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Ethics — What if we just keep asking why?

  1. Mar 19, 2010 #1
    In science, if we did that we would arrive to experience. Laws work because they make good predictions and that´s all there is to it. In Mathematics if we kept asking why we would arrive to axioms.

    But what about ethics? It´s not based on axioms or experience. Then, what is it based on? If there´s nothing in the bottom then it´s just ungrounded.

    If it´s based on our moral intuitions then ethics is useless because:

    1) different people have different moral intuitions;

    2) if ethics is based on our moral intuitions, then we don´t need ethics. We´d be better off following our moral intuitions directly instead of worrying about philosophy.

    What are your thoughts on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 19, 2010 #2


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    It seems more obvious to me that ethics reflect what societies and cultures have learnt over time. So the scientific approach would be to turn to anthropology to discover what societies in general have indeed learnt.

    Game theory, systems science, ecology, would of course help with the actually analysis of the anthropological field data.

    What is this thing called "intuition". You are just talking about responding to cultural norms internalised during your upbringing.
  4. Mar 19, 2010 #3
    That´s it.

    What I mean by ethics is not what people think is right but what actually is right. I´m not interested in what people think so I´m not interest in antropology.

    My post was about philosophy, about what makes certain actions be right. I´m saying that if we keep asking why is something right, the philosophers may answer us the first times, but if we kept arriving at more basic moral statements, they would have no justification for it because they have neither axioms nor do they rely on experience.
  5. Mar 19, 2010 #4


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    Sure it is. I can build a fully functional system of ethics via the scientific method.
    Making ethics scientific is easy. You just search for an ethical system that results in the most stable, functional society while maintaining as much of individual rights as possible and the ethics will follow logically and be verifiable via experiments.
  6. Mar 19, 2010 #5


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  7. Mar 19, 2010 #6


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    Huh? Seems you are looking at the issue backwards. Anthropology gives us evidence of what is right and in your first post you were focusing (incorrectly) on what people think is right. That's what "intuition" is.
    I think the flaw in your approach is the "why" question itelf. "Why" can only take you so far in science or philosophy - at some point, you end up with just "that's the way it is". So too with a scientific investigation of ethics. The first "why" of an ethical action is really about all there is to it or is necessary: because it results in a stable, peaceful, functional society.
  8. Mar 19, 2010 #7


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    When you think of philosophy as "having answers", this is saying that pure reason should by itself should deliver a final answer on "what is ethical". And clearly with axiomatic arguments, you can only get out what you already have presumed. So reason alone never works.

    So the question is where is the best place to find your "reasonable" axioms, your foundational assumptions?

    You could appeal to some mysterious inner knowledge (and I'm glad you agree moral intuition is just socially learnt behaviour, so this is not the right route).

    Or you could turn to science with its various grounding theories and observational data.

    Again, it seems obvious that anthropology would tell you what is general about human ethical systems. And systems science approaches, ecology and game theory are the kind of general theories that would make sense of the data.

    I've already made this argument in more detail in this recent thread.

  9. Mar 19, 2010 #8
    Circular reasoning, as it's an ethical proposition that societies should be stable. I can ask 'Why should societies be stable?'. 'Why should people have rights?', 'Why should societies be functional?', all ethical propositions whose universality you've still to prove.

    What you just stated is the categorical imperative, and ad hoc idea to justify ethics and a subtle circular reasoning in disguise.
  10. Mar 19, 2010 #9


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    It is not circular but hierarchical argument. To find a foundation, you have to step back from the particular to the general. So you have to step up from individual psychology (your moral intuitions) to the group scale (cultural anthropology). Which in turn must be grounded in even more general explanation (evolutionary dynamics, ecological imperatives). Which, still going as I argue, can then be taken to the even greater generality of the second law and dissipative structure theory.

    Can you keep going? Well second law is about as basic as physics gets. At some point, we run into the limits of what we can know.

    But it is important to understand the difference between circular and hierarchical explanation. One is tautology, the other is logic with scale. :smile:
  11. Mar 19, 2010 #10
    Pre-frontal cortex maybe?
  12. Mar 19, 2010 #11
    Well, the topic was about keep asking 'why', this does not solve it, we can keep asking 'why do societies need to be stable?' and so on.

