Book:Universally Preferable Behaviour/1
In many fairy tales, there lives a terrible beast of stupendous power, a dragon or a basilisk, which tyrannises the surrounding lands. The local villagers tremble before this monster; they sacrifice their animals, pay money and blood in the hopes of appeasing its murderous impulses.
Most people cower under the shadow of this beast, calling their fear “prudence,” but a few – drunk perhaps on courage or foolhardiness – decide to fight. Year after year, decade after decade, wave after wave of hopeful champions try to match their strength, virtue and cunning against this terrible tyrant.
Try – and fail.
The beast is always immortal, so the villagers cannot hope for time to rid them of their despot. The beast is never rational, and has no desire to trade, and so no negotiations are possible.
The desperate villagers’ only hope is for a man to appear who can defeat the beast.
Inevitably, a man steps forward who strikes everyone as utterly incongruous. He is a stable boy, a shoemaker’s son, a baker’s apprentice – or sometimes, just a vagabond.
This book is the story of my personal assault on just such a beast.
This “beast” is the belief that it is impossible to define an objective, rational, secular and scientific ethical system. This “beast” is the illusion that morality must forever be lost in the irrational swamps of gods and governments, enforced for merely pragmatic reasons, but forever lacking logical justification and clear definition. This “beast” is the fantasy that virtue, our greatest joy, our deepest happiness, must be cast aside by secular grown-ups, and left in the dust to be pawed at, paraded and exploited by politicians and priests – and parents. This “beast” is the superstition that, without the tirades of parents, the bullying of gods or the guns of governments, we cannot be both rational and good.
This beast has brought down many great heroes, from Socrates to Plato to Augustine to Hume to Kant to Rand.
The cost to mankind has been enormous.
Since we have remained unable to define a rational system of universal morality, we have been forced to inflict religious horror stories on our children, or give guns, prisons and armies to a small monopoly of soulless controllers who call themselves “the state.”
Since what we call “ethics” remains subjective and merely cultural, we inevitably end up relying on bullying, fear and violence to enforce social rules. Since ethics lack the rational basis of the scientific method, “morality” remains mired in a tribal war of bloody mythologies, each gang fighting tooth and nail for control over people’s allegiance to “virtue.”
We cannot live without morality, but we cannot define morality objectively – thus we remain eternally condemned to empty lives of pompous hypocrisy, cynical dominance or pious slavery.
Intellectually, there are no higher stakes in the world. Our failure to define objective and rational moral rules has cost hundreds of millions of human lives, in the wars of religions and states.
In many ways, the stakes are getting even higher.
The increased information flow of the Internet has raised the suspicions of a new generation that what is called “virtue” is nothing more – or less – than the self-serving fairy tales of their hypocritical elders. The pious lies told by those in authority – and the complicity of those who worship them – are clearer now than ever before.
“Truth” has been exposed as manipulation; “virtue” as control; “loyalty” as slavery, and what is called “morality” has been revealed as a ridiculous puppet show designed to trick weak and fearful people into enslaving themselves.
This realisation has given birth to a new generation of nihilists, just as it did in nineteenth century Germany. These extreme relativists reserve their most vitriolic attacks for anyone who claims any form of certainty. This post-modern generation has outgrown the cultural bigotries of their collective histories, but now view all truth as mere prejudicial assertion. Like wide-eyed children who have been scarred into cynical “wisdom,” they view all communication as advertising, all claims as propaganda, and all moral exhortations as hypocritical thievery.
Since we have no agreement on a cohesive, objective and rational framework for evaluating moral propositions, “morality” remains mired in mysticism, and its inevitable corollary of violence. Just as, prior to the Enlightenment, religious sects warred endlessly for control over the blades of the aristocracy, so now do competing moral mythologies war for control over the state, and all its machinery of coercion.
Thus morality remains, relative to modern science, just as medieval “astronomy” did to modern astronomy – a realm of imaginary mythology, enforced through storytelling, threats, compulsion and exploitation – which actively bars any real progress towards the truth.
This “beast” of relativistic ethics looms above us, preying on us, justifying taxation, imprisonment, censorship and wars. It enslaves the young in state schools and Sunday pews; it ensnares the poor in the soft gulags of welfare; it enslaves even the unborn in the bottomless wells of national debts.
As I wrote in my previous book, “On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion,” the most fundamental lie at the centre of unproven ethical theories is that such theories are always presented to children as objective and incontrovertible facts, when in truth they are mere cultural bigotries. The reason that scientists do not need a government or a Vatican is that scientists have an objective methodology for resolving disputes: the scientific method. The reason that language does not need a central authority to guide its evolution is that it relies on the “free market” of accumulated individual preferences for style and utility.
The reason that modern morality – and morality throughout history – has always had to rely first on the bullying of children, and then on the threatening of adults, is that it is a manipulative lie masquerading as a virtuous truth.
The truth is that we need morality; the lie is that gods or governments can rationally define or justly enforce it.
My goal in this book is to define a methodology for validating moral theories that is objective, consistent, clear, rational, empirical – and true.
I am fully aware that, at this moment, you will very likely be feeling a rising wave of scepticism. I fully understand that the odds that some guy out there on the Internet – the home world of crazies – has somehow solved the philosophical problem of the ages are not particularly high – in fact, they would be so close to zero as to be virtually indistinguishable from it.
Still, not quite zero.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. In taking on this mammoth task – particularly in such a short book – I have set myself some basic ground rules, which are worth going over here.
