The problem: How do we know we are in a good or bad state? By extension, how do we know we are doing the right thing? What is the criterion for good or bad states of being? What does morality mean?
The solution: It is argued that a concept I call the “form of living” serves as a criterion for good or bad states of being. The “form of living” is a sequence of actions and events that occur by and to a person over time. We value certain sequences over others. Each form of living is situation dependent, meaning that what we states of being we pursue or avoid is situation dependent. A moral act is defined as one that contributes to the good/best state being for all beings involved in the act, and some issues are investigated.
Table of Contents
The Problem to Solve
Overview of the Central Argument
Definition of a form of Living
Arguments for the criterion
Using the Criterion
The Meaning of Life
Definition of Morality
Application of forms of living theory
Forms of living and Consequentialism
Ought From Is?
The problem to solve
What body of information do we consider when we pronounce an individual state of being “good” or “bad”?
Note that I am not asking (yet) for the criterion for moral good or bad states of being, just individual ones. The idea is to figure out the criterion for pronouncing someone’s individual state of being good or bad, morality being put aside for the moment. For instance we might ask what makes losing my job bad for me? This is not a moral question, as I am not asking if someone should fire me or not, rather, I am asking in the sense of personal well being. What body of information do we look at when we assess my losing my job, and pronounce it “bad” for me, as most people would? What makes it bad for me?
At the very least, the criterion for individual good or bad states of being is related to morality. If we can figure out what it is we “measure” or “sense” when we pronounce a state of being as good or bad for someone, then we should be on our way to answering questions about what morality is. Of course the words “measure” or “sense” might not be the best description of what we do, but I do not know better words to describe what we might do.
If we do “sense” or “detect” or “measure” something, that then allows our minds to then judge a state to be good or bad for a person, then we might ask, what is this thing that we “sense”? Another way to put this question is: what is the criterion for good or bad states? What collection of information (what “thing”) do we attend to when we judge a state of being? For example, when I am beaten during a mugging on the street, I am obviously in a bad state, both during and after. How do I know that I am in a bad state? What is it I sense or measure to know that being mugged in this manner is a bad state? How do I know that falling in love is a good state for me?
Supposedly, if we can figure out what the criterion is for a good or bad state of being, we can do several things. First, we might be able to clarify some situations where we find it hard to judge the welfare of persons and the moral circumstances they are in. We might be able to “calculate” what is good for people. Second, we might be able to discover how to “measure” good or bad states independently of a person’s judgment, that is, measure it with machines. Third, it should settle some debates in moral philosophy, for, at the very least, good or bad states of being are very related to morality. Whether any of these possibilities can happen is something to be seen.
However, it should be obvious that even if we find a single overarching criterion that one can reference for any good or bad state of being, it will be useless from a practical standpoint. When we are in pain, we are going to try to stop being in pain. It’s not as if we think “Oh, I’m in pain, what should I do again? Or right, try to stop the pain…” We do these things automatically, we don’t need to know the criteria to look at, we will look at whatever the ultimate criterion is regardless of what we know. When we miss a train, we know we are inconvenienced, we don’t have to figure out it’s bad by referencing some criterion. When we get fired from a job that we need, we know this is bad, we don’t have to reference something and figure it out. The ultimate criterion will explain what happens, but it cannot be used.
There are only a few uses that I can think of for the ultimate criterion. First, it will help explain what we do, and why, but, as above, it won’t be much help. Second, this explanation might be useful in making a device with artificial intelligence. If a computer is told what to measure, then it can figure out whether or not someone is in a good or bad state, understand meaning, things like that.
The question of the criterion for good or bad states of being is, of course, an old question in philosophy. I will attempt to answer it here. Here it is assumed that, though it is possible that we use the wrong criterion for good or bad states, we actually use the correct one. Assuming we don’t use the correct one seems like extreme skepticism. It is assumed that a single criterion for good or bad states is possible to formulate, rather than having multiple criteria. It is also assumed that, though we can use the criterion successfully in many cases, it is possible that in some cases, we cannot “measure” the criterion correctly, or it is very difficult to tell the right answer.
The criterion is a thing I call the “form of living”. A hard thing to define, and I will do my best to define it clearly below. Armed with this criterion, I will then apply it to a kind of “consequentialist” definition of morality. The definition is : A moral act is one that contributes to the good/best state of being for all beings involved in the act. Also, the agent performing the act is affected by the act, thus the state of being that the agent enters into is also a relevant consideration. Further, it does not seem correct to say that an act with an outcome that is good for others that is done for entirely selfish reasons should be called “moral”. Neither should it be called “immoral”, so it seems one must add a caveat to the definition of a moral act, that it must stem from a concern about others, otherwise it cannot be called moral. More on all this later.
Overview of the Central Argument
The central argument throughout this essay is as follows:
It will be argued that any state of being we wish to call “good” or “bad” (for a person) is reducible to a sequence of actions and events that happen to a person over some period of time. I call these sequences, “forms of living”.
If it is true that what we call “good states” is reducible to these sequences, then, since this is a physical sequence of events over time, this is in turn, reducible to changes in energy states over time for all bodies involved in each state. This implies that it is likely reducible to a thermodynamic quantity.
If “good” and “bad” states are reducible to a thermodynamic quantity, then these states are measurable. If measurable, this settles some debates about morality. For instance, it indicates that whether or not I am in a good or bad state is objective, since it is measurable. As long a physically measurable quantity implies objectivity, that is.
However, though these states are potentially measurable, they are not measurable today, and since this is such a complicated thing to measure, they might never be measurable by a machine. The only thing that can measure these states currently are human beings, and this is likely to continue into the future.
As a further argument to the fact that these states are measurable, this is equivalent to saying that one day we will be able to build a device, an artificial intelligence, that will be able to measure this special thermodynamic quantity. If a machine can reliably measure good or bad states, then we will find it to be an intelligent machine. To say that these states are not measurable is equivalent to saying it is impossible to building an artificial intelligence.
Measurability also answers the question of relative morality. Any dispute about what is moral to do between two people who are motivated out of concern for others, can be chalked up to a “measurement problem”. For many simple things, like issues of whether or not humans need food and shelter, everyone measures the same and gets the same answer. But for more complicated scenarios, disputes arise. Two humans are measuring something differently, be it what the future will be if such an action is done, or what to value more given a hard to imagine situation. This is the cause of moral disputes, but no solution can be offered, because no better measurements can be made, as humans remain the only things that can measure these states. More on this below.
Phrasing the criterion for good or bad states of being as a sequence of actions and events also leads to a clarification of consequentialism. A definition of morality (i.e. that a moral act is one that contributes to the good/best state for all beings involved in the act) is used in conjunction with “the form of living” to show how it can answer classical challenges to consequentialism.
Thus the central idea of this essay is that good or bad states for a person are measurable, and this has many implications for debates in morality.
Definition of a form of living
Humans have an amazing ability to pick out aspects of a complicated situation and identify which parts of it are “good” or “bad”. For instance, consider two situations that are very similar physically, but different from a moral perspective.
Situation 1: A boy is throwing a baseball back and forth with his father in a park. Suppose a woman is walking nearby and a boy throws the ball and unintentionally hits her leg. She is surprised but uninjured. Physically we might describe this as: a biological body of mainly water, held together by bones and various proteins, moved by protein folding in the muscular regions of her body, is hit by a 0.145 kg baseball. Another smaller but similar body (the boy) propels the 0.145 kg baseball in a parabolic trajectory that impacts the larger biological body.
Situation 2: A woman walks through the park, the boy throws the ball, this time deliberately aiming for her, and hits her leg. She is surprised but uninjured. Physically we might describe this as: a biological body of mainly water, held together by bones and various proteins, moved by protein folding in the muscular regions of her body, is hit by a 0.145 kg baseball. Another smaller but similar body (the boy) propels the 0.145 kg baseball in a parabolic trajectory that impacts the larger biological body.
Morally speaking , the two situations are different. The second seems more serious than the first, as it was done on purpose. In the first situation, the boy would probably be in less trouble, supposing the parent divined the boy’s intentions in both cases. Physically speaking, they are at least quite similar, with the second situation only differing by some neural activity in the boy’s brain, and some eye movements, where he deliberately targets the woman. How do we pick out the relevant details and pronounce the second situation as morally serious? How do we prioritize one set of actions and events, and discard the irrelevant ones? We don’t know how we do this, but we know that we do it, and do it easily. How do we know? The only answer we have is that “we just know.”
