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Moral Nature of Human Beings: Born Good or Evil?

 
 
Thomas
 
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Reply Tue 11 Nov, 2003 02:19 pm
Greyfan wrote:
Most of us probably do equate murder with evilness. But unanimity of opinion does not equal proof. We can demonstrate the laws of physics, chemistry, etc.

No we can't. These 'laws' are deduced from reproducible observations in the natural world, and the consensus of what they say has frequently changed in response to new observations. Based on their observations, scientists have tried to make theories that are internally consistent with each other, and externally consistent with the observations made.

If you look at the history of common law, you will find that its constructs have evolved in quite a similar way. Judges have made reproducible observations about what people consider consider just and unjust. (In part by introspection, in part by observing the customs of their societies.) They then tried, with considerable success, to develop theories of justice that are internally consistent and externally consistent with the observations.

This analogy serves to illustrate two points: One, your ethical point that consensus doesn't establish truth applies to the laws of physics with equal strength as to the laws of ethics. Two, if you believe there are laws of physics, and scientists can discover them but not write them, you can also believe there are laws of ethics, and that judges, priests and politicians can discover them but not write them either. No reference to god necessary.
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Greyfan
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Nov, 2003 03:01 pm
Thomas

New observations do lead to corrections or even changes in the perception of natural laws. It was foolish of me to overstate the case.

On the other hand, I don't believe the same method can be applied to the evolution of law, however similar the process may appear to be externally.

Formulations of the laws of nature can be tested against an observable reality, with the results confirmed or rejected elsewhere, based on their validity. We can only know we have been wrong in the past if we accept the probability that we are now closer to being right, and that is only possible if there is an objective answer.

Formulations of common law cannot be tested, except within the subjective perceptions from which they arose in the first place, and would have no application, for example, in an alien culture, although an alien culture could test our scientific theories. When the only basis for our consideration is custom and popular opinion, however, there is no correct answer for which to strive.

I believe the laws of physics can be discovered but not created. I believe the laws of ethics can be created, but not discovered.
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Heliotrope
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 01:25 am
BlueMonkey wrote:
If I was to think like that then nothing has meaning, relevance or reality. The concept of love, sex, war, children, murder, rape, happy, mean, stupid, intelligent and such have no meanings. They have no reality because they are based, also, on the majority. Every word is based on majority. So nothing has meaning, even the word nothing has no meaning. My nothing could be different from another's nothing.


Dear oh dear. People do seem to love extrapolating things to the point of absolute absurdity don't they ?

The point is that terms that are based solely upon some person's viewpoint, whatever it may be, are not a basis for understanding anything apart from a new descriptive term that describes something they perceive.
An extreme and possibly facetious but clear example is : Right or wrong between two opposing sides depends upon which side you happen to be on. Neither viewpoint is relevant unless it has the other for an opposite. However, gravity is not subject to such a viewpoint or opinion. It doesn't matter where you are or what you think or what you're doing, gravity will always be there.

So you have to start separating out the things that DO depend upon the point of view of a person or persons involved and start understanding that those things are mostly irrelevant and do not help in the understanding of a situation.
Deciding for yourself that the Palestinians are "right" and the Israelies are "wrong" doesn't help anything. It cannot assist in the resolution of the situation.
Likewise, deciding that murder is "right" or "wrong", "good" or "evil" doesn't help in the resolution of the philosophical questions.

You have to move beyond the simplistic labels that humans put upon these things just because they either like or don't like them and see the actuality beneath.
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Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 03:53 am
Greyfan --

Thanks for your interesting points. Before I address them, I'd like to insert a little disclaimer: The view I'm about to defend is a view towards which my thinking has been trending recently. It is not a view I have held for most of my life, and I am not even sure I hold it now -- maybe I'll get there maybe not. So if I defend them now, it is in a spirit of exploration, not ideology.

Greyfan wrote:
Formulations of the laws of nature can be tested against an observable reality, with the results confirmed or rejected elsewhere, based on their validity.
[...]
Formulations of common law cannot be tested, except within the subjective perceptions from which they arose in the first place,

I would dispute that. For an interesting recent example, consider the hacker community (in the noble sense of the word -- the community that built the internet, the Linux operating system, etc.). Eric Raymond, a hacker and amateur sociologist, discovered a few years ago that hackers act as if they respect an elaborate set of property rights in ideas and problems. These rights have never been explicitly negotiated, but they nevertheless turn out to be very similar to Lockean rights in newly settled land -- the kind of rights America adopted in the homestead act. If you're interested in details, you might be interested in Raymond's article, Homesteading the Noosphere.

