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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Oh..yeah that's why I couldn't get the damn boat to move.  People here don't leave their water lying around on the ground.

Morality cannot be treated like a math problem. We can use mathematical models in many arenas of ethics (aka research on the approach itself) but not to arrive at a consensus of morality itself.

Morality is to me in large part defined by culture, which varies, and thus is arbitrary....

Or something like that! LOL!!!

I agree, there are large cultural differences, which in itself makes it arbitrary, and then there is the fundamental is/ought problem, the fact/value divide (which states that it is logically impossible to derive values from facts), so therefore, all values are in a sense arbitrary, and there's no getting round this.  If you want to anchor the values at some arbitrary point, which makes sense to people, then you can make progress. 

"Morality cannot be treated like a math problem.

- I agree, but on the other hand, it's possible to "systematise" it, or tidy it up into a precise overall schema, at various points, and this is a very powerful and profitable approach. 

the anti-arbitrariness principle says that we have to avoid all avoidable arbitrariness. The inescapable arbitrariness of choice of values is unavoidable. But in most (or all) cultures people use ethical systems that contain a lot of avoidable arbitrariness.

The fact/value distinction is not relevant here. Even if there are no moral facts, we can still put constraints on ethical systems based on rules that we are willing to accept. Compare it with mathematics: even if there are no mathematical facts (i.e. there is no platonic world of mathematical objects), mathematicians can still do mathematics. But the mathematical systems that mathematicians use should not contain any avoidable arbitrariness. See second section in https://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2015/11/13/against-arbitrariness/

I agree that in practice, for human beings, morality has to have a certain structure, otherwise it does not do its job of promoting cooperation, social harmony, prosocial behaviour and long term flourishing of individuals. 

"Even if there are no moral facts, we can still put constraints on ethical systems based on rules that we are willing to accept.

- this is no longer non-arbitrary, it's constrained.  Mathematics is different: there are logically unassailable facts and rules; the facts are kept distinct from the values, explicitly, and also, infinitely many different values may be used instead of just a few, and in morality, the value determines the facts that are relevant to it.  So you can't compare the two: they are different in fundamental ways, and there are no conclusions in moral theory that can be derived by appealing to a similarity to mathematics. 

The reason that our morality is non-arbitrary is that we have made a firm implicit choice, as evolved human beings, to fix certain values on certain facts.  Other values that people place on facts are more arbitrary and variable. 

"rules that we are willing to accept.

- on what values do we base this decision?  On what facts are those values based? 

Jesus, Buddha, both are seen to represent the best in morality that the human race can devise……

Really??? Who set the objectivity benchmark? What objective morals did Jesus give us that we did not have beforehand? I think my morals are of a much higher standard than many of those suggested in the Bible.

Like TJ says, an abstract ideal that is clearly defined and understood in the same basic way by everyone is objective by its very nature, and if it is one of the "highest" moral ideals or elements, then it is innate in human nature to see it as something of the highest good that is worth aspiring to.  Other ideals or principles, although just as universal and necessary, may be viewed in a more morally mixed light: for example, reciprocity, or self-interest. 

"Jesus, Buddha, both are seen to represent the best in morality that the human race can devise……

Really??? Who set the objectivity benchmark?

- the studying that I've been doing backs up this idea.  I've found that I can rationally arrive at the same conclusion, philosophically, and that a version of this is fundamental to humans as a species, by looking at our evolution. 

"What objective morals did Jesus give us that we did not have beforehand? I think my morals are of a much higher standard than many of those suggested in the Bible.

- this exactly proves my point. 

"Compare it with mathematics:"

Thinking about it, @Stijn Bruers, what we do have is a collection of moral facts, in the sense of "facts about morality".  More precisely, a collection of concepts.  Each concept is made up of, or closely related to, some of the other concepts within the collection.  This catalogue of moral facts and their close relations is one way of representing the overall picture of certain aspects of universal morality. 

So your metaphor of mathematics turns out to be very appropriate.  The basis of the framework is logical, rational, and clearly justified, and since reality is logical, the logicality of the basis carries through into the rest of the overall picture.  What we have is a set of concepts related in certain ways - and in this regard it is very much like mathematics.  It is based on reality, but it is also abstract and conceptual.  Because it is based on the everyday reality that everybody experiences, and it is clear and logical, it is accessible to the average person if they spend maybe a year learning the factual raw material that makes up the overall picture.  It doesn't take too long, and is actually not difficult at all.  It is also completely fascinating, and can begin to improve the way that people lives their lives, as soon as they begin learning about it. 

If you look at the concepts, it is striking how powerful each is on its own, and when you start connecting them all up, enormous progress in human theoretical knowledge in this area is relatively easy to achieve.  This knowlege has the potential to make the world a much happier place overall in my opinion, in that it equips people with the basic moral, ethical and spiritual knowledge that makes life less of a mystery and more of a success. 

The model also accommodates, naturally, the situation of having to take care of planet Earth, and the idea of the shared destiny of the human race, and all the cooperative prosocial consequences of that necessity. 

