Book:Universally Preferable Behaviour/3
A Framework For Ethics
Ethical propositions are different from other types of knowledge statements. If I say, “I like jazz,” that may be a true or false statement, but it is not generally considered binding upon you in any way. My preference for jazz is a mere statement of personal fondness; based on my statement, it is not incumbent upon you to either like or dislike jazz.
Similarly, if I say “I like vegetables,” that is also a mere statement of personal preference. However, if I say, “vegetables are healthy food,” then I have shifted from a statement of personal preference to a statement of objective fact. It is the difference between “I like ice cream,” and, “Ice cream contains milk.”
The fundamental difference between statements of preference and statements of fact is that statements of fact are objective, testable – and binding. If you value truth, it is incumbent upon you to accept the fact that ice cream contains milk, once it is proven.
If I say that the earth is round, and I provide ample proof for this statement, it is no longer up to you to determine on your own whim whether the statement is true. If I can prove that the earth is round, then you are bound to accept it as true, unless you are willing to reject reason and evidence as the criteria for truth.
If I accept the validity of mathematical laws, I cannot arbitrarily reject a mathematical proof that conforms to those laws. If I do reject such a proof, I can no longer claim to accept the validity of mathematical laws. My acceptance of these laws means that I am bound to accept as valid those proofs that conform to these laws. The rejection of a proof that conforms to rational standards is a rejection of rational standards as a whole.
The scientific method, rationality itself, and mathematical laws are all examples of objective criteria for establishing the truth of a proposition. It is not my opinion that two and two make four – if you also accept that two and two make four, you are not subjecting yourself to my mere opinion, but to a rational truth.
A central challenge in understanding the nature of truth is the realisation that “truth” does not exist in the world in the same way that a rock or tree does.
The concept “truth” is necessarily a relative term – though that does not mean a subjective or arbitrary term. The concept “health” is also a relative term – we compare “health” to sickness, and also to relative standards of health. What is considered “good health” for a ninety-year-old would scarcely be considered good health for a twenty-year-old. The definition of a long life is very different now than it was five hundred years ago.
This does not mean, however, that the concept of “health” is entirely relative and subjective. A ten-year-old dying of leukaemia is unhealthy by any definition – just as a twenty-year-old marathon runner is healthy by any definition. Currently, a man who lives to ninety has statistically had a long life, though that would change if medical technology suddenly allowed us to live to be two hundred.
As our definition of “health” expands, it does not invalidate earlier definitions, but rather extends them. If medical technology advances to allow ninety-year-olds to win marathons, then our definition of what is healthy for the aged will change – but that does not mean that the twenty-year-old marathon runner suddenly becomes unhealthy. Learning algebra does not invalidate arithmetic.
Truth also has value relative to necessity as well. Newtonian physics has been supplanted by Einsteinian physics, which has proven far more accurate in extreme situations such as extraordinarily high gravity or speed. However, sailors wishing to calculate the correct path across an ocean find Newtonian physics more than accurate enough. You wouldn’t want to send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri using Newtonian physics, but it is totally fine for getting a ship from Lisbon to New York. The labour involved in learning and implementing Einsteinian physics is thus a net negative for a sailor.
As a result, the sentence “Newtonian physics is less accurate than Einsteinian physics, but Newtonian physics is the best way to calculate a ship’s path” can be considered a valid proposition. Newtonian physics is thus both less accurate, and more appropriate.
If we wanted to drink the purest possible water, we would likely pay thousands of dollars per bottle. Unless we were enormously rich and highly frivolous, we would never pay that much to quench our thirst. It is true that pure water is better for us, but the price that purity requires hits a threshold of diminishing returns. Thus “purer is better” gives way to “purer is worse.”
Again, this does not mean that the purity of water is utterly subjective. Distilled water is always more potable than seawater.
Truth And Objective Reality
The concept of truth necessarily involves the concept of accuracy. If I am trying to shoot an arrow at a bull’s-eye, the accuracy of my shot is determined by how far my arrow lands from the centre.
What, then, is the “bull’s-eye” of truth?
Well, the truth of a statement is measurable relative to its conformity with objective reality.
Putting aside the challenges of language for the moment, if I point to a seagull and say, “That is an anvil,” I am clearly mistaken, because anvils are inorganic, and cannot fly. The truth value of my statement is measured relative to the objective facts of reality. Since the seagull is not in fact an anvil, my statement is untrue.
Naturally, this equation between truth and reality requires that language and our senses be considered relatively objective. There are many good reasons to believe that both language and sense evidence are in fact objective; we could get into a complicated discussion about this, but it should suffice to say that since you are using your eyes to read a book written in a human language, we can at least agree that your eyes, and the language we share, are at least objective enough for you to accurately process what I am writing. If they are not, we have nothing to talk about, and you haven’t understood anything I’ve written anyway, so this sentence will be equally meaningless, and might as well have been rendered in “Wingdings”.
Assuming you can tell the difference between the above two fonts, we can reasonably continue.
Accuracy And Consistency
It is impossible for me to accurately paint a cloud, since in the time it takes to paint it, the cloud continually changes. I can accurately paint a photograph of a cloud, which has become frozen in time.
If I spend an hour trying to paint a cloud, and then I ask you whether or not my painting is an accurate representation of that cloud, you must necessarily reply that it is not.
In other words, where there is no consistency, there can be no accuracy.
When we dream at night, our perceptions are that the rules of “matter” and “energy” are in a constant state of flux – we are immune to gravity, and then we fly on the back of an elephant, and then we can walk through walls. It is no more possible to develop a “scientific physics of dreams” than it is to accurately paint a cloud.
Logic, science and truth, then, are impossible in the absence of consistency.
Fundamentally, the laws of logic are derived from the behaviour of matter and energy, at least at the perceptual level. If I tell you to throw a ball both up and down at the same time, I am asking for the impossible, which you can easily test by attempting to fulfil my request. If I tell you to plough both the north field and the south field simultaneously, you will be unable to comply. If I demand that you turn a rose into a donkey, my demand will never be met.
Perceptual reality is consistent and objective – and it is from this consistency and objectivity that we derive the laws of logic. Our statements about reality can only accurately represent reality as a direct result of this consistency and objectivity.
The fact that seagulls do not arbitrarily turn into anvils – or vice versa – is the root of our capacity to accurately judge the statement: “That is a seagull.” If seagulls spontaneously and continually changed their nature, we would be unable to make either true or false statements regarding them – or anything for that matter.
This is the root of a key criterion of the scientific method – reproducibility. If I make a universal claim about the nature of gravity, then you should be able to reproduce that claim in your own environment. If reality were not consistent, then reproducibility would be an irrational criterion for the establishment of truth.
If you were a maths teacher, you would be very unlikely to accept a wrong answer from a student, even if that student claimed that his answer was “right” when he wrote it down, but just somehow changed in the interim.
Thus we can accept that we must measure the validity of a statement relative to objective reality – both empirically, and logically. Logic as a discipline arises only as a result of the consistency of reality; empirical observations are also valid or invalid only as a result of the consistent nature of reality.
The Existence Of "Truth"
Truth, then, can be measured according to two central criteria:
- Truth is a measure of the correlation between the ideas in our minds and the consistency of rationality, which is directly derived from the consistent behaviour of matter and energy in the real world.
- Truth is also a measure of the correlation between the ideas in our minds and the nature and behaviour of matter and energy in the real world.
The first criterion is a measure of the consistency of ideas with themselves – and such consistency is a requirement because reality is consistent with itself. If I say, “I do not exist,” that is an example of an idea that is inconsistent with itself, since I must exist in order to utter the sentence. The second criterion is a measure of the accuracy of ideas relative to empirical observations of objective reality.
Empiricism Versus Rationality
Empiricism can be thought of as the ability to instinctively catch a thrown ball, or measure its movement; rationality is the ability to predict and understand the path that ball will take based on universal principles. Clearly, if balls randomly went in any and every direction – and magically transformed into flocks of doves to boot – we would be utterly unable to predict their behaviour.
Thus, since matter obeys immutable laws, our theories about matter must also obey immutable laws. If I know nothing about baseball, but watch a baseball game where the players always obey the rules, it would be irrational for me to formulate a theory about the rules of baseball that directly contradicted the behaviour of the players I was watching. Since the actions of the players are consistent, any theory I develop regarding the rules that guide those actions must also be consistent.
This requirement for consistency is one of the most basic requirements for truth. Since reality is consistent, theories regarding reality must also be consistent.
In fact, the first hurdle that any theory must overcome is that of internal consistency.
If I am an architect, and submit a plan to build a house, the first hurdle that I must overcome is whether or not my house can be built at all. If I submit wonderful plans for a house constructed entirely of soap bubbles, I will never get the commission, since such a “house” could never stand.
Similarly, if an engineer submits a plan for a bridge, the first criterion that must be satisfied is whether or not the bridge will stand. Other considerations such as longevity, aesthetics and so on will only apply if the bridge is physically viable to begin with.
