Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A moral world.

This is a somewhat wacky post. People who know me will realise that feeling the need to disclaim that must mean we have a doozer of a wacky post. I hope you enjoy it.

What does an ethical realm look like?

I’ve been pondering lately the idea of morality or ethics as a language that describes an entire world in a similar way to how physical descriptions describe a physical world. Morality would describe a world composed of moral objects rather than physical objects. Moral descriptions would have certain characteristics just as physical descriptions do.  The fun of this exercise for me is that it illuminates certain assumptions I hold about morality or ethics and it raises some intriguing questions.

What are moral objects?

Physical objects are three dimensional, four if you count time. By that I don’t mean that physical objects really are four dimensional. I’m not talking about reality here. I am talking about a model or a grammar and vocabulary. A physical description of something draws on four dimensions; height, length, breadth and duration. To physically describe a table I might also describe its weight, density, the strength of its molecular bonds and so on. I wouldn’t describe the tables’ kitchness or quaintness. Those qualities lie outside the language of a physical description.  Physical objects are what you create by describing a world by its physical qualities only. In fact I’m happy to treat description and object as effectively interchangeable for this post.

Moral objects then are what we get when we describe the world by moral characteristics only. Can this include things? Can a table for example be good or bad? Can it be honest, righteous, valid, justifiable? Or for that matter can it be evil, wanton, invalid or wrong? My instinctual feeling is it can’t be. My instinctual feeling is that moral objects are acts – the act of building a table or destroying one or sitting on one can be moral – but the table itself is amoral. As an amoral object the table itself has no existence in a morally defined world in the same way that non-physical objects have no existence in a physically defined world. So the first rule of a moral world is that verbs are the new nouns – acts are objects here.

What are moral characteristics?
How do we measure or describe morality? What are its fundamental dimensions? I’m going to propose three. Just like the physical descriptors mentioned above there can be many more characteristics (weight, density, combustability even) so this isn’t the limit of our conversation.
Further its possible to just use one of these descriptors, just as its possible to describe a table by just its height. Such a description is just a poorer definition of the object but as no description is totally complete there can be no objective minimum either.

  1. Harm and beneficence.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post Harm and beneficence has to be measured against some sense of the ideal. Building a casino on the top of Ayers rock for example or chopping off my healthy leg seem obviously harmful only because we have an obvious ideal. This makes this characteristic interestingly dependant on a broader context and ideas. Also as I mentioned in another post it is necessary to have a sense of a moral person (which could be an environment as well) to establish where chains of harms and benefits end.

  1. Honesty or Sincerity and Duplicity
The notion that a person is trying to do the right thing is deeply fundamental to our conversations about moral actions. This comes up when adults try and understand their parents who in a different time may have had different ideas of right parenting. We can say that their choices were wrong (to us) but still moral given the knowledge they had. Likewise we can recognize that in our own parenting we can only try and do the right thing.
In making that attempt we can be honest with ourselves or we can try and sell ourselves a line. It can be hard to know which we are doing but I think we still want to and need to talk about it. The words we use are honesty, sincerity and integrity.

  1. Humility
It seems strange to hang humility out there on its own however I couldn’t quite describe the broader category it belongs to. It may be that it can be covered in the first two descriptors as well. For me though it does stand alone as a necessary corrective to both unfettered beneficence and sincerity.
Sincerity on its own has produced such romantic excesses as philosophers called crimes of pure reason. Those who flew into the world trade towers committed acts of absolute sincerity. Humility could have stopped them.
Likewise the worst tyrannies justify themselves on the basis of looking after others. The victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution can attest it is a terrible thing to live in a proposed utopia. Even in smaller matters humility prevents beneficence from being something immoral. Beneficence without humility is when your mum puts holes in your condoms because you’d make a great dad.

How stable are moral objects?

We understand that physical characteristics are relative. The weight of a table is not inherent but a consequence of gravity acting on the tables mass. That’s pretty simple; on the moon the table weighs less. More confusing Einstein showed that the tables’ existence in time stretches and contracts depending on its movement relative to its surrounds. Do I know what this means? Not entirely. My guess is that it means the tables’ duration, just like its weight, is a perception that only makes sense in a context in which we too are present. When you think about it it’s not that surprising that duration (time) is basically a relationship between the table and the rest of our perception. 

