[extropy-chat] Re: (Ethics/Epistemology) Arrow of Morality

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Sun May 1 19:00:16 UTC 2005

john-c-wright at sff.net wrote:

>Dear Mr. Allbright, My apologies for the delay in penning this reply, but other
>matters have whelmed me. You have given me much to think about, and,
>unfortunately, much to say, so I apologize for the length of this letter. 
>You will see in the letter that my understanding is limited and weak. Your
>conception comes from something alien to my rationalistic tradition, so perhaps
>you can explain your conception to me in simple terms. Please do not interpret
>my disagreement as any sign of disrespect.
>Now, to the matter:
>To the best of my limited understanding, your conception of an arrow of morality
>has three shortcomings: first, it is useless to any who do not accept mere
>survival as the ground of morality; second, it is mute to determine what objects
>should be included or excluded from the moral order, some of which are already
>universal in any case; third, morality by its nature must be treated as if it
>were an absolute by its partisans, or else it has no ability to act as a moral

Dear Mr. Wright, I appreciate your interest and thank you for
challenging this thinking and the effectiveness of my presentation of
concepts which, while outside the range of popular thought, especially
in the western tradition, are in my opinion both timely and pertinent to 
our society as technology leads to qualitatively greater awareness of
ourselves, our environment, and our intentional actions within our

In response to your post, I would like to first summarize briefly the 
key foundational points of the theory, and then proceed with some 
preliminary steps toward practical application.

This metaethical theory is grounded in the observation that there is an
external reality, that appears to be stable and reliable, that we can
model with increasing but never perfect accuracy, measurable by
experiment. This assertion has been debated for millenia, but I have
no time or interest for such debate and would refer anyone interested to
the widely available philosophical corpus. To avoid useless argument, I
say I take this position on faith, but I believe it is the crux of

Because all moral decisions are based on values, and values are
necessarily subjective, it is necessary that we define Self, and
contrary to popular conception, this effective moral Self, the locus of
all intention, is not constrained to one's physical organism. This
inclusive Self, representing one's interests and intentions and thereby
identification with the surrounding world, is seen as the agent of moral

This theory of metaethics does not provide absolute answers to specific 
moral questions, but does say that answers can be found, which are 
dependent on context, and that with increasing context moral solutions 
will be seen as increasingly "true" (meaning increasingly corresponding 
to ultimate objective reality.) Within any given context, "right action"
is action that works from the point of view of the moral agent, and with
increasing context (of agents, type of interactions, and number of
interactions) actions that work will increasingly be seen as actions 
that are "right".

This theory moves the focus of thought about morality, from the obsolete
concept of absolute moral laws handed down (which were in fact based on
what worked over long periods of time), to a more aware focus on
determining answers of subjective "right" and "wrong" based on
scientific understanding of what works at the appropriate level of
context. In a very practical sense, it highlights that all moral issues 
involve transactions between Self and Other, and that principles of 
effective interaction between Self and Other can form the basis of moral 
guidance in unknown moral situations.

Fundamental to effective interaction between Self and Other is the
concept of synergy, or positive sumness. In contrast to the Malthusian
perspective that growth for one agent necessarily means loss for the
other (and assuming a closed system), it is increasingly apparent from 
game theory, economics, and even hard physics that there is a universal 
tendency to favor win-win interactions, where the mutual interaction of 
two sub-systems results in a combined system with new characteristics, 
determined, but not predicted by the component systems. I refer to this 
synergistic enhancement, from the point of view of Self, as "growth" 
[lacking another suitable word or short phrase for the concept.]

[While I think the foregoing is very coherent, but abstract, the 
following is more tentative and likely to be updated and revised.]

We can infer some guidelines for effective (synergetic) interaction
between Self and Other.

* All effective moral decisions are from the viewpoint of Self.
As already discussed, this is inherent in the nature of decision-making 
based on values which are necessarily subjective. To
deny the primacy of Self in moral decision-making is to promote 
situations where Self is coerced or taught to obey external authority to 
the exclusion of its own senses and judgments, in effect diminishing 
it's capability to choose and thus to act as a moral agent.
Remember also that the effective intentional Self is not
constrained to the individual organism, but defined as well by its
relationships to its environment and often acts on behalf of its
group identification which may be family, team, tribe, nation, etc.

* All effective moral decisions are intended to further the growth
of Self.
A moral agent must necessarily act in such a way to further its
own interests. For an agent to act otherwise would be considered 
irrational or insane.
"Self-sacrifice" of an individual is often seen as a very moral
act when it furthers the interests of a much larger group with
which the individual identifies.
Suicide, on the other hand is often a very immoral act (doesn't
"work" at any context), when it is the result of the breakdown of
proper functioning of an individual.
Self-defense is not only moral justifiable, but morally required.
Note also the Red Queen Principle, that just keeping up is
actually falling behind. Growth is a requirement, not an option.

* The most effective moral decisions are those that are synergetic.
It is therefore better to convert an enemy to a partner, thus
providing enhanced opportunities for interaction and growth in the
future, rather than to destroy one's enemies. Thus murder is
morally undesirable.
It is therefore better to promote diversity, which provides a
richer environment for future growth, rather than to try to
achieve commonality which may seem safer but leads to stagnation.
 From this it follows that it is good for Self to promote, rather
than diminish Other. Thus theft is morally undesirable.

And so on...

I will read carefully through your long email and respond point by point
as I can, time permitting.

- Jef

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