to choose the lesser of two evils,) but the ethical problem is when one set of values is too damaged by an action to justify the moral gain for another set of values.

  • I’m not sure I have an example of that dilemma to use as a model for contemplation… although what jumped to mind was a dilemma someone raised to my attention here on this blog. I said that Christians should reclaim their identity from the conservatives and their hateful ideology, he pointed out that to do so would be making a public spectacle of the faith — exactly what the faith itself said not to do.

    I still debate that dilemma to this day. Should Christians violate the tenets of their faith, judge a brother or sister, make a public matter of their faith? How, then, could they complain about people violating the tenets of their faith?

    I still have no answer for that and I dread the thought, generations from now, of Christianity being synonymous with hard right attitudes. But once you start down the path of breaking rules to uphold rules, where does it end?

    Admittedly, things like this are paralyzing…

  • This may prove an interesting experiment.

    Social intelligence test: Try to guess which of four emotions a person is experiencing by the set of their eyes.

    I scored 24 out of 36. “Average” is 26. I was expecting to score much lower, since I really had no idea for a lot of them…