The upshot of this is that our physical description of the table is not consistent for all situations. However as long as we don’t take it to the moon or launch the table at light speed we should be able to infer a particular table from the same physical description reliably and repeatedly. We can say that the words used to physically describe a table usually stay meaningful most of the time.

Subatomic particles however are much less stable physical objects. The physical characteristics of one of these tricky blighters are (so I’ve heard) “all over the shop.” Weight, speed, location and even existence change constantly. Each characteristic is highly interdependent on the rest and on the very act of observation. We are still trying out new vocabularies in order to have meaningful conversations about these objects.

It seems to me that the moral descriptors I have proposed produce moral objects that are also inherently unstable. Beneficence and harm are very situational while honesty and duplicity are subjective and evolving with our own self-awareness. Humility is the worst of all because it is interdependent with what we imagine we don’t know. That’s a floating parameter of the floatingest degree.

I’m about to cook up a piece of chicken for my lunch. Is that a moral, immoral or amoral action? How permanent is that description? It’s very likely battery hen chicken (no label either way) and purchased quite cheaply. I was intending to give it all to the dog but now intend to shallow fry a piece for myself. It’s very unhealthy and dirties a whole pan. Is this clearly a red light bad thing or does it flicker? Does it matter that I am sooo hungry and I’m finishing off something open in the fridge. Does it matter that having written this paragraph I am more aware than I would have been about my action? If a butterfly flaps its wings in an Amazon rainforest would we have to recalculate the moral weight of my action or am I just being silly?

How do moral objects relate to each other?

In physical descriptions we try to understand how one physical object impacts on another. In fact it’s worth recognizing that physical objects only make sense inside a lattice or web of forces that produce those objects. There is no table in isolation because without its current temperature and atmospheric pressure its atoms would behave differently. At least on a subatomic level there are constant exchanges between the table and the surrounding environment. Physical objects are not distinct or independent phenomenon.

Having now eaten the chicken what does my entire moral world look like? What is the impact from one moral object to another? If moral objects have the instability I mentioned earlier then it’s sensible to imagine that proximity to each other will result in shaping and reshaping of each other. If anything as I’ve described them moral objects are more interdependent and indistinct than physical ones. We can imagine a relationship between them.

The first word I think of to speak of a relationship between moral actions is karma. However karma is not a moral word itself. In fact karma is a way of talking in a particularly amoral way about moral actions. Karma isn’t “right”, it just is. Given that amoral objects are excluded from our moral world then amoral forces like karma would seem to have no place either. Karma, although it is about moral objects, belongs in a physical or metaphysical world rather than a moral one.

Particularly moral forces that tie together moral objects might include duty or obligation or debt. If an action can produce a debt which changes the morality of other actions then this is as if a moral object has affected the characteristics of another moral object.  That’s like a physics of morality. “How are debts between actions produced and cancelled?” is a fascinating question (not for this post though).
We don’t have to make the leap to assume that all debts must be cancelled. Maybe debt is the fundamental energy of a moral universe and if it gets extinguished then we obtain stasis – only an ideal state if you like it. It might be more interesting at least to pass debts on and around – to create states of high moral energy as well as low moral energy.

An artists challenge.

There are many points at which you may disagree with how I’ve pictured this ethical realm. Just like when we talk about physical objects two people can see two very different tables based on what’s important to them. You might even disagree that moral objects are only actions. Perhaps certain physical objects are for you sacred or profane in and of themselves.

An even more pivotal point of disagreement is on the usefulness of imagining an exclusively moral realm at all. I personally have enjoyed this as a thought exercise. I’m not committed to a moral realm as anything other than a way of exposing to myself my own moral language.

If you also found this a fun exercise I would love to receive links to pictures of how you see the moral world. If you want you can send me the pic itself and I’ll put it up alongside any others in this blog. I’ve been thinking lately the visuals of this site are a bit poor and I know too many talented artists for that to continue, surely.

So what do you think, can we do it? Can we picture moral objects interacting with each other and thus creating their world, a world we operate on in parallel to our physical one? Can we show each other what we see? Or has this blog finally gone off the deep end after a little too much Dr. Who? I’m not completely sure myself.


Kudos to my friend Daniel for thinking outside the box and suggesting the following representation of a moral world. Also fluffy.

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