More On Morality And Ethics

My post on morality and ethics from the other day isn’t as clear as I would have liked it to be, so I wanted to say a little more to clarify some of my arguments.

Many years ago I wrote a post arguing a consequentialist position entitled The Negative Sides of Altruism.   I basically argued that love without knowledge is empty and troublesome.  At the time, I felt that whether altruism is a good or bad thing depends on the person practicing it.  I still largely agree with that old post, but I would now add some much needed corrections.

In my latest post, I talked a lot about love and caring, adding an emotional element to my views on morality and ethics.  The key point I was making is that in real-word situations, understanding people and where they’re coming from is everything.  Human beings are very emotional creatures and you’ll never understand them well if you can’t get a grip on their “angle”.  Their perspective.  How they see things.

We begin in a state of ignorance toward the world and its problems.  We don’t understand ourselves.  We understand others even less.  Our attention and time is limited, so the core question is to ask yourself is — what do I care about?  Who do I care about?  Why do I care about these things over other things?  Why do these other people care about the things they care about?

To take the time to study different issues and positions, reading books, listening to lectures, attending events, it’s a lot of work and is a large sacrifice on the part of the individual.  History books are really thick and take years to read.  Most of us have a lot going on in our lives.  We have families, work, community events.  We don’t have time to be fully informed on every single issue.

This is where purpose, passion and love come in.  I mentioned that people have three main responses to the world:

1) Living happy and content with the way things are.  Or,
2) They try to change it into what they want it to be.  If they can’t do that, they,
3) Insulate themselves from things they don’t like.  And if they don’t have the resources to achieve that, they,
4) Flee into fantasy and their imagination.

Morality is about how we live together, trying to be as happy as we can, sharing what we do like, and dealing with all the things we often don’t like, together.  That’s insanely complex.  I really could care less about technical definitions of philosophers labeling things “right” and “wrong”.

How people go about trying to change the world is a big issue.  Some try to create companies and change the world through innovation.  Some try to alleviate suffering by helping the sick and poor.  Others fight for reforms in issues which carry personal significance to them and their life.

People are always trying to gain control of society’s resources.  Some need these resources to make important changes, but others are only hoping they can insulate themselves from life’s struggle as much as possible.   They hope to build themselves a private paradise and ignore the suffering and misery of the world.  That’s important to understand because the people who do that cause the most misery in the world.

The worst forms of evil are rooted in a delusional rejection of reality.  Tyrants, terrorists and cult leaders all dream of overthrowing the social order to build their pet utopia, rarely caring who dies in the process.  Greed is rooted in a rejection of reality.  It’s fear of an unpredictable future combined with unfulfilled desires.  The more fear in their heart, the more greed.  They come to feel if they just have enough money, they can buy their way out of every problem that may come their way.

Unfulfilled desires very often leads to neurotic personalities.

We suffer as human beings.  We’re pitiful, stupid, weak creatures.  We find it all demeaning, and it is.  Being a human is demeaning.  The randomness of it all.  At any time we can come down with an incurable disease and die.  It takes forever to get from point A to point B.  We’re so often separated from the people we love.  Our lives are dictated to us by Kafkaesque forces far beyond our control.  Finding love is difficult and doesn’t always work out.  Having to take care of our bodies is a pain in the rear, whether it be exercising, eating right, brushing our teeth, showering, and all that.  Most jobs are so boring and unfulfilling, and it takes a bazillion years of work and schooling to get into the jobs worth having.  Even when we do painstakingly learn things, we forget it all so quickly.  Just on and on.

Human existence is strange.  We live in a world of conditional happiness and conditional love.  We have all these choices of who we could be and what we could do with our life.  What we want is to be loved and happy, but only some doors lead to that and we have no strategy guide.  If we choose the wrong doors, we may end up in misery, poverty, and loneliness.  It doesn’t take very many mistakes before it can all cave in on us.  We don’t want to be free.  As Jean-Paul Satre said, we’re condemned to be free.

