The Source of Ought

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The source of ought

Quote:Good people are not those who make decisions the world universally agrees are moral, but those for whom there are no decisions. There may be, in the most intense moments of our life (dramatised in the most intense stories), epic moral decisions to make, but the good life is characterised by an absence of choice, because the self—which turns possible outcomes into things and facts about which paths to take to reach them—is no longer in charge.

Think of it this way. You are walking along the top of a cliff when you see someone fall into a cranny, beyond reach. This person is unhurt, but the tide is coming in, they cannot swim and in an hour they will drown. It will take you thirty minutes to run, along one thin rocky path, back to town, and thirty minutes for the emergency services to arrive.

What decisions do you make? Anyone who chose anything other than ‘run as fast as you can along the path,’ anyone who dawdled, or who indulged themselves in decision-making, would be considered immoral.

All of life is like this. We can persuade ourselves that it is not, because we cannot see humankind is drowning and because we are trained to persuade ourselves that we don’t care whether it does or not.

Interesting article, worth a read...Don't think I agree with it but food for thought...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


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  • tim, Typoz, Ninshub
Some of you might know that I have developed a simple and straightforward understanding of morality as being grounded in some basic facts and axioms accessible to us all, notably (1) the fact that consciousness can very basically be characterised as an experiential continuum from negative to positive in nature, and (2) the axiom that at a basic level, the significance (in terms of the consideration due to it) of each conscious being's experience (whether it is negative or positive in nature) is equal with that of all other conscious beings.

I was, then, very intrigued to read this sentence near the start of the essay which is the subject of this thread (emphasis added by me):

"There are no qualities in isolated facts that are not brought to those facts in the experience of them."

I liked the idea of where this might lead. It seemed possible that the author, Darren Allen, saw things similarly as I do, and had a novel way of expressing that view, with novel insights to contribute to it - albeit that, unlike me, he endorsed Hume's thinking that it is impossible to derive an ought from an is.

(In interpreting the sentence I've quoted above - and why it intrigued me so much - it's worth noting from the editorial foreword (emphasis in the original) that "the author uses the term ‘quality’ not as quale, or experience, but in the sense of a value judgment.")

Having rejected facts as a place in which to find quality (value), Darren then proceeds to list a variety of other places in which quality is not to be found:
  1. "‘the science’", affirmed as meaning "the literal facts" and "the logical relationship between the facts"
  2. "religions", both those that can be "reduced to various rational systems" and those that "accept facts which are, to rational analysis, clearly, absurdly false"
  3. "emotions"
  4. "so-called ‘intuitions’ based on those emotions"
  5. "the self", broken down as "the mind, the will, the emotions or the body"
  6. "activity"
  7. "physical sensation"
  8. "what feels nice—physically or emotionally"
  9. "thoughts"
In amongst all of that, he frames his key questions:

"So how are we to know what good and bad are? Or right and wrong? Where are we to find quality, if not in the facts?"

Arriving at the end of his list of negations, he finally presents his answer to those questions (emphasis in the original):

"The only place quality can be found, the only ‘thing’ in my actual, real experience that is good, that can tell me what good is [...] is attention. [...] What I mean is [...] attention [...] softly focused on an experience of quality." As an alternative to "soft", he offers "loose". This, he elaborates, is the type of attention employed by (1) "less civilized people" like the Navajo (but not when hunting) who have "a soft look for taking in the beauty of a scene" and (2) "our greatest artists". "To the soft-focusing mind", he affirms, "[the painting by van Gogh of a] chair expresses a quality which is actually there."

He distinguishes this "kind"/"mode" of attention - "quality-like" attention - from "thing-like" attention, which instead is "tightly focused on a factual thing", and goes on to affirm that:

"There are two ways to present the truth. One is to indirectly express what it is; this is the purpose of art, or fiction, or myth. The other is to break down the lies tight consciousness clings to, and let the truth speak for itself. [...] [O]nce the tight self has been broken down enough, moral decisions, like all ‘good ideas’ happen by themselves. [...] [A]ll right action comes of itself, naturally, without having to think, or try, or even decide."

It turns out, then, that his concern is not - as I thought it would be - to explain the essential nature of morality; to offer criteria by which we can assess whether any given choice is good or bad. That is the type of answer that Socrates was after in the Euthyphro dialogue recorded by Plato.

The answer Darren provides instead to his key questions is in a way more literal and pragmatic, and in a way more oblique: he answers with what we must do (pay soft attention, he says) and be (broken out of our tight self, he says) to know in any given situation what the right choice is - and he says that when we are and do this, we know instantaneously and without thought.

Is he right as far as his answer goes? Maybe. In his terms, I'd likely be classed as a "stiff" (of tight, hard attention), so I would by definition not have the personal experience to judge.

His answer does, though, in any case leave unanswered the deeper (in my view) question that Socrates too would have wanted answered:

What is it about the right choices - instantaneously known by those whose tight self has been sufficiently broken down - that makes them right? How can we know that we know that they truly are right?

But then, I guess a stiff would ask that!
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There's something else that I find interesting about Darren's essay. He makes two basic claims that seem to be at odds with one another. One is that quality (value) cannot be found in facts. The other is that the soft-focussing mind can perceive in objects (and presumably situations) quality (value) that is "actually there". For something - in this case quality (value) - to be "actually" there implies that its existence is an objective fact, which seems to contradict Darren's other claim that quality can not be found in facts.
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  • Sciborg_S_Patel
It might be contended in response: but the facts of the actually there qualities (values) are of a different nature to the other facts to which Darren refers as "scientific" and "isolated"; the two truly are isolated: the former - facts about quality (value) - have no relationship with, and cannot be derived from, the latter ("isolated" "scientific" facts). They can only be perceived directly, using soft attention.

This, though, it seems to me, is totally implausible, because it allows for the possibility that two otherwise factually identical situations or objects have totally different moral facts.
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  • Sciborg_S_Patel

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