Sunday, November 08, 2009

Self-interest And Morality

I've avoided this for a long time. This started as a discussion of whether laws were moral. I asserted that they were not and the rejoinder was that all laws flowed out of morality. I insisted that the use of force left that claim out and that what they are is a social contract to allow us to co-exist. To use an extreme example, murder isn't illegal because it is immoral, if that were the case the State wouldn't do it, soldiers wouldn't, there'd be no exceptions. It is illegal because it's dangerous and we can't live together if it isn't illegal. It is a matter of logic. I was challenged to show that a system of morality involved logic. If you're not interested this would be a good time to leave because this isn't simple, it isn't a matter of appealing to a book of regulations.

I am alive and I exist in an inter-dependent system and I want to do well.
The health of that system directly affects my well being.
I am the actor, I am the motivator, I am ultimately responsible.
It is in my self-interest to maintain that system.
My actions have outcomes that bear on my well being.

Now let's hold the train for a moment. Self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness and greed. Religions last because they hold within them the elements of a successful social contract. (it just doesn't matter if it is the word of god or not) If you take their tenets apart with that in mind you can find internal logic without appealing to a god as an authority. There are variants on the theme, but saving your soul is the object, this is the ultimate in self-interest and refers explicitly to long term thinking. Where I'm going isn't nearly as heretical as it might seem.

Self-interest is the basis of this moral construct.

So, can't you just do as you please? Well certainly, but there will be outcomes that will bear on you. Can't I just steal or whatever? Doing so will have bad effects on your interdependent system and victims will not like it or you and may most likely harm you. But what if I can get away with it? It isn't likely, and it sure isn't a certainty, not to mention that you have harmed the system you depend on. Why shouldn't I just take every bit I can get and screw you - greed? The system will break down if you do, people will be put into the position of taking it away to survive.

Do I want to be loved? It is a very valuable survival tool to have. If I want that then I'd best run my show in a manner that is lovable. If I give I improve my surroundings. The better everyone in the system does the better my long term business/economic interests are served. If you don't have you cannot trade with me, the more you have the more we can do of that. If you do not trust me you will not engage with me. Having sub-units of the system (friends/family) is important to mental health and social stability, if I want that then I'd best take care of it. If self-interest is the driver then why would I advocate for something like gay marriage as a hetero-sexual? The system doesn't work well with a second class citizenship, important details are thrown out of whack by it creating a dysfunctional system that I have to live in.

Does this create a situation of making myself god or a religion of the system? No. I cannot be a god if I am a piece of a system and because the system must work to the advantage of its inhabitants or screw me up it cannot be a religion with blind obedience. I do not use system to mean a collection of rules, I use it to describe the interacting collisions of humans in close proximity. We will lay out a system of rules regarding behavior because we will not all treat the collisions with respect that our self-interest requires. We will not all look at actions from regard to long term outcomes. These rules will work if they are laid out with the intent of producing outcomes based on the logic of remaining in close proximity and regularly colliding. If we approach these rules with logic we have some hope of achieving some consensus of what they should be.

If we appeal to the non-logic of things like religious faith we will not get past the varieties of faith to agreement. Without appealing to religion or "conventional" morality there would still be an argument to be solved regarding abortion. Without the rigor of religion/morality there is a measuring process that can be used to sort out the balance regarding reproduction. There are outcomes of varying social success on both sides. It does not require a god to recognize that child pornography uses someone who cannot understand or consent in a manner which damages that resource which the system depends on for its continuation. I am harmed when my neighbor is harmed because we must exist together, in some way I will have to account for his harm. It does me no good to cripple your ability to do business because I depend on your presence in the market in some fashion, but it also harms me to allow you to run rampant.

This is a simplistic approach to a very complex issue. It is intended for thought provocation, a serious treatment would take a book and no publisher has offered an advance. I cannot begin to more than lightly touch on the number of issues this affects; but the reader certainly can expand it - or dispute it. If you don't like it because it doesn't appeal to a higher moral authority, that is your business, I don't pretend to have god's mouth to my ear. I try to make sense of things and I won't absolve myself of that responsibility by using the word god to duck.

The eternal question regarding something like this is that without appeal to a higher moral authority it becomes optional. I'd say that even in that case it has proved optional and that you can, for example, drive a car into a crowd or you can drive on the road, there are outcomes. It is far simpler to teach behavior by saying something is bad without providing a basis for "bad" beyond appealing to a higher moral authority than it is to examine the reason for "badness." If you are four years old and reading this, go see your parents and ask them why you can't hit your sister. The rest of you help yourself to "comments" or not.


Phil said...

Well said, Chuck. Politics aside, this may be the most relevant article you've ever posted on this blog. At worst, you've slaughtered a few sacred cows; at best you've proven that your critical thinking skills are at the top of their game. Maybe you should pitch the idea for a book to a reputable publisher.

Chuck Butcher said...

'you should pitch the idea for a book to a reputable publisher.'

Phil, you've been around here long enough I know you're not screwing with me, but that kind of thing is way out of my league/

Mr said...

Well said indeed.
Age: 29
Gender: Male
Astrological Sign: Gemini
Zodiac Year: Metal Monkey
They call me 'Brian'