It was never the plan for this blog, but I’ve found myself several times writing about morals (for example: here, here, and very recently here). In those posts I touched on what morality means and how we might define it. I make no claim to breaking new ground or having anything particularly insightful to say — just my 1/50th of a buck based on my own observations, thoughts, and experiences.
The last week or so a set of three thought threads wound through the loom of my mind and seemed to form an interesting fabric. They have to do with the nature of morals, the usefulness of reason, and our modern sense of otherness.
Today I’m going to try to make something out of that fabric.
When people talk about the human experience, a common topic has to with the nature of morals. It’s a rich topic with no easy answers and perhaps no definitely correct answers. As with many of the more interesting questions, it has many facets.
Just trying to pin down the definition of the words involved can be difficult, let alone trying to explore the ideas behind those words. For now, I’ll define morals as a code expressing how we ought to behave, and here I’ll make no distinction between morals, ethics, or social mores.
Morals, then, are ideas we have about living life correctly.
In the context of religious or spiritual thought, morals are seen as objective and absolute, and their source is external — typically given by God(s). In the context of secular thought, morals are (often) seen as subjective and relative, and their source is internal — they’re things we make up or discover.
Some secular thinkers seek objective and absolute grounds for morality, but this has proved a tough nut to crack. The problem is that without a teleology, it’s hard to find that grounding. If existence just is, where is the ought?
From Hemingway to Kant, we find the idea that — ultimately — you just know (right from wrong). Atheists make the claim that “being good” has nothing to do with God(s), but comes from within.
The question I’ve been pondering is: Why is that?
What is it within us that leads to ideas of fairness, justice, and equality? Why do we altruistically seek to make life better for the species and not just ourselves? Is it merely, as some suggest, game theory — a realization of quid pro quo?
Is it possible that higher reason — higher intelligence — leads inexorably to morality? (This, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily mean religion is wrong. Our capacity for higher reason may yet turn out to be a gift from God. That is still very much an open question.)
Which takes me to the second thread: The usefulness of reason.
An idea floating around is that we actually decide things at a “gut level” and then use reason to justify those beliefs. I question this on several levels.
I don’t disagree it’s a feature of human thought. For example, there are a variety of experiments where test subjects account for lack of conscious knowledge by rationalizing an explanation. Other studies show other parts of the brain lighting up prior to conscious decision-making.
What I question is the implication that, therefore, reason is somehow secondary to emotional bias or preconceptions or hard-wiring. We live in an era where reason is often devalued over emotion, and this is a frequent point in many arguments (and, frankly, it really bugs me).
Arguments based on… reason. From studies and analysis based on… reason.
The effectiveness of science shows us the effectiveness of reason. The beauty of science is that it is self-correcting because of reason. Science proceeds despite scientists because of reason.
Reason is what gives us the tools to overcome our emotional biases. In the same way that science spirals in on correct answers to physical problems, reason allows us to discover correct answers to human ones.
Rationalizations can be demonstrated to be inconsistent through reason in exactly the same way that mistakes in science are.
The triumph of reason over emotion seems charted in the moral progress of the world as a whole. While we still have a long ways to go, the general trend has been towards a more moral world. A lot of this comes from our growing knowledge and application of reason.
Here’s a very interesting animated TED video that explores this:
I should point out that reason and logic are not quite the same thing. Logic is hard mathematics, but reason encompasses the human condition. As such, compassion and empathy are part of reason.
I’ll also point out that reason is only effective when we allow ourselves to be as self-correcting as science. Reason is only effective when we use it and pay attention to its results.
There is also that reasoning can deliver different results depending on your point of view. The world is far too complex for single answers that apply universally. A reasoned conservative view and a reasoned progressive view will differ due to different initial premises.
That is exactly as it should be, and reason allows us to blend these views in productive ways. Emotional back and forth bickering certainly does not. At some point, reason allows us to say, “Well, we disagree here, and both are arguments are valid, so let’s find a way to embrace both views.”
The final thread is a bit of a counterpoint, and it comes from an essay in Otherness, a collection of short stories and essays by science fiction author David Brin.
The connection with the first two threads is, perhaps, a bit tenuous, and may be more connected with my irritation about the idea that reason is trumped by bias or emotion (which is just a non-starter with me).
Brin writes about the Dogma of Otherness — our modern tendency to insist “that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something of value to offer.” We are the first society with a dogma that rejects dogmas.
We think, for example, that maybe dolphins are as smart as us — maybe even smarter — but we’re just not equipped to understand their awesome intelligence. This persists despite thorough research strongly indicating that, while dolphins are plenty smart, even the brightest of them lacks the problem-solving skills of a human toddler.
The flip side of this, often expressed in science fiction, is the idea that aliens might be so different from us that we would be unable to communicate with them, maybe even be unable to recognize them as intelligent (exactly as we “fail” to recognize dolphin high intelligence).
I think this is wrong.
I think there is something transcendental about intelligence that makes it recognizable to any other intelligence.
Mathematics and art are two key ways intelligence seems to express itself, and we see very little of that in the animal kingdom. (We do see some crude signs of possible art in chimps, but nothing in the way of mathematics.)
As many do, I believe mathematics is the starting point of communication with any putative alien race. It’s hard to imagine any intelligent species lacking mathematics. The moment we recognize classes of things, the requirement of counting is inevitable. (The moment we recognize is and is-not we’ve stepped into binary.)
But back to Brin. The intent is not to reject other views, other ways of thinking, but to recognize that all ideas are not equal. Some are irrational and demonstrably so. A common approach among the thoughtful is that ideas must stand scrutiny.
It is the transcendental nature of intelligence and reason that gives us the tools to scrutinize our ideas. The proof of this lies in the efficacy of science. Incorrect theories are eventually proven false.
Simply put, reason works. It may be the source of our ever-growing moral sensibility. It’s possible that it makes us very special, perhaps even unique, at least in this galaxy.
And, just maybe, it’s a gift from whatever created us.
Whatever it is, reason seems precious and powerful. It’s something we must embrace, encourage, and foster.
June 7th, 2015 at 5:25 pm
There are a lot of deep thoughts here, and I agree with much expressed in this post. To me, the idea that reason is useful has a practical benefit. I suffer from a depressive disorder; much of my therapy is learning how to apply reason to counter my emotions. I have to rely on the assumption that reason is more useful, otherwise trying to order my thoughts in a positive direction is a meaningless endeavor.
As for where morality comes from, it would be nice to have a few great answers. Lately I’ve been wondering about it again. Right now, I think I’ve hit a phase where maybe morality is just an attempt to order social instincts relating to the promotion and well-being of the species. Ideally, then, there is that search for objective values because they would help everyone instead of just a few over the many (or the many over the few).
Taking that and applying it to your thoughts on mathematics, what if a more robust expression of morality ought to be another necessary communication step with a putative alien race? Or maybe a robust morality that can promote the well-being of everyone ought to be a prerequisite for discussions about higher intelligence.
June 7th, 2015 at 7:19 pm
It’s not at all in the same category, but I have a friend with Asperger’s who also has to use reason to navigate situations most would approach instinctively. As I said in the post, it’s a very powerful tool with a built in self-checking mechanism.
Even if morality is nothing more than an attempt at social order for species advancement, where does that drive come from? Why is it there? From a strictly evolutionary POV, it suggests it did promote more successful groups over those without it. As such, it would become an internalized pre-conditioning.
One problem with that is that we’ve arguably increased our moral outlook in a very short time — too short for evolution to really be a factor. (Although perhaps a deep evolutionary drive has merely come into fruition. One might equally argue that our ape-like curiosity has come into fruition in an equally short time span with science.)
I find the idea that intelligence may lead to morality an interesting one. If so, it’s possible advanced aliens might also be highly moral. (Although, as I’ve written about, there are other possibilities.)
I do think moral discussions with any alien civilizations we meet (should that actually ever happen, and I’m starting to doubt it will) will be very interesting. Such discussions generally require a rich use of language, so it doesn’t seem likely to be one of the first things we’ll discuss.
What would really crack me up is if we do meet aliens and discover they have analogues of Christ, Mohammed, and Buddha, in their history as well. That would really shake things up (while proving nothing — it could still be a product of advanced intelligence). In Carl Sagan’s SF novel, Contact, we do meet aliens, and we do find out they believe in the numinous, just like we do.
If morality is a function of higher intelligence, perhaps the numinous is also. Personally I wonder if they aren’t different aspects of the same thing.
June 7th, 2015 at 6:08 pm
Agreed! and further to that, I think all parts of us, reason, intelligence, emotion, science, faith provide a fuller, richer picture Smitty. ❤
June 7th, 2015 at 7:26 pm
Yes, all part of what it means to be human! (And as they say, it takes all types. How boring life would be otherwise!) My point here, and I know that you know that I know you know this ( ), is that “heads” must do the steering while our “hearts” provide the push.
As Leon Wieseltier so brilliantly pointed out, we don’t have to worry so much about the human heart. That’s always been with us and humans are filled with heart. Reason, on the other hand, is something we need to reach for; it doesn’t always come naturally. As with music, art, or athletics, it takes practice, guidance, and effort.
