Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Moral Society

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 01, 1999

Posted on NewsTrolls, 2 November, 1999

Some people - Thomas Nagel, for example, believe that consciousness depends essentially on one's physical constitution. We could never understand what it feels like to be a bat, for example, because our bodies are fundamentally different from a bat's and thus we cannot experience the subjective 'feel' of echolocation.

Others - David Hume, for example, even go so far as to say that morality itself has a subjective feel to it; like Jet, Hume says that knowing that something is morally right or wrong is not merely a matter of making a decision, it also has an irreducible subjective quality to it.

This is why Jet argues that society cannot be a value-seeking entity. It is not because society is incapable of making moral choices, it is because society, as an entity which cannot feel those choices, cannot understand what makes such a choice right or wrong.

Now in fact I have a lot of sympathy with Jet's position here, which is why I fall onto the liberal side of the political spectrum. I agree that there is certainly a subjective feel to moral choices, and with Hume I would say that this subjective feel is what gives moral choices their imperative.

Let us not forget that in my original article I was arguing in favour or individualized morality, as opposed to London's socially defined morality. For morality - like my perception of the colour red - is unique to me.

But Jet takes me to task for even attempting to define the opposing position. He argues, not simply that society makes wrong or incorrect moral choices, but rather, that it is incapable of making moral choices at all.

Could society be a moral agent? It's not implausible, at first blush. We could go at it one of two ways:

First, we could argue that the 'subjective feel' is not an essential component of morality. Certainly there is a case to be made here. London's argument, for example, makes this point by reductio: if subjective feel is essential, then each person has his/her own individual morality, which is the same as saying there is no such thing as morality at all!

Along these lines, we could also argue that the dependence on subjective feel strips morality of an essential component, the idea that it is a shared set of values. For, if only I have a moral opinion on something, it is nothing more than a preference. It becomes an object of moral scruitiny only when a large number of people have that opinion.

Finally along these lines, we might question why we need more than 'making choices' to define morality. Perhaps being a moral-seeking entity really is nothing more than arriving at correct moral decisions. A computer, for example, will never 'feel' what it is like to perceive 'red', but nonetheless can be reliably programmed to detect instances of 'red'. Humans may never 'feel' what it is like to echolocate, and yet, blind men and submarines are able to navigate by means of echolocation.

Moreover, were a non-conscious entity to be able to make correct moral choices (in such a way that its actions were dictated by those choices), what would be wrong with calling it a moral agent? We would not hesitate to call it a 'seeing' object if it could recognize faces by means of video and pattern-matching.

Second, we could argue that society has the requisite 'subjective feel' in any case. To be sure, any moral pangs felt by such a large and complex entity as society would feel different from the way they do in a human (this indeed would explain why society's definition of morality is so often at odds with individuals' definitions).

What is it like for society to feel - say - remorse? That's a lot like asking what it's like to be a bat. Certainly none of us is in a position to comment on society's feelings, because none of us is a society. Only society can have the feelings it does, and only society can know what they feel like (our position is analagous to a neuron in a human brain, which participates in the production of a subjective feeling, but can have no comprehension of what it is producing).

Our understanding of society's feelings can only be derived from society's actions. Because we can't get at society's mind directly, we have to adduce the existence of that mind from its behaviour. Here we must resist the temptation to anthropomorphize. Though we are apt naturally to infer by analogy from our own mental states to society's, since society is so different from an individual human, such an analogy would be risky business indeed.

Is there any behavioural evidence that society has a 'mind', and therefore, sensations? Arguably, yes. Certainly there are phenomena that only groups of people can produce, which one person cannot produce. A riot, for example, is a mass phenomenon. It can only exist when a group of people act in a certain way.

Now Jet, quite rightly, will argue that a riot is nothing more than a set of individual actions. True. But in the same way, a sensation of 'red' is no more than a set of individual (neural) actions. Moreover, just as it doesn't matter which neurons are acting, it doesn't matter which people are rioting; no individual is essential to a riot; remove the individual, replace the individual, and you still have a riot.

If masses of people can behave as a unit - that is, in such a way as to produce characteristic behaviours, and in such a way that the actions of no particular individual is essential to that behaviour, then the leap may be plausibly made to the assertion that masses of people, as a mass, may have sensations.

We express this sometimes (probably inaccurately), by describing 'tearful masses', 'angry mobs', 'enthusiastic congregations'. These, of course, are anthropomorphisms, and as such, most likely misleading. But just as we have no way of knowing what it feels like to be a bat, so also we have no way of knowing what it feels like to be a mob.

There is no contradiction inherent in supposing that society as a whole could not have subjective experiences. Moreover (and this is the thesis of another work), the more connected society becomes, the more likely it is to actually have subjective experiences. Because subjective feel is not inherent only in neural cells, it is inherent in the way those cells are connected.

Thus, we return to the point of contention: could society be a value-seeking entity? We may disagree on the details: but it is at least plausible, in the first instance, if moral-seeking does not require consciousness, and in the second instance, if society is in fact capable of consciousness after all.

For myself, I am perfectly willing to accept that there can be socially defined moralities. Where I disagree with London is that I do not agree that they are inherently superior. I belive that there must be a balance between individual morality and social morality.

I place the nexus of this balance at the desire of both individuals and societies to survive. Just as an individual is morally right in defending his own life, society is also morally right in defending itself.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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