Sunday, April 24, 2005


I have been intending for some time to make a more rigorous exposition of my probabilistic position on the value of life. As Marco has pointed out, what we need is acost-benefit analysis of abortion, and for this we require a mechanism to quantify the value of human life as a function of age.

What I need to do first is outline the assumptions on which my argument will be based.

1. There is such a thing as absolute truth.
There are properties of the universe that are there, there are statements that are true, whether or not we believe them or not, whether or not anyone exists to believe them at all. Discussions of this kind are not intended for us to display our party colours, but should be attempts to approach closer to this thing called truth.

1a. We have no mechanism to know what truth is with certainty.
However, we can examine the evidence of our senses and make reasonable judgments about the probability of some statements being truer than others.

1b. A truer statement about the universe is one that involves us in fewer difficulties when we take action based on it.
To take one example, the breathairian statement: ‘It is possible for humans to exist without eating or drinking,’ involves us in serious difficulties almost immediately. The creationist statement: ‘The universe was created on October 23rd, 4004 BCE’ may not immediately involve us in difficulties in our everyday lives, but we will find it of much less utility than alternate statements if we are engaged in the practical business of looking for oil.

1c. To turn statement 1b around, the more our actions are based on a knowledge of the true state of the universe, the more likely they are to turn out the way we intended.
If we want our actions to be successful, however we chose to define success, we should:
1c.i. Strive for the most true understanding of the universe as we can, and
1c ii. Strive to make our actions as consistent with that understanding as possible.

If you have any problems with assumption 1, gentle reader - not that I expect you do, but God in heaven, there are enough people out there who would deny it! - then you may be a very fine person, but there is absolutely no use in trying to argue with you. You do not share the fundamental assumption that gives arguing whatever value it may have. One may as well argue with an eggplant.

2. There is such a thing as absolute good.
I don’t mean that there is a big box of white hats and another big box of black hats, and that all people and things and actions have to wear one or another. 'Good' is a direction in idea-space, like ‘up’ is a direction in near-Earth-space. I believe that all the possible actions one of us can take at any one time can be objectively ranked from best to worst. I believe this would be true whether or not I, or anyone, believed it. Even if there were no moral agents in the universe, this ranking would hold true for a hypothetical entity faced with the hypothetical situation.

2a. We cannot know what is good with certainty, but we can make reasonable statements about what actions are better than others based on the evidence of our senses.

2c. The word ‘ought’ has a real meeting. Thus, in addition to the criteria for assessing our actions above, we should also:
2c.i. Strive to know what is good.
2c.ii. Strive to make our actions as consistent with that understanding as possible.

I know that this second assumption is less likely to meet with agreement, and I can offer no argument in support of it. Like the first assumption, it is simply a pre-condition for being able to argue at all about certain matters. If you do not believe in absolute good, then you cannot logically argue with anyone about what ‘ought’ to be done. You can argue about will be most economical, or what will fulfill your goals, or the goals of your party, or planet, but you have no philosophical grounding for convincing others who do not share those goals. All you can really say is, ‘if you do not do what I say, you will fail,’ – which is not an argument about morality, or ‘if you do not do what I say, you will be punished,’ – which is tyranny.

I haven’t put a 2b, as a counterpart to 1b, because I do not have any simple operational statement to define what good is. We cannot do experiments to determine what is good. But I believe- and here is the most tenuous part of my assumptions- that there is such a thing as a moral sense which enables us to recognize good. I believe that in most of us it is vestigial, underdeveloped, like the eye of some sea creature sensitive only the gross variations in light and dark; but that some of us have a more developed moral sense than others, and by paying attention to their statements about what is good we cannot go too wrong. I am not claiming to be one of those people; my hubris is not quite as vast as that. I am only claiming that if we can discern a self-consistent core of moral ideas in the thought of all the sages of East and West, we would be unwise to set up a morality which does not incorporate this core.

I am sure that this all sounds either trivially self-evident or pathetically na├»ve. I will begin the argument proper soon…


Marco said...

One of my longest held beliefs has been that there isn't an absolute good. I am hoping that this won't necessarily mean I can't argue (with you) about what ought to be done, but this does explain to me why I have fallen short of saying what ought to be done, especially in regards to abortion law. I do believe in a sense of "relative" good with regards to humanity as a whole. I am not sure how you cope with things that look bad, but actually work towards the greater good. I think that "morally bad" things, that have the consequence of a net "moral good" should be taken into account. I think your assumption 2 may well discount this possibility.

Marco said...

By all means continue - for the benefit of argument, I can still believe in an absolute good, though I will never sound convincing when listening to myself :)