Approaches to morality (and why Authoritarians suck!! ;) )

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Approaches to morality (and why Authoritarians suck!! ;) )

I originally posted this for another forum but I wanted to hear what you guys thought too.
It won't really spark up much debate as it's something I expect we all agree on and a lot of it is stating the obvious anyway, but anyway: Smiling

There's a popular view that morality cramps down on freedom, that these rules are societies way of controlling you to their benefit. Then people on the other side are quick to point out that if we didn't keep to the moral code of not murdering and stealing then the environment we lived in would be terrible for all of us. In that sense you could say that a moral structure is freedom from a nihilistic environment.
Are the instructions on boiling an egg a encroachment on 'free cooking' or is it freedom from having to eat badly cooked eggs?

In any case, it doesn't seem to moral rules themselves that's the problem. I think that the problem is the attitude that people can take to these rules. There's a playful approach that sees them as guidelines that will generally lead to a better life and a strict authoritarian approach that sees them as unbreakable absolutes. You can probably see where I am going with this.

Perhaps we could make an analogy with another activity.
Imagine that James and Bob are both learning to hammer nails into wood.
James has a natural curiosity, tries things out, makes a few mistakes but gradually gets a knack for hammering nails into the wood in an extremely efficient way.
Bob, on the other hand, has a set of detailed instructions on how to hammer the nail in the ideal way, detailing every minute movement in the human body. He has a strong incentive to get it perfect, perhaps a threat of punishment if he fails or perhaps a large reward for perfections that will otherwise be lost. Either way the pressure is to get it right.
The idea is that they are both learning the same thing, hammering nails into wood, but through different approaches.

James has a playful approach to hammering nails while Bob has an authoritarian approach. James tries things out and devellops a natural competence at the task while Bob works on develloping a habit of following the rules correctly. What follows from here is how I state the obvious in pointing out how the playful approach is so much better than the authoritarian approach in almost every way!!

The problem with trying to have too much 'control' over your actions.
So given that we need moral rules to live our lives, the question is how to have them followed the most efficiently. The authoritarian approach looks at how we apply rules as laws, i.e. reward and punishment.
We reward people who obey the rules well and punish those who don't.
They also encourage people to reward and punish themselves with guilt and pride.
They seem to assume by default that this is the most effective way.
The thing is, this emphasis on following rules has a several downfalls:

1) It's not the most efficient way to learn something.
Studies have been done that compared two sets of people learning to play golf. The first set were just told the rules of the game, given a couple of hints and then left to explore in their own time. The second set were given a specific technique, fully detailed with explicit rules.
The difference showed when they were put under pressure - a substantial reward was offered for good performance.

Once the reward was on the table, the practitioners had the incentive to 'get it right'. The first set had no choice but to play as they had before, rely on their intuitive learning through playing about with it. The second set were more likely to try and concentrate on the rules they had been taught. However, this concentration on the rules led to a bad performance.
The point being, the most efficient mindset to playing golf involved not thinking too much about it. This makes sense because when your brain is thinking about the rules too much, it is taking away processing power from a more direct concentration on the task at hand.

(I know I should give reference to these studies but I can't find it for the moment - it's somewhere in this book but I can't remember which page!! I'll get back on this one!)

2) Law is based on rewarding good and punishing bad.
The rewards and punishments will be determined by a system.
This leads to a second problem with authoritarian morality - it encourages people to be legalistic - i.e. play the system that dishes out the rewards and punishments, loop holes and all. Such an approach to morality depends on the perfection of the system and because morality is too complex for any system to be absolutely perfect, and even if there was an absolutely perfect system then it would surely be more than a human mind could grasp.

3) Talking of the complexity of morality, it means that the perfect rule set would need to go into a ridiculous amount of detail into the situations where particular rules were and weren't applicable. Give any simple moral rule and there will be a counter example where it doesn't apply. This isn't a problem where the rule is a rule of thumb and people are free to play/experiment and work out a soluction, but if someone believes that the moral rules need to be applied rigidly without question then they will be at best confused and at worst resort to applying the rules inappropiately and in doing so committing terrible action.

The best moral rules are rules of thumb. They give a general rules that is right for most situations (e.g. do not lie or steal) and do enough to give the learner the general idea behind the rule, and with experience they'll become better at judging where this rule does or doesn't apply.
If I'd been hiding a Jew in Nazi Germany it would have been right for me to lie to the gestapo about it and if I had a hungry family and my only choice was to steal food or let them starve then stealing would be the right thing to do. These are extreme situations, but I just wanted some obvious examples.
There will clearly be countless more realistics and more subtle examples.

4) The mindset for authoritarian rule following is suppressive and stressful.
It's something that we can handle for some of the more important rules in particular situations, but if we start trying to stretch it to all areas of morality...
Karen Hornby had a theory called the Tyranny of the 'Shoulds' where we suppress ourselves by maing idealistic demands of ourselves and feel stressed/guilty/depressed when we don't live up to them.

This effect dulls our personality too. Because we are so obsessed with not breaking rules we tend to want to stick to situations where the rules are easily applicable and the unknown becomes something to be feared. It discourages exploration and creativity. This would be a bad thing even if the particular moral system the person was following was perfect and that they had a perfect grasp of it. Authoritarian approaches to morality would even be bad for perfect systems, let alone the imperfect ones that we get in real life!

These flaws clearly show that the authoritarian mindset isn't a good one for morality. The jump from treating morality like 'law' is sometimes appropiate to always appropiate is clearly unjustifiable.

So why have laws and moral imperatives at all?
Unfortunately, in the real world things aren't this simple.
A person who has a natural interest in a task will likely become quite competent, but we don't always have this 'natural interest' and it cannot be forced. The fact is that while it is ideal to devellop morality in a playful way, we cannot rely purely on it. The playful way relies on sometimes learning the hard way and we don't want a person to kill someone before they realise that it was the wrong thing to do. There are some immoral actions that are too severe to be left to the person to learn in their own time.

