Consequences

Common intuitions tell us that we are morally praiseworthy if we can liberate ourselves from motivations that are grounded in consequences.  Upon closer inspection, however, such liberation is impossible. When we speak of genuine concern for others, we nonetheless commit our actions based on the rewarding feelings that arise from exercising such concern. Conversely, we refrain from certain actions based on consequences (or commit actions out of duty, for fear that there will be consequences, be they even so small as neglecting our self-imposed duties, and consistency).

On the naive view of moral behaviour, an atheist might say that it is more praiseworthy to be moral in the absence of divine consequences. What is missed here is the understanding that all behaviour is motivated by consequences, and that the moral atheist is governed by a cost-benefit analysis that incessantly churns beneath the conscious mind. Most of us are moral because we are raised in countries, and in circumstances, where there is no advantage to being “immoral.” Stealing, cheating, lying, and even killing, are simply not helpful to us. They are especially not helpful to people who have the kind of time, money and education to sit around and discuss such questions. What of the situations in which these things are beneficial? The observations indicate that when something is beneficial (on the net whole), people will do it.

God is often introduced as a reason for behaving morally. This is not a security blanket for the weak-minded; in fact it is a rather serious issue. There arise many situations in life where there are no negative earthly consequences for killing, maiming, or abusing another human being. Furthermore, it is human nature to enjoy these activities in some circumstances (usually the same circumstances in which there are no earthly consequences). Plainly said, the concept of God is linked to the permanence of human action, and the possibility of life beyond death. If there is no life beyond death, none of our actions have any consequences whatsoever. This is not a matter of divine judgement, but simply a matter of permanence–if a murder will eventually be undone, such that there is no ultimate difference between committing it or not, then the only variables to be weighed are the immediate desires, and the immediate consequences. Armchair pacifists may type up large essays on moral responsibility, but if an aspiring murderer believes there are no consequences, he will commit the murder, and the essay will be largely irrelevant.

Consider the short-term analogy: one is faced with the choice of whether to attempt to stop a nuclear bomb from being dropped on a city, or not. If, in just 10 minutes, it is made known that the world is going to end, our hero may simply watch the nuclear destruction for pleasure’s sake. It is merely a different way of arriving at the same result. However, if there is some sense that the actions will leave a lasting impression upon things, it will inspire different behaviour.

Some idea of God is also necessary to form a basis of coherent, objective morality. He is required because of the grand “says who?” The comfortable secular society we enjoy is moral primarily because morality is efficient, and this may lead us to believe that all the world would behave this way, if only they were smart enough. But when we see atrocities committed overseas by people who are rather eager to commit them, we will not be able to tell them that they are wrong. We can try to stop them, but we cannot do much else.

It is common for a believer to assert that we need God. It is also common for an unbeliever to assert that we don’t need God. But suppose, hypothetically, that we do need God, but he is not there. This would constitute a problem, which people might solve by denying one of the two basic premises. These people would then become quite polarized and angry with each other.

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17 Responses to “Consequences”

  1. Have you come across desirism, yet?

  2. Well, I have to stand by what I wrote here. Clusters of text on the Internet might make modern nerds feel better about the data they observe, but ultimately nothing real has changed. People who have never heard of desirism are unaffected by it, and if their actions have no ultimate consequences (rather, if they cannot believe that they have consequences), it won’t matter how many of us agree that these actions are somehow “objectively wrong.” It creates no incentive to follow this morality, and the result is the same.

    I find it ironic that the world is so complex, but at the end of all these complexities lie simple, enormous negations. Science and engineering are intensely absorbing, but their end products are better video games and simple physical/mental stimulation. Philosophy can generate endless metaphysical chatter about why death isn’t so bad, but in the end the philosopher goes ahead and dies. Atheistic moral theories can spin and twirl, but everything still happens anyway.

