Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Relativism vs. "Relativism"

I had a deja-epiphany today. At one point I had had it sorted out, but then something just disappeared. Well, anyway.

I first understood the term "relativism" to be a simple statement of scientific fact: that morality is based on whomever chooses it (i.e. morality is relative to human construction). Ahah, but not so! To those among us who decry "relativism", it means two things: A) Morals are absolute (i.e. not created by man) & B) "Relativists" do not believe it is proper to force others to accept their morals. In this way they are able to conflate two very different positions and use one to bat the other.

What this generally takes the form of is, "Oh, so you think being gay is OK just because you feel like it? You probably think its OK to steal then too, right? Because it's anything goes!".

(Quick aside: Conflation is an interestingly common logical fallacy. One also sees it with objection to abortion as "murder". If abortion is murder, then people who have or support abortions are "murderers". But murder implies intent. Just because one person says squashing ants is murder, does not squashing ants a murder of me make.)

So, one can surely believe that morals are relative, and take a firm position on things. For all I know, we may one day find evidence of some moral absolute written down somewhere (although the problem will then be who wrote it, but let's leave it there for now). But as it stands there is no evidence for an particular moral. But we think and feel in pretty much the same ways. And that's basically persuasive enough for most people.

For instance, I seriously doubt there is any "moral" law about farting next to your wife. But she doesn't like it. So we don't do it. (OK, I often do but I accept that it is immoral.) There we go: moral defined by man (woman?). Is it proper for me to force my morality on others? Well, if you and your wife are "into" that sort of thing - then by all means, right? That's the beauty of creating your own morals. As long as you are a consenting adult then universal human rights begin to apply. But no need to get the UN involved in this, is there?

Human Capital

I realized recently that I don't think I'd ever come across a description of what a "great" person looks like. From a determinist perspective, individuals operate according to their conscious state at any given moment. That is, every decision we make is determined by what drives us, and what drives us is in turn driven by what has driven us up until that point. So as individuals, we can be thought of as nodes of the larger evolution of our species, both through generational genetic inheritance and situational cultural transformation. Each individual is born into this swirling soup of ideas and circumstances, with the expectation that one will add to, not subtract from, the larger human enterprise of happiness and understanding.

So starting from that premise, could we not find some simple template for what a "great" person might look like, and further, what would go into creating that individual? This template would be composed of a core set of generalized areas, each extending into specific qualities. Each would be a form of capital that adds to the fulfillment of both the happiness and completeness of the individual, and also of the larger society in general. These traits should be universal enough to transcend political, religious or social ideology. In any given situation, the relative importance of one or another trait might differ, but in a general sense each trait should add to the individual's fulfillment as well as that of society.

It's not a new idea. The concept of a role-model is well established. One's mother and father are the most obvious influences. Peers and peripheral social members soon begin to play a role. But as larger fulcrums of group behavior, those from which social identity and behavioral trajectory are derived, might be deeper expressions of historical archetypes such as religious, political, military, scientific or business leaders. Of these, no single archetype might suffice. In a scientific figure we might exemplary performance in reason and inquiry, hard work and dedication, but a lacking in moral integrity or compassion. Or in a religious figure, whose compassion and depth of human understanding is unparalleled, we may not find much in the way of innovation or skeptical inquiry. Yet in all of these characters we derive a sense of what every individual should aspire towards.

Not every one is capable of fulfilling each and every requirement of this template for greatness. Some will fulfill little, if any at all, of some traits. This could be for genetic reasons, or due to physical accident. It may be life circumstances, such as geographic location or particular social events. Nor will any one individual will ever fulfill them all. But each trait will be cooperative: the attainment of any one will aid the attainment of any other. In correlation, the lack of any one skill may (but not necessarily) detract from the attainment of any other.

Most of the attributes will be acquired over a lifetime. Each individual will be born with certain advantages and disadvantages toward their acquisition. At the group level, social organization will attempt to maximize the attainment of these attributes by all. Some efforts will be more effective than others, and some will actively discourage or prevent this goal. The promotion of attainment by some will necessarily limit the attainment of others. As these attributes are mostly learned, they require the right social systems in place to be effected. These systems require a balance of resources, and distribution will always be somewhat unequal. But in the long term, just as each attribute cooperates to improve the acquisition of any other in the individual, so will the acquisition of attributes in any one member contribute to the acquisition of each member of the group.

The following is a rough list of general attribute areas, each followed by more specific list of examples that area's characteristic traits.

Human Capital

Emotional: happiness, satisfaction, compassion, generosity, self-control, ethics, integrity, confidence, courage, self-awareness

Knowledge Skills: reading, writing, math, music, art, dance, technology, mechanics, athletics, discipline, diet, hygiene, exercise

Knowledge Information: humanities, sciences, traditions, institutions, "perspective"

Social: language, protocols, empathy, self-awareness (perception of self by others)

Monetary: family income, family resources, neighborhood resources,

Biological: mental, physical, health

The list is certainly not exhaustive, and could have a more organized structure. For instance, many of the attributes apply only within one's consciousness, while others are the physical actualization, or application of specific skills. Some attributes are directed from the self, while others depend upon social or environmental resources.

If we are to recognize that humans are not the ultimate directors of their own fate, and are mere expressors of biological and environmental conditions, operating as fulcrums of a larger social "mind", then it would serve us well to define precisely what we want this "mind" to produce. We will then be able to draft political and social institutions that effectively achieve this.