PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, July 10, 2015

from Lawrence, SATURDAY (JULY & SEPT) PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Universal morality

Dear Friends,

Just when we thought that the 21st century would a unifying time for
everyone and every on this Earth the beneficiary human achievement, we
discover that the life of the average is fraught with uncertainty as
much as it was 100 years ago. And our ability to create economic chaos
and debt dwarfs any successes and progress. Our topic Universal Morality
is not new for philosophers, however today we might have certain tools
to overcome some issues. But as I say in my short essay there are some
issues about a universal morality that are not easy to overcome.

In the meantime Ruel has sent us the link to his essay:

Hello Lawrence,
Didn't have much time to write a more comprehensive and longer essay on
Saturday's topic, "Universal Morality". Nevertheless I came up with
something and here's the link:
Thanks and see you on Saturday.

Universal morality

The perennial problem in society has always been doing what is good. Why
should we do what is good and avoid evil? And yet experience tells us
and studies verify that given half a chance we have no compunction in
acting and doing bad things if it gave an advantage over others.

By morality I mean acting to do what is good and to avoid doing harmful
things to others. I will, therefore, won't go into a debate about the
difference between morality and ethics and certainly not into what is
good and what is evil. However, whichever way we look at morality there
will always be a fundamental problem with converting principles into
action at the actual time of need. In other words, actually doing what
is good when the situation requires that we do good.

For me it is irrelevant that an action in past was good or bad, although
acts that result in good being done are always majestic and necessary
for the fabric of society. What matters for me is what is done here and
now when the situation requires that we do good and avoid harm. Thus
morality is a practical problem first and foremost. This might suggest
that a topic like universal morality is a topic best discussed in some
other discipline since the here-and-now is not usually associated with

Of course, the mistake we make is to assume that philosophy is going to
do the acting for us; philosophy can no more do any acting for us as
much as a cookbook can do a shepherd's pie. The discourse on morality
has always been on some universal codes or principles. A code by which
we are supposed to abide by as if we were some programmed moral robot.
However, moral codes of organisations cannot have that universal
element, and one of the key reasons is that what is good for the group
is precisely only good for the group and not necessarily for human kind.

So what is universal morality and where can we expect it to come from?
The value that universality has is that everyone is covered by it and
that everyone will act the same way in the here and now. Indeed we make
the term universal work very hard: we expect the term to apply to
everyone, past present and future, at all times and for all good/bad
situations in the universe. But is this universality possible, or is it
a grand ambition on our part or is it one of those monsters Descartes
talked about in his dreams?

One of the arguments put forward why sometimes we do not act to achieve
what is good is because the people we will be doing harm to are not part
of our group. Group identification including such things as race
classification, religion or political allegiance can lead us to choose
and act one way or another. We can escape the well recognised influence
of group push morality by having a group of all groups like a set of all
sets. Thus, if we all acted morally at the level of the set of all sets
then we will all be practicing the same code or the same principles, but
this time with everyone involved and not only a few members of the
group. And the beauty of this argument is that it also solves Russell's
paradox of the set of all sets, requiring a set of its own. But we can
overcome this paradox by virtue of the fact that our Earth is our limit.
Until we meet other aliens we need not bother whether our principles
apply to all the living creatures in the universe. What matters for the
here and now is that morality applies to all human beings (the set of
all sets) on Earth now (practical).

Of course, by having a universal set of all sets (human beings) we will
also need a universal principle or principles. As I have already argued
moral or ethical codes for a group (a set) are not suitable for a
universal morality (at the level of the set of all sets) by virtue of
the fact that these codes apply to those within the group. It might
always be argued that some groups, such as religions, believe that
everyone should belong to their religion or governed by their morality.
Once again we come across an issue of what we mean by universal.

Universal morality is not universal because we all believe that certain
principles are universal. Or because we believe in some higher authority
that would impose such universal principles on us. By universal morality
or moral principles, if we are looking for principles, we mean
principles that they always activate action at the here and now without
fail. Hence, basing morality on some metaphysical authority figure that
seems to apply moral principles randomly does not qualify as a universal
morality. For example, a moral system that allows such functions as
miracles is not valid for our purposes since miracles do not always
happen when someone needs a miracle to save them from a serious
situation. Either miracles happen when someone needs a miracle or the
system is biased and random. We are look for something more robust and
more predictable than that.

