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Wrting a paper on morals Is a definitive answer on morals important?

  1. Oct 1, 2005 #1
    This is my essay topic:
    Do questions like “why should I be moral?” or “Why shouldn’t I be selfish?” have definitive answers as do some questions in other Areas of Knowledge? Does having a definitive answer make a question more or less important?

    I realize that these questions regarding morals have no definative answers, as compared to something like mathematics. However...I'm not sure why having a definitive answer would make a question more or less important. Could someone help me reason this out? Your opinions are welcome. Examples are also appreciated. Thanks in advace.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2005 #2
    You could examine the nature of knowledge and knowing. For example, you have set up the question so that things like math are definitive. Why are they definitive? One person you can look at is Euclid. He set up the parameters and essentially deduced what the myriad outcomes could be with given combinations. Now, this is indeed definitive, because the parameters have been defined. But they are created, they are not a source of reliable knowledge, they are made to be correct. Math too exists first in an abstract realm. Now, I'm not saying that circles don't have 180 degrees, I'm just asking what does that mean? Is this "knowledge" real, did we just discover it? Or did we call it into being with our mental manipulations? Does imagining something make it real? What is the nature of being?

    ok, obviously not going to work for you, what, ethics class? I guess nowadays it would be of greater import. In fact, I think Maimonides touches on this in his "Guide to the Perplexed." I couldn't find his text online, but I found a passage of his in someone's essay:

    ...It refers to the image of a golden apple covered by a silver filigree that is itself punctured with small openings. “[A] saying uttered with a view to two meanings is like an apple of gold overlaid with silver-filigree work having very small holes,” writes the 12th Century Jewish Rabbi, physician and philosopher, quoting a Sage from Proverbs 25.11:

    Now see how this dictum describes a well-constructed parable. For he says in a saying that has two meanings—he means an external and an internal one—the external meaning ought to be as beautiful as silver, while its internal meaning ought to be more beautiful than the external one […] When looked at from a distance or with imperfect attention, it is deemed to be an apple of silver; but when a keen-sighted observer looks at it with full attention, its interior becomes clear to him and he knows that it is gold[10]

    jeez, where's Plato when you need him. He'd def be methodical, but I guess he'd probably end up where he always does - I don't know and possibly can't ever know.

    Also, you might want to consider the Garden of Eden - eating from the tree of knowledge to know that there is good and bad, yet not knowing which is which. In this case, you know that you don't know something. Actually a better start than the other. Or Plato's Cave metaphor. Heck, throw in strange loops for good measure!

    I think it's fairly obvious that it's important (you should clarify in what way it is important). But what is the question of more/less importance trying to get at? lol, yes took me a while to get there :rolleyes: I guess really what I'm getting at with all of this is to look at the different ways of knowing, the different systems that are inherent (either because we made them that way or they are that way, could be both!) in these areas of knowledge to get at the issues to be worked out.

    Hope this helped (and yes, being confused does help :smile:)
  4. Oct 2, 2005 #3
    Thanks for your reply with examples. However, I am still unsure of whether having a definitive answer will make a question more or less important. Right now, I am thinking that just because a question does not have a universally accepted answer, does not make it more or less important. I do not think the importance of a question is related to how definitive the answer is. So what does everyone think about what makes a question more or less important? I cannot seem to find the right words for it.
  5. Oct 2, 2005 #4

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    I think that some of the most important questions are ones that do not have definitive answers. For example, at what point do a sperm cell and an egg cell become a person? Another example, was it "murder" to remove Terry Schiavo's feeding tube? If these weren't important questions, there wouldn't be so much controversy about them. The answer to the questions will vary widely depending on who you ask.

