Above us, Only Sky

Politics, Philosophy, Science, and Everything Else.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Moral System

Morality seems like a very complicated issue, but that’s more because of the situations we find ourselves in, moral systems tend to be fairly simple, or at least they should. All they need to do is set out what they value, then all the complexity comes in trying to see how to you can maximize that value, or minimize the damage to it. A religious system values following the perceived will of the deity, other systems value human freedom, pleasure, the absence of pain- relatively easily explained concepts. The messiness starts as soon as you try to apply it to life and the real world.
So here goes. I value human happiness, as defined by the individual human concerned, and I place a negative value on suffering, both human and animal. Nothing else has value in and of itself, though a great number of things have value in that they contribute to things which have inherent value. Morality is based on acting in good faith in the way that will create the most happiness or the least pain.
The bit I want to expand upon is my understanding of ‘acting on good faith’. This concept, I believe, should be exported to all moral systems, because regardless of what is valued, it seems likely that there will be some degree of uncertainty about how an individual with incomplete information should act. So while I discuss happiness and pain, this whole concept should be exportable to any moral system that does not place a negative value on people thinking about moral issues.
My first belief is that there can be no certainty, especially in predicting the results of any given action. I don’t mean this in a scientific cause and effect sort of way, I do believe everything has a rational cause. I mean this in the context of human actions in the day to day world. For example, if I call sick into work tomorrow, what will the impact be on my co-workers, my boss, my work situation, my paycheque, etcetera. The impact goes beyond that, in the so called (but poorly portrayed in cinema) ‘Butterfly effect’, but it is increasingly unpredictable, so much so that it cannot be taken into consideration. When we take actions, if we are to do so rationally, we must take into account the likely, predictable outcomes. We cannot hold ourselves to account for events that could not have been predicted, but we must hold ourselves to account for things that are in fact predictable, however unlikely. So, in the above example, I should hold myself to account if something fails to get done at work, if the company loses a client, and the like. I should not hold myself responsible if one of my co-workers gets called to replace me and dies in a freak car accident on the way to the job.
There are two interesting conclusions that come from this series of suppositions. The first comes with regard to an individuals responsibility to themselves as compared to their responsibilities to others. While we must, if we are to claim a moral position, consider other people our equals in value, since we as individuals know ourselves best, we are first responsible to ourselves. It goes like this: Since I know very well what the impact of any given action will be upon myself, I can take that reaction into account with a higher degree of certainty than I can any other persons reactions. This doesn’t mean that I can diaregard other people in my decisions, only that I should take them into account according to how well I can predict their reactions.
From the above example: If I know for certain that I will feel very bad if I go into work, because I really AM sick, I can balance that against the inconvenience I can expect my co-workers to experience, and decide to call in sick. My information about the amount of pain I am averting from myself is very good, while my information about what pain I will cause others in less complete, so the information about my self take precedence. For all I know my boss might have been planning to send everyone home early because of a lack of productive work to be done, and my calling in sick will mean that others have the opportunity to get the hours they were hoping for.
This is not a license to ignore the needs and suffering of others. It is merely a formal recognition that morality can only exist when it is based in knowledge, and self-knowledge is more often the most accurate.
My second conclusion comes with regard to the value that this moral system places on knowledge, and the implications of that. This post is already starting to look like a novel, so I’ll post on that conclusion tomorrow.


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