Where do morals come from?

L0027293 The gyri of the thinker's brain as a maze of choices in biom Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The gyri of the thinker's brain as a maze of choices in biomedical ethics. Scraperboard drawing by Bill Sanderson, 1997. Drawing 1997 By: Bill SandersonPublished: [1997] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Leftover sends this, an interesting take on precisely why we act the way we do. It’s a longie but a goodie, in which Philip Gorski writes:

However we answer these questions for ourselves, we cannot escape the phenomenological tension between the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on ethical life. Some will seek refuge in the first person. They will seek to be “true to themselves,” to “listen to their inner voice,” and they will respond to challenges with a mix of apology and indignation. Others will immerse themselves in the second person. They will value loyalty to the “tribe,” and respond to “outsiders” with a mix of indifference and hostility. Still others—intellectuals, mostly—will take shelter in the third person. They will place a high value on toleration and acceptance, and they will respond to challenges with a phlegmatic aloofness. The problem is that none of us can stand still in any perspective for very long. The affordances of our minds and our languages, and the demands of social cooperation and interaction, will not permit it for long. We cannot escape ethical life. Nor can we find peace in it, either.

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2 responses to “Where do morals come from?

  1. So our choices are “apology and indignation, indifference and hostility, phlegmatic aloofness”. There’s “No escape…No peace”. Sheesh. Sounds like Gorski could use some antidepressants, though I do like the concept of “tension between the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on ethical life”.

    To me moral and ethical behavior is born from a high degree of selflessness. That doesn’t mean however that self is negated but that reality is bigger than self. I don’t see not being able to “stand still in any perspective for very long” as a problem. Sure, you have your fundamental rules you choose to abide by (the ten commandments, five precepts, whatever) but most moral and ethical choices aren’t about to kill or not, to steal or not, etc. You can’t be static in a constantly changing reality. One day you tell a hard truth to someone you care about (or don’t) even though it hurts, the next day you bite your tongue and in both instances you’ve made the moral/ethical choice. I feel the burden of my bad choices (mistakes) and an even greater burden of my “immoral/unethical choices” (intentional). I’m convinced everyone does on some level. I’m also convinced that the greater that burden, the greater the degree of self-loathing and who doesn’t want to avoid that? So for me, morals come from wanting to lighten the load.

    • Based on Gorski’s review, I don’t think Keane would disagree with you. The predicament Keane describes, I think, is more collective than individual. Gorski’s review contains enough conceptual redescription to make that last paragraph slightly confusing. But I do find that predicament, as stated, intriguing. It has a ring of truth about it.

      Keane has developed a radical new way of thinking about ethics, morals, and the factors that shape them.

      I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to attempting a read, but I’ll be looking for reaction from SCIENCE! and Religion® on his work.

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