Monday, July 03, 2006

Morals: Part 2

This is a disclaimer, a clarification and a continuation of my last discussion on the issue of morals. First the disclaimer and clarification. This was prompted by a discussion with Kiran Pai, who, I have realized, is bloody good at reasonable debates, when he wants to be. Now, here's the thing: I do not endorse prostitution. Period. The last post was merely a vent to my frustration at most people accepting social mores at face value and not questioning them at all. I am not a social scientist, and am unaware of the relative strengths of the pros and cons prostitution might have on society, and will definitely not be so presumptuous as to make a definitive statement. However, again the point is, THINK people, THINK.

With that out of the way, time for some more intellectual masturbation. This is essentially a summary and interpretation of some discussions I've had with Dave and Kiran since my last post. It involves these questions:
a) Is morality absolute?
b) If not, and it is relative at most levels, is it still absolute at some level?
c) What is evil? Are terrorists evil? Was Hitler evil?
d) What is darkness?
e) Is it moral for a woman to sell her body?
f) Is it moral for a man to be a willing customer?
g) Is it moral to steal?

The way I see it, the answers to the first three questions are intricately linked to the answers of the other questions. They are also the guidelines, to those who will buy the ensuing argument, to answer the remaining questions.

In my opinion, morality can never be absolute. It is essentially a conditioning of the society or "framework", in which you view it. The boundaries of this framework might be confined to a caste, a community, a religion, a village, a city, a country, a whole continent or maybe all of humanity. Some mores have a way of getting confined within the boundaries of a smaller framework, such as that of a caste or a community. Others seem logical enough so that they encompass all the smaller frameworks and become applicable to all of humanity. Hence, premarital sex is immoral in some societal frameworks, but not in others. Killing another human being is universally accepted as immoral, and by universally, we mean within the greatest known framework, that of humanity.

Accepting these basic premises now puts us in a position to answer the question on evil and darkness. Who or what is evil? Is killing another person an act of evil? Are terrorists evil? Was Hitler evil? Dave's take on the matter was that one is evil if he does evil fully aware that his act is one of evil. In other words, if he is immoral rather than amoral when viewed within the framework of interest. So Dave's argument was that if Hitler did not believe in the tenets of the societal framework of humanity, he can only be amoral, not immoral. If terrorists believe what they do is right, then, for all of our hatred for terrorism they still cannot be termed evil. That is one aspect of it. However,I do not agree with Dave's contention that one who knowingly does evil is necessarily evil on an absolute basis. As should be evident, I am a great believer in relativsm and this is how I countered him. Facetious and made up as it may seem, I think it drives the point home. Let us say I am part of some obscure societal framework where it is the norm to beat up your wife each morning. If you don't do it, you are branded evil. I, however, am a very lazy person. I could not be bothered less. It's too much trouble. Hence I do not beat my wife. I know what I am doing is evil, yet I do it and not beat my wife. So am I evil because I do evil when I know it's evil? Or am I good because I don't beat my wife?
I believe this thought on relative morality is important even in daily life because it lets us view things in hues of grey rather than in black and white. Hence, a woman who sells her body might not be immoral. A man who pays for sex might or might not be immoral, even with the small thought at the back of his head (now completely devoid of blood circulation, cause everything's gone to the other head:-)) that he is not sure if he might be exploiting the survival need of a woman. A thief might not be immoral because he might be simply fulfilling his survival need. A murderer might have his reasons. Each of these acts therefore become immoral only within specific frameworks, and the ones we usually consider evil are only those that are immoral within the larger framework of humanity.
But what gives us the right? Do humans really know how the world is meant to function? Are we really sure that we are stting the right bounds on the framework of humanity? "God does not play with dice" is an often mentioned quote by the great Albert Einstein. However, with the inability to unify relativity and quantum mechanics, we are still way off from a cause-effect deterministic explanation of the way things happen or should happen. In other words, we still don't know enough physics. The believers then say that the framework to supercede all frameworks is that of God. That, I found to be a ridiculous argument because there is no unanimity on what is the framework of God. It again therefore becomes a question of man acting as a proxy for God to enforce the tenets of His framework. Again, too presumptuous. In an ideal world, I would definitely love for a deterministic set of solutions to all that exists around us. Extreme phyics, you might want to call it. Where you know exactly how things are meant to happen based on a cause. THAT would constitute the unquestionably absolute framework for all societies, human, extra terrestrial, animal, the works.