    My philosophy professor spent some time talking about morality to us. While there was no clear-cut answer, his thoughts were this: If something is immoral, it's probably got something to do with somebody getting hurt...probably.
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2005
  6. Oct 2, 2005 #5
    I think that's the right track, it gets at something more meaningful to ask about the nature of questioning in general rather than getting tied up with other aspects. So, you want to know the difference between profound and trivial questions. You've gotta examine what a question is, it's not as simple as stating ignorance of something. A question is a way of framing an idea so that you state knowledge of something and thereby lay out the path you are going to take to deduce further knowledge. The answer is contained within the question itself. I would say it's related to the way in which math is created, the parameters have been given so as to lead to limited answers (sometimes one must go back and change what the question was when they find the answer).

    So why are some questions profound and others trivial? Obviously it has to do with the phrasing of the question. Is it so simple that it only depends on the kind of knowledge it reveals? Another key aspect is the context that knowledge is seen/understood in. Great questions reveal more than you would think at first glance. They are telling. I found a passage that speaks to this in the introSteps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson tried to teach a course by the same name and encountered questions that were hard to answer. He himself didn't exactly know what he was getting at with it when he began:

    They would attend dutifully and even with intense interest to what I was saying, but every year the question would arise after three or four sessions of the class: "What is this course all about?" I tried various answers to this question. Once I drew up a sort of catechism and offered it to the class as a sampling of the questions which I hoped they would be able to discuss after completeing the course. The questions ranged from "What is a sacrament?" to "What is entropy" and 'What is play?"
    (here he fails and instead asks)
    A certain mother habitually rewards her son with ice cream after he eats his spinach. What additional information would you need to be able to predict whether the child will: a. Come to love or hate spinach, b. Love or hate ice cream, or c. Love or hate Mother?

    ...it became clear to me that all the needed additional information concerned the context of the mother's and son's behavior. In fact, the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon of "meaning" defined a division between the "hard" sciences and the sort of science I was trying to build....it became clear that a difference between my habits of thought and those of my students sprang from the fact that they were trained to think and argue inductively from data to hypotheses but never to test hypotheses against knowledge derived by deduction from the fundamentals of science or philosophy

    He then creates a diagram with three columns - one with uninterpreted data, the middle with imprefectly defined explanatory notions, and the other with "fundamentals." He sees that

    With the aid of such a diagramn, much can be said about the whole scientific endeavor and about the position and direction of any particular piece of inquiry within it. "Explanation" is the mapping of data onto fundamentals, but the ultimate goal of science is the increase of fundamental knowledge.

    So, for him, inquiry must be explored in a set framework, in which the answer is already contained. Do trivial questions also have frameworks, if not maybe that is why they are trivial. Or perhaps the framework is not contained within an existing larger, fundamental framework. LOL, like splitting an atom infinitely!

    ok, really quick I'd like to examine what it means to be trivial -
    - Of little significance or value.
    - Ordinary; commonplace.
    so, is this relative or is this absolute? Does it matter, for all purposes it might as well be absolute when in fact it is relative.
    Ok, so trivial questions get at nothing new. what does 2 + 2 =? The answer is in the fundamentals. Perhaps profound questions add something on to the fundamentals. I read a book by a tutor (teacher) at my called Abel's Proof. He explored the problem incommensurability and irrationality, specifically in the solvability of quintic + equations - they are not (generally) solvable in radicals.There is no way of expressing values that will satisfy given quitintic (or higher) equations in any finite formula. For centuries, mathematicians grappled with this and seemed to miss asking the right questions-

    What is it about the fifth degree equations that causes the problem? Why does it then go on to affect all higher degrees of equations? Most of all, what is the significance of this breakdown, if one can use such a word?

    A young mathematician, Niels Abel, figured this out definitively. He stopped trying to using "how do you solve quintic equations with radicals?" and switched "how and why are quintic equations unsolvable?" He proved their unsolvability by reductio ad absurdum The crucial steps in his proof show how the assertion that All algebraic functions y can be expressed in terms of rational functions of the roots of an equation is wrong, since you can express y in terms of the roots instead of the original coefficients of the equation. You don't really need to understand these specifics (I indeed don't), but what is important is that it opened the door to new fundamentals. Another step in the evolution of math. They deduced "ultraradical numbers" and new functions.

    ...profound questions work within fundamental frameworks and extend it.
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