It would appear that discoveries like this do open the possibility of objective tests. You watch out for conflicts that have happened among settlers in the Wild West, but not yet in the hacker community. Based on what you know about homesteading law, you predict which party to the conflict will make which ethical, (philosophical, moral ...) argument, and how the conflict will eventually be resolved. Then you wait for the conflict to happen, and when it does, you compare the outcome to your prediction. Because hackers don't study law, there is no reason to believe the outcome will be analogous to the outcome in settlement conflicts. Except if there is something objective about the situation that determines the outcome.

Wouldn't this be the kind of test you say doesn't exist?

Greyfan wrote:
and would have no application, for example, in an alien culture, although an alien culture could test our scientific theories. When the only basis for our consideration is custom and popular opinion, however, there is no correct answer for which to strive.

As someone who occasionally attends scientific conferences, I have visited several fairly alien cultures. While there are indeed some customs that are different, the bulk of them are similar to ours. But similarities are boring and differences are interesting, so nobody pays attention to the similarities. Nevertheless, you can predict pretty well, based on your native customs, whether a particular act will evoke moral emotions such as outrage, shame and pride in your alien hosts. At least this has been my experience.

Greyfan wrote:
I believe the laws of physics can be discovered but not created. I believe the laws of ethics can be created, but not discovered.

That's not how I see it, at least not in the context of this discussion. I am willing to start with the assumption that laws of physics and laws of ethics are both social constructs. But as a matter of observation, most social constructs turn out to be neither valid laws of physics nor valid laws of ethics. Most of these constructs collapse shortly after construction, a few don't -- and these few have a number of predictable features in common.

This is a fact worth paying attention to, and it is a fact that merits an explanation. My explanation is that in both ethics and physics, there's a reality out there which constrains which social constructs can survive. I admit the constraints are more loose in the case of ethics, but that doesn't change my fundamental point.
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Frank Apisa
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 07:19 am
Although I am enjoying the conversation between Grayfan and Thomas, I'm having difficulty relating it to the issue at hand.

Let me offer this (which essentially is in rebuttal to what BlueMonkey wrote earlier:

Humans are BORN with characteristics that, if exhibited by adults, are considered ANYTHING BUT good.

The are totally self-absorbed and self-indulgent.

We can say there is a reason for this -- but whether or not there is a reason does not change the fact that it is there.

The "good" human qualities of self-restraint and consideration for others -- is something that has to be taught and learned.

Not sure of where I'm going with this -- but if anyone wants to comment, we'll see.
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Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 09:07 am
Frank Apisa wrote:
Humans are BORN with characteristics that, if exhibited by adults, are considered ANYTHING BUT good.

The are totally self-absorbed and self-indulgent.

But there are different ways of being self-absorbed and self-indulgent. Some of them are good, some not. This is why we teach children that they can better achieve their egocentric objectives by choosing the good ways and avoiding the bad. Society rewards 'good' behavior with payment, praise, and girl/boyfriends. It punishes 'bad' behavior by leaving 'bad' people poor, ashamed, and single. This makes it in the interest of the educated child to be good.

So I disagree with your assumption that grown-ups are less egocentric than children. The difference is not that they're less egocentric, but that they've gotten smarter at pursuing their egocentric ends.
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joefromchicago
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 09:37 am
Thomas wrote:
So I disagree with your assumption that grown-ups are less egocentric than children. The difference is not that they're less egocentric, but that they've gotten smarter at pursuing their egocentric ends.

So, in effect, humans are born evil and, rather than get better as they get older, humans just get smarter.
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Frank Apisa
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 09:40 am
Thomas wrote:
So I disagree with your assumption that grown-ups are less egocentric than children. The difference is not that they're less egocentric, but that they've gotten smarter at pursuing their egocentric ends.



Thomas, I don't want you to get the idea that I think adults are not egocentric. I've even argued at times that the most seemingly altruistic behavior has at its heart the need to meet some egocentric need in the person displaying such behavior.

My point was to highlight that we are not necessarily born "good" -- even if the various subjective definitiions of "good" are used.

My wording could have been more specific.

In any case, once again the conversation on this issue resolves in favor of learned impressions of what is "good" and what is "bad."