    I submit the simple but troubling suggestion that morals do not exist unless there is some ultimate difference between adhering to them or rejecting them. Even if behaviour was sorted after death (say, by God), nobody could know that. It is a question, then, of whether we can *believe* in the permanence of our actions. But many people do not, or cannot believe this. Therefore you will not hear any optimism out of me on this topic.

  3. “I submit the simple but troubling suggestion that morals do not exist unless there is some ultimate difference between adhering to them or rejecting them.”

    It may be the case that what we refer to as moral is no more than a sense of the path(s) that supply the best chance at the fecund renewal/perpetuation of humanity. I.e., morality is probably rooted in our biology, not in the philosopher’s lecture hall, the pastor’s alter, or any number of holy texts. This is why I tend towards the idea that biology will have more to say about ethics in the years to come than have philosophers and theologians of yesteryear.

    Whether a bulk of people are aware of the reasons why they do as they do, or don’t do, does not seem to much change what is done. Rather, reasons for actions are given after the fact, warranted or not, instead of the reverse–in most cases. That is, desire comes first, then reasons. Understanding the desire, then, and whatever it is that motivates desire, would seem like a good place to start understanding human behaviour, and from there, perhaps, a framework for even beginning to understand human(primate?) ethics might be built.

    “Even if behaviour was sorted after death (say, by God), nobody could know that. It is a question, then, of whether we can *believe* in the permanence of our actions.”

    Believing in the permanence(temporally, atemporally, or eternally) of actions curtails the actual actions of people little, but does effect their reflections on their actions quite a bit. “Oh, God, what have I done?” “Dad’s going to kill me!” Even if it does curb the action, it does little, if any single thing whatsoever, in curbing the desire to act.

  4. “morality is probably rooted in our biology”

    The evolution of moral codes makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t need to be convinced of it. But I think it’s a red herring.

    The real issue is whether an intentional action can be “wrong.” Furthermore, moral tendencies can be described in biological terms, but rational thoughts (“I will torture this man for information. He will suffer. Am I wrong to do this?”) are not biological, any more than this conversation is biological. These types of thoughts transcend instincts, drives, etc. They are on the same level as any abstract idea.

    So my simplistic view remains the same. Without anything transcendent, we have no morality. Ethics only helps people who volunteer to play the game. But if there is nobody to sort everything out, and no hope that it will be sorted, there is nothing to consider except the immediate consequences for oneself (which indirectly incorporates guilt, commitment to the common good, etc.).

    >> Believing in the permanence(temporally, atemporally, or eternally) of >> actions curtails the actual actions of people little

    Hmm. Maybe. I can only speak for myself, but personally, this was always highly relevant to me. And my experience is that sincere belief in a God who wants humanity to be moral does really change people’s behaviour.

  5. “The real issue is whether an intentional action can be “wrong.” ”

    I don’t think so, at least not in the sense that most people use the word “wrong.”

    “‘Furthermore, moral tendencies can be described in biological terms, but rational thoughts (“I will torture this man for information. He will suffer. Am I wrong to do this?”) are not biological, any more than this conversation is biological. These types of thoughts transcend instincts, drives, etc. They are on the same level as any abstract idea.'”

    How does any action/thought by a human, or any creature we’re aware of, transcend biology(instincts, drives, etc.)? At some point a group of neurons will depolarize, for a particular reason, would they not–regardless of what sort of action or thought it is? Unless you are suggesting a dualistic and/or a contra-causal concept of volition, I’m fairly certain one cannot get around the brain barrier. Even for such things that are so-called abstractions, they are rooted in a consciousness which is itself rooted in our brain matter(alone, as far as anyone is able to demonstrate); pi, as a concept, exists as a group of neurons just as much as a desire to eat chocolate, or fornicate, or think, or write blogs.

    “Without anything transcendent, we have no morality.”

    Uh, I don’t follow you. Without anything transcendent, we *may* not have transcendent morality.

    “Ethics only helps people who volunteer to play the game.”

