Shades of Grey and Morality

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Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Wed Apr 27, 2011 5:55 pm

To avoid further derailment of the Reactions thread "Book 2 - Text Updates 47", here is a thread for the discussion of morality with focus on objective and subjective morality. The discussion may meander into works of fiction that explore morality and tvtropes articles on such things. A Game of Thrones might come up too, since it spawned this conversation in the other thread.

I'm not too sure where this thread should go as their is not an Off-Topic forum, so I'm posting the internet link provided in the other thread and claiming "Internet" as the subject matter.

http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

All the introduction aside. I'm a moral subjectivist/moral relativist. I do not accept the claim that there is an objective set of morals, and I enjoy fiction, whether webcomics, television shows, or books, that explores the vagueness of morality, such as Babylon 5, A Game of Thrones, Star Trek, and the Order of the Stick (in some cases).
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby BLANDCorporatio » Wed Apr 27, 2011 6:15 pm

Ok, as far as I see it, the idea of "morality is relative" (in "the West") arose as a reaction to the moral absolutism that was used to justify colonial expansion. Who are we, it asked, to think ourselves better than these people and impose our ways on them? Fair point. The bathwater.

Now, it might be better if philosophy allowed more of the scientific mindset inside itself. I don't mean scientism a-la Harris, I mean the fact that science is comfortable operating with provisional truths. There can be several sorta-"right" answers, understood as (hopefully improving) approximations of some ground truth. Hey, it's an internally consistent outlook, it's functional, and discussions on whether reality is real, really are pointless.

So moving swiftly on, back to moral relativism. Once you say that what a community as a whole agrees is right, actually is, then the notion of moral progress is meaningless. Suppose some segment of that community is oppressed; whatever case you may make for their emancipation is not a moral one, since it goes against established and accepted (therefore by this definition, right) customs. Therefore I see that moral relativism is not conducive for a community to self-evaluate its norms; after all, what's done (by most, or somesuch consensus measure) is right. Further, since what a community demands as right is the measure of right, then the best and most moral policy is to keep them too ignorant/scared to demand anything else.

That would be the baby thrown out.

So I guess this would be the point where we just wouldn't see past each other since to me the above paragraph is obviously describing of a place I wouldn't want to live in, and more so, I think is objectively a bad place to live in. You might either not see that as a problem, or label it a strawman because I'm getting some aspect of relativism wrong. Please explain it then, but watch out against inserting hidden absolutist clauses.

In conclusion, I think both the "civilising hero" moral absolutism, and the po-mo relativism, are sides of the same overly simplifying coin.

PS:

It's one thing to enjoy complex moral scenarios, shades of characterisation, ambiguity and such, and to consider any kind of moral calculus as essentially something anyone (or any sufficiently large group that may be called community) can make up as they go along. You don't have to be a relativist to understand that a moral dilemma exists in whether the Prime Directive should be applied, when a world is about to be destroyed by natural forces outside of the inhabitant's control, or not. I think though that you should not be a relativist to truly appreciate that such problems are even meaningful morally.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Wed Apr 27, 2011 7:14 pm

Actually discussions within science about whether reality is real do take place. Quantum physics (see the "we're just a 3D projection of a 2D brane" stuff), some of the higher maths, psychology, and computer science occasionally meander into such discussions. Anyways, I digress.

We may be venturing into a semantic argument with this, but it's the rebuttal I have. The problem with the statement that societal norms form an unquestionable moral foundation is that it's not moral relativism. It's moral absolutism with a new origin. It's taking the old moral absolutism built upon religion and god that would say "Any questioning of our norms is heretical and will earn you an unhappy afterlife," and turns it into a new moral absolutism built upon culture and society that says "Any questioning of our norms is taboo and will ostracize you, ruining your reputation." Moral relativism doesn't claim that right and wrong are determined by the community. Moral relativism says there is no right or wrong, ever. There is only what is accepted by society.

This sounds like a semantic argument, but I'll explain in more detail, so that hopefully I can get across what I mean. The difference is that when a person says "Society determines what is right," you end up in the situation you described where moral progress is staunched. No one questions societal norms because they already know that what exists is what it is right. When there is no right or wrong, norms are only what is accepted by society in a given moment. No moral relativist would claim that the norms adhered to by society are right, only that they are what is currently accepted. This means that what is accepted can change, since there is no objective rightness assigned to it. There is no "we do this because it's right." There is only "we do this because it is expected." This in turn allows for norm entrepreneurs and such to reframe issues and ideas in an attempt to construct new norms for society.

In regard to your PS, I get the feeling that discussions like we are having are not exactly intended for this forum, as the forum lacks any sort of board for such discussions. Therefore, I have couched the argument inside of a discussion about morality and how it pertains to fiction, which I see as being more acceptable to the forum. As such, the following paragraph is going to take what I said above and apply it to A Game of Thrones.

I feel A Game of Thrones explores or at least is set inside a universe of moral relativism. People do things because it is what society expects. The society of Westeros expects or at least tolerates the idea of individuals looking out for their family to the detriment of other individuals, other families, and possibly society as a whole. Such loyalty to one's family is seen as honorable, since you are thought of as putting your family's interests ahead of your own, whether or not that is actually true. Within this understanding, the idea of attempting to kill someone who could damage your family by what they have witnesses would be tolerable, keeping in mind that the other family's attempts at retaliation are also acceptable. One could argue that Jaime did not really care that Bran saw him and his sister in the tower. He only pushed Bran because of "the things I do for love." In other words, he acted to protect his sister and family out of love (not out of familial love but rather romantic love I'll grant you), not out of any personal desire to harm Bran. Though, he certainly didn't have any qualms about killing Bran, but Ned didn't have any qualms about beheading the deserter.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby BLANDCorporatio » Thu Apr 28, 2011 11:09 am

Ominous wrote:Moral relativism doesn't claim that right and wrong are determined by the community. Moral relativism says there is no right or wrong, ever. There is only what is accepted by society. {snip}

There is no "we do this because it's right." There is only "we do this because it is expected." This in turn allows for norm entrepreneurs and such to reframe issues and ideas in an attempt to construct new norms for society.


