Friday, June 09, 2006

Doubting Morality?

Recently, a Seattle-area Kill The Afterlife reader by the name of Olly contacted me about my fact-based individualistic moral system. Apparently I got him thinking about all kinds of moral things. Good! I would say the greatest satisfaction I get out of this blog is making people think.

Olly decided to start a blog over at wordpress to tackle these moral issues, and hopefully to continue blogging about his thoughts and views in perpetuity. His blog is titled 10,000 Reasons to Doubt the Fish.

Olly's first post addressed my moral system. I responded to him in the comments of that post. Then, Olly posted another post in response to my comments. So for a history on the dialogue between Olly and I, please visit those links. I am now going to respond to his second post.

Olly seems to agree with my claim that values are contextual to individuals. But Olly does not seem convinced of my claim that morality is based on universal principles:

“morality is based on principles, and principles are universal”. Here’s where I take some issue with Aaron. I’m not necessarily arguing that he’s wrong about this statement, but I feel that I personally need something more to back it up...

...If each person uses their value system based on moral absolutes or universals, then what ARE those moral universals? Claiming that there is an absolute, means that there should be an axiom of some kind that can be derived from it. If that’s the case, I guess I’d like a clearer idea of one or two or ten of these axioms, whatever they may be.


First off, to defend the principle of universality, I would like to point to Francois Tremblay's excellent essay, The Moral Razor. To quote Francois, "A moral principle or system, or a political principle or system, is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons)."

I don't want to get into too much detail about why this is so, but if you read the article, you will see what I mean. I will at least say that, like all laws of physics, all moral principles are universal. If E=mc2 in the Milky Way, then E=mc2 in the Andromeda galaxy as well. Similarly, if it is wrong for person A to coerce person B, then it is also wrong for person B to coerce person A.

Is the principle of universality an axiom (Olly was looking for axioms)? I don't think so. But it is a logical rule. What I believe is an axiom is self-interest. Thanks to the principle of universality we can say that if self-interest is valid for one individual, then it is valid for all individuals.

Over at Olly's blog, I said, "...all legitimate “other-interest” is based on the fundamental “self-interest” in that you are you, you own you, and you are only able to see from the direct perspective of you, and you will fundamentally only willingly act within the perspective of your own best interests, automatically." In response, Olly has this to say:

My issue with this statement is the problem of self-destructive behavior. How does something that I choose to do, which is self-destructive, fit into the self-interest worldview? Aaron is arguing that my diagram is inaccurate, because the other-interests, as he puts them, are still based in self-interest. But what possible self-interest can come from a self-destructive act?


To answer Olly's question, I would say that happiness is the self-interest that can come from a self-destructive act. Crack addicts sure are happy when they smoke their crack, even though they know that it is self-destructive! Kamikaze pilots in Japan were quite happy and even honored to be "chosen" to die in the name of their country! Why? Because they had such a high value on the idea of a Japanese Empire that they considered it worth more than themselves, and consequently were jumping with joy at the chance to fulfill this twisted value by killing themselves in a Kamikaze attack. But then again, the Kamikazes thought that they were going to another life after their suicidal attacks. So it was within their perceived self-interest to do the attacks, and they were happy to do them.

Here is a way that I like to look at it: Does a given person value a long life or a exciting one? Do they value quality or quantity? Usually a mix of both. If I had a choice to live to 100 and never have sex, or live till 40 and have lots of sex, I would probably choose to live for 40 years. Some other people might choose to be virgins and live till 100. This is because people have different values, but in both cases, the person has chosen based on their own self-interest.

And what is more destructive to one's life anyway? Dying at 40 and having lots of sex, or living for 100 years without ever getting to fuck?

It is rather easy to connect the dots and see how self-destructive acts can still be performed within the (at least perceived) self-interest of the individual. I think even the term "self-destructive" is contextual. What is being destroyed, fundamentally? One's body/life, or one's values? I would argue that, fundamentally, "true" self-destruction is more like value-destruction. If someone's values conflict with the sustainment of their body, then maybe they have some stupid values, but they will ultimately choose their values over their health or well-being.

