Thursday, 12 March 2009

Dearly Departed

Earlier today Inayat Bunglawala asked me if I condemned necrophilia. He had written - rather too jauntily for my taste - about the latest outrage perpetrated by the "justice" system in Saudi Arabia. A widow of seventy-five years of age was sentenced to forty lashes (and a year's imprisonment) after two much younger men, one of them her nephew, were found in her house by the Muttawa (the religious police) following a tip-off. Bunglawala saw this as a typical example of Saudi "dottiness", and offered, by way of comparison, this anecdote


I last visited Saudi Arabia just over 10 years ago to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. One evening my wife and I went to a restaurant in Makka only to be faced with pleas from the manager not to enter together because he was afraid of being raided by the religious police – the mutawwa'in. "They will assume you are not a married couple and this will cause me a lot of trouble," he said.


All very interesting (particularly what it suggests about the condition of most Saudi marriages), but Bungle's piece as a whole struck me as somehow lacking in the expected moral outrage, and I suggested a more vehement condemnation might have been appropriate. He shot back at me:

Yes, of course, I condemn it. Do you condemn necrophilia Heresiarch? Are you sure, because I have never heard you actually say so. Know what I mean?


Since I've never knowingly written about necrophilia, I don't think there's much reason for me to begin every article I do write with "I condemn sexual intercourse with dead bodies". But, come to think of it, do I actually condemn necrophilia? Is it really as bad to violate a corpse - which is, after all, is unlikely to feel personally insulted - as to flog an elderly woman - or anyone, for that matter - for the "crime" of taking delivery of a loaf of bread? I mused:

I can even imagine situations in which I would not condemn it at all: for example, suppose someone died and, in their will, offered their mortal remains for the use of necrophiles, and their relatives agreed. Would that be so wrong?


"Serious Poster" thought so:

I am not in any way a 'prude' but somehow I don't think that I would want to know you. I would have difficulty even manufacturing a situation like that in my mind and now that you have done it for me, I am appalled.


Am I amoral and/or psychopathic for entertaining such a notion, even for the purpose of a thought-experiment? And is there any proper basis, other than disgust, for condemning necrophilia? Let's look at the matter afresh.

Sexual interference with corpses is a crime in many US states, and a fairly recent one in Britain, having been made illegal in 2003. That measure would seem to owe more to New Labour's enthusiasm for creating new offences than to any widespread necrophilia "problem", however: I've been unable to establish whether there have been any convictions under the law. More recently, depictions of necrophilia have been outlawed, along with other types of "extreme pornography", under w ss 62-67 of the Criminal Justice Act 2008.

Thus stands the law. But necrophilia differs from most other sexual crimes in that there is no obvious victim. In a legal system derived from religiously-based morality that may be of little relevance. But modern secular law strives for rationality, and for rules based on clear principles. In the area of sex offences, the principle most often invoked is that of consent. One reason why paedophilia is unproblematically condemned, for example, is that a child is considered incapable of giving informed consent to sex. Indeed, the issue of the age at which consent is possible is precisely what distinguishes legal from clinical definitions of age-based criminality.

(Not all times, or all cultures, have placed such emphasis on an age of consent, of course. The prophet whom Inayat Bunglawala regards as his moral exemplar, for example, is widely believed to have consummated his marriage to Ayesha when she was nine and he somewhere around fifty. Yet it is often explained in his defence that she had reached menarche - possible, I suppose - and that in any case such an action was less objectionable in the Arabia of the seventh century than it would be today, at least in the West.)

Likewise, recent revisions, and proposed revisions, to the law on rape, are based on the notion of consent. Campaigners argue that consumption of alcohol negates consent; just as unconsciousness clearly does. The capacity of people with varying degrees of mental impairment, likewise, has become a controversial area, with the desire to protect the vulnerable coming into conflict with the "right" to engage in sexual relationships. Similar arguments can even advanced with respect to bestiality: being incapable of speech, an animal cannot consent to sex, even if it had the intellectual capacity to do so. But here the argument begins to break down, since it must be assumed that animals consent to sex with members of their own species, and indeed have non-verbal means of showing it. Rather, it is ancient disapproval of inter-species mating (denounced so frequently, for example in the Bible, that it must in those times have been very widespread) that is reflected in law, rather than more complex ideas concerning consent.

Whether sex with a corpse raises such issues of consent is a moot point. Obviously the corpse is not consenting, although it is possible to imagine h the person whose corpse it is consenting in advance (for example, by signing a written document permitting sexual intercourse with his or her remains). But a corpse is not the person it used to be: that person has either ceased to exist altogether, or has gone to a better (or worse) place, depending on one's spiritual beliefs. In either case, the corpse has become an object. It is no more capable of giving or withholding consent than is a dildo or a blow-up doll. Logically, therefore, it must be of less intrinsic moral worth than a living human being, or even an animal. Whether a corpse is buried, or cremated, or exposed to the vultures, or consumed in an act of ritual cannibalism: these are questions of anthropology, sociology and culture rather than ones of pure morality. It is reported that among the Kachin tribe of Burma, and also among the Luo of East Africa, it was formerly the practice for a deceased virgin to be ritually deflowered - the theory being that her ghost would otherwise wander abroad in a state of sexual frustration, tormenting the living as a vampire or succubus. Among the Bellacoola tribe of British Columbia, by contrast, it was a widower's prerogative to say farewell to his deceased wife in the most intimate possible way.

In treating of necrophilia we are dealing, then, with a taboo rather than something with a rational or even moral basis. Of course, necrophilia is "unnatural", in that conception is not a possible outcome; but by this token, gay sex, oral sex, masturbation and sex in which one or both parties is using artificial contraception are equally unnatural - and rape isn't. It "outrages public dencency" - but so, not many decades ago, did homosexuality. These are shifting boundaries in any event: in Saudi Arabia (to go back to the starting point for this discussion) it so outraged the sense of decency of the Muttawa that a widow of 75 years was visited by her nephew that she was sentenced to be flogged. Causing outrage to a prevailing sentiment cannot, therefore, be a morally uncomplicated ground for denunciation. Opponents of necrophilia will have to do better than that.

It might be said that the outrage to the feelings of the deceased's relatives formed a better ground for condemnation. But that is circular reasoning: for one must first establish why such outrage should be felt. Because it's "disgusting"? Possibly. In most human cultures, a dead body is the source of conflicting emotions. As having once been a human being - and, in most cases, a loved relative or friend - it is the focus of reverence and grief, and thus accorded respect. But it is also polluting - in a literal sense, and also in a metaphorical or cultural sense. Disposal of the body, though attended by ritual, is also a means of getting rid of potentially hazardous waste. Today, however, embalming enables a corpse to be preserved in a lifelike condition for long after death, without the health risks associated with decomposition. In which case necrophilia need no longer be viscerally disgusting. And in any case, while there is a close connection between physical disgust and moral disapproval, it is a psychological rather than a moral connection. Just because it sounds icky doesn't mean it's wrong.

Is it, then, a pathology? Certainly, it is treated as one in the clinical literature - but then so, for many decades, was homosexuality, and in many texts consensual sadomasochism still is. The most thorough study, by Rosman and Resnick (1989), anatomised the phenomenon and found substantial differences in personality between, for example, murderers who violated their victims (whose primary motivation was to kill) and those who were erotically fixated on dead bodies. "The genuine necrophile" they wrote "has a persistent sexual attraction to corpses. The sexual attraction may be manifest in the necrophile's fantasies, or in a series of necorphilic acts." The most common motivating factor was a desire to "possess and unresisting and unrejecting partner", in some cases reflecting a history of abuse, or a persistent lack of success with the living. A fairly high proportion of necrophiles (not surprisingly perhaps) worked in funeral parlours. This might have been because corpse-lovers sought out the work, but it is also possible that constant exposure to cadavers broke down normal barriers between the living and the dead. Similarly, I suppose, if you spent long enough tending sheep on a Welsh hillside you might come to hear in their bleats a flirtatious invitation.

