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Determinism and Morality

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Interbane

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Determinism and Morality

I need someone to run my ideas across, a devil's advocate. It's a complex topic and my understanding feels messy at this point. This will be somewhat train of thought, as a deterministic accounting of the morality of abortion.



My starting assumption is that the universe is deterministic. Not in a shallow "foreordained" sort of way, as that has implications of agency. But more in the sense that everything that occurs does so within a vast web of causality. We should seek to understand everything around us in terms of cause and effect. Where we're incapable of discerning causality(the human mind), we adopt what Daniel Dennet calls the "hidden layer". In other words, there are parts of our universe whose workings we don't understand, but that does not mean they aren't governed by causation. Instead, the fog of war of our knowledge hasn't yet illuminated the causal web in those areas in a way that can be comprehensively explained.

Attacking this starting assumption is valid, but won't be helpful here. It's a topic for another post. So humor me within a deterministic framework. Or not, perhaps there are valid arguments against. But I'd like to stick closely to the implications of morality and abortion, rather than determinism in general.

My thoughts on morality is what's known as a "forward-looking account". In a sense, the concepts apply not in the sense that they derive benefit from reprisal of past action, but rather as causal reinforcement to persuade future beneficial consequences.

A german philosopher name Moritz Schlick phrased it that punishment and reward have goals that are concerned with the future, not the past. He says that the 'idea' that punishment “is a natural retaliation for past wrong, ought no longer to be defended in cultivated society” 1930 [1966: 60] Instead, punishment is "concerned only with the institution of causes, of motives of conduct…. Analogously, in the case of reward we are concerned with an incentive. 1930 [1966: 60]

The best moral or ethical theory that fits here is consequentialism, although I'm not sure where precisely my own thoughts fit in that category. I think a version of Utilitarianism, but saying that makes me hateful of the labeling. I only mention it in case you want a keyword to dig deeper.

Where I differ from most of what I've read is the utilitarian maxim. Most common is to "maximize happiness". But I see some Asimov-style circumventing of language possible here, where short term happiness is maximized, which then inadvertently leads to long term unhappiness or even extinction. Another issue is that maximizing happiness may be found upon the suffering of others, so we also must consider the minimizing of harm. Another is that happiness isn't necessarily the only positive goal, as we can be happy with drugs yet a detriment to our species. Happiness is important, but we should clarify that we're also concerned with human flourishing. I'm not sure who I stole this from, but the most sensible maxim then seems to be "minimize harm while sustainably maximizing happiness and human flourishing."

That maxim then becomes the litmus test by which we measure the forward-looking consequences of moral actions.

I'm running out of time, so need to summarize how this ties to abortion. Minimizing harm means that of all methods of abortion, the least possible harm should be done to the foetus. If we know it can feel pain, that must be considered. It is also only judged as a moral act only if the mother is in such a condition that carrying the birth full-term causes a great deal of distress/harm.

All human lives have moral value when we admit that our individual existences promote human flourishing. Without any other qualifier, we are valuable to our species by default. This is similar to Richard Dawkin's selfish gene, where we have attachments even to distant cousins. It has to do with identity and empathy, but these are the thoughts that are still messy.

Thoughts?
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Re: Determinism and Morality

Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 am I need someone to run my ideas across, a devil's advocate. It's a complex topic and my understanding feels messy at this point. This will be somewhat train of thought, as a deterministic accounting of the morality of abortion.
Hi Interbane, your ideas here are interesting. A consequentialist deterministic ethic of abortion is more complex than how you have described it so far, in my opinion. The consequences of any such decision extend beyond the individual circumstances to also affect the broader society and its values and decisions.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 amMy starting assumption is that the universe is deterministic. Not in a shallow "foreordained" sort of way, as that has implications of agency. But more in the sense that everything that occurs does so within a vast web of causality. We should seek to understand everything around us in terms of cause and effect. Where we're incapable of discerning causality (the human mind), we adopt what Daniel Dennet calls the "hidden layer". In other words, there are parts of our universe whose workings we don't understand, but that does not mean they aren't governed by causation. Instead, the fog of war of our knowledge hasn't yet illuminated the causal web in those areas in a way that can be comprehensively explained.
This is a really valuable and important framing of the causal postulate. Determinism means every event is the result of causes. The key question I have about determinism is whether quantum indeterminacy means that in principle there are events that could happen differently from the same initial conditions, refuting the Laplace clockwork model of reality, and therefore whether human freedom is real or only apparent. Like Dennett’s hidden layer, we cannot know if the Laplace model of knowing the position and vector of every particle could hypothetically enable complete prediction of the future. But as you say, that is not relevant to your argument.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 am Attacking this starting assumption is valid, but won't be helpful here. It's a topic for another post. So humor me within a deterministic framework. Or not, perhaps there are valid arguments against. But I'd like to stick closely to the implications of morality and abortion, rather than determinism in general. My thoughts on morality is what's known as a "forward-looking account". In a sense, the concepts apply not in the sense that they derive benefit from reprisal of past action, but rather as causal reinforcement to persuade future beneficial consequences. A german philosopher name Moritz Schlick phrased it that punishment and reward have goals that are concerned with the future, not the past. He says that the 'idea' that punishment “is a natural retaliation for past wrong, ought no longer to be defended in cultivated society” 1930 [1966: 60] Instead, punishment is "concerned only with the institution of causes, of motives of conduct…. Analogously, in the case of reward we are concerned with an incentive. 1930 [1966: 60] The best moral or ethical theory that fits here is consequentialism, although I'm not sure where precisely my own thoughts fit in that category.
This theme that moral philosophy is entirely about the future has a compelling logic. We cannot influence the past, but everything we do influences the future. Ethics is about how we influence the world for good or evil. Quantifying the consequences of action should be at the core of ethical theory, but is obviously impossible to do in a complete way, given the scale of unknowns and the legitimate differences people have about what is good.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 amI think a version of Utilitarianism, but saying that makes me hateful of the labeling. I only mention it in case you want a keyword to dig deeper. Where I differ from most of what I've read is the utilitarian maxim. Most common is to "maximize happiness". But I see some Asimov-style circumventing of language possible here, where short term happiness is maximized, which then inadvertently leads to long term unhappiness or even extinction. Another issue is that maximizing happiness may be found upon the suffering of others, so we also must consider the minimizing of harm. Another is that happiness isn't necessarily the only positive goal, as we can be happy with drugs yet a detriment to our species. Happiness is important, but we should clarify that we're also concerned with human flourishing. I'm not sure who I stole this from, but the most sensible maxim then seems to be "minimize harm while sustainably maximizing happiness and human flourishing."
Maximising the sum total of human happiness, the utilitarian doctrine of hedonic calculus, can reasonably be equated to maximising human flourishing. Happiness is not the same as pleasure. Short term pleasures such as taking drugs are far from maximising happiness, since the unhappiness and loss of potential that they cause far outweigh the immediate pleasure. A further point is that seeing complex ecosystems as sacred enhances human flourishing and happiness, since the alienation of culture from nature seen in conventional religion not only creates human trauma but also fails to see how ecological sustainability is central to durable human flourishing on our fragile planet. And durable flourishing contains more happiness than immediate pleasure does.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 am That maxim then becomes the litmus test by which we measure the forward-looking consequences of moral actions.
Of course all consequences are forward looking, so ‘forward looking consequences’ is a tautology. But spelling out tautologies can be very important in philosophy, such as in the suggestion that flourishing and happiness are the same.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 am I'm running out of time, so need to summarize how this ties to abortion. Minimizing harm means that of all methods of abortion, the least possible harm should be done to the foetus. If we know it can feel pain, that must be considered. It is also only judged as a moral act only if the mother is in such a condition that carrying the birth full-term causes a great deal of distress/harm.
There really are much bigger moral consequences of abortion to consider than the immediate points you mention. The effects on social values of seeing a foetus as disposable private property owned by the mother are one complex area. Another is the foregone flourishing that is lost by accepting that the emotional feelings of the mother outweigh the rights of the foetus. The question of whether adoption should be encouraged for women who feel unable to raise their child is a point that is often excluded from consideration. Another is the difficulty of weighing and assessing post-abortion feelings of guilt and regret. Another is the value of having more of the next generation born in the country compared to coming from immigration, in terms of cultural continuity.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 am All human lives have moral value when we admit that our individual existences promote human flourishing. Without any other qualifier, we are valuable to our species by default. This is similar to Richard Dawkin's selfish gene, where we have attachments even to distant cousins. It has to do with identity and empathy, but these are the thoughts that are still messy.
A problem with asserting moral value to all human life is that circumstances of extreme disability create a difficult moral calculus. Should we insist parents sacrifice their opportunities in order to care for a child where ultrasound has determined it will be extremely disabled? That certainly reduces flourishing and happiness and pleasure for the parents, even though some people in such circumstances claim otherwise. My view is that such pregnancies should be aborted on moral grounds. But I think a healthy foetus in an accidental pregnancy should be carried to term, and then either given up for adoption or cared for by the parents. Of course adoption creates the messy problem of contact with the birth parents, but that is better than abortion.
Interbane wrote: Thu May 05, 2022 9:52 am Thoughts?
My cultural context has been totally pro-abortion, based on my mother’s strong feminist ideology. In recent years I have come to question this view, with its total emotional rejection of any moral dialogue about abortion. I will also post this comment to the thread Morality of Abortion, where I raised some other moral questions that I have not seen much debated. For example, the problem of whether Roe v Wade is primarily about abortion or power.
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Re: Determinism and Morality

