Morality and Ethics

It seems that my philosophy posts get less feedback than my more political or religious posts. I find this disappointing but unsurprising. Today, as you could guess from the introduction is a philosophy post.

Deontology and virtue, morality and ethics… I started discussing these relationships last week. It was only briefly exposed and not defended, so I guess I should probably defend those claims. The first claim was that any statement of “should” or “ought”, when concerning a person’s actions, are either ethical or moral statements, without exception. I don’t know if this statement really needs defense, as it it merely a definition. I would define moral or ethical statements, broadly, as statements that concern themselves with how one ought to behave or act.

Moral and ethical statements obviously rely on a framework for a determination of truth value. One cannot say “One ought to voluntarily work towards the extinction of the human race,” without a justification for such a claim. One such justification could be “Human beings are destroying the global ecosystem, therefore one ought to voluntarily extinct themselves.” That justification, though, can only be said to be valid if it is operating in a framework which dictates that moral statements are derived from some cosmic preservation principle (ignoring that humans are a natural part of that global ecosystem), or an aesthetic principle that is dependent upon the one uttering the statement, or a misinformed understanding of how one ought to achieve a particular valued state of affairs (if you value nature, humans ought to extinct themselves). Validity does not necessitate actually obtaining in reality, though.

In order to obtain, the statement and it’s framework must comport to objective reality while also being logically valid and based on factual premises. “Don’t murder because Jesus said so,” is an example of failing to meet these criteria while also stating a moral truth. I argue that “Thou shalt not murder,” is an easily defended and true objective moral fact. However, appealing to something Jesus is purported to have said is not an argument in defense of a statement, it is merely appealing to an authority hidden behind two thousand years of history. Additionally, exclusively using the Bible as a moral framework is impossible; without additional work done outside the realm of Scripture to inform one’s interpretation of it will inevitably result in ridiculous statements, such as“homosexuality and abortion aren’t sins because Jesus never mentioned them.”

If “Thou shall not murder,” is an objective moral fact, it requires some form of deductive or inductive argument to demonstrate its categorical nature and its unimpeachability. There have been numerous arguments made for such a claim, and I don’t feel like pointing them all out. The first ones that come to mind, though, are Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative in “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”, Rothbard’s defense of the NAP in “War, Peace, and the State”, or Ayn Rand’s formulation in “Man’s Rights”. Essentially, the shortest and easiest formulation of “Thou shalt not murder” is thus:

  • Murder can be defined as “killing an individual against their will without first facing the threat of murder from that individual”.
  • The definition of a right necessarily extends to all individuals. If one has a belief in a right they or another possesses, it must necessarily extend to all individuals.
    ∴ If one individual has a right to defend themselves from murder, all individuals have the right to do so.
  • If one denies the right of another to be secure from murder (demonstrated by killing them against their will) one is denying this right to themselves, thereby willing the possibility that they may be killed by another.
  • In willing that another be able to murder oneself, it makes murdering this individual definitionally impossible, as unwillingness is a necessary condition for murder.
    ∴ If one murders another individual (or argues for the legitimacy of doing so), it does not revoke murder’s definitional status as a violation of a right.

I don’t fully agree with this argument, but it is the shortest and most straightforward case for objective moral facts.

Of course, if one is arguing for objective moral facts, they are a deontologist of some sort. Most of which are divine lawyers, trying to figure out God’s commandments based on revelation. While a noble effort, such activities are rarely compelling to those outside of whatever cult the divine lawyer is a part of. Deontology, then, is better suited to pursuing objective moral facts by way of rational and axiomatic inquiry into the nature of reality and of man’s relationships.

