Why Ask Why

If you’re not going to investigate why things are as they are–and I don’t mean to criticize those who don’t if they’re doing other better things–you have a responsibility (at least for your own sake) to vet carefully whichever authority you let ask that question for you.  For sure, by not asking it yourself, you do not make it go away.  Somebody asks it, and somebody answers it, and the answer they give will affect you.  The Why questions are the most important ones.

Here’s a obvious example.  Lets say that you’ve been raised always to tell the truth and also to be charitable in pursuit of other people’s happiness.  You may not ask why you should do those things, but other people have, and their answers influenced how the two values were instilled.  Then you come to a moment when the two conflict: a truthful answer will hurt someone’s feelings.  You may not reason it through at the time, but which value you choose to follow is determined by the answers you’ve been given to these questions:  Why should you tell the truth?  Why should you try to make other people happy?

If you think you should tell the truth because lying is inconvenient (for you who must remember it) and rude (to whomever you deceive), you might be inclined to do it if something more inconvenient or ruder comes along.  If you think you should tell the truth because it’s impossible to predict outcomes with enough certainty to judge whether a lie is worthwhile, you might stubbornly refuse to lie even if you encounter a serious challenge.  If you believe that you should tell the truth because the truth is somehow holy and lying offends God, you may not recognize the situation as a challenge at all.

The Why questions you may never have considered have a staggering effect on how you choose to live your everyday life.   Do you cheat on your taxes?  Do you have an affair?  Do you move in with your boyfriend/girlfriend?  Do you gossip about your neighbor?  Do you avoid the homeless man on the street?  Do you tweet about the Kardashians?  (My 15 year old word processor insists that should be Carpathians.  Does anyone tweet about the Carpathians?)  All of these things are significantly (maybe predominantly) influenced by your basic understanding of why the world is how it is and why humans do what they do.

To put things simply, people who believe that the world was created by God, that humans were created by God, behave differently than those who believe that both the world and humanity are simply the results of an arbitrary, irrational, accidental system.

The results can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially in matters of ethics.

The naturalist answer is that these things are culturally developed, the natural combination of circumstance and psychology, and as such they have no de jure authority.  They’re a sort of cultural prejudice with de facto authority by virtue of the members of the culture outnumbering any individual dissenter.  If our current culture has developed (by the same method) values which differ from those of precious cultures, importing the values of the former culture into the current would be a sort of cultural imperialism, the past conquering the present, which it clearly has no right to do.

This can feel liberating when we’re told that we can reject “archaic” restrictions on enjoyable or personal things.  But no one wants to argue that certain cultures, which approve the murder of non-members, have as much authority as our own culture which discourages murder.  If our ethics are cultural products though, they only apply to participants of the authorizing culture.  The answers given to the Why questions about ethics don’t seem to let us do what we would want to do, which is to object to obviously objectionable things like genocide.

The best available response to this difficulty is that some ethics are evolutionarily advantageous.  Thus, since evolution applies equally we have a standard that supersedes culture.  Unfortunately, valuing what is evolutionarily advantageous is itself a cultural value, and again not one we generally want to apply.  (It’s cliché to talk about Nazis, but it’s also obvious that they were pursuing what was deemed to be evolutionarily advantageous.  We all rightly find this horrible, but there is simply no naturalistic reason why we should assume that our horror shouldn’t be ignored.)

(Also this evolutionary assumption is factually inaccurate.  The bulk of the values we have, ones which we don’t want to abolish, were not only developed in opposition to cultural assumptions, but in opposition to what occurred naturally for human beings.  Any study of history can show this.  Things like charity and human rights were taught to humanity, which has always eagerly pursued the opposites.)

So, while I suspect most of us are not going to spontaneously start a new genocide, we are nevertheless, more each day, accepting answers to the Why questions which would support us if we tried.  Mostly we accept those answers because they remove from us to responsibility of being anything other than what we most easily want.  Unfortunately, we pave the way for those who easily want horrible things.  (And I would say we make it easier to want horrible things ourselves.)


4 thoughts on “Why Ask Why

  1. Hi, Usualfool. Nice blog.

    I notice that your post tends to focus on naturalists who are moral subjectivists. That’s a legitimate perspective to focus on, and maybe it’s even the majority position among the less philosophically literate naturalists.

