Here's to a good time, a good life, and a good death.
This is a fun question. What determines morality? To even glimpse at this question, we have to decide what constitutes morality and what constitutes determination. We also have to consider the nature of morality within the confines of a type of absolute vs. relative framework, which isn’t an easy construct to work within, since the two seem apparently contradicting. To compound the complexity of this question, by arguing any sort of absolute, we are also unintentionally advocating for a meaning to life, or else the philosophy that wraps the “absolute” concept fall apart at the seems. So to start out, for the sake of this discussion, we are limiting morality to the standard textbook definition, which is that of “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” When discussing determination, we are thinking about the cause or factor for that particular outcome.
Can morality be both absolute and relative? Now a moral absolute can be thought of as the condition that a moral principle applies uniformly throughout time space. Many people view murder as a moral absolute, meaning regardless of where you are in any given space and time, it is always wrong. Moral absolutes present many problems because there always seem to be scenarios that philosophers can devise that strongly challenge the premise.
In the model that I am advocating, I argue that moral absolutes can exist, and that they are found “under a layer of moral fabric” so to speak. It is important to note that absolutes are not in some transcendental dimension that always is and will be. They are in a practical dimension found in the complexity of the multiplicity of human judgment. Now it is easy for someone to see the inherent contradiction in that statement. How can morality be both absolute and relative at the same time? Well, we have to move outside of the dichotomous framework and understand that morality should be viewed in degrees. Let’s elaborate.
Let’s start with a particular question, assuming that killing someone is wrong, are there any instances where this may not be wrong? If one can reasonably conclude that some exist, we have a problem with saying that killing is always wrong. Some common exceptions include in self-defense, to prevent another innocent death, and so forth. Create scenarios that test assumptions.
If we are at this long enough, someone will probably bring up the ends/means dilemma (does the end justify the means?). This dilemma usually goes something like this: “If you could save the world by killing someone, would you do it?” If the answer is “yes,” then a morally right outcome justifies the use of immoral means to achieve it. As gradient thinkers, we should immediately understand that there are numerous situations where the answers are inconsistent. Basically, there are individual circumstantial instances of both yes and no. Eventually then, various arguments of consequentialism come into the picture. Basically, this means that the consequences of one’s actions ultimately determine whether it was right or wrong.
But, in particular, a variant of consequentialism, Utilitarianism comes into the discussion. Basically, someone devises some set of values to assign to human life, actions, etc, which is commonly like one life is equal to one life and so on and so forth.
So sounds pretty good huh? It produces some basic logical functions and clear answers to moral dilemmas. In the case above, the answer pretty clearly becomes, why Yes! of course I will kill someone to save millions of other people.
So what’s the problem with Utilitarianism?
Well, if you keep advancing the theory, suppose this: We have one person who will die unless she receives a heart transplant, another person who will die unless she receives a kidney transplant, and a third person who will die unless he receives a liver transplant?
So what does Utilitarianism prescribe? It seems pretty straightforward that one person should die for the harvesting of the respective body parts to keep those three people alive. I mean after all its a trade-off of one life to save three others. This moral outcome also seems pretty perverse and quite a disturbing conclusion.
So maybe there are some problems with Utilitarianism. They seem to violate a principle of individual human self-worth among a few other violations.
But let’s back up a second. Why is morality even an issue?
One of my favorite moral dilemmas is wrapped up in the framing of this particular question.
Suppose there was man, who was born, raised in a society until age 18, and dropped off onto an island. He is to live on this island, by himself, for the rest of his life span until death. The island contains enough food trees and water springs to last him. To this man, what is morality?
Essentially, this scenario, ever so beautifully, openly divides the relative vs. absolute, since absolute morals will stay consistent and must factor into this scenario, while relativity sort of fades away out of the picture. Because relativity, by nature, depends on the environment and circumstances, while absolutes hold truth through regardless of circumstances or time.
Take an honest minute to think through what your answer to the scenario would be. And more importantly why?
Using the assumption given about human nature, in that human existence is wrapped up in survival, existence arises as the greatest good an individual can preserve for himself/herself. Why? Because it is the preservation of any potential human interaction and you will see why that is critically important towards the end of the post. So what makes suicide or death such a negative construct?
If any of you viewers have seen the TV series, Dexter, you may share the skepticism I have in taking a stand on even the subject of murder or suicide or anything really. But I digress…
Now let’s dig to the root of where we are going with this idea. What is the most basic underlying characteristic of death?
Jan van Eyck “The Last Judgment”
The answer is a resounding basic word, Harm. Harm in the sense of inflicting some sort of damage. In its most rudimentary form, we have physical harm. Mill cultivated some excellent insights about harm, which can be observed by his Harm Principle. Now thinking back to our island case, in the case of suicide, an individual must basically harm himself to the point of death, which is usually rather extreme. Now, what makes harm a bad thing? Perhaps its nature of destroying positivity between interpersonal relationships? But here you see, we get trapped in understanding morality because we have to keep asking the same question, what determines something that is good or bad? We end up asking if what we are asking if what we asking, etc etc etc, is good or bad?* Agh! How frustrating. This leaves me thinking about those darn Julia Sets!!
But for all practical reasons, defining the Harm Principle becomes a great cornerstone for moral reasoning, not to mention that, empirically, it happens to permeate most of the legal structures of developed nations. Now, what about emotional and spiritual harm? Since, those types of harms are harder to delineate and measure, we place different parameters around those. For instance, in considering the concept of property rights, we could argue to confine those types of harms to instances within their respective locations. For instance, so called “hate speech” is allowed in X locations (such as a public space like university commons, parks, town squares), but not in Y location (such as a private spaces like housing). That is an illustrative example. And so we are now slowly re-entering back into the gradient view of morality as it is contextually-based.