As Wieseltier also points out, in a free society, we are duty-bound to make that effort.
June 7th, 2015 at 10:54 pm
the I know you know bit made me laugh! 😀
June 7th, 2015 at 11:16 pm
Good! Laughter has been my #1 favorite thing pretty much all my life.
June 8th, 2015 at 8:25 am
Very wide ranging set of thoughts. Hard to disagree.
June 8th, 2015 at 9:29 am
Heh! My thoughts, if nothing else, are definitely wide ranging! 😀
June 8th, 2015 at 6:12 pm
Definitely wide ranging, and interesting.
I tend to see the urges for fairness, justice, etc, as the evolved instincts of a social animal. The evolution of those instincts may well be a game theory phenomenon, although we (generally) don’t cognitively do game theory calculations when deciding a moral issue. That strikes me as a good explanation until a better one comes along.
“Logic is hard mathematics, but reason encompasses the human condition. As such, compassion and empathy are part of reason.”
In my experience, “reason” to someone usually means logic used in pursuit of values they approve of. So, to a business person, “reasonable” often means thinking clearly about financial benefits and costs. To a politician, it means thinking clearly about political strategy. But to an altruist, it means finding the best way to help those in need. Each of these may see the others as “unreasonable”, even if all of them are being logical. When someone says, “I can deal with him; he’s reasonable,” it’s usually a statement that the person they can deal with shares values with them and is logical in pursuing them.
I tend to agree on intelligence, dolphins, and the rest. I’m open to the possibility that an alien intelligence may be unimaginably strange, perhaps challenging our conception of what intelligence is in the way that viruses challenge many people’s conception of life. But it would still have to exist and operate under the same laws of physics that we do, so that seems to put a constraint on just how bizarre it could be. Still, imagine an intelligence that took days, months, or maybe even years to have a single thought, perhaps one that evolved in a frigid environment. I could see us possibly failing to recognize it.
June 8th, 2015 at 10:32 pm
“I tend to see the urges for fairness, justice, etc, as the evolved instincts of a social animal.”
Could be. The interesting question to me is their source. We don’t see anything like it in the animal kingdom, despite some animals having been around a lot longer than we have. To me that suggests our higher intelligence is a factor. (It may also be that humans are, in some fashion, special. Per some yardsticks we clearly are. The complete nature of that specialness is, thus far, unknown.)
“In my experience, ‘reason’ to someone usually means logic used in pursuit of values they approve of.”
You’re making a reasoned argument right now. How do we process that? I confess, I’m not sure what your conclusion is here. That reason isn’t useful? That we need to improve it? Is there something else we should use to advocate a position, if not reason?
A big point of the post is that reason gives us the tools to parse other reasoned arguments. (Some care should be taken with the word “reasonable” as it can mean more than “uses reason” — for instance, “reasonably priced.”) As I wrote, validly reasoned arguments can result in different conclusions when the starting premises differ, and that’s fine. Reason also gives us tools we can use to work through such conundrums.
Arguments can, for example, be shown to be inconsistent or even incoherent. Reason also gives us the tools to explore other arguments to determine bias and false reasoning. (An interesting aspect of Kant and other moral philosophers is the use of reason in the abstract to explore the space of human experience. Their arguments tend to be abstractions. One red flag is an argument designed for a specific instance of something. Many of those are, indeed, suspect.)
It may not be perfect, but it seems the least worse. What is the alternative?
“Still, imagine an intelligence that took days, months, or maybe even years to have a single thought, perhaps one that evolved in a frigid environment. I could see us possibly failing to recognize it.”
Doesn’t the fact that you can imagine it right now suggest otherwise? Would such a race leave no recognizable patterns, no art, no structure? Communication might be a challenge, but it’s very difficult to imagine an intelligent civilization that would be unrecognizable as such.
Not meaning to put you on the spot, but this is an illustration of Brin’s Dogma of Otherness. It’s deeply entwined in our modern way of thinking and the highly intelligent are especially prone to it. It’s a byproduct of being open-minded. The idea that “anything could happen.” In fact, as you point out, all are constrained by the same physics.
For example, it’s possible (if perhaps a stretch) to imagine a race that does not group things in classes. (Dogs, for example, see all tennis balls or trees as distinct objects, not member of the classes “balls” or “trees.”) It’s possible to imagine such a race never developing mathematics, because, without classes (sets), it’s possible to never invent counting (integers).
But how could such a race do business and interact? For the sake of argument, let’s say they can. But I just imagined such a thing, and I’m certainly no first-contact specialist, so it doesn’t seem like we could fail to recognize them as intelligent if they left any sort of mark on their world.
And quite honestly, how could a race exist without counting or measuring? These things seem almost fundamental to rational thought. Kant (and others) thought certain concepts — physical extent, classes of object — necessarily existed a priori and formed a basis of thought.
June 9th, 2015 at 8:40 am
“We don’t see anything like it in the animal kingdom,”
From what I’ve read, there’s a lot of pro-social behavior in primates and other social animals. What makes humans stand out is our intelligence. A lot of anthropologists see that intelligence evolving from a runaway arms race of social navigability, with those more able to navigate social relations being more likely to pass on their genes.
“You’re making a reasoned argument right now.”
It seems like every time I point out the limitations of reason, people take it as me dismissing it completely. I think reason is a powerful tool, but my reasoning ability tells me that it has limitations. A big part of scientific methodology is guarding against those limitations.
Personally, “reason” to me means logic. Just about any time someone defines it as broader than logic, they bring in value propositions (often without realizing it).
On alien intelligence, I think you misread what I said. I said I could see us failing to recognize it, not that it would be impossible to recognize.
I’m not as comfortable as you that the laws of physics would constrain intelligences, or even life more generally, in such a way that we are guaranteed to recognize it. It’s certainly possible; physics does put boundaries on what we might find. But given the broad diversity of life on just this planet, I suspect we’ll still be shocked by how much freedom for strangeness those boundaries allow.
June 9th, 2015 at 10:52 am
“What makes humans stand out is our intelligence.”
Yes, agreed. And social mammals do show some signs of a sense of fairness. I don’t know how much justice occurs and they don’t seem to have evolved much in the way of moral sense, art, or mathematics.
Evolutionary anthropologists have a number of theories, but we just don’t know. An idea that made me laugh was that intelligence was a product of humor and pulling pranks — something that some animals also seem to have a crude sense of. A less humorous contender is the need to communicate within ever larger social groups, so the need for a rich language drove higher intelligence. Or even just the need to keep track of relationships between larger groups of people.
There is a chicken-egg thing about it, though. Did higher intelligence result in the increasing ability to communicate, interact socially, and tell jokes? Or did crude versions of those lead to ever greater intelligence.
We just don’t know!
“It seems like every time I point out the limitations of reason, people take it as me dismissing it completely.”
Perhaps because you point out the negatives without giving the positives much air time? Given the importance of reason, surely the positives vastly outweigh the negatives? There is also that pointing out the limits without pointing to any remediation places the emphasis on the limits.
“I think reason is a powerful tool, but my reasoning ability tells me that it has limitations.”
Absolutely. That’s my point. Reason allows you to see the limits of reason and to discover ways to correct for it.
“Just about any time someone defines it as broader than logic, they bring in value propositions (often without realizing it).”
Without value propositions, it’s just math. Of course we bring values into it. I’d say it’s not that values make reason problematic, it’s that reasoning about our values is the only clear-headed way to explore those values.
Moral philosophy is all about values-based reasoning. And reasoning about reasoning, as you say, allows for understanding and dealing with the limits of our reasoning.
It may not be perfect, but surely it’s by far the least worst.
June 9th, 2015 at 11:09 am
“On alien intelligence, I think you misread what I said. I said I could see us failing to recognize it, not that it would be impossible to recognize.”
My response was to the idea that we would, as you said, fail to recognize alien intelligence.
“I’m not as comfortable as you that the laws of physics would constrain intelligences, or even life more generally, in such a way that we are guaranteed to recognize it.”
Let’s not conflate life and intelligence; they are hugely different. We’ve talked before (and I believe we agree on this) that life may be quite common elsewhere, but that intelligence may be extremely rare.
My thesis here is that intelligence is transcendental in a way that makes it highly recognizable, in particular through the expression of mathematics and science (and perhaps art), all of which seem extremely recognizable (at least to me).
Obviously we can’t imagine the unimaginable, but the space of our imagination seems so vast that I find it hard to believe — more a device of fiction — we would encounter things beyond our imagination.
As I said, the fact that we’re bouncing around these ideas seems to show that our imagination is all but limitless. That we can imagine the unimaginable seems to be a kind of “self-defeating prophecy.”
[That phrase isn’t mine, but comes from an essay that described Brave New World and 1984 as “self-defeating prophecy” in that those works scared us so much that they probably eliminated any chance of their coming true. I rather like the idea! 🙂 ]
“I suspect we’ll still be shocked by how much freedom for strangeness those boundaries allow.”
Why “shocked” rather than just “surprised”? It seems to suggest the idea that our imaginations and thinking are very limited. That might be true for some, but I think we’re better than that.
