The Roots of Morality II: The Foundation

In the previous post in this series, I argued that moral relativism is a logically inconsistent position and must be discarded. The only remaining option is moral objectivism; that is, the position that some acts are objectively right and others are objectively wrong, and that this will be true regardless of any person or group’s opinion.

However, the knowledge that morality is objective does not tell us what it actually consists of. In this post, I will propose a basis for objective morality which can be developed into a full-blown ethical system.

So as not to be distracted by tangential matters, I will cut straight to the heart of the matter. What is the most basic principle, the most fundamental goal, that should underlie the way we treat each other? What is the goal we are trying to achieve, what is the end we are trying to maximize, when we conceive of a moral philosophy?

Different systems of thought have a wide variety of answers to this question, but most of them make little attempt to justify their answer. Communism says that the ultimate value is community, libertarianism that the ultimate value is individual liberty. Western religion generally identifies it as faith in God, while some Eastern systems of thought such as Confucianism claim it is societal stability and reverence to one’s elders. Dictatorships usually claim that the supreme moral virtue is obedience. But in all these cases, we can ask: why? Why should that be the foundation of morality and not something else?

These specific examples are symptoms of a more general quandary. If some proposed moral system claims that the ultimate virtue is something like justice or obedience or duty or piety, we can always ask why that should be, why we should choose that quality and not a different one. Granted, there cannot be an infinite regress of justifications; any chain of explanations must stop somewhere. However, we should not stop sooner than we have to. If we are truly to reach the roots of morality, we should keep asking the question of why as long as it can be meaningfully answered.

If one devotes some thought to the matter, I believe it will become obvious that there is, and can be, only one answer. No matter what quality anyone proposes as the root of morality, it is always possible to ask why we should value that quality and not some other – except for one. There is only one quality that is immune to this question and that therefore can truly serve as the foundation of morality, and that quality is happiness.

Happiness is where the regression of reasons stops because there is no further reason why we desire happiness; happiness itself is the “why”. A person might seek wealth, fame, love, or friendship because they believe it will bring them happiness, but happiness is not itself sought because it will bring about some other desirable quality or state. In the entire universe of human experience, it is the only thing that is good intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally. Unlike everything else we value or desire, it is not a means to an end, but the end itself.

This recognition is a very large step toward constructing an objective morality, but it does not get us all the way there. There is an extremely important corollary question. Happiness cannot exist in the abstract, in an undifferentiated state. Rather, it must always exist in someone‘s mind. Given that we have identified happiness as the supreme moral value, the inevitable question is: whose happiness? Should we identify only our own happiness as of moral worth, and craft a morality built purely on selfishness and self-interest? Should we identify others’ happiness as of supreme value and spend our entire lives in slavish devotion to their wants? Should we identify all people’s happiness as of exactly equal value, and assist needy children and serial killers with equal effort and devotion? And if none of these options are selected and we decide that the happiness of some but not all others is valuable, then which others, and why?

The first piece of evidence pointing to an answer to these questions comes from the study of human nature. The occasional aberrant pathology aside, human beings are social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups. As such, we possess a sophisticated sense of empathy that gives us some insight into how those around us are feeling. This sense is realized through physical adaptations such as mirror neurons, which fire both when we experience an emotion and when we perceive another person experiencing that emotion.

The existence of such faculties suggests a rational motivation, one that can be justified purely on the basis of self-interest, for promoting the happiness of others. Just as food and water are basic human needs and therefore it is generally a good thing to provide them, so too it seems that living among happy individuals can significantly contribute to one’s happiness. Conversely, persistent exposure to miserable, angry or unhappy people is a major drain on one’s happiness. (In this case, neuroscience is only confirming what has long been obvious to common sense.) Creating Passionate Users has more information on this phenomenon of “emotional contagion”.

In addition, there is a strong, purely practical reason to create a moral system that encourages individuals to contribute to the happiness of others, rather than the opposite. Namely, if your happiness is obtained in a way that makes other people unhappy, they will always oppose you and work to hinder your goals. On the other hand, if your happiness is derived wholly or partially from other people’s happiness, they will be far more likely to assist you, since their goals align with yours, and you will be more likely to achieve your own ends and be happy as well.

Finally, consider this argument: If you are happy when other people are happy, you have the potential for far more happiness than you could ever achieve for yourself by individual effort. A selfish person, one unconcerned with the emotional well-being of others, can only feel the happiness they acquire for themselves; but an empathetic person can experience, in addition, not just their individual happiness, but the sum total of all the happiness of the people around them. Conscience by its nature is not something we can turn on only when convenient, however, and if we are to draw happiness from people around us, it is impossible to ignore their suffering and need at other times.

For these reasons, reason tells decisively against a theory of morality based on pure selfishness. Instead, the rational course is clearly a morality that values the happiness of others and promotes actions that increase it. And why not? Unlike many of the other things we strive for, happiness is not a limited resource. It costs you nothing for other people to be happy, and will very likely even help you, for the reasons described above.

The straightforward conclusion is that happiness should be maximized. But equally plainly, reason dictates that the way to do this is not to aid all people equally. Giving aid to people whose aim is to reduce the happiness of others, such as religious fanatics or secular tyrants who want to enslave and impose their will on others, will actually decrease, not increase, the total net happiness of humanity. on the other end of the spectrum, aiding people who already enjoy a high level of comfort is unlikely to increase their basic happiness significantly, and so is far less urgent than aiding people who are in need of basic necessities.

