Olly and I get closer and closer to being on the same moral page with each consecutive response to each other. Even if Olly ultimately rejects my fact-based individualist moral system, it still feels good to be making so much progress with each round of our discussion. It is a fresh change from the brick walls that seem to pop up so frequently in so many moral conversations.
Olly begins his response with some kind words:
Aaron Kinney posted an excellent response in our ongoing conversation about morality, self-interest, etc over at Kill the Afterlife (post can be found here). Let this post serve as my volley back, so to speak.
As Aaron fleshes out his argument for me, I'm finding a few things out. First off, while I do still have my sticking points, I'm impressed by the completeness of Aaron's system. Even if in the end I come to disagree with Aaron, I won't say that he hasn't thought it through!
I really appreciate Olly's remarks. I would like to note that, at least to me, the thoroughness of my "thinking it through" is actually a feature (rather, a strength) of my moral system. What I mean is that my moral system easily lends itself to thoroughness in application. Why? Because it combines the axiom of self-interest with the objectivity of a fact-based reality, and applies these ideas consistently through the principle of universality. The axiom of self-interest, the objectivity of fact-based reality, and the principle of universality are all thorough by their nature, and therefore provide a superior applicability to any other moral system, especially the relative ones. Once you familiarize yourself with the fact-based individualist moral system, and get a firm grasp on it, you will find that it is applied with ease to any moral scenario, with satisfactory results.
Now, let's move on to the meat and potatoes of Olly's response!
First off, in response to my request for clarification on the principles Aaron claims are absolutes, Aaron brings up Francis Tremblay's essay The Moral Razor as an explanation for the principal of universality. The exact quote from Francis is
"A moral principle or system, or a political principle or system, is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons)."
On this, I will agree with Aaron (and of course Francis) completely. If morality/immorality is defined as being interactive between different actors, then the reciprocation of that interaction is what makes the actions themselves moral. But here is where, again, I see a problem with Aaron's argument. Aaron follows up the principle of universality with a derivation of an axiom (which I had asked him to do for me), the axiom of self-interest. Basically, as I understand it, Aaron's argument is that if the principle of universality says that a moral principle that is true for one person is true for all persons, then if self-interest is true for one person, then it is by logical definition true for all persons as well. The quote from Aaron:
"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."
I don't think that you can derive a specific axiom, such as the one that Aaron posits, from the principle of universality.
Olly is a sharp guy. He caught me red-handed in a mistake. I did indeed imply that the axiom of self-interest is derived from the principle of universality. This is of course incorrect. I wrote my sentence wrong and got the ideas flipped in my head. Olly is correct. The axiom of self-interest is not derived from the principle of universality. Rather, the axiom of self-interest and the principle of universality work in concert with the facts of reality to determine what actions are moral and what actions are immoral. This needed clarification, and I'm glad that Olly caught this.
Olly then has more to say about the principle of universality:
The principle is talking about morality in general, and when applied in that sense it works. But applying it to try to derive specific morals becomes a major problem. What Aaron has done is break the principle of universality down to the following logical sentence form: if x is valid for one individual, then x is valid for all individuals. The problem is that the variable x can be anything and the axiom still works. A Fish Bibbler could just as easily claim: If Christian morality is valid for one person, then it is valid for all individuals. The only argument then is attacking the validity of Christian morality itself (which Aaron does very well on a daily basis), but you can't use the principle as a standalone argument.
What the principle of universality (aka The Moral Razor) says is not in relation to values, but in relation to moral rules or moral principles. The principle of universality cannot be used to say, "Mustangs are good for me, so Mustangs are good for everyone," but it can be used to say, "Coercion is wrong when initiated against me, so coercion is wrong when initiated against any individual." The difference is hard to see at first glance, but is of vital importance. If you remember one thing about the principle of universality, remember this: The principle of universality is not applied to individual values, but to the moral framework in which those values exist. The principle of universality is the universal application of a moral framework equally to all individuals, not a universal application of the same values.
It often helps me to use this analogy: Values are all different, just like all rocks are of different shape and mass. But the moral framework that people express their values in is the same for everyone, just like the same laws of physics apply equally to all rocks, regardless of the rock's shape or weight.
After Olly agrees with me that even Kamikaze pilots were acting in accordance with their perceived self-interest, Olly raises an objection first mentioned by the esteemed Sean Prophet about the difficulty of making a rational moral decision in split-second emergencies:
...I'd like to refer to a comment by Sean Prophet from the Black Sun Journal, in response to an earlier post in the ongoing converation with Aaron:
Sean Prophet: "In practice, when a couple is attacked by an armed aggressor, things happen so quickly that it would be nearly impossible to make a rational calculation."
I think that Sean hits the nail on the head with this one, and I would say that science supports him. I would argue that in that split second decision to jump in front of a bullet, it's Fight or Flight that kicks in, not any conscious decision that I make. If that's the case, then indeed I'm not making a rational decision about self-interest, but rather making an instinctual move to save my wife. But why?
So here's where I'm going to concede a point to Aaron, before I clarify that I still think he's wrong in some ways . Aaron has me mostly ready to buy his self-interest theory. But it doesn't mean that I buy every aspect of it. I would like to ask Aaron for one more clarification first: does the recognition of self-interest have to be a rational one? Let me explain:
So my answer to the above 'why?' I think it's an extension of Richard Dawkins' theories about the self-interest involved in saving copies of our genetic makeup. If I was saving the life of an offspring, Dawkins argues it's because it's in my self-interest to keep a copy of my genetic code alive. But in the case of my wife, since we don't share genetic code (or indeed even kids with shared genetic code yet), Dawkins theory falls down.
