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On originalism

What law of physics obligates the existence of a moral code? Why don’t rocks and trees and lions and zebras have moral codes? What is it that makes human decisions a special case that is different from all other things and creatures? Philosophers have struggled over the concept of right and wrong since before fire was captured for domestic use. In the time since then there have probably been as many moral codes as there have been philosophers to think of them. Most of them have one thing in common; they are claiming a lever to compel the behavior of others. Do lions and zebras have moral codes? Of course not. Lions attack and zebras defend. Zebras are (I’ve heard) a principal non-human killer of lions. They break the lion’s jaw with well placed kicks while attempting to escape. Unable to eat, the lion starves to death. Is a lion committing a moral wrong when it attacks a zebra? Is a zebra committing a moral wrong when it kicks a lion? Of course not, lions are lions and zebras are zebras. There is no moral code for lions and zebras beyond continuing their gene pool. With only that for guidance, all of their interactions tend towards extreme violence. Carrying on one’s gene pool is an internal imperative to each individual. There is no external imperative in the laws of physics that a particular gene pool must be continued. If one line ends, (other) life goes on. There is no external imperative for a lion or zebras’ moral code. Nor for a human’s. If there is no external imperative obligating a moral code, is no moral code possible? Must people live in a world where humans interact as zebras and lions? Not necessarily. Humans are social, thoughtful and planning creatures. Most of us are quite capable of understanding that in some circumstances we could be a capable aggressor and in some cases we could be an unwilling target. If I expect that at some point in time I will be a target, I might want there to be rules against aggression, even if I am at the moment acting from a position of great strength. From our positions of strength, we look to the future and seek allies that will honor our proposed rules and will continue to enforce them even when we are not strong enough to do so. From our simple agreements warding off aggression, complex societies formed. With the passage of time, complexity increases and that original foundational source is forgotten. People begin searching for external sources of a moral imperative to impose on others. This is the point at which participants either deliberately or unconsciously begin gaming the system. What started as a reciprocal agreement to not kill your neighbors and steal their food and to protect each other if attacked, has morphed into incomprehensibly complex systems with minute rules administered by free-standing third-parties called “governments” and their original foundation as a mutual non-aggression pact has been lost to posterity.

Forgetting the original mutual non-aggression pact foundation and looking for external sources of moral codes invites theories of how people deserve to be treated. How does a zebra or a lion “deserve” to be treated? The question is silly because a zebra is a zebra and a lion is a lion; each is what it is. In the ‘here and now’ mind of a zebra or a lion, a human crossing the Serengeti is just another thing and “deserves” nothing. In the much posited “state of nature”, the only restraint on the strongest is a sated appetite. It is only through temporally durable agreements that humans are restrained. “Deserve” is a human invention and subject to human definition. You deserve only what the contract you have with other individuals says you “deserve”. If there is no contract, there is no “deserve”. At root, these mutual non-aggression contracts between humans, acting individually and in cooperation, stand as the only barrier between each of us and unlimited, literally unlimited, violence.

The binding strength of our constitutional contracts is all that holds back violent aggression by whoever is strongest at the moment. Once a society slips from its contractual moorings and floats free, it cannot but drift into primal carnage. If the rules can be flexed with good intentions, it is the strongest who will bend them. Regardless of the good intentions behind constitutional nullification, sooner or later the broken remnants of what started as a mutual non-aggression pact become weapons in the hands of aggressors. When the constitutional contract is nullified it is the strongest, not the weakest, who benefit.

84 comments to On originalism

  • Mostly unrelated to your point….

    I find it useful to think of the built-in human moral code as an evolutionary hack to allow short-sighted monkeybrained proto-humans to function with proper tit-for-two-tats, ingroup-outgroup distinguishing, game-theoretic behavior.

  • Tedd

    If we were clever enough, we might construct a computer simulation of an entire universe, a simulated universe that included simulations of societies. And we might see that those simulated societies that follow Midwesterner’s Contract prosper, and those that don’t “drift into primal carnage.” But none of that would matter except to us, as external observers with free will and consciousness. We’d be watching the results with fascination, and perhaps patting ourselves on the back for our cleverness. But the “societies” in the simulation would be chugging along without any meaning whatsoever.

    And such is our situation in the real world, with respect to moral philosophy, if we’re not taking into account the importance of free will and consciousness. It’s not enough for a moral code to lead to successful replication of itself and the society that follows it. It must also acknowledge the primacy of free will and consciousness, ahead of everything else, including society.

    I’m not sure if I’m thinking of this in the same way Midwesterner is but, to me, this consideration of free will and consciousness is an external source of morality, and it definitely invites theories of how people deserve to be treated. For me, the problem with moral theories about how people deserve to be treated isn’t that they depend on non-existent “laws of physics.” Free will and consciousness are either facts or, if they’re not, the entire discussion is moot so me might as well treat their factual status as axiomatic. So the external source is there, period. No, the problem with moral theories about how people deserve to be treated is that certain people insist on acting on those moral theories in the political domain. Moral choice is inherently individual. If morality depends on free will and consciousness, how could it be otherwise? So it’s the notion that a moral code can be invoked in the political domain (i.e., through force or coersion) that is the problem, not the moral code itself.

  • RRS

    With a complete lack of humility –

    Here are some observations:

    We do observe in other creatures (and amongst many other organisms) that live or exist in “organized” (natural or otherwise) groupings that there are patterns to the relationships of the “members” of those groupings, both to one another and to, or within, the organized whole. [Wolf Packs, Hen Yards, Prides, Herds, Fraternal Orders of Weasel Trappers, Episcopates and several others]

    Among humans, examination indicates that the patterns of those relations can be traced to a commonality of sets of understood, recognized and accepted obligations of the members of human groupings to one another and to the group, and as a group to the member. Those vary among the differing forms of groupings. The circumstances and conditions of the formation of the groupings (specifically into those called Social Orders) appear to be a major variant in the composition and relative force of both the obligations and the cohesiveness of their commonality (degree of commonality and its “strength” with different members).

    The principal “force” bringing that commonality into effect is probably a primal need for predictability, chiefly predictability of the behavior of others.

    Thus it is those commonalities of “ought to” and “ought not” that are the obligations which become the morality or moral code for humans in their Social Orders. That is not to say that something similar is not extant elsewhere in the organic realms.

  • RRS

    Smited again via permalink. However, I have saved it to try again.

  • Alisa

    Tedd, but free will and consciousness is an external source not just of morality, but also of amorality, as well as everything else that is uniquely human. I’m afraid that your argument is a non- sequitur. That, in addition to the fact that neither free will, nor consciousness are external to himanity.

  • Midwesterner

    Tedd,

    Are you saying that, for one example, the lion does not have free will? It seems a stretch to me to say that a lion is responding to determinist inevitability when it is deciding whether the itch on his chin is worth scratching, and yet when a human makes that decision, he is exercising free will. I don’t understand how free will is an external source of morality much less how its existence can stipulate a particular morality.

    I am saying that a moral code is a choice made by humans in respect to other humans. It is founded on reciprocity, not some third party provided benchmark of what is good and evil.

    If consent is the foundation of a relationship between two individuals, consent can only be internally provided. If force is the foundation of a relationship between two individuals, then that is the real character of a state of nature, violence interrupted only by satiation.

  • RRS

    With a complete lack of humility –

    Here are some observations:

    We do observe in other creatures (and amongst many other organisms) that live or exist in “organized” (natural or otherwise) groupings that there are patterns to the relationships of the “members” of those groupings, both to one another and to, or within, the organized whole. [Wolf Packs, Hen Yards, Prides, Herds, Fraternal Orders of Weasel Trappers, Episcopates and several others]

    Among humans, examination indicates that the patterns of those relations can be traced to a commonality of sets of understood, recognized and accepted obligations of the members of human groupings to one another and to the group, and as a group to the member. Those vary among the differing forms of groupings. The circumstances and conditions of the formation of the groupings (specifically into those called Social Orders) appear to be a major variant in the composition and relative force of both the obligations and the cohesiveness of their commonality (degree of commonality and its “strength” with different members).

    The principal “force” bringing that commonality into effect is probably a primal need for predictability, chiefly predictability of the behavior of others.

    Thus it is those commonalities of “ought to” and “ought not” that are the obligations become the morality or moral code for humans in their Social Orders. That is not to say that something similar is not extant elsewhere in the organic realms.

  • Tedd

    Let’s begin with two propositions.

    1. Slavery is morally wrong.

    2. If there were another species equal to humans in intelligence, free will, and consciousness, it would be wrong for us to enslave them.

    If you disagree with either of those propositions that’s fine, but I’d like to make that a separate discussion. Those who agree with both please continue.

    Why is the second proposition true?

    We could argue that slavery of any kind violates a non-aggression pact that is critical to the ongoing success of society. I think that is roughly what Midwesterner is saying. But that argument only works if we consider the other intelligent species to be part of our society, which is begging the question. It assumes that it’s moral (or otherwise unavoidable) to consider the other species as part of our society, without saying why.

    We could argue that evolution has conditioned us to recognize the other species as being “like us,” so that we instinctively apply the same moral reasoning to them as we do to ourselves. That might explain why we feel that it’s wrong to enslave them, but it does’t explain why it is wrong to enslave them. Since they are a different species, clearly there is no biological imperative at work. If anything, the biological imperative is to wipe them out.

    And yet, it seems to me that the second proposition is true. So, why?

    My answer is that both propositions are true for the same reason: it is wrong to enslave anyone with free will and consciousness. Moreover, I think that may be the reason for all moral choices.

