Ethics, Morality, And Values

The Good, The Bad, And The Right

* * *

MORALITY IS RELATIVE NOT ABSOLUTE: Morality is not absolute, the many versions of human morality are all human creations with the most widespread ones based in the evolution of human social nature, and the more extreme variants based in individual psychological history and/or philosophical investigation. Moral judgments are always relative to some basic assumed set of values which may or may not be explicitly recognized. There is no absolute morality though we certainly can draw moral lessons from the design of nature. This is easily seen in the many conflicting moral systems of different cultures and diverse individuals. In general systems of morality are cultural impositions on natural human behavior which seek to codify and regulate human actions and thus morality is closely related to legal systems.

That being said we also see the origins of human moral systems in the morality of other species as evidenced in their systems of social interactions, of which human morality is a codification.

In turn morality is often modified by expediency and perceived benefit and what is considered moral can often be stretched when circumstances are thought to dictate such actions. People very often act in ways they condemn in their stated moral belief systems. Such hypocrisy often however has the additional component when the cognitive subroutines which determine action are not tightly coupled to and monitored by those which formulate moral standards which is quite often the case. In such cases morality is simply not applied to the action in question which thus becomes immune from moral oversight.

Hitler and the Nazis clearly believed it was moral to attempt to eradicate the Jews. Widespread deliberate policies are almost always justified on moral grounds by their perpetrators. Though I certainly find it morally reprehensible, there is no absolute morality on the basis of which we can say it was clearly wrong to attempt to eradicate the Jews. We must simply recognize that morality is always relative to the current cultural beliefs of a society, and thus is always temporary and subject to change. In the contemporary western moral view of this particular time and place the Nazi's actions relative to the Jews is widely considered to be absolutely wrong, but that cannot be the case since a whole country would not act in a way they themselves considered immoral. Rather, they would as usual redefine morality on their own terms to justify their actions. Western societies of course do this too.

Likewise many in the West consider the Taliban's harsh version of Sharia law immoral even though the Taliban are convinced it is strictly moral and the western way of life is immoral. There is no absolute right or wrong here and one has to be very cautious about arbitrarily trying to impose one moral system on another people. That is simply moral imperialism, though that happens throughout history and can be seen in historical terms as part of the inevitable evolutionary clash of cultures.

Everyone is almost always convinced it is their morality which is right and that any opposing system is immoral and its adherents evil. Such beliefs are often so strong that people are willing to fight and die to impose their own moral systems on other peoples, actions which nearly always impose more suffering on the loser than any dysfunctionality their own system might have entailed, at least in the short term.

So were those past actions really 'good' or were they really 'bad'? Can we argue that Hitler and his ilk throughout history were really 'good' guys as their actions reduced the human population even if only insignificantly? Were the black death and the influenza pandemic actually 'good' events? Is the highest good at this point actually something that would produce the greatest number of human casualties? Is the most efficient and effective approach to solving the planet's problems simply to kill as many other people as possible? In the future will those who killed the most people be revered as the greatest heros that struggled to save the planet? It is possible and one can even make a good moral case for it. We will see . . .

As you see the question of morality, of good and evil, gets very complicated very quickly when one considers the entire network of all casual nodes extending from the remote past into the foreseeable future. As future effects are generally uncertain proportionally to their distance in the future we need to apply a weighted measure which assigns greatest value to immediate effects but which uses a sliding scale to weight most probable future effects as well.

Whenever actions or policies are evaluated morally that requires quantifying the morality of the various choices. Value then is the metric we define to measure morality. Values of course are entirely dependent on the underlying principles of our morality since they are always values relative to those principles.

Thus to evaluate the morality of any proposed action or policy we need to sum the values of the effects over time from the present into the foreseeable future weighted by the confidences of the probabilities of those effects as they extend into the future. That is we take the sum of the values of the integrals over time of each projected effect times the confidence of that probability as it varies (normally diminishes) into the future.

For example, and taking minimization of human suffering as the value metric, a decision to provide foreign aid to starving people in Africa would have an immediate high value that would most likely have the unfortunate longer term negative value of increasing the number of people in danger of starvation and thus the amount of suffering. The approach above takes both effects into consideration and compares them over time. It also points out that actions and policies cannot be properly morally evaluated in isolation of other events, as additional policies to increase self sustainability could change the metrics positively while global warming could effect it negatively. Thus the proper approach in deriving measures of value must consider associated sets of events and policies.

The problem of evaluating the morality values of personal decisions is not much easier and is also best considered by a similar approach rather than on knee jerk ideological considerations which consider only the immediate effects of one's actions in isolation of other actions and events.

Rather than the current interminable and dysfunctional conflict of group based moralities, the notion of morality needs to be redefined in terms of some general planetary wide principles which take into consideration both short and long term effects. Morality needs to be raised up out of the atavistic muck of tribal EP imperatives which in the past facilitated the success of particular groups at the expense of others, but which now threatens us all.

The general principle I suggest as the starting principles for all morality must be first to maximize the long term optimal health of our planetary ecosystem. All the rest of morality should be consistent with and flow from that first principle.

In the past I've thought that the minimization of suffering of individuals of all species averaged over time, not just in the present, might be a good first moral principle but quite obviously the minimization of suffering over time is best accomplished by simply destroying all life immediately so that definition doesn't work.

Then how about the maximization of suffering free life across all species? Well, that's not an easy principle even to understand in practice. Would that imply the elimination of all predatory and parasitic species? And if so would that not have the unintended effect of condemning the remaining species to overpopulate to the point they destroyed their food supplies resulting in even more suffering? The fact we must confront is that the suffering of some species is required for the survival and well being of others.

In terms of individual human morality the guiding principle should then be to act and live so as to maximize the sustainable health of our planetary ecosystem. and then the maximization of personal health, satisfaction and freedom and minimization of suffering and harm within the constraints of the first principle.

All the rest of morality, all the rest of the legal system (hopefully both global), should derive from these basic principles.....

1. Consume minimal resources. Buy intelligent long lasting necessities with maximum benefit rather than more. No one needs more than a couple changes of clothes, a simple well built shelter, a few useful tools, efficient and effective terminal to the knowledge web, and low imprint transportation matched to one's actual needs.