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« Materialism and the moral argument: comments & responses, part 1 | Main | Teenage Pregnancy Crisis among the Dinosaurs! »

October 29, 2007

Comments

SDG

Aside to Jason: I am aware that this still doesn't address your very interesting comments about the conception of self in the earlier thread. I hope to address that at some point as time permits.

Aside to Aristotle: Still planning to get to your questions about how throwing God into the mix makes a difference too.

Esau

I am more directly aware of my own self than I am of anything my senses apprehend.

Not really --

There are actually 3 you --

1. The person you think yourself to be
2. The person that others think you are
3. The person you actually are

However, the 3rd is often the most elusive concept even to the individual!

SDG

Not really --

Yes, really, Esau.

Poetically we might say that there are three me, but from the perspective of personal realism it would be much more accurate to say that there is one me, which is known in a meaningful though imperfect way both to others and to myself.

To say that there are "actually three you" is to deny that persons can ever know one another in any meaningful sense. All we ever know are phantom versions of other selves that we construct in our own minds. (By the same principle, we never perceive real objects; we only perceive phantom projections of objects in our minds.)

I agree that persons can never know one another perfectly or completely, and that what we call knowing a person almost always involves some level of inaccurate assumption and misunderstanding and human limitation.

Yet what falls short of complete perfection is not therefore necessarily unreal or illusory. Knowledge can be meaningful and real without being perfect or complete. There is a difference between a glass of water that is less than 100 percent pure and a glass of wet dirt.

Esau

The apprehension itself seems to me a more persuasive indication of reality than the arguments or explanations of its illusory nature.

I like this reasoning.

That is, who would these individuals come to argue that what they actually know is, in fact, valid and, even more so, true.

Since what they claim to be scientific knowledge in the strictest sense can often be merely illusion and, therefore, anything they hold to such certainty should be dismissed simply as illusory as well.

Esau

We also have the experience of apprehending fundamental moral precepts such as "Do good and avoid evil" and "Be fair to others" by a faculty we call conscience, and take these also for meaningful insights rather than how our brains happen to work.


SDG,

I don't think I quite agree with you here.

That is, as I've mentioned on another thread, there is a case where a certain individual suffered damage on a certain region of his brain, where, as a result, he started committing the most heinous acts.

Prior to the damage to his brain, he was known as an upright individual; however, because of this damage, he, afterwards, started exhibiting the most violent of behaviours and lost all sense of 'conscience'.

Smoky Mountain

Someone here likes table tennis. A lot. So much so, that perhaps you've lost perspective. You know who you are.

SDG

Esau:

If a person suffers trauma to his eyes, optic nerves or optic centers of the brain, he may lose the ability to perceive objects visually. It does not follow that what we call seeing the world is merely a quirk of our nervous systems with no bearing on real objects in the real world. When our eyes work properly, they enable us to perceive reality visually (not reality in its totality, but a limited perception of reality nonetheless).

I'm not saying that individuals suffering brain injury may not lose the faculty of conscience, just as they may lose the faculty of reason. All I'm saying is that conscience, like reason, is a way of understanding reality, not just a jumble of impulses that express the state of our nervous systems but have no bearing on reality outside of ourselves.

Smoky Mountain

SDG,

If conscience requires a brain, what of our greater sense of self? What does dementia say about self? If we lose our "self" due to brain damage, decay, or disease, how do we suppose that our "self" was ever anything more than our physical brain?

I may go blind, but I am still me. You may cut-off my limbs, but I am still me. Hit me hard enough on the head, though, and "me" may cease to exist (replaced perhaps by someone who thinks he's king of the world), while my physical body continues to live. Where did my "self" go?

Esau

Someone here likes table tennis. A lot. So much so, that perhaps you've lost perspective. You know who you are.

Be a man, for goodness sake!

Instead of relying on veiled insults, it would be much more constructive to flat out say what's on your mind.

