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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Again, I'd flip that and say ethics where you say morals.

Ethics is the aspect that relates to conformity...does everyone around you walk around naked, or just cover reproductive openings, or also mammary openings, or also legs, face, whatever?

If a man in NYC drops his pants and a 5 year old see's the guy's junk...that man will be severely punished.

If a man in the Amazon walks around with his junk wagging about all day long, and all the 5 year olds, etc, in the village see them wagging, all day, he's not punished.

In NYC, seeing a guys junk, in public, is a crime.  In the Amazon, it might be considered normal, as everyone's might be exposed.

Is it morally wrong to expose one's junk?


Is it an ethical issue, based upon conformity with local custom?

And so forth.


Ethics is the aspect that relates to conformity

There are graduate level courses in ethics and they are NOT about conforming to local standard, they are about discovering The Good.

When someone buggers a little boy, we don't say "That isn't ethical" but rather "That is immoral."

You have it bass akckwards.


Nope, you have them reversed.

Perhaps back in the old days when you took graduate level courses, the language had not been resolved yet.

For example, the ancient Greeks did not have a word for hand yet...it was called the end of your arm, etc.

Do you remember when the word hand came into common usage?


Back in the days when I too took classes, I actually don't remember when "hand" came into common use either, OR the differences they taught between ethics and morals - its been too long......

But, I kept up, and, have either relearned, or, learned anew, that ethics are societal rules, and morals are the aspects of good you referenced.


IE: Ethics say a lawyer can mislead a jury and judge to defend his client, and try to prove a guilty man is innocent.

Its the rules that apply to their profession...called the ethics.

Morals are more the subjective abstract, rather than the rule based, variety of "what's right or good".

So, sure, in common usage, people could care less*, reverse ethics and morals/not know there's a difference at all, etc.

*On purpose, as its supposed to be couldn't care less..but, in common use, its used incorrectly...etc.

The Ten Commandments. The Golden Rule.

Promoted by religions. You are expected to follow them without thinking. Just follow by rote.

Oh, and an article without even a by line makes something true. Nobody felt confident enough to say "I wrote this."

I'll have to remember that because article authors can't be dunces.

When a religion prescribes or proscribes behavior, it is STILL called a "moral code," not "religious ethics," right?

Morals are ethics reified or "set in stone."

So, no, YOU have it backward.

You keep referring to common usage as definitive.


And, yes, the bible has no morals, just rules....which the church tries to call objective morals.

Nice point, TJ

Common usage is how we understand each other. Chaotic usage is confusing.

So, yeah, I refer to how we use language.

You are both actually right when considering a rather narrow application of the terms (morals/ethics). For the most part though...morality and ethics are interchangable though when speaking of professional topics or specific ones almost always ethics is used (the ethics of torture, ethics of reproduction, sports ethics, the ethics of journalism). in philosophy courses there is almost never a course or book called "the morality of journalism". Morals/morality is more often used (as TJ said)  speaking of broad moral systems with a limited set of principles that apply to most situations (moral codes of the new testament, the moral framework of the socialist European projects, humanist morality). almost all ethics before the 20th century were moral systems.

For example when discussing the abstract lessons of a work of fiction or event, moral is used (the film had a hidden moral message, we have all taken on a new sense of morality after living in a refugee camp). Ethics and only ethics can be used when the topic is specific (Chicago hope always confronts the ethics of doctor patient relationship, my year as a circuit judge helped me pick up and redefine several ethics of legal practice).

For a few specific phrases we usually use moral (moral dilemma, moral authority, moral fabric, moral system) and for a few we only use moral (moral hazard, moral decline). In a couple cases we only use ethics (Bioethics, ethical code of conduct).

As for religion...you can distinguish moral and ethical if you like. One can synthesize a moral framework from the texts of the new testament. If however you said the ethics of religion you would find most philosophers would read that as a Meta-study of religion (can a religious leader interpreted Gods laws, how can morality exist without a moral authority).
These specific uses of moral and ethic are very particular and hardly cover the spectrum of "right or wrongness". There is nothing but a mess in between.

Beyond these specifics, ten different professors of philosophy or ten different sources will give ten different explanations on how the two are differentiated (beyond the ethics of a profession and the moral systems per ideologies etc). Lacking a consensus and considering practical/common use (as unseen has said per ethics) morals and ethics are genuinely interchangeable and in many contexts mean the same thing.

The best advice a prof gave me was, unless you plan on using the two terms differently (and clearly explaining the difference) you should jut pick one (morals or ethics) and stick with it. Just be consistent.

Care should be taken to differentiate the noun use and adjective use (morals or moral systems) (ethic(s) and ethical).

Thanks Davis that was very interesting and informative. It leaves me with the question of where scruples fit in. What are scruples?

"ten different professors of philosophy or ten different sources will give ten different explanations on how the two are differentiated

- it's true - there is no generally accepted definitive distinction.  For me, it's useful to define them in this way: "morality" is "what people do" - how they treat themselves and others, and play their part in wider society.  "Ethics" is "the best of what people do" - the good. 

Part of my argument is prescriptive. Language is better and can be more precise when distinctions are made. 

Using two terms interchangeably weakens language in that regard.


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