More Musings on Morality

What is morality?  Or ethics?  The simple answer is “doing the right thing.”  But the simple answer merely substitutes one definition for another, unless one can come up with a description or definition of what “right” or “ethical” or “moral” might be.  A few days ago, a reader (and writer) asked what would seem to many to be an absurdly abhorrent question along the lines of, “If morality represents what is best for a culture or society, then isn’t what maximizes that society’s survival moral, and under those circumstances, why would a society that used death camps [like the Nazis] be immoral?”

Abhorrent as this type of question is, it raises a valid series of points.  The first question, to my way of thinking, is whether ethics [or morality] exist as an absolute or whether all ethics are relative.  As I argued in The Ethos Effect, I believe that in any given situation there is an absolutely objectively correct moral way of acting, but the problem is that in a universe filled with infinite combinations of individuals and events, one cannot aggregate those individual moral “absolutes” into a relatively simple and practical moral code or set of laws because every situation is different.  Thus, in practice, a moral code has to be simplified and relative to something. And relativity can be used to justify almost anything.

Taking, however, that survival on some level has a moral value, can a so-called “death camp” society ever be moral?  I’d say no, for several reasons.  If survival is a moral imperative, the first issue is on what level it is a moral imperative.  If one says individual survival is paramount, taken admittedly to the point of absurdity, in theory, that would give the individual the right to destroy anyone or anything that might be a threat. Under those circumstances, there is not only no morality, but no need of it, because that individual recognizes no constraints on his or her actions.  But what about group or tribal survival?  Is a tribe or country that uses ethnic cleansing or death camps being “moral” – relative to survival of that group?

Again… I’d say no, even if I agreed with the postulate that survival trumps everything, because tactics/practices that enhance one group’s survival by the forced elimination or reduction of others within that society, particularly if the elimination of other individuals is based on whether those eliminated possess certain genetic characteristics, or fail to possess them, is almost always likely to reduce the genetic variability of the species and thus run counter to species survival, since a limited genetic pool makes a species more vulnerable to disease or even the effects of other global or universal factors from climate change to all manner of environmental changes.  Furthermore, use of “ethic cleansing” puts an extraordinary premium on physical/military power or other forms of control, and while that control may, in effect, represent cultural/genetic “superiority” in the short run, or in a specific geographic area, it may actually be counter-productive, as it was for the Third Reich, when much of the rest of the world decided they’d had enough.  Or it may result in the stagnation of the entire culture, which is also not in the interests of species survival.

The principal problem with a situation such as that created by the Third Reich and others [where so-called “ethic cleansing” is or has been practiced] is that such a “solution” is actually counter to species survival.  The so-called Nazi-ideal was a human phenotype of a very narrow physical range and the admitted goal was to reduce or eliminate all other types as “inferior.”  While there’s almost universal agreement that all other types of human beings were not inferior, even had they been so, eliminating them would have been immoral if the highest morality in fact is species survival.

Over the primate/human history various characteristics and capabilities have evolved and proved useful at different times and differing climes.  The stocky body type and small-group culture of the Neanderthals proved well-suited to pre-glacial times, but did not survive massive climate shift. For various reasons, other human types also did not survive. As a side note, the Tasmanian Devil is now threatened by extinction, not by human beings, but because the genetics of all existing Tasmanian Devils is so alike that all of them are susceptible to a virulent cancer – an example of what could happen when all members of a species become too similar… or “racially pure.”

Thus, at least from my point of view, if we’re talking about survival as a moral imperative, that survival has to be predicated on long-term species survival, not on individual survival or survival/superiority of one political or cultural subgroup.


24 thoughts on “More Musings on Morality”

  1. Sam says:

    SPOILERS below for those who haven’t read Scholar.

    This is an interesting topic to me because it ties into some qualms I had about how Rescalyn dealt with the Hill Holders in Scholar.

    While a lot of what the Hill Holders got up to was pretty bad it also seemed reminiscient of the kind of skirmishes that can occur on the borders between nations that have an uneasy balance of power. Sometimes both sides push at the boundaries initiating skirmishes and raids into the other’s territory testing the limits of each others patience but neither side really wants to see an escalation to total warfare. And such skirmishes aren’t really a justification to exterminate the majority the bordering nation’s population in my view.

