The Falling of The Heavens

A few months ago, in an article opposing gay marriage, Cal Thomas made the following observation:

Let's put it this way. If you tell me you do not believe in God and then say to me that I should brake for animals, or pay women equally, or help the poor, on what basis are you making such an appeal? If no standard for objective truth, law, wisdom, justice, charity, kindness, compassion and fidelity exists in the universe, then what you are asking me to accept is an idea that has taken hold in your head but that has all of the moral compulsion of a bowl of cereal. You are a sentimentalist, trying to persuade me to a point of view based on your feelings about the subject and not rooted in the fear of God or some other unchanging earthly standard.

Thomas is right: without an objective, unchanging standard--perhaps God, perhaps something else--there is no way to ground morality. We are left only with our moral sentiments. And so, the argument goes, you better believe in God if you want an objective basis for telling others to brake for animals, pay women equally, or help the poor. And since we like people who brake for animals, pay women equally, and help the poor, and frown upon those who don't do these things, we have a very good reason to believe in God.

Or do we? As I wrote a few months ago in response to Thomas,

Even if there is no way to ground morality without first positing the existence of God, this is not a good argument for God's existence. Just because we find something convenient and comforting doesn't make it true.

Besides being unconvicing on epistemological grounds, I'm not so sure it's even convenient or comforting anymore. Is it convenient to have lots of people running around who unwaveringly believe that God frowns upon this and praises that, when no two people have the same view of what God wants from us? How are we supposed to resolve these conflicts? Is it comforting to know that the only reason your neighbor doesn't rape, burglarize or kill you is because he fears even worse consequences in the afterlife? Wouldn't you rather have a neighbor who is civil because he has empathy for his fellow man, and for no other reason?

If this argument fails when it is offered as a reason to believe in God,--and I believe it does fail--then it also fails when is is offered in support of the objectivity of natural rights.

Will Wilkinson makes the connection:

It seems that I'm constantly getting into arguments--arguments that don't even interest me that much--about whether moral behavior is even possible if people don't believe in God, or Aristotelian natural ends, or natural rights, or whatever. It's boring because, well, it's just plain as an Amish girl that you don't need to believe in anything special to do the right thing. Nevertheless, I often hear arguments that go something like this:

"If people don't believe in God, then we won't be afraid to do terrible things, and won't have any motivation to do good things, and then there'll just be CHAOS, which would be horrifying."

To which I usually sit with a stunned and expectant look on my face. Because the next step seems perfectly obvious to me. If chaos is so terrible, isn't that reason enough for people to, you know, avoid it. No one much wants to step over corpses on the way to Starbucks, or hose the blood off the sidewalks each morning. We'll all be much better off if we constrain ourselves in certain ways, and if we exert a little extra effort in certain cases.

So isn't this all we need to believe: that being good is a net winner over baby-raping anarchy? God, natural rights, or whatever, don't seem to get you anything extra. The horribleness of immorality does a pretty good job of making morality look pretty good without any special help. So why all the insistence on overdetermination? Insurance?

Randy Barnett, in his new paper, The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism, mentions the insurance angle and suggests one additional use for natural rights:

Abstract natural rights are like a "cheat sheet" for a multiple choice exam. They can often distinguish right action from wrong, but they do not provide all the reasons why some actions should be thought right and others wrong, and therefore they are often unpersuasive unless bolstered by more explicitly consequentialist analysis. Nonetheless, such a cheat sheet can obviate the need for costly and potentially tragic "social experiments" that may be recommended by faulty consequentialist analyses. Even when such experiments are destructive, there is often no efficient way to terminate them. Perhaps more than others, libertarians contend that it is far better to use an abstract natural rights analysis to look before one leaps. But if seriously adverse consequences were ever shown to result from adhering to the outcomes recommended by a natural rights analysis, that analysis would have to be reexamined and perhaps revised.

Natural rights, which Barnett describes as "nothing more than concepts or constructs", may serve a useful purpose as probabilistic shortcuts to correct consequentialist answers. As time passes and people face the same social problems over again and over again, they begin to recognize patterns. These patterns, in turn, evolve into the conceptual framework to which we give the honorific "rights" - enshrined in and enforced by social custom and written law.

