Personal Choice Elevated To Moral Imperative

What works for person A may not work for person B. Be careful with extrapolation.
I believe that the most insightful comment about this that I have heard came from an old friend who struggled for decades with chronic depression, this in the years prior to modern treatments. He termed himself a "high-functioning depressive" - someone who had goaded himself to significant accomplishments no matter how he felt. And this is what he told me: Everyone develops coping strategies, according as his temperament requires them; and so everyone makes a virtue of necessity. The risk in making a virtue of necessity is that one is tempted to make a vice out of everything else. We risk forgetting that virtue is a mean bounded by opposing vices, and hitting the mean is no trivial task.

Best explained by examples:


Which points up the fact that we need some way to distinguish between areas (if any) where multiple personal choices are OK and areas (if any) where they're not. Nothing short of a full-blown moral theory will do the job. For the record, I describe myself as a "non-evangelical vegetarian": I won't bring it up, and I won't present arguments for it unless asked (baiting me counts as asking). But that's not because I think there's a different moral standard for me than for other people - it's because I have priorities, and I'd much rather convince you that certain other things are wrong first. -- GeorgePaci

Actually, I'd think that all that is required is an EthicalTheory. The moral reasons for a belief or action are entirely up to the individual; whether or not the action is "OK" with respect to society is an ethical question. Personally, I'd go with "'Do what thou will, but harm none' shall be the whole of the law", but that's just me. -- MikeSmith

Off-topic: Where did you get that statement? It's neither Crowley nor the Wiccan Rede. Is it just a personal blending of the two, or did you find it in some source? ~ Richard Rapp

That's Epicurus. ThomasJefferson was an Epicurean. You might be too.

What's needed is a theory of rights. Use of public transportation is a personal choice because other people have the right to use cars. Not watching television is a personal choice because other people have the right to watch television. But refraining from committing murder is not merely a personal choice; to murder someone infringes his right to his life; therefore, if I stop someone from committing murder I am protecting the victim's rights, or preventing them from violating a perfect duty.

See LetsDefineRights?
After some serious thought on the matter, I've come to the conclusion that rights are misleading. The problem with, for example, the US constitution is that it spends a lot of time talking about rights owed by society to the individual and hardly any talking about the responsibilities of the individual to society.

That's the difference between the US and any communist nation you care to name. The Constitution doesn't talk about rights "owed by society" -- that would be a pathological view of rights. Entitlement has nothing to do with it. For society to owe me anything, it can reasonably demand the right to force someone else to pay the debt. The constitution was written to limit the power of government, not to bind the people. The key phrase is "Congress shall make no law..." It is an error to equate "government" with "society", or to think that that "society" has some form of entitlement to sacrifices by the individuals that comprise it. "Government", on the other hand, has whatever authority we grant it to make demands of us.

I think this is where things go wrong. In the UK we have a "Patient's Charter" which says that everyone has certain rights about how they get treated in hospital. The problem is that it doesn't lay out the responsibilities associated with that. The result is that people turn up, are idiots, punch the staff and then when they get turfed out of the hospital, sue it because they have the "right" to be treated. The charter doesn't say "don't punch the staff" and the prevailing attitude seems to be that anything not forbidden is just peachy, and doesn't revoke any of the written down "rights". -- KatieLucas

The UK is doing a lot of wacky things these days. You need a Patient's Charter because health care is delivered by government employees whose incentives are to minimize cost by minimizing services, and patients don't have any choices. The charter is intended to inspire the staff to give better than horrid care (I'll wager it doesn't). With a functioning health services market the issue wouldn't come up.
I'm afraid Boolean logic just doesn't get you by in real life. More often than not, it comes down to limits, and balance.

In the case of "I use public transportation; cars should be banned," what happens when you try to reduce that to its roots? "Save the world. Kill yourself." is the motto of some wacko environmental group.
I use public transportation because it causes less pollution than cars

This is highly debatable. There are several studies that effectively show that public transportation pollutes more than cars. How many bus lines go to the middle of nowhere? How many times have you been on a bus with 4 people (who could fit in a car) when it supports 50? Those are cases where politics enforce inefficient and polluting bus routes. How much pollution is generated shipping a factory car to a car buyer (because of high corporate tax on car companies)? Taxes and politics cause a tremendous amount of pollution. Think of all the oil/pollution wasted when you buy meet from Argentina instead of your local farmer because of taxes/politics. Does shipping that meat by truck mean that the trucks cause pollution or the policies?

References? In my studies, the overall effect of an entire public transit system is reduced pollution. The effect of the political necessity of some trips having few riders (late hours, unpopular routes, extended routes) is overwhelmed by the majority of the trips where the bus is at capacity. Especially when those trips are optimized with electric buses.