And the question then is why bother to construct new norms for society. It's not that there aren't answers, but those answers cannot be of a moral nature, since there is no better (nor worse) way to do things. In such a situation, you'd expect that any arbitrary change, or lack thereof, is morally equivalent.

Which, from where I'm standing, is a lack of something called a moral compass. Debates on what/how should change in a society, in fact, are motivated by and guided by what can be clumped as moral concerns, and to pretend those are meaningless is one simplification too many.

That no one has the right answers when it comes to what being ethical is, is not a reason to stop searching. Provisional truths, combined with an openness to change when improvements are possible, are good enough a policy to follow. But it does suppose that there is something to search for, something, to go back to science, that is to be approximated, be it by 2D branes or whatever.

About Game of Thrones, I'm afraid I'm not qualified to discuss. Haven't read the series; missing out, I know, I'll add it to my to-read list.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Thu Apr 28, 2011 4:30 pm

BLANDCorporatio wrote:And the question then is why bother to construct new norms for society. It's not that there aren't answers, but those answers cannot be of a moral nature, since there is no better (nor worse) way to do things. In such a situation, you'd expect that any arbitrary change, or lack thereof, is morally equivalent.

A society needs rules to function, otherwise it devolves into a Hobbesian state of nature/war. Any arbitrary change is morally equivalent, assuming that a suitable portion of the populace can be persuaded to adopt the change. Just because societal norms don't have an objective right or wrong-ness doesn't mean that people think there is an objective right or wrong-ness and that they aren't trying to shift norms into their world view of what right and wrong is.

If a society were to take a moral relativist mindset and reject absolute moralism, there is still the human drive for altruism to regulate ourselves and any changes to societal norms would likely take a utilitarian form, where each norm is weighed based on whether or not it generates the most positive affects for the largest number of people while generating the least negative affects for the smallest number of people. This would happen mainly because it's the most directly democratic form of determining morals, and, as I stated, norms get adopted only when a suitable portion of the populace adopts the norm. It won't happen because utilitarianism is somehow objectively right. It would happen because, like evolution, its the system that works the best in that particular scenario.

Which, from where I'm standing, is a lack of something called a moral compass. Debates on what/how should change in a society, in fact, are motivated by and guided by what can be clumped as moral concerns, and to pretend those are meaningless is one simplification too many.

I didn't say that moral concerns are meaningless. They are very meaningful, especially to the individual who holds those views. However, we can't assign objectiveness to what amounts to shared personal opinions. That would be like claiming that the laws of the universe hold that the Mona Lisa is aesthetically pleasing and all other forms of sapient life in existence will have that opinion.

Unfortunately, we live in a universe of Cthulhus. It doesn't care about something like morality and whether we adhere to it. Tomorrow a rogue black hole or hyper-velocity star could smash through our solar system ending our existence whether we adhere strictly to our morals or act like a bunch of bloodthirsty animals. The universe will tick along regardless. The only purpose of morality is to serve as a lubricant to our altruism, keeping our lives from being the horrendous state of nature as described by Hobbes. What form and shape that social lubricant takes is completely up to us. No great hand will part the skies and wag its finger at us, while a majestic voice calls out "You're doing it wrong." Though, if one does, I will readily admit that there is indeed an objective good and evil in the universe.

That no one has the right answers when it comes to what being ethical is, is not a reason to stop searching. Provisional truths, combined with an openness to change when improvements are possible, are good enough a policy to follow. But it does suppose that there is something to search for, something, to go back to science, that is to be approximated, be it by 2D branes or whatever.

I'm going to refer to evolution once more for this rebuttal. Yes, morality should strive to be perfected to our ideal, just as we breed animals to reach what we see is the ideal. However, the ideal is a human construct. It's similar to assuming that we are the pinnacle of evolution. No, we are merely the best suited species for earth's current environment, sitting atop the food chain. Should Earth's ecology change enough to where our characteristics are a liability, perhaps the amount of oxygen decreases enough so that our enlarged brains become a hindrance, we will topple from our place. While we can and should put intelligence, strength, the beauty of the physical form on pedestals, we must also realize that the universe doesn't give a rat's backside about our pedestals. The pedestals are only there because they help us in our current situation. Intelligence helps us develop civilization and technology to defend ourselves from the environment. Strength helps us protect ourselves from each other and vicious animals. Beauty helps us attract mates. All of these things work together to keep us alive until we can reproduce so the cycle can be begin again and we propagate. There is no overall goal to evolution. Success is measured in whether or not the species is still alive, not if it has somehow reached some state of perfection. There is no state of perfection, only what we construct to fulfill the underlying goal of propagation.

Morality too serves its purpose in this manner. Altruism helps form communities and a community is more able to fend for its members than individuals can. Because more members of the community survive, they produce more offspring which carry on the customs. The only measure of success for a system of morality is whether it kept the community together so that they can survive and pass on their customs to another generation. A moral system fails when a community fails to produce offspring who carry it on. The only ideal to achieve is that which assist in maintaining the moral system and community. Therefore ideals must either have no affect on community and reproduction or provide some boon to keeping the community together or assisting with reproduction. If an ideal is a hindrance, the community has hamstringed itself and may not survive. This is why it's very unlikely that a community that tolerates killing children for absolutely no reason is not likely to persist for an extended period.

Does this mean that ideals that benefit the community and reproduction are absolute morals? No, a society that takes ideals that hurt the community and reproduction are only hurting their odds, but could still survive and outlive other societies. Another society that takes ideals that help the community and reproduction could still die off, even if they have the best chances. Either action can still result in the demise of the community or its continuation; it only adjusts the odds.

About Game of Thrones, I'm afraid I'm not qualified to discuss. Haven't read the series; missing out, I know, I'll add it to my to-read list.

My apologies. I'll stop spoiling everything for you.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby BLANDCorporatio » Fri Apr 29, 2011 8:34 am

Heh, it sounds to me like you're just smuggling objective criteria for ethics, whether you admit it or not, the moment in which you say that it has as purpose the well-functioning of society, or some utilitarian criterion, or so on. Different as the various approaches to ethics may be (utilitarian, deontologic etc), there are common threads between them (ideas like fairness) that link them in purpose as well.