More broadly, one could perhaps say that there are two types of necrophilic impulse: one directed towards corpses in general, in which a person is erotically interested in dead bodies, would generally be seen as pathological. But there is another impulse, in which the attraction is to the person who merely happens to be dead. It is this "romantic necrophilia" - expressed, according to Rosman and Resnick, more commonly by kissing and caressing, than by sexually penetrating, the corpse - that so interested the nineteenth century, an era that was as obsessed by death as our age has been by sex. Edgar Allan Poe, especially, returned repeatedly to the subject, though this was about as explicit as he got:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dream
of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And so all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In the sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea

"A dead person who loves", wrote Freud's disciple Ernest Jones, "will love forever and will never be weary of giving and receiving caresses....On the other hand the dead being allows everything, can offer no resistance, and the relationship has none of the inconveniences that sexuality may bring in its train in life."

I leave you with a very romantic story from Key West, Florida, of a man who couldn't bear to let his wife go, and got into serious trouble as a result.


28 comments:

Anonymous said...

I do hope Inayat reads this.

indigomyth said...

//Of course, necrophilia is "unnatural", in that conception is not a possible outcome; but by this token, gay sex, oral sex, masturbation and sex in which one or both parties is using artificial contraception are equally unnatural - and rape isn't. //

Is this true, though? You seem to be working from an assumption that the only 'natural' purpose of sex is to reproduce. However this is manifestly not the case, certainly in the animal kingdom. In the case of homosexual intercourse, there have been studies that have shown that homosexual intercourse is a significant part of certain animal groups dynamic. Sexual relations, on a purely pleasurable basis, would seem to strengthen bonding ties between group members and increase the survival possibility of the group as a whole. Indeed, masturbation, certainly among primates, is quite a common occurrence. So it would at least seem that "sex" has evolved beyond mere boundaries of reproductive requirement. It has been adapted, much in the way of a penguins wing, to perform a different function to that it did initially.

Why do you believe that non-reproductive intercourse is "unnatural"?

The Heresiarch said...

"You seem to be working from an assumption that the only 'natural' purpose of sex is to reproduce."

That's the assumption that most religiously-based moralities work from, though, isn't it? Hence the inverted commas round "natural". It certainly isn't the position I'm coming from.

To extend your argument, perhaps necrophilia evolved as a side-effect of the psychological investment of emotion in another person - or perhaps there's a comparison with the way herring gull chicks will peck at a red dot in the hope that it will regurgitate fish. In one sense, nothing that human beings do can be "unnatural", since it is an expression of human nature - which has evolved, or been bestowed by God, or both, according to taste.

indigomyth said...

//That's the assumption that most religiously-based moralities work from, though, isn't it?//
My apologies for the confusion. I was unsure, and thought I would query the point.

re. bestiality, it is an interesting topic. A related issue is that of the possibility of non-human intelligence ah la Star Trek. Technically, is one defines sex between a human and a non-human as "bestiality" then Star Trek is one of its strongest proponents!

Since Star Trek is hardly ever censured for this "crime" (though have read of some fundies that do consider its display of interspecies relationships to be immoral), it would seem that "sentience" and self-awareness is a key issue in deciding whether sex is moral or not.

There is an interesting point here though;
IF animals are taken to be sentient and self-aware, then having sex with them cannot be any more wrong then in Star Trek, or even sex between humans. They are consenting entities acting of their own volition
HOWEVER,
IF animals are assumed to be non-sentient, mindless objects, then they rank alongside sex toys; tools to be used for sexual fulfilment. There is no more anything wrong with having sex with animals, than it is playing with sex toys.

Maybe "animals" inhabit a different category of understanding in the human mind?

Also, think on this. If a woman told you she used a wooden dildo, you would perhaps not be unduly phased (or at least no more than such talk would usually arouse). Yet, if she were to tell you she used a dildo carved from animal bone, your reaction might be more extreme. Yet, they are both derived from living things? What about if it was an ivory dildo? Would that be better or worse than wood or bone?

Another one of associated interest is that of cannibalism. This has been practised in many cultures across the globe, and only very rarely in cases of food shortage. It is almost always done in relation to remembrance of the dead, honouring their memory etc.

Edwin Moore said...

Ah forgive me, I've just done the inevitable dead boring joke on Cif.

One of the grimmest books I've ever read is Helen Forrester's Twopence to Cross the Mersey. There is one startling section in which she describes working in a Liverpool shop. Across the road is a funeral parlour, and when a fresh female corpse comes in, the men there invite Forrester's male colleagues across to play with the body. When they come back they are in a state of high sexual excitement and Forrster had to barricade herself in to avoid assault.