Consciousness seems almost divine, yet we live in these meat-bags which are fragile.  Sometimes I entertain the idea that the goal of a good society should be to make happiness and love as unconditional and widespread as possible, but I’m undecided.  The Brave New World scenario Alexey and I have been discussing is basically doing that through social and technological changes.

I often mention spirituality on my blog, but I don’t mean religion.  I’m talking about people who don’t run from this suffering of life.  Somehow they find peace within the storm and they don’t become neurotic and immoral.  They remain kind in an unkind world.  They are loving in an unloving world.  They give in a world which tries to hoard.  They build when everyone else is tearing down.  They’re different.

Some sort of transformation process happens in the deeply spiritual person, where building and contributing to a beautiful world means more to them than even their own life, as crazy as that sounds.  But what should be more important than your own life?  What if this is your only life you’ll ever live?

The tyrant raises armies to go quell a social protest and these odd-balls come out of the wood-works and stand in front of the incoming tanks.


They light themselves on fire in peaceful protest to the mistreatment of their fellow brothers and sisters.  They refuse to move even when armies aim guns at them.

monk in protest

What is it about these people?  They’re the total opposite of the lone gun-mans who go shooting innocent people in schools or public squares.  They’re the total opposite of cult leaders or tyrants.  They’re not running from or insulating themselves from the world and all its suffering.  They jump in to help and do whatever they can, even if it costs them dearly.  They’re normal, everyday people who will give their lives for others.  They always stand for love, connection, and a deeper sense of community and brotherhood.

They seem to realize some deeper aspect of reality and do not fear death in the same way as a normal person.   Their faith is not a rationalization to avoid fearing death.  It’s much more profound.

Albert Einstein once said that science without religion is lame, but religion without science is blind.  That sums all of this up succinctly.   Spirituality without knowledge is empty.  Just like in my post on altruism, it has no substance.  But when you can combine spirituality and knowledge through science, then you can build a beautiful world.   They need each other.  Science without spirituality leads to things like atomic bombs, manipulation in advertising and politics, and mass surveillance spread throughout the society.

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15 Responses to More On Morality And Ethics

  1. rationalnoodles says:

    Thanks for these posts. I can’t meaningfully comment their content, other than post a quote by Ran Prieur to the line about terrorists: “Here’s a different angle on the bombing. There was an interview with the uncle of the bombers, and when reporters asked him why they did it, he said it’s because they were losers! They were frustrated because they were unable to adapt to life in America, and that’s why they became violent extremists. I like this way of thinking: events that seem to be political, if you look deeper, turn out to be psychological. It reminds me of the link I posted earlier this month about the psychological basis of drug addiction. People don’t destroy themselves, or destroy others, unless they already think there’s no way they’re going to live a good life.”

    Also, it’s quite an interesting perspective on greed, evil, love from the person who claims to be a “huge fan of evolutionary psychology” 🙂

  2. Well, politics is all about us living together, so I feel they’re certainly closely related. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I suppose we could use inclusive fitness and kin selection theory to explain greed and even the Tibetan monk setting himself on fire. But, it’s interesting to note that studies have shown that people become more selfish and less moral if they believe in deterministic accounts of their nature. Do you believe in free will? If so, how far can you rise above your animal nature? Or is that a valid question to you?

  3. I’m sitting here thinking about your comment. Maybe my perspective on greed is more from a personal subjective experience.
    I’m thinking the two perspectives are compatible. If a person is poor and desires to earn a decent income so he can have a normal home and provide for his family, I don’t consider that greed. By greed I mean excessive desires for wealth, especially when the person has no defined or stated use for any of it. That’s fear. There’s also a large component of desiring to escape the human condition and death. Fitness theory is rooted in your genes surviving, so you surviving is the same as your genes. That manifests as an extreme fear of death, and consciously the person is rejecting the reality of them and their loved ones dying. I see that fear in many transhumanists. They’re planning to build themselves robotic bodies and transplanting their brains into special casings.

    The lust for inordinate amounts of wealth could also be rooted in a belief that no woman would be interested in him if he didn’t control vast wealth. Consciously, the person would experience that as rejection and fear. You could say it’s his genes propelling him to propagate and do whatever’s necessary. Two sides of a similar coin.