    However, there are also naturalists who think that morality is objective. My own view is that the only context in which it makes sense to talk about something being “good” or “bad” is the context of a living organism struggling for survival. That which contributes to the survival of the organism is good for the organism, and that which is detrimental to its survival is bad for the organism. This concept of value makes facts about what is valuable as objective as any fact in physics or chemistry.

    Different organisms have different ways of achieving the ultimate value of survival. Plants rely on automatic functions like photosynthesis. Animals, in addition to their physiological functions, rely on instincts which tell them automatically what to do. Humans, unlike plants and animals, survive by reasoning. Since a person can choose whether or not to think rationally, this means that a human being has to deliberately choose to take survival as a value, then choose the abstract moral principles he will live by, then choose to actually act on those principles in practice. This volitional aspect is why, while any organism has things that are valuable and harmful to it, only humans can be moral or immoral.

    On this view, since morality is a survival tool, moral subjectivism doesn’t really get off the ground. It does not matter what you feel, what you want, what your culture has conditioned you to do, or what your evolutionary history inclines you to do. If you do not act morally, reality will kill you (or at least, your probability of long term survival will drop). End of story.

    • William,

      Thank you for reading, complimenting and responding! (Responding also counts as a special and grand sort of compliment.) I appreciate your sharing your thoughts. They gave me a chance to think in return. (Always appreciated, those chances. Sorry it took me so long, but life kept interfering.)

      I’m not sure it’s fair to say that moral subjectivism is only preferred (or most common) among those who aren’t philosophically literate. While I clearly disagree with it, I still think moral subjectivism is a legitimate philosophical attempt to explain the phenomena of moral experience, and specifically to avoid some of the shortcomings of any of the various moral reductionisms available.

      I would class your suggestion among the reductionist camp, although I’m not sure if that’s the term you would use for it. (And the terms may have changed since I studied meta-ethics.) By it I mean that a broad and nebulous thing is reduced to a concrete and simpler thing, or that a series of purportedly misleading labels is abandoned in favor of a single purportedly more accurate label. That seems to me what you’re doing.

      I think there are a couple of obvious problems with any attempted reductionism, of which yours is among the most common. I’ll try to express some specific ones here. First though let me restate a bit of what you said, which I’m going to refer to later by the simple shorthand “your suggested standard.” In no way do I mean this to be accusatory, dismissive, or pejorative. It’s just a handy label.

      “That which contributes to the survival of the organism is good for the organism, and that which is detrimental to its survival is bad for the organism.”

      1.) Firstly, it seems that your suggested standard has to be derivative. One must assume certain moral judgments before one can accept it, and those assumed moral judgments can’t then be defended by it. You even hinted at this a bit:

      “Since a person can choose whether or not to think rationally, this means that a human being has to deliberately choose to take survival as a value, then choose the abstract moral principles he will live by, then choose to actually act on those principles in practice.”

      As you said yourself, a person is required to assume that survival is of moral value, that it’s moral value relative to other possible moral values secures it a position of primacy, and that the appropriate moral response to any value (but specifically this one) is to attempt to increase one’s amount of the thing valued. Clearly those assumptions cannot be based on your suggested standard, or it would be circular.

      That is to say, one cannot answer the questions like this:

      “Why should I value survival?”
      “Valuing survival contributes to survival.”
      “Why should I contribute to survival?”
      “Contributing to survival contributes to survival.”
      “Why should I contribute to survival more than something else, like pleasure?”
      “Contributing to survival more than pleasure contributes to survival.”

      None of these is helpful.

      The obvious response might be that valuing survival is natural, and that contributing to such a value is also natural, and that we tend to sacrifice most things rather than sacrifice survival so it’s even natural to give survival primacy. Unfortunately this doesn’t help the situation; we still can’t reach your suggested standard without assuming that it’s morally preferable to do what is natural.

      Nor is it enough merely to accept the natural impulse as somehow anterior to the moral enterprise. Even if everyone, a priori without argument, seemed to assume the absolute value of survival, the relative value of survival, and the value of contributing to virtues, it wouldn’t eliminate the problem, only ignore it. That might be expedient, but wouldn’t be either particularly rational or particularly meaningful. It would be a bit like saying, “If we ignore the parts I don’t know, I know everything about this subject.”