Esau

SDG,

If a person suffers trauma to his eyes, optic nerves or optic centers of the brain, he may lose the ability to perceive objects visually.

Unlike damage to the eyes or wherever else, this does not result in a change of behavior/personality of the individual.

All I'm saying is that conscience, like reason, is a way of understanding reality, not just a jumble of impulses that express the state of our nervous systems but have no bearing on reality outside of ourselves.

That's just it --

In the case study that I've alluded to, the person suffered a complete change in personality and, accordingly, his behaviour.

Prior to the damage to the region in the brain, this person used to abide strictly to his morals.

However, after the accident, the person seem to have become another person altogether, indulging in acts of violence and other immoral actions, which his previous personality would have forbidden.

Thus, this would contradict exactly what you say here:

...not just a jumble of impulses that express the state of our nervous systems but have no bearing on reality outside of ourselves

Smoky Mountain

Be a man, for goodness sake! Instead of relying on veiled insults :)

Lol. Always assume the worst. Oh, Esau.

Perhaps I googled one of our posters and discovered that they belong(ed) to a table tennis club.

Esau

Lol. Always assume the worst. Oh, Esau.

Perhaps I googled one of our posters and discovered that they belong(ed) to a table tennis club.


Dude,

Just how many people have been posting on this very thread?

Also, how does that even reconcile with what you said here:

So much so, that perhaps you've lost perspective.

Smoky Mountain

Silly Esau.

Smoky Mountain

Also, how does that even reconcile with what you said here:

So much so, that perhaps you've lost perspective.

Silly Esau, Part 2

Esau

Okay, so my perceptual set is screwed up right now --

Chalk that up to the damaged region of my brain! ;^)

Smoky Mountain

Chalk that up to the damaged region of my brain! ;^)

Cheers. :-)

SDG

Esau: Loss of reason would also result in a change of behavior/personality. That doesn't mean that valid reasoning offers no insight into reality.

Look. I will grant that when a person's reason is malfunctioning, that may reflect a jumble of impulses reflecting the state of his nervous system with no bearing on reality outside himself.

Similarly, when we dream, the optic centers of our brains create visual experiences in which there is no direct perceptual experience of reality (even if we dream of real things, those dreams are based on memories, not direct experiences of reality, unless maybe it's a supernatural dream.

And if a person sustains a brain injury that robs him of the right use of conscience, why then his perceptions of right and wrong may reflect a jumble of impulses reflecting the state of his nervous system.

But look. Not all visual perceptions are equivalent to dreaming. Sometimes we actually see real things. And not all reasoned thinking is equivalent to insanity. Sometimes we have real insights. In fact, most of the time, when we are awake and unimpaired.

There are interior movements of the nervous system that are neither veridical or not veridical. If a person's appetitive response to haggis changed drastically after a brain injury, I would not say that the person's tastes had become any more or less "true."

What I am saying is that conscience is like seeing or reasoning, not like tasting: When our faculties are working properly, they give us insight (not perfect or complete, but real) into reality.

There is no such thing as a real or unreal appetitive response to haggis. There is such a thing as clear or unclear vision, clear or unclear reasoning, clear or unclear conscience.

Capisce?

Esau

SDG,

My point is that a person who suffers from the handicaps that you've alluded to don't experience a change in personality; however, those who do suffer the type of brain damage I've alluded to do.

Also, there is not this change in a sense of reality that you mention here when it comes to such folks.

Their sense of reality is much the same as prior to the accident that had rendered him thus.

The only difference is in the personality.

For some reason, the person no longer feels the same need to abide by the same set of morals that was significant to him before the accident.

SDG

My point is that a person who suffers from the handicaps that you've alluded to don't experience a change in personality; however, those who do suffer the type of brain damage I've alluded to do.

You don't think impairment or loss of reason involves a change in personality?

Also, there is not this change in a sense of reality that you mention here when it comes to such folks.