It is this basis that makes morality objective. Some critics of Part I scorned the idea that morality could exist independently of anyone’s opinion, but within this framework it is easier to see how that is so. Happiness is more than a mere construct of opinion, and the conditions that produce it cannot be altered at whim. Regardless of whether we recognize it or can tell what it is, there is one way of living, one way of structuring society, that will produce greater happiness than any alternative method for all concerned. That one true path is what constitutes objective morality. All that remains is for us to figure out, using reason and conscience as our tools, what that path consists of. Developing ideas in this direction will be the task of the next part of this series.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    I am interested to hear how “universal utilitarianism” differs from the standard varieties of utilitarianism. Certainly there is objectively one action in any situation which will maximize happiness. Whether this action should be considered “moral” or “ethical” is a matter of definition and semantics.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    I’m never quite sure what ‘happiness’ really means. Surely it must be different from the mental state of just ‘being happy’ because, you know, it’s your birthday and you don’t have to go to work today and ooh there’s a giant chocolate cake with your name written in icing. Everyone has these moments of being happy, and unless you had the boring and the miserable and the mundane they wouldn’t mean very much.

    As for a more long-term ‘happiness’ – is this morally achievable, say, keeping the entire population in a science fictiony, Matrix-style delirium on a powerful cocktail of drugs? You might say they weren’t truly ‘happy’ but, if you ask, I’m sure they are. Americans traditionally place ‘freedom’ alongside ‘happiness’ (not that others don’t, but Americans seem particularly vocal about the word) but the obvious question is which takes priority?

    Also – how far out does this happiness have to spread? I’m guessing you won’t be satisfied with an 100% happy population who have become unable to reproduce (unlikely as it may seem) or one which, somehow, is based on the eventual end of the human race in a few generations time? Having said that, you’re probably not going to take the potential happiness of my great-great-great-(continued 27 further times)-grandchild into account? Even if you were, how could you ever hope to figure this out using any method?

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    I am afraid that you are going to find me in disagreement — for reasons that I only recently described in my own post, Happiness vs Desire Fulfillment.

  • Christopher

    Universal happiness? Is such a thing even possible?

    For the sake of argument, I assume their is enough “happiness” in the universe to satisfy all humans that ever lived or will live in the future (reality: it’s a finite resource with limited distribution). Even if their is enough “happiness” in raw form to satisfy all, how does one go about converting it into forms that are palitable by all?

    Keep in mind that humans tend to take comfort (sometimes even joy) in the suffering of others. How do we make this part of our nature “happy” without depriving others of their happiness? And what of people that have conflicting desires (ex. a parent wanting to have complete control of it’s child, but, simultaniously, wanting the child to develope a creative imagination)? How does one satisfy both of these desires at once?

    In theory, this sounds like a good idea: make all men happy. In practice, however, it will fall flat on it’s face because all men don’t see “happiness” in the same manner. Any attempt to make all happy will instead make all very unhappy…

  • http://dark-sided.blogspot.com/ Michael Martine

    I don’t see how happiness is a universally desirable goal. Happiness isn’t a goal at all, but a side-effect or a latent outcome. Happiness is not even important. Many of the most important, heroic, worthwhile, or necessary things people have done have had nothing to do whatsoever with being happy or producing happiness. Often the most miserable people on the planet are the ones who seek happiness as the end to their means—they never find it, and little wonder why. They pursue a vapor.

    And then there is the problem of defining happiness, which other commenters have already spoken of.

  • Padishah

    Christopher, happiness is not a natural resource which has any inherent quantity limit, there is therefore no ‘raw form’ of it (I suppose you could say dopamine but thats missing the point). Yes, some people revel in others misery. The most effective way to increase happiness all round is to try and educate them otherwise and draw them to realise the error of their ways.

    “Any attempt to make all happy will instead make all very unhappy… ”
    Surely you recognise that there are superior and inferior ways of running society from a perspective of happiness-maximisation? For instance, that a moderate social democracy is more effective than say the regime of the Khmer Rouge?

  • Christopher

    Response to Padishah:

    “Christopher, happiness is not a natural resource which has any inherent quantity limit, there is therefore no ‘raw form’ of it (I suppose you could say dopamine but thats missing the point). Yes, some people revel in others misery. The most effective way to increase happiness all round is to try and educate them otherwise and draw them to realise the error of their ways.”

    First of all, all things in this universe are finite. Even “happiness” (an emotional state) has certain prerequisits in the physical world that must be met. If one is not well off physically, he can’t be happy (absent some neurological disorder that keeps him in constant euphoria). Plus, humans have the desire for excess (society calls it “greed”) that must be satisfied. Thus the need for people to advance their lot in life. But to advance, one must leave others behind.

    The result: a few people take the finite resources neccisary for “happiness” and leave the rest out in the cold.

    Secondly, all the education in the world can’t eliminate man’s drives and desire: only surpress them until a later date. The reason: we are not a single consciousness, but rather a multitude of consciousnesses residing in one body. The human mind is a maze of competing (often contradicting) desires that can’t be met at the same time.

    If humans all thought with one mind, we wouldn’t have the types of conflicts that we do. But we don’t and the affects of this are evident.

    “Surely you recognise that there are superior and inferior ways of running society from a perspective of happiness-maximisation? For instance, that a moderate social democracy is more effective than say the regime of the Khmer Rouge?”

