Re: "Morality?" - Composite Reply

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Tue, 07 Oct 1997 20:38:25 -0500

Delmar England wrote:
> As I see it, the issue and focal point is this: I see the
> concept, morality, as definitively and inherently attached to the
> illusory, but much believed concept, superior being; a concept of
> many variations often far removed from formal religion.
> Consequently, the derivative concepts, inferior being,
> subordination and rule are anti individual and inevitably
> culminate in hostility and violent conflict.

Flaws in attacks on "objective morality" can usually be detected by
substituting "reality" for "morality". The same religions attach the concept
of "objective reality" to God (or similar entity), first by stating that God
is objectively real, and second by stating that God created reality and has
absolute control over it. This doesn't mean that the concept of "objective
reality" is indefeasibly predicated on the existence of God.

Likewise, religions state that their morality is objective and that God gets
to define objective morality. This does not mean that objective morality
requires a God; it means that the religion in question thinks so.

> The concept,
> morality, itself presumes to set an alleged natural standard, and
> thus presumes to displace individual preference. This is the root
> premise of subordination and rule. If peace and harmony is the
> goal sought, this belief system is bad news.

The key fallacy is not the assumed existence of objective morality, but that
your particular morality is objective.

Science is the middle path between the harsh tyranny of unquestionable "truth"
and the useless undisprovability of "subjective" reality. Science states that
there exists an objective reality, but we do not know what it is. My ethical
system makes the same statement with respect to morality.

> Isn't truth quite simply an idea or belief that conforms to
> objective reality? The recourse to alleged "dual definitions" is
> an indirect admission that "moral truth" (often referred to as
> "spiritual truth") is in conflict with "metaphysical or logical
> truth." In other words, fallacy. At this juncture, I will not
> pursue further, but suffice it to say until I see a second
> objective reality, which is necessary to give the "second truth"
> definitive meaning, I reject without equivocation the idea and
> all that is attached to it.

Absolute agreement over here. Science is the art of not making excuses when
you're wrong.

> Getting to the mission at hand, the "problem words" currently in
> focus are: good, bad, (evil) moral,(good) immoral (evil). A
> saturate teaching that one is subjected to from infancy on is the
> idea of "the forces of good and evil." This teaching sets "good
> and evil" as objective and constant universal elements. This idea
> is not only promoted in formal religion citing an omni god as the
> "ultimate good", the idea is promoted to saturation by "community
> values", "national interest", "values of society" and a host of
> other "divine abstracts" reinforcing the emotional impression of
> values existing independently of individual; values that express
> or imply a superior being; values that individuals are programmed
> to believe they "ought" to hold. As false as this whole scenario
> is, it is usually a lock that binds the mind to "duty."

Any fanatic will claim that his views are objective fact. That doesn't mean
we should throw out the concept of objective reality. Just because objective
morality has been abused doesn't mean it isn't useful - we just need to be
careful, that's all.

> In the real world of
> individual and subjective value, the term value always asks the
> question: value to whom for what purpose. Value is not something
> existing independently of individual and inherent in a thing or
> circumstance. To speak definitively of value is to say that
> someone ATTRIBUTES value to a thing or circumstance, a set of
> conditions as it were. If an individual attributes value to a
> particular goal, desires a particular set of circumstances, how
> can this valuation be subjected to the determination as right or
> wrong? Can it be evaluated as means to itself?

May I paraphrase?

"Any 'rational' goal is simply a rational means to some other, not necessarily
justified goal. Therefore, there are no 'inherently rational' goals. All
goals are the result of other goals, and value cannot be derived except from
value. The objective value of any goal, therefore, is zero."

This logic is absolutely irrefutable.
The problem is that it's wrong.
If anyone ever figures out why, their name will live forever.
Because the exact same logic applies here:

"All effects are the result of causes, which are themselves effects. All
'real' things are the result of other real things, and reality cannot be
derived except from reality. The objective reality of any statement,
therefore, is zero."

As far as I can tell, in our Universe - which is a very unintuitive place -
things seem to be set up so that derived qualities can appear from nowhere.
Demonstrating that any X requires a previous X is not sufficient to
demonstrate that X does not exist.

Don't ask me why. Don't give me elaborate logical refutations. That's just
the way things are. That's how the Universe works. Anybody who doesn't like
it is as much in denial as Einstein refusing to believe in quantum physics
because "God does not play dice with the Universe".

I have now made the adjustment, and it now seems as reasonable that things
appear from nowhere, as it does that there is no objective space of
simultaneity, or that the chance of something happening is a complex number.
I mean, why _shouldn't_ value appear from nowhere? Huh?

"I know of no law of logic demanding that every event have a cause."
- John K Clark

> All speak of the "moral good" etc. as "objective" and fixed. This
> requires a constant and universal purpose. Thus one is obliged to
> abandon individual as reference and rely on "God's will", or
> other alleged source of a singular universal objective value.

Ironically, that doesn't work either. God created reality? Who created God?
God wants something? What for?

Many religions make deeply flawed assertions about God and objective morality.
The irony, of course, is that they can only be objectively false if we grant
that objective morality exists.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.