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.