It would be illogical – not to mention highly unproductive – to build a bridge out of random materials, using random “calculations,” in order to find out whether or not it will stand. Since physical laws are consistent and universal, it is relatively easy to figure out whether or not a bridge will stand before building it.
There are two ways to determine the viability of the bridge before building it. The first is to look for internal inconsistencies within the premises and calculations that claim to support the viability of the bridge. If there are significant errors in the calculations justifying the weight that the bridge can support, then the bridge will likely be either over-designed, or under-designed. If erroneous mathematical calculations result in a strength of minus fifty tons per square foot at any part of the bridge, then it certainly will not stand – or, if it does, its viability will be only accidental, and not reproducible.
The mathematical calculations supporting the viability of the bridge must thus be internally consistent before any other considerations can be taken into account.
In computer terms, code that does not compile cannot be tested.
This is true in the scientific world as well. Theories are always checked for internal consistency before they are submitted to empirical tests. The reason that internal consistency is so essential is that since theories claim to have value relative to reality, and reality is internally consistent, any theory that is not internally consistent cannot have value relative to reality.
Only after the internal consistency of the calculations has been established can the degree to which the bridge meets the specifications be reviewed. It is possible to write internally consistent specifications for a tiny bridge built entirely out of balsa wood, but unless the engineer is writing an article for a model rail-roading magazine, his specifications, though consistent, will fail to meet any industrial requirement.
Once we have determined that the bridge will stand, we can then determine whether or not it meets our specific needs, such as supporting the weight of pedestrians versus trains.
In the realm of economics, the same criterion applies. If my economic theory requires that prices go up and down simultaneously, then it cannot be valid, since this is impossible. Once my theory has been checked for internal consistency, I can begin to look for evidence, and/or begin using my theory to make proactive predictions.
Thus, we can see that any theory, to be valid, requires the following:
- Internal consistency (logic).
- External consistency (testability).
With this in mind, we can now turn to the core subject of this book.
Since ethics is a subject that we all have opinions about already, it is important to outline the relationship between instinctual ethics and rational ethics.
A baseball player can catch a fly ball even if he knows nothing about physics. Similarly, we can correctly perceive an action as immoral even if we know nothing about ethical theories.
If I can catch a fly ball, then I have an instinctual feel for the behaviour of a baseball in flight. My instinctual understanding, however, does not give me the capacity to accurately launch a spaceship to orbit Jupiter. I have an immediate “little truth” – how the ball will move – but that does not give me a universal “great truth” – how matter behaves.
In the same way, our common moral revulsion towards actions such as rape and murder are not necessarily inaccurate, but they do not give us the capacity to create or validate consistent and empirical moral theories.
If I propose a scientific theory that completely invalidates a baseball player’s ability to catch a fly ball, then I have the insurmountable challenge of explaining how the baseball player actually does catch the ball. Also, if my grand theory cannot accurately predict the arc of a fly ball, then I have a “great truth” which directly contradicts a “little truth,” which cannot be valid. Since the necessity of logical consistency directly arises from the “little truths” of perceptual experience, any theory that directly contradicts such experience cannot be valid.
In other words, the senses give rise to logic – therefore logic cannot contradict the evidence of the senses. Evidence always trumps explanation.
In a similar manner, any valid ethical theory should be able to explain and justify our common revulsion towards crimes such as murder and rape. It cannot reasonably contradict the universal prohibitions of mankind, but must accurately incorporate and explain them.
However, just as Einsteinian physics provided surprising truths – in fact, it would have been of little value if those truths were not surprising – ethical theories provide the most value when they also reveal surprising truths – shocking, even. In fact, ethical theories that did not provide surprising truths would be a mere confirmation of existing instinctual preferences, and thus be of little value.
The Discipline Of Theoretical Ethics
If I say that something is “morally good” – in other words, if I propose an ethical theory – then clearly I am arguing that human beings should act in a particular manner, or avoid acting in a particular manner.
If I tell my son that he should become a baseball player just because I want him to, I am not stating a universal moral premise, but rather a personal preference. He is not moral if he becomes a baseball player, and neither is he immoral if he does not.
However, if I tell him that it is moral for sons to obey their fathers, and immoral for them to disobey their fathers, then I am proposing a preference that is universal, rather than merely personal – I am trying to turn a “little truth” (I want you to become a baseball player) into a “great truth” (It is immoral for sons to disobey fathers). If he wishes to be moral, he must become a baseball player – not because becoming a baseball player is moral, but rather because obeying his father is moral.
When I speak of a universal preference, I am really defining what is objectively required, or necessary, assuming a particular goal. If I want to live, I do not have to like jazz, but I must eat. “Eating” remains a preference – I do not have to eat, in the same way that I have to obey gravity – but “eating” is a universal, objective, and binding requirement for staying alive, since it relies on biological facts that cannot be wished away.
Ethics as a discipline can be defined as any theory regarding preferable human behaviour that is universal, objective, consistent – and binding. Naturally, preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired. If I say that it is preferable for human beings to exercise and eat well, I am not saying that human beings must not sit on the couch and eat potato chips. What I am saying is that if you want to be healthy, you should exercise and eat well.
As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence. It is true that a man who never exercises and eats poorly will be unhealthy. Does that mean that he “ought” to exercise and eat well? No. The “ought” is conditional upon the preference. If he wants to be healthy, he ought to exercise and eat well. It is true that if a man does not eat, he will die – we cannot logically derive from that fact a binding principle that he ought to eat. If he wants to live, then he must eat. However, his choice to live or not remains his own.
Similarly, there is no such thing as a universally “better” direction – it all depends upon the preferred destination. If I want to drive to New York from San Francisco, I “ought” to drive east. If I want to drive into the ocean from San Francisco, I “ought” to drive west. Neither “east” nor “west” can be considered universally “better.”
It is true that very few people do drive into the ocean, but that does not mean that it is universally true that nobody ought to drive into the ocean. Principles are not democratic – or, if they are, we once more face the problem of rank subjectivism, and must throw the entire concept of ethics out the window.
“Behaviour” exists in objective reality, outside our minds – the concepts “ought,” “should,” and “preference,” do not exist outside our minds. However, the fact that “ought” does not exist within objective reality does not mean that “ought” is completely subjective. Neither the scientific method nor numbers themselves exist within reality either, yet science and mathematics remain objective disciplines.
In order to begin our discussion of ethics, it is essential that we understand the nature of self-defeating arguments.
In economics, a theory cannot be valid if it requires that prices go up and down at the same time. In physics, a theory cannot be valid if it requires that gases expand and contract simultaneously. In mathematics, a theory cannot be valid if it requires that two plus two equals five, since “five” is just another way of describing two plus three, not two plus two, and so to say that two plus two equals five is to say that five equals four, which is self-contradictory.
In general, any theory that contradicts itself in the utterance cannot be valid. It does not require external disproof, since it disproves itself. We do not need to examine every nook and cranny in the universe to determine that a “square circle” does not exist. The very concept is self-contradictory, and thus disproves itself in the utterance.
If I submit a complex mathematical proof to you, and you notice that, at the very beginning, I state that my proof relies on the fact that two plus two make both four and five at the same time, you do not need to read any further to know that my proof is invalid.
Similarly, as mentioned before, if I come up to you and say: “I do not exist,” my thesis automatically self-destructs. If I can communicate to you that I do not exist, then clearly I exist.
If I come up to you and say: “There is no such thing as truth,” then I am making a statement that I consider to be true claiming that truth does not exist. Again, my argument self-destructs.
If I tell you that “Language is meaningless,” then I have also contradicted myself. In order for me to verbally communicate that language is meaningless, language must have at least some meaning.
If I tell you that “Your senses are invalid,” then my argument also self-destructs, since I am using your sense of hearing to communicate to you that your sense of hearing is invalid. If I can successfully communicate my thesis to you, then your sense of hearing must be valid. Thus I must assume that your senses are valid in order to convince you that your senses are not valid, which cannot stand.
Now that we understand the nature of self-defeating arguments, we can turn to the question of preferences.
Preferences are central to any methodology claiming to define the truth-value of propositions. The scientific method, for instance, is largely defined by innate preferences for logical consistency and empirical verification. For science, the premise is: if you want to determine a valid truth about the behaviour of matter and energy, it is preferable to use the scientific method.
In this sense, “preferable” does not mean “sort of better,” but rather “required.” If you want to live, it is universally preferable that you refrain from eating a handful of arsenic. If you wish to determine valid truths about reality, it is universally preferable that your theories be both internally consistent and empirically verifiable. “Universally preferable,” then, translates to “objectively required,” but we will retain the word “preferable” to differentiate between optional human absolutes and non-optional physical absolutes such as gravity.
Similarly, if ethical theories can be at all valid, then they must at least be both internally and externally consistent. In other words, an ethical theory that contradicts itself cannot be valid – and an ethical theory that contradicts empirical evidence and near-universal preferences also cannot be valid.
Thus in ethics, just as in science, mathematics, engineering and all other disciplines that compare theories to reality,valid theories must be both logically consistent and empirically verifiable.
Preferences And Existence
If I say “I like ice cream,” only one word remains ambiguous in that sentence. Clearly “I” exist, since I am expressing a personal preference. Equally clearly, “ice cream” also exists in reality. However, the word “like” is more problematic.
Preferences do not exist objectively within reality. If you were obsessively curious, you could perhaps follow me around and record every time I ate ice cream, which would probably provide a good empirical basis for establishing my preference for it. The possibility could exist, however, that I am in fact a masochist, and dislike ice cream intensely, and prefer to torture myself with its unpleasant taste – and then confuse you by claiming to like it.
We can find evidence for preferences; we cannot find preference itself in reality. Preference exists as a relationship between consciousness and matter, just as gravity exists as a relationship between bodies of mass.
Putting aside the challenging questions of free will versus determinism, it is reasonable to assume that whatever a person is doing in the present is what he or she “prefers” to do. If I get up and go to work, then obviously I prefer to do that, as opposed to all other alternatives. Even if I hate my job, I clearly hate it less than, say, being penniless.
Given that human beings can perform a near infinite variety of actions, whatever a person is doing in the moment is chosen out of all other possible options. I am choosing to write this book rather than, say, learning how to tango.
When we apply this simple fact to ethical arguments, we come up with some very interesting results. (1:15:27 mp3)
Preferences And Arguments
Remembering our above analysis of self-defeating arguments, we can easily understand the contradictory nature of the statement: “preferences do not exist.” Given that every human action – including making philosophical statements – is chosen in preference to every other possible action, arguing that preferences do not exist requires a preference for arguing that preferences do not exist, which is a self-contradictory statement. Arguing that preferences do not exist is exactly the same as arguing that language does not exist. It is an utterly self-defeating argument.
Since it is impossible to act without expressing a preference – either implicitly or explicitly – anyone who acts accepts the premise that preferences exist. Thus it is impossible to debate the existence of preferences without accepting the existence of preferences. (1:16:25 mp3)
Preferences And Universality
The next question thus becomes: are preferences purely subjective, or can they be universal?
Clearly, some preferences are subjective. Musical tastes, personal hobbies, favourite literature and so on are all subjective and personal preferences.
The challenge arises when we try to define some preferences as objective.
The proposition before us is thus: can some preferences be objective, i.e. universal?
When I say that some preferences may be objective, I do not mean that all people follow these preferences at all times. If I were to argue that breathing is an objective preference, I could be easily countered by the example of those who commit suicide by hanging themselves. If I were to argue that eating is an objective preference, my argument could be countered with examples of hunger strikes and anorexia.
Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer. To use a scientific analogy, to truly understand the universe, people should use the scientific method – this does not mean that they always do so, since clearly billions of people consult ancient fairy tales rather than modern science for “answers.” There is no way to achieve truth about the universe without science, but people are perfectly free to redefine “truth” as “error,” and content themselves with mystical nonsense.
Likewise, if a man wants to cure an infection, he should take antibiotics rather than perform an Aztec rain dance. The preference for taking antibiotics rather than doing a rain dance is universal, since dancing cannot cure infections. Thus, although there is the occasional madman who will try to cure himself through dancing, it is still universally preferable that if a man wants to cure himself, he must take antibiotics.
In other words, if you want to get to the top of a mountain, wishing for it will never work. If you want to know the origins of the universe, prayer will never provide an answer. People still wish, and pray, but that does not make wishing or praying any more effective. With that in mind, let us turn to the question of whether or not universal preferences can be valid. (1:18:55)
Arguments And Universality
If I choose to debate, I have implicitly accepted a wide variety of premises that are worth spending some time to unpack here.
Premise 1: We Both Exist
If I choose to debate with you, then I necessarily must accept that we both exist. If believe that I exist, but you do not, then debating makes no sense, and would be the action of a madman. If I were to start arguing with my reflection in a mirror, I should be sedated, not debated.
Premise 2: The Senses Have The Capacity For Accuracy
Since human beings cannot communicate psychically, all debates necessarily involve the evidence of the senses. Writing presupposes sight; talking requires hearing; Braille requires touch. Thus any proposition that depends upon the invalidity of the senses automatically self-destructs.
Premise 3: Language Has The Capacity For Meaning
Similar to Premise Two, since all arguments require language, any proposition that rests on the premise that language is meaningless is immediately disproven. Using language to argue that language has no meaning is like using a courier to send a message arguing that couriers never deliver messages.
Premise 4: Correction Requires Universal Preferences
If you correct me on an error that I have made, you are implicitly accepting the fact that it would be better for me to correct my error. Your preference for me to correct my error is not subjective, but objective, and universal.
You don’t say to me: “You should change your opinion to mine because I would prefer it,” but rather: “You should correct your opinion because it is objectively incorrect.” My error does not arise from merely disagreeing with you, but as a result of my deviance from an objective standard of truth. Your argument that I should correct my false opinion rests on the objective value of truth – i.e. that truth is universally preferable to error, and that truth is universally objective.
Premise 5: An Objective Methodology Exists For Separating Truth From Falsehood
If you disagree with me, but I tell you that you must agree with me because I am always right, it is unlikely that you would be satisfied by the rigour of my argument. If you provided good reasons as to why I was wrong, but I just kept repeating that I was right because I am always right, our interaction could scarcely be categorised as a debate.
The moment that I provide some sort of objective criterion for determining truth from falsehood, I am accepting that truth is more than a matter of opinion.
This does not necessarily mean that my objective criteria are logical – I could refer you to a religious text, for example. However, even if I do so, I am still accepting that the truth is something that is arrived at independent of mere personal assertion – that an objective methodology exists for separating truth from falsehood.
Premise 6: Truth Is Better Than Falsehood
If I tell you that the world is flat, and you reply that the world is not flat, but round, then you are implicitly accepting the axiom that truth and falsehood both exist objectively, and that truth is better than falsehood.
If I tell you that I like chocolate ice cream, and you tell me that you like vanilla, it is impossible to “prove” that vanilla is objectively better than chocolate. The moment that you correct me with reference to objective facts, you are accepting that objective facts exist, and that objective truth is universally preferable to subjective error.
Premise 7: Peaceful Debating Is The Best Way To Resolve Disputes
If I tell you that the world is flat, and you pull out a gun and shoot me, this would scarcely be an example of a productive debate. True, our disagreement would have been “resolved” – but because only one of us was left standing at the end.
If you told me in advance that you would deal with any disagreement by shooting me, I would be unlikely to engage in a debate with you. Thus it is clear that any debate relies on the implicit premise that evidence, reason, truth and objectivity are the universally preferable methods of resolving disputes between individuals. It would be completely illogical to argue that differences of opinion should be resolved through the use of violence – the only consistent argument for the value of violence is the use of violence.
In essence, then, debating requires an objective methodology, through meaningful language, in the pursuit of universal truth, which is objectively preferable to personal error.
This preference for universal truth is not a preference of degree, but of kind. A shortcut that reduces your driving time by half is twice as good as a longer route – but both are infinitely preferable to driving in the completely wrong direction.
In the same way, the truth is not just “better” than error – it is infinitely preferable, or required.
Premise 8: Individuals Are Responsible For Their Actions
If I argue that human beings are not responsible for their actions, I am caught in a paradox, which is the question of whether or not I am responsible for my argument, and also whether or not you are responsible for your response.
If my argument that human beings are not responsible for their actions is true, then I am not responsible for my argument, and you are not responsible for your reply. However, if I believe that you are not responsible for your reply, it would make precious little sense to advance an argument – it would be exactly the same as arguing with a television set.
Thus, fundamentally, if I tell you that you are not responsible for your actions, I am telling you that it is universally preferable for you to believe that preference is impossible, since if you have no control over your actions, you cannot choose a preferred state, i.e. truth over falsehood. Thus this argument, like the above arguments, self-destructs. (1:25:57)
Universally Preferable Behaviour
As a result of the above arguments, we can see that it is impossible to enter into any debate without accepting the premise that certain behaviours are universally preferable.
I use the word “behaviour” here rather than “thought” because it is important to differentiate between purely internal and unverifiable states such as “thinking” from objective and verifiable states such as “acting,” “writing” and “speaking.”
It is impossible to prove that I dreamt of an elephant last night. It is possible to prove that I have written the word “elephant,” which is why I use the word “behaviour” rather than “thought.”
Acquiescing to superior logic in an argument is an action. If, every time I conceded a point to you, I said nothing, but rather just stared at you blankly, you would find it rather irritating to debate me. To concede a point, I must perform the action of verbal acquiescence.