Their sense of reality is much the same as prior to the accident that had rendered him thus..

Not their sense of moral reality, apparently.

I hate to sidestep the logical issue, because your contention might just as easily have been made by an atheist and so ought to be answered, but you seem to be arguing, not quite that there is no right and wrong, but that what we call conscience has nothing to do with perceiving right and wrong; rather, what we call conscience, just like our appetitive responses to food, are merely events in our nervous systems.

In other words, you seem to be playing devil's advocate against the Catholic teaching on conscience. Which is fine if that's what you're doing, because the devil needs to be answered, but I don't get the sense that that's what you feel you're doing.

Esau

You don't think impairment or loss of reason involves a change in personality?

No, because the person I've alluded to actually retained full possession of his reason.


Excerpt:

"Gage did, according to Harlow, retain “full possession of his reason” after the accident, but his wife and other people close to him soon began to notice dramatic changes in his personality. "

Link:
The incredible case of Phineas Gage


Another Excerpt:

Miraculously, Gage suffered no motor or speech impairments as a result of his accident. His memory was intact, and he gradually regained his physical strength. Dr. Harlow initially concluded that Gage was fortunate because his injury involved an expendable part of the brain. But in fact something was lost to Gage that terrible afternoon. His personality underwent a dramatic shift, changing his disposition to such a degree that his friends barely recognized him. "Gage," they said, "was no longer Gage."

Once a polite and caring person, Gage became prone to selfish behavior and bursts of profanity.

Dr. Harlow said it was if Gage lost the balance between "his intellectual faculty and animal propensities." He had no respect for social graces and often lied about his accomplishments. Previously energetic and focused, he was now erratic and unreliable. He had trouble forming and executing plans. There was no evidence of forethought in his actions, and he often made choices against his best interests. No amount of pleading or lecturing from Dr. Harlow made any difference to Gage. Eventually, his capricious and offensive behavior cost him his job with the railroad contractors. It was not any physical disability that prevented Gage from working; it was his character.

Link:

I need to -- topics such as these are prevalent in my field and so discussions as the ones you've raised are particularly significant to me as these often challange my notions -- both the Catholic and the Science.

Esau

No Longer Gage

Esau

Apologies -- I forgot to close the link.

The link to the 2nd excerpt is posted above.

SDG

SDG: You don't think impairment or loss of reason involves a change in personality?

Esau: No, because the person I've alluded to actually retained full possession of his reason.

Esau, that wasn't what I asked you! Please read my question and respond to what I asked.

Your example involves a person who has suffered an impairment of his conscience.

My example involves a (hypothetical) person who has suffered an impairment of his reason.

Both types of impairments affect the personality.

Neither possibility confines the faculty in question, when properly functioning, to offer real insights into reality. Reason can be impaired, but when it is not it can validly arrive at rational insights. Conscience can be impaired, but when it is not it can validly arrive at moral insights.

Even the case of a person who suffers an impairment in his ability to see provides another case in point of a faculty that can function properly so as to provide a certain kind of access to reality, but may also function (or not function) in other ways that do not give similar access to reality. (The fact that this doesn't directly impact the personality has no bearing whatsoever on the principle in question.)

Esau

SDG,

I believe you are missing the larger picture in all this --

That is, the person in question CEASED the moment the accident occured.

Another person had arisen in his stead BECAUSE of the damage suffered to a region on the person's brain.

Therefore, the so-called 'conscience' can said to be nothing but the sum of a properly working network of impulses and any conception of right and wrong is merely an artifact of such.

SDG

That is, the person in question CEASED the moment the accident occured.

Another person had arisen in his stead BECAUSE of the damage suffered to a region on the person's brain.

That interpretation of the evidence seems to me very difficult to reconcile with Catholic anthropology.

If it is the same body, it is the same person. That's Catholic anthropology. The person has undergone a drastic change, I would say an incapacitating change. I don't see how we can speak of another person, unless we are talking about demonic possession or something.