Now fundamentally, in order to have absolutes in morality, there must exist some universal aspect to humanity that enriches life as a necessary precondition. Basically what is life all about? A question hardly anyone can give a good, short answer response to. Yet, we, people, are always walking around and living our lives daily as if we know what it is. Because our implicit answer is reflected in the actions we regularly partake in. But also a question that must be explicitly and reasonably answer if we are to defend any moral absolutes. At its core, then, at least we can say life is about living, because, by nature, that is the essence of life. Further, we can safely conclude from observation that large groups of people are not just randomly terminating their lives each day. Although there have been exceptions like wartime suicide bombers or people that are in situations of excruciating amounts of pain (euthanasia). But, generally speaking, the average happy individual does not partake in such actions.
As a fun, side note:
Here is where contemporary Christians would love to chime in and say, “Why yes of course there are absolutes and subsequently a universal purpose to living life. Truth exists and is absolute of course. God created all things and an individual should live his “life in pursuing and loving God and serving His purpose.” This idea fits right in because God, as considered in most contemporary Christian interpretations, is in himself the most absolute being, breaking the barriers of time and space. But pay attention to what is being said here. Because eventually we will have to ask ourselves the question, when considering the validity of non-denominational interpretations of Christianity, what is the functional meaning and result of performing said actions, “Loving God and serving His purpose in your life?
Back on Subject:
Just like in the conversation regarding meaning and language in The Functional Approach Methodology, eventually things have a way of finding themselves back to the singular, complex concept of Relationships. To cut to the point, as relations between humans and objects seems to drive the most basic derivation of linguistic meaning, interpersonal relationships seem to drive the most basic derivation of morality. In other words, the way one interacts with other individuals creates the platform of how to discover morality. Agents use language and dialogue to reveal their judgments on different ideas, which form the basis of what morality means. Through the communication and establishment of expectations regarding human behavior and appropriate conduct, agents begin to understand what ought to be and what ought not to be. These expectations, in the legal environment, manifest themselves in natural, human, and property rights.
Wherein the moral action, in this framework, becomes the result of pro-social patterns of behavior that encourage the growth of positive interpersonal relationships. Harm becomes the tool to understand whether or not it is a pro-relational action. In other words, if it causes harm, then it is less likely to be an appropriate action. I will term this phenomenon the pro-sociability interaction cooperation complex or for short, PSIC. So how is PSIC to be understood? Essentially, it is the moral framework that advocates that morals are the result of the collective human judgment so to speak. It is the product of human interactions and interpersonal relationships through discussions on values and the like.
Thus, PSIC provides a logical foundation for understanding morality. This derivation of morality is quite useful in an analytic framework, because it does a good job accounting for the wide array of developed norms and laws throughout different civil societies. It gives people an idea of what is “desirable” and what is not. However, it is also limited in that it does not account or explain the correct decision in many micro individual situations, particularly when cooperation becomes at odds between multiple individuals or individuals vs. larger society.
Now, just to clarify, PSIC exists as a conceptual framework for understanding morality in most macro contexts, but not necessarily in micro-moral situations. In other words, the moral framework is limited in its reasoned application. Say Person A wants to cooperate with Person B and Person C, although the two persons B and C are mutually opposed and Person A cannot cooperate with both. PSIC would advocate that the actions that cause sustainable, pro-social cooperation between both agents would be the optimal outcome. However, if Person A cannot determine which agent to cooperate with, then imperfect information ruins the solution. Likewise, if both persons B and C share equal weighted probabilities of positive cooperation, then the solution via PSIC becomes invalid.
In economics, we study how the market is the basis of human behavior and interaction, trading market goods (and information) between two agents. This happens largely through communication, dialogue, and language. Assuming that market interactions are cooperative and non-coercive, then market outcomes will be beneficial to both parties. Extrapolating on this concept, sustainable, inter-relational reciprocity becomes the underlying component for building a moral framework (in particular for PSIC). This concept may fit within the definition of love in a broad sense.
Consider this most excellent excerpt from an even more excellent blog post. This author is far more clear about the idea, and solidly more experienced in the subject, but it’s very similar to what I am advocating.
Creating a distinction between facts and values is neither to denigrate science nor to downgrade the importance of empirical evidence. It is, rather, to take both science and evidence seriously. It is precisely out of the facts of the world, and those of human existence, that the distinction between is and ought arises, as does the necessity for humans to take responsibility for moral judgment.
Humans are moral beings living within a web of reciprocal rights and obligations created by our capacity for rational dialogue. We can distinguish between right and wrong, accept responsibility and apportion blame. The responsibility that falls upon humans is not simply for our individual acts. Humans are responsible, too, in the sense that it is up to us, and only up to us, to make moral judgments. We cannot alienate that responsibility to another being or another sphere or another process. Humans are, as Sartre put it, ‘condemned to be free’. To insist that science, or God, objectively defines moral values is to abandon our responsibility as human beings to make such judgments.
So, again, what is the pro-sociability interaction cooperation complex (PSIC) Framework? Well, it is a framework for a fundamental objective moral spectrum rooted in relational subjectivity so to speak. It is to be interpreted through different theorems based upon different principles.
In the PSIC framework, these three main principles are taken heavily into consideration in evaluating moral action.
1. The Golden Rule/Reciprocity – One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.
2. The Silver Rule/Harm – One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. This also involves specifically accounting for physical harm, and attempting to integrate emotional/spiritual harm.
3. Natural/Human/Property Rights
“It is always a question of the relative importance of the particular things with which he is concerned, and the causes which alter their relative importance are of no interest to him beyond the effect on those concrete things of his own environment.”
– F.A. Hayek
*That was a fine example of a Eastern paradoxical moment.