Conjunction of Descriptive and Normative Ethics

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In Greeko-Roman societies of the past, it was collectively agreed upon that slavery was a necessary and justifiable economic endeavor. Similarly in early America, it slavery was considered ethical and essential to the economy. A hundred years later, American culture changed their views on slaveries acceptability and ruled it immoral and unconstitutional. The acceptance of slavery in different cultures, as well as within a single culture over time, follows exactly with Ruth B's philosophy of cultural relativism. Her philosophy states that each culture is responsible for defining what is morally right and that each culture is equally as right as the next, and there is no room for judgement from other cultures. W.T. Stance on the other hand believe in moral absolutism which argued that there is a universal 'correct' position that should be used by all people in all cultures regardless of when it existed. Thus, slavery was wrong, and the US eventually came to view it correctly, but was initially morally unjust. Ruth B.'s and W.T. Stance's philosophies can be viewed through the lens of descriptive and normative ethics. Descriptive ethics describes what is, while normative essays describe what should be. I posit that a moral code can best be derived when combining descriptive and normative ethics, by applying our consciousness and rational thought to the analysis of our history and experience.

Humans evolved from the Great Apes (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, etc). We spit off through the process of evolution. Evolution uses natural selection which is the idea that in the normal variation between individuals of a species, some variations are more beneficial to survival than others, thus allowing that more successful individual to pass down his genes more effectively. Over time, that attribute will continue to develop and change with changing circumstances. These variation helped turn Great Apes into what we now view as 'human'. Using the same force of natural selection, I believe specific behaviors began to emerge related to our social interactions, such as reciprocity and team work. The set of behaviors and social instincts that were passed down over millennia later became known as morals.

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Out of the need for humans to explain our surroundings and these generally shared social instincts or morals, humans started to create religion. Entirely outside the conscious mind, Religion was the articulation of the values which society is already living by, presented in the form of stories. Religion was humanities first attempt to understand the subconscious. Because these religious texts were written by people and passed down for thousands of years, they had the advantage of growing and evolving with humans as our values changed.

If you take the best of 1000 people, you have a hero. Take the best of 1000 heroes, and you have a prophet. Take the best of 1000 prophets and you have a God. This distillation of human behavior, extracting out the most beneficial attributes is really just the identification of the most effective social instincts, the most effective morals. Religion is so effective and wide spread because of it's ability to create articulated systems that incentivizes people to live by these distilled morals which were conveniently written into 'human 101' book.

Human are constantly and passively extracting out subcontextual meaning far beyond what is obvious. In a similar way as Hume argued, you can not intuit how two object will react without having prior experience. Similarly, you cannot intuit the outcome of a social situations without prior experience. For example, do you have your children do pushups as punishment when they get in trouble? Great. You're teaching them to associate exercise with punishment. You literally could do nothing better if your goal was to keep your children from exercising as adults. In a similar way, the actual results of these hypothetical manufactured religious books may have entirely opposite effects as was intended. The religious text has the benefit of trial and error over generations to generate an end result that is beneficial without interest in why it is beneficial, as humans would attempt through the engineering and design process of the book.

We don't know what kind of unexpected consequences would arise from the suggestion of our artificial religious text. There is too much we don't know. Look back at Phycology just 50 or so years ago. They thought that hugging newborns and giving them attention made them week. It took two against-the-grain guys, one a theorist and one an experimentalist before this thinking was finally overturned. What about the soviet union? Communism sounds great on paper, but it does not take out humanity into account, and thus has been disastrous for multiple unrelated societies through the world and history. The best laid plans.

Religion also has some attributes of self fulfilling prophecies. Religion acts like a structure for the proliferation of morals across a society, acting as a vehicle for the uptake of these morals even when they are not built in social behaviors. Communities and religious practices are built to support the development of the self, using the gods and heroes from their religious text as a model, thus increasing your survival rate, and passing down the genes that made you susceptible to those ideas in the first place. Thus, newer generations will have more and more of the proclivity to believe in religion, even if they do not necessarily share the morals of the religion. In this way, the link between religion and morals becomes blurry. It is easy to interpret religion as the foundation for morals, but instead, as FABROU SAID, RELIGION IS PROJECTION OF THE IDEALIZED SELF, religion is based off the morals already in us.

An interesting phenomenon is the apparent convergence on the idea of 'spiritual enlightenment', which can be found in many unrelated religions and philosophers. From Nishitani's personal quest to find true answers. (Chaffee 348), to Christianity where 'Jesus’s message was to reveal this path, through words and actions, so that all could achieve spiritual perfection and salvation in preparation for life after death.' (Chaffee 355), to the existentialist authenticity which asks 'How can I develop an approach to moral responsibility that is grounded in my absolute freedom of choice?' (Chaffee 488), to Hinduism's tenant which stresses 'Contemplation of the luminous self', (Chaffee 351), to Socrates' God given 'mandate to wake people from their unthinking slumbers'(Chaffee 78). This idea is of 'waking up' or 'spiritual enlightenment' is very pervasive, but not necessarily clear cut as it manifests differently depending on culture. If religion is the proliferation of morals, and religions converge on this idea of 'spiritual enlightenment', is the path to spiritual enlightenment is the pinnacle of moral expression?

