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Good and Evil - The Theoretical Thread

 
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Okay, I'm going to basically re-post a couple of my longer posts, although slightly edited. For example, because of the valid but obscuring points brought up about which age constitutes pedophilia and whether cannibalism includes the actual killiong or just the eating, I'm going to use a concept that HOPEFULLY everybody can agree is wrong (note that I don't say Wrong with a capital letter, just wrong, as in not acceptable for any reason in today's society).
That being said, I'm going to define what *I* mean by Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Moral and Immoral. It's important to note that because I profess that there ARE things that are inherently Right and Wrong, that isn't meant to imply that I think I know what those are, or that your list (if you have one) isn't as valid as mine. I'm just trying to determine if there are ANY actions which can be described as universally Wrong.

Synopsis:
1. Some things are just Right or Wrong. Not a ton of them, and they evolve, but in my (perhaps over-optimistic) opinion they evolve toward more and more enlightened views. And notice that I'm not allowing some bizarre tribal excepion to override the concept. Just because some island tribe thinks it's okay to rape, that doesn't make rape okay. You have to decide this yourself.
2. Personal values of Right and Wrong can indeed be different, but they can't override the absolutes. You can believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, but that doesn't necessarily make it Wrong. Now, you may think it is indeed a capital-W Wrong, and where people's lists of Right and Wrong disagree, that's an area I'd like to discuss. That in fact was the point of this whole thing, but we kept getting sidetracked on the concept of whether there is such a thing as absolutely Right and Wrong.
3. Good and Evil identify whether you live within your precepts of Right and Wrong. Rarely is a person so aligned with one side or the other to become truly Good or Evil, but it happens. But just because I think rape is Wrong, doesn't make that tribe I mentioned Evil. They just don't know any better. What that means from a societal standpoint, though, is best left for the "Practical" thread.
4. Moral behavior is more complex, and depends entirely on the situation. Moral behavior can include Wrong acts, but also includes accepting the consequence of those actions.
All I'm trying to do here is explain how I integrate the concepts of Right and Wrong with the concepts of free will and personal responsibility. It's been a long road, and I'm happy to share what I've come up with. As is said so often in these parts, your mileage may vary. But it works pretty well for me.
In my next post, I'll address this in more detail.
 
Joe Pluta
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There are distinct and subtle differences between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Moral and Immoral (I capitalize them to indicate that I'm referring to the Platonic ideals here). That's part of the reason we have different words for them.
In my worldview, Right and Wrong have to do with whether a given action is acceptable. Certain things simply fall into those categories naturally (and I don't want to argue the specifics right here). Rape and slavery are two examples. These are what I call the absolutes. I don't want to call them moral absolutes, however, because morality is a different issue. They justr absolute Rights and Wrongs. Other things are Right or Wrong based on societal norms; smoking in public or walking naked through the streets. Others still are based on personal values. Sex outside of marriage fits here, I think (there ARE still people who don't believe in sex outside of marriage .
So, each person comes up with a certain set of Right or Wrong. Good and Evil have to do with whether a person chooses to live within the precepts of Right and Wrong. Now, for most of us this isn't an issue. We generally do Right things, occasionally do Wrong things, and usually end up somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Rarely does someone have an opportunity to exercise a truly Good life. Human nature makes that awfully difficult. I'll let you identify your own candidates for folks who fit that profile. It's a little easier to live an Evil life; that simply requires power and a lack of conscience (either through loss or through never having one).
Notice that I haven't talked about Moral and Immoral yet. That's where I am now. A Moral action is one which is correct for the situation. Morality is very much conditional and based on the facts at the time of the decision. You can indeed do something Wrong, yet Moral. It depends on whether you are doing it for a greater Right. And this is where everything comes to a head. This is the essence of being a human being.
There are situations where you must make choices. If the choice is always between Right and Wrong, then life is generally easy. As I said, we usually choose Right, occasionally choose a small Wrong, and in general we're pretty good folks. Life is much harder when you must choose between Wrong and Wrong (or to a lesser degree, Right and Right). And life is ultimately the most difficult when you must choose Wrong over Right. When does this occur? When you have to kill an innocent person to save a dozen others. Or you have to kill someone to save your child. Those are extreme situations, but they represent the issue. In this case, it may be perfectly Moral, within those circumstances, to do something Wrong. However, the crux of Morality is that the person who commits the Wrong act does NOT try to justify it. They accept their requirement to act Wrongly, and they also accept the consequences of their action. This is entirely different than justifying the act based on the circumstances and somehow saying it is Right.
 
