Monthly Archives: January 2014
A Matter of Taste: Objective Morality, Raw Sewage, and Nutrition
Is morality a matter of taste, or a matter of objective right and wrong?
My answer to that question is “yes.”
To explain, let’s look at two hypothetical college students who are working in a computer lab. Their instructor is taking them through a rather complicated piece of software. Mike notices that Jerry, who is sitting next to him, has made a mistake. Mike believes that we should always help people when we can, so he points out the mistake and offers to help Jerry. However Jerry believes that he’s using the program correctly, and even if he wasn’t he’s the kind of person who would rather figure it out himself. He politely turns down Mike’s offer of help. In this situation neither Mike nor Jerry is wrong. Mike is just trying to be helpful, and Jerry would rather try to figure it out himself. Here the “right thing to do” is a matter of personal taste. It’s analogous to Mike offering Jerry some pistachio ice cream; if Jerry doesn’t like pistachio that’s no big deal.
Life is full of these kinds of situation. The right thing to do in one situation may not be the right thing to do in others. Different people have different needs and different ideas on what the best thing to do is. Because of this it can be very difficult to say who is “right” in certain kinds of situations, and we can have long discussions going over the merits of different moral approaches, just as we could discuss the merits of different flavors of ice cream.
Because of this it’s understandable why people would be drawn to the idea of moral relativism: the idea that morality is a matter of personal perspective, and that there is no objective “right or wrong.” From a relativist point of view those who believe in objective morality are as silly as someone saying that vanilla ice cream is the best flavor and the only one we should eat. How absurd! You can’t have “wrong” tastes after all.
The trouble is that we can have wrong tastes. If someone had a taste for sewage we would recognize that something is wrong with their taste buds, and that this is an unhealthy substance to eat. If someone had a taste for arsenic we would understand that their tastes are out of alignment. Similarly if someone has a “taste” for murdering children then we should recognize that they are still wrong to do so. If a man starts eating dirt and lead paint we know that something is very wrong with their sense of taste; similarly if someone goes on a killing spree we know that something is very wrong with their moral sense: their conscience, you might say.
Some might quibble that there is nothing objectively wrong with enjoying untreated sewage. Perhaps, but it is objectively a bad taste to have if your aim is to preserve the health of your body. Eating things that are toxic will damage your health and well-being. Similarly, certain moral actions will damage the character of the person performing them. This is a belief that has been held by adherents of objective morality for thousands of years. A “sin” is not only morally wrong but is also self-destructive. We cannot hurt others without also hurting ourselves. Socrates understood this: he encouraged us to seek the virtuous life over everything else, not out of duty but out of a kind of self-preservation.
Some moral actions, such as rape or murder, are obviously wrong, just as some tastes, such as sewage and cyanide, are also obviously out of whack. Other actions, and tastes, are less black and white, but still dangerous. If you just love trans-fat laden french fries, deep fried chicken skins, and buckets of cookie dough, your doctor may rightfully advise you to change your eating habits. Is it so strange then that moral authorities advise people to change their moral habits? Some people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to preserve or enhance their own happiness, just as some people will devour copious amounts of unhealthy food for the same reasons. These things may bring temporary happiness but are ultimately self-destructive. In this way the field of ethics is analogous to nutrition. A nutritionist may give strict orders to their patients: no more saturated fats, reduce your sodium intake, eat more fruits and vegetables. An ethicist does the same: don’t lie, don’t steal, practice empathy, be sincere. Just as good nutrition keeps the body in good shape good ethics keeps your character in good shape. With this in mind, objective morality makes more sense. Can you imagine a relativistic nutrition, where every patient chose whatever foods felt right to them? Naturally you have the right to eat what you like; but it’s pure folly to think that the person who chooses to eat nothing but cookie dough and pork rinds will be just as well off as the person who eats a balanced diet.
Some may be quick to point out that we can observe and measure the body and its health, but we can’t do the same for a person’s character. It’s true that nutrition can be empirical, while ethics is non-empirical. However not all truth is empirical in nature. The body can be directly observed, but a person’s character, their mind and soul, is currently (and may always be) unempirical in that it can’t be directly measured and recorded. Still, a person’s character can be observed by those around them on a non-empirical basis. We have no scale that can measure good character, but we can observe that Mother Theresa had a better character than Saddam Hussein, or that the kind woman down the street who always makes time for those in need has a better character than the drug dealer who has participated in several drive by shootings. Thusly, the measure of a good ethical system can be found in observing those who practice it. Are they better people? Has their character grown healthier? This knowledge is relational rather than empirical in nature, but that doesn’t make it less valid.