It's the most nightmarish thing I've ever read, an authentic picture of hell.

Back to Bungle, I suppose the love of death-in-itself is a necessary part of all paradise religions, as death is the wet, messy entrance to pleasure.

Can we have a blog about happy bunnies next please!

WeepingCross said...

Not quite the case about the 'natural purposes of sex' aspect: I understand Thomas Aquinas argued that physical pleasure and love-bonding were natural and proper purposes of sex, even though procreation was the most important one (I say 'understand' having not read Aquinas directly).

I think the corpse is representative of the person, hence the funeral tradition. If it's merely meat, which in a material sense it clearly is, then simple hygienic disposal is all that's required, yet generally people treat the remains of their loved ones - even when reduced to ashes - with a certain degree of respect and care which represents the respect and care due to living humans, even though the corpse is obviously morally much less significant in itself. In fact, this 'respect' usually pertains regardless of religious viewpoints or whether the person was liked in life.

To use a dead body for one's sexual gratification seems to betoken some disrespect for the living too - it implies that that's what human beings are for. Even should someone want to donate their body for the use of necrophiles, I think one could argue they shouldn't be allowed to, as that would encourage living humans to think about one another instrumentally. We ought to consider even the remote effects of our actions on others.

WeepingCross said...

"He read a book on embalming
And he found it simply quite charming;
She is there, she is there in the larder
Preserved for all time for his ardour"

The Tiger Lillies

Edwin Moore said...

Weeping Cross, The Tiger Lillies are too mucb even for me - Banging in the Nails and Hell - heavens. Gas Bill is such a jolly tune until you start making out the words.

The Heresiarch said...

Not read Aquinas, Father W? I'm surprised at you.

"To use a dead body for one's sexual gratification seems to betoken some disrespect for the living too - it implies that that's what human beings are for."

That's probably the strongest argument. But what then is the difference between having sex with a corpse and having sex with an anatomically-correct lifesize doll? And if the corpse is, in fact, the beloved Annabel Lee (or however) might it not in fact be part of a grieving process, and express, in however strange a fashion, genuine love and, yes, respect?

Edwin - what a story. Is it true? Herodotus claims that female corpses in Egypt were left to rot before being mummified to deter the embalmers from "violating" it - but that's usually assumed to be his usual tittle-tattle.

Having said I have found a case about an American morgue attendant currently on trial for abusing several corpses twenty years ago. He was caught when he was arrested for a drugs offence and his DNA sample matched that on a teenage murder victim. Grim, if ghoulishly fascinating, stuff:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2009/02/28/2009-02-28_necrophilia_charges_mount_for_former_mor.html

apashiol said...

I've often posed the question to people who are disgusted by bestiality whether it is worse to kill an animal to eat it's flesh or engage in a sex act with it.
It's interesting how often people say eating an animal is unproblematic but sex is not. While animals can't choose, perhaps it is tenable that they'd 'prefer' the sex if they get to live after.

As for necrophilia, I feel that concern for the effect on those left living would be the strongest objection.
If someone dies who does their body 'belong' to?
I know Maori objections to organ donation are often based on the feeling that the body of the deceased belongs to the family. Absent specific wishes on the part of the deceased, that claim seems intuitively right.

Edwin Moore said...

Am sure that Forrester can be trusted on the details of her early life (she is still alive).

The books are amazingly grim but are packaged as kind of soft nostalgic stuff.

DavidMWW said...

You might enjoy this strip:

http://sexylosers.com/007.html

There's a whole series of them!

Matt said...

Excellent post.

Most of what passes for "morality" is in fact just a throwback instinct of disgust, itself an evolutionary necessity in the animal kingdom, but something you might hope would be trumped by reason in sapient being like ourselves: I might +feel+ disgusted by something, but I'd hope that I'd judge it not on that disgust, but with logic and reason. Unfortunately that's not the case for most people, or most societies.

It's usually very easy to "out" moral decisions - and indeed moral systems - that are so misguided, because their rulings are riddled with contradictions and logical fallacy.

