Friday, August 14, 2015

Moral Landscape: Peaks and Valleys -- Using Cost Benefit Analysis to Objectively Identify Good and Bad Moral Value Judgments



Whatever you may think of Sam Harris, good or bad, he once made an excellent point regarding moral value judgement and morality.

Although I don't remember his wording precisely, Sam once asked the question to the effect that "Can we objectively say that Western Christian husbands treat their wives on average better than Middle Easter Muslim men?"

He went on to say because of certainly cultural and religious norms which exist in each society, it is fairly easy to weigh the costs and benefits to the woman and say, yes, that generally speaking -- we can find objective reasons to say that Western Christian husbands treat their wives better than Middle Easter Muslim men (again, this is a broad generalization based on a basic, even simplistic, understanding of the two culture norms given in this example).

Sam takes this thought experiment further and then asks us, and I'm paraphrasing here, to consider that fact that "Having weighed the pros and cons to the woman in each particular marriage, can we say, with any certainty, that there may be objective reasons to believe Western Christian husbands love their wives more than Middle Eastern Muslim men?"

Although Sam leaves it up to us decide, I think his point is well taken.

I too have come to the conclusion that -- yes, there are objective reasons to believe that Western Christian men, for example, do love their wives more than Middle Easter men, all things being equal (i.e., this means equal income, societal status, education, etc.).

This, of course, doesn't mean there aren't exceptions to the generalization (which is why when basing a value judgment on a general and broad observation / information that isn't overtly specific we tend to call it a general rule of thumb rather than an absolute one, because we have to make room for the possible exceptions to the rule. Our conclusions could only ever be tentative at best).

Simply put, given the overall sum of married couples, if such a survey was ever conducted, I'm sure we could find good Muslim husbands who love their wives just as much as any Christian husband, if not more, and bad Christian husbands who mistreat and abuse their wives in an unloving fashion on the same level as an abusive Muslim husband.

Naturally, it really does come down to how we as a society define love. But, then, when looking at various societies, we may be able to make specific observations of the similarities and differences, and accounting for these, we could talk about what it means to love as a human being.

In the broad sense of the term, as I am familiar with it, to love someone means to treat them as you would want to be treated yourself, to never hold them back, to always support them as individuals and support whatever it is they want to do, because you want to share in the burden with them, not place them under any unnecessary strain by shifting an unfair share of the burdens onto them.

All this on top of admiring them, even their quirks and faults, to the point where you practically venerate them as the ideal person -- and never wish them to be any less than that -- and would sacrifice anything in your own life to help them achieve their best, then I would say this is a good indicator that you genuinely love that person.

Now if the opposite seems to be the case. If you treat them unfairly, or allow others to, if you hold them back, do not support them when they want to strive toward their own individual goals, if you force them to adhere to some kind of social, cultural, or religious norm, if you place an unfair amount of your everyday burdens on them and expect them to pick up the slack and then turn around and berate or punish them if they fail to do so, then it is not love you have for that person. There is no kind of love we know of on the planet that looks like that.

Love isn't without responsibility. In essence, you are taking the responsibility to care for another person more than you care for others, including yourself (at least to a degree) and this selflessness is one part of our expression of love.

The irresponsible person takes love for granted, and thinks they can act, say, or treat their partner in anyway they deem fit, and that because they love them -- well -- that person should love them in return. But this isn't love. This is the lust for power over someone you are infatuated with, so you say it is love and then take up the role of an abuser. This is how we know a man who habitually abuses his wife doesn't love her, and vise versa. In other words, if the person has taken zero responsibility for their partner's well being and flourishing, then they don't know the first thing about love.

But all this is just to say, it does appear that when we place love on a scale, and then map that scale onto the terrain of everyday life, then we can and do make various value judgments on what we, as human beings, consider good and bad examples of love to be.

And the good examples of love will be found on the peaks, and the bad examples will be found in the valleys. And the moral judgments we make can be objectively had by simply doing a cost benefit analysis between these various examples of love.

This way, we can objectively say, that when man beats his wife according to some cultural/social/religious prescription or dictate, or, likewise, because she failed to abide by some cultural/social/religious prescription or dictate, then this man loves his wife LESS than the man who does not harm her for these same reasons by simply weighing the costs and benefits of each kind of love.

This kind of cost benefit analysis of all moral considerations creates a very complex moral landscape which we must traverse and navigate like interpreted explorers. One reason, is simply because such exploration has typically been limited to the valley of whatever cultural/religious/ or social norm has dominated the moral discussion.

But it does not mean because one model is the most ubiquitous, prevalent, popular, or even most liked that it is any good. It could very well be the worst kind of example, but we simply would not know it because we weren't aware of any other examples.

What this means is that more data will always improve our understanding of the terrain. Less data shrinks the map to the point where, if you only have enough data to adjudicate two competing models, then you still will end up with a limited view.

As with the above example given by Sam Harris, although it illustrates quite well that we can pass moral value judgments on two competing moral claims, it does not necessarily mean that either of those examples represent the best possible moral outcome.

In the case of asking ourselves whether a typical Western Christian husband loves his wife more than a stereotypical Middle Eastern Muslim man, given more data and an improved understanding of the moral landscape, we might conclude that, actually, neither are very good examples of love. We might find, for example, that your average secular husband loves his wife more than either of the previous examples. And this we could argue is a superior kind of love.

This is why I say there are objectively examples to be discovered, even if there is no absolute or ideal example.

Yet we can never know every detail about love and the various kinds of love absolutely unless we had all of the data in the known universe, and that doesn't seem very likely. So, we can only have a limited sort of view. Sort of like how the person who stands on the mountain peak can only see as far as the horizon. But that doesn't mean the horizon is the end, or because you see no other mountains taller than the one you are perched on that there aren't taller ones just beyond your scope.

In fact, I would go as far to say that the mountain climber and explorer analogy is an apt one, because we cannot simply expect to settle for one point on the moral landscape until we have at least explored as many possible areas and mapped out that moral landscape to our best ability, and even then we still must to be willing to change our minds and amend our reasoning when we find our current moral beliefs inadequate. Because there may always be another Everest to climb just beyond the horizon.


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist