Wikimorality

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Some of my favorite bloggers have had their fun with the results of a recent contest that sought to crowdsource a new set of 10 Commandments for the 21st century. And while I cannot hope to match either their eloquence or erudition, I thought it might be an enjoyable exercise to have my own run at it.

In an interesting twist, each crowdsourced commandment has a rationale associated with it, submitted by each individual author. One of the judging criterion was that the submission be “Logically consistent and well reasoned;” thus, we have a bit more info than a mere axiom to determine the applicability- or, more often, laughability- of each submission.

#1. Be open minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

The difficulty right out of the gate is that “evidence” in and of itself does not include any sort of interpretive substructure. That is, while evidence may include facts pertinent to the truth of something, it does not entail that evidence interprets itself. Nor is all evidence created equal, since evidence can lead one towards a particular truth or away from the same truth; thus, evidence is certainly not self-substantiating. Being willing to alter one’s beliefs when faced with evidence is not necessarily an unwelcome thing, but it is naive to assume one’s beliefs do not themselves form the perception and interpretation of any particular piece of evidence.

The rationale given for this is commandment is as such:

“It is essential in order for us to be able to collaboratively work together to find common solutions to pressing world problems.”

I am not entirely sure why the need for redundancy here (since to collaborate is to work together on something), but we can see in the rationale how one’s beliefs form the lens through which evidence is viewed. The reason given here is utilitarian, which ultimately perceives beliefs and evidence by means of their utility toward some end (here, solving world problems). This would of course be distinct from a different approach which would perceive the truth of something as important irrespective of its utility, and thus evidence would be related to beliefs in a markedly different fashion.

The irony here is that the open-mindedness expressed in the axiom is undermined by the rationale, since the open-mindedness would only be logically applicable as far as the utilitarian aspect of any belief or evidence was concerned.

#2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

Decent advice this, albeit constrained by an unfortunate dichotomy implicitly drawn between understanding and belief. Also unfortunate is the skepticism which obviates the commandment itself; why not strive to understand what is true, rather than most likely true? After all, if one does not have already-assumed-to-be-true or known-to-be true precepts or axioms (such as this commandment?), then there is no tool with which to determine the most-likeliness of any other truth.

“We’re more likely to believe what we wish to be true over what we wish not to be true, regardless of veracity. If we’re interested in learning the truth, then we need to actively separate our beliefs from our desires.”

One might reasonably question how one can separate belief from desire, since to strive for something (for example, striving to understand what is most likely true…) is the same as to desire that thing. In this case, we are told to strive (i.e., desire) to understand what is most likely true, which means one’s belief that understanding what is most likely to be true is something to strive for is part and parcel of the desire to attain it. Even being interested in learning the truth is itself a desire, since we don’t take interest in that which we do not desire.

#3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

The scientific method is certainly a means of understanding the natural world, but it is impossible to verify its status as most reliable since the method itself cannot provide its own validation. After all, the assumption that the scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world is a philosophical a priori, and thus something the scientific method is incapable of providing evidence for one way or another.

The scientific method, like any other epistemological tool, has competencies and limitations. For those aspects of the natural world which are open to investigation by the scientific method it works admirably, but given the limitations imposed by the philosophical a priori of its tools and methods, it neither exhausts the meaning of the natural world (or any of its phenomena) nor self-validates itself as the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

“Every time humans have questions this method is used to solve them. If we don’t know, we don’t know but instead of making up the answer we use this method to reach a conclusion/answer.”

The first line is of course ambiguous. Is the meaning here “any questions whatsoever?” “Questions about the natural world?” “Questions about aspects of the natural world that can be explored by means of the scientific method?”

It is redundant to notice that if we don’t know we don’t know, but the important question is about the nature of what we don’t know, since the conclusion reached by any epistemology will have direct bearing on the ‘made-up-ness’ of the answer or conclusion. If one assumes that the scientific method is capable of answering questions for which it is not competent, it is difficult to escape the reality that that conclusion would be ‘made-up’ rather than something flowing out of its methods and a priori assumptions.