    But the lust for wealth is much more complicated. All of us want to have greater opportunities. More freedom to do what we want. To escape the normal human condition. As I pointed out, most humans have been confined to a life of tedious work, stuck in their hometown, wherever they were born. Very few opportunities for more. Very little control. When I say “rejecting reality”, I think of the struggle of just being a human and all our limitations, and striving to be more than what we are. But that’s a delicate idea, because if you sit and think about it closely, that’s also the same as desiring to change things.

    It becomes evil once your desire to overcome your limitations becomes so great, you’ll step on others to rise to a higher state of being. That creates a sort of chain reaction, where the others get resentful and conflicts break out. Deep down, we all want to be god-like. We all feel fractured and incomplete. We chase after all these things around us, wanting to feel whole and complete. That’s the human condition.

  4. rationalnoodles says:

    “excessive” — there’s no “excessive” in zero sum game.

    I’m confused. Although you wrote in previous post that “I don’t think you’ll ever find some intellectual reason to care”, your usage of the word “evil” makes it sound like you believe in some objective criteria of “good” and “evil”, is it so?

  5. Human interaction doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. I believe the libertarian argument for vast wealth inequality is that we’re not in a zero-sum game. I personally feel there is excessive amounts of wealth, and that if the society reaches a point where a handful of people have more wealth than hundreds of millions of other people combined, we’re dealing with delusional arrogance. Our institutions and economic system are broken. I’ll tolerate a large degree of wealth inequality, but it can be excessive as well. It’s not black and white for me. There’s a scale of some sort, and as it gets worse and more extreme, I think we as a society need to rethink the economy.

    There must be equality of opportunity, though I’m not as concerned about equality of outcome.

    There are things we care about and there are also things we don’t care about. Logic and rational thinking doesn’t give you reasons to care. The causation is the opposite. You think about the things you care about.

    Ethics is about dealing with one another in a kind, thoughtful, and respectful manner. If you don’t care about other people, you’re not going to spend time thinking about ethics because you’re not going to care. You’ll only think about the subject to the degree that you have to to convince other people that you’re ethical, so they’ll work with you. But once you no longer need them, what happens to them won’t matter to you at all.

    Maybe an example will help? Theologians have all kinds of thick books they’ve written on the Trinity and salvation, but I couldn’t care less about any of it. I have no passion or belief in their holy books. Why would I spend my limited time sitting around thinking about things I don’t care about? I have no motivation.

    Yeah, I believe in objective good and evil, in the same way I believe in truths in physics. I’m never completely sure about them, or even that I know them for certain, but I believe that human suffering exists, and those who create suffering in others, especially when they know they’re doing it, are evil to some extent. People who raise human awareness and happiness are good. It’s sort of like pornography. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it. Not everything has to be defined to know what it is. Not all thinking in the mind exists as words and logic.

    Take a great artist. He or she paints this beautiful abstract painting. We look at it and know it’s beautiful. What makes it beautiful exactly? It’s hard to define with words and logic, but we know it when we see it. We easily distinguish it from a bunch of scribbles on a canvas.

    Topics like good and evil are like art. It’s hard to define, and there’s this complicated gray scale where you’re not sure. It’s not a black and white subject area. You can come up with definitions if you want to. I just use general rules of thumb and would rather discuss each issue individually.

  6. Alexey says:

    Yeah, sorry about this zero-sum thing, but what is excessive? $400,000? $10,000,000?

    “libertarian argument”

    I mentioned earlier what I think about it. I don’t care. As long as I don’t claim it to be “the truth”, I don’t need any arguments.

    Or maybe, I think about ethics because it’s fun.

    Why do you think that suffering is objectively bad thing? The fact that you personally don’t like suffering, doesn’t make it special.

  7. I find myself thinking more and more that we’re dealing with an institutional problem. I’ve been entertaining the idea that companies should be owned by the people who work in them and that things should be ran as democratically as possible. Then the people who work in the business can vote and decide on the best ways to distribute the company’s income. I do have doubts about that too though, wondering how efficient that would be. Democracy is messy.