Joe Pluta
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The case for absolute Right and Wrong.
Hopefully so far most people are still with me - there are things that are Right and Wrong. This is not the same as Moral and Immoral, since our imperfect universe puits us in situations where we may have to choose Wrong over Right, although we also have to accept the consequences when we do.
So now about absolutes. Are there any, or is it completely fluid and what is Wrong today may be Right tomorrow?

Okay, so do absoluite Right and Wrong exist?
My personal belief is that we are slowly moving forward toward a set of enlightened ideals, and that while moral absolutes do change with time, they generally change in a particular direction. The abolition of slavery is simply one step along that line. If we were to slip backward into a societal period where slavery once again became accepted, I would posit that humanity was devolving from that higher ideal.
And this, this is what I mean when I talk about Good and Evil, Right and Wrong. I truly believe humanity can progress to a higher level, and that we have shown the ability to do so, especially over the last couple of centuries. Frankly, we were a pretty barbaric species not so long ago, and I daresay our descendants not too far removed will look back at us with the same opinion.
I think there are some absolutes, absolutes which continue to raise us above our barbaric roots. Some are absolutely Wrong today - rape and slavery for sure. Hopefully others will become Wrong someday - Prejudice is one I'd like to see go away. But I cannot foresee a future for our species wherein rape will ever become acceptable, any time, any place.
This is what I consider to be an absolute Wrong.
Joe
 
Joe Pluta
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The single most prevalent argument to my belief in absolute Right and Wrong is the concept of "moral relativism".
Moral relativism has two broad categories: one states that no person should tell another person what is right and wrong. I have little problem with this idea, because I don't know who to set up as the Grand Moral Arbiter of the Universe. Yeeks. Not me, that's for sure. I have too hard of a tmioe with my own moral standards to try and give you yours. In any case, I think that adherents to this form of moral relativism will still agree that society as a whole can establish a set of moral values that the individual is supposed to adhere to. I think this worldview has merit.
However, there's also the more extreme version of moreal relativism that says, in effect, anything I say is right is right for me. This is the "anything goes" philosophy that I don't believe can lead to anything but anarchy and barbarism. And this is why (restating my reductio ad absurdum argument from the other thread):
1. The primary tenet of moral relativism (especially as professed by the posters here) is that you don't want to be told what is right and wrong (I won't even bother with caps in this case, because that's too far advanced for this simple discussion). This is why you get upset when I say there are things that are absolutely right and wrong, regardless of your opinion. You want to be able to decide on your own.
On it's face, this sounds great! It sounds like a recipe for an enlightened society wherein each person is able to reach their own level of spiritual enlightenment and (ya da ya da ya da).
2. There's a problem though. Because if you can make your own judgments, so can I. And every one of my decisions about right and wrong is just as valid as yours. Thus, if I decide I want to crap on your porch, then I can do so, and you have no say in the matter.
"What?" you exclaim. "I have lots to say in the matter! You cannot crap on my porch!" Well, in moral relativism, yes I can. Because all I have to do is believe it is right, and it doesn't matter what you think. Since I cannot tell YOU what is right, you cannot tell ME what is right. And in fact, if I get tired of your nattering about me crapping on your porch, and I feel morally justified, I can simply shoot you, and you have to accept it.
Unless there is some outside, governing set of rules, then moral relativism leads inevitably to anarchy. Reductio.
If you want complete free will to act however you please, then you must give that same free will to others and accept the consequences. You may judge me, but your judgments have no effect on me, and thus are simply mental exercises for you. This is what I meant when I say moral judgments are meaningless in a society based on extreme moral relativism.
(Or dare I call it "absolute moral relativism"? )
Joe
 