What information we use to judge a state good or bad, the criterion for good or bad states of being, is not clear. Here I am talking about a good or bad state for a person, i.e. their welfare, not whether they are evil or nice. If one is evil, that is bad for other people, but not for the person that is evil, they probably enjoy it.
Historically, emotionally positive feelings, i.e. pleasure, feeling good, was tried as the criterion for good or bad states of being with the ethical theory called utilitarianism. If an act maximizes pleasure, it was proposed, then it is the best thing to do. However, this was found wanting bey many commentators, for good reason. Whose pleasure matters? What about situations where many get pleasure, but some get pain? And so on.
The interesting thing about “feeling good”, is that in pretty well every situation (maybe all situations) where one is in a good or a bad state, there is an emotional component to it. When we fall in love, we feel good, when we break a leg, we feel pain, if we are a slave, we feel powerless over a long period of time, and so on. In many situations, we use how we feel to judge the situation as good or bad. After the death of a loved one, people feel awful, and that seems to be what is bad about that situation. Hence, it seems natural to see if emotional states work as a means of judging all states of being.
However, feeling good or bad seems to fail as a criterion that works for all situations. When we break a leg, we feel pain, but we also have a loss of mobility, something bad that is beyond what we feel. Also, though people addicted to heroin feel great pleasure, many feel it is a bad life and do not want to pursue it. Feeling pleasure is not enough. Further, suppose we could live as a brain in a vat in a simulated reality where life is great, we feel good all the time, but it’s a fake reality. Many people, if given the choice, would choose to live in reality, rather than a great, but fake, life. Further, would you choose to live as a slave and have as many good and bad feelings over the course of your life as a free person? Probably not. Hence, feeling good or bad seems to fail as a criterion for all good or bad sates of being, but it does seem to be all that’s important in some situations, such as losing a loved one. It also seems omnipresent, and might be a factor in all states of being considered good or bad.
What are other things we seem to value beyond emotional states? Certain biological states like being healthy seems to be something we might value. However, one can always argue that the only reason we want to be healthy is to feel good. This seems disingenuous though, as having a broken leg is not only painful, but also hinders mobility, which seems bad for other reasons. Hence, there seems to be some reason to think that being healthy is a good in itself, regardless of how one feels. However, health is not always considered in evaluating a state of being good or bad. The moment you fall in love has little, if anything to do with your health, yet it is a good thing regardless.
Another interesting thing we seem to value beyond emotional states might be mental states. Do we value those occasions when we understand things well, when we have a clear mind, for themselves, or because of how we feel? Granted we feel something, but it seems to me that I value having a clear mind and understanding things regardless of how I feel.
The last thing I can think of that might be a candidate for the criterion for good or bad states of being is what we are existing like, the sort of thing we are, the sort of person we are. Many seem to value being honorable, or being virtuous, or living to a code, and so on, regardless of how much good or bad feeling we get from it. We can also value being an athlete in our youth, being a good mountaineer, being a good salesman, and so on, as well. In all of these things, there is of course an emotional component to it, but saying that the reason we value being honorable is so we can feel good seems disingenuous. Further, people can choose to pursue a course of action even though they will likely be tortured and killed for it, because that’s the sort of person they want to be, the kind that stands up to oppression, or whatever. There is also the fact that we would choose to live in reality instead of being a brain in a vat. We would rather be the sort of person that lives a real life than a fake life.
The common element in these things we value, being honorable, being a good husband, being virtuous, etc. seems to me as being the sort of thing we exist as when we do this. We can exist as a virtuous thing, exist as a good mountaineer, exist as a slave, exist as a hero, etc. When we do the sort of things that are required to be considered a hero, we exist as that sort of thing. We exercise our will so that we take certain actions, rather than others.
This seems like a pretty major criterion for good or bad states of being. It seem to trump emotional states. It was basically all the ancient Greek thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, seemed to care about. However, it also falls short of being the ultimate criterion for good or bad states of being. Sometimes we care about existing as a certain sort of person, other times we don’t. For instance, after the death of a loved one, all we seem to care about is how we feel. We can be dignified or bawling and collapsed in a heap, but who really cares? The important thing is to start healing, start feeling better. Further, how important is it to be honorable? How do you tell?
So we have several candidates for things that seem good in themselves: positive or negative emotional states, health, mental states, and the sort of thing we are existing like, but none of them seem to be an adequate criterion on their own. They seem to be the major things we consider when we evaluate a state as good or bad, particularly emotional and what we are existing like. Sometimes we only care about emotional states, sometimes we only care about what sort of thing we are being. It would be nice to find something that we could always look towards when we evaluate a state of being as good or bad.
The one thing I can find that all of these candidates have in common is that they all involve sequences of actions that people take and events that happen to people, but only, of course, while you are alive. Emotional states involve a sequence of feelings over time. Mental states involve a sequence of thoughts over time. Healthy states involve a sequence of physical states over time. Existential states (existing as a certain sort of thing), like being a monk, involves many actions that someone takes and events that happen to a person over time.
When one feels happy, what is this but a sequence of emotional states over time? When one understands something, has mental clarity, what is this but a sequence of thoughts over time? When one sprains an ankle, what is this but a sequence of events over time? When one is honorable, what is this but a sequence of actions and events over time?
Hence, it seems that we can reduce any good or bad state to a sequence of actions and/or events over time. Since this is a common element of all the major things we use to evaluate a situation, we should be able to use sequences (somehow) as the criterion for good or bad states of being. The question is : which sequences?
Well, for one thing, these sequences are only relevant when they happen to a living person. Also, we pursue certain sequences rather than others. Hence we can call the ultimate criterion for good or bad states of being something like a “form of living”. When we are doing one thing, we are alive in a certain way, a certain form. When we do something else, we are alive differently, in a different form. If it’s OK to say that we can be alive differently at different times, then one can say we are alive in a certain “form”, meaning a certain sequence of events are happening and a certain sequence of actions are being taken. “Form” means “sequence”. One could also say “way in which one is alive”, or “what you are living like”. “Living in a certain form” seems like a good way to phrase the idea that a person is going through a certain series of actions and experiencing a certain series of events.
To be more precise, the form of living should be viewed as the summation of the sequence of events and actions that one goes through in a particular situation. This is, of course, not a mathematical summation, but the idea is similar.
When one goes through a similar situation, the form of living should be similar. For instance, when someone gets mugged, the sequence of actions and events that happen to them, their form of living, should be similar to another person getting mugged. It is not exactly similar, but it is similar enough to call it the same thing, a “mugging”.
A form of living is somewhat an extension on the phrase “way of life”. But it is more general. You can have a way of life as a cowboy, or a businesswoman, or a monk, or a hockey player, etc. This is the sum of your actions and typical events that happen to you over a long period of time. The way of life is one that you have (hopefully) chosen. But my term is of a broader scope. The form of living can refer to short time intervals, and not just the type of person you are.
As an example, suppose I am walking down the street eating an ice cream cone. Biologically, I am swallowing, chewing, my heartbeat is slightly elevated, my muscles are working, using energy. Biologically speaking, I am alive – like that (swallowing chewing, heart beating, using muscles). I could be alive differently, I could be not moving, overheated, etc. But at this point in time I am alive “like that” so that a certain sequence of biological events and actions are happening, which I somehow can “sum up”. Mentally speaking, my mind is wandering, not really focused. Maybe I am remembering something that, if you asked me later, I couldn’t recall. Mentally speaking I am alive – like that (wandering). Notice this too is a sequence of mental events over a time interval that can somehow be “summed up” by us. Emotionally, I am enjoying the ice cream, and it is sunny, the landscape is nice to look at, so I feel sort of good, but not overly so. Emotionally speaking I am alive – like that (sort of good, notice this is a sequence of feelings over a time interval). Existentially speaking, I am an ice cream cone consumer, an eater of dairy products, I am alive existentially – like that (ice cream eater).