    I’ve never really questioned why I think suffering is a bad thing. The only excuse I’ve found for it is that pain can sometimes (not always) make us grow and learn. Outside of that, it’s something I’ve always felt we should work to eradicate.

  8. Alexey says:

    Then, this may be interesting to you: Thoughts on moral intuitions

  9. Alexey says:

    I’d find it fascinating if you don’t consider this article important.

  10. I’ve already stated my views completely, though something must not be clear. I agree with that article and I figured you were just sharing it because you felt it further clarified points I was making.

    I guess I was wrong. I’ll make a final attempt to explain my point of view. Actions have objective consequences. Yeah, people have different moral intuitions about all sorts of things, and they use the words “right” and “wrong” all the time. Since they so often vary from person to person, words like right and wrong often lose their meaning. What I care about is the consequences of our actions. But, people won’t care about the consequences of their actions, especially if they’re hurting others but not themselves, unless they have an emotional bond to care about other people. To care about the world. To care about different things. Otherwise they’ll just do what’s in their best interest and will not care about the full consequences of their actions.

    I was arguing that it’s important to consider the emotional bonds between each other, and that those guide our intellectual thinking about ethics and morality. As for actual issues, they have to be discussed individually. It’s too complicated to simplify into rules of “right” and “wrong”, though I do believe such things exist, though it’s all very complicated. Morality is something that we always have to be open to talk about, think about, and re-evaluate. We need to listen to one another, try to exercise empathy, and take lots of different things into consideration. We’re all free to choose what to do at any given instant, and there’s practically an infinite number of ways in which we could live and work together in a society. It’s up to us to decide how we want to live and how we deal with people who get in the way with how we want to live.

    Most of the time, there’s not a clear-cut, black-and-white answer. Let’s briefly interpret some of the examples the author brought up in my way of thinking. Is it right to intervene in foreign affairs, especially if we might be able to prevent things like mass genocide? Should we send our troops in harms way and try to police the world? There’s no easy answer to that. You’re going to create suffering and misery, no matter what you do. Troops will die in the conflict, your operation may not be successful, innocent civilians may die, etc. That comes down to the details of your plan and the specific circumstances we’re dealing with. We’d have to go into history and talk about all the different wars and interventions, look at what went wrong, how the war started, and so on. If you don’t care, you’ll just say, “Who cares what happens to those savages. Let them kill themselves.” Others want to figure how to end the suffering. I find the people who care morally superior to those who do not. They’ll spur on conversations and dialog to work on the problem, study the issue, and maybe fix things. For example, political scientists have researched war and violence and found that different forms of government are more peaceful than others. Some economic structures are more conducive to peace than others. I’m guessing you’re not arguing that just because they’re hard problems, all decisions and courses of actions are equally valid, and it’s all a matter of personal preference?

    He talks about pollution and economic externalities. That’s a serious problem in capitalism. A factory owner may create his products and dump his toxic sludge in the river because it’s cheaper than properly disposing of the chemicals. The owner may live far away and it will not effect him, and the people buying his products don’t know he’s doing it. What do we do? You have to tax them and pass laws making really nasty forms of pollution illegal. We send government inspectors to constantly check out the factories and make sure they’re not doing things which massively destroy the environment.

    More generally, most of our factories and ways of production these days cause harm to the environment, and overall, our entire way of life is not sustainable in the long run. So, what do we do? If we don’t care about future generations, we just say, “Live for us, live for today”, and we let future generations deal with the ecological catastrophe down the road. But, we could also take a middle of the road viewpoint. We can invest in scientific research to create new methods of production, like 3D printers and nanotechnology, which don’t need to pollute and will eventually lead to a more sustainable way of life. We can research filters which we can put on factory smoke-stacks to minimize pollution, etc. Also, we can encourage less consumerism, and maybe people will not buy as much useless junk. It’s not black and white, yes no, all or nothing. It’s all sorts of little and big things which we do to change the situation and address the problem as best we can.

