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Moral Philosophy

I am in the process of writing a series of essays concerning Moral Philosophy. These essays comprise both a personal statement, and a more general philosophical statement. On the personal side, this is simply a description of my own individual philosophy—my personal thoughts and ideas about what it means to live "right" in the world, and how I choose to live my own life.

But it's also more than that: it's a philosophical construct offered as a contribution to our general cultural thinking about morality.

It has become clear to me that my personal moral functioning is fundamentally different from mainstream human society. As with most people, and most cultures, my moral functioning is based initially on my innate predispositions. For most people and cultures, I believe, this is the beginning and end of it—the individual or cultural moral precepts represent little more than the individual or collective predispositions, somehow endowed with cultural authority.

But for me that's not the end of it. Unlike most others, my moral functioning is also based on a formal intellectual analysis of what morality really means, and on the derivation of a moral formula based on defensible thought, reason and logic.

The result is a moral construct that, to my knowledge, is quite original, providing a new lens through which to look at moral questions.

If nothing else, others may find this interesting. Beyond that, others may find this a useful formula when making their own moral decisions. And possibly, this may eventually influence society at large, pushing us a fractional step further along the rocky path to enlightenment.


This is a work-in-progress. The intended essays are in various stages of construction—some in draft form, some consisting only of placeholder notes, and others at concept level only, with nothing yet in writing. Even the overall make-up of the set of essays is not yet fully determined, but will take on more definite shape over time.

For the moment, here is an initial working roadmap to indicate the major anticipated essays, with placeholder notes to describe the general topic of each essay, and links to the draft essays.

  1. Introduction
    General overview of this body of work: what this is all about; what the motivation and purpose is. Description of motivations for writing: personal reasons, and broader academic purposes. What are the goals, what do I hope to achieve? Who is the intended audience? Audience: the educated non-specialized lay audience, e.g. accessible to a bright high-school student.

    Problem statement. A clear statement of the fundamental problem that motivates this work, and that we will be addressing.

  2. Intellectual Framework
    A description of the intellectual underpinnings for this work. What is to be presented is a dialectical argument, leading to a set of conclusions. But the conclusions are in direct conflict with entrenched societal mores, and as such can be expected to provoke dissent, and almost inevitably, hostility.

    This is most fundamentally because the viewpoint presented here, and opposing viewpoints, exist within entirely different intellectual contexts. A not inappropriate comparison would be the violently conflicting viewpoints of the white supremacist ideology, and all the rest of us. Here we can see that the divergence of belief system is the result of totally different methodologies and pathways leading to personal belief. In a nutshell: one is based on thought, and the other is based on non-thought.

    Much the same sort of thing applies here. In anticipation of things to come, it is important to describe the intellectual context for this argument: in explicit terms, what are the principles and methodology used here for accepting one line of reasoning as valid, and another as false.

    We will discuss what constitutes valid dialectical argument within this context. Key ideas are: the notion of Intellectual Integrity, to be defined properly and meaningfully; the requirement for the close rigour of written argument, as opposed to merely verbal; the requirement to answer any question or challenge posed by ones interlocutor, as opposed to ignoring inconvenient fact or logic; the resolution of clash between intuition and reason, and which must ultimately take precedence. (Possibly a separate essay in its own right: a more general discussion and discrediting of intuition alone as a means of reaching understanding.)

    And so on. Essentially, a description of the intellectual framework within which I operate, and which I consider essential for any meaningful analysis or debate.

  3. Definition of an Abstract Morality
    This is the first substantive part of the development, presenting the first important concept, and also the first essay to be written. This essay presently exists as a first draft.

    Here we will provide a rigourous definition of what we mean by "a morality." Throughout this work we will use the term "a morality" in a way that is quite different from the ordinary lay meaning of the word "morality." One immediately obvious difference is that throughout this work "a morality" is a discrete, or count noun (takes an indefinite article), whereas in common usage "morality" is a continuous, or mass noun (does not take a definite article). We will make clear what, exactly, we mean by "a morality."

    Very briefly, this is nothing more than a mapping from the "set of actions" into the two-element abstract set {right, wrong}. For people who understand what a mapping or a function is, it will be immediately evident what this means, but we will take time to make this clear to a broader, non-scientific audience.

    For the moment we will leave the "set of actions" undefined. We will provide a loose explanation and offer some examples of what we mean by this to orient the reader, but leave a more detailed examination until later. But again, briefly, an action is some action taken by an agent, that may impinge against some other entity for good or ill. An example might be an individual person committing armed robbery, or a national government committing genocide against an entire people.

    The two element set {right, wrong} is purely abstract, for the moment devoid of all meaning. Later in the development we will link this to what people commonly mean when they use these same words, but for the moment no such linkage exists.

    We will provide a development and various examples to make this clear to the lay reader.