    In this instance pretty much all of the misbehaviour was the Hill Holder’s but Rescalyn indirectly encouraged it for his own ends. No doubt the Hill Holders were always going to cause trouble for any ruler but I didn’t see the justification in wiping them all out. For the most part they just seemed to want their independence. Something I think most American’s would appreciate. Also since Tilbor was invaded by the nation that appointed Rescalyn governor there is a case for the Hill Holder’s not recognizing him as a legitimate ruler.

    As I was reading the chapters where the Hill Holder’s holds were being wiped out one by one it felt a bit like an ethnic cleansing to me – wiping out a people who don’t conform to the social norms of the society they live within.

    Over the years a fair number if not a majority of your protagonists have been directly responsible for the deaths of thousands and sometimes billions. In some instances the decision to kill so many wasn’t even about personal survival but the protagonist’s notion of the greater good which somehow justified one person making the decision to destroy an entire star system and kill billions of adults and children. How someone could do something like that and not commit suicide or spiral into depression over the guilt beats me. Maybe it’s that notion that one death is a tragedy and a billion is a statistic.

    I also thought that Quaeryt’s decision to eliminate Rescalyn was more self-serving than anything else and had little to do with the greater good. It wasn’t until after he killed Rescalyn that he actually pondered whether or not he would have been a better ruler than Bhayar. He never even seemed to consider pursuing his objectives for scholars and imagers through Rescalyn which may have been a possibility.

    I would have been interested to know why Rescalyn wished to usurp Bhayar. Was it simply ambition or were there aspects of Bhayar’s leadership that struck Rescalyn as poor and damaging to Telaryn as a whole. I did wonder if usurping Bhayar was even his intention. I thought perhaps he might simply wish to declare Tilbor an independent nation and set himself up as ruler ie. the new Khanar. In that instance a peaceful resolution may have been able to be found without outright conflict if Bhayar had wished it.

  2. In the end, you’ll have some answers… and possibly even more questions.

  3. Sean says:

    “Ethic Cleansing” (from the 4th and 5th paragraphs) of a whole society is surely different from a society the practices “ethnic cleansing” (3rd paragraph). Of course one could argue that societies that practice “ethnic cleansing” have surely been cleaned of their “ethics” as well.

    Ironic typo aside, Quaeryt’s decision to remove Rescalyn seemed logical, as he was acting to protect himself. Surely “Self-Defense” is ethical. The gray area then comes into play when we talk about “pre-emptive self-defense.” As Sam pointed out, a fair number of Modesitt’s protagonists practice this type of self-defense.

    The other aspect the many of his protagonists have in common, is they tend to annoy or cross the powerful, who then practice the “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” type of ethics. Is revenge ethical?

    1. Sam says:

      The thing is Rescalyn perceived Quaeryt as Bhayar’s man and his attempts to eliminate Quaeryt were a form of pre-emptive self-defense on his part.

      Quaeryt may have been able avoid death by siding with Rescalyn rather than assassinating him.

  4. But that would mean betraying Bhayar…

    1. Sam says:

      Yes, well I suppose it was never clear to me that Quaeryt had strong feelings of loyalty to Bhayar. He had a measure of respect for him I suppose but to me it came off more as him thinking that Bhayar was better than his father but far from perfect. There were suggestions that they were friends of sorts but I often wonder how far such friendships extend between individuals of different stations. Was theirs an equal relationship? Could Quaeryt say anything to Bhayar that crossed his mind without fear of Bhayar having him beheaded? Or must he constantly guard his tongue while Bhayar can speak his mind freely without fear of repercussion?

      Most of the time I find most of your protagonists fairly self-serving – which is probably much truer to real life than the popular heroics of the vast bulk of fiction I’ve come across.

      They do have ideals and principles about fairness and are capable of generosity. However they can secretly commit murder/manslaughter and then accept a position of authority where they pass judgment on others who have committed such crimes but had the misfortune to be caught. The implication being that if you get caught you deserve to be punished and if you don’t get caught you deserve to get away with it.

