Posted by: dacalu | 8 August 2012

My Speculation on Morals

This entry represents an attempt on my part to lay down a consistent moral philosophy that satisfies my moral intuitions based on Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism.  Far from being a completed systematic ethics, it’s a chance for me to explore my possible motivations by writing them down.  I’m sure it has countless flaws – which I’d love to hear about in comments or emails.  So, I’m not advocating this system, just putting it out there as a way to start a conversation.


Rules of Right Behavior


Right behavior cannot be articulated, only exemplified; however, in an attempt to communicate a framework within which one might think of right behavior, I have written these rules.

Power is neither good nor bad; it is only the opportunity to direct force toward some end.  To some extent all morality deals with the proper (or at least preferred) application of power.  The following rules attempt to apply this concept broadly.



1)   All people exercise power.

2)   Obligation exists in direct proportion to power.

3)   We exercise most of our power unconsciously; therefore, our first obligation is to seek understanding of the power we exercise.

  1. We exercise power collectively.  Humans excel at communal activity and each of us exists in a number of active communities.  Our interdependence increases our power both over our environment and over one another.

4)   Our true motivations may not be apparent, even to ourselves; therefore, our second obligation is to seek clarity of intention.

  1. Some would argue that this should be the first obligation, but I maintain that there is neither value nor sense to intend that which cannot be or to argue the desirability of impossible actions.  Mind you, those can be useful exercises precisely to the extent they can motivate concrete choices.
  2. The first obligation, then entails a need to explore the boundaries of the possible.

5)   Observation provides the surest means of knowing the impact and reach of our actions as well as the true measure of our intent.  The first and second obligations cannot be met without actively seeking opportunities to watch power in action.  Descriptions of events and moral codes can never replace or trump morality in practice.

  1. One should not continue to repeat an action believed moral if the outcome is always opposite that intended.  For example, if you believe you are helping people, but notice that they are not bettered, you have an obligation to stop.

6)   The primary obligation in any action is to the object of that action.

  1. Power never stays focused.  As much as we may intend to have a single effect, every application of force causes ripples that spread out to more and more objects.  Due diligence is required in exploring the consequences of an action in direct proportion to the anticipated effects.  (Yes, that produces a feedback loop.)
  2. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Each actor experiences consequences of their actions; therefore they must always consider themselves a proper object.
  3. God is, in some way, present in every object; therefore we must consider God as a proper object of any action to the extent to which God’s presence is understood.  In this way “God” may be taken as the sum of all proper objects beyond conscious awareness.  Christians take God to be a person and also a proper object in this sense.

7)   In every case we are obliged to act for the good of the object.

8)   In every case we are obliged to balance the good we desire with the good desired by the object – to the best of our knowledge.

  1. Due diligence is required in exploring the object’s desire in direct proportion to our ability to communicate.

9)   Humans experience force neither less nor more than any other object; however, we have a greater ability to appreciate human responses; therefore we have greater obligations to humans than to other objects as a function of our familiarity, not as a function of intrinsic worth.

  1. This applies to the spectrum of awareness from humans to rocks.  We have the greatest obligation to ourselves, followed by those closest to us, followed by other humans, followed by other species with which we can communicate, and so forth.
  2. This also applies to the spectrum from individuals to collectives.  We have the greatest obligation to individuals and can never ignore individual needs in favor of collective needs; however, one can speak of collectives as greater than the sum of their parts.  Thus, obligations to the nation are composed of the obligations to all its citizens and an obligation to those non-reducible features of the nation that involve relations between individuals.  I might, for example, act to maintain the harmony of the group, without specific appeal to the end benefits to individuals.

10)                   We have no obligations to abstractions.

  1. While there is no obligation to “truth,” per se, there is an obligation to each thing to know it for itself.

11)                   It can, at times, be difficult to differentiate between a simple object and a complex object.  In any case where the object in question can be decomposed without loss of function, no obligation exists to the complex other than those obligations to the individual parts.  Thus our obligation to a gold bar is the same as the sum of our obligations to its atoms, but our obligation to a painting exceeds our obligation to the paint and canvass, and our obligation to a human far exceeds our obligation to her cells.



1)   As we are unaware of the desires of non-living objects, we may apply power over them solely on the basis the desires of living objects – attributed value.

2)   The question of what constitutes life is non-trivial; however, a pragmatic definition will serve most purposes.  Any object may be considered alive which is capable of near-perfect replication – inheritance with variation.

  1. Humans are clearly alive, as are animals, plants, and bacteria.
  2. Those viruses, prions, and other objects which exhibit some properties associated with life represent borderline cases, but this should not be a problem as (I.9a) obligation exists for a spectrum of similarity.  These cases should be treated as having minimal inherent desires.

3)   All living objects have an evolutionarily derived function of perpetuating their pattern.  We consider that they have a desire to produce relatives similar to themselves and, precisely to that end, to perpetuate themselves.

4)   All things being equal, we consider living objects capable of movement to desire the movement they effect.

5)   The question of what constitutes sentience – the ability to feel pleasure and pain – is non-trivial; however, a pragmatic definition will serve most purposes.  Any object that can communicate pleasure or pain may be considered sentient.

