[extropy-chat] Re: Re: (Ethics/Epistemology) Arrow of Morality [Was:The statement that

john-c-wright at sff.net john-c-wright at sff.net
Thu Apr 14 13:41:51 UTC 2005

W: Please forgive me for being slow on the uptake. In arguments, even careful
readers misunderstand each other; how much worse it is then, in a case where the
reader has been careless, as, it seems, in this case, I have been. My apologies.  

A: (1) I assume there is an ultimate reality (but I don't say it's static), (2)
I point out that our knowledge of reality is necessarily incomplete and
subjective, and (3) I argue that there is progress toward increasingly accurate
approximations of reality, measured in terms of what works. 

W: I mistook your meaning. I concede that what you say here agrees with my

I ask for clarification on what you mean by "what works". For empirical
propositions, I will concede that "what works" means that an empirical
prediction predicts the outcome it claims to predict, and it more elegant (makes
fewer assumptions) than the available alternate explanations of equal predictive

A:  I hope we can agree that the Naturalistic Fallacy of attempting to derive
"ought from is" is in error because value judgments are necessarily subjective.

W: Agreed. 

I speculate that, in theory, if someone could make the argument somehow that a
judgment (statement of value) does not depend on the judgment (conclusion) of a
judge (observer), but is and must be the same for all possible judges
(observers), such an argument could support the idea of an objective judgment.
However, since judgment is based in the understanding (which differs from man to
man) and not on the reason (which is the same for all men), I think this
involves a paradox, so I doubt such an argument could ever be successful. 

A: I've said that I assume (point of faith) an ultimate reality against which
our measurements are necessarily approximate and incomplete. Can we get beyond
this starting point? AND
A: John, I'm breaking protocol here, but I would like to draw your personal
attention to this statement, which is causing me some frustration. I've
repeatedly made this point. In fact, during our last exchange I showed that you
had inverted this point and now you are challenging me to make it again!

W: The fault is mine, and I thank you for being patient with me. I misread what
you wrote, or, rather, I interpreted the statement that the ultimate reality was
unapproachable to be the same as a statement that ultimate reality for all
practical purposes, did not exist. 

My basic argument, in case I was not clear, was not that ultimate reality is
comprehended by all men, but rather, that certain operating principles, what
might be called "categories of thought" are assumed by all men when dealing with
moral issues. A rational deduction of the implications of these assumed
categories is what leads to moral knowledge, not an empirical examination of
"what works" when a moral actor examines the outcome of his actions. In other
words, whether or not the assumption of ultimate reality is a point of faith, it
is an assumption, a faith, that all rational creatures necessarily must make,
because of the category of thought involved, whether they admit it or not. I see
now that this is tangential to your point, however, since you are talking about
the formal properties of a moral system, not the epistemological roots. 

A: In the cases of Achilles, John the Baptist, and Socrates, their actions can
be considered moral to the extent that they were performed with the "greater
good" (with which they must necessarily identify) as their objective.

W: Oddly enough, I was just today reading GK Chesterton's ORTHODOXY, where he
makes the argument that the fundamental difference between Eastern and Western
philosophy, between Buddhism and Christianity, is the Eastern identification of
self with the unity of the universe, versus the Western identification of the
self separate from (in Christian terms, fallen from) unity with the creator of
the universe. There are things greater than oneself, for which the hero, the
saint and the philosopher lays down his life. One could adopt an Eastern
terminology and say that a lesser "self" was being sacrificed to serve a greater
"self"; or one could adopt a Western terminology and say that the "self" was
being sacrificed to the other, an ideal to whom one owes service. The former
describes sacrifice as enlightened self-interest, and praises enlightenment; the
latter describes sacrifice as selflessness, and praises love. 

My question here is twofold: first, do these two descriptions map onto each
other? Second, if not, does one describe the nature of self-sacrifice better
than the other?

A: Raskolnikov, in his dysfunctional state of mind, believed he had moral
justification for his actions. He believed, necessarily subjectively, and within
his limited context of awareness, that his actions were for the greater good.
Along the same lines, political assassinations have been performed, atrocities
have been committed in the name of religion, and preemptive war has been carried
out, all for ostensibly moral reasons.

In all these examples, we can see that moral goodness is subjective and limited
in terms of context of awareness. No absolute moral maxim helps here, because
such moral absolutes can and have been used interchangeably by either side. My
point is that we can no know absolute moral certainty, but we can recognize that
as the context is broadened, in terms of the number of actors, the variety of
interactions, and the time over which interactions occur, we can evaluate, with
increasing agreement, the relative morality of an action in terms of how well it
(subjectively) works.

W: Ah! It only took you five or nine attempts to get the idea through my thick
skull. I owe you at least as many apologies for my misreading as you were made
to repeat yourself.

I got it now. I think. It is alien to my approach to things, which may explain
my incomprehension. 

If I understand it, your idea reduces to a basic concept: whether or not
Raskolnikov thought he was justified in terms of the "Greater self" or "greater
good", in reality the greater good of the greater self should have also included
his victims and their selves and their aims; and the internal harmony of any
given system of moral maxims also must play into the judgment of what is greater
and lesser. It sounds like a principle that has some of the elegance of
Utilitarianism without the unpleasing tyranny-of-the-majority implications of

It sounds also like an algebraic approach to morality. If X is greater than and
encompasses Y, then we can know that X is better than Y, even without knowing
the specific values of X and Y. 

My only suspicion toward this way of talking about morality is the same caution
you expressed towards moral absolutes: concepts like "growth" and "the greater
self" can be misused. Any concept can be misused, I admit, but some are more
prone to misuse in one direction than others. The danger of  misuse centers
around misreading the needs of the growth of the greater self to be mere
selfishness; a moral maxim that emphasized love for others as its foundational
principle may be more resistant to misuse than one based on enlightened
self-interest of the greater self: but, at the moment, I only voice a suspicion,
and I am not submitting an argument that this is necessarily the case. 

A: Derek Parfit, _Reasons and Persons_

W: Thank you, and I will try to make room on my reading list. 

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