Definitions

In this next chapter of the essay, I’d like to offer some statements I feel should be fairly uncontroversial to most readers.

1. There exist facts about the natural world.

A fact, as I define it here, is a propositional statement that has a high probability of being true. Facts may be subjective or objective. Subjective facts are statements whose truth can only be evaluated by referring to the beliefs, opinions, or tastes of the person making them. For example, the statement “I like ice cream” is true if I make it because I do, in fact, like ice cream, but it is not true if made by someone who dislikes ice cream.

Objective facts are statements whose truth does not depend on the beliefs, opinions, or tastes of the person making them. For example, the statement “The peak of Mt. Everest is 29,029 ft above sea level” is true no matter what the beliefs, opinions, or tastes of the person who makes it. The skeptic is free to go out and measure the height of Mt.Everest, and she should arrive at the same number no matter what her personal beliefs on the matter may be.

With enough scientific investigation, the probability that objective statements are true can often be raised or lowered to such an extent that they can, for all practical purposes, be regarded as true or false.

It should be noted that some statements about people’s beliefs can be objective. For instance, the statement “Rylie likes ice cream” is an objective fact. If Rylie likes ice cream, then this statement is true regardless of the beliefs, opinions, or tastes of the person making it. So, for instance, someone who dislikes ice cream can still say, quite accurately, that “Rylie likes ice cream”. Some of the statements you’ll see in this book are of this type, namely objective statements about another person’s beliefs, opinions, or tastes.

2. Some facts describe human interactions.

I am reasonably sure that you would be angered if I slapped you hard across the face. This is a fact that describes a human interaction. (I do not declare with complete certainty that you will take offense, I simply maintain that the probability of your taking offense is extremely high.)

There are, of course, many other subjects of consideration besides human interactions. There are facts that describe interactions between humans and other animals, for instance, or facts that have nothing to do with humans at all (like many scientific facts). The focus of this book, though, is on facts describing human interactions and, as it will be seen, interactions among sentient creatures more generally.

3. If a person wishes to fulfill a particular goal related to human interactions, she can use facts relevant to these interactions to develop a system of rules which, when followed, prescribe actions that tend to fulfill that goal.

Just as scientific facts can be used to develop technologies that will fulfill a particular goal (such as providing people with a cheap and efficient means of transport), so facts about human interactions can be used to develop codes of conduct that will fulfill a particular goal. For instance, if my goal is to encourage an appreciation of ethnic diversity, I might prescribe social interactions between members of different ethnic groups so that personal friendships have a chance of developing.

For ease of discussion, I henceforth refer to any goal related to human interactions as an interactional goal.

Importantly, my claim about achieving interactional goals relies only on what Immanuel Kant would call hypothetical imperatives, and therefore does not require the existence of a solution to the “is-ought” problem described by David Hume. In other words, I can say that only if a particular interactional goal is desired, ought people to follow certain rules of interaction (because those rules will bring about the desired goal). I do not think it makes sense simply to state, without qualification, that people ought to interact in a certain way. They ought to act in a certain way only if there is a particular end result they are trying to achieve. This is a topic I will return to in more detail in the next chapter.

For a given interactional goal, we will not necessarily have enough information to determine the action that would best fulfill that goal. In practice, then, we may have to rely on heuristics, or rules of thumb. This, I would suggest, is the basis of systems like virtue ethics and the absolute morality found in many religious systems (although the proponents of these systems may see things differently). Once again, I defer a more detailed discussion of this idea to a later chapter.

4. No person can be assumed, a priori, to have greater authority to pursue his own interactional goals than any other person.

Every moral system, if it is to become established in a society, must operate by the consent of at least one individual (for example, a dictator). However, there is no a priori reason why one particular individual should be endowed with this authority, while another should not (which is why dictatorships cannot be justified). A plausible solution to this problem is to place an individual under the authority of a moral system only if he assents to being so placed. Similarly, an individual might be placed in charge of the moral system only with the approval of those who have consented to fall under it. In other words, a democratic stance seems the most sensible, since it assumes that all people have the same authority unless they consent to a temporary and conditional (revocable) imbalance of that authority for practical purposes.

A problem, however, arises for interactions which people have not agreed to hand over to a central body for arbitration. For instance, there are no laws in the United States that govern the use of contraception – this is a matter left for sexual partners to decide between themselves. In cases such as these, and in the original construction of laws also, a moral calculus is required to determine which actions are better at achieving the agreed upon moral goal than others.

5. The achievement of any interactional goal requires certain conditions to be met.

Formulating rules to satisfy a goal is a first step. If these rules are to have any practical effect, the following conditions must be met.

a. The people for whom the goal is intended must abide by the rules developed for that goal. A goal related to human interactions will never be achieved unless people adopt that goal and commit to its prescriptions.

b. The goal’s system of rules must be objective. Here, the word “objective” is used in the sense defined above. An objective rule is one that is not contingent on the opinions, beliefs, or tastes of the person applying it. If the rules related to a particular goal are made to vary according to beliefs and opinions, then the goal is not likely to be attained, since its application will not be applied uniformly by all people in all cases. However, it is important to recognize that rules may have exceptions and caveats, as long as these also do not depend on the beliefs and opinions of the person at the controls.

The high value placed in the impartiality of judges demonstrates this attempt at objectivity. It is a poor judge indeed who allows her own beliefs and tastes to influence her decisions. Instead, she is expected to mete out justice in a manner consistent with the objective approach described in, for example, the U.S. Constitution.

c. A system of reinforcement must be put into place. Given what we know about the desires that compete for attention within every individual, it is almost certain that someone who has agreed to strive for a particular interactional goal will occasionally fail to act in accordance with its prescriptions. In order to discourage these failures, systems of positive and, perhaps, negative reinforcement must be set in place. These systems, too, must be voluntarily adopted by the people for whom they are intended.

A rather poor example of a negative reinforcement system is the typical state prison system in the U.S., usually misnamed the Department of Corrections. Most state’s prison systems place too much stock in incarceration, with not enough attention paid to rehabilitation and the reintegration of ex-convicts into society.

Much of the remainder of this book is my attempt to apply the above groundwork to one particular goal relevant to human interactions. I also hope to convince you that the goal itself is a worthy one.

Nomenclature

At this point, it behooves me to introduce some nomenclature to describe the concepts introduced above. I have deliberately avoided using this nomenclature until now, in order to avoid objections related to definition rather than content. If you have objections to the words I choose to describe the concepts introduced above, I invite you to pick whichever words you prefer. This book is primarily about the concepts, not the words used to identify them.

Moral goal

A moral goal is any interactional goal that is likely to modify the level of happiness or suffering of at least one person. (In the next chapter, I will make an explicit argument for the use of happiness.)

Moral system

A moral system is a set of rules whose purpose is to determine which of a set of actions is most likely to fulfill a particular moral goal.

Moral problem

A moral problem is a question of the following kind: “Which of a given set of possible actions should I perform in order to best fulfill a particular moral goal?” A moral problem, by this definition, can be solved by applying the rules, i.e. the moral system, formulated for the chosen moral goal.

In the next part of the essay, I introduce what I believe to be a worthwhile moral goal.

Return to the table of contents.

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