#4. Every person has the right to control over their [sic] body.

The commandment here is so superficially constructed as to be demolished by its own rationale:

This includes a person\”s right to not be murdered, raped, imprisoned without just cause (violating another person\’s rights), kidnapped, attacked, tortured, etc. This also protects a person\’s freedom of speech and freedom to dress and represent themselves as they so choose.

While I would agree that one has a right not to be murdered, raped, etc., one might wonder why the right to control over one’s body is a priori taken away from the person performing the murder, rape, etc.? After all, to engage in any of those acts is an act done in the body, and thus something over which that person has control.

This is obviously not what the author has in mind, but such a reductio clearly demonstrates that ‘control over their [sic] body’ is really a meaningless phrase that falls apart as soon as one examines it, at least if taken in an absolute sense. What exactly is meant by it is not at all clear.

#5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

This statement is tremendously opaque. After all, what conception of ‘good’ is in view here? Are we talking about a good person in reference to the performance of particular objectively good acts? That is, is to be a good person someone who does what is good in and of itself?

Additionally, are we conceiving of being a good person without God in the sense that such a person doesn’t personally have to believe in God to be good? Or that God is not ontologically necessary for any particular person to be good?

When one does a good deed it isn’t because God tells one to do a good deed, but because one simply wants to be good person.

This initial rationale suffers from a misunderstanding of the nature of good and its relation to God. Within traditional religious and/or philosophical conceptions (at least within the Christian and/or western philosophical tradition) one doesn’t do good deeds simply because God tells one to do them (although being told what is good and what is not may be part of revelation), but rather because one’s nature is perfected by attaining the good. The good is not merely some objective standard to which we submit, but is, as a universal, ultimately grounded in God’s own essence. Thus, the good only exists because God is goodness itself; anything that is ‘good’ is only so by means of participation in that goodness.

What the author seems to do here is to smuggle religious conceptions of the good in through the back door. Unfortunately, the entire edifice is demolished in the final sentence, for if “we are capable of defining our own, different meanings for our lives,” then those different meanings (which necessarily include our conception of the good) will have necessarily subjective conceptions of the good, which means that doing a ‘good deed’ or being a ‘good person’ is only meaningful as far as the different self-created meaning for each person. As such, a ‘good deed’ for one could be a terrible deed for another (see #3), without any meaningful way to distinguish (or condone or condemn), since any objective conception of the good has been a priori rejected.

#6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognise that you must take responsibility for them.

If #5 is taken as a given, this commandment is meaningless, since taking responsibility for ones actions may or may not be something that attains within any one person’s conception of the good. To be sure, others may (within their own particular conception of the good) attempt to hold you responsible, and that may figure into the motivation for any given action, but it hardly supplies any moral imperative one way or the other.

Of course, our author does not seem to recognize this:

It may sound obvious, but negligence and refusal to take responsibility are an immense source of harm in the world, from interpersonal relations to Global issues.

‘Negligence’ and ‘refusal to take responsibility’ are privations of a good, which may only attain within the conceptions of the good of some. ‘Harm’ as well would necessarily have to be understood as a subjective description of any act or event, so is difficult to see how this commandment could actually have any meaningful content when understood within the conception of the good as understood by commandment #5.

#7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

This commandment plays off of an old classic, but manages to completely empty the original of its force. In the original we are told to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, which entails that we would want the good done unto us in all situations. In other words, the way we are supposed to treat others is wholly wrapped up in this desire to have good done unto us.

The commandment needlessly extends the range of responsibility and creates a impossible standard. After all, while we all have areas where we don’t know ourselves or what we want, we know how we want to be treated, which is with goodness, even if we don’t always have a clear idea of what that is. At the very least we do not wish others to harm us. However, by extending the range to how we can reasonably expect others to want be treated, we are forced into knowing what we are incapable of knowing. For as little as we sometimes know ourselves and what we want and how we want to be treated, we know others far less. The point of the original commandment is that we wish good to be done to us and thus should do that good for others; here we are told to essentially guess at another’s perspective.