The only moral framework I've personally come across that manages to avoid this is that which advocates the freedom of any independent sapient being to do whatever the hell she or he likes, so long as it does not impinge upon the same freedoms of another. Necrophilia certainly doesn't fall foul of that, a corpse is not sapient.

There may be "crime" involved, but if any it would be trespassing or other other ant-social matters, not moral ones.

The same may apply if as apashiol suggests, society allows "ownership" of the corpse. But again, this is not a moral matter, only a social one, like theft, and should be dealt with by social punishment. Locking someone up for necrophilia would itself be a moral crime.

valdemar squelch said...

Spot on with the Poe reference. Plus, Annabel Lee is the name given by Nabokov's Humbert Humbert to his first child-lover.

'I was a child and she was a child
I that kingdom by the sea
And we loved with a love that was more than love
I and my Annabel Lee'

Oo-er missus.

apashiol said...

In a thought experiment where someone was raped and not physically harmed, perhaps under threat of violence, the crime would seem to be one of emotional assault, psychological pain.
It is impossible to disentangle a person's sense of self from their feelings of autonomy and bodily integrity. We identify with our bodies and what happens to them.
I can't help feeling necrophilia is an assault upon the loved ones that is more a difference in degree than a different in kind.

We construct a conception of self as autonomous individuals within a legal and social framework of rights but in some ways I find it hard to see that feeling/idea as more 'real' than the self felt as part of a larger entity like one's family.
For example, the way humans need to have a body to bury in order to be able to move on. Parents whose children were taken and killed who are left haunted because they never got the chance to say goodbye. Those we love are part of us almost like a part of our own bodies.

When you say it's circular reasoning in the case of outrage to the deceased's relatives, I can't help wondering if the same argument could be used of a rape victim.
Is there any need for them to establish why they should feel violated, other than they do feel violated?

The Heresiarch said...

Probably not. But it's a defence to rape to establish consent. It's not a defence to a charge of necrophilia to prove that the corpse's next of kin consented. Besides, your point about "the self as part of a larger entity like one's family" would be useful if you wanted to defend, say, "honour killing".

quisquose said...

Yes, an interesting thought provoking piece.

The questions posed reminds me of a similar one. Is the ownership of computer generated virtual reality child pornography a crime?

apashiol said...

As I understand it, neurology suggests that we have two separate structures that process emotions and logic and they communicate with each other to give rise to human rationality. They can't actually be sundered. On that basis, privileging reason over emotions may be a cultural artifact.
Given the cultural background that gives rise to honour killings and the way shame figures so prominently in it perhaps honour killing is as 'natural' an outcome of it as the primacy and autonomy of the individual is to us.
I would probably find it as impossible to defend the right of the individual to be self-determining, even at the expense of the family as they would to defend the murder of an individual to expiate a sense of family shame. I can understand how it might emerge from a cultural matrix without necessarily defending it.

Matt said...

"In a thought experiment where someone was raped and not physically harmed, perhaps under threat of violence, the crime would seem to be one of emotional assault, psychological pain."

I'd suggest the act is immoral because the person who rapes denies the other person the freedom to choose their own sexual partner.

Whether it's a "crime" is another matter. There are plenty of crimes that are not immoral, and plenty of immoral acts that aren't crimes. There's also unfortunately many perfectly moral acts that are crimes, and plenty of law that punishes people immorally. Crime and morality have little to do with each other.

"Those we love are part of us almost like a part of our own bodies"

It may feel that way, but that doesn't make it so. Your moral rights are your own, and do not extend to anybody, or anything else. If they did, that would introduce all sorts of contradictions that would show such a moral framework to be untenable. For instance, what if a relative decided to kill themselves? Who's moral right to freedom wins? Your right over them or your relatives right over themselves?

"As I understand it, neurology suggests that we have two separate structures that process emotions and logic and they communicate with each other to give rise to human rationality"

I'd like to see a link to evidence of this. Many creatures have brains that have separate logical and emotional centers that communicate, but that doesn't make them human, Something that "makes us human" would have to be something unique to us.

apashiol said...

Matt,
When I used the word crime I meant it in the sense of an immoral or wicked act, rather than one necessarily codified into law. It was my intention to show how an emotional or psychological injury is just as real and sometimes worse than a physical injury.