I don't see how the Universe's indifference to our affairs is relevant. Ethics is not meant to impress the stars, nor Azatoth. Nor is it meant to impress any God, as any number of atheist ethicists can cogently argue. Indeed, something left to the whims of some personal, even if extremely powerful, entity is a poor candidate for something that would be a fair basis for a society.

Finally, the fact that a culture had a certain set of norms and "fails" for some reason (rocks fall, everyone dies; invaders wipe them out; etc) is not in itself an indication of a failure in its choice for norms. The situation is like that of a gambler, playing a game for which no strategy guarantees success. That said, some strategies have better chances of winning than others and are therefore objectively better.

So in short, the way of the ethicist is to try and clarify something like an idea of Good, or Fair, or Evil, into a criterion by which norms of conduct, and conducts themselves, can be evaluated.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Fri Apr 29, 2011 6:23 pm

And I would argue that what you said makes it inherently subjective. If it obeys natural laws, it is objective. Gravity is objective. If it's a human contruct, it is subjective. Aesthetics is subjective. Morality is a human construct; therefore, it is subjective. The only way for it to be objective is if the universe "cared." It doesn't; thus, it only has meaning as far as we attribute to it. Since these concepts only have whatever meaning we attribute to them, we can give them any meaning we desire and there is nothing to say that the meaning is invalid, aside from other individuals, as, once again, it is not governed by the laws of the universe. The only way to measure the correctness of a norm is by persuasion of others or forcing it upon them, thus, in the end, the number of people adhering to the moral is the key determinant for whether that norm is correct or not. So, in conclusion, societies determine their own morals and no society's morals are more correct than any other society's morals, until one society can convince or force the other to adhere to their set of morals.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby MarbitChow » Fri Apr 29, 2011 6:43 pm

Ominous wrote:So, in conclusion, societies determine their own morals and no society's morals are more correct than any other society's morals, until one society can convince or force the other to adhere to their set of morals.

I don't agree with this over-simplification. Societies are structures which have evolved to support and defend a species. They have many variations, but they all have certain common elements. Completely arbitrary, unpredictable killing is discouraged. Use of force is regulated. Procreation is controlled. The specifics of these will vary from society to society, but there are definable, quantifiable goals.

Unpredictability is discouraged. Not 'freedom', mind you, but true randomness. Random acts of violence are punished. Consistent behavior (such as a work ethic) is consistently rewarded. For any given element of a morality, I think you can analyze it against the effect it has on the 'common good'. Different societies will have evolved different solutions, just as nature evolved different solutions to common problems (like using sight or sonar for detecting things at a distance).

If two distinct moral codes have different methods for establishing comparable result, you could certainly argue that they are equivalent. A society that encourages romantic marriage may create a healthier gene pool as more diverse genetic types intermarry. Arranged marriages may help guarantee society stability at the cost of some inbreeding. But there are value judgments that can be made.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby BLANDCorporatio » Sat Apr 30, 2011 6:16 am

Ominous wrote:The only way for it to be objective is if the universe "cared." It doesn't; thus, it only has meaning as far as we attribute to it.


And to repeat, the sun doesn't care what gambling strategy I apply in Vegas, nor does it care that I gamble in the first place. Nonetheless, some ways of placing bets are objectively better than others, and, other things not assumed, it's better to not gamble as the casino has the better chance ;) .

You'll find MarbitChow detailing this summary in the post above. The point is that ethical rules may be related to general objective principles, with no recourse to what some cosmic entity thinks of this.

Also, I don't think you get what non-relativism means, morally speaking. You just replace subjectivity-by-humans with subjectivity-by-God (or the cosmos or whatever) and call it moral absolutism. That's not what we are about.

Ominous wrote:Morality is a human construct; therefore, it is subjective.


Pretty much the root of disagreement here, as I think the implicit premise ("all human constructs are subjective"- call it HCG) is flawed. By way of tongue in cheek refutation, here's one- it is objectively impossible for a human to construct a cathedral that they and several hundred others may fit in, out of match-sticks.

What you take HCG to mean is "all human constructs are, essentially, games (and we are free to lay out any rules for games)". This is taking the po-mo program of studying the influence of the human factor in things like scientific progress too far. It's one thing to say that anything a society produces (culture, with its subsets ethics and science) is influenced by itself (prevailing attitudes, politics etc), and another to say that that is the only influence. Fields like science AND ethics also operate under objective constraints.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Sat Apr 30, 2011 3:39 pm

BLANDCorporatio wrote:And to repeat, the sun doesn't care what gambling strategy I apply in Vegas, nor does it care that I gamble in the first place. Nonetheless, some ways of placing bets are objectively better than others, and, other things not assumed, it's better to not gamble as the casino has the better chance ;) .

You'll find MarbitChow detailing this summary in the post above. The point is that ethical rules may be related to general objective principles, with no recourse to what some cosmic entity thinks of this.


You're absolutely correct that there is an objectively better decision in this scenario. However, the scenario is entirely subjective. The game in the casino are human constructs. Thus all results of it are subjective. You buy into a system of assumptions that have no basis on natural laws: that the cards have meanings attributed to them, that certain combinations of cards are 'better' than others, that the goal is to win/make money. The moment you throw any one of these assumptions out the system is altered and the objectively 'better' options change dramatically. If you're trying to lose the game, suddenly the objectively 'better' choices are the complete opposites of what they were.

Also, I don't think you get what non-relativism means, morally speaking. You just replace subjectivity-by-humans with subjectivity-by-God (or the cosmos or whatever) and call it moral absolutism. That's not what we are about.


The cosmos itself cannot be subjective as it is inherently objective. Only human experience is subjective, nor can we fully reach the objective, because our experiences of the objective universe are clouded by our subjective senses and perceptions. Furthermore, in the scenario where an omnipotent being did create the universe, one can assume that it would be able to attribute objectivity to anything it desired, as it is the prime determinant of objectivity, since it created all that it is objective.