All this, in a nutshell, is to help explain what is meant by “objective morality”. It is the idea that just as some things are objectively harmful to consume, some actions are objectively harmful to commit, to both ourselves and others. There is more to it than that, of course. Choosing to eat sewage is one thing; choosing to rape and murder someone is obviously something very different. However these examples do share some essential points: both are self-destructive acts, and both are obviously wrong to those whose senses are working properly.
Boredom: The Key to Creativity?
I hate boredom. Of my many flaws, one of the most evident is my addiction to mental stimulus. If I have a stretch of spare time I will fill it with web surfing, reading articles, playing games, or watching videos. If the spare time continues long enough I’ll start hitting the bottom of the barrel. I’ll find myself on some funny picture website for an hour, after spending the previous three checking and rechecking blogs, news sites, and webcomics.
In short, I don’t idle very well.
Unfortunately for me, I think boredom may be a vital element of creativity. When we take in a great deal of content, it’s hard to produce our own. When we are constantly devouring other people’s ideas we have trouble identifying our own. In some ways it seems like creativity, rather than a noble pursuit for beauty and truth and originality, may be an act of desperation. Without other people’s ideas to sustain us we’re forced to develop our own. Without other people’s creations to entertain us we have to entertain ourselves.
It is simply 100% easier to consume a creative work than to produce one. Some of the most creative times in my own life have occurred when I had nothing more interesting to do than create.
Now that I’ve discovered this principle, I’m not sure what to do with it. Lock myself in an empty room with nothing but a notebook and a pencil? I don’t know. But from now on, instead of putting all my efforts into annihilating periods of boredom I’ll try to cultivate them instead. Quiet moments with no one to talk to besides myself.
It might work.
I hate to put up posts that, in the end, amount to nothing more than “Sorry I haven’t posted much, here’s my excuse.” It’s bad blogging etiquette, and you run the risk of having more excuse posts than actual content. But I feel I owe you all at least some kind of explanation. My posting schedule has fallen through the floor lately, and I know exactly why, but there isn’t much I can do about it.
The reason is malaise.
Malaise is a word that defines a general sense of feeling unwell. It’s the kind of amourphous unsettled feeling you get on the edge of a flu, the kind of thing people feel when they tell others that they’re “feeling funny” or the like. In my own case I don’t know how much of it is physical and how much is mental. On the one hand my wife got sick last week, and over the past few days I’ve had the occasional light headache or slightly sore throat that typically indicates sickness may be coming. But I haven’t actually gotten sick yet, and this feeling has lasted for some time. I feel it most in my mind. It’s hard for me to get all my thoughts straight. It’s hard for me to remember why I believe the way I do about the things I care about the most. I don’t want anyone to read too much into that statement. I’m not having doubts about my faith or my philosophy. It’s just that I don’t feel as sharp. I don’t want to think very hard about much of anything. Everything feels kind of dull and muffled upstairs. I get along fine with day to day tasks, or participating in conversation, but the gears and wheels that run the contemplative and abstract parts of my mind seem to slowed to a near halt. Which is bad for the blog, because those are the parts I use most while writing posts. I get ideas for blog posts but they don’t come to any kind of fruition. It’s hard to put the pieces together.
Writing it all out like that I can see that some people might begin to worry that I’m developoing some kind of mental illness. I want to assure you that I don’t think this is the case. I don’t feel like I’ve lost any capabilities, but rather that some things have become very tiring. That’s why I describe it as malaise: when I try to get my writing thoughts in order I feel like a man with a fever who is trying to take out the trash. He’s perfectly capable of doing so, but it takes a lot longer and he feels really tired afterwards and everything is kind of sticky and fuzzy and he’d rather be lying under the covers watching some kind of mindless sitcom and eating chicken soup.
Really, apart from any physical sickness I may or may not be harbouring, I think I’m just tired. I’ve been mentally tired for a few weeks now and the YEC evidences post wore me out even further. In the past I’ve focused on the philosophy behind YEC for a reason. I don’t want to argue about evidences. I’m not a geologist, I’m an amatuer writer who enjoys philosophy and expression among other things. I don’t really care much one way or the other whether you are a YEC or not. If I ever stopped being a YEC it wouldn’t really change all that much about my faith.
But I did get a request for a post on the best evidence for YEC, and I wanted to keep up my end of the bargain. So I made that evidences post and found myself locked in a seemingly unending thread of comments arguing about things that I never really wanted this blog to be about in the first place, and things that I’m frankly not qualifed to have much of an opinion on. And I find it so, so tiring. What’s worse is that I made it a two parter, and I just know that as soon as I put up another post on the subject it will be the circus all over again, and once more I’ll be spending all my energy arguing about something that I didn’t want to persuade anyone in particular aobut in the first place.