Sum all these together, biological, existential, mental, emotional, and you get a sense what I am “alive like”. You get a sense of my form of living. Interestingly, that’s all you can get, a sense of the form of living. Then you can pronounce it as undesirable or desirable. It’s something we seem to sense. I can describe my state of being in this sort of detail, and someone else can sense what I am living like – my form of living. I can’t say it directly. I can only describe a situation and then a mind can sense what the form of living is, and then seems to automatically evaluate it. I can only sort of “gesture” towards it.
A form of living is the sum of one’s actions and the events that happen to a person over some time interval. We seem to pick out the relevant time interval with ease. There are lots of events that happen to me as I walk down the street. We have the ability to pick out the important things (enjoyment of the ice cream, exercise) and discard the unimportant stuff (the rocks 10 meters away, the houses nearby). We can sum this up to get a sense of what I am living like (the important stuff). From this sense of the form of living, our minds seem to evaluate our state of being.
Let us try another example. What is my form of living if I am teaching a class? Physically, I am walking around, uttering noises, pointing to the chalkboard. Physically, or biologically, I am alive – like that. Mentally, I am thinking about what to say to help the students understand. Emotionally, I am worried if I am doing this right, I might get embarrassed a bit in the middle of the class for saying the wrong thing. I also might be tired. Emotionally speaking, I am alive – like that. Existentially (the sort of thing I am) I am a teacher.
All these sequences of actions and events sum up in a unique way to give us a sense of what I am living like as I teach a class. It seems one can do this with any situation. Again, I cannot phrase directly what the form is like. I can sense the form from the description, just as I believe anyone can do. But that is all I can do. It is not something I can directly phrase, rather it is something that people sense when given a proper description of a situation. We miraculously pick out relevant details, sum then up and get a sense of the form of living. One will be inclined to pursue or not pursue some state based on our sense of the form of living.
If progress can be made, we might be able to measure this “form of living” by looking at the biological and physical states of a person (including those of the brain) or animal over time. This is all we can measure about a person, we can’t directly detect emotions or mental states. This would be a very hard task, but possible in principle. If we can consistently measure a form of living and interpret it with a machine, then we would have a machine that could duplicate our ability to evaluate whether we or someone else is in a good or bad state. Thus we would have a science of evaluation.
What might a science of evaluation look like? I do not pretend to know, but I can propose a rough theory, most likely wrong. The only utility would be to consider this as a clarification of what I am proposing. First, since we cannot measure mental or emotional states, we must look at biological sequences, things we can measure. Assume that for every emotional, mental or existential state, there is a corresponding physical or biological state. We would look at sequences of movements (arm, leg, body, lips, etc), sequences of blood flow, sequences of neural activity, sequences of temperature states, etc. Probably we would consider things relevant when certain quantities, like blood flow, temperature, movements, etc. start to change from normal values. Then we might apply some physical principle, like minimization of energy, or how much entropy is fought against, or efficiency, or some other concept that relates to what living things try to accomplish in order to stay alive in the way they wish. These concepts of efficiency or what have you also relate to sequences of states the organism goes through. Then you try to calculate how possible sequences would adjust such a quantity. If say, efficiency goes up, or energy is minimized, or the opposite of entropy is achieved, or whatever physical quantity is appropriate, then it would be declared a good state.
Life then would have a solid definition. Right now we might define life as something that uses energy in a certain “way”. Right now if asked, “What way?” I have no answer, other than to gesture at the “form of living”. If you can’t tell, I can’t explain it to you (but everyone can tell). But if we could sum up sequences with a computer as our minds do, then I might be able to point to sequences that minimize energy (or a similar physical principle that works well). Then we would have a solid definition for life. We would say “life is some body that uses energy so that energy is minimized (or whatever)”. Where “used” means energy is released so that this energy can lead to realizing energy minimization (or whatever). There are a lot of difficulties. One is time scales. Over what time scale should one try to measure a sequence? What are the thresholds to use for saying that an arm movement occurred or did not? The computing needed for this also seems monstrous. Even if all this could be solved, will there be a physical quantity (like minimization of energy) that will calculate results that we agree with? How could we tell if we were on the right track? Presumably if what we were calculating started to agree with our evaluations, we might be on the right track. Also, if we can recognize patterns in our theory of evaluation that seem to match up to our common sense notions of recognizable states, like happy or sad or whatever, then this would also be an indication that we are on the right track. It seems, at the least, very, very difficult, but maybe possible.
Arguments for the criterion
What is being claimed here is that whatever we call a good or bad state is correlated to a sequence of events/actions that someone experiences. I’m not sure how this could be doubted. The information that we reference when we call a state good or bad must be in the sequence somehow. Where else could it be? The issue is: can we narrow this down a bit? Is the “form of living” an adequate phrasing of the important part of these sequences?
What I am stating is that good or bad states are “summations” of certain sequences of actions and events that happen to people and/or are caused by people. When our mind is clear (a good state), what is this but a sequence of thoughts and understandings over a time interval? I understand some scientific concept, and how it relates to others. This understanding is a sequence of thoughts. When I feel good, is this not a sequence of emotions? For instance I win a lottery, I get excited, I think about the possibilities. Is this not a sequence of feelings? I exist as a good skater, is not this a sequence of actions (sliding and pushing in various directions) over a period of time? In some instances, it might be a sequence of one thing, such as a sudden epiphany. This we can still call a sequence, it is a sequence of one. This one instance in time is a good thing, just as sequences over time are good things. Even with an epiphany, it seems that an epiphany can perhaps be broken down into some sequence of thoughts, you see how one thing connects to others, then to others. Also, even an epiphany is a physical sequence of neurons firing. We seem to have a natural ability to find the right time interval to look at these sequences over. How do we know the right time interval? We just know.
Fine, you might say, good states must be somehow “in” the sequence of actions and events, but what aspect of these sequences is good or bad? The only answer is that we seem to be able to tell which aspects to look for. This is simply our state of knowledge at this time. It might be possible to measure sequences of movements and get a computer to pick out what we pick out, but we don’t know how to do that. We can pick them out. The trick to propose a criterion for good or bad states of being that is the right word combination, so that it that points us in the right direction. It’s as if I am going to be deliberately stupid. I can easily pick out what is good or bad from a description, but I want you to point me to what I can pick out with a set of words or a word. Does the phrase “form of living” do this?
As was mentioned in the beginning of this essay, this criterion for good or bad states of being is useless, even though it is probably correct. We will know what is good or bad about a situation automatically, we do not have to figure out that pain is bad for us, we already know. Hence my task in arguing that this is the proper criterion for good or bad states of being is to show that it correlates with any good or bad states of being, and that it gives nothing superfluous. If it meets these two criteria, then it must be accepted as, at least, one way to phrase the criterion for good or bad states of being. What’s really being checked here is if it’s a proper phrasing, nothing else, since it is useless in any event.
Well, first, the phrase “form of living” captures within it anything else we might want to use as a criterion. It captures anything that seems well correlated to good or bad states. How we feel, what we are existing like, what our mental state is, the state of health, even our spiritual state (which I would define as how we use our will, how we act like a force of nature, causing things to happen) seems a sub category of the form of living. What we are living like includes all of these things. Any one of them seems like it might be always correlated to our welfare, but none of them are adequate. We always seem to feel something when we are in a good or bad state, but this is just one aspect of a good state, emotions are not everything. We can always be feeling good, but this is not good for us overall if we are a drug addict. Physically and existentially a drug addict is in a bad state, which trumps her or his emotional state. The form of living tells us this. If you look at a drug addict, describe what they are living like, your mind has the necessary sense of the situation to judge. Conversely, it isn’t enough to exist well. Being a liar is bad, but sometimes lying might save a life. Biological states cannot cover everything, as we do not know how to translate brains states into emotions and mental states.
Correlation is not causation. Though good or bad states are often or always correlated to how we feel, we do not consider positive emotions to be the last word on our state of being. Forms of living seem correlated to good or bad states, but do they fall prey to the same thing that emotional states do? This would seem unlikely, as the form of living seems to supersede all other possible criteria, and has them as sub categories (i.e. existential, emotional, mental and physical).
Consider that a living thing has certain qualities that a non-living thing does not. We breathe, have neural activity, feel and experience things, a rock does not. Any change to any of these living qualities (to our form of living) could be bad, but also could be good. A change in a rock is not good or bad unless that rock affects some living thing. Thus, all we care about are living qualities, nothing else. If all we care about are living qualities, the form of living seems to capture all things we care about, and nothing extraneous.