  5. Joe says:

    I would argue that evil is reducing other beings’ opportunities to act, rather than a societal or species-level construct. That includes misinforming them so they do not act in their own best interest, as well as directly preventing them from acting in ways you don’t want. Hence, for instance, biassing TV reporting such that the probability distribution of facts reported does not match the real world probability distribution leads people not to act in their best interest because they end up believing there are problems where there are not.

    Obviously what is in one person’s interest may not be in another’s and we need some way of combining all these values. Straightforward averaging or utilitarianism seems flawed as it will always support the tyranny of the majority, ignoring the longer term more subtle and systemic effects.

    For instance, death camps may be supposed to make the people feel safer. Yet they strike terror in the heart of most people, subtly changing their behavior, and reducing their effective opportunities to act. For instance rather than being a German Renaissance, the Nazi period led to the fall of Germany in many disciplines such as Physics and Math, and the rise of the US in those same disciplines.

    Eugenics is much more difficult. While reducing genetic variety also reduces other beings’ opportunities to act (future generations), it is also true that not all diversity is good. Inherited diseases that were once lethal but that can now be managed with modern medicine are not “good”. Is it evil to screen for cystic fibrosis and abort such foetuses? Or is it evil to allow that trait to continue creating suffering? As genetic testing becomes more widespread and cheaper we will need to grapple with these problems, or risk that societal biases take over as is the case in India where the introduction of ultrasound scanners has resulted in female foetuses being aborted.

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    @Joe “I would argue that evil is reducing other beings’ opportunities to act”

    Let’s say I agree (I mostly do with that, but depending on where it’s taken).

    So big government, in redistributing (reducing the opportunities of those they take from, in favor of failed attempts to manipulate _outcomes_ rather than improve opportunities for those they purport to assist),
    is evil. Not to mention how evil it is by reducing the opportunities for _private_ charity, by making guaranteed mediocrity an easy alternative to individual compassion.

    Never thought I’d year you say that. 🙂

    1. Joe says:

      @R Hamilton

      I thought you might think that 😉

      But this is another example where combining evils isn’t simple. Take an extreme example: if one person has all the money and spare time, and everyone else must work for him, it’s evil since there’s only so much that person can do (his opportunity to act is limited by time), and everyone else has no opportunity. Therefore it would be better if the distribution were less unequal.

      Inequality affects the opportunities of others. For instance, even rich people live less long in more unequal societies than in more equal societies. (See “The Spirit Level” or ). It makes sense: we may compete but we all depend on the society in which we live.

      Government redistribution is one way of improving everyone’s opportunities. That’s how Scandinavian countries do it. Wage restraint is another option. That’s how Japan does it. (Although Japan’s not doing great, I should point out that Norway currently has 3% unemployment, compared to the US’ 10-20% if one were to use the same metric).

      I would also argue that improving opportunity is why we all subsidize roads, schools, and we have we have a social safety net. For instance, you are more likely to take on a risky venture, rather than staying at a dead end job if you’re not worried about feeding yourself tomorrow should your venture fail. That’s something only the rich can do unless there is a safety net.

      Where we might be able to find agreement is that whereas I don’t object to spending money on improving what is held in common, I’m not always convinced that monolithic government is the best way to achieve it. For instance, I would be glad to pay nothing towards the military, homeland security and “saving” big banks. Instead I would gladly pay those same tax dollars towards what I believe to be important (NASA, EPA, NSF, National Parks, Education, and “entitlements” for example). If spending decisions were made directly by tax-payers, Congress could concentrate on improving our system of law rather than funding their pet projects, and adding Constitution violating amendments to funding “legislation”. They also might not leave Congress many times richer than they joined.

  7. hob says:

    A code that a society lives by is still subject to the same stresses as a person. A person can be greedy, a person needs to eat, a person needs to remain in health, a person wants nothing bad to happen to loved ones…

    Application of force used in a manner that justifies killing large sections of a society for future goals opens the door for different goals within the remaining population to also be attained by force. A spiral action occurs where greater and greater amounts of force are required for any goals with a parallel process of fracturing goals developing.