Pretty much the root of disagreement here, as I think the implicit premise ("all human constructs are subjective"- call it HCG) is flawed. By way of tongue in cheek refutation, here's one- it is objectively impossible for a human to construct a cathedral that they and several hundred others may fit in, out of match-sticks.

What you take HCG to mean is "all human constructs are, essentially, games (and we are free to lay out any rules for games)". This is taking the po-mo program of studying the influence of the human factor in things like scientific progress too far. It's one thing to say that anything a society produces (culture, with its subsets ethics and science) is influenced by itself (prevailing attitudes, politics etc), and another to say that that is the only influence. Fields like science AND ethics also operate under objective constraints.


The cathedral is not a human construct as I am using the term. It is a physical construct that has been shaped by humans. None of the materials were created by humans. The component parts were simply altered to a more useable form.

I agree that there are objective constraints to what humans can do. However, rightness and wrongness have no foundation in objective reality. There is only "what works" and "what doesn't work." Now, if you want to ascribe good to "what works" and evil to "what doesn't work", be my guest. However, "what works" only works within the human construct. Consciously or not, we decide that survival, procreation, reducing misery, etc. are qualities that are desirable, and form our societies and morals around them. As with the gambling example above, the moment you begin removing these desired qualities, the system changes and some of "what doesn't work" will become "what works" and some of "what works" will become "what doesn't work." Does survival, the desire to procreate, the want to reduce personal misery have an objective basis? Yes, they are all driven by biological processes. Then again so is the desire to want to kill someone when enraged, so is the desire to take what you do not own, so is the desire to fear the other, whether that other is some horrific monstrosity or simply another culture. If we're going to start claiming that any human desire that is given rise by objective biological processes is moral, we're going to be living in a very ugly and short-lived society. The only thing that exists is our biologically driven wants and needs, our socially constructed means of regulating how we fulfill our wants and needs, and finally an objectively determined "what works" that is derived from that human construct.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby MarbitChow » Sat Apr 30, 2011 6:42 pm

Ominous wrote:The only thing that exists is our biologically driven wants and needs, our socially constructed means of regulating how we fulfill our wants and needs, and finally an objectively determined "what works" that is derived from that human construct.

You're contradicting yourself here, really. If you acknowledge that biological imperatives are objective, and that moral systems can be constructed to regulate them, and that there are objective methods of determining 'what works', then you're acknowledging that there are objective bases for morality.

Introducing the terms 'good' and 'evil' into the equation are unnecessary, since 'good' only applies to a particular moral framework. However, if we step back and acknowledge multiple moral frameworks, then we can objectively analyze each against the other.

What we cannot do, and what you are correct in postulating, is to say that a PARTICULAR moral framework is 'good' or 'evil' when judged against another moral framework, since the definitions of 'good' and 'evil' apply to only a specific framework. What is 'good' in one framework might certainly be 'evil' (i.e. forbidden) in another. But that's different from saying that there is an objective criteria against which different frameworks can be judged.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Sun May 01, 2011 12:56 am

MarbitChow wrote:You're contradicting yourself here, really. If you acknowledge that biological imperatives are objective, and that moral systems can be constructed to regulate them, and that there are objective methods of determining 'what works', then you're acknowledging that there are objective bases for morality.

Yes, there is an objective basis for what works and what doesn't work. It doesn't mean that what works is inherently right, only that it is the most pragmatic choice.


Introducing the terms 'good' and 'evil' into the equation are unnecessary, since 'good' only applies to a particular moral framework. However, if we step back and acknowledge multiple moral frameworks, then we can objectively analyze each against the other.

I'm not introducing 'good' and 'evil' into the equation. That's the whole point of the argument. By right and wrong I mean good and evil. I use them interchangeably, as most people do. It's an unfortunate side-effect of conflating words to become synonyms. If you'e been using "right" and' "wrong" to mean "valid" and "invalid" in that one set of morals accomplishes a given goal more readily than other set of morals, or as I was saying "what works" vs. "what doesn't work," then we have no argument. My issue is with "right"/"good" and "wrong"/"evil." I just now realized that I hadn't used either "good" or "evil" to this point for which I apologize. I've gotten so used to avoiding the words out of a deep dislike for them, mainly because, *tada* I'm a moral relativist and find them inherently meaningless.


What we cannot do, and what you are correct in postulating, is to say that a PARTICULAR moral framework is 'good' or 'evil' when judged against another moral framework, since the definitions of 'good' and 'evil' apply to only a specific framework. What is 'good' in one framework might certainly be 'evil' (i.e. forbidden) in another. But that's different from saying that there is an objective criteria against which different frameworks can be judged.

Again, agreement. Aside from the fact that any framework you try to judge it from is subjective, because you have to apply a value to objective facts. Is survival a welcome quality or an unwelcome quality? The universe doesn't care. There is no objective "survival is a welcome quality." We are driven to survive only because it's what has worked to this point in our environment, but again we are also driven to kill one another at times. The moment you say "surviving is a welcome quality" you have just attributed a value to a valueless quality, making it subjective.

Another way to phrase this is by the following example. There is a rock of an incline. The rock is perfectly stationary, but you could give it a push to cause it to roll down the incline. A rock rolling down an incline can hurt someone, but, in this scenario, there are no humans or animals involved, aside from yourself. The objective facts are that:
  • There is a rock.
  • The rock is stationary and will remain so unless acted upon.
  • If acted on, gravity will cause the rock to roll down an incline.
  • If the rock rolls down an incline, it will eventually stop on the flat surface at the bottom of the incline.
  • An individual can be hurt by a rock rolling down an incline, but won't in this case.
  • You have the choice to act upon the rock.
That is it. Those are the objective facts. There are no values for these qualities. They simply exist as facts.

Now let's insert a moral system that claims that rocks should not be rolled down inclines because there is a chance someone could be hurt by a fast moving rock. Have the objective facts changed in any way? Nope. However, we have attributed hurting people to be a wrong action. There is no objective fact that hurting people is wrong. That is a concept we have created. This application of a subjective idea has altered the objective fact "The rock is stationary and will remain so unless acted upon," has been given the value of being a positive action, and the objective fact that "If acted on, gravity will cause the rock to roll down an incline," has been given the value of being a negative action. These actions are not inherently positive or negative in themselves. They only became positive and negative because of our attribution of a value to an inherently valueless quality.

