A quasi-objective morality without God: the anti-arbitrariness principle

Hi, as an atheist I have been watching several debates with William Lane Craig and others, and it started me thinking, especially about morality. At this moment I still doubt about the existence of an objective morality and I doubt that morality requires God. I think we can take a fairly objective morality that is based on an anti-arbitrariness principle.

 

Arbitrariness

There is arbitrariness about X if we can ask a meaningful and nontrivial question: “Why X and not for example, Y or Z?” and if this question cannot be answered by a rule which does not explicitly refer to X (or if there is no reason why X would be so special). The question is meaningful when Y and Z belong to the same set or category as X (and are therefore not something completely different) and the question is non-trivial if Y and Z are not simply “non-X”.

Sometimes arbitrariness is unavoidable in the sense of logically impossible to avoid it. The anti-arbitrariness principle says that we have to avoid all avoidable arbitrariness. If one thing goes for X, then it must also apply to all Y and Z that are equal to X (belong to the same set as X) according to a rule, unless the result becomes inconsistent or impossible.

First we have to look whether the anti-arbitrariness principle is itself arbitrary and therefore defeats itself. The answer is no. Of course we can always ask the trivial question: “Why be against arbitrariness and not against non-arbitrariness?” But any other nontrivial question becomes meaningless. For example: “Why be against arbitrariness and not against apples or bananas?” Apples and bananas do not belong to the same category as arbitrariness.

 

Democracy of coherent ethical systems

As in science and mathematics, the anti-arbitrariness principle is also fundamental in ethics. Physical theories that describe our universe and axiomatic systems that describe mathematical structures are examples of coherent systems that are consistent and do not contain avoidable arbitrariness. The same goes for ethics, where we can construct coherent ethical systems based on fundamental principles, just like mathematical axioms or universal physical laws.

So everyone can construct their own coherent ethical system, and we can aim for a consensus or democratic compromise between everyone’s system by using a democratic procedure. In a democracy, everyone has one vote, or everyone’s vote is equally important, because we cannot say that our own vote (one coherent ethical system) is better than someone else’s. I cannot say that my coherent ethical system is better than yours if both our systems are equally coherent. I prefer my system, but I cannot impose my system onto you, because what would make me so special that I would be allowed to do that? And the same goes for you and everyone else. It would be an avoidable kind of arbitrariness if we claim that our own system is special without good reason.

What happens if someone constructs an incoherent ethical system that contains avoidable arbitrariness (for example a discriminatory system that says that you can arbitrarily choose your victims)? We can reject, exclude or oppose that incoherent ethical system, and that person cannot complain that his/her system is rejected and that s/he does not get a vote in the democratic procedure, because that person acknowledges that arbitrary exclusions or rejections are permissible by acknowledging that arbitrariness is permissible. After all, that person uses an arbitrary system. The person can only give a valid complaint or argument if s/he accepts the anti-arbitrariness principle. Without that principle, any critique becomes invalid. The impossibility to complain if one has an incoherent ethical system implies that coherent ethical systems gain a more objective or absolute status. Hence the quasi-objective morality implied by the anti-arbitrariness principle.

 

Universal rules

Anti-arbitrariness results in universal moral rules. The principle of rule universalism says that one must follow the rules that everyone (who is capable, rational and well informed) must follow in all morally similar situations, and that one may follow only the rules that everyone (who is capable, rational and well informed) may follow in all morally similar situations.

The question becomes: what counts as morally similar situations? Situations can be called similar if morally relevant properties of the situation are similar, and those morally relevant properties should not contain avoidable arbitrariness. Examples of morally relevant properties are: well-being (of all sentient beings who have a well-being), preferences (of everyone who has them) and rights (of everyone and everything).

 

Universal rights

Human rights are arbitrary: why should all and only humans get rights? What makes humans (including for example mentally disabled orphan children) so special? What morally relevant property do all and only humans possess? If you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude other individuals from having rights and if you are allowed to arbitrarily select a group of right holders (e.g. the biological group of humans), then so am I and so is everyone, and you cannot want that. If speciesism is permissible, then so is racism, sexism and all other forms of arbitrary discrimination, and we cannot want that.

So instead of asking the question: “who gets all the basic rights?” we have to ask the question: “which rights should be given to everyone and everything, without arbitrary exceptions?” Everything really implies everything: electrons, planets, plants, animals, humans, computers, clouds,… This guarantees that all possible kinds of arbitrary discrimination are excluded.

