Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Persistent Morality and Praiseworthiness

Blake has steered the conversation on free will to the nature of morality, and the question of what makes actions ‘moral,’ worthy of praise or blame; see this comment. Does determinism imply that moral systems are mere social convention, and further that no actions are worthy of praise or blame? I don’t think so.

Determinism does not imply willy-nilly moral relativism, or that anything under the sun might be arbitrarily agreed upon by social creatures and actually turn out to be workable. (Hence in answer to Blake’s question ‘Why is Zion desirable?’, I would suggest it turns out to be that which is permanently sustainable—uniquely so, in a Mormon perspective.) I agree with Blake that there are deep instincts or tendencies in us that are very closely related to our capacity and need for relationships that range from cooperative to loving, and that these instincts underpin widely-shared (Blake would say universal and absolute) moral precepts.

But whether or not these deep tendencies amount to eternal, unchanging moral absolutes, or instead merely appear to be so compared to typical human lifetimes and experience, depends on which track of my thinking I’m on at the moment. In an eternal Mormon view I suppose they might be taken as eternal and unchanging. In a non-religious naturalistic view, I see the deep instincts—not all of which are ‘morally praiseworthy’—as products of evolution, existing in an uneasy balance that ‘works.’ (Recall that part of the ‘genius’ of evolution is that that which does not work is eliminated.) It is a persistent balance, one exhibiting strong hysteresis, but not utter permanence: it can shift and adapt, to some extent purposefully and to some extent automatically, with the ever-changing conditions in which humanity finds itself.

These changes are due in no small part to humanity’s technological capabilities: consider for example changes in what society tolerates in terms of sexuality as a result of birth control and disease prevention, simply because these technologies allow a wider range of mixes of deep tendencies toward variety and jealousy to be expressed without unacceptable social costs.

I note in passing that the possibility of unchanging moral absolutes under a Mormon perspective does necessarily make them (or at least their proper ethical implementation) easily recognizable. Consider a wedding feast described by Joseph, which featured (post reception of the Word of Wisdom) his blessing of “three servers filled with glasses of wine” passed around: “I doubt whether the pages of history can boast of a more splendid and inocent wedding and feast than this for it was conducted after the order of heaven” (Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, p. 310; the context makes clear that by “order of heaven” Joseph was referring not only to the ceremony itself, but the entire social experience). Obviously there has been a change since then, to absolute prohibition of alcohol. Or, consider the change from many wives to one. Do these changes represent unmitigated progress towards implementation of the true moral absolutes, or are they temporary ‘law of Moses’-style exigencies required by the conditions of external society, with previous practices to be restored at a glorious future day? Mormonism provides no ready answer, for unprecedented progress and restoration were both ideas Joseph readily drew upon as needed.

Enough on the consistency of persistent (and not merely arbitrary) morality with determinism; how about the praiseworthiness (or blameworthiness) of actions? I would suggest that whether we attach moral meaning to someone’s actions affecting others results from two things: first, a sense that their processes of scenario formulation are functioning accurately (i.e. that they are not mentally ill); and second, that their decision reveals internal rules and values consistent with those deemed ‘worthy’. These two criteria for praise- or blameworthiness do not require a genuinely open future, but are consistent with causal determinism. The deceptive perception of causal openness may simply be an artifact of our not being privy to the internal rules and values used by the agent to ‘compute’ a selection among scenarios until these rules and values are (partially) revealed by the observed selection.

For a final insight into the true minimality of the threshold of our perceptions of merit and blame, I refer to a past comment of Blake’s about dogs simply urinating where they please, in contrast to humans. This is wrong: dogs can and do learn to control themselves, and can learn many other more complicated things besides. Observing properly-done tasks, their masters say “Good boy!”—and such praise is not empty, but sincerely considered well-deserved.

17 Comments:

This is one of the most difficult things which Blake attempts to argue, namely that determinism means that love, morality and rationality don't exist. I don't buy that even for a second.