    Any society going through such a process opens itself up to invasion by outside societies.

    A society is fundamentally a controlled collection of resources and labor applied to various tasks. Any society which is forced to limit their use of controlled assets implies loss of real time control. Did the Nazis go to war because they were strong? When does the use of force occur by a society?

    Peace with great amounts of implied force at hand is more effective to the survival of a society then use of constant force and intimidation. Peace opens up the use of labor and resources to attain varied goals, survival alone merely focuses on how that implied force can be used to solve individual problems and ultimately weakens it.

    Trying to constantly come up with a code that allows constant use of force to solve problems is simply admitting to loss of innovative capability.

  8. Wayne Kernochan says:

    As always, fascinating. I can’t resist adding what may or may not be a disagreement.

    You note that “relativity can be used to justify almost anything.” Recently, for my own amusement, I have been writing a play about Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, later related work on “oracles”, and their implications for us with regard to, among other things, systems of morality. The key point related to your comment is that in mathematical “worlds” or systems containing infinity, which for mathematical reasons too complicated to get into here are more or less equivalent to universes containing uncertainty, no system of morality can contain all cases — except if one includes a falsehood, in which case anything is provable.

    Here’s how, in a concrete example. Let us suppose someone comes before you and says, “Have you noticed? Every time a particular version of Sharia law has been implemented, crime goes way down, and stays down. In any system where we don’t implement it, crime goes up. We should change to this version of Sharia law.”

    In point of fact, everything that person says is absolutely true — because that version of Sharia law has never been implemented. So in every other system that has been implemented, crime does go up — for a whole host of unrelated reasons. And that version of Sharia law has never been implemented, so clearly it has never caused crime to go up. Meanwhile, the listener is free to imagine what that version of Sharia law is similar to in the real world, a “similar” approach that the listener thinks did bring crime down, no matter that what is imagined is different from what every other listener imagines. So, the morality is more “absolute”, and yet there is no decrease in the ability to justify almost anything — in fact, there is a likely increase in the ability to justify absolutely anything.

    The key, according to mathematical logic, is to base one’s system of morality as far as possible on truths, and to change it based on changes in the truths known. Thus, for example, if your belief system includes “gays are the type of person who cannot bring up children comparably to straights” and scientific study shows beyond a reasonable doubt that in some real-world situations, gays do indeed perform as well as heterosexuals, changing your morality to say “gays are the type of person who in some cases can bring up children as well as straights, and in some cases may possibly not” is not a move towards relativism in morality; it is replacing a falsehood by a truth and thus improving your overall ability to act morally. Contrariwise, refusing to do that increases the likelihood of a “truth gap” in your morality that makes you more and more likely to justify immoral behavior.

    Or, as I have an imagined God say in the play, “Whatever I intend for you in this world, it starts with recognizing the truths of this world.”

  9. David Sims says:

    Although a proper moral system might not prescribe a specific course of action in a specified situation, it does give you a general guideline.

    Morality is survival above the individual level. The survival of the practitioner group is the highest value in any proper moral system. Why? There are a number of ways to phrase the answer.

    First, what doesn’t exist is worth nothing, and what can’t exist for long isn’t worth much.

    Also, continued life is a prerequisite for all other values. Nothing matters to the dead. Neither truth, nor justice, nor freedom, nor prosperity have any value at all to extinct groups. Only to something alive may anything else be good.

    There are loads of improper moral systems in the world, which place upon something other than survival the highest value. Some of them demand fairness be in first place. Some of them insist that God’s Will come first. These improper moral systems are, every one of them, scams by which someone hopes to dupe other people into weakening themselves, so that the deceiver can then exploit them in some way.

    Death camps and genocide, and so on, don’t really have definite moral assignments for those who are responsible for carrying out such things. Sometimes, they are just gambles that might or might not pay off.

