The universality principle.

If we look at the ethical principles and concepts proposed by politicians and their laws, by religions, by capitalist structures, by parents, by this or that philosopher, we find that, by and large, they share a few traits:

1. They are organized so that the elite does not have to follow them. Things that are wrong for a common person to do are praised when done en masse by the elite (control, lying, stealing, killing) and things which are good for a common person to do are disvalued by the elite (obedience, humility, allegiance).

2. They make a sharp distinction between members of the group and non-members/opponents (us v them), creating enemies everywhere.

3. No justification is provided for them, or if a justification is provided, it is of the “might makes right” variety.

Point 1 is explained by the nature of hierarchies (elites use their power against their subjects for their own interests). Point 2 is explained by the manichean worldview (the need to invent enemies in order to promote cohesion and silence dissent). Point 3 is explained by the fact that all these systems are stage 1 morality (since the principles are constructed and enforced for the interests of the elite, they have no non-arbitrary justification and are simply meant to be obeyed).

Not everything an authority posits is an ethical principle. A parent might tell you to look both sides before crossing the street, and this is sound advice, no doubt about it, but it’s not an ethical principle (i.e. it doesn’t tell you how people should deal with each other within the social context).

Now the question becomes, are these rules really ethical “principles”? Take gun control laws, for instance. State agents are not subject to these laws, while their subjects are. And yet the justifications one can bring up to let these dangerous agents handle firearms can apply equally to their subjects. Agents need to defend themselves from criminals, but so do their subjects (in fact, these agents are often the criminals one needs defending from). Agents need guns to enforce other features of the State, like taxation. But then we look at taxation and another contradiction arises. The State needs to finance itself, but so does every other organization and business that exist, so why is only the State allowed to use guns to do so?

We all have the same basic physical, mental, relational and social needs given to us by human biology and human nature. The basic principle here is that everyone has the same fundamental needs, and saying that some specific group of people is justified by these needs to do something that everyone else is forbidden to do is a logical contradiction. It is an attempt to centralize power in the hands of a few. We find that most supposed “ethical principles” are actually of this type.

There are three different kinds of ways in which such statements can be contradictory: by not applying to all people, not applying to all times, or not applying to all locations. Gun laws are an example of the first kind. Bible rules are an example of the second kind, as Christians often argue that many rules were only given for the sake of a specific era. Laws in general are a good example of the third, insofar as there are many differences in laws between various “countries,” but they are all said to be valid within their own territorial context.

We can therefore define the universality principle as such:

An ethical principle or system is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons).

There are also such things as personal opinions. Needs are never expressed in the same way. We all have different preferences, and statements asserting one preference over another are not ethical principles but merely attempts to elevate preferences as ethics. If someone says “I think everyone should have to eat strawberry ice cream, and no other kind,” we should rightly consider this as a joke, since the statement does not express any universal need.

People often try to justify the ever-changing rules of the Bible by saying that God was compensating for the fact that the people of some past era were unable to understand reality as well as we do now, and that therefore simpler, more straightforward rules were needed. This argument, however, would only work if the previous rules were simply vaguer or more general restatements of the new rules, which they are not by a long shot. No Christian church now preaches the death penalty for breaking the Ten Commandments, for instance, which the Bible clearly prescribes. Also, no Christian now supports slavery, even though the Bible very clearly sought to normalize it.

Likewise, we can point to a multitude of evil laws which used to be enforced. It does no good to say that people back then were ignorant, since all that adds up to is that ignorant people were allowed to use force to maintain evil laws. People being ignorant or not ignorant does not make the law any more universal, given how much they contradict.

The universality principle does not tell us which ethical ideology is correct, but rather how to identify a whole class of incorrect ones. In that sense, it can also be called a razor (like Ockham’s Razor, which lets us identify a whole class of incorrect beliefs). In a sense, it is very much connected to the principle of equality, since equality cannot obtain if the principles that regulate society apply differently to different people.

This puts the emphasis on Anarchism being an ideology of process, not of results. Hierarchies use fluid rulesets so they can best control outcomes in their favour in any given context. Of course, I am using a figure of speech: the individual actors within hierarchies only act in what they perceive is their self-interest, but the result is the same. By making equality primordial, Anarchism leaves outcomes in the hands of the individuals who work towards them. Statist theories are based on the premise that desired outcomes justify coercive processes (might makes right, the end justifies the means); Anarchist theories are based on the premise that egalitarian processes justify their own outcomes.

Granted, there is a sense in which this is not exactly true. A government does not generally commit to actions which entail vast disapproval within its host society, since it cannot engineer consent to an infinite degree. And Anarchists are always disappointed when they try to free people only to see them reproduce the same patterns of oppression that made them victims. Obviously governments have some concern about processes, and Anarchists have some concern about outcomes. But the fact that Anarchists are concerned about outcomes to a certain degree does not imply that they wish to inhibit universality to a certain degree. Rather, I think the Anarchist is beheld to a certain belief that when confronted with a choice between an egalitarian solution and a hierarchical solution, people will eventually choose the egalitarian solution, perhaps once they have observed for themselves that the solution they were indoctrinated to believe in doesn’t work as well as the new one.

One thought on “The universality principle.

  1. […] between universal morality and master/slave “morality.” In the past, I have defined the universality principle as […]

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