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Benjamin McLean

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Real ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive.

As I explain in my video on "The Abolition of Man" instinct cannot provide any foundation for ethics as everything we say about instinct is descriptive not prescriptive. It discusses only what we actually do, not what we ought to do and ethics is the question of what we ought to do. http://youtu.be/Z60lncsXQrE?t=2m52s


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    Apr 12 2012: i believe the most effective approach is to treat ethics as a process. to examine a situation, the compering values, the impacts on the stakeholders, aiming to improve the human conditio and experience.

    blindly relying on religious morality from the past without questioning and testing it is one of the greatest wastse of the capabilities humans have - to reason.

    description is good for understanding. prescription is a poor substitute for the process of reaoned ethical examination particularly for complex issues in a changing world. trying to agree on so called rights and values is good. but the most complex issues involve competing rights/values e.g. freedom of religion versus freedom of speech. however if by prescriptive u mean shutting the door further ethical evaluation i disagree.

    eg the right to bear arms could cover nuclear weapons. killing adulterers. no thanks. the right to keep slaves. the proble is we have developed and progressed from biblical and even revolutionary times and the world and technology has chag
    • Apr 12 2012: > "aiming to improve the human condition and experience."

      That is prescription. You have prescribed an aim. Your aim / goal / summum bonum is not very clearly defined as you haven't explained what constitutes an improvement but you are in fact giving a prescription, albeit a vague one.

      > "blindly relying on religious morality from the past without questioning and testing it is one of the greatest wastse of the capabilities humans have - to reason"

      Lewis argues in "Miracles" that:

      "“Two views have been held about moral judgments. Some people think that when we make them we are not using our Reason, but are employing some different power. Other people think that we make them by our Reason. I myself hold this second view. That is, I believe that the primary moral principles on which all others depend are rationally perceived. We ‘just see’ that there is no reason why my neighbor’s happiness should be sacrificed to my own, as we ‘just see’ that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another. If we cannot prove either axiom, that is not because they are irrational but because they are self-evident and all proofs depend on them. Their intrinsic reasonableness shines by its own light. It is because all morality is based on such self-evident principles that we say to a man, when we would recall him to right conduct, ‘Be reasonable.’"
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        Apr 15 2012: What is the purpose of ethical analysis is a different level to what is ethical.

        Its like confusing the scientific process with the theories it tests.

        Surely at some point you need to define what ethics means and is about. Agree we can debate the details of this but generally ethics is about right and wrong, mostly in terms of the human perspective and our choices. Yes my view right and wrong often about the human condition, but not exclusively - animal rights for example, but it is about human conduct.

        I would hope ethical analysis has an objective to reduce suffering, to improve the human condition. I suggest this could be something universally agreed whereas religious dogma is not. Yes I have an agenda here. If right and wrong comes from what is described in a an old book or from authority we will be forever stuck in medieval or bronze age values reflected in tribal gods or divine dictators.

        I'd rather focus on what improves the human condition as a starting point. Isn't that a worthy basis for defining right and wrong.

        The old testament says to kill those who work on the sabbath. Most modern Jews don't go around and follow these rules. They are selective

        I get the Lewis argument. He probably thinks conscious is innate from god. I think it has a basis in evolution, the development of our reasoning capabilities and cultural programming. A Christian is programmed to think homosexuality is a sin. I don't.

        The Taliban may have a deep belief that women are property and seducers. I don't.

        If Lewis is right then our wires seem to be crossed.

        I can see hopw you could argue the next step that there could be some universal conscious that is misprogrammed.

        In the end we have 2 different explanations for the same behaviour.

        I would suggest my view that we focus on improving the human condition is better than relying on supposedly divine and often conflicting instructions.

        You need to accept the bad with the good if you rely on god given laws.
        • Apr 15 2012: > "I would hope ethical analysis has an objective to reduce suffering, to improve the human condition. I suggest this could be something universally agreed whereas religious dogma is not."

          Lewis does not propose in "The Abolition of Man" to set up any religious dogma as the objective universal set of values he calls the Tao or "natural law." He here proposes universal human values, not specifically or explicitly religious ones and I think any open minded person who actually reads the book will see this. He argues for people to accept Christianity by appealing to their reason and free choice in his other books but in this one he is just advocating for universal human values. You don't have to agree with anything in any of his other books to agree with this one, but you do have to agree with this one to agree with anything in any of his other books.

