The Denver Philosophy Meetup Group Message Board › Structural Vs. Ethical Approaches in Philosophy

Structural Vs. Ethical Approaches in Philosophy

A former member
Post #: 10
OK, I was brushing my teeth this morning and something occurred to me about Philosophy, and how people think and discuss it, and I'm sure somebody here who has studied philosophy will already know all about this, so maybe you can turn the rest of us on to the appropriate lingo and thinkers and stuff of the official version of it.

But as a quick aside--what the hell is it with big thoughts in the bathroom? Is it that personal hygiene is just really boring? Or is it the awkwardness of the mirror? Personally, facing the mirror in the morning is always an awkward time of day for me because, quite frankly, that sumbitch owes me money. A lot of money.

And he won't discuss it either, he's so childish. He just repeats everything I say. You should see the sarcastic faces he makes every time I bring it up, too. It's just insulting. I've got half a mind to kick him out of the house sometimes. But he is a pretty good mimic, and he takes out the trash once in awhile so... I dunno, I just haven't gotten around to kicking him out I guess. And he is a pretty good mimic. OK smart guy stop it. He's mimicking my typing now, very funny, very drole. You should write for TV. YOU should write for TV. Hey, I SAID STOP IT, ENOUGH.

jeez, you see what I have to put up with?!

ANYWAYS, it occurred to me that while there are many different aspects to philosophy, (ethics, language & semantics, consciousness, logic, society & government, etc. etc.) it seems to me that when I think about these things, and when I have talked about them with others, it seems like the thought process and/or the conversation tends to follow one of two paths, either to approach the matter from what I'm gonna call a structural point of view, or else from an ethical point of view. And I'm not talking about this message forum or the people of this meetup group, I'm talking about people generally. My train of thought while brushing my teeth. Conversations with people throughout my life, and observing people and groups over my lifetime.

So... "structural" vs. "ethical"... the ethical approach, we're all familiar with. It's about right vs. wrong, good vs. evil. This seems to be the more common approach as far as I can tell, when it comes to thinking about things and talking about them, at least from what I have seen. Examples of trains of thought or conversational topics taking the ethical approach would be:


  • Is abortion right or wrong?
  • Should civilians be allowed to own firearms?
  • Should athletes be allowed to use performance enhancing drugs?
  • Should philosophers be allowed to use performance enhancing drugs?
  • Should that bastard in the mirror have to repay me all the money he owes me?

...you get the idea. These topics and the trains of thought and conversation about them tend to concentrate on ethical points of good & bad, right & wrong.

But when I was thinking about this "structural" approach, it seemed like I've had trains of thought and been party to conversations where "right and wrong" were not the focal methods of concentrating on the issue, but rather, more like "how does this idea function compared to that one". This doesn't sound very clear does it.

Suppose we are talking about forms of government, or social structures like autocracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy. We've sort of had it drummed into us that democracy is the "best" way to go (that ethical approach again, "good" vs. "bad"), but really, when you think about it, democracy does have some significant limitations. In simple "popular vote" democracy for example (all 100 of us vote on what's for lunch, say) in the worst case, 49% don't get what they want. Now, I was never very good at math, but as I recall, 49% is dang close to half the people! A system where half the people have to accept decisions they disagree with is pretty far from perfect in my estimation.

But I'm not saying democracy is "good" or "bad", I'm just trying to understand it for what it is, understand it's structure and it's behavior and stuff. It seemed to me that this is a different approach to thinking and discussing than I see in most of the culture around me. Most of the culture seems very fixated on proclaiming what is "right" and what is "wrong" but not nearly as much as on understanding simply "what the hell the thing actually IS" and how it works and so on.

So where "Is it wrong to kill a fetus?" would be something I would characterize as an ethical debate, it seems to be that we could also frame the debate as "at what point is a fetus legally equivalent to a human being?". Then the discussion moves away from the subjective "right/wrong" and seems (to me anyway) to become more about objective points like how precise our definitions are, and what sorts of legal and social systems we are accounting for, etc.