      Or, it would be exactly saying, “Those who share some same morality that we will not discuss might perhaps agree to follow this smaller, derived, and less thorough morality that we will discuss, and discuss as though it were not smaller, derived, and less thorough.” If everyone agreed a priori without argument, it might be a benign affectation. Not everyone grants the necessary assumptions though.

      So to avoid having to say the above, it might be better to pursue the source of the values which underpin your suggested standard. Otherwise the best solution might be to abandon moral language altogether, and say something like this, “As it seems that people will pursue survival sometimes, while we cannot say that they should do so either more or less, here is a system for scoring how an individual’s actions impacted his or her survival, which is the specific criterion we have chosen to measure, but which we cannot say is preferable to any other criterion.”

      That might even be noble. It could certainly be objective. It is not however a moral system in any meaningful sense, or at least not in any sense that the word has been used in the history of civilization. (There’s a time and place for changing the definition of terms, but in this case one ought to admit that in so doing one is largely creating a new discussion altogether rather than participating in the existing discussion, and one is deliberately misusing–relative to the existing discussion, anyway–several of that existing discussion’s sigla.)

      2) Another more practical objection is that the standard doesn’t support itself. That is to say, acting on your suggested standard does not clearly contribute to survival more than acting on some other standard. It’s even reasonably possible that acting on it might actually be detrimental to survival.

      Lets say that I’m in a situation in which actual benefits and detriments are obscured behind lesser but reversed benefits and detriments; an obvious small benefit conceals a large detriment while an obvious small detriment conceals a large benefit. (And I would say from my own experience that his arrangement is not uncommon.) It seems, in your discussion of objectively measuring moral facts, that you might respond by saying the contribution to my survival of each option would be measured afterward, that if for example I chose the option with the small obvious benefit, thereby harming my chances of survival in actuality, the moral results of my choice could be determined later.

      Unfortunately this would be largely unhelpful, especially at the moment of choice. In fact it would be my attempt to follow your suggested standard–to choose what seemed to contribute to my survival–that would directly result in my making a choice that the standard would condemn. In such a situation it would better contribute to my survival to follow some other hypothetical standard that better anticipated the possibility of a discrepancy between actual and apparent benefit. Your suggested standard would render itself morally deficient.

      This deficiency can’t be resolved by any obvious attempt to shift blame away from the standard to the chooser. For example, it isn’t enough to say that the chooser’s ignorance, mistake, lack of preparation, et cetera were themselves the problem. Some degree of ignorance is inherent in any human chooser, and there exists at least the possibility of a moral standard in which ignorance is less of a problem. All non-theoretical humans then, by virtue of their ignorance, would be better served by choosing that other standard.

      Nor is it helpful to say that your suggested standard’s primary function is post hoc descriptive, that it’s concerned merely with judging actions in retrospect. A moral system that exists primarily (and it seems in some way exclusively) in the indicative, is not a moral system in any sense of the word. (Repeat here as necessary the rest of my little speech from the end of critique 1.) It would be a mere description of events, passing no meaningful judgments on them aside from recognition of causation, and implying by those judgments little more than that similar mistakes in assumed causation are likely to repeat. (After all, aphorisms about either studying or repeating history break down; even rigourous historians repeat the mistakes of the past, because those mistakes are seldom kind enough to appear always in the same initial form.)

      3.) There are a wealth of other similar systemic problems stemming from any attempt to apply your suggested standard.

      Lets imagine two possible worlds involving a criminal named Asterisk. In the first Asterisk kills a man, whose son, as a direct result of the death, becomes a police officer who later coincidentally saves Asterisk’s life. In the second Asterisk spares the man, whose son then becomes a dentist who coincidentally doesn’t save Asterisk’s life. The murder thus contributed to Asterisks survival, while mercy was detrimental to it.

      According to the standard, the murder was the good choice, the mercy the bad one. Unfortunately there would be no way for Asterisk rationally to predict this. He couldn’t intuit a result with such an obscure and unlikely causal connection. It’s also clear that he can’t rely on expectation nor on any inherited understanding of morality, since he’s best benefited from what expectation and training would decry.

      In fact he has no guarantee that he has any meaningful way to determine what will best contribute to his survival, or even what will contribute to his survival at all. It may be that what will contribute to his survival is a series of random actions that he could never anticipate, or even a series of actions that would seem objectionable such that he would never anticipate them. Their worth to him can only be shown in retrospect.