Does the form of living lead us to irrelevant things? It does not seem to, at least I can come up with no example. If I am standing on asphalt, the asphalt may be or may not be relevant to the form of living engaged in. If my head is about to hit it, then it is obviously relevant to the qualities that make me alive. At the very least, a great change in my living qualities will be partly due to the asphalt. If I am witnessing a fire in a restaurant, and I am scared, my heartbeat is elevated, and I am wondering if I should go inside and try to rescue people, (I am living like that (scared, wondering)) it is not relevant that I am standing on asphalt, it is barely a part of my form of living, if at all. It does not affect any of my living qualities. If it does, it is a slight affect, and the asphalt does not affect my evaluation of what to do either.
One might say that in some instances, perhaps the emotional aspect, or another sub category, of the form of living is irrelevant, thus the form of living is pointing to irrelevant things. Suppose I am sitting and listening to news on the radio, I feel nothing. I am passive. The question is: what am I living like? In this instance, the only emotionally relevant thing to my form of living is that I feel numb, emotionless. Thus, in this case, though my emotional state enters into consideration for my form of living, it seems to be a minimal consideration. I have pointed to these things as a means to describe the form of living, as they seem often correlated with it and are often a consideration. That is not to say they are necessarily always a consideration. The mind decides what to consider as important.
The question then is: if some sub categories of the form of living are sometimes irrelevant, is it the wrong criterion? Probably not. The problem is that I have no idea how to “calculate” or “measure” the form of living independently of a mind. Nobody does. Our minds just seem to know what to do. If some things that are sometimes relevant are not at other times, then presumably if we could figure out how to calculate the form of living as our minds do, then our calculation would tell us which things are relevant, independently of our minds. For instance, perhaps the relevant thing is that certain living qualities are about to change or are changing, such as blood flow or certain neural activity. A complete theory, whatever it looks like, would tell us this, thus tell us the relevant things, independently of our own judgment.
Another issue is that of situation dependence. What is good in one instance, such as feeling good, might be detrimental in another instance, as when one is a drug addict. It depends on the specific situation. If there is so much situation dependence, how can one be more specific than the form of living? What sequence we are after will depend on the situation at hand, it’s impossible to specify beforehand. Hence what else can we do?
In any event, all we can ask for is the right word combination to point us in the right direction to consider the relevant things. We will consider the relevant things regardless. The point is to find an agreeable word combination that points us to the right sequences. In this sense the term “form of living” is superior to “state of being”, as “state of being” would point us to all things, such as irrelevant asphalt. Another candidate, “happiness” is too ambiguous to work. Happiness is not all we want all the time, it seems, as it is an internal state, ignoring what might be happening externally, such as we might be a happy brain in a vat. “Freedom” does not work, as freedom should start to be curtailed when it impinges on the freedom of others. Other words and word combinations suffer the same fate, as above. Thus this is probably the best word combination we can have for our purposes, it captures anything we might wish to use, and nothing extraneous. The real issue is that we seek certain sequences of events and actions, not what we call these certain sequences.
Using the criterion
If indeed this is the right criterion for judging whether or not we are in a good state of being, how should we use it?
Ostensibly, the procedure would be the following: one would attempt to describe the form of living, then we would let a mind evaluate whether or not someone is in a good or bad state. The answer will be right, as long as the person doing the evaluating can “measure” things correctly (more on this later). We do not have a machine to do this, and must rely on people.
This brings up the subject of relative morality. Which will be dealt with in a bit.
Suppose a bank robbery is happening. How do we evaluate the state of being of an innocent bystander using forms of living? One asks: what is the bystander living like? She is scared, confused, wondering what will happen. Physically her heartbeat is elevated, she feels anxiety in her stomach. Existentially, she is a victim. Our mind takes that description and evaluates it to be a bad state of being. You can do this with any situation.
Let’s do another one. Suppose someone is living their life playing computer games, they rarely go outside. What is their form of living? Are they in a good state? Well, they are living in an unhealthy way, they get little exercise, eat unhealthy food (physically). They are an addict, not interacting with others (existential), they probably have low self esteem (emotional), and are mentally less stimulated than they might be. When the mind gets this description, this state is evaluated to be “bad” or less desirable than most.
Notice that in some situations, various aspects of the form of living seem more important. When someone is a drug addict, their emotional state (which may have lots of pleasure) is less important than their existential state (being an addict). When someone’s loved one has died, their emotional state seems paramount, and the sort of person they are being (existential) just after their loss, be it brave, strong, or weak, does not seem to matter as much as their suffering. They are not judged for being weak. The same goes with any other sub category of the form of living.
Once again, what’s interesting is that knowing the criterion for a good or bad state of being is fairly useless. We do the same thing knowing it or not. We evaluate without it, and (this is probably in favor of my theory) using the form of living, we do practically the same thing we always do, except we pretend to be stupid. The great, age old mystery is solved, and it seems useless.
However, though forms of living seem useless, it might be possible to figure out just what aspect of these sequences we measure, and measure them without a human. Then we would have machines being able to evaluate states of being like we do, which might be useful.
The meaning of life
What is a good state for a person is identified with living – in a certain way. To touch on a related issue, the point of life (or the meaning of life) is to have a good life. This is something seldom phrased, though it seems obvious. Why are we here? To have a good life. What’s it all about? Having a good life. What’s the point? To have a good life.
Of course the answer to what is supposed to be the “ultimate” question does not help. Everyone knows that the point of life is to have a good one, even if they cannot phrase it when asked, but the question still remains “what is a good life?” The answer is that we can all tell what a good life is, we just need some details. We all seem to have an equal ability to evaluate good or bad states of being, providing we understand what is going on. This is entirely situation dependent, thus we have difficulty sating what a good life is in general. We have a rough idea that it has to do with emotional satisfaction, with existing well (having a satisfying job, being a good father or mother etc.) with being healthy, not being dead, etc. For advice on a good life, it is hard to go beyond platitudes like “live every day like it is your last” and “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses”, “be happy”, “cultivate patience”, etc.” for the simple reason that unless you specify circumstance, you can’t evaluate your life or anyone else’s. When we get specific, though, we can regret things we have done, like breaking up with partner, or wish that we had made a different decision, like taking engineering instead of chemistry in university. Once life events are specified, we all seem to be able to say what was good or bad about our lives.
This situation dependence, for some reason, leads to great dissatisfaction among people who want a simple answer to the meaning of life. The human mind craves a simple answer that, if you just heard it and remembered it, you would always be happy. There is no such thing, due to the fact that each life is situation dependent. It would be nice if we could take solace in the fact that we do know a great deal about what a good life is, once we look at it in detail, but for some reason it is hard to take this solace, and we seem to be ever searching for the reason we live and die, and constantly ask “what’s it all about” even when actually know the answer. It’s about having a good life, and we know it when we see it. Unfortunately this might not help.
Nobody seems better at evaluating than any other person, which is probably related to the fact that the only way we can tell is through asking humans. You tell someone the details of some one’s life – their form of living- that they were successful in their job, they had a loving family, found love and married, found support, etc. and most of us say that that sounds like a good life, but there might be more details to consider. We can all judge it. We can have trouble judging certain things, most people in the western world do not worry about their honor, whereas in some cultures and in the past, honor was very important to a good life. How can we judge how important it really is? There seems to be no way to tell (probably due to the situation dependence problem), which is OK, we cannot assume our ability to measure forms of living is perfect. One trick seems to be applying what we all know about having a good life, to our actual actions and decisions. This is not an easy task.
To be clear, when I say that we all have an equal ability to evaluate good or bad states, it is kind of like saying that we all have the same ability to evaluate math or logic. Some people can understand the subtleties of math better, but nearly everyone can understand the correctness of at least simple mathematical statements. We can all do it, and nobody seems better than anyone else in this sense. We all possess the faculty to understand math, and in this sense nobody is better than anyone else – at having the faculty. You cannot be better at simply possessing a faculty, though your faculty can be more developed than others. The ability to understand human welfare seems far more evenly distributed than mathematical ability, everyone seems pretty good at it, the trick seems to be achieving an understanding of what is actually going on, in the face of cultural prejudice, inaccurate information, lack of pondering subtle concepts, not having experienced some situation yourself, etc.