Olly mentioned a scenario where he would choose face certain death to save the life of his wife, rather than let her die and him live. I countered by saying that even that choice would be within his own self-interest, because he valued his wife so much that he would rather die for her to live than live without her. Olly responded thusly:

Ok, I can somewhat see Aaron’s point here. Indeed, it would be my personal choice, therefore on some level it may be considered in my own self-interest. I don’t necessarily see how the choice would make me happier, because presumably (at least in the context of my example) I’d be dead, but it would be a choice to help someone else, based on my own care of that person.


Olly forgets that as conscious beings, we have the ability to predict the future and imagine future feelings that we would feel over the results of future actions. Indeed, we can even feel happiness or sadness in the present time over anticipation or prediction of a future event. For example, if I could somehow know with certainty that I will be hit by a car and killed tomorrow, this would cause me great sadness in the present, even though I won't get run over for 24 hours. I would be feeling present emotions based on events that have not yet happened.

Of course, if Olly took a bullet for his wife and died, he would not even be around to feel the happiness of saving his wife's life. However, at the moment that Olly chose to take the bullet, he would already feel happy (as happy as can be while his soul mate is being shot at) at the fact that he made that choice and will accordingly obtain the desired future outcome. Not to mention the fact that Olly knows that the alternative choice (letting his wife die) would, in the future, cause him enormous sadness.


Olly then turns to smoking cigarettes as an example of a self-destructive act, and asks for clarification. Fortunately, Olly is a smart guy, and he already (and correctly) predicts the likely answer that I would provide:

Take smoking for example. I know how bad it is for me, and yet I do it anyway. I know that, continued, it will probably kill me in the end. There is no benefit to be gained from smoking, with the one exception of enjoyment. In the context of the argument that Aaron is making, self-destructive acts could still be considered moral acts. Indeed, they wouldn’t even be considered morally neutral acts, because if we are acting for our own enjoyment, we are acting in a moral way (back to the self-interest standpoint). I may be slowly committing suicide by poisoning my body, yet it would be considered moral within the framework given. Maybe that IS what Aaron is arguing, but if so I’d like clarification.


Olly is right. Smoking cigarettes can be perfectly moral, even if it will shorten your life by 20 years and fill your lungs with tar. If smoking is a value, and you enjoy it more than you enjoy living to 100 years old, then it isn't self-destructive, is it? I think this underscores my earlier claim that value-destruction is avoided by people, but not necessarily physical-self-destruction.

The fulfilling of one's values does not equate with maximum lifespan or even maximum physical health. It equates with maximum happiness. That is why it is perfectly moral for one person to never want to smoke, and perfectly moral for Olly to enjoy smoking. Both people would be fulfilling their own values.

Olly then brings up a good point about self-interested acts that may adversely affect others against their will:

But what if that act, at the same time as being in my own self-interest, adversely effects others around me against their will[?] ...how do you deal with conflicts between self-interested (aka moral) acts and the negative effect of those acts? Which wins, morality or immorality? What’s the trump card?


Immorality always trumps morality in that if a self-interested act coerces another individual, then that act is immoral. In other words, if individual A has a value that involves coercing individual B, then the value that individual A holds is immoral. The value should be altered or fulfilled in such a way as to not coerce the other person. This is because if person A's value is coercive to person B, then person A is in fact forcing his value onto person B. Person A would be violating the very concept of "individualism," where every individual is a sovereign entity that wholly owns itself and determines it's own actions and values.

Olly then illustrates his point with a desert island scenario:

Take another example. Let’s say I’m stranded somewhere, me and one other person. We’ve run out of food, and it’s becoming clear that rescue is far off. What if I were to realize, and then act upon this, that if I killed this person, I could survive through cannibalism long enough to be rescued? Aaron says that consent gives legitimacy, but he ALSO claims that morality is based upon self-interest (not Utilitarian self-interest, but upon the universal principles that are derived from self-interest). So where does that leave me in this dilemma? I’m at a point where an action would be both moral and immoral at the same time which, is just as untenable position as relativism itself.


