Inherently Immoral Jobs


Richard Feynman famously said that marketing was an inherently immoral job, because it consisted of  selling something as being better than the marketer knows it to be. I tried that argument on our VP of Marketing, back in the day, and she said that “MarCom” – Marketing Communications – was OK. Well, that still leaves the rest of marketing on the hook.

As we discussed in my piece on butter packaging, marketing claims often do amount to lies – excuse me – “deliberate excursions from the truth.”

Marketing professionals have a problem, because their job places them in conflict with the truth, and the truth has to lose for them to get paid. What are some other inherently immoral jobs? Let’s start this way: I would say an inherently immoral job is one where the worker will be constantly faced with a choice between not doing the job, and lying or otherwise supporting an act they know to be unjust.* These inherently immoral jobs are not <i>always</i> forcing the worker to do something they know is unjust; perhaps it’s just placing them in constant jeopardy of doing so. Unless under compulsion, the worker is choosing to do the job, which means they are, to some degree or other, complicit.

  • Marketing – Per Feynman
  • Police
  • Soldiers
  • Spies
  • Lawyers

Police

The police officer swears to impartially uphold the laws of the land. There is zero chance that any given police officer will actually agree with all of the laws of the land, therefore they cannot uphold them impartially. Instead, what they are doing is upholding the laws they feel like upholding at any given time against anyone who they feel like upholding them against at that time. This is a permanent state of moral jeopardy.

I suppose one could respond that the police officer is not concerned with upholding all the laws; I would reply to that that the police officer has decided they are the law – like Judge Dredd – and are still in moral jeopardy because they have made the decision to accept that they are going to constantly act unfairly.

Soldiers

Soldiers agree to obey orders that may be unfair. They attempt to give away their own moral autonomy and expect to be forgiven for doing so.

While most modern militaries have a notion of “illegal orders” and a process whereby a soldier can protest an illegal (presumably immoral) order, they remain in moral jeopardy because they have agreed in principle to listen to and consider immoral orders, and have not clearly retained the right to moral autonomy. A moral soldier, if there were such a thing, would raise their right hand and solemnly swear to obey only orders that seemed just, and to only use force against aggressors who were clearly harming noncombatants, to never engage in offensive operations or to aid through their presence offensive operations.

It’s also important to point out that armies gain their power through numbers, and simply being in the uniform of a military lends tacit support to the army as a manifestation of power; the very best a soldier in uniform can hope for is to be a scary bully. In general, someone is on dangerous footing when they start offering wholesale support for anyone’s agenda without retaining one’s moral autonomy. The Eichmann defense doesn’t work very well.

Spies

A spy is trying to gain information that the information’s owner does not want to see free. After all, if they wanted everyone to know it, they’d publish it.

One could argue that one was being a spy for justice (e.g.: a whistleblower) which might work except the “spy” part is still morally compromising, while the “whistleblower” part may not be. I think there’s a possible argument for a deep-cover whistleblower who took an immoral job in order to expose it and thereby right a wrong. It’s more problematic when you have a whistleblower who is already deeply compromised that then sees the error of their ways and tries to remedy their mistake.

Lawyers (some)

Lawyers often defend actions that they know are wrong. Of course not all do. But if someone knows someone has done something wrong, and they accept the position of defending it, or minimizing it, or (worse yet!) helping the perpetrator convince a jury they are innocent, they’re assisting the crime.

The usual defense is two-pronged: 1) Well, someone has to do it   2) The lawyer doesn’t know that their client has committed a crime.  Those are pretty easily dispatched: 1) No, they don’t.  2) Yes, they do. Or, at the very least, if a lawyer began to feel there was a high probability their client had committed a crime, they ought to switch sides. Of course, lawyers say, that’s an absurd idea: lawyers like to have it both ways: when we’re defending the good guy we’re great and when we’re defending a criminal we’re great, too!  Don’t buy it.

Any more?

I’m tempted to add Capitalists to that list but I’m going to need a few months to refine that argument.

Edit: I just want to emphasize – I’m not saying “there are bad police.” I am saying: “If you are part of the police, you are a bad person. Period.”  We can argue about whether a particular marketing person is not as bad as another, but the game is already over. Simply being involved in these professions means you’re going to wind up aiding and supporting immoral activity – whether you get your hands dirty yourself, or simply assist a lying marketer, or give ammunition to a solider, you’re in.

Bill Hicks gets the last word on Marketing:


(* I am not going to try to build a system of objective morality for this discussion. Actually, I don’t think it can be done, so I acknowledge that I am using moral language in this posting, and I am using it loosely.)

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    Any more?

    The TSA has a storied history of routinely dehumanizing and humiliating trans passengers who set off their obnoxious scanners because of “anomalies” in the genital region. Working as one of their staff has to mean being okay with constantly violating a number of people’s rights. I can’t reconcile being principled with a position like that, especially with the atrocious crimes carried out against trans folk (crimes which the TSA is effectively immune from prosecution).

  2. corwyn says

    “1) No, they don’t.”

    Yes, they do. We guarantee counsel to all accused of a crime. If no one will be that counsel, then the trial can’t occur, and the defendant must be released.

    Since you acknowledge that police are immoral, we need a balancing force on the other side of that already massively overbalanced scale.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    What about soldiers in the Medical Corps? What about people who work (in any capacity) for various large corporations? Or even those (like me, for a while) who work for corporations whose clients include some nasty big corporations? What about people who willingly pay taxes in a country which engages in dodgy behaviour?

    This all seems rather arbitrary…

  4. says

    Capitalists is too broad and could be divided into separate categories. Here’s a partial list to start.

    1) Investment bankers – predators who overvalue their product, who “predict” dividends (i.e. they stated results regardless of reality)

    2) Traditional bankers – racism was institutionalized to prevent non-white people from owning homes; they abandoned safe regulations that protected depositors in favour of protecting wealthy investors

    3) Manufacturers (i.e. overvalued finished products) – cars lose half their value upon sale, and even after that they are still overpriced. this applies to all end-product industries (e.g. pharmaceuticals), not just fixed goods makers

    4) Natural resource despots – oil companies and slime like deBeers over value their product to increase profits

  5. says

    Corwyn@#3:
    We guarantee counsel to all accused of a crime.

    That’s how the system works – I’m saying that how the system works is immoral, so can I take that as agreement?
    Whether they are there as a result of the state’s decree that all accused must be defended, or of their own moral agency, if they’re trying to get someone off for committing crimes, they’re helping the criminal. Maybe they can feel justified in doing that – if so, that’s a pretty good argument that lawyers are not concerned with morality.

    If no one will be that counsel, then the trial can’t occur, and the defendant must be released.

    That’s the way things are; you’re either denying lawyers moral agency (in which case, they should hardly be lawyers) or they’re morally compromised. Whether the trial can or can’t occur is a side effect of how things are; perhaps the defendant should defend themself if they amd the court can’t find a lawyer who’ll defend them.

