Morality, liberty and happiness
[Archiving a PM discussion to enable more open participation]
[NOTE: Arvind's quotes in this post are from a facebook thread]

Arvind Iyer Wrote:For a system of morals to be taken seriously, it need not be 'objectively present in the Universe' or absolute in any sense. In other words, that a system of morals is not 'objective' does not mean that it cannot be taken seriously. Therefore, acknowledging the lack of objective grounding does not amount to a concession that 'anything goes'. In the excellent resource linked to in this post [1], the relevance of both Utilitarian (where some aspects of well-being can be 'objectively' evaluated) and Deontological (where principles derived by collective consensus are axiomatized for purposes of moral reasoning) modes of moral reasoning is made clear.

In sum, the fact that a system of morality is provisional in a technical sense, does not mean that we adopt a casual attitude towards it or that we should not defend it with the vigour with which we would defend an empirical truth.

Arvind Iyer Wrote:The 'utilitarian' concern is collective well-being alone, whereas the 'libertarian' extension of this is a concern for collective well-being subject to the constraint that individual rights are not violated.

Comparing this with what I had presented.
1. There isn't any rational absolute for comparison of one morality over another just like no way of comparison for one axiomatic system with another, until a purpose is put forward.
2. This purpose in itself is one moral premise and again not a rational absolute.
3. Society (a collection of rational agents) is another agent which is stakeholder in moral framework. Individual rational agents, in our case humans, are the others.
4. An agent has its own moral premises, including the society.
5. The moral framework just gives equal right to every rational agent to assert his moral premises on other agents.
6. This means society is equally justified to constrain a rational agent with rules like monogamy etc if they are its moral premises. The individual has equal right to assert his moral premises on the society and rebel against such rules. This will result in resolution of the conflict one way or the other.
7. Thus an act is immoral from "individual morality" or "social moral" perspective. But it can't be immoral in any absolute rational sense.
8. Asserting rights to be fundamental in the sense to be absolute irrespective of current social constructs and invariant with respect to time can't be a rational or moral imperative.

This two sound to me equivalent. But for the point 8 which dictates the fact that end of the day all thses are "moral premises" and subjected to change as and when rational agents change.

Arvind Iyer Wrote:Here, the consumer is a contemporary rational agent and an autonomous one, at liberty to make a dietary choice. This choice can be influenced by both the utilitarian consideration of 'sustainably feeding the world' and the libertarian consideration of fulfilling one's legitimate desires. In such a framework there is no 'imposition of the collective' enforced by fiat or fatwa, but there are indeed interests of the collective which a rational agent may voluntarily recognize as incumbent upon themselves.

This is exactly what is being called as "resolution of individual and social morality". Some social moral premises might be of utmost importance and hence coded as LAWS. The others are open in the sense that Social premises do not consider them as moral imperative and hence open to individual's choice.

Individual morality is dictated by individual preferences. Similarly collective morality is dictated by the collection. Now there will be a resolution of moral premises for both and the resultant will guide the respective actions. The moralities are getting RESOLVED and not reflected on each other.
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The largely legitimate anxiety, which a radically individualist libertarian morality induces in social activists, can be attributed to the following two reasons

(i) radical individualism, i.e. individual liberty unshackled from social obligation, also lies at the heart of a Nietzschean/Randian morality where morality stems from power and not based on 'answerability' to society

(ii) default acceptance of arbitrary standards in the name of individualism ends up leaving the door ajar to 'cultural relativism' and eventually an accommodationism of say, Islamofascism.

Emphasis of individual preference over social obligation need to tackle the following questions

(i) On whose terms is the resolution of individual preference and social obligation negotiated?

(ii) Are individuals actually at liberty to make independent moral choices and are we taking into account all the constraints they are subject to?

