Thursday, 31 January 2013

Do I Choose My Ethical Beliefs?

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 4

In the last post I said that values are largely arbitrary. Because it is my nature, I am now worried that any readers I have will be angry with me. After all, I just suggested that their very rational, well-reflected, and totally accurate values are not particularly likely to be correct or as deliberately chosen as they known those values to be. After all, I chose my values! No one else did.

I'm worried that you are angry with me because that is what I do; I care greatly that I do not cause offense, to start with, and anger is an indicator of offense. I also do not like it when people get angry with me because I want my social atmosphere to be pleasant, not heated. Further, I have the weakness of allowing other people's opinions of me to influence my own sense of self-worth (particularly when their opinion is negative). While I know that the last reason is a poor one, and while I am pretty good at giving my moral principles more votes than my anxieties (or, well, sometimes I think I'm good at that), I did not have much choice in whether I would care about other people's opinions. I do not know where that came from, but I sure didn't pick it.

Of course, I am working on not caring so much about that. Psychology, thankfully, is somewhat malleable. But the only reason I can even attempt to stop valuing everyone else's opinion of me is because I have other values that I consider to be more important. I'm not sure that I chose to think they are more important; all I know is that I think they are.

I am not arguing for absolute psychological determinism. (If you care, I agree with Locke that the entire argument about free will versus determinism is based on deep confusion about the terms "free" and "will"; free will attempts to say that the will has a will, while determinism attempts to say that the will has no will. The entire question is just really weird.) But you'll notice that I linked to Beck's blog last post (here), and I would say I generally agree with Beck that, speaking about human psychology, humans have weakly free wills. We can change some things about ourselves, but we are constrained by exactly the things we want to change.

What brought me to this place was not Experimental Theology, however, but the Myers-Briggs personality test. To be clear, I am aware that this test is not empirically valid and that no weight should be given to its predictive elements (since its predictions are no better than chance). I was looking at the test as a way of getting ideas about how I could write fictional characters whose headspaces looked very different from my own. But when taking the test myself I was somewhat shocked to find that INFJ and INFP (the types I seem equally poised between) both have ethical components that describe me precisely: in general, but specifically "aiming to better the lives of others" and "guided by their desire for harmony [...] unless their ethics are violated"). Meanwhile, other personality types are interested primarily in what is "right and correct, just, or fair" or "traditions and loyalty." As much as I know that the Myers-Briggs test is theoretically and empirically flawed (irredeemably so), I am beginning to wonder whether such values are more about personality than about philosophy. If so, looking at psychology rather than philosophy might be better for understanding my own moral code and assessing whether it needs change.

It also suggests that whether or not someone is a good person is not answerable in terms of values after all, but in terms of psychology. I realize I lean overmuch on Beck's blog as support for my own, but his post on "Orthodox Alexithymia" deals with how goodness has more to do with being in touch with one's emotions than it does with rational thought. Maybe this is true, but I find the thought scary--not so much because I feel out of touch with my own emotions but because it seems a hard psychological feature to change.

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