Re: Paper-tigers

Charles Cairns (
Wed, 8 Apr 1998 09:50:59 -0400

Hi Massimo,

I sent a copy of my original message to list, so I hope you don't mind if I
reply to the list.

In my original message on responsibility, I wrote:

>> Responsibility is a philosophical tenet predicated upon some standard.
>> If
>> this standard is arbitrary, what would compel anyone but yourself to
>> acknowledge it?

And you wrote in reply:

>I never said that these standards are *arbitrary*, only that they are
>not absolute. Thos are the extreme positions, in the middle of which
>there's an ocean of possibilities. Morals come from cultural experiences
>of what works and what doesn't (atheists don't want to live in a society
>in which you have to guard your life from your neighbor anymore than
>christians do...). It is a long and inefficient process of natural
>selection, and it changes with time because human societies change. I'm
>quite sure you woulnd't apply exactly the moral standards proposed in
>the bible to your children...

I appreciate your point, Massimo, but I think you're skirting the issue. I
agree that some standards are unique to some societies and need not be
observed by others that have no use for them; most standards are in that
sense utilitarian--they serve the needs of those who observe them. However,
there is a set of standards that all cultures observe, and includes broad
categories like fidelity, honesty, temperance, responsibility, even the
rules of professional etiquette that you and I are observing now.

If they have arisen by natural selection (as you indicate), then they are
indeed arbitrary, unless you wish to concede that natural selection is
purposeful and guided. And if they are arbitrary, why not change them to
suit our fancy? Both you and I could produce a litany of horrendous
possibilities, all of them that could, in some way, shape or form, be
interpreted as beneficial to the species.

However, the standards I listed are, IMHO, absolute, if universality is a
reliable measure, even though the shape they take when employed varies by
culture and time.