Where Kant or any social justice warrior will argue that deontological maxims can be positive statements of rights, I argue that only the inverse is true. One cannot say with axiomatic certitude that “one must affirm life” is an objective, and therefore categorical, moral fact. An example of why one cannot say “one must affirm life” is because it breaks down in limit cases (and some not so limiting cases). For example, if one is witnessing a murder taking place, can one kill the murderer? Or, if one eats something unhealthy or neglects to devote all their resources to the sustenance of the brain-dead or the starving people on the opposite side of the globe are they committing a crime? Pope Francis’ answers aside, I argue that these are obviously not the case. This line of reasoning is what has led to my mantra of “Murder, coercion, and theft are categorically unjust.” This far, these are the three behaviors I have found to be inconsistent with reason in every instance, by definition.

So, “Thou shalt not commit murder, coercion, or theft,” is a deontological objective moral fact. Something that simply exists no more or less than the matter from which my body is constructed, if in a different modality. Of course, as I’ve said before, this is a certainly stronger moral framework than what is seen in mainstream culture, but it is still incredibly impoverished. One cannot necessarily achieve flourishing by simply ensuring that their interactions with others are voluntary, as one may still do stupid and ill-advised things. The agent in question, of course cannot be coerced into not engaging in these voluntary, but ill-advised, actions. They can, however, be discouraged by rational persuasion. Enter: ethics.

Ethical statements, unlike moral statements, are not predicated on objective moral facts. These are positive statements that can be built on top of moral statements. These statements are subjective, based upon positive value judgments. “If one values the virtuous life, they ought to pursue virtuous actions,” for example. Some are very simple: “If one wishes to make money, they ought to provide products or services in trade with those who have money.” Others may be more complex: “If one wishes to prevent fishing entire species into extinction, one ought to purchase the bodies of water in which the fish reside or construct fish farms.” These more complex ethical statements are usually at the heart of the heated debates found on facebook and in politics.

These statements have a common grammar and syntax; they are all if->then statements. The “if” portion of the statement is an assessment of the value in question. Usually the value in question is an aesthetic or pragmatic issue. In other words, it’s either,“I like this thing because it makes me feel good” or “This is a thing that I need/want in order to be fulfilled.” The “then” portion of the statement is the place in which action is informed. Once one has determined the value in question, the “then” portion is where understanding the causal nature of reality can say “this is the way that is most likely to achieve that valued outcome”. In order to utter a true ethical statement, then, one must actually understand the innumerable influences of reality on the particular valued outcome in question, at least sufficiently to make an accurate and informed guess. In the realm of human action, economics, biology, and other areas of philosophy are crucial in generating an accurate “then” statement. The reason I argue this is the case is simple: unintended consequences or acts of ignorance are unlikely to accomplish the valued objective and are more likely to prevent the accomplishment of that valued objective. Walter Block, in his “Defending the Undefendable”, demonstrates this very clearly, concisely, and evocatively.

This understanding of morality and ethics is why I have attempted to eschew use of the terms “good” and “bad/evil”. These words, in our common parlance, and even in philosophy have been reduced to mere aesthetic judgments. There is little distinction between “this pizza is good” and “giving money to hobos is good” or “sushi is bad” and “drugs are bad”. As a basis of morality or ethics, then, these aesthetic judgments are essentially meaningless. I can say, “If you think drugs are bad, then you shouldn’t do them,” but that is the extent to which an ethical statement can be produced based on that flimsy of an “if” statement. If something can be determined as immoral (or unjustifiable, as I tend to refer to it) there is no need to make an additional aesthetic statement about it. If one is attempting an ethical prescription to others, they ought to have more compelling a case for the “if” in question than “it’s icky and I don’t like it”.

Remember, anarchy is a philosophy of personal responsibility. If you want to accomplish an ethical action, such as bettering the livelihood of the impoverished in the third world, one ought to ensure that they are well-informed as to what course of action is most likely to result in achieving that valued outcome. For example, just throwing money, food, and Bibles at them creates a perverse incentive to remain poor and continue to receive free stuff from other people. However, bringing an industry specific to that region (for example some sort of crop or livestock that will grow better in that region than elsewhere or acquisition of a natural resource found in that area) to the people and employing those that are willing to work will improve the infrastructure and quality of life for all of the people in the area.