As for (i), the prerogative does rest with the individual in principle, but in practice, ends up being exercised only by persons in positions of privilege who also largely influence the collective standards. Sam Harris presents a version of utilitarianism where moral standards are set not by individuals but by an 'objective' evaluation of well-being produced by an action. By this objective formulation, he seeks to avoid the trap of cultural relativism (which is the concern activists based in say, Pakistan, have to contend with when so-called liberals refrain from condemning Islamofascist excesses in the name of cultural neutrality). However in doing so, it has been pointed out that Sam Harris may have forgotten to account for his Eurocentric biases and ended up exercising his own 'White privilege' by implying that it is Western civilization that has found the right means for evaluation of human well-being. Harris's talk and some criticisms of the same can be found here and here.

As for (ii), in the Cultural Naturalistic worldview as outlined by philosopher Thomas W Clark, even those human actions thought of as volitional or voluntary are 'fully caused' by our genes and environment, thus adding crucial caveats to the very premises of a libertarian worldview. Clark's talk on worldview naturalism is worth listening to in full in this regard.

In sum, the resolution that is sought must necessarily also allay concerns about a Herrenmoral/'master morality' and cultural relativism that an emphasis on individualism raises, besides the well-known concerns of a paternalistic police-state that an emphasis on collectivism raises.
Speaking of Kant, he is not particularly a favourite among freethinkers. One reason for this is that he is best known for his Idealist epistemology (whereas naturalists adopt Foundational Evidentialism or Logical Positivism) and his work on ethics is largely ancillary to that. Freethinkers obviously find Kant's moral framework less distasteful than say Nietzsche's or Manu's but are uncomfortable with its seeming dogmatism, like Harris is. During discussions on morality, freethinkers invoke utilitarianism of the sort adopted by Peter Singer as often as they may invoke Kant. The liberal/progressive intelligentsia in America indirectly cites Kant via John Rawls, and these influences are very evident in Michael Sandel's course. Besides Kant is acknowledged as an influence in the UN Human Rights charter and therefore receives indirect citation from freethinkers like those at Nirmukta who tend to lean center-left on most issues. It is hard to view these debates as isolated from political stances, as is explained by Jonathan Haidt here.

In context of this post

So coming to my interpretation of the video, I thought it was about how any action of yours impacts somebody else's survival. So I have always wondered that every action of mine that is not for my survival is immoral because it is compromising somebody else's chance of survival. That means "hobbies" are a BIG NO NO. But such a life sounds absolutely sucky.

So coming back to the query that I have raised before, why is human raw existence more important than "real living".
- The Valentine's Day video, whether intentionally or not, is a parody. Even the most voluble green activist understands that very survival involves a finite carbon footprint and that any attempts at a more green lifestyle are attempts to minimize rather than eradicate our carbon footprint (and other adverse impacts). By conveniently replacing attempts at mitigation of these footprints with a strawman of 'eradication', the video's very premise ends up as an instance of the Perfect Solution Fallacy which Lalit brings up here.

- Prima facie, both the Kantian framework with the Categorical Imperative as the yardstick, and the Utilitarian framework with greatest collective satisfaction as the yardstick, both seem indifferent at best and hostile at worst to individual human happiness. However, it should be noted that neither of these explicitly forecloses the pursuit of happiness, but only circumscribes it by making the constraints in this pursuit explicit. The criterion in Kant's moral framework to accord rights to human beings, is that individuals are endowed with 'Autonomy' and 'Reason'. Kant's view of an individual as an autonomous and reasoning being, is in fact a less limiting characterization than a view of human beings as simply opportunistic pleasure-seekers submitting to the tyranny of hedonism. Individuals are free to pursue pleasure if they so choose, in the Kantian framework. According to the early utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, we have no choice but to obey our impulses to seek pleasure, though we can exercise choices to ensure that our seeking of pleasure does not harm other individuals, a point emphasized by John Stuart Mill in his famous 'harm principle'.

In other words, neither the Kantian or utilitarian view calls for an 'outlawing of hobbies' as it were, though both may offer different degrees of censure for hobbies indulged in at unacceptable public expense. Kanad explains here how an assessment of public expense of any chosen course of action is best undertaken in an intersubjective and inclusive setting. On the question of slur-use, the sacrifice of a little mirth by the privileged maybe deemed acceptable considering the negligible cost incurred by the privileged. This is an illustration of how hedonism, in this case manifesting as mirth, is not an absolute and at the same time not outright dismissible pending an assessment of the acceptability of the cost of having it. Likewise, even in questions like the case for veganism, featuring a more than negligible cost to meat-eaters, there should in principle be no outright dismissal of the pleasure obtained by meat-eating and ideally what should be undertaken is a collective assessment of the cost of doing so (Realistically, the critiques are not this principled and how to cope with that is discussed here (Q3)). To acknowledge the need to assess costs of pleasure, is not the same as denying that pleasure is a genuine motivation for a great deal of human activity.

