Universal Morality: A Proposition

Sometimes the greatest plans can be derailed by a single word. One of my earliest articles was entitled “Proving Libertarian Morality,” which was my attempt to provide a rational and universal justification for a theory of ethics, and which has proved thoroughly confusing for some people, all because of one single word.

I wrote this article in the first place because it always struck me as odd that we libertarians are fascinated by right and wrong, and pour prodigious effort into arguing that society or people should do this or that, and yet our opinions rarely rest on a universal foundation of ethical reasoning. If pressed, we appeal to “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or state that economic inefficiencies are bad, taxation is evil, violence is wrong, government power corrupts and so on.

Without strict ethical reasoning, however, these statements remain fundamentally as baseless as “government is good,” “social programs help the poor,” and “unicorns are pretty.” To really change the world, we must present more than just opinions, more than mere assertions. The great challenge in ethical debating is possessing the leverage to radically extend people’s opinions about core moral issues. This is easier than it sounds, since a good philosopher does not change people’s minds, but rather just logically expands the principles they already accept. Newton didn’t change people’s minds about their everyday experiences of the tangible world – he just extended those everyday principles to the universal. The force that drops the apple also moves the moon.

The same is true when debating morality. Have you ever met anyone who argued that murder is the highest moral good, or that rape is a man's best course of action, or that the Golden Rule is: steal everything you can get your hands on, all the time? Of course not. Most people already consider violence and theft to be morally wrong. However, as morality gets more abstract, it gets harder and harder for people to maintain their consistency. I can’t even count the number of times people have agreed with me that “theft is wrong,” but who then instantly become baffled when I reply “therefore taxation is wrong.” It’s the same with the military. No one has any trouble with the equation: Man + murder = evil. Throw in one little inconsequential variable, however, and most people get very confused. Man + murder + green costume = ?zzttz¿¡[short circuit] um, national hero?

Newton’s challenge was not to convince people that apples fall down, but that the same force that moves apples also moves everything else. Extending the principle of gravity from immediate experience to interplanetary motion is quite a mental feat – and even more is demanded from libertarians! Our real challenge is to extend the moral principles everyone already accepts – thus if we lack a solid argument for the universality of those moral principles, we are unlikely to gain much ground. I believe that our lack of a compelling argument for universal principles is one reason we have made so little progress over the last century or so. If moral rules are accepted (i.e. murder = evil), but universal consistency is optional, we have no real leverage to change people’s thinking. Everyone thinks that apples and planets move according to separate – and probably opposing – principles.

For quite some time, I sweated my brain dry working on this problem. The argument that I came up with was, in essence:

  1. Morality can be defined as Universally Preferred Behavior (i.e. a moral theory is that which proposes which behaviors should be preferred – or proscribed – for all peoples in all places at all times.)
  2. For a proposition to be defined as moral, it must advocate a logically consistent set of Universally Preferred Behavior, such as “don’t steal.”
  3. Anyone who argues against Universally Preferred Behavior must do so using clear language, arguments, logic and evidence – all based on the principle that truth is better than falsehood.
  4. Clear language, argument, logic and evidence – and a universal preference for truth over falsehood – are all examples of Universally Preferred Behavior. Therefore a man can only argue against Universally Preferred Behavior by using Universally Preferred Behavior, since anyone who argues is acting on the premise that clear language is universally preferred to gibberish, logic to illogic, and truth to falsehood.
  5. Since Universally Preferred Behavior cannot be opposed without accepting the premise of Universally Preferred Behavior, Universally Preferred Behavior must stand as a valid concept.

The argument follows the same general lines as arguments for logic itself. Logic as a methodology for validating the consistency of arguments is irrefutable, since logic can only be dismissed either on a whim, which is invalid, or using logic, which relies on the validity of logic in the first place.

Arguing against Universally Preferred Behavior is like shouting into somebody’s ear that sound does not exist, or phoning someone to tell him that phones are a fantasy. The argument self-destructs on deployment.

A sample argument runs thus:

  • Person A: People should not steal.
  • Person B: There is no such thing as morality, since objective standards do not exist.
  • So I should not believe that theft is wrong, because no objective standards exist?
  • That’s right.
  • Is it merely your opinion that no objective standards exist, or is it objectively true that no standards exist?
  • It is objectively true that no standards exist.
  • And is it merely your opinion that I should not believe in morality because no objective standards exist, or is objectively true?
  • It is objectively true you should not believe in morality, because no objective standards exist.
  • And what criteria have you used to separate mere opinion from objective truth?
  • Reason.
  • So reason, then, is the objective standard by which you have determined that no objective standards exist?
  • [minor forehead detonation]

A standard argument against proofs of universal morality is that morality does not exist in the real world. That is true, of course, but so what? The scientific method doesn’t exist in the real world either; neither do logic or numbers – does that mean that science and math are utterly subjective, and that any old opinion goes? Of course not. It is exactly the same with morality. Moral theories must pass the test of logical consistency, just as theories in science or mathematics. If you submit a mathematical paper, and on the first page you assume that 2+2=5, rare would be the individual who would read any further! Any sane reviewer would simply circle that error, hand it back and tell you to start over.

The same is true for moral propositions. No one has to engage in moral theorizing – just as people are free to read chicken entrails rather than use the scientific method – but the moment that somebody corrects you on anything, he is acting on the premise that you are bound by some standard of truth or behavior beyond mere whim – and so he accepts Universally Preferred Behavior. If someone tells you that truth is better than falsehood, then he is telling you that it is universally better to believe things that are true than to believe things that are false. The moment that someone invokes a universal preference, he is instantly bound by the requirements of logical consistency. Thus no man can argue against morality – Universally Preferred Behavior – without using morality.

