• Billy
    3
    My question:
    Is it possible for someone to have a conscience--i.e., is it possible for someone to feel that some action X is morally wrong--without it first being a taboo--i.e., without some authority first expressing disapproval of action X?

    Why I ask:
    I've noticed that whenever my dog is disapproved of for something by me--e.g., for going to the bathroom in the house, for chewing up something she's not supposed to, or for not coming to me when she is called--her behavior seems to me to be comparable to how humans behave when they feel they've done something morally wrong. For example, she hangs her head, she wants to be alone, sometimes she seems to me to want to do something to make up for what she did (e.g. she'll bring me a toy of hers). I've only noticed this behavior in relation to instances where she has received disapproval for something, and only when it's from me. For example, when other humans or animals express disapproval of her, her reaction seems to me completely different than it is to my disapproval (e.g., it seems like either a fight-or-flight response, or her just ignoring them).
    Taking all this together, and since I don't think that the incidents in which she does display the aforesaid "conscientious" reaction are due to a natural aversion that she has towards the things that she receives disapproval for--e.g., I don't think she has a natural aversion towards going to the bathroom in the house, towards chewing up things that aren't hers, or towards not coming to me when she is called--this makes me question whether her "conscience" only exists because of the expressions of disapproval that she has received from someone that she regards as an authority figure (viz. me). And building on top of that, it further makes me question whether humans' consciences exist only because of the expressions of disapproval that they have received from someone that they regard as an authority figure (e.g. parents, community leaders, governments, religious figures).

    Lastly:
    Thank you very much to everyone for their time and consideration in reading and responding to this post.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    This theory runs into the problem of having to find the first authority. Let's call him/her x.

    Who was x's authority if morality is based on authority?

    I think morality and, therefore, conscience, arose from empathy and that's, usually, a shared human trait. The majority have to agree that something is bad and they do this through emapthetic ability. Subesequently, conscience is born.

    Of course children learn morality but just being taught about ethics achieves nothing without being able to put oneself in another's shoes.

    However, if one has empathy we can learn morals and develop a conscience even without an authority.
  • Isaac
    714
    This theory runs into the problem of having to find the first authority. Let's call him/her x.TheMadFool

    Not at all. Imagine a game with three players. The rule is only that each player must only copy the others, no other actions are permitted. The game will proceed in complete stillness for some time as none of the players are permitted to move. But very soon one will twitch, sniff or cough involuntarily. The others will now follow suit. In theory, this will then lead to an endless stream of coughing as each copies the other, but one of them is going to get it slightly wrong, perhaps put a hand to their mouth by instinct. The other players can now copy this. Scale up to 7 billion players over a million years, add in a system of natural selection which weeds out behaviours which are excessively self-defeating and you have modern society.

    Watch a murmer of starlings and ask who's choreographing the whole thing.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    But and that's a big ''but'', the coughing contagion has to have meaning if it is sustain its propagation among the people.

    If I don't understand or, better, feel what ''don't kill'' is then the meme will have no basis and will die out.
  • Isaac
    714


    Absolutely, I'm merely pointing out (in an admittedly slightly facetious manner) that it is very easy to derive a set of seemingly determined behaviour by quite random propogation of errors in copying, especially if there is some system constraining options. So, I think it makes far more sense to say that our propensity to empathise is a tool which proved useful in carrying out our moral behaviour rather than the cause of it.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    Absolutely, I'm merely pointing out (in an admittedly slightly facetious manner) that it is very easy to derive a set of seemingly determined behaviour by quite random propogation of errors in copying, especially if there is some system constraining options. So, I think it makes far more sense to say that our propensity to empathise is a tool which proved useful in carrying out our moral behaviour rather than the cause of it.Isaac

    So, you can imagine a moral theory in the absence of empathy?

    I don't see animals having a debate on murder.

    Lack of empathy is a principal characteristic of serial killers and I'm sure a graded version on the empathy scale can be applied to all criminal activity.

    What say you?
  • Isaac
    714


    Lack of hammers is sure way to identify all the carpenters who cannot build a house. That doesn't mean that houses are caused by hammers. If psychopaths lack empathy, then they will be unable to carry out many acts of moral behaviour. They lack the tools. It still doesn't mean that morality is because of empathy.

    The fact that you don't see animals debate murder is because the matter is not in question. Many animal groups carry out behaviours we consider moral (sharing, objection to deciet, care for the vulnerable), but they do so, like us, because a behaviour occurred randomly, was not selected against and so persisted.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    It still doesn't mean that morality is because of empathy.Isaac

    What is morality based on?
  • Isaac
    714
    What is morality based on?TheMadFool

    That depends what you mean by 'morality'. If you're meaning the entire collection of behaviours which any group of people have ever labelled 'moral' then, I've already provided you with my feeling about how to explain their occurrence. If you mean 'correct' moral behaviour (where behaviour some person calls moral could be said to be 'wrong') then I'd personally appeal to what works for the kind of society I'd want to live in.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    So you think morality or conscience is based on something other than empathy?

