Re: MORALITY: right & wrong (was: A Bioethical Foundation for Human Rights)

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Tue Nov 06 2001 - 07:10:40 MST

On Mon, Nov 05, 2001 at 12:22:10AM -0800, Robert J. Bradbury wrote:
> Anders wrote:
> > See the problem with your reasoning? The fact that some people have bad
> > mental software doesn't mean they are without rights, and when you start
> > to try to pre-empt their bad behavior by violating their rights they
> > will have even more reason to strike at you. There are far better ways
> > at pre-empting terrorism.
> I found the Deutsch analysis of the problem revealing:
> (kudos to those who brought these URLs into the discussion)
> It seems to me that Anders is close to being a "moral relativist".

Excuse me? I think you misunderstand the meaning of the term moral
relativism. In the above citation (in fact, the entire post), I claim
certain behaviors are unacceptable because they go against the rights of
others. That is not moral relativism at all - I make a claim that there
exist ethical rights. I *also* try to argue in the posting that this
position is also rational from a pragmatic perspective, but that is just
an additional argument intended to help convince certain readers here,
who seem to be moral relativists.

I have previously clearly stated that I view societies enabling various
freedoms as better than societies that doesn't, and the same goes for
individuals - which is very much anathema to moral relativism.

> Quoting Deutsch:
> > Moral relativism always sees itself as evenhanded, and indeed it begins
> > with a retreat from judgement or taking sides. But in practice it always
> > entails siding with wrong against right.
> continuing:
> > Western values are life-affirming and life-seeking. The murderers worship
> > death. There is no symmetry between life and death.
> It would appear to me, that Anders needs to state clearly and precisely
> at what point actions by individuals void their rights.
> - Do I void my rights by arguing that we should not be taxed?
> - Do I void my rights by demonstrating against taxation?
> - Do I void my rights by not paying my taxes?
> - Do I void my rights by sabotaging efforts to collect taxes?
> - Do I void my rights by assassinating the tax collectors?

This is based on my ethical position:

1) No, you do not void any rights by arguing anything.

2) No, you do not void any rights by demonstrating, as long as this
doesn't infringe on rights of others, for example by destroying
property. If you do, then your own right to property might be ethically
temporally circumscribed as you are fined for this behavior, but it is
neither completely abolished or permanently changed.

3) This depends on whether you have entered a contract with the
government or not (currently most governments simply decide that you
have, no matter what you say; whether you accept their claim as ethical
or not is up to you). If you have no contract, then not paying taxes is
OK. If you have a contract, then not paying taxes is a breach of
contract and should be handled as such. Note that this may not be an
ethical issue - being known to honor contracts is good for you, but you
do not have to maintain your reputation if you want.

4) If you sabotage efforts to collect taxes the issue is whether you
infringe on any rights of anybody else (including the tax collector or
the people who have pooled resources into the government and hence "own"
it). If it is just about your taxes and their collection, then 3
applies. If you try to interfere with the collection of taxes from other
people, then you might be interfering in their contracts with the
government and hence ethically should be fined or possibly have
reductions in your freedom (if you interfere with the freedom of

5) The tax collector has a right to defend itself; by initiating force
you void your right to not be attacked. Others also have an ethical
right (or even duty) to assist the tax collector. Note that this does
not necessarily mean your right to life has been permanently voided or
that it is ethically OK to kill you - if you can instead be captured it
is ethically preferrable to killing you.

To sum up, rights only get voided when actions make your rights
interfere with the rights of others, and even then the decrease in
rights is partial, temporary and ideally should be minimal.

Does this really sound like moral relativism to you? It is essentially a
vanilla libertarian rights perspective.

It is worth noting that my view of government is that it should be a
kind of corporation owned by its citizens - it is a pooling of resources
and administration for common goals. It might be given ethical duties
such as policing. Current governments go far beyond this and often claim
ethical independence from the citizens, so it is not always obvious what
actions are unacceptable visavi the government because they are breaches
of the implicit social contract (hence I prefer literal social

> The complement of this is -- what rights should agents of the
> majority have against agents of minorities?
> If such agents of a minority are known to have and be committed
> to an agenda that promotes and executes actions that destroy
> innocent lives, is it unreasonable to:
> - subject such individuals to drugs that would encourage them to
> divulge their knowledge of such behaviors (otherwise leaving them
> unharmed)?
> - subject such individuals to painful methods of torture that
> would encourage them to disclose knowledge they had but would
> not permanently harm such individuals?