"It may feel that way, but that doesn't make it so."

If someone I love is murdered, the injury to me is real even if not directly inflicted on my person.
As far as moral rights and responsibilities, these are social constructions that are pragmatic. And culture specific. Laws don't have to be perfect, just workable.
Other cultures have concepts such as vendetta where if retribution can't be had upon the wrongdoer a close relative will do.
Even in the West where moral responsibility resides within the individual, the families of murderers will often suffer a backlash from their community.
I am not saying this is right, just that it's a fact.

"Many creatures have brains that have separate logical and emotional centers that communicate, but that doesn't make them human"

I didn't make any claims about what makes us human. In this case I was just talking about human rationality.
I find your use of logic in regards to other creatures confusing. Perhaps other animals have brain structures cognate to those that give rise to logic in the human brain and therefore have rudimentary reasoning powers. However logic, based as it is on 'logos' (word, thought,idea) would seem to necessitate language skills beyond other animals.
To use logic when talking of animals seems to be stretching it too much. Perhaps I am wrong about this.

It is a long time since I read the article I was referring to so this link is the best I can do at the moment.

As it is still early days it probably isn't the last word on it.

Matt said...

Apols, I took your use of the word "crime" to literally.

Morality may be no more than arbitrary and subjective laws as you suggest (in which case it has no meaning other than a cultural one), and it may also be irrelevant anyway because the universe is deterministic and thus we are not responsible for our actions.

On the other hand, there may be an objective moral framework applied by a creator god, a subjective one of the same type, or even a moral framework built into the laws of the universe if conscious free will really exists within an otherwise deterministic backdrop.

Fact is that we don't know, since no questions about the existence or not of a god have been answered, we don't know if our decisions are free or pre-determined, and consciousness is still little understood, let alone explained.

However, within all that uncertainly, there is a least one thing I'd propose you can say about an objective morality, IF it were to exist, and that would be that it would at least have to be internally consistent.

Personally, I believe nothing, but I +hope+ that free will is real, and that morality turns out to have an objective basis, so therefore I choose (or do I?!) to attempt to find a moral code that isn't just made-up, so I discard those that evidently are, and stick to those that may not be.

apashiol said...

Matt,
From what I understand we, as much as the the Universe we inhabit, are deterministic beings.
However, even if we exist at the nexus of a series of causal determinants, our wishes, beliefs and desires can also be among those determinants.
So, while we may not have free will in the classical sense, there can still be something of 'us' in the mix.
So I might have a desire to eat fatty foods but I also might want to be able to attract sexual partners. I can marshal that desire to be attractive to help me control my appetite and exercise.
I don't will ex nihilo to do what I do, but I can give more or less priority to certain desires.
I'm not a total meat puppet but neither am I an autonomous human agent.

Even if there is no ultimate objective moral framework I would argue that of the possible human moralities, there will be some better than others for maximizing the good and minimizing suffering.

Perhaps, just as consciousness seems to be an emergent property of the billions of neurons in our brain, morality may also be an emergent property.
Moral systems could be subject to evolutionary selection. A morality that encourages interpersonal co-operation and respect for the environment would help the group that holds it flourish.
I don't think it's too pollyannaish to say that the lot of humans has improved with democracy, the abolition of slavery and increased human rights.

It seems to me that morality is rather like language. Both are essential for civilisation. Both have to be shared to be any use at all.
But neither are fixed, rather they are capable of evolution.

Matt said...

The classical macro universe appears deterministic indeed, but the underlying quantum basis for that universe appears quite the opposite, at least according to several of the most popular current theories regarding it.

Equally, consciousness could be an emergent property of determinate physical processes, but that explanation (at the moment) fails to satisfactorily account for personal qualia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

There are even those that postulate that perhaps consciousness is in some way bound up with interactions with the quantum.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orch-OR

And Chalmers suggests that consciousness could even be a fundamental property of the universe.

http://consc.net/papers/facing.html

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that these ideas are any more than interesting theories, but I am pointing out that at that moment we simply don't understand any of these subjects well enough to decide one way or the other.

To be sure, in my opinion, your rather paradoxical suggestion that we both have and don't have free will (in a sense) seems just as outlandish as the suggestions above. It seems to me that almost all explanations are going to seem outlandish when we have so little facts to go on.