- I fully accept the Humean distinction between “is” and “ought.” Valid moral rules cannot be directly derived from the existence of anything in reality. The fact that human beings in general prefer to live, and must successfully interact with reality in order to do so, cannot be the basis for any valid theory of ethics. Some people clearly do not prefer to live, and steadfastly reject reality, so this definition of ethics remains subjective and conditional.
- Ethics cannot be objectively defined as “that which is good for man’s survival.” Certain individuals can survive very well by preying on others, so this definition of ethics does not overcome the problem of subjectivism. In biological terms, this would be analogous to describing evolutionary tendencies as “that which is good for life’s survival” – this would make no sense. Human society is an ecosystem of competing interests, just as the rainforest is, and what is “good” for one man so often comes at the expense of another.
- I do not believe in any “higher realm” of Ideal Forms. Morality cannot be conceived of as existing in any “other universe,” either material or immaterial. If morality exists in some “other realm,” it cannot then be subjected to a rigorous rational or empirical analysis – and, as Plato himself noted in “The Republic,” society would thus require an elite cadre of Philosopher-Kings to communicate – or, more accurately, enforce – the incomprehensible edicts of this “other realm” upon everyone else. This also does not solve the problem of subjectivism, since that which is inaccessible to reason and evidence is by definition subjective.
- I do not believe that morality can be defined or determined with reference to “arguments from effect,” or the predicted consequences of ethical propositions. Utilitarianism, or “the greatest good for the greatest number,” does not solve the problem of subjectivism, since the odds of any central planner knowing what is objectively good for everyone else are about the same as any central economic planner knowing how to efficiently allocate resources in the absence of price – effectively zero. Also, that which is considered “the greatest good for the greatest number” changes according to culture, knowledge, time and circumstances, which also fails to overcome the problem of subjectivism. We do not judge the value of scientific experiments according to some Platonic higher realm, or some utilitarian optimisation – they are judged in accordance with the scientific method. I will take the same approach in this book.
- I also refuse to define ethics as a “positive law doctrine.” Although it is generally accepted that legal systems are founded upon systems of ethics, no one could argue that every law within every legal system is a perfect reflection of an ideal morality. Laws cannot directly mirror any objective theory of ethics, since laws are in a continual state of flux, constantly being overturned, abandoned and invented – and legal systems the world over are often in direct opposition to one another, even at the theoretical level. Sharia law is often directly opposed to Anglo-Saxon common-law, and the modern democratic “mob rule” process often seems more akin to a Mafia shoot-out than a sober implementation of ethical ideals.
- I am fully open to the proposition that there is no such thing as ethics at all, and that all systems of “morality” are mere instruments of control, as Nietzsche argued so insistently. In this book, I start from the assumption that there is no such thing as ethics, and build a framework from there.
- I do have great respect for the ethical instincts of mankind. The near-universal social prohibitions on murder, rape, assault and theft are facts that any rational ethicist discards at his peril. Aristotle argued that any ethical theory that can be used to prove that rape is moral must have something wrong with it, to say the least. Thus, after I have developed a framework for validating ethical theories, I run these generally accepted moral premises through that framework, to see whether or not they hold true.
- I respect your intelligence enough to refrain from defining words like “reality,” “reason,” “integrity” and so on. We have enough work to do without having to reinvent the wheel.
- Finally, I believe that any theory – especially one as fundamental as a theory of ethics – does little good if it merely confirms what everybody already knows instinctively. I have not spent years of my life working on a theory of ethics in order to run around proving that “murder is wrong.” In my view, the best theories are those which verify the truths that we all intuitively understand – and then use those principles to reveal new truths that may be completely counter-intuitive.
Having spent the last few years of my life preparing, training, and then combating this beast, I hope that I have acquitted myself with some measure of honour. I believe that I have emerged victorious – though not entirely unscathed – and I look forward to seeing who shares this view.
I studied the history of philosophy in graduate school, and hold a Masters degree, but I do not have a PhD in philosophy. I am far from a publicly recognised intellectual. While I may not be the most unlikely champion, I am also far from the most likely. Whether I have succeeded or not is not up to you, and it is not up to me.
If the reasoning holds, the greatest beast is down.
A Modest Suggestion
It is the height of audacity to suggest to readers how to read a book, but given the challenges of the task before us, I would like to make one small suggestion before we embark.
If we lived in the fifteenth century, and I were trying to convince you that the world were round, I would put forward reams of mathematical and physical proofs. If you held a contrary opinion, you would naturally react with scepticism, and be inclined to quibble with every line of proof. However, if you and I could in fact sail around the world, and arrive back where we started without retracing our steps, you would be far more willing to accept the conceptual proofs for what you had already experienced to be true. You might find fault with a particular logical step or metaphor, but you would already agree with the conclusion, and thus would be more prone to help correct the details rather than reject the theory as a whole.
If my task were to respond to every possible objection to every linguistic, logical and empirical step, this book would remain forever unfinished – and unread. Perfectionism is, in essence, procrastination, and I consider the task of this book to be too important – and the dangers of false morality too grave and imminent – to spend so long trying to achieve heaven that we all end up in hell.
Thus I humbly suggest that you wait to see how effective the ethical framework I propose is at proving the most commonly accepted moral maxims of mankind before passing final judgement on the theory.
I truly believe that the definition of a rational ethical framework is the most essential task that faces mankind. I truly appreciate your interest in this crucial matter – and would like as always to thank the wonderfully kind donators who have made this work possible.
I ride into battle well armed by others.
- Most of these will be discussed in more detail throughout the course of this book.
- Of course, if I have failed, I have at least failed spectacularly, which itself can be both edifying and entertaining!