There are several important considerations that are deeply lacking in discourse on moral philosophy. In particular, sharper focus on the reasons why moral questions arise in the first place, the scope of both their enquiry plus the latter’s consequential resolution would aid clearer thought when considering important questions. Part one of this set of three essays will elaborate the conditions or circumstances that are necessary for moral rules to arise; part two will focus on the ethics of violence and part three on the same within the sphere of non-violence. All of the essays will concentrate on moral rules that arise between individual beings (that is moral obligations that are owed to others rather than what is simply “good” for oneself). While an exhaustive treatment of the entire subject would require one or many book-length works the concepts that are outlined here will in particular seek to overcome the notion that anything that is morally “good” should be promoted by the Government and/or that anything that is morally “bad” should be restricted or prevented by the Government.

Morality in the Universe

The matter in the universe finds itself in an array of different conditions, or states of being. We may call each condition in which matter can be arranged an end. In order for an end to be brought into being it requires an action. For an example, an end may be a state of quenched thirst. The action would be drinking a glass of water. (One might also say that the condition of the status quo is brought about by the action of abstaining from interference). All such ends brought about by actions must be done so through means, in this case, the glass, the tap, the water and my labour.

Morality is the discipline that seeks to advocate norms that govern these conditions. Moral rules are prescriptive, seeking to determine which ends should be brought about. Why then does morality arise or, more precisely, what elements must be present in order for ends through actions with means to be regulated?

The Morally Discriminating Being

If ends in the universe are to be regulated by a set of moral norms then it follows that there must some being that will do this – some being must be able to categorise the various conditions as morally good or morally bad (or as any shade of grey in between). What type of being is this?

If matter is dead or unconscious then it is obvious that not even the thought processes necessary for moral determination are present. If the universe consisted solely of such matter then there would be no being in existence that would have the ability to even raise the moral questions let alone ponder their resolution. A universe populated by unconscious matter would consist neither of moral ends nor immoral ends but simply of uncategorised events. However large or small, nothing would be good or bad, pleasurable or painful, inspiring or depressing, virtuous or repugnant. Moral determination therefore requires the conscious ability to discriminate between the ends of actions – to decide which ends are good or bad. In short, they need to be valued. Indeed the very essence of morality is determining which ends should be valued higher than others (or not at all).

However, having the ability to evaluate ends is insufficient – there must also be the impetus to do so. Why would a being have the desire to rank some ends as valuable and others as not? Why does the conflict between what are good ends are what are bad ends exist?

In the first place we could suggest that it is because the universe is one of logical contradiction where one cannot enjoy end A and end not-A at the same time – for example, one cannot be simultaneously thirsty and quenched, hot and cold, inside and outside, in lightness and darkness. Combinations of ends can interfere with each other to render the other ends impossible or seriously impaired. One of the great fields of moral philosophy, that of pain, is easily understood – it is very difficult for other ends to co-exist with a situation of pain. Strictly, therefore, by “good” and “bad” ends we simply mean more or less desirable. Such desire would not exist if all ends could be enjoyed contemporaneously, for there could be no such thing as good or bad. Each end could be enjoyed to its fullest and would have no interference with any other end. There is therefore a conflict between ends. The conflict forces the being to make a choice and by virtue of having to make a choice we can say that the being lives in a world of scarcity1.

But this is not enough however. For as we have already stated, ends must be brought about through actions which require means. By stating that we cannot bring apparently conflicting ends into being are we not in fact saying that we lack the means to do so? The means are the physical tools used by an action to bring an end into being. If there are no means there can be no action and with no action there is no end. Ergo, no means and no end. This also applies to apparently contradictory means, as isn’t it at least conceivable that one day the means might exist to create what today appear to be inconceivable ends?

However the scarcity of means goes much further than the inability to produce apparently contradictory ends. For means are scarce because they can only be directed towards a finite number of ends. Indeed the quality of ends may be non-contradictory and could exist harmoniously with each other but the means to fulfil them all may not be present. The valuing, desiring, and determining being, the moral discriminator, therefore allocates means to the most valued end first, then to the second etc., with ends being unfulfilled at the point where means are extinguished.

We start to see, therefore, that morality arises because of conflicts caused by the scarcity of means. Indeed, moral rules solely aim at what should be done with means. A wide array of possible moral norms – you should not steal, you should not have promiscuous sex, a parent should take care of his/her child, and so on – are stated either in the form “X action should not occur” or “Y end should not be brought about”. But such prescriptions are not aiming at the end as such they are aiming at the means. All of these rules seek to prohibit or restrict ends because they are the not the most appropriate use of the means available. In short, that there are “better” or more highly valued ends towards which the scarce means should be directed.