The cost benefit analysis is very tricky when it comes to fundamental rights. Or to put it other way around, fundamental rights are considered infinite in cost when violated, or infinite in return when adhered to. The fundamental right that I initiated this discussion on is "right to life". Here life is typically considered as survival, but I would like to contest for its redefinition to "real-living". Why does raw survival have more moral worth than real-living (pardon me for using this term as I am not aware of any existing ones, hence I just concocted it)? Consider the following example
case1: X's real-living hampers Y's survival
case2: X and Y surviving.
Traditionally case2 is considered clearly a better deal. And this is what I want to challenge. The atomic unit should really be real-living than survival.

About Kantian and utilitarian framework, I have reservations against them at fundamental level. They seem to completely miss the point about "happiness" and just talk about the "pleasure" emotion. To put it concretely, it almost seems that both these frameworks consider no need for morality if suppose there was just one rational agent. And I think this is wrong. Happiness is achieved by abiding instrumental rationality. This is much much different than pleasure seeking behavior. Thus there has to exist a moral framework even in the case of an individual rational agent. Utilitarian framework, IMO, thus gets this very very wrong. Disagreement with Kant is more subtle in the sense that he reduces the essence of being a human to rationality, while I think it should still be instrumental-rationality (or happiness).
Let us do a brief survey of earlier philosophical inquiry into some of the key questions raised in the previous message.

Does life have intrinsic worth even devoid of purpose?

Ethicists like Peter Singer concede exceptions to the right to life and even recommend euthanasia in cases where the beings concerned, are devoid of sentience. Any notion of 'truly living' as opposed to simply the persistence of vital signs, also either explicitly or implicitly involves notions of agency and purpose. Consider the question whether the prolonging and preservation of life should always take priority over seeking purposefulness in life, at some risk. To ask whether life always takes precedence over any purposefulness in it, amounts to posing a variant of the question of whether existence precedes essence. Sartre's remains one of the most clear articulations of the rejection of any pre-ordained purpose of humanity and the insistence that choosing one's purpose is an individual's prerogative, and burden. The humanist stance on this question, as stated in the IHEU Minimum Statement, is that human beings are free to choose their own purpose. Since purpose is each person's to choose, what humanists treat as universal is the right to life which must necessarily be upheld for the exercise of such purpose-seeking to remain possible.

What is the nature and worth of happiness?

It has been a traditional philosophical pre-occupation to identify different orders of happiness. The Upanishadists/Vedantists distinguish at the very outset the paths of Preyas and Shreyas ('path of the pleasant' and 'path of the good' respectively). Almost as if echoing them, Albus Dumbledore says, "Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy". The Bhagavad Gita 18:36-37 and the Buddha's Dhammapada 5:8-10 in this respect seem to counsel putting a higher stock on what they consider lasting, long-term benefit over short-term transient benefits. Often the terms 'happiness' and 'pleasure' rather than being isolated categories in their own right are simply shorthands in a manner of speaking for 'long-term benefit' and 'short-term benefit respectively'. To be fair to the Benthamite Utilitarians, they too recognize these distinctions, when they suggest as measures of utility the following (i) intensity (ii) duration (ii) certainty (iv) remoteness. In their counsel to value the lasting and the certain over the transient and uncertain, and in effect a distinction between 'fleeting pleasure' and 'lasting happiness', the utilitarian stance seems little different from the religions of antiquity, though they would disagree on what is to be considered lasting and certain. Any discussion on the worth of happiness, for completeness, must feature the dissenting voice of Nietzsche's who dissuades pursuit of happiness and counsels an embrace of suffering which he sees as strengthening.

To what extent does it make sense to view humans as beings of reason?