      But then, claims to objectivity not withstanding, it isn’t entirely clear that an action’s worth will always become clear in retrospect. In the second world described above, Asterisk would never have known that mercy shortened his life, because he couldn’t realize all of the counterfactuals. It may be that without a comprehensive knowledge of counterfactuals, all of our objective moral judgments according to the standard are mistaken. Thus it seems that without a comprehensive knowledge of both the actual future and every possible future, your suggested standard is of marginal applicable value. (Except of course as a non-moral description of past events vis-a-vis a specific and criterion.)

      The best retreat might be a probabilistic approach, that we ought to do what seems most likely to contribute to survival, but the result is a dramatic decrease in your suggested standard’s objective worth, and a complete failure to eliminate the problem. It might be that objective observers disagree about the likely effects of any particular action, and that all of them judge incorrectly because they don’t know the counterfactuals. The result becomes significantly less objective than supposed, in addition to being of little practical value.

      4.) There are also inherent problems that emerge whenever more than one person attempts to follow your suggested standard. As an obvious example of what I mean, consider society in general.

      I believe it’s safe to say that my chances of survival are markedly improved by living in a society defended by police within and soldiers without. Police and an army contribute to my survival. But being a policeman or a soldier is detrimental to survival. What is good for me can only be attained by others failing to do what is good for themselves. Nor would I have a meaningful way either to encourage such “bad” behavior in others or discourage the “good” behavior they are more likely to pursue. Any sort of altruism is ruled out almost by definition.

      Unfortunately, most of civilization goes with it. Let’s reverse the example and suggest that Asterisk is walking down the street when he sees that Ampersand is about to be hit by a bus. In that moment he recognizes both that no one else can help Ampersand, and that helping Ampersand will dramatically reduce his own chances of survival. It might be the case that it would contribute to Asterisk’s survival if he lived in the sort of society where people helped one another, he might hope that someone else intervene to help Ampersand, but actually being the one to help would be detrimental, so he wouldn’t do it.

      If everyone else followed the same ethic, no one would help anyone, even though it would contribute to all of them if any of them did. (A reverse prisoner’s dilemma.) The “good” of civilization could only be attained through consistent moral failure on the part of its constituents.

      Thus again, while it’s arguable that following your suggested standard oneself would satisfy the standard, it’s definite that having anyone else follow your suggested standard can only be detrimental. It becomes rather the reverse of Kant’s universalizing principle, we’ve created a standard we must sincerely hope is never universalized.

      5.) Your suggested standard also tends to be rather at odds with nearly every instance of moral valuation. We can’t say it was wrong for the mother to drown her three children, because perhaps she contributed to her own survival. We can’t say it’s wrong for a billionaire to defraud millions of investors in his trust fund, because perhaps he contributed to his own survival. We can’t say it’s wrong even to do extreme things, like murder every single person we see as soon as we see them. If one is a competent survivalist, and if the statistics are right about how many people we meet might become murderers, it might in fact contribute to survival to become exactly that sort of horrible psychopath.

      Everything becomes, at least in principle, justifiable. Perhaps you might argue (like Nietzsche) that that’s the true state of affairs, but it is precisely not beneficial to most people to believe it or act on it, and that majority would then by pressure of numbers, make it detrimental to any minority it might otherwise benefit. Nietzsche’s ubermensch would most likely be swarmed then incarcerated or killed, and would have no consistent reason to object to such treatment from those who benefit their own survival by opposing him. It would thus contribute to his survival to abandon any Nietzschian ideology, even if he thought it was ontologically more accurate.


      I could go on. These are, though, some of the critiques that eventually spawned moral subjectivism. (In fact critique five is almost moral subjectivism in nascent form.) As I’ve already discussed, I think moral subjectivism itself ultimately fails.

      I’m inclined to think that any naturalist system sets for itself an impossible task when it comes to ethical and moral concerns, but sometimes the best way to find that out is to try. As a Christian I obviously hold a non-naturalist view, a supernaturalist view so to speak, but as a Christian I’m also committed to the fact that Christians have nothing to fear from good clear thinking, and maybe a lot to gain. At least in my own experience–I can’t say I’m the smartest, clearest, most educated person ever, but I have spent more time thinking about these things than the average person is allowed–I’ve found that Christianity withstands careful and rigourous criticism better than anything else, and that rather than the result of this criticism being a frail and battered faith, the result is a bolder and brighter one.

