From morality to ethics… [part 1/3]

Morality is fairly trivial, because we are all human beings with the same basic needs. There are areas of disagreement, but these tend to be fairly irrelevant at the moral level. Most moral disagreements are of the type “how is it not in your interest to hurt other people/become a dictator,” or similar nonsense, and are pretty easily answered (I will discuss later how these disagreements relate to one’s conception of ethics).

Most disputes on questions of morality actually concern ethics, that is to say, they concern objecting to other people’s behaviour, not one’s own. Ethics is a lot more interesting, because it involves dealing with other human beings with their own sets of values. As an individual looking at my own values, I don’t have too much concern about other people’s values, but as an individual looking at my society (or any other society, for that matter), I must necessarily have great concerns about other people’s values, because those values cause patterns of action within my society.

Obviously we disagree with certain of those patterns, and not with others, so the question becomes: on what basis do we support some people’s actions and condemn others? There is no a priori basis for supporting or rejecting someone else’s values, except by saying that they are like ours, but this seems rather arbitrary, since we often support people’s actions even when they are motivated by values we do not hold. Furthermore, there’s no reason to believe that the society that supports one’s values is a society where everyone agrees with them; in fact, it seems equally as likely that a society which cultivates a wide variety of values would be more beneficial to any single individual’s values.

We must therefore examine our values and how they lead us to a certain conception of ethics. Now obviously I don’t expect everyone who reads this to follow the same values I do, so everything I will say on the topic will be mainly personal in nature. I think, however, that there will be rough agreement on what I have to say.

First, we want to live in a society where our physical needs, mental needs, and social needs, are supported; otherwise there would be no point in living in society at all. Not only that, but we should naturally seek a social form which maximally helps fulfill these needs (i.e. if there are a number of social forms which help fulfill our needs, we should seek out the one which does so the most adequately), just as we are interested in being at full health instead of partial health, shelter which shelters us completely instead of partially, enough leisure time to enjoy our lives instead of less, friendships which fulfill our social needs completely instead of only partially, and so on.

This means that what we are looking for is a society that maximizes freedom, that is to say, the range and depth of possibilities of the individual. This implies a society where possibilities are not artificially limited, and a society where the multiplication of possibilities is supported. What that means, in clear, is that we want a society where the individual is not stuck in limitations of body, thought, relationships, science, technology, ideology, and so on (note that this does not mean that the individual himself supports or wants to use all of the variety of, say, technology that exists: one can support maximizing freedom while being a primitivist, for example, consensually restricting certain freedoms in order to enhance others). We also want a society which supports the multiplication of ways by which the human being can relate to other humans, to his environment, to the products of work, and to the world of ideas, and supports the human being’s attempts to explore these different ways.

It is here that equality first enters, because I crucially depend on other human beings for the creation and sustenance of my own freedom. If no one else is free, then I cannot be free. And since I want a society which maximally helps fulfill my values, I therefore want everyone to be as free as I want to be. The universality principle confirms this to be the valid deduction. So unless I find any contrary arguments, I must assume that any rule I wish applied to myself, or any freedom I desire for myself, must also apply to all. Whatever maximizes my freedom must maximize everyone else’s freedom, or my freedom is necessarily not maximized. Furthermore, if other people are not free, they will be ordered to fight against me, making any use of freedom ultimately impossible.


We also have organizational values, and these have a direct relation to ethics. I already went through the reasoning for freedom and equality (which are, after all, the same thing). Here are some other organizational values:

Consent: In order to be free, we must be able to choose which organizations and institutions to support. Also, we know that any system can go wrong, and we need a way to either reform it or disconnect from it. Many States have operated under the pretense of being “based on the consent of the governed,” but we know this is logically impossible. A society which supports freedom must be based on consent. What form this consent takes depends on the nature and scale of the organization, but consent must always be present, directly or indirectly. Otherwise there is no way for the individual to choose what he supports, and no way to reform or disconnect from a social system when it goes astray.

Cooperation: For society to have any reason to exist at all, it must permit cooperation between individuals within a group- or as Anarchists would say, mutual aid- to attain moral aims. Therefore, the existence and spread of cooperation must be supported. We already know that cooperation spreads naturally within groups or societies when it is not hampered, so only liberty (i.e. that the individual not be hampered by some exterior determinism) is needed for this to obtain. For instance, despite the fact that capitalism greatly hinders cooperation between workers and makes it conditional to the acceptance of a non-cooperative planning unit, it still gave rise to a gigantic network of inter-unit cooperation on a scale never seen before in history.

Liberty: What I call liberty, the absence of impositions from any exterior determinism, is basically what American Libertarians would call “negative rights,” freedom from outright coercion. All rules and aims must be cooperatively determined by the individuals involved. There are many different ways to derive liberty: from the disproof of transferring exterior obligation (being impossible for an exterior determinism to impose any moral obligation), from the need for free will (in order to be able to act on one’s values, also see my discussion of consent), from the premise of equality (because coercion necessarily entails that one person’s values are exploited for the sake of another’s), and so on.

Human rights: To understand the concept of rights, it is necessary to start with a basic scenario.

Imagine two individuals A and B. A, the invader, punches B for no reasonable motive. B, the invaded, replies by using proportional force to try to stop or contain A. The question then arises: whose action is justified, A, B, or neither? It is impossible for both to be justified, since each invalidates the other.