Thus it can be seen that, inherent in the very act of arguing are a number of embedded premises that cannot be conceivably overturned.
If I ask you to meet me on the tennis court, and show up with a hunting rifle, we may end up playing a sport of sorts, but it certainly will not be tennis. When I ask you to meet me on the tennis court for a game, implicit in that request is an acceptance of the rules of tennis.
Historically, those engaged in ethical debating have often failed to maintain this basic reality.
I cannot submit a scientific paper written in my own personal language, claiming that it has been refereed by my psychic goldfish, and expect to be taken seriously. Similarly, I cannot start a philosophical debate on ethics with reference to my own personal values, and claim that my arguments have all been validated by Trixie the omniscient and invisible leprechaun, and expect to be taken seriously.
The very act of debating requires an acceptance of universally preferable behaviour (UPB). There is no way to rationally respond to an ethical argument without exhibiting UPB.
Let us now turn to a series of positive proofs for UPB. (1:28:32)
UPB And Validity
One of the central challenges faced by modern philosophers is the need to prove that moral rules are both possible and universal. Until moral rules can be subjected to the same rigour and logic as any other propositions, we will forever be stymied by subjectivism, political prejudices and the pragmatic “argument from effect.”
The closest historical analogy to our present situation occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during the rise of the scientific method. The early pioneers who advocated a rational and empirical approach to knowledge faced the same prejudices that we face today – all the same irrationalities, entrenched powers of church and state, mystical and subjective “absolutes” and early educational barriers. Those who advocated the primacy of rationality and empirical observation over Biblical fundamentalism and secular tyrannies faced the determined opposition of those wielding both cross and sword. Many were tortured to death for their intellectual honesty – we face far less risk, and so should be far more courageous in advocating what is true over what is believed.
In order to attack false moralities, we must start from the beginning, just as the first scientists did. Francis Bacon did not argue that the scientific method was more “efficient” than prayer, Bible texts or starvation-induced visions. He simply said that if we want to understand nature, we must observe nature and theorise logically – and that there is no other route to knowledge.
We must take the same approach in defining and communicating morality. We must begin using the power and legitimacy of the scientific method to prove the validity and universality of moral laws. We must start from the beginning, build logically and reject any irrational or non-empirical substitutes for the truth.
What does this look like in practice? All we have to do is establish the following axioms:
- Morality is a valid concept.
- Moral rules must be consistent for all mankind.
- The validity of a moral theory is judged by its consistency.
To start from the very beginning… are moral rules – or universally preferable human behaviours – valid at all?
There are only two possibilities when it comes to moral rules, just as there are in any logical science. Either universal moral rules are valid, or they are not.
A rule can be valid if it exists empirically, like gravity, or because it is true, like the equation two plus two equals four.
We must then first ask: do moral rules exist at all?
Certainly not in material reality, which does not contain or obey a single moral rule. Moral rules are different from the rules of physics, just as the scientific method is different from gravity. Matter innately obeys gravity or the second law of thermodynamics, but “thou shalt not murder” is nowhere inscribed in the nature of things. Physical laws describe the behaviour of matter, but do not contain a single prescription. Science says that matter does behave in a certain manner – never that it should behave in a certain manner. A theory of gravity proves that if you push a man off a cliff, he will fall. It will not tell you whether you should push him or not.
Thus it cannot be said that moral rules exist in material reality, and neither are they automatically obeyed like the laws of physics – which does not mean that moral laws are false, subjective or irrelevant. The scientific method itself does not exist in reality either – and is also optional – but it is not at all false, subjective or irrelevant.
If we can prove that moral theories can be objective, rational and verifiable, this will provide the same benefits to ethics that subjecting physical theories to the scientific method did.
Before the rise of the scientific method, people believed that matter obeyed the subjective whims of gods and devils – and people believe the same of morality now. Volcanoes erupted because the mountain-god was angry; good harvests resulted from human or animal sacrifices. No one believed that absolute physical laws could limit the will of the gods – and so science could never develop. Those who historically profited from defining physical reality as subjective – mostly priests and aristocrats – fought the subjugation of physical theories to the scientific method, just as those who currently profit from defining morality as subjective – mostly priests and politicians – currently fight the subjugation of moral theories to objective and universal principles.
As mentioned above, the scientific method is essentially a methodology for separating accurate from inaccurate theories by subjecting them to two central tests: logical consistency and empirical observation – and by always subjugating logical consistency to empirical observation. If I propose a perfectly consistent and logical theory that says that a rock will float up when thrown off a cliff, any empirical test proves my theory incorrect, since observation always trumps hypothesis.
A further aspect of the scientific method is the belief that, since matter is composed of combinations of atoms with common, stable and predictable properties, the behaviour of matter must also be common, stable and predictable. Thus experiments must be reproducible in different locations and times. I cannot say that my “rock floating” theory is correct for just one particular rock, or on the day I first tested it, or at a single location. My theories must describe the behaviour of matter, which is universal, common, stable and predictable.
Finally, there is a generally accepted rule – sometimes called Occam’s Razor – which states that, of any two theories that have the same predictive power, the simpler of the two is preferable. Prior to the Copernican revolution, when Earth was considered the centre of the universe, the retrograde motion of Mars when Earth passed it in orbit around the sun caused enormous problems to the Ptolemaic system of astronomical calculations. “Circles within circles” multiplied enormously, which were all cleared away by simply placing the sun at the centre of the solar system and accepting the elliptical nature of planetary orbits.
Thus any valid scientific theory must be:
- Empirically verifiable
- As simple as possible
The methodology for judging and proving a moral theory is exactly the same as the methodology for judging and proving any other theory. (1:36:32)
Moral Rules: A Definition
The first question regarding moral rules is: what are they?
Simply put, morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviours, just as physics is a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify the universal behaviour of matter.
The second question to be asked is: is there any such thing as “universally preferable behaviour” at all? If there is, we can begin to explore what such behaviour might be. If not, then our examination must stop here – just as the examination of Ptolemaic astronomy ceased after it became commonly accepted that the Sun was in fact the centre of the solar system. (1:37:21)
UPB: Five Proofs
As we discussed above, the proposition that there is no such thing as preferable behaviour contains an insurmountable number of logical and empirical problems. “Universally preferable behaviour” must be a valid concept, for five main reasons.
The first is logical: if I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules – must be valid.
Syllogistically, this is:
- The proposition is: the concept “universally preferable behaviour” must be valid.
- Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.
- Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid.
We all know that there are subjective preferences, such as liking ice cream or jazz, which are not considered binding upon other people. On the other hand, there are other preferences, such as rape and murder, which clearly are inflicted on others. There are also preferences for logic, truth and evidence, which are also binding upon others (although they are not usually violently inflicted) insofar as we all accept that an illogical proposition must be false or invalid.
Those preferences which can be considered binding upon others can be termed “universal preferences,” or “moral rules.”
How else can we know that the concept of “moral rules” is valid?
We can examine the question biologically as well as syllogistically.
For instance, all matter is subject to physical rules – and everything that lives is in addition subject to certain requirements, and thus, if it is alive, must have followed universally preferred behaviours. Life, for instance, requires fuel and oxygen. Any living mind, of course, is an organic part of the physical world, and so is subject to physical laws and must have followed universally preferred behaviours – to argue otherwise would require proof that consciousness is not composed of matter, and is not organic – an impossibility, since it has mass, energy, and life. Arguing that consciousness is subject to neither physical rules nor universally preferred behaviours would be like arguing that human beings are immune to gravity, and can flourish without eating.
Thus it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behaviour, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferred behaviours such as breathing, eating and drinking.
Syllogistically, this is:
- All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
- Man is a living organism.
- Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
- Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and practice of universally preferred behaviour.
- Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid.
Since the scientific method requires empirical corroboration, we must also look to reality to confirm our hypothesis – and here the validity of universally preferable behaviour is fully supported.
Every sane human being believes in moral rules of some kind. There is some disagreement about what constitutes moral rules, but everyone is certain that moral rules are valid – just as many scientists disagree, but all scientists accept the validity of the scientific method itself. One can argue that the Earth is round and not flat – which is analogous to changing the definition of morality – but one cannot argue that the Earth does not exist at all – which is like arguing that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour.
- For a scientific theory to be valid, it must be supported by empirical observation.
- If the concept of “universally preferable behaviour” is valid, then mankind should believe in universally preferable behaviour.
- All men believe in universally preferable behaviour.
- Therefore empirical evidence exists to support the validity of universally preferable behaviour – and the existence of such evidence opposes the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is not valid.
The fourth argument for the validity of universally preferable behaviour is also empirical. Since human beings have an almost-infinite number of choices to make in life, to say that there are no principles of universally preferable behaviour would be to say that all choices are equal (i.e. subjective). However, all choices are not equal, either logically or through empirical observation.
For instance, if food is available, almost all human beings prefer to eat every day. When cold, almost all human beings seek warmth. Almost all parents choose to feed, shelter and educate their children. There are many examples of common choices among humankind, which indicate that universally preferable behaviour abounds and is part of human nature.