      • Thanks for the response.

        Your classification of my ethics as reductionist seems redundant, since any attempt to explain what ethics is will, virtually by definition, attempt to define ethics in terms of something non-ethical. If we say that ethics is just subjective emotions, then we have “reduced” ethics to emotions. If we say that ethics is the will of God, then we have “reduced” ethics to God. The only alternative would be to leave ethics as a vague, nebulous term that somehow guides our actions, which is hardly a better way of proceeding.

        Your statement of my position is correct, so let’s turn to your objections to my position.

        Regarding objection (1), I agree that an ethics of survival has to be based on a prior judgment that survival is valuable. I don’t see how this is a problem for my ethics. It just means that a person has to make a pre-moral choice that life is worth living. This choice is not groundless, because a person can base it on, for example, the fact that they enjoy their job. But these will not be moral grounds, nor will they constitute a prior moral standard to which survival is subject – they are pre-rational, pre-moral, subjective grounds. Since it is a pre-rational choice, a person’s reasons for wanting to stay alive or wanting to kill themselves are never properly subject to criticism. But once a person decides that life is worth living, my whole ethics follows, and they can in principle be convicted of inconsistencies.

        Regarding objection (2), I think it is obvious that deliberately trying to increase your odds of survival will increase your odds of survival more than choosing any other standard. We are not so impotent that we cannot know what is conducive to our survival most of the time and act on that knowledge. The fact that there are some (presumably far fetched) cases where acting to further your survival has worse effects than acting on some other standard would have had does not establish the point you need to establish, which is that acting on the basis of our survival does not demonstrably increase our odds of survival in most cases – and it does. Further, if there was another standard that demonstrably increased your odds of survival more than the standard of survival, then that standard would simply become the standard of survival.

        Regarding objection (3), I agree that our actions sometimes have effects that we can’t foresee and that these effects can have unpredictable repercussions for our survival. Nevertheless, we have worked out a system of general principles which lead to good results more often than other sets of general principles in our experience. People who disobey these principles, like thieves or murderers, can be blamed for not acting on correct principles even if they get away with their crime of even benefit from it in a particular case. They may have ended up enhancing their survival, but they were not acting in order to enhance their survival, and that has implications about their character.

        Regarding objection (4), I agree that being a policeman or a soldier is a dangerous job. Nevertheless, being a policeman or a soldier can contribute to a person’s odds of survival by helping to make society safer. If someone feels that the country is in danger of attack by Al-Qaeda and is personally unwilling to live under the kind of threat, he might well be justified in joining the military. Your suggestion that no one would help anyone on egoism similarly overlooks the many personal benefits (physical and psychological) that it is possible to get from helping other people.

        Regarding objection (5), as with objection (3), I think we can condemn a mother who drowns her children or a billionaire who defrauds people because they are not following principles that will help them survive.

        • William,

          I must again thank you for your patience while you waited for my response. I wanted to be as thorough and reasonable as I think your response demands, and it’s been difficult for me to scrounge together time enough to manage it. But, and I cannot say this enough, thank you for continuing the discussion! In addition to the patience I already mentioned, I appreciate both your commitment (sufficient to think about the issue and talk about thinking about the issue) and your tone, which is delightfully not adversarial. I shall endeavor to reciprocate.

          (As a logistical note, here I label my responses alphabetically, rather than numerically, so as to distinguish. Numeric entries refer to those established previously.)

          A.) To begin at the beginning, it’s entirely possible that I’m misusing the term reductionism. It’s been a while since I studied the material, and terms may have changed a bit. Or a lot.

          That being said, possibly allowing for some confusion over terms, I don’t think it’s fair to say that all ethical systems are reductionistic. My reason is partially grammatical. There are different ways to say the sentence “Thing Aleph is really thing Alpha.” If thing Alpha is as complicated and robust as the thing Aleph, such that items in Aleph can be mapped to items in Alpha in a dynamic fashion with only accidental (not relevant) or incidental (not typical) overlap, then the sentence is one of functional equivalence. That is to say, I might be putting one complicated thing in terms of another complicated thing, because the second thing is preferable in some way. (This is the logic behind most analogies.)