Joe Pluta
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Okay, that was a ton of work. And speaking of work, I have to go pay the bills. That being the case, I don't expect the Practical Thread will get done until tonight or tomorrow sometime. But this is a pretty good statement of MY position on the Right/Wrong issue.
Joe
 
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Childish goading and name-calling deleted
[ September 17, 2003: Message edited by: Michael Ernest ]
 
Anonymous
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Originally posted by <I Killed Kenny>:
[i]Childish goading and name-calling deleted[i]
[ September 17, 2003: Message edited by: Michael Ernest ]


[ Deleted by moderator. ]
[ September 17, 2003: Message edited by: Jason Menard ]
 
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JP: But several times in this thread, what has come up is this issue that "nobody can tell me what is right and wrong". Both Map and Eugene have said that at one time or another, in noe way or another. They both want "absolute" (if you will) right to choose their own morals.
Bhau: Joe, as far as I could read them, they really meant that "nobody can tell THEM what is right and wrong IF they are in different time-space then you are." Since, Eugene, Map, yourself, and everyone else here are in the same time-space we all do have a set of lot of common rules/laws/Rights and Wrongs. That example about "acceptable for you to crap on others porch" is invalid because we are all in the same time-space right now so have same set of rules and laws based on similar set of beliefs of Right and Wrong.
JP: How did you find the time to add a complete prepositional phrase to their statements? You might want to ask them.
Anyway, the whole "space-time" thing is part of what I wanted to discuss in the theoretical thread.

Sorry, if that is not what they meant. Others (EK, MI, JY, RK, AM, DR, TS, ...) may correct me if i m wrong. Heres's what I could find about time and space from the five pages of parent thread - Good and Evil
EK: Firstly, how can you trust your judgement on what constitutues good and evil, if you know that it is highly relative both in time in space? That is, what was perfectly good and moral in one country 100 years was ago is considered bad, immoral, and illegal in the other country today. Your peception of morality is clearly the product of your location in the time-space, and the somewhat trivial electrical activity in your brain.
EK: In accordance with my theory outlined above, I believe that pedophilia and cannibalism are evil physically (in terms of the location of my frame of reference -- USA, planet Earth, Milky Way, 21st Century), but they are neither evil nor good metaphysically (the distinctions between the child and the adult, and between the human flesh or the animal flesh, are a matter of the question "Why").
EK: In the phenomenal world, I would argue (and the gang seems to agree), the perfect Evil doesn't exist, -- cannibalism, pedophilia, and murder are not absolute Evil, but rather a continuum on the time-space axis. This is actually consistent with the Plato's attribute of "everything is becoming, nothing is", which he assigned to the visible world.
Map: You are misreading our posts. I am not a Martian, I was brought up on this planet. As a result, in my young age I uncritically absorbed a lot of human ethics. I do not think I will ever be able to overcome this, if even I wanted (I do not).
DR: I have tried to argue that I have a set of morals which I believe I largely share with others in my social group (western 21st century). But I do not believe that those morals are god given, static, or universal. I believe they are man-made, and alter according to the circumstances that a group finds itself in.
 
Joe Pluta
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I see the consistency of your quotes, Mumbai. Thanks for taking the time to do that!
Now, what is your point here? Are you saying that our definitions of Right and Wrong are a product of our current societal values? That there are no absolutes, and that Right and Wrong change as society changes?
Joe
 
Bhau Mhatre
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Originally posted by Joe Pluta:


Are you saying that our definitions of Right and Wrong are a product of our current societal values?
I'm afraid, yes. I wish it weren't so. I wish you were right all this while and the others were wrong. But I also think that my wishes are so because I am a human living in the same time-space frame that you are.
That there are no absolutes, and that Right and Wrong change as society changes?
If i imagine myself as someone far away from outside of this universe and then try to visualize the events on this universe on this planet on a time-space graph, i see that there are no absolutes, and that Right and Wrong change as society changes. I see that the human societies have progressed further than that of the honeybees. In their society, the virgin female bees fight till only one of them is left alive and is made the Queen. The others - drones and workers- do not proclaim that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all BEES are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights". For their society, it is not Wrong for one queen to kill another.
 
