On morality

Climate change seems to have gone a bit thin recently – James has got bored – and its distinctly chilly here, with snow in the air and a most glorious sundog. So lets talk about morality.

Paul is discussing the argument is that atheism, if true, necessarily means that morality is an arbitrary personal opinion sparked by Dawkins on morality, where we find Dawkins agreeing to Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.

I see no reason to concede this, being an aetheist who believes that rape is wrong and who thinks this isn’t arbitrary. Incidentally, what is arbitrary about evolution isn’t clear: that we have 5 fingers instead of 6 is probably so, that we have two legs rather than three probably not. I’m reminded of Stephen Jay Gould, who pushed the idea of capriciousness with respect to the Cambrian explosion, asserting that of the many radiating types that arose then, it was chance that types-leading-to-us survived, and others died out. But there is no way to know that; perhaps our ancestors were simply fitter.

But back to the subject. Rape is emotive, so lets drop down to robbery, which is less so, but which everyone of sound mind also believes is wrong. Its fairly easy to see why, because its taking something that isn’t yours (as, in a certain sense, is rape). And taking things that aren’t yours is wrong, because part of the contract you agree to when you join society is not to take things without the consent of the person that owns them. And breaking covenants is injustice; all else is just. This is of course the familiar social contract theory of Hobbes from Leviathan; it doesn’t require religion. In Hobbes words:

FROM that law of nature by which we are obliged to transfer to another such rights as, being retained, hinder the peace of mankind, there followeth a third; which is this: that men perform their covenants made; without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words; and the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war. And in this law of nature consisteth the fountain and original of justice. For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust. But when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust and the definition of injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust is just.

It does require you to believe certain laws or precepts of Nature that Hobbes propounds. You can argue about whether those are true, or necessarily true, but I think its hard to argue that they are necessarily false or rather not-true. And I suppose you could assert that believing in them amounts to a sort of “religion”, even if its not one that the religious would care for.

But the argument that aetheism commits you to no absolute morality is not valid.

Its also quite illuminating in respect to how people view certain laws. Drivers are notorious for not really believing that breaking the speed limit is “wrong”. And they are right, in a sense: it isn’t immoral, its just against the law; what the speed limit is, is arbitrary, and even having one is arbitrary [Update, 2019: this “puzzle” is largely removed when you allow for the difference between law and legislation, a distinction Hobbes does not possess; see Hayek vs Hobbes and the theory of law]. Unfortunately, breaking the law is immoral (err, if you believe Hobbes), so breaking the speed limit becomes immoral too, but only at second hand. Whereas robbery is closer to directly breaking the original compact, and so is far wronger. Some people feel that robbery or vandalism isn’t wrong; generally this is people who think that the social compact has already been broken against them, and so feel no qualms about breaking it back.

Well there you go, that was easy, no?

24 thoughts on “On morality”

  1. Poaching is generally thought to be wrong, but a few centuries ago when all the woods in Britain were the private game preserves of the rich, they were the only places to find wild game, and only poaching would bring meat to the table of a hungry poor family. The penalty of course was death: stealing from the lord did not impoverish him, but it tarnished his honor, so these were ‘honor killings’. Sound familiar?

    [Poaching, then falls into the broken-the-compact-already theory. It also fits within another idea, that the law has to not only be made, but promulgated. Which leads to the idea that if breaches of the law are tacitly permited over years, you may be entitled. It further fits into the idea, which Hobbes makes explicit, that you always have the right to fight for your life. If you are legally sentenced to death, nonetheless your prior compacts do not oblige you to submit. By extension, if you do not have enough food to prevent starvation, you are entitled to steal -W]

    Now think about foreign governments who will buy proprietary GM seeds but will not let their farmers save the seeds of this crop for next year, forcing them to buy new GM seed every year to replace the ones they must destroy. The penalty is imprisonment. The easy way out for the strapped farmer is suicide by insecticide.

    [Hobbes would certainly support their right to do this -W]

    And all this comes from regular churchgoers. Go figure.


  2. Morality for an entity x at time t consists of a decision function for choosing which actions give the highest value of probable largest mutual information I(x;yi) for any yi in the set Y, with Y defined as the set of all possible future entities x’ in the light cone of x at arbitrary future time t’.

    Morality may be shown a by-product of the statistical mechanics expression of the second law of thermodynamics.


  3. Claiming that morality is following the “contract” of society doesn’t falsify the statement that morality is arbitrary, it just moves the arbitrariness to deciding what those rules should be. Robbery is fairly simple because most people have property they don’t want to lose and thus agree that society should uphold property rights.

