Core Morality and other types

I offer below an incomplete sketch of my approach to morality. It agrees with much of what Gilbert Harman has written.

Writings on ethics tend to treat two different questions under the title of “ethics.” One is a question of prudent behavior; the other is a question of moral behavior. But, I must admit, that some contexts are such as to raise the perplexing question as to which has priority.

To distinguish the question of prudence from that of morality, let us consider the case of a solitary individual cast away on an island — call him Crusoe. His primary problem is one of survival. Given his desire for survival, he will have to follow, what Kant called, hypothetical imperatives. There are things he ought to do in order to survive. If he has tools, there will be right and wrong ways of using them. Again, if he is interested in efficiency, he must do things in certain ways. Will certain dispositions and habits — call them virtues — serve him well? Certainly. He can strive for happiness, which will be a function of leisure time. But I make no claims about what constitutes happiness. Whatever it is, it will be a matter of satisfying his interests. And since interests vary, so will the ways for reaching happiness. What I want to claim is that the question of moral behavior does not make sense for a solitary individual — unless he lives in a mythical world with another person — a god or spirit.

Let us now introduce another person to the island — call him Friday. I will call core morality the behavior which both of them agree to regarding each other. This will be expressed by rules. And these rules can be negative or positive, depending on what they forbid to be done to each other, or required to be done to each other. Justice will consist of abiding by the freely made agreements. (Agreements may be complicated because of tacit assumptions.)

However, there is also the most important question of trust. Can Crusoe trust Friday, and vice versa? Assuming that both are sincere, this does not settle the question of trust. Whether each is trustworthy is in part determined by their character, or, to put it another way, by their possession of virtues.

They can also agree on how to behave towards plants, animals, and the rest of their environment. Such rules I will call marginal morality.

If we introduce a third person on the island — call him Tarzan, with whom we do not interact, then Crusoe’s agreement with Friday in regard to Tarzan can be called peripheral morality. Peripheral morality may allow us to kill, rob, torture, sacrifice, or enslave Tarzan.

Theories of normative morality have been either teleological or deontological, i.e., based on consequences or based on rules. If I were Crusoe entering into an agreement with Friday, I would agree to the rule:

Neither of us will harm the other, except for self-preservation.

This is the element of egoism that is presupposed in normal core morality. But there is also, what I will call abnormal core morality, which takes place in sports in which the requirement of not harming each other, and the exception of self-preservation are suspended, and what is done is done strictly by the rules regardless of consequences.

This code of honor, as it way be called, requires a strict obedience to the rules with no exceptions for self-preservation. In extreme cases, it has the form: I will do X, even if it kills me; and if I do not do X, I will kill myself. Such was the code of the kamikazi and the samurai.

In making rules, one can also agree to punishments for breach of rules, and also for allowable excuses. Given that we have prudential considerations, sometimes one has to make a judgment call about how to act. Or, as C. D. Broad would say: What is the most fitting way to act under the circumstances?

[See my “Concepts of Persons and Morality“]

“Fuck Hope” — George Carlin

Below is George Carlin’s reading of the preface to his book Brain Droppings, 1997.  Further below is the transcript. At the bottom, Carlin reads his whole book.

For a long time my stand up material has drawn from three sources.  The first is the English language. You know, words, phrases, sayings — and the ways we speak. The second source — as with most comedians — has been what I think of as the “little world,” those things we all experience every day: driving, food, pets, relationships, and idle thoughts. The third area is, what I call, the “big world”: war, politics, race, death — the social issues.

So, without actually having measured, I would say this book reflects the balance rather closely. Now the first two areas in the book will speak for themselves. But concerning the big world, let me say a few things.

I’m happy to tell you that there’s little in this world that I believe in. Listening to the comedians who comment on political, social, and cultural issues, I notice that most of their material reflects kind of an underlying belief that somehow things were better once, and with just a little effort we could set them right again. They’re looking for solutions and rooting for particular results, and I think that limits the tone and substance of what they say. They’re talented and funny people but they’re really nothing more than cheerleaders attached to a specific wished-for outcome.

I don’t feel so confined.

I frankly don’t give a fuck how it all turns out in this country or anywhere else for that matter. I think the human game was up a long time ago when the high priests and traders took over, and now we’re just playing out the string.  And that is, of course, precisely what I find so amusing! The slow circling of the drain by a once promising species and the sappy ever more desperate belief in this country that there is actually some sort of an ‘American Dream’ which has merely been misplaced.

The decay and disintegration of this culture is astonishingly amusing if you’re emotionally detached from it.  And I’ve always viewed it from a safe distance, knowing I don’t belong. Doesn’t include me, it never has. No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group, planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood-improvement committee. I have no interest in any of it.

I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.

So if you hear something in this book that sounds like advocacy of a particular political point of view, please reject the notion. My interest in issues is merely to point out how badly we’re doing, not to suggest a way we might do better.

Don’t confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing how things are, I have no interest in how they ought to be. And I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there’s a solution, you’re part of the problem.

My motto: Fuck Hope.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, personally I’m a joyful individual, I had a long happy marriage and a close and loving family, my career has turned out better than I ever dreamed, and it continues to expand. I’m a personal optimist, but a skeptic about all else. What may sound to some like anger, is really nothing more than sympathetic contempt. I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction. And please don’t confuse my point of view with cynicism–the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything’s gonna be all right.

And P.P.S., by the way, if by some chance you folks do manage to straighten things out and make everything better, I still don’t wish to be included.


The Four Horsemen of Atheism


The “Four Horsemen” Clockwise from top left: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. According to Richard Dawkins, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006.
Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007.
Daniel Dennet, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, 2004.

Francis Bacon on bullshit beliefs

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his Novum Organum (1620), classifies the sources of false beliefs (i.e. bullshit beliefs) into four categories or idols:
idols of the tribe (idola tribus),
idols of the cave (idola specus),
idols of the market (idola fori), and
idols of the theater (idola theatri).

See also:

and

C. D. Broad, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, 1926.