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Radically Inept
Thursday, August 19, 2004
  Questions I ponder, and perhaps a little progress

First of all, I seem incapable of letting some questions go. They nag at me. I go to sleep at night thinking about them. Also, I will ask everyone I know what their opinion is on the question. Hell, I'll ask strangers what they think. You never know where you may find the answer, or a new approach to the question. This seems to drive a lot of the people I know crazy or at least to become very exasperated with me. Many people seem to think that since we discussed the topic, and we reached 'X', that the issue was settled for conversational purposes. I don't. I'll ask again, often in the naive expectation, that they too had pondered the question further since last we spoke. But nay. More often than not, they performed a mental dump, and haven't thought about the subject again.

As for me, I just keep going back to them. Even if we supposedly arrived at an 'answer'. I'll think about the answer. Test it mentally over and over to see if I can spot a weakness. If not, I will than see if I can then apply the 'answer' to a higher level of question, again, a test.

Well this past week, I had the opportunity to explore some of these questions with new people. This is always good for the reasons I mentioned above, and I did come away with some different ideas on old questions.

So, here our three questions in three sections.

The first subject was Morality vs Ethics.

Probably one of the oldest questions in history, at least philosophy, and came away with a different angle. I was visiting Bruce from The River, and over a few beers our conversation moved across a hundred topics, but ended here (at least for Saturday night). My position, which is not original, but does make it easy to define the distinction between ethics and morality, is that 'ethics' apply only if the position can be expressed and defended on logic alone. The example I used the other night, was that I could use economics to defend the position that lying is unethical.
If the beauty of a 'free market' is it's ability to efficiently determine 'value', and that asymmetrical information flows lessen that efficiency, well than lies cause inefficiencies. If the goal of capitalism is efficient markets, than lies are contrary to the ethics of capitalist system.
This holds well by definition, though I don't think we'll ever see it in the 'real world' we live in.

On the other hand, 'Morality', as I define it, can not be defended on a purely logical basis as it always depends on a 'truth or absolute' outside of the problem statement. 'Value' is based on something outside of the system in question.
Killing is bad. It can't be defended on pure logic alone. As I've stated previously, something must die, or be aborted, in the case of seeds, eggs, etc., for me to live (I doubt I could live, on say, milk alone). In fact, my mere existence causes death. So killing, in and of itself is not 'bad', or my existence is 'bad', which seems to be very counter-intuitive.

So then the statement must be, "Killing is bad when..." And at that point, you move off the scale of logic, and must now bring some 'truth' from outside of the observable system to bear. It's okay to kill to survive, but it's not okay to kill to achieve...?
So, Bruce and I are going through these questions, and I provide some examples of slippery slopes and the like, and to make a long story short, Bruce brought up the idea that 'exploitation' could be the basis for a moral argument against many activities. Exploitation is also subject to many of the same slippery slope arguments, but I do like it. It does provide a handy term, and allows for a nice distinction between activities that may be purely survival based, in opposition to activities that harm others for 'personal' gain beyound survival.

I'll have to refine the definition of 'exploitation' to make it less ambiguous, but I do think it will make a fine demarcation point.

Anyway, my point, which may be poorly expressed, is that morality is not logically defensible, but a matter of choice and free will. Why do I state my position in this manner? Because I am an atheist, and hence lack the ability to cite any first principles as 'absolutes'. God has not told me what is good or bad. I must decide these questions on my own. Interestingly enough, I do often tend to arrive at similar positions based purely on the 'logic of ethics', but ultimately, I must recognize that in other cases, it is based on 'feeling'. An intuitive, non-logical feeling.
I believe that raping small children is 'bad' and even morally wrong, but I can't defend that position on a logical basis. It is something I feel. I believe a purely 'logical' argument could be made based on the necessity for expediency in gathering intelligence for our war effort to 'ultimately save lives', and can be made to justify our actions in Iraq. But I feel that it is wrong. There is no argument that you could provide which would change my feelings on the subject.

If you are devoid of these feelings (like I think this administration is), I can make no logical case against the act. Well, I could, but I'd have to resort to expanding the picture beyound the immediate war, and would have to rely on ephemeral things like global good will, and engendering a greater hate and resistance on the part of our friends and enemies. But, while I think these are valid, I can not make a causal relationship with out resorting to subjective analysis. And, if the supposition is that this is truly an effort to build a US empire, well, these arguments can again be ignored on the basis of expediency.
Well, that may have been a wee bit tangential to my ponderings, but...

Dealing with existence.

Well, the conversation with Bruce was followed the next night with another intriguing conversation. This time with Freelancer. I won't use his real name, for while he may personally not object to being associated with my writings, I'm sure professionally it would do him disservice. Which, in many ways was a major part of our conversation. The fact that so many people would be highly resistant to the ideas that I express here, to the point where it could result in harm on a professional basis. It's a risk I have chosen to take, but not one I feel comfortable in forcing others to take. I won't 'out' people and expose them to the potential bias engendered by my comments.

The point we hit on, that I found intriguing, was based on a question he asked me.
Paraphrasing here, 'Why are other people so resistant to new thoughts or alternative ways of viewing information/the world/the universe/etc.?'

And I think in a brief moment of insight, I found an answer. Not THE ANSWER, necessarily, but an answer. My reply was that, again paraphrasing from memory, 'If you do not fear death, you do not fear questions and their answers. You have no need to cling to an outside source for internal strength. You have the confidence to in yourself to be able to handle the challenges of intellectual curiosity. If you are scared of dying, you fear ambiguity.'