If we give the basic right not to be killed to everything and everyone in the universe, we are not allowed to kill plants for food. But sentient beings cannot want that, and plants do not have a will, so they don’t care about not being killed because they do not have the mental capacity to care (they don’t experience anything so they even don’t feel or know if they are alive or dead). So we can consider basic rights such as the right not to be killed against one’s will, the right not to be confined against one’s will, the right not to be used as a means against one’s will.

With these rights, we can do whatever we like with things that do not possess a will, such as plants and individual living cells, because one cannot treat something against its will if it has no will. So for non-sentient objects (that have no subjective experience of a will), the basic rights are always trivially satisfied. We always respect the basic rights of non-sentient beings for 100%. For sentient beings (for example vertebrate animals and probably some other animals) the rights become nontrivial. These rights result in for example a vegan lifestyle. Abortion would be permissible because the embryo does not yet have a will (it therefore cannot be killed against its will) and the mother has a right not to be used by the embryo as a means (as a reproduction machine) against her will.

The only human right would be a right to be human, but that right is as meaningless as a right to be white or a right to be man. Ethical systems with non-universal rights are not permissible, because these systems contain avoidable arbitrariness.

 

The golden rule

A variation of the golden rule that we encountered several times before, is: “If you are allowed to do something, then so am I”, or more precisely: “If you are allowed to do something, then you must be able to want that everyone may do the symmetrically equivalent thing.” The symmetrical equivalence consists of a similar act by which the description of the pronouns “you” or “your” are exchanged with “I/he/she”, “me/him/her” or “my/his/her”. The positions of you and someone else are completely reversed. Here are some examples that illustrate this rule and demonstrate that we can deduce a lot from this rule.

We can easily derive things that you are not allowed to do, because you do not want them to be done to you. For example: if you may hit my cheek, I may hit your cheek. If you may impose your rules on others, others may impose their rules on you. If you may forbid homosexuality because you find it unclean, unholy or disgusting, then someone else may forbid something that you like and he finds unholy, for example playing guitar. If you may use vague or arbitrary reasons to justify your behavior that I don’t like, I am allowed to use vague reasons as well to justify my behavior that you don’t like. If you may say that we should follow the Bible because the Bible is the true word of God, I may say that we should follow the Bhagavat Gita as the true word of Krishna. If you may say that your moral intuitions are better than mine, I may say that mine are better than yours. If you may arbitrarily choose your victims, I may arbitrarily choose my victims.

We can also easily derive things that you are allowed to do, because you can want that others do the symmetrically equivalent behavior. For example: if you may eat the food that you bought, then I am allowed to eat the food that I bought.

Some derivations require more work. For example if you may kill a living being to eat, can I also kill a living being? You do not want me to kill you to eat. But you will still be able to kill a plant to eat. So you’re going to have to define a group of living beings that we should not kill and eat. For example, your relatives and friends. But if you may say that we are not allowed to eat your preferred group of friends and relatives, then I may prefer my group that might exclude you, which means I can eat you. If you may kill someone who does not belong to your family and friends, then everyone else may kill anyone who does not belong to their own circle of friends. You cannot want that. So you must define a different group. Perhaps the group of humans and dogs? But if you can determine that one should not eat anyone who belongs to the group of humans and dogs, I may decide that we should not eat anyone belonging to the species of pigs or chickens. Or I may decide that we should not eat someone belonging to the classes of mammals, birds or fish. Then you must accept that you are not allowed to eat meat and fish. But if I may decide that we should not kill animals to eat, then you may decide that we should not kill plants to eat, and I do not want that. So I cannot just define the group of animals. We cannot say that we may kill a living being if that living being does not belong to the group of relatives and friends, the group of people and dogs, the group of mammals and fish or the group of animals. So how may we decide who or what we may kill to eat? By not looking for what we may not kill, but by looking for what we may not kill against its will. So if you are not allowed to kill someone against his or her will, then neither am I. That means I may not kill you against your will. But you and I may still kill a plant, because a plant has no will and therefore cannot be treated against its will.

A final example: if you may follow your ethic, are racists allowed to follow their racist ethic? Are pedophiles, rapists and religious fundamentalists allowed to follow their ethics? You cannot want that. But the ethical systems of racists, pedophiles, rapists and religious fundamentalists contain inconsistencies, avoidable arbitrariness, unscientific beliefs and vague principle. So if your ethical system is more coherent than others (if your ethical system does not contain any inconsistencies, ambiguities and avoidable arbitrariness), then you can say that your ethical system is better than others and then you may oppose the incoherent systems of others.

 

The fundamental ethical formula

With the anti-arbitrariness principle we can derive many rules, such as the golden rule. Another expression that we can derive may be called the fundamental ethical formula, which can be used as a good basic starting point in ethics: everyone must follow those moral rules of which everyone can want that everyone follows them, in all possible worlds.