Now let us see how this criterion applies to morality.
I define a moral act as one that contributes to the good/best state of being for all beings involved in the act. The phrase good/best refers the instances where there is no good thing to do, rather only the best. For instance there is the fairly contrived example of when a train will go down one of two tracks. If it goes down the left track, it will kill a hiker trapped in a narrow canyon, if it goes right, it will kill five hikers trapped in a narrow canyon. The train cannot be stopped. Someone who can see what will happen has the choice of flipping a switch, making the train go left or right. Since there is no alternative, it seems the best thing to do is flip the switch so only one person dies. This is far from a “good” outcome, rather it is an awful outcome, but is the “best” choice.
There are a host of other issues related to this definition, such as: what motivation should people have in doing an action to consider it a moral act? What about when people differ in what they think is good for people? I will address these issues in a bit.
This is an empirical definition of morality, meaning that whether or not people are in good states is not a thing that depends upon what people arbitrarily think. Rather, it is supposed that there is a right answer to whether or not people are in good or bad states.
It is confusing that the only source of information we have on whether states of being are good or bad is what we think, there is no independent way to measure it. Just because we are the only source of information, what is good or bad for someone is not up to our random thoughts, rather there seems to be something empirically real.
In this definition, what is good is relative to the situation, not to what people think or to culture. It is not a rule based morality, where things like lying or murder are never allowed, what is moral to do is relative to the situation. Obviously, examples where lying or murder are the unfortunately the best thing to do are easy to think of. Lying to save a life, or killing to save millions are a few examples. Whether moral judgments are absolute or not will be dealt with shortly.
Application of forms of living theory
Now let us take this definition of morality and combine it with the suggested criterion for good or bad states of being (the form of living), and see what results.
Obviously this definition for a moral act works very well for many instances of ethical problems. Should a company be allowed to pollute the water? Polluting the water puts people in bad states. So no, you should not. Should I stab my sister with a fork? That would hurt and injure her, not a good form of living. Etcetera, etcetera. It is easy to come up with examples of where this definition works well. We want, however, to see what happens in situations where the definition or criterion does not seem to work well.
A good response to this definition of morality is the situation where a man cheats on his wife, and his wife is ignorant of his infidelity. Is this an immoral act? Nobody is getting hurt. In fact two people are seemingly benefiting from the situation, and the wife, who has no knowledge, is not hurt or helped. If she never finds out, is it an immoral act? Many would say it is immoral, and this seems to contradict the above definition, as nobody is getting hurt, yet it seems immoral.
However, what “form of living” is the man engaging in? He is living as a dishonest person, as a sneaky person. This is not a “good” state. We seem to regard this situation through the above defined “existential perspective”. He is living a lie, he lives in a way that disrespects his wife, even if she never finds out. This is a “bad” state to be in. This also seemingly explains why we find this act to be immoral even though no one gets hurt. Applying the above definition of morality, coupled with forms of living theory, pronounces this an immoral act, as long as being a lying and sneaky person is a bad state.
There are separate questions to this scenario, namely does the man care or not that he is living in a cheating sort of way? Is he in a “bad” state if he does not care? Obviously no, if he doesn’t care if he is a cheater, if he doesn’t feel bad about it, he is in fact in a good state for himself. However, he is not a morally admirable person, hence he is living is a “bad” way in that sense (bad for other people). This points to an ambiguity in the word “bad”. If he does care about being a good person, and thus feels bad about his behavior, then he is in a bad state in another sense of the word “bad”. So now we can ask, is this an objectively “bad” state? Perhaps there are cultures that do not care about cheating on your spouse? Even if there are cultures like this, according to the standards of this man’s culture, whose values he has absorbed, and whose norms he is defying, disrespecting the norms his wife would wish for him to live by, he is not engaging in praiseworthy activity. Further, it is hard to see lying and cheating as something good to do, except in extraordinary circumstances, regardless of one’s culture. Even if is it simply cultural bias, forms of living theory still explains why we find such behavior immoral, why we would call it “bad” behavior (even if he does not care), even if we are biased towards our culture. Even if people are somehow wrong to dislike someone being a liar, even if it is OK, the above explanation involving forms of living is still valid to explain our feeling that it is wrong to cheat on your wife, even if she will never find out.
Forms of living and Consequentialism
Let us see how this criterion, coupled with the definition of morality above, answers some of the common criticisms of consequentialism.
According to Scheffler, there are three big problems facing consequentialism. (1) Consequentialism seems to allow for some people to live very well and for a few to live badly, or in poverty. Since good states for some are so high, then this balances out any bad states for a few. This is obviously immoral, and consequentialism is somewhat unclear on this, it may allow for such things. (2) Consequentialism seems to allow for someone to do a horrible act in order to do some good. For instance allowing the murder of one to save five others. (3) Consequentialism is an excessively demanding theory, in that it seems to demand a great deal from one who accepts it, such that they may have little time to enjoy their own life.
Let us see how forms of living theory, coupled with the above definition of morality fares in the face of these influential objections.
Looking at the first objection, we must first note that things like thoughts, good or bad states of being, concepts, etc. are not very quantifiable. We often talk about them as if they are, since we must use analogies in language. When we “fall” in love, there is no pot of love that we trip in to. When we are “depressed”, we are not being squashed by a wheel, and so on. When we “weigh” between two or more options, according to forms of living theory, what we must really be doing is to decide which sequence of events and actions we would most like to see. In some situations, this is much like balancing scales, but in many other situations it is not. For instance, in the example above involving trains where one is forced to make a choice between killing one person and saving five, though the situation is very horrible, quantities of life seem to be the deciding factor. Though notice we can ask the question in another way, given no other options, would we like to see five innocent people live and go through the sequences and actions of their lives or one person to live? On the other hand, when one considers the wishes of a pregnant woman that does not want to be a mother, who is considering abortion of her one month old fetus, where does quantification come into the decision? This is not an easy decision for the mother, where she is asked to “weigh” a potential person, who is not yet fully developed into a human, versus her very real problems. There are no quantities involved in this hard decision, rather one is choosing between two forms of living.
Now that we have noted that good states are not really quantifiable, what does forms of living theory, coupled with the above definition of morality, say about the issue of allowing many people to live richly and well, while others live in poverty? The answer is simple, what form of living would we rather see, one where the economy works in such a way that no child (or adult) goes hungry, and everyone has enough to live comfortably on? Or would we rather see many living very well and a few in poverty? I certainly know what I would rather see people live like, the one where nobody goes to bed hungry. I want everyone, for their sakes, to live like that, as people above the poverty line. Apparently many agree with me. I know which sequence of actions and events I would like to see. Quantity of “good” does not seem come into this decision, at least for forms of living theory. Again, as with the above case of cheating on one’s wife, this case is judged through the existential perspective of the form of living. We do not wish to see people existing as poor people, if there is something that can done about it, and especially if others are existing as wealthy people, when all could be existing as moderately well off people.
Now let us look at the second question. A famous example that seems to illustrate the problem consequentialism faces here is the following: if we are only concerned about good or bad states of being for people, why not take the major organs: the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, whatever we can, from a healthy 25 year old man (without his permission) who is delivering vending machine supplies to a hospital, killing him the process, and put them in five other people in the hospital, also in their 20’s who have just been in a terrible accident, and who need these fresh organs so that they may live? One person is put in a bad state (death) but 5 people are saved and can live out many years. One can argue that, though common sense morality objects strongly to such a terrible act, a consequentialist theory seems to endorse it, as more people are being put in good states.
How does forms of living theory react to this? In this instance, one asks, what are people “living like”? One young man is living (dying) with his essential rights violated. The agent who harvests his organs is living as a murderer, and the people who benefit are living as beneficiaries of a murder. Hence, forms of living theory does not seem to endorse such an action. Again we look at this through the existential perspective. Again the question is: how would we rather see people living, given we are concerned about their welfare? Here my mind balks at the thought of murdering a person in such a way, violating his right to determine his own life, treating him as an organ farm. I would rather see him continue on with his life unscathed, even though the five people might die. From what I gather, many other people’s minds react the same way when faced with this choice.