If I tell you that it is better to believe things that are false, my argument self-destructs, because either (a) I am lying, which means you should believe me, but that my argument is the opposite of truth, or (b) I am telling the truth, in which case I am immediately contradicting my stated principle that it is better to believe false things.

The same contradiction occurs if I argue against the basic libertarian principle of self-ownership. If I open my mouth and use my larynx and tongue to express an argument against self-ownership, my argument immediately self-destructs, since I am exercising self-ownership to argue that self-ownership is invalid, impossible, or immoral.

A Way Forward?

In my view, it is essential that libertarians work to develop and communicate ironclad arguments for the universality and consistency of morality itself. If we take a rational and scientific approach to the challenges of moral theories, we shall start to get real traction in the world of ideas, and elevate ourselves about the yammering hordes of debaters who pound tables and bellow that their opinions are just somehow more correct than everyone else’s.

The disservice that I have done to this idea is using the word “preferred” rather than “preferable.” I would like to now officially change my definition of morality from Universally Preferred Behavior to Universally Preferable Behavior. My use of the former phrase has confused a large number of people, who think that I am defining morality as “behaviors that are universally preferred by all people at all times,” and thus using a descriptive and not prescriptive definition. I was rather surprised by this misunderstanding (though I can see how it could be derived linguistically), since it is quite obvious that many people have many different opinions about what is moral – not to mention that if everyone in the whole world had the same opinion about what was right, we would scarcely need a science of morality! So to all of those who have written to me to tell me that people do not have the same opinions about what is good, I can only agree, and add that people’s existing moral preferences are irrelevant to the science of morality, just as people’s existing beliefs that the world was flat was irrelevant to the physical sciences.

Three Hurdles

To further develop the science of ethics, I propose that any moral theory must surmount three basic hurdles. The first hurdle is, of course, logical consistency. I have spoken about this at length before, so I will just touch on it here. By “logical consistency,” I mean that, at the very least, any theory proposing Universally Preferable Behavior must not be self-contradictory. If a moral theory proposes that “everyone must steal,” it immediately self-destructs, since stealing is only of value if a thief gets to keep the proceeds of his theft. No man would steal a wallet if he knew that it would be stolen from him immediately afterwards (and the spectacle of a world full of people constantly stealing from each other would be rather ludicrous to contemplate). Thus a thief only steals – or violates property rights – because he wishes to exercise his property rights over the stolen item. Implicit in the action of stealing is thus a simultaneous rejection and affirmation of property rights, which is how we know that theft as a moral rule is both logically – and therefore morally – wrong.

Logical consistency also requires categorical uniformity. A physicist who argues that all objects which are heavier than air fall towards the ground neatly deals with both rocks and helium balloons – but he cannot say that one rock falls down, but another rock that is also heaver than air falls up. In other words, opposite actions require opposing properties – in this case, that all rocks are heavier than air, and so fall down, while helium balloons are lighter than air, and thus float up. The opposing property is: lighter than air versus heavier than air.

In the same manner, a moral theory which proposes that murder is wrong, but that it is morally right for soldiers to murder, immediately fails the test of logical consistency. Putting on a green costume does not change a man’s moral nature, any more than painting a rock makes it lighter than air. (The same, of course, goes for all manner of statist occupations, such as policeman, politician, prison guard etc.)

On the other hand, where objective physical differences do exist, such as mental retardation or childhood, moral theories are perfectly right in assigning diminished moral responsibility to such individuals.

The second generalized hurdle for any moral theory can be described as “the coma test.” It defies common sense to propose that a man in a coma can be immoral. Thus any moral theory which puts forward positively prescribed actions, such as “you must serve your country” or “you must help the poor” immediately fail the coma test. A moral theory which prescribes a positive good must immediately condemn its opposite as immoral. If “helping the poor” is a positive moral obligation, then refraining from helping the poor must be morally wrong. Since a man in a coma cannot by definition be out helping the poor, he must be immoral, which is quite ridiculous. (Let’s not even get into the evils we would all be committing every time we took a nap!) Of course, you could “adjust” the moral rule to say “you must help the poor to the best of your ability,” which would bypass the coma test, but then plows straight into rank subjectivism – what on earth does “to the best of your ability” really mean? (As it happens, I have a podcast on this very topic!)

The third generalized test is evidence. Any decent moral theory must explain some of the well-known and consistently observed facts of history, such as the grinding poverty of the Middle Ages, the murderous actions of dictatorships, the violent nature of theocracies, the fact that governments always grow, the slow economic suicide of socialism (or the rather more rapid self-immolation of communism) and so on. Any moral theory which predicts that communism would be a smashing success, and that capitalism would result in poverty for all, obviously fails the basic test of empiricism and historical evidence.

I truly believe that we must resist the short-term tactics of arguing only about politics and economics, and instead spend our energies hacking through the challenges of defining arguments for an objective and universal morality. If we can come to a rigorous, well-defined and well-understood theory of morality, then we will gain immense traction, and can finally begin to achieve the success that has hitherto eluded us. Without a doubt, my suggestions are far more strategic and tactical, but I think that it is very clear by now that our prior tactics have not succeeded. If we train ourselves in moral reasoning, and learn how to refute those who oppose universal ethics, rather than, say, merely arguing against the minimum wage, then we can really truly turn the tide of history and save not just libertarianism, but the world.

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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June 2024

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