          This is also the method that many ethicists at least claim to be employing when they say things like, “Moral goodness is following God.” We may argue about whether or not they succeed, but they are clearly not trying to reduce the former to the latter, but instead are trying to discuss the former using the latter’s sigla set after having established the functional equivalence. Again, we may disagree with their suggested definition, we may disagree strongly even, but I don’t think we can argue that their definition is reductionistic.

          This contrasts with situations in which Alpha is less robust than Aleph, such that n items in Aleph must be mapped to n – k items in Alpha through essential (relevant) and systemic (typical) overlap. Rather than establishing a functional equivalence, the sentence becomes a matter of simplification through reduction. That is to say, I’m reducing from more complicated (more terms, variables, concerns) to less complicated (fewer terms, variables, concerns), because I think the less complicated version is sufficient to replace the more complicated one it all its uses. The systemic overlap and belief in the sufficiency of the fewer terms are what I would call the crucial elements of reductionism.

          Let me try to give an example quickly, using your own suggested standard, just for the sake of clarity. In diverse terms, one situation might call for charity while another calls for honesty. Rather than attempting to address the situations in terms of two distinct virtues, your suggested standard would address both in terms of a single standard–survival influence–and yet (presumably) be relevant and conclusive in both situations.

          That is to say, it tries to be sufficient with fewer terms, so it’s reductionistic, at least more-so than the ethic which includes both charity and honesty.

          Without intending to criticize naturalism per se at the moment, I also think that naturalist ethics are necessarily reductionistic and necessarily more reductionistic than non-naturalist ethics (or even naturalist ethics from earlier periods). Whereas other systems have traditionally included elements that might be called ideological and intangible, naturalism tends to want to explain things in terms of what is empirical and tangible.

          Even if they didn’t use the term supernatural in the way we would, historical ethicists discussing categorical duties and self-evident values are relying upon a broader model than that which contemporary naturalists can deploy. (As an interesting study, the history of the term Reason itself reveals how the broader model was slowly abandoned over the last five hundred years.)

          In fact the task of naturalist ethicists over the last centuries has been to show that it’s possible to abandon the broader model without also abandoning the concept of ethics altogether. That is to say, it’s been a defense of the sufficiency of the reduction. This is, in fact, the enterprise in which you’re engaged at the moment. It wouldn’t be necessary if there were not ethics that were not reductionistic.

          B.) Sufficiency is oddly relevant to other parts of the discussion. Your response to (1) is actually an argument from insufficiency, I think: since your suggested standard is insufficient to include certain judgments, those judgments must be pre-moral, which is non-moral. Not all ethical systems would agree that those values are pre-moral or non-moral though, so your suggested standard is at the very least less encompassing than those.

          Maybe being less encompassing isn’t bad in and of itself, but I think your standard is problematically less encompassing.

          For example, if you were to come across someone who valued survival less than some other thing–pleasure, for example–that which is “never properly subject to criticism” would quickly become “that which cannot be rationally discussed.” He might explain his preferences and you might explain yours, but neither of you could suggest that his own preferences were in any way objectively better, because the difference was in the area outside of morality and reason.

          Let me give a concrete example from current times. You can’t argue about whether something like euthanasia is morally right or morally wrong, because the person pursuing it obviously values survival differently than you do, and is thus outside your purview. At best you could say, “I would consider that wrong, but there is no objective reason why you should.”

          In short, you would become the moral subjectivist you originally opposed. (And this is, I suspect, largely how moral subjectivism came about.) Those who happened (for whatever reason) to value things as you do, they could follow your system based on that particular hierarchy of values. Those who happened to value things otherwise couldn’t be criticized though, because they wouldn’t be subject to your standard. I’m not sure your standard is objective then in any real sense.

          Your system would be objective only if survival were objectively valuable regardless of whether individual people subjectively valued it. That is to say, unless you can tell someone with different values that they value incorrectly, your system is as subjective as that which I originally criticized in my post.

          I think we both agree that moral subjectivism has its troubles. The fact that you’ve tried to convince me of the merits of objective naturalist morality suggests that you believe in the objective value of certain things apart from their subjective acceptance. I don’t think your system can bear that burden, however.