It should also be noted that my "social contract" which Blake dislikes so much was actually advocated by the early brethren . In 1845 William Clayton wrote in his journal: "It has been a doctrine taught by this church that we were in the Grand Council amongst the Gods when the organization of this world was contemplated and that the laws of government were all made and sanctioned by all present and all the ordinances and ceremonies decreed upon." If that's not a social contract of sorts I don't know what is. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/28/2005 12:23:00 PM  

Jeff: Your problem is that you fail to distinguish between social policy, government and ethical obligation. We may have agreed by government that baptism was the means to salvation (as the quote suggests); however, we could not agree that torturing little children was good or that hate is of God. The fact that you don't buy that love, morality and rationality don't exist if determinism obtains of course doesn't have any more value than a thump on the log (to use Brigham Young's homey phrase). I have given arguments with fairly widely accepted premises to support my view. You need to respond to these arguments, not just state your unsupported opinion. 

Comment by Blake | 12/28/2005 01:11:00 PM  

Jeff: I thought I'd comment further. You don't buy your own theory of social contract! You say:

"Thus, a divine command theory of ethics is right out the window. God did not decide what is good, but instead discovered what was good according to the social nature of self-existent intelligences and the eternal laws of spiritual progression. These laws, are neither created nor destroyed, even by God Himself, nor are they altered. Thus, the commandments, baptism being but one, are not examples of these eternal laws, but are instead institutionalized regulations designed to promote the most spiritual progression in accordance with these laws. We know this by the fact that people can easily break the commandments, but eternal laws, by very definition, cannot be broken. Baptism is analogous to traffic laws, whereas the eternal laws of spiritual progression are similar to the the universal law of gravitation. Accordingly, to avoid confusion, I will call these eternal laws of spiritual progression "eternal laws" and the institutionalized regulations merely "laws.""

It may surprise you that I agree you entirely in this statement. What you say is not consistent with a social contract theory. Among the eternal laws that God did not institute and cannot be changed are the "laws" of ethics. I admit that I don't like the term "laws of ethics" because it makes it sound as if what is good and holy is a matter of legislation -- and it isn't a matter of agreement or legislation by your own admission. Our ethical obligations don't arise from agreements but from the eternal nature of intelligences and what is necessary for us as such to be what God is -- and God is what he is because of the loving relationships he chooses (freely) to enter with the other divine persons. "Love" or deifying relationships become the ultimate good and the basis of ethics on such a view. | 12/28/2005 01:19:00 PM  

Upon reading this quote I can see your point. Nevertheless, despite my inability to clarify my position, I do hold to a version of what I said, a version which I'm not sure you will be in as much disagreement with.

The "votes" for are not made willy-nilly. As in the evolution of eyes, in these ethical "votes" there were more than a few forced moves. Of course now you will protest by asking what it is that "forces" these votes. The votes will not only be made with a view of personal progression in mind, but other things such as freedom, cooperation and protection from others would have been taken into consideration as well in order to assure a greater amount of progression for all involved. Thus, while the "laws" are certainly not the actual embodiment of morality, they are quite indicative of the mutual understanding which is reached regarding morality.

I understand that this brief comment will not go near as far as you want it to, but both time and space limit me right now.

 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/28/2005 01:44:00 PM  

What Jeff and Christian describe as an evolutionary ethics is not merely weak and but dangerous. Do you guys really suggest that in some possible where it works better to kill little babies for the fun of it that it is OK and morally proper to do so? I can see why you are both determinists -- you have no viable theory of moral obligation -- it is just what happens to work. That is a Machievellian position. It is that might makes right. That seems to be the opposite of an agape ethics as one can get. What works in the natural world isn't what works eternally because what will sanctify us is what will get us killed in this life -- e.g, Christ and Joseph Smith.

So do you really claim, Jeff, that it would be possible to vote to make child torture good and that would become our obligation? And Christian, it is no wonder that you see us on par with dogs in making determined "decisions." It is all a matter of operant conditioning, isn't it? Do you really maintain that our sense of making choices is an illusion based on ignorance of our own consistent values?