Therefore, the so-called 'conscience' can said to be nothing but the sum of a properly working network of impulses and any conception of right and wrong is merely an artifact of such.

I see no reason to add to the countervailing considerations I have already cited.

Smoky Mountain

It seems you two might be talking apples and oranges.

It sounds like Esau is arguing that "conscience" may be a physical phenomenon requiring a physical area of the brain for its operation.

It sounds like SDG is arguing that "conscience" provides a window to a certain aspect of reality -- that of the natural law or morality, just as sight provides a window to the physical reality of the outside world.

Please forgive me if I've put words into anyone's mouth...it just didn't feel like communication was occurring.

Cheers,
Smoki

SDG

Thanks, Smokes. I tend to agree with you, although the last sentence in Esau's most recent post sounds as if he may be making a more thoroughgoing statement than suggested in your paraphrase.

Smoky Mountain

I can't decide if "Smoki" is an effeminatization or rather an ethnicization of "Smoky". If the former, whoops. If the latter, pierogis on me!

Smoky Mountain

Esau's statement:

That is, the person in question CEASED the moment the accident occured.

touches on the subject I brought up earlier but which I think went unnoticed or was felt to be undeserving of comment: how does dementia (or other damage, decay, or disease of the brain) inform us as to the nature of "self"?

Esau

It sounds like Esau is arguing that "conscience" may be a physical phenomenon requiring a physical area of the brain for its operation.


Smoky,

You have it close to what I intended, but not quite -- at least, not stated precisely, that is.


Just like when you are looking through a microscope, there are 'artifacts' that you see due to some staining procedures that are performed on a specimen. These artifacts 'look' as if they are part of the specimen, but they are not at all. These occured merely as a result of the 'method of seeing things' (i.e., staining procedure) which was utilized for this purpose.

This is how I am using the word 'artifact' in my comment above.

That is, it's not really 'conscience' that we're observing here in reference to this and all such phenomenon involving what we believe is 'right' and 'wrong' -- that is, in the sense of morality that we've defined for ourselves -- which perhaps happened more so as a result of religion, as even some seculiarists may claim.

In fact, we may be mistakenly reading this (i.e., our notion of 'conscience') into it when, on the contrary, this is not the actual case at all.

In all actuality, it may well be that a properly functioning human organism simply abides by these very instincts that it has actually developed internally over the centuries as a result of cognition that has evolved in us -- which perhaps serves as a sense by which it seeks to maximize the chances for survival by a more advanced means -- that is, instead of merely self-preservation (as had been in primal times) there is the drive for the workings of a collective whole in order to produce a more synergistic result which could lead to greater chance of survival for this evolved human race.

Matthew Siekierski had alluded to something like this earlier in another thread.

Link:
The idea that a cooperative society is beneficial to survival

Thus, it may not be 'conscience' at all but an evolved sense of survival instincts the human species has developed in terms of surviving as a collective whole.

This should be something that might need to be addressed as well by SDG.

Esau

Speaking of artifacts:

Just in --

Link:
The Ghosts We Think We See

"The idea of spirits and souls appearing in this world becomes more plausible if we believe in general that the nonphysical can transfer over to the physical world."

SDG

Esau: I don't see the need to re-argue what I've already argued. Substitute "reason" for "conscience" and "logical axioms" for "ideas of right and wrong," and your comments make exactly as much sense.

The larger question in my mind is whether you think that you are expounding something that is compatible with Catholic teaching.

When you say "it's not really 'conscience' that we're observing here"... what, or where, do you think "conscience" IS, exactly???

Esau

When you say "it's not really 'conscience' that we're observing here"... what, or where, do you think "conscience" IS, exactly???

You need to re-read my comments.

What you are referring to as 'conscience' may actually be the evolved instincts that man has developed as a species as a means of maximizing its chances for survival.

Remember, portions of the brain weren't there at the beginning.