Science and science fiction has been exploring the idea of aliens for many decades now, and assuming we ever do run into alien intelligences, the surprise is equally likely (I think) to be how similar it is to ours.
I really do believe intelligence has a transcendental nature!
June 10th, 2015 at 10:18 am
I think the problem with equating reason and logic is that difference between “valid” and “sound”. Logic in itself can’t tell you when a premise is true or when an argument is sound as opposed to just valid.
All men are immortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates is immortal.
Valid, but not sound. (Unless you believe all men are immortal!)
Something external to logic must be brought to the table.
That said, I agree that reason has limitations. It’s a sticky mess actually.
June 10th, 2015 at 11:43 am
Yes, exactly, that’s a good way to put it. Formal logic is a form of mathematics, and it has the GIGO problem (Garbage In, Garbage Out).
Reason is a sticky mess because the world is a sticky mess. But it’s the least worst tool for unsticking things, so the trick is learning to wield it skillfully. That’s why I’m such a proponent of the dialectic. And a general education with lots of foundation and theory.
June 9th, 2015 at 3:52 am
Do you have a reference for that info about dogs not being able to recognize balls as members of a class? That surprises me, and it also intrigues me how such a fact could be tested?
June 9th, 2015 at 10:20 am
Admittedly, that’s based on my personal experience with dogs, and it should be (at the least) softened and unpacked. My last dog, in fact, frequently demonstrated she distinguished between “toy” and “ball” in her responses to “Get a [ball|toy]!” On the flip side, I often tried to trick her by secretly substituting a different tennis ball when we played. That trick never worked — she always rejected the other ball as “not the one” (apparently by smell — the rejection occurred only when the ball got within a few feet of her).
So it’s not so much that they don’t recognize classes of things, but that they distinguish things within classes of objects as more concrete and separate. Male dogs, for example, recognize vertical objects as places to lift their leg, but I don’t see them differentiate, say, trees from light poles.
They appear to lack the abstraction skills we learned in grade school. (Remember those sheets that showed various slender vertical objects and asked us to circle the ones that were trees?) Without the ability to abstract members of a set as equivalent, the idea of comparing sets based on their cardinality is more of a challenge.
Put another way, no doubt a sheep dog recognizes sheep. She may even recognize stranger sheep from “my” sheep. But only the shepherd sees the flock as a set with a specific — and rather important — cardinality.
Dogs, being somewhat intelligent, are perhaps not the best example, so it’s fair to object to it. The point I was going for is that abstraction of class objects leads directly to mathematics, and while I can imagine an alien race as seeing objects as much more distinct than we do, I can’t see them progressing as a society without somehow discovering mathematics.
June 9th, 2015 at 11:13 am
Do you think dogs can count? For example, if a dog had 3 puppies, could she realize immediately if one had gone missing?
June 9th, 2015 at 11:26 am
No, and yes, but not by differentiating two from three. It would be more: There’s Huey and Dewey… Hey, where is Louie?!
Here’s another data point. A game I played with my dog was “Find It!” I’d first tell her “Go hide!” so she’d go into the bedroom closet and wait to be called. I’d hide three treats somewhere in the living room and then call her.
Then I’d tell her “Find It!” so she’d start looking for the treats. (It’s really cool to watch them pick up the scent and then zero in on the hidden object. It’s almost like a form of triangulation.)
The thing is, no matter how often we played, She always had to be prompted to find the third — and sometimes even the second — treat. No apparent memory, or sense, of there being three treats.
[Heh. Whenever I say or write something about there being “X Y’s” I find myself channeling Captain Picard. “There are THREE TREATS!” XD ]
June 9th, 2015 at 1:44 pm
Thanks for that. I’m not a dog person, so I’ve no experience of this kind of thing.
June 9th, 2015 at 2:26 pm
They’re pretty amazing companions. No other animal is quite as in tune with, or aligned with, humans as dogs are. Dogs and humans share a trait of focusing on the right side of another person’s face (because that side is more revealing of our emotions). AIUI, no other animal does this.
Are you not a pet person (or animal person), or just not into dogs (but into cats, fish, birds, rodents, snakes, horses, or other… check as many as apply)?
June 10th, 2015 at 7:46 am
I’m not really a pet person.
June 10th, 2015 at 10:25 am
Not everyone is — different strokes for different folks, as they say.
It’s a topic I’ve been pondering lately, the way we discover different areas of experience that we really take to (and others we don’t). In the phase space of all possible interests, it’s almost weird how when you stumble into one, it’s almost like coming home. You take to it like the proverbial duck to water. Science fiction (as a child) was one of those for me; so was computer programming (in college). That latter one ended up becoming a career!
Hmm… I wonder if there’s a post there…
June 10th, 2015 at 10:02 am
Ha, I was thinking the same thing. I think Geordie knows the difference between “ball” and “toy”, but I haven’t put him through a rigorous test. He seems to know that the small ball and the big one are both balls, but like I said, no rigorous test.
They do have a capacity for language of sorts…don’t know what that suggests, but it’s interesting. Geordie learned the word “laser” without any effort on my part. (It’s his favorite game.) He does communicate with me in his way. I ask him what he wants, and his ears perk up and stares me right in the face and waits for me to start talking. When I say the thing he wants, he makes his wishes abundantly clear by jumping around and spinning and such. If I say something he doesn’t want, he either does nothing or turns his head away for a second, then looks back at me like, “Keep guessing.”
I read a book called “Teach Your Dog To Read.” It’s an interesting book even if you don’t have a dog. This woman teaches dogs using flashcards and a very specific method. I haven’t started yet because she’s very adamant about the method, and I’m not sure I have the wherewithal yet to be a good teacher. (She says you have to have everything in order and you only get a few seconds to do exactly the right thing. Otherwise you confuse the dog and you end up with a lot more work to correct your own mistake.) She claims her method works even with dogs that aren’t deemed very intelligent. Then—the interesting part—she found out somewhat by chance that if she first taught the dog to read a few words like “sit”, she could later simply show them a stick figure of a dog doing something, like putting its paws up on a table, and the dog wouldn’t have to be prompted to look at the image and do what it saw on the image. It would skip all the verbal steps leading up to association! I thought that was a pretty grand leap, moving from words taught by association to verbal commands to images with no verbal command. The even crazier thing is that humans sometimes couldn’t figure out what these stick figures were doing. She had these cards labeled on the back (so the trainer wouldn’t make the apparently huge mistake of holding the card upside down) and some of the cards were mislabeled because the person labeling couldn’t figure out what the image was! If you saw these stick figures, you’d be surprised that dogs could figure them out. They are really bad. But then again, how do you draw “spin around”? Yet the dogs got it!
Anyways, if this woman’s telling the truth in her book, it seems to show that dogs have a capacity for abstraction to some degree. Do they classify objects? I don’t know. I doubt they do it the same way we do.
June 10th, 2015 at 11:35 am
“They do have a capacity for language of sorts… don’t know what that suggests, but it’s interesting.”
There’s no question dogs learn words. I’m sure they do it the same way a baby does prior to learning grammar (which dogs never learn). They learn certain sounds are associated with certain things. That’s why trainers advise being very careful about consistency in language with dogs.
For example, I had a hard time remembering to use “No!” with Sam. Somehow I was more prone to say, “Hey!” but I was consistent about it, so it become the “No!” word with Sam. At some point early with her I also began using a “Shhhhh-t” sound — mostly when we were outside. That turned out well in that the sound penetrates other sounds and is unique.
Any noise you use consistently can be bound to a concept. So can non-verbals, which I really like using. Open palm (right hand) patting my chest means come here. Arm extended over their head means sit. Pointing down at the ground means lay down. You can even train them to look where you point or go where you point.
They’re pattern matchers is what’s going on. They match patterns to events, and the more consistent the pattern is in its association to the event, the more they connect the two. When that happens, this happens.
“If I say something he doesn’t want, he either does nothing or turns his head away for a second,…”
I know exactly what you mean! They let you know when you’ve given them a word matching a pattern they want. Sam would often do that bow thing to indicate “Yes!” They stick their front paws out and bring their front end down while leaving their rear end standing. At first I thought it was stretching, but I came to realize it was a way of saying “Yes, daddy!”
As for teaching your dog to read… Could be, although I’m skeptical. Horses that can count invariably turn out to be responding to very subtle unintentional cues from their human. Given how dogs are unlike any other animal in their focus on humans, I’m inclined to think something along those lines is going on there. Her dog is responding to non-verbal clues she provides.
“I thought that was a pretty grand leap, moving from words taught by association to verbal commands to images with no verbal command.”
This part, and what follows, makes me very skeptical. I’d bet almost anything the dog is responding to non-verbal cues from her. Stick figures? I doubt it. I wonder if you wouldn’t have equal success with, say, Chinese characters or geometric symbols.
Assuming the dog is responding to the card at all. Most dogs don’t show much understanding of pictures. Not many are even impressed by TV, although some are. Sam found mirrors interesting as a puppy. For about ten minutes. Then she decided there was nothing there (no smell!) and never was interested in them again.
She did sometimes stare at passing airplanes. I’ve never had a dog do that. As a Labrador, I wondered if some internal “it’s a duck!” wiring was being invoked.