    But even in our “democracy” we don’t experience total “happiness.” Also, a “democracy” is a fairly vulnerable organization (it’s enemies can easily use it’s own beaurocracies and judicial systems against them), making it more fragile than an autocratic society. If this fragile “democracy” breaks (just a matter of time, if you ask me…), all who were made “happy” by it will suddenly find themselves to be very unhappy.

    Note: I’m not suggesting that we overthrow the govt. and establish an autocratic regime. What I am suggesting is that democracy needs to be limited and power (also a finite resource) more consentrated if this society is going to last another century.

  • Padishah

    If one is not well off physically, he can’t be happy (absent some neurological disorder that keeps him in constant euphoria). Plus, humans have the desire for excess (society calls it “greed”) that must be satisfied. Thus the need for people to advance their lot in life. But to advance, one must leave others behind.

    Whilst I agree real happiness is nigh impossible without a basic standard of living, further wealth does not neccessarily increase it much, this varies from person to person and according to the circumstances. Many things other than material goods can increase our happiness, interaction with others and emotional attachment for instance. It is also untrue that to advance one must leave others behind – as the economy grows ever more is produced, and all ultimately benefit.

    Secondly, all the education in the world can’t eliminate man’s drives and desire: only surpress them until a later date.

    But people can, and do, come to regret their previous attitudes and ideas. Plus of course I don’t think most people start out actively enjoying others misery, such malice is (I would hope) confined to a minority of the population.

    Is there even such a thing as ‘total happiness’ for us to experience? I think it unlikely. So rather than focusing on absolutes, surely it is better to try to increase general happiness as much as possible?

  • Archi Medez

    Ebonmuse,

    I like the reference to mirror neurons and would like to see this neuropsychological basis for empathy (and thus a basis for morality) discussed further. This would address the question of why we care about others’ happiness, beyond that merely being a means by which we make ourselves happy.

    Consider this: I could be a psychopath without the ability to experience empathy, but I could experience happiness. I could regulate my own happiness in part by saying and doing things to keep the people around me happy, i.e., I could be maximizing happiness without even having a clue about morality.

    Empathy, though a foundation of morality, is not enough. Consider that one could experience empathy, feel what the other person is feeling, so to speak, but not actually have the desire to increase that person’s happiness (or reduce their pain, see below). Therefore the goals and the intentions of one person have to be somehow cooperative (or compromised) with those of others.

    Next, one may have the ideal of pursuit of happiness for all, may experience empathy, may have the goals/intentions/motivations to make everyone happy, but one may not take the sacrifice, the investment, the responsibility to do anything about it. This need for responsible action is not so much a foundation of morality but rather a basis for implementing it.

    Another issue: How to conceive of the happiness dimension. Do we conceive of this as a unidimensional scale, whereby we have a point where there is zero happiness, on up to various higher levels of happiness? Or do we conceive of at least a bidimensional scale whereby harm/pain/suffering/fear/anger (I’ll just lump them altogether for convenience for the moment) are on the other side of a zero or neutral point? (There could be a multidimensional scale, but I’ll keep matters simple for now).

    e.g. Happiness+ 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 Negative state-

    And this leads me to the suggestion that harm-reduction could also be considered one of the foundational building blocks of morality. For me, merely maximizing happiness is not sufficient as a foundation of morality.

    Another foundational building block: Health and Safety. Everyone could be blissed out and happy, meanwhile physically and socially they are falling into decay because of lack of responsibility due to all the fun and games of pursuing happiness (I’m lampooning a bit here, but the point is essentially that pursuit of happiness, even of everyone, is not enough). I don’t view happiness and health as completely separate from one another (on the contrary they are interrelated); nevertheless, I think one could have easily picked “health” instead of “happiness” as the key variable. But I wouldn’t want to exclude either. (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may be a useful reference here).

    Another foundation block: Truth/Knowledge/Education. We can’t make moral judgements properly unless we have ways to establish the factual accuracy and rational soundness of claims. (Here I will lump together both empiricism and rationalism crudely, for simplicity in this rough initial assessment).

    What goes hand in hand with the Knowledge factor is the removal/reduction of the falsehoods and irrationality which inevitably arise due to human error, frustrations, etc. One cannot have a moral society and maintain and improve it if there are systems which not only create lies but seek to perpetuate them. In order to correct falsehoods there needs to be an open society, with freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression within reasonable limits.*

    *Of course, death threats, slander, etc., are outside of reasonable limits because they generally impinge to too great an extent on other people’s health/safety and happiness, etc.

    One could also add Love, Curiosity, and other emotions or motivational states, which may not exactly map onto happiness, as foundational blocks.

    People seek to regulate their lives in terms of pursuing, enhancing, or optimizing what they view as the positive (happiness, health, knowledge, love, etc.), while reducing the negative. Such improvements require innovations and adaptations, and therefore creativity is needed in developing a moral system.

    To sum up:

    Things to consider for the foundation:

    Toward–Happiness, Health, Knowledge, Love, Curiosity.

    Away from–Sadness, Destruction, Falsehood, Hate/Anger, Indifference.

    Connection between self and others: Empathy.

    Implementation: Positive intentions (see “Toward”) plus responsible action.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    First of all, I’d like to say that I’m very happy (hah!) with the way this discussion is developing – some excellent points have been brought up. I’ll address a few selected ones:

    For Secular Planet:

    Certainly there is objectively one action in any situation which will maximize happiness. Whether this action should be considered “moral” or “ethical” is a matter of definition and semantics.