    How do you feel about a 50 year old man having sex with a 13 year old girl? I would expect most people here recoil at the idea. (I hope all do). We could argue that it would voilate a pact of non-aggression that’s critical to the success of society. But it would then have to be non-consensual sex, which is a different matter entirely. We could argue that we’re programmed by evolution to recoil at the idea, yet it has been common practice in cultures that lasted a lot longer than ours has (to date). From a strictly biological point of view, nature would be thrilled if every 13 year old girl were impregnated by a 50 year old man. So why would consensual sex of that nature be morally wrong? Is it not because we do not believe that a 13 year old girl has the capacity to consent? That she has not yet fully developed the free will and consciousness to make a moral choice of such complexity, with such consequences? Is it not because we fear that the experience might irreversibly damage the development of her mental health — that is, her ability to make choices consciously, by free will?

    I realize that this doesn’t come close to constituting a proper argument from first principles. In that sense it’s still a non sequitur. But I think it’s right, and I hope one day to be able to articulate a proper argument in support of it.

  • Midwesterner

    I think I understood that, RRS.

    Those commonalities of obligations within societies have their origins in the consent of the strongest (at some point in time) to accept limits in exchange for temporally durable rules. The only way the strongest can be restrained is by satiation (briefly) or by their own consent (for longer time frames).

    It is not just human social and thinking nature that enables these short term ‘bad’, long term ‘good’ choices. If there is any measure of “humanness”, my vote is for a well developed capacity for deferred gratification. It is the ability of humans to anticipate long term consequences derivative of short term acts that makes us capable of conceiving the concept of ‘morality’ and ‘deserve’. Morality is a product of reason (however well or poorly exercised). As such, it must be individual/internal.

    Unless abused as a simple claim for a want, “deserve” is actually a rather complicated intellectual construction involving compliance with standards to achieve certain outcomes. Those standards can only be consensual and internally sourced. To think one can deserve anything while under duress is the flip side of thinking someone will understand their guilt if you punish them enough. Any application from externally is a return to a primal, violence based state of nature.

    The principal “force” bringing that commonality into effect is probably a primal need for predictability, chiefly predictability of the behavior of others.

    If we stipulate that it was the strongest who elected to exchange their short term lack of restraints for those benefits, then yes. Leaving a primal state of nature required the consent of the strongest and destroying the sanctity of those contracts ultimately always reverts the society to a primal state of nature, aka ‘strong man’ rule.

  • Midwesterner

    Tedd,

    Who gets to define slavery? Who gets to define intelligence? Is working for “the man” slavery? A lot of people seriously make that claim. Is believing/disbelieving in God proof of intelligence or stupidity?

    First we have to agree on who writes the definitions. Even that first step requires mutual consent. Everything you are talking about presupposes your definitions. But so do all other competing moral codes. Whoever defines the discussion determines the conclusions. We have to consent to terms before we can even have a discussion.

    Consent is the foundation of all interpersonal moral codes. The only alternative is force, which is a primal animal state of (violence based) nature. Consent can only come from within the individual. Only the strongest are capable of altering interactions with a code of morals or laws. When those codes of morals or laws are disestablished, it is only the strong who are freed by that nullification.

    Years ago, I started out from a position that presumed “Natural Rights” as an obvious given. The more I studied the matter, the more apparent it has become that there is absolutely nothing natural about rights. Rights are the polar anti-thesis of a state of nature.

  • Tedd

    Consent can only come from within the individual.

    Exactly: from within the individual who has free will. (Ants can’t consent to any kind of moral code.) Regardless of definitions, that remains true, so the first part of your last post is moot.

    As for “natural rights,” I don’t really have an opinion other than to agree with you that state-of-nature arguments make little sense.

  • Midwesterner

    You’ve totally lost me, Tedd. Usually I can follow you quite clearly. It appears you are arguing that since ants cannot consent to any kind of moral code, I have to agree with your moral code. I’m having a great deal of difficulty understanding how the presence or absence of free will changes the argument at all.

    Moral codes are the creation of the individual who has them. If you are arguing that when the laws of nature favor the individuals who choose certain patterns of moral codes, it puts the imprimatur of ‘science’ on them, I can understand and challenge that argument. But I’m not real sure what position you are arguing.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Morals occur within societies- how members of groups act towards each other. Over time, the best codes will survive- moral evolution in action! Societies whose members are equal are proliferating in the world, and dictatorships and authoritarian societies are regressing, so we can assume that this means that equality before the law is a better principle than inequality. In economics, this would mean that free and fair trade is better, meaning that individuals and societies will become richer.
    In ethics, this would be like the golden rule- treat other people as you would like them to treat you. This way, you set the tone, and gain the moral high ground by being first!

  • Alsadius

    So your argument is that we should accept government because it’s mutually beneficial, yes? If so, why does that not extend naturally to things beyond non-aggression? Perhaps universal old-age insurance is mutually beneficial as well.

  • Michael S

    I, We, Me, You, Us, Ours, Theirs, Mine, Yours, and a few other words we could use define the morality humans are capable of observing.

    I (assuming a modicum of rational sanity) have a moral code, so to speak, when dealing with myself. For instance, it seems quite immoral to purposely deceive myself, or to partake in any act of denial of what is real.

    We can be at war, or at any stage from that to total and joyful peace with each other.

    Our moral code still remains one of rational self interest, and deception cuts the roots of trust when We engage in contact.

    You (also an assumption as to the degree of rational self interest) may be at war with Me, or at varying degrees of peace.
    Mine and Yours present interesting twists on this overall concept of morality, as they deal with things external to you.

    Theirs, and Ours also present interesting additions to the fabric of morality.

    If rational self interest observes any law of physics, I am not aware of any correlation, except perhaps in that our nature, as members of the Human race, are defined as certainly as any characteristic particular to something may be capable of being defined.

    What and who we are are defined and limited; what isn’t limited is our capacity to learn, so it may seem.
    Our learning itself forms a moral fabric, in as much as things once tolerated, even fostered, have been abandoned as an intolerable way to treat one’s own kind. A new cloth has been added, and while I don’t see this process as a result of any law of physics, it seems inevitable as a result of our nature.

    I think social morality, as something I think is quite distinct from one’s own moral code, is predicated on the basis that co-operation forms the most peaceful, and most likely, prosperous societies. Co-operation is a rather complex moral code itself, one even certain other species practice for their benefit, though not to the degree and scope we may may act.

    From this basis We have consented to having a government; the overall question as I see things is what exactly is it we want from government?

    Mine and Yours, and Theirs now emerge, as further fabric is added to this concept. This concept centers on one thing essentially; the fruits of production and who owns those fruits. If anything requires a objective moral code, these seem to qualify.

  • veryretired

    Intriguing post and discussion, Mid, thank you.

    I guess the point that occurred to me immediately upon reading your essay was that it is vital to remember a couple of universal aspects of early primate/human development—

    All human societies began as small groups of related families who were struggling to exist in conditions most of us cannot even imagine. The constant danger, the enormous vacuum of ignorance about the world around them past the specific knowledge they needed to hunt and gather, and the desperate need to fit into the social group in order to survive.

    These factors made the acceptance of any group norms, no matter how bizarre, a vital factor for any hope of survival.

    This leads to my second point, which is that in all primitive societies, there was a very skewed understanding of dreams, visions, and the mental illnesses that often incorporated delusions and halucinations in their symptomology.

    A large part of our moral codes around the world derive from visions experienced by distant ancestors who may or may not have been entirely sane, or who believed that dreams were actually revelations from a deity.

    Michner in his novels often traces the history of the locale he is using as a background for his story. In Hawaii and Centennial especially, he describes the dominant beliefs of the various native peoples, and wonders how such irrational and cruel moral views came into being as acceptable social norms.

    My reaction when I read the books was that there was little cited that was much different from the vast majority of traditional moral codes up to the last few centuries.

    Cultures, religions, and great dynasties may come and go over the centuries, but some fundamental ethical principles from the dim and prehistoric past go on and on.

  • RRS

    What law of physics obligates the existence of a moral code?

    The original question.

    Sorry my post came up twice due to smitebot.

    Moralities of Social Orders vary. The morality of Sparta was not the Morality of Athens.

    I presumed that “obligates” meant “creates the necessity for” what we call a moral code.

    A deeper enquiry would be in order to appreciate how the commonalities of obligations (referred to above) come into existence in a Social Order. There is extensive evidence that belief systems play a major role. The equally important enquiry is what factors give rise to a loss of cohesion (decrease in components and intensities in commonalities) which we observe in the morphologies of Social Orders (esp. the one in which we live).

    Of course those commonalities can be perceived as coming into existence among the deontological drives (daimonics) of individuals. For one view of the daimonics read:
    Love and Will by Rollo May.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Alsadius, who are you asking? As regards government, my beliefs are that we can have monarchs and democracy- private property owners should be like monarchs of their own lands and goods, but public lands, such as roads, should be run on democratic lines by whoever chooses to be a citizen (Noncitizens, by their own choice, would be like guests, with no voting rights.) Since governments should not tax anyone, though they can impose licences for using public lands, they could only offer a health service. Wise people might use health services, but nobody should be able to force you to make what they think is a wise decision.
    So, if you were asking me, that is my answer.

  • RRS

    VR

    I am disinclined to agree with a Lamarckian view that the “group norms” you refer to may result from some past “imprints;” even tho’ I am pretty much pro Lamarck myself (especially with the advances in epigenetics).

    Where I find a likely role for the “imprint” concept is in your reference to what you call “ethical principles,” that I tend to regard as the responses we see to the need for compliances with those norms.

    One case is how taboos come to exist in an order, the other is how the members respond in their compliances with or circumventions of taboos. The origins of the taboos are probably the result of factors other than the “imprint,” but the responses very well may carry the “imprint.”

  • RRS

    Smite again for slow typing a response to VR

  • Midwesterner

    Thank you, VR.