          Now I would point out that what you've proposed is not in fact universally agreed upon and I think all I have to do to demonstrate this is to give it a name. The doctrine you have proposed is called "Utilitarianism" and it is and always has been highly controversial. It also seems to have numerous incongruities with what all of us know to be right and wrong, because it excludes considerations of justice.

          > "Yes I have an agenda here."

          You said (and I quote) "prescription is a poor substitute for the process of reaoned ethical examination" while in the same post giving a prescription yourself. This is an internal logical contradiction in what you've said. Either prescriptive / imperative statements are what ethics is about as I've said and therefore you've made an error in calling them a "poor substitute" or else they really are a "poor substitute" and you've made an error in giving a prescription yourself.

          > "I'd rather focus on what improves the human condition as a starting point. Isn't that a worthy basis for defining right and wrong."

          Not really no. No offense meant, but it's ambiguous.
    • Apr 12 2012: > "description is good for understanding"

      That may be so. However there is a difference between attempts to explain ethics and attempts to explain away ethics. If you explain away ethics then you've destroyed the whole basis of your discourse as no one has any reason to believe you're telling the truth or that telling the truth is any better than lying.

      > "prescription is a poor substitute for the process of reasoned ethical examination particularly for complex issues in a changing world."

      How can a house be a substitute for it's foundations?
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        Apr 14 2012: I think that you shot yourself in the foot. Prescription means something like "by mandate," but Lewis (and presumably you), are arguing for "reasonable," yet equate it with they being "self-evident." But saying that something is self-evident means that it is "naturally true." Thus ethics are declared as natural, thus ethics would be descriptive: "that's the way it is," rather than prescriptive: "you should do this because I say so."

        I think this is one big source of most of the confusion in your arguments. I don't think this "idea" will go anywhere else, but continuing confusion.

        Be well.
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        Apr 16 2012: The stuff about moral realism does not solve the problem with your "prescriptive" versus "descriptive" terminology, which I suspect might be a false dichotomy. (Did you notice in this wikipedia article that some supporters of moral realism realize the origin of our tendencies towards morality in our evolutionary history?)
        • Apr 16 2012: First of all, there is no such thing as evolutionary history. There is a reason they call it "prehistoric." There is evolutionary prehistoric speculation and that's all. With no time machine and no sociological or emotional data recorded before recorded history, we have no clue, none. Read G. K. Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man" for his comments about "the Cave Man." (BTW, I'm not Catholic so I don't necessarily share all of Chesterton's views)

          Second, there are exclusively descriptive statements but I don't think there are exclusively prescriptive statements. All prescriptive statements do seem to contain descriptive elements. But these comments about ethics like de Waal makes suggests that we can somehow built an ethical framework from the fact that we have certain instincts or the fact that our instincts developed in a certain way. (which are exclusively descriptive facts and not values) No we can't, because without a prescriptive premise, we will not get any ethical statements at all.
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        Apr 16 2012: First of all, of course there is evolutionary history. I don't think that your arguing for semantics will help it. I call it history because it is history, recorded in writing or not. I don't care about Chesterton. For scientific information I consult scientific work, not creationist propaganda. So thanks for the suggestion, but no thanks.

        Second, whether there are exclusively prescriptive statements is beside the point(s). You're idea is confusing and seems a lot like a false dichotomy. Also, you mistake the issue of some scientist finding morality, or ethics, whatever, in other animals, with an intention to developing our ethics based exclusively on instincts, or to suggest that our ethics come from such instincts alone, as if our evolutionary history did not include things other than instincts, and as if our overall history did not include our development of cultures. Let me repeat for the Nth time: figuring out where our "principles" have come from, their biological roots so to speak, is not the same as proposing that we should use the most basic of such origins as the sole and single way for developing our ethics. Suggesting that such a thing is what is been proposed is but an oversimplification. Probably an intentional mischaracterization, a straw-man. Most surely that's what Lewis does (demolishing straw-men), if what you present in that video comes from Lewis himself. After all, that's Lewis's M.O.
        • Apr 17 2012: > "For scientific information I consult scientific work, not creationist propaganda."

          Chesterton, as a Catholic, leaned toward a theistic evolution perspective and not a literal Creationist perspective. His beef with Darwinism was it's misapplication to philosophy particularly regarding ethics and anthropology. To describe his works as "Creationist propoganda" on par with the present Evangelical Creationist establishment in the United States is unfair and indicative of someone who hasn't actually read Chesterton.

