Thursday, October 29, 2009

Responses 001 (2010-2011)

This is the first planned expansion to... no, not some MMORPG. Rather, it's the first follow-up to this post about the questions that plague some people.

In that list, Q1 reads, "Consider the extent to which knowledge issues in ethics are similar to those in at least one other area of knowledge."

What knowledge issues are these? The big one is, of course, "How do we know what is right?"

Any domain of human knowledge requires underpinnings, and a superficial look at the domain of ethics shows that people in general have a range of ideas about what constitutes the morally-correct response to any possible human situation. This in turn leads to the ugly spectre of relativism, in which it is claimed that there are no such things as absolute moral values.

The argument against absolute moral values points out that there are practices such as female circumcision and cannibalism that are sanctioned by some cultures and not by others. This is a daft argument for a simple reason: these are practices, but not values. They are indicative of values, but not descriptive or prescriptive.

Take female circumcision, for example. The point, from various perspectives, is to amend sexual behaviour in a way that a particular society prefers it. This is something every society does; it's just that it's not so extreme in most cases. I in no way condone the practice, but it should be understood as a purely cultural approach (barbaric though it is) to the idea of appropriate sexual constraint or restraint. Most mainstream cultures support the general moral idea of restricting sexual behaviour.

The example of cannibalism varies from culture to culture as well — in fact, Fernandez-Armesto lists it as the very first idea in his excellent survey, Ideas that Changed the World. In all cultures, eating your fellow men for nutritional purposes is a bad thing; in those cultures that practise cannibalism, the idea is either a) to honour the dead, or b) to conserve the life-force of the society. In all cases it is a ritual thing, much caricatured by societies that don't practise it. Note again, that the general ideas are unexceptional.

What all this means that the domain of ethics can be compared to something like mathematics, in that it has fixed axioms which require working out to give a consistent answer. (See, for example, my previous post on why mathematics and theology are similar.) It can also be compared to something like history, in that there is empirical evidence, but this evidence tends to be interpreted in some kind of context which may seem horribly alien from another frame of reference.

So to what extent are knowledge issues in ethics similar to those in other domains? Well, pretty much the same: "How do you know?" "How can you justify your beliefs in this domain?" "What is it necessary to know?" "How does it apply to your life?" and so on.

The danger here is that at the shallowest level, there is no difference between ethics and any other domain, especially if you confuse the domains by some philosophical paradigm such as utilitarianism or attempt to conflate economics (or law) with ethics. Perhaps the greatest threat to all such domains, anyway, is the attempt to apply a materialist paradigm — the so-called scientification of all things.

Well, that's my response. It is deliberately supposed not to be a guide to writing an answer to the question. It's meant to provoke some thought, and I hope it's done that.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eh, provoking thought is good; but sometimes when people go too far, they end up unraveling the entire question for the people doing the question and thus defeating the purpose of the question in the first place; that is, to provoke critical thinking. Thoughts?

Thursday, October 29, 2009 6:44:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Heh, do you think I've unravelled the question for the people doing the question?

If you do, then I have provoked critical thinking in you. If you don't, then it's OK.

Friday, October 30, 2009 12:35:00 am  
Blogger The Hierophant said...

That's assuming there's one way to think about the question.

Friday, October 30, 2009 5:00:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Of course there are many ways to think about the question. But one ought to note the etymology of 'about' — 'on the surface of' or 'oriented towards the outside'. I'd rather think into the question. :)

Friday, October 30, 2009 2:45:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, actually, I think that you've managed to open up the question without unraveling it entirely. There's a fine line between opening it up and unraveling it entirely.

My comments weren't exactly directed at your post, anyway. It was more of something that I observed in school....


Saturday, October 31, 2009 2:14:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thing. About the assumption that there's only one way to think about the question, well, of course, as has already been mentioned above, there are multiple ways of approaching a question / statement. Though sometimes people decide to follow the more obvious path that has been shown unto them, thus leading to them following something just because it's the easier thing to do, rather than come up with their own way of analyzing the question / statement.

Perhaps I have too little faith in humanity, though. I'm such a pessimist / cynic, lol.


Saturday, October 31, 2009 2:18:00 am  

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