A Purely Rational Basis for Ethics

Take the red pill. Step out of the cave.

A work in progress.

The Meta Rational Goal

The question of how humans should live has been tackled by philosophy and religion for thousands of years. In all that time, no one has presented an idea that proves that humankind has a specific purpose, nor that humans should behave in a certain way. Unfortunately, the human mind evolved with a predisposition to belief, and for that reason most of humanity believes that it should act according to the dictates of some religion or belief system, or according to what is preached by individuals or texts. Most people fail to realize that no commandment has any logical validity whatsoever whether it comes from a stone tablet, a text, the words of another, or any other source. There is simply no way to demonstrate that any commandment has imperative force. You abandon reason when you choose to believe that any commandment is an absolute justification for action.

Proof is hard to come by outside the realm of mathematics, and especially rare in the area of ethics. One idea that comes close to proof is found in the pages of Rene Descartes, his "first certainty". There is confusion regarding Descartes' original statement and his restatement, "Je pense, je suis", but that is not important. The salient assertion is that of all possible ideas, you can be most certain of your own existence. You cannot be absolutely certain of this, nor can you prove your existence to another human.

However, no person can make sense of the proposition that he does not exist.

Try it. Try to imagine yourself not existing. Try to imagine yourself acting if you do not exist. You cannot. If you accept that you can act, then you must accept that you exist.

It is in that previous statement, about action, that we can discover something close to ethical proof. Ethics is the study of how one should act. Reason can be, quite loosely, defined as the capacity humans have to make sense of things. Rationaliy is the exercise of reason, for deriving conclusions, among other things. In the context of ethics, rationality is a process by which humans arrive at decisions about what actions to take. Rationality is not the only process, of course--humans make decisions that are not rational--emotional decisions, for example.

We cannot prove that rationality is the correct process for reaching all decisions, and many people would reject that notion. When it comes to decisions about interpersonal relationships, for example, most humans will always apply emotion in favor of, or in conjuction with, rationality. For decisions greater in scope, however, such as how a society should allocate its resources, or what goals humanity should prioritize, I hope that most intelligent and educated people would agree that rationality is the preferred process.

Rationality only has meaning in the context of a goal, however, and that is where most ethical systems break down. At this point, I need to distinguish the terms ethics and morality. I exclude the term morality from my vocabulary because that term is most often used in the context of right and wrong, and I see no evidence that humans are capable of determining what is right or what is wrong. As such, morality is useless. I distinguish ethics from morality by definining the former as being concerned with what one actions one should take without making any claims as to whether those actions are "right" or "wrong".

In order to avoid the conflict that comes from the breakdown of an ethical system, I propose a system based on a commonly accepted goal. But what should that goal be? As I explained above, no human has ever proved that any commandment has imperative force, and now I say that by same token, no human has ever proved that any goal has imperative force. As much as I would love for such a proof to exist, I cannot make any such claim. I can, however, provide a universal goal that has a meta justification.

What I propose is that, in the absence of any goal that can be proven universally valid, and thus any provably valid rational course of action, the most rational goal, which I call "meta-rational", is to discover whether a universally valid goal exists, and what it is.

If we can accept this meta-rational goal, we can derive universally acceptable principles that further this goal.

The Role of Conflict Reduction in Furthering Goals

Many belief systems include rules that, when followed, tend to reduce social conflict. Advocates of belief systems will argue that, in the absence of religion, and the moral rules contained therein, a person would have no reason to behave. This is false.

If a person can be convinced to accept the meta-rational goal, then that person can be shown that certain socially beneficial principles logically derive from that goal. The reduction of conflict is one such principle. If we accept that the search for a universally valid goal is the most rational goal that a society can pursue, then empirical evidence tells us that we should seek to reduce conflict wherever possible.

In fact, except for those cases in which conflict itself is the goal, any society engaged in the pursuit of a goal should strive to reduce social conflict. In order for a society to function, the society needs its citizens to be engaged in productive activities, at least some of the time. Whatever those activites are, social conflict interferes with them. For example, imagine a scientist engaged in seeking out greater understanding of the nature of the universe. If that scientist is fighting with his neighbor over a property dispute, the scientist is expending energy that is not furthering a productive purpose. Even when that scientist is at his laboratory, chances are that there will be moments when he will become distracted by the conflict.

Note that social conflict is not the same as competition. Unlike conflict, competition actually furthers societal goals by motivating citizens to be more productive.

Of course, most societies have rules in place that attempt to encourage order by reducing conflict, but a fundamental problem with these rules is that they are often based on sacred texts, on an arbitrary set of laws, or on tradition. All of these bases are weak, in that it is relatively easy for an individual to reject them if he should lose faith (in religion, in a constitution, in tradition, etc).