We have this idea where morals started as social instincts inborn in everyone, but it has changed to behaving in accordance to the distilled morals of great people in the past, supported with religious community and practice. This indicates that most people have some semblance of social instincts, but that is distinct form the distilled morals from religion. This duality is mirrored in a subset of ethical philosophy: ethical relativism, which takes the form of subjective morals, and cultural morality.

Moral Subjectivism dictate that every person defines their own morals and therefore is morally justified in doing what they believe is right. This sounds great, but it does nothing to say that someone couldn't define their morals to include raping and pillaging. There are obvious flaws and this idea should not be taken seriously, as it leads to anarchy. With even the most haphazard of investigations, it becomes clear that 'that ethical subjectivism does not really mean advocating a 'live and let live' point of view, because it does not guarantee a tolerant acceptance of the rights and interests of others.' (Chaffee 411)

While subjective relativism has no validity, cultural relativism has much more going for it, but I need to attend to some loose ends before I go further. It is important to differentiate two types of ethics: descriptive ethics and normative ethics. Descriptive ethics represents what is the case, while normative ethics is what should be. This is very important to note because deriving a 'should' from an 'is' can be problematic. As John Searle explained: '…No set of descriptive statements can entail an evaluative statement without the addition of at least an evaluative premise. To believe otherwise is to commit the naturalistic fallacy (Chaffee 412 quoting John Searle from unknown). The crux is the need for an evaluative premise. In my case, this evaluative premise is natural selection. Natural selection 'evaluates' the survivability of individuals against the environment. Those most fit are more likely to pass down the genes that made themselves successful compared to those without the advantageous variation.

Natural selection is very complex though. Technically, someone could rape many women who believe the baby must be born no matter what, but he would be socially condemned and put in prison. His behavior breaks other norms that have been deemed moral. His methodology doesn't set him up for long term success. Being socially accepted is fundamental to our survival as social creatures. He did himself a disfavor. What sounds beneficial purely from the perspective of the passage of genes, can have outcomes which have unexpected effects.

Cultural Relativism says that each culture determines what is morally right. This idea can easily be demonstrated with the huge variety of what has been deemed morally 'right' in various cultures over the years from human sacrifice to slavery to child abuse. One of the proponents of cultural relativism was Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist. 'For Benedict, the term morality should be defined as “socially approved customs”—nothing more, nothing less. There are no universal values that we can use to evaluate the moral values of any culture.'(Chaffee 414). This is similar to Ludwig Feuerbach's idea that 'humans created God in their own image' (Chaffee 343).

With this definition, all cultures are equally valid and have no room to judge one another. This was in stark opposition to the cultural imperialism, the idea of moral superiority that was prominent at the time. Using some of Darwin's ideas, they justified imperialism and spreading the superior morals across the globe because it was survival of the fittest. Western culture represented the pinnacle of moral evolution. Benedict disputes this idea of moral survival of the fittest when she 'The vast majority of the individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion of that culture.' (Chaffee 417, quoting Ruth Benedict from Anthropology and the Abnormal which I cannot again access to, to cite directly). When looking through this lens, other outcomes appear, such as that idea that as culture changes, so can the morals change because these are derived from the culture. The US no longer believes slavery is acceptable despite it's history of slavery.

One of the primary problems with cultural relativism is the acceptance of things we consider to be wrong in our current society. Take for instance cultures that allow underage girls to marry old men. That's entirely standard and common in some parts of the world, but is still morally unacceptable despite it's acceptance in it's own culture. It can be contended without much issue, that we can say that our society is morally better than societies which produce terrorists, or systematically abuse children. This is a strong argument against cultural relativism.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Ethical Absolutism, which states some moral values apply to every individual and every culture in every time period. Welcome back to how it 'should be' land. There are many arguments and disputes in this camp as no set of morals has been universally agreed upon. No foundation or justification on which a universal set of values has been built, but many people try to use Religion as an anchor. They attempt to embed the moral code within the metaphysics of a specific religion. In such cases, the anchor to tie your beliefs to end up being a divine or supernatural being. This obviously brings up new problems. How do we decide which religion's morals we will use? While others debate over that, I will move forward assuming we build this moral code from the ground up.

Instead of basing our absolute moral code on an already existing religion, lets try to build ours up from the ground. The problem is before we even begin, several questions come up. What scope are we calibrating our moral code to? To help the individual, the society, or humanity? Perhaps the family. Why do we assume the universal moral is oriented around humans at all? Outcomes which are good for individuals do not always necessitate that the outcomes will be good for society or humanity. Individual agents behaving in their best interest in a given circumstance create outcomes that no one single person intended. Many people suddenly saving all their expendable cash would grind the economy to a halt and cause much unneeded suffering, even though individuals saving money is a good thing. In the same way, even if we did decide which scope to take, the question would then become what is the goal? Increase happiness? Decrease suffering? What is the standard to guide the moral code?

