Sun, 5 Oct 1997 10:32:02 -0400 (EDT)

Long-time denizens of this list and the Transhuman list will recognize the
discussion in this thread as essentially identical to the one Rich Artym, I
and others carried on more that a year ago. Doc Artym called his theory of
absolute subjectivism in morality and ethics "Unlimited Individual Freedom"
(remember "UIF"?) and the discussion was initiated by one of the usual
triggers for such conversations, debate over the merits of free markets.
Ultimately, though, the debate came to center on disagreement between those
(like me) who make claim to the existence of an "objective morality" and
those who reject such claims.

In that torrent of words, I attempted to make clear that I rejected any
METAPHYSICALLY or AUTHORITATIVELY objective morality. Rather, I find one
core set of moral values to be "objectively right" in the nature of life in
society for volitional beings. Much of the opposition to a claim of
"objective morality" is in fact an attack on the straw men of claims of
metaphysical or authoritative objectivity.

I see that one can rationally reject the notion of objective morality if one
rejects either (1) the notion of "free" will or (2) the desire to live in
society. These are unsatisfying alternatives to me. In the case of
volition, while I see an ultimate material determinism in the behavior of
sentient beings, it seems that determinism is overwhelmed by the more
important emergent phenomena characteristic of complex adaptive systems such
as a conscious mind. In other words, the insights of complexity theory
trivialize the ultimately deterministic character of consciousness, because
any model capable of truly "predicting" the behavior of a conscious system
must be at least as complex as the system modeled. Given the exquisite --
and growing -- complexity of conscious systems, our minds are thus
EFFECTIVELY indeterminate and the notion of a "free will" is therefore more
useful than any "metaphysically true" statement that we are ULTIMATELY
determinate. Interestingly, I have not found in transhumanist circles any
real objection to the idea of an objective reality based on determinism. We
as a cultural movement seem to accept the notion of "free will" without much

The second "escape hatch" can give more comfort -- if that is the word -- for
those who proclaim the ultimate subjectivity of morals. There is no
objective morality for one who rejects life in society and becomes a TRUE
hermit, completely insulated from interaction with other volitional actors.
For the man who is truly an island, there is no moral right or wrong, and
others can make no moral judgment of him. I personally would find this an
unacceptably high price to pay for the dubious pleasure of being able to
validate a notion of purely subjective morals, but will concede that the a
priori condition of life in society is "no more than" a subjective matter of
taste. At least until some god-like nanotechnology places mastery over the
material universe at the fingertips of a lone individual, though, this taste
for life in society has much to commend it to the individual who desires to
live a life of more than bestial comfort.

With these introductory comments, let me attempt to restate my thesis: The
process of social interaction of volitional beings itself contains the
information necessary to derive certain rules of conduct -- "moral values" --
which are, in the most meaningful sense possible in discussions of morals,
ethics and law, the "best" such rules. Distilled to the most meaningfully
abstract level, such values include reciprocity and the non-initiation of
force. I concede that it is logically possible to express such values in
conditional terms, e.g. "If one wishes to be free of unprovoked violence, one
should not provoke violence." Those opposed to claims of "objective"
morality seem to find this logical possibility to be important, even
decisive. I do not.

As I point out above, there are only two choices concerning life in society:
Either one lives utterly alone, or one lives in some society. A "society of
thieves" is not physically possible, over any great length of time. This is
verifiable in any "natural history" of morality (i.e. HISTORY itself) and in
theoretical terms (i.e. game theory). Thus the ultimately conditional nature
of moral statements can be distilled to only one conditional statement: If
one chooses to live in society, one MUST observe certain FUNDAMENTAL rules of
conduct. Such rules of conduct have traditionally been expressed as "moral
values" and calling them such does no violence to reason. In ultimate
analysis, we can indeed see that calling such rules "moral values" is a sort
of short hand, masking the conditional premise of a choice of life in
society, which may be logically considered arbitrary. But, as I have
attempted to explain above, I find that expression of this conditional
statement is trivial.

In a message dated 97-10-04 19:53:18 EDT, Delmar England writes:

> To be sure, you, I, and\or anyone else may agree not to steal, nor
> force and coercion in any way. [snip] However, suppose we agree to steal
> produce a hostile coexistence? Once again, the means selected and applied
> produces the end mutually desired and identified. Would you then call this
> "morally wrong" although you agreed to it?

I would say that the choice itself was "morally wrong" because inconsistent
with the prior choice of life in society.

> Let's look at the third option: Suppose the end you choose is peaceful
> coexistence and select the appropriate means, non theft, etc. to achieve
> this end, but another within your social realm prefers a hostile
> and selects predatory means appropriate to achieve this end. Since the
> predatory means chosen will produce the hostile environment end desired,
> not these means chosen technically right the same as yours are technically
> right? What remains for you to call wrong, and why? The end chosen, is it
> not? Thus must you presume to qualify terms, and arrive at: Technically
> right, but "morally wrong." Right AND wrong applied to the same
> circumstance? True, yet false? Exist, yet does not exist? Dead, yet
> Doesn't this make you a bit suspicious of the concept, morality?

Not at all: You posit a "good thief", in the sense of one good AT thievery.
But our thief is a bad person, in moral terms, because she chooses conduct
inconsistent with life in society.

> The confusion, conflicts and contradictions are derived from illusory
> beliefs that lead to pursuit of the impossible. An end chosen is a matter
> volition, a natural condition that is not subject to proof or disproof. It
> is means and only means that are subject to evaluation as right or wrong.
> presume to evaluate a chosen end as right or wrong is to claim the
> individual creator of said end as personal property to be evaluated as
> to one's own goal.