Needless to say, if anyone in the comments even mentions YEC or anything related to it on this post I’m going to incinerate it from orbit.
Did I mention that this mental maliase has also caused me to become a bit grumpier in my online interactions?
Anyway that’s what is up. I don’t know when I’ll get out of this funk. If I don’t post for a while you’ll know what’s up. And don’t be suprised if that YEC post never gets a part two.
Hotels, Halibut, and Hightailin’ it
Today I thought I’d share a little story with you from my own life.
It was probably 2006 or 2007. Exact dates in my life are hard to place. I remember events, not calendars. I know it wasn’t my senior year, so that leaves out ’08 and ’09, and I wasn’t a freshman either. I would have been about 15 or 16 years old. I was off on a trip to Seattle for the biannual Junior Statesmen of America convention. For those who don’t know, JSA is basically a high school speech and debate organization. The hosting hotel was swarming with teenagers in suits being herded by frazzled chaperones. There was about six or seven of us coming from little old Eatonville, and our chaperones were Mr. and Mrs. Bell. Or Hill. To be honest, I can’t quite remember her name. I’m about as bad with names as I am with dates, but I know Mrs. Bell’s face. She was a kind, plump woman who had a certain air of authority that was necessary for keeping a crowd of independent high school kids in line. She was in charge of the JSA program, and her husband was here to keep an eye on the males in the party.
We were assigned rooms at random. I was bunking with two guys that I had only a passing acquaintance with. If it wasn’t for JSA I likely would have never reason to interact with either of them. Their names escape me as well. The one I knew best (but didn’t really know at all) had died his hair with a bright blue streak. The other roommate I have forgotten almost entirely. I can’t even place his face; the only memorable thing I can recall is that he was better friends with Blue Hair than I was, and that he was smart enough to order fish from the fish joint we scored dinner from that night. Growing up in the mountains I didn’t know swordfish from pollock. In my mind there where two kinds of fish: salmon and not salmon. Everyone in western Washington knows what salmon tastes like, but beyond that fish was a white, flaky mystery. Later my Alaskan wife would educate me on the wonders of good fish, but I wouldn’t meet her for at least four more years.
We picked this particular fish place on the grounds that it was the only thing open and nearby. Looking up at the menu I had no idea what I wanted to eat. I glanced over at Blue Hair, and he seemed similarly perplexed. Our comrade whose identity escapes me confidently ordered the halibut. Blue Hair and I chickened out and got hamburgers.
It was the worst hamburger I’ve ever tasted, and to this day I can still remember how tantalizingly flavorful that halibut dinner smelled. This event is my only notable memory of the man, so I’ll call him Hal.
Hal and Blue Hair were not my kind of people. I was a clean cut, shy, and extremely nerdy Christian boy. They cussed a blue streak, wore leather and chrome chains, and had no religion that I could make out. This didn’t bother me too much. I was used to being the odd one out at school. I stayed quiet and let them do the talking, throwing out an occasional comment now and then.
Now we may have had chaperones, but they showed us a remarkable amount of trust. For one thing, they opted to get a room together for themselves, leaving us to our own devices. They had laid down some ground rules ahead of time, however. Mrs. Bell made it extremely clear: if she found any girl in a boy’s room, or vice versa, then everyone involved in the incident would be sent home on the next Greyhound bus. Their parents would be called, even if it was 2:00 AM, and informed about the situation so that they could pick them up. I shuddered to think about such a thing happening to me: left at a bus station late at night by an angry chaperone, knowing that an equally disappointed parent would be waiting on the other end. I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about that happening. I had no girlfriend, so this seemed to be one rule I would have no trouble keeping.
After getting dinner I was looking forward to relaxing in our hotel room. Locked within it was the magic of cable TV, a rare luxury. We didn’t have it at home, for a variety of reasons. The stated reason was that we didn’t want to waste money on it, but there were purely practical concerns beyond that. We lived in a narrow valley almost two miles down a bumpy forest service road. I don’t think cable would stretch that far. The high valley walls also ensured that we only got about three channels off our antenna with any regularity. But now, for a couple nights, I would have access to over a hundred channels. The world was at my fingertips.
One of my roommates grabbed the remote first. Fortunately he settled on a Ricky Gervais comedy routine. I love stand-up comedy, so this was right up my alley. I prepared myself for a pleasant night of laughs, when there was a knock at the door.
Behind it, wearing leopard print tights, was Blue Hair’s girlfriend, Beth.
Beth strolled right in and made herself at home. All the while alarm bells were going off in my head. I broke free of my usual shyness and pointed out that she wasn’t allowed in here. Blue Hair blew me off. “Nobody will know.”
