Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Middle Way, Part 5 (Morals vs. Virtues)

After spending a great deal of time talking about Aristotle's Golden Mean, Marionff asks the following questions: "Is every human behavior subject to Aristotle's golden mean? Does Aristotle sanction anything, provided that it's done in moderation?" (63). The answer is, of course not. Marinoff points out that Aristotle prohibits murder, theft, robbery, lying, and adultery. This set, prohibited by every other set of ethics throughout history and in every culture, are what we classify as morals. Aristotle's golden mean applies to virtues. Virtues and morals together are ethics. We are typically very careless about our terminology, and this has created many problems as people have claimed that all morals are relative, when perhaps they should have been talking about virtues.

Marc Hauser makes the argument in his excellent book "Moral Minds" that there is a biological source for our moral actions. He argues that we judge something as wrong first, then rationalize it later. More than that, we see that the moral prohibitions of murder, theft, robbery, lying, and adultery are all biological in origin. Let's take each in turn, then return to the issue of virtue.

Murder. Murder is the killing of someone in your own tribe. If you kill someone outside your tribe, that is not considered murder. The variations we see in the definition of "murder" only come about in the variations we see in who different groups consider to be in their tribes. The larger one's tribe is, the more people one considers illegitimate to kill. We in the West consider everyone to be in our tribe, so we have gone so far as to develop international treaties to extradite murderers and to protest our going to war with other countries. Now, if murder is to be defined as I have defined it, then how does that explain such things as human sacrifices? That is simple: ritual. In every case, the culture in question performs some sort of ritual that removes the person from the tribe, making them an outsider and, thus, able to be killed. We do the same thing in the U.S. when it comes to certain kinds of murderers: we perform a ritual (a trial) that removes them from society, so we can kill them. Those who oppose the death penalty simply do not agree that this is a legitimate ritual, or that we should any longer have such rituals.

Theft and Robbery. Each of these results in the taking of property from someone else, who is the legitimate owner. To even have theft and robbery, you have to have some sort of idea of ownership, or private property rights. In a much older post I talk about the evolutionary origins of property rights, to which I refer the reader. This deep evolutionary drive to protect one's property is the origin of the moral directive not to steal.

Lying. There is lying, and then there is lying. There are kinds of lying that are necessary for strong social bonds to exist -- the famous "white lie." Those are not the kinds of lies we are talking about here. I am talking about what the Old Testament prohibits: "bearing false witness." What is the difference between lying and bearing false witness? If you bear false witness, you are lying to either hurt someone else, or to benefit yourself at someone else's expense. This kind of lying, bearing of false witness, is prohbited precisely because it undermines social bonds and creates a society without trust. Telling a woman her ugly baby is cute is just being polite -- and it doesn't harm anybody, but on the contrary, creates stronger social bonds. However, we are in danger when we take this too far too. Should we tell a student their writing is fine when it is in fact incomprehensible? The student may like you that semester, but you have not helped that student (or society, for that matter) by lying to them. Sometimes you have to hurt feelings to make people better.

Adultery. This, again, breaks social bonds -- and it breaks the most important social bond of all, the familial bond. There are many different kinds of marriages that have been practiced, including open ones, but even in a polygamous or an open marraige, if there is adultery, or having sex with someone else without the spouse's knowledge, that inevitably creates hurt feelings and breaks the bonds of trust. Here again, it is the most basic of social bonds that are being broken here. And, as Confucius points out, the family is the ground of community.

What connects these immoral acts together is that they are all things that we would not do to a member of our family. For that reason, rape, too, should be included. Each of these behaviors results in the breaking of family bonds and, thus, the breaking of social bonds. The family is simply a small, self-similar part of the larger social fractal. As the family goes, so goes society.

The rest of human behavior is then covered under virtue. And with them, we have such things as manners. With the loss of manners, we have seen the loss of virtue. We have mistaken libertinage for liberty, allowing ourselves to do anything we want, thinking anarchy is freedom. The truth is, it is good rules which give us more degrees of freedom. Manners and virtue allow us to become better than what our biology commands us to be. It allows us to grow (the golden mean is the principle of growth, after all). It allows us to become more beautiful people, to develop more beautiful souls.

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