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Chapter 3 - The Moral Absolute

The absolute standard of morality is the capacity for empathy.

Well-being, since it is a multidimensional measure, is a difficult thing to quantify. With some features being quantitative and others qualitative, it cannot be simply reduced to a single measure. Therefore, to judge an action as good or bad is usually a relative statement, unless there is an unequivocal measure that overrides all of the other considerations. There is also the problem of our own perspective. For example, for most of us, we consider ourselves as good as most other people, regardless of whether we consider mankind to be mostly good or mostly bad. This makes it difficult to stand as a distant observer apart from an action and to judge with any reliability. We cannot impartially measure, the way we would measure the physical properties of an object in space. We need empathy.

We have shown that all actions are relative to a moral reference frame. This reference frame is the local context of the entities involved in the action. But laws are written from an absolute perspective, sometimes by invoking God. The question is, are there any real absolutes? It could be argued that life or death is an absolute. The result of walking off a high cliff - that should be an absolute. But it is not to the person whose life is at stake - that person is dead. To the grieving next of kin, the effect may depend, for example, on whether the body was recovered or not, and there the question is more relative. Therefore even the condemnation of someone a murderer is not a simple absolute. The judgment must take into account the values of the people who remain and the society they are a part of.

So how can I claim that there is a standard that is morally absolute?

The moral absolute is a measure of well-being and thus good and bad. To be an absolute standard, it must be, by and large, the same value for everybody. Due to the nature of well-being, it cannot be quantitative, since there are too many features of well-being are qualities that cannot be turned into values. Any attempt to pick a selection of values of the moral dimensions and attempt to claim this as the standard yardstick is bound to lead to failure - no matter how well chosen, a significant minority will disagree with any such choice. Thus the moral standard is a limit value; a measure of maximal well-being that everyone can agree on.

Consider any moral action that involves more than one entity. There must then be at least two measures of well-being involved. Then how can one get any number of observers to agree on how to measure the consequences of the action? Well, any measurement done using the origin chosen by any one of the observers is liable to be challenged by any of the other observers. So their moral framework cannot be used. Also, if we tried to use the moral frame of reference of the first entity as the origin to measure the well-being of the second entity, we would again have a problem because every observer would have a different perspective on the relative differences between the two entities. The only way to achieve a uniform measure is to use the frame of reference of the entity involved in an action for that entity's well-being and no other.

The absolute moral standard then must be the maximum well-being possible for an entity using that entity's moral reference frame. This measure is what the entity uses to determine what is best for it, if that entity is capable of some degree of introspection. Even if the particular entity has no sense of what its ideal well-being is, thinking beings such as humans can make reference to the ideal in their deliberations. So even if the entity itself has an unconscious striving for its well-being, there can be an external entity that can make moral judgments using the moral standard.

Well-being as an absolute measure arises from the ability of an entity to act to enhance it's own well-being, though. - it is not simply a consequence of life. If the Gaia hypothesis is true, the ecosystem acts in its own well-being without being considered a living organism. It may not be able to make reference to any conception of its ideal well-being but it can still take action. It may be possible to equate the two and say moral action is the definition of life. This is not what is usually though of as living, but it might lead to a different and fruitful viewpoint of what life is.

This absolute standard is a usually unobtainable measure. That is, even the entity itself usually cannot measure it completely. Most entities, conscious or not, have in them an imperfect sense of this ideal yardstick as a reference point with which to measure their actual well-being. This yardstick may be limited to only a few dimensions of well-being, if the entity has a limited sense of what is good for it. Even in these dimensions, the entity may not be aware of all that it is capable of. Also, the entity's understanding may be inconsistent or faulty instead of simply incomplete. This means that it is possible for some observers to have a better conception of the well-being of some person than that person does. That would mean that the empathy of an observer could be a better guide than the entity's self-knowledge. But for most entities, in reality both self-knowledge and empathy are less than perfect.