    Among the examples we will include some canonical examples, including the "amorality," the "puritan morality," and the "individual morality."

  4. Equivalence of Subjective Experience
    Here we will introduce the next critical concept in this development. We will make the case that all subjective experience is equivalent, in the sense that any subjective experience can be expressed in terms of any other subjective experience.

    This is essentially a utilitarian argument, and again, the scientifically trained mind will grasp this very quickly. But again, we will take time to make this idea accessible to a broad audience. We will build to this understanding by way of some more accessible examples. First we will consider the equivalence of currencies (US dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen) as a very easy example—here it is immediately evident that any one of these currencies, in any amount, can be expressed in terms of any of the other currencies.

    Next we will consider some examples where the equivalence may not be quite so immediately obvious, but after a moment's thought we can see that the same sort of equivalence can easily be defined. For example, the equivalence of any two items in a supermarket.

    We will then come to the crux of the matter, that any subjective experience, experienced by any sentient entity, can (in principle) be expressed in terms of any other subjective experience, experienced by any other sentient entity.

    We will first consider only positive experiences (gratification, pleasure, benefit) and make the case for equivalence among these. Next we will consider only negative experiences (pain, suffering, cost) and argue equivalence among these. Finally we will link positive to negative experiences, thus creating an equivalence among all experiences, positive or negative.

    We will draw a distinction between the qualitative and quantitative attributes of subjective experiences, and note that the equivalence we have defined is based exclusively on the quantitative attribute, and wholly independent of the qualitative attribute. Along the same lines we will note the multiplicity of different words used in language to describe positive and negative experiences, and point out that under our equivalence all these linguistic terms now become descriptors only of degree, or magnitude, of experience.

    As corollary to this, we will anticipate and rebut some objections that may be made to this. We will address the fact that none of this is in practical terms measurable. We will also address the notion that some experiences may be so large in magnitude as to be effectively infinite, and thus not expressible as a multiple of a finite experience. We will point out the fallacy underlying this notion, and support this with a compelling refutation.

  5. Building to Morality-H
    With these two ideas now clear in our minds—the notion of an abstract morality, and the notion of equivalence of subjective experience—we will then begin defining a series of abstract moralities. We will begin with a very simple morality based on this notion, then extend and add complexity to this in various ways.

    As we do so, we will recognize that the series of moralities we are defining is approaching closer to something recognizable as being a "human" morality—that is, something recognizable as having moral validity in ordinary terms. But we will emphasize that this is a completely abstract, made up thing, with no formal relationship to any organic human morality. The author is just making it up.

    Our ultimate destination in this essay will be something we will call Morality-H. This will in many ways parallel what we normally consider as being an appropriate morality (general consistency with innate human feeling; general consistency with religious and societal dictums), but it is in fact quite different: it is a true formalization in the sense of our definition of a morality, with no formal connection to any "real-world" morality.

    Nevertheless an understanding of Morality-H is critical for a clear understanding of "real-world" morality, and is critical to the ultimate conclusions of this work.

    We will refrain for the moment from considering the radical consequences of applying Morality-H in the real world. But we will describe the objective mechanics of how we would go about applying it, illustrated by two examples—one very simple, and one vastly more complex.

    We will also point out one important consequence of Morality-H: in contrast to others, it is non-binary. This now allows us to attach meaning to moral terms such as "evil," which up to this point have been meaningless and fatuous.

  6. Analysis of Organic Human Morality
    We will now turn our attention for the first time to real-world, factual human morality.

    With the notion of a well-defined abstract morality in mind, we will ask ourselves two questions. First, can we characterize human moral functioning empirically in these terms? In other words, can we define an abstract morality, that actually matches observable human morality? If so, then this means we can characterize human morality accurately in external, black-box terms.

    Second, can we formulate an underlying theory for why human morality takes the observable form it does? That is, can we formulate a theoretical explanation for this, in the same way that we have theories and explanations for other observable phenomena, such as the tides, or the seasons? Or for other well understood aspects of human emotional functioning, such as fear, aggression, or paranoia?

    If the empirical description and the theoretical model are congruent, then we are really on to something: in a sense we will have "solved" the problem of human moral functioning, in the same way that we have "solved" various other aspects of human behaviour.

    The answer to both questions is "yes." Yes, we can formulate an empirical description of human moral functioning that describes observed human functioning very accurately. And yes, we can formulate a theory to account for this, that accounts fully for the observed behaviour.

    In order to do this, we will need another critically important conceptual piece. We will need a clear understanding that in any situation where a moral question arises, there are two quite different subjective experiences to consider: what we will call direct, and what we will call indirect. Without understanding this distinction it is impossible to understand human moral behaviour. We will describe this dichotomy precisely, and illustrate it with a number of familiar examples.