For our objective of finding a binding universal morality we need to
address three issues: 1) what qualifies as a situation that requires
activating a universal moral principle? Indeed what makes an act or a
situation moral? Since morality is closely associated with value
judgement we must distinguish between a judgement of morality and a
judgement of good taste or approval. Hence, is a picture of a frontal
nude person an immoral picture or simply something we disapprove off or
something we find distasteful? 2) How do we measure what is good? What
yardstick should we use to decide whether something is morally correct
or not? For example, is helping someone who is involved in an accident a
morally good act? But what about having to perform first aid on someone
when it is obvious that we don't not know anything about first aid? 3)
What gold standard should we apply for a universal morality? Who is to
say that acting in one way was morally good but not in another? For
example, is charging money for food or health care a gold standard in a
universal moral system?

We need to remember that a universal morality must satisfy two necessary
conditions; the first is that we can identify in advance a state of
affairs as qualifying as a moral situation and hence proper to act to do
good. And secondly the outcome of our act is itself reasonably
predictable. I grant you that these are very stringent conditions but to
compensate we can argue that not all situations qualify as requiring
some form of moral act. For example a frontal nude picture can be
excluded from an exhibition on the grounds of bad taste and not
morality. Whilst universal morality might not solve whether a picture is
immoral or needed, it will certainly help us with what is reasonable.
For example, helping someone who had an accident does not mean we have
to fix their wounds, but it does mean calling the authorities who can
maybe help fix the person's wounds. A universal morality does not issue
imperatives based on rational validity but rather issues the imperative
that we ought to act rationally.

Today we do have the methodology to establish not only what yardstick we
should use to decide what is moral, but also the methodology to
establish the gold standard we need and hence what is reasonable.
Science and biological and medical science in particular, offer us that
methodology. And although the word science is itself a loaded concept as
much as universal morality, the part we are interested in is the
scientific method and not necessarily the scientific paradigm at a given
time. For example, medical experiments on concentration camp prisons by
the Nazis or by the Soviet authorities on mental hospital inmates fail
the morality test not because we find them abhorrent (we do and should
do and they are) but that they failed to follow the scientific method.
Even at the time it was reasonable to know that these experiments did
not qualify as science.

I grant you that if we adopt the scientific method as our gold standard
we will be applying a system that is constantly changing and evolving.
Indeed, the product of the methods does not always result in the desired
outcome. Hence, some people might argue, with some justification up to a
point, that the Nazis and the Soviets did not seek formal consent from
their victims hence they did not follow today ethical standards. Not to
mention that the idea of consent in medicine did not exist at the time
(maybe it did during the experiments in the Soviet Union). But then
again at all the relevant time there was the doctrine of the Geneva
Convention and not signing to the convention is not itself an argument
for not knowing about universal moral principles.

A more serious objection would indeed be that the desired outcome we
expect from the fruits of science do not always materialise. On the one
hand we are assured that the divine authority does know what it takes to
bring about the effects of miracles. It is just that miracles are a
reward and not an automatic benefit. But this, at best, makes miracles
as whims or at the very minimum something unreliable. At least products
of the scientific method are the cutting edge of certainty this method
can give at a certain time and failure is the result of the absence of
knowledge. Absence of knowledge is not the same at lack of will to apply
that knowledge; even though in today's political climate there are many
politicians who would like to withhold the benefits of science from the
general population.

Hence, by science we do not mean replacing an old man with a long white
beard, long white hair and wearing a white robe with a young man having
short hair clean shaving and wearing a white coat. By science we mean
the scientific method that requires objective data and that scientific
conclusion can in principles be reproducible. This would answer for us
issues with for example food production, health care, universal suffrage
and many other issues that affect our lives directly.

For example, we know that monopolies and oligopolies are not good for
economies, so why do governments allow monopolies to develop in their
country? We know today that most of the population will require medical
care at some time in our life, so why do some countries only operate
private health care insurance contracts? How can an insurance contract
be valid when we know in advance that the insured will develop some risk
that requires medical care? Would an insurance company cover a car
driver knowing that the driver will crash every twelve months? The
insurance model of health care is therefore incompatible with a
universal morality; it is neither good for business nor health care. It
might be ok for greed though.
Nevertheless, the hardest test for a universal morality is still
converting moral principles into actual actions at the here and now.
Indeed, a universal morality must function as a rational instinct rather
than an emotional whim.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SATURDAY (JULY & SEPT) PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm:
Universal morality

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