    Yes. Similarly, there is one way of studying the world which will best enable us to control and predict it; whether this method produces “truth” is likewise a matter of definition and semantics. I don’t think there’s any relevant difference between these two cases.

    For Dominic Self:

    I’m never quite sure what ‘happiness’ really means. Surely it must be different from the mental state of just ‘being happy’ because, you know, it’s your birthday and you don’t have to go to work today and ooh there’s a giant chocolate cake with your name written in icing. Everyone has these moments of being happy, and unless you had the boring and the miserable and the mundane they wouldn’t mean very much.

    That sort of temporary euphoria is one kind of happiness, but by no means the only kind. As you correctly note, it cannot be sustained over long periods. Instead, the type of happiness I think we should most seek to increase is the more subtle but more lasting kind usually called contentment. That is the sort of happiness that can be sustained over a lifetime, rather than a more temporary excitement.

    Americans traditionally place ‘freedom’ alongside ‘happiness’ (not that others don’t, but Americans seem particularly vocal about the word) but the obvious question is which takes priority?

    I don’t think it’s a question of one taking priority over the other. As I get into in Part III, just now posted, the best way of living is precisely the one that produces the most happiness – and the question of which way that is, is empirically answerable. Obviously, I think a way of life that maximizes freedom wherever practical will produce the most happiness for everyone, and I don’t think there is or can be a conflict between the two.

    For Christopher:

    If one is not well off physically, he can’t be happy (absent some neurological disorder that keeps him in constant euphoria). Plus, humans have the desire for excess (society calls it “greed”) that must be satisfied.

    I agree with the first part, but not the second. First of all, it is a widely held but incorrect belief that increasing one’s material possessions produces happiness. This is not true. Studies have consistently found that beyond the minimal standard that suffices to provide for basic needs, acquiring more wealth produces no long-term gain in happiness and may actually make people less happy. I commented on this in my recent post “Drink Deeply“. If people are greedy, it is only because they are falsely informed about the results of that greed. Educating them on this point will improve not only the happiness of those who would otherwise be taken advantage of, but will improve the happiness of the greedy themselves, as they will no longer see the need to waste their lives in pursuit of a mirage.

    Thus the need for people to advance their lot in life. But to advance, one must leave others behind.

    That is categorically false. There is no reason why one person’s success implies another’s failure; on the contrary, there are many good ways to make happiness a non-zero-sum game where everyone can succeed. This is true for the reasons I wrote about above, such as emotional contagion. For example:

    Keep in mind that humans tend to take comfort (sometimes even joy) in the suffering of others. How do we make this part of our nature “happy” without depriving others of their happiness?

    Obviously, one cannot satisfy two mutually exclusive desires. The appropriate response to desires that necessarily decrease the happiness of others, such as sadism, is to block the fulfillment of those desires and reform the offender by teaching them how to find happiness in ways that do not infringe on the rights or happiness of others.

    In practice, however, it will fall flat on it’s face because all men don’t see “happiness” in the same manner. Any attempt to make all happy will instead make all very unhappy…

    Obviously, a moral system that attempts to give all people the same thing regardless of their individual desires will be a colossal failure. But universal utilitarianism doesn’t advocate any such thing. Rather, as I argued above, the best thing to do is to maximize individual liberty and the ability of people to control their own lives, so that they can seek their own happiness in whatever way benefits them the most.

    Finally, I have a comment on Alonzo’s linked post. He seems to be assuming that the only kind of happiness that universal utilitarianism considers morally valuable is one’s own happiness, but this is an incorrect position. One can value the happiness of others just as greatly as one’s own. UU can equally well explain why the mother in his thought experiment would prefer to falsely believe her child is suffering when he is actually leading a happy life, rather than the alternative: because that actually is the state of affairs that produces less suffering, or at the very least, it produces no greater suffering.

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “If people are greedy, it is only because they are falsely informed about the results of that greed. Educating them on this point will improve not only the happiness of those who would otherwise be taken advantage of, but will improve the happiness of the greedy themselves, as they will no longer see the need to waste their lives in pursuit of a mirage.”

    No, “greed” is something that far too primal to just be educated away. The desire for excess is a trait that was developed long before we became homo sapiens and will likley be with us long after humanity as we know it is gone.

    I acknowledge that it doesn’t bring long-term happiness, but that is exactly the function of greed: to keep one from ever being satisfied! If our ancient ancestors were not “greedy,” they would have been satisfied with their lives as hunter/gatherers and never would have built a civilization! “Greed” is that desire that causes us to contiuously advance forward in our evolution, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    “That is categorically false. There is no reason why one person’s success implies another’s failure; on the contrary, there are many good ways to make happiness a non-zero-sum game where everyone can succeed. This is true for the reasons I wrote about above, such as emotional contagion.”

    Someone has to fail because only so many people can succeed at any given time! When someone at a company gets promoted, that promotion is denied to someone eles; when a law favoring one constituancy group passes (note: ALL laws favor certain constiuancy groups over others), the opposing constituancy group loses; when some businesses are successful in a certain market, other businesses in the same market suffer- success is a Darwinian struggle in which one must out-compete the others or suffer! Win-win scenarios for all sides in a fight are so rare that they should be considered miracles…

    “Obviously, one cannot satisfy two mutually exclusive desires. The appropriate response to desires that necessarily decrease the happiness of others, such as sadism, is to block the fulfillment of those desires and reform the offender by teaching them how to find happiness in ways that do not infringe on the rights or happiness of others.”