But these tools pervert their proper role when they are viewed as ends and not means. As Barnett notes,

Moral rights analysis becomes unappealing when it advocates the protection of moral rights "though heavens may fall." Most people care about the domain of discretionary actions that rights protect, but also would care about the falling of the heavens.

The purpose of both moral rights analysis and consequentialist analysis is to solve the fundamental social problem: "Given that the actions of each person in society are likely to have effects on others, on what conditions is it possible for persons to live and pursue happiness in society with other persons?" When strict adherence to natural rights interferes with these conditions, so much the worse for natural rights.

Share this

While few enough can agree

While few enough can agree on terms, this kind of thing is exactly why I prefer to rely on the term "ethical" rather than "moral" when debating right and wrong..... In this case I take ethical to be those correct behaviours stemming from the self (ethos: Greek for "character") and principles. Moral on the other hand stems from largely religious-based custom (moral from the Latin root "mos" for "custom" if memory serves).

Ethical behaviour is more mutable as humans learn what actions provide the best results (utility) for the individual and society (and therefore is something a libertarian can sink his or her teeth into) whereas morals are immutable and stem from some distant custom (presumably based on religion). Clearly neither what is moral nor what is ethical are set in stone: but morals are determined less by rational discussion and debate than ethics are.

I jotted down the following quote some time ago, but I lost the attribution: "Ethical behavior can be moral within this context if it also can be derived from religious principle. Ethical behavior can be immoral within this context, if religion condemns it; and, of course, it can also be amoral if religion does not address it. Likewise, moral behavior can be ethical or unethical; and it can also be non-ethical, in the sense that it falls outside the purview of ethics."

I say you nail it there,

I say you nail it there, Micha, though I think it bears noting that the converse of your final paragraph is also true:

"When strict adherence to consequential thinking interferes with these conditions, so much the worse for consequentialism."

The memory of rootless consequentialism (i.e. the Progressive/Technocratic/Socialist ethos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) leading to mass death and destruction leads many to, understandably, shy away from a conception of ethics that does not rule out evil. After all, the communists thought that the way to make everyone happier was to impose their view of the world on everyone. 'Good' Consequentialism seems to me to be evolutionary and recognizes that we dont have to re-invent the wheel; time has taught us (a) a consensus view of what good consequences are and (b) what strictures bring about (a). Thats a Hayekian argument, of course, and one that I endorse as well (among other justifications for liberal order; I also happen to agree with Dave).

I think that, ala the word "anarchy", a good number of liberal-minded people are initially scared of anything that would allow the carnage of the 20th century to bloom again (the substitution of an unrooted, nouveau concept of what good consequences are, leading to mass experimentation on societies to see how to "get those good consequences"). But as Dave said, any moral conception has to do what it sets out to do. If a 'natural rights' conception does not bring about the (good) world that it implies, then the conception isn't worth much, and obedience to it would be rote, and of little use except as an end in itself.

And, evolutionarily speaking, any moral conception must also tend to propagate itself (or at least lend itself towards continuation) or else, logically, it will cease to exist over time. Survival fitness is, of course, otherwise value-neutral (what we as liberals consider 'evil' moral conceptions survive pretty well, too).

The optimum strategy for the

The optimum strategy for the individual with your understanding of morality is the strategy of the Prudent Predator. Naturally anyone who recognizes this isn't going to much trust people holding this moral view, especially smart guys like you and Willkinson, to not discover the optimum strategy consistent with their view.

"To which I usually sit with

"To which I usually sit with a stunned and expectant look on my face. Because the next step seems perfectly obvious to me. If chaos is so terrible, isn’t that reason enough for people to, you know, avoid it. No one much wants to step over corpses on the way to Starbucks, or hose the blood off the sidewalks each morning. We’ll all be much better off if we constrain ourselves in certain ways, and if we exert a little extra effort in certain cases.

So isn’t this all we need to believe: that being good is a net winner over baby-raping anarchy?"

Um no. Because in the absence of objective morality virtue produces public goods while vice produces private goods.

Under objective moraility virtue produces private goods and vice results in a net loss of private goods.

John- That formulation would

John-

That formulation would seem to be dependent upon the individuals in society in either case- the presence or absence of objective morality in a philosophical sense will have no effect unless the people in society adhered to said morality.

