(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher’s Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today’s issues)
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2) What do you think is the best answer to the question, “Why should I be a good person?”
For me, it’s that doing what’s right makes me feel good — because I’ve deliberately chosen to accept personal responsibility. I know that may not sound like much to some folks, but I’d far, far rather people do what was right because they decided to, rather than merely due to fear of some social or religious reprisal.
That form of behavioral coercion will last only so long as the fear continues. Doing good out of choice, though, means even when reprisal isn’t an issue the conscious moralist will still do what is right.
As well, I was recently delighted to read of a study where the scientists proved doing the right thing truly is a nicer feeling than doing known wrong. Apparently when you do the right thing, and you know you are so doing, your brain produces chemicals which make you feel good. How nice to hear the randomness of effective evolution has produced something so beneficial for us both individually and as a species!
3) Is ethics a special kind of knowledge? If so, what sort of knowledge is it and how do we get hold of it?
I’m not sure how to define “special knowledge,” so I’m not really sure how to answer this part of the question. I don’t consider it, for example, “special” in the sense that it can only be discovered due to deific interference. I believe ethics are quantifiable and researchable.
In order to get hold of it, I’d recommend studying those you consider admirable and ethical, and doing research into what others throughout history have defined as ethical, in order to get a broad spectrum of definitions. Once you’ve got that information, you can make educated, deliberate decisions as to what ethics are for you in the here and now, and how you will implement them in your own life.
4) Is morality about obeying a set of rules or is it about thinking carefully about consequences?
The latter. Obeying a simple set of rules is just obedience and/or fear of reprisal. To be moral I think one has to both recognize the potential for immorality, and actually choose to be moral. Furthermore, a rules set can become outdated — even immoral itself — as times change.
For example, take a culture which believes patriarchal bloodlines are of critical importance in both tracing legal property transmission and ensuring the survival of all the individuals which comprise that family line. In that situation, adultery potentially cheats the bloodline, steals from the entire family, and threatens everyone’s survival. Stoning adulterers (especially the women) might be the horrific type of punishment necessary to scare all women into never raising their eyes to look at any man but their husbands.
However, in a culture where family is not critical for survival, women are not the property of the family’s males, and marriage is freely entered into and exited, adultery is a far less important concept. Instead of being property theft from an entire male family line and a threat to everyone’s survival, it has become more simply a broken promise between two individuals. It is still wrong if it involves dishonesty, but in that situation killing someone by beating them to death with a rock seems excessive — immoral, in fact.
Therefore I conclude: morality is about thinking carefully about consequences, in order to avoid wrong actions.
5) When people say “I know murder is wrong,” do they KNOW it is wrong, or just believe it very strongly?
This question brings up two questions in my mind: 1) What’s the difference between “know” and “believe very strongly”? and 2) Umm… wouldn’t you have to ask each person individually, in order to know for sure? ;)
More seriously, I’d guess at least initially people may believe murder is wrong because they’ve been taught so. However, once they’ve had some relevant personal life experience, such as surviving a violent physical attack or losing a loved one, they would be far more convinced of this.
6) Are there any differences between moral laws and society’s laws? If there are, why is this?
Of course there are differences. A society can be no more moral than the most influential individuals of which it is comprised. If you have enough immoral individuals in a society (at least as we define immorality), its laws will reflect what they believe — and be immoral.
We know there have been and are societies which condone(d) slavery, torture, physical abuse, or other acts we now consider immoral, for example. Also, we should remember that the concept of what is moral changes depending on which society we address, and in what time period. Even in our own society, slavery once used to be considered not just normal, but religiously moral.