As mentioned above, no valid theory of physics can repudiate the simple fact that children can catch fly-balls – in the same way, no valid theory of ethics can reject the endless evidence for the acceptance of UPB.
- Choices are almost infinite.
- Most human beings make very similar choices.
- Therefore not all choices can be equal.
- Therefore universally preferable choices must be valid.
The fifth argument for the validity of universally preferable behaviour is evolutionary.
Since all organic life requires preferential behaviour to survive, we can assume that those organisms which make the most successful choices are the ones most often selected for survival.
Since man is the most successful species, and man’s most distinctive organ is his mind, it must be man’s mind that has aided him the most in making successful choices. The mind itself, then, has been selected as successful by its very ability to make successful choices. Since the human mind only exists as a result of choosing universally preferable behaviour, universally preferable behaviour must be a valid concept.
- Organisms succeed by acting upon universally preferable behaviour.
- Man is the most successful organism.
- Therefore man must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.
- Man’s mind is his most distinctive organ.
- Therefore man’s mind must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.
- Therefore universally preferable behaviour must be valid.
We could bring many more arguments to support the existence and validity of UPB, but we shall rest our case with the above, and move to an examination of the nature of UPB. (1:46:18)
UPB: Optional And Objective
Since we have proven the validity of universally preferable behaviour, the question of morality now shifts. Since morality is valid, what theories can quantify, classify, explain and predict it?
First of all, we must remember that morality is clearly optional. Every man is subject to gravity and requires food to live, but no man has to act morally. If I rape, steal or kill, no thunderbolt strikes me down. Moral rules, like the scientific method or biological classifications, are merely ways of rationally organising facts and principles relative to objective reality.
The fact that compliance with moral rules is optional, however, has confused many thinkers into believing that morality itself is subjective. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Living organisms are part of material reality, and material reality is rational and objective. Applying moral theories is optional, but that does not mean that all moral theories are subjective. The scientific method is also optional, but it is not subjective. Applying biological classifications is optional, but biology is not subjective. Choices are optional; consequences are not. I can choose not to eat, but I cannot choose to live without eating. I can choose to behead someone, but I cannot choose whether or not they can live without a head. Morality is thus optional, but the effects of moral choices are measurable and objective.
Now, since morality is a valid concept, the next question is: to what degree or extent is morality valid?
As mentioned above, the first test of any scientific theory is universality. Just as a theory of physics must apply to all matter, a moral theory that claims to describe the preferable actions of mankind must apply to all mankind. No moral theory can be valid if it argues that a certain action is right in Syria, but wrong in San Francisco. It cannot say that Person A must do X, but Person B must never do X. It cannot say that what was wrong yesterday is right today – or vice versa. If it does, it is false and must be refined or discarded.
To be valid, any moral theory must also pass the criterion of logical consistency. Since the behaviour of matter is logical, consistent and predictable, all theories involving matter – either organic or inorganic – must also be logical, consistent and predictable. The theory of relativity cannot argue that the speed of light is both constant and not constant at the same time, or that it is one hundred eighty-six thousand kilometres per second, five kilometres in depth, and also green in colour.
However, since moral theories apply to mankind, and mankind is organic, the degree of empirical consistency required for moral theories is less than that required for inorganic theories. All rocks, for instance, must fall down, but not all horses have to be born with only one head. Biology includes three forms of “randomness,” which are environment, genetic mutation and free will. For example, poodles are generally friendly, but if beaten for years, will likely become aggressive. Horses are defined as having only one head, but occasionally, a two-headed mutant is born. Similarly, human beings generally prefer eating to starving – except anorexics. These exceptions do not bring down the entire science of biology. Thus, since moral theories describe mankind, they cannot be subjected to exactly the same requirements for consistency as theories describing inorganic matter.
The final test that any moral theory must pass is the criterion of empirical observation. For instance, a moral theory must explain the universal prevalence of moral beliefs among mankind, as well as the divergent results of human moral “experiments” such as fascism, communism, socialism or capitalism. It must also explain some basic facts about human society, such as the fact that state power always increases, or that propaganda tends to increase as state power increases. If it fails to explain the past, understand the present and predict the future, then it must be rejected as invalid.
UPB: The Practice
How does all this look in practice? Let’s look at how the requirement for universality affects moral theories. We shall touch here on proofs and disproofs for specific moral propositions, which we shall examine in more detail in Part Two.
If I say that gravity affects matter, it must affect all matter. If even one pebble proves immune to gravity, my theory is in trouble. If I propose a moral theory that argues that people should not murder, it must be applicable to all people. If certain people (such as soldiers) are exempt from that rule, then I have to either prove that soldiers are not people, or accept that my moral theory is false. There is no other possibility. On the other hand, if I propose a moral theory that argues that all people should murder, then I have saved certain soldiers, but condemned to evil all those not currently murdering someone (including those being murdered!) – which is surely incorrect.
If, to save the virtue of soldiers, I alter my theory to argue that it is moral for people to murder if someone else tells them to (a political leader, say), then I must deal with the problem of universality. If Politician A can order a soldier to murder an Iraqi, then the Iraqi must also be able to order the soldier to murder Politician A, and the soldier can also order Politician A to murder the Iraqi. The application of this theory results in a general and amoral paralysis, and thus is proven invalid.
I also cannot logically argue that is wrong for some people to murder, but right for other people to murder. Since all human beings share common physical properties and requirements, proposing one rule for one person and the opposite rule for another is invalid – it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks fall down, while others fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts an observable fact of reality, which is that human beings as a species share common characteristics, and so cannot be subjected to opposing rules. Biologists have no problems classifying certain organisms as “human” because they share common and easily identifiable characteristics – it is only moralists who seem to find this level of consistency impossible.
Furthermore, if my moral theory “proves” that the same man should not murder one day, but should murder the next day (say, when he steps out into the Iraqi desert), then my position is even more ludicrous. That would be equivalent to arguing that one day a rock falls downward, and the next day it falls upward! To call this any kind of consistent theory is to make madness sanity.
Since valid theories require logical consistency, a moral theory cannot be valid if it is both true and false at the same time. A moral theory that 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 practised. And why will no one steal? Well, because a man will only steal if he can keep the property he is stealing. He’s not going to bother stealing a wallet if someone else is going to immediately steal that wallet from him. Any moral theory proposing that “stealing is good” is also automatically invalid because it posits that property rights are both valid and invalid at the same time, and so fails the test of logical consistency. If I steal from you, I am saying that your property rights are invalid. However, I want to keep what I am stealing – and therefore I am saying that my property rights are valid. However, property rights cannot be both valid and invalid at the same time, and so this proposition itself must be invalid.
Similarly, any moral theory that advocates rape faces a similar contradiction. Rape can never be moral, since any principle that approves it automatically contradicts itself. If rape is justified on the principle that “taking pleasure is always good,” then such a principle immediately fails the test of logical consistency, since the rapist may be “taking pleasure,” but his victim certainly is not.
Thus subjecting moral theories to the scientific method produces results that conform to rationality, empirical observations and plain common sense. Murder, theft, arson, rape and assault are all proven immoral.
To aid in swallowing this rather large conceptual pill, below is a table that helps equate theories of physics and biology with scientific theories of universally preferable (or moral) behaviour:
|Subject||Matter||Organic Matter||Preferable behaviour for mankind|
|Instance||A rock||A horse||A man|
|Sample Rule||Gravity||The desire for survival||Self-ownership|
|Sample Theory||Entropy||Evolution||Property rights|
|Example||Matter cannot be created or destroyed, merely converted to energy and back.||If it is alive and warm-blooded, it is a mammal.||Stealing is wrong.|
|Hypothesis||Atoms share common structures and properties, and so behave in predictable and consistent manners.||Organic matter has rules – or requirements – that are common across classifications.||Universally preferable behaviour shares common rules and requirements.|
|Proof||Logical consistency, empirical verification.||Logical consistency, empirical verification.||Logical consistency, empirical verification.|
|Negative Proof Example||If mass does not attract mass, theories relying on gravity are incorrect||If organisms do not naturally self-select for survival, the theory of evolution is incorrect.||If communism succeeds relative to its stated goals, theories based on the universal validity of property rights are incorrect.|
In conclusion, it is safe to say that (a) moral rules are valid, and (b) moral theories must be subjected to the rigours of logic and evidence, just as theories of physics and biology are. Any moral theory based on non-universal or self-contradictory principles is demonstrably false.
UPB: The Framework
UPB can thus be seen as a framework for validating ethical theories or propositions – just as the scientific method is a framework that is used to validate scientific theories or propositions.
An example of a moral proposition is: “the initiation of the use of force is wrong.” UPB is the methodology that tests that proposition against both internal consistency and empirical observation. UPB thus first asks: is the proposition logical and consistent? UPB then asks: what evidence exists for the truth of the proposition?