It was only over time that within the brain of man, certain other regions of his brain started to develop and come into being -- I am speaking of those regions that are responsible for his higher functions.

The 'conscience' you are referring to can be simply those 'advanced instincts' man has developed (the realization of the need for synergy amongst man as a species rather than as an individual in order to maximize his survival) as a result of cognition which had come into being once the higher regions of his brain fully developed.

This could perhaps explain why when a certain of these regions are damaged, he reverts to primal instincts.

SDG

You need to re-read my comments.

I don't think re-reading your comments is going to shed any light on what you meant by "it's not really 'conscience' that we're observing here." The reason I asked what or where you think "conscience" is (in light of your comment that "it's not what we're observing here") is that it wasn't clear from your comments. Re-reading isn't going to provide more information than is already there.

Specifically, it is not yet clear to me whether or not you mean to distinguish "the conscience I'm referring to" from some other sort of conscience.

Also, I am wondering whether you are ever going to clarify whether you are saying something that (a) you really believe is true, (b) you think might be true, or (c) you don't really believe, and more importantly whether you believe that what you are saying (a) is compatible with Catholic teaching, (b) might be compatible with Catholic teaching, or (c) is not compatible with Catholic teaching.

Not that it affects the form of the argument, but it does affect how concerned I ought to be.

Esau

Specifically, it is not yet clear to me whether or not you mean to distinguish "the conscience I'm referring to" from some other sort of conscience.


SDG,

That's just it --

The thing you're referring to as 'conscience' may be nothing more than the 'advanced instincts' I have mentioned in my most recent comments.

Not that this is something I hold to absolutely, but that which can be reasoned to considering the possible evidence for it from a seculiarist standpoint.

Tim J.

"..."conscience" may be a physical phenomenon requiring a physical area of the brain for its operation."

I wish I could re-join the conversation in earnest, but I gots stuff ta do...

I would only like to point out that even if the function of human conscience is PROVEN (which is extremely unlikely, but let's pretend) to be "a physical phenomenon requiring a physical area of the brain", that does not in the least little bit mean that it is not ALSO a supernatural/spiritual/miraculous process, as well. It's not as if the two are mutually exclusive. How the human mind exists and interacts with and through the physical human brain is a mystery that is not likely ever to be understood.

Anyone think we'll ever weigh a human mind on a scale?

I just re-read Lewis's "The Abolition of Man". Everyone on the thread should read it if they are not familiar with it already. It's a very slim volume, easily read at a sitting. It will not answer every objection, of course, or every fantastic hypothetical, but the basics are there in a very user-friendly format.

SDG

Esau, I'm still no closer to understanding what you meant by "it's not really 'conscience' that we're observing here."

I would say something else, but I'm afraid if I give you two things to respond to, you'll ignore the question again. Perhaps I have to limit myself to one-sentence posts if I want to be sure of getting your answer.

Jason from WA

Wow. I am continually impressed with the quality of discussion on this topic over the past week or so. This is truly a thinking person's blog! I have to admit, I've been trying to keep up with this topic, SDG and I think you've done a great job but this stuff is way over my head. perhaps it's all a little too abstract for me.

Deus Caritas Est

Jason

Smoky Mountain,

I would only warn you that I do not necessarily continue to hold any past views which a google search reveals ;-).

Jason

Thanks Esau for standing in for me while I got some work done ;-) (honestly, I'm impressed with your willingness to follow the evidence as you see it wherever it may lead). I think the relationship between moral judgments and our brains is actually critical to clear thinking about this matter and I hope to make a longer post about it in the future. For now though, let me try to engage with one of SDG's points above:

I'm not saying that individuals suffering brain injury may not lose the faculty of conscience, just as they may lose the faculty of reason. All I'm saying is that conscience, like reason, is a way of understanding reality, not just a jumble of impulses that express the state of our nervous systems but have no bearing on reality outside of ourselves.