TL;DR: In the interest of producing valued outcomes and maintaining one’s own integrity, individuals ought to attempt to develop a solid moral and ethical awareness and grammar. In order to pursue this end, an awareness of deontological principles and the causal nature of reality is a necessary skill. Objective moral facts are few in number but categorical in scope: “Thou shall not.” Ethical statements are subjective and as numerous as there are value judgments, but must be informed by the objective causal nature of the universe. Before arguing on facebook about “If we just…” or “If you don’t think this, you’re stupid”, it would behoove the agent in question to assess their aesthetic premises and their fundamental values. After expressing those premises, the discussion is a matter of clarifying the “then” portion of an ethical statement.

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An Economics of Ethics

 

 

Yes, the title sounds really bullshitty, but it certainly is an eye-catcher, isn’t it? If you listened to last week’s belated post, you may recall me talking about my journey to anarchism. When I was rounding the bend on my final approach to liberty, I was repulsed by certain environments I encountered and was kinda’ forced to enter the philosophy of anarchism through the back door. The rabid paulbots were throwing temper tantrums over the media ignoring the existence of their messiah. The Libertarians were too busy voting, raising money, pretending to be freedom-minded while also pretending to be politicians and endorsing ridiculous concepts like abortion and gay marriage. The objectivists were being generally surly, demeaning, and staunchly atheist. The AnComs were too busy burning down private property to be bothered by the fact that the government was out to get us all. Most distressing, though, were the AnCaps.

“Wait, ain’t you an AnCap?” Not quite. If you recall my post about the MadPhilosopher logo, I consider myself to be just a straight-up anarchist. Since before I had started this blog, I have been economically literate enough to know that capitalism is, for all intents and purposes, a necessary and inevitable feature of pre-and-post-state societies, but that doesn’t necessarily make me an AnCap. Part of the reason I don’t consider myself to be so is because of the experiences I had with them on my way to liberty.

My first exposure to anarcho-capitalism was under the more innocuous name of “Austrian Economics” when I was reading Rothbard and Spooner. I read these guys towards the end of my communist days, when I was trying to figure out why previous attempts at the communist experiment didn’t work out. I was hoping to find a handful of controls that those dirty capitalists had come up with to ensure that products were manufactured within expected tolerances. For example, if I go to Home Depot, a great number of things are standardized. You’ve got X, Y, and Z diameters of pipes and fittings, and there seems to be the perfect supply available to meet demand; rarely would something run out, but there were only ever a couple dozen items on the shelves… and in communist experiments, people would cut corners to meet the letter of the regulations while putting in the minimum quantity of resources. “Make a million nails,” results in thumbtack-sized nails. “Make this weight in nails,” results in railroad spikes. And when it gets to the point of “Make a million nails that are exactly this size, shape, and out of this material… and if you don’t, it’s off to the gulag with you,” results in everyone saying “fuck it, I quit” and the USSR collapses overnight.

Clearly, I didn’t get the answer I wanted. “Stop making regulations, and let people do what they will… don’t worry, it’ll all work out just fine,” isn’t exactly what a communist wants to hear. I learned a lot, though; it definitely had a pronounced effect on my migration from communism to the Tea Party and then to liberty. I returned to doing research in the Austrian School when I was getting into objectivism, later on, and that’s when I discovered the AnCaps. There was a specific distinction in the rhetoric of the Austrians like Rothbard as compared to the AnCaps I met: awareness of the is/ought divide.

The AnCaps I met, either through their ignorance or a misunderstanding on my part, seemed to equivocate that which is economically advisable as identical to that which is ethically desirable. This was disappointing to me; AnCaps were clearly the inheritors of the Austrian School, but they lacked the moral awareness of their predecessors. My motivation for communism and the subsequent ideological migration was primarily a moral one, as fits in the rhetoric of Aristotle, Aquinas, Marx, and Trotsky, and to hear “That which is profitable is that which is moral,” rubbed me every wrong way. I am totally open to this interpretation being mostly due to misunderstandings on my part, though.