    The greatest concern that I want to address with this post is that the security, the ordered society that so many have unfortunately come to take for granted, relies on the voluntary cooperation of all its members’ the weak and the strong. It is a consensual system that relies on the consent of the strong. When the strong in a society, whether they provide the strength of production or the strength of arms, believe they have become fodder for capricious pursuit of votes, campaign donations, laurels, whatever, it is game over. When the weak democratically choose to abandon societal constraints to achieve their own ends with out regard for the terms under which the strong participate, the strong will not be far behind in abandoning societal constraints.

    Whether a society is founded on shared religious beliefs, a charter of rights, or a long refined common law tradition, the members are participating because they accept the terms of their participation. People will continue to accept whatever system they find themselves under so long as they believe it to be a better alternative than the random acts of a capricious regime or the raw violence of a return to a state of nature.

    Here is the part that scares me; the part that prompted me to write this post. If people who have accepted a system of governance that, while less than ideal for any one of them, yields reliable and predictable results, subsequently reach the conclusion that it is not longer yielding reliable and predictable results, they lose their investment in it. If it no longer serves to protect them while they act in cooperation with it, a rational population quickly loses reason to cooperate.

    Whether it is a written constitution like we have in the US, a long refined system of established common law like exists in the UK, or even a reliable and consistently enforced theocracy, people find security in its consistency and strength. But once a constitution is abandoned because experts (whether an expert of one or and expert of 51%) decide it is hampering their will, once long established common laws are overruled by legislative experts, once theocracies leave their holy books and start making it up as they go along, all possible benefits of whatever short term good intention is being indulged is completely destroyed by the hell that is unleashed when those who have been willingly submitting to the structure of laws see the benefits destroyed and only the harms remaining.

    Our governments in their usurpation of powers not granted to them, in their sale of trust to the highest bidder (be the payment in the bank or the ballot box), are playing with very dangerous forces they do not understand. In their arrogance, they discount and insult power far greater than anything they wield. I have the mental image of a half drunk lion ‘tamer’ in the cage whipping the animals to make them perform.

    I am afraid of where all of this is going. No I do not mean Obama, he is only the current epitome of the incredible hubris the ruling class has assumed. The danger that I fear is this long developing pattern of redistribution from producers to non-producers. Once the consent of enough of the producers is lost, all of our systems for food, energy and safety will suddenly tip into complete failure. Society will collapse into brute power.

  • Midwesterner

    RRS,

    Not “creates the necessity for“, that would be a subjective, therefor internal imperative. No, what I mean by that is “compels the existence of“; something that occurs regardless of the wills or intent of any of those effected.

    Perceiving a necessity for something is clearly a motivator for consensual cooperation, not an external law of reality.

    Moral codes are entirely the product of consent, not compulsion. Compulsion may yield submission to masters, but not acceptance of their morals.

  • RRS

    MW

    something that occurs regardless of the wills or intent of any of those effected.

    Now what would that be if humans adopt, accept or fall into patterns of conduct that constitute, rules?

    Are you asking what causes that which you regard as unintended human conduct to form patterns that appear to be moral codes?

  • RRS

    MW

    Two parts to avoid smite.

    You cannot have human social groupings without human conduct.

    Human conduct involves the daimonic, or what some call the primordal drives, hunger, fear, needs, etc. those create “intents” of responses. What creates those drives – it comes with the job, it’s organic. What is the compelling force causing us to breathe, to thirst? Is it not internal? Are the formations of groupings not intended?

    I guess I was on the wrong question.

  • Laird

    Ah, Mid, I now understand where you were going with this essay. You hinted at it in the last paragraph, but in your post of 04:47 AM you finally pulled back the curtain and revealed that there is a practical point to it, not just an interesting philosophical conjecture.

    I’m not qualified to enter into the philosophical debate, but I will note that your conclusion that “[o]nce the consent of enough of the producers is lost . . . [s]ociety will collapse into brute power” is precisely the message Ayn Rand delivered in Atlas Shrugged. You just got there quicker.

  • veryretired

    Obviously, this is a massive subject, and I’m not going to pretend to be able to resolve it in a few comments, but here are a few related thoughts in a skeletal fashion—

    Whether one agrees with Rand or not, she did make some valuable points about how things work. One of the best was the symbiotic relationship between the mystics of muscle and mystics of spirit.

    There are, and always have been, people whose entire moral outlook on life consists of “I want”. If they are also physically strong, or socially powerful, how can they be controlled?

    I have long thought the primary purpose of humanity’s universal belief in spirits of one kind or another was a very clever way of intimidating the physically powerful with a higher power that they could not intimidate or control, i.e., something that frightened them, even if no person could, and made them amenable to some limits on their behavior.

    This is why, it seems to me, so many rulers became divine, uniting the physical and spiritual authorities, even though a priesthood of some type existed to pose a form of counterweight to the rulers’ power.

    Years ago there was a movie called “The Egyptian” which made this point very nicely. When Ahkenaten offended the priests by attempting to replace the many gods with only the worship of the sun, he was deposed and replaced with a more traditional ruler.

    At any rate, when the ruling ethos seems to lose connection with the facts on the ground, people throw it out and look for something else. In our current case, we are rapidly approaching what Meade calls the end of the “blue model”, the progressive social model that has been the template for western society for most of the last century.

    The question is, as you point out, if the common wisdom fails, what will replace it.

    I have stated in other threads that what I believe is required is an adamant committment to re-establishing the limited constitutional republic, and reaffirming the primacy of individual rights and liberties as the foundation of all other societal, and especially governmental, powers and responsiblilties.

    As Lincoln said of the blood shed by slavery’s whip, it may take an hour of effort by the advocates of the individual to counteract every hour of labor by the cadres of the collective. While I hope it is not necessary to spend a century undoing the damage of a century of statism, it will be a long and dirty and frustrating task to correct the mistakes and illusions of decades of collectivist indoctrination, and replace them with an informed understanding of the moral and social power for the betterment of our people that respect for individual rights can achieve.

    But, then, we are free men and women, having inherited the pearl of great price, a legacy beyond the dreams of a thousand generations of those who came before us, and the treasure which we are honor bound to pass on to our descendents as best we can.

    What better work can we perform then to secure, for ourselves and our posterity, the many blessings of liberty that we have enjoyed

    I am not a utopian. I do not wish for, nor believe in, a perfect world.

    What I believe in, and what I require for myself and my children, is a world fit for human beings.

  • Alisa

    Tedd will correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like instead of arguing a clearly defined position. he is ‘thinking aloud’ – which is perfectly fine, as far as I can see.

    Tedd, what I understand you to be saying is that morals originate in consciousness and free will. But if so, it does not negate Mid’s (key) assertion that their origin is not external to humanity – as these traits are uniquely human. That said, and although I do agree that these traits have a key role in the formation of various moral codes, I am not sure they can be identified as the source – I see them more as crucial prerequisites. This, I think, also addresses your point about minors and their status in society.

    In any case, the major point I take from Mid’s argument is that morals (and various associated rights) originate from within humanity – so, like I said, you two should be in no fundamental disagreement.

  • Alisa

    Regarding Tedd’s point about foreign societies, including possible alien human-like ones, I think the answer is deferred gratification Mid mentioned: we prefer to cooperate with them rather than fight them, – if possible – because experience teaches us that this usually leads to better outcomes for ourselves. This intersocial dynamic is really no different from the intrasocial one – the difference is only that of scale.

  • Tedd

    To be honest, I didn’t think my idea would be as difficult to convey as it has proven to be. But I can see from Midwesterner’s and Alisa’s comments and questions that I have not explained it well at all. As I’m not sure I can do any better than I have done, I don’t think more will help. So I’ll just retreat and lick my wounds while I try to think of a better way to explain it, at some later time. But I do have a couple of comments about where I think this difference of opinion comes from.

    I think Midwesterner has presented a fine argument for why we have moral codes and why they matter. It’s just that I don’t think moral codes have anything much to do with morality, per se. I don’t see anything about Midwesterner’s argument that would enable me to say why one moral code might be better than another, which is the whole point of morality. Which is more stable, perhaps, but not which is better.

    It’s possible that Midwesterner believes that the question is meaningless, in which case it seems to me that he’s arguing that reality is moral-less, and the best we can do is agree on some code and stick to it. That certainly seems to be the majority opinion of commenters. I respectfully disagree. I think, for example, that the U.S. Constitution expresses superior values than any comparable, previous document. It is superior precisely because it gives will the primacy of place it deserves, and concerns itself greatly that individual will be respected. If the U.S. Constitution didn’t do that then I wouldn’t be nearly so concerned that it be followed. In fact, I’d hope that it be thrown out.

    From my perspective, Midwesterner is worrying about the right thing for completely the wrong reason. The U.S. should follow its constitution not because failing to follow one’s constitution leads to decline, as a general principle, but because the U.S. Constitution, specifically, is a good one. And it’s a good constitution because, and to the extent that, it gives primacy to will and seeks to protect the freedom that the existence of free will requires.

  • RRS

    Can you find my smited response to VR?

  • Midwesterner

    There is not one true moral code. There is no compromise that can be imposed. All of the great plans that begin with “if we could just agree to” are relying on agreement. Agreements are only as good as they are honored.

    When parliaments reject their role as a meeting forum for different communities to negotiate their differences and cooperate, and parliaments choose instead to appoint themselves as legislators, directing rather than representing those communities, a trust has been broken.

    When a constitutionally bound federal government declares itself to be a democratically unbound national government, a trust has been broken.

    There. Is. No. One. True. Moral. Code.

    “Moral” can never be made interchangeable with “legal”. All efforts to do that fail to understand that “legal” is a compromise between many different moral codes. Each unique personal moral code is negotiated and comprised in a societal community. The societal delegate, be it a parliament, a legislature, a crown, a theocracy, whatever, is trusted to administer a compromise, not create a moral code. When these trustees favor one particular moral code among the multitude of individual codes they have been entrusted with, they have broken the trust of all of those members whose codes the usurping trustees have violated.