    Since you acknowledge that police are immoral, we need a balancing force on the other side of that already massively overbalanced scale.

    That’d be easy enough to fix: because the police are such an immoral lot, the burden of proof should remain on them. Juries should be disinclined to believe police.

  6. alkaloid says

    “It’s more problematic when you have a whistleblower who is already deeply compromised that then sees the error of their ways and tries to remedy their mistake.”

    Wouldn’t this category include most of the whistleblowers whose activities have produced (or helped) significant public discontent, because it seems to be so rare for dissenters to ever get any meaningful information within an organization? Ellsberg and Snowden came to mind quickly for me.

  7. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#4:
    What about soldiers in the Medical Corps?

    The military would pull out of combat without medical corps supporting the troops. Therefore the medical corps are part of what makes the military successful. Military doctors are there to support the mission of the military – that’s problematic if that mission is a war of aggression. I am aware that there are a lot of good doctors in military medicine, who also are happy to help civilians where they can, but frequently that “helping civilians” in a war-zone equates to “patching up the damage that my side helped inflict” – it’s touch and go.

    What about people who work (in any capacity) for various large corporations?

    Depends on what the corporation does, right? I would say there’s a difference between working for a company that makes farming widgets than a company that makes bomb-dropping aircraft. I’m not arguing that all jobs are “inherently” immoral – there are many many many jobs where it simply depends on what you do for a living. People who hold such jobs get to look at themselves in the mirror and decide if they’re making a better world. People who hold inherently immoral jobs can be pretty much certain they’re not.

    What about people who willingly pay taxes in a country which engages in dodgy behaviour?

    Noam Chomsky once said something I thought was particularly interesting. Someone challenged him and asked “Why are you so down on the US? There are plenty of military dictatorships that are worse!” and Chomsky replied: “I help fund the US government with my taxes.”

    There is a question about the degree to which we are all complicit. If the government is an emergent property of the people, as the democrats (small ‘D’) say, then the people are responsible to the degree to which they support their government. If the government is not under the control of the people, and the people are under compulsion, then I’d say they are justified in resisting it however they see fit – indeed, they probably are obligated to. By the way, in Marcus’ anarchist fantasy-land, that would be the way the US two party system and military/industrial complex gets broken down: taxpayers and the military’s logistical lifeline simply shut the money valve and supply line until the fucking war dogs heel.

  8. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#8:

    Preachers. ‘Nuff said!

    Although, one might argue that some preachers are ignorant. Though I’d counter-argument that their ignorance is mere laziness, since there’s ample reason not to believe in gods. And, of course, if they’re taking money for teaching what may or may not be a lie, they have a certain obligation to assess whether or not it’s a lie, first.

  9. says

    alkaloid@#7:
    I was specifically thinking of Ellsberg and Snowden when I wrote that :/ Manning, too.
    One can argue that they came to realize that they were in a corrupt organization, and tried to do something about it. I’d buy that argument.

    The argument I’d really buy is someone who decided to take a job with the CIA or NSA or whatever with specific intention to reveal information that they felt was being kept secret, which should not be in a democratic society. In that case I’d argue the person was like Kim Philby, who when challenged over his spying for the USSR said, “your mistake was that you never understood which side I was on all along.”

  10. CallMeIshmael says

    @Rob Grigjanis:

    It is arbitrary, because Marcus has a severe lack of rational thinking skills, like most anarchists. In my opinion this network was cheapened by having granted him a blog.

  11. Holms says

    Richard Feynman famously said that marketing was an inherently immoral job, because it consisted of selling something as being better than the marketer knows it to be.

    All due respect to him, but Feynman was often overly glib and this quote stands as an example. As for your list, I can only unreservedly agree with spying.

  12. says

    If a public defender does a proper job of defending someone that is thought to be guilty, it might be found that the accused is actually innocent.

  13. says

    CallMeIshmael@#12:
    because Marcus has a severe lack of rational thinking skills, like most anarchists

    If my lack of rational thinking skills is so severe, wouldn’t it have been easy and more effective to demonstrate that?

    Meanwhile: “… like most anarchists” is a bit of a broad generalization, which is rather funny considering your comment was about my generalizing. It’s a good example of a poor rhetorical strategy in which one attempts to label their opponent and gets it wrong: I suspect you have no idea at all what sort of anarchist I am. (Though if you’d been paying attention you probably could filter some clues out of my comments about Epicurus)

    In my opinion this network was cheapened by having granted him a blog.

    Have you noticed that we all have our own opinions and approaches here, and there’s no specific shared, well… anything? Because if you’re saying that the other blogs here have somehow gotten worse because I’m blogging over here, that’s a pretty funny thing to say. Did you ever consider the possibility that they invited me here to make them look better by being terrible? It’s a cunning and subtle strategy indeed.

  14. says

    Holms@#13:
    All due respect to him, but Feynman was often overly glib and this quote stands as an example

    That’s true. He didn’t show his work, in this case.

  15. alkaloid says

    @MarcusRanum, #11

    Do you think that there should be no limits on secrecy as far as governments are concerned, or much weaker/situational limits than the ones that currently exist? You seem to be a good person to ask because I think that the level of secrecy that exists now is clearly excessive, but I never had particularly extensive ideas myself on the subject beyond the idea that perhaps something could only be secret for some absolute length of time and then it became public knowledge, or Congress could act as a final authority wrt secrecy and release information itself as a check against executive misdeeds.

  16. polishsalami says

    I think this piece generalizes far too much in terms of categories, instead of autonomous individuals.

  17. says

    alkaloid@#17:
    Do you think that there should be no limits on secrecy as far as governments are concerned, or much weaker/situational limits than the ones that currently exist?

    If the premise of democracy is that the government is an emergent property of the will of the people, then I don’t see how the government can keep secrets from the people at all. I tend to agree with Voltaire that once a government begins to engage in secret diplomacy, it has taken a small step toward being a dictatorship. Usually that’s because secrecy is often used to conceal nepotism, fraud, waste, and abuse. Less often, but more with more severe consequences, secrecy is used to conceal when agents of the government act in ways that are not sanctioned by the will of the people. Did the people approve the Bay of Pigs invasion, the support for the Contras in Nicaragua, and would the people have continued to support the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had they known it was a friendly fire incident? I suspect not. So secrecy is used to thwart the will of the people.

    In the US, there are periodic attempts to limit government secrecy through things like secrecy sunsets and Freedom Of Information Act requests. Fairly consistently certain agencies and the executive branch ignore those attempts or act to disempower them (NSA has been known to return documents in which everything is redacted except the page number) If the ideal is that the government is the servant of the people, it’s pretty clear that some branches of the government think the situation is exactly the opposite.