On this view, the brain is a kind of receiver for moral principles. What I do not understand is - what is the content of the moral principles that exist outside the brain?

On my view, everything that is relevant to a moral judgment incurs inside the brain. On the "external moral perception" view as I understand it, at least some work still incurs inside the brain. But what precisely is the division between what happens in the brain and what information is perceived from outside? Is the content of these external principles simply "X is wrong"? Perhaps the content is more general - "Actions that cannot be formulated as categorical imperatives are wrong"? Or perhaps it is more vague, simply a binary indicator that a given action under consideration is acceptable or unacceptable. It is critical to clarify these points because once they are clarified, the theory becomes empirically testable. How exactly one specifies this theory determines the precise consequences that brain injuries might have for our moral judgments.

My claim is that however it is specified, the theory can be empirically rejected by showing that the particular message claimed to come from outside the brain is actually fully accounted for by the processes within it.

In order to evaluate this claim, I think the best way to proceed is for defenders of the "external perception theory" to articulate what it is exactly that we get from outside ourselves.

Jason

Alright, now I'm convinced that the blog is just adding typos. I couldn't really have twice typed, "incurs inside the brain" rather than "occurs inside the brain" could I? :-). I guess it's possible...

SDG

On this view, the brain is a kind of receiver for moral principles.

I dunno, would you say the brain is a kind of receiver for rational truth? I would rather say that rational truth and moral truth are realities into which our minds have insight.

What I do not understand is - what is the content of the moral principles that exist outside the brain?

I'm not sure I would put it that way. It seems to me that "principles" are formulated by minds; true principles describe real things in meaningful ways.

"X = X" and "If A = B, and B = C, then A = C" are logical principles, or rational axioms. As a real-world instance of the first, I am myself; as a real-world example of the second, if my last paycheck is equal to the previous one, and the previous one is equal to the one before that, then the first and last paychecks are equal to one another.

"Do good and shun evil" and "Be fair" are moral principles. Real-world instances include the moral evil of the person(s) whose arson was responsible for the Santiago fire and the moral heroism of firefighters risking their lives to save persons who refused to evacuate, for instance.

Brian Walden

If Phineas Gage was a different person after his accident, then aren't we all different people throughout our lives? I don't know anyone who's stays the same their whole life. We don't often see the drastic change that Mr. Gage experienced, but I don't know anyone who's the same "person" at age 8 as they are at 80.

Given that not everyone in the thread subscribes to the same theological beliefs, I won't use the term soul - but our personality is always expressed through our body. A toddler with an inquisitive personality doesn't express it the same way as they will as an adult - her body doesn't allow her to. Similarly a normally energetic person may not be energetic when suffering from a painful and debilitating illness. We might say that he's not the same person he once was, but this is only a figure of speech. I don't know many people who would argue that because our bodily appearance changes as we age, we literally become a different person as we move from being infancy to childhood to adolescence, etc. Neither should we say that we literally become a different person when our personality changes, even in cases as drastic as Phineas Gage.

Esau

Esau, I'm still no closer to understanding what you meant by "it's not really 'conscience' that we're observing here."


SDG,

The thing is, you are using the word 'conscience' to describe the means by which we decipher right from wrong.

Therefore, you've biased the whole argument there already.

What you are calling 'conscience' might actually be, as I have mentioned time and again, the 'advanced instincts' that man has developed over the centuries, which can be said to be nothing more than an advanced sense of survival as perceived by his advanced cognitive abilities; i.e., surivival as a collective whole vs. self-preservation as an individual (which was the original directive in primal times prior to development of the higher functions in the portions of the brain that came to be later in man) and, thus, maximizing chances for survival all in all.

In other words, your use of the term 'conscience' automatically introduces a bias into the discussion by making it appear that what makes man think in this manner is that notion of right and wrong as defined in our religious beliefs.

