Tuesday, September 04, 2012

On (Not) Endorsing Moral Axioms

Update: It occurs to me that I should elaborate on why I put self-ownership on the shortlist. Self-ownership seems like it's almost, but not quite, a logical necessity since there are a finite number of possible owners of "me":

  • No one owns me.
  • I own me.
  • A group owns me.

"No one" seems like an odd answer; I've included it for completeness, but I'm not sure it's logically consistent or meaningful. And if nobody owns me, who's going to contest my assertion that I own myself? Who speaks for the claims of "no one"?

Which leaves us with the alternatives that I own myself or some other group owns me. Logically it makes a certain kind of sense to say that we owe a debt of some kind to the people who give birth to/raise us (parents, usually) and they thus have a claim on our productive activity. However, as I noted below, the moral foundation of my system is the principle of promising, from which it follows that I'm not liable for a debt I gave no promise to pay. Thus our parents (or "the community" or whomever) has no prior claim on our productive activity.

That leaves us with two equally-valid options: I own me or someone else owns me. I feel safe in simply asserting that I own myself since, given these two choices, I find it unlikely that anyone would argue otherwise1.


Eugene Volokh asks:

Let me therefore ask a question of those irreligious readers that believe that certain things - murder, rape, robbery, and more - are morally wrong. Irreligious people, like religious people, often feel this very strongly, and are willing both to act and to refrain from acting based on these judgments. They might, for instance, refuse to do certain things that are practically advantageous to them because they think they would be wrong; or they may do certain things that are risky or costly because they think that these actions are needed to prevent wrong. I'd love to hear your thoughts, if you fall in the category given above. I have also asked a related question of a subset of my religious readers, so don't feel like I'm only picking on one side here.

Here's the question: Many of your beliefs might flow logically (perhaps not syllogistically, but using logical argument) from other beliefs. But at some point, you must reach what one might call a moral axiom that you can't logically demonstrate. You doubtless find this axiom appealing. Yet why do you accept it?

To which I will respond will an aphorism purely of my own devising:

Life is a balancing act between the necessity of believing something and the absurdity of believing anything.

From a purely formal standpoint I think that Eugene's asking an incoherent question. Axioms cannot, by definition, be proven; that's what makes them axioms. The answer to "Why can't you demonstrate your moral axioms?" is "Because they're axiomatic.". But that's not really what he's asking; he wants to know why I, as a non-believer, feel the need to introduce moral axioms in the first place?

Eugene's right; it's a hard problem. I spend a lot of time on this blog wrestling with the (in)defensibility of atheistic morality. One approach that some within the atheist community have taken is to try to demonstrate that morality, as is it conventionally understood, requires nothing stronger than the assumption of rational agency. Daniel Fincke, for example, has a well-thought-out post where he uses this premise to answer the question "Why is murder bad?", though I remain unconvinced by his argument. I'm attracted to the idea that some form of morality may be logically possible (or even necessary) without the need to introduce moral axioms, but have yet to see a compelling demonstration that such a beast actually exists.

My provisional view on the matter is that there is no reason to believe that moral facts exist, which makes me some flavor of moral skeptic. I simply cannot square the existence of such entities with ontological naturalism; whence would such things spring?

So where does that leave me? Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of alternatives:

  • Live the dream! Rape, pillage, and murder with abandon! Even if I wanted to do so I wouldn't get very far before my fellow sentient beings, perceiving me as a threat to society, took whatever steps were necessary to minimize the threat. I generally enjoy my life and liberty, so it's not rational to engage in blatant, anti-social behavior.
  • Rape, pillage, and murder discreetly. Its rational for me to encourage others to refrain from doing so, since that furthers my own interest in life and liberty. However, I have no rational reason to endorse such restraint for myself. Thankfully, my sense of empathy and my desire to avoid distressing cognitive dissonance lead me away from this course of action.
  • Endorse a mutually-constraining set of rules. Being seen conforming to this set of rules generally costs me little (since I've no desire to rape and pillage in the first place) and builds other's trust, which will benefit me down the road.

Given my personal constitution it's rational for me to endorse a mutually-constraining set of rules. These rules aren't "moral axioms" in the sense that Eugene is asking about, but from a practical standpoint they look and behave like axioms unless you examine them with a high-powered microscope. So the concise answer to Eugene's question is that "I don't endorse any moral axioms." with the corollary being "I do endorse mutually-constraining rules that have most of the important characteristics of moral axioms". Since someone is sure to wonder what, exactly, this set of rules might entail please allow me to provide a pencil sketch:

Recognizing that we're ultimately making things up as we go along I think the best we can do is to get people to agree to rules and then require that they abide by them once they've agreed. I choose to bootstrap on the principle of promising (I like the contract-oriented versions but YMMV) since "[f]ew moral judgments are more intuitively obvious and more widely shared than that promises ought to be kept". Then the trick is to find rules to which people will generally consent. Here's a my (very) short-list:

  • Prohibition on theft
  • Principle of self-ownership
  • That which is not forbidden is permitted.

I think you can get pretty far with the principle of self-ownership provided that there's also a prohibition against theft. And then I toss in a "default allow" rule for good measure, though I suspect it'd be a lot harder to get people to consent to that one. There are almost certainly additional rules I'd add with more reflection, but those are the absolute basics.


1 Recognizing the historical contingency of that particular pronouncement. I find it troubling that I have to simply assert my self-ownership.

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