Joe Pluta
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JP: Are you saying that our definitions of Right and Wrong are a product of our current societal values?
MCB: I'm afraid, yes. I wish it weren't so. I wish you were right all this while and the others were wrong. But I also think that my wishes are so because I am a human living in the same time-space frame that you are.
Okay, and here's why I have a problem with that position. Is it based on a majority of people? Which people? Is it based on laws? The government? Which government?
Let's say you live in America and tomorrow lawmakers repeal the 13th amendment, in effect reinstating slavery. I know this is a little off the deep end, but I want to take this to the logical conclusion. At that point, since society has decided that slavery is once again acceptable, does that mean it becomes moral again? That it is now Right?
Joe
 
Bhau Mhatre
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I hope we don't end up repeating the entire parent thread
JP: Are you saying that our definitions of Right and Wrong are a product of our current societal values?
MCB: I'm afraid, yes. I wish it weren't so. I wish you were right all this while and the others were wrong. But I also think that my wishes are so because I am a human living in the same time-space frame that you are.
JP: Okay, and here's why I have a problem with that position. Is it based on a majority of people? Which people? Is it based on laws? The government? Which government?
MCB: No. It is neither based on the majority of the people, nor is it based on the laws or government. IT is based on a lot of things. Based on the way we have been brought up. Our experiences, collective as well as individual. Based on what we have read about history and how our teachers and elders have taught us history, community living, civil lifestyles.
JP: Let's say you live in America and tomorrow lawmakers repeal the 13th amendment, in effect reinstating slavery. I know this is a little off the deep end, but I want to take this to the logical conclusion. At that point, since society has decided that slavery is once again acceptable, does that mean it becomes moral again? That it is now Right?
At that point, it would be considered that a majority of the people decided that slavery is acceptable. I would guess that some of them supported it because they are not good people according to my moral compass, some of them were forced to support it, ... BUT TO ME, it will not become moral again. It will not become Right again. Why? Because i have already been born and brought up and lived for years in a good democaratic society free of slavery. So for me, slavery will still remain immoral and Wrong. BUT if the practice lasts for decades and people like me always remain a minority so that congress never passes anti-slavery law agian, then i am afraid that after we are all gone, the next generations that will be born and brought up in america WILL believe that slavery is okay, moral and perfectly Right. They will believe so because they will see it around since their childhood. They will keep believing that slavery is Right until america has another Lincoln as a President.
 
Joe Pluta
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Mumbai, yours is perhaps the most practical nad eloquent discussion of applied ethical considerations I have ever seen. It sure makes my attempts seems a little heavy handed.
MCB: IT is based on a lot of things. Based on the way we have been brought up. Our experiences, collective as well as individual. Based on what we have read about history and how our teachers and elders have taught us history, community living, civil lifestyles.
I love this. You are saying that we synthesize a set of internal values based on our upbringing and our society. I especially appreciate that you include teachers and elders; I am very particular about meeting my daughter's teachers becauve I want to know who is talking to her eight hours of every day.
Okay, I'm with you here - you've got this set of morals that was basically given to you as a child that you expanded on through your own personal experiences.
MCB: BUT TO ME, it will not become moral again. It will not become Right again. Why? Because i have already been born and brought up and lived for years in a good democaratic society free of slavery. So for me, slavery will still remain immoral and Wrong.
I'm still with you, and you use the capital-W Wrong perfectly. Not only do you believe slavery to be wrong, but you believe nothing in society can override that wrongness. This is definitely a capital-W Wrong.