One of the most prominent critics of the view of humans as beings of Reason was Schopenhauer, in whose view human action is guided by a more primal, instinctive, 'Will to Live'. This would later be an influence and philosophical precursor to Freud's narrative of human action as emerging from the Subconscious, with any attribution to consciousness being only a post-hoc rationalization. Recent neuroscience findings call into the question the very distinction between 'reason' and 'passion'. Notwithstanding all of this, it would still be a naturalistic fallacy to suggest that "Human beings are not intrinsically rational and therefore, to attempt rational behaviour is futile." While the treatment of human beings as rational beings is inadequate in many respects, notably in its accounting for of other motivations of human behaviour, it is nevertheless a useful starting approximation, which can be rendered more realistic by such extensions as bounded rationality.

Arvind Iyer Wrote:Since purpose is each person's to choose, what humanists treat as universal is the right to life which must necessarily be upheld for the exercise of such purpose-seeking to remain possible.
I totally agree that purpose is each person's to choose. But I see some issues with right to life emerging from this. For starters, borrowing from Agent Smith, purpose of all life might be to end. I am not trying to be technical/legal. Its a non-trivial issue. Purpose-definition requires right to life, but not necessarily purpose-seeking. This probably can be still averted by including "want to live" as a purpose itself during the purpose-definition exercise. But then the problem arises of how to resolve scenarios where distinct individuals have conflicting purposes? This is where I think right to life suddenly upholds the purpose of existence above all, which doesn't make much sense to me. To me it seems, asking a person to give up a purpose, that is not about his existence but something that defines him fundamentally, to be as worse as asking another person to give up his purpose to exist. It might help if you have some reading material that tries to analyze the fundamental guiding principle for resolving conflicting purposes.

Arvind Iyer Wrote:What is the nature and worth of happiness?

It has been a traditional philosophical pre-occupation to identify different orders of happiness. The Upanishadists/Vedantists distinguish at the very outset the paths of Preyas and Shreyas ('path of the pleasant' and 'path of the good' respectively). Almost as if echoing them, Albus Dumbledore says, "Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy".

I have committed a mistake of using happiness and instrumental-rationality interchangeably in my previous message without making it explicitly clear. I committed the mistake because I do define happiness as "returns to an action that gets you what you want", or essentially output of instrumental-rationality. By this definition there is no conflict between what is right and what is good because right is good and good is right. Basic clarification This is no hedonism. Hedonism is about "immediate returns" as well as about pleasure emotions. What I am suggesting is an exercise of "define what you want or define your purpose" and then seek it. In this sense Nietzsche's seeking for strengthening (the main purpose) can justify welcoming sadness.

Arvind Iyer Wrote:To what extent does it make sense to view humans as beings of reason?

Notwithstanding all of this, it would still be a naturalistic fallacy to suggest that "Human beings are not intrinsically rational and therefore, to attempt rational behaviour is futile.
It indeed would be a naturalistic fallacy if attempt at rationality is discouraged because humans are intrinsically not rational. But I am not in favor of defining it as the "sole essence of humanity", which kind of what Kant does. In my opinion there are fundamental things that define an individual and those should be the driving force. Rationality is must to resolve any sort of internal and external conflicts, but it can't be the sole guiding factor. This ofcourse makes humanists queasy because it seems that everybody is then justified to do everything. But that is so not what I am advocating. We have problems not because people are seeking wrong purposes, but because people don't choose purposes and hence end up doing deeds that are not in sync with what they want.

Ofcourse I do agree that it is nightmarish problem to implement. But my motivation, to bring this up, comes from a naturalistic perspective. There is nothing wrong with Dexter's fundamental craving to kill. It might be undesirable by society, another agent, and it would be then RIGHT to contain him, based on what society decides it wants, but there is nothing fundamentally immoral about him.
Kanad Kanhere Wrote:It might help if you have some reading material that tries to analyze the fundamental guiding principle for resolving conflicting purposes.

Kanad Kanhere Wrote:It might be undesirable by society, another agent, and it would be then RIGHT to contain him, based on what society decides it wants, but there is nothing fundamentally immoral about him.