    It's also important that ethics are not 'is', they are 'ought', 'ought' lies completely outside the domain of science. We can for instance scientifically make compelling that your children get cancer from your smoking. That does not imply that you should not smoke, which is an 'is', all it says it that your children get cancer from it, and what to do with it is your own thing.

    I don't think a circular reasoning is a tautology; A circular reasoning is not a formal fallacy, it is an ad casum. A circular reasoning by tautology in fact is always formally a correct reasoning. You simply add what you wish to prove as true to your list of axioms, therefore surely it is true from your new set of axioms, not your old per se.

    What you want however is to also proof it true from your old set of axioms, which you don't. However say we have some set of axioms X and we wish to prove A, then X union A |- A is usually a very correct logic, (provided that A includes the axiom that an axiom is a theorem.) However (X union A |- A) -> X |- A is what is usually implied, but not stated with a circular reasoning, which is a fallacy.

    The reason I called it a circular reasoning though is because the original poster implied that some ethical propositions could be based on science. But in that implicitly assumed that science had already shown that the ethical proposition 'society must be stable', is true, which isn't so.
  13. Mar 19, 2010 #12


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    Reality is not a problem to be solved. We can only hope to arrive at the most useful models. So progress is progress. A broad explanation is generally accepted as a better one.

    A familiar slogan. But I take a systems approach in which purpose, meaning and teleology are taken to be part of the science.

    My reply was that it is the correct approach to step up to find the reasons at the highest scale possible.

    Personally, I would question the assumption that the aim of societies actually are to be "stable". This is because thermodynamics has two quite different notions of equilbrium - the closed and the open, the linear and the non-linear, the gaussian and the geometric. One stays the same size, the other expands or transacts in powerlaw fashion.

    So you have two ideals of human society perhaps - the stable population/consumption society of, say, the hunter-gatherer, and the expanding population/consumption society we know today.

    But that just might mean we have two species of ethics - one natural to either kind of community.

    Now, I'm not saying I believe this. I just wish to demonstrate how bringing science into philosophical debates in an organised and rational fashion does open up new unsuspected lines of insight and questioning.
  14. Mar 19, 2010 #13
    Well, fair in that, but the topic was not about explaining why ethics take place, it was about a scientific model that can demonstrate which ethics should take place.

    How do we investigate what things mean, and what things are for?

    If I say that the symbol 'cat' means 'Three white monkeys', and you say' No it doesn't, it refers to a mammal with the scientific name felix cattus familiaris that was was domesticated when ...', the only thing you can say is that I'm wrong, because you're right.

    I find 'purpose' to be too vague to even begin with.

    Oh sure, as long as you can let one concede that order and functionality are desirable, you can let some recognise the implication that thus a certain ethic follows from that.

    Just as if a person is willing to admit that all spaces are euclidean we can let him or her admit that from that follows ....

    Well, 'stable' in this sense is completely different from the physical sense. I mean, to psychiatry again, they call it 'chemical imbalance', but it's really not more or less 'balanced', then any other brain chemistry if we speak in chemical terms.

    Both are mainly politically loaded terms were stable/balanced means 'good', which is of course quite circular in itself.
  15. Mar 19, 2010 #14


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    Which has been answered. Ethics is plainly derived from a dynamical system's need to persist. Codes of behaviour are what ensure group survival. Dissipative structure theory is the way to understand persistent complex systems in science.

    This in not how semioticians would view matters. Meanings cannot be arbitrary in the self-organising systems view. Arbitrary meanings assigned to reality would not enjoy persistent stability. Only the useful distinctions would survive.

    So yes, and the local scale of discussion you have chosen, either meaning asigned to cat would seem equal on face value. But like any random genetic (or memetic) experiment, over time and scale, one choice would be weeded out, the other strengthened.

    Or in information theoretic terms, one meaning would be negentropic, the others (such as three white monkeys and any other dictionary assortment of terms) would be noise.

    Self-organisation in systems is not about what is desirable (implying some local choice) but what is globally inevitable. Functionality is an inevitable feature of a system that persists. The dysfunctional, by definition, fall by the way side.

    Stable is not the goal, but equilbrium would be the inevitable hallmark of a dynamic system that persists.

    Systems theorists would also recognise that what is actually functional in such a system is stability~plasticity. In terms of the human brain and neural network models of the brain, the issue is how can a system learn (change) without changing too much (forgetting, erasing).

    This open or dynamic equilbrium balancing act has also been popularised as criticality or the edge of chaos. So stability~plasticity is becoming a mathematically well defined concept in science.