  18. says

    polishsalami@#18:
    I think this piece generalizes far too much in terms of categories, instead of autonomous individuals

    I agree that it’s plausible to contrive scenarios in which there is an autonomous individual that manages to figure out how to act morally within some of these positions. But I argue that doing so would amount to substantially redefining the position to the point where the moral jeopardy no longer applies; then we’re no longer talking about the same job.

  19. says

    robertbaden@#14:
    If a public defender does a proper job of defending someone that is thought to be guilty, it might be found that the accused is actually innocent.

    Sure, but they’d still be aware they were going into the situation with the very high likelihood that they were about to defend someone who was guilty. And that they’d have ample opportunity as the case progressed to convince themselves one way or the other. There’s not a lot of moral agency on display if someone is saying they’ll defend whoever they’re asked to, because they can hardly say “I’m sure they’re all innocent.”

  20. alkaloid says

    @MarcusRanum, #19

    Theoretically I agree but the more I think about the more I wonder if that’s entirely practical (not in the crippling, lesser evilism sense, but as a function of real practicality):

    1) What if the will of the people is divided? As two recent examples I know that they’re deeply flawed, but if the Obama administration had let the Republicans know that they were negotiating any kind of deal with Iran, or that they were trying to open diplomatic relations with Cuba (when the blockade was obviously ridiculous) neither would’ve ever happened. In the case of the former it barely happened because the Republicans started grabbing support from even more conservative Democrats to try and crash the deal with a vote.

    2) While I think that indefinite investigations is itself a form of oppression (especially in the context of a legal system so complex that everyone’s basically doing something wrong), wouldn’t the concept of a public investigation, especially for a complex crime, tempt whoever’s being investigated to destroy the evidence so in that way they could evade the possibility of prosecution?

    “Fairly consistently certain agencies and the executive branch ignore those attempts or act to disempower them (NSA has been known to return documents in which everything is redacted except the page number) If the ideal is that the government is the servant of the people, it’s pretty clear that some branches of the government think the situation is exactly the opposite.”

    I agree. The clearest ideas I had were that there would always be a fixed (but short) limit on how long something could remain secret, and that the power to keep something secret was taken out of the executive branch’s hands and placed in Congress’ instead-in that they could publically reveal information without consequence to them if it was about governmental misdeeds or corruption.

  21. alkaloid says

    @left0ver1under, #5

    I think that describes the leaders of capitalism but omits some details about the reality of capitalism-which is that numerically far more people than those groups are involved in enforcing capitalism or making tiny portions of capitalist policies rather than having the kind of massive decisionmaking power that the people on your list would possess. Most people will never see anyone that you listed-but they’ll definitely see the police that selectively enforce rules, or the managers who short their wages as two examples.

  22. says

    Marcus, from what I read in the Innocence Projects updates I get, and in other places,, there are way too many defense attorneys who do not do an adequate job of defending innocent people. Like telling them to take a plea bargain due to a false positive on a $2 drug test instead of getting the accused released until results of more trustworthy tests come back.
    Plus public defender offices are so overloaded getting a fair trial is a joke even if they have good intentions. Saying lawyers shouldn’t defend everyone just compounds this.

  23. brucegee1962 says

    As far as the lawyers are concerned, obviously rich people will always be able to find lawyers to defend them. So your argument that it’s immoral to defend people you believe are guilty would seem to only apply to Public Defenders who defend the friendless and indigent. In addition to their being overworked, underpaid, and getting no respect, you now want to slap the immoral label on them as well.

    So if I’m poor accused of a crime I didn’t commit because the corrupt police wanted to arrest someone to fill a quota and they don’t like the color of my skin, your plan is to strip away the sole, thin shred of protection that our legal system grants me. You want to prevent me from having any chance of appearing before a judge and jury and maybe have someone look into the actual evidence the police used against me. My only chance of getting help is IF I happen to be eloquent enough to persuade some lawyer of my innocence — and if you’re abolishing the Public Defender system because it’s immoral, how is this person going to get paid?

    How is your system supposed to work? Does each defendant get ten minutes to make his case to a lawyer, and if the lawyer says “nah” then the person just gets locked up? Why even bother having a legal system for the poor at all?

    And you call your proposal moral. Sheesh.

  24. says

    brucegee1962@#25:
    And you call your proposal moral. Sheesh.

    Are you talkin’ to me? Do you see any proposal from me? Do you see any claim in the form of “X would be moral” for any given X?

    For what it’s worth, I think the whole system is corrupt and justice is not one of its outputs, unless it’s an accident – like some rich person is wrongly accused and actually is innocent and spends a ton of money and is vindicated. You’d need red hot pincers to get me to say that any of it was moral at all. Note that saying “X is immoral” doesn’t mean you necessarily have a proposal for something better, nor are you necessarily wrong in your statement.

  25. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    There is an ancient piece of wisdom that lists three professions as totally useless for the society: soldiers, lawyers, and politicians. We have them only because the other side already has them.

    About lawyers – there are many kinds of them. You seem to be thinking only about defence attorneys. Much more immoral lawyers can be found elsewhere, e.g. corporate legal departments and lobbyists. They don’t just defend their clients; they actively plan the suspicious activities, and even try to influence laws to create loopholes.

    On the other hand, there are defence lawyers who don’t know if the client is guilty. At least here in Europe there are legal traditions, where an attorney asking the customer about guilt is making a procedural error. Guilt is decided by the court. The attorney is only a technical assistant in legal details.

  26. Owlmirror says

    While not really sure about how much I agree, I think it’s a thought-provoking post.

    I am curious how you would respond to the Peelian principles of policing/policing by consent.

    I also note that “politician” is not on the list. Any thoughts? Would you disagree that politicians favor one faction over another, and that bias makes them inherently immoral? And don’t politicians make the laws that the police cannot uphold impartially?

  27. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I suppose one could respond that the police officer is not concerned with upholding all the laws; I would reply to that that the police officer has decided they are the law – like Judge Dredd – and are still in moral jeopardy because they have made the decision to accept that they are going to constantly act unfairly.

    Counterproposal:
    A cop with no special powers of arrest, detention, search, seizure, etc. The cop did not take any oath whatsoever. The cop is paid on bounty. In other words, a bounty hunter. The bounty hunter chooses which bounties to chase purely on personal whims and personal interests. Assume the bounty hunter only chases bounties “in good faith”. Assume the bounty hunter does not chase bounties concerning law violations where he has personal disagreement. With that, I think that can be moral, and it can avoid any reasonable “Judge Dredd” comparisons.

  28. brucegee1962 says

    For most of recorded history going back to the Mesopotamians, any ordinary person who attracted the emnity of or entered into a dispute with someone who was wealthy or powerful had precisely zero chance of emerging victorious. There were no constraints whatsoever upon the powerful to be consistent, impartial, or even slightly fair.