After all, if objective morality did not hold, yet people acted in accordance with its precepts anyway, then your first situation would not come to pass- virtue would still be a private good because people believe in that moral position.

If objective morality did hold, but people acted like the prudent predator anyway, it seems to me that, similarly, the outcome would be that virtue is a public good and everyone's out to rip each other off.

In which case it doesn't matter if there is objective morality or not, but whether people adhere to it.

The optimum strategy for the

The optimum strategy for the individual with your understanding of morality is the strategy of the Prudent Predator. Naturally anyone who recognizes this isn’t going to much trust people holding this moral view, especially smart guys like you and Willkinson, to not discover the optimum strategy consistent with their view.

How does your espousal of natural rights defeat the Prudent Predator?

"After all, if objective

"After all, if objective morality did not hold, yet people acted in accordance with its precepts anyway, then your first situation would not come to pass- virtue would still be a private good because people believe in that moral position."

In the absence of objective morality the inidividul should prefer others to believe in objective morality, while not acting in accordance with it himself. This is an unstable situation because the other indiviudals are always capable of discovering the truth. It's a race to the bottom.

In this case Ghertner and Willkinson are throwing gas on a fire that's inevitable anyway. It's self-destructive behavior, but who's to say that's wrong?

The same criticism holds for your other point, reality matters and behavior which ignores it can't be stable.

"How does your espousal of

"How does your espousal of natural rights defeat the Prudent Predator?"

Under an objective morality you can't profit by predatory behavior, it always results in a net loss to the individual.

This is not an argument for objective morality per se, just a demonstration why you should expect a race to the bottom between those who believe morality is subjective.

I dont understand what you

I dont understand what you mean by objective morality, then. Do you mean that if you literally Do A then B will occur?

As in, are objective morals something akin to laws of physics, where interaction with the universe will show they are true? Or, rather, that their truth will mold and shape your existence such that any selfish optimizer will ultimately conform to them?

If they are akin to the laws of physics (i.e. have an objective existence beyond what people want) then it doesn't matter what people believe; the only successful individuals will be those who cotton to objective morality, consciously or unconsciously. Immoral behavior will be evolutionarily selected against, and will fall to some sort of equilibrium based on how often people randomly choose to go against objective morality.

If they are not akin to the laws of physics, how is it that people will (a) figure them out and (b) be affected by them if they don't believe?

"If they are not akin to the

"If they are not akin to the laws of physics, how is it that people will (a) figure them out and (b) be affected by them if they don’t believe?"

Do I wait in vain for an Austrian to show up here? I demonstrated an a priori ought at NT.

John, There's a story by

John, There's a story by John Gardner called "Vlemk the Box Painter" or something like that. In it there's this character who hides an axe under his coat, waiting to commit the perfect murder. However, his aesthetic standards for perfection are so stringent that he never actually kills anyone, although murder is his passion. The idea of a prudent predator reminds me of this. In order to go undetected as a predator, you prudently develop behavioral dispositions that engender trust and dispose other to enter into cooperative agreements. However, once you've developed these dispositions, you turn out actually to be trustworhty and cooperative, and end up never actually predating.

What does the fundamental a

What does the fundamental a priori nature of economics have to do with morality?

"The idea of a prudent

"The idea of a prudent predator reminds me of this. In order to go undetected as a predator, you prudently develop behavioral dispositions that engender trust and dispose other to enter into cooperative agreements."

Or how about simply going into politics? You're assuming that predators need fear being detected but I just watched the convention of one of the major parties and virtually everyone there was calling someone to act as predator on their behalf.

Brian, read Rothbard and

Brian, read Rothbard and Hoppe for the answer to that. It should at least occur to an Austrian that morality might be a priori in nature, I would think.

I love John's idea that

I love John's idea that contriving a logical loop with no reference to reality demonstrates an objective ought.

Were that life were so simple.

one should never act in a

one should never act in a way that hinders one's goal/s

Under an objective morality

Under an objective morality you can’t profit by predatory behavior, it always results in a net loss to the individual.

While you espouse objective morality, the Prudent Predator's best course of action is to fool you into into thinking that he also shares your objective morality while preying on you.