    When the mediator, the arbitrator, the societal compromise – the trustee - breaks trust and takes sides against some of its members, they have unilaterally abrogated the compromise terms of some of the members of the society. Whether the topic is abortion, tax facilitated confiscation and redistribution, mandates directing who members must allow on their private property, what they may smoke drink or ingest, who they will hire and what they will pay them; whatever those unilateral abrogations by the trustees, those members of the society are that much disenfranchised from their compromise with the whole society. When those whose terms have been abrogated determine that the loss of their own security for the things that matter to them is equal to or worse than it would be if the system collapsed, they will abandon the system. They are the strong.

    Reciprocal abandonment of a trust placed in a system of government can take many forms ranging from “going Galt” – simply withholding ones benefits from the society, to open defiance and attempts to set up alternate societies. But the greatest danger throughout the transition is the failure of perhaps all parties to recognize that all gaps between societal trusts are filled with a state of nature rule by the moment’s strongest. Nobody wins in that state, not even the strongest for very long, that is why the strongest with the slightest degree of long range planning skills have accepted these societal constraints. When the entity entrusted with the societal compromise becomes a partisan, the strong have no further reason to participate.

    While it may not be immediately apparent, whether that trustee is guarding a constitutional contract, a refined history of common law, or any other societal compromise, once that trustee breaks their trust, all hell breaks loose.

  • JohnB

    There is no basis for morality if there is no good nor bad.

    There are things that are helpful, constructive or convenient, but there cannot be morality.

    Which I think is probably the reasoning behind the mess in which the most advanced civilisation that has ever existed, (western) now finds itself.

    That there are no absolutes. (And one cannot state absolutes just for convenience. Well one can, but does one honestly believe something because that is what you need?)

    If we originated by evolving from (what?) there is no moral difference between us and the lions and the zebras.

    Which I think is the moral conclusion most of us have actually come to.

  • Midwesterner

    VR

    This is why, it seems to me, so many rulers became divine, uniting the physical and spiritual authorities, even though a priesthood of some type existed to pose a form of counterweight to the rulers’ power.

    And how quickly those divine theologians are thrown out when they lose the trust of the people. Superstition is a method of force. It relies on what has to be considered plausible fears by those it is intimidating. Just like any other societal contract, it relies on consent. When the superstitious fear the hell to come less than hell here now, those societies also collapse.

  • Midwesterner

    Tedd, I am not arguing that reality is “moral-less” but that what those morals are is a subjective determination by each individual. Even your statement “it gives primacy to will and seeks to protect the freedom that the existence of free will requires” is a subjective interpretation that others will reject as wrong. Even if they agree with you that giving primacy to will is important in a constitution, they may still disagree that the US Constitution’s approach is particularly good at it.

  • Midwesterner

    John B,

    I have a very strong personal moral code. While in many ways it will be very similar to yours, in some ways I have no doubt it is quite different.

    Because I think you and I are close to agreement on what is good and bad, I think you and I can negotiate a compromise of laws that we can both live under. There is absolutely nothing relativist about reality in what I am saying. I am an individualist. I absolutely believe that some moral codes are vastly superior to others and that some moral codes are evil. I have a very clear dichotomy in my own mind of good and evil and it is quite likely compatible in a general enough way with your’s and Tedd’s that would can easily reach an agreement on the society we elect to live in.

    Please do not interpret anything I say as suggesting amorality or even moral ambiguity. I have and defend a very clear cut moral construct that you will occasionally glimpse in my other conversations on Samizdata. But I am an individualist and that means that my moral code is my moral code. All other moral codes I attempt to negotiate a societal truce with and if that cannot be done, then those other codes and I are in a state of hostility.

  • RRS

    MW


    I have a very strong personal moral code. While in many ways it will be very similar to yours, in some ways I have no doubt it is quite different.

    There y’go. That’s it “personal moral code

    How was it formed as personal – internalized?

    very similar to yours” imputes the commonality.

    See, you really are on that track.

  • Midwesterner

    I’m missing your point, RRS.

  • RRS

    VR

    This is why, it seems to me, so many rulers became divine, uniting the physical and spiritual authorities, even though a priesthood of some type existed to pose a form of counterweight to the rulers’ power.

    I know you assert age, but I gather you still “study.”

    The phenomena you refer to is closely analyzed by S. E. Finer in the early parts of Vol. One of his History of Government From the Earliest Times (Oxford 1997)

    If you can get access to it, you will encounter what is probably the greatest work in that field since Decline and Fall.

    It may give you a different perspective on the role of belief systems and “priesthoods” in the forms of Rule of earler times.

  • RRS

    MW

    In regard to what “obligates” the existence of a moral code, you wrote:

    Not “creates the necessity for”, that would be a subjective, therefor internal imperative. No, what I mean by that is “compels the existence of”; something that occurs regardless of the wills or intent of any of those effected>

    Nevertheless, you recognize an internalized, motivated drive, a deontic (sense of oughtness) and that the same exists in others – further that there is some degree of commonality.

    It is that necessary and suffient commonality of the components and intensities of those “deontics” the result in the “codes” within Social Orders.

  • Tedd

    Midwesterner:

    You’re adamant that there is no one, true moral code. And you’re equally adamant that some moral codes are vastly superior to others. I’d like to clarify how both those statements can be true, because I think it will help me understand what you’re trying to say.

    The first statement could be true simply because morality can’t be accurately codified. In other words, there could be one, true morality (or scale of moral value) but, because it can’t be codified there’s no one, true moral code. I agree with that, but I have the sense from other things you’ve said that that isn’t actually what you meant. I have the sense that you meant that there’s also no one, true scale of moral value. Which is it, or is there a third alternative I’m missing?

    If it’s simply a matter of the limitations of codifying morality, then the two statements in the first paragraph are completely compatible. But if there actually is no true scale of moral value then I’m having trouble understanding how one moral code can be vastly superior to another. Without a scale of moral value of some kind, then one code can only be superior to another by being more stable, or easier to administer, or some other pragmatic consideration. But those pragmatic considerations themselves only matter within the context of some scale of value, so we still have no way of calling one superior to another.

  • Midwesterner

    Perhaps not so much study as contemplate.

    Without having read those books you recommend but rather go by your comments, you appear to be saying that the moral commonalities should be collectively established, which would of necessity require that they be maintained by force.

    I am saying the moral commonalities should be individually discovered and agreed to by consent (where possible).

    I am not interested in the history of the beliefs of others, but rather the nature of the beliefs of others. Reliance on history and tradition is perhaps the strongest form of argument from authority. I would reject a common law system that reached decisions I found abhorrent. Its merit is not in its history but in its deeds.

    Prudence indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

    I absolutely reserve the right to reject commonalities I find abhorrent to me. Women as chattel was a long established commonality across many societies across most of history. Some individuals had to reject that commonality based on their own individual moral determination. When enough of those individuals agreed, they formed a new societal commonality.

    I think you may have the cart before the horse.

  • Midwesterner

    You’re adamant that there is no one, true moral code. And you’re equally adamant that some moral codes are vastly superior to others.

    Yes. Moral codes first require a value. Some people will place “God” as their highest value. Some people will place “happy” as their highest value. Some people will place “full stomach” as their highest value. Agreement on what people should value is not possible.

    But to go one step further, even if it were possible that there is one perfect value to be found in the laws of nature, a moral code is for pursuing that value. Pursuit of an ideal requires forecasts which are chaotically unreliable.

    Where perhaps our confusion lies is that as an individualist, I do not believe there is any possible platform on which I can stand that will compel you to see truth/reality as my eyes see and my mind perceives it. While we live in the same reality, we can never be sure of perceiving the same reality. As I have said in other discussions, I can posit absolute certainty, I just cannot declare it. I have no foundation from which to assert my values are superior to yours so there are two incontrovertible reasons why I cannot declare my morality superior to yours. The best I can do is explain, defend and negotiate on its behalf.

    It is through alliances that I can come closest to being allowed to follow my moral code.

  • It’s consequences, stupid.
    Or at least I was prepared to say that until Midwesterner’s 02:12 post.
    The strong, if they are clever, understand that “the people you meet on the way down are the same ones you met on the way up” and various other truisms which explains why they may feel the need to subscribe to a particular society’s moral code in which they find themselves. The externality in question is other humans (although in the past it probably included lions and zebras among other things) because humans are a pack animal and it behooves us to find a way of organizing the pack to protect our own personal selves from danger and to keep our own personal selves fed, clothed and comforted. The MoralCode or Law or Ten Commandments or whatever is just a convenient label for this. The reason I don’t break into your house and steal your television and prefer instead to work and earn and buy my own is not because I think it is morally wrong in any usual sense, but because a) I don’t want to risk the consequence of not getting away with it and b) because I don’t want somebody else stealing MY television. And from reading the posts above I had started to think that I hadn’t been projecting all this time and in fact everybody else DID think this way.

  • Midwesterner

    I see I’ve accidentally answered RRS’s comment addressed to VR. That comes of having too many irons in the fire. However I think the answer I gave is still applicable to the relationship between commonalities and institutions of societies and each individual’s prerogative and obligation to hold and adhere to their own moral code.

  • RRS

    MW-

    If your post of 4.05 p m was a “response” to what I offered VR, I hope you will accept a little levity when I say that if that “cart” I presented to VR was before the horse, we fortunately avoided “blowback.” As you know I worked on farms when horses and mules were used, and have known the “joys” of following behind a team into the early morning fields.

    I think what is happening is the conflation of very divergengent trains of thought.

  • Midwesterner

    A conflation at stages perhaps, but a weaving together of many factors and perspectives could be an ideal response.

    You levity reminded me of the story of a local farm implement dealer who, while very diligent in honoring the warranties on most of the equipment he sold, utterly refused to stand behind the manure spreaders.

  • Alisa

    Reality is not moral-less, but nature is.