I've also noticed that I've been on the defensive for the entire argument, so I'm going to push and be a bit on the offensive. Please give me an example of an objectively right action, or, even better, describe this objective framework for which moral systems can be judged in detail.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby BLANDCorporatio » Sun May 01, 2011 6:16 am

Ominous wrote:The cosmos itself cannot be subjective as it is inherently objective. Only human experience is subjective, nor can we fully reach the objective, because our experiences of the objective universe are clouded by our subjective senses and perceptions. Furthermore, in the scenario where an omnipotent being did create the universe, one can assume that it would be able to attribute objectivity to anything it desired, as it is the prime determinant of objectivity, since it created all that it is objective.


For one thing, the cosmos doesn't care about anything. The movement of all the air on the Earth will have about as much influence on Alpha Centauri as this debate will.

For second, the God thing is a non-sequitur. A creator God may be like Azathoth, a creator by mistake and wholly uninterested in the creation. Therefore, the whims of a creator God are not by themselves something to base anything on.

Ominous wrote:You're absolutely correct that there is an objectively better decision in this scenario. However, the scenario is entirely subjective. {snip}

I agree that there are objective constraints to what humans can do. However, rightness and wrongness have no foundation in objective reality. There is only "what works" and "what doesn't work." {snip}

The only thing that exists is our biologically driven wants and needs, our socially constructed means of regulating how we fulfill our wants and needs, and finally an objectively determined "what works" that is derived from that human construct.


So we agree that given a scenario/set of goals, it is possible to find strategies that are better than others. But before moving on with this discussion I think an answer to a question would be most illuminating and help frame the rest: is medicine objective?

It's a simple enough question. May help illuminate some common ground. Without any common ground, venturing answers to what may be objectively right will only result in the sides talking past each other.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Sylvan » Sun May 01, 2011 7:29 am

BLANDCorporatio wrote:
Sylvan wrote:My apologies if this post is simply a lack of imagination/cognition on my part, I just honestly don't get what you are trying to say and don't see any illogical leap from "this is how it is" to "this is how it ought to be" present in the video linked.

TW;DF:
Once you know what you want, you can have a measure of how good a plan is to get you there. So what do you want? Why?

Specifically, once we decide we want to minimize suffering/maximize wellbeing (jumping over nitpicks like how to quantify them), we can decide which paths are better towards that goal or not. Why should we want to minimize suffering/maximize wellbeing, however?




I am waaaaaaay to tired to properly read this thread at the moment, but I'll get back to the rest of the discussion later.

In the meantime, to clarify what I was saying in my post in the other thread, I think Harris was trying to say that maximizing wellbeing and minimizing suffering *is* morality. I don't think he ever gave a justification for it, he just claimed that is what morality itself is, as a matter of definition.

AFAIK there is no is/ought divide unless he is making a claim about how the world itself is, and then presuming that we ought to act in some particular fashion because of the "facts" he is presenting. Well, or if he claimed that we ought to act in a certain way because that is what morality is, which I didn't see in the video. (Though it is probably assumed that we all ought to act like moral persons, as that would probably make for a niftier world in general)

Whether or not you personally (or me, or any other random Dick, Jane, or Sally, for that matter) agree with his take on the definition of morality is a whole 'nother can of worms, but I thought the whole point of the video was to say ignorance of "the answer(s)" != lack of a concrete answer.

Personally, I found his point about the moral irrelevance of things like rocks (which, AFAWK don't contain the capacity for suffering) a compelling argument. The whole point being to avoid some sort of nebulous and ephemeral "ought" in favor of observing the effects of our actions on beings that have the capacity to suffer.



Oh, also, TW;DF?

Edit: Okay, so I lied. My body does weird "You were really tired, but now you're wiiiiide awake!" things to me all the time, which is part of the reason why I am (still) awake at 7 in the A.M.

I think both sides of the debate are right, in their own fashion, and there may be some talking past each other going on.

To Ominous - The universe doesn't care about gravity or the rock either, but not too long ago the human race didn't have neat little equations to map out the physics of how exactly a rock would roll down a hill. Our definitions of "morality" aren't meaningless - they are educated guesses based upon specific criteria. You have to plug in different variables (weight, incline, force of the push, etc.) in order to accurately predict how this rock will roll down this hill, but that doesn't mean there isn't an objective way that every particular rock will roll down any particular hill.

Morality is still a measure of consequences in reality, and therefore there are meaningful things to say about different actions, from a moral standpoint. You just have to know the criteria which you are judging an action by. Which brings me.....

To BLAND and Marbitchow - The fact that our criteria for "what is moral" shifts does mean that morality is in some way subjective. The fact of the matter is, we don't know what new knowledge will arise in the future. This means that any answer we come up with to the question of "what is moral" may be invalidated in the future. Now, the part that is the real kicker in this is that our frame of reference may change an infinite number of times.

Lets say it is 1,000 years in the future and humanity has managed to not die off. In fact, we've managed to spread out into the stars, have achieved faster than light travel, Star Trek style synthesizers, and we're all part-cyborg. Is it moral for us to terraform plantes where other life forms may be living? What if one day they would become sentient?

Fast forward another 10,000 years, and lets say we are all beings made out of pure energy. Is it moral for us to interact with physical beings? What if we give them some form of cancer, or whatever other defect they could possibly have?

I totally get where you are coming from when you say that there will be objective answers to those questions, just as there are objective answers to the ones we face now. But the framework of "what is ethical" will change just as fast as our knowledge of what "is" in the universe does.

Every side in this debate has a good point, but I am of the opinion that morality is both objective and subjective. It is subject to the frame of reference you find yourself in, but there is always an objective set of circumstances to achieve the desired end.

To all parties involved - remember that ought implies can. We can only judge "morality" to the extent that we can see the consequences of our actions. As long as we are limited creatures we will be stuck to a particular frame of reference (subjectivity) and we will make judgements (objectively) based upon that frame of reference. Right and wrong are not meaningless constructs unless you are referring to a specific and universal right and wrong. Societal norms are as meaningless for morality as universal truths are.