The final objection declares consequentialism too onerous. It demands that people be constantly trying to help others, even if this negatively affects the agent. For instance, my shoes are old and wearing down, and I want a new pair for $100. However, they are still good for awhile, so perhaps I should give my $100 to a good charity instead. In fact, why stop there? Why not give all my excess money, beyond what I need to have a Spartan existence, to charity? Why not spend all of my spare time doing good works for others? I could go read books to the elderly at an old age home, join an anticapitalist environmental group and knock on doors all day. Etcetera.
The forms of living answer to this is simple: why live in a way that disrespects your right to determine your own life? Even if you care about the welfare of others a great deal, it does not seem rational to totally disregard your own needs and desires. You are worth something, and you are the only one who can take care of yourself in a unique manner. The form of living engaged in seems to disrespect your own freedom to live your own life. You are existing as an unfree thing (again the existential perspective). This assumes one is in ordinary circumstances, and not in a remarkably powerful position to change the world for the better.
I personally think that the vast majority of us could stand to do more for our fellow humans, and am dubious that there is much of a limit on how much energy and time we “should” spend on helping others. I personally have trouble seeing this as a real objection to consequentialism, as I for some reason think I should do more to help people. The limit on how much one does for others seems to relate to how much they care about others, and there are many that seem to care more than me. Those that do either become a dedicated political activist, or a volunteer doctor in a third world country, or something of the sort. Nevertheless, I can understand why someone, who doesn’t care about others to excess, might feel that they should be allowed to live their life too, and forms of living theory provides an answer, as above, even if it might be wrong.
The common theme in these objections to consequentialism seems to be an assumption that factors such as the sort of person one is living like, the existential subcategory of the form of living, has been traditionally seen as not a “consequence” of moral action. For instance, when the young 25 year old is treated as an organ farm, the sort of person he is living as, a victim, is in this theory seen as a “consequence”. Traditionally, it is not viewed as a consequence, and thus consequentialism is deficient in not accounting for it. However, the existential component of his form of living is a state that results from actions of people. What else can we label this except as a consequence? Why what I call the existential component of the form of living has not been viewed as a consequence of action is a mystery to me. If I do an action such as lying, the fact that I am living as a liar is surely a consequence of this action. It’s a bad thing to live as a liar. It’s a bad thing to exist as a murderer. Why this cannot be viewed as a consequence is beyond me.
One can ask if forms of living theory, coupled with the above definition of morality is a “consequentialist theory” if it takes into consideration the existential component of the form of living. This idea does not seem to me to respect the English language, as consequences are states that result from action. The existential component of the form of living is a state that results from action. Hence this is a “consequentialist” theory, even if it does not fall victim to considerations that consequentialist theories are traditionally thought to fall prey to.
Thus it appears I have shown that a consequentialist definition of morality, coupled with the criterion phrased as a “form of living”, handily answers some serious challenges to consequentialism.
It is a common position that what is right or wrong is relative. Relative to what? Culture? To what people think? To the situation? It’s not clear what exactly such thinkers believe morality is relative to, just that it is “relative”, and one cannot definitely say whether something is right or wrong.
As an example, some cultures eat their dead as part of their funeral rites. Other cultures will never consider such a thing. Who is right? Are they both right?
The position forms of living theory must take is that what is good or bad for a person or group of people is relative to the situation, but when that situation is defined precisely, we can pronounce the state as good or bad, or even take the position that we don’t know. In any situation, though, it seems that there is a right answer. Differences in opinion on what is good or bad for people stem from differences in measurement.
I can measure speeds of cars over a bridge well or badly. If I have a stopwatch, but do not know how long a bridge is, but only have a rough idea, then my measurements of car speeds will be fairly uncertain. They will be wrong measurements. Likewise, for moral situations, there will be a right answer, but we will not know if anyone at all is making the correct measurement.
Measurement problems of good or bad states of being stem from a few possible factors. One is whether or not what we think will happen will actually happen. I can think that declaring war on some country will be the best thing to do because the war will be short, very few will die, a horrible dictator will be overthrown, a democracy will be established and everyone will live happily ever after, and there will never be a war again. However, if I am wrong about these details, which is very possible, then the war is not worth fighting. Evaluating what should be done depends a lot on what will happen because of what one does.
Another factor is valuing things mistakenly. I can think that taking a certain drug is great, I feel great when on it. So I evaluate the drug to be a good thing. However, I become an addict, so I valued the drug mistakenly.
Another factor is one cannot live through certain situations, and thus cannot tell if they are good or bad until they are lived through. Some things are beyond our experience. Would it be better life to live as a medieval Samurai in Japan, living to a Bushido code, or as myself, living a life in the modern western world? Who can tell? I would have to live both lives somehow before I could decide which was better.
That each form of living is situation dependent is obvious. What affects our living qualities in one situation might not affect it in another. Hot coffee spilling on me affects me a great deal in one instance, but hot coffee sitting on the table when I receive bad news is irrelevant. It is not possible to build up a general law about hot coffee, just as it is not possible to give general statement that killing a person or lying is never acceptable, since we can come up with situations where these things must be done for the greater good.
Though what should be done is relative to the situation, this does not mean that there is no definitive answer for the situation.
First, there are many instances of situations where we do not differ in our evaluations. For instance, torturing me (in particular) at this point in time would not be good for me. By torture, I mean, real torture, flaying, the rack, beatings, waterboarding, that sort of thing. One cannot disagree if they know me at all and my life circumstances as they are right now, not in some hypothetical world where I am Clark Kent. One might not care if I am tortured, or think it is overall a good thing, but all must admit that it is not good for me. If they do not admit it, they are lying or delusional. It seems like this is an absolute fact. We can find lots of well defined situations where people do agree on whether a situation is good or bad for someone.
It is bad for someone to get robbed. Here you can object that maybe if they are rich it isn’t, they will not suffer, and come up with lots of other things that might make it acceptable. However, if the situation is one where a hard working middle class person who really needs the things that were taken from them is the victim, then nobody can honestly say it was a good thing for them to be robbed, as long as the situation is described precisely enough. One might not care if the person was robbed, another might find enjoyment in the fact that another is suffering. However, even these people will admit that it was not good for the victim to be robbed, but they just don’t care.
So for many precise situations, there is agreement. Our “measurements” agree, and it seems very likely that we are all correct, and not all wrong. Remember that even if we all agree that me burning to death is not good for me (and nobody would disagree unless they are lying), there are people that might want to burn me to death, even though they would agree that it isn’t good for me, they just don’t care about me.
However, we can differ in evaluations, such as a hypothetical medieval Japanese samurai, who is going to kill himself because he dishonored his master. For the Samurai, honor is all important, whereas for me, I don’t really care about honor, at least not like he does. In such a case, even though we differ greatly in what we consider important for a good life, each of us is capable of understanding each other. I can imagine myself thinking that honor is all important, thus find the Samurai’s desire to cut out his intestines logical, though I would never do such a thing. Likewise the Samurai can come to understand my thinking that obeying your master is silly, as hierarchy is abusive, etc. He will never agree with me and I will never agree with him. Even so, our minds are capable of coming to the same conclusion, though our respective societies have given us different priorities for what constitutes a good life. If we are capable of coming to the same conclusion, then the problem lies in identifying what actually constitutes a good life (honor or freedom or whatever). The problem is in actually measuring it right. However, our evaluation mechanism must be exactly the same, it is identical no matter how you are raised, since we are capable of seeing how the other thinks.
If our evaluation mechanism is the same, then the procedure for using the form of living is to describe a situation for a person, then let them evaluate it. The answer will be right as long as their life priorities are right. As to what life priorities are right, this is an open question. It’s a “measurement” problem. This open question does not make forms of living the wrong theory, rather it is simply an open question. This is OK, we cannot expect that our ability to measure forms of living to be perfect and give us the ability to see what should be our priority in life to perfect precision, we are human, we don’t know everything.
If our evaluation mechanism is the same, then it is not true that whether or not someone is in a good state is relative to culture, nor is it relative to what we think. One can imagine an abused wife who has come to see her regular beatings as a good thing, since she thinks she is bad, and needs correction. However, no matter what she thinks, her beatings are not good for her. Thus whether or not someone is in a good or bad state is not relative to what we think. We are the sole source of information about what is good or bad for people, but that does not mean that we always get it right. We have to measure it right.