    Well, doing an immoral act is associated with guilt and remorse and ethical behavior makes us happy (most of us at least).

    The guides to moral behavior are joy and sorrow. To make someone happy is good and causing sorrow is bad.

    How would one know if someone is happy or sad without empathy which is defined as ''understanding of another's feelings''?

    Please clarify. Thanks.
  • Isaac
    714
    How would one know if someone is happy or sad without empathy which is defined as ''understanding of another's feelings''?TheMadFool

    Empathy is the feeling of someone else's feelings. It is the act of mirroring their emotions in your own experience. It is not the sum total of all that is "understanding of another's feelings". If I drew you a chart connecting facial expressions with feelings, you would be in some position to understand what others were feeling based off the chart. If I then said to you "continue with behaviour which causes this face (pointing to the happy one) and discontinue behaviour leading to this face (pointing to the sad one)" you would be just as capable of carrying out moral behaviour as you describe it, without any empathy at all.
  • Billy
    3


    This theory runs into the problem of having to find the first authority.

    I don't think anybody has to have an authority figure. So, in the event that there is no conscience without taboo, and no taboo without authority, then I think that anybody who lacks an authority figure would simply lack a conscience--i.e., they would not have any feeling that any action is morally wrong. Note, this is not to say that they would therefore also lack the capacity for a conscience, just that that capacity wouldn't be actualized until an authority came in to play, and until it started disapproving of things.

    I think morality and, therefore, conscience, arose from empathy and that's, usually, a shared human trait. The majority have to agree that something is bad and they do this through emapthetic ability. Subesequently, conscience is born.

    On the issue of whether it's bad to go to the bathroom in the house, to chew up certain things, or to come to me when I call, my dog and I are not in agreement from the get-go. Before any disapproval has been expressed, she thinks these things are OK and I do not. Our resolution of these disagreements, then, is not brought about through empathy--i.e., through our shared sentiments towards the same objects. The resolution is brought about through her restraint of her sentiments, and her submission to mine.

    And consider children. Before any disapproval has been expressed regarding the following activities, are children often in agreement with their parents regarding whether they should, for example, use profanity, violence, or engage in sexual activity? And, unlike dogs, are they able to be reasoned with regarding these things, such that they can form a proper understanding of why these things are wrong to do? Admittedly, this is not as clear-cut a case as with dogs, but I don't think so. Yet, in children, these are things which I think are the primary sources of a bad conscience.

    Also, going back to my dog, if empathy were the source of conscientiousness, why does my dog not display the symptoms of a bad conscience when she does things which other humans or animals disapprove of? For example, she often does things which other dogs and cats express disapproval of--e.g., by barking, growling, or hissing--yet she show no signs of a bad conscience when this happens, despite the fact that she is probably more empathetic with them--i.e., that more of her sentiments are in common with them than they are with humans.

    The same may be asked of children. Does other children's disapproval have much effect on their conscience, or is it almost exclusively adults who influence it? Again, it is less clear here, but I still think it is much more likely that children's consciences are much more formed by adults, even though they're more empathetic with other children.
  • nestentrie
    1


    I think there needs to be some breakdown of what you mean by authority. With your dog I presume you're its 'master', where you feed and shelter the animal? Do you also play with it, and give it peace when it rests? If so, and you're the one the dog has bonded with in these matters, then it's not a stretch to figure that it sees reason to obey you. I'm not sure about how to approach the idea comprehensively, however. Human beings might come down to the same basic principles eg. with food, with rest, with the myriad ways to play, but I'm not sure conscience for the human being comes down to "you gave me all of these, therefore I owe you".

    I'm a fan of Tao Te Ching. In it, there are constant reiterations of breaking down knowledge into numbered, interlocking concepts. Ones I've noticed are the 3s:

    eg. 3

      Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves;
      not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves
      not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

    the 4s:

    eg. 22

      He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines;
      from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished;
      from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is acknowledged;
      from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires superiority.

    and the 6s:

    eg. 2

      So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other;
      that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other;
      that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other;
      that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other;
      that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another;
      and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

    What about authority can be teased out from these? Is it appropriate to be more skilled than another to have authority? Does the successful procurement of goods (and maybe services) lead one to have rights over them others do not, thus making one an authority? If one can entertain another's motive to obey them does that leave the other with any alternative? Is this authority?

    Or is it more stepping out of bounds in regards to imperatives such as these? Like self-display, where the person should show up something the authority doesn't like? What would be the authority preventing self display? When will it act against such?