To take an example of the moral standard, consider some moral action that involves a Christian and an atheist. One is committed to the belief that people possess an immortal soul, and their measure of well-being must contain that as an aspect. The atheist does not hold that view. There cannot be any consistent moral judgments made by the two parties if the atheist considers the welfare of the Christian without reference to the other's soul. Likewise, the Christian will not be able to have a correct view of the situation if the question of the atheist's soul was a factor in the matter. To achieve a true empathy, each party must assume the other's viewpoint, as well as have an understanding of the other's situation. The atheist can understand and take into account the Christian's need for salvation even to the point of knowing that the Christian believes that the atheist's soul is at risk. But this concern is part of the Christian's sense of well-being - it has no bearing on the well-being of a committed atheist.

This standard does not mean that empathy has to be limited to an erroneous understanding, though. With empathy the atheist can even have a better sense than the Christian of the Christian's well-being, for example with a better knowledge of human psychology or even a deeper knowledge of the relevant theology than the Christian possesses.

This moral standard is not a fixed quantity. As time goes on, the maximum well-being can change. There are two types of change that affect any person. The first is how they act to improve or worsen the capacity for well-being of themselves and others. This is not an improvement in well-being per se. Instead, this change comes about through an increase in self-knowledge. The second change is external. These changes can also cause a shift in the moral framework. As the capability to achieve well-being changes, the way well-being is determined changes to account for this increased capability.

These changes can be illustrated through the capacity for happiness. Although a dimension in which overall well-being is measured, happiness itself can have a number of qualities. An internal change in the capacity for happiness, then, would be the case of a person who never left the place they were born until later in life. Assume that the first time they left home, they find that they enjoy traveling. This newfound enjoyment has increased that person's capacity for happiness.

A case of an external change has come recently through the creation of the Internet. The happiness (or sadness) that comes through interpersonal communications has been qualitatively expanded through the use of this medium.

Note that both of these cases broaden the degree of happiness possible. They do not add a new dimension to well-being that did not exist before. This is extremely rare - it may not have happened that a totally new dimension has been created since the use of money led to wealth as a measure of well-being.

I would like to say a little about justice in the context of moral standards. Justice, of course, is the attempt to return equity to moral acts. That is, if some act has resulted in the gain of one at the cost of the loss of another, justice attempts to right this imbalance. Ideally, one would want to act to cancel out the effect of an bad act, but it is quite often impossible to undo the effect of a loss of well-being, restoring a person to the point before that loss occurred. Instead, many acts of justice try at least to eliminate any gain made by the bad act. This is easier to accomplish than to create a gain to offset the loss - it is a fact of life that it is easier to destroy than create. But somehow it is rarely considered that undoing the loss is equivalent to undoing the gain. That is, it may be justice if an embezzler is fined by the court though the victim gets nothing, but it would not be as satisfactory if the court lets the criminal go unpunished but have the victim be given restitution, even though the two are the same in terms of righting the balance.

There is also the concept of social justice. How is this different from justice as is usually understood; is there a need for the concept at all?

Social justice is defined by the World Bank as "equality of opportunities for well-being, both in and among generations of people." They consider social justice to be an attempt to create sustainable development in at least three areas: economic, social and environmental. Development is sustainable if it "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The difference between simple justice and social justice is that there does not necessarily have to be a wrongdoer for social justice to apply. In the case of simple justice, there is a determination that a loss of well-being occurred as a result of an act usually accompanied with the gain of well-being of the perpetrator. In the case of social justice, the imbalance of well-being between different groups does not result from the consequences of a moral act, because no single such act can be found. Instead the determination is made by looking at the difference between the well-being of the parties being compared at a given time, regardless of the actions involved.