The communist projects, ostensibly, are an attempt at adapting economics to ethics. Ironically, the Tea Party, in their own fucked-up way, are engaged in a similar project: attempting to adapt politics (the widespread application of violence) to ethics. Even Rand and the objectivists are engaged in that project: adapting public consciousness to ethics. So, to see AnCaps seeming to do the reverse, adapting ethics to economics, was so contrary to my methods of reason that I didn’t know how to process it. Now that I’ve mentally acquired my liberty legs, I see anarchism as an attempt to adapt oneself to objective moral facts… something that Christians ought to be more sympathetic to.

In hindsight, I think that I misunderstood mostly due to the paradigm I was operating in, adapting various things to ethics. I think that one thing that didn’t help, though, was the lack of philosophical knowledge on the part of the AnCaps in question. I think I’m gonna try to fix that here. That which is profitable is not necessarily moral. It could be profitable to rob a liquor store, but it’s a violation of one’s right to be free from theft and is therefore immoral. On a long enough timeline, I argue, that which is moral is most profitable. For example, not robbing a liquor store will most likely play out better for one in the long run. Even virtuous things, such as sustainable living or industry, when done responsibly and rationally, are likely to play out well in the long run; investments in oceanic desalinization would have suddenly become incredibly profitable in California in recent years and the same can be said for growing homegrown organic hipster-feed.

What do I mean by this is/ought, ethical/economic divide? As I said, when talking about Paradigmatic Awareness and Moral Ambiguity, one’s actions ought to be informed and rational. Statements of “should” or “ought”, when concerning a person’s actions, are without exception either ethical or moral statements. (Taxonomic note: I consider moral statements to be statements as relate to objective moral facts and ethical statements to be “if->then” statements predicated on value judgments, but that’s a different blog post that hasn’t been written yet.) Moral statements are relatively easy: something is either moral or immoral, depending on it’s status as relates to deontological principles… you know, murder coercion and theft are immoral. Ethical statements are a little more involved, and tend to be at the heart of a lot of angry internet arguments: “If you care about poor people, you’ve gotta vote for this rich guy,” or whatever.

In order to make an accurate ethical statement, one must understand the intricacies of the “if” and have a solid grasp of the way the world works in order to produce the appropriate “then”. This is where economics comes into play. It goes well beyond “if you want to pay rent, you probably shouldn’t buy this meth,” and even beyond, “if you care about poor people, you should probably lift employment regulations so that they can get a job.” For example, an understanding of basic principles of economics can inform decisions that have nothing to do with money itself. This is because economics is about management of scarce resources, not just money. For example, if I have a limited amount of time and I’m trying to maximize my gains in family relationships, self-education, and general pleasure, then I should probably try to generate an overlap in applications: do something educational with the family that isn’t boring as hell. Knowing when to cut one’s losses is another useful piece of information: cost-benefit analysis, risk assessment, utility assessments, etc. are, too.

In other words, it’s not a statement of morality to say eliminating perverse incentives can incentivize productive behavior; however, it is an ethical statement to say “if you want to encourage productive behaviors in moocher and looter classes, then you should try to eliminate perverse incentives.” I’m not talking matters of political policy, mind you. After all, managing the widespread application of violence is immoral and if one wants to make the world a better place, then they should opt-out of political engagement.

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Remember: anarchy is a philosophy of personal responsibility. How can one hold themselves to a moral or ethical standard if they don’t know how to accomplish their goals or even set those goals? If one wishes to travel to a third world country and improve the quality of life of the people there (preaching religious views included, but optional), they ought to understand what behaviors are being incentivized by showing up and just giving things away or doing the work oneself. Without educating and assisting in the development of infrastructure, gifts and labor are more harmful than helpful. Before trying to do good, one must know how.