    This connects to the conversation on autism and perceptual integration. The perceptual world must be chunked into experiences (like I see that cat). And there is an active balance between the novel and the habitual response, between the perceptual differentiations and integrations.

    Neurochemistry is part of the story. Dopamine promotes endogenous focus, norepinephrine promotes exogenous vigilance. So the brain has a general balancing act, and then tuning knobs to fine-tune mental state between inner and outer focus, narrow and broad focus.

    Societies too must be tuned to "balanced" responses to their environments. So it is a danger to be under-reactive, but also over-reactive. Which again would be a scientific view playing back into any discussion of ethics.

    What is right and good in a slow changing world may become mal-adaptive in a fast changing one.

    But you cannot even begin to have these kinds of ethical dicussions unless you have studied the science involved. Which is why all interesting modern philosophy arises out of strong science.
  16. Mar 19, 2010 #15
    What makes you so sure that pursuit of a stable functional society should be the end goal of our actions? How would you even define stable and functional? There is certainly no scientific method that can be used to determine what the end goal should be. Science observes how do behave. Ethics asks how we should behave.

    The http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is–ought_problemis-ought problem is a very live issue in epistemology... how exactly can we have any knowledge about ethics? What can we base it on?

    SEP talks about meta-ethics and moral epistemology in http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaethics/#MorEpi. There doesn't seem to be anything that we can clearly and logically ground morality in, if you keep asking "why." The best we seem to be able do is resort to inductive inference - murder is wrong because a lot of people accept that it's wrong. But ethics by popular vote doesn't seem too satisfying either.

    There are other options too, but they all seem to require a leap of faith, or some assumption without further justification. You can assume God exists (but there are logical problems with deriving ethics from God). You can assume your intuition is correct. You can assume that some virtue is most important... etc.

    This is one of the apparent limits of philosophy. Philosophy is just about figuring out what we can't know anyways.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  17. Mar 20, 2010 #16
    Contestable, it's more that societies who have a destructive ethic are sooner to die out is my hunch natural selection.

    It can thus not be used to draw that any ethic of today automatically leads to stability, as any ethic of today might be of a society that is doomed to die out from it.

    Je ne comprends pas.

    Encore, comprends pas.

    Tu es incompréhensible, donc je parlerai en français, parce que c'est la langue avec la plus incompréhensible orthographe.

    Seriously, I neither get what you say nor what it's relation to what I said is. I cannot parse any semantics form your syntax.

    Reality isn't mutable unlike (some) programming languages, if a society changes there is no way to say if the same has persisted in a different form, or if it was destroyed and a new one was created in its place.

    I don't understand a word of this.


    You're pulling my leg, aren't you?

    Kote: Je t'aime parce que nos sommes d'accord. C'est qu'est la vie.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2010
  18. Mar 20, 2010 #17
    It's turtles all the way down. There is no foundation. There are no absolute right or wrong actions in atheist ethics.

    Search as they might, they are looking for a phantom to put substance to desire.
  19. Mar 20, 2010 #18
    What's interesting though is that a lot of people that are atheist still practice moral, as in:

    A: believe that some things should happen, only because they were raised to believe it, and have no argument or proof for it.
    B: if others don't believe it should happen, they will try to convince them that it should—try telling to the average atheist that you support child rape (trying to convert you, often violently)
    C: if other people don't observe the customs they think should happen, often they will forcibly enforce it, this includes locking them up in jails or making them pay fines.—like if you actually rape a child.

    What an interesting place this world is...
  20. Mar 20, 2010 #19
    Yeah, interesting critters, aren't we?
  21. Mar 20, 2010 #20
    Hello everybody,

    An argument I´ve seen is that we should stop asking why when the answer is "because it brings to a more stable society,..."

    As Kajahtava pointed out, why should it be that way? Ethics is not about determining which behaviours lead to a stable, strong society. It is not about society´s survival at all. That´s like saying math is about playing football. It´s just false, that´s not what the word "math" means. Ethics is about determining what is right and what isn´t, what we ought and what we ought not to do.

    I still think ethics is built on a shaky ground and thus it is useless. But I´ll give a counter- argument:

    "My inicial argument was based on the fact that ethics wasn´t based on axioms nor experience. But what about my original argument? It too isn´t based on ethics or experience, thus it is no good."