In this case, we must side with B, but not because of any particular bias in favour of his values. Indeed, we can freely admit that A and B’s values are equally valid a priori, in accordance with our principle of equality. But it is precisely because of this principle of equality that we must rule against the invader: as an invader, an initiator of force, he is unduly restricting the other fellow’s freedom. Furthermore, in this particular case, A is committing a crime as defined by our natural law. Because of these two facts, we say that B is allowed to use force in self-defense, that his action is justified, and that A’s action is not justified.

This principle, that B is allowed to use force in self-defense against an invader, is a generalization of rights. A right is a justification of force, and all rights concern themselves with determining when it is justified to use force. There are two ways to look at rights: one which is of the “I do not want X” type (also called “negative rights”), which relates to liberty, and the “I want access to X” type (also called “positive rights”), which relates to freedom. Just as liberty and freedom as useless without each other (indeed many people argue that there is really no such distinction), both types of right must co-exist within the same system. It would be unreasonable to recognize, say, the right of an individual to be alive, while refusing him access to vital health care, whether that refusal be the result of capitalist price rationing or government diktat.

The arrangement of human rights which maximize our freedom and everyone else’s freedom is an arrangement where rights correspond to innate natural law, that is to say where rights prevent our freedom from being impeded, and where corresponding access rights are granted. For instance, we naturally recognize that it is wrong for people, either as individuals or groups, to kill, hurt, kidnap, steal from, or defraud others without their consent. By extension, we can look at the behaviour of groups and say that it is wrong for groups to use force to prevent individuals from assembling, speaking freely, working, practicing a given religion, giving aid to each other, engaging in out-norm consensual practices, and so on. These are all things which impede freedom. Therefore we draw the conclusion that there is such a thing as a right to be alive, to be healthy, to move about, to the things we own, to be told the truth in official matters, to assemble, to speak freely, to work, to practice a given religion, to give aid to others, to engage in out-norm consensual practices, and so on. And if there are such rights, then there are also rights to access these resources which make it possible for us to be alive, healthy, to move about, and so on (I will discuss later what exactly this access entails).

Any use of force which is not within the purview of human rights is unjustified. But all A-B exchanges where one is within his rights must be asymmetrical: it cannot be the case that a right justifies A or B’s action and that A and B are both justified. This proves that there cannot be a “right to not be offended,” for instance. If A offends B, and the right is valid, then B is allowed to use force to stop A. But this use of force itself will be offensive to some people, and if A is offended by it, his own retaliation is thereby justified as well. This is a contradiction and therefore such a right is impossible.

Justice: In any large group or society, disputes arise, but those disputes can be resolved peacefully. When disputes cannot be resolved peacefully (or when circumstances prohibit it, such as for violent crimes), we must have some fair way to solve them which prevents violence from spreading and ensures restitution to the victims. The well-being of individuals within that society depends on it. In short: not only must society support mutual aid, but it must also prevent its opposite, mutual harm. And the only logical way to determine how to resolve disputes is by using the natural laws which are innate to human beings (i.e. not to kill, not to steal, to respect other people’s decisions, and so on). The only area of progress is in determining the applications of these laws to new real-life problems, especially technical issues. Any other system of law, proceeding from some exterior determinism, is logically invalid.

Well-being: To me, this term simply means a state of being where the physical, mental and relational needs of the individual are being met, especially physical and mental needs. Well-being, therefore, is directly linked to freedom. For an individual to have well-being, he must have access to those things which help him stay well, especially physically and mentally. We’re talking about things like shelter, food, health care, psychological care, education (not schooling), access to the knowledge accumulated by society, the “pursuit of happiness” or purpose, leisure time, love and sex, the means to communicate and assemble, and so on.

Note that this does not imply that shelter, food, health care, and so on, must be provided by The State/corporations/free/on a monetary basis/capitalistically/socialistically/communistically. Each of these concepts or ideologies must be evaluated on the basis of the principles of ethics we have determined (although to be fair, it should be obvious that hierarchies are already disproven by a number of principles we have established so far, but I will come back to that in a bit).

Respecting human nature: Because the vast majority of our values are the result of needs which come from human nature, it makes no sense to try to implement them in a way that goes counter to human nature. This is not to say that we must follow them to the letter: obviously, technology is not part of human nature but it is perfectly valid. But we also must not fight actively against human nature, as any such attempts are not only doomed to failure but inevitably condemn us to profound dysfunction, and to a dysfunctional society. One simply has to look at the results of fundamentalist Christianity in some parts of the United States to prove it for oneself (the failure of monogamy as a model, and the pressures against homosexuality, are two other examples). To try to dissociate ethics from human nature is a contradiction and can only lead to more contradictions.

Continue to part 2.

5 thoughts on “From morality to ethics… [part 1/3]

  1. […] It will do no good to say, as one Objectivist did, that “life in general is not a concentration camp.” Of course life is not a concentration camp. So what? Children dying of AIDS is better than children living in a concentration camp, but it still isn’t worth it. The point is that no one has the right to draw any such line for anyone else, no one has the right to impose “acceptable” vicissitudes on a person who might disagree with their level of “acceptability.” To argue otherwise is to reject the concept of consent entirely, and ultimately ethics (if I am correct in arguing that consent is a necessary consequence of any ethical reasoning). […]

  2. […] treating people as means to an end goes against the most crucial social values: freedom, equality and cooperation (people using others as means to an end elevate themselves as an […]

  3. […] are two ethical principles that apply here: equality and consent. The principle of equality means that any freedom or […]

  4. […] just thinking about ethics, “diversity” wouldn’t even enter the picture for me. I would rather look to things like equality or freedom, or perhaps more pragmatic considerations like well-being […]

  5. […] have discussed previously how egalitarianism is the bedrock for all social virtues. Conversely, any concept of equality which […]

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