    He mentions gays. I think that’s a matter of education. People just need to understand the human brain and sexuality works. But many won’t listen to science, so you just have to make your stand for those people’s rights, peacefully protesting the bigots and homophobes. Their religion largely fuels this hatred, and you can argue with them about the truth of their beliefs. But if you’re not gay, why should you care? The person who cares about them is morally superior in my view than those who do not. Gays don’t deserve to suffer for another person’s ignorance.

    He mentions vegetarians and animals. Vegetarians see animals suffering and their sense of empathy says, “It’s wrong to kill animals.” Is it “right” or “wrong” to eat animals? That’s just wordplay, but I do agree that different sets of actions lead to different outcomes, and in some ways of living there is less suffering and we should strive for that. For example, we could invest heavily in technology where we can artificially grow meat in the lab from proteins and DNA, and not have to make animals suffer. That seems like a reasonable thing to do, doesn’t it? Well, it does to me, because I care about the animals suffering. If you don’t care, then it’s not an issue for you. Keep the pigs and chickens in cages where they can’t even move. Feed them growth hormones and let them live in misery.

    I agree that people will always be arguing about what’s right and wrong. The best weapon we have is education, but that isn’t always effective. At that point we have to work to change society. Hopefully this helps.

  11. Alexey says:

    I do understand your consequantialist views.

    The point I was trying to make is that the only reason why you believe suffering is bad is your moral intuitions. And they’ve nothing to do with suffering being objectively bad. They’re just products of evolution.

    I’m sorry for this rant on your personal blog, but it was your words “I’ll listen and hopefully they’ll be able to justify themselves — then I’ll learn something new.”

    In one of the previous comments you replaced the word “evil” with “suffering”, but that’s just not fair. You have no answer why you believe that suffering is objectively bad, nor are you willing to even question your beliefs, which is ludicrous to me, since you are talking about objectivity.

    I can’t understand how it’s possible not to notice the inconsistency between “I don’t think you’ll ever find some intellectual reason to care” and belief in objective values. Because if you can persuade me that suffering is objectively bad, I will care. The same way as with physics. Do you know what does physics have? Empiricism. It’s absurd to compare objective good and evil with physics, as you did earlier in this thread.

    I really have no problem if you say “well, I don’t like suffering and that’s all”, but saying that it’s objectively bad, only because you don’t like it, is preposterous.

    I would really be happy if you could provide arguments for your position, because I like truth. I love when my beliefs are consistent with reality.

  12. There’s something to morality that’s beyond how our mind represents reality and different possibilities. How can I believe that you’ll never find an intellectual reason to care while still believing in objective morals and that suffering is a bad thing? There’s no way to argue it. I have trouble seeing why I should, but then again, when someone feels something is self-evident, that’s how it goes.

    Oh, I’ll question my beliefs, but when something seems self-evident to me, you’ll need really good reasons to convince me otherwise. The other day I had a pounding headache. It was awful. Headaches are bad. They’re bad when I have them, they’re bad when you have them, they’re bad when anyone has them. You say, “No Jason, evolution put moral intuitions to make you say that. Headaches aren’t bad in and of themselves.” When can I stand on my own, as an individual sentient being, and have a say in things? When are headaches a good thing to cherish? Am I supposed to be indifferent to this suffering? If I had been designed in a lab, and I was having headaches, is it somehow different because I did not evolve? What does the method of how I came into existence have to do with the problem? I can’t imagine myself ever saying, “More migraine headaches please!” If you don’t believe headaches are bad, then you’re not having the same experience I’m having.

    I doubt that convinced you though. Bertrand Russell is one of my favorite thinkers, and he talked about the troubles of defining “good” and “evil”. All the technical arguments you’re looking for can be found here.

