Friday, August 25, 2006

Limits and Morality

One of my housemates has a habit of getting somewhat philosophical when he gets drunk, and recently this has got me thinking about a few things a bit more than I would usually.

The most recent position he put forward was that the ultimate aspiration/achievement is the freeing oneself of all limitations up to and including morality and the laws of physics. This is achieved through enlightenment, which apparently you only get when it happens, and is not able to be worked towards. Of course, you know you've been enlightened because that's part of the knowledge you get with enlightenment. And no one else can verify this, because enlightenment comes from within, and cannot be taught or worked towards.

He acknowledged that this is very much like traditional religious faith, and occasionally he has delusions of being the antichrist. We have very different notions of truth (For me, truth is the external reality, observable by all). He thinks truth is something internal, individual, and not able to be directly compared with others truth. And that this internal truth outweighs any other evidence if you feel it to be true enough (very much along the line of Stephen Colbert's Truthiness).

But the thing I've been thinking about the most is the whole freeing of all limitations. My thinking crystallised on watching a trailer for the next season of Battlestar Galactica, which was "Somethings you just don't do, colonel. Not even in war."

The idea I have is that being moral takes two steps. The first step is deciding what is good and what is bad. This should always be under consideration, and open for debate, etc. But the second part is then saying, these things I consider bad, I will not do. You limit the things that you are willing to do, based on what you think is good or bad. People will disagree with the what you might think is good or bad, but the restricting yourself to only doing good things is an important part of being a good person.

One other important aspect is that these limits are self imposed. You have decided not to do these things. Being forced to do things by others is still not good. The society you live in and your experiences will obviously have a strong effect on what you choose as good and bad, but ultimately it is your own choice what your actions are.

This idea of good people limiting their action came up on an episode of Penn Jillette's radio show about why should America obey the Geneva conventions, and one of the callers put in a similar idea, that because America wants to be the good guys, they need to live up to a higher standard of behaviour, one that includes not torturing prisoners, not attacking civilians, etc. This again is the idea "I want to be a good person, therefore I will not do bad things".

It does come to mind that this leads to a rather passive idea of good being the avoidance of bad rather than a goal in and of itself. You could look at it a bit like the Hippocratic oath "First do no harm", start out by not making things worse, then actively try to improve them.

In conclusion, I think that to be a moral person one needs to place limitations on themselves.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Philosophical? How diplomatic of you.