This comparison is usually thought of as a simple comparison of well-being between or among the parties involved. This works if the parties use the same frame of reference for determining well-being. But it leads to inapplicable results if the frame of reference is different. For example, a comparison of the well-being of a person in a first-world country compared to that of a third-world country would show the need for justice for the third-world people until the day that third-world country becomes a first-world country. The person in the first-world country will cry foul about this, especially if the claim can be made that the effort of that person contributed to that country becoming and remaining in the first world. But the third world member can also claim the same degree of effort into bettering themselves, except that the effort does not show equivalent results.

The way out of this impasse is to base social justice not on a comparison of well-being relative to the action in which the parties were affected, but by comparing the well-being of the parties in terms of the ideal well-being they are capable of at that time. This analysis provides a comparison of differentials between where the party is to where they can be; a difference value that I have pointed out is easier to analyze and more reliable than an absolute value.

A contentious issue involving justice is the question of redress for past wrongs. Although it would seem that justice is the same now matter how far back the transgression occurred, the effect of the transgression is diluted by time. This is due to the fact that the ill-gotten gains of a bad act and the resultant loss of the injured party are the prime components of change in well-being in the here and now, but if it occurred in the past, subsequent events will have a larger effect on where the person is today. There comes a time that restitution - beyond a simple acknowledgement that something bad had been done - is itself unjust, for it stakes a claim to benefits gained by other good efforts of the transgressor after the transgression occurred. The gains realized by the transgression may have magnified the benefits of any efforts after the transgression, but that does not given the injured party claim to all future benefit.

This dilution of effect seldom plays out in a single person's lifetime, but it is important to factor in between the generations. No one would seriously claim restitution, for instance, from the current citizens of Mongolia for the actions of Genghis Khan. Even a generation can make a difference. It is very difficult to justly address the claims of descendents whose parents had their property confiscated against the rights of the descendents who inherited that property. Both sides have a legitimate right to the property and it would be impossible to come up with a consistent policy on problems of this sort that would handle every case.

Although the well-being of an individual is an absolute value, determined from that person's own sense of what well-being is, determining the good is done by comparison to the frame of reference in which morality is being defined. This frame of reference is determined in large part to the degree of applicability the moral code extends to; that is, the field or region of applicability. Specific things such as alcohol consumption for example are local to a country or group. As a frame of reference changes to include more people or other entities, the larger the field becomes and the more moral judgments are limited to more general issues. So it is possible to make judgments for or against polygamy in certain groups, but not for all of humanity, yet it is possible to judge the more general characteristics of family life, such as a condemnation of the abandonment of young children.

So, we have found that the absolute in morality is in the capacity for empathy: the ability to consider the well-being of others in terms of their definition of well-being.

This determination changes the consideration of a person's acts to be relatively good or bad as the field of applicability changes. This change, besides having the effect of washing out differences in the interests of generality, is also related to the fact that good and bad are in part determined by comparison to a reference value drawn by summing over the entities in the field.

Let us use the metaphor of a forest. A forest is made up of trees. Every tree is striving for sunlight as people strive for good. A tree does not grow forever, trying to reach an unobtainable perfection. Instead the tree grows to its appropriate height as we strive for an appropriate level of good. We are all defeated if we try to eliminate all our faults; the best we can accomplish is to be good enough.

But any given forest has different conditions that allow for a certain level of development of the trees in the forest. This means that to label a tree as a small or large tree, a comparison is made with reference to the trees that are its neighbors. A tree of a given height may be great or small in one forest, but fit right in the middle in another. The height relative to sea level is not important often, unless one is trying to consider characteristics, such as air pressure, that are measured from that general referent. Thus, the closer the neighborhood, the finer tuned the measure.

Thus, a moral judgment is not relative to the individual - it is a measure whose upper/lower bounds tighten as the neighborhood contracts. It is almost meaningless to an individual alone, and can only be given in terms of a society. A moral judgment would make sense in an individual context only to a loner, or for acts that do not involve another person.

Problems arise when making moral judgments in the presence of change. This can often lead to paradoxical situations. They often occur because different people undergoing change at different speeds will have different notions of parity. That is, the differences that arise when considering different characteristics of well-being for comparison become more complicated when the reference value for that characteristic changes in time enough to be noticeable.

