Monday, May 12, 2008

creating ethics

Over the years I've been part of a few debates on nature of ethics. A common issue is whether right and wrong exist in some objective perfect sense. Strange sounding (to modern ears) passages from the Bible and different moral norms in different societies undermine faith in unchanging moral standards. A common counter is that the fact that we don't know all the answers doesn't mean that they aren't out there.

I don't believe that giving up your belief in this ideal should result in moral relativism or nihilism, but I think it's striking that a lot of our morality seems dependent on our peculiar biological nature and our level of technological development, so we shouldn’t expect aliens or artificial intelligences to have similar ethical ideas and this shouldn’t make us think that this makes them evil.

There are lots of examples of what I mean, for example many moral rules, especially in the past, concerned food and its preparation and there would be no reason for aliens to care. But we shrug off the weirdness of the past as if it were no big deal, but look! Something used to be immoral and no longer is!

But I’ve been thinking of one example in particular, which concerns sex. I’ve often thought that sex was overly moralised compared to the ethics of driving, say. The thing is that back in the day the consequences of having sex were just much bigger. Having sex meant risking pregnancy, disease, economic ruin and the excellent chance that either mother or baby would die during childbirth. And there wasn't really much you could do, condoms only became widely (and cheaply) available in the 30's, the Pill hit the scene in the 60's and a hundred years ago and earlier just about everybody was poor. So it made sense that there should be a strict code of ethics governing sexuality which was enforced with severe social penalties for transgressors. These rules used to mean the difference between a society dying or flourishing.

Technology has radically reduced the expected cost of a sexual encounter and western society is now very rich and robust, so these worries just aren't the same.

The point is. If the consequences of an action change, it changes what counts as moral or immoral behaviour.


Trevor Black said...

I would venture that the pill had a bigger effect on sexuality in the 60s than condoms had in the 30s. Probably safer to leave things in the hands of ladies.

Or at least, as the `defenders of the promised land'... for the norms to change, they would need to be the ones to feel more comfortable.

I would think the ethics around sexuality are changing. Thing is, it does take a while for consequences changing to feed through to ethics changing.

How long? A generation? Two?

I think maybe we are so used to change that we now expect change in much shorter time frames.

Technology now changes so quickly, maybe we just aren't capable of keeping up with the impact on ethics.

Erika said...

Aren't you refuting your own arguement by what you said in the first paragraph of 'Born again Bayesian?'
Not that I mind, I think you've raised some interesting points about morality that I've also been pondering...but isn't the point of writing an argumentative essay per se (which how I see your style of writing) to reach the point/conclusion which you had in mind?

cristi said...

Lets just hope that some condom eating ebola-like STD doesn't suddenly pop up, otherwise sexual morality will have to be sent back to the dark ages.

That said, despite what the rules on sex were back in the day, I still sometimes get the disconcerting feeling that folk (esspecially the men-folk) got more action than I do now. barstards!

Stuart said...

As far as i know, the pill had by far the biggest impact.

"Technology now changes so quickly, maybe we just aren't capable of keeping up with the impact on ethics."

Keeping up with what? I guess if we could adapt faster the world would be better, but this has always been true, we're aadapting faster than we have before.

I guess people worry that western society is in decay and that some disaster is on the horizon, so I guess to these people that is the concern. Of course I'm all for using technology to improve our capacity for empathy and moral reasoning.

Erica- I believe that the conclusion I come to here was caused by the thinking. in the first paragraph of the last post I was worried that the conclusion causes the reasoning.

Of course we usually have a pretty strong idea of what we think before we start reasoning, me included.

Cristi- have a little faith! the incentives make it certain that huge amounts will be invested in a new super condom.

and are men sudenly having more (straight) sex than women?

Erika said...

Lol, that's some pretty shaky had no conclusion in mind? OK.

stuart said...

I think I'm much more likely to start off with the conclusion of "capitalism is great" and reason towards it than the conclusion of this post.

Besides I did say that I'm not imune from the problem, just that I do try.

If I thought it was completely hopeless, I woudln't blog.

cristi said...

i wasn't referring to men nowdays (i'd say the sexes are almost even par atm)I was saying that victorian/elizabethan/dark ages/etc folk, male and female, despite the ethics of their day, probably still got more action than I seem to be getting...which is a depressing thought.

But don't mind me and my negativety. I blame it on the Larium (prevents malaria, but causes psychotic behaviour and depression). thankfully i take my last dose on sunday. i'm sure I'll be feeling lucky and thankful in no time.