From this dissertation by Joshua Green -

"Suppose, for example, that I tell you that Giulio is a skilled singer. You might then ask, “What makes him a skilled singer?” Now suppose I say, “Nothing. He’s just a skilled singer.” You’d be puzzled, no doubt. “But surely,” you might say, “there must be something about the way he sings that makes him one among the skilled singers. Is it his ability to project his voice? His ability to accurately hit a wide range of notes? What?” And then I respond, “Oh, no, no. Nothing like that. He’s just a skilled singer, that’s all.” This is nonsense. Giulio be a skilled singer without there being some further story to tell about the features of him and his singing that make them skilled. Giulio has the property of being a skilled singer in virtue of having some combination of more basic properties, properties concerning his ability to project his voice, to accurately hit a wide range of notes, etc.

The same goes for moral properties. If some action is wrong, it can’t just be wrong. It has to be wrong for some reason, because that action has certain properties that make it wrong. Perhaps it’s an action that fails to maximize utility, or an action based on a maxim that cannot be universalized, or perhaps something else entirely, but one way or another there must be some story to tell about the properties of that action in virtue of which it has the further property of being wrong."
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby MarbitChow » Sun May 01, 2011 12:06 pm

Ominous wrote:Is survival a welcome quality or an unwelcome quality? The universe doesn't care. There is no objective "survival is a welcome quality." We are driven to survive only because it's what has worked to this point in our environment, but again we are also driven to kill one another at times. The moment you say "surviving is a welcome quality" you have just attributed a value to a valueless quality, making it subjective.

Morality requires a sentient species upon which to act, by definition, so attempting to remove sentience & value judgments from the equation is pointless. Subjective vs. Objective doesn't mean "happens with an observer vs. happens with no observer", since you cannot even have morality without an observer. As I see it, in morality, objective means that, if you define the set of criteria properly, the conclusions that are derived are the same for all observers, regardless of their moral frame of reference.

In order to have a conversation at all, you have to define a set of assumptions. Geometry is meaningless unless we all agree on what a point means, for example.
The assumptions in a discussion of objective morality, as I see it, include that survival of the species that is contemplating the morality is a welcome quality, since morality is strictly a set of behavioral directions for the given species.
Objective morality also means removing things like divine revelation and threats / rewards in the afterlife from the equations. A moral system that is based on an afterlife reward will absolutely come to a different conclusion about what works / what doesn't work than one that only focuses on the material, observable world.

After all, if you balance the duration of eternity vs. a simple 100-year span, the equation can justify almost any action in the short term, provided that the end result is positive reward for infinity afterward.

If you believe that all morality is subjective, simply because there must be an observer, then you must also believe that all sciences are subjective as well, for no science can be formulated without an observer. At this point, your definition of subjective vs. objective, while potentially literally true, is also meaningless.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Mon May 02, 2011 12:54 am

Sylvan wrote:I think both sides of the debate are right, in their own fashion, and there may be some talking past each other going on.

We are talking past each other at this point, which is what I said would happen in the other thread. Oh well, sometimes it's fun to just talk, even if there's no one to hear.

To Ominous - The universe doesn't care about gravity or the rock either, but not too long ago the human race didn't have neat little equations to map out the physics of how exactly a rock would roll down a hill.

That was my point. The universe doesn't care, because it can't care. Caring is a human emotion and is subjective.

Our definitions of "morality" aren't meaningless - they are educated guesses based upon specific criteria. You have to plug in different variables (weight, incline, force of the push, etc.) in order to accurately predict how this rock will roll down this hill, but that doesn't mean there isn't an objective way that every particular rock will roll down any particular hill.

You're correct. There is an objective way that the rock will roll down the hill. There is no objective way to measure whether rolling the rock down the hill was correct or incorrect, until you apply a human value system to the act.

BLANDCorporatio wrote:For one thing, the cosmos doesn't care about anything. The movement of all the air on the Earth will have about as much influence on Alpha Centauri as this debate will.

For second, the God thing is a non-sequitur. A creator God may be like Azathoth, a creator by mistake and wholly uninterested in the creation. Therefore, the whims of a creator God are not by themselves something to base anything on.

Such a god could exist. My point was that anything capable of creating an objective reality in a supernatural manner is likely able to render whatever it imagines as being objective in that reality, which would include concepts like good and evil. I was emrely suggesting one method for the existence of an objective moral system.

So we agree that given a scenario/set of goals, it is possible to find strategies that are better than others. But before moving on with this discussion I think an answer to a question would be most illuminating and help frame the rest: is medicine objective?

It's a simple enough question. May help illuminate some common ground. Without any common ground, venturing answers to what may be objectively right will only result in the sides talking past each other.

It depends on what you mean Are you asking if the practice of medicine exists? As far as I am aware. Are you asking if the actual practice is entirely objective? No, it's a human construct.

I get the feeling that you're trying to ask what my epistemological outlook is. I am a Constructivist. The article on Social Constructionism is helpful too.
As I said from the onset in the other thread, this discussion would get nowhere as there is very likely a fundamental values dissonance that will not be bridged with just one discussion.

MarbitChow wrote:Morality requires a sentient species upon which to act, by definition, so attempting to remove sentience & value judgments from the equation is pointless. Subjective vs. Objective doesn't mean "happens with an observer vs. happens with no observer", since you cannot even have morality without an observer. As I see it, in morality, objective means that, if you define the set of criteria properly, the conclusions that are derived are the same for all observers, regardless of their moral frame of reference.

And that is our disconnect, because that is how I define objective and subjective. Objective is the outside reality. Subjective is anything shaped by our perceptions, senses, and thoughts.

If you believe that all morality is subjective, simply because there must be an observer, then you must also believe that all sciences are subjective as well, for no science can be formulated without an observer. At this point, your definition of subjective vs. objective, while potentially literally true, is also meaningless.

I do believe that science is subjective. Please, see the above link to the Constructivist epistemology article.