  10. David Sims says:

    You might have some incorrect beliefs regarding the nature of life in the German WW2 labor camps, including Auschwitz. The Germans were not the sort of monsters that the post-war Jewish/Allied propaganda has made them seem. The prisoners in the camps had cultural pursuits to which the Nazis devoted a certain amount of resources. They had swimming pools, soccer teams, theater for their own plays, and even orchestra. The Nazis in one case bought the prisoners a grand piano.

    You’ve been fed many lies about gas chambers and about obscene tortures, of which there were none.

    The difficult period in the camps, which led to hunger and to an outbreak of uncontrolled typhus, began after the Allies bombed German rail, making further supply of those camps impossible to carry out in a timely manner.

    But, to answer you, yes: the survival of a group is properly the highest value in that group’s moral system. Always. If they die, then nothing to them will have ANY further value whatsoever.

    Survival DOES trump all other moral considerations, simply because there are no “considerations” that matter to dead things.

    Now, of course, no course of action is guaranteed success. What you do to remain alive might provoke others to join the fight against you, and you might find yourself against hopeless odds. That can happen. But it remains moral to give survival your best shot, by your best estimate of expected results, nonetheless.

    If you encounter “backlash,” it means that your situation became dangerous before you were aware of it, and applying a remedy in which you weren’t harmed had already become impossible. In Germany’s case, the danger had risen with the Rothschild banking network and with the Jewish capture of the German press prior to the war. By the time Hitler came along and recognized the danger to the German people, the country was already enmired in Jewish quicksand.

    As to your contention that the human species is best served by racial diversity, I say: perhaps. But it is not best served by racial MIXING, which reduces diversity over time by breeding away the differences that constitute that hedge against the extinction of the whole species.

    Further, so great is the offense to the human tribal instinct that is provoked by racial mixing that it would be comparatively better if only one race remained. As long as the races remain separated in their respective national homelands, racial diversity is good. It becomes bad when races are mixed.

    However, there is within most races enough genetic diversity to safeguard the existence of humanity. Races don’t “need” each other. They are natural rivals, not natural complements.

    1. Wayne Kernochan says:

      Your assertion is an obscene lie. My non-Jewish father, as an Army lieutenant/captain in the European theater in WWII, saw the obviously used gas chambers, starvation that clearly predated bombings, and clear indications of horrendous mistreatment by guards of the obviously few who survived, as well as the incredible scale of the deaths. His response was to go and beg his commanding officer for permission to organize tours for other soldiers, so that they could see for themselves just what kind of so-called people Germany under the Nazis had become. His greatest regret in life was that after that officer had told him not to worry about it, he had not persevered in his effort.

  11. David Sims…

    Enough! Raising moral questions is one thing. I gave you the courtesy of a reasoned response. You responded with pseudo-Nazi white supremist propaganda. Making false factual statements in support of racism and bigotry is another. Go find another forum in which to peddle your falsehoods and fallacious logic.

    Any further comments you make along these lines will be deleted.

  12. Derek says:

    Watch as Sims now gets angry and claims “People always scream, ‘racist,’ when you use scientifically proven facts and well cited arguments…” I am surprised he wasn’t able to fit a comment on women in there.

    Go back to the echo chambers of Stormfront, Sims.

  13. Frank says:

    Re: Sims – I have really enjoyed this forum. I have been amused, informed, sometimes annoyed…but I have never been sickened, until now.

    I am surprised that someone as twisted, or foolish, or both would be involved in exchanging ideas with such an eclectic and energized group.

    Hopefully this will serve to, at least, help us all to “never forget.”

  14. David Sims says:

    It is your forum, and you have the right to impose censorship. Further, I understand that it might be necessary to safeguard your own interests.

    We have a disagreement about history, and it offends (or worries) you to hear me describe what I believe to be the truth. What you believe to be true is what I believe to be an effective promulgation of victor’s propaganda. What I believe to be true is what you believe to be the counter propaganda of a group dissatisfied with the status quo. But I did not, do not, will not intentionally spread lies.

    There are many people who endorse the free expression of dissent–as long as that dissent does not touch upon subjects which they regard as “too important” to be dissented from.