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"if this question cannot be answered by a rule which does not explicitly refer to X

- how do you know your rule isn't arbitrary? 

"First we have to look whether the anti-arbitrariness principle is itself arbitrary and therefore defeats itself. The answer is no.

- why? 

"If you may arbitrarily choose your victims, I may arbitrarily choose my victims.

- two wrongs don't make a right.  Something's screwed up in your theory somewhere. 

The Golden Rule is an instinct rather than a rule.  What happens if you break it? 

"If you may impose your rules on others, others may impose their rules on you."  This is like Jesus' "judge not lest ye be judged" so this is an example of how it works.  This is as far as it goes, you can't just say "you did X therefore I can do X to you" and it's automatically OK. 

Sorry, I find that your theory is weak and based on nothing.  Nobody would follow it because it has no reasonable human basis. 

"everyone must follow those moral rules of which everyone can want that everyone follows them, in all possible worlds.

- this sounds like Kant's Categorical Imperative, which, as I understand it, was an attempt to put into a formula the way in which people actually think.  Full marks to Kant for effort: 5/10 for results.  People just don't think like this when making moral decisions, outside of "how would you like it if everyone did that?" and that isn't very common. 

A rule is arbitrary if it refers to an X and you can ask the non-trivial question "why X and not Y or Z?"

Why the ant-arbitrariness principle is not arbitrary is explained in the text. Ask the question: "why should we avoid arbitrariness and not Y or Z?" Can you give meaningful examples of possible a Y or Z that belong to the same category as "arbitrariness"? No.

The idea behind "if you may do X, than so may I" is that we can derive what we may do. If I may not do X (in the sense that you cannot want that), then neither are you. Note that the rule says "if you may do, then..." It doesn't say "if you do, then...". So it is not about two wrongs making a right.

If I break the golden rule, then you can suppose that I believe that I may break it. But I cannot want that you may break it. So either I'm inconsistent (I may and may not break the rule) or I'm being arbitrary (I may but you may not break it although there is nothing special about me that allows me to break it). In both cases, if you would prevent me from breaking the golden rule, I have no reason to complain. And if you would break the golden rule towards me, or you treat me inconsistently or arbitrarily, I still don't have a reason to complain.

If you did X you are actually saying that I may do X to you.

The fundamental ethical formula indeed resembles Kant's categorical imperative (his first formulation), with some small differences to improve it. It also closely resembles Derek Parfit's formula in "On what matters" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_What_Matters

First of all, full marks for trying, as "atheist morality" nearly always means "reasons why religious morality is defective", and if I am criticising your work, that's better than being indifferent. 

I'm not getting your point about arbitrariness.  You seem to be saying, "non-arbitrariness is non-arbitrary because it's non-arbitrary".  Also, I don't get how this relates to morality, beyond asserting that your morality is non-arbitrary, because it follows the non-arbitrariness principle. 

Surely "non-arbitrary" means "it has to be like this", for some reason or other. That reason has itself to be non-arbitrary, and I don't see that you've provided anything like this. 

"First we have to look whether the anti-arbitrariness principle is itself arbitrary and therefore defeats itself. The answer is no.

- you've provided no justification whatever for this crucial point. 

"If you did X you are actually saying that I may do X to you.

- in other words, two wrongs make a right.  Only a child, or a morally undeveloped person, or a gangster, would think like this, and it's not something that people generally aspire to as "good", so therefore, why would you base a moral system on it?  On the other hand, "reciprocity" is a basis for punitive justice, but it's not as clockwork as you seem to imagine, outside of Saudi Arabia, which is always being criticised for its medieval human rights abuses. 

I think your understanding of the Golden Rule is shallow, you're just interpreting the words, when it's better to thoroughly understand the underlying principle. 

"Derek Parfit's formula in "On what matters"

- I think he makes the fundamental error of going over the same old garbage as everyone else, and it doesn't mean anything to anyone in real life.  Peter Singer praises it, and no offense, but Peter Singer is a fucking freak.  Just check out his infamous "tuk-tuk" lecture, which I don't have a link for as I don't want that filth anywhere near my computer.  Put it this way, I wouldn't let him babysit my kids (if I had any), in case he decided to put their hand in the gas flame as a way to teach them "fire is dangerous".  He really might do something like that.  He isn't all there, by a long way. 

If you're interested in moral philosophy, I would recommend "Modern Moral Philosophy" by Elizabeth Anscombe, written in 1958.  This is as close to a bible on the subject that I have seen.  Even this is vague and made up of fragments, but she is clearly aware of this, and within that, she's precise and well justified.  What's most important is the brilliant way she thinks, and this has helped me to think better.  If you want to see what I've been doing, it's here http://yellowgrain.co.uk/ (not been updated for a while) and on Think Atheist.  I need someone like Anscombe to help me to put it through the wringer, and it's a shame she's no longer with us. 

