Friday, October 14, 2011

Fashions in Morality

Paul Graham (see quote below) seems to be a thoughtful person.  Somewhere online, in a comment section whose location I can no longer recall, someone made a reference to an essay of his about “open mindedness and changing fashions in morality”  , so I looked up.
“Open mindedness” is one of those ideas that everyone is in favor of.  Even in a piece where he criticizes the pc-think criticism of divisiveness or criticism (yes- that’s it criticizing the criticism of criticism- LOL), he takes aim at the societal taboos and benchmarks of our day.
To his mind the concepts we are most uncomfortable discussing  today are the ones most likely to be acceptable in the future.  A concept so fuzzy as to be nearly un-testable.  For every point where this is somewhat true (homosexual practice), you are likely to find examples where it is not true (sexual intercourse with children).  Most of his examples seem to involve relaxing standards, but there are as many examples of standards being tightened up (what constitutes a child).
What You Can’t Say
Paul Graham, January 2004
What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They're just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they're much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.
Of course he brings up no longer acceptable notions such as the Copernican conception of Earth moving around the Sun, and Slavery. 
In these instances, he fails to distinguish between  changes in morality caused by advances in scientific thought in one case, and in the other one based (in part) on changes in economic conditions, with changes that are a matter of “fashion.”
Much of the changing opinion into modernity was very closely tied to economic and scientific changes that were starting in the late 18th century and became most visibly in the industrial manufacturing complex of the industrial revolution.  For instance, child labor was outlawed when children were no longer able to effectively work in the increasingly complex assembly line type factories.  Women’s rights goes very much in lockstep with changing household patterns from a rural agrarian society to an urban industrial one. Singer (consumer based mass manufacturing) and Samuel Colt (interchangeable parts) have as much to do with feminism as Susan B. Anthony.
His statement for why we would want to always be question morality?
Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that's unthinkable. Natural selection, for example. It's so simple. Why didn't anyone think of it before? Well, that is all too obvious…
Training yourself to think unthinkable thoughts has advantages beyond the thoughts themselves. It's like stretching. When you stretch before running, you put your body into positions much more extreme than any it will assume during the run. If you can think things so outside the box that they'd make people's hair stand on end, you'll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.
He notes Darwin as an example.  But Darwin was not questioning morality when he came up with his theory; he was simply looking at the best evidence in front of him at the time.
In fact it is difficult to find an example of a changed “fashion” in morality that did not have a large group making polemic arguments for its change.  Slavery helped to create the Republican Party after all.
When you look at engineering changes, Samuel Colt was able to work toward the concept of interchangeable parts, because precision tool making had advanced to the point where it was possible.  In fact British ability in the area of tool making and measurement at the craftsmen level was one of the reasons that industrial revolution occurred there, and not in China.
Many scientific advances have occurred as a matter of luck.  But Fleming was not questioning morality when he discovered the effects of penicillin.
I guess my concern comes from the idea of morality as a fashion:  as it having no more weight than mere whims.  Only if you look at morality at its most simplistic observable level is does it appear capricious.  You may not think it is “right” that Islamic women are wearing veils, or that Chinese women used to have their feet bound.  But they are not fashion statements based on whim.
My suspicion is that Mr. Graham is showing the failings of many modern libertarians.  He wants to do what he wants to do.  As he is relatively well off, within a society that is extremely well off, there is very little life-and-death downside to mistakes in behavior, and in today’s heavily urbanized setting, traditionalist values can often be ignored by the individual if they are not too obviously visible.
To my mind what he proscribes is not likely to bring on a lot of new positive advantages, but are more likely to be a continuance of our narcissistic (some would say sociopathological) behavioral trends.  If he is so open minded, why doesn’t he bring question the “profit”, or “usury”, or the limited liability of corporations.  Because he likes those ideas, and even though he can bring up moral issues that have a clear economic implications (such as slavery), he won’t touch the sacred cows that made him wealthy.   I also benefit from these morally loaded economic issues, but I don't think they are fashion statements.
So if you don’t mind, I think I am going to sit out the “morality is fashion” fashion.


Degringolade said...

I have been staring at one of the cars at the school next door. It has the bumper sticker "minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open".

For some reason, this has been grating on me lately.

I have been mulling around a post about the obvious untruth of this simplistic statement. Nothing has gelled yet.

Maybe this will help. Thanks

russell1200 said...


The parachute also requires you to be falling from a distance sufficient to hurt yourself.

Open or otherwise, they don't work if you have already landed.