 

Comment by Blake | 12/28/2005 02:49:00 PM  

Blake: I do not believe there is any world where killing and torturing babies works, and see no danger of its embrace as moral. The suggestion is a red herring, a straw man, etc.---not to mention unnecessarily inflammatory.

It is not that might makes right, but the opposite: right makes might. In the long run, on eternal timescales if you like, right does  turn out to be what survives. Just ask Isaiah, or Daniel, or St. John on Patmos.

I am not putting us on a par with dogs. I am simply pointing out a simple observation from common experience, which demonstrates that our experience of feelings of praise- or blameworthiness in no way constitutes a slam-dunk case for the causal openness of human decisions.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/28/2005 04:17:00 PM  

Jeffrey, yes, that love, rationality, morality, etc. could emerge from determinism and evolution is very rarely appreciated---it initially seems counter to the popular image of 'nature red in tooth and claw.' As I understand it, doubt on this point led to C. S. Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity.

My personal layman's opinion is that it is a misconception fostered by Darwin's insistence on the organism as the sole locus of selection, with competition among fellows constituting the sole driving force behind evolutionary change. In a hierarchical model of evolution in which selection acts on emergent 'individuals' at multiple levels---gene, cell, cell lineage, organism, deme, species, clade---it is not at all surprising that morality, coooperation, etc. are selected for at the species level, which then exerts a downward causal effect on the natures of individual humans. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/28/2005 04:29:00 PM  

I forgot to answer Blake's last question, do I "really maintain that our sense of making choices is an illusion based on ignorance of our own consistent values?"

I think it's plausible. I think ignorance of our own internal decision-making rules and values until we actualize a choice is plausible. I seem to recall a story told of a General Authority being asked why the Lord would require Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As I recall the story, the reply was, "because Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/28/2005 04:37:00 PM  

Blake,

"Do you guys really suggest that in some possible where it works better to kill little babies for the fun of it that it is OK and morally proper to do so?"

"So do you really claim, Jeff, that it would be possible to vote to make child torture good and that would become our obligation?"

Well, for starters there is no killing in an immortal environment right? So that "moral law" isn't eternal anyways so who cares, right? Now as to this mortal life, if we had no evolved a "moral" aversion to killing children and other forms of non-cooperation, "we" never would have evolved at all. So in neither context could killing little babies become good because the selective pressurew were simply too great to be overcome. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/28/2005 05:07:00 PM  

I have read most of the comments, but remained on the sidelines until now.

Blake’s arguments seem to wish to defy natural law. As Jeffrey states in many arguments regarding evolution, our (the Mormon) definition of God and His limitations are exceptionally distinct from “Orthodox” Christian definitions. God states that He must follow natural, eternal laws.

Although we choose actions (with that uncreated intelligence; the only thing we have that is truly our own) we cannot choose the consequences of those actions. Even with repentance, the immediate and long-term results must be dealt with. A father who is abusive in his family will have children who are poorly able to deal with others. His decisions determine (dramatically) how his children will behave. Without other input into his children’s lives (i.e. other positive role models, the examples of the scriptures, answers to prayers, the influence of the Spirit) these children will behave in a manner determined by their upbringing because they are limited in their agency. These other influences will determine how the children behave. They will exercise their agency as their eternal intelligence analyzes all the inputs and makes what is likely the only possible decision at each specific point.

Each positive decision leads to expansion of agency, while decisions that are contrary to natural law lessen agency. In this manner all decisions determine future decisions because the consequences naturally follow. If not “God would cease to be God.”

Together with Christian, I fail to see how this causal determinism undermines the Atonement. I also fail to see the Calvinism. I faced this argument in discussions with a small group after reading War and Peace. Other members attempted to paint Tolstoy as an adherent to pre-destination. I failed to see how Tolstoy’s argument (that the result of the Napoleonic Wars was not  the result of Napoleon’s free will, but was the result of thousands of decisions made over decades (and perhaps centuries)) smacked of pre-destination. The result was not destined, only the natural result of all the decisions (made freely, but determined by previous decisions) which preceded the ultimate actions.

