Re: Ethics in a void (Re: meaning of life (RE: (repost) ))

Date: Sun Feb 04 2001 - 08:29:56 MST

In a message dated 1/25/01 9:24:35 AM Central Standard Time, writes:

> On Thu, Jan 25, 2001 at 09:35:10AM -0500, wrote:
> > .... The
> reflexive
> > surrender to authority, be it at a tribal or ethnic level or at a "
> national"
> > level to leaders like Saddam Hussein or religious zealots like the
> > spiritual thugs who now rule Afghanistan, seems to be driven by deep
> cultural
> > tendencies that predate any simple notion of "state control".
> Yup, agreed. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I have a problem
> with natural rights derived from some definition of human nature -- it
> replaces behaviour mandated by fiat ("you'll do things my way because
> I say so") with behaviour mandated by appeals to nature ("you can't do
> that -- it's unnatural").

But these aren't the only two choices we have for a grounding of moral
prescription and law. Let's expand on the two alternatives you've
identified. First, of course, legal "fiat" isn't "because *I* say so", but
"because *the state* says so". This is an important distinction because
usually people roll up a complete - and unconscious - theory of political
legitimacy into the "fiat theory" of morality.

Second, there's a more sophisticated formulation of natural rights theory
than to say that something is prohibited because "it's not natural".
Conceived of in the way you propose, rejection of a theory based on "natural
rights" is trivially rational, since all one need do is observe that one can
find examples of all sorts of bizarre behavior among humans, from
socially-condoned ritual torture and cannibalism, to individual instances of
obsession and aggression. One simply need ask "who decides what is
'natural'?" to dispose of such a simplistic notion of "natural rights".

As I've suggested, one can mean something else by "natural rights", though,
and by so meaning, point to a way that rejects both a shallow conception of
what is "natural" AND a completely arbitrary subjectivity that ultimately can
have no foundation other than raw power and coercion. When *I* say "natural"
in this context (i.e. as a basis for a conception of "rights"), I mean that
there are certain rules of interaction among intentional actors that are BY
THEIR NATURE conducive to promoting other values and that are effective
regardless of complex social contexts.

Now, this begs the question of which values to promote, but it at least
pushes the question beyond that of "rights" in the legal sense. I think that
it is perfectly legitimate to view the natural rights legal ACTION of 18th
century political ACTORS this way (I'm thinking in particular of Jefferson).
Looked at in this way, we can salvage much of Enlightenment political and
legal thinking from the morass of post-modernist relativism.

I have written here and elsewhere regarding the possibility of a rational,
non-subjective derivation of values that can give rise to rights:

. . . so I won't go into that more now.
> The taboo on passing judgements seems to me to arise from an inability to
> conceive of the validity of a *subjective* judgement. (Which, I suspect,
> arises because these people think they've discovered the One True Way --
> something on an internal contradiction in their belief system, no?) It's
> also a problem for those people who can't differentiate between folklore
> and a testable theory.

There are a number of notions intertwined in this passage. I'm not sure I
know what you mean by the "validity" of "subjective judgments". However, I
certainly agree with your suspicion of moral and legal actions based on a
concept of moral certainty. The term you use suggests that you've read
Virginia Postrel's "The Future and it's Enemies," which I agree makes some
very good points about the evils that can arise from moral certainty. And I
also agree that people who subscribe to the moral codes dictated by primitive
tribal myths are a more immediate danger than any postmodern relativist,
paralyzed into inaction by a fear of imposing his will on others.

But just because we recoil in revulsion from the unassailable moral certainty
felt by ayatollahs and christian prigs doesn't mean that the only alternative
is a retreat to moral subjectivity, an unwillingness to make moral judgments
and an inability to put those judgments into action through law. Your
reference to "testable theory" suggests that you may agree with this.
> The iterated prisoner's dilemma is the most powerful tool we've discovered
> in attempting to build a solid ethical framework without appeals to human
> nature, god's law, or the divine right of kings. You can sum up most of
> my previous "ethics in a void" piece as an application of iterated PD
> scenarios to human relationships.

Here we are in complete agreement. However, I think we can actually come to
a meaningful and scientific notion of "natural rights" from a study of the
iterated prisoner's dilemma ("IPD"). I would say that rules of social
interaction - including, but not limited to, laws - which promote the most
open and "frictionless" operation of the IPD are in fact expression of
"natural rights" in a meaningful way.

> (And "do unto others as you would be done
> by" is, not coincidentally, a starting position for the winning "tit for
> strategy.)

It's not? How so?
> > Theoretical concerns aside, I believe that the weakness engendered by
> > cultural relativism poses a fundamental threat to survival over the
> > decades. Some cultural values and practices WORK in the modern world
> > others don't. Some tend toward peace and prosperity, and others tend
> toward
> > violence and poverty. Not only do we have to be able to SAY this, we
> to
> > be able to ACT on this realization.
> By my definition, cultural relativism is a *winning* position. But I'm
> not talking about idiot academics who think that, because we can't be
> certain we live in a perfect society, we cannot be allowed to criticize
> anyone else.
> I'd just like to note that the positions I'm opposed to are *all*
> ones, and that I believe (at present) that moral absolutism is more likely
> to lead us into error than a healthy dose of skepticism

Let me say that I think that the "idiot academics" who decry all
inter-societal judgments are at least being consistent with their own notions
of subjectivity. I agree with them that one is disabled from expressing
meaningful judgments about even one's own society's rules, much less another
one's, once one accepts the notion that there is no objective grounding for
moral judgments. Where I disagree with them is the retreat to subjectivism.

The word "absolutist" is quite powerful and rightly carries strong negative
connotations. However, before applying it with such negative force to all
conceptions of morality and law other than a completely subjective one,
consider that there may be, in fact, some morally defensible "absolute"
judgments, although they must be reached and expressed with the greatest
care. If, in fact, one can deduce that open social systems that encourage
trust between individuals reflect insights to be gained from rules
mathematically derivable from the IPD, then it may be possible to make
"absolute" moral judgments in a very narrow sense. What one could never do
is make absolute moral judgments in a decontextualized fashion, which I think
is what you and I both recoil from.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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