Self-interest only sanctions actions which involve taking actions on behalf of oneself. When person A takes an action that involves himself, he can legitimately do so because he owns himself (the concept of self-ownership). Person A cannot take an action that involves person B (assuming that person B did not give consent), because person A does not own person B. Person B does not belong to person A, but to person B.

In the desert island scenario that Olly provided, person A would need consent from person B. If person B does not give consent, then person A is fucked. Besides, the desert island scenario ignores many things. It assumes a dichotomy that in reality wouldn't exist. Even a desert island is part of a living breathing planet and there are fish in the sea for food. Besides, on a desert island, water would be the primary concern, not food.

Olly then makes a statement about utilitarianism:

To wrap up this long post, I would argue two things: first, that self-interest cannot be, at the most basic level, separated from utilitarianism. I think that Aaron is probably right, that there are some universal axiomatic principles that can be derived and used as morals, but that in the end they come back to being utilitarian.


I would instead say that self-interest is itself an axiom, and is itself fundamental. From the axiom of self-interest, and the axiom of identity, and the axiom of causality, we can recognize moral principles that are universal (the direct opposite of utilitarianism), and we can apply those principles to the facts of reality. In other words, we start with our self-interest and our recognition of reality, and we then apply our moral principles to our given scenario to figure out which action would be the most moral one. It is not based on anything utilitarian. Utilitarianism is fundamentally opposed to such a concept as a universal framework of moral principles.

Olly then says more things that I disagree with:

The second thing I would argue is that an act can be moral, in a utilitarian sense, and be other-interest based at the same time. I would argue that me giving my life for my wife is a utilitarian choice, but not one that is in my own self-interest. Arguing that it would ‘make me happier’ is falling towards the very relativism that Aaron is striving against, because it becomes to easy to say ‘this act is moral, because it makes me happy’, and apply that to many MANY acts that I think most people would consider immoral. Take the problem of a serial killer. It may make them happy, indeed the ONLY thing that may make them happy, is to murder people. If they were to stop, they would be miserable.


I would have to say that there is nothing moral about utilitarianism. And I must disagree that "make me happier" is relative. Moral relativity would say that "make me happier" is not moral at all. Moral relativity says that no person's value fulfillment is objectively "moral." Moral relativity denies any true "good" or "bad."

In regards to dying for his wife, Olly forgets that the only reason he would do it is because he wanted to do it. And the only reason he would want to do it is because it would make him happier than if he didn't. Olly would be hard-pressed to explain how he would freely perform an action that he didn't really want to do.

As far as serial killers go, if the only thing they value is killing other people, then they are violating the axiom of identity. They are assuming that they own these other people when they force their values upon them and kill them. Besides, the moral razor will slice the serial killer's logic to pieces. If the serial killer thinks its ok to kill others, then logically, the serial killer must admit that it’s ok for another to kill him. He must admit the validity of another person wanting to kill him, and he must not stand in the way of that happening. Furthermore, if a serial killer values the death of any given individual, why doesn't he value the death of himself as well? Why not commit suicide while he's at it?

In fact, the serial killer is the ultimate and relativist. A serial killer must deny individualism and self-ownership; he must deny that each individual is a valid sovereign entity who owns himself and determines his own values and actions. A serial killer must totally deny any universal moral principle, for the serial killer must necessarily apply different rules to himself than he does to everyone else.

Olly wraps up his serial killer argument:

So either you can argue that what they are doing IS indeed morally acceptable, with all of the obvious problems that come with that, or you can argue that it is immoral for them to kill people. But if that’s the case, then they are putting other-interests ahead of their own self-interest, in order to be more ‘moral’.


