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To what extent is moral behavior situational? 
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I believe that morality is largely situational. Slave owners in the United States certainly believed that they were good, God fearing people who had a right to own other human beings.

I bet that this "situational" thing causes a lot of headaches for the military (with respect to sending our troops to war). On the one hand the military needs to create people who are capable of killing other people and the soldiers have to adapt to a whole new world. BUT-the military can't create complete killing machines devoid of morals. How is that balance found?



Sun Nov 11, 2007 2:12 pm
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This is qwaszxter - I had a mixup with usernames - which I've explained in an email to Chris. Jales4 is the username I wish to use.

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For instance, would you give the Abu Ghraib defendants a pass if, instead of arguing that their context convinced them that it wouldn't be immoral to torture and humiliate inmates, the argued that in that particular context it simply was moral, and no change in context could invalidate that it was, in that particular time and place, okay to do what they did?


I do not believe that what the guards did IS moral, but I do believe that as humans, we could be easily convinced that it is. (I haven't read far enough into the book to reach the Abu Ghraib section - but I wonder, did the guards think what they were doing was moral at the time? And if so, do they still think their actions were moral now that they are out of that situation?)

As for their defense, I do believe that the situation HAS to be taken into consideration both in finding where guilt lies, and also in considering the sentence.

Someone who randomly goes out and tortures someone should receive a harsher sentence than someone who tortures in a situation like in Abu Ghraib.

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Or would you say that there is no such thing as morality apart from the circumstances that prevail in a given time and place? And if so, then are we justified in judging other people's behavior from the assumptions of our own time and place?


Hmmmm, that is something that I really don't know - but I would definetly like to hear some thoughts from both sides. I have very little knowledge about how morality comes about. I know a bit about the nature/nurture debate, and a bit about society's influence on morality, but not enough to respond to your question. Please tell me what you think, and if you can, a bit of what the opposing argument would look like.

I believe in two popular sentiments: "you should walk a mile in a man's moccasins before you judge him" and "there but by the grace of God go I".

I guess by believing these sentiments to be true, I have somewhat of a belief that morality is situational.

As an aside - is there a non-religious variant of the 'there but by the grace of God go I" quote?



Sun Nov 11, 2007 2:27 pm
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I think it is generally acknowledged that if a person is put under enough physical stress (torture, for example), s/he can be broken. Why would not the same thing be true of mental stress? I'm thinking specifically here of the recent case where a mother of several young children, who was also caring for infirm parents and going through post-partem depression, broke down under the stress and murdered her children.



Sun Nov 11, 2007 3:03 pm
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MadArchitect wrote:

But does the fact that we can convince ourselves that doing X is moral actually make it moral?


I guess it comes down to the question: Is morality something definite and set in stone, or is it a creation of the human species to facilitate civilization?

I tend to think that it is more the latter. So from that vantage, the answer to your question is yes...absolutely. But ONE person convincing oneself something is moral will not change the morality of the species as a whole.

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misterpessimistic says:

I wish Zimbardo would have gone into just what screening, testing and judging they did on these people.


If you go to:http://www.thelucifereffect.com/about_content_extensions.htm there is a bit of discussion about this.
[/url]



Sun Nov 11, 2007 7:58 pm
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Mr. Pessimistic said:

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I guess it comes down to the question: Is morality something definite and set in stone, or is it a creation of the human species to facilitate civilization?


A few examples of situational ethics:

The most successful salesmen are the ones who are not only adept at conning others, but are able to con themselves into believing that the product they are pedalling is what you need.

The highest paid executives are those who are willing to make the really tough decisions, such as, "how many human lives is a cheaper bumper worth?"