"If you did X you are actually saying that I may do X to you.

- I would say this is direct reciprocity, without forgiveness, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Sometimes it gives the best overall results, sometimes it doesn't.  I think a more important principle is "the maximum benefit and minimum harm available to each person concerned, including yourself":  "perfect compassion": there's no possible improvement available for the situation as a whole.  This implies, at least, a more nuanced and humane solution.  There's no need to always punish somebody in exactly the same way that they have transgressed.  The thing that they have done may just be unacceptable to do to somebody under any circumstances. 

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth can lead to a land of people with no eyes and no teeth: generational blood feuds.  It can be a terrible thing. 

I read somewhere that in Saudi Arabia, a court wanted to remove somebody's spine.  What could they have done to merit that punishment? 

The golden rule is useless for this exercise because it tells me to project my morality onto everyone else. Say I want to be bullied and seek out dominant people in my life. I like being someone's biatch. That is what makes me happy. Thus it is OK for me to bully others.

And Jebus himself allows himself to be tortured, it's the purpose of his life. Applying the golden rule means that he can torture everyone in turn, no problem. So yea the golden rule can be used to justify hell. Yey !

Pret-ty much.  At least it's "consistent". 

"If I break the golden rule, then you can suppose that I believe that I may break it.

- I think it is not useful to talk in terms of moral rules, because there is nothing to stop us breaking them, if we so choose. 

I think it is useful to talk in terms of a moral language.  This is made up of the fundamental principles, entities, processes, actions, attitudes etc. of morality, and like any language, it can be put together to make communications.  The thing that is being communicated in morality is benefit/harm, or perhaps fairness/unfairness, or sanctity/degredation, or authority/rebellion, loyalty/betrayal (to do with cooperation, reciprocity, gratitude, group membership), or freedom/restriction - these moral qualities or currencies have been identified by Jonathan Haidt among others. 

"Alphabet" might be a better concept, as there is a finite number of types of elements, I think, such as the moral principles, concepts such as attachment, desire and aversion, the ego and its functions and the way it operates, cooperation, perfect compassion, mindfulness, intentions, virtues, awareness, truth, evolution, nature's compassion, long term and short term, etc.  These kind of things make up an alphabet of elements which go together to make a moral language, which is used to communicate values or behaviour from one person to others, or more broadly, from an entity or situation to the world in general, and the way in which people treat themselves.  Again: morality consists of both facts (and actions) and values. 

I do think it's interesting to explore the many and varied manifestations of the Golden Rule in human life:  it's a fundamental moral instinct, and pervades much of what we do. 

I believe it's based on the instinct "I recognise your predicament, therefore I want to help". 

I think this comes from the origins of morality which seem to lie largely in the process of cooperating with others towards a joint goal, i.e. originally, surviving, which is THE most important goal. 

If you think about this situation of cooperating with others towards a joint goal, what do we do?  We look at our partner's situation and try and understand where they are coming from in case we need to help them towards our joint goal: we switch our perspective with theirs: we put ourselves in their situation, or we put another person we know about in their situation, and this is for the purpose of understanding their perspective, because it's relevant to our joint enterprise. 

What I find interesting, and difficult to explain, is that it's usually people we care about a lot that we put in the other person's place.  I wonder why that is?  Is it that when we recognise the other's predicament, we only care if it is the same as that of someone we already care about?  If we gain knowledge of their predicament by comparing it with that of someone we don't like, then I guess we are naturally less sympathetic to their plight. 

I believe it's based on the instinct "I recognise your predicament, therefore I want to help". 

...because I may need you later.

Altruism is a luxury

"...because I may need you later.

- if we're talking about the situations when the instinct first developed (according to my hypothesis), then I think it's "because I may need you later" and "because I need you to play your part in our joint cooperative endeavour".  As you may imply, in both of these situations, it is necessary to switch perspectives with the other person in order to see what they need. 

"Altruism is a luxury

- I think it depends on what kind of altruism you're talking about.  If we distinguish  1) altruism (good treatment) towards the people around us;  2) altruism towards people who are nothing to do with us, as in giving to charity;  I see 1) as a practical necessity for a happy successful life; 2) can be a luxury. 

I think this is interesting, because it brings up the issue of "needs" and "wants" in morality, both of which are highly active.  What I mean is, sometimes we're good because we need to be, and sometimes because we want to be, even though it may not be useful to us in practical terms.  These "wants" are almost as important to us as the "needs". 

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