Ethics Part 1: Universal Morality

Universal morality is a treasure sought by philosophers for millennia.  Can we say that an immoral action taken by a is also immoral when taken by b?  Can we say that moral actors have the capacity to be immoral?  Does it matter the building you work in?  The color of your shirt?  Perhaps the style of your hair?  Referencing Stefan Molyneux's 'Universally Preferable Behavior: a Rational Proof of Secular Ethics,' this post will (re)solve the age-long question, and serve as a foundation for a future-posts analyzing society and voluntary relationships. 

Ethics vs Morality

Ethics are seldom distinguished from morality.  Morality is, most usefully, universal or rational ethical properties.  Morality will contain answers like: "murder is universally wrong," "theft is universally wrong," "rape is universally wrong."  Whereas an ethic is a standard of behavior: e.g. the Christian ethic, the objectivist ethic, virtue ethics.  Morality most resembles Kant's categorical imperative, where ethics most resemble his hypothetical imperative.  However, unlike Kant's ethics as a end in god, morality will serve as an end in itself - and ethics as an end towards a specific goal.  Like Stefan mentions in his book, it is far harder to prove a positive ethic than a negative one - just like it's easier to ask someone "don't go to Wisconsin," than to ask someone "go to Wisconsin."  The field in philosophy known as ethics contain both of these, in addition to a third category called aesthetics.

This post will cover moral-acting, what universality means, why universal ethics are valid, and review several universally immoral actions.  For the full experience, I highly recommended Stefan Molyneux's free book "Universally Preferable Behavior, a Rational Proof of Secular Ethics.

 Categories of Ethics and Morality

There are five categories of moral action: morally good, aesthetically good, morally and aesthetically neutral, aesthetically bad, morally bad.  Aesthetics are often justified as a means to a specified end, e.g. if you want to attract a mate, do a; if you want to sustain a healthy relationship, do b.  The realm of aesthetics is often subjective, and often depends on opinion or culture.  The next blog post on virtue will incorporate some aesthetics as an end in relationships, which may be contingent on such factors.  This post will focus on morality - namely that which is morally bad - which is not contingent on such factors.

 UPB: a Framework of Morality 

Humans have conceptualized a couple of universal methodologies.  The first is truth - truth is the consistency of a claim with material reality: e.g. Timmy did not break the vase in the hall.  The second is the scientific method - an action at time a will yield the same results at time b given identical constraints.  Both are universal processes and both have an underlying factor of logical consistency.  We can similarly and validly determine universals in ethics given logical consistency.  So, UPB is the method of determining the validity of a universal ethical claim by examining its logical consistency.  

Moral Actors

As was determined in the post on Free-Will, humans can conceptualize ideals and choose to enact them (or not to enact them).  But the question becomes: the ideal choice to what end?   Is it an end in selfishness?  Of altruism?  Though this question will be covered in the following post, the more important primary question must be: does the choice belong in the category of morality, and if so, is it morally good, or morally bad?  

Also discussed in the post are the hindrances of free-will, like psychology and persuasion.  This question is easily dismissed when looking at the capacity for someone to exercise free-will.  Someone who acts with the capacity of free-will is a moral actor, someone who does not act with the capacity of free-will is not a moral actor; where a moral actor is responsible for the effects of their actions.  So, to apply this to a real-world scenario, someone who is under the influence of a brain-tumor and cannot, as a result, conceptualize the ideal choice is not acting of free-will.  Such a person cannot be classified as a moral actor.  

Determining Category

There are five categories introduced above, I'll include them here:

  • Morally Good
  • Aesthetically Good
  • Morally/Aesthetically Neutral
  • Aesthetically Bad
  • Morally Bad

All of the above are actions which are implicitly related to others.  Negative morality (thou shalt not) is something that ought not be done to another (murder, theft, rape); a negative aesthetic is something that might look bad relative to others or to a norm.  The primary difference between an action belonging to morality and an action belonging to aesthetics is the ability of a recipient to avoid the actions of the moral-actor.  You can avoid the actions of someone who's consistently tardy, but you cannot avoid the actions of a murderer.  In this example, tardiness would belong in the aesthetics category, while murder would belong in the morality category.  Preferences are often the third, neutral category.  "I prefer blue over red" belongs neither to aesthetics nor morality.

