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

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Sat Apr 30 00:31:11 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 promoting discussion of these 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 

This theory of morality 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 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 necessarily be seen as actions that 
are "right".  [This puts the concept of morals (actually ethics) as 
laws, codified and handed down, in obsolete historical context.]

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.  More specifically, 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 Malthusion 
perspective that growth for one agent necessarily means loss for the 
other, 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 
advantage, from the point of view of Self, as "growth" [lacking another 
suitable word or short phrase for the concept.]

[While 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
      value-based decision-making, which is necessarily subjective. To
      deny the primacy of Self in moral decision-making is to promote a
      situation where Self is taught to obey external authority to the
      exclusion of its own senses and judgments, and history abounds
      with atrocities committed with this kind of false "moral"
      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.  To do otherwise would be considered irrational or
      insane (doesn't work.)
      "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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