This is incorrect. The serial killer would not be putting other people's interests ahead of his own. What he would be doing by not killing people, is recognizing that he never owned those other individuals in order for him to assign his values to them in the first place. The serial killer, in choosing to not kill others, would simply be recognizing that everyone owns themselves, and that it is not possible for him to legitimately force his values onto others. By not forcing his values onto others, the serial killer is not putting the interests of others ahead of his own, but merely recognizing that other people with other values exist, just like him, and that they are free to act on their own values, just like him. By not killing people, the serial killer would be consistently applying to all individuals what he already applied to himself.

18 comments:

catquas said...

I came accross your article and I notice you cited the Moral Razor thing. I have three objections to the idea and I am interested to see if you have any answers.

To quote the original article: "A moral theory which approves of stealing, for instance, faces an insurmountable logical problem. No moral theory should, if it is universally applied, directly eliminate behaviour it defines as moral while simultaneously creating behaviour it defines as immoral. If everyone should steal, then no one will steal – which means that the moral theory can never be practiced. And why will no one steal? Well, because a man will only steal if he can keep the property he is stealing."

Problems:
1. False alternatives - we don't have to say stealing is either always moral or always immoral. It might be the case that stealing is sometimes OK - for example if your child is starving.
2. Even if it is moral for everyone to steal at the same time, it doesn't mean everyone will do it - everyone is not always moral.
3. If it is moral to steal, and everyone does what is moral, they will all continue stealing even after they realize what they steal is being taken from them. Their motivation to steal seems to be that it is moral to steal, not that they will benefit in some way. Thus they will not care when it is taken away, because they do not steal in order to use what they take.

olly said...

Aaron,

Thanks for the reply! "part 1" (so to speak) of my response is up at my blog. It's late, and i'm running on no sleep, so I'll pick up where I left off in a couple of days.

Anyway, thanks again!

-olly

bernarda said...

Stephen Jay Gould said, " If we wish “meekness and love” to triumph over “pride and violence” (as Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi), then we must repudiate Darwin’s vision of nature’s way – as Tolstoy stated in a final plea to his errant children.

This charge against Darwin is unfair for two reasons. First, nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no basis for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help to explain why we have moral feelings, but nature can never decide for us whether any particular action is right or wrong.) Second, Darwin’s “struggle for existence” is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts."
...

"This apparent discordance between nature’s way and any hope for human social decency has defined the major subject for debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. Huxley’s solution has won many supporters – nature is nasty and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in human society. My own preference lies with a different solution based on taking Darwin’s metaphorical view of struggle seriously (admittedly in the face of Darwin’s own preference for gladiatorial examples) – nature is sometimes nasty, sometimes nice (really neither, since the human terms are so inappropriate). By presenting examples of all behaviors (under the metaphorical rubric of struggle), nature favors none and offers no guidelines. The facts of nature cannot provide moral guidance in any case.

But a third solution has been advocated by some thinkers who do wish to find a basis for morality in nature and evolution. Since few can detect much moral comfort in the gladiatorial interpretation, this third position must reformulate the way of nature. Darwin’s words about the metaphorical character of struggle offer a promising starting point. One might argue that the gladiatorial examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as predominant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion rather than combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circumstances."

Gould goes on to discuss Petr Kropotkin's idea of mutual aid.

http://www.marxists.org/subject/science/essays/kropotkin.htm

"Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief impetus for their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle must not be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided into two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolutionary meanings. We must recognize, first of all, the struggle of organism against organism for limited resources – the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to competition for personal benefit.

But a second form of struggle – the style that Darwin called metaphorical – pits organism against the harshness of surrounding physical environments, not against other members of the same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm, to survive the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and storm, to persevere through harsh periods of drought, snow, or pestilence. These forms of struggle between organism and environment are best waged by cooperation among members of the same species-by mutual aid. If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then we shall witness a feline battle and an equine carnage. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then lighting will not remove the common enemy – while cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to surmount.

Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general notion of struggle – two forms with opposite import: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition; and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation."
...

"I would fault Kropotkin only in two ways – one technical, the other general. He did commit a common conceptual error in failing to recognize that natural selection is an argument about advantages to individual organisms, however they may struggle. The result of struggle for existence may be cooperation rather than competition, but mutual aid must benefit individual organisms in Darwin’s world of explanation. Kropotkin sometimes speaks of mutual aid as selected for the benefit of entire populations or species – a concept foreign to classic Darwinian logic (where organisms work, albeit unconsciously, for their own benefit in terms of genes passed to future generations). But Kropotkin also (and often) recognized that selection for mutual aid directly benefits each individual in its own struggle for personal success. Thus, if Kropotkin did not grasp the full implication of Darwin’s basic argument, he did include the orthodox solution as his primary justification for mutual aid."
...

"There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms – if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us – the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus."

The problem with your explanations is that they rely on a certain idea of the individual and "individual ownership". Certainly individuals of a species act individually, but they are an integral part of a community structure. The individual acts, but always in that context and not based on any moral laws of nature.

Francois Tremblay said...

"1. False alternatives - we don't have to say stealing is either always moral or always immoral. It might be the case that stealing is sometimes OK - for example if your child is starving."

That is not an argument against the Razor. You are merely proposing ANOTHER universal rule.


"2. Even if it is moral for everyone to steal at the same time, it doesn't mean everyone will do it - everyone is not always moral."

We never said that. The assymetry is a theoretical construct meant to evaluate the symmetry of your principle.


"3. If it is moral to steal, and everyone does what is moral, they will all continue stealing even after they realize what they steal is being taken from them."

Same problem. You are going into psychology here. The moral razor does not assume that asymmetry is eternally viable - just that it exists.

BlackSun said...

Hey Aaron, great post! Now that's what I'm talking about.

One small issue is that of your discussion of the desert island scenario, and the serial killer. The symmetrical argument assumes that it is never necessary to deviate from moral principles.

On the desert island, I would say that person A will most probably kill person B if there is no other food around. In fact this has happened in a famous scenario of a plane crash where some passengers survived for a month by eating the other passengers. If you valued your moral system more than your life, then you would choose to starve to death in such a scenario.

With the serial killer, they have no concept of universality or morality. Their empathy system is broken completely, they do not care at all about other people's self-ownership or pain--they must be caught and curtailed by force or they will continue to kill.

I would like to see you explore the fringes of your moral system to see what happens when person A's values clash with the life or prosperity of person B. This is where it all gets really interesting.

Cheers, dude!

catquas said...

Francois - I think I discussed this a little with you on Goosing the Antithesis, but I'm happy to take it up again. Lets look at the part of the essay I quoted again (written by Stefan Molyneux):

"No moral theory should, if it is universally applied, directly eliminate behaviour it defines as moral while simultaneously creating behaviour it defines as immoral. If everyone should steal, then no one will steal – which means that the moral theory can never be practiced."

Now you admit, those statements are false if they are meant to apply to the real world. They might be true in a theoretical world, however. My question is this: why they are relevent to the real world if they only apply to a theoretical world?

I also argued that it is incorrect to say that theft must be moral or immoral. You said that this is not an argument against the Razor, as a rule which says it is OK to steal sometimes is just another proposed moral rule. Does this mean that the Razor does not rule out moral rules which allow theft or coercion?

-catquas

axel_621 said...

AK -

Nice post. Been following this for a while now, and I get the feeling that if I actually sat down and quantified my own code of morals, I imagine it would turn out quite similar.

I really don't understand how some people have been getting confused on the what really is a very simple premise. You only own yourself and only have the right to control yourself.

But something that's been intriguing me as I think about it: at what point does a person own themselves? Person A owns Person A because they are Person A. But when does this ownership begin? At birth? At conception? At puberty? At 18?