To which he smiled and replied, 'I'm sort of looking forward to finding out what comes next. I'm in no hurry, but I am truly curious.'

And I said something to the effect of, 'I love facing ambiguity, and have no need for absolutes. And, yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next, regardless of what it is. It may be blackness, that would be okay. But, based on experiences I have had, I think there is something more. And it will be an adventure.'
Wish I had a tape recording of the conversation. I would like to have been more accurate, but the conversation in reality did not flow quite so succinctly. I do think, however, that I am providing an account that is true to the 'spirit' of the conversation.
Toward the end of the conversation, Freelancer said, 'I really like exploring existence.'

To which I immediately fired back with the question, 'The meaning of existence or the nature of existence?'

He smiled and replied, 'The nature of existence'
And I guess that was the point. I, too, ponder the nature of existence, but I don't ever really consider the question of purpose. I don't think there is a PURPOSE, and I don't find that I have the need for one. I have chosen to spend my time pondering the nature of existence, and in trying to improve the existence of those around me. But, this is not in compliance to some mandate from on high, just choices I have made; for good or ill.

The value of aethetics.

Last point, and in some ways related, but maybe not so much. I ponder a very specific economic transaction question. One that I have pondered for few years.
What was the first time that someone was willing to trade useful tools or meat or other survival apparatus for a pretty rock? What was the motivation on the part of the first guy to trade two chickens for a hunk of gold? Or however the first economic transaction occurred...
I am drawing a distinction here between the barter of 'useful things' between agents, and the first time someone gave up something useful, for something else. Easy question you say. And perhaps, now that I've rephrased the question in my mind, the answer may indeed be 'obvious'. At first, I was trying to start with the first 'monetary' transaction. Not necessarily minted currency, but the idea that a gold or silver nugget was worth something utilitarian.

On Tuesday night, I got in to seperate conversations with Tom Walker of the AJC and Barry Levine at Manuel's Tavern on Tuesday night. Tom pointed out that the first transaction would have occurred in pre-history, and that it was unlikely that I would find anything in the history or economics books on the subject, but he did suggest some titles that might prove worthwhile. Barry too, offered some suggestions, but it was during our conversation that I realized I now understood the question better, and think I've found my answer. It was when I pointed out that the Mayans and the Incas apparently valued gold, but the Maori valued fish hooks as a method of exchange. It was then that Barry pointed out that the first gold rush on this continent occurred here, and that the Seminole Tribes never thought of gold as valuable.
The answer lies in Aesthetics. I know, it is obvious now, I was just being obtuse. The first exchange would have been based not on utilitarian values, but on aesthetics. The rock is pretty, and it's worth my exchanging a utilitarian object to possess that 'pretty' object. Even then, I first wanted to argue that the person who accepted the 'pretty' object in exchange for a utilitarian object, must have felt the it would be valuable to a third party. That a third party would value the object as highly or higher than they did. But it dawned me, that I was making the situation too complicated. It may indeed have been considered during that first exchange, but it really wasn't necessary for that exchange to have happened. Certainly over time it would have progressed from there to a point of shared community values of pretty objects, but it was not required for the first exchange. Though it would be interesting if in that first exchange, it was two males and one of them was thinking about how much his mate would appeciate the bauble, but it is not a necessary element for the exchange.
So, if I'm anywhere close to the truth on this, than the basis for our global economy may ultimately be traced to aesthetic appeal, and not a purely utilitarian one. I will probably get around to coming up with some simple equation to express it, like y(AV) = x(UV), where there is no fixed relationship between x and y. Or something similar, and somehow express the values as entirely/largely or to some smaller extent subjective on the part of the agents involved

Of course, now that I've gotten to this point in my thinking, I'll probably find whole books on sociology dealing with this. But, I still like pondering these types of things, and just finding the answer in a book, isn't always that entertaining. If I had found the book answer first, I would have missed out on the joy of teasing this subject for the past couple of years, and stumbling on what might be a better way to look at the question on my own. And, I got to practice removing all my preconceived baggage and looking at a subject from a fresh perspective.

Of course, now I have even more things to ponder. Why would evolution favor the development of aesthetics? You might say, 'But Rick, only humans have the ability to appreciate aesthetics.' Though I think most of you won't. You'll remember that there are a great deal of examples in the rest of the animal kingdom which also seem to appreciate aesthetics, and enough so, that they are willing to take risks to collect objects of what appears to be purely aesthetic appeal. Ravens come immediately to mind, as to certain monkeys, and I'm sure there others that do not occur to me at this instant.

Regardless, it does not change the question I now get to ponder - Why (presuming there is a 'why') would we evolve with an aesthetic value? How does it enhance our survival? Is it purely derived in some way from mating and breeding advantages? From what I know of the behaviour of Ravens, I don't think so. I'm sure I can now find some definitive research in the area, and I may look to some to further my thinking, but than, how definitive can any explanation on the motivations of animals truly be? They usually just result in more questions,so maybe I will or maybe I won't pursue a review of the literature on the subject, but either way, I'll have more to ponder.

Well, I think I'm done posting for now. I've got some chores I can do, and there are mindless chores like dishes and sweeping up dog fur. The good thing about mindless chores - I get to ponder some more... 
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