The Voluntary Life: 152 Your Own Moral Compass Part 2

25 April 2014

152 Your Own Moral Compass Part 2

Part two in a series on developing your own independent moral compass. Four criteria are outlined that can be used to assess whether any law or rule of behaviour is moral. The criteria discussed are:
  1. Enables conflict avoidance regarding scarce resources
  2. Universal
  3. Logically coherent
  4. Actions always speak louder than words (any rule can't involve a so-called performative contradiction)
Listen to Episode 152


  1. Your Moral Compass series (parts 1 and 2) is a very reasoned and lucid presentation. However I think there is a piece missing. You are evaluating moral rules according to a set of criteria, but that just pushes the question one level deeper: how then do we evaluate the criteria? We could of course develop a set of criteria for evaluating our criteria, and so on into infinite recursion, but that's not useful.

    Your approach, if I've understood correctly, is to evaluate each of the criteria against the goal of enabling peaceful co-existence in the presence of scarce resources. However, I can't see how "universality" is required to enable peaceful co-existence is the presence of scarce resources.

    Bear in mind that any set of moral rules will only achieve that stated purpose if everyone accepts and follows the rules. A set of universal rules won't achieve the stated purpose if the king doesn't follow them. Suppose we substitute a different criterion for "universal". For example, suppose criterion 2 became "derives from the divine right of kings". The moral rule that "the king decides the resource allocation" meets this criterion. If everyone accepted it that moral rule and abided by it, then it would achieve the stated purpose (peaceful co-existence with scarce resources) without universality.

    People such as you and I like universal moral rules (because we don't want to be ruled by another person, nor would we choose to be the ruler), but I think we are "stacking the deck" if we include "universality" as a criterion. We are setting up our criteria such that the moral rules of which we approve will necessarily meet the criteria, and the moral rules of which we disapprove will necessarily fail it.

    I'm not willing to accept a set of rules as moral just because they would (if accepted and followed by everyone) result in peaceful co-existence in the presence of scarce resources. Moral rules built around "divine right of kings" meet that test, as do rules built around "oldest person rules", "equal resources for everyone", "blacks rule over whites", etc.

    What I actually seek for myself is "peaceful and happy existence in the presence of (1) scarce resources, and (2) people who have different ideas about what is right and wrong". Universal moral rules would allow me to pursue that, but I don't see how universality can be justified to others from first principles.

    There are always going to be those who wish to rule over others, and there are always going to be those who will try to get rulers to allocate resources to them at my expense.

    So for me, the really interesting question is how best for different subsets of society to coexist when they accept and follow different sets of moral rules.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback Roger! Great points. I think that what I have planned for the next episodes will also address everything you raised. Let me know what you think... :)

  2. Hi Jake, what a delight to listen to all three parts of this series. A very clear and down-to-earth presentation of what are actually very abstract arguments and principles, in my estimation. Thanks to my thinking efforts during the last two weeks I could follow your line of reasoning at once. This series is an inspiration for me as how to present the topic of rational ethics to non-philosophers.

    I have one technical critique of criterion 4. I think the performative contradiction works different in ethical statements than in factual statements. I can differentiate four forms of self-contradictions: a) Logical contradiction within a sentence, like: This is not a sentence. Here the meaning of the sentence is contradicted by the sentence itself. b) Self-contradiction, like: I cannot write in English. Here the action of stating the statement is evidence of the statement being wrong. c) Performative contradiction proper, like: Nobody ever reads any text. If the maker of the statement would believe in that statement, he wouldn´t have made it. So, the presupposition for making this statement in earnest is that the statement is wrong. d) Performative contradiction in ethical matters, like: Arguing for the acceptance of ethical theories is ethically wrong. The proposed ethical rule is broken by making the argument for accepting the ethical rule.
    My doubt is about the validity or the consequences of this last form (ethical) of self-contradictions. Of course, it is odd to propose an ethical rule that I have to break in order to advocate it. But does it logically rule out that such a weird ethic is valid? With factual statements, you in one form or another get a conflict between a fact and a factual statement, which is a logical contradiction in the narrow meaning of the term and, therefore, invalid. But is that the case with ethical "contradictions"?
    This has bothered me, so I figured out the mechanics of the argument from ethical self-contradiction (which is more precisely an ethical self-conflict) in the greater line of thought of your (or Hoppes) reasoning. The problem is, that to break rules is not a logical contradiction, it is just a breaking of rules - and it is not clear, which logical implications that has.
    So, my workaround for this looks as follows: When an ethical theory proposes something as unethical that every actor inevitably has to engage in (like controlling his own body, acting, evaluating, thinking, arguing internally, causing, gain-seeking - all the categories of action -), the purpose of ethics - resolving conflict over scarce resources - cannot be fulfilled, because every action would have to be classified as unethical. (I owe this insight to a 21 year old facebook friend.) That is why some statements that run in to an ethical performative contradiction are useless and invalid in ethical argument. So, the criterion 4 for ethical theories or ethical rules would read something like this: An ethical theory can´t classify any elements/categories of human action as being unethical.

    I don´t know whether my workaround works for every possible "ethical performative contradiction", but I believe it works for everything we need to advance the ethical rules that you laid out later, i.e. the NAP.

    I want to stress that this is rather technical stuff and that for home usage your formulation of criterion 4 sems to me to be fully sufficient.


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