Questions About A Better Foundation

Ryan suggests a new foundation for moral judgements

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

Certain parts of this formulation are left ambiguous, so in the spirit of inquiry, lets kick the tires a bit

  1. Is this fundamentally agent based? Which is to ask, is our hypothetical moral agent working to maximize the total global mental health, the average mental health, or only their own mental health?
  2. If agent based, what advantages do you think Mental Health has over eudamonia in answering giving moral guidance? Is there any circumstance in which self-sacrifice is a virtuous act? Is there any cause or action which you would be justified in taking on behalf of another, even at the expense of your own sanity? To save their life?
  3. If maximizing an external quality, don’t you run into the same Omelas problem?
  4. Are there any moral dilemmas you think Mental Health can answer, which any of the existing big three frameworks cannot?
  5. There are stories of well off, educated classical greeks selling themselves into Roman slavery as a tutor or scribe, so that after a period of time they would be able to buy their freedom, and with it a Roman citizenship.  Was this an immoral act, and if so, why?
  6. Aristotle believed some people, due to circumstance and upbringing, were incapable of virtue. Is a sociopath capable of being a moral agent? If so, is it immoral for a sociopath not to seek to become neurotypical? If not, by what standard should they live?

3 thoughts on “Questions About A Better Foundation

  1. Hi, Andrew. I would like to write a post summarizing the major weaknesses of my idea that we all recently identified, and subsequently attempt to either answer those weaknesses or adjust my perspective in light of them.

    As such, rather than attempt to answer your questions *AND* do all those other things in a subsequent blog post or two, I’ll just answer your questions here:

    1. Both. An agent who seeks to maximize his own mental health at the potential expense of others could probably not be described as mentally healthy. Empathy, and thus consideration for other human beings, is an important aspect of psychological development, usually acquired in early childhood.

    2. There is a lot of psychological research out there about what makes people happy, and it all unanimously concludes that both altruism and social connectedness are major parts of the equation. The happiest people in the world are people who regularly practice various acts of altruism, so it isn’t surprising to know that philosophers, too, have almost unanimously come out in favor of altruism. Altruism is morally laudable and psychologically important, and so this is one point on which my idea about mental health as a basis for morality is fully consistent with most existing philosophical theories of ethics.

    3. I’d never read that story before. Thanks for the link. I confess, I’m not sure how that story applies to my notion of using mental health considerations as a basis for moral behavior.

    4. I think every moral framework can answer virtually any moral dilemma. What’s most interesting to me is which answer yields the best set of outcomes? A purely utilitarian calculus, for example, might emphasize the importance of saving net lives, but it might fail to account for the impact of a more authoritarian government on social psychology. History is certainly replete with frightening examples of this.

    5. The question of whether one can “voluntarily become a slave” has received robust treatment by people much more intelligent than I am. Here’s Wendy McElroy’s take, which echoes my belief that the concept itself is a meaningless paradox: http://dailyanarchist.com/2012/12/31/can-you-sell-yourself-into-slavery/

    What you’re actually describing is what later became known as “indentured servitude,” which is something I think can indeed be ethical, at least in the abstract, but which I believe in practice is often not very ethical at all. I base this latter statement on my observation of the master-servant relationship between ordinary, middle class people in Bangladesh and their hired house servants.

    6. Sociopathy is not a binary experience, meaning the question isn’t “either you are a sociopath or you are not.” Instead the question is, “you consistently express sociopathic behaviors, or you often express sociopathic behaviors, or you seldom express them, or you almost never express them.” It’s a spectrum, you see. So a sociopath – a real one, not a self-diagnosed “internet sociopath” – would be best served to practice more behaviors that are consistent with mental health and fewer behaviors that are consistent with a personality disorder. That would be their best, most-moral course of action. Many psychologists doubt that such people can ever really achieve normalcy, but many have written about themselves and their attempts to normalize their behavior. To the extent that they feel they are successful, they seem to report being both happier and more morally successful, at least subject to my reading of what they’ve written.

    1. Andrew Fitzandrew

      If you will indulge me further with a couple follow-up questions:

      1. Is it fair to say that other’s mental health should be taken into account only in so far as it impacts your own mental health?

      2. Is it fair to say that, while most apparently self-sacrificial acts will improve your own mental health, self-sacrificial acts which decrease your own mental health are immoral, however small a set this may be?

      3. The point of the Omelas story is similar to your slavery example. If it turned out that enslaving black people increased the collective mental health of whites more than it decreased the collective mental health of the slaves would it be permissible?

      4. Where does a mental health framework most conflict with your prior moral intuitions? Is there a choice that you would or would not have made previously, that you now feel is impermissible or obligatory under a mental health framework?

      5. To voluntary slavery, come on. This was a real thing that real people really did. To call it a logical paradox is an abuse of language. It was not indentured servitude in that the slaves did not receive a wage. Rather the prospective slave would give his sale price to a trusted associate, who would use the stash of money to buy the freedom of the slave at the appointed time. The slave was legally the property of his master like any other slave, and if his associate died without making the proper arrangements or proved faithless the slave would remain so for the rest of his life. Was this immoral per se, or merely likely to be abused?

      6. Re sociopathy, this is a good answer and certainly clarifies some things.

      Let me ask again what advantages do you think Mental Health has over eudamonia in giving moral guidance? (This is probably a post in itself)

      1. Sure, here we go….

        1 – No, in my opinion both sides need to be factored in more or less equally. Real-world situations are such that it is almost never the case that one person’s mental health can be expended for the benefit of another’s. It does happen, rarely, and I would say in those situations there is probably no correct moral response, only immoral ones, sadly.

        2 – I’m a tentative yes here. Imagine a depressed person who chooses to stay with an abusive spouse. I think choosing to stay, at the expense of one’s own mental health – and probably at the amplification of the abuser’s pathology – is immoral. There might be some exceptions, but prima facie, it looks like the shoe fits.

        3 – No such a thing could happen under this moral framework. There is no such thing as a happy slave, in my opinion. It’s literally as contradictory as saying, “a happy sad person,” in my view

        4 – I haven’t experienced any direct conflicts so far, but there have been two primary changes to my moral behavior: First, the total set of morally acceptable behavior is smaller. I no longer permit myself to indulge in things that, while not unethical, per se, don’t do my mental state or someone else’s any favors. Second, I encounter more calls to moral action, i.e. I now have more moral obligations to other people.

        5 – I suspect it was and is immoral. I think the fact that such practice has virtually disappeared from the face of the Earth is significant evidence in favor of my view. Furthermore, I do believe that the contract is utter nonsense, and entering into such a confusing, ambiguous, contradictory, self-diminutive commercial agreement is sure to be worse for one’s mental health than not doing so. In cases of economic desperation, the agent might feel that it’s “worth it anyway,” but my proposed system offers a strong countervailing factor against which to weigh one’s decision. In other words, I see my system as offering more evidence against “selling oneself into slavery” than other moral systems.

        Regarding comparisons to eudaimonia, I think the main benefit here is that mental health provides a better yardstick for moral success than abstract virtues do. In order to know whether one’s virtues are balanced and aligned, on has to reason a while about it. But everyone knows whether or not they’re mentally healthy, and everyone knows what they need to do to be mentally healthier – even if they can’t articulate it rhetorically.

        Also, it allows some conflicts to be resolved by appealing to the thoughts of other people, where eudaimonism is an appeal only to abstract virtues. Two spouses might disagree on the correct application of “the virtues,” and it might create an unresolveable issue. But any two spouses can sit down and figure out a course of action that minimizes mental strain on each other, even if they disagree wildly on the application of virtues. So they now have a way out.

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