To keep this book at a reasonable length, we will in general deal mostly with the first criterion of logical consistency. For the second criterion, we shall rely for evidence on the universal prohibitions across all cultures against certain actions such as rape, theft, assault and murder. Much more could be written on the historical evidence that helps support or reject various moral propositions, but we shall leave that for another time. If we establish the validity of UPB, we have achieved an enormous amount. If we do not, evidence will scarcely help us.
Let us now turn to the question of whether the UPB framework deals with matters of ethics, or aesthetics, or both.
UPB: Ethics Or Aesthetics?
In general, we will use the term aesthetics to refer to non-enforceable preferences – universal or personal – while ethics or morality will refer to enforceable preferences. It is universally preferable (i.e. required) to use the scientific method to validate physical theories, but we cannot use force to inflict the scientific method on those who do not use it, since not using the scientific method is not a violent action. Non-violent actions by their very nature are avoidable. If a physicist stops using the scientific method, but instead starts consulting tarot cards, he is not violently inflicting his choice on me, and I can avoid him. A rapist, on the other hand, is violently inflicting his preferences upon his victim.
Although we first focused on UPB in the realm of ethics, UPB can now be seen as an “umbrella term,” which includes such disciplines as:
- The scientific method
Ethics is the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence. Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory, and is subject to the requirements of logical consistency and empirical evidence.
Let us look at three actions, to help us further distinguish between ethics and aesthetics. The first action is irrationality; the second is lying; the third is murder.
Let’s say that you and I are having a debate about the existence of God. After I put forth my arguments, you clap your hands over your ears, singing out that God is telling you that He exists, and therefore all of my arguments mean nothing. Clearly, your response to my position is irrational. However annoying I might find your behaviour, though, it would scarcely seem reasonable for me to vent my frustration by pulling out a gun and shooting you. I believe that it is universally preferable to use logic and evidence rather than rely on voices in our heads, but this universal preference is not reasonably enforceable in the physical sense, through violence or the threat thereof.
Let’s say that you and I set the rules for a debate, and we both agree to judge the question of the existence of God according to reason and evidence. If, as the debate continues, you fall back to a position of blind faith, and reject my arguments despite their rationality and evidence, you are not keeping your word. In other words, you were lying when you said that the question would be decided by reason and evidence.
The difference between these two situations (irrationality versus lying) is the difference between a contractual and a non-contractual arrangement. If I hand you one hundred dollars and then walk away, I cannot justly come up to you in a year and say that you now owe me one hundred dollars, because it was a loan. If, on the other hand, you agree to pay me back the money in a year, and then fail to do so, that is quite a different situation.
In the example of “lying,” although you have clearly broken your word, and wasted my time, it would not seem to be either moral or reasonable for me to pull out a gun and shoot you.
A reasonable moral theory should be able to explain why this is the case.
If you rush at me with a knife raised, few people would argue with my right to defend myself. If shooting you were the only way that I could reasonably ensure my own safety, it would generally be considered a regrettable necessity.
Requirements For Ethics
Certain preconditions must exist, or be accepted, in order for ethical judgements or theories to have any validity or applicability. Clearly, choice and personal responsibility must both be accepted as axioms. If a rock comes bouncing down a hill and crashes into your car, we do not hold the rock morally responsible, since it has no consciousness, cannot choose, and therefore cannot possess personal responsibility. If the rock dislodged simply as a result of time and geology, then no one is responsible for the resulting harm to your car. If, however, you saw me push the rock out of its position, you would not blame the rock, but rather me. To add a further complication, if it turns out that I dislodged the rock because another man forced me to at gunpoint, you would be far more likely to blame the gun-toting initiator of the situation rather than me.
As we have discussed above, entering into any debate requires an acceptance of the realities of choice, values and personal responsibility. However, these factors are also present in the choice of the colour of paint for a room, yet we would scarcely say that selecting a hue is a moral choice. Thus there must be other criteria which must be present in order for a choice or proposition to be moral.
We all have preferences – from the merely personal (“I like ice cream”) to the socially preferable (“It is good to be on time”) to universal morality (“Thou shalt not murder”).
There is little point writing a book about personal preferences – and we can turn to Ann Landers for a discussion of socially preferable behaviour – here, then, we will focus on the possibility of Universally Preferable Behaviour.
If I accept your invitation to a dinner party, but find the conversation highly offensive, I can decide to get up and leave – and I can also choose to never accept another invitation from you. This capacity for escape and/or avoidance is an essential characteristic differentiating aesthetics from ethics.
If, however, when I decide to leave your dinner party, you leap up and chain me to my chair, clearly I no longer have the free choice to leave. This is the moment at which your rudeness becomes overt aggression, and crosses the line from aesthetics to ethics.
If, after vowing monogamy, I cheat on my wife, and she decides to leave me, I have certainly done her wrong, but the wrong that I have done by cheating would be very different from the wrong I would do if I lock her in the basement to prevent her from leaving. We would not generally consider a wife who shoots her husband for infidelity to be acting morally, but we would recognise the regrettable necessity if she had to use violence to escape from her imprisonment. In the first situation, the wife has the free choice and capacity to leave her husband, and thus violence would be an unjust response to the situation; in the second situation, her choice to leave her husband has been eliminated through imprisonment. Infidelity does not destroy a partner’s capacity to choose; locking her in the basement does.
If you and I are both standing at the top of a cliff, and I turn to you and say, “Stand in front of me, so I can push you off the cliff,” what would your response be? If you do voluntarily stand in front of me, and I then push you off the cliff, this would more likely be considered a form of suicide on your part, rather than murder on my part. The reason for this is that you can very easily avoid being pushed off the cliff, simply by refusing to stand in front of me.
Similarly, if I meet you in a bar, and say: “I want you to come back to my place, so I can tie you to the bed and starve you to death,” if you do in fact come back to my place, it is with the reasonable knowledge that your longevity will not be enhanced by your decision. On the other hand, if I slip a “date rape” drug into your drink, and you wake up tied to my bed, it is clear that there is little you could have done to avoid the situation.
This question of avoidance is key to differentiating aesthetics from ethics. Aesthetics applies to situations that may be unpleasant, but which do not eliminate your capacity to choose.
Avoidance And Initiation
There is a particular issue with avoidance that will come up later in this book, which is worth clearing up here beforehand.
If I live on a high mountaintop five thousand kilometres away from you, and send you an e-mail telling you that if you ever walk in front of my house, I am going to shoot you, it is relatively easy for you to avoid this situation. My threat of force is certainly immoral, but questions would surely be raised if you immediately jumped on a plane, climbed my mountain and slowly strolled in front of my house.
On the other hand, if you live on a dead-end street, and I tell you that if you take that street to get home, I will shoot you, your capacity to avoid this situation becomes significantly limited. You could certainly tunnel into your house, or jump over a bunch of backyard fences, but all of this would be considerably inconvenient.
In a similar manner, if a representative of organised crime comes to my house and threatens to burn it down if I do not pay regular protection money, I can avoid that specific threat by moving to another continent, but that would seem like a rather unjust way to deal with the situation, since I must now initiate action in order to avoid the threat.
For the moment, we can assume that any threat of the initiation of violence is immoral, but the question of avoidance – particularly the degree of avoidance required – is also important. In general, the more that a threat interferes with the normal course of daily actions, the more egregious it is. If I have to fly to another continent in order to walk in front of your house, that is scarcely an everyday activity. If I am threatened with violence for walking down the only road towards my own home, that is a far worse intrusion upon my liberties. If I have to take specific and unprecedented action to trigger a threat, that is one thing – if I trigger the threat through normal everyday activities, that is quite another. Telling you I will slap you if you stand on your head on the dark side of the moon is scarcely a threat – telling you I will slap you if you breathe is.
Ethics, Aesthetics, And Avoidability
Let’s say that you and I agree to meet at a certain location at six o’clock sharp – but then I show up half an hour late. What would your reaction be? At first, you may be a little annoyed. If I tell you that I was delayed because I stopped to give a dying man CPR and saved his life, your annoyance would likely be replaced with admiration. On the other hand, if I tell you that I am late because I was playing a video game, your annoyance would probably increase. A dying man’s need for CPR is unexpected, and therefore pretty much unavoidable – continuing to play a video game is easily avoidable, and clearly shows a lack of consideration for you.
It is this capacity to avoid situations that forms a central root of ethical judgements A woman raped by a random intruder in her own home is undoubtedly the complete victim of a terrible crime. A woman who gets raped after getting blind drunk at a frat party and dancing naked on a tabletop presents a more complicated case. Clearly the rape, once under way, cannot be avoided, since it is being violently inflicted – however, situations which increase the likelihood of rape can be avoided.
If someone breaks into my house and takes my wallet at gunpoint, I have every right to be outraged. If, however, I leave my wallet sitting on a park bench for a week, do I have the same right to be outraged when I return to find it gone? Instinctively we feel that this would seem to be less justified.