“…it seems to show that dogs have a capacity for abstraction to some degree. Do they classify objects?”
I think they may have some crude form of ability to abstract. I described the “Find It!” game previously in this thread. With the brief disaster of a marriage and the fall-out after, we hadn’t played that game in a number of years. Once I moved into this place and life settled down we played it again.
The thing that blew me away is that the first time, just to see what would happen, I gave her the command “Go Hide!” This place has a very different layout than our original place. The bedroom was on a slightly different level (four steps worth) from the living room. This place is one-level, and the configuration of rooms is completely different.
But in both places there is a walk-in closet in the bedroom. That’s where she’s supposed to “Go Hide!”
What blew me away is that when I — standing in the living room — gave her that command for the first time here, she went into the bedroom closet! It’s possible I looked or moved my jaw in the general direction (without intending or meaning to), but still, she did somehow translate the required action from the old place to this place.
June 10th, 2015 at 4:12 pm
I was pretty skeptical about the reading thing too…but it sounds interesting. Her method is very specific. You have to be sure your dog has a good grasp of verbal commands. You start off with gestures to accompany the commands, then you gradually build up to no gestures at all. She’s careful about telling you not to make any faces or gestures or changes in tone of voice. Then you move on to flashcards. These are really big, printed in huge letters and laminated. She thinks that any smudge on the paper could screw up everything. She also insists that you start with a word other than “sit” (I forget why). You have to have your cards ready, face down and in order. The training sessions have to be short and to the point, no messing up. The environment has to be the perfect. Then you show the flashcard while giving the verbal command, no gestures, etc. and you have to hold the card a certain way. When the dog does what it’s supposed to do, you don’t praise too much. You just say “YES!” and give a small treat, then move on to the next card. This goes on for a few sessions, then you stop with the verbal commands. If the dog’s not getting it, you do a verbal command and keep trying. It’s all quite detailed and interesting.
Anyways, she says it works with Chinese as well. The stick figure thing was a surprise to her. She fully expected to have to go through the same process, but she didn’t.
Now you could say you’re giving away something nonverbal without knowing it…who knows.
She says you can teach dogs the universal “no” sign, the one with a circle and a diagonal line crossed through it. Once you teach this, you can set up signs around the house where the dog is not supposed to go. This apparently works. Say you’re having a dinner party and you want to set food down on a low table, you can put the sign up and tell the dog “no.” I don’t think this would work with some dogs.
I believe she trains dogs for people with disabilities. Her big plan is to teach dogs to read signs in public places, but she didn’t explain how to teach this. It would be cool, though. Imagine if you’re blind and you need to go to the restroom in a public place. Wouldn’t it be great if your dog could distinguish between the men’s room and ladies room?
Anyways, the book was largely useless for me.
I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t go into teaching the names of objects and activities. I don’t care if Geordie can read something that says “sit”, then sit. I can just say “sit”. I was hoping he’d be able to read words like “potty” and “food” and “water” so he could tell me what he wants. He’s pretty quiet about this stuff and I have to guess and ask him all the time. If he really wants something, he might poke me with his nose.
The universal “no” sign might be useful for most dog owners, but Geordie doesn’t ever go after food on the table…he’s such a good boy! 🙂
Geordie doesn’t watch TV much, but he did watch a full episode of Curious George with great intensity. I tried watching it with him again, but the dog wasn’t in it, so he didn’t care anymore. I thought he was interested in George, but he wasn’t. He liked the dog sounds, not the monkey sounds, surprise, surprise.
The hide and seek game sounds awesome! I wonder if the clothes in the closet made it possible to figure out where to hide?
I doubt Geordie would get that game. He’d probably like the hunt for treats game, though. I might have to try that.
Today was a sad day for me. About a week ago I noticed Geordie chasing the light reflected by my watch. Ah ha! So I grabbed a laser pointer and had some fun with him. I’d shine it on the floor and he’d run like crazy back and forth through the hallway. I didn’t know he could run so fast. I thought I had found the solution to my problem of how to give him exercise this summer. Unfortunately, today Geordie figured out the laser light is not quite real. He lost interest and kept trying to bite the “thing itself” from my hands. Unfortunately, now he just sits there looking up at the thing in my hand, jumping up to bite it.
I have a remote controlled truck that he loves to chase, but he barks at that and it gets annoying. (For some reason he didn’t bark at the laser light.) I take him to the dog park and play with the truck there, but it’s getting to be really hot and I have to go early in the morning.
I’m considering drones now…anything to give him exercise since I can’t walk him very far. He’d probably bark at those though.
Ugh. I’m so disappointed by the laser light thing. That was really perfect. I wish I could figure out a way to hide the “thing itself” without obscuring the light.
June 10th, 2015 at 6:03 pm
“Her method is very specific.”
That whole part is a bit suspicious. The cynic in me wonders if that gives her some cover for when others can’t replicate her results. “Ah, you didn’t do everything right, so of course it didn’t work.”
“You have to have your cards ready, face down and in order.”
That, too, is a bit of a red flag. Could be the dog is learning the pattern of the order. And, as I understand it, it’s almost impossible for humans not to give subtle subliminal clues. Dogs — lacking the distractions of higher thought and modern life — are very good at picking up on them.
I wonder how well all that specificity translates to a goal of having dogs recognize signs out in the real world. There would be no order or holding them in just the right way, and I’d think lots of smudges.
That universal “No” sign is a pretty simple symbol, so maybe a dog could recognize it. I’d guess their awesome scent ability would allow them to distinguish a men’s room from a woman’s room much more than a sign. Just think of all the different “cute” ways places label those doors. “Gents” vs “Ladies” — “Cowgals” vs “Cowguys” — the symbols for Mars and Venus — I even seen “Squatters” vs “Standers” — and so on.
I suppose it’s not impossible. It is a matter of linking one pattern (symbol) to another (action). Our skepticism is warranted, though, if for no other reason than — assuming it’s real — it’s surprising it hasn’t already been demonstrated in the long history of humans and dogs. As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
But who knows. If she starts trying to raise money for her “Dog Literacy Institute” the red flags would really go up! 🙂
“I wonder if the clothes in the closet made it possible to figure out where to hide?”
Now that is an interesting point! I hadn’t thought of that. It makes a lot of sense. There’s a large collection of things with a laundry smell in a small room. That all makes a very prominent pattern. I think you may have solved the puzzle there!
“Today was a sad day for me.”
All things considered, that’s a really scary way to start a paragraph, Tina! Speaking of which, any news on that front you’d care to share? (If not, forget I asked. Or feel free to email me.)
“Unfortunately, today Geordie figured out the laser light is not quite real.”
And once that happens, the new world view tends to be permanent. (I mentioned how Sam was briefly intrigued by a mirror as a pup, but once she decided it wasn’t interesting, she never gave it a thought again.)
“Unfortunately, now he just sits there looking up at the thing in my hand, jumping up to bite it.”
That’s really interesting that he’s connected the laser dot with the device. He must be highly intelligent. (Did you ever do the treat under the blanket test?) Maybe he’s realized the instance of the light in your hand is much easier to catch than the one that runs around the floor.
Sam — nor any other dog I’ve known personally — seemed to show any interest in a laser dot. Sam glanced at it for a moment and then ignored it. (Cats, as you likely know, are famous for going after laser dots to the point that some refer to laser pointers as “cat teasers.”)
Maybe you could hide the pointer inside a cardboard paper towel tube? That would at least restrict the angle at which the light is visible.
The noise of the truck might be what gets him barking compared to the silent light… Maybe you could exercise him with an old-fashioned clothesline rig. Mount something for him to chase as you crank it back and forth? If the layout of your place permits it, maybe even just a big loop of string with something he would chase as you pulled?
June 12th, 2015 at 5:51 pm
You have a good reason to be skeptical. I’d have to try myself to find out! I thought it would be really exciting, but nothing in the book seemed relevant to what I’d want to teach Geordie. So there goes that.
Yeah, the laser thing is over. I keep trying it, but he keeps biting the device. I did do something strange the other day with him. I was lying in bed feeling like crap, and he wanted to play. There was a small mirror within reach, so I grabbed that since the sun was coming in intensely. He was absolutely absorbed in the light patterns I made with it. He didn’t chase them frantically, but he followed them with his gaze and sometimes walked toward them. He’d stare at the mirror and the light it created. Back and forth from mirror to sun dot for a long long time. I couldn’t believe this mirror thing kept him enthralled for an hour. An hour! I’d hold up the mirror and look into it, then I’d hold it up to him and he’d look at it for a long time, then come up and lick it. I don’t know what he was thinking. But then he did the craziest thing—he jumped up and looked out the window at the sun, which was low on the horizon and coming in directly, then he looked at the mirror again. He usually only looks out that window when the neighbors come out or there’s something making noise, and then he growls. This time he didn’t growl. Now I know what you’re thinking…who knows what was going through his mind. I agree. But it was a strange moment. THEN…we played shadow puppets. He watched his own shadow on the wall and I made a little duck with my hand and we played like that for a long time. He kept looking at my hand, then back at the shadow. For him it was sort of passive, like TV, but it kept his interest.
