Ethics - is it all relative?

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John F
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Ethics - is it all relative?

Post by John F » Sun Mar 31, 2013 6:46 am

Perhaps not quite so much as Hutson claims - his next to last paragraph says, "Objective moral truth doesn’t exist," which doesn't take into account the fact that certain thou shalt's and thou shalt not's are widespread if not universal across many cultures, religions, and other moral authorities, and most sane people obey them nearly all the time. But it's worth being reminded that moral decisions often involve an apparent conflict between the general and the particular, and that people can be swayed just by shifting from one to the other.

Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts
Published: March 30, 2013

Moral quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?

We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.

Philosophers and psychologists often distinguish between two ethical frameworks. A utilitarian perspective evaluates an action purely by its consequences. If it does good, it is good.

A deontological approach, meanwhile, also takes into account aspects of the action itself, like whether it adheres to certain rules. Do not kill, even if killing does good.

No one adheres strictly to either philosophy, and it turns out we can be nudged one way or the other for illogical reasons.

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses.

Class can also play a role. Another paper, in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that upper-income people tend to have less empathy than those from lower-income strata, and so are more willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater good. Upper-income subjects took more money from another subject to multiply it and give to others, and found it more acceptable to push a fat man in front of a trolley to save five others on the track — both outcome-oriented responses. But asking subjects to focus on the feelings of the person losing the money made wealthier respondents less likely to accept such a trade-off.

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

And other published studies have shown that our moods can make misdeeds seem more or less sinful. Ethical violations become less offensive after people watch a humor program like “Saturday Night Live.” But they become more offensive after reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which triggers emotional elevation, or after smelling a mock-flatulence spray, which triggers disgust.

The scenarios in these papers are somewhat contrived (trolleys and such), but they have real-world analogues: deciding whether to fire a loyal employee for the good of the company, or whether to donate to a single sick child rather than to an aid organization that could save several.

Regardless of whether you endorse following the rules or calculating benefits, knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely. In recognizing our psychological quirks, we just might find answers we can live with. ... iples.html
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Re: Ethics - is it all relative?

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Mar 31, 2013 12:22 pm

Many people seem dissatisfied with a list of things that are both immoral and criminal that boils down to "all modern civilized people believe it to be so." But it seems to me that it is this commonality that is the strongest security of the most important moral and legal principles, rather than some outside authority or scientifically provable basis for ethics.

The Ten Commandments still turn up in the context of absolute moral values which should be embodied in secular law. The people who want them enshrined in public places and to make them a litmus test of public morality against which elected officials can be held don't seem to realize that even the Bible doesn't state that they are the supreme moral law. Only three things that are both morally wrong and criminal in all modern societies--theft, murder, and perjury--are prohibited by a commandment. Two other commandments, those involving adultery and respect for one's parents, have a moral dimension which is outside the purview of modern law. The rest are of no modern moral or legal significance at all. On the other hand, the Commandments make no mention of kidnapping, rape, fraud, assault, or other serious offenses (which were already evident and even common in ancient times) which are both immoral and illegal in all modern societies.

I know that second paragraph is tangential and maybe trite, but it's something I've wanted to get it off my chest for a long time. :)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Teresa B
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Re: Ethics - is it all relative?

Post by Teresa B » Sun Mar 31, 2013 1:23 pm

John (jbuck), the Ten C's may be "ten"gential, but I always get irritated by comments that our current laws are built on them. In any case, the malleability of ethics/morals doesn't surprise me. I recently read a book that brings up many of those moral dilemmas mentioned in this article--"The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. He talks about experiments in which people were "primed" by watching certain films or reading something, etc--and it's interesting how this will sway moral/ethical decisions.

Yes, there seem to be widespread moral truths that suggest the existence of an absolute objective morality. But where did these truths come from? Is it possible that humans actually figured out that killing or maiming another human being causes great suffering, and thus is not a good thing? Of course stealing and less heinous crimes can also be determined to do harm. The fact that such behaviors cause harm would, I think, result in the codifying of laws against them once a society got beyond a small tribe. I would submit that ethics and morals are relative, but the worse the outcome of the crime, the more human suffering it causes, the closer to "absolute" the compunction against it becomes. (Kinda the definition of "relative", now that I think of it.)

Those laws can get questionable once you face such a dilemma as having to kill one person to save 10. A difference in how it's presented would produce different results. If you were told that unless you pulled a switch, some person would perish, but 10 others would live, you might decide to passively allow that (you wouldn't really be doing anything). If you were told you had to throw the switch that would kill the one guy, you still might do it if you were far-removed. But what if that guy were standing in front of you?-- I'm betting you would not kill him even to save the 10. That's because your emotional response would not allow you to look an innocent person in the eye and kill him.

It's all in the human limbic system...

"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." ~ The Cheshire Cat

Author of the novel "Creating Will"

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