Re: Modern Physical theory as a basis for Ethical and Existential Nihilism

From: Benjamin Udell <>
Date: Sat, 24 Jan 2004 22:29:37 -0500

Morality, ethics, virtue, etc. imply a struggle for control -- at least within oneself, but often more widely. If morality had a set of obvious axioms, such as to lead to firm & reliable answers to all moral questions in practice, it would be know-how, not morality. For everything there is a season & a time, according to Ecclesiastes, but neither Ecclesiastes nor anything else always tells us just when those times & seasons are.

opportunity _ _ _ _ _ _ risk
safeness _ _ _ _ _ _ _ futility

***For everything***

hope _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ fear
confidence _ _ _ _ _ _ despair

***there is a season***

courage _ _ _ _ _ _ _ prudence
due confidence _ _ _ _ realism

***and an out-of-season***

rashness _ _ _ _ _ _ _ cowardice
complacency _ _ _ _ _ defeatism

(Note: the above structure entails that Aristotle's doctrine of virtue as a 'mean' between two extremes is at best a sloppy heuristic that captures a sense of maintaining some sort of poise or grace under pressure.)

Even when we agree on what the evil is -- a forest fire approaching the town for example -- still to fight it, may require the moral virtues of courage & due confidence, lest in one's heart one succumb to cowardly or defeatist thoughts about the fire. To refuse to fight it & instead to flee in one's car may require the moral virtues of prudence & realism -- lest one succumb to rash or complacent thoughts about the fire. Sometimes boldness is good, sometimes caution is good. Courage is appropriately hopeful action despite pressure not to be hopeful. Pressure -- a struggle, as I said. Most traditional virtues can be defined in such manner. Why would one be under such pressure but through conflict among one's own values? The moral value system is not independent & self-contained but depends on non-entirely-moral values -- the value of the town, the trees, etc. -- & on knowledge & on understanding things about oneself & others. The moral value of the town is based on consideratio
s of which many are themselves not moral or not directly moral. Morality cannot provide easy answers when easy answers cannot be provided for many relevant non-moral or not purely moral questions -- e.g, what are the stakes? what are the threats? what are the opportunities? Applying our axiomatic moral/ethical mathematic will probably land us in still more moral/ethical quandaries. We are left asking, when, specifically, singularly, are these "seasons & times" of which Ecclesiastes speaks? Of course we're left asking. How could it be otherwise?

Furthermore, from a risk-management perspective, opportunity equals risk. Safeness equals futility. As Freud said, life presents a choice not between pleasure & pain, but between both & neither. Any moral system will set up opportunity/risk situations where the risk is that of violating the morality. If we're talking not just about morality in the usual narrow sense, but in the sense of excellence, the virtues of character, then morality guarantees trials & tests for those who would be moral. (That doesn't make morality bad -- a bad morality is one that tends to assure that those who seek to be moral shall lose.) And to the extent that we disagree about human nature, disagreements about morality may run corespondingly deep.

- Ben Udell
----- Original Message -----
From: "Wei Dai" <>
To: "Stathis Papaioannou" <>
Cc: <>
Sent: Saturday, January 24, 2004 9:00 PM
Subject: Re: Modern Physical theory as a basis for Ethical and Existential Nihilism

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> If I stop with (a) above, I am simply saying that this is how I feel about suffering, and this feeling is not contingent on the state of affairs in any actual or possible world [there, I got it in!]

Wei Dai responded:
(a) as stated is ill defined. In order to actually reason with it in practice, you'd have to define what "activity", "cause", "net", "human", and "suffering" mean, but then it's hard to see how one can just have a "feeling" that statement (a), by now highly technical, is true. What about a slightly different variation of (a), where the definition of "human" or "suffering" is given a small tweak? How do you decide which of them reflects your true feelings? The mere presense of many similar but contradictory moral statements might give you a feeling of arbitrariness that causes you to reject all of them.

Difficulties like this lead to the desire for a set of basic moral axioms that can be defined precisely and still be seen by everyone as obvious and non-arbitrary. Again, maybe it doesn't exist, but we can't know for sure unless we're much smarter than we actually are.
Received on Sat Jan 24 2004 - 22:35:20 PST

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