Max More (
Tue, 07 Oct 1997 23:29:58 -0700

Greg Burch wrote:

>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.

I enjoyed Greg's two substantial posts very much, and found myself largely
in agreement. I would go further though. Greg seems to suggest that
morality or values can only be objective (or rational) given a desire to
live in society. I am equally sure that certain virtues of character and
moral principles can be shown objectively correct or rationally defensible
even if you are living alone on a desert island. Here the minimal
assumption is that you want to live and to be happy. (If you don't want
anything then no morality can get a grip.) Given this trivial condition, we
can rationally derive virtues, values, and principles such as persistence,
patience, courage, reason, and alertness (for example). Under practically
any conditions you can imagine, these characteristics WILL increase your
chances of surviving and increasing your happiness.

As I have said before (in the debate with Rich Artym that Greg mentioned) I
prefer to speak of "rational values" rather than "objective morality". The
latter can be confused with an absolute morality. I take it that Eliezer is
suggesting that kind of view, though I regret that I haven't had the time
to study all the posts to be sure. An absolute morality does not refer the
actual conditions of life and to the nature of the living being. A rational
morality does. A rational morality starts from the minimal assumption that
a person wants to live, and to live successfully. Given those basic
assumptions (which allow the is-ought barrier to be bridged), certain
characteristics, principles, and values can be shown to work better than
others. That's the sense in which they are rational.

It does not follow that ALL values are rational. Only those that make a
real difference to survival and happiness count as moral values. Trivial
preference -- matters of taste -- generally are arbitrary. Of course
difficult questions arise over where to draw the line between moral values
and matters of taste. But the existence of twilight does not cast doubt on
the existence of night and day.

I suspect that there would be vastly less disagreement over morality if we
could eliminate other rationally indefensible ideas and beliefs, such as
those found in religions. We would still have differences of view in how
human psychology operates (affecting our views about what brings happiness)
and about social mechanisms, but many silly moral views would disappear.


Max More, Ph.D.
President, Extropy Institute:,