"Liberals have no principles." -- Conservative credo
"Conservatives have no principles." -- Liberal credo

"Urban ghetto life is all about surviving by developing useful 'street-smart' strategies. That means figuring out who has power that can be used against you or to help you, whom to avoid, and with whom you should ingratiate yourself. It means deciphering subtle situational cues for when to fold, creating reciprocal obligations, and determining what it takes to make the transition from follower to leader." -- Philip Zimbardo

"We fought and died for every inch of this land." - Israeli West Bank settler



Mon Nov 12, 2007 8:20 pm
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MadArchitect wrote:
Or would you say that there is no such thing as morality apart from the circumstances that prevail in a given time and place? And if so, then are we justified in judging other people's behavior from the assumptions of our own time and place?


So far, and I am still pondering this, I would agree with your statement above - as I can find ways to justify lying, stealing, taking the life of another human being, and many other immoral things, all in certain situations.

I don't believe that morals are absolute. And if they aren't, then when judging another person, we MUST take their situation into consideration.



Mon Nov 12, 2007 11:59 pm
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jales4 wrote:
I don't believe that morals are absolute. And if they aren't, then when judging another person, we MUST take their situation into consideration.


Okay, so if morality is always situational, then how do we go about assessing it in any given situation? Is there a set of criteria that would tell us how to take a person's situation into account when attempting to judge their behavior? Or are we stuck with a set of criteria that presume an absolute morality in judging events that always take their cue from a morality that is situational at best? Which ought ultimately to lead us to the question of whether or not we can ever competently judge an action?


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Tue Nov 13, 2007 1:54 am
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Quote:
Which ought ultimately to lead us to the question of whether or not we can ever competently judge an action?


This will give me something to think about at work today - but off the top of my head:

I see this observation as more of a preventative measure - if we know situation x is likely to cause certain behavior, what can we as a society do to either change the situation, or if we can't change the situation, then we can offer support for those in that situation, with the hopes of changing the outcome.

Sorry for the run-on, I don't have time to reword, I'm out the door to work.

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Tue Nov 13, 2007 11:10 am
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MadArchitect wrote:
Okay, so if morality is always situational, then how do we go about assessing it in any given situation? Is there a set of criteria that would tell us how to take a person's situation into account when attempting to judge their behavior? Or are we stuck with a set of criteria that presume an absolute morality in judging events that always take their cue from a morality that is situational at best? Which ought ultimately to lead us to the question of whether or not we can ever competently judge an action?


Well, this is precisely what we as a species have been trying to figure out for tens of thousands of years. We have a lot of work to do but I think we have been making improvements. One thing we did was develop (consciously and not) a system of morals by which to judge behaviors. It is not a perfect system and may never be...but it is all we have so we continue to work it all out.

Just because a system of morality/ethics/law is not inviolate does not make it ok for us to just assume we have no competency in judging situations by using it. We will not hit a home run everytime, but at least we have come this far. It is a work in progress and what is so bad about that?

Mr. P.


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Tue Nov 13, 2007 11:21 am
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Quote:
JTA: Here are two perspectives for considering these issues:

1) Scientific / psychological: How much do situations determines people's beliefs and actions?

2) Moral: How can we judge people's actions? How much are they responsible for their actions.

Your answer to the first question will influence, but not determine, your answer to the second one. Personally, I'd rather focus on the first question, especially since Zimbardo's challenged my prior beliefs so much.


If external situations determine individual behavior and beliefs, then really, there is no such thing as individual behavior or belief...there is only a network of interlocking events reverberating before our eyes. Actually, taken to its full conclusion: soldiers in war are just one of the ways that a particular galactic system mobilizes the milky way to get this minor solar system to fuel our watery globe to blow itself to pieces. Scientifically there is no "self" involved.

Positing a Self with free agency it seems, is an act of poetic license wedded to an ethical desire to hold ourselves and others accountable. Or it can be traced to particular forms of religious revelation where persons are created with free will and thus able to choose righteously or sinfully. Instead of automotons, we are Persons. Instead of simply blindly colliding "its", we are thinking interpersonal "Thou's".