It would be pretty hard to convince me that there is an intrinsic "evil" anywhere.
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Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 09:42 am
joefromchicago wrote:
So, in effect, humans are born evil and, rather than get better as they get older, humans just get smarter.

That's one possible conclusion, but not mine. My conclusion is that self-absorption, far from being evil, is a Good Thing (TM), just like arms and legs are good things. Children just need to learn how to use use their self-absorption to its best possible effect, just like they have to learn how to use their arms and legs to the best possible effect.
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 01:37 pm
truth
I think that ego-centricity (egoism and egotism) is the default condition for all humans (transcended, as far as I know, only by mystics), but with socialization it is normally expressed in more socially acceptable ways. I agree with Frank that even altruistic actions reflect egoistic motives, albeit in a manner that helps rather than hurts others. I enjoy helping my neighbors mainly because it helps me feel good about myself. But I know individuals who only or mainly feel good about themselves when they harm or at least refuse to help others. So egotism is a two-edged sword that can cut both ways.
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Frank Apisa
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 01:43 pm
Good post, JL.

Well put!
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JLNobody
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 02:47 pm
truth
Thanks, Frank. I try (and try and try and try and try....)
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twyvel
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 02:56 pm
Thomas wrote:

Quote:
That's one possible conclusion, but not mine. My conclusion is that self-absorption, far from being evil, is a Good Thing (TM), just like arms and legs are good things.
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 03:07 pm
truth
As I see it, Twyvel, the attempt to get past self-absorption is itself (because it requires so much effort) an act of self-absorption. Which is why meditation in the service of ego eradication is so subtle and paradoxical a process. I'm sure you agree.
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twyvel
 
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Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 03:59 pm
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 04:38 pm
truth
Very good, Twyvel. You show how paradoxical and subtle the process is. Here's another example of that:
"The fact that we are Reality, and that we have never ceased so to be, and that in consequence the realization is but liberation from a mirage, is frequently brought out in all works on Zen. Becuse a mirage is in a certain sense non-existent the fact of being delivered from it is--from the point of view of the sage--non-existent" (Robert Linssen, Living Zen, p.17)

But you're right, Twyvel. The sage would never have realized this (in his bones), had ne never planted his seed.
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Greyfan
 
  1  
Reply Wed 12 Nov, 2003 06:54 pm
Thomas

I am unable to respond at length to your last post at this time owing to time constraints, and I'm not sure I have much to add at this point anyway. At the very least, I need to review the articles you cite.

The theory is new to me. I believe it is probably wrong, but it is an interesting idea, and one worth considering.
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twyvel
 
  1  
Reply Thu 13 Nov, 2003 12:36 am
Thanks JLNobody,
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Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Thu 13 Nov, 2003 03:18 am
twyvel wrote:
Well I was going to add, I think "ego self absorption" is the root cause of the worst atrocities committed by humans against humans, and against other animals and the environment.

This is new to me. As far as I am informed, the worst crimes have been committed by communists trying to achieve their version of utopia, Christians converting heathens who would otherwise have been doomed to an afterlife in hell, and Nazis in pursuit of a racially pure humanity.

For all these movements, you can (and should!) disagree with their views about what the state of the world should be. But you cannot accuse them of of self absorption. They all cared a lot about the state of the world. So extreme idealism has killed many, many, many more people than self-absorption. That's why I consider egoism as virtuous and idealism as potentially wicked. I admit a world entirely without idealism would be unattractive. But it would be a whole lot less unattractive than a world entirely without egoism.
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twyvel
 
  1  
Reply Thu 13 Nov, 2003 04:09 am
Thomas wrote:

Quote:
This is news to me. As far as I am informed, the worst crimes committed by humans have been committed by communists who tried to achieve their version of utopia, Christians converting heathens who would otherwise have been doomed to an afterlife in hell, and Nazis in pursuit of a racially pure humanity.



The crimes are committed by self centered, self absorbed egos which extend and often dominates groups, gangs, parties, etc.

Quote:
These were all movements that cared a lot about the state of the world. You can (and should!) disagree with their views about what the state of the world should be, but you cannot accuse them of of self absorption.



Why not? One can care about the state of the world, (whatever that means) and be the most self center, self absorbed of all.

Quote:
Extreme idealism, also known as ideological fundamentalism, has killed several orders of magnitude more people than self-absorption. That's why I consider egoism a virtue and excessive idealism a sin. A world without idealism would be a whole lot less unattractive than a world without egoism.
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