6)   Our third obligation is to seek the ability to communicate reliably with all sentient objects.

  1. The obligation to seek clarity in our own intentions (I.4) can be universalized to all sentient objects.
  2. In the absence of contrary evidence, we consider that all sentient objects wish to retain sentience.

7)   Intelligence is only relevant to obligation to the extent that it clarifies communication.  Clearer communication means a clearer understanding of the object’s desire.

  1. Due diligence in the first, second, and third obligations requires us to use our intelligence and that of others.
  2. Intelligence deserves no special obligation beyond those laid out above.

i.     Humanity deserves no special obligations beyond those laid out above.

  1. Sentient objects with intelligence will be called persons.  We have the greatest obligations to persons because persons can communicate their desires explicitly.

8)   We have indirect obligations to persons in a number of senses that complicate our relationship with other objects.  Indirect obligations have a lower standing than direct obligations to the object.

  1. Projection:  persons empathize with similar objects; therefore, we may be required to treat non-person objects as persons for the sake of observers including ourselves.  This rule particularly applies to dead bodies and humans incapable of communication.
  2. Craft:  persons identify with objects they have shaped; therefore, we may be required to treat artifacts with special care relative to the desires of their crafter.


All of this is really groundwork for an actual statement of how we should treat the objects of our power.  We will define “good” as the preferable or desired outcome of the system.


1)   The good derives solely from recognition of the first, second, and third obligations and their projection onto all objects.

  1. Each object should be given an opportunity to explore the range of their action and desire to the end of self-knowledge
  2. Each object should be given the opportunity identify and pursue that which they desire.
  3. Each object should be given opportunity to communicate with every other object.
  4. We seek to maximize all three across all objects, so that the pursuit of one may minimally compromise the pursuits of the others.

2)   Christians consider God a person; therefore God’s desires must be counted with those of every other person to the extent that communication with God is possible.

  1. Due diligence, as always, applies.  See rules below for skeptical discernment of God’s desires.
  2. Given the presence of God in all things (I.6c), we should consider God’s desires to be the strongest in the determination of obligations.
  3. Ideally God represents the most familiar person in the world; to the extent this is true, we have a greater obligation to God than to self (I.9).
  4. Concerns about discerning God’s will and need to treat God as a person, rather than an abstraction (I.10) mean that God’s desire is almost never a sufficient reason to overcome the desire of another person – all other things being equal.  To be explicit, when a person has desires contrary to God’s those desires should be honored unless they will result in clear harm to some object.

3)   Self can never be an absolute term.  Self-knowledge (I.3) equals knowledge about the power dynamics between our selves and others.

  1. Thus all self-knowledge comes yoked to knowledge of another.
  2. Christians use the term “soul” to indicate our self in relation to God.

4)   Self-knowledge comes from dwelling in relationships:

  1. Meditation – dwelling in the relationship between self and self.

i.     This can be somewhat confusing for those who think of self as an atomic entity.  Note that I have spoken throughout of “our self” and not “my self” or “your self.”  Objects are complex (I.11), including selves.  The reference point for a self in relation to God may be different from the reference point for self in relation to neighbor, or tree, or mountain.  Meditation has to do with differentiating these different “selves.”

  1. Faith – dwelling in the relationship between soul and God.

i.     Faith may be a form of meditation when self is viewed as in the image of God or alternatively (rare in Christianity) when God is viewed as an extension of self.

  1. Experience – dwelling in the relationship between self and (external) other objects.

i.     Experience may be a form of meditation and/or faith to the extent that self is identified with other and other is identified with God.

  1. Philosophy – dwelling in the relationship between objects abstractly.

i.     Philosophy is meditation, experience, or philosophy with commentary.  Generally it attempts to reduce experience to graspable concepts.

ii.     Science is a particular branch of philosophy dealing with what may be known equally by all people using senses and reason.  It is limited by (methodological) assumptions of realism, intelligibility, physicalism, and uniformity.

5)   “Dwelling in” may involve attending to, reflecting on, thinking about,… but it may also involve simply allowing the relationship to occur without interference.

  1. Proper “dwelling in” cannot be goal oriented.

i.     This can be confusing – I did say that self-knowledge comes from it.  And yet, in all four cases the ends and the means become indistinguishable.  Enlightenment is the perfect meditative state.  Blessedness is the perfect state of faith.  Wisdom is the perfect state of experience. Knowledge is the perfect state of philosophy.  The state of “dwelling in” cannot be completed.

  1. (Theological) love means the fullness of dwelling in:

i.     living into the real and proper extents of self (humility)

ii.     living into the fullest relationship with God (vocation)

iii.     living into deeper relationships with others (charity, compassion, empathy)

iv.     Love does not require philosophy, though philosophy may aid love.  Specifically, philosophy helps motivate the move from concrete love of those you know to concrete love of those you do not yet know.

6)   Self-knowledge may be judged by unity of intent and consequence.

7)   Liberty refers to the extent of agency for any object.  Liberty is not an end in and of itself, but rather a tool for the pursuit of self-knowledge and communication.

  1. We have an obligation to maximize liberty for others precisely because we do not fully know their preferences.  Thus we err on the side of caution, always allowing them that freedom which does no harm.



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