I think we must judge our behaviors, because in the act of judging we define the parameters of our Personhood, lifting us above the robotic automation of impersonal forces in chaotic nihilism...and into responsible interpersonal relationships, affirming our dignity and the integrity of both individual and communal existence.



Tue Nov 13, 2007 12:47 pm
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Zimbardo said (p. 226):

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The most important lesson to be derived from the SPE is that Situations are created by Systems.


I would use the word Institutions in place of the word Systems; however, I think the point is the "bad apple" explanation for evil is almost always a cover-up for institutions that have encouraged or rewarded those "evil" actions either overtly or covertly. That does not imply that the individual "bad apples" should be held blameless, but that if we stop there we have merely punished a hired assassin, while declaring the master-minds of the crime innocent.



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I'm trying to come up with a list of possible origins of human morality. I am having a bit of a time keeping straight my own mind the differences between behaviors and morals. (Do drugs and alcohol only affect our behaviors, or do they 'loosen' up our morals?)


So far I have:

1.) Inherent
2.) Situational
3.) Drives (?)
4.) Society, friends, and family
5.) Diet, drugs, alcohol (?)

Am I missing any?

Also, since our morals and our behaviors do not match is it possible our morals don't change in situations, but our behaviors do - and we just use the situation to justify our behavior?

This is a MOST thought-provoking book!



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misterpessimistic wrote:
One thing we did was develop (consciously and not) a system of morals by which to judge behaviors.


Logically, though, the question of whether or not we're competent to judge behavior must precede the question of whether or not morality is valid. We can't simply assume that morality actually does function to give us some competency. If we're not capable of competently judging behavior, then any morals we may have devised are dubious at best, right?

Quote:
Just because a system of morality/ethics/law is not inviolate does not make it ok for us to just assume we have no competency in judging situations by using it.


I'm not worried about whether or not it's "ok", whatever that would mean. The concern is that the two are logically inconsistent. Can you simultaneously justify two claims to the effect that, a) the morality of any given act is contingent on the situation in which that act is taken, and b) we are competant to make moral judgments about behavior that occurred in a situation we took no part in? That's what's at stake with an issue like that of how we can judge the behavior of guards at Abu Ghraib -- if they can justifiably claim that no one who was not there can be competant to judge their behavior, then where does that leave us?


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Wed Nov 14, 2007 6:31 pm
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MadArchitect wrote:

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That's what's at stake with an issue like that of how we can judge the behavior of guards at Abu Ghraib -- if they can justifiably claim that no one who was not there can be competent to judge their behavior, then where does that leave us?


I believe that leaves us first of all with the distinction between judging their behavior and judging their culpability. We seem to have a consensus, at least among those who express opinions about ethics and as generally reflected in western law, that torture and gross violations of human dignity are offensive. Those of us who agree would judge the behavior of the guards at Abu Ghraib "bad/wrong/repulsive." The question in judging the perpetrators, however, is what, if any, were the mitigating circumstances in each individual case; that is, how much pressure was that individual under? Did the combination of the sustained fear for his/her life, the devaluation of the victim by the indoctrination of the army, the encouragement of the authority figures to "soften up" the prisoners, the hardship of extended service in Iraq, the degradation of powerlessness, dependency, and shame inherent in the prisoners status, and myriad other factors that we can't know, cause a normally peaceful and easygoing person to do things that were unthinkable even to them? To what extent is the commanding officer guilty? To what extent is the army that indoctrinated the soldier and taught that the "enemy" was inhuman guilty? To what extent is the society hungry for revenge for 9/11 and careless of who is the target of that revenge responsible?

In my opinion, this not a matter of whether or not we make judgements. It's a matter of whether we go for the easy judgement to scapegoat the guard as the sole culprit and skate from our responsibility to judge the guard proportionately and to also judge and correct the institutions that taught, encouraged and rewarded the attitudes and behaviors that led to the guard's abuse.



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