TL;DR: Economics and ethics are two different fields of study. However, ethics devoid a solid understanding of how the world works is useless at best and misanthropic at worst. As much as statists will try to deny it, economics is an excellent instrument for understanding human action. Basic scientific literacy, including physics, chemistry, economics, etc. is necessary for the development of a solid ethical grounding. This distinction and requirement is important to acknowledge explicitly when discussing economics and/or ethics with non-anarchists, lest outsiders misunderstand.

 

Moral Ambiguity

The time has already come for another dose of procedural philosophy.

 As is always the case with procedural philosophy, some homework is in order. If you want to get the most out of this post, you should read or listen to the post about “Paradigmatic Awareness”. Today, we are talking about ethics directly, as opposed to the usual posts about how ethics impacts our relationships. Ethics, like all terms, requires a shared definition in order to be useful.

Ethics is the study of principles which dictate the actions of rational actors. Some will note that this closely parallels some people’s definition of economics. This is not an accident, but this phenomenon will have to be addressed later. There is a glut of ethical theories which assume different premises and result in wildly different prescriptions. This is a problem for an individual who is genuinely concerned with pursuing an absolute truth by which to live. Being one such person, I must admit I’m still searching; but I can help others make it as far as I have and ask others to do the same for me.

“But wait, ain’t you one o’ dem Catholic fellers?” Yes, I am. The Church has a pretty solid grasp on it’s doctrine and dogma (of which there is surprisingly little) and has built an ethics on top of that, something akin to a divine-law-meets-metaphysical-utilitarianism to which it appeals in every ethical discussion. One will notice that I do not advocate a moral stance which violates the doctrinal positions of the Church. I am fortunate that my quest for the truth has not yet forced me to choose between my own faculty of reason and the divine law of my faith. One will also notice that I staunchly oppose certain modern positions of the Church, especially in cases surrounding “divine right of kings” and compromise with injustice, such as “You have to pay taxes, because of the politically expedient manner in which we interpret ‘Epistle to Diognetus’, a letter written thousands of years ago.” (CCC-2240) What I am trying to say here is that “God said so” is never sufficient justification for one’s actions, but what “God said so” may nonetheless be rationally justifiable.

That tangent segues nicely to where we are going today. Ethics operates identically to the method outlined in “Paradigmatic Awareness” in many ways, with some variation. As the numerous postmodern moral nihilists are wont to point out, ethics faces an important problem: the is/ought divide. This problem, popularized by Hume, essentially points out that objective material knowledge of what is does not give rise to ethical prescription without first approaching what is with a subjective value assessment, an ought. This is where the procedure outlined in “Paradigmatic Awareness” becomes crucial.

Simply put, I must determine by way of intuition and abduction from what is to what I (should) value. Ultimately, anything could conceivably be the basis of ethical reasoning; hedonism, consequentialism, stoicism, legalism, virtue ethics, divine law, statism, nihilism, and anarchism are all predicated on different values and represent a fraction of existing ethical frameworks. Many are compatible with each other; as a matter of fact, most ethical frameworks are ultimately either nihilist or teleological in nature and tend to compliment others of the same nature.

Ethics, really, is the ultimate product of philosophy. Philosophy can answer any question, “How did the universe come to be?” “What is it made of?” “How can we know anything?”, but without answering “Why should I care?” it has no real utility. I propose that the best answer to “Why should I care?” is “because, if this worldview is factually true, you ought to do X and here is why.”

Of course, an ethics which is too esoteric or complex for common application and immediate results is as equally useless as a philosophy with no ethics whatsoever. This is where rules become attractive; “thou shalt not” and “always do” are certainly the result of most or all ethics. For instance, if I were a Kantian (I am NOT), I would value the rationality and identity of individuals, which results in the mandate that people be ever treated as ends only and never means; followed to its logical conclusion, one could say, “Thou shalt not enslave others.” Those that lack the faculties or resources to consider the corpus of Kant (a waste of time, really) can simply rely on the rules which fall out of his work. Without an understanding for the cause of these rules, though, one cannot reliably improvise in a circumstance not outlined in the rules, nor can they discuss ethical matters in an intelligible way. “You can’t do that, because this book said so” is a laughable claim, regardless of the book in question.