    [I’m not denying that some laws are arbitrary; but some I think arent. Moreover, some aspects of morality are beyond the law, because they do step from the precepts. Fulfilling compacts, for example -W]

    You don’t have to go further than to intellectual property, however, for the issue to get a lot more ambiguous. To what extent do creators of music have the right to prevent others from copying it? It’s not as if they actually lose the music as others gain it. Laws protecting intellectual property are a fairly recent and contentious invention.

    [Yes, but thats not the point. That you can find some examples of arbitrary laws doesn’t mean that all are -W]

    To make matters worse, almost everyone would agree that in some circumstances breaking the law is right. Hiding a jew from the nazis would be illegal, nor can it be justified as self defense, but it would still be the right thing to do, morally. So the laws can’t be the basis of morality.

    [I agree, and I think I said that. Laws don’t make morality. But most people would still agree that breaking the law was morally wrong, even if the law itself wasn’t morally right -W]

    I would have to state that morality is indeed an “arbitrary personal opinion” although it is strongly influenced by our evolutionary history as a social species, which makes it easier for people to agree on common rules. I imagine that intelligent cats might have very different ideas of morality, not to mention hive creatures like ants.

    OTOH, Christians who claim to have an “absolute” moral are known to pick and choose from the rules listed in the Bible. In what sense isn’t that selection just as much an arbitrary decision?


  4. most people would still agree that breaking the law was morally wrong, even if the law itself wasn’t morally right

    Absolutely not. Maybe I have misunderstood what you are saying, but it is obvious enough to me that some laws deserve to be broken – no tandeming in Japan may not be the strongest candidate, but I certainly do not believe I am morally wrong in ignoring it.

    [This is no fundamental part of the argument. But. The idea that some laws deserve to be broken is fair enough. But nonetheless I still think the idea that breaking the law is wrong is correct. You are welcome to say that on balance, breaking it is best -W]


  5. I don’t know W., actually if you dig deep enough I suppose it is almost impossible to deny that morality is arbitrary.

    If I remember well, Popper thought that a law or rule was right (i.e., “ethical”) only on the base of a social agreement on what is right and what is not. And a general rule of thumb is, laws that guarantee the overall wellness reducing the limitation of personal liberty to a minimum are good.

    Good laws, however, can only be found by a tentative-and-error process, no major moral systems (e.g., a religion or an ideology) can really help.

    So if we all agree that liberty and wellness are good (pretty basic, but I suppose philosophers might like to discuss this as well), morality of a rule-law depends on how you can maximize wellness and liberty, by putting forward it and test wether it works or not. Sounds like science, if you change “law” into “scientific theory” and society into nature.

    No need to say I love Popper, I think he was a genius…


  6. What is considered moral or immoral changes with time and context. Moral relativism recognizes this. When we say “breaking the law is immoral,” we must ask, “Whose laws?” Is the action immoral because it is against the law or because the action, without regard to the law, is immoral? If there exists a society where murder is not outlawed, do we then consider murder moral within that context of that society? I think not. The problem with saying our social contract defines our morality is that is it mostly a product of positive law. If, however, we accept natural rights theory, often espoused by Hobbes and Locke, we recognize there exist moral and universal rights not contingent on any government’s fiat.

    [*Some* of what is considered moral changes over time. But much does not. Robbery is never moral -W]


  7. “Robbery is never moral.” Yet just a while ago you said stealing is fine if starvation entails otherwise. So I guess it does depend upon context.

    [You’re confusing two uses of “is”. Over time, it has never been moral, in general. But the exemption to the immorality for desperation has always been there -W]


  8. Aha! William’s attempt to defend the indefensible has regressed to debating what the meaning of “is” is. I think he’s on the run….or perhaps gearing up for a presidency bid 🙂

    When discussing whether things are morally right or wrong, it seems that the need to add so many qualifiers rather undermines the whole concept. Given that you acknowledge the plentiful exceptions, it is not possible to infer from the general to the specific as you attempt with traffic law in your original post – ie even if breaking laws in general is morally wrong, that tells you little about the morality of breaking any specific law. Not that I have read Hobbes (or even want to, although maybe I should), but I have a personal interest in the breaking of laws that I regard as silly (comment passim)!

    [ie even if breaking laws in general is morally wrong, that tells you little about the morality of breaking any specific law – true, but not the point. You seem a little over-obsessed with trafic laws. Since I’m not trying to say that all laws are moral, this is besides the point. *Some* laws are moral. And no, I can’t give you a list of which ones fall into which category, but robbery, murder and rape are definitely in the immoral class -W]


  9. So what’s the point in saying “some laws are moral” or even most? That really doesn’t tell or explain much. And I don’t think it’s a good argument against the arbitrariness of morality, especially when we consider the arbitrariness of many laws.