Sorry about the long post, I had just been saving up.
 

Comment by Mike W. | 12/28/2005 07:47:00 PM  

Jeff, Christian and Mike: I rarely do this, but I think that we have so little in common that further discussion is not fruitful. If what you see as Mormonism were in fact Mormonism, I would regard it as utterly rediculous and untenable. Thank God it isn't. Suffice it to say that I am quite satisfied that you have no real ethical theory of moral obligation at all and that this disappointing thinness of thought on ethics is directly a result of your commitment to determinism.

First, the notion of evolution in the context that Jeff and Christian take it, the immortal world, literally has no meaning. Here is the problem -- no one could give a theory of evolution where love, sacrifice and so forth lead to the types of evolution discussed in biological systems. The problem of altruistic action and how it could be motivated in an evolutionary or egoistic context has generated a vast amount of literature -- but you both make these assertions as if they were uncontroversial and in apparent ignorance that there is a problem at all. The equivocation is so glaring between these different arenas that I suggest that what you are now talking about is literally meaningless because it takes the discourse from one set of problems and background and applies it where it cannot possibly function.

Your suggested "ethic" makes no sense at all. How could it guide conduct? If I have to wait for immortal status to see what really works, as Jeff maintains, then I have no practical guide at all by the suggested moral basis of action in this life. My view is that your "ethic" is so shallow and so poorly informed by knowledge of ethical views that I just don't see how continuing this discussion can make any headway.

Mike, show me where God says that he must follow natural laws in LDS scripture. That will be interesting. (Tho I in fact believe he is limited by certain types of natural laws in some respects, I just don't believe that scriptures ever say so). I deal with the senses in which God transcends natural law and the sense in which he acts within natural laws in chapter 3 of my book -- and it is a very complicated discussion.

I will comment on a few things that Mike says. Mike states: "Although we choose actions (with that uncreated intelligence; the only thing we have that is truly our own) we cannot choose the consequences of those actions. Even with repentance, the immediate and long-term results must be dealt with." Frankly, this sounds again like agent causation. If the actions of the uncreated intelligence is truly our own precisely because it is uncreated, then such a view requires the notion of basic powers possessed by a person or substance and that entails agent causation -- not determinism. Indeed, i would like to know how this notion of an uncreated intelligence is supposed to fit at all in a world view that claims that virtually everything is caused? I have asked this question repeatedly and meet nothing but deafening silence from y'all.

While I agree that we cannot choose the consequences of our actions, that hardly suggests that we cannot choose our actions the consequences of which we than experience. So the entire argument about not being able to choose consequences is a non-sequitur. However, if my choices have the same determined status as the consequences of my actions (which you admit I cannot choose because they are determined by natural laws), as you appear to assume, then there is no free will or choice at all. Isn't that fairly clear?

Mike then says: "A father who is abusive in his family will have children who are poorly able to deal with others. His decisions determine (dramatically) how his children will behave. Without other input into his children’s lives (i.e. other positive role models, the examples of the scriptures, answers to prayers, the influence of the Spirit) these children will behave in a manner determined by their upbringing because they are limited in their agency. These other influences will determine how the children behave. They will exercise their agency as their eternal intelligence analyzes all the inputs and makes what is likely the only possible decision at each specific point."

My first question is: how do you claim to know any of this? It is a fact that children who are abused are more often abusive; it is not a fact that they are causally determined to abuse or that without some other causal input they couldn't just freely decide that they don't like to be abused so they simply choose not to abuse their own children. Given the complexity of these other influences -- and the sheer fact that many simply choose and refuse to be like their abusers, what you assert has no support at all.

Now when Mike asserts that "all decisions determine future decisions ... if not God would cease to be God,' I'd like to see the logical or evidential support for that assertion. It appears to paraphrase Lehi (2 Ne. 2) and Alma (Alma 42) but nowhere is this kind of assertion made at all. Past decisions don't dictate future decisions; otherwise, repentance and change would be impossible.