    I’ve heard numerous claims by this incompitent criminal “justice” system that they can reform criminals, but it seems that most of the big arrests they stage turn out to be repeat offenders. What accounts for this?

    The truth is that criminals are not being reformed, they are becoming better criminals (hell, there are even entire gang cultures that deliberately set themselves up to be arrested so they can improve their skills in prison!). Unless I begin to see REAL reform (or, more likely, termination) of these criminals, I’ll put little faith in the idea that the human mind can be reformed at all…

    “Obviously, a moral system that attempts to give all people the same thing regardless of their individual desires will be a colossal failure. But universal utilitarianism doesn’t advocate any such thing. Rather, as I argued above, the best thing to do is to maximize individual liberty and the ability of people to control their own lives, so that they can seek their own happiness in whatever way benefits them the most.”

    Maximum individual liberty is maximized in anarchy (no rule = perfect freedom). Take a look at any nation experiencing anarchy. This should be enough to convice you that maximizing individual liberty is no way to construct a society…

  • Padishah

    Christopher, all your examples are of increasing material wealth. Do you think this is the only thing that makes people happy? I find my relations with others have a far greater bearing on that myself. Furthermore, financial success of say a buisness in a market does not require harm to competitors – the market can expand due to lower prices brought about by more efficient methods for instace.

    Win-win scenarios for all sides in a fight are so rare that they should be considered miracles…

    In a fight, yes. Whilst some human behaviour is best modelled as a conflict, that is not true of all by a long way.

    I’ve heard numerous claims by this incompitent criminal “justice” system that they can reform criminals…

    Could it perhaps be that the American justice system is in fact very poorly structured, being chiefly focused on pointlessly increasing a criminals suffering whilst paying only lipservice to rehabilitation?

    Maximum individual liberty is maximized in anarchy (no rule = perfect freedom)

    No, freedom includes freedom from others (non-governmental entities) oppressing you. Likewise one can argue that freedom to controll ones own life includes freedom to choose ones career, and make arguments for public funding of education and other services on that basis. To take another simple example, freedom of movement may be better maximised by having a publically owned transport network.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The truth is that criminals are not being reformed, they are becoming better criminals (hell, there are even entire gang cultures that deliberately set themselves up to be arrested so they can improve their skills in prison!). Unless I begin to see REAL reform (or, more likely, termination) of these criminals, I’ll put little faith in the idea that the human mind can be reformed at all…

    If you believe that prisoner reform has hardly been tried (and I agree, by the way), then what makes you so sure that it won’t work?

    Maximum individual liberty is maximized in anarchy (no rule = perfect freedom).

    No, that is wrong. Individual liberty is genuinely maximized in a state that provides security and stability to all its residents while simultaneously giving them the maximum possible liberty to pursue their own conception of happiness. It’s true, when we live in such a state we give up the freedom to do certain things (such as to shoot your neighbor and burn down his house because you want his stuff). But in exchange we actually gain a far greater degree of opportunity and freedom, because living in such a society and collaborating with others allows people to achieve things they never could on their own. Think of how many things I can do, and how many choices I can make, in our society that would be impossible if I lived in a lawless, chaotic anarchy.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Ebonmouse:

    In saying that the mother can act to sacrifice her own happiness for her child’s, you still need to provide an explanation for this. You spoke about ‘mirror neurons’ causing unhappiness. Yet, in this case, the ‘mirror neurons’ have been removed from the picture — there will be no sympathetic pain for those who suffer. Your claim that ‘those who promote the happiness of others will experience more sources of happiness.’ In this case, promoting the happiness of others leads to unhappiness. So, what is the mechanism by which the child’s happiness figures into the adult’s decisions — where happiness is the sole value? How is it that the child’s happiness causally brings about the agent’s choice?

    Desire fulfillment theory avoids this problem because the goal is not happiness but to ‘make true the propositions that are the objects of one’s desires’ which, in this case, to make true the proposition, ‘my child is healthy and happy.’ This desire directly leads to the choice that will cause the child to be healthy and happy while causing the agent to be miserable. We have a desire that one’s child is healthy and happy, a belief that Option 2 will bring about a state in which one’s child is healthy and happy, and thus motivation to select Option 2, easily explained.

    Also, I’m starting a policy of spending weekends on my site discussing ‘moral theory’ rather than ‘moral application.’ Today, I added two more objections to happiness theory, and talked about your post here directly.

    More on Happiness and Desire Fulfillment

    One of these days I need to figure out what this trackback is all about.

  • Stephen

    Having pondered on these morality essays, I see quite a lot of points of value. However I don’t see anything to change my own opinion on this matter, namely that moral relativism versus moral objectivism is a false dichotomy. They represent end-points of a continuum, not discrete possibilities.

    Surely morality contains both objective and subjective elements. In some areas objectivity dominates: for example a prohibition on murder is necessary for any society to function properly. (Though even here there is room for a small amount of subjective judgement: where exactly do the boundaries fall between self-defence, over-reaction and murder?)

    Other judgements however are almost entirely subjective, such as the question as to how much skin it is acceptable to reveal in a given social situation.

    In between is a whole host of areas where there is room for a range of subjective opinion on a small objective foundation. Take the question of child labour. Is it acceptable for a 12-year old to work 10 hours a day in a factory? Surely no. Is it acceptable for a (healthy) 12-year old to be expected to help around the house for 15 minutes a day? Surely yes. Somewhere in between is a maximum acceptable amount that can be expected: but it seems to me highly unlikely that this is amenable to objective determination. Opinions (not to mention personal circumstances) will differ.