    [The original question wasn’t “is all morality relative” but “is rape immoral” relative (or substitute robbery for rape; though as I’m forced to admit Hobbes theory might allow some circumstances where robbery becomes permissable, but its hard to see how rape ever could be) -W]


  10. Well the typical counterexample is when someone holds a gun to the heads of some hostages and (credibly) demands that you do X or else…in those circumstances, it seems to be hard to argue that X is still morally wrong, however bad X would be in the absence of the threat.

    [Errm yes, which I’ve already said, though you may have missed it: you are entitled (in Hobbes theory) to do anything to preserve your life -W]


  11. I would disagree. If a gunman asks you to rape a woman otherwise he will shoot a hostage, the act of raping the woman is wrong, even morally. I don’t think it’s possible to call the action right, especially when we consider natural rights.

    [Hobbes view is that you’re entitled to do anything to preserve your life. It doesn’t make rape in those circumstances *right* -W]

    The problem with the original argument that was proposed, namely that morality is not arbitrary or that rape, robbery, or what have you are not arbitrarily wrong, is that there have been arbitrary decisions as to when we can void the argument that these actions are wrong.

    [I don’t think the decisions are arbitrary -W]

    Most people today would say murder is morally wrong and not okay. But not so long ago dueling was consider perfectly legitimate; even some American presidents have killed people in duels (e.g. Jackson). This was okay and people still elected him president. Do we say such acts have always been immoral, or that they have only become immoral through time and are, ultimately, arbitrary? (Or do we say it’s not immoral at all?)

    [Death in a duel isn’t murder. It certainly wasn’t the purpose of duelling, which was only to make you risk death -W]

    Hobbes says that where there is no covenant, no action can be unjust. So, as I asked earlier, if there were to exist a society where murder, robbery, rape, or what have you were not made illegal, do we consider these actions just or moral? How can we defend this position?


  12. Please excuse me if I’m being naive, but I wonder what “morally wrong” is supposed to mean if an act can be so described even though everyone agrees it is the correct course of action in the circumstances?

    [I’m not saying its the correct course of action. I said, according to theory, you’re entitled to do it. Whether you do or not is another matter -W]


  13. The idea, I think, that you can do anything to anyone to preserve your own life can lead to some rather immoral or at least very unethical actions.

    [That might depend on your definition of morality. As I understand it, some christian morality forbids abortion, unless the life of the mother is in danger -W]


  14. Did Robin Hood act immorally?

    I seem to be noticing two opposite stances to his selective robberies.

    [If the question is “is robbing the rich to feed the poor moral” then the answer would be, on Hobbes theory, no. You are entitled to preserve your own life; not other peoples. Nor are you entitled to steal just to be well-fed; it would have to be to prevent starvation.

    However, the social contract only applies within a group in which the law is enforced. You could possibly make a case that “the poor” formed their own commonwealth in those very early days. But probably not -W]


  15. Hobbes? Hobbes? That authoritarian bastard? Has nothing happened in the world of moral philosophy in the last five hundred years?

    You might want to consider reading something a little more recent. I’d suggest John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” as a starter. Hell, even Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” is better than freakin’ Hobbes.

    [I didn’t say I agreed with it all. and you should show a little more sympathy for the condition of the times. Wanting to avoid anarchy and civil war was a natural repsonse. Still, I’ll note you’ve provided no counter-arguments -W]


  16. William, you presuppose property rights as some kind of natural law:

    What if “all property is theft”? How does that affect the assumption of morality in relation to robbery?

    [What if the moon is made of blue cheese? In other words, just because you can question if all property is theft doesn’t make it so. Hobbes is actually starting from something different: that all men are bound to fulfill covenants made. Can you imagine a functional society where that is not so? -W]

    Also, what is survival of the fittest if it is not to be able to better exploit the natural environment perhaps at cost to (AKA stealing from) your competitor species? I frequently see the birds fighting over scraps of food etc.

    [Birds are in a state of nature. They have no society -W]

    Finally, wouldn’t rape be another way to propagate the selfish gene – birds do it frequently (even homosexual necrophiliac rape has been observed in drakes)

    [Yes, I saw that. But like I say, they aren’t society -W]


  17. you should show a little more sympathy for the condition of the times. Wanting to avoid anarchy and civil war was a natural repsonse. Still, I’ll note you’ve provided no counter-arguments -W

    I wasn’t trying to provide a counter-argument. I wasn’t even disagreeing – I’m just astounded to see someone rely solely on Hobbes in this day and age. Social contract theory has come a long way in the last half-millennium, and as you note, the social and historical context of Hobbes’ work was rather different from that of today. There are far, far better and more appropriate social contract theories available now.