    One of the primary purposes of the entire legal system we have constructed is to make it slightly more difficult for the rich and powerful to arbitrarily screw over the powerless. The deck is still hugely stacked against them, of course, but at least they have a shot. Big companies have been made to stop polluting or negligently allowing their employees to be killed, governments have been opposed, the very concept of civil rights themselves has been both created and enforced by our legal system. It also means that, when the powerful oppose one another, they have to do so using reason and precedent instead of their traditional means of force and subterfuge. The literal alternative is trial by combat, so I think we’ve made some progress.

    So yes, I would absolutely say that many (not all, of course) of those who participate in the legal profession are, in fact, moral.

    Note that saying “X is immoral” doesn’t mean you necessarily have a proposal for something better, nor are you necessarily wrong in your statement.

    I don’t think I can agree with this statement. I think morality is relative. Slavery is immoral in the modern world, but back in the biblical age when the alternative was to kill every single member of the conquered tribe, perhaps slavery might have seemed moral at the time.

    I think something can only be called moral or not moral in comparison to something else. So saying “X is immoral, but I can’t think of anything better” seems like a non sequitur.

  29. corwyn says

    “they’re trying to get someone off for committing crimes, they’re helping the criminal.”

    Nope. They are ACCUSED, not criminals. If you are willing to call any accused person a criminal then YOU are immoral.

  30. says

    corwyn@#31:
    Nope. They are ACCUSED, not criminals.

    I wrote:
    if they’re trying to get someone off for committing crimes, they’re helping the criminal
    I.e: they committed a crime which means they are “criminals”.

    If you are willing to call any accused person a criminal

    I’m not. I’m referring to people who have committed a crime as “criminals”; I’m using my language carefully.

  31. says

    Lassi Hippeläinen@#27:
    About lawyers – there are many kinds of them. You seem to be thinking only about defence attorneys. Much more immoral lawyers can be found elsewhere, e.g. corporate legal departments and lobbyists. They don’t just defend their clients; they actively plan the suspicious activities, and even try to influence laws to create loopholes.

    Yes, I actually wasn’t trying to just focus on defense attorneys; the conversation seemed to gravitate in that direction, though.

    I have a relative who is a big shot corporate attorney who specializes in helping an incredibly profitable hospital retain its “non profit” status — while it’s situated in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city where it’s located, and contributes nothing to the tax base. I’m painfully aware of such lawyers. While I usually like to shy away from moralist language, I am using it in this posting because I wanted to avoid the “what is legal is right” counter-argument: no – while such things are permitted under careful interpretation of laws, they amount to legal theft.

    I suppose I could have re-framed my initial argument regarding lawyers as that lawyers exist to manipulate the balance between legality and illegality and that’s inherently a morally compromising choice of career. I suppose one could imagine a legal scholar that is a JD but never offers opinions or interpretations – perhaps there are a few ways that a lawyer could be a lawyer without being immoral: by not lawyering.

    On the other hand, there are defence lawyers who don’t know if the client is guilty. At least here in Europe there are legal traditions, where an attorney asking the customer about guilt is making a procedural error. Guilt is decided by the court. The attorney is only a technical assistant in legal details.

    I think that’s a fig-leaf that’s conveniently placed to allow the lawyer to avoid having to confront the fact that they may be doing wrong by attempting to help a criminal thwart justice. I understand that asking the client if they are guilty is a procedural error – but it’s almost certainly going to be the case that the lawyer will form an opinion as to the morality of the client’s actions. At which point, why do we suddenly give them a magical hallway pass that says they do not have to exercise their moral autonomy? Simply because they managed to preserve a fiction of not knowing?

    I have read of a few cases where it almost sounds as if the lawyer started playing for their client to lose; but that’s “two wrongs don’t make a right” – if a lawyer comes to believe their client is guilty and they continue to try to get them off, they are not serving justice, they’re serving legalism. That’s basically the Eichmann defense – instead of “I was just following orders” it’s “I was just obeying the letter of the law.”

    The relative that I mentioned above and I wound up crossing swords on this topic, once. I observed that being a lawyer means you’ve chosen a career of being morally compromised. They replied that “we are concerned with the law, not what is right or wrong.” Ah, yes, that’s the point, isn’t it?

  32. says

    Owlmirror@#28:
    I am curious how you would respond to the Peelian principles of policing/policing by consent.

    Ah, Peel! Certainly better than what we have now in the US, but it’s still problematic. I respect Peel’s attempt to downplay the inherently coercive nature of policing, but he’s basically arguing that the police are the lesser of two evils:
    1) … as an alternative to their repression by military force
    While it’s true that Peelian policing is probably gentler than military repression, that just says that the military will tend to be worse – which I tend to agree with. (In a democracy, the military which emerges from and theoretically serves the people’s interest, ought’t be deployed against the people’s interest)
    Point 3) is especially good. It’s basically arguing that the police must be just and must be seen to be just by the people. That’s good – if and only if the laws are just. I’m still concerned that the police are giving up moral agency when they swear to uphold a body of laws as a body. I suppose if there were ever a police who swore “I will uphold all laws of the land except speeding – because I like to speed a bit myself now and again, and the laws regarding smoking marijuana because I fancy it a bit myself.” Then they’d be an honest cop, but not very good at being a cop.

    I also note that “politician” is not on the list. Any thoughts? Would you disagree that politicians favor one faction over another, and that bias makes them inherently immoral?

    I actually don’t think politicians are inherently immoral, though I doubt there have ever been any successful ones that were honest, and who had a belief system that they thought about and adhered to in addition to the laws of the land that they were abiding by. I grant politicians (as much as I despise them!) the exemption that they do not have to accept the laws of the land as a body, because it is the job of a politician to manipulate those laws for (allegedly) the common good. In other words, a politician may run for office specificially in order to strike down a law they feel is immoral. I’d say that could be done fairly as long as it were done honestly and openly.

    Of course all this nonsense about politicians promising “I will do X” and not doing it – those politicians are just forsworn.

    So I don’t think being a politician is inherently immoral but I would be pleasantly surprised to meet a moral politician. I think they’re closest to preachers, in that they simply don’t understand what the truth/right/wrong is, so it doesn’t count for them, or something.

  33. says

    brucegee1962@#30:
    […] One of the primary purposes of the entire legal system we have constructed is to make it slightly more difficult for the rich and powerful to arbitrarily screw over the powerless. […] So yes, I would absolutely say that many (not all, of course) of those who participate in the legal profession are, in fact, moral.

    … As a sort of 5th column inside a hugely immoral system, hoping to reform it from within?

    To the extent that the legal system exists to rein in the powerful, we must observe that it’s not doing a very good job of that, and never has, and that a lawyer who chooses to participate in such a system ought to be perceptive enough to realize that and, instead, be a revolutionary or find honest work.

    I think something can only be called moral or not moral in comparison to something else. So saying “X is immoral, but I can’t think of anything better” seems like a non sequitur.