In sum, a morally discriminating being is one that ranks ends in order to resolve conflicts arising from scarcity of means. By virtue of this ability to rank ends we might also say that the morally discriminating being is the one to whom moral obligations are owed, or, more precisely they are the recipients of the moral benefit. If morality seeks to regulate conditions then the results of this will be what these beings experience.

It is not necessary for the morally discriminating being to be able to control actions that bring about conditions in the universe, that is they needn’t be able to use means to act to bring about ends. A totally paralysed individual, for example, may express discriminating thoughts and values without an ability to bring them into being. Nevertheless these will just be mere thoughts and judgments in the absence of anything further. For one may ponder all day the way one wants conditions to be but if no being has the ability to bring them about through controlling actions then these thoughts are mere mind games – it will be impossible for them to be elevated to the category of norms. For this, we need the morally responsible being to arise.

Moral Responsibility

It should be obvious again that unconscious matter cannot be deemed to have moral responsibility. If morality is to resolve conflicts over competing ends then the being itself must be able to be the initiator of the actions that bring about these ends, i.e. the actions must be chosen. Matter must be able to decide whether to act in a certain way or not but the action of unconscious matter is determined wholly by nature and is regular, predictable and quantifiable. A norm stating that it is immoral for water, when tipped out of a glass, to fall to the ground would be nonsensical as the water has neither the desire to choose nor the ability to do otherwise. It simply behaves according to the laws of physics. Unconscious matter cannot, therefore, be regulated by moral norms.

The actions of conscious matter, however, are determined by that very same consciousness – the action of a human being, for instance is the result of its thinking2. If I move an object from one side of the room to another it is because my mind has chosen that this action should be performed rather than an alternative action. I could equally have chosen not to do so. Conscious actions are therefore not dependent upon external stimuli nor are they reducible to a set of concrete or quantifiable scientific laws – they originate wholly within the mind of the acting being.

We may illustrate further the differences between unconscious matter and conscious matter. The former always behaves in the same way under the same set of circumstances on different occasions. Water will always boil at 100 degrees Celsius at normal atmospheric pressure; it cannot choose to remain un-boiled. The same conscious being however might choose to behave the same or behave differently under the same set of circumstances on different occasions. For example if a robber marches in to a crowded shopping mall and shoots a gun I might dash under a table. If it happens on a second occasion I might choose to do the same thing or I might choose to confront the robber, perhaps buoyed up by my experience of the previous occasion.

Unconscious matter will also behave in the same way under the same set of circumstances on the same occasion as that of other matter of the same ilk. One litre of water will behave in the same way as another litre of water when they are together under the same conditions. However, one conscious being will not always act in the same way as another at the same time. If we take the robber example again I and others might dash under the table but further people present may confront the robber, some may go to seek external help, some will rush to protect children, etc. Precisely what is done and by whom, the content of the action of each, cannot be reduced to a set of scientific laws but is instead dependent on the individual’s own desires and choices.

The morally responsible being therefore must be one that controls its actions, the actions resulting in one of a choice of ends, the choice being made necessary because of the fact of scarcity of means. Indeed the whole purpose of morality is to govern which actions should be chosen. It is this choice leading to control over means that are used in actions to create ends that begat moral responsibility.

Finally we must say that the morally responsible being is the one that owes moral obligations or bears the moral burden. It is its actions that bring about conditions that morality seeks to regulate and are, in turn, experienced by those beings with moral discrimination.

Combinations of Moral Discrimination and Moral Responsibility

As moral responsibility is ascribed to the same fact as moral discrimination – that of choice between ends governing actions through means – it follows that a morally responsible being will also always be a morally discriminating one. The reverse, however, need not be true. It is quite possible for a morally discriminating being – one to whom moral obligations are owed – to be devoid of moral responsibility. Physically paralysed persons again, for example, may possess a mind capable of desire, value and choice but lack the ability to bring about these values. Nevertheless we may still regard them as being holders of moral rights3. How precisely these rights and obligations come to be owed and held and by whom and between whom is what we shall turn to next.

Moral Rules and Society

Let us imagine several hypothetical types of universe in which moral rules – the norms that resolve conflicts arising from scarcity of means – might be determined. All of these universes are fictitious but they will help us to isolate and understand the elements of the universe as it is that are necessary for morality to come about.

As we have already outlined a universe consisting entirely of unconscious matter would yield no moral rules. With no morally discriminating being the reason for morality arising in the first place – the problem of scarcity – is non-existent. Matter may collide in attempts to occupy the same space but all conflicts will be resolved purely by the laws of physics and nobody will be there to say whether the resulting conditions are better or worse. With no such discrimination between conflicting ends there will be no moral rules.