Clearly, this question of avoidance is central to our moral evaluation of cause and effect. Illnesses that strike without warning, and which cannot be prevented, frighten us far more than those that we can avoid. We can minimise the chances of getting lung cancer by refraining from smoking, just as we can help prevent skin cancer by using sunscreen, and avoid broken bones by eschewing extreme sports. Similarly, we can do much to avoid crime through some fairly simple habits, such as choosing moral companions, avoiding locales and situations where crime is more probable, refraining from substance abuse and so on.
There is a phenomenon known as “death by cop,” wherein suicidal people provoke an altercation with the police, then pretend to reach for a gun in order to get shot. This is an extreme example of pursuing situations where “victimisation” is almost guaranteed. This can also occur in domestic situations, wherein a wife will verbally attack a drunken husband, knowing perfectly well that alcohol inflames his violent temper. In these situations, we can have some sympathy for the man whose wallet is stolen in the park, or the woman who is attacked at the frat party, or the wife who is beaten by her husband – but at the same time, we would have some significant questions regarding their role or complicity in the wrongs they have suffered. To be just, we must differentiate between a man whose wallet is stolen at gunpoint, and a man who leaves his wallet lying around in a public place. Both men have had their wallets stolen, to be sure, but it would scarcely seem reasonable to hold them equally accountable.
Can the UPB framework help us understand, classify and extend these moral standards?
A reasonable moral theory should be able to explain all of the above universal standards, just as a reasonable theory of physics should be able to explain how a man can unconsciously calculate the arc of a thrown baseball, and catch it.
If the framework of UPB can explain the above, then it will certainly have passed at least the “common sense” test.
This does not mean that some surprising – even shocking – conclusions may not result from our moral theory, but at least we shall have passed the first hurdle of explaining the obvious, before analysing that which is far from obvious.
With that in mind, let us turn to the question of initiation.
A surgeon can “stab” you with a scalpel, but we can easily understand that his action is very different from a mugger who stabs you with a knife.
This difference can be understood through a further analysis of initiation.
If you get cancer, you may ask a surgeon to operate on you. The reason that the surgeon’s “stab” is not immoral is that the cancer “initiated” an attack upon your life and health. The surgeon is acting as a “surrogate self-defence agent,” just like a man who shoots a mugger who is attacking you. You have also given your consent to the surgeon, and bound his behaviour by a specific contract.
The mugger who stabs you, however, is initiating an attack upon your life and health, which is why his attack is the moral opposite of the surgeon’s efforts.
If I am a chronic and long-time smoker, I have participated in the chain of events that lead to my lung cancer. By initiating and maintaining the habit of smoking, I have set into motion a chain of causality that can result in a life-threatening affliction. It is certainly possible for me to get lung cancer without smoking – or smoke without getting lung cancer – but I certainly have affected the odds.
Similarly, it is possible for me to leave my wallet on a park bench for a week, return and find it still sitting there, but by leaving it there for such a long time, I certainly have affected the odds of it being gone.
On the other hand, if I stay home every night, I am not exactly courting crime, and so if a maniac invades my home and robs me blind, I cannot be reasonably blamed for any causal role I have played in the incident.
The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)
A moral rule is often proposed called the non-aggression principle, or NAP. It is also called being a “porcupine pacifist,” insofar as a porcupine only uses “force” in self-defence The NAP is basically the proposition that “the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong.” Or, to put it more in the terms of our conversation: “The non-initiation of force is universally preferable.”
When we analyse a principle such as the NAP, there are really only seven possibilities: three in the negative, three in the positive, and one neutral:
- The initiation of the use of force is always morally wrong.
- The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally wrong.
- The initiation of the use of force is never morally wrong.
- The initiation of the use of force has no moral content.
- The initiation of the use of force is never morally right.
- The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally right.
- The initiation of the use of force is always morally right.
As we have seen above, however, UPB is an “all or nothing” framework. If an action is universally preferable, then it cannot be limited by individual, geography, time etc. If it is wrong to murder in Algiers, then it is also wrong to murder in Belgium, the United States, at the North Pole and on the moon. If it is wrong to murder yesterday, then it cannot be right to murder tomorrow. If it is wrong for Bob to murder, then it must also be wrong for Doug to murder.
Uniting the NAP with UPB, thus allows us to whittle these seven statements down to three:
- It is universally preferable to initiate the use of force.
- It is universally preferable to not initiate the use of force.
- The initiation of the use of force is not subject to universal preferences.
This is the natural result of applying the requirement of rational consistency to ethical propositions. A rational theory cannot validly propose that opposite results can occur from the same circumstances. A scientific theory cannot argue that one rock must fall down, but another rock must fall up. Einstein did not argue that E=MC2 on a Thursday, but that E=MC3 on a Friday, or on Mars, or during a blue moon. The law of conservation – that matter can be neither created nor destroyed – does not hold true only when you really, really want it to, or if you pay a guy to make it so, or when a black cat crosses your path. The laws of physics are not subject to time, geography, opinion or acts of Congress. This consistency must also be required for systems of ethics, or UPB, and we will subject generally accepted moral theories to this rigour in Part Two, in a few pages.
However, since we are dealing with the question of consistency, it is well worth taking the time to deal with our capacity for inconsistency.
The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories does not mean that there can be no conceivable circumstances under which we may choose to act against the tenets of such a theory.
For instance, if we accept the universal validity of property rights, smashing a window and jumping into someone’s apartment without permission would be a violation of his property rights. However, if we were hanging off a flagpole outside an apartment window, and about to fall to our deaths, few of us would decline to kick in the window and jump to safety for the sake of obeying an abstract principle.
In the real world, it would take a staggeringly callous person to press charges against a man who destroyed a window in order to save his life – just as it would take a staggeringly irresponsible man to refuse to pay restitution for said window. The principle of “avoidability” is central here – a man hanging off a flagpole has little choice about kicking in a window. A man breaking into your house to steal things clearly has the capacity to avoid invading your property – he is not cornered, but is rather the initiator of the aggression. This is similar to the difference between the woman whose man cheats on her, versus the woman whose man locks her in the basement.
This is not to say that breaking the window to save your life is not wrong. It is, but it is a wrong that almost all of us would choose to commit rather than die. If I were on the verge of starving to death, I would steal an apple. This does not mean that it is right for me to steal the apple – it just means that I would do it – and must justly accept the consequences of my theft.
The fact that certain “grey areas” exist in the realm of ethics has often been used as a justification for rank relativism. Since on occasion some things remain unclear (e.g. who initiated the use of violence), and since it is impossible to define objective and exact rules for every conceivable situation, the conclusion is often drawn that nothing can ever be known for certain, and that no objective rules exist for any situation.
This is false.
All reasonable people recognise that biology is a valid science, despite the fact that some animals are born with “one-off” mutations. The fact that a dog can be born with five legs does not mean that “canine” becomes a completely subjective category. The fact that certain species of insects are challenging to differentiate does not mean that there is no difference between a beetle and a whale.
For some perverse reason, intellectuals in particular take great joy in the wanton destruction of ethical, normative and rational standards. This could be because intellectuals have so often been paid by corrupt classes of individuals such as politicians, priests and kings – or it could be that a man often becomes an intellectual in order to create justifications for his own immoral behaviour. Whatever the reason, most modern thinkers have become a species of “anti-thinker,” which is very odd. It would be equivalent to there being an enormous class of “biologists” who spent their entire lives arguing that the science of biology was impossible. If the science of biology is impossible, it scarcely makes sense to become a biologist, any more than an atheist should fight tooth and nail to become a priest.
Shades Of Grey
In the realm of “grey areas,” there are really only three possibilities.
- There are no such things as grey areas.
- Certain grey areas do exist.
- All knowledge is a grey area.
Clearly, option one can be easily discarded. Option three is also fairly easy to discard. The statement “all knowledge is a grey area” is a self-detonating proposition, as we have seen above, in the same way that “all statements are lies” also self-detonates.
Thus we must go with option two, which is that certain grey areas do exist, and we know that they are grey relative to the areas that are not grey Oxygen exists in space, and also underwater, but not in a form or quantity that human beings can consume. The degree of oxygenation is a grey area, i.e. “less versus more”; the question of whether or not human beings can breathe water is surely black and white.
A scientist captured by cannibals may pretend to be a witch-doctor in order to escape – this does not mean that we must dismiss the scientific method as entirely invalid.
Similarly, there can be extreme situations wherein we may choose to commit immoral actions, but such situations do not invalidate the science of morality, any more than occasional mutations invalidate the science of biology. In fact, the science of biology is greatly advanced through the acceptance and examination of mutations – and similarly, the science of ethics is only strengthened through an examination of “lifeboat scenarios,” as long as such an examination is not pursued obsessively.
