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Daniel Arendt

On Defining "Do The Right Thing".

  • In the early 20th Century, John Broadus Watson (“Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”, ‘Psychological Review’, 1913, 20:158-177; “Behavior: an Introduction to Comparative Psychology”, 1914) declared all behavior is environmentally derived and can’t be explained by appeals to heredity, instincts, the unconscious, human nature, or internal predispositions. Such position seems in opposition to any Absolute or even humanly Stoic philosophy of ethics or morality.


    Apparently Burrhus Frederic Skinner thought so; in his work “Walden Two” (1948) Skinner viewed human dignity as vested in behaviors that cultivate the positive reinforcement of praise or credit from others for behaving well…dignity is just something had when others tell us we deserve it. Skinner also thought most humans are worth epiphenomenal (casually ineffective or “appearance-only”) freedom, choice, or self-control, and thus important life or cultural decisions should be made only by psychological experts of his mindset. Sure not much belief for an Absolute or secular generalized ethology there.


    Many scholars said Skinner’s program starts out on bad circular logic (it purports to eliminate purposes and prescriptive norms yet can only be advanced purposively as a prescriptive norm) and goes downhill from there. Many philosophers (John Stuart Mills, Henry Sidgwick, William James, Hastings Rashdell, ad infinitum) said Watson’s metaphysics are correct as ethics have no point in a world devoid of conscious behavior…but that Watson forgot earth teems with consciousness.


    Just when things got better for ontological metaphysics, enter a new social Darwinian attack on the public’s ability to assess “what is the meaning of good?”, and in support of the eternal quest to ensure only “the right people” may muse “what IS good?”.


    In 1982, Carol Gilligan produced “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development” (Harvard University Press). Ms. Gilligan was at the forefront of a perception that males and females have different ethological bases. She claimed females see moral problems in terms of relationships and make their choices in problem solving as issues of care and duty to those relationships.


    By contrast, she says, males tend to see moral problems in terms of rules and principles with choices being logical adjudications.


    Gilligan denied there are precise genetic types for moral experience but did attack the “male” (God, Goddess, or in fact anything of order-giving supernatural status?) model as insufficient. Her research tosses out any Absolute code or even Hippocratic Oath, and recommends a notion of beneficence grounded in complex, relational understandings of the self (in such way as to create a “democracy” where EVERY view is given epiphenomenal dignity)…with the “good” of each complexity appearing a re-hash of Skinner’s schema, again each personal complexity to be assessed only by right-thinking intellectuals. It appears the New Waves have mustered no greater philosophy ‘striking out’ any Absolute or secular ethology than could their many, many predecessors.


    It’s fair to say little, if any, metaphysical philosophy could interrupt ULC Monastery ministers from debating what is good, or which good results should be sought, in relation to prudent and peaceful eternal progression of all humanity. That’s true religious freedom which respects science and psychology where same operate with ethics and true scientific method.