27 October 2006

The "Erotic" NTU Lecturer: A Discourse on Morality

By now I presume every single (online) soul in Singapore has watched the antic video clip of the NTU lecturer showing some ludicrous feedback about him. No doubt all found it hilarious, so does Yao when I first showed her, but she had reservations about the lecturer's actions.

She felt that the lecturer's behaviour is unbecoming of the supposed way he is expected to carry himself, because by screening such crass comments, he is simply encouraging his students to become cruder. He is, in a way, consciously or unknowingly, influencing them to think this way. This, to her, is inappropriate, be it for pure entertainment or scoring popularity among students.

She raised an example. Suppose in a lecture the students all like pornography. Is it then okay, on moral grounds, for the lecturer to screen pornographic materials to entertain the students? If the lecturer forbids that because of his own moral standings, then can we say that the lecturer is upholding his/her code of conduct, that this is an absolute moral expectation from people of his/her stature? If the lecturer allows, does it then mean that there is no absoluteness in morality? That morality is defined by the majority, or more appropriately, the society at large?

(At this point I think it'll do good to apologise to Yao and everyone reading this, in case of any mistakes I might've made in representing her stand above. After all, I'm writing this from my memory, which is mired by my own arguments.)

Naturally, from her comments on the NTU lecturer, it is clear that, in the hypothetical example above, she believes that the lecturer should choose the first option, because this conduct is demanded of him/her, and that despite morals changing over generations, there are some morals which are completely absolute, such as this, and the wrong in murder, for example.

She further expounded that in the past, after the age of mankind's amoralism, people did not stick so closely to these absolute morals because they are not easily known and understood. In addition, akin to technology, morals have been changing, and mostly for the better, and we get closer and closer to these absolute morals. Where this source of absolute morality comes from or by what it is driven, she is not so sure, but she believes there is some factors that forms this basis.

However, I beg to differ. I believe that morals are everchanging, never absolute. This does not mean that I expect the lecturer in the hypothetical example above to choose the latter option, mainly because morals are not defined by those inside the lecture theatre at that instant of time. It is formed, shaped and influenced by history, politics and society of the entire civilisation over a period of time. But the fundamental idea remains: morals are never absolute. Never fixed. Shifting with time. Changing always.

Slavery is largely seen as a barbaric act today, but it is quite widely accepted in many societies in the past. Then okay, now not. Suppose in the future because of overpopulation, governments have begun selective killing of genetically inferior human beings. And they have been doing it for, say fifty years, such that it has developed into a social norm. Universally accepted. Agreed by all. Is that bad?

Morals change. We cannot use today's moral standards to judge yesterday's actions. In fact, it we were to use our morals to look at times other than ours, we will probably be repulsed by what the humans were/are doing. We are stuck in today's morals; what we see in the past and in the future will not appeal to our moral tastes. It's just like asking someone from the ecclesiastical past to judge the role of today's institutionalised church.

Expectedly, our arguments glanced off each other as we assume differing bases. She assumed that there is some unyielding force driving morality; to me, morality is everchanging. Of course, we did not come to a consensus, but it was a good philosophical exercise nonetheless.


warhammer said...

oh cool, morality play, hope you don't mind my butting in.

Just like you mentioned the different morality in time, there are also different morality in space. Across geography different people have different morals. Just as you wouldn't judge the acts of those in the past or future, I assume you won't do that for those in other places? But what if they did something, you really, really disagreed with? Like, gee, say ate people from the neighbouring tribe? Still no?

Anyway, believing in absolute morality seems to imply that there is a set of rules that are apart from and distinct from people as a whole, that applies regardless of time and place. The same way natural laws are ideas that apply to stuff but are distinct from it.

Just a thought(s)

Yao said...

Haha no worries, you didn't really misrepresent me, although I must say you probably didn't quite get my point either. But that was probably my fault, I was a bit vague with my explanations that day. So here I am to try again! :)

First off, I'll just like to clarify that as far as the video's concerned, I don't think there's any issue of morality involved. At the very worst I can consider his behaviour crude and undignified, perhaps even bordering on the indecent, but that's probably the furthest I can stretch. Originally I was just lamenting over the extent lecturers would go nowadays to score cheap popularity points amongst students, and the worst point is how it actually works (like I admitted, I found it funny too)! Maybe I'm just being ridiculously conservative, but I always believed that as persons of esteem, there is a basic code of honour demanded of lecturers and teachers in general, that they should always carry themselves with at least a basic sense of propriety and dignity.