It seems to me that it is possible to resolve ideas and conversations that are "structural" in their nature, whereas ethical conversations seem more often to end up unresolved. I won't go so far as to say that it is impossible to resolve ethical arguments, but sometimes it seems pretty damn close.

It just seems to me that when we format our thoughts and debates in ethical terms, we very often become emotional, and while I'm not saying that all conversation becomes irrational, it does seem like rationality often becomes secondary. The scientific method suggests that we should form our hypotheses to fit the observed facts, instead of trying to observe the facts in such a way as to fit our hypotheses. I have been guilty a million times over of ignoring inconvenient facts in order to push an agenda, and that's not quite in compliance with empiricism is it? Or personal honesty, when you come right down to it.

So what do you think? Am I making a non-distinction here? Or just playing word games? Or is this a meaningful way to characterize intellectual thought and debate? And has some famous thinker already come up with this? If not, I hereby copyright the idea!

And Youse Guys Have To Pay Me
A Quarter Every Time You Use The
Phrase "Structural Approach",

Robert :-)
Eric B.
ejbman
Denver, CO
Post #: 122
Well, my formal philosophy training has degraded a great deal since hanging about with the ilk at the Merc wink, but there are indeed, various approaches to philosophy that are considered more structural and those that are more moral. Not only that, but there was a big split in Europe between the so-called Structuralists and Post-Structuralists 'round about the time impressionism and phenomenology emerged. The two were at odds about 'objective' versus 'subjective'.

But back to the logical versus moral...the moral philosophies tend, in western history, to be based largely on religious beliefs, apologies for beliefs and attempts to make religious beliefs seem reasonable or logical. The various 'proofs' of God's existence, for example. I'm thinking of Descarte, Berkeley, Spinoza, Leibniz, et al. Interestingly, most of the logical stuff fell under so-called "Natural Philosophy" which evolved into what we now know as science and mathematics. You may recognize Leibniz as one of those who happily straddled both worlds.

One of the great attempts to resolve the two worlds without, as I recall, specific recourse to religion, was Immanuel Kant. He strove to create, as far as possible, purely logical bases for morals. He also managed to come up with book titles that give "Fahrvergnuegen" a run for it's money. How about "Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that may come forward as a Science" or "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals"? Probably his best known work is the "Critique of Pure Reason". If memory serves me correctly, that's where he put forward the Categorical Imperative. That theory states, loosely put, that if you can imagine everyone doing what you do without hitting a logical problem, then it's OK to do. Thus, killing would be wrong because then everyone would die. Homosexuality would be wrong because then procreation would end, etc. There are lots of problems with this, but it was definitley a cool thing when he first came up with it.

One thing that Kant definitely relied upon was Metaphysics, in a fairly unique way. Well, actually it was kind of a resurrection of Plato. Plato, as you may recall, described a world of 'forms' where a perfect one of everything existed, of which worldly examples were mere imperfect copies. Kant similarly described truths that were a priori, or things that were true, literaly 'before' being meddled with. Then there were truths that were a posteriori, or asinine (kidding), only true because they followed logically from a priori truths. I'm sure I'm muddling and oversimplifying horribly, but at least you could probably get away with impressing a stewardess at a cocktail party with talk like that.

Back to Post-Structuralism - some have said that Descarte was really the grandaddy of post-structuralism because he was among the first (Westerners) to specifically examine the contents of his consciousness for the bases of truth. Phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty took this work and ran with it, handing it off to Husserl, who added the concept of ego to the contents of consciousness. I'm not really sure where he got it from, though. Someone can help me on that. I can't recall where Freud fits in here. Anyway, Satre ran with ball that was handed off from Husserl at the the 30 yard line and made a righteous first down at the fifteen with concepts that were later referred to by journalists (and then, self-consciously by Sartre) as 'existentialism'. Salvador Dali then slapped the puck through the pink donkey in the sky and it was time out.
A former member
Post #: 14
wow lots of cool info there, thanks eric! lots of good starting off points for googling and wikipedia and stuff.
A former member
Post #: 288
Nice to have you boiling on the board, Eric; you should get sick more often!