    At the end of this essay we will have a very clear understanding of organic morality both empirically and theoretically—we will have a clear descriptive characterization of the form it takes, and a clear understanding of exactly why it takes this form.

    To anticipate: the answer is that organic human experiences of morality are, of course, an adaptation. We will consider why this adaptation has come about, and why in contrast to other adaptations (grasping hands, binocular vision) it is so exceedingly difficult to understand, and why it has caused the philosophical confusion it has, for so very long.

  7. Morality-H versus Human Morality
    We now have two different moralities before us—the completely abstract Morality-H, and the real-world Human Morality. We will now compare and contrast these two.

    Though they are ultimately based on the same principle—causing harm to others is perhaps not the best thing—their formulation is different in a number of crucial respects. We will identify these differences explicitly, and examine their consequences. We will look at a number of parameters that may affect the moral value of an action, and consider the effect of each under our two moralities. Among others we will consider the following parameters, with illustrative examples:

    • The qualitative nature of the benefits to the beneficiaries of an action, versus the costs to its victims. This carries great significance under the Human Morality, but is completely immaterial under Morality-H.
    • The types of experience that carry moral value under the two moralities. All subjective experience is grist for the Morality-H mill, but under the Human Morality certain types of experience are heavily discounted. In particular we will identify various non-obvious forms of experience that must be included in the accounting defined in Morality-H, but that are not recognized explicitly under the Human Morality. Most significant among these is the experience of "offended sensibility." We will illustrate this with appropriate examples, including pro-life sensibility, homophobia, and racism. Also, the baser human emotions of retribution and revenge, generally suppressed under Human Morality, but fully valid under Morality-H. For example: the death penalty, now appearing in a completely different light under Morality-H.
    • The effect of multiplicity, of either the beneficiaries or the victims of an action. E.g. gang rape, versus individual rape. The effect of few beneficiaries but large numbers of victims, e.g. spam, graffiti. The effect of large numbers of beneficiaries, but few victims, e.g. bullfighting, rodeo.
    • The non-linear effects of scale, or extremely large numbers, where the true costs to victims scale arithmetically, but the indirect costs to the perpetrators are subject to saturation or diminishing returns, e.g. factory farming.
    • The effect of the physical size of the parties to an action, under some circumstances.

    All these parameters can lead to different moral evaluations of the same action under the two moralities.

    But all these fall secondary to the single most crucial difference between our two moralities: one is based on direct (actual) experience, while the other is based on indirect (observed) experience. And this difference, it turns out, is catastrophic. Certainly, it is catastrophic for those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of Human Morality. And in many cases it also turns out to be catastrophic for the agents of this morality themselves.

    We will point out that there are many actions, in fact many entire classes of action, that map to right under Human Morality, but that are heinously criminal under Morality-H. And we will point out the enormous costs of this, to all of us.

  8. Case Studies
    We will consider a wide spectrum of issues that are considered to have moral content, and look at each through our two alternative lenses, the lens of Human Morality, and the lens of Morality-H.
  9. Further Technical Considerations
    We will address some further technical characteristics and consequences of Morality-H that we have not yet considered.
    • We have been considering Morality-H as being defined on the "set of actions," but strictly it is defined on the set of differential actions. We will illustrate this by considering other domains of definition that are purely scalar (e.g. mass, temperature) as opposed to those that are differential (altitude, voltage). Much of the time this makes no difference, as it is obvious that the base action is the null action. However, there are situations where multiple alternative non-null actions are relevant, and the correct Morality-H measure is between these, not in reference to the null action. Again, we will provide illustrative examples.
    • We have been considering Morality-H in deterministic terms, where the consequences of an action are known in advance. This is more or less the case in many situations, but there are also many situations where it is not. We will extend the definition of Morality-H to properly cover probabilistic situations.
    • We have been making the implicit assumption that subjective experience scalar values follow the usual rules for real number ordering and arithmetic, e.g. if A is larger than B, and B larger than C, then A is larger than C. And more strictly, if A=2B, and B=2C, then A=4C. On the face of it, neither of these assumptions need necessarily be true. In this domain formal proof is not possible, however we will present plausibility arguments to show that these assumptions are in fact reasonable.

      We will also point out that these technical issues are useful and interesting things to think about, but in the end they do not compromise the well-definedness of Morality-H, or the validity of conclusions deriving from it.