As as result, we have social mechanisms in place to keep people in line.
These mechanisms are in place to force a minimal moral compliance in order for society run smoothly. A society that must run smoothly no matter whether it's individuals have mastered morality on their own terms yet.
Obviously our methods of coercion will depend on the severity and effect of the action. The most serious offences are protected against by laws, less serious ones discouraged by social disapproval, etc.

So social institutions like laws, social disapproval, personal vigilantism, etc, they all have their place, but as practical defenses against actions that can disrupt our society. Personal devellopment should always be preferred and interference and coercion has the burden of proof if it is to be justified.
Methods of more severity should be treated as 'last resort' methods when less invasive attempts fail.

What I'm trying to say is...
Like all my ideas this is all work in progress, so my presentation of wording of what I'm saying probably needs a lot of work. Nonetheless, here I go and try and explain the main points I want to get across:

1) Absolute Morality misses the point
Absolute morality tries to treat morality as a whole as laws that everyone should just categorically follow. Just obey.
This misses the point in morality, misses the point in law, and more or less everything else too. They've recognised that some order is needed (the reason why we have some law) and then over the top to try and devellop/impose some absolute law for everything.
What it boils down is a complete lack of faith in human nature, thinking that we need strict laws to control our every action rather than just let go and let our natural personalities shine.

2) The argument between liberals and authoritarians isn't over moral rules
Both tend to agree what the moral rules are to a degree.
The difference is their way of applying the moral rules.
The authoritarians believe in the absolute morality, have no faith in letting people think for themselves and demand obedience on certain issues. The liberals have a better understanding of what morality and laws is, when and why it should be obeyed, and consequently recognise the flaws in the over-simplication of anarchism.
The authoritarians will accuse the liberals of 'picking and choosing', but what they're really doing is recognising that morality is too complex to fit into the over-simplistic rules the authoritarians want.

3) Both have the same theoretical attitude to freethinking
That is, they both recognise that freethinking is morally encouragable.
The authoritarian will believe that freethinking is technically a good thing and will stress the point that they are not against it. The thing is, the nature of freethinking will mean that despite the authoritarian's theoretical approval of it, it contradicts the authoritarian's approach to morality so they will usually end up opposing it in practice. They are most likely to accept it in practice when you point out that their own authoritarian rules demand that they do, and even then it will be accepted grudgingly, and they will likely try and find loop-holes so they can find a 'legal' way to get around their own moral principles!!!

4) This isn't to demonise authoritarians themselves
I don't think that the world simply splits between authoritarians and liberals. People who are mostly liberal can be authoritarian on certain issues and people who are mostly authoritarian can be liberal on other subjects. The purpose is to discredit authoritarian thinking so when we get into an authoritarian mindset (which is perhaps more stressful for the authoritarian themself than the people around them!!) then we can remind ourself that we are getting ahead of ourselves and see if we can try and relax a bit. When battling an authoritarians it's dead easy to find yourself fighting back by develloping your own authoritarian ideals to combat theirs, becoming one yourself without even realising it. So I think it's good not to associate authoritarian with a position because it can make you less likely to recognise the real thing - i.e. when you are doing it yourself.


This has probably been a pointless topic as it mostly states the obvious, stuff we likely recognise just by being ourselves in real life. But it's nice to be able to back it up with justification, especially as we will sometimes come up against authoritarians in debate.
Sooooo... thoughts? Smiling

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Even though I agree with

Even though I agree with most of your assertation, It is full of logical fallacies and highly opinionated and biased.

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The Authoritarian Specter  

The Authoritarian Specter by Robert Altemeyer (Hardcover - Nov 15, 1996)

If you haven't read this, it's essential that you go to the library and check it out.  (It's like $57 USD, kind of expensive...)

I think you're on essentially the right track contrasting authoritarianism with non or anti-authoritarianism in terms of the results of their approaches to morality.  I think you will probably refine and expand some of your ideas after you've read this book.

Of course, if you've read the book, I'm curious why you decided not to address a couple of its major points, and why you're using different nomenclature.  This is the definitive book on authoritarianism.


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Quote: Are the


Are the instructions on boiling an egg a encroachment on 'free cooking' or is it freedom from having to eat badly cooked eggs?

The second you said that irritating little caricatures of Jurgen Habermas and Lyotard popped into my head.

"Physical reality” isn’t some arbitrary demarcation. It is defined in terms of what we can systematically investigate, directly or not, by means of our senses. It is preposterous to assert that the process of systematic scientific reasoning arbitrarily excludes “non-physical explanations” because the very notion of “non-physical explanation” is contradictory.


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Lol! Are those crazy

Lol! Are those crazy post-modernists still haunting you from their graves?

Hamby, I've put that book on my 'list'.
I'm working nowdays so £35 isn't too big a dent in my wallet, it'll be more about making the time to read it.


adams_antics wrote:
Even though I agree with most of your assertation, It is full of logical fallacies and highly opinionated and biased.

Hmmmm.... I'd be interested to see where...
The argument was roughly structured as follows:

1) Most authoritarians justify their morality by the consequences.
2) The authoritarian approach to morality has lesser consequences than non-authoritarian approaches
C) Authoritarianism therefore fails to live up to its justification.

It was probably more my evidence for premise 2...
Wasn't so much meant to be conclusive (which would take quite a sociological study indeed!!) so much as appeal to a person's common sense, And seeing as I'm yet to come across disagreement then I think I hit those nails good! Smiling

(Early days though... I've only had a total of 6 replies on the two boards I've posted this on. I could still get disputed yet! Eye-wink)