Brian, read Rothbard and

Brian, read Rothbard and Hoppe for the answer to that. It should at least occur to an Austrian that morality might be a priori in nature, I would think.

And yet Mises believed that an a priori ethics is impossible. See my next post for the quote.

one should never act in a

one should never act in a way that hinders one’s goal/s

If this is presented as a categorical, i.e. "objective", imperative, it isn't. It is at best an hypothetical imperative.

Even more problematic, though, it that it is tautological. The state of having a goal implies that one should do what one can to achieve that goal. So your statement becomes: "one should never act in a way that hinders one's ability to do what one should do to achieve what one wants to achieve." True, but true by definition.

Under an objective morality

Under an objective morality you can’t profit by predatory behavior, it always results in a net loss to the individual.

I don't understand how you know this or why it is so. Did slave owners not profit from the fruits of their slaves' labor? Do dictators not profit from the enslavement of their people? Do politicians not profit from their ability to please special interests at the expense of everyone else?

How can you know, a priori, whether or not predatory behavior will result in a net loss or net benefit for the predator?

John, My intuition tells me

John,

My intuition tells me that you are correct, morality can be determined a priori. Arguing it is difficult, especially when your opponents will not accept any axioms.

I am an Austrian devotee for less than "pure" reasons. It explains historical economic phenomena better than other schools of economic thought, and it does not assume away reality and forget take into account reality while creating macro theories.

Micha, profit compared to

Micha, profit compared to what? One of the downfalls of socialism was that many private Americans were living as well or better than the Soviet rulers, and the Soviet rulers were the pigs of the animal farm. Stalin was constantly afraid of a coup d'etat, received constant mis-information, and was generally not a happy person. American Presidents come out of office looking worn and tired, more than from normal aging. They could have been much better off following a more moral path such as a corporate president.

[...] Fri Jul, 30 2004 A

[...] Fri Jul, 30 2004

A Nation Of Predators

In comments here and at Catallarchy I've pointed out that in the [...]

A Nation Of Predators In

A Nation Of Predators
In comments here and at Catallarchy I've pointed out that in the absence of objective morality the optimum strategy for the individual is that of the Prudent Predator - the

Jonathan, "While you espouse

Jonathan,

"While you espouse objective morality, the Prudent Predator’s best course of action is to fool you into into thinking that he also shares your objective morality while preying on you."

»

Micha, "How can you know, a

Micha,

"How can you know, a priori, whether or not predatory behavior will result in a net loss or net benefit for the predator?"

Kamala explained it.

Do you recognize that I've demonstrated an indispensible a priori ought?

In response to Cal Thomas's

In response to Cal Thomas's comments about God and morality I will quote Roderick T. Long:

"Religious conservatives are a puzzle. They like to denounce socialism and ethical relativism; they also like to denounce the materialistic conception of human beings as mere animals. They often profess skepticism at the findings of evolutionary biology.

And yet, in practice, they enthusiastically embrace all the vices they purport to attack.

They tend, for example, to accept “divine command theory,” which holds that what makes something right (or wrong) is the fact that God commands (or forbids) it. The upshot of such a view, of course, is that God’s commands must be viewed as completely arbitrary and random. After all, if God had reasons for commanding and prohibiting as he does, then those reasons, rather than God’s will, would be the basis of the action’s rightness or wrongness – an intolerable restriction on God’s “freedom.” Hence such conservatives are as hostile as any relativist to the notion of a rationally intelligible moral order. They too regard morality as being a matter of groundless whim; they just think the whim is God’s rather than ours. .."

Here's the link to Roderick

Here's the link to Roderick T Long's article: http://praxeology.net/unblog07-04.htm#11

Sorry about that. My prior

Sorry about that. My prior post didn't go through. The point of the link is that he argues against the idea that God helps the objective morality argument.

Brian, actually that piece

Brian, actually that piece by Long only addressses a particular strain of religion he calls religious conservatism.

Brian, upon further

Brian, upon further consideration I think it's fair to say the piece says what you indicated.

Barnett: "But if seriously

Barnett: "But if seriously adverse consequences were ever shown to result from adhering to the outcomes recommended by a natural rights analysis, that analysis would have to be reexamined and perhaps revised."