The next day, he went into my room at that same time—when the sun was shining in directly—and wanted to play again. Same thing all over again. It wasn’t physical exercise for him, but maybe his mind was blown.
I have to say, I experienced something new too. The sun passed behind a cloud as I held the mirror up to reflect the sun onto the ceiling. What I saw at that moment was gorgeous. It looked like a black and white watercolor painting, the clouds were outlined in white. Then I watched the sun move out from behind the cloud and it was just beautiful. Such a simple thing, but I never would have thought to do that. With Geordie’s interest, I felt brought back to childhood, like those moments of gazing at light patterns while submerged in a swimming pool.
As for me, I haven’t been doing too well. Same health crap, more tests. Went to the cardiologist who at first told me, “I’ll get to the bottom of this. I’ll figure it out.” Yeah right. So I did all these bizarre tests, then he made me come back for an appointment with him just to tell me everything came back normal and “I have the heart of a 16 year old.” This took less than two minutes, but cost me eighty bucks. Of course he wouldn’t pick up the phone and call me to tell me this, right? Then he said he couldn’t do anything more for me, but wanted to do a follow up appointment in six months. I’m definitely not doing that.
I called up my PCP and neurologist to see what’s next. The neurologist hasn’t returned my call and he probably won’t. The PCP is an all right guy, but a bit Doc Martin-ish. He asked me if I was under stress lately. Well, let’s survey this year…I have a mysterious illness and have done so many tests I can’t even remember their names, my dog gets bitten by a rattlesnake, my mom dies and I get to be the POA and clean out her room—insert the usual dramatic shit here—I drive home and two days later my husband goes to the ER for pneumonia. So now the doc is putting me on Lexapro. I’ll take it. At least he had the decency to call it in instead of making me drive to the east side for another useless appointment.
Besides, I started pushing the psychological hypothesis a long time ago, but no one thought that was it. They thought my symptoms were too consistent and constant, and not typical. Honestly, I don’t even care what it is anymore. I just want to try something to make it go away. It’s either take the meds or go to Mayo and do all those tests again, and I’m losing confidence in that.
On a less depressing subject, I might try that cardboard tube idea. The clothesline thing sounds interesting too…I think he’d love that. Thanks for the ideas!
June 13th, 2015 at 11:04 am
“I couldn’t believe this mirror thing kept him enthralled for an hour.”
Ha, that’s cool! I seem to recall trying something like that with Sam once, but she wasn’t any more impressed by that than by a laser pointer. Noticed it — did that ear lift thing dogs with floppy ears do indicating interest (they can’t make their ears stand up like some dogs do, but their muscles do lift the base of the ear, almost like a human might raise their eyebrows) — but lost interest quickly.
I’ve always assumed it was due to a lack of any smell associated with light phenomenon. (Likewise her lack of interest in her mirror image.) Maybe she just wasn’t all that bright (pun intended).
“THEN…we played shadow puppets.”
I can see sunlight play with a mirror leading to shadow play with the Sun. Could be Geordie was making some association. I agree, as you say, who knows what he was thinking, but who knows what he was thinking! (Maybe he thought you controlled the Sun. You certainly control the lights indoors, not to mention the doors and food. You make light with a hand object; maybe you make light with a sky object!)
“The sun passed behind a cloud as I held the mirror up to reflect the sun onto the ceiling. What I saw at that moment was gorgeous.”
If you ever happened to read this post, you know I discovered my artistic side through theatre lighting. And that “light” was one of my first two words. I later got into photography and filmmaking, all of which involve light.
I’ve even written a couple of posts about light itself (here and here). There is also this post, which sort of touches on something similar — that is to say, sunlight.
So I’m totally into light and know exactly what you mean about how beautiful it can be. Painting a stage with light is still one of my top favorite things I’ve ever done.
Light patterns in a swimming pool or pond is a whole additional category of beauty. The way water bends the light to create dark-bright patterns (caustics is as enthralling as watching the ocean waves or a bonfire (for much the same reason — complex, ever-changing patterns)!
“Same health crap, more tests.”
Well that really sucks. Regardless of the diagnosis, at least knowing seems like it would better. You can’t attack something until you at least know what it is.
Have you been tested for gluten sensitivity? I don’t know that it manifests in what you’ve experienced, but I have a friend who is really into the gluten thing because he and his son both suffer from celiac disease which had a huge impact on their lives until they figured out what was going on. Turns out there are three different kinds of gluten issues — we still haven’t completely gotten used to the shift from hunters to farmers (as I understand it hundreds of thousands died during that shift for being unable to digest the new foods).
The irony is that the medical profession has been slow to recognize the problems and rarely thinks to test for them.
“On a less depressing subject, I might try that cardboard tube idea.”
Let me know what happens!
June 17th, 2015 at 11:17 am
Sorry it’s taken so long to respond.
The lighting would be a tricky job I imagine! That and sound…I imagine you miss a lot of the performance as you’d be thinking of what’s going to happen next. I took a filming class for a local community TV station (it was a free class and you got to film local events). I really enjoyed it. My favorite was filming the local cow parade. I got to have the headphones (oh boy did I feel important!) and everything. The director tells you things to point your camera at and how to film it, and you just follow the instructions. If you don’t hear any instructions, you just film whatever you find interesting. Then sometimes you hear the director telling you that you’re up next, to keep the camera as it is, in other words, because he’s about to cut to you. Anyways, it was a lot of fun. And especially since it was often live.
I wonder if the breed has something to do with Geordie’s response to the light. He’s in love with chasing things.
I discovered that if I use the laser pointer, I can get him to chase it, but when he tires out, he looks at me and sees the thing itself, then realizes what’s going on. Then he loses interest in chasing the light and only wants the thing itself. So just at that moment when he’s about to look at me, I switch off the light and point behind him and say “Over there! There it is!” and distract him. He knows I help him chase down flies by pointing, so he always looks behind him and the fun begins again. There’s my solution! I just have to keep a close eye on him and catch him before he looks up at me.
On the gluten thing, no I haven’t been tested. I’ve never had a problem with gluten before, though. I’ve always been very healthy until now, but who knows.
The news is that this Lexapro makes me feel like the imaginary tens machine I’m hooked up to is on full power. It’s so bad it makes my hands shake and teeth chatter, so I called the doctor and got an appointment right away. Because I lost 15 pounds since I last saw him, and my mother died, etc., he decided to continue with the Lexapro and is having me take it more gradually. Also, he’s sending me to a shrink. He thinks I’m depressed, which may be true now, but I wasn’t when all this stuff started. So now I guess I just have to wait and see if this medication helps. Right now I call it the evil pill, but apparently you just have to get used to it and it takes a long time to work. So I guess I just have to tough it out for a little while until we can see its true effects. Fun fun! I never thought I’d end up taking these things, but that’s life I guess.
June 17th, 2015 at 2:55 pm
“I imagine you miss a lot of the performance as you’d be thinking of what’s going to happen next.”
At that point — at least with plays — you’ve seen the performance many, many times in readings and rehearsals. If the play has a long run, you get so used to your cues that you can actually start watching the play again.
It’s different with live TV events, and camera people definitely only get a slice of what’s going on (as you may have found). Being in the director’s booth is even harder. Directors who can handle live events are extraordinary in my opinion. I directed some of my own TV shows in college (here’s one of my scripts), and it was nerve-wracking even after several rehearsals. I found I really don’t have what it takes to do TV in real time. I liked film better, anyway.
“I just have to keep a close eye on him and catch him before he looks up at me.”
And probably a lot easier to manage than trying to hold the laser in a cardboard tube! I do think the clothesline thing might work real well. If it’s a loop, you can make the chase object go both ways. On the other hand, he might be smart enough to trap the line rather than the object.
I had some toys on long lines I used with Sam outdoors, but she figured out that by trapping the line it was easy to end the game.
“On the gluten thing, no I haven’t been tested.”
Given the oddness of your symptoms, it might be worth checking. When I was a field tech customers often complained that the machine worked yesterday. My standard reply was that so does a light bulb until that one day it doesn’t.
Allergies can occur late in life, and I think celiac disease also once your small intestine lining just can’t deal with gluten anymore.
I very simple test, if you can pull it off, is to give up gluten for a couple of months. If you notice a change, it could be worth digging deeper. I have a friend with a son, they both have CD, but while my friend just has major health problems, his son gets psychotic when glutenized.
“So now I guess I just have to wait and see if this medication helps.”
Wow, Tina, that’s a bummer. I hope you find something out soon! We’re all pulling for you to return to the blogsphere happy and healthy.
My life is such that I often wonder if I’m suffering from depression. Certainly over short term moments. But I can still feel great joy and I can get out of bed okay and some things still interest me a lot. To me those are all check point things… do you have interests, can you feel joy, can you get up and face the day (even if it’s a bleak, empty pit of nothingness). Those are my touchstones, but I suspect those vary from person to person.
Hang in there and get well soon!
June 17th, 2015 at 3:23 pm
I just got a call from the doc saying my blood results from yesterday show I might have an overactive thyroid. He wants me to come back in for more blood tests. I’m excited about this as it would explain a lot of things, like how I can sit around eating potato chips and lose weight. (A side effect I’m pretty happy with, as I’m now at my target weight which I could never do while I was dieting and exercising.)