Causal determinism undermines the atonement because we could never choose to accept the atonement because we would be stuck with the causal results of our prior evil choices which causally lead us to be "natural men" and therefore to reject Christ and we could not choose to accept Christ's atonement. So where does the Calvinism come in? Mike appears to believe that the atonement somehow irresistibly causes those who accept to do so without their own choice to accept it. However, I would like to see him flesh out what he has in mind further. For right now, I just don't see what he has in mind other than that we are destinced to accept the atonement or not and it is not within our power to choose otherwise.

When Mike asserts: "The result was not destined, only the natural result of all the decisions (made freely, but determined by previous decisions) which preceded the ultimate actions," it appears to me that he fails to see what the Jeff and Christian also fail to see -- if there are no prior decisions that are free at some point for which we can be held accountable, then when the later decisions naturally follow from these early "decisions" we cannot be accountable for these either (by the principal of the transfer of nonresponsibility). The very notion that our prior "decisions" were also determined by prior decisions assumes that there is never a time when we make a decision that isn't already determined and already fated long before we can consider or think about anything that we are now deciding. In my view, that is no decision at all. Why call it a decision at all? What are we deciding that isn't already fully decided by the prior causal circumstances that we are now unable to change and therefore cannot decide? 

Comment by Blake | 12/28/2005 09:31:00 PM  

Blake argues: it is not a fact that they are causally determined to abuse or that without some other causal input they couldn't just freely decide  that they don't like to be abused so they simply choose not to abuse their own children.

What does it mean to freely decide?? Does it mean free from any surrounding environment, past experiences, present information? Blake makes it sound like we make decisions ex nihlo. This doesn't sound like the agency of the Gospel. Our purpose here on the earth is to learn from our experiences, adjust to our environment, and choose righteously based on what we know and have experienced. All these inputs play an integral role in what we decide.

As for determinism resulting in no decisions, I don't see it. I wonder if we are using the term determinism because we can't find a better term. I certainly don't believe that all my decisions are made for me by my external modifiers and agree that the crux of Satan's plan was to remove the possibility of failure, decision, and thereby existance. My point is that decisions made (from those early on in pre-mortal existence to today) affect every subsequent decision in a very real and precise fashion.

Alma 13 tells us that those who receive the priesthood do so because of faith exercised before coming to earth. The decision to exercise faith in Christ in the pre-mortal realm determined whether I would have the opportunity to make further decisions in this life and laid the groundwork for future decisions. This is my definition of determinism. Maybe I just need to find another word to better define it.

As for ending the discussion because we have so little in common, I believe that the purpose of the discussion is to find common ground and work through the discordance. I hope that you (Blake) will have the patience with me to continue the discussion. 

Comment by Mike W. | 12/28/2005 10:19:00 PM  

Mike: Forgive me -- I wasn't suggesting that you and I don't have enough in common for a discussion (tho I admit that I could do with more patience when dialoguing with Jeff and Christian ). I don't know enough about your views to reach any such conclusion. I was really addressing Christian and Jeff -- I just don't see that we have enough in common about the way we see the world about moral obligation to get anywhere. If they really believe that there is no moral obligation, but only what gets us ahead, then we just don't share enough to dialogue. If they really believe that our sense of making free choices is an illusion created by our ignorance of the causes that make our choices for us before we ever think about it, I just don't see any headway to be made. (For one they deny the very conditions of rationality necessary for any dialogue to continue). Perhaps if I lay out (again for the umpteenth time) my various arguments showing that determinism is inconsistent with moral responsibilty (at least real moral responsibility and not the relativistic ethic they propose), that determinism is inconsistent with rational decision making and that entering into loving relationships requires libertarian free will, then we could further the discussion. I have done that before, however, and they haven't responded so much as dodged the issue by suggesting that there isn't moral obligation (just social convention), there isn't rational decision making (just operant conditioning) and so forth. So their world-view simply differs fairly radically (tho I am convinced that in the end Christian will see that his view requires libertarian agent causal freedom because he assumes it in so much that he says -- just before he verbally retracts it by asserting determinism as his starting premise).

