In this five part series for Critical Mass, Luke Andreski, author of Intelligent Ethics and Ethical Intelligence, explores the nature of morality and what that tells us about how we should act in an amoral world. In his fourth article he takes a look at how the function and form of morality play a key role in determining moral guidance.
What morality is
Morality is a cognitive tool whose purpose is the unification of autonomous self-aware sentients. It helps us unite behind a common conception of what is right or wrong, what we ought or ought not do.
I make the case for this in the second article in this series: What morality is for.
Morality has a range of necessary characteristics:
👉 It’s universal
👉 It’s rational
👉 It requires sentience
👉 It presupposes freedom
👉 It needs a source of authority
👉 It’s singular
👉 It defines what’s right or wrong
I make the case for this in the first article in this series: What morality is.
Freedom vs. obligation
There’s an apparent conflict between individual autonomy (necessary characteristic four) and moral obligation (necessary characteristics five and seven) – but this conflict is resolved by our exercising the freedom which morality affirms. Our free decision to commit ourselves to morality and to the authority of life is the bridge between freedom and duty. It’s a bridge which each of us must individually construct.
Through a conscious choice we push our own immediate desires and self-interest into second place. In the next and last article in this series, Why be moral?, I discuss why this is a choice we might wish to make.
The moral imperative
I suggest in my previous article that the best candidate for morality’s requisite ‘authority’ (the moral imperative) is life. Life is universal, tangible, fundamental and compelling. It’s both experiential and evidential and can be witnessed and experienced by any sentient being.
Life is the very essence of what we are. It puts the ‘oomph’ into morality’s ‘ought’.
These aspects of morality – its essential characteristics and unifying purpose, its authority and the commitment we make to it – give us a degree of confidence about what the content of morality must be.
From our commitment to life it’s an easy step to derive three simple and yet fundamental objectives:
👉 To nurture the people around us
👉 To nurture all humans everywhere
👉 To nurture all life
The internal logic of morality dictates the inalienable right of any self-aware sentient to liberty and self-determination. Any guidance morality gives us must therefore respect our freedom and condemn coercion. Statements or actions which are coercive or curtail our freedom are prima facie immoral. To justify them, a compelling moral case – respecting freedom, equality and a commitment to all life – would need to be put forward.
From our commitment to life – ALL life – we can also derive the rights to be treated equally and to equality of opportunity. As expressions of life we are all equal, no matter where we come from, who our parents are or what physical attributes we may or may not possess. Claims rooted in a person’s physical attributes, social or racial background or sexual orientation have no moral basis and, where they conflict with or suppress our freedom or equality, can only be considered immoral.
The morality of stuff
Morality’s roots in a commitment to life and to all living things also mean that there are no moral rights for objects or artefacts. Why should there be? Human artefacts, social rules, constitutions or non-living objects have no inherent moral value. From a moral perspective they should serve the fundamental moral objectives listed above, and cannot take precedence over living things.
The sharing of power and wealth
Similarly, if morality dictates that we have rights to freedom, equal opportunity and an equal right to nurture and care, then it also dictates that power and wealth must be decentralised and shared.
If power and wealth are not distributed equally, scenarios of unfairness and injustice are created which directly conflict with the nature of morality: its presupposition of freedom, its universality and its affirmation of equality.
It sounds like socialism, but it’s actually just morality.
Your powers of deduction
Another characteristic of morality is that it needs to be rational. A universal sentience unification system must be logically structured and internally consistent (see the first article in this series). If any behavioural code ceases to be consistent it also ceases to be universal. This is no different from scientific theory: find the inconsistency and break the theory.
On the basis of morality’s requirement for rationality, we can build up its content logically and deductively from the foundations identified above: equality, freedom, our right to equal opportunity and our commitment to all living things.
The moral maze
An objector might say, “But isn’t morality well known for its complexity – for the need to balance rights and needs in a highly complex physical and social world?”
While this is true, it remains the case that we can always return to the basics as detailed above, subsequently working our way, logically and consistently, to what the moral answer or action must be.
Our objector might then complain, “But must we go back to first principles each time we need to make a moral judgment? Isn’t that a pretty arduous way of doing things?”
It’s a fair objection. Constantly reverting to first principles would be inconvenient. In the rush of ordinary life we need some simple rules of thumb.
Moral rules of thumb
Here are some suggestions.
l. Treat those around you as equals – don’t be a user or a bully.
ll. Kindness isn’t just for the few. Be kind to strangers too.
lll. Treat the needs of others as of equal importance to your own.
lV. Be honest. Lies erode equality.
V. Don’t idolise possessions. People and life should always come first.
Vl. Don’t idolise social constructs: organisations, traditions, constitutions, nations. They should serve us, not the reverse.
Vll. Don’t idolise people – in ourselves we’re all equal.
Vlll. Nurture the biological world and protect it from harm.
lX. Explain and engage…. Coercion and force are confessions of incompetence.
X. Don’t seek power – seek only your fulfilment and the flourishing of others.
Xl. Don’t seek wealth – seek only your fulfilment and the happiness of others.
Xll. Attributes don’t matter – it’s actions that count.
Xlll. Challenge the bad stuff. Never stand by.
There you have it: simple fastpaths for moral behaviour based on the nature of morality and our core moral aims.
Moral fastpaths or rules of thumb don’t need to be set in stone. We can review them against our core moral aims periodically – but they’re a useful assist in everyday life.
A moral compass
And if you need a straightforward moral compass, try this:
Agility and adaptation
Morality is cognitive technology: a sentience unification system. Like any technology it needs to be enhanced and adapted to a universe where change is ever-present.
‘What morality says’ serves a purpose: sentience unification.
If ‘What morality says’ isn’t serving that purpose we need to change what it’s saying.
Conceptually, and in its long-term application, morality cannot be a fixed set of rules and must always remain open to improvement. To be complacent about what morality says and to take previous claims as unquestionable diktat would themselves be immoral.
What morality says
So what does morality say?
It says whatever is consistent with its function, its nature and a commitment to all living things.
It says things like:
“We are all equal.”
“We should all be free.”
“In ourselves, as living, sentient beings, we all deserve kindness, compassion, opportunity and love.”
In the final article in this series, published on Critical Mass tomorrow, Luke Andreski asks the killer question: No matter what morality is or says, and no matter what it’s purpose, why should we comply?
Luke Andreski is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal and Ethical Intelligence collectives. His books include Intelligent Ethics (2019), Ethical Intelligence (2019), Short Conversations: During The Plague (2020) and Short Conversations: During the Storm (2021).
Intelligent Ethics is available here.
Luke is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal collective and author of Short Conversations: During the Plague (2020), Intelligent Ethics (2019) and Ethical Intelligence (2019).