However, it might perhaps be nothing more than the advanced instincts which I have described previously which not necessarily abides by the moral precepts of right and wrong (as we know it and, thus, call this 'conscience' due to our religious beliefs which makes us read this into it as such -- which is why I called this nothing more than quite possibly an 'artifact' due to our faith) but, in all actuality, what is right and wrong in term of survival.

Jason

SDG,

So on your view then, our perception of external moral principles is not really analogous to the way that the eye perceives incoming light to be subsequently transformed into a visual field by our brain; rather, it is analogous to the way that our brain recognizes the truth of the basic axioms of logic. Is that correct?

Firstly, I do not see how this view can address the cross-sectional heterogeneity and the variation over time that we observe in what is regarded as moral (as I argued in a post in the "Responses Part I" thread). Mathematical truths do not vary across cultures or across time (and while I agree that some moral principles seem to have this characteristic, others do not).

Secondly, I do not see how this view can take seriously the inherent ambiguity of moral concepts. The axioms of formal logic that you state are extremely clear and parsimonious - we then discover that the repeated application of these axioms leads to a rich structure of derivative theorems. But this does not seem to be the case with moral reasoning - there is no inherent priority to higher level principles and the highest level formulation of a principle is not self-evidently true. Consider "Be fair". We might try to formulate a general theory of what fairness entails (Rawls: what we would choose under the veil of ignorance), and such a theory might have some prima facie plausibility, but ultimately the whole framework must be judged by how well the theory of fairness explains the judgments in which we are most confident. In formal logic, this is not the case. The highest level principles - the law of non-contradiction, modus ponens, modus tollens - are self-evident and if derivative logical statements cannot be formulated consistent with these higher level principles, they are wrong.

Thirdly (and this relates back to my first point), the theory I gave that related moral principles back to our self-conceptions was a general theory of normativity - it is meant to encompass all judgments about what we should do, from serious moral judgments to trivial judgments about etiquette. Is your theory also of this type? If it is meant to address only serious moral judgments and not judgments about etiquette, what is your view of the qualitative difference between these types of judgments? When we make decisions about etiquette, we still have to decide which of our actions we will reflectively endorse given the social/cultural/evolutionary origin of the principles of etiquette - how do we make that decision? Would you suggest that these principles also are perceptions of external truths?

SDG

So on your view then, our perception of external moral principles is not really analogous to the way that the eye perceives incoming light to be subsequently transformed into a visual field by our brain; rather, it is analogous to the way that our brain recognizes the truth of the basic axioms of logic. Is that correct?

Very much so. I would even say that conscience is a subset of reason (understanding "reason" broadly). Morality is intelligible to us; we have insight into it, we intuit its fundamentals, and draw specific conclusions. St. Thomas Aquinas defines the verdict of conscience as one's last best judgment of what ought or ought not to be done. It is this verdict that is always absolutely morally binding.

Firstly, I do not see how this view can address the cross-sectional heterogeneity and the variation over time that we observe in what is regarded as moral (as I argued in a post in the "Responses Part I" thread). Mathematical truths do not vary across cultures or across time (and while I agree that some moral principles seem to have this characteristic, others do not).

Even mathematical truths, while they don't themselves vary, are not always and everywhere equally understood. Nor is mathematics the only form of rational thinking or insight into intelligible reality. Philosophy is also a reasoned attempt to draw valid conclusions from fundamental principles.

Some philosophical principles are so basic and sound that they would be widely if not universally understood and accepted; Cogito ergo sum would be an example of a very fundamental insight that anyone thinking rationally should be able to apprehend. Philosophical thought and argumentation can carry different thinkers to very different conclusions; but this does not mean that philosophy holds no reasoned insights into reality. Individual thinkers and cultures make philosophical mistakes just as they make moral mistakes. Some systems are better than others. Even when we say that a particular system or argument is just plain wrong, we acknowledge that philosophy pertains to reality. Otherwise we would say that it is at most not even wrong, or even just a matter of individual volition (like liking or not liking haggis).