Ethics vs Aesthetics

It's much more important to ethics to determine the validity of moral claims rather than aesthetic claims; and it's a lot easier too.  Although most people probably prefer punctuality, it is not inconceivable that some prefer the opposite.  This is often the topic of sociology, or anthropology, or even of history.  But for the sake of this post, irrelevant.  Morality in this way is most useful as a means to rational politics - is our system a moral system?  Though there are many ways to analyze the efficacy of a system, some have taken to measuring the efficiency.  The real question becomes the efficiency to whom?  To the majority?  To the elite?  To the people?  Without first determining which systems are immoral, and thus the systems to avoid, the criteria of which system is best becomes exceedingly opinionated and obscure.  When describing and organizing relationships between people avoiding meaningless opinion (I prefer blue) and meaningless obscurity (efficiency) becomes critical.  Ethics represents the significance of philosophy, and is rightfully a precursor to politics. 

Applying Logic

At last we arrive at the fabled methodology.  Logical claims are valid claims, but what about the claims need to be logical?  Consider the idea of two moral actors that adhere to a principle.  Any rational-ethical claim must be logical at any level, but most importantly, the level by which the actors are wholly compliant with the rule.  Take the following example of rape; Molyneux assumes that rape is good, and then analyzes the situation:

"If it is morally good to be a rapist, and one can only be a rapist by sexually assaulting a victim, then clearly the victim must be morally good by resisting the sexual assault – since if he does not resist, it is by definition not rape, and therefore not virtuous. In other words, attacking virtue by definition enables virtue. Thus we have an insurmountable paradox, in which the victim must attack virtue in order to enable virtue – he must resist sexual assault in order to enable the 'virtue' of the rapist. Thus not only can the rape victim not be virtuous, but he must resist and attack 'virtue' in order to allow it."

Here we have a logical contradiction within the idea of "rape is good," which immediately invalidates the concept; moreover, it proves that the opposite is true.  So, if "rape is good" is false, then "not raping is good" is true, or equivalently, "rape is bad."

The Application

Stefan proves that many of the actions we generally consider true, true.  We generally consider stealing to be bad, murder to be bad.  But by applying rational morality, we can prove it's not just in our heads but a universal principle.  This follows because humans are not inherently dislike other humans, as they have the equivalent capacity for free-will.  The question remains, is UPB valid?  Stefan proves this in the following sentiment:

UPB is a Valid Methodology

"[If] I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules – must be valid."

"Syllogistically, this is:

  1. The proposition is: the concept “universally preferable behaviour” must be valid.
  2. Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.
  3. Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid."

Murder is Morally Good

"Intuitively, we fully recognize the insanity of the moral proposition that murder is good. Logically, we know that the proposition is incorrect because if it is true, it is impossible for two men in a room to both be moral at the same time. Morality, like health, cannot be considered a mere “snapshot,” but must be a process, or a continuum. The UPB framework confirms that [A] cannot be “evil” while he is strangling [B], and then achieve the pinnacle of moral virtue the moment that he kills [B] – and then revert immediately back to a state of evil. Moral propositions must be universal, and independent of time and place. The proposition that murder is moral fails this requirement at every level, and so is not valid."

And thus, murder is evil.

Theft is Morally Good

The invalidity of this statement manifests itself with the following sentiment:  If theft is universally preferable, then A must want to steal from B.  But it is immoral to purposefully obstruct virtue.  And thus, B must want to be stolen from.  But if B wants to be stolen from, we cannot consider the theft by A to be theft.  It's like putting a sign in front of your yard claiming "free-stuff," and when someone takes it calling it theft.  So, we have an insurmountable contradiction within the claim that "theft is morally good," and thus "not stealing is morally good" is true, or equivalently: "theft is evil."

Generalized Principle of Nonaggression

We have determined distinct categories of ethical actions which are distinguished by avoidability.  As the above are universals of murder, theft, rape, we can further generalize these to include any initiation of physical force.  To prove this, imagine a sequence where someone initiates the use of force against another; under no circumstance can the victim want to be 'attacked,' because if the victim wanted to be attacked, then it wouldn't be initiated by the moral actor, and it couldn't be considered an attack.  And thus, the initiation of the use of force is immoral.

Conclusion

There is a lot to this subject that wasn't included in this blog post; subjects like ethical reciprocity, property rights, truth.  For the purposes of the following blog posts, the nonaggression principle is of utmost importance.  Again, Stefan Molyneux's book contains full detail, and the full derivation of the methodology, for which I strongly urge you to examine. 

Ethics Part 2 will cover positive ethics, concepts like Aristotelian means, and Christian sin.