    Particularly the assertion that “there is one way of living, one way of structuring society, that will produce greater happiness than any alternative method for all concerned” would seem to be in need of a considerable amount of evidence to sustain it. In the absence of an objective happiness-meter, and the means of applying it to every person on the planet, that seems to be more a (religious?) belief than a statement of fact.

    On the other hand there are many ways of structuring society which can be clearly seen to be inferior to others. If we can eliminate those, then we will be left with a small range of societies where the relative advantages and disadvantages are small enough to fall within the range of reasonable subjective differences of opinion. That seems to me a worthwhile goal.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Stephen:

    Actually, I view the terms between “moral relativism” and “moral objectivism” to be too poorly defined to be of much use. I have had people the theory I defend emotivist, subjectivist, realist, anti-realist, objectivist, and relativist. After arguing about labels, I have decided it is a waste of time. I defend my theory, and let others decide what label they want to put on it.

    However, I view any “subjective” claim as you seem to describe it as a false objectively claim. You mention the question about how much skin to show. To say that one ought not to show X amount of skin is to say that there exists reasons not to show X amount of skin. If there are reasons — then the statement is true. If there are no reasons, then the statement is false. The type of subjectivism you describe is the type where one makes an assertion, but can offer no (objective) reason to back it up. In this case, the claim is false.

    You also mention the word “acceptable,” but you confuse it with the word “accept.” A society may accept genocide — they may have no problems with it. But whether it is “acceptable” (that is to say — whether it is good or bad that they accept genocide) is a separate question. People do, in fact, draw a strong connection between what they do accept and what they think should be accepted. However, these are still two different concepts, and there is no valid inference from ‘I accept X’ to ‘X is something that should be accepted.’

    Now, you also mention that there are gray areas. Gray areas does not imply subjectivity. Gray areas are also perfectly compatible with objective uncertainty. So, for example, two people have each have $10,000 to invest, and they both want to cash out in exactly 10 years with as much money as possible. It is difficult (impossible) to predict which set of investments will do the best, so we allow each person to invest their money as they see fit. There is still an objective right answer as to which set of investments will produce the greatest income. This is not an instance of “subjectivism” (such as ‘this option will produce the greatest income if I simply believe that it produces the greatest income’). There is, instead, a problem of uncertainty.

    On the question of structuring a society, it is a fact that we deal with a great amount of objective uncertainty. This objective uncertainty suggests that we allow each society to live by its own rules. This decision is not grounded on ‘subjectivism.’ That is to say, every answer is equally right. Some answers will be better (more accurate) than others. However, we face a problem of ‘objective uncertainty’ in knowing what those answers are.

    Also, even in science, there is a problem of definitions. How many planets are there in the solar system? While astronomers were having this dispute, the number of planets could have been either 12 or 8. Some are still saying 9. The right answer depends on how the term ‘planet’ is defined. This, in turn, is a purely ‘subjective’ question. There is no objective right answer to the definition of ‘planet’ — there is only the arbitrary and subjective agreement reached by a bunch of astronomers. Yet, this dispute has absolutely no effect on the objective nature of astronomy as a science.

    I suggest that the reason the question of the objectivity and subjectivity in ethics is difficult to resolve is because the definitions being used are too simplistic, and do not adequately capture the complexity of the question. Oversimplified questions generate oversimplified answers where none of those answers really work. So, people on both sides find reason to object.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Alonzo,

    Desire fulfillment theory avoids this problem because the goal is not happiness but to ‘make true the propositions that are the objects of one’s desires’ which, in this case, to make true the proposition, ‘my child is healthy and happy.’

    I don’t see how this idea differs from mine. What is the distinction between seeking happiness and seeking to fulfill one’s desires?

  • Blaine

    The question, I think, is given the the fact that desire fulfillment exists, what is the purpose for doing so? What value analysis is being performed while choosing to fulfill a desire? Given the definition that desire fulfillment is a relationship between a ‘desire that ‘P” and a state of affairs in which ‘P’ is true; why do we chose to expend resources to achieve the state of affairs in which P is true? If there is any objective morality at all, then it seems to me that whatever that criterion is must be the foundation for morality.

    Desire fulfillment, in my mind, helps frame the question and provides the tension necessary to then postulate solutions. Without desires there can exist no reason to act and without action there is no need for morality. The idea of increasing happiness is a start, but I feel that the word still lacks some essential point. Happiness is a state of being that is felt and recognized differently by all. This puts the application of happiness theory on very subjective ground from the beginning. Who monitors the happiness of all to ensure maximum happiness? I like the way it was put earlier in the comments, we don’t have an “objective happiness-meter”. I don’t know yet where this is all going, but I like the vision of happiness theory even though it seems there is something missing in the extension of personal happiness to happiness for all.

    Desire fulfillment works well as a framework to understand moral behavior and predict future action, but to understand why we would choose to fulfill some desires and not others we should look to some universal objective reason or reasons. I am not sure happiness is the correct root. It may be the closest approximation we have now; my specific problem is that happiness in a maximized form seems to lead to contentment. Given a high level of contentment, whence comes desire? It may be said that perfect happiness is unattainable and therefore desires will always exist. Can this be proven? Can happiness be maximized for all or will it merely create dichotomy of less happy versus more happy people? Is this in fact a desirable “best scenario”?