That's a very succinct expression or the Prudent Preadtor's personal strategy, when you rally stop and think about it: Doing without Joe's stuff is a seriously adverse consequence of respecting his right to it when you really need it and can get away with stealing it.

David, Profit compared to

David,

Profit compared to the prudent predator's second-best opportunity. I surely agree with you that there can be significant costs associated with living life as a slave owner, a dictator, or a politician. And in some cases, these costs may make predation less attractive than other alternatives, in which case JTK's argument holds. But I see no reason to conclude that in all cases and all times, the costs of predation always outweigh the benefits. We may wish that this were so, but it is no more reasonable to believe than the mystical notions of karma or hell.

Do you recognize that I’ve

Do you recognize that I’ve demonstrated an indispensible a priori ought?

I recognize that you demonstrated a tautology.

Brian, I say you nail it

Brian,

I say you nail it there, Micha, though I think it bears noting that the converse of your final paragraph is also true:

“When strict adherence to consequential thinking interferes with these conditions, so much the worse for consequentialism.”

I'm not so sure about this. Barnett mentions what he believes to be the problem with consequentialism in the article I cited above.

Consequentialist analysis becomes unappealing when it sacrifices the domain of action protected by moral rights in the interest of a completely impersonal standard of value—utils, wealth aximization, etc. Most people do not want to sacrifice their liberty to act even if such sacrifices would significantly benefit others.

Whether or not this a good criticism of consequentialism (I have my doubts), I don't think your criticism make sense in light of the fact that consequentialism is directly concerned with the necessary structural conditions for civil society. It seems contradictory to say that strict adherence to consequential thinking could ever interfere with these conditions, as these conditions are precisely what consequential thinking is all about.

"I recognize that you

"I recognize that you demonstrated a tautology."

No, why can't people prefer nonsense to sense? In fact they can and often do. But they shouldn't, and that's not tautological.

Micha, Getting back to my

Micha,

Getting back to my second point, isn't the production of good behavior a public goods problem when such behavior doesn't directly benefit the individual? Doesn't that answer Wilkinson's question?

Whether or not the individual will have to "step over corpses on the way to Starbucks" has next to nothing to do with whether that individual behaves well or not, so the desire to avoid that consequence is obviously not sufficient incentive in and of itself to behave well.

No, why can’t people

No, why can’t people prefer nonsense to sense? In fact they can and often do. But they shouldn’t, and that’s not tautological.

Who are these people who prefer nonsense to sense? Nobody I have ever heard of labels their own views as nonsense. You may believe the views they hold are nonsense, but that doesn't mean they do. The definition of nonsense seems to be "a view that one should not hold." So when you say that people ought to reject nonsense, you are essentially saying that people ought to reject views that they shouldn't hold. True, but true by definition.

Getting back to my second point, isn’t the production of good behavior a public goods problem when such behavior doesn’t directly benefit the individual?

Which is why the fundamental social problem is structuring incentives in order to internalize these externalities. Karma, hell, and the belief that "Under an objective morality you can't profit by predatory behavior, it always results in a net loss to the individual" only work when the prudent predator believes in these things. If the prudent predator doesn't believe in these things--and a smart prudent predator will not--then we are back to square one.

Who are these people who

Who are these people who prefer nonsense to sense?

The American electorate, for one. Disagree? Go ahead and tell them the *truth*, and see how far you get with them, as opposed to feeding them obvious lies.

Nobody I have ever heard of labels their own views as nonsense.

Which in no way implies that those views are not nonsense.

Micha, you quoted Wilkinson

Micha, you quoted Wilkinson approvingly, but isn't he wrong when he says that all we need to produce good behavior is the belief that being good is a *net* winner over baby-raping chaos? Is there any reason to thing that *net* results will be sufficient incentives for good behavior? Won't net results be pretty much the same regardless of whether the individual behaves well or badly?

Micha, But I see no reason

Micha,

But I see no reason to conclude that in all cases and all times, the costs of predation always outweigh the benefits.

So if one was to demonstrate via economics that the costs of predation always outweigh the benefits, you would accept an objective morality?

The American electorate, for

The American electorate, for one. Disagree? Go ahead and tell them the truth, and see how far you get with them, as opposed to feeding them obvious lies.

