Popper on the relationship between morality and epistemology

Every rational discussion, that is, every discussion devoted to the search for truth, is based on principles, which in actual fact are ethical principles. I should like to share three of them.

  • 1 The principle of fallibility. Perhaps I am wrong and perhaps you are right; but, of course, we may both be wrong.
  • 2 The principle of rational discussion. We need to test critically and, of course, as impersonally as possible the various (criticizable) theories that are in dispute.
  • 3 The principle of approximation to truth. We can nearly always come closer to the truth with the help of such critical discussions; and we can nearly always improve our understanding, even in cases where we do not reach agreement.
It is remarkable that these principles are epistemological and, at the same time, also ethical principles. For they imply, among other things, toleration: if I can learn from you, and if I want to learn, then in the interest of truth I have not only to tolerate you but also to recognize you as a potential equal; the potential unity of man and the potential equality of all humans are prerequisites for our willingness to discuss matters rationally. Of further importance is the principle that we can learn from a discussion, even when it does not lead to agreement. For a rational discussion can help to shed light upon some of our errors.

All this shows that ethical principles form the basis of science. The most important of all such ethical principles is the principle that objective truth is the fundamental regulative idea of all rational discussion. Further ethical principles embody our commitment to the search for truth and the idea of approximation to truth; and the importance of intellectual integrity and of fallibility, which lead us to a self-critical attitude and to toleration. It is also very important that we can learn in the field of ethics.
Karl Popper, The World of Parmenides, chapt 2, section 6, paragraph 5

See also chapt 2 Addendum 2 titled: Some Principles for a New Professional Ethics Based on Xenophanes' Theory of Truth

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Karl Popper on Nature/Nurture Debate 2

The World of Parmenides, by Karl Popper, page 124:
what Freud might have described as a neurosis -- as a rejection of what Freud called the 'reality principle'. By the way, I am not a Freudian, and I even think that Freud's description of the world of the human mind may indeed be regarded as largely due to a convention or invention -- a very influence convention indeed.

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Popper on Education

Thank you, Rafe Champion, for putting together this page.

'If I thought of a future, I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations'. Unended Quest, p. 40.
"Do no harm" and "give the young what they most urgently need in order to become independent of us, and to be able to choose for themselves" would be a very worthy aim for our educational system, and one whose realization is somewhat remote although it sounds modest. Instead, "higher" aims are the fashion, aims which are typically romantic and indeed nonsensical, such as "the full development of the personality".

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Right vs Left Wing

_In Search of a Better World_ by Karl Popper, p 86
modern left-wing nonsense is generally even worse than modern right-wing nonsense.

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Popper on Philosophers

_In Search of a Better World_ by Karl Popper, p 87
Most philosophers are incapable of recognizing either a problem or a solution, even when they are staring them in the face: these things simply lie outside their field of interest.

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Popper on Culture Clash

_In Search of a Better World_ by Karl Popper, p. 109
When two or more different cultures come into contact, people realize that their ways and manners, so long taken for granted, are not 'natural', not the only possible ones, neither decreed by the gods nor part of human nature. They discover that their culture is the work of men and their history. It thus opens a world of new possibilities: it opens the windows and it lets in fresh air. This is a kind of sociological law, and it explains a lot. And it certainly played an important role in Greek history.

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Athens and Books

Popper was very interested in how athens became so great. his first explanation was culture clash. people like xenophanes and pythagoras came and brought with them different ideas, and this led to questioning conventions and fruitful disagreements. but he did not think this was a full explanation.

today i found out another part of the story, which Popper worked out late in life. it is that Pisistratus (a tyrant of athens) had homer written down as books. before that, homer was an oral tradition, and books were individual things guarded by priests. well, homer got written down in lots of copies, and athens became literate, and everyone read it. then private individuals had some other poetry written down, and sold it, and that was popular too. this paved the way for people to write books for the purpose of commercial publication (the first being, Popper thinks, _On Nature_ by Anaxagoras). and so Athens had the first *book market*, where many books could be purchased cheaply. this also led to competition among writers to make better books.