That was my original point, but since you didn't agree, so I brought in the issue of morality to illustrate how there should be absolute standards in behaviour, bottomlines which we ought never to cross. I thought you would agree with me on that and I would have proven my point, but since that somehow turned into a point of contention itself, we somehow digressed into discussing morality instead.

So you say, that morals change across time, Chuperng further pointed out that morals change across space as well. There's all well and good, but so what? In moral philosophy, the theory that morality is not absolute in called relativism. Relativists claim that morality should be relative to different people, of different times and different places. It is not hard to see this is instead the case in our world, like in the example you gave, how slavery used to be acceptable just decades ago but is perceived as a heinous crime today. Again I ask, so what? Does the fact that our less-than-enlightened society accepts some blatant acts of immorality at some stage in time justify these actions? You have to understand that just because different people do different things doesn't mean they are all doing the right thing. Yes, when morality is involved, you can be a minority of one and you can still be right. You can be a lone voice in Nazi Germany yelling at the top of your lungs at the atrocities taking place all around you and I will not mistake you for a madman. Let's use your example again, let's say fifty years from now, if the time does come when overpopulation is so bad that it becomes socially acceptable to eliminate genetically inferior human beings, perhaps you will do it too, perhaps you will convince yourself that it's done in everyone's best interest, but will you not feel a prick in your heart? Will you not look into the eyes of your victim and feel the weight of your own guilt? Can you really bear to peer into a dim future in which all our present laws of morality are no longer existent and still cheerfully believe that we are no different from them?

I wasn't clear the other time what the drive behind this "absolute morality" is, I think I have the answer now. Chuperng said that for morality to be absolute, it has to be something objective, something that exists out there in the universe for us to discover. That is what some moral philosophers would have us believe, but it doesn't take a lot of common sense to realize how ludicrous that is. If morality has distinct existence beyond humans, then why do we seem to be the only creatures that view it with such great pathos? It would be a bit like as if the laws of gravity works only on us but not anything else, would we still generalise it to be an absolute physical law? No, I think morality is absolute not in the sense that it is apart from us humans, but rather common to every single one of us. Of course a philosophy will start protesting now that what I'm talking about is universalism and not absolutism anymore, but really, what do words matter? Morality is something entirely human, and only human. You only need to listen to your heart to know what it is. Deep down we all know that, but having been conditioned over the years by the (ironically irrational) need for reason such an obviously unsupported statement will probably be easily brushed aside. So I shall attempt to give you a more reasonable explanation. Being humans, each of us (most of us at least) is born with the psychological faculty of empathy. We not also can feel what we ourselves are feeling but occasionally what others are feeling too. Thomas Hobbes would have us believe that the only reason why we act morally is to ultimate spare ourselves the pain of an immoral society, typical of a philosopher, surely if that's the case the feeling of guilt seems rather redundant. Why then? Because in doing injustice to others, our sense of empathy will invariably protest against the action. That nagging feeling of guilt is the starting point of morality, this is also why we often equate morality with humanity, because in essence, indeed they are.

Perhaps one day morality will change. Perhaps the day will really come when we are allowed to kill off humans physically inferior to us. To do that we'll have to close our hearts to the cries of others, we would have to numb our sense of empathy. That day, we would not only be less moral, we would also be less human.

Yao said...

Gosh didn't realize I wrote so much! Hehe I'm a spammer!

warhammer said...

Haha this is getting interesting.

When I said that absolute morality needs to be independent and distinct from people I probably gave a bad example to show it. Morality is not something that actively "acts" on people like gravity. I think a clearer example is that absolute morality are like statements of logic (A implies B= not B implies not A) that is the rules of logic exist independently of people, our knowledge or ignorance of them have no bearing on their existence. Similarly that's what I mean when I say absolute morality, they exist apart from people and animals that may or may not be aware of them.

That's just to clear up what I said, moving on.
You mentioned that our morality and by implication humanity is rooted in our ability to empathise. It is conceivable that a person through some birth defect or another be born without this faculty to empathise, by your standards he would be both, amoral (at the very least) and inhuman. It's also not clear if our ability to empathise is innate or learned. If it's the later it seems that our morality is something that spreads from person to person and not that fundamental after all.

Personally it's very appealing to me to think that there's an absolute set of moral rules floating out there waiting to be discovered if only we had the mental faculty to think of them. The same way that it took us quite a long time to discover the rules of logical reasoning.