    Also, reading the comments, it seems to me that much of the misunderstanding lies in the failure to fully realize that values – no matter how common – are totally subjective. Such full realization enables one to identify and acknowledge others’ values – no matter how polarly opposed to one’s own, and while fully retaining and, if needed, being prepared to defend them.

  • MarkGreen

    Great post. I think I now have a better understanding of the focus on morality in Atlas Shrugged.

    Extrapolating from this, would it be fair to say that all political systems are, at their core, ways of imposing a certain moral framework on society? And that any envisaged libertarian utopia would, in effect, continue this by imposing a certain moral code? Or would individual morality be considered sacrosanct? If the latter, what is the effect on humanity if, as you posit, defining a shared morality within communities is our true evolutionary advantage?

    Tl;dr – great post. Got me thinking.

  • Midwesterner

    MarkGreen,

    I don’t think “all” is accurate. Certainly most and certainly most people within most political systems view them as an arm of moral authority.

    As your follow up leads to, some political system were formulated as to act as consensual parameters (outer boundaries) for tolerance of different, but still similar moral codes. I think the 1787 US Constitution and first ten amendments were of this second and much smaller category. But that is itself a moral framework if not a specific moral code so, on reflection I think your extrapolation is accurate.

    Presumably most of us envisage (I certainly do) various forms that a libertarian society might take. My favorite model is an geographically fluid set of constitutional contracts among consenting constituents that would be the arbiter of disputes between its own constituent members combined with interconstitutional treaties to address conflicts between members of different constitutional contracts. Each constituency would determine their own limits of tolerance they offer in exchange for having their constituency tolerated by others.

    This would allows degrees of difference between individual moral codes and tolerances but require all of the members of the various constituencies to accept certain baseline restraints common to all of the constitutions. Another way to view each constituency might be as shareholder corporations with stricter internal rules but still honoring constraints imposed by the others they share peaceful contact with. Quite possibly these constituencies might develop around interests be they religion, occupation or other criteria that might benefit from specialization. A very important feature of this fluid construction is that if any one constitutional contract was ‘captured’ members could switch to a different one for conducting all new business. This option would put a limiting factor on how extremely off the rails they could go.

    Constitutions are most usefully viewed as consensual contracts of mutually exchanged rights and tolerances. Viewing the hypothetical construct I just offered as a federation of constitutions (in many ways similar to the US’s founders design) may help make it more clear.

    To answer your last question, I don’t think defining a shared morality is a good plan but consensual arrangements between similar moralities would favor the long term outlook of the communities who chose the best optimized parameters for tolerated individual moral codes.

  • David James Roberts

    Midwesterner, my thinking on human morality would appear to be at odds with your and most of the commenters here.

    Humans have evolved as a cooperative species, one amongst many on the planet. Cooperation requires some form of communication between the cooperating individuals. In most species this achieved by individuals reacting instinctively to the actions of their fellows. The human can, assuming at least some free will, augment instinct with the assumption that like themselves others are conscious. Therefore we are able to put ourselves in each others shoes. This is Adam Smiths sympathy. This is the basis of morality. The self reflective ability of humanity also allows us to develop and refine this morality. So its not about, weak against strong, that’s built in to any cooperative species. It is about fellow feeling.

  • Midwesterner

    DJR,

    You are making many non-sequitors and reaching a non-supported conclusion. Or perhaps a conclusion that supports more than you intend it to. I’ll take it in steps.

    Humans have evolved as a cooperative species, one amongst many on the planet.

    Accepted.

    Cooperation requires some form of communication between the cooperating individuals.

    Accepted

    In most species this achieved by individuals reacting instinctively to the actions of their fellows.

    Unsupported presumption on at least two levels (definition and confirmation) but we’ll let it stand.

    The human can, assuming at least some free will, augment instinct with the assumption that like themselves others are conscious.

    I don’t see why this requires free will. We could without contradiction be predetermined to assume others are conscious, but in any case, it is an assumption we can accept.

    Therefore we are able to put ourselves in each others shoes.

    I am sure there is a name for this non-sequitor, but I don’t know what it is. In any case, making the argument (as you appear to) that thoughtful reflection is required to put ourselves in each others shoes is unsupported by observed facts unless one wants to extend humanness far beyond what you intend to.

    I’ll give a ready to hand example. My elderly mother is diabetic. A registered nurse trims her toenails. This nurse is very capable, has never hurt her and consequently, my mother has no anxieties about the process. My mother has a couple of dogs adopted from a pound. At some point in their previous lives, they were “quicked” (their toenails cut short enough to hit the nerve). This happened enough that they associate toenail trimming with extreme pain and consequently are very anxious about it. One would expect them to hide when ever the clippers come out. They don’t. They do cower but the dog not getting clipped approaches the other dog to offer comfort and reassurance. It is a remarkable sight. Here is were it gets odd and your sequitor is shown for a nonsequitor. When my mother’s toenail are trimmed by the nurse, the dogs show that same behavior, the pain and fear combined with proffered reassurance, to her that they show to each other. She is doing nothing to inspire it as she has no anxieties whatever and isn’t usually even paying any attention to them. They are not terrifically bright dogs, about average. But they are clearly capable of putting themselves in her shoes or perhaps more accurately, in her ‘paws’ and in a what appears a very literal way, “feeling her pain”. These dogs are not remarkable and I have seen similar empathy among other animals. Live with a wide enough variety of animals for any length of time and you will accept occasionally profound empathy as a very real trait some animals are capable of. While they may not be as clever as humans, cleverness is definitely not required for that trait you use as the human feature that forms the foundation for human morality. I don’t think incorporating dog behaviors into your morality expectations is part of your plan so this particular non-sequitor alone demonstrates that your causal chain is flawed.

    This is Adam Smiths sympathy.

    If Adam Smith thought only humans can fell sympathy, empathy and even a clear capacity to place themselves in the shoes (or paws) of another, then he was mistaken.

    This is the basis of morality.

    Then we must lump dogs in with immoral humans and compel them to fix their moral codes wherever they diverge from ‘acceptable’. **This is actually a statement I don’t have real problems with, but probably not in a way you would like. I think people can choose to be animals and when this happens, then that is how they must be treated. It is part of the reciprocal nature of moral tolerance.

    The self reflective ability of humanity also allows us to develop and refine this morality.

    You say “allows“, not “compels“. You recognize that moral restraint is a consensual choice. Which means the strong can only be restrained with their consent. Which means . . .

    So its not about, weak against strong, that’s built in to any cooperative species.

    . . . that it is about weak against strong and requires gaining the consent of the strong. How you argue and appeal to them for their consent, you still (assuming you are the weaker) must be granted their self restraint.

    It is about fellow feeling.

    There are a great many total shits on this planet for whom I have no fellow feeling at all and if I did would feel filthy for it. I only have “fellow feeling” for people for whom I at a minimum feel sympathy and tolerance. Which means that it is, after all, about consent and reciprocity.

  • RRS

    MW & DJR

    While DJR’s conclusion that “It’s all about feeling” may be a bit narrow, It is unfair to say that his steps are non-sequiturs. You follow his sequence quite well.

    His assertion of the reactions of the elements in groupings (which would include humans in theirs) is indeed supported by Science – such as the work of Lyn Margulis who traced that all the way back to basic bacterial cell structures in their evolutions via symbiosis. Reaction as chemistry!

    DJR points out that humans are sentient. It is not clear whether you have trouble with that or just with the role of sentiency in human interactions.

    More soon

  • RRS

    MW & DJR – redux

    Begin with the agreed point on “Co-operation:”

    Why is there co-operation within a species? Of course there are co-operations between species as well.

    The co-op within the species of humans is more extensive (and varied) than of humans with other species. Why is that so?

    Do each of the members of a co-op enterprise have objectives best, better or more likely to be, attained that way? If so, what does that co-op require of each member to “understand” or “know” of the others in order to co-operate and to secure co-operation? From what can that necessary understanding or knowledge be formed with sufficiency for action? The minimums would be; I hunger; he hungers; I fear; he fears; I drink; he drinks; I move; he moves. He may hunger more, drink less, fear more, move more swiftly – but that is in me is in him. That is the beginning of commonality. DJR has noted it.

    Once co-operation and its need have been established, the orders within its operations may indeed be framed in terms of the strong and the weak, but the establishment is not so determined.

    However, the rules that are developed for those operations evolve out of what the members have to understand and know of one another and one another’s potential behavior, but are not framed exclusively in terms of the strong and the weak; and can be observed to vary by the objectives of the members of the enterprise (or Social Order).

  • Midwesterner

    The title of the article is “On originalism“. The entire purpose of the article is to fight the conflation of “legal” and “moral” and disable attempts to abuse legal structure to impose moral codes (and by extension attempt to engineer humanity). For purposes of this article, I am not interested in how other individuals rationalize their choice of moral codes, only that keepers of laws stay clear of morally purposed societal engineering and confine their activities to upholding the law.

    If DJR’s assertion is to contradict the premise of the article, which is that keepers of law must be founded on the consent of individuals holding many moral codes, different but similar enough to agree on what is legal without stipulating what is moral, and that only their consent restrains the strongest, then his assertions of and attempts to provide a logical, scientific universal moral code are not proven and furthermore, very dangerous.

    The point of this article and thread is that there is no one true moral code that can be discovered or developed to ‘correct’ an ‘immoral’ society. You show me somebody who thinks they can scientifically discover and impose the ‘correct’ moral code, or even a ‘good enough to be worth imposing’ moral code, and I will file their plans in the same place I file other plans to scientifically improve humanity. If you or he are thinking that by going all the way back to bacteria and using science you (or anybody) can create a moral code to impose, all I can say is that I hope you and they never get the opportunity. The thought horrifies me. Many people during the 20th century seized chances to attempt just that. Many around the world are attempting to even now and the more power they acquire to build their utopias, the greater the hells they create.