I didn’t press the point. I had survived in high school by following some pretty strict rules. One of them was to keep as low a profile as possible around anyone who had yet to earn my trust. I could have gotten into an argument about it with Blue Hair, but I didn’t want to make a scene. Besides, Hal seemed to be on Blue Hair’s side. At the very least he exuded an aura of nonchalance. He just didn’t care. I felt sure I couldn’t make them do anything, and even if I could I didn’t want to piss them off. So I did the only thing I could do. I picked up my book (I always had a book with me in those days) and left the room. I couldn’t control them, but I was responsible for my own decisions. I wasn’t going to risk being sent home for their sakes.
Of course, I didn’t really have anywhere to go.
I ended up going down a few floors until I found a bench I could sit on while I read my book. I can’t remember exactly what book it was, but I’m fairly sure it was science fiction. I can remember cramped words in a tiny font printed on cheap paper that had begun to yellow with age. Combined with the fact that it was a very thick little paperback leads me to believe it might have been Dune. I read for about two and a half hours. By that time my back ached and my mind was getting foggy. I was upset. After all, it was just as much my room as theirs. Why should I be exiled to the hallway because they can’t follow the rules?
I figured I’d go up and check in on them. Maybe Beth had left by now. When I got back to the room, however, everything was as I left it, including Beth.
I had an internal debate. Nothing had really changed; the smart and right thing to do would be to go back into the hallway. I wasn’t going to rat them out (I knew they weren’t up to any real trouble) but I wasn’t going to participate either. On the other hand I was tired of sitting on that bench, and I needed to take a break from my book (which makes it all the more likely it was Dune, now that I think about it). It had been two and a half hours and Blue Hair was right: nobody was going to catch them. I walked in and sat on the bed. Time to relax a little. I could always leave later.
About five minutes later there was a knock at the door. A loud one.
Hal and I looked at each other. Blue Hair stood up, and Beth tried to hide behind her chair. She did a good job of it too, but her hiding place wouldn’t hold up to any serious inspection. Blue Hair opened the door. Behind it was a chaperone. It wasn’t Mr. Bell, but someone from another school . Not that it mattered: all the chaperones had the same rulebook, and their jurisdiction didn’t stop at school lines. This guy was middle aged, and on the tall side. He didn’t look happy. “Are there any girls in here?” It was more of a demand then a question. My heart plummeted into my guts. This was it. I had done the right thing. I didn’t approve of this. I had waited in the hallway for hours. Yet, due to a moment of weakness, I was here, caught like the rest of them.
Blue Hair tried to play it cool. “No, no girls here.” He smiled reassuringly.
The chaperone was not impressed. “Really? So which one of you guys is wearing the leopard print tights someone saw walking in here?”
We were caught. There was no place for Beth to run to. If he came in here he would find her almost immediately. There was no chance that he would go away. Someone had seen her come in, and he wasn’t going to leave until he sorted this out. There was only one thing I could do.
Looking back on it, I’m not entirely sure how I pulled this off. I’m actually a little bit surprised that I had the confidence to try. But in the moment I didn’t think. I just acted, in the only way I knew how. As Blue Hair tried to explain how he had no idea what the chaperone was talking about I grabbed my book and stood up. I walked towards the door. In front of me was Blue Hair and the chaperone, who almost filled up the doorway. He looked very peeved. I calmly walked forward and said, in a polite and quiet tone, “Excuse me, I need a drink of water.”
I can still remember the faint look of surprise on the chaperone’s face. He stood aside and let me through, but I could see in his eyes that wheels were turning. I think it may have been an automatic response: if someone asks you politely to get out of the way, you typically do. It might have helped that I was completely calm. I kept walking at a slow and natural pace down the hallway. I didn’t look back. As soon as I was around the corner I began to run as quietly as I could. I got in the elevator and took it down to the floor with the bench. I got out, got some water at a drinking fountain (somehow it felt less like a deception if I actually had a drink) and started reading my book again.
About a half hour later I got a call on my cell phone. It was Mr. Bell. He sounded flustered. He asked me where I was. I said I was on the 5th floor, reading my book. There was a long silence. Finally he said “Okay, that’s good. I just wanted to know where you were,” and hung up. I went back to reading, and tried my best to lower my heartbeat. To this day I’m unsure whether Mr. Bell knew I was in the room and decided to let me off the hook, or whether he was just checking up on me.
After about an hour I got another call. It was Mrs. Bell. She was letting me know that my roommates had been found with a girl in the room, and had been sent home. I did my best to act surprised.
I had the TV to myself for the rest of the weekend.