Continuing this thread specific to morality of abortion, my responses are here: morality-of-abortion-t33341.html

Use this thread to continue a more philosophical discussion of consequentialism, unrelated to abortion in particular.
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Re: Determinism and Morality

Under the influence of right-brain/left-brain analysis, I have moved a lot closer to Haidt's psychology approach to morality. That is, I give much more weight than even a year ago to moral instincts rather than moral philosophy. On the other hand, I still think the "true" morality process is analytical feedback to modify our perceived "instincts."

In that context I think Schlick's framing in terms of forward-looking effects makes a lot of sense. The instinct for revenge is not well-considered. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" as someone (MLKing?) put it.

I also think, however, that considerations of reward and punishment are not the final issue in the question of how to foster morality. As a parent, one of the major goals is to get the child to be able to make internal evaluations of right and wrong that are totally separate from considerations of punishment and reward. One might say that is the starting point of morality, in philosophical terms. But we don't live philosophically, and most of us are not all the way along the continuum from reactive evaluations calculating, for example, the probability of getting caught if we break the speed limit, to reflective evaluations on purely moral grounds, as to whether any pressures of the moment morally justify, for example, the extra risk to life and limb created by speeding. The goal is to construct a complete enough moral model of the world that our desire to be moral persons will lead us to make strategic choices on a moral basis.

Abortion is really hard to fit into this framework. A friend I highly respect said he and his wife would never choose an abortion (though he could not articulate the reasons) but thought that abortion should be legal as a second-best approach in which people in desperate circumstances could have that option to avoid worse options of back-alley abortion (and I know a woman rendered sterile by such a procedure, and she considers herself lucky to be alive.)

I find myself having almost as much trouble fitting determinism into this framework. As a teacher, I try to minimize the actual use of reward and punishment (aside from grades, which I am commanded to use, but which I explain in terms of accurate feedback rather than reward or punishment) but sometimes refer to the possibility as a way of focusing the mind of the student on the consequences of his or her behavior on others. Frankly, any teacher with much experience knows that boredom management is the single most important ingredient in behavior management. Being well prepared so that the student has something interesting to focus on is upstream from the issue of reward and punishment.

And in between engagement and incentives comes dialog about the effects on others. It is always a mark of respect to listen to a student when they start to rationalize their bad behavior. And that respect gets you a long way, because it engages a process of mutual empathy. By the time you get to incentives you have somehow allowed mutual respect to derail, which happens remarkably easily with students who live with high chronic stress or with unresolved trauma.

To summarize, how do we manage the behavior of those who risk violating social requirements? First, keep them from desperation by providing engaging opportunities to be a productive person, and sufficient support that they know how to manage those. Second, communicate in an atmosphere of mutual respect about the importance of those social requirements. If they can't seem to manage the proper priorities, explore that with them and see what it would take. Often a failure of self-esteem is at the core of their failure to regard the needs of others. And only third, make sure there is a structure of incentives that communicates our need to protect society from bad behavior.

I would say that's where I come out on the determinism issue.
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