Objective Morality

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So all right, with that last caveat out of the way, let’s recap: Goodness is a subjective valuation that sentient beings ascribe to particular outcomes – but it’s a subjective valuation that can be quantified objectively, in the same way that a subjective emotion like disgust can objectively exist in greater or lesser quantities. The more fully a particular action satisfies the subjective preferences of sentient beings (once you weigh all their various preferences against each other), the more objectively good it is. Of course, satisfying individuals’ preferences isn’t always as simple as just satisfying their immediate object-level preferences; individuals can also have (conscious or unconscious) meta-preferences that supersede their object-level preferences. Most fundamentally, every individual has an innate Master Preference in favor of outcomes that produce the highest level of goodness for them, whatever that might entail; that’s what it is to prefer an outcome in the first place. But that can sometimes mean that in order to get your best overall outcome, you have to forgo your preferences at the object level. And the implications of this are most significant before you’re even born, when you’re in the original position. At this point, your Master Preference dictates that what would be best for you would be if you were precommitted to always do what was moral after you were born – because by being precommitted to this goal, you’ll ensure that everyone else who comes into existence in the same way that you do will also be precommitted to it, and that they’ll be obligated to treat you morally throughout their lives. What this means, then, because you don’t need to be conscious of this Master Preference for it to apply to you, is that you do in fact assume an obligation to do what’s right from the moment you first begin existing – as does everyone else – in an implicit, universal social contract. And if you ever defect from this obligation, you’ll have violated your end of the contract; what you’re doing will be objectively wrong.

That’s the basic idea in a nutshell. As far as I can tell, it’s about as close as we can get to an objective, binding morality (or at least one that doesn’t ultimately rely on just saying, “Well, this is what seems intuitively true” to ground its claims). I’m not 100% sure how airtight it is, of course, but it does feel to me like it’s at least groping in the right direction. If nothing else, it seems to offer a way of addressing the is-ought problem that works for every applicable definition of “ought” (or “should”); that is, we can say something like “If you desire to maximize your own utility – which everyone does, due to their Master Preference – then you should be precommitted to an implicit social contract,” and that statement can fit both the instrumental (“if-then”) and self-interested (“what’s in it for me?”) definitions of “should.” Plus, the whole part about being obligated to meet your precommitment means that it can fit the historical “shalled” definition as well. The statement “Everyone has an implicit obligation to act morally because their Master Preference has precommitted them to it” is fundamentally an “is” statement, despite fully functioning as an “ought” statement. So that’s one reason why I like this framework: the way it addresses the question of should-ness and the is-ought problem.

In that same vein, another reason I like it is because it brings together so many other philosophical approaches toward morality – which might superficially seem to contradict each other – into one unified whole. Utilitarianism plays a major role, of course, as do contractarianism and Rawlsianism – but there’s even a role for things like natural-rights theories and Kantian deontology, despite some of my earlier criticisms of those systems. After all, some of Kant’s most central ideas were things like moral duty, universalizability, and the categorical imperative – and all of those ideas actually fit perfectly into this framework. The principle of universalizability, most famously encapsulated in Kant’s dictum that you should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” appears in the acausal trade part of the original position scenario, in which the kind of behavior you precommit to practicing after you’re born is literally shared by everyone else who begins life from that same original position. The idea of a categorical imperative – an unconditional moral rule that must always be followed regardless of context – appears in the rule that we should always seek to maximize global utility no matter what. (Actually, Kant’s version of the categorical imperative was the rule of universalizability I just quoted, but the rule to always maximize global utility also functions as a categorical imperative in this system.) And our universal obligation to uphold this rule reflects Kant’s ideas about moral duty; we all have a moral duty to abide by the social contract that we’ve precommitted to, and this duty supersedes any object-level desires we might have. So ultimately, despite our system being rooted in utilitarianism, there’s plenty of room for duty-based ethics as well – it’s just that our only duty is to maximize global utility. And by that same token, there’s plenty of room for the idea of moral rights (i.e. the idea that we’re entitled to be treated in certain ways) – it’s just that we really only have one all-encompassing right: the right to be treated in a way that accords with what’s globally moral.

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