I mean that in a nice way.

This thread (structuralism) might tie in with the unconscious thread.

Where did Robert go? Maybe the solipsism finally did him in. Oh dear.
Christine B.
user 13100974
Falls Church, VA
Post #: 2
Ethical Philosophy is one of the good approach...

Some tips for a dog trainer: train weimaraner and weimaraner puppy training.
A former member
Post #: 1,004
Christine Bounds: Some tips for a dog trainer: train weimaraner and weimaraner puppy training.

Those are good tips, Christine. They worked for me until my Weim took control of my mind. I can't be certain of anything now.

Regards,
iDave.
Rascall M.
user 14895171
Falls Church, VA
Post #: 2
Well, Ethical Philosophy really changed my life the way I think and the way I deal with life. Together with free numerology and numerology calculator process.
A former member
Post #: 188
Robert:

What you're wrestling with here is the distinction between the normative and the empirical. It's a distinction that we should be taught about from about 6th grade forward. Unfortunately, however, even people with PhDs from respected universities stumble over the distinction routinely.

(A contemporary example has been provided by philosophy illiterate Sam Harris, who has written a book asserting that science can answer moral questions. But it can't. No "ifs," no "ands," no "buts." I'll explain why in a moment.)

The domain of the normative is the domain of the evaluative. This domain includes moral distinctions, but also all of the issues around justifiability more generally, justice, preferability, and even aesthetics. In general, if the issue concerns values in any way, the issue is normative in nature.

By contrast, the domain of the empirical is the domain of the descriptive. This domain includes all "matters of fact," and, since Galileo and Newton, has become increasingly mathematical. While the domain of the empirical can certainly be controversial (think "Darwin," think "climate science"), in principle empirical questions can be answered with reference to the facts concerning reality. And there are various ways of ascertaining those facts that can compensate, to a large degree, for our nature as inherently partisan creatures. (This is what the scientific method is all about, for example.)

To put the distinction in another, somewhat cruder way, the distinction between the normative and the empirical is the distinction between how things should be and how they are.

Now, one might think, following Sam Harris, that it would be nice indeed if we could resolve all of our messy and controversial normative issues by reference to science. But there's no hope of that whatsoever, because the normative questions we typically try to answer are completely different from the empirical questions we try to answer -- indeed, these two types of questions are far more different than apples and oranges. Though the nature of reality unquestionably imposes limits on the possible, how things actually are has, in principle, nothing at all to do with how things should be.

For example, because we actually do have creepy, mass murderers, some of whom torture their victims, it doesn't follow that mass murder is right, or that torture is morally justifiable.

Two philosophical disciplines exist that try to do for the normative what the scientific method does for the empirical -- that is, compensate for our partisan tendencies.

So there exists a philosophical discipline, known as metaethics, that tries to get clearer what sort of questions normative questions are, and what sort of answers moral questions require.

And those of us who think Mortimer Adler sometimes made sense believe in the importance of another discipline, dialectics, which simply tries to state as clearly as possible what the assorted normative questions are, and to sort out what the answers to those questions have been to date, without taking any position on either the questions or the answers.

Both of these disciplines try to set up normative issues in ways that they can be fruitfully addressed, systematically investigated, and coherently debated -- in part with the aim of offsetting partisanship. Progress has been slow, but it has nevertheless been made, and it will continue to be made.

Eric is right in thinking that Kant provided one milestone along the way to what we might call "the normative method," and there have been a number of others as well.

With best wishes,
Ken
Jeanette M. N.
wickedatheist
Denver, CO
Post #: 3,891
Ken:

And those of us who think Mortimer Adler sometimes made sense believe in the importance of another discipline, dialectics, which simply tries to state as clearly as possible what the assorted normative questions are, and to sort out what the answers to those questions have been to date, without taking any position on either the questions or the answers.