    That’s a much more complicated issue. As I disclaimed – I’m not pretending to offer a constructive system of objective morality here. (Because: I don’t think that there is such a thing!) I’m trying to point out that these jobs place one in conflict with the morality of one’s own time – it’s the inner contradiction of simultaneously trying to enforce social norms on others while we all acknowledge that those social norms probably are not moral or are not acceptable as a unit. In other words, my problem isn’t that I believe there’s no such thing as an objective morality – my issue is with the cop who is willing to enforce society’s current vague idea of morality (codified into law) on anyone they see fit to. Etc.

    You raise a really interesting point that I’ve been wanting to write about for years – namely the question of whether morality (assuming an objective moral system) is time invariant. I happen to think that if we really had a sense of right and wrong, it would not depend on our understanding of the time in which we live; i.e.: we’d always know that slavery was wrong. Which, clearly, doesn’t happen. So if we adopt the view that the morals of a time depend on local conditions, then I think the only conclusion I can reach is that objective morality is unsupported and humanistic moral nihilism is the best we can hope for. The time-invariance issue also ought to be somewhat painful for the consequentialists since their calculations would be time-invariant – yet they appear to only be largely situational. The same applies to the virtue ethicists, in that virtues appear to be emergent consensus of the population rather than a state the population aspires to.

  34. Trickster Goddess says

    Another immoral profession is Public Relations, or as one ex-PR acquaintance calls it, being a “professional liar”.

    Speaking of lawyers, I used to have a friend who saw the light and quit lawyering at age 30. He ended his career on a high note by telling the judge in court to go fuck himself. Last time I saw him, he was quite happy with his no stress job in a bowling alley.

  35. says

    RE: Capitalism

    Without getting into what I consider unnecessary detail about various forms of capitalism, I’ll just put a blanket over them all.

    The capitalist is, by nature and definition, primarily focused on one thing: the CORE principle of his/her venture:

    The Profit Motive

    PM does not allow for humanity in its equation, other than as a resource to be exploited. EVERY successful capitalist venture has THIS in common — it made a profit. Whether the means was beneficial to humanity or not was irrelevant.

    This is the (to me) immoral concept of “Profit Over People”.

    I need no more than that to deem “Capitalist” as an immoral job.

  36. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To the extent that the legal system exists to rein in the powerful, we must observe that it’s not doing a very good job of that, and never has, and that a lawyer who chooses to participate in such a system ought to be perceptive enough to realize that and, instead, be a revolutionary or find honest work.

    I would argue that the legal system is fantastically good at reining in the powerful, when they’re attacking other powerful people. That was the purpose of the legal system in its creation, and it’s really quite good at it. It does tend to produce a small – and non-negligable – benefit to us proletariat.

    > DICTATORSHIP, DEMOCRACY, AND DEVELOPMENT
    > MANCUR OLSON
    > American Political Science Review Vol. 87, No. 3 September 1993
    http://www.svt.ntnu.no/iss/Indra.de.Soysa/POL3503H05/olson.pdf

  37. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I happen to think that if we really had a sense of right and wrong, it would not depend on our understanding of the time in which we live; i.e.: we’d always know that slavery was wrong. Which, clearly, doesn’t happen.

    I agree that morality is time invariant, but it is not technology invariant. The explosion of technology has created an explosion in possibility. Things are possible now that were not possible hundreds of years ago. These changes in possibility are changes to the accessible portions of the moral landscape. (As I channel the language of Daniel Dennett (<3) and Sam Harris (</3).)

    While I do not yet consent, I consider the argument "slavery was sometimes the least evil because in warfare the only other alternative was to kill them all" to be 'interesting'. I do not consent that it is a valid and sound argument. However, supposing for the sake of argument that it is true, I believe that people with the moral awareness that we have (which is a large consequence of history and culture), would properly believe that the slavery approach really, really sucks, but in that particular climate of technology and the cultures of nearby countries, and the culture of your own country, the slavery option might be the least-evil option available to you at that time in a short time horizon.

    In particular, this slavery argument might not be technologically sensitive, and just time sensitive in the sense that it's hard to change a broad culture, and instead of burning it all to the ground in a confrontationalist approach, it might be better to take an accommodationist approach.

    Personally, because I tend to be a principled asshole, I just have a gut dislike of accommodationist approaches, and I tend to lean towards the "burn it to the ground" confrontationist approach, but I still do recognize that maybe sometimes that the best approach is accepting a minor evil now in order for some great good now, and as part of an overall scheme to move things towards the better on a longer time horizon. But again, I must emphasize that I generally side with the sentiment of Martin Luther King Jr in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail (which everyone should have read).

    Which, clearly, doesn’t happen.

    Yes and no. Most of what we know as morality is learned. It is culture, which is heavily dependent on history. As a matter of facts, it did happen, and now most of the world believes that slavery is wrong. That’s moral improvement which was made, and I bet that if we ran the clock again, then this moral improvement would be made again, e.g. this outcome was not an arbitrary chance effect of history, but rather reflects the ability of conscious creatures with empathy to come to rational conclusions (eventually).

  38. Dunc says

    Unless under compulsion, the worker is choosing to do the job

    There’s a bit of an issue here around what you consider “compulsion” under a capitalist society with less than full employment… It’s an argument that comes up most often in discussions of sex work, but it applies equally to other forms of work. Put simply, people need money, and frequently don’t have huge numbers of options for how they get it. Obviously this argument applies much less forcefully to highly-qualified individuals like lawyers than it does to what you might call “employers of last resort” such as the armed forces.

  39. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Marcus Ranum #33: “if a lawyer comes to believe their client is guilty and they continue to try to get them off, they are not serving justice, they’re serving legalism.”

    You think too black/white. Remember that the person reading the accusations is trying to pile everything on the poor crook, and maximise punishment by all legal tricks that are available. The defence attorney is supposed to prevent excesses in that direction. The client won’t get totally off, only avoids undeserved consequences.

    P.S. I’m an engineer, not a lawyer, but I’ve met enough lawyers to understand some of their thinking.

  40. says

    Trickster Goddess@#36:
    Speaking of lawyers, I used to have a friend who saw the light and quit lawyering at age 30. He ended his career on a high note by telling the judge in court to go fuck himself. Last time I saw him, he was quite happy with his no stress job in a bowling alley.

    It can be done!

  41. says

    Dunc@#40:
    There’s a bit of an issue here around what you consider “compulsion” under a capitalist society with less than full employment… It’s an argument that comes up most often in discussions of sex work, but it applies equally to other forms of work. Put simply, people need money, and frequently don’t have huge numbers of options for how they get it.

    That’s a fairly standard marxist critique and I think it has some merit. Although, I am not willing to extend compulsion that far – people are willing to just march forward in line and take the jobs without challenging them or even questioning them out loud. And there are plenty of other jobs up to and including being a criminal.

