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Is morality binary?
in Philosophy

By Happy_KillbotHappy_Killbot 2410 Pts
A lot of stories, movies, TV show, video games, and even ancient texts will sometimes make the assumption, often without explaining it or giving any credit, that all moral dilemma's are binary in nature. 

That is to say, they can only have two states: Good or evil. There is no in between, no ambiguity, no sometimes right, no sometimes wrong. Everything is cut and dry.

In our daily lives, this doesn't seem to make any sense. Often we are faced with situations where what is right is not apparent, or where doing the right thing leads to a bad outcome.

Is this moral ambiguity due to someone's personal lack of understanding of what is moral, or is it due to a fundamental flaw in the way we think about morality?

This question is distinct from the question of is morality objective or subjective, because that is asking if morality has a personal right and wrongness to it or if it is universally the same. This question asks if even to an individual, whether it is objective or subjective, in possession of a moral absolute or ambiguity.

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I would argue that morality is not binary, for two reasons. The first is that morality lies on a spectrum, with some actions being more moral than others. For example, if someone desires to help the poor, they might give them some spare change, but they might also build them a shelter, or maybe they give them the tools to get back on their feet. No one would argue that any of these things are immoral, but some are better than others.

The second point, is that some things are morally ambiguous, typically as a result of not having any morally correct actions available. For example, the infamous trolley problem. One way 5 people die, the other way only 1 person does but you caused it. There is no right or wrong answer, therefore morality must have a non binary component, where there is no "good" or "evil" action.
MayCaesarPlaffelvohfen
At some point in the distant past, the universe went through a phase of cosmic inflation,
Stars formed, planets coalesced, and on at least one of them life took root.
Through a long process of evolution this life 
developed into the human race.
Humans conquered fire, built complex societies and advanced technology .

All of that so we can argue about nothing.



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  • MayCaesarMayCaesar 3409 Pts
    I do not even think that morality lays on a line; rather, it lays on the space of infinite dimensions. Humans naturally divide things into "better" and "worse" as a result of evolution (in order to survive, one needs to learn to make such judgements), but things do not have to be confined to such a simplistic classification in principle.

    There have been many attempts to properly classify the variety of human moral behaviors. I quite like the simple system used in Dungeons & Dragons: Good-Evil on one axis, and Lawful-Chaotic on another - and these terms are not subjective, but describe quite precise traits. A Good person cares deeply about others, and an Evil person cares only about themselves; a Lawful person cares for order, and a Chaotic person cares for freedom.

    Yet all of these attempts miss a lot of fine details. Take, for example, the common characterisation of "good" as "caring for others". Well, there are many ways to care for others. First of all, the place from which caring comes can vary significantly between individuals. Some care for others because they want to share their happiness with others. Others care for others because this provides a way for them to cope with their insecurities. Others still simply were told by their parents, society or religion that caring for others is a good thing, but do not understand why this is so. There are also people who care for others, because they see this caring as a useful tool to achieve their selfish goals. There are many other types of caring, and most individuals exhibit many of them in different proportions.

    Caring for others can also manifest in different actions. One could argue that Mother Teresa, Pol Pot and Joan of Arc all deeply cared about others, yet the actions they took were so different, and they had such drastically different impact on those they cared about... Or consider different parenting styles: I doubt there are parents who absolutely do not care about their children, since we are wired biologically to do so - but some parents employ harsh parenting style with a lot of abuse, believing that this is the only way to discipline a kid, other parents spoil their children with endless presents, which is not necessarily helpful to the kid in the long run, other parents still teach their children responsibility by giving them a lot of freedom, but expecting them to earn everything on their own.

    Then, of course, there are those "X or Y" questions that even a person with deeply thought out morals often struggles to give an answer to. The example you brought up, where one has to choose between two negative outcomes involving other people (such as "Should I commit an atrocity to prevent another atrocity?"), is a good illustration of that. In such cases one has to employ some sort of a quantitative, rather than qualitative, judgement, and those are very tricky, because we do not typically think of morals in quantitative terms. Indians have the concept of "karma" that attempts to do that, but even that cannot be properly described, say, in mathematical terms.

    In conclusion, morality is certainly not binary, and even more so, it does not lay on any properly defined multidimensional compass. It seems to have an infinity of shades.
    Happy_Killbot
  • Morality naturally conflicts with evolutionary benefit. Those who repayed favours and never stole from others would be at a disadvantage with those who put themselves first. But humans evolved good memories, and could remember what one had done previously, creating this whole idea of reputation. Now, humans who are moral are better off because they have a better reputation, meaning they will be more highly regarded and be rewarded by their society. 