Both of these disciplines try to set up normative issues in ways that they can be fruitfully addressed, systematically investigated, and coherently debated -- in part with the aim of offsetting partisanship. Progress has been slow, but it has nevertheless been made, and it will continue to be made.

But it sounds like that uses "offsetting partisanship" as a goal and starting point... which seems like the same type of cheating that Sam Harris used in his book, when he used the greatest benefit to the most people as the starting point, and went from there showing how that could be determined scientifically.

But you can't determine scientifically that you should value that which benefits the most people, which is why Sam Harris didn't really create an "objective morality." And maybe nobody can, because there may be no way to surgically remove the valuer from the value.

I liked the Sam Harris book a great deal, by the way. His proposed morality is a "sensible" one, and one that is as neutral in partisanship as anyone could hope for, making it a basis of morality that would--if perfectly enacted (and that's the hard part)--be a system with no losers.

But by no means "objective," though to me that seems like an academic matter, a technicality.

There are better and worse answers to moral questions because there could be moral systems we would want to live in no matter what our place in that society, and moral systems that we would not want to live in unless we were in very specific roles in that society. And "better" and "worse" are what we would label with the emotional terms "good" and "evil."

That's somewhat of a pragmatic approach, but it's what I would say would work for me in a moral system... and be more compassionate than any other system I can think of. Though not "objective."

This search for "objective morality" by atheists is clearly a reaction to being put on the defensive about how atheistic morality could possibly be "real," since it isn't objective.

Last weekend, after a lengthy argument I had with someone about whether atheist morality could possibly be at all "real" or meaningful, since it isn't "objective," and where I was in the position of trying to justify morals without deities, I suddenly realized something that should be obvious: There's no reason at all why we should be in a defensive position, since while atheists can't claim an "objective morality," neither can anyone else.

Of course, as a non-believer in deities I think that religious people's moralities are just their own personal opinions of what's right and wrong, and no more objectively grounded than my own. The only difference from that standpoint is that I take responsibility for my own values, while a theist points the finger at their deity as the source.

But even if there were a god judging what is right or wrong, that god would be the "valuer," and that system of values would be that god's subjective opinion of right and wrong.

Even if you propose that such a deity put its system of values in place at the beginning of time, and that the value system operates similar to the laws of physics, with no on-going participation or judgment by that god, there would still have been a point when that god was the valuer.

Either way a system of values set down by a god would in no way fit the definition of "objective," any more than my own.

Likewise, starting at a point where you base your value system on its "impartiality" (or alternatively its benefit to the most people) just front-loads the bias at the starting point, rather than trying to shoehorn it in later on.

Though I think those are good starting points, anyway. Objectivity can go reign over it's own domain; it's a word that's way over-rated in the morality/ethics discussion.
A former member
Post #: 197
Hi, Jeanette.

You commented:

But it sounds like that uses "offsetting partisanship" as a goal and starting point... which seems like the same type of cheating that Sam Harris used in his book, when he used the greatest benefit to the most people as the starting point, and went from there showing how that could be determined scientifically.

There's a lot of confusion about what the terms "objective" and "subjective" mean, both with reference to ethics, and with reference to pretty much everything else.

In some ways, it's actually easier to start with what the term "subjective" means.

What subjective means, essentially, is something like "EXCLUSIVELY with reference to myself." (I've capitalized the term "exclusive" here, because that's precisely what the term "subjective" implies. NOTHING other than myself is taken into account.)

What objectivity typically means, by contrast, is that something else other than myself is taken into account. What that something else happens to be depends upon the domain under discussion.

In science, the something that is other than myself is the physical world outside of, or other than, my own consciousness. So we distinguish between reality as I personally construe it, and reality as it exists unto itself. The former is "subjective," but to the extent that I properly model the physical world, my knowledge of that reality is objective. The tricky part is parsing out the part that is false personal construal and correct construal. Nothing really says that we must construe reality objectively. That's a "front end load," in the terminology you're using. But, if you don't, then (1) you'll be ignorant, and (2) you'll be ineffectual in many ways. For example, you won't be able to cure diseases.