But realistically it seems that our morals are really just a set of evolved behavioral rules. We picked up a set of traits that worked together with our instinctive impulses that allowed our ancestors to survive on the plains and these rules got passed down over time. So what maybe started with the caveman as, "protect your family" had "protect the village" tagged on to it in the middle ages and so on until now when we think that universal human rights are really quite a neat idea. Morality is what we say it is. Like you said, can I bear to peer into a dim future in which all our present laws of morality are no longer existent and still cheerfully believe that we are no different from them? Well, I admittedly can't, but that's probably because I'm a product of my morality.

Yao said...

You people are horrible, distracting me from my work like this.. Tsk tsk..

Chuperng, I think I see what you mean by absolute morality now. Correct me if I'm wrong, but are you saying that morality is absolute in the sense that it is an independent entity by itself, in-built into the fabrics of nature and not a mere construct of the human mind? That even if, heaven forbid, some catastrophe wipes out the human race overnight, morality will still exist out there regardless, like some sort of holy grail waiting for the next species to evolve enough intelligence to discover it.

If that's what you meant, then I agree with you that there is nothing absolute in morality at all. Like I've already said, morality is an entirely human creation and by implication intimately tied to our existence. But on your point about morality being nothing more than a set of evolved behavioral rules, I beg to differ. It's amusing, albeit in a almost sardonic sort of way, how little faith people have in themselves in assuming that anything wholly subjected to human discretion necessarily becomes an arbitrary exercise, that humanly defined laws of morality should somehow be more suspect than divine ones. I'm going to reiterate my point that this is simply not true, that even though we the players are at once also bestowed the power to set our own rules, there are ways for us to discern between good and bad rules.

And I said, what tips the scales of morality one way instead of the other, what decides which side of the boundary we have set for ourselves is permitted and which is forbidden, is our shared humanity, particularly our common capacity for empathy. You raised the question of a mentally disfunct person who's born without the faculty of empathy, and you asked what we should make of him. Well I concede he is probably still human in the biological sense, but I shall risk political incorrectness here and say that as far as I'm concerned, he is a little less human than the rest of us. Of course, it's always dangerous to go into these grey areas, how are we to decide where where to draw the line where human beings ceases to be humans? If you really want to split hairs, we can go on and on, and it will really do nobody any good. You then asked if our ability to empathize is innate or learned. Though you don't say, I get the feeling that you're more inclined to believe the latter. But how can empathy be learned? You yourself have mentioned in the example of the mentally disfunct person that the faculty of empathy is something we are born with. Unlike reason, which is usually a deliberate mental exercise whose method has to be gradually picked up, empathy happens despite ourselves. When you empathize with someone else, it is not a conscious act of abstraction, you don't have to will yourself to think "ok, if I were in that situation, how would I feel?", you don't think, you just feel! Unlike reason, there is no single method you must follow in order to empathize, there is no issue of how to do it, only whether you can or cannot do it.

I'm glad that you would also be disturbed by a future of amorality, but you really should give yourself more credit for it. You are not a product of your morality, rather, your morality is a product of you.

Pandemonium said...

Wow, okay, it really took me damn bloody long to absorb what both of you have said. Firstly, with regards of morality varying through space, I do agree, but because of technology bridging the interaction gap between people, this difference is gradually diminished.

As for whether morality is innate or learned, I, as evident from my original argument, believe it is the latter. I will not deny the logic that morals arise from empathy, and empathy, at least a part of it, is instinctive. But how do these instinct come about? While empathy for an individual is partially innate, if we were to zoom out and look at human race as a whole, my opinion is that empathy arose from our evolutionary experience.

Allow me to clarify. I remember reading an article which suggests a reason why we will be repulsed when we watch, in documentaries, predators killing their preys. The reason is that in the past humans were pursued and killed by these predators, so the horrors of seeing their own kind getting killed has left an impression (because it could happen to themselves). For eons before man settled down, this was the horror they had to go through, which builds in this instinctive horror to such stuff that lasts even till today.

What does this has anything to do with morality being learned or innate? The link is that if a person has empathy, he will be affected by his fellow mate being mutilated by a predator and possibly help him/her to avoid that. There is thus an evolutionary advantage for humans to develop empathy.

Of course, the argument is still perfectly logical if you assume that humans have empathy to begin with, and thus empathy is in-built in human beings. Well, I cannot contest that; after all I've said that our arguments are built on different bases. We are unlikely to reach a consensus.