Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles Nov 2020

Sunday, October 12, 2014

ToK Essay Prescribed Title (May 2015): Question 4

4. With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge.
Click on picture to visit site about the neurobiology of moral behaviour

Ethical situations are perhaps the best examples to highlight how shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge. Consider, for example, how the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ can bring nations together under the umbrella of a single moral code.  This doesn’t always mean that nations adhere to the rules as we know from the various Human Rights’ abuses by member states.  Even the fields of sport and medicine, for example, have ethical codes to guide the behaviour of individuals, though again, we still come across incidents of medical malpractice and cheating in sports (you may be able to recall some recent examples.)  In the fields of Religion and Ethics, the shared knowledge encapsulated in the various ethical theories such as Utilitarianism and deontology, provide a framework within which individuals can think through their personal morality and act in a rational manner.

But here’s the central knowledge question underlying this topic: does our personal sense of right and wrong always follow a rational path towards shared knowledge of morality?  Not according to Jonathan Haidt, whose famous example (presented below) is the basis of a fascinating argument promoting the idea that our ethical behaviour is driven by intuition which shapes our personal knowledge of right and wrong:

‘Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?’

When confronted with this scenario, Haidt argues, most people are automatically and quickly repulsed and answer with an emphatic “No!”  When asked to justify their answer, people often turn to the incest argument: such sex leads to deformed babies.  Haidt then points out that the couple used two forms of contraception.  Now, instead of accepting the union, people reach for a consequentialist argument to justify their revulsion, such as “It might harm the relationship and be devastating to the family.”  Haidt then mentions that the couple actually feel ‘closer’ after the episode.  At this point, people tend to stay with their original answer but claim not to be able to find the words to explain why they believe what they believe.

The point? Haidt argues that moral knowledge is like aesthetic knowledge: subjective and personal in nature.  When you see a work of art you instantly and automatically know whether you like it.  When someone asks you to explain why, you fish for explanations: you don’t really know what makes something beautiful, but the rational part of your brain needs some justification and will make one up when it can’t find one, based on colour, light, structure and so on.  Similarly, in a moral argument between two people, their feelings come first; the reasons are invented after the fact, so to speak.  Reason is secondary to emotion, or as Hume, put it: in the world of morals, “Reason Is and Ought only to be a slave of the passions.”

The implication of this argument is that the shared body of ethical knowledge often has little or no impact on we personally know right and wrong in the world of human affairs…