Secondly, I do not see how this view can take seriously the inherent ambiguity of moral concepts. The axioms of formal logic that you state are extremely clear and parsimonious - we then discover that the repeated application of these axioms leads to a rich structure of derivative theorems. But this does not seem to be the case with moral reasoning - there is no inherent priority to higher level principles and the highest level formulation of a principle is not self-evidently true.

On the contrary, while it is true that moral principles, being (among other things) more concrete than mathematical principles, are not as utterly and absolutely lucid, there is certainly an inherent priority among moral principles in which conclusions can be more or less certainly derived from the highest and most self-evidently true principles.

It is a very old insight, many centuries old, that the most foundational moral principle, perhaps analogous to Cogito ergo sum in philosophy or logical axioms in mathematics, is that good is to be done or pursued and evil avoided. It should be noted here that "good" and "evil" are not here being used in moral terms as synonyms for "right" and "wrong," or we would have a simple tautology, or at best a functional definition of good and evil.

Rather, the precept that good is to be pursued and evil avoided implies an understanding of basic human goods, such as life, health, knowledge, peace, community, etc., which correspond to the needs and condition of human nature, which contribute to human fulfillment. (Happiness or pleasure are not themselves basic human goods; rather, they reflect the state of fulfillment we experience in the achievement or realization of such goods.)

In general, living creatures instinctively or naturally pursue those goods that correspond to their needs and condition in whatever manner presents itself. Human beings have free will, and are aware of a moral dimension to our choices. For instance, we cannot choose "good" or avoid "evil" simply; we must choose this good over that good, and sometimes we must choose to avoid this evil rather than that evil. We are also aware that the way in which we choose particular goods may deprive others of those same goods or impose evils on them. Moral precepts correctly derived from the first principle clarify which ways of pursuing goods and avoiding evils are morally sound and which are not.

One systematic approach to moral thought, developed by Germain Grisez, derives all specific moral norms from eight intermediate "modes of responsibility," which in turn are grounded in a single foundational principle based on the idea of "integral human fulfillment." It should be noted that Grisez stands very much in the moral mainstream of human cultures and civilizations in terms of the specific moral norms derived from his system, which is an expression of Judeo-Christian and Catholic thought. His practical conclusions are not "his" in the sense that, say, Peter Singer's views on infanticide are "his." Grisez simply tries to think systematically and intelligibly about moral principles and consequences, and to show more rigorously very largely what has widely been understood less systematically across many cultures and civilizations. (Of course where cultures differ morally Grisez does argue in effect that some have been wrong and others right, or more nearly right than others.)

It may be helpful to note that the comparative opacity of moral truth is also held in Christian thought to be related to a darkening of our faculties on this point in connection with a state of spiritual privation affecting our whole species.

Thirdly (and this relates back to my first point), the theory I gave that related moral principles back to our self-conceptions was a general theory of normativity - it is meant to encompass all judgments about what we should do, from serious moral judgments to trivial judgments about etiquette. Is your theory also of this type? If it is meant to address only serious moral judgments and not judgments about etiquette, what is your view of the qualitative difference between these types of judgments? When we make decisions about etiquette, we still have to decide which of our actions we will reflectively endorse given the social/cultural/evolutionary origin of the principles of etiquette - how do we make that decision? Would you suggest that these principles also are perceptions of external truths?

Very interesting question. I would say that objective moral considerations certainly impact choices about etiquette (for example, with respect to not giving offense), and systems of etiquette may in part codify objective moral precepts (for example, with respect to hospitality). However, specific norms of etiquette, such as shaking hands or holding a door for a woman, are obviously not themselves objective moral norms. And this has been recognized, I think, in times and places when men have had significant traffic with other cultures and civilizations. "When in Rome" reflects an insight that I think comes fairly intuitively in the absence of heavily prejudicial cultural factors.

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January 2012

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