          When it comes to telling the future, which is what Lewis largely does in "The Abolition of Man" there is a fine line between using a reductio ad absurdum argument (like George Orwell who followed on from Lewis's "That Hideous Strength" with his "1984") and setting up a straw-man. Is Orwell's "Big Brother" a straw-man, or it is an intentional parody of the basic direction of collectivist totalitarian statism carried to it's logical extremes? I think it would be fair to characterize the great 20th century dystopian writers (Huxley, Lewis, Orwell, Rand) as setting up intentional parody more than straw-men of current thinkers. Lewis anticipates the rise of post-modernism decades ahead of time
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        Apr 17 2012: Look Benjamin,

        If you insert Chesterton into your denial of there being an evolutionary history (look at your comment please), and I go check info about the book and find it to be "a two-part history of mankind, Christ, and Christianity," I can't but think that this book will be creationist propaganda, even if not of the fundamentalist kind. After re-reading your previous answers, along with your new comment, I suppose that I made a partial mistake, but that the mistake was justified.

        Orwell's is clearly what it is, while Lewis is clearly straw-manizing with the intent not to pay any attention to, or completely deny, the role of nature in our overall development. I see no reason to set up a "reductio ad absurdum" if you are going to paint a position that is not really held. Scientists investigating on the origins of our basic predispositions will feel offended that her/his position has been taken to places where it did not intend to go, such as your continuing insistence on thinking that because we recognize the origins of our inclinations in our evolutionary history we are thus proposing to develop ethics solely on the basis of instincts (and not just the instincts being recognized, but every kind of instincts to make the cartoon worse). That's beyond absurd, and if you think that such is a valid discourse, then what about I cartoon your position-which I still don't have very clear, but what the heck-and call my cartoon a reductio ad absurdum and never let you out of it, just as you insist on putting my comments into your cartoon?

        So what about we stop talking past each other? I think that you are proposing that there is a set of axioms, indispensable for developing ethics. You seem to think that finding ethical/moral behaviour in animals that might point to our basic instincts, means that such research proposes the development of our ethics on instincts alone, thus perhaps denying your axioms. Is this a fair summary? If not let me know.
        • Apr 18 2012: I'm saying arguing that animal behavior is moral or immoral rather than amoral reduces ethics to a non-rational and purely subjective status, excluding the possibility of any absolute universal truths in prescriptive ethics. Because instincts are non-rational and if ethics are founded in instinct then that implies they are founded in the non-rational.

          This also has self-defeating implications for science. Scientists are only able to work together under what purports to be an absolute universal ethic that assumes values of intellectual honesty and objectivity. If this ethic is just a subjective feeling or attitude derived from instinct rather than a rational principle perceived to be not just felt, but merited, then we lose all reason to trust what any other scientist or any other person says.
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        Apr 18 2012: Benjamin,

        I think I got it. Let's see:
        1. You think that if animals other than humans can have morality, automatically whatever we think of morality/ethics is necessarily non-rational and subjective.
        2. You also think that for there to be ethics it has to be based on "absolute universal truths."
        3. You think that unless ethics is based on "absolute universal truths" there is no value on anything, so scientists should become all irrational and stop doing anything with honesty. Or, only with such "universal absolute truths" can we trust anything anybody does. Again, nothing can be "absolute universal truth" if any animal can have some basic version of it.
        4. Is it fair to say that to you anything other animals can have in common with us becomes automatically subjective and meaningless?

        Is that a fair summary now? Did I understand your point(s)?

        (I am so tempted to start asking questions, but better wait. If you confirm can we take one at a time?)
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      Apr 14 2012: Agree.
      If we are looking for some charter - some code of conduct, we will fail.
      In opperation the context of our decisions is local to the situation.
      Rules create 3 things - winners, losers and cheats. They are set up to leverage some degree of advantage.
      WHat I look for are causal truths - stuff that can be traced right back into the machinery and observed to be true in every case.
      Reciprocity and empathy need no rule because they is inherent in our make-up. It requires no enforcement in the healthy human. If they are failing in a human, it indicates a disease that should be addressed.

      I don't mind dogma or codes of conduct - but only insofar as they identify generalities that require a lot more examiniation before they can be trusted. One must treat them with the utmost of suspicion because the error contained in the assumptions is the fuel of exploit and unballanced advantage taking.