    In your climate work, do you rely solely on Arrhenius, or do you occasionally reference something written in the last hundred years? Yet atmospheric physics hasn’t changed since his day, whilst our conception of society very much has since Hobbes’…

    [I’m still missing what of substance you would replace Hobbes argument with, or what greater insights are now available -W]


  18. I’m still missing what of substance you would replace Hobbes argument with, or what greater insights are now available -W

    What, you want me to summarise the development of social contract theory since Hobbes in a blog comment? Sorry, it’s simply not possible. Try wikipedia.

    As to the outlines of an alternate argument, I’d go for something based essentially on the principle of reciprocity, backed by evidence from behavioural economics and iterated game theory.

    [Assuming this is Rawls still, I followed you advice and read [[A Theory of Justice]]. Assuming thats a correct summary of his work, then its wrong, since the second principle part B at the very least can’t be sustained as a universal principle. But I’ll get the book for Christmas and see -W]


  19. [Birds are in a state of nature. They have no society -W]

    So is atheism a personal or social construct? It’s really a non-sequiteur to jump from atheism to Hobbes’ (or any other’s) social contract. What if I don’t believe in society?!?

    [It doesn’t matter whether you believe in atheism or not. If you don’t believe in society, which you can see all around you, then you’re seriously wonky. You can try not believing in gravity if you like, but don’t try walking off cliffs -W]

    It seems that you want strong property rights underwritten by law/ covenant. Would you then advocate forced redistribution of wealth (property) via taxes?

    [Rights from covenant enforced by force are an inevitable part of society. I can’t see what I’ve said that makes you think I want the “strong” version, whatever that might be. A society needs a government, and I can’t see how a government can operate except by taxation (nb Hobbes does consider this, as I recall, but concludes that the other possibility – the sovereign might own capital in its own right, and by commerce generate its own income – is worse. Or was that Adam Smith?) -W]


  20. Do ants believe in society? What about chimpanzees?

    Where does your definition of society start – is it only humanity?

    Of course I can see something around me which we might agree to call society – people – but it comprises many different family/friend/kinship/commercial relationships and many others. Think of Mogadishu if you don’t see what I’m saying. You were generalising a point about society which is not generally applicable. You might even be trying to say “civilised society”.

    Bringing atheism back in (and I never said I don’t believe in atheism, lovely idea though) – hasn’t religion distorted (created/shaped) the very society you’re now conisidering/generalising?

    What the Gospels actually said was: don’t kill anyone until you are absolutely sure they aren’t well connected. [Kurt Vonnegurt, Slaughterhouse 5]


  21. Assuming thats a correct summary of his work, then its wrong, since the second principle part B at the very least can’t be sustained as a universal principle.

    Rawls would be the first to acknowledge that his theories are not perfect, and do not necessarily have universal applicability. But I still think it’s a vast improvement on reasoning from a bunch of unsupported and deeply questionable assertions about some imaginary “state of nature”. He is attempting to avoid the more obvious pitfalls associated with earlier formulations of social contract theory, the most obvious of which is that covenants agreed to under any form of compulsion cannot be morally binding, no matter what Hobbes says.

    As far as I am aware, no-one has ever devised a perfect formulation of social contract theory, and I’m not at all convinced that such a thing is possible.

    [I’ll have to try reading it, but on first reaction But I still think it’s a vast improvement on reasoning from a bunch of unsupported and deeply questionable assertions about some imaginary “state of nature” sounds very odd. Rawls substitutes his own imaginary scenario, which looks to be even less plausible than Hobbes.


  22. Yes, but the whole point of Rawls approach is to construct an abstract game-theoretic approach to deriving a social contract. It doesn’t actually matter that the “original position” is completely synthetic (in fact, it could be considered an advantage), whereas Hobbes’ arguments are based on the idea that his “state of nature” is (or was) actually real. Hobbes says “human nature is such-and-such, therefore we must make a social contract, and have a Leviathan to enforce it”, whereas Rawls asks “if a set of rational actors were to devise a social contract from first principles, without knowing how it would actually apply to them in practice, what might it look like?”

    It’s a completely different argument. Not that I’m summarising it particularly well…

    [Your summary fits with what I’ve read. But its unclear why it is an advantage to replace a possibly synthetic position with a completely synthetic one. Rawls theory is supposed to apply to the real world, yet starts off in an imaginary one. In his imaginary world, if you believe his arguments, rational actors might decide to do such-and-such. Presumably there is some argument that says “and therefore, in the real world, we should do…” but I’m not sure what that argument is -W]


  23. This is still running? Just read the damn book already…

    In brief, the argument is that the “original position” is the best available means of determining what is just, because it excludes any possible bias. As for why you should (ideally) do what is just… Do you really need me to answer that? If so, what are you doing arguing in favour of moral absolutes in the first place?

    Hobbes’ argument is contingent, depending on certain ideas about human nature and society. Rawls’ argument is not. Weren’t you looking for an absolute standard of morality?


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