I recall a story that a Persian prince asked some ancient Greek ambassadors if they would consider eating their dead. They Greeks were horrified at the thought, and said no. The Prince asked them how much money it would take for them to eat their dead. The Greeks said no amount of money would be enough, they would not do it.
Then the Prince asked some other ambassadors in, whose custom was to actually eat their dead. he asked them if they would consider burning their dead, as the Greeks do, and they were horrified by this suggestion. Then he asked them how much money it would take for them to burn their dead, and they said no amount of money would be enough.
A relativist would look upon this as evidence that morality is all relative to culture. However, the forms of living answer would be that both parties consider their funeral rites to give meaning to death and respect to the dead. For the Greeks, eating their dead might lead to widespread cannibalism, which is an unthinkable thing to encourage. For the other culture, burning their dead would rob them of their opportunity to send their dead to the afterlife in a proper way, and they would not be able to respect the dead without eating their flesh. For both, there are potentially huge consequences if they change their funeral rites.
Whether or not these huge consequences would actually come to pass if they changed their funeral rites is an empirical question, it is not up to what somebody thinks. Hence it is a measurement problem. It also appears to not be a big deal, as long as the other culture are not killing on purpose just so they can cannibalize, there is no way to judge who has the better funeral rites, and they are probably pretty close in value in terms of helping people to deal with their loss.
Another issue often raised in discourse about the philosophy of morality is the issue of moral motivation. Why should I be moral? What are proper reasons to be moral? Is everything we do selfish?
Motivation to do moral actions seems to stem from a concern about the welfare of others. If one is moved to help when they see suffering, or if they feel concern for others and this moves them to act in the interest of others, then they are concerned about others and will do what they can to help. This seems to be what we praise people for. Actions that benefit others that do not stem from a concern for others are not generally praiseworthy. I think the reason these are praiseworthy is that concern for others is what other people generally want to encourage in others, rather than selfishness. You can trust a person that is moved to help others in need, you can’t trust people without this motivation.
Suppose a man is walking through a forest on a cold winter day and sees some children playing on a sheet of ice in a river. They cannot see him, but he can see them. Suddenly the ice breaks and the children fall through, screaming in terror. The man’s first impulse is to make no effort to help, rather he thinks it will be fun to watch them drown. Then he realizes that rescuing the children will likely make him a hero in his community, and help his bid to become mayor, which he has been thinking of doing. So he rushes in to pull them out of the river, warms them up and saves their lives.
Nobody who knows how this hypothetical man’s mind works would ever call him a “moral man”. Is what he did a moral act? I do not see how it could be called so, it was a selfish act, not a moral one. It was done for the man’s own benefit, not for the sake of others. It is not an immoral act either, because it benefits some people. So it is not a moral act and it is also not an immoral act.
Therefore it seems that one must add a caveat to the definition of morality used in this essay. A moral act is one that contributes to the good/best state of being for all beings involved in the act. Also, it must be motivated by concern for others, otherwise it does not make the grade to be called “moral”.
If one is not concerned about others, it is difficult to imagine why one would be motivated to do anything for others, except in a circumstantial way. A truly selfish person has no reason to help others, except to hide her or his own selfish tendencies from other people so that she or he can function in society and not be condemned. One might do actions considered moral out of a sense of honor, and this sense of honor might stem from concern about others, or it might not. Motivation to live to a code of conduct seems to stem from a wish to respect oneself. This would seem a selfish motivation, not a moral one. Motivation to do moral acts might also come from a sense of duty to a religious figure, like the Christian God. If the sense of duty comes from blind obedience to a God, then I do not see how this is a moral motivation. One is acting morally because they are afraid of God. Doing things out of fear is not a moral motivation. Likewise, if one does moral acts because one is afraid they will not go to heaven, I do not see how this is a moral motivation. As above, these do not seem to be motivations that others would want to encourage in people in general (probably not trustworthy), hence I do not see how they can be considered moral motivations.
Turning to the issue of: why be moral? There is no rational argument that can be given to make people moral. They either care about others or they don’t, and giving them a rational argument will not change their mind.
One might try to argue with a selfish person in the following manner. The selfish person values themselves. They think they are worthy of respect and care, but other people are not. They find themselves to be a sort of “beautiful thing” (for lack of a better term), worthy of being cared for. Now, one can point out to the selfish person that, in not caring for others and caring only for oneself, the selfish person is being inconsistent, for other people are basically the same sort of thing as the selfish person. They have thoughts, feelings, a body, can be in good or bad states, etc, just like the selfish person. Hence, by not caring for others, the selfish person is being inconsistent.
This is probably a good argument, but it will convince nobody, simply because the selfish person does not care about being inconsistent. Even if the selfish person does care about being inconsistent, she or he will not feel concern for others, thus will have a very weak motivation to help them in times of need. A wish to be consistent cannot compare to the desire to save one’s own life in times of distress, and the selfish person will save their own skin.
Note that it is possible to not find yourself a “beautiful thing” in the sense used above. Some people hate themselves. They mutilate themselves, they punish themselves, and even kill themselves. They do not find themselves to be something worthy of taking care of. Hence, though it is a common belief that everyone is basically selfish, note that it is possible to not find yourself to be worthy of respect, and to do things against your self interest.
Is everything we do selfish? One can argue that even a person who sacrifices her or his own life to save others does it because they don’t want to deal with their guilty conscience after. They know they will feel terrible if they do not help, thus they willingly risk their own life to save others to avoid anticipated feelings. Hence the action is selfish.
It is probably true that some people might not be able to live with themselves if they forego an opportunity to help others, due to feelings of guilt. Is this a motivator to help others? Probably.
However, a selfish person would not have any feelings about letting others die. They would not feel guilty, they will be happy to save their own skin. So there is a real difference between the selfish person and the moral person, though you might argue that the moral person is somehow “selfish” in trying to avoid feelings of guilt.
The only way to explain this is that you cannot develop enough of a concern for others (so that you feel guilty) unless you are capable of seeing them as “beautiful things” (like yourself) in the first place. Once you see people as things worth caring for (like yourself) you cannot help but aid them when they are in need. Hence you develop emotions, like guilt, if you fail to help them. Thus you will do things for them, even if it hurts you, such as talking to a depressed friend at length, even if you would rather do something else. Is this selfish, since it was done to avoid feelings?
While it might be true that people might be motivated to avoid feelings of guilt, it is also true that they do not want to see others suffer, hence are doing it for the sake of the other. Hence, at best, you can say it was partially motivated for the self. The other part is motivation for others. These two motivations can (and do) coexist, and it does not make people “selfish” since the motivation behind it (the original cause, and part of the existing motivation) is for the sake of the other. To call such people “selfish” seems to be an abuse of the term, as selfish people are quite different. They have no guilt.
How do you get people to act morally? The only way I am aware of is to raise them in a loving environment where they have a person that loves them unconditionally that they can bond to. Perhaps some people are genetically sociopathic, but if there is any chance that we can avert such a tendency by raising them in a loving environment, we must do this to our utmost.
Ought from Is?
A classic question in morality is: how do you get ought from is? A woman has fallen and has severely broken bones and might die if she does not get to a hospital. Many would say that nearby people “ought” to help her. But why should they help her? She is hurt, why ought I, or anyone, help her? The woman is hurt, how do we get to the fact that most of us think she should be helped? Why should she be helped? Why ought I to help her?
The question was first proposed by Hume in book III, part I, section I of his book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
It is not quite clear what he is asking here. To me there seems to be two possible questions:
(1) What reason can you give to people to be moral?
(2) If you can find a good reason can you justify it?
Let us answer both.
The way you get “ought from is” (in a moral sense) is through caring about others. If you want to eat a cookie, you ought to open the cookie jar. Similarly, if you care about the welfare of others, you ought to help them when they are hurt.
Now this problem gets lots of philosopher’s knickers in a knot, so let me explain as carefully as I can.
If I am an Olympic sprinter, and I want to win a race, I ought to run as fast as I can. I don’t see how anyone could dispute the logic of this.
Now, one might question whether or not I should want to win the race. Which seems a harder question. However, it is answerable too. If I win the race, it will be great for me. I have been training hard for years for this race, if I win I will fulfill a lifelong dream, get endorsements, etc. So, as long as it makes sense for me to do things to make myself happy and successful in life, then I ought to try to win the race.
