Hypothetical moral reality

While cycling today, I was thinking about moral orders. Specifically, if one was given the chance to take any moral formulation that human beings have dreamt up and ascribed divine status to and make it real (give it ontological status), which would you choose and why?

The first problem, of course, is the need to assign some kind of essential personhood to individuals. Beinghood, more likely, since it may be desirable to include animals other than human beings in this moral order. Given that most religious moral systems involve the existence of an afterlife, this beinghood must be quite independent of physical reality. Massive injury, death, and the total destruction of all physical manifestations of the self must not disrupt its continuity. While I have severe doubts over whether such a thing could exist or actually exists in our universe, the establishment of such a ‘unique identifier’ is necessary for the development of our moral database.

Now that we have units, we need interaction rules. Specifically, criteria according to which the moral status of an act can be determined. Remember that we are designing a moral system from the ground up and embedding it in the universe, not trying to discern what kind of moral pattern – if any – is stamped within existing space and time. Personally, I would base it on the respectful, tolerant, and generous treatment of fellow beings, of all descriptions.

Last, we need a mechanism for balancing moral payments: a system by which moral cheques clear. In the interests of efficiency, it should be possible for at least part of this moral balancing to occur ‘right before your eyes.’ That is important, firstly, because it uncovers the ‘rules of the game’ for people to perceive. Secondly, it makes it more likely that they will follow the rules. At the same time, people do seem to have a natural longing for life-beyond-life. I see no reason not to satisfy this longing, since we have the capacity to do so in this thought experiment and it can further expand both the attractiveness of our model universe and the ability of this thought experiment to shed light on various kinds of moral orders. The solution, then, is a kind of dual karmic balancing.

When a positive moral act takes place, the being who carried it out receives some form of immediate benefit (whether greater happiness, health, or some other beneficial internal property – quite separate from, say, respect in the community). In addition, the moral being secures credits towards a more promising life the next time around, on the basis of a system of reincarnation postulated on the aforementioned unique beinghoods. Conversely, morally reprehensible acts (according to the criteria sketched out above) generate both immediate and eventual punishment of some purely internal and comprehensible variety.

The appeal of this system, in comparison to another possible model, is that it remains perpetually dynamic. You can always move up or down in the moral heirarchy, and doing so in either direction is always a comprehensible process.

Threshold morality

The other major possibility extended, at least, in religious moralities with which I am familiar, is one based on thresholds. Commit enough deplorable acts and you risk falling below a threshold of villainy permanently (in some refined systems, some wicked acts are of insufficient gravity to condemn one, provided one has made some penance for them, while other kinds of acts are sufficient to push a being below the threshold forever). The problems with this are legion. Firstly, there is no incentive at all, once you have fallen below that threshold forever, to act virtuously henceforth – a problem that many belief systems evade by offering the possibility of wholesale redemption through one means or another. Secondly, if the phase of moral evaluation is trivial in length compared to the phase of punishment or reward, there is a seeming disjoint between crime and punishment or virtuous act and reward. While it wouldn’t be correct to say that the evaluative phase is arbitrary, it is entirely fair to say that it is brief and question whether confused, misguided, or even malicious action over a limited timescale justifies a certain treatment over a longer or unlimited span.

Alternatively, there are moral codes that hold that once sufficient criteria are met, a person is above a threshold where no blemish is sufficient to drive them below again. This kind of permanent transcendence has many of the same problems as permanent damnation.

An intelligent rebuttal is to say that religious moral systems that exist in our world must take into account the fact that immediate (if partial) repayment for good or ill does not take place. As such, it is necessary to motivate human beings to act in accordance with certain rules in other ways. If asserting the idea that such thresholds exist is an efficient way of doing so, then the idea of thresholds might be useful for generating particular kinds of human behaviour in the world. Of course, in this situation, the thresholds are being used as a motivational device in a way that would not vary whether they actually existed or not.

Of course, there isn’t really much point in speculating upon what kind of moral laws one would breathe into the universe, if one could. It is, at best, a potentially useful thought experiment, through which insight into the nature of moral systems – both secular and religious.

Problems with karmic systems

Some might object that virtuous acts that yield immediate benefit to the actor are less worthy of praise than those which are truly selfless. Though, for an act to be truly selfless, it must yield benefit neither in the immediate future or in the long-term. Personally, I see little reason to consider mutually beneficial acts morally inferior – especially when we have the chance to design a moral system from the ground up. Setting up mutually rewarding structures for good behaviour helps in the establishment of virtuous cycles of mutual aid. Likewise, giving an immediate benefit for virtuous action helps to interrupt the development of viscous cycles of retaliation. Whereas in our universe, you are likely to be punished for exercising restraint in violent conflicts, a moral system party based on immediate benefit could make such perverse incentives less frequent.

A bigger problem has to do with defining “respectful, tolerant, and generous treatment of fellow beings.” Thankfully, this is much less of a problem when you are creating worlds than when you are trying to comprehend the one you are in. Major differences in opinion about the nature of virtuous conduct seem far less likely in a universe of immediate punishment or reward. An interesting question – which I shall largely bracket here – is whether it is preferable for such risks and rewards to be easily discerned by observing third parties, or whether it would be preferable to have them entirely internal and inscrutable to outsiders.

Challenge to others

Going back to the original question: “if one was given the chance to take any moral formulation that human beings have dreamt up and ascribed divine status to and make it real (give it ontological status), which would you choose and why?”

Are the above statements generally sensible, or can objection be taken to them? The point is not theological evaluation, since that would accept as predicates considerations that are entirely external to this analysis. The point has much more to do with human motivation and psychological needs. As such, the answers might have some applicability in a universe where the ontological status being postulated here does not exist, or is not clearly attributed to one set of moral axioms or another.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Hypothetical moral reality”

  1. You know, if you took the amount of time you spend on a week’s worth of these mediocre mumblings and used it to write one thing, it might be good?

  2. Who is B?

    The meta problem is the question of why? Why reflect on these possibilities? Such a priori analyses are only seemingly useful when they confirm the reality that already exists (i.e. Rawls) and makes slight suggestions for actions. But, why reflect on having the ability to redefine existence such that it might be “ethical”. Ethics are, remember, merely an idea that we’ve developed given the conditions to which we have been subject. If you change the conditions, as your reflection presupposes, why would we expect to have the same ethical impulses, the same notion of fairness etc…? In short, the power of granting ontological status seems to undermine the purpose of moral reflection.

  3. Tristan,

    The point was meant to be turning religious ethics on its head. Usually, the source of disagreement has to do with what kind of morality actually exists out there. By stripping away that requirement, it seems possible to think about moral systems in different terms.

    In short, it’s a mechanism for identifying, firstly, what kind of moral framework a particular person thinks they would be happiest in and, more importantly, whether the answers people give vary a great deal, or not very much at all.

  4. One objection I anticipated is that the suggested scheme above is the very embodiment of soft paternalism: gently (or not so gently) encouraging people to behave in predefined correct ways. That could stifle diversity, as well as strip people of much of the need to think for themselves on moral issues.

    Likewise, in the case of many of the moral divisions that exist within societies today (say, about abortion), it is not immediately clear what “respectful, tolerant, and generous treatment of fellow beings, of all descriptions” would constitute. How do you deal with conflicting claims between different beings?

    Either the universe’s moral calculator would have to be so complex that some of its operations would be non-obvious, or it would risk trivializing the complex nature of many moral choices.

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