As a last thought, an interesting snippet from my converstaion with Dave. What is space, is the question he asked me. My answer was that it is anything in which matter can exist but does not have to. It is the union set of the universe and that "thing" which does not contain the universe. Hence the topic of discussion veered towards the origin of the universe and the big bang theory. Dave is defintely a subscriber to Friedmann's first model of the universe which postulates that the universe started at the big bang and will expand till gravity slows it down and causes a collapse or the big crunch. I am not very well disposed at the moment to understand which of Friedmann's models would most accurately describe the universe, but the first model has interesting philosophical implications. If the big bang and big crunch are inevitable, then, and assuming no singularity, the universe is without beginning or end in time. It is both the creator and the created. It is the Divine being Krishna talks about in the Bhagvad Gita. Krishna is said to have taken the "Virat Roop" in his rendition of the Gita to Arjun, where Arjun sees the universe and space embodied within Krishna. I like to think that Krishna is just a personification of that great divine space.


Blogger Anshul said...

What is the matrix?

4:36 AM  
Blogger Anshul said...

As a human being u live in some kind of society and that is bound to put some constraints on what all u can do such that u don't affect people in a negative way beyond some threshold. That threshold I guess would define what is evil/bad/immoral/amoral and what is not. And more globally since every small society interacts with others to form larger ones there are further constraints (although weaker) from outside the fuzzy boundaries of ur immediate niche. So effectively as u say evil cannot be absolute but it is definitely defined and will always have some boundaries. I also believe there is a strong correlation between freedom, fear and evil.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Tugga said...

I am not debating the fact that there are some things that beyond a threshold will affect people, at least seemingly in a negative sort of way. And I think I clearly define evil as immorality as judged by the largest known framework, that of humanity. And evil therefore, still has the boundaries as defined by humanity. If that is a line we must draw, then so be it. But the point I made in the latter half of te essay is this: Do we as humans have the right to be so presumptuous as to assume that this largest framework is an absolute. As the believers would say, the kingdom of God is absolute. His will. His tenets. I, being agnostic atheist, do not know Go. Hence the point I make about extreme physics and cause-effect relationships, where a self determinant boundary would become evident as the wish of nature, if you will.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Mumbai Monsoon said...

Hmm..won't comment here. I wish I was a part of the argument though. Ah well, I'm sure that will resume come the fall semester.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Anshul said...

On one hand u are right about it being presumptuous to set a limit to what is evil and what isnt. But a limit has to be defined at every point of time. Ofcourse it must evolve with the times but u have to have rules and boundaries. Who defines them is a different question and has many different answers. That depends on what that particularly society feels should be the norm. A perfectly free society with no boundaries and complete freedom would just not work as it would take us away from civilization and take us back to the law of the jungle (survival of the fittest) although even there nature has automatically encoded constraints within each species (for example several microorganisms that supposedly lack self-awareness and consciousness as we know it inherently do not attack and kill their own kind). So ultimately we have to lay down some set of rules ... and although like u I am an atheist ... I think the concept of religion was simply that. Present people a set of guidelines and also set it up as a way of controlling people. Make people afraid of certain things that could cause too much damage to the society as a whole. Unfortunately some morons take that as the absolute word and don't realize that it was written ages ago and hence most of it is specifically for those times. That is where religion fails I guess. Its when it reaches a point where people stop thinking and start following blindly. So speaking in absolute it would seem that there is ofcourse no absolute evil but I don't think there is anything wrong in having norms. It is required. Its a natural form of organization and regulation I think.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Tugga said...

Accepted, and definitely agreed upon, from the utilitarian perspective. But the tenor of the essay has not been the practical viewpont. It is a purely academic viewpoint of where we would most probably bring the right amalgamation of philosphy and physics.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

Morality is absolute and relative. When things come down to physical abuse, nonetheless they are immoaral. So if your society has a norm of beating your wife then the whole society is immoral.
When we live in a collective pack we need some rules for the functioning of society. When the matter comes to interacting with the other members of the community, you need to accept the norms. But on the peronal level you should have your own freedom as long as its not disturbing the social fabric.
As per the case of prostitution you can have your own take. I believe we had this discussion long back.
I wont have problem if a women sells her body in next apartment as long as I dont have drunkards banging on my door in the middle of night for a booty call.
Eventhough everything is not black and white, evrything is not grey either.
So the cases of Hitler and Terrorists can be safely discarded as immoral.

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pagal ho gaya hai kya??? kuch b likhne laga hai.. cricket ke baare me likh, wohi hi acha hota hai n wohi samjhta hai muje..
didnt read this one.. read just te 1st para..

- PK

3:32 PM  
Blogger Tugga said...

@Ketan: I disagree with your contention that everything is not grey. It is. Ideologically, at least. What you have failed to understand is that the post was just pure philosophical rumination, with no consideration to the utilitarian point of view. Obviously, idealogically, I will never judge terrorists immoral, but from a utilitarian point of view, where my absolute framework extends to the safety and protection of my loved ones, I would hate them and want them executed.

6:34 PM  
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