    • In the case of complex configurations of group agents, group beneficiaries, and group victims, and where there are intersections among these groups, it becomes difficult to define the terms in Morality-H precisely. For example, the war in Iraq, an exceedingly complex situation. (There is little doubt that this is profoundly immoral based on any reasonable morality, that's not the question. The problem is, how to define Morality-H unambiguously in this domain?) A clear formulation to address this is TBD. But for the moment we can note that again, this does not compromise the well-definedness of Morality-H, and that the general conclusions and insights deriving from Morality-H are unaffected. What this does, essentially, is generate an exceedingly difficult accounting problem. We will also note that this is a problem common to all moralities based on the notion of "harm" to others, not just Morality-H.
    • In even quite simple situations, the agent of an action may itself be a victim of this action, either partially, or at a temporal remove, and with the agent's full knowledge. This can be accounted for in more than one logically defensible way.
    • Our definition of Morality-H is linear; there is no modification for very extreme forms of experience. We will acknowledge this, and give some examples to illustrate why this is not entirely appropriate. Again, as with other technical issues, we will note that this does not affect the major premise or conclusions of this work.
  10. Societal Relevance
    A discussion of what this all means in terms of societal morality. At the end of the day, we can do whatever we want—we have our choice, to live by whatever precepts we wish.

    Morality-H casts the Human Morality in a very ugly light. But if we don't like what Morality-H demands of us, or what it tells us about ourselves, we can reject it in favour of some other, more convenient or personally beneficial morality.

    Here we will discuss the significance of the choice we make, both as individuals, and as a global community.

  11. Other Topics
    Various other topics, to be presented either in an essay of their own, or as part of one of the other essays.
    • Discussion of uncertainty of knowledge about subjective experience of others. Consider two alternative statements: "We don't know for sure that any specific entity actually has any subjective experience." And, "All available evidence indicates that they do." We will discuss the clash between these ideas, and present a logical resolution.
    • The effect of peer pressure, or environment, or sphere of consensus, on "knowledge and responsibility," one of the critical ingredients in Morality-H. We will acknowledge the real effect this has, and ask the question, does this logically belong in Morality-H? The answer is yes it does. But we will then point out the full consequences of this: responsibility is diminished in one arena, but augmented in another. We have to do honest bookkeeping; we can't cook the books; if a liability is to be removed from one part of our accounting, it must reappear somewhere else. Whatever responsibility exists may be allocated logically, but it must be accounted for fully.
    • We have tended to focus on individual and small group agents thus far. But all the ideas we have considered apply with equal generality to larger group entities such as corporations and nation-states. Both of these are the agents of actions that may affect others for good or ill, and are therefore fully subject to our moral analysis. We can examine the actions of these entities in moral terms—we can ask the same questions and apply the same sort of analysis.

      Just as we considered individual and small-group moral functioning in empirical and theoretical terms to characterize the Human Morality, we can do the same thing to establish the Corporate Morality, and the Nation-State Morality. We can ask, what is the moral functioning of a corporation, or of a nation-state in dealing with other nation-states? And why is it the way it is?

      We will see that both of these moralities are nothing remotely like Morality-H. They are also very significantly different from the Human Morality, and we will come to understand why. We will see that in the case of nation-states, the welfare of the citizens of other nation-states is very heavily discounted, in favour of the interests of the ruling power base within the state. And in the case of large corporations, we will see that there is virtually no consideration for the welfare of others at all—these are pathologically self-interested entities.

      Looking back over our history, we can see the catastrophic consequences of this. There are choices to be made here. What moral restraints do we wish to place on the actions of corporations? How do we want to instruct our governments to behave? In our interests certainly, but at what cost to the citizens of other nation-states? Morality-H dictates that we maintain parity between our interests and those of our global neighbours. But no government, or race, or ethnicity, or culture, has ever functioned this way.

    • The legal system. We can look at the legal system under the lens of Morality-H, to very useful and illuminating effect. Many legal principles and constructs, imperfectly conceived and understood under the Human Morality, now become very clear. We will note in passing a fundamental problem in western legal process: the adversarial system, representing a complete reversal of intellectual integrity, requiring a deliberate, intellectually corrupt battle to bamboozle a jury the more effectively. Further discussion of the jury system in general.

      But more important than this, we will see that the legal system represents an almost exact codification of the Human Morality, which by now we will have come to see as itself massively corrupt, by way of argument backed up by many examples.

    • The notion of a Morality-H "footprint," not unlike the notion of a carbon footprint. This can be defined for any grouping of agents—for individuals, professions, organizations, corporations, or nation-states.
    • A discussion of the meaning of the word "should." This is the single most slippery word in the English language, and I suspect, any language. It has multiple, constantly shifting and merging meanings, and is frequently used to obscure moral responsibility. Based on our well-defined moral theory, we can now nail down this word precisely.
    • A discussion of the idea of compassion. We will note that there are two different conceptual components here: our standard of compassion, and the compassion that we actually feel. But in our cultural thinking and attitudes about compassion, we do not acknowledge this dichotomy. On the contrary, we formulate the former exactly on the basis of the latter, so that they now become one and the same. On this basis, we can all equally claim to be compassionate, no matter how criminally non-compassionate we really are.
Created by sa-20071
Last modified 2009-11-27 07:33 PM

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