The very use of the word 'fundamental' in the above remarks, begs the question of what the fundamentals are i.e. what are the assumptions we take as axiomatic. One way to deal with these questions is to first operationally adopt a set of assumptions as axiomatic (eg. either the consequentialist/utilitarian or categorical/deontological/Kantian assumptions) and stick to the criteria thereby established, in all further discussion. Another way is to engage in thought experiments to identify in the first place the assumptions and criteria which commonly (preferably, near-universally) underlie the moral intuitions and instincts of human beings.

Using the latter approach for now, a question for you is:

"Can you think of any situation, barring one in which your own life is threatened, where you would be willing to fulfil a goal of yours at the cost of another human being's life?"

The question can be made harder if we replace 'another human being' with the name of a specific person you know, say your friend P. The question now becomes, "What is one goal or one purpose which you will pursue even at the cost of P losing his/her life?"

Consider this question posed to a large number of people. If an overwhelming majority of them is unable to state a goal (besides self-defence which itself is a special case of the right to life) which trumps the right to life, then any formal moral framework, no matter how elaborately devised, which is incompatible with the primacy of life, will not find adequate acceptance. How differences of nature and nurture alter people's answer to this question, is a question of interest in both Ethics and Psychology and can lend itself to a study of the sort described here (last paragraph).

In settings where humanistic values are effectively sacrosanct, even the hypothetical suggestion of a goal trumping the right to life will understandably be met with vociferous objection. However, the philosophical utility of such questions is recognized by such thinkers as Peter Singer. Peter Singer recommends euthanasia in cases where recovery is all but ruled out, the patient has lost sentience and the kin of the patient are unable to bear the economic of life support. In this case, it does seem as though the economic well-being of the 'survivors' is being privileged over the right to life of the comatose patient. This exception is claimed as legitimate by the likes of Singer because to them, the right to life is predicated on 'personhood' of some sort. Intuitively, it would seem that any reasonable criterion of personhood we choose would exclude cases such as (i)foetuses yet incapable of sensory perception and with a prognosis of debilitating birth defects and (ii) patients irreversible a vegetative state. Kant's choice of 'autonomy' and 'reason' as the criteria for assigning personhood and the accompanying rights, seems such a natural and compelling choice because it is the capacity of thought and action that we most readily associate with personhood. This view of the human person maybe incomplete and devoid of the richness we may think it deserves, but for purposes of ethical discussion, it seems hard to suggest a better one.

An instructive anecdote here is that Peter Singer couldn't bring himself to implement the prescription of his own philosophy on his own mother who was in a vegetative state and in his worldview, not a 'person'. He was criticized widely for being a euthanasia advocate and yet underwriting life-support for his mother. Singer has often openly stated that this episode is itself a frank acknowledgment of the difficulties of following reasoned stances that conflict with deep-seated intuitions, to which even someone considered the foremost ethicist of the day is not immune. That also ought to serve as a reminder to us about how we as human beings may in a profound way be constitutionally unable to accord to human life anything less than paramount importance.

Note: This interview by Peter Singer (1,2,3) relates to many recent discussions here and perhaps can be the subject of a thread in its own right.

Here is a quick followup. Jonathan Haidt's recent talk seems a very relevant watch, as it addresses some of the concerns you had articulated about the limitations of restricting moral discourse to systems like Utilitarianism or Deontology. Haidt observes along the sidelights that the seeming indifference of these frameworks to the 'human element' may in part be because both Bentham and Kant may have been on the Aspergers spectrum! So limiting our moral discourse to their framework, would be somewhat like taking Dr. Sheldon Cooper literally as our guide in matters of friendship and gift-giving.

A significant omission in our earlier historical review of philosophical attitudes towards happiness is Aristotle's eudamonia, which is clearly distinguished from hedonism. Haidt argues also to bring to bear Virtue Theory of the Aristotlean variety, in greater degree on our moral discourse.

karatalaamalaka has shown us a goldmine here:

The following podcasts, for instance are of special interest in the context of our recent discussions.

Duty , Happiness , Virtue

[This concludes the archiving begun here. Looking forward to more discussion here!]


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