Everyone considers themselves to be an intelligent person and feel themselves to be very ethically-minded. They are correct in thinking and feeling so. Even psychopaths have a set of motivating factors for behaving in the way that they do. However, such a set of motivations, even in the form of a rule-set, does not qualify as an ethical framework. As a matter of fact, if one does not pursue the full rational grounding of one’s motivations, they will likely adopt a heterogeneous hodgepodge of contradicting rules from various sources. Any ethical claim which feels intuitive or justifies an action one desires can be easily adopted and, with a little mental gymnastics, can be incorporated into one’s rule set without too much apparent contradiction.

This results in an emotional minefield scattered with beliefs such as, “I value property rights above all else, so we have to steal from people to prevent theft.” All one needs to do is go on the internet and read the intellectually toxic political arguments found in nearly every comments section and they will see what I am talking about. The problem is not the argument or even the belief held (though, by definition, nearly every political belief is wrong), but instead the lack of paradigmatic awareness. If someone lacks the foundational knowledge of what is, a clear definition of one’s values, or a grasp of logic sufficient to put it all together, it is impossible to assess others’ claims or to sufficiently convey one’s own belief. Instead, such people (regardless of whether one’s claim is factual or not) are forced to resort to dismissive name-calling and an arsenal of rhetorical and formal fallacies.

So, then, the same prescription in “Paradigmatic Awareness” applies in ethics as well. When encountered with a radical and apparently nonsensical claim such as, “You have a duty to vote, even if it is merely a choice between two evils,” it is important to inquire as to the value and basis for such a claim. Conversely, when meeting resistance to a personally forwarded claim, it is crucial to present the premises and method used to reach the contested claim, lest one look no different than a generic social justice warrior or fundamentalist republican.

Also, just like with paradigmatic awareness, if someone is not willing or able to have a calm rational discourse, they are not providing an opportunity for critical thought. They are wasting everyone’s time. One’s time is better spent writing blog posts no one will read, reading books, or smashing one’s face in with a hammer rather than getting into a shouting match with a morally illiterate person. The goal, as is the case with all of philosophy, is pursuing truth; one cannot do so while stooping to the level of the ignorant. However, if one pursuing truth happens to bring others along, all the better.

Ultimately, my motivation for writing this post is twofold. I want to invite people to critically assess this approach and help me do a better job of understanding how I ought to live my life. I also want to find someone, anyone, who can play by the rules I’ve outlined and believe to be absolutely crucial to communication and progress. I honestly desire for someone to prove me wrong. The ethic that I have managed to cobble together over the last twenty years is incredibly taxing. I would love to (re)apply for welfare, to stop going to church, to stop trying and start partying… but I can’t. My rationality and what little virtue I do possess prevent me from doing so. I think I could do well as a Fascist (which I believe to be the only logically consistent alternative to anarchy), but no one has proven me wrong yest, so as to grant me the opportunity to try my hand at it.

Remember, despite the immense and demonstrable utility that it provides, anarchism is a moral philosophy. It holds the utmost value for human rights and, as a result, human flourishing. When an anarchist says “you shouldn’t do that,” they aren’t forcing someone else to behave in a manner consistent with their opinion. Anarchists cannot point a gun at someone and demand that they refrain from doing so, nor can they vote and delegate that task to someone else.

TL:DR; If someone wants the privilege of being able to criticize the actions and ethics of others, they ought to put in the work of critically assessing one’s own position and actions. If people cannot communicate the reasons for the rules they are so wont to broadcast, they are wasting everyone’s time.