Consider for example, two people who come from the same village, but one leaves for an advanced culture and the other stays behind. Regardless of who rejoins who's society, the one who returns will seem less moral. This is caused by the fact that it rarely happens that one society is "better" than other, despite the fact that one may have a greater level of well-being. In going from one society to another, there is a change from one norm to another. Acting in the same manner after leaving one culture and going to the other would lead to a different judgment against those actions because the norm is different. For example, if a person is coming from a place with a higher standard of living and attempts to live at that same standard, it would make that person appear selfish to the poorer neighbors. On the other hand, if a person were coming from a lower standard of living, their lower giving to charity would appear to be selfish to the more affluent neighbors. These changes are ameliorated by increasing the frame of reference to include both societies, and are resolved by the newcomer changing behavior to fit the prevailing society.

An even more curious paradox comes from the fact that the more societies adhere to their moral code, the more likely the society is to function efficiently and thus inspire changes. This is due to a faster increase in well-being leads to a faster increase in human potential. A society that does not have a functioning morality is more likely to stay mired at a certain level of development or at best proceed slowly. A society that is more moral, due to bringing out the best in people, will create out new potentials and even new problems, which have to be addressed by changes in the moral code. With the novel ways that well-being can be increased, there are also new opportunities for action, both good and bad. These must be identified and dealt with.

This new identification is not just limited only to new moral situations, though. Like any field of knowledge, the more that is known about the field, the more that people will become aware of and address the ramifications and previously unrecognized subtleties. This applies also to moral acts. This is more likely to happen in a society where moral values are better understood and followed.

The final moral paradox has to do with a frame of reference that moves with time, remaining forever in the here and now. This seems intuitively to be a sensible thing to have, since it acknowledges that moral actions are best judged in the present, and a moral frame of reference that stays in the present will be more likely to provide judgments unqualified by the need to include conditions that are made necessary by referring back to a moral code centered on one era in history.

This choice of a moving frame of reference involves both the need to keep one's moral code up to date and to keep a constant perspective. For example, the admonition that society should "plan for seven generations" is such a moral imperative. It provides a metric upon which the effects of moral actions are judged - provide for enough time for the repercussions of the act to dampen out.

The distinction between a fixed and moving frame of reference can best be appreciated with unrepeatable actions. Common cases of this involve the exploitation of unrenewable resources, or the creation or destruction of something that results in permanent changes. For example, the production of oil results in a permanent loss of this resource for future generations. If it is believed that the amount of oil is available for many dozens of generations but the moral center is fixed on the point at which oil was first utilized, then a case could be made for the unrestricted use of this resource in the context of three or four generations.

But recognizing a moral center that is always in the present does two things. First it forces the judgment of the wisdom of exploitation to take into account the fact that every successive generation will be faced with increasing scarcity. Second, being centered in the ever-changing present also forces the recognition that the very concept of exploitation is not a fixed property. As the generations change, newer uses come up for that resource that are totally unknown. The moral ramifications of how to handle nuclear waste are a case in point. The effort is now currently underway to make inaccessible to future generations what we now consider a dangerous form of garbage, but could in the future become more prized than jewels.

But this simple consideration of a moving frame of reference does not lead to any paradoxes. They arise from having a coordinate system that moves in time along with the generations in such a way that the generations collapse into one.

Consider an example of a forester. The forester has children, and the single source of income for this family is the growth and harvesting of trees in a forest. Assume there are two adults and four children and that any trees cut down in this generation will not be replaced by harvestable trees for another 20 years - the time it takes for a generation to pass.