The great advantage of rooting rules on a logically-derived principle of conflict reduction is that there is no way for a rational individual to reject those rules, provided he has been convinced to accept the meta-rational goal. Even if an individual does not fully understand the meta-rational goal, he can still be convinced that conflict reduction furthers this goal--furthers any goal---and persuaded to accept logically-derived rules.

Minimizing Suffering Furthers Societal Goals

Just as social conflict interferes with a society's pursuit of its goals, suffering acts as a similar impediment. A person who is suffering will be motivated to expend at least some energy trying to ease that suffering, and that effort will detract from his progress towards other goals. Furthermore, because humans have the capacity for empathy, even humans who are not themselves suffering will be distracted when they perceive that others are suffering. Most humans will seek to ease the suffering of others, to one degree or another, and this will detract from their pursuit of other goals. Whatever a society's goals, it is thus rational for that society to seek to minimize suffering as a way of furthering its goals.

Maximizing Freedom Furthers Societal Goals

If one accepts the conclusion above, that a society should seek to minimize conflict in order to further its goals, then one must also conclude that a society should also seek to maximize freedom. It is the nature of most humans to seek out freedom, and curtailing freedom creates a significant potential for conflict.

While the governments of many societies, often motivated by either constitutions or the citizens themselves, do protect freedoms (often expressed as "rights") to one extent or the order, their bases for doing this are not fundamentally rational. During the creation of the United States of America, for example, the founding fathers enumerated many freedoms, but without knowing anything about their thought process, it is reasonable to assume that their basis for choosing freedoms was rooted in their experiences with the oppressive British monarchy rather than a rational process of derivation from central premises. This approach is problematic because, without a rational justification for freedom, it is not possible to correctly determine how to balance freedom with order.

Before proceeding, it is critical to explain that making rational decisions about freedom requires that we first understand what freedom is. Unfortunately, in this area, most of the world falls short. At one extreme, based on one scientific understanding of the universe, there is no such thing as freedom (in this context termed "free will"), because all events, including human decisions, are predetermined by the laws of physics. Within the context of rationality, however, we must dismiss this viewpoint because it renders rationality meaingless. Just as it is meaningless to speak of rationality if one does not exist, thus requiring one to assume his existence, it is also meaningless to speak of rationality if free will does not exist. We thus dispense with such notions and assume that human beings do in fact have free will, and thus some degree of freedom, as determined by ability and external constraints.

Even within the context of free will, we need a more refined definition of freedom in order to properly determine its role in a rational goal-oriented society. Without delving into the biological intricacies of the human mind, we can define freedom as the ability to exercise rational will. Even with the understanding that it is not yet possible to determine how much of a human action is motivated by a rational thought process as opposed to emotion or some other biological process (such as reflex or instinct), it is critical we distinguish actions motivated by reason because on some level, actions motivated by anything else can be thought of as programmed, similar to the actions undertaken by a robot.

The capacity for reason exists in most humans, but to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon intelligence, education, conditioning, and perhaps other factors affecting the mind. Understanding this, combined with the distinction between rational will and other motivations for actions, we can see how a useful definition of freedom does not merely define it as "the ability to do what one desires." A person acting out of desire alone is no more free than is an animal or a robot. For the same reason, a person acting from conditioning, such as one who salivates when a bell is rung, is not acting freely. According to the most useful definition of freedom that we can adopt, a person is only acting freely when he has the intelligence and education to conceive and understand various courses of action and choose from among them. Free action can be influenced by emotion, as no human can escape emotion, but not exclusively controlled by it. Moreover, conditioned action is never free.

Once we have this more refined understanding, we are able to determine that in order to maximize human freedom, we must sometimes place restrictions on that very freedom. Ignorance is an impediment to a person's freedom--thus, society must compel education. Low intelligence is an impediment to a person's freedom--thus, society should seek to maximize intelligence, which means interfering with a woman or couple's freedom to make decisions during pregnancy and childhood. Conditioning, the most prevalent form of which is religious indoctrination, also acts as an impediment to individual freedom--thus, society should seek to prevent such indoctrination. A person is most free when he has attained the maximum intelligence that his genetic makeup allows, maximum education, a minimum of emotional or other mental impediments, maximum health, and a minimum of need (food, shelter, clothing, etc), thus society should strive to ensure that these conditions are well met in order to maximize human freedom and thus minimize the potential for conflict that can interfere with the pursuit of societal goals.

Maximizing Equality Furthers Societal Goals

The nature of human beings dictates that imbalances in equality create an increased likelihood of conflict. [NEED TO EXPAND ON THIS]