In a certain sense you are right, Delmar, in that the act of moral judgment
itself is subjective. However, in any sense in which morality can have
meaning, those judgments can be validated externally as consistent with the
social life of conscious, i.e. volitional, agents. Moral JUDGMENTS do have
subjects and objects, of necessity. But making the judgment alone does not
make the object of the judgment "property" at all. In making this statement
you leap forward, from morals, through ethics (in my personal vocabulary, the
art of applied morals) to law. A long chain of reasoning and social practice
is masked by this leap.

> So, what is "morality", that is what is the meaning of the term, and by
> reference to what is the meaning derived? I can find not a trace of
> objective criteria except subjective personal preference as you
> Ergo, "morality" is dependent on being created by individual mind. Having
> examined and weighed all the factors known to me from root premise to end
> result, I am obliged to accept the definition that corresponds to the
> evidence:
> Morality is a FEELING; specifically a DOMINANT feeling of a "universal
> ought" nearly universally felt. It is a feeling that there exists an
> objective and universal standard of values. It is a feeling that one
> to discover and live by these values. It is a feeling that most
> look to and depend on to measure their self value and the value of others.
> It is a feeling that directs thoughts, conclusions, beliefs and actions
> no other. It is the ultimate warden of the psyche. It is the ultimate
> religion for it commands more subservience of more individuals that all
> others put together.

Now you seem to speak of the psychological aspects of morality. In fact, we
do indeed have moral feelings or sentiments. A good working hypothesis is
that such moral feelings are simply the subjective experience of our own
moral values. However, as extropians, we seek to make the workings of our
own minds as rational as possible: We may still have moral sentiments, no
matter how transformed and augmented we are, but we value rational
examination and formation of such sentiments as much as possible. But that
we have such feelings makes us no less capable of pursuing a rational

> Since "morality" is a matter of feelings peculiar to each individual, (but
> believed to be an objective dictate of nature), is it any wonder that the
> endless disagreements are endlessly "resolved" by violent conflict? The
> concept, morality, is by billions believed to be an absolute necessity for
> peaceful coexistence. They believe this even as the earth has been for
> centuries, and still is, drenched in blood in the name of morality. This
> tells not of any truth of "morality", but of a suicidal and destructive
> commitment to a revered and dominant fallacy.

I agree completely that an UNREFLECTIVE reliance on moral sentiment as the
sole guide for action is apt to lead to violent disagreement. However, I
conclude from this that we must work all the harder to rationally examine our
own morals and seek the most objective possible guide to them.

In a message dated 97-10-05 00:18:26 EDT, Frederick Mann writes:

> Could you reasonably argue that all my "ises" (descriptive
> premises) are stated in a manner to include "oughts"
> (normative values), thus I'm really deriving "oughts"
> from "oughts?"
> Or, do certain "ises" by their nature automatically
> imply "oughts?"
> Is continued life an automatic "ought" for a living
> creature with human-like consciousness?
> Or, could it be an automatic "ought" only under
> certain conditions?

For me, at least, these questions are answered by identifying the one
conditional premise upon which morality is based, i.e. volitional actors
living in society.

In a message dated 97-10-05 00:01:54 EDT, John K Clark writes:

> Even if God existed it would not produce an objective morality free from
> contradictions because an obvious question would immediately arise, is God

> independent of the concepts of good and evil? If the answer is yes then
> has nothing to do with morality, except that He is supposed to act morally

> just like everybody else, although exactly why anyone, infinitely powerful

> or otherwise, "should" do so is not clear. If the answer is no then the
> statement "God is good" becomes a vacuous tautology, about as deep as
> "God is God".

It seems such logical conundrums are irrelevant to a rational morality and
are of the same type as asking whether an omnipotent god could make a rock
too heavy for her to move, or whether on omniscient god can have free will.
By definition, the god in your problem has no society, since she is in an
infinitely superior power position. I'll allow that there can be no morality
for such an infinitely powerful being and, if at the end of the universe such
a single being exists, then morality will have been extinguished as a logical
possibility or practical necessity.

In a message dated 97-10-04 22:38:33 EDT, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky writes:

[snip an eloquent discourse on the "strangeness" of the universe]

> You keep on talking about whether your goals will prevail or whether they
> will
> be subordinated to some higher authority, and I feel like a fish who has
> swum
> into a lecture on how to fly. Is your opinion that the Earth is flat
> subordinated to the reality that it is round? The two move in different
> continuums; neither can be "subordinated" to the other. Opinions cannot
> triumph or be subordinated except with respect to other opinions. With
> respect to ethics, you can't prevail over some higher authority or
> subordinate
> yourself. Those are not your options. You can either be wrong, or right.

> Opinions are either wrong or right. Goals are either wrong or right. And
> wrong and right themselves simply are, like all truth values. You have
> placed
> yourself in the position of the student facing the legendary epistemology
> exam: "Take a position for or against the truth. Defend your position."

For me, this anguished note is uncalled for. Moral "truth" is not of the
same character as metaphysical or logical truth. One might say that there
are metaphysical or logical Truths, but only moral truths, because morality
can not be reduced "below" the level of social systems; it is an emergent
phenomena of the complex adaptive system that is the life in society of
volitional beings. However, viewed from within the framework of such
systems, they ARE truths. Viewed from outside such framework, they mean

Greg Burch <>----<>
Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
-- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover