"Should" is not part of any logically possible territory, in the moral sense at least. Objective morality is meaningless, and subjective morality reduces to preferences. It's a distinctly human invention, and it's meaning shifts as the user desires. Moral obligations are great for social interactions, but they don't reflect anything deeper than an extension of tribal politics. Saying "you should x" (in the moral sense of the word) is just equivalent to saying "I would prefer you to x", but with bonus social pressure.

Just because it is sometimes effective to try and impose a moral obligation does not mean that it is always, or even usually, the case that doing so is the most effective method available. Thinking about the actual cause of the behavior, and responding to that, will be far, far more effective.

Next time you meet a child murderer, you just go and keep on telling him he shouldn't do that. I, on the other hand, will actually do things that might prevent him from killing children. This includes physical restraint, murder, and, perhaps most importantly, asking why he kills children. If he responds "I have to sacrifice them to the magical alien unicorns or they'll kill my family" then I can explain to him that the magical alien unicorns dont't exist and solve the problem. Or I can threaten his family myself, which might for many reasons be more reliable than physical solutions. If he has empathy I can talk about how the parents must feel, or the kids themselves. If he has self-preservation instincts then I can point out the risks for getting caught. In the end, maybe he just values dead children in the same way I value children continuing to live, and my only choice is to fight him. But probably that's not the case, and if I don't ask/observe to figure out what his motivations are I'll never know how to stop him when physical force is no option.

"Should" is not part of any logically possible territory, in the moral sense at least. Objective morality is meaningless, and subjective morality reduces to preferences.

Subjectivity is part of the territory.

1asr7yThese aren't the only two possibilities. Lots of important aspects of the world are socially constructed. There's no objective truth about the owner of a given plot of land, but it's not purely subjective either -- and if you don't believe me, try explaining it to the judge if you are arrested for trespassing. Social norms about morality are constructed socially, and are not simply the preferences or feelings of any particular individual. It's perfectly coherent for somebody to say "society believes X is immoral but I don't personally think it's wrong". I think it's even coherent for somebody to say "X is immoral but I intend to do it anyway."
2ArisKatsaris7yI really think this is a bad summarization of how moral injuctions act. People often feel a conflict for example between "I should X" and "I would prefer to not-X". If a parent has to choose between saving their own child, and a thousand other children, they may very well prefer to save their own child, but recognize that morality dictated they should have saved the thousand other children. My own guess about the connection between morality and preferences is that morality is an unconscious estimation of our preferences about a situation, while trying to remove the bias of our personal stakes in it. (E.g. the parent recognizes that if their own child wasn't involved, if they were just hearing about the situation without personal stakes in it, they would prefer that a thousand children be saved rather that only one.) If my guess is correct it would also explain why there's disagreement about whether morality is objective or subjective (morality is a personal preference, but it's also an attempt to remove personal biases - it's by itself an attempt to move from subjective preferences to objective preferences).

Bad Concepts Repository

by moridinamael 1 min read27th Jun 2013204 comments


We recently established a successful Useful Concepts Repository.  It got me thinking about all the useless or actively harmful concepts I had carried around for in some cases most of my life before seeing them for what they were.  Then it occurred to me that I probably still have some poisonous concepts lurking in my mind, and I thought creating this thread might be one way to discover what they are.

I'll start us off with one simple example:  The Bohr model of the atom as it is taught in school is a dangerous thing to keep in your head for too long.  I graduated from high school believing that it was basically a correct physical representation of atoms.  (And I went to a *good* high school.)  Some may say that the Bohr model serves a useful role as a lie-to-children to bridge understanding to the true physics, but if so, why do so many adults still think atoms look like concentric circular orbits of electrons around a nucleus?  

There's one hallmark of truly bad concepts: they actively work against correct induction.  Thinking in terms of the Bohr model actively prevents you from understanding molecular bonding and, really, everything about how an atom can serve as a functional piece of a real thing like a protein or a diamond.

Bad concepts don't have to be scientific.  Religion is held to be a pretty harmful concept around here.  There are certain political theories which might qualify, except I expect that one man's harmful political concept is another man's core value system, so as usual we should probably stay away from politics.  But I welcome input as fuzzy as common folk advice you receive that turned out to be really costly.