  42. says

    Lassi Hippeläinen@#41:
    Remember that the person reading the accusations is trying to pile everything on the poor crook, and maximise punishment by all legal tricks that are available. The defence attorney is supposed to prevent excesses in that direction. The client won’t get totally off, only avoids undeserved consequences.

    I’m not trying to defend the justice system – or the lawers, for that matter.
    Who is “piling everything” onto the crook? More lawyers.

    The defense attorney is not supposed to prevent excesses – they are actually part of the system that negotiates to give away their own clients’ rights to a fair trial by jury. That’s another whole story – and, again, I think we can ask lawyers to shoulder their share of the blame, which is large. Regardless of where and how a lawyer chooses to work in the criminal justice system, they are educated enough to know they are walking into a pit of corruption and they are choosing to walk in and play there – if my thinking is too black and white your fig-leaves are too large.

  43. brucegee1962 says

    To the extent that the legal system exists to rein in the powerful, we must observe that it’s not doing a very good job of that, and never has, and that a lawyer who chooses to participate in such a system ought to be perceptive enough to realize that and, instead, be a revolutionary or find honest work.

    I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the 19th and early 20th century, and I think that anyone who has bothered to do so would have to disagree strongly with your statement above. The situation of the underclasses has improved vastly over the past century, and a large part of the credit is due to, yes, the lawyers.

    You complained earlier that this discussion was focusing more on trial lawyers than you’d intended, so let’s look at the often-maligned personal injury lawyers. A hundred+ years ago, if you were a miner or a factory worker who was injured or killed because of nonexistent safety concerns by your employer, you’d just be fired with no compensation, and your employer would keep on doing what they’d always done. If you got trampled at a concert because there wasn’t any security, or injured on an amusement park ride that hadn’t been maintained, well, tough luck for you. If your family got poisoned because a factory dumped something in your drinking water, well, you shouldn’t have lived there, right?

    Nowadays, if you get hurt because of someone else’s negligence, ESPECIALLY if that person is rich, you can reasonably expect some kind of payout — maybe not as much as you deserve, but at least something. That’s huge — a major shift from pretty much the entirety of human civilization. Sure, government regulations and things like OSHA and the EPA have something to do with it, but so do lawyers. See Silkwood. Love Canal.

    The same thing is true with the divorce lawyers who’ve helped make it possible for women to leave abusive husbands without becoming destitute, or patent lawyers who keep indie inventors from getting screwed over by ginormous companies, or copyright lawyers who try to make sure that creative people get paid for what they create. Sure, the rich get to put their thumb on the scales — but they don’t own the scales anymore the way they used to.

    As for your advice to become a revolutionary — most revolutions have tended to send us backward morally, rather than forward. The real revolutionary in this election is Donald Trump, not Bernie Sanders — because most actual historical revolutions have ended up with the Sanders-analogs sent to the guillotine and the Trumps in charge.

  44. brucegee1962 says

    Personally, because I tend to be a principled asshole, I just have a gut dislike of accommodationist approaches, and I tend to lean towards the “burn it to the ground” confrontationist approach, but I still do recognize that maybe sometimes that the best approach is accepting a minor evil now in order for some great good now, and as part of an overall scheme to move things towards the better on a longer time horizon. But again, I must emphasize that I generally side with the sentiment of Martin Luther King Jr in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail (which everyone should have read).

    I agree that everyone should read Letter from Birmingham Jail — surely one of the great argument essays of the modern age. But while MLK is certainly confrontationist, I wouldn’t use the term “burn it to the ground” in conjunction with him. The brilliance of that letter is that he enlists the entirety of Western thought in his argument — all religion, all philosophy, all ethics. When he talks about “the arc of history,” it’s clear that he sees what he is doing as bending that arc, not breaking it.

  45. brucegee1962 says

    You raise a really interesting point that I’ve been wanting to write about for years – namely the question of whether morality (assuming an objective moral system) is time invariant. I happen to think that if we really had a sense of right and wrong, it would not depend on our understanding of the time in which we live; i.e.: we’d always know that slavery was wrong. Which, clearly, doesn’t happen. So if we adopt the view that the morals of a time depend on local conditions, then I think the only conclusion I can reach is that objective morality is unsupported and humanistic moral nihilism is the best we can hope for. The time-invariance issue also ought to be somewhat painful for the consequentialists since their calculations would be time-invariant – yet they appear to only be largely situational. The same applies to the virtue ethicists, in that virtues appear to be emergent consensus of the population rather than a state the population aspires to.

    What’s wrong with simply stating that morality is a human construct which is subject to progress through evolution? Put simply, morality is just the process of trying to make life better for the broad mass of humanity. But what “making life better” means is highly subject to the circumstances people live under. If we live in a society like many of those in human history, where we know for a fact that there are groups of people within a several-week journey from our home who would gladly kill us and take our stuff if they were able to do so, then all other moral considerations are going to be subordinated to the overwhelming necessity of keeping our societal unit cohesive so we can stand against the invaders. If we have to persecute a few heretics to keep from splitting apart into civil conflict, then so be it. But once our institutions have evolved enough so that that kind of security is no longer our first concern, (say, because our society has diplomats and treaties with our neighbors), then we can afford to have more pluralism. In other words, there’s nothing immoral with “us vs. them” thinking when there really is a “them” that’s trying to destroy us — it’s just that we aren’t living in that kind of world anymore.

    In fact, I’ll even go a bit farther, for the sake of argument. I would say that a whole lot of “evil” nowadays — not all, but a lot — is simply adherence to ideas that used to be morally good, but which have stopped being useful as our institutions have evolved.

  46. brucegee1962 says

    One more thing about trial lawyers — in the OP, Marcus argues that lawyers shouldn’t defend people they think are guilty. But later in post @44, he says “The defense attorney is not supposed to prevent excesses – they are actually part of the system that negotiates to give away their own clients’ rights to a fair trial by jury.” I interpret this to be saying that he doesn’t approve of plea bargaining.

    These positions seem contradictory. If you’re a lawyer who is defending someone whom you believe is guilty, then wouldn’t your moral obligation to both your client and society be to persuade them to plead guilty and negotiate to get as light a sentence as possible, rather than to go to the time and expense of a trial in which there is a chance, however slight, that they could be acquitted?

  47. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I’m an aerospace engineer. In the past, I took a job for a company working on a product line that made aircraft for the military. I felt, the entire time, like it was a moral compromise, and I changed jobs when I could.

    Actually, being an aerospace engineer makes it rather difficult to avoid jobs building weapons, or at least working for companies who have a major stake in building weapon systems. :(

  48. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    When he talks about “the arc of history,” it’s clear that he sees what he is doing as bending that arc, not breaking it.

    Sure.

    I had a bad choice of words.