In any case, this should go on a different page. The argument above was just a rhetorical example. -- IanOsgood
In 1958, the US government commissioned a council to write a "moral code" for America. After several weeks, the council shut down, stating that is was impossible to write one that suited everyone. Like this Wiki page says, we follow a moral code that we have picked (sometimes blindly, sometimes because of serious reasons), and because we believe it to be right, we expect everyone else to abide by it as well. If people don't have a common foundation from which they draw their code, we fall into Moral Relativism. When the Founding Fathers of our nation drew up the Constitution, they were all (99%) operating off of the "same page" so to speak. I have many quotes but this one is representative: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians. Not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here." Patrick Henry. (He's the guy that said "Give me liberty or give me death!"} Back then, pretty much everyone was in agreement on what was meant by "morality". Today, our nation has gotten so far off the page that they were operating from, even with our constitution, it is difficult to maintain a semblance of a common moral code. This is why we have seen the number of laws grow exponentially over just the last century. When the people no longer self-govern by a commonly accepted code, laws have to be written to structure our behavior. (Dead-beat dad laws are a good example.) -- BrucePennington

Diversity makes life more complicated, but also more interesting. I enjoy hearing opinions that are very different from mine. I just expect the other person to use careful, articulate reasoning instead of ArgumentFromAuthority, especially when making strong claims. The bigger problem is ArgumentFromAuthority, not diversity. Then again, some feel that ArgumentFromAuthority is generally legitimate. I think this is perhaps one of those irreconcilable differences that will result in heat and fire: An empiricist encounters an authoritist. -- top

I have to agree with ArgumentFromAuthority. I threw out my entire belief system (independent Baptist) because I discovered my leaders (authority) had been teaching lies (sin to dance, swim, or have long hair). I went on a quest to discover if there was a god or not; if so, whose? In my search for truth, I discovered tons of "authorities" that were teaching their opinions as "fact" (TV reporters, Scientists, Preachers, University profs, etc). Certainly not all of them are quacks, but I quickly learned that if you don't question what you are being told, it is easy to be led off the end of a cliff just because they claim to be experts. In truth, their problem is similar to the whole point of your page. BrucePennington

Now for diversity, it can only go so far. Is it good to have a diverse range of murders-to-non-murders? Would our government be better off with a diverse range of politicians, say tyrants-to-hedonists? Diversity in life is good, but not in every aspect of our lives. It is always good to challenge our thought processes, our uninvestigated beliefs, our blindly held - or even favorite - cultural mores. That is one of the things that made our nation the greatest nation on earth! - BrucePennington

I don't see why "Moral Relativism" has become such a bugaboo. I, like most people, consider myself to be moral, although I've done things in conflict with my own moral code. But I don't have any problem with homosexuality, wife swapping, sex toys, pornography or, in fact, most of the things commonly pointed to as evidence of our moral turpitude. I don't have a problem with the ill-named statutory rape. I don't even have a problem with adultery, although I might consider some of the ways it's dealt with immoral. This is not to imply that I do any of those things, simply that I don't find them offensive in others. I do draw the line at actions like actual rape, sexual abuse, bestiality and child abuse. Am I a moral relativist? Lots of things condemned as sins in the Bible I consider not only not sinful, but desirable, like wearing garments woven with more than one type of cloth. Many things that we do today would *horrify* the Christians who founded the US. Many of the things *they* did would horrify us (like starting a revolution, yuk yuk yuk). Morals can and do change. I don't believe that there's any sort of universal truth to them - nature is immoral ("Red in tooth and claw") and unfair. I'm not a theist and don't believe there's an unchanging law handed down from some authority. I defined a moral code based on the way I want to live and the way I want others to allow me to live and try to do the best I can. The old pseudo-Wiccan "An it harm none, do as you will" thing fits pretty good for me, I guess. But I'm not comfortable defining morality for anyone else.

Thanks for your thoughts. The place you find yourself, though, "I'm not comfortable defining morality for anyone else," is the same place early Germany found itself when Hitler started to become popular. His morality defined the mentally ill, homosexuals, and Jews as less than human and in need of extermination. Most of Germany felt they didn't agree, but didn't feel proper in standing up to Hitler's definition of morality. On a grander scale, most of Europe felt like "live and let live" would work for them as well. They were clearly wrong. Another example, since you brought up sex: Just last summer ('04) a woman, professor of something, at the University of Minnesota, published a book (at tax-payer expense) telling how we are harming our children by not having sex with them! Our sex drive is so compelling that if not controlled, it leads us into every perversion, to include forcible sex, slasher films, etc. It is a moral issue that cannot be resolved without an Absolute to measure it by. In the USA, we use a majority vote to decide such things; but if the majority of Americans no longer follow the same code, we start down the SlipperySlope (i.e. abortion on demand, Terry Schiavo, mercy killing, etc). In Holland, they are now debating whether to give doctors legal authority to kill people who are not able to communicate and are suffering a deadly ailment. -- BrucePennington

GodwinsLaw invoked; let's wrap up and go home.

LOL! :) Cute concept! In my case, though, it is like using shorthand. It would take a large amount of text to describe the SlipperySlope process that MoralRelativism? takes us through to get us to the totalitarianism symbolized by just the mention of Stalin or Hilter. Would we rather do that? -- BrucePennington

Thank you, point well taken! I can see, now, why someone would feel that way. Apparently, "shorthand" may not be the most polite or effective means of getting to a point. -- BrucePennington

It seems to me that moral relativist should not be allowed to invoke GodwinsLaw. GodwinsLaw implies that people are likely to get upset by being compared to Nazis. But why should that be the case for a moral relativist? If you subscribe to moral relativism, then it is impossible to rate sets of moral values as being better or worse -- they can only be merely 'different' unless you have moral absolutism to decide. In the face of moral relativism, comparisons to Nazis shouldn't cause any emotions to be raised. Personally I think this was just a copout on the part of the person debating with Bruce, and it seems it's often used that way.
See: HolyWar, YouAreNotEveryone, HumansAreLousyAtSelfEvaluation

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