Monday, 29 September 2003

Taboo - A Quiz about Morality

From Butterflies & Wheels, a blog that Norman Geras highly recommends,, comes a quiz about personal morality. I came across as less permissive than most, (Moralising 0.53 vs average 0.25), Interference Factor 0.4 vs average 0.16, that is, more likely to stick my nose into other people's business, and a Universalising factor of 1.00 vs an average of 0.42, completely disregarding custom as affecting moral decisions.

I think the test is slightly flawed - there are questions involving both private and public matters that are intermingled in the evaluation section which are quite seperate when asked. I won't give the game away by giving concrete cases, let's just say that I believe that certain actions which are harmless when performed by consenting adults in private should be publically discouraged should society be forced to become aware of them. Without a smidgin of hypocricy such as this, privacy has no value. But more than a smidgin is too much. Example : Shouting "Whites should be exterminated!" in one's own home, with no-one to hear, harms none (except possibly the speaker, though I think it to be a symptom not a cause of self-harm). Yet if such actions became known, sanctions should be imposed. Not legal ones (IMHO, and in this case), just expressions of societal disapproval, because a purely private act has, by being published, become a public one, (a tautology, to state the bleedin obvious) and hence of a different character.

Note that last leap of logic in the last phrase : it assumes without proof that public acts and private acts are by their nature, different. Which sounds suspiciously to me like "begging the question", and I'm the one who wrote it. Still, it's what I believe, and I'm willing to listen avidly to reasons why I'm wrong, wrong, Wrong.

Matters of Ethics and Morality are important to me. I've been involved in the past with making "better ways to kill people", and carry the burden and responsibility for at least 2 enemy deaths in combat caused by the use of systems I've created. The same techniques used to make weapons are exactly the techniques used to make so–called "Safety Critical" systems, things like Railway Control systems and Avionics, which have to work to a certain minimum level 100% of the time or lives will be lost. When teaching people who make such systems, I always get them to consider their ethical and moral responsibilities. This is serious stuff, just one mistake can kill people, directly or indirectly. Screw up, and that "smart bomb" hits an orphanage, not the Uranium enrichment plant nearby.

Anyway, the quiz gives one furiously to think. Please go visit the rest of the site, it has some truly erudite (and sometimes hilarious) demolition of Fashionable Nonsense.

First, thanks for some time ago adding lots of much needed detail to a comment I made at Winds of War
about the Pauline in prison affair. Much appreciated.

Now: public and private acts and are they (always) different.

First, let's see if we disagree.

I came out with logically consistent views but a "tension" in my answers because I regarded the failure on the bad son go visit his dead mother's grave as doing harm.

Partly this is a point of religion: those who wrote the quiz assumed dead=nonexistent, whereas I take a more Egyptian view: dead but not nonexistent. (I would not regard an undiscovered tomb robbery as being a private or harmless act either.) And naturally I don't
expect agreement on that, so there's no point in arguing it.

But I do think the private (~> no harm ~> no evil except perhaps by violating the arbitrary dicta of the gods) vs. public (~> undesirable hedonic consequences ~> perhaps evil) division breaks down with acts to which there were living witnesses, but to which there are or will be no living witnesses.

If the bad son's promise to his dying mother is irrelevant because there are no living witnesses, I am going to tell a story about Jim and Joe in a lonely place, and how frail old Jim brought Joe's IOUs, and burly young Joe brought rope, a shovel and some heavy duty garbage bags. Whatever passed between Jim and Joe in that lonely place is now irrelevant: it is now a private act, and Joe never felt a bit bad about it as he enjoyed a life less burdened by debt.

I think this is what it may come to if you take the view that acts, including speech acts, involving the soon to be dead count as public (and are therefore stringently assessed in moral terms), until the witnesses are dead, at which point the accounting is redone on the basis that the non-living/nonexistent don't count.

While I do not see a logical flaw if someone says "that is right, I would disapprove of the act till there was nobody living who had been harmed by it, and then I would reverse my moral judgment on Joe and what he did and give them both a pass," I do not like it a bit.

For this reason, I think that the public/private distinction, which I agree is very sensible and necessary in most circumstances, hits an awkward patch here. And the awkwardness ought to be resolved in favor of the dead.

Which means that since the son's promise to his mother was not a solitary act when he made it, it still has its moral force, and he ought to be reproved for his conduct and pressed to keep his word, if it was possible to do so. And in my story, not only is Joe a
murderer, he still owes Jim his money, and on both counts, Joe should be made to pay.

Your opinion?

Or were your issue with public/private distinctions in the example cases different?

David Blue

Irrelevant afterthough: I remember once reading a philosophical argument, the details of which I cannot at all recall, that meant that you could not pre-empt, because you have no rights against merely notional or prospective violence, it is only actual violence against which you have rights. Put that together with some sound materialist view that only the living have rights, and you can conclude that Jim had nothing to complain about before or afterwards, but the full protection of moral philosophy at the exact moment the shovel smashed his skull. :P

::David Blue

Someone who believes in an Omniscient Deity would have to argue that no act is truly "private", as God Sees All. I'm an agnostic rather than an atheist, due mainly to various abstruse physical phenomena and the partly intuitive, partly rational evaluation that for an uncaring Universe, there's far too much good around us. Why are Auschwitz and 9/11 the exception rather than the rule? The main reason for not having faith in some Deity is because one is not neccessary, yet I find much in the world that can plausibly be explained by postulating the existence of one. I don't have enough faith to be an atheist, but nowhere near enough faith to be a deist. I said "plausibly", not "most plausibly".

But I digress.

Your point, if I understand rightly, was that given the existence of some individuality post-mortem, then both logic and intuition give the same results: killing people is wrong, regardless of whether someone lives to tell the tale. And without such existence, there is a mismatch.

The mismatch is more perceived than real though, if you assume that Evil is timeless - an act that was once Evil remains Evil despite future happenings. For in the long run, everyone dies. The Sack of Magdeburg in the 17th century remains a horror, despite there being no-one now alive who witnessed it.

I'll reply more and at length in a future post. But may I state my thanks for giving my ethics a good work-out, and I'm glad I was able to help a little with the details of the Hanson affair.

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