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My Moral Foundations

November 5, 2015

Adam Gurri‘s got me thinking about morality, especially with the one child policy stuff going on lately. I’ve been feeling isolated in my sympathies lately, as policies which I consider evil have gotten widespread popular support. I don’t expect people to agree with me necessarily, but I would like to record how I think about morality.

Humans are born, experience, think, and then die. Each person has a unique perspective and their perceptions define a personal universe for them. We’re all alone on this rock spinning through the universe, striving to find meaning in our lives, pulled forward by our dreams, and held back by our fears. Each person must decides how they want to live their life and what kind of person they want to be. Sometimes, we are able to fulfill our goals, sometimes not. Sometimes life is pleasurable, sometimes it is full of suffering. While I believe that a life with pleasure and achievement is superior to a life of suffering and defeat, both sorts of lives are valuable and worth living.

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
— Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

We are not alive long enough to make sense of our own existence, not even with the help of others. Reality is only semieffable. A major part of what gives life meaning is the search for meaning itself. The fact that there is no right answer, only endless questions. If there were an answer, you could just tell people and be done with it, but since there is no answer, the meaning of life is pluralist. There is much value in having each person discover for themselves their purpose. Individual freedom has much to recommend it, but most important is the ability of people to pick how they live their own life. What goals do you set for yourself? How do you achieve them? What do you spend your time doing? How do you treat others? Answering these questions through our actions constitute a life well lived.

The Nature of Evil
When someone kills someone else, they are destroying all the moments that could have been, all the thoughts and memories. Suffering is bad and inflicting it on others is wrong, but for me, lost opportunities are even more tragic. The saddest part of Schindler’s List for me was the part where the Nazis destroyed the photos of the Jews going to the concentration camps. It focused the viewer’s attention on the memories destroyed, but also the fact that the lives that would have been led had been destroyed. The friends, the families, their life’s work, everything.

Communism was equally tragic, since people who could otherwise have lived lives as they saw fit were forced into whatever the central planners chose for them. Everything that could have been was destroyed, replaced by untold suffering and conformity. Time is what life is made of. If you force someone to act a certain way, you are killing the life they could otherwise have led. Imposing suffering on others destroys the other experiences they could have had instead. It’s the opportunity cost theory of evil.

I believe in God, but don’t think it is meaningful to make statements about God. I believe in the soul, but only one soul, which is a part of God. The soul experiences each and every lifetime of all of humanity and perhaps of all living things. To harm another is to harm yourself since we are all one. Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think any religion makes sense.

Other Philosophies
Humans have been thinking about how to act since the dawn of time. I’m not going to spend a long time going through the background of these, just a few thoughts.

Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics seems like a very natural way to talk about morality. Rather than talking about actions, ask what sort of person you should be. “What would a virtuous person do?” is easier to answer than trying to deduce some abstract theory of morality in real time. It’s kind of handwavy though, since how do you determine which virtues are the most important? How do you decide when faced with a trade-off between two virtues? Just saying “use wisdom” isn’t very satisfying, but neither is anything else.

Rules are nice. People use heuristics in all areas of life, why not morality? They can be inflexible and sometimes don’t make sense at all, and anyway, if you’re just following a cookbook, that’s not really doing your moral duty to figure out what your moral duty is. Actual deontological rules that I hear people say seem pretty shallow. I’m not a moral absolutist. It’s about the impact of your actions on others, not the actions themselves that is important, and in order to determine the impact on others, you need to know context.

The greatest good for the greatest number only works if you already know what good is, and that’s the whole point of moral philosophy to determine. It’s circular reasoning, but the good part of utilitarianism is its universality. While you can talk about utility monsters, a) that’s silly and b) utilitarians mostly weigh each person equally. Peter Singer, who has become a modern poster boy for utilitarianism is emphatically not an equal-weight utilitarian, but I think historically, the biggest moral gain from utilitarianism stemmed from its egalitarian viewpoint.

Consequentialism seems obviously true to me. If you don’t evaluate actions based on their consequences, how do you evaluate them? In practice, you can only create non-consequentialist rules by examining the pattern of consequences of past actions, at least a little bit. The only issue is when people start defining consequences too narrowly and/or start ignoring certain consequences.

For example, from Wikipedia:
“a pure consequentialist would see no moral difference between allowing a patient to die by, for example, withholding food; switching off their life-support machine; or actively killing them with harmful drugs.”

Well, no, since pain and suffering are part of the consequences. A lot of the time, I feel like I just have to roll my eyes at much of what gets said about moral philosophy. Anyone can construct a silly thought experiment or a “gotcha” example, but real people have to make choices about how to live their lives. That’s what it’s all fundamentally about.

Emotional response foundation of morality
Not a very philosophically sophisticated perspective, perhaps, but the main one most people use: The “When I experience something, if I feel bad, it’s wrong, and if I feel good, it’s right.” school of thought. Now, since I think the morality of an action is determined by its impact on others, if you do something that makes others upset, that is wrong, but there’s a big difference between you feeling uneasy about something and you doing something that makes others uneasy. This comes down to being able to set aside your own emotions, look at them in a detached way, and thinking about how a choice impacts the lives of others.

Telescopic vs. Local morality
I’ve written a bit about this before. The advantages of telescopic morality is the scope of what you can achieve and the ability to exploit the bottom end of decreasing returns to the marginal value of money. That is, if you can find super poor people to give money to, you can increase overall happiness more because poor people value marginal money more than rich people. The advantages of local morality is it is more natural and “feels right”, and you have local knowledge, so you are much less likely to do harm. I don’t think it’s a case of “one is better”, but rather both approaches are sometimes appropriate. As always, my fundamental view is that each person must decide for themselves what they think is morally right and the quest itself for moral value is much of what gives life meaning.

Freedom as pluralism
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Freedom is important because to chose one’s way of life is perhaps the most important thing about being human. I feel really strongly about the importance of self expression. I don’t think you have the right to tell someone else how to live, except in the most extreme circumstances. Having said that, there are rules that societies need to function at all. There also need to be rules to allocate resources between people and between various collective goals people have. I don’t get excited about tax levels, for example. If a country taxes people at 25% or 50%, citizens of that country can still, for the most part, determine their own lifestyles. Yes, less money does constrain them, but at least theoretically, public spending gives them more options.

I like Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Like all human actions, I think policies should strive to allow people to develop their lives as they see fit.

Think for yourself about morality. Others can guide you, but only you can decide for yourself what is right or wrong. Think of others. Think of yourself. Think of what could be. Look at evidence. But above all, act with mindfulness, since every moment has consequences; every moment of existence is the consequence of past actions.

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