    Self assertion? Could there be something about it that threatens an authority? Why? Who would the person asserting deem an authority? Where would assertion stop at rebelling against authority?

    Self boasting? What does an authority care about a conscienceless person? Who decides what a non conscientious person has the right brag about it anyway? How will an authority contain it?

    Self complacency? How does conscience aid one's pleasure in doing good deeds? When is conscience enough, so that authority isn't necessary (or taboo, for that matter)? Why does any of it matter?



    Some questions for you (some more rhetorical than others). I will leave this as is and perhaps get to the 6s depending upon your reply.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    Yet, the picture wouldn't make sense if one lacks empathy. Yes, the whole scheme of matching actions to facial expression may work but not for long because there's no personal value involved. Personal value re ethics is tied to empathy of some kind.

    A picture guide or thereabouts, as you suggest, to morality would collapse in no time for the reasons mentioned above.

    Empathy, to me, seems critical to any moral theory. In fact, the ubiquitous Golden rule, do unto others as you would like others to do unto you, adequately supports this.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    I don't think anybody has to have an authority figure. So, in the event that there is no conscience without taboo, and no taboo without authority, then I think that anybody who lacks an authority figure would simply lack a conscienceBilly

    Well, this logic would surely apply and has been applied in the past. Religious ethics is bases on an authority figure -God. When God is missing, as in Buddhism, there's a law (Karma) to take its place.

    In my opinion such authority-based moral theories reveal a basic flaw in us, humans, in that we need a carrot-stick approach to rein in our animal nature.

    However, this was in the past. Philosophy has taken the subject of morality and exposed the failings of past theories, including authority-based morality. To do good and avoid the bad simply out of hope for heaven and fear of hell is childish to say the least.

    Philosophers have examined and studied morality and come to the conclusion, or rather failed to conclude anything about it except that, the Golden rule (do unto others as you would like others to do unto you) is universal in appeal. The Golden rule, I believe, is based on empathy, is it not? No authority.
  • Terrapin Station
    10.6k
    Not at all. Imagine a game with three players. The rule is only that each player must only copy the others, no other actions are permitted. The game will proceed in complete stillness for some time as none of the players are permitted to move. But very soon one will twitch, sniff or cough involuntarily. The others will now follow suit. In theory, this will then lead to an endless stream of coughing as each copies the other, but one of them is going to get it slightly wrong, perhaps put a hand to their mouth by instinct. The other players can now copy this. Scale up to 7 billion players over a million years, add in a system of natural selection which weeds out behaviours which are excessively self-defeating and you have modern society.Isaac

    What sort of definition of "authority" is that?
  • Isaac
    714
    Yet, the picture wouldn't make sense if one lacks empathy.TheMadFool

    Wouldn't it? You can follow a colour chart can't you? I don't hear anyone complaining that such charts 'make no sense'.

    there's no personal value involved.TheMadFool

    Why not? If I added to the instruction I gave in the first case ("behave in such a way as to cause this face"), to make it "behave in such a way as to cause this face... and you'll be better off", then there's a personal value (so long as the person trusts the instructions).

    the ubiquitous Golden rule, do unto others as you would like others to do unto you, adequately supports thisTheMadFool

    Not at all, the 'golden rule' proves the exact opposite. That without having the faintest idea what other people are feeling, one can exhibit moral-like behaviour simply by determining one's actions using one's own feelings. The golden rule shows that we only need predict how we would feel about an action to determine if it is moral or not (according to that particular code). No empathy required.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    Not at all, the 'golden rule' proves the exact opposite. That without having the faintest idea what other people are feeling, one can exhibit moral-like behaviour simply by determining one's actions using one's own feelings. The golden rule shows that we only need predict how we would feel about an action to determine if it is moral or not (according to that particular code). No empathy requiredIsaac

    Really?

    How would one know how to act, following the golden rule, if you don't put yourself in the other's shoes (empathy) and imagine how one feels when one acts a certain way.
  • Isaac
    714
    What sort of definition of "authority" is that?Terrapin Station

    It isn't one. The proposition I was responding to was that the theory (of following authority) runs into the problem of having to find the first authority. I was just pointing out that this is only the case if 'the authority' is a single, universally known source. Where 'the authority' is your neighbour (and you are theirs) there's no need to find a first. Random variation takes care of that.
  • Isaac
    714


    The golden rule is to base your behaviour on how you would like to be treated. Thus it only requires that you know how you feel. Knowing how others feel doesn't enter into it.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    You are an other to everyone else. Right?

    You can't truly know how others feel. It's probably impossible. However, you can safely assume that most, barring the masochist or the kind, feel and think in similar ways to you. If it hurts then it probably will hurt someone else. If it is enjoyable then it must be so for another too.