The most distressing part is that it introduces a relationship of power into the doing of good unto a another. It places one in the position of determining what is good for another or determining that they should be treated differently from how one wishes to be treated.

If everyone did their best to carry this out as far as it can go, everyone would get along much better.

‘As far as it can go’ is a benevolent dictatorship, with the powerful doing unto others what they deem the others would want done unto them, or ‘for their own good.’

#8. We have the responsibility to consider others including future generations

This, of course, would extend to the future generations of the currently unborn?

As human beings, we have great power. As Voltaire noted “With great power comes great responsibility.” To not consider others would be selfish and petty. We have demonstrated the ability to be magnanimous, are rapidly becoming more so, and will be even more so in the near future.

It is hardly guaranteed that humans will be more magnanimous in the future. Before the last century’s world wars this was assumed, and then shattered by unheard of body counts. That a large portion of future generations simply will not exist given the scourge of abortion of the last 60 years additionally gives one reason to suspect the inevitability of this assumption.

#9 There is no one right way to live.

With this every other commandment is demolished including itself. For if I think there is a right way to live and wrong ways to live, someone who believes there is no one right way to live cannot possibly think I am wrong.

If you look, even a little, you find many cultures living in moral societies that are fundamentally different, with only a few very basic principles being adhered to between them. Just because one group is different, does not mean they are wrong.

I’m guessing that the author would therefore have no argument against slavery.

#10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

If there is no one right way to live, why is this an imperative?

The Japanese concept of Kaizen teaches that small incremental improvements can have a profound effect over time. We should all strive to leave the world better than we found it be it through relieving the suffering of others, creating works of art, or passing along knowledge.

All of these ostensibly good things presumes some standard of goodness or desirability; otherwise, why pass these along rather than other things like war, destruction and ignorance? If one way of living is not better than another, why should there be a smuggled in conception of the good for one thing over against

___

As can be seen, crowdsourcing morality leaves one in a tangle of contradiction and confusion. What is actually happening in most of these commandments is that a religious or philosophical notion of the good is being brought in through the back door to form the outlines of the commandment. After all, since no conception of the good is actually established or elucidated, all notions of what is good or desirable must have their referent in either some other unmentioned objective source or squarely in the subjectivity of the person. And since the latter leads into circular and self-destructive reasoning, one can only hope that the smuggling in of religious or philosophical notions of the good is happening.

Otherwise, damn.

 

UPDATE:

In thinking through this list again, I noticed something intriguing: none of these morality alternatives has any concrete action associated with them, either to do or to avoid. For example, in the original 10 Commandments there are concrete actions to avoid, such as Do not murder, do not commit adultery, etc. Even concrete positive actions (Honor your father and mother) are explicitly delineated. In this alternative list, however, one would be hard pressed to find a concrete action prescribed (or even, for that matter, proscribed.) To be sure, one might issue the rejoinder that the so-called Golden Rule falls under the same critique, but at least with that there is the oft-expressed notion by Jesus (for the Christian version) that this contains the whole of the “law and the prophets.” In other words, there is already a concrete moral foundation of which the injunction to do “unto others” and “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is the capstone.

I would be inclined to see this sort of morality alternative as having a quasi-Gnostic bent, as it is mostly disassociated from concrete action. In very few of the “commandments” are any sort of concrete, human acts scrutinized, prescribed or proscribed, almost as if the entirety of the moral structure advanced here exists in the relation of one’s intents or predilections to certain ideals, without any meaningful relation to specific acts. This disavowal of the embodied nature of our existence is curious, ironic given the modern notion that the body exhausts the meaning of the human being. Equally curious (albeit not surprising) is that the majority of the commandments are actually epistemological precepts, rather than ethical. Perhaps attaining the right sort of knowledge or understanding is the way to be moral, which may be the modern world’s method of attaining the pleroma.

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Jason Watson

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