Universality And Exceptions
Before we start using our framework of Universally Preferable Behaviour to examine some commonly held ethical beliefs, we must deal with the question of “exceptions.”
Using the above “lifeboat scenarios,” the conclusion is often drawn that “the good” is simply that which is “good” for an individual man’s life. In ethical arguments, if I am asked whether I would steal an apple rather than starve to death – and I say “yes” – the following argument is inevitably made:
- Everyone would rather steal an apple than starve to death.
- Thus everyone universally prefers stealing apples to death by starvation.
- Thus it is universally preferable to steal apples rather than starve to death.
- Thus survival is universally preferable to property rights.
- Thus what is good for the individual is the ultimate moral standard.
This has been used as the basis for a number of ethical theories and approaches, from Nietzsche to Rand. The preference of each individual for survival is translated into ethical theories that place the survival of the individual at their centre.
This kind of “biological hedonism” may be a description of the “drive to survive,” but it is only correct insofar as it describes what people actually do, not what they should do.
It also introduces a completely unscientific subjectivism to the question of morality. For instance, if it is morally permissible to steal food when you are starving, how much food can you steal? How hungry do you have to be? Can you steal food that is not nutritious? How nutritious does the food have to be in order to justify stealing it? How long after stealing one meal are you allowed to steal another meal? Are you allowed to steal meals rather than look for work or appeal to charity?
Also, if I can make more money as a hit man than a shopkeeper, should I not pursue violence as a career? It certainly enhances my survival... and so on and so on.
As we can see, the introduction of “what is good for man in the abstract – or what most people do – is what is universally preferable” destroys the very concept of morality as a logically consistent theory, and substitutes mere biological drives as justifications for behaviour. It is an explanation of behaviour, not a proposed moral theory.
The Purpose And The Dangers
With your patient indulgence, one final question needs to be addressed before we plunge into a definition and test how various moral propositions fit into the UPB framework. Since the hardest work lies ahead, we should pause for a moment and remind ourselves why we are putting ourselves through all this rigour and difficulty.
In other words, before we plunge on, it is well worth asking the question: “Why bother?”
Why bother with defining ethical theories? Surely good people don’t need them, and bad people don’t consult them. People will do what they prefer, and just make up justifications as needed after the fact – why bother lecturing people about morality?
Of course, the danger always exists that an immoral person will attack you for his own hedonistic purposes. It could also be the case that, despite clean and healthy living, you may be struck down by cancer before your time – the former does not make the science of morality irrelevant, any more than the latter makes the sciences of medicine, nutrition and exercise irrelevant. One demonstrable effect of a rational science of morality must be to reduce your chances of suffering immoral actions such as theft, murder and rape – and it is by this criterion that we shall also judge the moral rules proposed in Part Three of this book.
An objective review of human history would seem to point to the grim reality that by far the most dangerous thing in the world is false ethical systems.
If we look at an ethical system like communism, which was responsible for the murders of one hundred seventy million people, we can clearly see that the real danger to individuals was not random criminals, but false moral theories. Similarly, the Spanish Inquisition relied not on thieves and pickpockets, but rather priests and torturers filled with the desire to save the souls of others. Nazism also relied on particular ethical theories regarding the relationship between the individual and the collective, and the moral imperative to serve those in power, as well as theories “proving” the innate virtues of the Aryan race.
Over and over again, throughout human history, we see that the most dangerous instruments in the hands of men are not guns, or bombs, or knives, or poisons, but rather moral theories. From the “divine right of kings” to the endlessly legitimised mob rule of modern democracies, from the ancestor worship of certain Oriental cultures to the modern deference to the nation-state as personified by a political leader, to those who pledge their children to the service of particular religious ideologies, it is clear that by far the most dangerous tool that men possess is morality. Unlike science, which merely describes what is, and what is to be, moral theories exert a near-bottomless influence over the hearts and minds of men by telling them what ought to be.
When our leaders ask for our obedience, it is never to themselves as individuals, they claim, but rather to “the good” in the abstract. JFK did not say: “Ask not what I can do for you, but rather what you can do for me...” Instead, he substituted the words “your country” for himself. Service to “the country” is considered a virtue – although the net beneficiaries of that service are always those who rule citizens by force. In the past (and sometimes even into the present), leaders identified themselves with God, rather than with geography, but the principle remains the same. For Communists, the abstract mechanism that justifies the power of the leaders is class; for fascists it is the nation; for Nazis it is the race; for democrats it is “the will of the people”; for priests it is “the will of God” and so on.
Ruling classes inevitably use ethical theories to justify their power for the simple reason that human beings have an implacable desire to act in accordance to what they believe to be “the good.” If service to the Fatherland can be defined as “the good,” then such service will inevitably be provided. If obedience to military superiors can be defined as “virtue” and “courage,” then such violent slavery will be endlessly praised and performed.
The more false the moral theory is, the earlier that it must be inflicted upon children. We do not see the children of scientifically minded people being sent to “logic school” from the tender age of three or four onwards. We do not see the children of free market advocates being sent to “Capitalism Camp” when they are five years old. We do not see the children of philosophers being sent to a Rational Empiricism Theme Park in order to be indoctrinated into the value of trusting their own senses and using their own minds.
No, wherever ethical theories are corrupt, self-contradictory and destructive, they must be inflicted upon the helpless minds of dependent children. The Jesuits are credited with the proverb: “Give me a child until he is nine and he will be mine for life,” but that is only because the Jesuits were teaching superstitious and destructive lies. You could never imagine a modern scientist hungering to imprint his falsehoods on a newborn consciousness. Picture somebody like Richard Dawkins saying the above, just to see how ridiculous it would be.
Any ethicist, then, who focuses on mere criminality, rather than the institutional crimes supported by ethical theories, is missing the picture almost entirely, and serving mankind up to the slaughterhouse. A doctor who, in the middle of a universal and deadly plague, focused his entire efforts on communicating about the possible health consequences of being slightly overweight, would be considered rather deranged, and scarcely a reliable guide in medical matters. If your house is on fire, mulling over the colours you might want to paint your walls might well be considered a sub-optimal prioritisation.
Private criminals exist, of course, but have almost no impact on our lives comparable to those who rule us on the basis of false moral theories. Once, when I was eleven, another boy stole a few dollars from me. Another time, when I was twenty-six, I left my ATM card in a bank machine, and someone stole a few hundred dollars from my account.
On the other hand, I have had hundreds of thousands of dollars taken from me by force through the moral theory of “taxation is good.” I was forced to sit in the grim and brain-destroying mental gulags of public schools for fourteen years, based on the moral theory that “state education is a virtue.”
The boy (and the man) who stole my money doubtless used it for some personal pleasure or need. The government that steals my money, on the other hand, uses it to oppress the poor, to fund wars, to pay the rich, to borrow money and so impoverish my children – and to pay the salaries of those who steal from me.
If I were a doctor in the middle of a great city struck down by a terrible plague, and I discovered that that plague was being transmitted through the water pipes, what should my rational response be – if I claimed to truly care about the health of my fellow citizens?
Surely I should cry from the very rooftops that their drinking water was causing the plague. Surely I should take every measure possible to get people to understand the true source of the illness that struck them down.
Surely, in the knowledge of such universal and preventable poisoning, I should not waste my time arguing that the true danger you faced was the tiny possibility that some random individual might decide to poison you at some point in the future.
Thus, as a philosopher concerned with violence and immorality, should I focus on private criminals, or public criminals?
The violations that I experienced at the hands of private criminals fade to insignificance relative to even one day under the tender mercies of my “virtuous and good masters.”
If, then, the greatest dangers to mankind are false ethical theories, then our highest prioritisation should be the discovery, communication and refinement of a valid, rational, empirical and consistent ethical theory. If we discover that most plague victims are dying from impure water, then surely telling them to purify their water should be our first and highest priority.
Let us now turn to that task.
- If you do not value truth, you would never be in this debate – or any other debate – in the first place!
- Rational consistency, or internal logic.
- Empirical evidence, or empiricism.
- It will be useful to keep this particular premise in mind, since it will be very important later on.
- The question of responsibility is, of course, closely related to the question of free will versus determinism, which will be the subject of another book.
- In physics, the question is: either universal physical rules are valid, or they are not.
- The same goes, of course, for murder and assault. We will be returning to these proofs – as well as a further examination of property rights – in more detail in Part Two of this book.
- Universal and positive moral rules can also be proven – i.e. the universal validity of property rights and non-violence – but we shall discuss that in Part Two.
- Please note that the examples below are not proofs, but rather situations that a valid ethical theory should be able to encompass and explain. We will get to the actual proofs shortly.
- Of course, if I were such an incompetent or confused human being that I ended up on the verge of starvation, incarceration might be an improvement to my situation.
- Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Rand’s “that which serves man’s life is the good.”
- Or, rather: “forced education is a virtue” – my parents were compelled to pay through taxes, and I was compelled to attend.