BUT if the practice lasts for decades and people like me always remain a minority so that congress never passes anti-slavery law agian, then i am afraid that after we are all gone, the next generations that will be born and brought up in america WILL believe that slavery is okay, moral and perfectly Right. They will believe so because they will see it around since their childhood. They will keep believing that slavery is Right until america has another Lincoln as a President.
Now you have my head reeling. Even though you and I see slavery as Wrong and we know it can never be Right, what you are saying is that, if enough people practice it and indoctrinate their children with it, then when the last of those who believe it is Wrong are gone, then it will become Right again.
Wow.
So, in your model, a society can evolve AND can devolve. And since there is no way for us to pull an Absolute Right out of the sky, since we get that information from our parents, elders and teachers, then a devolving society can in effect turn all kinds of things we considered Wrong into Right.
I need to think about this some more. But I can see that, based on this discussion, the most important thing we can give our children is a solid sense of morals so that they may in turn pass that on to their children. We hope that we add to the moral character of our society, and certainly that we don't detract.
Joe
 
Bhau Mhatre
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Wooow Joe, I am glad by your response here and I was really thrilled by your last post on this page
JP: But I can see that, based on this discussion, the most important thing we can give our children is a solid sense of morals so that they may in turn pass that on to their children.
Was this news to you? It has been happening since the begning of time. Every family, community, society, and cultural, tries to preserve and pass on to their offsprings, what "they" consider is Right. The problem arises when...
JP: So, in your model, a society can evolve AND can devolve.
... two generations don't agree with each other over what is Right and what is Wrong. What one generation thinks is a case of evolution (e.g. freedom to have pre-marital sex without the fear of society) may be a case of moral devolution for the older generation AND what the same generation thinks of moral devolution (sex with same gender) may be a case of evolution (freedom by keeping government out of bedroom) for the newer generation. So again, evolution and devolution are relative terms based on what the current generation thinks is Right and Wrong. And you and I have no control over what our great-grand-children will be beliving. Sounds scary, doesn't it?
Hey, whatever happened to your practical thread? Or shall we consider this topic over especially since the parent thread has been closed?
 
Joe Pluta
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This is good stuff, Mumbai, and this is exactly what I was trying to get at. Because I spent a lot of time here this week I'm actually way behind in doing some things I needed to do, so I'm going to have to hold off posting for a few days, but I'll be back.
I will definitely fire up the practical thread then, but let me tell you what REALLY got me...
Being entirely honest with myself, if I was raised in a society where slavery was the norm (and had been for centuries), would I be able to see it as Wrong? I want to say yes, but I can see how the answer could be no as well.
This is probably the most important issue to me. I can see where, since slavery was accepted by society, I might accept it. But what caused the abolitionists to take up the cause? What opened their eyes to the injustice of slavery?
Anyway, that's what I'll be thinking about as I'm working this weekend (since I didn't get my work done this week ). I'll get back to the threads when I'm caught up.
Joe
 
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Devolution of a society -- I am reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" book and this is exactly what happened (at least from author's point of view.) She left Iran when she was 13 to study in Great Britain and Switzerland, then she lived in the US and got her degree in English literature. She worked at the University of Tehran then, when Islamic revolution happened.
"We started reading Gatsby in November, but couldn't finish it until January, because of the constant interruptions. I was taking some risk in teaching such book at such a time, when certain books had been banned as morally harmful. Most revolutionary groups were in agreement with the government on the subject of individual freedoms, which they condescendingly called "bourgeois" and "decadent". This made it easier for the new ruling elite to pass some of the most revolutionary laws, going so far as to outlaw certain gestures and expression of emotions, including love. Before it established a new constitution of parliament, the new regime had banned the marriage-protection law. It banned ballet and dancing and told ballerinas they had a choice between acting or singing. Later women were banned from singing, because a woman's voice, like her hair, was sexually provocative and should be kept hidden."
Well, she promised never to wear the veil, and she quitted her job. However, later her friends and colleagues tried to persuade her to come to work and teach again.
"Most of my friends merely confused me by posing the dilemma back to me: is it better to help the young people who might otherwise not have a chance to learn or to refuse categorically to comply with this regime? Both sides were absolute in their position: some thought I would be a traitor if I neglected the young and left them to the teachings of the corrupt ideologies; others insisted I would be betraying everything I stood for if I worked for a regime responsible for ruining the lives of so many of our colleagues and students. Both were right."
So what do you think is the Right decision in this case?
[ September 19, 2003: Message edited by: Mapraputa Is ]
 