    I agree. It also penalizes people who don’t play along(which often makes things better for those that do).

    “But if there is nobody to sort everything out, and no hope that it will be sorted, there is nothing to consider except the immediate consequences for oneself (which indirectly incorporates guilt, commitment to the common good, etc.).”

    Don’t see why it’s necessary to have something or someone to sort out matters. Even if there was some kind of constant benchmark, like an unchanging god, that benchmark would be, per-force of its subject orientation, subjective(albeit unchanging). It wouldn’t even be necessarily “right” in and of itself; it’d be more like a physical constant, or a force; no more adding to or taking away from ethics than does F=MA take away anything from E=MC^2.

    “And my experience is that sincere belief in a God who wants humanity to be moral does really change people’s behaviour.”

    My own experiences indicate that people, for the most part, say and profess one thing but do another. The vaunted transformative effects of religion(or more generally speaking, any kind of ethic), are usually quite overstated or temporary.

    —-

    All discussion aside, I think I do see/feel your gist. The question of ethics is far from easy; non-intuitive, even. Could be a black hole of thought. Perhaps not. Time and the right kind of effort might tell.

  6. “I don’t think so, at least not in the sense that most people use the word ‘wrong.'”

    How’s that?

    “How does any action/thought by a human, or any creature we’re aware of, transcend biology(instincts, drives, etc.)?”

    We sometimes talk about biological roots of our tendencies. We say that John had sex with Lisa because of his biological drive to reproduce. But we do not explain specific abstract thoughts in terms of tendencies (“John wrote that equation because of his biological desire for elegance. Elegance has survival value.”)

    We discuss abstract ideas, and rational thought, on a different plane. We assume they refer to a greater view of reality that is not biased or arbitrary between individuals. This treatment is necessary, otherwise the biological explanations for our behaviour would explain themselves away. So there is a distinction between the “evolution of morality” (people naturally tend to share because it works) from the rational concept of a moral action (“is it objectively wrong for me to hurt John, since he will feel suffering?”)

    I do realize that you are mainly pointing out that all our activities are brain-dependent. I just think it’s more complicated than that.

    “pi, as a concept, exists as a group of neurons”

    We’re stepping outside the realm of established fact. The question of whether mathematics objects exist independent of human thought is a matter of contention.

    “Don’t see why it’s necessary to have something or someone to sort out matters.”

    It’s necessary (or desirable) because it transcends humanity, provides fixed moral values, and provides hope that there will be justice (and hence, a reason to behave justly in situations where it is not beneficial to the individual). It’s true that a fixed God would not necessarily be “right,” but he would be fixed from a human frame of reference.

    And perhaps that really is the bottom line. The stuff is happening. If there is nothing to transcend it, then there is no hope. Some people find that trivial; I find it non-trivial.

    “My own experiences indicate that people, for the most part, say and profess one thing but do another.”

    I can’t deny that.

    “The vaunted transformative effects of religion(or more generally speaking, any kind of ethic), are usually quite overstated or temporary.”

    Well, it affected me, and it affected many people I met throughout my life thus far, or read about in books. I think it does work. But now you’re making me take the optimistic stance, which I am uncomfortable with.

  7. “How’s that?”

    The usual way: something that stands outside people, a gold standard for wrong.

    “We discuss abstract ideas, and rational thought, on a different plane. We assume they refer to a greater view of reality that is not biased or arbitrary between individuals.”

    I don’t make that assumption.

    “This treatment is necessary, otherwise the biological explanations for our behaviour would explain themselves away. ”

    Lost me. How’s that?

    “So there is a distinction between the “evolution of morality” (people naturally tend to share because it works) from the rational concept of a moral action (“is it objectively wrong for me to hurt John, since he will feel suffering?”)”

    In this case, the first answer explains the second, IMO; no, it is not objectively wrong, it is what works. Empathy, something rooted in biology, would explain reciprocal suffering by the functioning of mind-modeling and mirror neurons such that, in fully realized human empathy, the observer suffers with the sufferer.