    What should be scaring you but apparently isn’t is that there are people who really think they have found a moral code that trumps consent. Apparently DJR hasn’t seen the conflict in that he is both defending a universal moral code yet at the same time denying its application rests on force. Many of my comments in this thread reflect fatigue or distraction but I say clearly here if not clearly elsewhere, no universal moral code is possible without forfeiting the consent of the governed. A universal moral code is intrinsically and inextricably collectivist.

    Remember that what is being discussed here is the imposition through force of a moral code, not a legal code. That distinction is huge and if anybody still reading is having problems with that distinction, that is what the thread is here for. Ask. Legal can never be made equal to moral. Moral can never be made equal to legal. Even the thought of imposing a moral code (not a legal code, a moral code) on anybody strikes me as the most astonishing degree of hubris.

    The conflation of moral and legal is used as a terrifying license to engineer humanity. If that conflation is used to create laws and impose harm on the strong members of the society, the need for their consent will become all too apparent. Either consequence of the conflation is dangerous, the societal engineers using the power of the law to ‘improve’ humanity or the strongest rejecting the authority of the law entirely.

  • RRS

    We must not be considering how and why morality “evolves” or has resulted from human interactions; nor whether that “evolution” differs from all the other “evolution” and morphologies we observe in nature and through science.

    If so, I yield the floor.

  • Alisa

    RRS, I think this can be summed up as follows: you and DJR are talking about ‘how’, while what Mid is talking about is ‘why’ and ‘therefore’. I could be wrong.

  • From what I gather, Midwesterner claims that moral codes are a necessary delusion. Why is it uniquely necessary to us? There is lots of talk about lions and zebras, but nobody comes right out and says why: because they are not sapient. Sapience is the cognitive ability to conceive that which cannot be physically perceived.

    A chimp sees a stick, sees an ant mound, sees that the stick is almost as long as the mound is tall, and figures that the stick might work as an eating utensil. He sticks it in the mound, ants crawl on it, and he eats the ants.

    The chimp cannot contemplate philosophy, or physical materials he has never witness. His kind will never produce a John Locke or a Jules Verne.

    What is beyond his cognitive ability is irrelevant to his psychology. The chimp does not need a moral code because the chimp cannot think in moral terms.

    But we can. Humans not only perceive the philosophical, we perceive that various philosophical concepts are objectively true. We cannot function sanely if we shut out parts of our sapient capabilities, or if we reject the notion of an objective morality.

    We feel injury when we can do certain things with our minds but lack an outlet for that talent. Human collective activity requires common shared beliefs regarding objective right and wrong.

  • Alisa

    Alan: all true, but is this supposed to serve as a counterargument – and if so, to what?

  • RRS

    Alisa –

    I, obviously am wrong.

    Tho’ it seemed there were conflations of thinking (and parts of subjects) the overall originalism thrust appeared to turn on the distinctions to be made between how and why morals or moralities and how what are labeled as “laws” (seen as externalities) are formed and come to have force in Social Orders.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum on the agenda.

  • Midwesterner

    Alan,

    Is deciding whether to take a rain coat to work tomorrow or ride the motorcycle a “delusion“? No, it is an individual choice you make in order to better cope with reality and what you anticipate reality to do to you.

    There are two separate questions. First, should you be allowed to determine my decision of whether or not to stay dry. Second, are the forecasts you rely on provably superior to those I use to the extent that you can claim (what power) to make me accept your instructions with regard to whether I take a raincoat or ride a motorcycle?

    As a child my parents decided whether or not I would wear a raincoat and they also dealt with many of the consequences of making a wrong choice (ruined clothes, sick kid unable to help around the house, etc). Once I became an adult, I made the rainwear decisions myself, (and bought a turbocharged motorcycle:-) and I assumed the consequences of my choice.

    If we stay in the children/adults, rainwear/consequences mode, we can extend this example of ‘morals’ to include a consensual ‘government’ style element.

    When I was a kid I used to go to summer camp. While the summer camp management could not dictate my rain coat wearing policy as a matter of it being “right”, it could stipulate that if I was going to attend their camp, I would bring a rain coat. They could even stipulate when I had to wear it while I was there (ie on a hike). The source of their authority to make me bring and wear a raincoat was my consensual participation in the camp. An adult summer camp would function in much the same way and perhaps that is one of the joys of youth summer camp, it is a step in independence from one’s parents. Perhaps the attraction for adults is that it is a step back toward childhood.

    None of this presupposes the staying dry is an reality-ambiguous illusion. We even refer to particularly dim people by “doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain”. What I am trying to do in this article and thread is put morality into its place in the framework of how individuals interact.

    In a collectivist society the trustee of the legal power is also the trustee of the moral authority. It takes the authoritarian role of mommy and daddy and tells you when to do what and what to think about why you do it. We even recognize this with the label “Nanny State” or the popular adoption of Orwell’s cynically intimidating “Big Brother“. Both of them are descriptive of a role of submission, not consent.

    Does this help clarify things at all? I think I am expecting people to think of things they haven’t thought of and in ways that may not be familiar or comfortable. There may be a difference of meta-context at work here that is causing much of the confusion. If that’s the case, then that is what I am here for. That meta-context thing.

  • Midwesterner

    There seems to be a tacit presumption that morality is reality or at least a component of reality. It is not. Look at all of the deeply flawed and troubling moral codes out there.

    Morality is not reality, it is how we interact with reality. For an individualist, it must be an individual choice.

    Our morality is the basis for how we interact with other people but our morality can never be their basis for how they interact with us. They, as individuals, also have moral codes. Our interaction requires a consensual means of alignment.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Morality can be derived from reality.
    In physics, Action and Reaction are equal.
    This is also the way we tend to act and react. If someone gives me a gift, I feel obliged to respond with a gift of equal worth. If we do someone else a favour, we expect at least a thanks, and a promise to do the same for us some day. Isn’t that what most people do?
    That is why we dislike government impositions- the cost is direct and inescapable, while any benefits may be nebulous (Welfare payments to other people so they don’t turn to crime.).

  • Alisa,

    No, it’s not a rebuttal. It’s an addition of some facts. Perceptions of morality are unique to sapient creatures. What non-sapient creatures cannot perceive (like morality) is irrelevant to their psychology. Known sapient creatures not only perceive morality, most of them believe that certain moral claims – such as the claim that theft is wrong – to be objective truth.

    Regardless of whether or not objective reality exists, people who believe it to be true cannot function properly psychologically if they try to reject the notion of moral absolutes. It messes up the head to try to think a certain way if one does not know how.

    Regarding Midwesterner’s latest convoluted comment:

    Recall your statement from the original post: “If there is no external imperative obligating a moral code.” If there is no such external imperative, there is no objective morality; thus under those assumptions objective morality is a delusion.

    Where you attach the word “illusion” you are talking about pragmatism (risk assessment, specifically), not morality. The example of morality in your comment lies elsewhere:

    The source of their authority to make me bring and wear a raincoat was my consensual participation in the camp.

    Most people, believing in absolute morals, believe that the source of the authority is delegated by parents, who have “natural” authority over their own children – that is, there is an objective moral law that delegates such power to parents. Is that law an illusion?

  • Alisa

    Yes, it is.

  • Midwesterner

    Alan,

    I’ll grant you “convoluted”. I probably did not have the time to tackle a topic this complicated and the result is admittedly convoluted. Just this one comment here has been written in probably 7 separate ‘sittings’ and my week gets busier from here on out. There are so many factors and consequences in this topic that are transparently self evidently to me and yet few others can see them without a lot of reflection. Because they are self evident to me, I have difficulty explaining them to others. But I will keep trying. Here is another convoluted reply for you.

    Perceptions of morality are unique to sapient creatures. What non-sapient creatures cannot perceive (like morality) is irrelevant to their psychology.

    That is a demonstrably untrue statement. Whether in a sense of justice regarding their own treatment, or a sense of empathy towards others (a behavior I have noted personally on many occasions) animals have moral codes (by which I mean understandings of justice, fairness and empathy). You seem to be saying “it can’t be a moral code because they are animals and animals don’t have moral codes.” That is both circular and indicative of someone who is choosing facts to support their theory. To use that claim in debate “animals don’t have moral codes” must be demonstrable and it is not. A simple absence of positive is not proof of a negative (Black swans).

    Now lets look at your epistemology. You are saying there is an absolute moral code in the laws of reality that doesn’t apply to animals. But if the argument is that animals are not capable of understanding morals, the flip side is that humans are perfectly capable. If humans are less than perfectly capable, then “moral” is relative to what “humans” are capable of. Individualists believe each individual is a unique individual, not identical. If each individual has different capabilities for understanding morality, then a moral code must be adapt to each individual’s capability. Except that your whole argument is that a moral code is absolute and not relative. Either you are a collectivist or you have a logical failure in your chain of thought.

    To go on.

    Regardless of whether or not objective reality exists, people who believe it to be true cannot function properly psychologically if they try to reject the notion of moral absolutes. It messes up the head to try to think a certain way if one does not know how.

    It is completely compatible with objective reality to reject the notion that anybody is capable of discovering, much less presenting, this absolute moral code. In fact to argue the useful existence of moral absolutes in any coherent way, one must first demonstrate that there is an infallible way of for anybody to discover them. Collectivists’ reliance on moral superiority opens the door to the hells they create.

    If you believe in an absolute moral code, if you cannot present it, you must at least present a plausible argument for how it can be discovered and implemented without recourse to relativist applications. Saying “I’ll know it when I see it” may work for SCOTUS justices defining “pornography” but I will not accept your judgement for what is “moral” and what is not. If it exists in objective reality, you must present it for examination.