Now, in ethics, the something that is other than myself is comprised of people other than myself. (And I am myself one of those people relative to other selves.) When I am subjective in ethics, I only take into account ONLY my own wants and needs. If I am objective in ethics, I take into account, equally, other people's wants and needs. "Justice" and "morality" are both concepts that take systematically into account other people's wants and needs. Nothing says that we must construe our conduct objectively. That's a "front end load" also. But, once again, if you don't, then (1) you'll be morally obtuse, and (2) you'll bring about considerable misery (and injustice). You'll also live in a world you yourself wouldn't want to live in, if your own wasn't a unwarrantedly privileged position.

The debate in epistemology, and in ethics, centers mainly on what follows after you accept the desirability of objectivity. If you don't want to take objective reality into account, that's your call in either case.

However, what objectivity means, in epistemology and in ethics, is reasonably clear.

The other factor that contributes to confusion here is the difference between people and rocks. There are no values in a universe comprised exclusively of rocks. However, once sentience enters into the picture, so do values.

Since science addresses only physical reality, exclusively of values, it can't tell us anything about morality.

So, when you say:

But you can't determine scientifically that you should value that which benefits the most people, which is why Sam Harris didn't really create an "objective morality." And maybe nobody can, because there may be no way to surgically remove the valuer from the value.

You may be confounding different issues here. On my account, anyway, values can be looked at objectively, though not scientifically. And objectivity, on the account that I'm offering, doesn't require surgical removal of a valuer from a value. It simply requires that other people's needs and wants be taken into account in making moral decisions.

I liked the Sam Harris book a great deal, by the way. His proposed morality is a "sensible" one, and one that is as neutral in partisanship as anyone could hope for, making it a basis of morality that would--if perfectly enacted (and that's the hard part)--be a system with no losers.

Just FYI, this account didn't originate with Harris. He's borrowing it from a guy by the name of John Rawls.

But by no means "objective," though to me that seems like an academic matter, a technicality.
I myself would say that Rawl's account is precisely what is meant by objectivity in morality.

There are better and worse answers to moral questions because there could be moral systems we would want to live in no matter what our place in that society, and moral systems that we would not want to live in unless we were in very specific roles in that society. And "better" and "worse" are what we would label with the emotional terms "good" and "evil."

I would say that the terms aren't so much emotional as they are evaluative, and and that the evaluation follows directly from the Rawlsian meaning of the term "objectivity."

That's somewhat of a pragmatic approach, but it's what I would say would work for me in a moral system... and be more compassionate than any other system I can think of. Though not "objective."


On the account I'm suggesting, the system is objective, but not compassionate.

This search for "objective morality" by atheists is clearly a reaction to being put on the defensive about how atheistic morality could possibly be "real," since it isn't objective.

Well, I suggest that atheistic morality can be objective, and hence "real," since that's what "real" means.

Last weekend, after a lengthy argument I had with someone about whether atheist morality could possibly be at all "real" or meaningful, since it isn't "objective," and where I was in the position of trying to justify morals without deities, I suddenly realized something that should be obvious: There's no reason at all why we should be in a defensive position, since while atheists can't claim an "objective morality," neither can anyone else.

It may be that atheist morality is real, and deistic morality is not. On the deistic account, the basic principle is that might makes right. God dreamed up the system, so he gets to make the rules.

But that doesn't follow. Morality has to do with respecting the wants and needs of others, and nothing to do with who is doing the respecting -- including God.

Likewise, starting at a point where you base your value system on its "impartiality" (or alternatively its benefit to the most people) just front-loads the bias at the starting point, rather than trying to shoehorn it in later on.

I myself would say that it puts the definition of morality and justice on the proper footing.

Though I think those are good starting points, anyway. Objectivity can go reign over it's own domain; it's a word that's way over-rated in the morality/ethics discussion.

If objectivity if ethics means taking the wants and needs of every individual equally into account, then I don't think objectivity is in any way overrated.

Best,
Ken
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