    “We’re stepping outside the realm of established fact. The question of whether mathematics objects exist independent of human thought is a matter of contention.”

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was referencing some platonic pi. I meant that humans who hold an impression of pi hold that impression in a group of neurons.

    “It’s necessary (or desirable) because it transcends humanity, provides fixed moral values, and provides hope that there will be justice (and hence, a reason to behave justly in situations where it is not beneficial to the individual).”

    I get you. If transcendent ethics don’t exist, and there is no hereafter, then it is a hard thing to come to terms with–that sometimes bad things happen and there will(almost certainly) be no rectification.

    “Some people find that trivial; I find it non-trivial.”

    10-4. It makes me angry, actually. The fact that babies starve to death on the breast of a starving mother infuriates me–still more that there’s probably no happy ending once the curtain falls for, and over, them.

    “But now you’re making me take the optimistic stance, which I am uncomfortable with.”

    🙂

  8. >> I don’t make that assumption // Lost me. How’s that?

    You don’t make that assumption? Then… how do you know we’re even having a conversation about anything?

    This is epistemological. It probably isn’t good comment-thread conversation, but my intended question was: if physical processes add up to our own human behaviour, and our very discussion of those physical models, how do we know they’re leading us to the right answer? Or anywhere at all, for that matter? Everyone has to ask this at some point. Stephen Hawking asked this question (I forget where), but then he just stops talking about it because he knows that if we’re being led to the wrong answer, we’re totally boned anyway, so there’s no point in thinking about it.

    We sometimes explain away people’s ideas, experiences, and beliefs. We say, “you believe there is a God because of X, Y and Z, but really, these thoughts arise from physical phenomena A, B and C.” But suppose a third party comes along and says “You believe you are explaining away his belief in God, but you only explain it away because of physical phenomena D, E and F.” Although our experience of confidence in our knowledge makes the idea counter-intuitive, we nonetheless eventually explain away the very theories that we are using to explain other people’s behaviour, if the theories themselves arise from blind processes. I don’t claim to understand why knowledge seems to be possible. But at the moment, I don’t think anyone else does either.

    When you say empathy is rooted in biology, I agree that the feeling (“geez, that must have hurt”) is biological. But you can also think a rational thought about what the other person will feel, and how you wouldn’t want to feel that. I think this is different from the instinctive “that must have hurt!” empathy that I feel when someone tells me a story about a man’s genitals being mashed.

    OK on the rest.

  9. “You don’t make that assumption?”

    I don’t make the assumption that thought(rational or not) takes place on a different plane of reality from, say, any other form of action/sense/feeling. Nor do I believe that reality is necessarily as I perceive it; I have an annoying habit of being incorrect.

    “It probably isn’t good comment-thread conversation, but my intended question was: if physical processes add up to our own human behaviour, and our very discussion of those physical models, how do we know they’re leading us to the right answer?”

    By testing our assumptions and conclusions. The example you gave of progression from X, Y and Z to D, E and F may form a portion of that testing.

    ” . . . if the theories themselves arise from blind processes.”

    I think we are getting to a point now where humanity isn’t completely blind to these processes, or is at least aware that there is a “black box” wherein these processes somehow take place. We are, in effect, starting to examine our source code. “Errors” in our make-up are being unearthed, and while we still suffer from the potential ill effects of that make-up, knowing it is there is akin to sealing a memory leak so it will not “crash” human thought, overmuch.

  10. I only mean that there is a distinction between a rational thought and an instinct or a tendency. And there is. This is more about whether that difference means anything to you (and you seem to say that it doesn’t).

    “By testing our assumptions and conclusions. The example you gave of progression from X, Y and Z to D, E and F may form a portion of that testing.”

