25 April 2010

a morally squishy rumination

Be forewarned, moral approbation or disgust may occur. You may wish to skip this one if you're especially prone to getting angered over ethical discourse, particularly concerning some of its more peculiar cases. I will try to warn you off once it starts going down that path. The linked video doesn't warn you at all. There are some other topics discussed in there that may be interesting besides these questions over moral assumptions, for example the evolutionary psychology aspects of religious belief. But I'm setting those aside for the moment.

Several things occurred to me here.
First, I have a highly sympathetic view toward hedonistic valuations of morals already. I have a fairly expansive view of what constitutes "pleasure" and what constitutes "pain/suffering", such that for example, someone who somehow extracts mental or even physical pleasures from their own pain or suffering can be deemed to be on the "pleasure" side of the equation (provided that their pain or suffering as inflicted is not causing considerable pain and suffering on whoever does the infliction). This was, generally speaking, one of the weak points to the so-called Golden Rule basis of morality as opposed to say a Kantian principle of universality or a hedonic calculus as employed by utilitarianism. There are some flaws with this approach, namely that it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to quantify pain and pleasure and to do so in even roughly comparable ways, and particularly in a universal way. Some people emphasize the pursuit of pleasure well above the avoidance of pain for example (most people try to avoid pain far more than to pursue their pleasures). Still, as methods go, I find that a far more reliable way to assess moral behavior or the possibility of some objective level of "moral truth", as it applies to the organisation and success of human societies than categorical declarations (other than issues like mutual consent and probably survival where it still exists as a problem).

Second, the primary reason I have such a sympathetic view is that I find the usual manner of creating morals is very much the more or less emotional process of feeling revolted or disgusted at something making it therefore bad. As I've noted before, I am personally "disgusted" with country music or onions. I have not noted this directly but I am personally disgusted by alcohol or by consumption of tobacco or with the possibility of personally engaging in homosexual acts with another man (I suppose I have some "odd" notions about monogamy or human sexuality more generally, but here I'm not sure if these are personally held convictions or simply tolerance of alternative relationships and I don't consider my relatively brief lifetime or reclusive lifestyle apt to give me an internal consensus on this question). I don't perceive that my disgust gives me the capacity to condemn people who might derive some utility (or otherwise known as "pleasure") from these activities or objects. Billions of people around the world find the consumption of pigs "disgusting" through some means or another and thus condemn the practice (or, when "polite" or "tolerant", at least do not engage in it personally). This can put them in considerable disagreement with the hundreds of millions of people who love bacon or pork chops (as I do). Presumably one such group would be making a categorical error in moral reasoning while our moral theories rely on such methods to discern morality (as they often claim to do before we realize they usually just rely on personal disgust and approbations). More reliably it is enough to start with the premise that some people enjoy eating bacon and derive some positive hedonistic effect from doing so and that many people do not enjoy eating bacon, for whatever reason, and derive some sort of pain or suffering if they were to do so (or think they would, if their reason were for example a religious dogma). We might, in mixed company, come up with ways of tolerating each other's preferences on this matter, such as by consuming something else when eating together for example. But we would not be capable of necessarily condemning the activity of consuming pig meats on this basis alone. Some other pressing or disconcerting elements, such as the cheap and ready availability and the agricultural effects on land or the general environment caused by wide-scale industrial farming or the methods used to raise pigs, perhaps inhumanely, may be at issue further in the discussion, but not at the "don't eat bacon, ever" level.

This is basically how the ethical problems arrive. We are confusing morality with social deviancy and/or private consensual conduct with public information by emphasizing our feelings of disgust and repulsion over the feelings of the people involved in the event itself. "We" may be fully justified not to wish to associate with people who conduct themselves in a particular way, for instance if their actions were things liable to cause us discomfort and suffering, but we don't necessarily get to condemn those actions when they don't involve us and don't involve the infliction of discomfort and suffering (unwillingly, non-consensually, or otherwise without some element of compensating pleasures/utility) upon other interested parties. I could condemn in theory animal cruelty because of an assumption of some level basic level of consent that we may accord to animals or a view of the trade-offs involved (that such actions dehumanize the person doing it or deriving some pleasure from it in a potentially dangerous way and that typically the net effect of the animal's utility to us, for example economically as meat or transportation, is limited by the destruction of it in a wantonly cruel way). I could not condemn two men having sex with one another consensually.