    He goes through just about every attempt people have had to define good and evil and gets nowhere. One of the most relevant paragraphs starts at section 8:

    “It is important to realize that when we say a thing is good in itself, and not merely as a means, we attribute to the thing a property which it either has or does not have, quite independently of our opinion on the subject, or of our wishes or other people’s. Most men are inclined to agree with Hamlet: There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.[Hamlet, Act II Scene II] It is supposed that ethical preferences are a mere matter of taste, and that if X thinks A is a good thing, and Y thinks it is a bad thing, all we can say is that A is good for X and bad for Y. This view is rendered plausible by the divergence of opinion as to what is good and bad, and by the difficulty of finding arguments to persuade people who differ from us in such a question. But the difficulty in discovering the truth does not prove that there is no truth to be discovered. If X says A is good, and Y says A is bad, one of them must be mistaken, though it may be impossible to discover which. If this were not the case, there would be no difference of opinion between them. If, in asserting that A is good, X meant merely to assert that A had a certain relation to himself, say of pleasing his taste in some way; and if Y, in saying that Y, in saying that A is not good, meant merely to deny that A had a like relation to himself: then there would be no subject of debate between them. It would be absurd, if X said I am eating a pigeon-pie, for Y to answer that is false: I am eating nothing. But this is no more absurd than a dispute as to what is good, if, when we say A is good, we mean merely to affirm a relation of A to ourselves. When Christians assert that God is good, they do not mean merely that the contemplation rouses certain emotions in them: they may admit that this contemplation rouses no such emotion in the devils who believe and tremble, but the absence of such emotions is one of the things that make devils bad. As a matter of fact, we consider some tastes better than others: we do not hold merely that some tastes are ours and other tastes are other people’s. We do not even always consider our own tastes the best: we may prefer bridge to poetry, but think it better to prefer poetry to bridge. And when Christians affirm that a world created by a good God must be a good world, they do not mean that it must be to their taste, for often it is by no means to their taste, but they use its goodness to argue that it ought to be to their taste. And they do not mean merely that it is to God’s taste: for that would have been equally the case if God had not been good. Thus, good and bad are qualities which belong to objects independently of our opinions, just as much as round and square do; and when two people differ as to whether a thing is good, only one of them can be right, though it may be very hard to know which is right.

    One very important consequence of the indefinability of good must be emphasized, namely, the fact that knowledge as to what things exist, have existed, or will exist, can throw absolutely no light upon the question as to what things are good. There might, as far as mere logic goes, be some general proposition to the effect whatever exists, is good, or whatever exists, is bad, or what will exist is better (or worse) than what does exist. But no such general proposition can be proved by considering the meaning of good, and no such general proposition can be arrived at empirically from experience, since we do not know the whole of what does exist, nor yet of what has existed or will exist. We cannot therefore arrive at such a general proposition, unless it is itself self-evident, or follows from some self-evident proposition, which must (to warrant the consequence) be of the same general kind. But as a matter of fact, there is, so far as I can discover, no self-evident proposition as to the goodness or badness of all that exists or has existed or will exist. It follows that, from the fact that the existent world is of such and such a nature, nothing can be inferred as to what things are good or bad.”

  13. In the first section of Russell’s treatise on ethics, he summarized the nature of moral discussions. I was trying to make this same point, but I wasn’t as eloquent.

    “It is the business of the philosopher to ask for reasons as long as reasons can legitimately be demanded, and to register the propositions which give the most ultimate reasons that are attainable. Since a proposition can only be proved by means of other propositions, it is obvious that not all propositions can be proved, for proofs can only begin by assuming something. And since the consequences have no more certainty than their premises, the things that are proved are no more certain than the things that are accepted merely because they are obvious, and are then made the basis of our proofs. Thus in the case of ethics, we must ask why such and such actions ought to be performed, and continue our backward inquiry for reasons until we reach the kind of propositions of which proof is impossible, because it is so simple or so obvious that nothing more fundamental can be found from which to deduce it.”

    As I reasoned backward, I got to things like suffering, and I can’t go any further. If you reject that suffering is bad, or don’t think it’s an important issue, I can’t think of any argument to give you. As I said, I feel it’s self-evident at that point, but if you can think of deeper “moral axioms”, more fundamental, and better to base our moral framework off of, I’m all ears.

  14. Alexey says:

    Well, huh.

  15. Alexey says:

    I’ve never been so confused about morality.

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