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “No, that is wrong. Individual liberty is genuinely maximized in a state that provides security and stability to all its residents while simultaneously giving them the maximum possible liberty to pursue their own conception of happiness.”

    Any govt. presence (no matter how small) is a restriction on individual liberties. Therefore, to completely liberate the individual, one must be rid of anything that inhibits the individual. The problem, of course, is that when all individuals are completely liberated they tend to go for each other’s throats…

    I acknowledge that some restrictions imposed are a must for a society to function, but I see no reason to assume that they objective (rather, they seem to change to serve society’s whims) or for the individual to adhear to them at all times. If breaking one of society’s arbitrary rules has benefits that outweigh the risks, I happily break it.

    “It’s true, when we live in such a state we give up the freedom to do certain things (such as to shoot your neighbor and burn down his house because you want his stuff). But in exchange we actually gain a far greater degree of opportunity and freedom, because living in such a society and collaborating with others allows people to achieve things they never could on their own. Think of how many things I can do, and how many choices I can make, in our society that would be impossible if I lived in a lawless, chaotic anarchy.”

    You just admitted the point that I was trying to make: the individual does lose freedom. Of course, there is a gain (as you mentioned) but the individual acquires excess baggage from this arangment as well. One is forced to rely on other individuals to see that your interests are met (with no guarantees) and is limited in ow he might pursue his own interests (it just might be in one’s interest, for example, to see that his neighbors are taught a lesson in pain for certain transgressions).

    My point still stands: life is zero-sum, therefore everything (even society itself) comes at a cost. The question is what is the cost and is it worth the price.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Blaine:

    When it comes to fulfilling some desires but not others, there are only two reasons why we do this.

    (1) The fulfillment of some desires is not causally possible.

    (2) The fulfillment of some desires is incompatible with the fulfillment of more and stronger desires.

    Why do some things float and others sink? It is not because the object ‘chooses’ to ignore some of the forces acting on it. It is merely because some forces are stronger than others, and the stronger forces override the weaker forces.

    Beliefs and desires are simply a part of the programming for the brain/mind.

    Intentional action follows the formula:

    (belief + desire) -> intention -> intentional action.

    This is how we explain all intentional action.

    Why am I writing this post? Because I believe that these propositions are true, I believe that others would benefit from this information, and I desire that others benefit.

    To ask for an additional reason to fulfill a desire is like saying,”Now that we know that the force of gravity acting on an object is 9.8 meters per second squared, what entity actually causes the entity to accelerate in the direction that gravity points to at this rate?”

    The answer is ‘nothing’. Gravity itself accelerates the object. Desire themselves motivate agents to act.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Ebonmuse

    The difference between happiness and the fulfillment of desires has to do with the reasons I gave on my postings on my blog.

    (1) There is no more reason to postulate a single ‘value’ than there is to postulate a single belief. Just as we can believe many things, we can also desire many things.

    (2) People who act so as to fulfill their desires may give up happiness. You answer that this is because of an interest in the happiness of others. Yet, an agent who benefits others will also choose for others what those others would choose for themselves — which is sometimes to give up happiness. Besides, you lack an explanatory mechanism as to how an agent can be motivated by the happiness of others under some of the conditions I described.

    (3) Happiness theory cannot explain how two people with identical beliefs can perform different actions without introducing additional variables that complicate the equation, whereas ‘(beliefs + desires) -> intention -> intentional acts’ can explain different actions for people with identical beliefs without the need for extra variables. (This is an Occam’s Razor argument.)

    (4) The experience machine can give a person happiness but not fulfill his desires. You say that the machine cannot give ‘genuine happiness’ because it does not generate real events. Yet, I would answer that this would require a bizarre concept of ‘happiness’ — whereby a cheerful person inside the machine is less happy than the frustrated and angry person in the real world — or the mother who has not yet been told about her daughter’s death is less happy than the mother who knows about her daughter’s death.

    (5) Happiness cannot explain incommensurate values — the fact that there is ‘loss’ when some desires are thwarted — which cannot happen if everything can be reduced to a single value (e.g., happiness).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Alonzo,

    (1) There is no more reason to postulate a single ‘value’ than there is to postulate a single belief. Just as we can believe many things, we can also desire many things.

    We desire many things instrumentally, yes. But as I have explained, happiness is the only thing we desire intrinsically. There is nothing which anyone desires whose ultimate purpose is not to produce happiness for someone.

    (2) People who act so as to fulfill their desires may give up happiness. You answer that this is because of an interest in the happiness of others. Yet, an agent who benefits others will also choose for others what those others would choose for themselves — which is sometimes to give up happiness.

    I don’t think I’m grasping this argument. I suggest you give an example of the kind of thing you’re talking about.

    (4) The experience machine can give a person happiness but not fulfill his desires. You say that the machine cannot give ‘genuine happiness’ because it does not generate real events. Yet, I would answer that this would require a bizarre concept of ‘happiness’ — whereby a cheerful person inside the machine is less happy than the frustrated and angry person in the real world — or the mother who has not yet been told about her daughter’s death is less happy than the mother who knows about her daughter’s death.

    Again, it is not bizarre to postulate that happiness built on a lie is not truly happiness at all. (I didn’t go into depth about this on this site, but if you read my corresponding essay on Ebon Musings, you’ll see that what I actually advocate is maximizing the happiness that would result from relevant parties being aware of all the important facts – so strictly speaking, the “experience machine” argument is not relevant to UU at all. Whatever happiness it produces, if that happiness is based on falsehoods, should not be factored into the equation at all.