    An absolute moral code, if it were to exist, is determinist. If there is absolute “right” and “wrong”, then the very thing you are relying on for other claims (free will) is an illusory and only one choice at every moment of life is the morally right one. If you are saying that there is an absolute moral code but it only addresses some things, then it is not absolute. Every action has long term consequences. Any action for which the long term results yield a “wrong”, even if that future consequence is unknown to the actor, is of necessity immoral if there is an absolute moral code. All “accidents” that could be traced to a prior act, would in fact be “wrongs” because the actor failed to heed the consequences of their act. It relies on the degree of the actor’s ability to anticipate the consequences of their act.

    On the other hand, if you are going to allow for errors in judgement for short term acts that lead to later “wrongs”, then that is a relative moral code. It is a code that is relative to the actor’s (internal) intent, not (external) reality.

    If there is no such external imperative, there is no objective morality; thus under those assumptions objective morality is a delusion.

    To say morality is a delusion is to say there is no right and wrong. Clearly this is not what I am saying. Reread the earlier parts of this comment. Morality is how each actor attempts to accommodate reality. To say that there is no right and wrong is to say there is no need to accommodate reality. But there is, and each person needs to attempt that individually.

    I’ll be out for a while but try to follow the thread as best I can. Happy thinking.

  • Alisa

    But objective morality is a delusion. Morality is always subjective, no matter how common it is.

    Morality is how each actor attempts to accommodate reality.

    Indeed. The only thing that is objective is reality. Morality is not reality, it is a way to deal with it – and it is individual, and thus subjective.

  • I have to disagree Alisa, morality is not subjective, it is conjectural.

    Moral theories are exactly that… theories… about aspects of the nature of reality. Our understanding of morality (and indeed everything) is a conjecture about what is true. But just because all one can ever do is conjecture about the nature of reality, that does not make reality subjective. Moral conjectures are no different.

  • Alisa

    Perry, I reject the notion of ‘moral theories’ as meaningless. To me, a tree, an animal or a car and their interactions with the rest of the physical world, are not and cannot be moral or immoral. The only thing about which one can meaningfully ask the question ‘is this moral?’ is human behavior (or the behavior of some other human-like – i.e. sentient and self-aware – creature). Now, if by ‘moral theories’ one actually means ‘moral codes’ (as in codes of behavior or conduct), then I’m listening.

  • Alisa

    …you know what, I’ll yield to Mid’s observations of animal behavior and subtract the animal part in my previous comment, pending more information. Otherwise my point still stands.

  • RRS

    Perry –

    Are conjectures not subjective?

  • Midwesterner

    I am using definitions 1, a and b when I use the word “subjective”. Since it can also be used in the sense of definitions 3 and 4, I can see potential for confusion. I use the definition of conjecture with special thought to its “inconclusive or incomplete nature”. If there are important added elements that I am unaware of, I have a copy of Conjectures and Refutations but it runs over 500 pages and I have yet to crease the spine. But I can look up references to sections I might need to read if anyone has suggestions.

    In this context, even though derived from objective reality, the thinker making the conjecture must guess at the missing parts based on their own unique personal process. Since these guesses and estimates can vary even among clearly rational thinkers, this makes morality, which for a rational individualist is a conjecture, an internal aka “subjective” form of understanding. But if anybody can reference something in C&R that may be apropos, please let me know. Or other books, I have most Popper on hand but unread.

    Done well, conjecture is a very good kind of subjective understanding. There are other very bad kinds of subjective that are, IMO, preposterous. All kinds of subjective understanding are unique to that individual. At some time and place there may be a society formed around the laws of The Flying Spaghetti Monster as revealed to his prophet Oregano in a dream. Much as I may like their liturgy, I will not be joining their faith. I seek the association of other individuals who rely on the same or similar methods of conjecture to understand reality and I look for common ground. All subjective understanding is not of equal merit, but it must be the individual who determines the merits and chooses who to associate with.

    My thinking on the foundation of morality has evolved tremendously since I first discovered Samizdata in early 2005. Looking back through 7 years of my comments would no doubt indicate a lot of development and some significant changes. Natural rights was long my given assumption, very similar to many or most of the arguments expressed here. I was dragged away from that by looking for and not finding ontological and epistemological foundations for natural ‘rights’. They are subjective and hinge on who gets to define what is “natural“. Forfeiting my right to determine what is “natural” to an external authority is not something I am willing to do. I now believe that “natural” and “rights” are antonyms and “natural rights” is an oxymoron. But it took a long time and effort. There is an inspiring elegance to

    We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

    that I was loathe to part with. I suspect its presence may have been to counter claims of divine right of monarchs. But just after that paragraph, the next one extends the right of consent even more weight in the absence of a grant from a higher power.

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

  • Midwesterner

    Earlier, speaking of an absolute reality, I said that “I can posit absolute certainty, I just cannot declare it.” The evidence is overwhelming that there is a single objective, absolute reality. But that is conjecture. It is reasonable to conjecture absolute reality and simultaneously accept an inability to understand it in more than a conjectural way.

    But I can’t see a way to posit morality as an absolute. Even if we posit reality as a uniform absolute, for morality to also be a uniform absolute, everyone must share a uniform value. If anybody has a different value, the morals of that other value will differ from the morality of the one true value.

    What if there is one true value? A uniform objective value coupled with a uniform objective reality compeling one true moral code is de facto determinism. De facto because everybody is required to accept the one true value, the moral code that it compels, and they would be immoral (and presumably lose their status as human) for deviating from their true human destiny. I imagine there would be no shortage of human experts to assure purity of values and morals. Viewed that way, it sounds very familiar, but not at all good.

    There simply appears to be no way to act from a basis of right and wrong outside of force and consent. If ‘force’, why bother with ‘right and wrong’, and for that matter, if ‘consent’ why bother with ‘right and wrong’. We will find much more opportunity for alliance if we do not demand that certain beliefs must accompany certain concessions.

  • That is a demonstrably untrue statement. Whether in a sense of justice regarding their own treatment, or a sense of empathy towards others (a behavior I have noted personally on many occasions) animals have moral codes (by which I mean understandings of justice, fairness and empathy.

    Empathy is emotional feeling and is thus irrelevant to morality. Justice and fairness are roughly synonymous.

    Moral codes assume something that only sapient creatures can perceive: that sapient creatures are somehow obligated to some transcendent law that sapient-kind did not invent. C. S. Lewis(Link) says this better than I can:

    The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.

    It is completely compatible with objective reality to reject the notion that anybody is capable of discovering, much less presenting, this absolute moral code.

    To believe in the existence of an objective moral code and to know what it is in its entirety are two different things. Most people believe that the most important moral precepts are self-evident, the dictate against theft being one of the most significant (if not the foundation of all ethics).

  • Midwesterner

    Alan,

    My mother’s dogs extrapolated from their own personal experience of having their nails trimmed, and both anticipated and acted on how she would feel in the future. Also, you may want to review black swans as a guide in understanding determination of objective facts. You may subjectively disagree, but to demonstrate external objective error to others requires compliance with the rules of logic.

    “Fairness” is a load of bull. “Fair Trade!”, “Tisn’t Fair!”, “Equality for all!!1!” Justice is following the rules, fairness is other people obeying your moral code at the probable detriment of their own. Justice is when one monkey was given a slice of cucumber for the same act that another monkey received a grape for. The monkey getting the inferior payment rebels and refuses even that payment. Again, your rejection of animals is subjective and not provable, so not usable to compel others to accept your “reality”. But it is just one of many breaks in your chain of evidence for one true objective moral code.

    With respect to C.S. Lewis, (who is one of my favorite authors and a great authority on things moral, I highly recommend The Great Divorce for a portrayal of good/evil as reality/delusion) you are ignoring that he stipulates in all of his work an obviously non-universal set of values. A blindingly obvious clue is the name of that website you linked: TruthAccordingToScripture.com/. When he talks about finding “the Real right“, what do you think he is talking about? He is talking about finding God.

    To believe in the existence of an objective moral code and to know what it is in its entirety are two different things. Most people believe that the most important moral precepts are self-evident, the dictate against theft being one of the most significant (if not the foundation of all ethics).

    You acknowledge that knowing what an objective moral code is, is problematic. “Knowing” it requires conjecture and conjecture is subjective, not objective. Even if there was a uniform “true” value, whether God according to Lewis or anything else, it still requires subjective conjecture to find it. Either that or revelation and if you are seeing visions, I hope we can exclude them from the field of evidence. “Theft” is an interesting concept in the absence of a definition of “property“. Yet determining what people have a right to own is one of the greatest unresolved challenges of our time. Whether IP or controlled substances, the concept of “theft” requires consensus on the definition of “property” and the scope of permissible (and who grants that permission?) things to be owned.

  • My mother’s dogs extrapolated from their own personal experience of having their nails trimmed, and both anticipated and acted on how she would feel in the future.

    This has nothing to do with sapience – the ability to perceive physically imperceptible data. The dogs can physically observe the behavior of your mom and the effects of the clippers. (That level of intelligence is why dogs and other higher mammals can be trained.)

    Justice is following the rules, fairness is other people obeying your moral code at the probable detriment of their own.

    We tend to associate the words with different sets of rules – justice in terms of punishment, fairness in terns of allocation of resources – but they both really mean the same thing: the individual gets what he or she has earned.

    Re Lewis: his conclusions may not be believed by all, but his observation that I cited – that humans overwhelmingly believe that moral absolutes exist and that morality’s chief tenets (at the very least) are common knowledge – is one that should be plain to everyone.

    Re black swans: I base my assertion that no known Earth creatures besides us are sapient on the observation that the psychological makeup of each intelligent species (or breeds within species) is tremendously uniform.

    All bonobos born in the wild are born with the same inputs: same genetic makeup, same genetically-determined instincts, same flora and fauna (with some variety between tribes). If they became sapient, all of a sudden they’d each have an input that none of the others have. Sapience would create a vast psychological diversity, one we do not see in the lower animals. Like develop moral codes, which eventually begets dissidents, which quickly begets enforcers of moral codes.

