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It is in the prosecution of some single object, and in striving to reach its accomplishment by the combined application of his moral and physical energies, that the true happiness of man, in his full vigour and development, consists. Possession, it is true, crowns exertion with repose; but it is only in the illusions of fancy that it has power to charm our eyes. If we consider the position of man in the universe,—if we remember the constant tendency of his energies towards some definite activity, and recognize the influence of surrounding nature, which is ever provoking him to exertion, we shall be ready to acknowledge that repose and possession do not indeed exist but in imagination. - Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Sphere and Duties of Government (The Limits of State Action) (1854 ed.)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Moral/Ethical Decision Making

I have been talking on a weekly basis at lunch with a "Believer", George. This came about for two reasons:
  • I got/am kinda tired of talking to "liberals"; AND
  • I have read the books by prominent atheists: Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.
So I both wanted to talk to someone who's beliefs are not derived via osmosis of mainstream culture and to talk to someone these atheists writers are writing about.

The discussions with George have been very enlightening. To the first order, his beliefs are not dangerous. I can not imagine him personally participating in any sort of violence. In fact, I can even imagine him standing up to any authority he does not feel is given from God, much to his credit. Also, his interpretation of the Bible and Jesus is as far as I can tell non-violent. He has contrasted (his) Christianity and Islam in their propensity towards violence: He asserts that it is not written that Christians ought to spread their beliefs via "the sword" vs. Islam which does have such violent proscriptions. To the second order though, I do believe his actions could and do cause real suffering: His beliefs inform him on the classic political topics of our time such as the death penalty, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

But that is not the objective of this post. Instead I wanted to relate a part of one of our discussions where he asked me how I decide between good and bad and right and wrong. I came up with this three step process:
  1. Assert the definitions of "good" and "bad".
  2. Have a methodology for deciding on how to act.
  3. The result(s) by definition are what is "right" and/or "wrong".
Here is mine:
  1. The satisfaction of desires/preferences/interests is "good" and obstacles to them are "bad".
  2. The expected consequences -- as determined from historical analysis and/or imagination -- inform completely our decision and discrimination of our act(s).
  3. The result(s) by definition are what is "right" and/or "wrong".
( Of course this is not new: This comes from my reading, most specifically Peter Singer and of Consequentialism, specifically Utilitarianism. It is probably obvious. )

The discussion between George and I has only recently been on political/real life topics. In our last meeting, I specifically requested citations on homosexuality. I made a guess at his decision making process fit into these 3 steps and asked him if it was fair. I hope to go over this at the next meeting and will report back then.

2 comments:

BFW said...

I look forward to the followup. It is rare for us to get outside our comfort zone - and our circle of friends/acquaintances. I applaud your effort.

czrpb said...

Thx!! I should have a new post, smallish but nonetheless, tomorrow.

And thx for reading!