Re: Modern Physical theory as a basis for Ethical and Existential Nihilism

From: Eric Hawthorne <>
Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2004 00:09:01 -0800

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:

> This sort of argument has been raised many times over the centuries,
> both by rationalists and by their opponents, but it is based the
> fundamental error of conflating science with ethics. Science deals
> with matters of fact; it does not comment on whether these facts are
> good or bad, beautiful or ugly, desirable or undesirable. These latter
> qualities - values - are necessarily subjective, and lie in the domain
> of ethics and aesthetics....

> Saying that life is worth living, or that you believe it is bad to
> kill, are simply statements of your values and feelings, and as such
> are valid independently of any scientific theory.

It may not be an error to equate science and ethics. Science continually
moves into new domains.

I'm of the opinion that there is a valid utilitarian theory of
co-operating intelligent agent ethics.

"Utilitarian" because the purpose of the ethical principles can be shown
to be "group success"
(i.e. emergent-system survival / success in the competition with other
variants of emergent intelligent-agent systems that don't include
ethical principles as
behaviour guides for their the agents.)

Note the subtlety that the utility NEED not be to an individual agent
directly, but may only
accrue to individuals in the group, ON AVERAGE, due to the ethics and
moral rules generally
obeyed by the group members, and the consequent "floating of (almost)
all boats".

One of the common debates is between ethical/moral relativism versus
I call this a confusion due to oversimplification of the issue, rather
than a debate.
In this regard, this debate is as silly as the nature vs nurture debate
and its influence on,say,
human behaviour, in which the answer is "of course it's a complex
feedback loop involving
the interaction of inherited traits and the accidents of life. Duh!"
There is no nature vs nurture.
It's always nature AND nurture. Arguing about which is more fundamental
is truly unproductive
hair-splitting. We should be researching exactly how the feedback loops
work instead.

So completely analogously, with absolute, and relative morals and ethics.

My position is that there are absolute ethical principles and moral
rules, but that those
are all general rules, not instantiated rules. (i.e. absolutes in
ethics/morals are
all universally quantified rules that apply to general classes of
situations and actions.)

Relativism is justified in as far as it is simply debate about how the
absolute general
ethical and moral principles should map (do map) onto the current
particular situation
at hand. This mapping may not be simple. A single situation can be
differently, for example, or its agents can be seen as engaging in
several different kinds
of acts, with many effects for each act, and the importance to the
essence of the situation
of each act and effect can be debated from different perspectives that
involve the interests
and knowledge of different agents. So the "single" situation may map
validly to several
different instantiations of several ethical principles. And the moral
rules applicable to
the situation may be subject then to legitimate debate.

Relativism may also question whether some "moralist" group's absolute
moral principles
are general enough, and may argue with some validity that they are not
general enough
to be applied without frequent error (and tragedies of injustice).

e.g. "Dont Eat Pork" --> Yeah, whatever

however, "Don't eat the kinds of meat that are often rotten and
disease-ridden in our climate, like Pork"
may be a valid moral rule at some historical time and place.

e.g. "Thou shalt not kill." --> Well that's an easy to remember
simplification, but a little over simplified and too specific.
How about:

"Minimize the amount of quality-life-years lost in this encounter."

So, "women and children first into the lifeboats. You old geezers are

Or.. "Take out the guy wearing the bomb. Now."

And relativism is also justified in as far as it is the correct
observation that
many (most) situations of complex interactions beteen multiple
intelligent agents can
be described from multiple perspectives (and/or multiple situation-scope
A specific situation can be (probably validly) described as co-incident
incidences of
the several instances of several different general ethical principles.

A to B
"Our people have lived here from time immemorial. And your grandfathers
killed my grandmother.
You are pestilent invaders. Get out or we will have a just war against you."

B to A
"Our people have lived here from time immemorial. And your grandfathers
killed my grandmother.
You are pestilent invaders. Get out or we will have a just war against you."

Clearly, it is easy to imagine a situation in which both A and B are
factually correct, except perhaps in their
use of the word "just".

Most complex interaction situations requiring application of ethics and
moral rules are of this kind,
with competing "goods" or "rights and wrongs".

But it is wrong to suppose that this means there can be no absolute
definition of right and wrong.
It's only that only a very general (though clear and simple, at its
general level) (and ambiguously mappable)
absolute definition can be constructed, due to the complexities and
variations and multiple valid
perspectives and situation-scope-choices in the situations to which we
want the concepts to apply.

Examples of general ethical principles: (and their mapping problems)

It is wrong to act against the interests of the group. (But which group,
if groups are in conflict?)

It is wrong to reduce the emergent complex order in your neighbourhood
(but if different complex orders compete, how do we choose which to

While it is alright and perhaps even "good" to compete with other
humans, allow the competition to be
fair and limited and governed, in order that "good games" which generate
"boat-floating" value for all
or many, can be conducted. (But how much competition, versus how much
co-operation, is the
right balance?)

Received on Thu Jan 22 2004 - 03:13:16 PST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Feb 16 2018 - 13:20:09 PST