    I don´t think this counter-argument is good because my original argument is based on pure, rock solid logic. If something has a justification, then that justification must have a second justification and so on until we stopped somewhere. Or else things are unjustified. It just seems logical to me.

    What are your thoughts on this?
  22. Mar 20, 2010 #21
    Hi Kajahtava

    Ethics can´t also be based on God, whether He exists or not.

    Here is the argument that, I think, proves it:

  23. Mar 20, 2010 #22


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    You asked for an axiom and you got one. What I gave you is the goal - the purpose - of ethics.
    These can be proven with relatively obvious logic based on the axiom above alone. What you are arguing here is that since you refuse to apply logic to the subject you think it is illogical. Why not try applying logic and see if it is logical?

    You can start with the theories of moral absolutism vs moral relativism. Logically, if morality is relative, can a system of ethics provide a foundation for a stable/functional society?

    I really don't want to have to spoon feed you the entirety of moral/ethical/political theory when it seems you have no interest in trying to understand it and you can just start picking up books or even just apply logic and learning about it for yourself. You might start with Hobbes Leviathan. But if you show some effort, I'll help you along.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2010
  24. Mar 20, 2010 #23
    Hi Russ,

    Not everyone accepts this axiom. For example, the apartheid society might have been stable but it doesn´t seem fair.

    I don´t think any philosophers admit that ethics needs axioms. I don´t know any that do. They always try to prove everything but that can´t be done, since you always need foundations. Do you know any ethicist who accepts that there is a need for ethical axioms?

    I don´t think this was very polite.
  25. Mar 20, 2010 #24
    There is a great deal of evidence that much of what we consider to be Ethical is a matter of internal calculations as to risk, appearance in a social setting, possiblity of reprisal (under risk), etc... and that these are universal in the healthy avg human brain. Complex social constructs of Ethics are not, but it makes sense that social animals would naturally evolve a sense of "right and wrong" based on survival rates over time.

    Social animals couldn't become self-aware over time, and aware of their "society" without developing even the most primative ethics. Is it any wonder that we find evidence of Neolothic 'man' caring for elderly or sick, and even developmentally retarded children? At some point the feedback loop between the internal "animal moral compass" which is just a matter of surviving in a social context, is interrupted and free to be modified when sentience enters the picture.

    Of course... if that sentience becomes madly un-ethical, it may be that is so detrimental to a species that it would not survive. That we have a primative sense of morality "built in", along with the ability and NEED to empathize, and sympathize... the degree to which the fraction of the population which does NOT do these things is feared and castigated... these should make it clear that it is more than a process of thinking and choosing that makes us "Ethical".

    Of course, this also explains why so many people act unethically when they percieve:

    1.) That the harm is not to an individual, but spread across a system (such as a company)
    2.) That the harm is not lasting, physical, debilitating, etc.
    3.) That the harm is done to people of "appropriate age" i.e. no kids, no elderly
    4.) It is percieved (perhaps by the Nucleus Accumbens before consciously) that one is in an unethical environment to begin with.
    5.) The target of harm is unethical or "bad" themselves.

    Forget God, whether you believe or not. Evolution (whether or not a god set it into motion) explains basic morality (as we see it) without an external source. Social situations, and the advantage of pooling resources (which can't happen on a large scale (bigger than a troupe of babboons) if everyone is a psychopath) explain a LOT of the reaminder.

    For the higher principles of Ethics, I believe that human thinking derived them, based on reason, and the "pre-programmed" genetic (or divine if you must) inclinations. If right and wrong were so obvious and clear-cut, human history wouldn't be one long ethical debate. I don't see how a God of humans could map a continuum of morality from point: Individual -> Cosmic. Could a god formulate absolute ethics, and even then, what would make them right other than you're fath in the source?

    We're animals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to act Ethicaly and Morally. We don't need a god for that, but then we don't NOT need a god for it either. lol. Ah I hate discussing religion.
  26. Mar 20, 2010 #25
    This topic is not about what makes us be pious and generous to one another. Evolution does explain why we act that way. But that´s not what this discussion is about.

    I only wanted to point out that we can´t look at some deed and say "oh, that is morally correct" whithout turning to an ethical axiom. It may seem silly but I don´t know any philosophers who admit axioms are needed to make ethics make sense.

    Why should we act morally? Why do we have the tendency to do so? These are all interesting questions but are all off-topic.
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