If you need evidence that science is subjective, approach an actual scientist and ask him if they deal with capital "T" truths and 100% certainties. Very few scientists will claim absolute certainty in anything. Capital "T" truths and absolute certainties is the realm of faith not science. All science accepts that there is a small probability of being incorrect. God could very well exist, evolution could be utter bunk, the earth could only be 6,000 years old, the devil could've buried dinosaur bones to throw us off, and it could be turtles all the way down. It's just extremely unlikely.

From this very simple truth about science comes the idea that we can never reach reality. It's there, but it's clouded by our perceptions. We can never be truly objective, because we filter our senses through our subjective minds. There is always the issue that we could be incorrect about something. Because there is always the possibility that we are incorrect, any moral system we create has the possibility of being incorrect, thus all moral systems fail to be objective, as it could be invalid.

It is not meaningless either. It is a growing paradigm in numerous fields, including political, science, sociology,philosophy, gender studies, etc. Furthermore, it spawned the postmodernist movement in the arts.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Sylvan » Mon May 02, 2011 5:11 am

Ominous wrote:You're correct. There is an objective way that the rock will roll down the hill. There is no objective way to measure whether rolling the rock down the hill was correct or incorrect, until you apply a human value system to the act.


You really ought to read that dissertation by Joshua Greene. Extremely short version goes like this - applying deontological concepts like "right" or "wrong" to "value-neutral" concepts is linguistic nonsense, because things like "right" or "wrong" are basically self-defining. See above about Giulio. The important question to ask is not "But how do you know it is true", but "What could make such a thing true?" (The section on epistemological skepticism vs. metaphysical skepticism) The epistemological skeptic's position is always reduced to the point of absurdity, because we can't ever know for sure that anything is real, but who cares?)

The important thing to take away from my position is that this doesn't render morality meaningless, in the same way that science isn't meaningless. Once you define a criteria and a set of goals you can reach answers that are objectively better than others. Your frame of reference may shift, rendering old answers meaningless, but that is the way of everything. Everything changes. A single perfect system will always be vulnerable to change.

From this very simple truth about science comes the idea that we can never reach reality. It's there, but it's clouded by our perceptions. We can never be truly objective, because we filter our senses through our subjective minds. There is always the issue that we could be incorrect about something. Because there is always the possibility that we are incorrect, any moral system we create has the possibility of being incorrect, thus all moral systems fail to be objective, as it could be invalid.


Emphasis mine. Our perceptions don't "cloud" reality. They help us to define it in ways that are useful. Everything we see is subject to human perception, and this is true of the simplest things we do, like seeing colors. When you change your frame of reference, you change everything else. By your definitions, not even a (G)god could be objective, because it would still have its own frame of reference. The ability to create a universe still doesn't equate to being able to see everything as it actually is. In fact, I'd argue that such a being would be a horrible judge of things, unless it could simultaneously see everything from every possible frame of reference. Any objective morality created by such a being would be inherently meaningless to anything else besides such a being, because nothing else could follow it.

I suppose the only portion of your position I really disagree with is the idea that there is no right or wrong, only what society accepts. Once your position is defined, there are actual answers, even if we don't know them. And the fact that you have to define a position first doesn't make it meaningless. Everything is meaningless in a void. That is sort of the definition of "meaning", and if you argue that everything is without meaning unless seen "as it truly is", whatever that "means", then your position is reduced to absurdity from just about any point of view (and the remaining points of view don't leave you in very good company.)

(See this presentation by R. Beau Lotto, experimental neuroscientist, about how the brain sees color. The fact that we never truly see an object the way it is isn't what is important [bees and computers and presumably everything under the sun gets it wrong the exact same way we do, btw]. What is important is that our brain continually redefines normality based upon the context in which we find ourselves. This doesn't mean our perceptions are fragile, because if they were we wouldn't be here. In the end there really is no objective state as you describe it, because everything is constantly changing.)
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby MarbitChow » Mon May 02, 2011 10:05 am

Ominous wrote:
MarbitChow wrote:Morality requires a sentient species upon which to act, by definition, so attempting to remove sentience & value judgments from the equation is pointless. Subjective vs. Objective doesn't mean "happens with an observer vs. happens with no observer", since you cannot even have morality without an observer. As I see it, in morality, objective means that, if you define the set of criteria properly, the conclusions that are derived are the same for all observers, regardless of their moral frame of reference.

And that is our disconnect, because that is how I define objective and subjective. Objective is the outside reality. Subjective is anything shaped by our perceptions, senses, and thoughts.

But it's not. Objective just means 'without bias' / 'based on facts'. It's an attempt to remove individual interpretation. You're free to redefine things however you want, but your definition in this case is wrong (as in 'it does not work').
You're define all knowledge as subjective, stating that we cannot know reality. Based on your definition, and your epistemology, it's literally true, but functionally useless.

Would it help if, instead of using the terms 'objective' / 'subjective', we use 'unbiased' / 'biased', or will you assert that all knowledge is also biased by definition?
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby BLANDCorporatio » Mon May 02, 2011 2:05 pm

Ominous wrote:It depends on what you mean Are you asking if the practice of medicine exists? As far as I am aware. Are you asking if the actual practice is entirely objective? No, it's a human construct.

I get the feeling that you're trying to ask what my epistemological outlook is. I am a Constructivist. The article on Social Constructionism is helpful too.


No thanks on reading those articles, I get my daily ration of the word "construct" just from reading your posts ;) And more to the point, I want to know what you think, not what some wikipedia editor thinks about someone else's train of thought.

So to repeat, the question is "is medicine objective?" I'm not asking whether the practice exists (duh!). I'm asking, can "objective" be applied to it as a label. "Partially so" is a valid answer. But may need some explaining, as in, where's the "partially" limited at?

MarbitChow wrote:Would it help if, instead of using the terms 'objective' / 'subjective', we use 'unbiased' / 'biased', or will you assert that all knowledge is also biased by definition?