As eluded to earlier, if we were to try to create our own religious text with our perfect moral code built in, I do not think it could be done. In the same way we cannot easily predict outcomes in the economy, we cannot guarantee that the morals set fourth will have the outcome we expect when applied to real humans in real situation. Even if humans were perfect executioners of this custom code, which humans are not, when everyone behaves accordingly en masse, would the outcome at a societal level be one we hope for? Even using modern phycology and behavior analysis, we don't have complete understanding to make accurate predictions. It would be the height of hubris to think we have the information required for such a task.

Even basic sounding absolute morals such as 'don't kill humans' is not straight forward in the least. Is it not okay to sentence a serial killer to the death penalty? Is it not okay for someone on their deathbed to decide to go out on their own terms rather than suffer for the next year, just waiting to die? In the case of the serial killer, is it any less moral to keep him in prison against his will for the rest of his list than it is to kill him? Even if the rule was if you break the moral code, the moral code no longer applies to you, thus allowing the death penalty for the serial killer, what of the elderly or sickly who suffer with no hope of recovery?

What about other difficult topics? Abortion. It sounds good to say that it is absolutely immoral, but what are the implications? What actually happens when abortion is illegal. People with means go out of country or to prestigious doctors who are willing look past the law. People without means cannot do that. They go to the blackmark to find these medial services. There is more danger for the mother, and it becomes more expensive because the 'doctor' needs to be compensated for the risks involved with breaking the law. If mothers instead bring the baby to turn, those babies are much more likely to grow up in circumstances that are not ideal for raising a child. By definition, they are not well off else they could leave the country to get an abortion. The mother is more likely to be a single mother with a single income, meaning she will struggle to feed and shelter the baby. She could potentially be resentful of the baby, as it could be interpreted that the baby is condemning the mother to poverty. Any potential disposable income that could be used to invest in a better future is rerouted to the baby. None of these indicate a positive upbringing for the baby.

The huge dip in crime in the 90s was attributed to lots of different factors, all of which are difficult to justify with actual data. When economists started to look at it, they realized the steep dip in crime came 20 years after a controversial supreme court case. Roe v Wade. Abortion was legalized. The babies that would have otherwise been born grown to around 20, the peak age for crime, there was instead, no generation to replace the criminals who aged out of the most common criminal ages. As distasteful as it is to think of, the mothers likely to seek abortions are also the mothers who do not have the means to raise a child properly, thus providing a difficult like and potentially towards a life of crime. No one wants abortions, but sometime it reduces suffering more than letting to baby come to term. All this is to say, we cannot predict the outcomes of different morals or policies, we must make our best guesses and keep what works and dispose of the test, until we are able to resolve all of the problem in society, eventually.

Any set of universal morals has to take into account our humanity, or else it is disconnected from reality and is nothing but a nice set of ideas that are unachievable. Creating morals that govern us as if we were what we want ourselves to be, rather than what we are, only sets us up for failure. Why don't we create morals that help us get from where we are to where we want to be? This means the morals must be dynamic and able to change with us as our circumstances change. It also implies that we have to have a vision for what we want humanity to be. Following the structure of how the morals in religious text were/are defined, slowly over time, changing with us, and extracting the best attributes for survival, we could apply our consciousness to this process to enhance it's effectiveness, but careful not to alter the fundamental process too much with our hubris. This process has already started and can be seen in the convergence onto the idea of 'spiritual enlightenment'. The path to 'self enlightenment' from whatever particular religion or philosopher you choose, all take specific cultural influences, and use our consciousness to carefully, incrementally morally lead the way. The entire process of reaching enlightenment is the movement from where we are to where we want to be.

We don't have a perfect set of morals. In the same way that you scale the expectations for a child to stay within their zone of proximal development, so too must you scale the expectations of societies morality to just outside it's grasp, but within reach. We can make incremental improvements as we grow in knowledge, culture and morality. Philosophers lead the way by articulating what is outside of society's understanding, and help to integrate those ideas into our culture. Slow and steady improvement to complex systems is far more effective than attempting to account for innumerable variables and building a replacement system from the ground up.

The combination of taking our history carefully into account in addition to the careful application of consciousness could help make a set of moral codes that apply directly to each individual culture, and supply a customized functional path to achieving said morals. This bridges the gap between purely rational absolute ethics and purely descriptive ethics.

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Conjunction of Descriptive and Normative Ethics. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/conjunction-of-descriptive-and-normative-ethics/
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Conjunction of Descriptive and Normative Ethics [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2024 Jun 16]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/conjunction-of-descriptive-and-normative-ethics/
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