          C.) Perhaps it’s my own experience, but I would say that situations with unclear results are rather more the norm than “far fetched.” I’m willing to accept that your experience may be different, and celebrate with you about that, hoping your experience doesn’t change. 🙂

          Either way, I might be inclined to argue that pursuing survival is in fact the worst way to achieve it, the same way that thinking about walking normally is almost guaranteed to prevent you from walking normally. (If you walk up to someone you have a crush on, trying to “act natural,” I can pretty much guarantee that you will fail to “act natural.”)

          Pursuing other things on the other hand, can result in that object. If you walk across the yard trying to get to class on time, you will most likely walk normally. If you walk up to a girl, wanting to find out the answer to a question, you will act naturally.

          In a similar way, if you try to be honest, brave, charitable, merciful, just, et cetera, you will likely contribute to your survival much better than if you try to survive. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

          In fact, pursuing survival is likely to cause a person to do all sorts of things that are entirely unhelpful. He might become selfish, suspicious, defensive, gluttonous, corrupt, et cetera. He would only avoid those things only to the extent that he focused on something aside from your suggested standard. I’m not sure a standard is helpful though if it has to be ignored.

          (As a note in response to your suggestion that a more helpful standard would just become the standard for survival, attempting to make “Don’t pursue survival” a standard for survival would become incoherent.)

          Interestingly, I think you actually hint at the same thing when you talk about principles in response to (3). It seems that you admit that pursuing survival might mislead a person, but that helpful principles exist which one can pursue instead, because we have discerned that doing so will aid survival. Survival itself is a tricky goal, but the principles are less so. That is to say that it seems that you understand that your standard is contrary to itself. (That pursuing the standard would violate the standard.)

          That leaves you in a very different situation than you originally suggested though. While asserting that survival is a worthy (and perhaps the best) goal, you would have to promote a different morality in order to attain it. You might say that certain principles have the additional benefit of aiding survival,
          because then people might still follow the principles. If you said that survival was the end rather than a bi-product, people would abandon the principles in pursuit of their goal, and thus jeopardize their chance of attaining it.

          More on this in a moment.

          D.) I thought your response to (3) was particularly interesting for a lot of reasons.

          “[We] have worked out a system of general principles which lead to good results more often than other sets of general principles in our experience.”

          This is less of an obvious claim than it might seem. First, it would be helpful to discuss what general principles you’re referring to. For convenience I’m going to use the two you subsequently referenced: “don’t steal” and “don’t murder.” What others might occupy the list of “behaviors that benefit survival” is far from universally obvious.

          Second, there’s a methodological problem, because I don’t think anyone has actually tried to construct a new system of beneficial principles from scratch, relying only on relevant data. Rather, existing moral systems have been imported and “retconned,” to borrow a phrase, with existing moral principles being grandfathered in under a new explanation. That is to say, we have not actually worked out any such system, we have only tried to use our new values to explain a system we inherited.

          Thus we say stealing and murdering are wrong, but not because our experience says they’re detrimental. We have no experience from which to judge. We have never experimented with them, nor do we let others experiment with them. We accept the judgment against stealing and murdering, because we have been taught it by the past.

          If the past judged on entirely different criteria, our principles are then quite possibly mistaken. (At best we could know neither one way nor the other.) Our current system can only stand if we assume that the people in the past judged on the same criteria we do, that people have always made moral judgments based on what benefited survival. Unfortunately, we can only do this if we assume that they did so in secret, or if we ignore the overwhelming testimony to the contrary. Not only have people in the past mostly not claimed our criteria, they have mostly claimed criteria that are contradictory to it.

          Third, there’s a historical problem. It’s easiest to show concerning murder. If we say, “It will generally contribute to my survival not to kill another human being,” we’re not relying upon some general moral standard that is common to the world. We’re relying upon Christianity.

          I’m not actually making this claim because I’m biased, although I’m sure it sounds like it. There are interesting books about the relative value of lives among ancient peoples. The common morality was rather different than what is most common now, because Christian influence is so widespread. It was Christianity that sought to preserve human value across rank, ethnicity, gender, et cetera.

          Had we learned our morals from any non-influenced source we would have something like this: “It will generally contribute my survival not to kill a member of the royal family, someone from an occupying empire, anyone more powerful than I am, or anyone closely connected to those more powerful people.” That isn’t a principal I suspect most of us would be eager to adopt though, especially those of us who are low in relative power, because it’s not prohibitive enough.