  15. You seem unable to understand the difference between opinion and fact. The evidence of the holocaust is, regardless of what you believe, irrefutable, and while the Nazis may have believed what they did was “moral,” with which you seem to agree and with which I disagree, denial of irrefutable and overwhelming physical evidence is not “dissent.” It’s confirmation bias carried well beyond extremes, and that, frankly, meets the definition of evil. I’ve let you make your philosophical arguments, but defending outright falsehood as “dissent” goes beyond the pale.

  16. David Sims says:

    As I said earlier, Mr. Modesitt, we disagree, and you certainly have the right to police your own blog. I’ll understand if my comments suddenly disappear.

    1. Your past comments won’t disappear. You’ve said what you believe. It happens to be incorrect, but nothing I or the rest of the world can say will affect you. So there’s little point to further discussion here.

  17. Hob says:

    * Mr Modesitt is an upstanding, well educated, well known thinker who is of influence to a number of people.

    * Mr Modesitt fits within the parameters of certain markers used to identify Mr Sim’s ‘safe’ human associates/companions.

    * Mr Modesitt does not presently agree with the Mr Sim’s Human Survival theory.

    I think I understand, you need your theory to be either disproven or excepted by someone who you believe will align their own actions to conform to facts/morals.

    Because currently there is doubt? Doubt because theory has not presently turned into action? Because you believe yourself to be moral? It is others who are not moral…

    Mr Sims, you seem to be looking for something that makes it ‘better’ implying that something occurred in your life that was not ‘better’–most of your posts have something to do with betrayal, has someone important betrayed you? As we are discussing moral authority it implies an adult, parents?

    Mr Sims, self sacrifice as a reflection of someone taking from you is merely an extended reaction. You seem to be in a lot of pain and you don’t want others to go through the same thing.

    Mr Sims, the Nazis did really butcher/experiment on those people. They too lost faith in a trusted authority. I think you know that, but you have come to deeply rely on the world view which has been sustaining you.

    I don’t recommend God to everyone, but unless you allow God into your heart, all the rest of what you are doing has a predictable ending.

  18. David Sims says:

    Hob, it does appear that he and I differ on the subject of morality. He has acquired his views from quarters that I can’t claim to know of. I’ve acquired mine by thinking upon how nature works things out, by what moral system survives, in the very long run, by aiding the survival of the people who practice it.

    One thing, though. My surname is Sims, not Sim’s. There is no apostrophe in it. And though I do try to convince, I am content that whether I succeed or not should depend on whether I am right or not. If I become convinced that I’m wrong, I’ll change my opinion and preach a new gospel from that moment onward. It has, after all, happened before.

    There are subjects on which people persuade themselves that they have a greater understanding than they really do. Take, for example, the actual geometrical reality of the universe. We all grew up learning Euclidean geometry, in which the sum of the interior angles of triangles is 180 degrees and in which two lines may be parallel.

    Legion are the people who believe that this is EXACTLY how things really are. But, in fact, they’re wrong. Euclidean geometry is a useful approximation to reality, good enough to serve most purposes, but it isn’t a perfect match to the geometrical reality of the universe.

    Try convincing some of these Euclideans of their errors, though, and you’ll quickly run into a problem that also crops up in certain disputes about history that have become controversial for political reasons. (Pardon the circumlocution.) Specifically, many people adhere with unreasonable passion to what they were taught in their youth. That’s HOW THINGS ARE, so they insist.

    But it isn’t.

    The more you try to persuade, the more these Euclideans shift their attitude toward a “holy crusade” kind of defense, in which you, O apostle the Riemann Spacetime Geometry, are considered to be dangerous and evil as well as factually in error. A heretic, in other words.

    Evidently, memes defend themselves by triggering defensive behavior in the people they affect. Indeed, memes that didn’t do this would soon disappear, so the result is probably the one to be expected to arise from natural selection.

  19. All of what you say is true, except for one thing. You’re the one ignoring the facts and evidence… and claiming that you have the “holy writ.”

    We’ve established that’s what you believe; we’ve established that a great many thinking people, and they do observe and think, contrary to your assertions, believe differently.

    This discussion is closed. Any further comments will be deleted.

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