Unfortunately, when I asked him if I could quit the Lexapro, he said no.
June 17th, 2015 at 3:35 pm
I’ll cross my fingers that they’ve finally found the problem! My sister has an under-active thyroid, so I know how important that little organ is! Good Luck!!
June 10th, 2015 at 6:53 pm
I realize that I started to tell you something about Reason, which may or may not be applicable to this post. I believe that emotions are part of the word, “Justice” (for all) while the “Law” is based on facts and reason. I do think there is part of emotional bias put into the system of Justice, since 12 men and women have emotions playing with their logic being swayed sometimes by people’s choices.
Anyway, I do think of reason as part of ‘science’ in that it makes sense and is logical.
I do think we have something within ourselves, or most of us do, which wishes life to be fair for everyone. Sometimes, there are people who don’t have any of this intrinsic ‘goodness’ and they are selfish and often mean in their not considering others with their lives. We should try to be good neighbors, not because of a law, church or any other demand upon us. I guess this is what I would consider an “honor code” among people. When you travel into strange lands, people usually are gracious, whether they know our language or we know theirs. I am not sure if any of this means much but it is an expression of how I feel about some of the qualtiies and values you were mentioning called, “morals,” Smitty. Always a pleasure but I was off at 6 after an eleven hour day so this may sound like ‘gobbledy goop.’ I remain your friend, regardless. I don’t doubt you will be courteous and not too ‘tough’ on me! 🙂
June 10th, 2015 at 8:03 pm
Sounds like a long day, Robin!
It is both the inability of the law to address all situations as well as its inability to always be fair that the judiciary (judges and lawyers) exist. We recognize no rules-based system can ever be complete or always correct, so our court system provides a way to address new situations and redress ones where the law is unfair. Both judges and juries sometimes rule outside the law based on their feelings.
Virtue Ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that looks at behavior in terms of the agent — the person — making good (moral) judgements based on their own virtue and good sense. This is different that systems based strictly on rules or outcomes. Of course this requires not just a strong moral upbringing (you and I have chatted about our upbringings recently and how our parents instilled those virtues) but also a willingness to embrace those values.
Hope you don’t put in too many eleven-hour days! That’s killer!
July 24th, 2015 at 9:14 pm
Morality is the intent to achieve good, and to achieve it for others as well as for ourselves. Ethics is the pursuit of the best rules, those that will most likely achieve the best possible results for everyone.
To see the distinction, consider the Jewish family of Anne Frank hiding in the attic during Nazi occupation. The soldiers knock on the door and ask if there are any Jews. It would be unethical to lie, but it would be immoral not to.
We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, a society, or a species. A “moral good” is actually good for us and benefits us in some way. A “moral harm” unnecessarily damages us or diminishes our rights in some way.
Moral judgment considers the evidence of probable benefits and harms to decide a course of action. This judgment is objective to the degree that the harms and benefits are easily observed and compared. But the ultimate consequences of a decision are not always known. Two good and honest individuals may differ as to what course of action will produce the best result. A democratic decision can be made to determine a working course of action, which can be further evaluated based on subsequent experience.
Ethics are about rule systems. Rules include customs, manners, principles, ethics, rights and law. When one speaks of “morals” or “moral codes” one is usually speaking of ethics. But morality is not the rule, but rather the reason for the rule, which is to achieve good.
Throughout history, rules have changed as our moral judgment evolved. Slavery was once permitted, but later outlawed. The equal rights of women to vote was established. The right to equal treatment without regard to races, gender, or religion was established.
Different cultures may have different rules. But all rules move slowly toward the same goal, to achieve the best possible good for everyone. And, to the degree that moral judgment is based in objective evidence, all variations are moving toward a common, ideal set of rules and rights.
In Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest principle?”, and Jesus said the first principle is to love God and the second principle is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
A Humanist translation would be to love good, and to love good for others as you love it for yourself.
But Jesus said one more thing, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, this is the source, the rationale, the reason, the “Why?” behind every rule and every right. It is the criteria by which all other principles, ethics, and rules are to be judged.
July 25th, 2015 at 12:17 pm
“Morality is the intent to achieve good,”
The problem is that just pushes the definition to ‘what is good?’ And that turns out to be trickier to define than one might think. The real world is messy!
“The soldiers knock on the door and ask if there are any Jews. It would be unethical to lie, but it would be immoral not to.”
This is similar to an infamous example by Kant. A murderer comes to your door asking the whereabouts of a friend of yours who is hiding from that murderer (with your knowledge) in your house. According to Kant, lying is immoral. Period. No exceptions.
Kant says that in particpating (by lying) we become responsible for the outcome. Suppose you said, “No!” which caused the murderer to turn away. But unbeknownst to you, your friend has fled your house. The murderer sees your friend fleeing and pursues and kills the friend. Had you not lied, the friend might have escaped safely while the murderer went through your house. In lying, you are responsible (at least in part) for the murder.
“We call something ‘good’ if it meets a real need…”
If I can’t pay my rent, is it okay to lie about being able to repay a loan? If I’m hungry, is it okay to steal a loaf of bread? Those things meet very real needs and the harm to others seems much less than the potential harm to me.
“A ‘moral good’ is actually good for us and benefits us in some way. A ‘moral harm’ unnecessarily damages us or diminishes our rights in some way.”
If I’m too poor to pay my rent or get food and find a bag of money (clearly labeled with a bank’s name), returning that money does me harm (while perhaps making me feel morally righteous). But keeping it does me (and perhaps my family) good and likely does no harm to anyone (banks being well able to cover a loss). Is the moral choice to keep the money?
“This judgment is objective to the degree that the harms and benefits are easily observed and compared.”
The problem is that the world is a lot messier than that, and those things are not always easily observed and compared. Moral philosophers have been struggling with the concept of morality for thousands of years (although it really heats up with Kant, and if you’re going to talk moral philosophy you have to know some Kant — some claim (hyperbolically perhaps) that all moral philosophy since is either a refutation, exploration, or illumination, of Kant).
What you do find when you delve into moral philosophy is that it’s really, really complicated and in many cases boils down to a point of view. Does one look at it from a Utilitarian point of view (which is kind of what you’ve described), or from a Deontological (rule-based) point of view, or from a Virtue Ethics (the virtue of the actor informs their actions) point of view? Those can lead to different conclusions.
“Throughout history, rules have changed as our moral judgment evolved.”
Indeed! Some believe that has to do with our growing horizon of “us” (versus “them”). At first that group included our tribe or village. Later it came to include (often the males only of) a city state or nation. Women (people with different plumbing) got added. People with a different paint job got added. We’re coming to the point where our “tribe” is humanity.
Some science fiction authors (e.g. Alan Moore in Watchmen) have considered alien invasion (or other threat to all of humanity) as (perhaps the only thing) capable of unifying all of humanity against an outside threat. Given the billions of dollars involved in the sex slave and hard drug trade, we’re a long way from unified, although as you say we are getting better over time.
“In Matthew 22:35-40…”
That’s actually my favorite line in the Bible! To me it sums up Christianity. (It’s also a clever bit. The asker was a lawyer trying to trick Jesus into picking one Old Testiment Commandment over the others. Jesus neatly side-steps that and sums up the entire philosophy in one go. He even draws a nice clear line between the OT and NT.)
And as general statements of morality go, you can’t do much better than the Sermon on the Mount.
Of course, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, and many other non-Christian types, may have their own approach. As I said, thousands of years, and we’re still stuck pretty much figuring out ourselves based on how we see the world.
(A thing that concerns me about atheism is that it has no built in moral code while seeking to replace philosophies that do. Given that people who supposedly adhere to those codes frequently act in opposition to them, I can’t help but be concerned about a philosophy without moral codes.)
July 25th, 2015 at 5:06 pm
Wyrd: “According to Kant, lying is immoral. Period. No exceptions.”
That’s one of the problems with principles. A principle must be short enough to be easily remembered, which makes it too short to cover all of the scenarios where it might not apply.
If Kant is suggesting that one should tell the truth even when you know it will cause your friend to be murdered, then Kant is putting ethics above morality, and that is backwards. The only point to any rule is to improve overall results for everyone.
During the Nazi occupation, the harm from the lie to conceal Anne Frank’s family is less than the harm to the family by unjust persecution or death.
Kant also said that the only virtue that is good in and of itself is a good will. All other virtues may be used as easily for evil as for good purposes. A thief may be “brave” to enter someone’s house and may be “fair” and “honest” when distributing the goods among his partners in crime.
The “good will” is what I call moral intent. And Kant might have done more to support that. But I guess he was more an ethical person than a moral one.
Wyrd: “Suppose you said, “No!” which caused the murderer to turn away. But unbeknownst to you, your friend has fled your house. The murderer sees your friend fleeing and pursues and kills the friend.”
It’s kind of hard to take into account what is unknown to us at the time we must choose. We pretty much have to do the best we can with what we do know.