I get the feeling that yes, some part of this is a battle of terms (as the two sides cannot agree when a certain label should apply). One way to define what you mean by some label is just, explain it, that is, give a definition for that label. Another is to provide some examples of use (what it can/cannot be applied to). I'll take the latter tack for now.
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Re: Shades of Grey and Morality

Postby Ominous » Mon May 02, 2011 3:50 pm

Sylvan wrote:You really ought to read that dissertation by Joshua Greene. Extremely short version goes like this - applying deontological concepts like "right" or "wrong" to "value-neutral" concepts is linguistic nonsense, because things like "right" or "wrong" are basically self-defining. See above about Giulio. The important question to ask is not "But how do you know it is true", but "What could make such a thing true?" (The section on epistemological skepticism vs. metaphysical skepticism) The epistemological skeptic's position is always reduced to the point of absurdity, because we can't ever know for sure that anything is real, but who cares?)

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to peruse a dissertation. I'm in the middle of my own research at the moment. I agree with the "Who cares?" sentiment. My issue is when people start claiming that they can know objectivity. Once a person is intellectually honest and states "Yeah, we can't really know reality with 100% certainty," I'm fine.

Emphasis mine. Our perceptions don't "cloud" reality. They help us to define it in ways that are useful. Everything we see is subject to human perception, and this is true of the simplest things we do, like seeing colors. When you change your frame of reference, you change everything else. By your definitions, not even a (G)god could be objective, because it would still have its own frame of reference. The ability to create a universe still doesn't equate to being able to see everything as it actually is. In fact, I'd argue that such a being would be a horrible judge of things, unless it could simultaneously see everything from every possible frame of reference. Any objective morality created by such a being would be inherently meaningless to anything else besides such a being, because nothing else could follow it.

I disagree with the statement about a god. As an example, let’s say a person imagines a world, maybe a new campaign setting for their D&D game. He hasn’t shared this world with anyone, so it is entirely within his mind. Anything he can imagine can take shape in that world and whatever he wants to be true is true. Since we’re discussing the omniscient and omnipotent variant of a god, putting aside the logic issues inherent in an omnipotent and omniscient deity, one can assume that it can easily do the same with its own imagination, then render it real. Also, would not being able to simultaneously see everything from every possible frame of reference by included under the definition of omniscient?

I suppose the only portion of your position I really disagree with is the idea that there is no right or wrong, only what society accepts. Once your position is defined, there are actual answers, even if we don't know them. And the fact that you have to define a position first doesn't make it meaningless. Everything is meaningless in a void. That is sort of the definition of "meaning", and if you argue that everything is without meaning unless seen "as it truly is", whatever that "means", then your position is reduced to absurdity from just about any point of view (and the remaining points of view don't leave you in very good company.)

Again, I never said morality is meaningless, only that is derived from human subjectivity. Just because something is not objective, does not render it without meaning. Out political systems are entirely subjective creations, yet they have tremendous meaning. Just try say “I have a bomb” while flying, and you’ll see just how much meaning the political system has.

(See this presentation by R. Beau Lotto, experimental neuroscientist, about how the brain sees color. The fact that we never truly see an object the way it is isn't what is important [bees and computers and presumably everything under the sun gets it wrong the exact same way we do, btw]. What is important is that our brain continually redefines normality based upon the context in which we find ourselves. This doesn't mean our perceptions are fragile, because if they were we wouldn't be here. In the end there really is no objective state as you describe it, because everything is constantly changing.)

Agree entirely, except that there is an objective state. We just can’t know it. There is something out there serving as the foundation for the perceptions.

MarbitChow wrote:But it's not. Objective just means 'without bias' / 'based on facts'. It's an attempt to remove individual interpretation. You're free to redefine things however you want, but your definition in this case is wrong (as in 'it does not work').

The definitions of Objectivity (emphasis mine) (Also, I find it rather humorous that the example given for the first definition of the second set of definitions is our very disagreement.):

1. the state or quality of being objective: He tries to maintain objectivity in his judgment.
2. intentness on objects external to the mind.
3. external reality.

1. existing independently of perception or an individual's conceptions: are there objective moral values?
2. undistorted by emotion or personal bias
3. of or relating to actual and external phenomena as opposed to thoughts, feelings, etc
4. med (of disease symptoms) perceptible to persons other than the individual affected
5. grammar See also accusative denoting a case of nouns and pronouns, esp in languages having only two cases, that is used to identify the direct object of a finite verb or preposition and for various other purposes. In English the objective case of pronouns is also used in many elliptical constructions (as in Poor me! Who, him? ), as the subject of a gerund (as in It was me helping him ), informally as a predicate complement (as in It's me ), and in nonstandard use as part of a compound subject (as in John, Larry, and me went fishing )
6. of, or relating to a goal or aim
7. the object of one's endeavours; goal; aim
8. military Also called: objective point a place or position towards which forces are directed
9. an actual phenomenon; reality
10. grammar
a. the objective case
b. a word or speech element in the objective case
11. optics Also called: object glass
a. the lens or combination of lenses nearest to the object in an optical instrument
b. the lens or combination of lenses forming the image in a camera or projector

You're define all knowledge as subjective, stating that we cannot know reality. Based on your definition, and your epistemology, it's literally true, but functionally useless.

Yes, it’s functionally useless, but I was never arguing for functionality. As long as you’re being intellectually honest with yourself and realize that, in the end, you can’t truly know reality, I’m good.

Would it help if, instead of using the terms 'objective' / 'subjective', we use 'unbiased' / 'biased', or will you assert that all knowledge is also biased by definition?

No, because that’s not what I’m arguing. I agree that a moral system can theoretically be unbiased. You have no argument there. My issue is with the statement that moral rightness and wrongness are objective values.

BLANDCorporatio wrote:No thanks on reading those articles, I get my daily ration of the word "construct" just from reading your posts ;) And more to the point, I want to know what you think, not what some wikipedia editor thinks about someone else's train of thought.

I gave you a link that outlines how I think. I’m not going to reiterate everything written in those articles. That’s like someone in an argument over physics asking another individual to rewrite all of Einstein’s work, because he refuses to go read a nice summation elsewhere. The work has already been done, and, considering how behind I am on my research, I feel no reason to do it all over again.
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