    The last paragraph revolves around epistemology, which deserves its own thread.

  • Midwesterner

    This has nothing to do with sapience – the ability to perceive physically imperceptible data.

    Err(?

    We tend to associate the words with different sets of rules – justice in terms of punishment, fairness in terns of allocation of resources – but they both really mean the same thing: the individual gets what he or she has earned.

    So let’s get this straight. You get to stipulate the meaning of words and I can’t even go by a Wikipedia definition? If that isn’t a demonstration that your argument is subjective, you don’t understand what subjective means.

    Re Lewis, you appear to be arguing that there are things that “should be” “common knowledge” and are therefor “objective reality“, and claiming that as an authority to compel others to accept your dictates. You cannot see the risk that other belief systems (of which I can name many) may, by popular agreement, have different things that are common knowledge and therefor, objective reality. Fortunately, we don’t have to accept their reality and the flip side is, we cannot compel other to accept ours except by force. Which is a theme throughout this article and thread. Consent or force are the only grounds for interaction. Nobody can prove any higher authority. Let the higher authorities, be they the laws of physics or of God, demonstrate their own power and leave meddlemen out of it.

    You appear to be not quite clear on what Black Swans means in a discussion of “facts”.

    The last paragraph revolves around epistemology, which deserves its own thread.

    So, in a thread discussing the standing of objective versus subjective knowledge, you are declaring epistemology off limits? I think perhaps you are referencing the wrong Lewis. Instead of C.S.Lewis, Lewis Carroll might be a better choice. Because in that statement, you are saying the equivalent of “we mustn’t interrupt the game to discuss rules. We can decide what the rules are tomorrow.” Very Through the Looking Glass.

    Human exceptionalism may be popular, but as a cosmic constants go, not in the running. A different basis than ones ancestry, and what other people think of you must be found. It can only be consent. I can neither compel others to believe what I believe, or tolerate their demands that I believe what they believe. All observation and interpretation processes are suspect and rely on a very human component. Our relationships must either be force based, or consent based. Neither is a means of enforcing “truth”, only opinion. So I seek people who will accept the same set of rules I do and then we live among each other peacefully. If I cannot get somebody to accept rules that I can live by, then why I disagree with him is irrelevant to anyone except myself and our relationship revolves around force.

    I am out for most of today and tomorrow. I will try to check the thread but may not be able to.

  • Err

    I have been using the term in a context different from Wikipedia’s – that cognitive ability (that I have explicitly defined at least twice) that separates Homo Sapiens from all other known life.

    Note sure that “wisdom” is the best word to describe the dogs example. They see A correlate with B a number of times and start expecting B to happen every time they see A. That’s not wisdom – that’s Pavlovian association.

    So, in a thread discussing the standing of objective versus subjective knowledge, you are declaring epistemology off limits?

    Epistemology is off-topic – off my topic, anyway. I haven’t posited any arguments that objective morality exists. I have been discussing human and animal nature – re the former, that humans overwhelmingly assume that objective morality exists. Epistemology is too huge a topic to deal with in a single comment thread, anyway. I have only so many vacation days.

    To rephrase an earlier passage, bonobos are for the most part psychologically and behaviorally monolithic. We are not, and our unique cognitive ability is the reason why. Bonobos all have the same “purpose” in life – ours varies dramatically. For social activity to be possible there must be something to unite around. For humans that something is the assumption of morality.

    If one were to convince a significant number of people that objective morality is a delusion, and put them all on an island together, how would they build a cohesive society?

  • Laird

    So Alan, after all this, you’re saying that you’ve been answering an entirely different question than the one Midwesterner posed? As I understand it, the whole point of his original essay was that there is no such thing as objective morality [“There is no external imperative for a lion or zebras’ moral code. Nor for a human’s.”], and you’re going on and on about how “humans overwhelmingly assume that objective morality exists”? Well, that’s a blinding flash of the obvious. I think we could all (even Mid) stipulate to it. So what? If the discussion were about whether God exists, would claiming that “humans overwhelmingly believe God exists” constitute any sort of proof, or contribute in any way to the debate?

    Please stick to the topic: If you disagree with his thesis, and think that some sort of objective morality exists, please demonstrate your proof. Asserting that “humans overwhelmingly believe it” is no proof. Once upon a time humans overwhelmingly believed that the earth was flat.

  • I thought the thesis rested in this question: “If there is no external imperative obligating a moral code, is no moral code possible?” I’m still not sure if Midwesterner came up with an answer to his own question. I have plodded along trying to do several things at once. The answer is that if the external imperative does not exist but you want a moral code anyway, you must not break the illusion of objective morality. Human society will not cohere if the no-genuine-right-or-wrong meme catches on.

  • Paul Marks

    If I were to write on ethics I would only be repeating (in an inferior way) what (in their different ways) what both the Aristotelians (both Christian and nonChristian) and the “Common Sense” thinkers (a different language and approach to the Aristotelians – but very similar conclusions) have said already. And what people before and after the formal Common Sense school said (for I would argue that Ralph Cudworth before and Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross after, were just as much “Common Sense” men as were Thomas Reid, Noah Porter or James McCosh).

    As I have not got the gift of language (or of mind – especially now I am getting on in years) of Aristotle or of Saint Thomas A. (and the other scholastics), or of the Randian Objectivists….

    Nor of the Common Sense School thinkers (already mentioned)…….

    I will stop here.

  • Paul Marks

    Having said “I will stop there” it has become clear to me that I should actually comment on the specific post.

    The idea that justice is a contract to neither commit or suffer aggression goes back to Lycrophon (and indeed far beyond him). I am not an enemy of Lycrophon – indeed the first name I ever used on the internet was “Lycrophon”. But……

    Lycrophon is alleged by Aristotle (we do not have Lycrophon’s own works to check) to be just concerned with narrow (not broad) self interest.

    Not the interest of human beings in being “just and good” (which Aristotle, I think mistakenly, thinks the Polis can help them with), but simply a fear of future attack (on their body or goods) if they attack others.

    In short not being interests in ethics at all -just making a sophist style calculation on narrow (not broad) self interest.

    Midwestern is undoubtly CORRECT that the prudential calculation (the cost benefit matter) does work out this way – and that the break down of civil society would hurt the weakest the most.

    However, this does not deal with the matter of ethics (of morality, of good and evil, right and wrong, vices and virtues) – Plato (although a swine in many ways) asks the correct question.

    What if a person had a “magic ring” that could make you invisible – so you could rob what you like, rape anyone you want to, murder who you wish to murder, without being detected or EVER FOUND OUT (the magic ring has this property also – and only you have one).

    Ethics (morality) is what holds you back (what you choose to follow) when you are NOT under threat of some furture attack, and when there is no chance of future punishment. When no one (bar yourself) will ever know what you did or did not do.

    “And what is the true origin of this….”

    Now there I will stop.

    “You only stop because you do not know the answer”.

    Quite so – I am not the sage of sages.

    But because I do not know the answer to the ulitimate mystery it does NOT mean that right and wrong do not exist. Or that human beings (even those who do the most terrible things) do not know when they do right and when they do wrong.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way….

    I hope no one replies by saying “in real life people do not have magic rings” – that would be missing the point on an epic scale.

    As would saying “morality first evolves as a prudential calculation (or even as an evolutationary thing – without conscious calculation) and then it is internalized…”.

    On many matters F.A. Hayek may well rock – but he certainly does not on moral philosophy.

    Actually, if there is a real reply, the reply would be more important than the universe.

    And such a thing is not likely to be found in an internet discussion.

  • Midwesterner

    Paul,

    Tolkien posited such a ring. That kind of power would not be governable with a moral code. Yes, it was nice that Frodo and Bilbo had moral codes to restrain them (for a while, at least), but I think Tolkien is arguing the case the power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    The only way to prevent that kind of abuse is to never grant that kind of power. Let all of the narrow self interested people of the world unite against it, but a moral code will never bind it.

    I agree with you that a strong moral code is a necessary element of being a good human. But it has to be a personal code because once the power to declare a moral code is extended to any external authority, be it a singular or a collective one, that is your ring. That power will corrupt.

    Right and wrong absolutely do exist. I agree. My moral code has bright lines and sharp edges. But I can only persuade you to accept it, I cannot prove it to you by any scientifically acceptable method.

    The people who are most in need of a moral code are those who cannot see the need for one. There is no pointing in declaring moral boundaries to people who do not believe in boundaries. I have no means to interact with them save by force.

    It is alliances of people acting from Lycrophon’s narrow self interest that yields the most civil of societies. Any expansion of moral authority to broad self interest is “the greater code” as a writ for people who secretly acknowledge no moral authority at all.

    My point in this article is that there is no one moral code that can be written into law. We must each do our own best to discover the best moral code and then we must seek others who reach similar enough conclusions that we can live together in peace. The laws that we accept to bind us must derive from our consent and the process and limitations of our government must not be changed without adherence to the methods of change established in the foundation of our cooperation. Any encroachment of “moral” into a system of laws is a unilateral violation of consent and consequentially an invitation for violence to reenter the dispute resolution arena. In fact, the use of the powers of government to enforce moral rather than legal codes is itself an intiating act of violence.

    Any one who claims the moral high ground is claiming that ring of power. We the cooperators only offer our consent to laws, not our submission to the moral codes of others, when we join together in civil society. Once our personal moral accountability is usurped, we cease to be individual human beings and are instead puppets of some external entitty.

  • Midwesterner

    Any expansion of moral authority to broad self interest is “the greater code” as a writ for people who secretly acknowledge no moral authority at all.

    should be

    Any expansion of moral authority to broad self interest is “the greater good” as a writ for people who secretly acknowledge no moral authority at all.