Wyrd: “If I can’t pay my rent, is it okay to lie …If I’m hungry, is it okay to steal … ”
There is also moral harm in breaking a rule. We rely upon each other to follow the rules. The immediate harm of a specific case may seem inconsequential, but undermining social order and one’s own personal integrity will have broader long-term consequences.
Wyrd: “If I’m too poor to pay my rent or get food … ”
As a society, we need to assure that everyone is able to meet their real needs through honest means. Several social programs, like minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and food stamps help to meet society’s obligation to make sure that no one starves to death by following the rules. After all, how could we demand that some people starve rather than steal?
Wyrd: “… and find a bag of money (clearly labeled with a bank’s name), returning that money does me harm … ”
Unless you get run over by a truck while taking the money back to the bank, returning the money does you no harm. Keeping the money harms your integrity and damages your ability to command trust from others. After all, if you had lost your wallet, wouldn’t you want it returned?
Wyrd: “… Moral philosophers have been struggling with the concept of morality for thousands of years …”
Unlike ordinary people, philosophers tend to struggle with a lot of concepts, usually making them more and more complex, perhaps just to make themselves more indispensable (look at the unholy mess they’ve made of determinism and free will).
Wyrd: “Does one look at it from a Utilitarian point of view (which is kind of what you’ve described), or from a Deontological (rule-based) point of view, or from a Virtue Ethics (the virtue of the actor informs their actions) point of view? Those can lead to different conclusions.”
I suggest you look at it from a moral judgment point of view. The question is what rule will produce the best good and least harm for everyone.
Once you have an objective answer to that question, then the utilitarians should “feel” good about it, the deontologists can add it to their rule list (and claim it came from Nature or God), and following that rule will be considered a “virtue”.
They should all arrive at the same conclusion, because ultimately the only criteria for comparing moral hypotheses is how well they produce good and reduce harm for everyone. That is the goal they are all looking for.
July 26th, 2015 at 1:15 am
“A principle must be short enough to be easily remembered, which makes it too short to cover all of the scenarios where it might not apply.”
“I suggest you look at it from a moral judgment point of view. The question is what rule will produce the best good and least harm for everyone.”
Pretty short principle. 🙂
“Ultimately the only criteria for comparing moral hypotheses is how well they produce good and reduce harm for everyone.”
Are you familiar with The Trolley Problem? What about Lifeboat Ethics? In general, how do you approach ethical dilemmas? Situations with non-ideal choices?
Suppose you could perform useful (but deadly) experiments with, say a few dozen homeless people, and the results of those experiments would benefit countless billions now and future? We sacrifice thousands our young men and women to defend our way of life… would a few dozen homeless be so bad? We draft soldiers when necessary.
“If Kant is suggesting that one should tell the truth even when you know it will cause your friend to be murdered,…”
He’s not. Because:
“It’s kind of hard to take into account what is unknown to us at the time we must choose. We pretty much have to do the best we can with what we do know.”
Exactly. What you do know is that lying is — at least generally — considered wrong, so the one clear choice you have is between committing a wrong or not. Kant is considering how you should be judged for your action. Since either a lie or the truth lead to an unknown outcome, the only thing you can be judged on is your action.
It’s worth noting that many view Kant as too absolute for real-world use. In general the problem with deontology is, as you indicate, that rules can’t account for all situations. (Yet that is exactly what the law is — a set of rules for social behavior. We have the judiciary to deal with situations where the rules are in conflict, don’t cover a situation, or are unjust. We also have the legislature to create new laws.)
But the thing about Kant is that he’s pretty good at parsing specific actions. And he laid the foundation for a lot of what followed.
“The ‘good will’ is what I call moral intent.”
If the moral intent is to benefit many billions, sacrificing a few is okay? You know the old saying about moral (good) intentions right?
“There is also moral harm in breaking a rule.”
Which moral rule should be broken? Feeding my family by stealing a loaf of bread or starving but following social rules?
“As a society, we need to assure that everyone is able to meet their real needs through honest means.”
That seems like another short principle, and it’s a great idea, but it isn’t much good as an answer to someone who is in that situation (and many are).
“Unless you get run over by a truck while taking the money back to the bank, returning the money does you no harm. Keeping the money harms your integrity and damages your ability to command trust from others.”
Remember, I can’t pay my rent (or am starving). Which is more important, my integrity or my well-being?
“After all, if you had lost your wallet, wouldn’t you want it returned?”
Of course, and no doubt the bank will miss the money, but the harm to the bank is trivial whereas the potential good to me is large. As far as how others might see me, given the general opinion of banks, I think I’d be getting a lot of high-fives.
“They should all arrive at the same conclusion, because ultimately the only criteria for comparing moral hypotheses is how well they produce good and reduce harm for everyone.”
I don’t think that’s so. Even under the most ideal situations, even given the most moral of people in full possession of the facts, different people will reach different conclusions because they will have different value systems. We don’t all have the same values nor should we!
July 26th, 2015 at 6:54 am
Wyrd: “In general, how do you approach ethical dilemmas? Situations with non-ideal choices?”
I’m not offering a “correct solution” to all conceived dilemmas, but only a very simple meta-ethical layout of what is behind all ethical problems.
In the runaway train problem, the train is going to kill someone. Without intervention it will certainly kill five. With intervention it will certainly kill one. My question would be what else lies ahead after switching the train to a track that it was not cleared to travel. And what happens to any passengers on the train? If the train is empty and will crash safely in either case then I’d feel justified in switching the track to save 5 at the expense of 1. But this CANNOT BE GENERALIZED to other 5 versus 1 problems.
For example, you CANNOT generalize it to the case of experimenting on 10 unwilling persons to find a cure for 5000. The harm to everyone of being constantly at risk of being drafted for the latest science experiment would outweigh the benefits of the cure of a specific disease in most situations.
Each new and unique moral scenario needs to be researched and thought out to discover the actual quantity and quality of the harms and benefits that arise in the short term and the long term. Then you make the best decision you can in the time allowed and hope for the best.
Wyrd: “Since either a lie or the truth lead to an unknown outcome, the only thing you can be judged on is your action.”
If the outcome cannot be reliably predicted, then you’d stick to the “do not lie” rule. That’s what rules are for, to give us pre-decided choices. But if the outcome is reasonably knowable, such as knowing that the Nazis will send the Frank family to the death camp, then the lie to save them is morally required. And I think historically, moral judgment has supported that lie.
Wyrd: “You know the old saying about moral (good) intentions right?”
Yep. But if the intent is truly good, then the choice about when to break a rule will also take into account the harm of breaking the rule, and will preserve the rule rather than break it when that is best (which is most of the time).
Wyrd: “Remember, I can’t pay my rent (or am starving). Which is more important, my integrity or my well-being?”
Integrity refers to your consistency with your own principles. It is essential to your well-being (the literal opposite of “integrity” is “disintegration”). And keep in mind that In order to justly require you to follow the rules, society must assure that you will not be homeless or starving by doing so. Thus the social programs and food stamps, etc. (After all, even a jail provides food and a place to sleep).
Wyrd: “no doubt the bank will miss the money, but the harm to the bank is trivial whereas the potential good to me is large.”
We call something “good” if it meets a REAL need and does so through means which allow everyone else to meet their real needs as well. Unless the bank is deliberately tossing out bags of money in poor neighborhoods, every moral person will be expecting you to return it.
Wyrd: “Even under the most ideal situations, even given the most moral of people in full possession of the facts, different people will reach different conclusions because they will have different value systems. We don’t all have the same values nor should we!”
My point is that there is one value that we can all share, to achieve the best good and least harm for EVERYONE. We may disagree on what specific things are good for everyone. But these disagreements are potentially eventually resolvable by knowledge and reason.
July 26th, 2015 at 11:43 am
“In the runaway train problem, […] My question would be what else lies ahead…”
Unknown. Unknowable. You must decide with only the facts in your immediate possession.
“[Y]ou CANNOT generalize it to the case of experimenting on 10 unwilling persons to find a cure for 5000.”
Because? What about five-million? Or fifty-billion?
“The harm to everyone of being constantly at risk of being drafted for the latest science experiment would outweigh the benefits of the cure of a specific disease in most situations.”
No, we’re only using people who are often defined as “the dregs” — the homeless. Further, this is not an on-going thing. We just need a few dozen. There are many scenarios where citizens are asked to sacrifice for the state. Why is that one different?
What makes sacrificing a few to save billions different than the Trolley scenario? We may know billions will die of some horrible disease. We may know we can sacrifice a few dozen to save those billions. Why would that be wrong?
“Yep. But if the intent is truly good, then the choice about when to break a rule will also take into account the harm of breaking the rule,”
You’re missing two things there.
Firstly, even genuinely good intentions can lead to evil actions (hence the ancient expression). Suppose I have the power to create and enforce the “homeless for curing cancer” program. My intent is “truly good” — I want to save the lives of countless billions. I weigh the relative weight of those billions of productive people against a few dozen indigents who are — at best — a drain on social resources. As far as I can see, I’m doing the world a huge solid. Those billions will be very glad of my choice!
Secondly, how do you even go about ensuring people have “truly good” intentions?
“Thus the social programs and food stamps, etc.”
