[ExI] Universal timeless principles

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Sat Oct 3 10:03:56 UTC 2015

On 2015-10-02 17:12, William Flynn Wallace wrote:
> ​Anders says above that we have discovered universal timeless 
> principles.​  I'd like to know what they are and who proposed them, 
> because that's chutzpah of the highest order.  Oh boy - let's discuss 
> that one.

Here is one: a thing is identical to itself. (1)
Here is another one: "All human beings are born free and equal in 
dignity and rights." (2)
Here is a third one: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, 
at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." (3)

(1) was first explicitely mentioned by Plato (in Theaetetus). I think 
you also agree with it - things that are not identical to themselves are 
unlikely to even be called "things", and without the principle very 
little thinking makes sense.

I am not sure whether it is chutzpah of the highest order or a very 
humble observation.

(2) is from the UN declaration of universal human rights. This sentence 
needs *enormous* amounts of unpacking - "free", "equal", "dignity", 
"rights"... these words can (and are) used in very different ways. Yet I 
think it makes sense to say that according to a big chunk of Western 
philosophy this sentence is a true sentence (in the sense that ethical 
propositions are true), that it is universal (the truth is not 
contingent on when and where you are, although the applications may 
change), and we know historically that we have not known this principle 
forever. Now *why* it is true quickly branches out into different 
answers depending on what metaethical positions you hold, not to mention 
the big topic of what kind of truth moral truth actually is (if 
anything). The funny thing is that the universal part is way less 
contentious, because of the widely accepted (and rarely stated) 
metaethical principle that if it is moral to P in situation X, then the 
location in time and space where X happens does not matter (One day I 
will finish my paper on how relativity theory undermines certain 
egalitarian theories because of this).

Chutzpah of the highest order? Totally. So is the UN.

(3) is Immanuel Kant, and he argued that any rational moral agent could 
through pure reason reach this principle. It is in many ways like (1) 
almost a  consistency requirement of moral will (not action, since he 
doesn't actually care about the consequences - we cannot fully control 
those, but we can control what we decide to do). There is a fair bit of 
unpacking of the wording, but unlike the UN case he defines his terms 
fairly carefully in the preceeding text. His principle is, if he is 
right, *the* supreme principle of morality.

Chuzpah auf höchstem Niveau? Total!

Note that (1) is more or less an axiom: there is no argument for why it 
is true, because there is little point in even trying. (3) is intended 
to be like a theorem in geometry: from some axioms and the laws of 
logic, we end up with the categorical imperative. It is just as 
audacious or normal as the Pythagorean theorem. (2) is a kind of 
compromise between different ethical systems: the Kantians would defend 
it based on their system, while consequentialists could make a rule 
utilitarian argument for why it is true, and contractualists would say 
it is true because the UN declares it. They agree on the mid-level 
meaning, but not on the other's derivations. It is thick, messy and 
political, yet also represents fairly well what most educated people 
would conclude (of course, they would then show off by disagreeing 
loudly with each other about details, obscuring the actual agreement).

Do people who think about these things actually believe in universal 
principles? One fun source is David Bourget and David J. Chalmers' 
survey of professional philosphers
56.4% of the respondents were moral realists (there are moral facts and 
moral values, and that these are objective and independent of our 
views), 65.7% were moral cognitivists (ethical sentences can be true or 
false); these were correlated to 0.562. 25.9% were deontologists, which 
means that they would hold somewhat Kant-like views that some actions 
are always or never right (some of the rest of course also believe in 
principles, but the survey cannot tell us anything more). 71.1% thought 
there was a priori knowledge (things we know by virtue of being thinking 
beings rather than experience).

[ Do I believe in timeless principles? Kind of. There are statements in 
physics that are invariant of translations, rotations, Lorenz boosts and 
other transformations, and of course math remains math. Whether physics 
and math are "out there" or just in minds is hard to tell (I lean 
towards that at least physics is out there in some form), but clearly 
any minds that know some subset of correct, invariant physics and math 
can derive other correct conclusions from it. And other minds with the 
same information can make the same derivations and reach the same 
conclusions - no matter when or where. So there are knowable principles 
in these domains every sufficiently informed and smart mind would know. 
Things get iffy with values, since they might be far more linked to the 
entities experiencing them, but clearly we can do analyse game theory 
and make statements like "If agent A is trying to optimize X, agent B 
optimizes Y, and X and Y do not interact, then they can get more of X 
and Y by cooperating". So I think we can get pretty close to universal 
principles in this framework, even if it turns out that they merely 
reside inside minds knowing about the outside world. ]

Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

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