      IF the word "ethics" is to be successfully incorporated in any productive discourse, we must first understand teh dynamics of "advantage" .. before that is defined, there can be no honest statement that uses the word "ethics". And when you hear it you should pry open the mouth that uttered it to look for the liar. SAme with the word "god".
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        Apr 15 2012: I agree Mitch. Divine law. Inalienable rights. Decided by men or supposedly by various gods or religious different gods - we need to very careful.

        In my opinion belief in absolute divine instructions is one of the terrible byproducts of religion.
        From no blood transfusions or avoiding modern medicine to entrenching inequality and tribalism.
        • Apr 15 2012: You could say the same thing about cars. Look at the number of auto accidents! We could reduce that number to zero by banning all automobiles.
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          Apr 15 2012: Benjamin, Cars are a physical reality - we can certainly discuss them as there are no assumptions and all is there to examine. I have done my best to analyse your proposition from a number of different angles. But the word "ethics" is structuraly rendered imaginary by virtue of unresolved assumptions imbedded in the concept.
          What I do find, however, is that all terms that propose constraint of future acts are attempts to influence the agency of a living thing. One has to gain absolute perception of motive, and motive is, by nature, inaccessible. Therefore unreliable. To use some shade of "ethic" to influence the examination of motive is a further channel for corruption of clarity.
          I bring your attention to the key words "ought" and "ban". These demonstrate a desire for agressive over-rides of the free agency of individuals, I must assume that your motives are to enhance your own personal advantage at the expense of the rest of humanity.
          In this light, I can say - firstly, there is no "Real" ethics - only imaginary self-classifications that are referred to as "ethics" and that this reference is neither DEscriptive nor PREscriptive - it is PROscriptive.
          And for the record, I have as a matter of conscience, not owned an automobile for some years now - my physical health has improved greatly through this. SImilarly, the removal of television from my life has contributed to improved mental health.
          There is much in our community that we can do very well without.
          My attention is now on religion, law and money - I suspect they are all superfluous in the healthy human. But I will not make conclusion until my analysis is published and undergoes critique.
          I hope this helps your journey - I applaud your effort!
        • Apr 16 2012: > "firstly, there is no "Real" ethics"

          OK then, if I meet you, I can kill you. End of discussion.
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      Apr 16 2012: HEya Obey No1,

      Highly recomend you change your handle from a statement to a person.
      It will help by being vulnerable - those who attack you make themselves as naked as your name - by their violation of you - that all can see for what it is - and then real discourse happens. And then you claim your power.

      And your power is your regard and love for others.

      Benjamin is lost in dogma, He does not truly know who he is, he uses faulty semantic logic and makes videos about his delusions .. this is a call for guidance.

      IT may be that he lacks the machinery of empathy .. usually this is the sociopath, the psychopath or the unresolved autistic. They all talk of absolutes of domination. THe cutting of the Gourdian knot.
      But the Gourdian knot must be unravelled - no sword can do this task. Only empathy can do it.

      We have a long way to go and not much time.

      We start with our self.

      I have some math and some good insight to see that it is by refering to our core self that all things are done.

      I do hope that BEn finds his way out .. it's just local minima after all ;)
      • Apr 16 2012: Hello children and welcome to Informal Logic 101. Today we're going to learn about the "Ad Hominem Fallacy" ...
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          Apr 16 2012: Ben, ethics is all "hominem".
          And you are right - it is a falacy.
          This always happens with words that are based on unresolved assumptions - they are like the orouborus - the head goes seeking, but finds only its tail.
          The seeking is necessary - much can be found, but when the concept collapses, you have a better idea of teh core assumption - and that is where the seeking must turn next.

          In this we talk "about". The words inscribe a circle around the mystery, but cannot enter it.

          The topic was always about you.

          WE all have this propensity to say "what if" .. it is an essential and intrinsic part of how we function. However, "what if" is not "is". and the endless loop of "what if" always finds itself trapped in absolutes and extremes.

          However, life is not about extremes, it is about balances.

          If you meet me, sure, killing me is an option, but you won't do that - it simply won't serve your advantage.

          The word which the great Orouborus of "ethics" circumscribes is the word "advantage". THat is the mystery that you must unravel in your quest.

          I think you will do well.

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