None of which is responsive to the scenario posed.
“After all, even a jail provides food and a place to sleep”
Your solution to the homeless is imprisonment? Have you ever been in jail, Marvin? I have. (Twice.) Not a choice I’d ever pick willingly. How would I protect and provide for my family, then? And what about the morality of freedom?
“We call something “good” if it meets a REAL need…”
Who defines “REAL”? You? Me?
“…and does so through means which allow everyone else to meet their real needs as well.”
And when those needs directly conflict? (And they often do.)
“Unless the bank is deliberately tossing out bags of money in poor neighborhoods, every moral person will be expecting you to return it.”
No. As I said before, many hate banks, consider them immoral (include me among that group), and would applaud my actions. Especially if I had a REAL need given the trivial harm done to the bank.
“My point is that there is one value that we can all share, to achieve the best good and least harm for EVERYONE.”
Yes, and my point is that not only never actually happens, I don’t think it should happen. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone had the same values. I’d find that boring.
And right there you see, perhaps, the problem. Intelligent people can have different value systems, and that leads to different views of how things ought to be.
July 26th, 2015 at 12:42 pm
Wyrd: “Yes, and my point is that not only never actually happens, I don’t think it should happen. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone had the same values. I’d find that boring.”
So you’re saying that a world with a variety of different value systems is most likely to produce the best good and least harm for everyone.
July 26th, 2015 at 2:02 pm
No, I’m saying that varied, and often conflicting, value systems are the reality, and that I approve of that reality because conflict results in growth and discovery. For example, neither the progressive nor the conservative view is “right” or “wrong” but in the conflict between them, sometimes we get it as close to right as possible.
Further that “the best good and least harm for everyone” isn’t something that’s possible to achieve with real people.
July 26th, 2015 at 2:36 pm
Exactly. But the best good and least harm for everyone is the yardstick that everyone uses, whether they are aware of it or not. Each presents their arguments in the same terms. Conservatives fear socialism because they believe it will create more harm than good. Progressives fear libertarian values that create pockets of poverty and want society to be more active in solving these problems. My point is that all sides argue for this or that based upon benefits and harms. So that is the meta-ethic we’re all using.
Occasionally we find agreement on specific issues where the objective empirical evidence supports a better option than the status quo.
The underlying agreement on the ultimate goal makes possible the resolution of otherwise unresolvable issues.
July 26th, 2015 at 3:09 pm
“But the best good and least harm for everyone is the yardstick that everyone uses,”
The problem comes from differing definitions of what those things mean. You object to sacrificing a few dozen homeless for the greater good of countless billions, so clearly “best good and least harm for everyone” isn’t enough.
Further, who is to say that’s even the right ethic? Why might the right ethic not be to ignore those who don’t contribute much and elevate those who do (i.e. a meritocracy)? What is the basis for this “eveyone” of which you speak? Why should I care?
July 26th, 2015 at 7:04 pm
Keep in mind I’m only suggesting the framework. And It’s not my invention, but rather a common sense observation of how discussions of what is “right” go. The idea is to sweep away a few cobwebs and distractions and get down to business.
The idea of “the best good and least harm for everyone” has three elements which may be disputed in a discussion of what is right.
First, people will disagree about what is “good” for themselves or others. For example, in discussions of surveillance to prevent terrorism some may come down on the side of security and some on the side of privacy.
Then, people will disagree about what is “harmful”. Some are convinced that homosexuality is harmful while others believe it is harmless.
Finally, the nature of how “equity” is achieved may also be in dispute. This is that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” thing. It is also Kant’s universal law requirement, that before you implement a rule that applies to others you must be willing to have the same rule applied to yourself. (And that is why we don’t do medical experiments on the homeless, because we’d also have to allow them upon ourselves).
Equity is essential for universal agreement on any rule. It is a “rule for rule making”.
And that is why I use “everyone” rather than “the greatest number”.
In theory, since everyone wants autonomy with maximum freedom, we would minimize the number of rules and their scope. That would be another “rule for rule making”.
July 26th, 2015 at 9:29 pm
If you see that there can be disagreements about the basic ideas, it’s hard to understand why you think it amounts to “a few cobwebs and distractions.” Taking a step back, you’re assuming equity as a basis, but have provided no rationale for it.
Suppose my moral view involves providing the most possible for my people (bloodline, village, nation state, race, whatever), and I’m willing to subjugate non-members in the process. Suppose I reject the notion that I need to care anyone outside my selected group. What, exactly, makes that “wrong” or “immoral”?
Suppose I make the obvious observation that eliminating the 10% of the dumbest people would elevate the human race and make the world a better place (certainly a bit less crowded — more the the rest of us). What exactly makes that “wrong”?
Fundamentally: Why should I give a shit about your “everyone” or equity?
July 27th, 2015 at 6:04 am
Wyrd: “Fundamentally: Why should I give a shit about your “everyone” or equity?”
All practical rights arise from agreements. If absolutely no agreements exist, like among the cavemen, then the biggest and strongest gets to kill you, rape your wife, and eat your kids for dinner. So people organize to take on the brutes who wish to rule by “might makes right”.
The group agrees to respect and protect certain rights for each other, like the rights to life and property. The murderer and the thief, unfaithful to the agreement, are reported and stopped by the group.
If we are unwilling to respect and protect a right for others, then we have no claim upon them to respect and protect that right for us.
July 27th, 2015 at 11:43 am
So is morality what the group decides it is? What if the group is so powerful it decides to take over its neighbor groups and enforce its opinion of morality? What if a group decides to pick on some other group it decides aren’t “as human” as they are? How does this “mob rule” thing help me determine what is right when it comes to ethical conundrums?
July 27th, 2015 at 1:05 pm
Practical rights and rules are established by the group (family, community, state, nation, etc).
Whether any given action or rule is moral or not is judged by how well it promotes the best good and least harm for everyone.
Individual conscience may command a rule be broken, as in the case of civil disobedience and demonstrations. This was common in protests during the Viet Nam war (burning draft cards) and Civil Rights movement (blacks sitting at the “whites only” lunch counter).
July 27th, 2015 at 2:19 pm
“Practical rights and rules are established by the group…”
The same group that, as you point out yourself, created segregation and got us into insane wars, so obviously the group isn’t a good arbiter of morality. Such groups also are responsible for book burning… with the best intentions.
“Whether any given action or rule is moral or not is judged by how well it promotes the best good and least harm for everyone.”
Which brings us back to defining “best good” and “least harm” and “everyone.”
I was watching Good Night, And Good Luck last night. It’s the story of Edward R. Murrow going against Joe McCarthy. The interesting thing here is that McCarthy really thought he was on the side of the angels. In a different world — one in which communist subversion was more of a threat — he might even have been right.
More recently we (well, some people) thought torture was a good way to deal with our worst enemies. Those people also had the best intentions.
So the group isn’t the arbiter.
So good intentions aren’t the arbiter.
The point is that morality is sometimes fairly clear. The case of Anne Frank, for example, or of human slavery. But sometimes it’s not clear at all, and the choices are much more challenging.
You pointed out yourself that simple principles can’t apply to all situations, and “how well it promotes the best good and least harm for everyone” is a simplistic principle that’s fine in simple sitations, but useless in more challenging ones.
You were dismissive of the philosophers earlier in this discussion, but to my reading most of them are a lot smarter than the two of us put together and have explored in great detail some of the more challenging aspects of morality. They’re worth, perhaps, a second look if this topic genuinely interests you.
July 27th, 2015 at 6:53 pm
The “best good and least harm for everyone” is just a simple statement of the goal of morality. It provides a standard criteria for judging the moral value of two or more alternative solutions. And I believe it is what everyone does all the time when facing a new moral issue.
It is similar to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (which is actually a statement of the equity principle, or Kant’s universal law — which suggests Kant originally got the idea from the Bible).
There are too many philosophers for anyone to have time to give them all a first look much less a second. And at some point you have to decide what you will take for your own and what you will dismiss.
I had the Ethics philosophy course in college. I was also chairman of the Honor Court and changed it to a Student Court based on protecting the rights of others instead of protecting the honor of students before I dropped out. Never did get my degree, but I did have nearly 3 years of credits as a Psych major. So that’s my limited background.
July 27th, 2015 at 9:49 pm
“The ‘best good and least harm for everyone’ is just a simple statement of the goal of morality.”
If that works for you, fine. It doesn’t work for me. Firstly, it’s too vague to be useful. Secondly, it misses what is, for me, a key component of the concept of morality: The idea of doing the right thing.
By the ‘best good-least harm’ ethic, sacrificing a few dozen indigents or criminals to promote the well-being of countless billions seems a perfectly acceptable choice.
There are also the matters of choice and freedom. Ever read one of those SF stories where robots, computers, or aliens, “protect” humans by taking away all that is dangerous (and in some versions, many of our choices). “Best good” is an extremely difficult concept to pin down.
“There are too many philosophers for anyone to have time to give them all a first look much less a second.”
Of course! But that’s a different statement from your original one:
“Unlike ordinary people, philosophers tend to struggle with a lot of concepts, usually making them more and more complex, perhaps just to make themselves more indispensable”