>From my ethical perspective it doesn't matter whether you belong to a
minority or the majority, your rights are *yours* and should not be
changed because you belong to a certain group. Also, as long as you do
not violate the rights of others others have no right to violate your
rights. Hence pre-emptive drugging or torture is not ethically
acceptable - they might be acceptable (although even here I have my
doubts) if you have done such a violation or there is sufficient reason
to suspect you for it (but it better be a *very* good reason, and if it
turns out to be wrong compensation should be paid).

Why isn't this acceptable? Because the non-initiation of force is
paramount of maintaining a voluntary society where individuals can
pursuse happiness in freedom and security. By initiating force
individually, we place ourselves above the other, reducing their
freedoms and rights, possibly disrupting their life projects. But the
value of life projects cannot be compared with each other since they are
inherently subjective and tied to the person doing them - it is not
possible to tell whether the value of person A's religious contemplation
to himself is greater or lesser than the value of person B's economic
visions to herself. If there is any point in my ethical position you
might call relativist it is this. But there are many other ways of
arguing the same thing not based on this Lockean scepticism. Just check
the liberal literature.

By having a society that allows initiation of force, the supporters of
this society also become culpable of its acts (asusming this society was
voluntarily set up; in the current situation it is a more complex issue
of partial responsibility). Not only does it harm the rights of
individuals, but these individuals now have an ethical case against the
whole society. Since mistakes will occasionally be done, an initiation
policy will also mean that occasionally force will be initiated against
innocents (and due to the nature of societies, it is far more likely to
happen to a citizen than an outsider, so from a pragmatic point of view
it is also undesirable). And since you want to extend the ability to
initiate force not just against individuals but against groups these
individuals belong to you increase the likeliehood of innocents being
harmed enormously.

So, what about a group that attacks an ethical society? In my ethical
position this is initiation of force, and the society is ethically right
to strike back. In the ensuing conflict it is likely that bystanders
will be hurt or killed, and reparations should be paid. But since the
goal of the fight is to redress a wrong and limit future occurences, it
is not acceptable to extend it to innocents unless it is unavoidable,
since that would only cause a new wrong.

> I will readily admit that the problem is when there is sufficient
> evidence to justify such extreme measures be taken. But we *know*
> that there are individuals willing to sacrifice their lives and
> the lives of thousands of innocents for the sake of their most
> probably irrationally based meme-sets.
> To refute this it would seem to me that you have to justify that
> holding any moral position -- even one that justifies and rationalizes
> the elimination of other moral positions is fundamentally justifiable.
> In the terms Deutsch uses -- you have to justify why promoting
> the survival of a "wrong" position is as extropic as promoting the
> survival of a "right" position.

We need diversity to grow. If only the "right" ideas are
allowed you will get orthodoxy and stasis rather than creativity. Having
many views available helps sharpen the discussion, provides necessary
criticism and efforts to find our which ideas fit reality best.

Popper said that we let our ideas die in our stead. The same goes with
tolerance: we should tolerate people as long as they sprout ideas but do
not kill people. That doesn't mean we should *accept* the ideas, and in
fact certain ideas should be fought most vigorously - they are not just
factually wrong but contain seeds which could grow into evil. But any
act should be counter-acted by a commensurate force, not by escalating
it arbitrarily.

I want to see fundamentalist religions, fascism, technocracy, communism,
luddism and many other views and their associated ethical systems thrown
on the scrapheap of history. They are bad for human growth and diversity
and I think the new enlightenment is far better. But that doesn't mean
their supporters should be killed or hurt unless they do something first
to merit it. In any case, killing people is an inefficient way of
getting rid of ideas, especially the malign kind you describe.

Tit for tat - start our by offering cooperation, if they defect punish
back but forgive. And make sure your position is clear and consistent.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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