Now, to move on to morality. If I love others, care about their welfare, then if someone is in trouble, not only will I be distressed and unhappy and feel guilty if I do not help, but also, one of the things I fundamentally care about will not be fulfilled. Hence, if someone is in trouble, I ought to help. Both for my own sake and their sake (which I value too).
To put this in argument form:
- Mary is drowning.
- If you help she will not drown.
- You ought to help Mary.
Hume would look at this and say that it seems there is a missing premise. It is not logically sound. Why ought I to help Mary?
So let us put in the missing premise.
- Mary is drowning.
- If you help she will not drown.
- You care about Mary.
- You ought to help Mary.
Now, this is still, I think, not quite logically sound. However, it is now entirely convincing. If you do care about Mary, then you will help her.
Note that this is all pretty silly. The majority of people out there do care about others. Normally, if someone is drowning, the majority of us need no prompting, we will automatically help out, no convincing needed. This argument is only for someone who has, for some reason, forgot who they are. They need reminding, for some weird reason, that they are someone who cares about others. Perhaps they are just coming off some serious drugs or something. In any event, if they do care about Mary, then they have no choice but to help.
It would make more sense to put this premise into the argument:
- People in Africa are starving and suffering.
- If you donate, it will alleviate some suffering.
- You ought to donate.
- People in Africa are starving and suffering.
- If you donate, it will alleviate some suffering
- You care about others.
- You ought to donate.
Someone who was wishy washy about donating will now feel guilted into doing it, upon reminding that they do actually care about others, and others in Africa are just like others close by. Anyways, the argument is now convincing. If donating to Africa famine relief really is a good course of action to help Africans, and you do care about others, now you have no choice.
Now, in order to make this logically sound, it has to make sense to do what you care about. We need to know that it makes sense to do what you value. You value others, but should you value others?
You have a choice between eating cookies for dinner or rice. Since rice is healthier, and you like rice anyways, it seems you ought to eat rice. So the word “ought” is about what you should value, as opposed what you might happen to value. You ought to do what you truly value (should value) rather than what you might mistakenly value or value out of weakness. Now, is there any reason that you should value others?
Such a question seems ridiculous. For most of us, caring about others is a fundamental part of our being. This question is in the same category as “I love life, I am having a great life, I would love to keep living for another 40 years. But should I want to…?” We must assume that fundamental things to value, like our own life, or others, make sense to value. To do otherwise would be questioning whether or not it makes sense to want to be human. Further, what reason do we have that not valuing these fundamental things is a more flourishing life? It seems like we have evidence to the contrary, in fact.
Thus, we ought to do what we truly value, what it seems like we should value, rather than eating cookies all the time.
So to complete the argument:
- People in Africa are starving and suffering.
- If you donate, it will alleviate some suffering.
- You truly value others.
- We ought to do what we truly value.
- You ought to donate.
This now seems logically sound.
It should be noted that not everyone cares about others. A psychopath would find it boring and trying to help an old lady who has fallen down to the hospital, and might find it more entertaining to kick her. What “ought” he to do since his objective is to serve his own needs? Unfortunately, he “ought” to kick her, I guess. I am not recommending he kick her, of course, but since the psychopath does not care about anyone but himself, different things are going to give him a good life than things that give me a good life. As long as it makes sense for the psycopath to try to have a good life, there are certain things he ought to do (and maybe it doesn’t make sense). This unfortunately means that the psychopath should be locked up so she or he is not a danger to the rest of us.
Just to be clear, the above argument that I have called logically sound is a “personal argument”. The reason I call it logically sound is that if you accept all the premises, you have to accept the conclusion. While this is true, not everyone will accept all the premises. A sociopath will not, for instance. But if you do accept the premises, you will accept the conclusion. So for that reason, I call it a “personal argument”. It will not work for everyone, but it will work for a great many people.
So this solution to the “ought from is” problem does not work for everyone, because not everyone cares about others. The idea that you can get a reason for everyone to ought to help others is fantasy, because some just don’t care. You can only give a reason to those that already care about others, and ironically, they don’t usually need a reason, because they will help others anyways.
So in that sense, the “ought from is problem” was never a problem at all. Most people care about others and do not want to change. This will make them, for the most part, act in the interests of others.
So, getting back to Hume, and acknowledging that this whole “ought from is” question was not all that clear in the first place:
(1) What reason can you give to people to be moral?
Most people don’t need a reason to be moral, they already care about others. However, if they forget what sort of person they are for some weird reason, you can remind them that they care about others, then they will act in the interests of others if they indeed do care about others. This is not say that people who care about others will always act in the interests of others. Sometimes people get angry and so on, and act selfishly. However, for the most part, they will act morally.
So, this is an explanation as to why people will act morally (for the most part). It seems like a good explanation. It is also a reason you can give to people to act morally (if they somehow need it). It also seems like the main reason for people to act in the interests of others, why else would they?
Why should you act morally? Because you care about others. What else could the “ought from is” question be asking?
(2) If you can find a good reason can you justify it?
Given the above, this is a pretty weird question. Given we are human beings, what reason could you give to show it makes sense to care about others? It’s like saying “I will now pretend I am not a human being, now prove to me it makes sense to care about others”. Well, you are a human being, so it makes no sense to ask this. As above, it is in the same category as saying “I love life, now give me a reason to keep on living.”
This is non sensical. We must trust that our sense of what is fundamental to human flourishing makes sense to pursue. Living in a certain manner is what is good for us, and we must assume we can sense at least the fundamentals of it. There is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, it seems like there is evidence to support this, for what sort of life will you have if you deny what is fundamental to you? A miserable life, I would think.
Is Morality Objective?
There are aspects of morality that are subjective, such as whether or not one cares about others. This is unfortunately, basically a matter of taste, most do, some don’t. It is up to how the subject (person) feels about others that will give them a motivation to be moral. Hence it is subjective.
There are other aspects of morality that seem objective. The actual state people are in, dead or alive, in pain or happy, about to die or not, Fired from their job or not – seems objective. Whether or not being pushed out of a plane will kill you if you hit rocks and have no parachute seems like an objective fact or not. These sort of things are not up to the subject. What Alice knows about or whether she cares about Ben’s pain does not matter, Ben is still in pain.
Then there are aspects of morality that seem neither objective or subjective. It seems like an undeniable fact that torturing me in particular is bad for me. An absolute fact even. It is true. It is not up to opinion. If someone thinks that torture is good for me (me in particular) then this seems ridiculous. If they are not lying, then they have no idea what sort of creature I am and what torture entails. Their opinion does not matter. Hence it is an empirical fact.
Yet calling this an objective fact seems wrong, as the source of this knowledge comes from us, and we have no other way of measuring whether states are good or bad. It also seems wrong to call this a subjective feeling. Me being tortured to death is bad regardless of what some silly person thinks. If there is someone out there that thinks that, I and the vast majority will dismiss their opinion as crazy.
However, I like hot chocolate, and if someone else out there does not like hot chocolate, I might be amazed, but will accept their opinion. This is a subjective feeling, and is not similar to torture being bad for me.
So perhaps the subjective/objective distinction is not a very good one, as some aspects of morality seem to be neither. In any case, the question “Is morality objective?” seems to be highly ambiguous, as it does not specify which aspect of morality it is talking about, and there are objective aspects to morality, and subjective ones, and some that seem to be neither. Hence the question is a bad one, and is not answerable as it is too ambiguous.
As a final note, though good or bad states of being are neither subjective or objective, but seem true or false, and are not measurable by machines right now, this does not mean they are not measurable in the future. In the future, if humankind invents a true artificial intelligence, this will be able to measure good or bad states of being as reliably as a human, if it is truly intelligent. If it can measure good or bad states through some reliable means, would this be an “objective” measurement? It would seem so, as it does not require the input of a human. Hence perhaps these things are “objective” after all.
 This definition and that morality stems from concern from others was proposed to me by my former professor, Rodger Beehler. I am not aware he published a work that used it.
 Mill, John Stuart (1906). Utilitarianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 Taken from Judith Jarvis Thomson. “The Trolley Problem” The Yale Law Journal Vol. 94:1395, 1985
 Example taken from Peter Railton: Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality, in Consequentialism and its Critics (Oxford university Press, 1988).
 Taken from Samuel Sheffler The Rejection of Consequentialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1982.