So as I say, while the jury's out, I'll go with accepting that there MAY be an objective moral framework, while at least limiting myself to investing in the only one I've come across that is not internally inconsistent and full of logical fallacy.

For sure, I could equally choose to plump for the idea that the universe is deterministic (no one is to blame for anything they do), or/and that there is no objective morality (rights and wrongs are only social constructions to keep civilization on the rails), but one thing can be said for sure: both paths would be a guess right now.

Matt said...

PS: As you can possibly tell, I quite accept your viewpoint (there is no objective morality) as tenable, I only caution about believing it as somehow set in stone as a One True Way.

Where I am less forgiving is in regards to those (the majority of people and their institutions) who believe their own subjective moralities are the One True Way, when they are so easily unraveled by simple logical examination.

apashiol said...

"There are even those that postulate that perhaps consciousness is in some way bound up with interactions with the quantum."

Yes, I have seen people try to escape the determinacy of the Universe by appeals to quantum indeterminacy. I fail to see how random quantum fluctuations can rescue free will. It just introduces randomness, not choice.

I'm fine with the view that morality is evolved just like love. As we have no choice in who we fall in love with, we needn't have any more choice to be moral.

Studies do show that even small children can distinguish between social convention and moral behaviour. They aren't the same thing.

Whether we act as we do from choice or because we're determined might not make a great deal of difference on one level.
If someone murders someone else, we would still imprison them. Only rather than looking upon it as retribution we would do so to protect society. On the other hand, we might put more effort into rehabilitation.
If childhood abuse say, is a factor in determining later criminal behaviour, we might look to find ways to mitigate that and remove that determinant from the equation.
And while I don't believe prison is the deterrent some would like to believe it is, I do imagine that there could be some with borderline homicidal tendencies for whom the threat of losing their freedom could be enough to tip the scales towards them inhibiting their impulses.
Of course, if the urge is strong enough they might just plan the murder better to avoid detection.

Personally, the knowledge that I have only limited as opposed to absolute choice doesn't make me any less moral. I just use that limited choice to try and create a situation that favours the positive and minimizes the negative influences in my life.

Matt said...

If the conscious sapient brain had evolved some way of interacting with that quantum randomness, then it would be at least possible that our own free will decision-making could influence the emergence of classical macro events.

A universe without conscious entities would proceed in an entirely deterministic fashion, whereas one with conscious entities would still be deterministic, only the paths of those entities through it would not be.

This is philosophy, not science, but the point is that there is no need to "escape the determinacy of the Universe by appeals" to anything, because the "determinacy of the Universe" is not established scientific fact.

Equally, the answer to whether there is an objective morality does not fall in the realm of proven science, and nor indeed does a whole host of other such questions, which is why there are still philosophers out there thinking about these things. All we can do when science cannot give us an answer is discard the impossible, and theorize with what is left.

When science proves these things one way or another the philosophers will disappear. Until then, to choose one possible scenario - for instance determination and materialism - to the seeming exclusion of other non-scientifically or logically disproved alternatives, is an untenable position.

"Only rather than looking upon it as retribution we would do so to protect society."

Hypothetically, if money and resource was irrelevant, would you be happy to park your prisoners on a five star luxury desert island for their rehabilitation?

apashiol said...

Well, in science all knowledge is provisional so we may discover that some of these possibilities operate.

It does make more sense to study what the evidence leads us to believe is the most probable first until that has been exhausted.

As to your question about the luxury desert island.
I can't see that it would be either a good deterrent or form of rehabilitation.

Matt said...

I'd certainly agree with that Apashiol. I'd not suggest trying to divert mainstream science to these areas. There are already small pockets of people doing research and making interesting discoveries at most fringes of the mainstream. That is enough.

At least in the UK, the current penal system is hardly a deterrent either, and there is no reason why someone could not rehabilitate in that environment any less than any other. My point is - as I'm sure you see - that in the rehab/public safety Vs punishment debate, unless one agrees in principle to the hypothetical luxury penal colony, one cannot claim to be uninterested in punishment or retribution. Many people like to fool themselves that they are not, but they are, and there's nothing wrong with that in my book.