    Back onto the main point: No, I don't think morality is binary and that 'good' and 'evil' exist. Unless you're saying that if you're over 50% good, you are good, and under 50% makes a readout of 'evil' for you... But if so, who sets the thresholds? I would be cautious to bring God into this debate, as it is a debate about morality, not a debate about God. And secondly, who judges who is good and who is evil?
  • MayCaesarMayCaesar 3409 Pts
    @xlJ_dolphin_473

    This is not quite accurate, as far as I know. While there are certainly some evolutionary benefits for putting oneself first, virtually all mammals live in groups, the individual members' survival depending on each other's actions. The individual that puts themselves first at the expense of the group endangers the whole group, and most mammal species discriminate harshly against such behavior in various ways - among wolves, for example, a wolf that does not share its prey with others can very well be torn apart by other wolves, or cast away from the pack (which in most cases equals slow and painful death in the wilds).

    The communal instinct goes far further back than we like to think, and has existed in various species for dozens millions years, as far as we can tell. Morals naturally arise from it, and in some sense morals have existed for as long as macroscopic animals have.

    I think what is different for humans in particular is two things. The first is that we have the ability to reason, which allows us to come up with our own morals, rather than instinctively accept the morals of the pack (which we still do a lot though). And the second is that we have surpassed all other species in terms of quality of life by orders of magnitude, and nowadays we can afford to be individualistic and pursue our individual passions, even if they do not directly benefit the rest of our community. We do not have the evolutionary pressure to conform with the group any more, and chances are that conformity instinct will gradually fade away and we will become truly free individuals one day.
  • MayCaesar said:
    @xlJ_dolphin_473

    This is not quite accurate, as far as I know. While there are certainly some evolutionary benefits for putting oneself first, virtually all mammals live in groups, the individual members' survival depending on each other's actions. The individual that puts themselves first at the expense of the group endangers the whole group, and most mammal species discriminate harshly against such behavior in various ways - among wolves, for example, a wolf that does not share its prey with others can very well be torn apart by other wolves, or cast away from the pack (which in most cases equals slow and painful death in the wilds).

    The communal instinct goes far further back than we like to think, and has existed in various species for dozens millions years, as far as we can tell. Morals naturally arise from it, and in some sense morals have existed for as long as macroscopic animals have.

    I think what is different for humans in particular is two things. The first is that we have the ability to reason, which allows us to come up with our own morals, rather than instinctively accept the morals of the pack (which we still do a lot though). And the second is that we have surpassed all other species in terms of quality of life by orders of magnitude, and nowadays we can afford to be individualistic and pursue our individual passions, even if they do not directly benefit the rest of our community. We do not have the evolutionary pressure to conform with the group any more, and chances are that conformity instinct will gradually fade away and we will become truly free individuals one day.
    Are you saying that putting oneself first is and was not the best strategy for most of human history?
    If so, you have a fair point there, and I agree with some aspects of that case.
    But the communal instinct is only based on selfishness. Humans must strike a balance between putting oneself first to get short-term rewards and putting others first to get long-term rewards: e.g. a better reputation. Humans are still only trying to optimise their own personal benefit through this communal instinct, because if everyone acted selfishly, it would be bad for everyone. So they are being as selfish as possible while still trying to retain the best possible outcome.
    MayCaesar
  • MayCaesarMayCaesar 3409 Pts
    @xlJ_dolphin_473

    Well, one could see the entirety of human history as, in essence, a struggle between individual and selfish considerations. Pure selfishness can be beneficial in many situations - however, it does not seem to be a viable long-term strategy. I would say that humans strive to act in a way that allows them to fit in the collective, and once this initial prerequisite is satisfied, then they start looking out for themselves.
    xlJ_dolphin_473
  • Morality cannot be articulated without context and thus cannot be binary...
    smoothie
    " Adversus absurdum, contumaciter ac ridens! "
  • Hmm.. regarding ancient texts pls read the Mahabharat your mind will be blown by the type of people that are there. OMG its the best freaking epic. (No I'm not asking you to believe it read it like a novel)

    And regarding modern, novels, games etc. Pls cut the writer some slack, even they know that's not how it works in real life, but they can't also account for a lot of things at once, too much work.

    And yeah morality can be absolutely binary, morality is subjective to you. so choose what ever the hell you want lol. Now obviously you'll end up driving yourself insane if you do so but up to you!
  • @UtkarshJha If morality is subjective then it is highly unlikely that it is also binary, maybe a few people see it that way, but not all will, and this means that it ultimately isn't binary.

    Even if just one person doesn't sees things like this, then the premises are violated.
    Plaffelvohfen
    At some point in the distant past, the universe went through a phase of cosmic inflation,
    Stars formed, planets coalesced, and on at least one of them life took root.
    Through a long process of evolution this life 
    developed into the human race.
    Humans conquered fire, built complex societies and advanced technology .

    All of that so we can argue about nothing.
  • I personally hate morality because everybody's definiton of it can be wildy different.

    Since everybody has a different vision of "good" and "bad", one can argue that the bad guy in a video game/movie/book is the good guy and vice versa. This is great challenge to some authors of media and they tend to take shortcuts in painting the good and bad guys as good and bad. Authors usually have the bad guys kill aimlessly and with no sense of justice while the good guys would not kill at all or only kill when absolutely necesarry.

    Authors may paint morality as a binary force but in real life it is far from it.
    Happy_Killbot
    why so serious?
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