No, you misunderstand my position, which is that everyone agrees that what we call "nonsense" should be rejected because that is the definition of "nonsense": a view that should be rejected. This is tautological.

Now, there is vast disagreement over what should be classified as nonsense. You may believe egalitarianism is nonsense, an egalitarian may believe ethical egoism is nonsense, and so on and so forth. But no one believes that their own views are nonsense, or they would have already rejected them. To say that you believe many people hold views which you consider nonsense is beside the point; the question is whether anyone holds views which they themselves consider nonsense. Since part of the definition of nonsense is "a view that should be rejected", no one labels their own views as nonsense.

JTK, If I understand

JTK,

If I understand Wilkinson correctly, he is criticizing the "believe in God or objective morality because the alternative is chaos" argument on the following grounds. This argument is as follows:

Premise 1. If you don't like chaos, you should not promote, either through action or belief, things that would lead to chaos.

Premise 2. Disbelief in God or objective morality leads to chaos.

Conclusion: If you don't like chaos, you should believe in God or objective morality.

Now, this argument doesn't work on the prudent predator because he doesn't care whether there is chaos - he only cares about his selfish interests. And when this argument is applied to a non-prudent predator who does care about chaos and wants to avoid it, the argument is superfluous, because the non-prudent predator will already be acting in such a manner so as to avoid chaos, with no need for belief in God or objective morality.

[...] (0)

[...] (0) slvShowNewIndicator(-1); | Trackback | Cosmos

My co-blogger David asks an interesting question: In response to my claim that “I see no r [...]

No, you misunderstand my

No, you misunderstand my position, which is that everyone agrees that what we call “nonsense” should be rejected because that is the definition of “nonsense”: a view that should be rejected. This is tautological.

Let's define nonsense as a person holding two beliefs that contradict each other. If someone believes both A and not A at the same time. It is not a tautology to say that someone shouldn't hold contradictory views, because there is nothing within the definition of nonsense which even implies whether a person should accept or reject it.

"Premise 1. If you don’t

"Premise 1. If you don’t like chaos, you should not promote, either through action or belief, things that would lead to chaos.

Premise 2. Disbelief in God or objective morality leads to chaos.

Conclusion: If you don’t like chaos, you should believe in God or objective morality."

I already said none of this was a valid argument for objective morality, but isn’t Willkinson wrong when he says that all we need to produce good behavior is the belief that being good is a net winner over baby-raping chaos? Is there any reason to thing that net results will be sufficient incentives for good behavior? Won’t net results be pretty much the same regardless of whether the individual behaves well or badly?

"Now, this argument doesn’t work on the prudent predator because he doesn’t care whether there is chaos..."

Of course he does, chaos isn't any better for him than anyone else, but never mind.

...he only cares about his selfish interests. And when this argument is applied to a non-prudent predator who does care about chaos and wants to avoid it, the argument is superfluous, because the non-prudent predator will already be acting in such a manner so as to avoid chaos, with no need for belief in God or objective morality."

In the absence of the objective morality prudent predation improves any other individual strategy. More and more parties are bound to notice this.

Micha, ...the question is

Micha,

...the question is whether anyone holds views which they themselves consider nonsense.

No, the question is whether anyone holds views which *are* nonsense.

Is it possible to be wrong about something?

There are people who believe the world is flat. They don't consider that view nonsense, but isn't it in fact nonsense?

No, you misunderstand my

No, you misunderstand my position, which is that everyone agrees that what we call “nonsense” should be rejected because that is the definition of “nonsense”: a view that should be rejected. This is tautological.

No, nonsense is simply that: non-sensical. It's *because* of the non-sensicality, the mis-alignment with reality that nonsense ought to be rejected. You're trying to redefine "nonsense" as a subjective preference, which it isn't.

Now, there is vast disagreement over what should be classified as nonsense.

That's because most people don't want their prejudices to be changed by the facts of reality. Thus you get American politics. In areas of human existence where facts will bite you immediately, you see far less disagreement over what is "nonsense".

In the absence of the

In the absence of the objective morality prudent predation improves any other individual strategy. More and more parties are bound to notice this.

So you're saying that if people don't believe in objective morality, they will not respect rights?

If you don't believe in

If you don't believe in objective morality you don't believe in rights, so of course you won't respect them.