    But more importantly, the source of the distinction is the same reason I advocate holding human rights universally inviolable even when their violation might conceivably increase happiness in certain rare cases, because overall, a society that abides by them is better than one that does not. Similarly, a person who lives in the real world and builds their happiness on what they find there will, overall, be happier than a person who retreats into delusion, of whatever type. Even if that principle does not hold true in certain specific and contrived cases, when averaged over all relevant situations it does hold. I am not suggesting that fantasy has no role to play in a balanced life, but like anything else, it should only be a part and not the whole.

    Now, I have a counterargument to offer. You think the experience machine is a thought experiment that is damaging to my moral system; allow me to offer one that I feel points up the problems in yours.

    Let’s assume that a young person, who is physically healthy, well-educated and has every other sign of a bright future, has a mental disorder that causes them to desire to commit suicide. Your moral theory holds that fulfillment of desires is an unqualified good. Would you therefore support assisting this person in killing themself? If not, why not? If the desires of others that the person remain living are the reason, do you hold the same position in the case of an elderly person with an incurable, debilitating and lethal illness? Would you support allowing them to end their suffering, or do you believe that they must be held hostage to the desires of others and forced to prolong a painful existence against their will? If you reach different conclusions in these two cases, how do you justify that distinction, since ex hypothesi in both scenarios the desires of all relevant parties are identical?

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    The same time constraints which I was under in commenting on your last post apply here as well.

    1. Are you really sure that relativism and objectivism are the only options available? What about error theory, constructivism and non-cognitivism? Objectivism is the only other option available when one is a rather restricted moral realist.

    2. Your claim that happiness is the ultimate good seems to be relative to two things: a) The context in which you find your self, for it is not at all clear to me that all cultures do or should view happiness as the ultimate good. b) A clear definition of happiness which does not allow for a vast variety of difference in both quality and intsensity of “happiness.”

    3. Most obviously, however, your equation of happiness with good simply seems to be an assertion and nothing more. Simply proving that good simply cannot be anything other than happiness, such as pleasure, desirability or valuablility, does not make good equal to happiness to any degree at all. This is G. E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy.

    4. Why should be care about the happiness of others independent of what personal happiness may or may not be added or sacrificed? Your response in the post seems to be “why not?” but surely you need to do better than this.

    5. Similarly, just because an action is not egocentric, does not entail that it is not egoist. Your claims regarding the social nature of humans seems to skip this by saying that we should make others happy because it makes us happy. But what if it doesn’t make us happy? Your argument against egocentrism seems to relie upon a certain amount of egoism.

  • Adrian

    What objective reason is there for seeking to increase happiness? What objective reasons can you give for preferring maximizing happiness over other alternatives? What objective reasons are there for maximizing the happiness of a group instead of for individuals (who may really enjoy raping and torturing other individuals)?

    I don’t think you have given anything objective at all. Underlying all of your writing is the unspoken sentence “I believe that maximizing happiness is good.” You decided that. You. Hence it is relative.

    In the entire universe of human experience, it is the only thing that is good intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally.

    This “intrinsic good” you talk about, that’s just what you believe is good, isn’t it?

  • http://mindstalk.net Damien R. S.

    I’m afraid I find this series to be pretty flawed. The attack on moral relativism seemed dependent on logical sleight of hand, and I wasn’t convinced any more than other critics. As for this one, you claim your constraints lead to a single solution, which I don’t think is true.

    * suffering of others decreases our happiness: you say this leads to increasing the happiness of others, but avoiding having to perceive that suffering also works.

    * happiness of others increases our happiness: perhaps, but perception of superiority also increases our happiness, at least for some people. Also, there’s diminishing returns: the happiness of our family might matter a lot, that of the 100 people we interact a fair with might add up as well, but that of the next 10,000 people isn’t going to be directly perceived by us. 100 oligarchs exploiting the other 9900 people while insulating themselves from the suffering might well maximize the happiness of the oligarchs, even taking into account what they have to do to maintain their position, and the risk of rebellion.

    Just because you’re inclined to care about the happiness of others — which isn’t even true for sociopaths — doesn’t mean you have to care equally about everyone’s happiness.

    “It costs you nothing for other people to be happy”

    As Christopher probably noted, it costs whatever material and social goods others might want for their happiness.

    Easy example: it plausibly would make me happy to have lots of children. Even happier if I don’t have to do the more unpleasant work of raising them — feeding the infants at 3am, changing their diapers, etc. My happiness could clearly be increased by getting someone else to do unhappiness-causing tasks for me. This applies to janitorial or sanitation or butchering duties as well. Or even farming. The unhappiness of the workers might make me somewhat unhappy, but not necessarily as much as actually doing their work myself would. Given that upper classes don’t rush to help out their servants, I think evidence supports my reasoning.

  • Virginia

    I have a theory — human being are social animal and have to live in groups, is result fo evolution adaption. Living in groups and our brain development allows our ancestors to survive and thrive even though we do not have strong bodies, sharp teeths, claws or able to fly. Morality, is our recognition of the need to preserve the race by preventing in species fighting, to move primal animal instincts of survial of a small flock, or becoming an “alpha male”, by making human able to show empathy, and have a concern over the others.

  • Virginia

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