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.



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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"The key to happiness isn't getting what you want, it's wanting what you get."

Morality is essentially being fair.

Ethics is essentially following the behavioral rules of your profession and/or society.

X = where you bury your pirate treasure, unless you're an effed up pirate and use asterisks.

Morality is subjective, not objective, in real life.  There are always exceptions and conditions that make blanket statements inapplicable...such that an objective moral tends to not exist.

If "Be Fair" was the objective moral, I might buy that though.

So, its a sliding scale, not an absolute.

As it consists of being fair...you simply determine if whatever is in question is fair.  If it is fair, its more moral.  If its unfair, its less moral.

Killing is unfair to the victim...generally.

If your crying baby will give away the position of your fellow travelers, hiding from the terrorists who wanted to kill all of you, etc, and your covering its mouth to muffle its cries suffocates it, that was fair. Sad, but fair.  The betrayal of everyone ELSE'S position was MORE unfair, especially as the baby would be killed anyway.

And so forth.


If your crying baby will give away the position of your fellow travelers, hiding from the terrorists who wanted to kill all of you, etc, and your covering its mouth to muffle its cries suffocates it, that was fair. Sad, but fair.  The betrayal of everyone ELSE'S position was MORE unfair, especially as the baby would be killed anyway

The M*A*S*H* Finale conundrum.

MASH stole it from its original source as an example of a moral conundrum, which is what I paraphrased.


I'm not terribly surprised it's not original with them... but I have no doubt it's far more famous because of that.

"Morality is subjective, not objective, in real life.

- but you've said that morality is fairness, so you're saying that the idea that morality is fairness is objective, by definition, since fairness applies to everyone, otherwise it wouldn't be fair. 

Fairness is going to be subjective, as its only rarely an all or none scenario.

The example of being unfair to the crying baby was used to illustrate this.

Fairness as a concept might be objective, but, the practice will tend to be subjective.

There is always a tendency for an outcome to favor one party over another, even if its a slight difference.

A "Fair Deal" between two parties in a transaction for example will be more likely to involve one party getting "enough" for the surrender of the property to make it worth it to do so, and the buying party spending an amount that is not so high as to not be worth it...

But the relative values might not be equal in terms of what each, ideally, would have spent or received....the values simply overlapped each other's ranges of acceptability...and were therefore deemed "fair".

And so forth.

So fair doesn't mean in your favor per se.

It means, essentially, that when everything is weighed, the scales are balanced, and perhaps balanced as well as possible considering the givens of the scenario.

So the crying baby was definitely getting the short end of that stick, being suffocated and all...yet, considering if it was allowed to cry, it would have been killed anyway...as well as its mom, etc.

The poor schmucks sent to FIND these hiding people are screwed if they don't find them...they might be shot for incompetence.

Is that fair?

Everyone has a horse in the race/dog in the fight, etc...but the race or fight might be larger than the issue of which dog or horse individually comes out on top.

Its unfair that the terrorist might get shot for not finding someone good at hiding...he might be more competent than given credit for.

In all fairness, the hiders really should not feel much empathy for them though.

Morally, the terrorists may feel that THEY are doing the right thing. Others may disagree. If one terrorist comes to the conclusion that what he is supposed to do is wrong, is it fair to not admit it, given the admission means his death?

If one terrorist sees the hiders through the leaves, but doesn't want them hurt, and pretends not to see them...and later, his commander, who sent him to search that area, is shot because his men failed to find the hiders...was that fair?

As far as fair and moral go, they are not equal/synonyms. You can be fair or unfair, or a situation can...but the fairness of your ACTIONS is what can be moral.

You may weight the situation regarding the hiders and the commander, and decide that while it IS unfair for him to be shot because YOU essentially screwed him by pretending his plan failed, when in fact, he did select the correct search area...

..its MORE unfair for the innocent civilians hiding to be found and murdered.

The moral aspect of the fairness is dependent upon that judgement.

And so forth.

"Fairness as a concept might be objective, but, the practice will tend to be subjective.

- I agree, and this is in the nature of an objective morality.  The principles can be objective, but the actual practice will vary widely from situation to situation and in the quality of how they are carried out. 

I agree that fairness is a fundamental part of morality.  I was reading that in the brain, there is a centre for determining benefit and harm, and one for processing reciprocity.  Reciprocity and fairness are linked: both are about "relative flourishing", and natural selection is relative compared with those around you.  Fairness has been defined as proportionality (and equity):  how much effort you put in versus how much reward you get out.  Fairness is also linked to justice.  In the case of the crying baby, her fate is disproportionate to her crimes, and in any case, a baby is not capable of committing a crime, and it seems unfair to rob her of her life when she is innocent. 

I've realised that "morality" refers to the principles of behaviour between people, according to certain values (benefit/harm, reciprocity/fairness, group loyalty, others...) - in other words, the rules of the game.  A morally neutral term. 

"Game" seems an appropriate word.  Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff in "Wild Justice - the moral lives of animals" talk about how the play of social animals seems like a very good training ground for learning the social rules of grown-ups and for learning adult skills in general. 

"Ethics" needs to refer to "the best that can be achieved" using the rules of the game, that behaviour which produces optimum results for all concerned.  This introduces the idea of "perfection", an ideal of attitude and quality of action.  What we can't achieve is perfect results, because 1) opinions vary on what this might be; 2) we can't control the outcome of our actions.  In practice, this generally comes down to "unconditional love", Jesus-style.  But it also points to a deeper, unifying concept: 

Intuitive wisdom.  This concept unifies morality, ethics and spirituality in one neat junction.  Intuitive wisdom refers to "compassion and truth".  But the way to achieve compassion, the mechanics of making living beings flourish, is to put the right conditions in place, like when we tend and nurture a plant in our garden. 

This is a very different way of doing things from the one we may be used to: the intellectual, ego-driven, calculating way of trying to control results and outcomes.  The problems with this are that the mind is intimately tied up with the emotions and self-interest and the ego in general, so it is not reliably objective in a long-term sense when it comes to making collective decisions that affect others (moral decisions).  For that matter, we aren't necessarily too great at looking after our own selves either. 

But to put the right conditions in place for flourishing to happen places all the emphasis on our actions, promotes stillness and a meditative, here-and-now attitude, promotes virtue, promotes joy, optimism and cheerfulness, and reduces stress.  Activity becomes a patient unfolding of events.  The choice of action to be taken next is very intuitive, because compassion is a part of the fabric of nature, and is therefore felt as much as thought, and awareness is intuitive too.  This contemplative approach to action forces the ego to take a back seat.  It may even be the solution to the Buddhist riddle of "emptiness" where everything has multiple causes and in some way this is meant to be the spiritual key to the universe. 

The "ethics" angle comes from the fact that flourishing is felt as a fundamental force and motivation in its own right: as a healthy person, we naturally want the best results: the nature of compassion itself.  "Morality" refers to the combination of the pressure to flourish and its distribution in a social setting: "love thy neighbour as thyself". 

So this is the power of the framework I have found: it keeps on spitting out answers like a crackly fire. 

Kill the baby.

OK, I think I got it, this thread has resolved Objective Morality for me...it's Word Soup...

...Thank Thor, Hammer Time. :)

Queasy-Objective Morality gets regurgitated by those claiming its in the bible all the time, well, not the word queasy, by them, just the result tends to have that effect...on those that consider the bible mostly devoid of objective morality, equipped with some subjective morality, but mostly bronze age ethics.

+1 - same with pretty much all philosophical discussions. They dissolve into questions like, "What do you mean by, 'IS'".


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