    You ask the impossible if we must know how others feel directly because we can know that only by the longer circuitous route of imagining your self on the receiving end of your words/actions.
  • Isaac
    714


    I'm not seeing how any of these limitations relate to your argument that empathy is a requirement for moral behaviour. You just seem to be arguing that we make suppositions about how others feel by presuming they feel much the same as we do. Whilst this seems quite true some of the time I don't see the link to empathy.
  • Terrapin Station
    10.6k
    It isn't one. The proposition I was responding to was that the theory (of following authority) runs into the problem of having to find the first authority. I was just pointing out that this is only the case if 'the authority' is a single, universally known source. Where 'the authority' is your neighbour (and you are theirs) there's no need to find a first. Random variation takes care of that.Isaac

    In other words, if you're not saying that any random thing that anyone does counts as "authority," then you weren't really addressing the point he made.
  • AJJ
    480
    I take the view that truly moral acts are beautiful, and it’s that beauty we seek in being moral, just as an artist seeks it in a painting, sculpture, photograph, etc.

    Arnaud Beltrame, who gave his life for a stranger’s during the attack in Trèbes last year, did a beautiful thing. Imitation or instinct can’t explain that; we all have instincts and we all imitate, but how many of us would do what he did, unless you truly recognised the beauty of such an act and couldn’t help realising it?

    So I take Beauty, convertible with the True, to be first authority, and that we can’t know morality without it. Your dog, I think, simply feels sad and anxious about your disapproval, which isn’t the same as feeling guilt.
  • Isaac
    714
    In other words, if you're not saying that any random thing that anyone does counts as "authority," then you weren't really addressing the point he made.Terrapin Station

    I'm not following your objection. I'm saying that people use each other as their 'authority', which resolves the problem of the 'first authority'. So in essence, I am saying that any random thing that anyone does counts as authority, with the caveat that the development of truly self-destructive behaviours gets eliminated by competitive pressures eventually.
  • Mattiesse
    20
    Your dog most certainly know that somethings wrong, but most likely not the ACTION but the REACTION from their owner. They know when you are annoyed or upset. but when they don’t know why, it can make them scared.
  • Terrapin Station
    10.6k


    That would be a very unusual definition of "authority" then. That term usually has connotations other than any random thing that someone does counting as authority.

    In any event, so how would someone start the ball rolling re disapproving of action x without that person feeling that action x is wrong?
  • Isaac
    714
    That would be a very unusual definition of "authority" then. That term usually has connotations other than any random thing that someone does counting as authority.Terrapin Station

    As I think I said, it's not intended as a definition of 'authority'. As far as I follow the argument thus far, the OP suggested that we need some external disapproval to know when we are acting immoraly. The issue was raised that this process would require a 'first authority' and I just pointed out that the the emergent properties of large positive feedback systems in response to small errors meant that this need not be a problem. I hadn't expected it to be such a controversial thing to say to be honest.

    In any event, so how would someone start the ball rolling re disapproving of action x without that person feeling that action x is wrong?Terrapin Station

    Well, that's what I was trying to explain. Someone only need erroneously to interpret completely innocuous action as being 'disapproving' and they will then be slightly more likely to disapprove of such behaviour in others (people's natural tendency to copy). Multiply this out over several billion iterations with a competitive force eliminating self-destructive behaviours. But this is pretty much what I just said. If you want me to explain it more you may need to give me a bit more detail about what it is you don't get, or disagree with.
  • Terrapin Station
    10.6k
    Someone only need erroneously to interpret completely innocuous action as being 'disapproving'Isaac

    Okay, but what does that have to do with someone disapproving action x without them feeling that action x is wrong?

    If they disapprove action x, they feel that it's wrong. It's basically two ways to say the same thing.
  • Isaac
    714
    Okay, but what does that have to do with someone disapproving action x without them feeling that action x is wrong?Terrapin Station

    Nothing really. I didn't see such a situation as relevant. The problem was only with the first such disapproval, and I was pointing out that there need not have been one because small errors in interpretation get easily magnified when iterated over a large number.

    If they disapprove action x, they feel that it's wrong. It's basically two ways to say the same thing.Terrapin Station

    Agreed, but if they don't disapprove but the actor thinks they do (ie makes a mistake), then the behaviour could be treated as taboo despite the fact that no one disapproves of it.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    I don't see the link to empathyIsaac

    I like eating meat. Some people have become vegans on moral grounds. They think, rather feel, it's wrong to kill animals because they know, through empathy, how it feels like to suffer or die.

    This is just one example. Try it on other moral issues.
bold
italic
underline
strike
code
quote
ulist
image
url
mention
reveal
youtube
tweet
Add a Comment

Welcome to The Philosophy Forum!

Get involved in philosophical discussions about knowledge, truth, language, consciousness, science, politics, religion, logic and mathematics, art, history, and lots more. No ads, no clutter, and very little agreement — just fascinating conversations.