It is an interesting and important distinction, because a person who owns themselves is responsible for their own moral decisions, and can give their consent. From the example of the two people stranded on the island, person A can eat person B only if person B gives his consent for person A to do so. But what if person B is a 12 year-old? Can they give their consent then?

How about instead the case of statutory rape. The law declares that a person under the age of 16 (in Australia, where I am) is incapable of giving consent for sex because they are not responsible enough. Even if both parties are consenting, it is still against the law. If a person was unable to give their consent for something, that person would not be considered to own themselves, would they?

If, under your moral code, the line was also drawn at 16 (or 18, as in the US), does that mean that a person under that age does not in fact own themselves? And if not, who does, if anyone?

And what if there was no such distinction - all individual entities own themselves. Does that mean that under your code, a person under the age of consent (defined by law) should in fact be able to give their consent? So if a 16 year old does in fact own themselves, can they give consent for sex? What about a 12 year-old?
Someone even younger?

Clearly there must be a line somewhere. The obvious answer would be at whatever the stage a person is considered an adult. All well and good. So what about someone who is not yet an adult - who owns them? Nobody? Their parents? But if someone else owns them, doesn't that go against the basic tenet of 'you only own yourself'. And if nobody owns them, then can they ever act immorally?

Food for thought, at any rate.

Francois Tremblay said...

"Now you admit, those statements are false if they are meant to apply to the real world."

That's not what I said. Read my comment again.

catquas said...

Francois - I'm sorry if I misinterpreted what you said, but I'm a little confused. You say the argument is a "theoretical construct". If so, my question is simple: why is it relevent to the real world?

Francois Tremblay said...

"Francois - I'm sorry if I misinterpreted what you said, but I'm a little confused. You say the argument is a "theoretical construct". If so, my question is simple: why is it relevent to the real world?"

Why is it relevant? Because of logic. If your principle is not consistent across the board, then it contradicts itself in some instances.

Anonymous said...

'like all laws of physics, all moral principles are universal' - Aaron.
Isn't this exactly what the Christian Fundamentalists have been telling us all along? ALL 'moral principles'?

catquas said...

Francois -

But does a principle have to be consistent in all theoretical worlds? For example, if I say we are morally required to refrain from using force against others except in response to the proverbial "intitiation" of force. Suppose, however, in some theoretical world people go into a craze if they do not use force against someone each week. During this craze, the crazy person uses force against every person he sees. Thus, if everyone attempted to obey this rule it would be impossible to obey.

I think you would agree that no, such a crazy world is not relevent to our situation. Considering this, why is any other theoretical world relevent to the actual world?

bernarda said...

Most of this discussion is irrelvant. No one has tried to show that Stephan J. Gould is wrong. If Gould is right, there is not much use in discussing morals.

Stephen J. Gould, "First, nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no basis for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help to explain why we have moral feelings, but nature can never decide for us whether any particular action is right or wrong.)"

"There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms – if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us – the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus."

We are products of evolution and nature and evolution have nothing to with morals. At best one can say is that morals are just an interpretation we make about people's behavior. In nature, there is no morality or immorality.

Francois Tremblay said...

You don't need these widespread scenarios. Assymetry is present in any use of force. I don't see what's so hard to understand about that.

Vic said...

Anonymous:

'like all laws of physics, all moral principles are universal' - Aaron.
Isn't this exactly what the Christian Fundamentalists have been telling us all along? ALL 'moral principles'?


They think they have been saying this, but they're wrong. God dictates morals to people, but people can't dictate morals to god - ergo, it's asymmetrical.

Francois Tremblay said...

UNIVERSALITY IN RELIGION: God is just another being. If God can define what morality is, then we should also be able to do the same, at least theoretically. But obviously no theologican can concede such a possibility. Therefore religion breaks universality.

Anonymous said...

Vic said
'God dictates morals to people'

Which god Vic? Vishnu? Zeus? Allah? There are so many to choose from!

beepbeepitsme said...

Neither god belief nor lack of it, will guarentee moral or ethical behaviour.