How many trees to cut down in the next 20 years? The first choice is to cut down half of them. This will support the family until the children are grown up. The children then will have the same number of trees available to them, and the size of the forest is stable over time. But this does not take into account the fact that there are twice as many children as adults. It is reasonable to expect that all four children will marry and start their own families, but only half of them will stay to inherit the forest. The other half will leave to partake in the family business of the families they married into. That half will marry and stay could seem to indicate that the forester should only cut down a third of the trees, so that there are two thirds of the trees available for the next generation, which is twice as large.

But what about the next generation? If there are 6 times as many trees as are necessary to sustain a family at a subsistence level, then the grandchildren, presuming that the size of the families remains the same, will not have enough to live on. This situation may be held back for a generation or two depending on how large the forest is, but there is a limit that will eventually be reached regardless. This is the kind of argument that led Malthus to claim that eventually there comes a time when overpopulation causes a collapse in population due to a scarcity of resources.

A way out of this impasse is to consider every generation to be collapsed into a single archetypal family. Considered this way, it is possible to reason in the following manner. It is possible to subdivide the forest only a finite number of times so, except for only the initial generations that are populating a new territory, this is not an option as a way to provide for a an archetypal family. That means, as far as the family is concerned, only one family can take over in the next generation from this one. Due to the consideration that a family is composed of two adult parents, only two of the children can be provided for as eventual owners. The others must be provided for in another way.

The only conclusion to draw in this case is the realization that if there is only a fixed amount of resources, effort must be made in each generation to increase the resources. This can be done in a variety of ways: First, the parent can buy more land. This is also equivalent to earning enough in this generation so that the children could make that purchase. A second alternative is to create new resources. There are two ways this can happen. One is to discover new uses that the forest can be put to that would increase its yield, such as growing mushrooms, or hunting game. The other way is to transform it, such as turning it into farmland. These pair of second alternatives requires creativity, because finding new uses for a resource or transforming the character of the resource both require thinking in new ways. This requires education. Again, it does not matter who is educated, the adult or the child. When viewed through the concept of a single archetypal family, the effect is the same.

The paradox lies in this collapse of many generations into a single one. For example, since there is a certain satisfaction in being able to give to one's children, there is usually an emphasis placed on sacrificing for this generation so that the next generation can be better off. This is due to the fact that the increase in well-being of the child is worth more than the increase in well-being of the adult because both generations get something out of the children being provided for. But the calculus of delayed gratification comes out differently when collapsed to a steady state. In that case, the benefits given to the children are equivalent to the benefits given to the parent, since those benefits were the ones that the grandparents had work for. The way to determine what to save for your children and spend for yourself is to find a balance. Obviously, both generations' needs must be met, but after this is done, where is the balance point? It may not be possible to rationally choose what to save or spend if the two balance out over all choices in the acceptable range. If 60% of the parent's income meets the needs of the family, then taking all of the rest and leaving the children none is the same as leaving all the rest and taking none.

The way out of this impasse is to sometimes consider the generations as separate, even though, in the previous example of the forester, this collapse helped to reason through to the need to educate both adults and children as being essential to sustainability. In this second example, we could split the excess between the generations and give an equal share to each in the family, but this balance point is essentially arbitrary. If we go back to considering the transaction as going from one generation to another, the balance point that took into account the extra pleasure in caring for one's children is the more reasonable one.

So we have determined that the absolute in morality is the capacity for empathy. This capacity allows each of us to see and measure the amount of well-being around us in the same way. Justice is the attempt to right the imbalances of well-being that can be seen around us. This can be a relative measure based on the context of the injustice, but it can also make reference to the maximum attainable well-being, as is done with social justice. The redress of injustice can be tempered by time, though. We have also found that the measurement of relative well-being depends on the context in which the measurement is taken.

We have also discussed some paradoxical situations associated with the attempt to measure well-being. Since we determine what is good or bad in terms of our local context, the stranger is usually found to be wanting. Another paradox comes from the changes that come in a moral society that make the morality change faster to keep up with the changes. Finally, we have a paradox in how to measure the change between generations. Do we look at the generations as a sequence, or do we fold that change into an eternal now?