Similarly a universe containing only one or more morally discriminating beings but no morally responsible beings would yield nothing; in such a universe we now have beings that may feel the conflict of scarcity in their minds. But their values, whatever they may be, are unable to express themselves through action that results in changed ends. There is, therefore, no scope for any morality to be put into practice. Any musing on the ends that should be brought about would simply be an intellectual game rather than a blueprint for regulating the condition of the universe.

Next, let us consider a universe of a single, lone, morally responsible being (who is, as we stated above, also a morally discriminating one). No matter at all exists apart from this being, indeed we might even say that he is the universe. We therefore now have a being who both feels the conflict of scarcity and has the ability to resolve these conflicts by choosing ends through action but he is the only thing out there. How will morality arise here, if at all?

Such loneliness for the conscious being entails that there is no other matter existing outside of itself. All ends and means concern only and are of only itself. All conflicts arising from scarcity can concern only itself, or are made with reference to itself – indeed they will all arise because the being needs to decide what to do with itself. Further any truth or realisation that it could perceive would concern solely itself as there is no other matter on which such a perception could be formed. Although the being would be subject to physical laws there would, on the other hand, be nothing approaching a sphere of morality that could be divorced from the being’s own desires, evaluations and choices. The entire universe of the being would revolve only around these elements; there are no other considerations that would either prevent or promote these elements in determining how the being should resolve conflicts of scarcity. Furthermore any resolution of the conflict that the being takes through action will only affect itself for there is no other matter that can be changed as the result of one of the these actions. In this type of universe, therefore, morality, in seeking to resolve the being’s conflicts of scarcity, will relate entirely to the being’s preferences, choices and actions that can and only will ever affect conditions concerning itself and conditions arising from itself. Every conflict originates from the being’s own matter, every choice will be made by him, every action will be made by him also, all means will consist of him and, finally, every end will affect only him. Whether we can sensibly conceive of morality that is divorced from what the being actually does prefer, choose and act upon as opposed to that which it should is a puzzle the reader might like to consider. But for the purposes of this essay we shall conclude that morality seeks to solve conflicts that arise between various beings or between various “collections” of matter. Questions of morality are therefore social questions and moral rules are social rules.

Let us therefore turn to the universe where there is still one morally responsible being (the “moral agent”) present but there now exists matter that is external to the being. In such a universe there is now a frame of reference outside of the matter of the being so that there is something other than considerations concerning the being’s own self that will affect and afflict its choices concerning the resolution of conflicts arising from scarcity. How does a moral agent come to know the content of these moral rules?

Where all external matter is unconscious neither moral discrimination nor moral responsibility can be ascribed to such matter as we have stated. It follows that this matter cares not which conditions prevail in the universe nor does it have the ability to change them. Conflicts regarding scarcity will arise slightly differently, however. For the state of the external matter is itself a condition of the universe that the moral agent will form values concerning and hence the status of the external matter itself then is a source of conflict. For example, a rock may occupy the space that the moral agent wishes to occupy or a piece of fruit may be hanging from a tree. If the moral agent desires to occupy the rock’s space or eat the fruit the rock must be moved and the fruit must be plucked from the tree and consumed. Owing to the scarcity of means external matter cannot be in both of its stated conditions simultaneously – the rock cannot be into two places and the fruit cannot be both hanging from the tree and consumed. Or, there may be another delicious fruit hanging from a different tree but the moral agent has the means to pick only one of them and has to choose which. However, these conflicts, the choice between alternatives, exist solely in the mind of the moral agent, not in the external matter. Possessing no desires and choices of its own this matter is simply there; the original condition that it is in upon the entry to the scene of the moral agent is governed by physics and will remain so absent any intervention by the moral agent. Where a conflict forms in the mind of the moral agent, therefore, where he would prefer the condition of external matter to be different, there is still no external frame of reference to establish precisely why he should prefer this (or not). Conflicts in this universe will only be solved, therefore, by the agent allocating means to his most highly valued ends first and bringing these about through action4.

Our final fictitious universe is one where there is a single morally responsible being and one or many morally discriminating beings. Here, for the first time, we have a being who can choose means, ends and actions in the universe the results of which will be valued by other beings. Here we have the first glimmer of morality being able to arise in this universe, for conflicts now do not solely arise as autistic problems in the mind of a single being but exist vis-à-vis separate beings. Indeed, a greater degree of scarcity exists in this universe as each may wish to have the same means devoted to different ends. A universe of many morally discriminating beings therefore suffers from interpersonal scarcity.

