Angry Atheist in MO - Morals and ethics without rules (3)

(Note: I decided to change the title - it's one of the great things about episodes! They're adaptable.)

Following the suggestion of AN's own Steph S., I lurked moar before continuing this series on atheist morals and ethics. I'm glad I did. In addition to the discussion Steph S. started, which I found edifying, I was also led to this AN group, which I joined. Among the gems I came across, the Jedi Wanderer has a great bit, which I'll quote from here to kick this episode off (with my emphases):

I think it is very important to codify our system of ethical beliefs, and based on this first distinction between internal and external consequences I am quite confident it can be done well and thoroughly. This is not to say that there is a perfect answer for every situation, but I'm absolutely confident we can do a better job by far of explaining morality than the theists do (especially considering that theirs is not really any explanation at all). I think we as atheists do have a responsibility to understand this crucial area of inquiry, not so much to defend ourselves from the mindless attacks of theists but to defend others from them, e.g. our children, and to demonstrate our ability to reason about morality and therefore to educate humanity and save it from religion.

The "first distinction" he refers to is internal versus external reinforcement. As atheists, we claim not to need external Pavlovian reward/punishment to do the right thing. We say we have personal, internal psychological motives for doing the right thing. How do we codify these collectively into an ethical system that can be communicated to the rest of the world? I think we do it by communicating, and reasoning, and publishing the record of what we have reasoned. I think we are doing it now, here on AtheistNexus, by communicating our personal reflections on morals, and reflecting on others' thoughts on morals and ethics.

Tying into last episode, this is an example of the feedback loop between individual and collective that either reinforces or dampens properties of a group dynamic. For an individual member, group dynamics offer emergent and spontaneous opportunities for fine-tuning moral decision-making. A social group can't exist without individuals, but groups' relationships with their members vary wildly. A prison gang, for instance, compared to an online atheist network group: the prisoner is going to be placed under pressure to make many and much more serious moral choices than are we of the webs.

Yet, how influential are the prisoner's choices, compared to one of ours out in the free world? The prisoner's choices, while they seem to have greater moral depth, have been marginalized from influencing the day-to-day collective feedback response of the overarching ethical system (in this example, the rest of society). We encounter only the media narrative of the prisoner's story, unless one becomes a prisoner oneself (I think it may be enough to know one - but I'll come back to that). Then, too, the former prisoner has to cope with other and ongoing costs levied against the credibility of their moral decision-making ability in daily life. Whether it's disenfranchisement, changed treatment from family and old friends, or merely self-imposed - former prisoners are often morally diminished by society, long after they paid their debt.

The prisoner's plight is not my beef, however - just an example of this complex of relationships between the individual and the many groups dynamics of which they are sometimes unwilling participants. There are two things happening at once, here. The experience of the group dynamic leaves artifacts -- moral memories, small and large -- in the individual. And, the individual's choices contribute to the group dynamic. Characterized in this way, morals appear to be decisions, and the memories of decisions.

Ethics, in contrast, could be described as a formal codification of well-defined path dependencies in a group's long term dynamics, performed by a subgroup who either implicitly or explicitly has the authority to map out acceptable path-dependencies.

These really are very different animals, morals and ethics. Understanding how they relate is the purpose of this series. Next episode I'll probably start rambling some, while I lurk moar here at AN and do some storytelling to illustrate and clarify the subtleties I think exist in the boundary between morals and ethics. I think it's a mistake to assume the problem is going to be easy. I expect it will be complex - and rely on complexity, itself.

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Comment by Joseph Edwards VIII on June 24, 2012 at 5:26pm

I like it, James. Succinct. You've definitely given me more to think about before I open my yap, again. :)

Comment by James Yount on June 24, 2012 at 12:26pm

I believe our ethics evolve with our minds. In fact, I believe that a moral compass has developed through evolution as a means for survival in the face of a species that continually attacks itself. Our biology itself is trying to save us from destruction.



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