    You’re trying to wriggle through by applying a bit of that slippery “scientific method” rhetorical lubricant! I deny that it’s that easy. All your “testing” of your assumptions and conclusions arise from the same blind processes that you are talking about. Including your writing of those sentences.

    True, we’re examining our own code, but there’s the big question of why it is possible for us to know anything about the code, if the code is what causes us to run, and if the code has no reason to be one way rather than another. Don’t get me wrong: the feeling does seem to be that knowledge is possible, and that we can indeed “test our conclusions.” But if every single thought and every single testing of the conclusions is caused by the things that are being tested, the bias is total, and why might it mean anything at all? This is a foundational question.

  11. Sorry about the late reply.

    “You’re trying to wriggle through by applying a bit of that slippery “scientific method” rhetorical lubricant!”

    I’m not wriggling, nor applying a lubricant. Instead, I’m proposing a method, and if the method can be contained in a few sentences I don’t meant to convey that it will be an easy thing to act upon.

    “All your “testing” of your assumptions and conclusions arise from the same blind processes that you are talking about.”

    I don’t think there’s a problem, here; in the same way there isn’t a problem with using software that debugs itself. Epistemologically,

  12. Sorry about the late reply.

    “This is more about whether that difference means anything to you (and you seem to say that it doesn’t).”

    I think an instinct and a thought both arise from the same place: our brain. Until I have a good reason to say that an instinct is always separate from a conscious thought, then I won’t make a distinction I’m not qualified to make. I have an instinct that impels me to think about things, or I have a rational basis for doing so, or both–I don’t yet know.

    “You’re trying to wriggle through by applying a bit of that slippery “scientific method” rhetorical lubricant!”

    As for myself, the scientific method seems more abrasive than it does lubricating. I’m not wriggling, nor applying a lubricant. Instead, I’m proposing a method, and if the method can be contained in a few sentences I don’t mean to convey that it will be an easy thing to act upon, but baring another method, yet to be proposed, this is a place to branch out from.

    “All your “testing” of your assumptions and conclusions arise from the same blind processes that you are talking about.”

    I don’t think there’s a problem, here; in the same way there isn’t an issue with software that debugs itself(unless you like bleeding-edge pre-alphas). The difference, though, between the unconscious efforts of an algorithm and the conscious(and often shrouded) efforts of a human, is that we’re aware of the fact that we’re probing our “code.” I can’t think of any reason why this isn’t a helpful awareness.

    “But if every single thought and every single testing of the conclusions is caused by the things that are being tested, the bias is total, and why might it mean anything at all?”

    I suppose if I lacked the ability to differentiate one thought from another, then testing thoughts would be problematic, perhaps even impossible. Thankfully, I am able to do so. And, to test one thought with another thought does not strike me as biased. It looks self-critical, instead of self-affirming, to me.

    As for foundational questions: eventually, you’ll hit an epistemological bedrock of some kind, or simply run out of questions, and be in pretty much the same place you started–thinking apparently consistent thoughts that have both meaning and utility. If you disagree, then this conversation might as well be written in random wingdings.

  13. Well, let’s put it another way: the evidence seems to indicate that “it works.” I cannot really deny that. The question is why it works.

    If all thoughts arise from arbitrary processes that have no reason to produce one result rather than another, then it would seem that there is no reason why the results and thoughts they produce ought to be meaningful. Yet it seems that they are meaningful. Self-debugging computer code is written by people, who transcend the code. When code is writing itself and debugging itself, and becoming suspicious that it is writing and debugging itself, that is another ball game.

    Frankly, I have no idea why this conversation isn’t written in random wingdings. We may all just be speaking to each other in the same wingdings.

    But this was about morality. The question was: is the knowledge of suffering in a mind–which mind bears some analogy to your own, no matter what you may make of its origin, ontological nature, etc.–different from the instinctive exercise of morality that evolves in groups (“It disbenefits me to commit these actions, because it will make that person angry”). I would say that it is, and that such a distinction is necessary to talk about “real” morality at all. Although I do recognize that you might simply ask about the root cause of those decisions… and granted, that is difficult to untangle. The only certainty I have is that along this continuum between two absolutes, some things are closer to one end than the other.