In the actual discussion above, very much uglier discourse comes up to make this point more strikingly (at this point you may wish to bail).







The position discussed of having sex with animals I regard as a considerably hypothetical scenario because I a) find the issues of mutual consent rather lacking and b) we cannot properly ascertain whether the animal receives an appropriate level of utility by being engaged in a sexual act with a human being. And that was an already very hypothetical scenario which did not involve considerable risk of injury to one or both parties or the transmission of disease, both aspects which I assume are quite present in the real world possibility of someone who wishes to have sex with an animal. These risks even before approaching the moral questions should help to mitigate the possibility of having to even question the morality for most of us (along with the probability that we would ordinarily be quite satisfied with sexual attractions and intercourse within our own species). The somewhat less revolting premise was consuming the remains of a family dog (or other pet) upon its death. I'm guessing most people would not take up such a cause, owing to the attachment and level of feeling they present to a family pet over months and years of interaction, just as they probably would not take too well to consuming the remains of their deceased human relatives. But consuming the otherwise healthy remains of an animal is hardly something we don't do (many of us anyway). We deliberately raise and slaughter animals for our consumption in fact. And many people involved in such things seek modestly humane accommodations for the price of our meals which, while not on the level of care for a family pet, do present the possibility of emotional attachment to the main course at dinner. For my purposes, it is meat. The reasons not to do so are more that we have plenty of other, potentially more viable and healthy meat readily available in a developed society (such as bacon) and it does raise the somewhat realistic possibility of people running around stealing animals from families who might not wish their dog or cat roasted and consumed (selling the remains to someone who expresses a desire to eat them is a somewhat thornier question than the theft of living animals or even their carcasses).

The last "emotional" discourse was over incest. I recall walking through that one in an ethics class. I think I was the only person in class that did not give a clear and obvious "no way" to this question as a universal moral. My ultimate reasoning that I settled on was that it was so unlikely to come up, either because of a cultural effect (taboo) or some strong biological/evolutionary response to the species/family/clan need for some genetic drift that I did not regard the occasional event as a moral problem but rather as a form of social deviancy (the evolutionary response was indicated by the relative lack of incest in nature, particularly in mammals or birds, with some exceptions for direct human interferences in such practices as animal husbandry. If our studies show, as they have with homosexuality, that this is more common naturally than is presently believed, I/we may have to adjust our thinking here). Again, simply because I was disgusted or horrified at the possibilities of such things did not mean I had much cause to do anything about it. The example studied in the podcast up there was far more specific than the general practice as it specifically removes the possibility of reproductive behaviors. I suspect here we have some modest reasons to dissuade people from doing this through social and cultural effects (perhaps even laws punishing such things) simply because there are always some possibilities that pleasurable sexual encounters, even with appropriate precautions against reproduction, would produce some offspring. If such a practice becomes widespread, it is possible that we could weaken our genetic resiliency as a species by having a sufficient number of incestuous offspring. This is pretty similar to my justification for government/public intervention for the application of vaccines really or, more practically and legally speaking, for the necessity of investigating and potentially penalizing murders (to dissuade people from randomly or purposefully killing others without direct social consent). The weakness of that argument however is that it also suggests still another moral repulsion most people have: eugenics. I'm not as persuaded as many that for example the harm is great for aborting unborn fetuses that contain significant, and often very painful or debilitating, genetic defections (some of which are fatal at young ages as it is), but that's about as far as I am comfortable with the subject. Selective abortions for racial or gender biases or for physical attributes seems a bit too far to travel for now, certainly on a systematic basis (though here again, I'm not so sure that we have much cause to oppose individual determinations as to why an abortion might be necessary, particularly at point early in the development of a fetus). I think therefore you could get around the eugenics issue by making it clear that the harm being prevented by opposing morally incestuous relationships is a harm potentially imposed upon any offspring from widespread practice. Presumably you could also weigh in the social or cultural castigation suffered by the practitioners themselves as harms to be avoided at least in the immediate term (where there is a cultural taboo against it), assuming their actions to be publicly known to others as is likely if they were to have any children together. (the trouble with both of these arguments is that they are suspiciously similar to the miscegenation arguments made in the Jim Crow era and beyond. I'd rather people were just comfortable with some basic forum to discuss eugenics ethically than have to recycle these).
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