  49. Holms says

    #16
    Nice try with the ‘pretend we agree on a point I obviously wasn’t making’ ploy, you knew very well what I meant. But at least it is clear there is little point in further discussion with that approach.

  50. says

    Holms@#51:
    Are you trying to imply my comment was somehow in bad faith?

    I (clearly) think Feynman was right, and I attempted to “show the work” elsewhere in my posting. Whether you agree with me or not, that’s another matter – but simply saying “Feynman was too glib” is hardly a refutation.

    there is little point in further discussion with that approach

    I didn’t let you get away with trying to dismiss Feynman’s point by calling him too glib.
    As I said, I tried to “show the work” with my observation:
    Marketing professionals have a problem, because their job places them in conflict with the truth, and the truth has to lose for them to get paid.

  51. says

    brucegee1962@#45:
    I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the 19th and early 20th century, and I think that anyone who has bothered to do so would have to disagree strongly with your statement above. The situation of the underclasses has improved vastly over the past century, and a large part of the credit is due to, yes, the lawyers.

    I’ve done my share of history-reading, too. And I don’t accept your what-appears-to-be appeal to common sense. The situation of the underclasses has improved vastly over the past century for a lot more reasons than lawyers. More importantly, unions, improvements in technology, improvements in understanding of workplace safety — yes, preservation of the right to unionize required intervention from lawyers (on both sides!) and many issues required litigation (with layers on both sides) I’d say that the salutary effect of seeing the aristocrats go to the guillotine, and watching Russian and Chinese plutocracy collapse into revolution — then watching the US potentially revolt during the Bonus Army and the Depression… If you look at the ground the underclass gained, it was because the upper class started to realize they were playing their hand a bit too hard. Lawyers? They obfuscated some issues and clarified others.

    You complained earlier that this discussion was focusing more on trial lawyers than you’d intended, so let’s look at the often-maligned personal injury lawyers.

    OK. And those personal injury lawyers never try to prosecute claims they think are unjust? And the lawyers on the other side never try to minimize a claim that they think are unjust?

    You’re arguing with examples, which is fine, but I still argue that – regardless of which side the lawyer is on – their job is to bend their own and others’ understanding of the truth from what they know it to be. That’s the inherent contradiction in being a lawyer. Sure, there are going to be lawyers you can point at and say “see, they did the right thing!” but I have to answer “… for the wrong reason. Or by accident.”

    As for your advice to become a revolutionary — most revolutions have tended to send us backward morally, rather than forward.

    I agree and disagree with that. The problem with revolutions is that you’re going to always catch innocent people up in them; it’s not possible to just target the oppressors – the oppressors’ lackeys will place themselves in the line of fire. And, of course, revolutions tend to be replaced with dictatorships (actually, they have to, even if it’s only a dictatorship that immediately organizes as democratic vote, it’s still a dictatorship deciding to do that)
    Where I don’t agree is with the idea that a collective can be “sent backward morally” – autonomous individuals make decisions, not collectives. The actions of a collective are an emergent property of the behaviors of the individuals that make it up. I suspect you were speaking in general terms.

  52. says

    brucegee1962@#47:
    What’s wrong with simply stating that morality is a human construct which is subject to progress through evolution?

    Evolution reinforces change, it doesn’t bring progress. To “progress” we have to be able to somehow assess values as better or worse, and we’re going to use the same brains to do that as people had 2,000+ years ago. That, to me, is the problem.

    If we today can look at slavery and say, “yeah, that was wrong wrong wrongittty wrong” then why didn’t people figure that out 2,000 years ago? Not necessarily “why couldn’t they do anything about it?” – that’s a different problem – but “why couldn’t they figure it out?” It seems like, if we actually we able to make moral decisions objectively, something like “slavery is wrong” would be so obvious that it would have been a given in social mores, always. Well, clearly it wasn’t. Which makes me think that approaches based on “moral calculus” or “reciprocal good will” – the usual virtues – weren’t.

    I tend strongly toward moral nihilism, myself – as I warned in the OP, I’m using moral language here for convenience because I can’t construct an objective moral system.

    Rejecting all of this out of hand is reasonable, I think. Simply shrug and say “morality appears to be bunk” and then we’re done. To me, the observation that slavery has been considered moral for thousands of years, and relatively recently been declared immoral – that doesn’t say much for our ability to reason about morality.

    […] all other moral considerations are going to be subordinated to the overwhelming necessity of keeping our societal unit cohesive so we can stand against the invaders […]

    Sure, but then morality doesn’t even need to enter into it. It’s just stuff that people do to survive and whether it’s right or wrong is a pointless discussion. That’s the moral nihilist’s position.

    In other words, there’s nothing immoral with “us vs. them” thinking when there really is a “them” that’s trying to destroy us — it’s just that we aren’t living in that kind of world anymore.

    I look around me and I see “us versus them” all over the place, and it looks like we are living in the same world. We’ve got some different social behaviors but we’re still the same animals with the same needs and pressures. If we say that morality is that social veneer, then, ok, it’s just an opinion about what appears to be working right now. If slavery starts to be profitable again next week, we just pick right up where we left off.

    In fact, I’ll even go a bit farther, for the sake of argument. I would say that a whole lot of “evil” nowadays — not all, but a lot — is simply adherence to ideas that used to be morally good, but which have stopped being useful as our institutions have evolved.

    I don’t disagree with that view, but I’ll observe that it’s extreme moral relativism, if not nihilism. What is good and bad is simply a matter of convenience and popular understanding. The downside of that view is that we can’t reason morally at all, because our morals are so subject to change that we can have huge fluctuations in what’s right and wrong in the course of even a lifetime. I observe that that’s true, by the way, which is why I say I tend toward being a nihilist.

    I guess what I’m getting at is a sort of Euthyphro paradox aimed at society’s ethics: are society’s ethics what is convenient and increases survival or are society’s ethics grounded on some deeper values that are shared? If it’s the former, then the convenience and increased survival of a society might dictate the genocide of inconvenient neighbors and might makes right. If it’s the latter then why didn’t those deeper values surface earlier? The simple answer to me is that those deeper values appear to be absent.

  53. says

    brucegee1962@#48:
    I interpret this to be saying that he doesn’t approve of plea bargaining.

    I really don’t. It seems to me to be a travesty of justice: instead of determining guilt and innocence and having a trial with one’s peers and evidence presented by both sides, we have an agreement made based on what can only be described as gamesmanship. The DA tries to scare the defendant with trumped up charges and misrepresented evidence, and the defense attorney tries to bargain away the defendant’s right to a fair trial – and may be implicitly assuming that their client is guilty while acting as if they think they are not. If a defense attorney plea-bargains a murderer’s charges down so they only spend a short time in prison, and the murderer kills again, does the defense attorney shoulder any of the blame for the murder?

    In a case where there was a sort of plea bargain in the form of “I throw myself on the mercy of the court and would hope the court will reduce my punishment because I am really really sorry and will never ever do that again” – that’s a sort of plea bargain, isn’t it?