Popper mentions a nice confirming fact. He found records of large shipments of papyrus from egypt to athens, starting in a year when Pisistratus was in power. he also found several mentions of the book market in surviving books from the time.

You can find this theory in _In Search of a Better World_. look for the chapter title mentioning books *and* the one after it.

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Morality, Gorgias, and Open Society

The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper, p 105
Socrates' doctrine, in the Gorgias, that it is worse to do injustice than to suffer it [...] Socrates' teaching that it is better to suffer such acts than do them
'such acts' refers to acts of injustice, and these examples are given
boxing a man's ears, injuring, or killing him
Popper looks upon this theory with favor, and says it is in the spirit of Pericles, and opposed to the spirit of Plato's Republic.

While I happen to agree with Socrates' conclusion, his arguments for it are bad. I don't think Popper should cite conclusions that were badly argued without providing some argument of his own.

Here is a summary (by me) of what Socrates says:
Doing injustice is bad for your soul. Suffering through no fault of your own is not bad for your soul. Therefore doing injustice is worse than suffering it.

Socrates also says that it's better to be punished for doing injustice than to get away with it, because the punishment is just, and therefore improves your soul.
This is nonsense. Socrates never explains how to tell what is good or bad for a soul, other than in terms of what we already think is good or bad. And also, if an action or event is soul-harming, why should it not harm everyone involved equally? Socrates assumes his conclusion to be true when he assumes the doer of injustice suffers more soul harm. That is the 'begging the question' fallacy.

Here is how I would consider this issue. I approach moral questions as an individualist who is interested in *the* moral question: 'how should I live?' We must think about what choices, and general policies for choosing, are best for a person. This way of approaching moral questions is very powerful and can easily settle many confused old debates.

As a quick note, I interpret the question about "better" or "worse" to mean "morally better" and "morally worse". Otherwise it would go more like this: would I rather have a significant force exerted on my ears, or a mild one on my knuckles? (Would I rather box ears, or be boxed.) Put this way, of course the mild force on the knuckles damages my body less and is thus preferable, but this isn't what Socrates meant, nor is it an interesting question.

In the context of a question about morality, it's pretty simple. To intentionally do injustice means to have a way of making choices that is hateful, and it means to adopt some value system compatible with being a thug. The person who's way of making decisions leads him to do injustice is the person who has the wrong way of choosing, by definition of 'injustice'. So he is immoral.

To suffer injustice at the hands of others simply means to fail take enough precautions and defensive measures. This is a mistake that people can make while having a generally good life strategy, and mostly making good choices. (And unfortunately, injustice can even happen to people who make only exceptional choices and no relevant mistakes. But what of it? That is bad luck, and no more. All that is in our power is make good decisions in our life. Bad luck can happen to anyone; the interesting thing is what's in our control: our choices. Do those work to make our life better or worse?)

If we think of morality as being about having a good way of approaching life, then it's obvious that even a good person can be assaulted by thugs in an alley, and that does not make him less moral, but no good person can be one of those thugs.

The question basically amounts to, "If X is a bad way of life, would you rather do X, or rather someone else does?" In other words, "Would you rather be immoral, or not?" It's sad that this has ever confused anyone.

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Popper on Bayesians

_Objective Knowledge_ p 141
Bayesians (as the adherents of the subjective interpretation of the probability calculus now call themselves) ...

This ... I have combated for thirty-three years. Fundamentally, it springs from the same epistemic philosophy which attributes to the statement 'I know that snow is white' a greater epistemic dignity than to the statement 'snow is white'.

I do not see any reason why we should not attribute still greater epistemic dignity to the statement 'In the light of all the evidence available to me I believe that it is rational to believe that snow is white.' The same could be done, of course, with probability statements.

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