          If we rely on the Christian system because its moral principles happen to be more amenable though, we’re left with the fact that they are startlingly unnatural (that is to say that it seems natural not to have developed them) and that they’re rather contrary (that is to say that they’re explicitly deployed in terms contradictory to those we want to assume, even going so far as to be frequently celebrated as contrary to survival, a la the martyrs).

          Fourth, there’s a practical problem. Apart from certain societies subject to rigourous non-survival based ethics, stealing and murdering aid survival. A society has to reach a point where survival is not in question–where everyone is comfortable enough about their survival not being in jeopardy that they can focus on other values–that stealing and murder become detrimental. In societies where survival is constantly at issue, it happens that the people who have the best chance of it are frequently the thieves and killers. (Or, as we sometimes refer to them in certain parts of the world, the warlords.)

          In fact, in any society based off of survival, the most successful will almost always be the people who steal and kill the most. (Or, as we sometimes refer to them in certain parts of the world, dictators.) And that system self-perpetuates. Once a murderous and corrupt regime is established, it behooves its members to be murderous and corrupt, so as to rise to the top of it toward safety.

          D.) (Part 2)

          “People who disobey these principles, like thieves or murderers, can be blamed for not acting on correct principles even if they get away with their crime or even benefit from it in a particular case. They may have ended up enhancing their survival, but they were not acting in order to enhance their survival, and that has implications about their character.”

          First and most obviously, I’m not sure your suggested system allows for anything like “character.” It only has those who survive and those who don’t.

          Second, I think you assume certain things about the decision making process which are not only unknown, but unlikely. Lets say that Starbuck got involved with Ahab’s revenge, and it actually turned out well for him (unlike in the book). It seems like you’re saying that Starbuck could be blamed for being involved in revenge–something we assume is against principles–even though it aided his survival, because he was not pursuing survival when he chose it.

          But how do we know he wasn’t pursuing survival when he chose it? Perhaps, knowing the general principle, he decided that the specific case was an exception, and therefore ignored the principle in pursuit of survival. In that case you couldn’t possibly blame him for ignoring the principle without contradicting yourself. He had neither bad results (the objective data you first mentioned) nor bad motives (he was pursuing the good ends he eventually achieved).

          But as it happens, most people don’t deliberately choose to act against their own interests–although they might discover that they acted against their own interests in retrospect–so it seems unlikely that people would be in the position of violating the principle without thinking that so doing would be helpful. So it seems more likely that people who follow the principle would be doing it because they thought it would benefit survival, and people who ignored the principle would be doing it because they thought it would benefit survival, and you would have no grounds for critiquing either of them except for the results that couldn’t be known until later, and which you might abhor. (That is to say, my original objection returns, and with it (5))

          It seems that you recognize the need for certain principles aside from your suggested standard, but you can’t use them to judge because you haven’t given them the authority required. In fact, according to your suggested standard, they have no authority at all.

          E.) Your response to (4) doesn’t successfully address the mathematical certainty that it’s always beneficial to my survival odds if someone other than me risks his survival. However much I may prefer a society with police and soldiers, however much such a society may contribute to my survival, however much it may even contribute to my survival to be a policeman or soldier, it will always contribute more to my survival if I convince someone else to be those things. And it will always be, objectively speaking, a moral failure for the other person to be thus convinced.

          The other benefits you mentioned (physical and psychological) are peripheral by your own suggested standard. If I decide to factor those benefits into my risk analysis, and so doing induces me to an action that involves a risk I would not otherwise have taken, then those benefits are morally wrong anyway. Survival is the one standard by which we measure.

          Therefore, society depends upon a reversed prisoner’s dilemma. It is most likely to benefit us, and will benefit us most, to wait and hope that someone else accepts the onus of risk. Nor can we construct a helpful principle to follow that doesn’t involve flagrant self-contradiction. We can’t praise people for following a principle of self-sacrifice or patriotism or whatever, because any sort of dying, however noble, is antithetical to a morality of survival.

          Even more, should someone choose poorly and accept the risk burden for the aggregate, our response must either be honest condemnation of their choice–critiquing what was morally wrong according to the suggested standard–or entirely deceitful–which would most likely be the response that best contributed to our survival by encouraging our endangered proxies to continue as our proxies.

          It seems then that your suggested standard would morally guide us toward deceitful selfish cowardice.

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