    If you’re a lawyer who is defending someone whom you believe is guilty, then wouldn’t your moral obligation to both your client and society be to persuade them to plead guilty and negotiate to get as light a sentence as possible, rather than to go to the time and expense of a trial in which there is a chance, however slight, that they could be acquitted?

    I would think that when the lawyer is defending someone they believe is guilty, they should say “I cannot defend this person any more.” Or perhaps to counsel their client to throw themselves on the mercy of the court, and then use all their fine rhetoric to plead for a reduced punishment.

  54. says

    Crimson Clupeidae@#49:
    Actually, being an aerospace engineer makes it rather difficult to avoid jobs building weapons, or at least working for companies who have a major stake in building weapon systems.

    Reminds me of a sad joke:
    Industrial engineers build weapons systems,
    Civil engineers build targets,
    Software engineers build disasters.

  55. brucegee1962 says

    Or perhaps to counsel their client to throw themselves on the mercy of the court, and then use all their fine rhetoric to plead for a reduced punishment.

    I believe that’s exactly the same thing that I said.

  56. alkaloid says

    @brucegee1962, #25

    “So if I’m poor accused of a crime I didn’t commit because the corrupt police wanted to arrest someone to fill a quota and they don’t like the color of my skin, your plan is to strip away the sole, thin shred of protection that our legal system grants me.”

    Doesn’t this already assume a lot of layers of corruption before we even get to the point of lawyers, namely that:

    1) The definition of crime (and the nature of lawmaking) is done in such a way that it punishes people of color, or lends itself that way.

    2) That you have police.

    3) That you have corruption among the police that is beyond fixing, so the only way that you can defend yourself is with a lawyer (which sort of implies that less well defended people will just get run over)?

    If you eliminated at least some of these layers of corruption then wouldn’t that change the status of lawyers in a sense?

  57. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I am curious how you would respond to the Peelian principles of policing/policing by consent.

    I know it’s not directed to me, but let me answer.

    I think this is one of the most damaging hoodwinks that has ever been pulled on western society. I think that we should have cops paid by the government, because the alternative – the arise of Pinkertons – is even worse. However, we should not fool ourselves into believing that cops are magically better human beings, and we should not fool ourselves into believing that cops actually go out with the mindset to protect and serve in some ridiculous cartoony “noble” sense, and we should not forget that power corrupts.

    We need a huge cultural shift on this point. The culture needs to go from a default attitude of trust and respect of cops to a default attitude of distrust and dislike, a “necessary evil”, instead of some sort of vaunted mythical super-heroes.

    Cops are hired goons, and the sooner that we start recognizing them and treating them as such, the better.

  58. brucegee1962 says

    I guess what I’m getting at is a sort of Euthyphro paradox aimed at society’s ethics: are society’s ethics what is convenient and increases survival or are society’s ethics grounded on some deeper values that are shared? If it’s the former, then the convenience and increased survival of a society might dictate the genocide of inconvenient neighbors and might makes right. If it’s the latter then why didn’t those deeper values surface earlier? The simple answer to me is that those deeper values appear to be absent.

    Why do so many cultures across the planet share the same basic concepts of good and evil? Not because of some god, but rather because cultures that promote the “good” (cooperative, pro-social) memes have a competitive advantage over cultures that lack them. Because of the fact that societies with these values have tended to eventually dominate over societies that lack them, I think we can conclude that these values are inherently beneficial to their memetic hosts.

    The problem with moral nihilism, it seems to me, is that it seems to assume that just because something is a social construct, that means it isn’t real. To anyone who believes that, I tell them that they may have some green pieces of paper in their pocket whose value is also a social construct, and if they don’t believe in that value, they’re welcome to give them to me. Beauty is a social construct; art is a social construct. I’d argue that both are like morality in that they’re a luxury — they’re something that a society can afford more of as it grows wealthier.

  59. says

    brucegee1962@#61:
    I think we can conclude that these values are inherently beneficial to their memetic hosts

    Short term, long term?
    I agree. But: one could argue that slavery was beneficial to the new USA, which is why it succeeded in taking over most of North America. That doesn’t make slavery good it makes it useful.

    it seems to assume that just because something is a social construct, that means it isn’t real

    I don’t think it’s quite exactly that, but it’s close. Probably the way I’d put it is something like that moral nihilism assumes that because something is social construct, it’s likely to change and it’s likely to be vague – social constructs tend to be the subject of a lot of debate, which argues that they’re not something people agree upon readily, which means it’s going to be subject to the whims of power, prejudice, and fashion. The moral nihilist seems to conclude that if morality is a social construct, it’s a damn flimsy one and is hardly worth talking about. There are some social constructs that – as you say – are shared among many societies. But it seems as likely to me that those social constructs are ones that make it easier for tyrants to tyrant than for the establishment of a notion of “right and wrong” — which is why tyrants often conflate the two. ;)

    I tell them that they may have some green pieces of paper in their pocket whose value is also a social construct, and if they don’t believe in that value, they’re welcome to give them to me

    That’s a pretty easy argument to refute thus: I don’t believe in them but other people (including you) appear to, so I’m comfortable using your delusion to buy a triple moccachino.

    Beauty is a social construct; art is a social construct.

    Those are good examples.
    And the moral nihilist would point out that our opinions about right and wrong appear to be as flexible and sensitive to fashion as both of those things – and as widely disputed. It doesn’t mean that they are not real and are not useful, it just means that they are vague and disputed and you are probably making a mistake if you make certain parts of your society depend on agreeing about them. For example, imagine a society in which tasteless art was illegal. Uh. Uh. Uh. You’d wind up with a system for arguing about taste in art, which would be about the same size and complexity as the legal system. In fact it would be a legal system. Because there’s no objective “tasteful art” we can all agree upon any more than there’s a “right and wrong” we can all agree upon.

    (I emphasize “all agree upon” because if we take a sort of democratic averaging approach then we are left with a majority of the population acting immorally according to a minority. Which is exactly why civilizations fight “culture wars”)

    I’d argue that both are like morality in that they’re a luxury — they’re something that a society can afford more of as it grows wealthier

    I’d say that presupposes that they are something to begin with. What if we flip that around and say that they are an emergent property of the vague and disputed activity of a society – something we can measure and we can talk about the measurements but the underlying properties of the thing are irrelevant.

    I think we’re sort of saying the same thing. My home decor is what it turned out to be as a result of my decisions; it’s an emergent property of them. How you interpret it as tasteful or not has very little to do with whether there’s some underlying principle in my decor and a great deal to do with whethere there’s some underlying principle in you. I agree with the idea that as civilizations get rich they can afford morals, art, good taste and other luxuries and that’s something that emerges from moral, artistic, tasteful people. It’s not that societies get to a point where they can download morals from someplace.

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