  14. “If all thoughts arise from arbitrary processes that have no reason to produce one result rather than another, then it would seem that there is no reason why the results and thoughts they produce ought to be meaningful.”

    Do you think that thought processes are arbitrary? If so, why?

    “Self-debugging computer code is written by people, who transcend the code. When code is writing itself and debugging itself, and becoming suspicious that it is writing and debugging itself, that is another ball game.”

    Yes, the analogy has its limits. If computer engineers ever have a good reason to start making self-replicating machines/code, then we may soon be offering obeisance to our machine overlords . . . which I, for one, would welcome(in case there are any self-aware NBEs reading this).

    “The only certainty I have is that along this continuum between two absolutes, some things are closer to one end than the other.”

    I agree. The distinction of what is moral runs along a white-to-black path, and we may never arrive at a complete understanding of them. Perhaps what we should hope to agree upon, no matter one’s deontological leanings, is that it is better to decrease human suffering than to increase it; to do that which engenders human well-being rather than that which harms it. Our motivation could be no more than that most people, people no different than you and I, want it to be so, without falling prey to the conceited tyranny of the majority.

    But . . . ultimately, what we do in ethical terms, from all that is apparent to me now, isn’t because of ethics, it is because our ethics give us a human society that perpetuates itself, and by dint of such, our ethics also perpetuate; or, compatibly, we persist because our ethics grant us this possibility. If a day comes when all or a majority of humans start acting like zombies, or like oil tycoons, then our ethics would likely die with us.

  15. Thought processes would be arbitrary if the laws of nature were arbitrary.

    Of course, even if engineers make self-replicating, self-coding machines, engineers still made them. There is no analogy for this example because the example is the whole system.

    Ethics: that’s true, but it seems like a bit of a tautology.

  16. “Thought processes would be arbitrary if the laws of nature were arbitrary.”

    Even if the laws of nature are arbitrary, how would one derive the conclusion that thoughts are arbitrary as a result? Looks like a genetic . . . no, I won’t use the f-word.

    “There is no analogy for this example[that machines can be made to self-correct and that humans appear to do it already] because the example is the whole system.”

    Are we not, on the naturalistic view, very much like massively complex molecular machines, and in that case kind of like any self-correcting machine we might craft? On the other hand, if we aren’t the products of natural selection, and are indeed specially created, then I guess I’m wrong. Or I could be wrong on both accounts.

    “Ethics: that’s true, but it seems like a bit of a tautology.”

    Please refer to this as codependency; it would make me feel less like a brain damaged teratoma.

  17. On the naturalistic view: if the laws of nature were arbitrary, the thoughts would be arbitrary because they are a direct and sole product of the laws of nature. This is not a genetic fallacy.

    Whoa! OK, let me back up a bit. All I meant is that we appear to be in a closed system (the universe) with no sure evidence that anything external does transcend, or can transcend, the system. It is the only such system. A machine is constructed by humans, and it is only capable of self-correcting because it is directly provided with the criteria for doing so, and it self-corrects according to what its programmers decide is correct. But the whole system, though it seems to self correct, is converging towards… what, exactly… nobody knows.

    I do not really understand the details of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, but I will bring them up anyway, because they tell us something about these issues w.r.t mathematics and computing. One wonders, then, “What about the whole thing?” (or even just “What about us”).

    Hm. Now we’re just talking about random stuff. Almost.

    Sorry. I called it a tautology because the important question (for a lot of people, anyway) is whether the “ethics” can be “true.” The fact that they exist because they are necessary does not address the ultimate reason why it’s like this (i.e. why they are necessary–therefore it does not detract from the possibility that they are necessary because they are “true”). I admit that when you look at the fine details, however, it seriously shakes things up.

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