So to extend the theory, I would argue for a kind of genetics-by-proxy argument. Tribalism is heavily ingrained in human beings, over centuries and millenia of evolution. I would argue that the instinct here is not just towards my own genetic code, but to those that I have extended that familial obligation too, through emotional bonds. This is, in some ways, neo-tribalism for the 21st Century. While the tribe itself has been mostly erased from modern culture, the instincts towards tribalism (loyalty to loved ones, protection of mutual interests, etc) remain.
In emergency situations, things get complicated, and as Sean Prophet said, there is no time to make a rational decision. Instincts come in to play in these situations. However, genetic code-sharing is not the only motivator in an emergency situation like this. I would argue that whether it is familial, friendly, loving, or even professional/financial, any kind of bond between two people, if strong enough (in other words, if incorporated enough into one's perceptual lens or worldview), will cause a person to put himself at considerable risk for the sake of the other, since the interest of the victim directly relates or affects the interest of the rescuer/intervener.
Let's say that I see a stranger in a suit getting robbed downtown. I would likely not intervene directly, because it isn't worth risking my life for this guy. I would probably just call the cops and stay a safe distance away. However, let's say that this same man in a suit getting robbed is a potential buyer for my self-started business (if I had a self-started business). This man's interests are then much more closely related to my own, and it would be worth more risk to take a personal stake in this man's safety, because if this man gets robbed, hurt, or killed, then there goes my chance at selling my business! I might offer my own wallet to the robber, or even step in between the robber and the potential buyer as a way of protecting my interests, and by proxy, the man in the suit's interests. I'm not saying that I would necessarily take a bullet for the guy (it probably depends on the purchase price of the business and how my personal financial situation is), but I am saying that, in emergency situations, my own personal risk-taking will directly increase in proportion to my personal stake in the victim's well-being. This personal stake can be financial, emotional, genetic, or any other kind of connection.
Now the more important question: In an emergency situation, is it necessary to have time to logically think things through before making the appropriate action? No. Why? Because the human mind tends to subconsciously incorporate knowledge automatically during split-second decision-making. If, during moments of logical thought, I am aware of my love for my best friend, I need not be consciously aware of this love when I jump in between my best friend and a bullet. This is because my subconscious mind automatically incorporates this knowledge into my decision-making during that split second. I will automatically and instinctively act to save my best friend without taking the time to logically weigh my options and reflect on how much I value my friend.
Now of course the human mind isn't perfect. After taking the bullet for my best friend, I may lie bleeding on the ground regretting my split-second decision. The grass is often greener on the other side, after all. However, my argument of subconscious knowledge/value incorporation into split-second decision-making still stands. In that extremely brief moment, my mind automatically chose what seemed to be the best option: To protect my values (my best friend).
If you look carefully, you can see split-second decision-making in many daily activities. For example, I know that proper driving technique in America involves driving on the right-hand side of the road. I also know that turning the wheel of my car controls the car. I also know that I value my car, and my personal safety, and that my actions in controlling my car directly affect the well being of my car and myself. So if I am driving down the road, and I suddenly see headlights coming right for me (yes this has happened to me before), I will instantly and instinctively know that 1) the oncoming car is doing something he isn't supposed to be doing, which is driving on the wrong side of the street, 2) that I don't want to hit this dumbass, and 3) that I better spin my steering wheel to alter my course and protect myself and my precious, precious Mustang. I will perform these actions subconsciously. There is no time for logical thought, and typically only after the whole emergency scenario has passed will I have time to think about the chain of events, my automatic reactions, and how well it all turned out.
From avoiding accidents to playing video games to conducting oneself in social situations, people automatically incorporate conscious knowledge at a subconscious level for the purposes of making instinctive split-second decisions in accordance with their values, all without having to "think" about it. Even sports heroes, rock stars, and firefighters will tell you that their best performances (when saving lives, making the goal, or pulling off a sick guitar riff) were when they weren't consciously pondering each action or decision made, but instead just reacting automatically to the situation, with their mind in an almost shut-off or trance-like state, where only after the actions were performed did the person consciously think about what happened.
This is why practice, or value reinforcement, is so important to a good performance. In fact, I think that a skillful sports performance and a split-second life-saving act are very similar. The sports hero practices the same play over and over, reinforcing it into their mind. Similarly, Olly spends lots of time thinking about his wife and his love for her, reinforcing her value to him in his mind. So when the sports hero has that chance to make a goal, or when Olly has a chance to protect his wife, that split-second decision will be made, and the action will be performed, because that value was repeatedly drilled into their head beforehand.
This post got longer than it needs to be, so it's time for me to wrap this up. People always act within their perceived self-interest. People are motivated by their self-interest to apply the facts of reality (at least as they perceive them) to their values, and determine their actions accordingly. The more a value is reinforced within a person's mind, the easier it is to act automatically in split-second decisions without consciously pondering the logic behind the decision until after the action is performed (thanks to the subconscious mind).
I feel that in this recent sequence of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), I have justified the fact-based individualist moral system, through an explanation of its principles, a refutation of objections raised, and easily understandable real-world examples of the system in action. What do all of you think? Who agrees with me now that a godless, individualist, fact-based morality is the way to go? If anyone still has objections or questions, what are they?