I agree with you that prior experiences influence us and no ibertarian has ever claimed that we just make decisions without having a context and prior history within which we make decisions. What I deny is that such a prior history fates, determines, makes inevitable or leaves no other options than the one determined by causal laws and conditions prior to the decision that I make. So I can agree that prior decisions can influence subsequent decisions -- what I deny is that history is destiny and that there is a real possibility of choosing to change through repentance so that past has not determined the future. If it were determined, then no such change through repentance could occur.

Further, the past doesn't "determine" that I will have future decisions; rather, prior decisions may constitute a condition precedent that is a necessary condition to the making of further choices or having certain opportunities. However, the past doesn't determine those future choices even if it does constitute a condition of the kinds of choices that I will have. For example, my prior choices may have opened the possibility that I will receive the priesthood; however, it does not determine how I will use that priesthood or whether I will be faithful. That is still open for decision and it isn't fated or made inevitable by the past. 

Comment by Blake | 12/28/2005 11:10:00 PM  

Mike, thanks for your thoughts. I'd just like to clarify that on the Mormon track of my thinking, even though I believe in determinism I don't think that unfortunate things in this life (like abuse) would ultimately impact eternal outcomes for the abusee. While they have long-lasting effects in this life---and will  affect the eternal outcome for the abuser---my faith would be that God's (and his servants') influence would in the end overcome the effects of abuse to allow the full degree of learning and growth consistent with the nature of the abusee's eternal intelligence to be achieved.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/30/2005 01:53:00 PM  

Christian: That coincides with your post on God's Garden and I agree completely. My point was only that one person's decisions have precise, non-random ramifications for others' lives in a way that, although Blake may disagree, creates an atmosphere of increased, not decreased, accountability. The abuser will have much to answer for, not only for his actions, but those of the third and fourth generations that result from his actions. This is consistent with the promises to the children of Laman and Lemuel and the eternal patience the Father has with their offspring.
 

Comment by Mike W. | 12/30/2005 02:04:00 PM  

Blake, here : The problem of altruistic action and how it could be motivated in an evolutionary or egoistic context has generated a vast amount of literature -- but you both make these assertions as if they were uncontroversial and in apparent ignorance that there is a problem at all. 

Look, I'm not saying it hasn't been a difficult problem for standard, traditional Darwinism. My point is that there is a relatively new explanation in a relatively new picture of evolutionary dynamics that I find plausible: specifically, that what is "egoistic" at one hierarchical level of emergent "individuals" (e.g. the level of individual species) can be "altruistic" at a lower level (e.g. individual organisms), so that selection among competing species results in altruistic behavior by individuals of that species.

To give an example one level down the hierarchy of emergent individuals, selection on organisms against cancer before reproductive age (egotistical from the organism's perspective) results in cells that do not proliferate uncontrollably (altruistic from the cell's perspective).


Your suggested "ethic" makes no sense at all. How could it guide conduct? If I have to wait for immortal status to see what really works, as Jeff maintains, then I have no practical guide at all by the suggested moral basis of action in this life.

As I pointed out in the main post, from the history of Mormonism it is clear that positing the existence of moral absolutes does not give one a practical guide either. That there is both unprecedented revelation and restoration in Mormonism means that in practical terms even the moral absolutist cannot rely on analysis alone, but in the end has no guide other than the currently constituted authorities. Hence the moral absolutist ends up in the same boat with Jeffrey and me. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/30/2005 03:01:00 PM  

Blake: what I deny is that history is destiny and that there is a real possibility of choosing to change through repentance so that past has not determined the future. If it were determined, then no such change through repentance could occur. 

I just want to clarify that even as a determinist I do not claim that "history is destiny." In previous posts I accepted the evolvability of character. However I do think it possible that individual intelligences have inherent limits---unchangeable even by God---to the degree of repentance they can muster. These limits are not discernable by mortals, especially not based on mortality alone, and we should in no way presume we can judge those limits in any individual. But that does not mean the limits don't exist. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/30/2005 03:10:00 PM  

:
:
:

BloggerHacks

<< Home