Sunday, 10 October 2021

A Moral Rupture

by Thomas Scarborough


Virtually all of our assumptions with regard to ethics are based on theories in which we see no rupture between past, present, and future, but some kind of continuity

If we are with Aristotle, we hold out happiness as the goal, and assume that, as this was true for Aristotle, so it is for me, and forever will be. Or if we are with Moore, we believe that our moral sense is informed by intuition, always was, and will be in the future. If we are religiously minded, we assume that God himself has told us how to live, which was and is eternal and unchanging. 

I propose, instead, that ethics is not in fact constant, and at the present time we are witnessing a fundamental moral rupture. This is based upon a distinct ethical theory, which runs like this: 
As we look upon the world, we arrange the world in our understanding. Depending on how we have so arranged it, we act in this world. A concise way of putting this is that our behaviour is controlled by mental models. Since no one person so arranges the world in quite the same way as the next, our ethics are in many cases strikingly different. 
In past ages, people arranged the world in their minds in such a way that this was largely in keeping with their personal experience of the world. They based it on the people they met, the environment which surrounded them, and so on. Of course, people had access also to parchments, listened to orators, or explored new ideas, so that various influences came to bear upon them. Mostly, however, they interacted with a real world. 

In more recent history, the age of mass communications descended upon us. We invented the printing press, the postal system, then radio, and TV. And certainly, increased travel exposed us all to broader ideas. However, we still understood our world largely in terms of personal experience. Our personal experience, too, informed our interpretation of events and opinions further afield, and we had the leisure to ponder them, and often make sport of them. 

Since the turn of the century, however, we have increasingly been involved in instant, two-way communications, and in many cases dispersed communications, where many people are included at the same time. The result is that, for the first time in history, many (and some say most) of our interactions and reactions are electronic. 

One could list any number of implications. In terms of this post, our arrangement of the world in our understanding is changing. In fact, change is not the word. There is a rupture. The basis on which we arrange the world is not at all what it was. 

Images of the world swamp our experience of it.
The consequences of our views dissipate in the aether.
Feedback to our words and actions often eludes us, and
Ideology is little tempered by direct observation.

If we accept that mental models drive our behaviour, all older notions of ethics are uprooted. It may only become clear to us just how in the decades to come. Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1962, in his landmark The Gutenberg Galaxy, "There can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies."

5 comments:

Andrew Porter said...

An interesting set of thoughts, Thomas. Certainly mental models are coincident with our interpretation. Our lenses are pivotal, and the clear ones align pretty well with reality. What we know is not only a house of mirrors. In the education world, I see students process and interpret reading differently through computer use and social media influence than students did before electronic technology. I am interested in how moral relativism combines with phone and computer use to, in many cases, cause both internal and external ruptures. Fragmentation is a hard way to live. Yet moral life continues and adapts. The strange thing about our contemporary world, I think, is the *jumble* of our mental models. They try to walk forward with quite differing leg lengths.

docmartincohen said...

"The strange thing about our contemporary world, I think, is the *jumble* of our mental models."

That's true, I think. I was just looking at Joe Biden's tweet about "his" Build Back Better slogan. But the slogan is not his - it seems to be a UN one designed literally for rebuilding disaster zones. The idea that the USA is now a disaster zone is pretty confused!


"Moore" is not a member of the philosophical pantheon. I think he would benefit from a little introduction here!

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Andrew and Martin,

An elderly woman commented on the post, off-Pi. She said the shift to a virtual reality has greatly (negatively) affected the spirit of the youth. I would include that under 'moral' influence. The youth 'arrange the world' differently.

Cambridge philosophy professor Simon Blackburn sums up Moore’s position like this: 'Goodness is a simple, unanalysable quality, fortunately known by intuition.' George Edward Moore was likewise a Cambridge philosophy professor.

Keith said...

‘I propose . . . that ethics is not in fact constant, and at the present time we are witnessing a fundamental moral rupture’. Might one of the markers of human history be an endless series of ‘moral ruptures’, of all kinds and for all purposes? Among the more dramatic of such ruptures perhaps involves the shift in the direction of valuing human life more, such as going from millennia of grisly ways to sacrifice or punish people, to where much of the world today has eliminated capital punishment on quite different models of respect for human life and the shifting moral imperatives of society. I suggest that ‘ethical ruptures’ don’t get any more ‘fundamental’ than that — all the while reflecting, as you say, people indeed ‘arranging the world in their minds’.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. Would you be suggesting that there is an ‘ascent of man’?

With regard to the death penalty, my home country South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995, yet this was replaced by an informal, nationwide system of capital punishment. Figures are sketchy. In 2017-2018, police had a low estimate, a figure of 846 ‘mob justice killings’, or more than one execution a day.

As in this case, so in all cases. I do not see how we could think there is direction to humanity’s ethical character, if one could even define it. It is an American superstition, with its roots in the pragmatism of Peirce, James, Dewey, Hartshorne, and so on. It seems, too, to lie at the root of critical theory.

My suggestion, though, is not that ethics has experienced a rupture which may be evaluated as positive or negative. Rather, if ethics is based on mental models, then our technology presents us with a rupture in the way that we conceive of and develop our ethics.

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