However we have to conclude that morality simply will not arise in this universe. For how is the morally responsible being supposed to be able to distinguish between unconscious matter and matter that is discriminating but unable to control its actions? A characteristic of beings that value but can bear no moral responsibility is that their actions are determined entirely by the laws of physics. their behaviour and responses to stimuli will be exactly the same as unconscious matter. There is no way therefore that the moral agent can know whether he is supposed to proceed with a certain action with moral responsibility or whether he can solely reflect on his own values and choices as they actually are. The situation is akin to rocks secretly being able to value – do we owe moral obligations to rocks simply because of this? An answer in the affirmative would be an absurdity. No moral agent would ever be able to act in relation to other matter at all on the grounds that it “might” be able to think and, faced, with this quandary, would quickly perish.

Our final scenario, and the one that really exists, is where there is more than one morally responsible being in existence. But even here special conditions must exist. It should be obvious that the existence alone of other beings is insufficient; in order to be accounted for the being must be aware of this existence. As we said before, morality is prompted by conflict. Totally independent existence from all other beings would still yield nothing that was outside of and separate from the moral agent’s own existence and conflicts arising from scarcity will remain within this sphere. The same could be true where there is a mutual awareness between morally responsible beings yet this awareness is innocuous – as long as no conflict arises in the minds of the moral agents the scope of morality will still be that of the agent and its actions that will concern only itself.

The next step, therefore, is for conflicts arising from scarcity to arise between moral agents – that is that they each independently desire, value, choose and act, but that one agent’s actions can’t co-exist with another’s because of the fact of scarcity of means. Morality is therefore necessarily dependent upon the existence of multiple moral agents who engage in conflicts resulting from scarcity. It seeks to answer these conflicts by determining in whose favour the conflict should be determined. The “winner” will have a moral right that he can enforce against the “loser” who in turn bears the moral obligation. The result is formulated in typical discourse as the “winner” should be able to do X whereas the loser should not be able to do X; or the “loser” should do Y for the “winner”, etc.5 However, as we elaborated above, the conflict arises because of means. The moral prescription therefore takes effect as awarding a moral right to one party over means, whereas the other has a moral obligation not to interfere with these means.

Conclusion

We have, therefore, fully elaborated the necessary preconditions for morality to arise in the universe. In short, the universe must be populated by two or more beings who devote scarce means through actions towards ends. Conflicts arising because of the scarcity of means between individuals begat moral norms.

In the next two parts we shall look at specific conflicts that will arise between moral agents. Part two will concentrate on the moral norms that are violently enforceable and part three on those are not. In each case, what will be suggested is that a rationally derived body of ethics exists to govern human interaction.

Go to part two – The Ethics of Violence.

View the video version of this post.

1The problem of pain is one that illustrates the logical quagmire in which one might end up by trying to too hard to conceive of a universe without scarcity. We might say that pain itself is a product of scarcity – that it is a physiological warning system that alerts the “sufferer” to the fact that he is proceeding on a course of action that will extinguish his ability to pursue ends, i.e. he is in the process of damaging and perhaps killing his body. It is possible to suggest, therefore, that in a non-scarce world pain would not exist. But if pain doesn’t exist then it too becomes scarce and so the non-scarce universe does not come about.

2By this we mean the content of actions as opposed to their form which are subject to the laws of praxeology.

3The precise classification of existing beings is beyond the scope of this essay; the difficult question of children or of those adults with impaired mental or physical capabilities, not to mention the distinction between certain types of animals – mere single cell organisms and the higher primates, for example – will not be dealt with here. Our aim is to determine the prerequisites of moral beings, not to analyse who or what actually possesses them.

4It might be asserted that conflicts arising from scarcity will be resolved by “technical considerations” only, i.e. by what can be done as opposed to what should be done. For example, if a moral agent wishes to stand where a rock is then the matter will be decided by whether the moral agent can, in fact, move the rock. However the reason why technical considerations arise at all is because means are scarce, i.e. the means to move the rock are lacking. To suggest, therefore, that technical considerations will resolve conflicts arising from scarcity is to argue that scarcity will resolve scarcity. The entire problem is precisely which out of a whole myriad of technical possibilities can means be best devoted? Resolution of this can only fall back on the agent’s own values and choices in this type of universe.

5The terms “winner” and “loser” are used here with extreme caution. He who holds the moral right does not necessarily command any greater virtue, talent or supremacy compared to he who holds the moral obligation. Rather as we shall see in a later essay there is at least a category of moral rights and moral obligations that are universal, applying to all situations at all times. Everyone therefore has the potential to be a “winner” or “loser” depending upon the facts of the specific instance. Furthermore, the term “enforced” is also used with the want for a better term – one of the biggest problems that will be clarified in the next part is where it is morally permissible for violence to arise between individuals. Not all moral rights can be violently enforced.

Advertisements