Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Opposites Detract

One day, people will stop using moral/ethical terms, such as "right/wrong" and "good/evil" when describing their emotions about certain people - how likeable, how trustworthy or how safe they understand someone to be.

Of course, that will be the day after the final extinction of humanity...

I've always wondered about the habit that people have of predicating someone's moral or ethical opinion of someone's entire interior life on a single data point. "This person supports certain people, so they're unacceptable as an acquaintance" or "This person is okay with a certain action, so they're completely without scruples." These have always struck me as a form of personal Purity test, and what I will admit confuses me about them is how unacceptable they are to admit to, given how common they are.

I can't manage a day without someone loudly proclaiming how this one singular (usually vague) action that some or another (usually nameless) person has said or done means that they should be cast down into the fires and how anyone who disagrees should uncircle/unfriend/unfollow them *this instant*. And nine times out of ten, my first thought is, "Given that I have no idea what the crack you're going on about, I can't understand how to make this information actionable." Usually followed up by the sinking feeling that I'm going to regret ever having encountered them in the first place.

Now, to be sure, I'm a moral noncognitivist (Whew! Say that three times fast!) which is really just a five-dollar word for the idea that what people consider moral and ethical truths are a form of behavior preferences, rather than any sort of objective statement about the world. In other words, when someone says, "Taking candy from a baby is wrong," what I understand that to mean in the broader context is "I disapprove of taking candy from a baby," because there is nothing intrinsic to either candy or babies that creates an objective prohibition against separating the two. And while I can take that disapproval seriously, and support acting on that disapproval - in the end, it's just personal disapproval, and if someone else (say, a dentist) approves of taking candy from a baby, what we have is a difference of opinion rather than competing understandings of the objective nature of the universe.

But even setting that aside, going all the way to a description of someone's ethical framework based on whether they support this artist or disagree with that law seems like a tremendous, and unwarranted, leap. Especially because we tend to use such leaps to avoid simply saying: "I prefer to associate with people who openly share all of my preferences when it comes to certain activities." Because for some reason that seems more narrow-minded and partisan that making wild presumptions about people in order to justify a preference to not associate with them. I don't understand it.

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