Joe Pluta
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I don't think either is "Right". The concept of an absolute Right or Wrong does not apply to every question. Some (probably most) questions can only be right or wrong based on your own personal belief system, and this is one of those questions.
In this case, there are actually two decisions: whether she should teach or not, and whether she should wear a veil or not. Elementary logic teaches us that based on those two questions there are four possible outcomes: wear veil and teach, don't wear veil and teach, wear veil and don't teach, don't wear veil and don't teach.
Of course, the bravest position would be to continue teaching but not wear a veil. She would then be arrested and probably killed, but it would make a very powerful Moral statement. Down this path leads a very short but Moral life. Saints live this way.
She chose the easiest path, to not wear a veil and not teach. She chose her own personal comfort over that of her students. She obviously won't wear the veil and not teach; that would be stupid.
That leaves what I think the most difficult choice would have been: to wear the veil and teach. This shows true character - to accept a minor badness in order to perform a greater goodness.
Of course, if she felt that strongly about the veil, and about the government, then perhaps she should have been organizing a resistance or leaving the country. But since the wearing of the veil itself posed no immediate danger to her or anyone else (except her pride), then I think that wearing the veil and teaching would have been the most moral of the practical choices.
However, the lesser choice of not teaching is certainly acceptable, just not quite as robust in character. But always choosing the best situation regardless of your own comfort or safety is not expected, unless you're shooting for canonization.
On the other hand, ALWAYS choosing the selfish point of view isn't much of a recipe for character growth.
Joe
 
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... then I think that wearing the veil and teaching would have been the most moral of the practical choices
Thanks, Joe. Actually, this is what she did.
 
Joe Pluta
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Thanks, Joe. Actually, this is what she did.
Why didn't you post that in your message? What you posted made it seem like she didn't go back.
Joe
 
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This is interesting. Joe, could you tell what made you think she didn't "go back"? I just re-read what I posted, and cannot find any evidence for one or another outcome. Just curious.
Why I did not post her decision, I have to rationalize my motives now... Most likely I was afraid her decision might affect your opinion and I was interested in what you think about this situation in general.
Accidentally, I agree with you about the "right" decision -- you see? You see? I agree with you.
 
Joe Pluta
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Well, she promised never to wear the veil, and she quitted her job. However, later her friends and colleagues tried to persuade her to come to work and teach again.
You made the statement that she quit. Later her friends "tried" to persuade her to go back, which implies, if anything, failure. Otherwise her friends would have "succeeded in persuading her".
Based on these two sentences, the last we know is that she quit and her friends tried to convince her to return. We don't know if they were successful, but nothing implies it, so the last we knew for sure she wasn't working.
Joe
 
Joe Pluta
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Most likely I was afraid her decision might affect your opinion and I was interested in what you think about this situation in general.
How disingenuous of you . Well, don't worry Map, I promise I won't tailor my remarks to try and impress you. I'd have said the same thing no matter had she gone back or not. I'm not trying to win a game here, I'm speaking from my heart.
Joe
 
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Well, don't worry Map, I promise I won't tailor my remarks to try and impress you.
Who was talking about impressing me?
I'd have said the same thing no matter had she gone back or not. I'm not trying to win a game here, I'm speaking from my heart.
Well, again, I am not sure how "win a game" fits into this situation, ah... Maybe "I agree with you". Heck, I was just glad that we agree on something, Joe, you might see me more manipulative than I am, I am afraid.
 
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You made the statement that she quit. Later her friends "tried" to persuade her to go back, which implies, if anything, failure. Otherwise her friends would have "succeeded in persuading her".
Dammit. That's why I prefer quotes. This is nothing by my unfamiliarity with intricacies of English language, or maybe just general inability to express myself clearly. When I wrote it, I did not have in mind that they "failed". Why did I wrote "tried..." Ok, by the moment she wrote the last piece I quoted, she did not make her decision yet, and I decided to "stop" events here to ask my question.
 
Joe Pluta
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Joe, you might see me more manipulative than I am, I am afraid.
Nope, just poking a little fun is all, Map. I put the smiley after the word "disingenuous" just so you know I don't think you were trying to "trick" me. Honestly, I understand your wanting to get my view without knowing the result. But really, I would have analyzed the situation the same way no matter what.
Gotta go do some work. I'll catch up later.
Joe
 
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