What effects it can have in the real world, if any, remain to be seen. 

@Belle - this is an interesting subject that I've just been reading about.  Shweder, Mahapatra and Miller did a study in around 1986: Culture and Moral Development.  They looked at a sample of North American children and adults, and a sample of orthodox Hindu children and adults (Brahmans and Untouchables) from an old traditional society in a temple town in India. 

This was the upshot:  there was a subset of moral beliefs that both sides agreed upon, and these are the kinds of basic things that are in my "universal morality" set of concepts, like compassion, fairness, the Golden Rule etc.  Apart from that, the two societies were very different.  From my sketchy understanding, it seems to come down to the fact that American morality tends to favour individualism and individual rights and freedom, while the traditional Hindu society is based on the duties and obligations associated with upholding the social order.  For both sides, they each assume that the way they do it is the way that everyone should do it, and this is not really questioned.  However, in the US, people are more aware that some beliefs are more of a local social consensus than a universal given - and therefore they carry less force.  Interestingly, American children are the most independent-minded of all, and American adults are more conformist than the children, but I don't know why this is. 

In issues of "personhood", while in the West we value individual rights to happiness, in other societies the individual's rights are subsumed to the welfare of the group much more. 

The Indian set-up isn't necessarily so horrible as it might sound to us at first, since it is meant to be based on the unit of the family where the more powerful and skilful (i.e. the men lol) look after the interests of the less powerful and skilful (guess who lol) and in principle, this idea has something going for it.  We have to remember that 150 years ago, this was the case in Europe, and we spent maybe the 20th century liberating ourselves from it.  We've had the traditions of Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau etc, and their ideas of personal liberty, and numerous other roots of this movement, such as the Catholic Church's granting of freedom of marriage instead of arranged marriages, in 1400 something. 

We also have to remember that both Jesus and Buddha drove a Sherman tank through the established social order of their times, both emphasising the role and interior world of the individual, without considering the social milieu at all, it seems.  Mohammed, on the other hand, was a political as well as a spiritual and religious leader - church and state were as one from the beginning in Islam. 

Jesus is actually a very interesting character when you come to look at bits of his behaviour.  Why was he so independent-minded?  Why did he brush off his family as if they were rubbish?  That seems very inconsistent with the rest of his message, and a bit peculiar.  Why was he so sure of everything he said?  He really had a lot to say, and he really really meant what he said.  Why did he know so damn much, that I'm just discovering now through looking at the evolution of our morality and ethics?  Why was he so fearless and unmoveable?  At the end, all he was worried about was that his religious beliefs might be faulty.  You would have thought he had more pressing issues.  All very interesting. 

There's this: 

Luke 11:46     Jesus said, "How terrible it will be for you experts in the Law, too!  You load people with burdens that are hard to carry, yet you don't even lift a finger to ease those burdens." 

I can't help thinking this may be all of a piece with the situation.  In other words, maybe some bastard in his family royally fucked him up, and it took becoming "Jesus" in order to overcome it.  Just saying.  What I've described are typical traits of those who've been through an extremely hard time growing up, and learned how to turn it around. 

Jesus seems to have never existed...so, of COURSE that has to mess a guy up.

They seem to have taken a composite of some actual Jewish zealots, fighting against Rome, in an effort to establish a strict orthodox fundamentalist version of Judaism....and some preachers, and a box load of old folklore and stories, and threw them together, and cobbled up a Jesus.

The original goal was to convert the jews via provision of a messiah....and that's why the earliest scraps refer to Jesus's jewish dad's lineage.

Later, they changed course, dropped the jewish dad story, and concocted the story about him being his own father, and god.

Later still, they sewed poor mary's hootch back up for good measure.

So, the poor little lamb went from having a conception in a town that didn't exist at the time he needed it to be there to be born in, to a birth in a town his mom didn't have to go to to pay taxes, with the famous manger, and, famous visits by kings with gifts following a star to the town no taxes were due at...

...and despite the early recognition by kings and valuable gifts they brought, he had to work as a carpenter, because the town he wasn't born at, later became known for carpenters...long after his alleged time of death...

...but traveled about, inspiring others to travel the known world spreading the news of the young god amoungst men, and his miracles that mirrored other popular miracles attributed to others prior to this time period...

And they were so good at spreading the news of god returning to earth, that no one, at all, anywhere in the known world, noticed...

...and then the poor lamb is nailed to wood, probably w/o ever actually mastering carpentry...

Sent back to himself, and, a hundred or so years later, someone decides to write about his life and teachings as a means to control an increasingly rebellious populace.

So,poor Jesus, on the couch, is exasperatingly retorting, HOW THE EFF TO DO YOU THINK IT MAKES ME FEEL!!!!

:D

Well, A Jesus probably existed, but not a Jesus who could walk on water, turn water into wine, drive out demons, etc., etc., etc.

To argue that Jesus NEVER existed is an unverifiable hypothesis.

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