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Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Moral Razor

(also posted on The Radical Libertarian)

Although I'd like to lay claim to it, the Moral Razor is not my invention. It is the work of Stefan Molyneux, writer for LewRockwell.com and blogger at Freedomain. I have only clarified and formalized his ideas on the topic.

The most famous razor in philosophy is no doubt Occam's Razor, which states that, when confronted with two hypotheses that explain the same set of facts, the ontologically simplest hypothesis is the correct one. In general, a razor is a simple and clear principle which eliminates a great number of invalid or undesirable positions. Occam's Razor is a simple and clear principle which eliminates a great number of pseudo-scientific beliefs and religious fantasies. Its justification lies in the nature of objective evidence.

The Moral Razor operates in the same way. Its justification lies in the fact that moral principles must apply to all persons, otherwise they are mere cultural belief or opinion. We observe that all persons have the same biological, mental and social needs, and that therefore any moral principle which purports to judge the actions of some people differently than the actions of others, or to elevate the values of some against others, must be invalid.

The Moral Razor is this :
A moral principle or system, or a political principle or system, is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons).

This is easily seen to eliminate large swarths of moral systems. All forms of moral relativism are automatically eliminated, as they are based on the premise that moral judgment somehow differs from person to person or from culture to culture. So are all forms of utilitarianism (including democracy) eliminated, because they imply that the values of the majority are superior to those of the minority, with subsequent assymetry of action.

Collectivist worldviews, such as religions, with their sacrifice of individualism in the name of a higher ideal, are also threatened by the Razor. One saliant feature of such worldviews is the strict adherence to a moral system which is usually memetically utilitarian in nature. But this is an inherent asymmetry, and a rational Christian (if there was such a chimera) would be in his right to ask why he is to be considered good only when he follows a set of - to him - arbitrary rules, when only a small subset of people actually benefit from his obedience. And there is also the pesky little problem of believing in an entire moral system ostensibly because it is designed by an all-powerful being, and the inherent asymmetry in this moral master/slave relationship.

Obviously, universality is necessarily egalitarian. And egalitarianism is necessarily individualist. They all go together like glove and hand. The individual can only flourish in a social and political context where everyone is allowed to flourish, and such a context can only exist if everyone is equal under morality and the law. You cannot dissociate the two.

It's not surprising that the most murderous social systems, the most collectivist societies, those of communism and nazism, are predicated upon a strong ruling class that exerts both economic and ideological control. There is nothing less conductive to religion and politics than the firm conviction that everyone should be equally free to express his own values.

The Razor, in its initial form, also applies to a great deal of public policy. Often, the only reason for their perceived universality is the failure to consider where the benefits are going as well as the costs. Take taxation, for example. True, everyone has to pay taxes, but only the ruling class is free to accumulate and use tax money - under utilitarian considerations, as for any other collectivist system. So taxation is asymmetrical.

One easy way to figure out assymetry is to ask whether anyone can act in the same way. No other citizen can raise his own police and force people at gunpoint to pay them tribute (except perhaps the mafia, but they have to contend with the government's guns). The same applies to policies such as eminent domain, censorship, and other governmental initiations of force. If the government does not open itself to the same restrictions, then the policy is necessarily asymmetrical (compare for example victim disarmament and growth in military spending).

There is one exception, and that is when we are looking at scenarios where a valid rule was already broken. Arresting someone when no crime was committed is asymmetrical, but arresting someone who initiated force is a different scenario. In this case we are looking not at a political principle - which is what the Razor is about - but rather at the consequence of breaking such a principle. In that case I would argue that, as long as no other asymmetry is present, singling out initiators of force should not be seen as breaking the Razor a priori.

This leads us to the other use of the Razor, which is the relational level. Here we're looking not at the application of a moral principle, but rather at the relational results. Suppose we say, for example, "theft is universally good". This is problematic since theft is a relational asymmetry : the right of property of the thief subsists (otherwise he would not be a thief at all but rather a hired goon, for one thing), but that of the victim is taken away, creating a contradiction.

We can generalize this idea and say that all coercion implies relational asymmetry, as coercion implies the existence of a perpetrator and a victim, with inherent asymmetry contained therein. So we can say the following :
All moral or political principles based on coercion have relational asymmetry, and therefore imply contradictions in rights.

Since there are only two basic relational modes, coercive and voluntary (the Trader Principle), we see that this principle eliminates a great deal of principles and ideologies as well. The Trader Principle, on the other hand, is inherently symmetrical : everyone gives and receives value at all times. Gift-giving is not an exception to this rule, but rather a confirmation of it, as the gift-giver sees self-interest in doing so. For some people, giving gifts is even more pleasurable than receiving them. If someone is acting of his own free will, then he necessarily sees benefit in his actions, and the Trader Principle cannot be violated.

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12 Comments:

At 1/20/2006 12:31 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

I love this post. I actually posted about morality recently at Kill The Afterlife and some commenters there questioned my universality principle, so I referred them to this post of yours since its so good!

The timing is great, since I used universality and symmetry in a big way in my morality post, and you have expounded on and detailed the reasoning behind the universality that I mentioned and am getting questioned on so vigorously.

So thanx! :)

 
At 1/21/2006 11:07 PM, Blogger Brent declaimed...

Can you provide a link to Molyneux's description of this Razor?

I agree that it is wrong to "judge the actions of some people differently than the actions of others," in the sense that if two people make the same choice in the same situation there is no different in the morality (or immorality) of those actions. I am somewhat confused, however, over what it means to "elevate the values of some against others." What immediately comes to my mind when I read this phrase is the utilitarian argument that everyone counts as 1, no more and no less. To quote Peter Singer, "if only X and Y would be affected by a possible act, and X stands to lose more than Y stands to gain, it is better not to do the act... True scales favor the side where interest is stronger, or where several interests combine to outweigh a smaller number of similar interests; but they take no account of whose interests they are judging." (While on that subject, I'd like to point out that the utilitarian doesn't necessarily side with the majority. If two people each gain 2 from action X, and 3 people each lose 1, then 4 is gained and 3 is lost, so the action is moral even though it favors the minority). Obviously you don't think utilitarianism works with this principle, does it mean to "elevate the values of some against others)?

You say later, "One easy way to figure out assymetry is to ask whether anyone can act in the same way." But say I eat a coconut. Not everyone can eat a coconut, because not everyone has access to coconuts. And while everyone might have the potential to have access to coconuts, any individual also has the potential (however small) to rise to the top of an army and force people to pay tribute.

Finally, you say, "The Trader Principle...is inherently symmetrical : everyone gives and receives value at all times." But people do not recieve this value unless they are relating with each other. So the question becomes, how do you determine when two (or more) people are in a relational state with each other?

 
At 1/22/2006 1:47 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Molyneux's podcasts are at
http://www.podfeed.net/category_item.asp?id=3476

The one with the Moral Razor is one of the early ones. Probably "Proving Libertarian Morality".

 
At 1/22/2006 4:27 AM, Blogger Brent declaimed...

I found the articke at this url and it generally oulined the point. It didn't really address why utilitarianism was not moral though.

Actually it seems quite Kantian, complete with fallacies. For example: A moral theory which approves of stealing, for instance, faces an insurmountable logical problem. No moral theory should, if it is universally applied, directly eliminate behaviour it defines as moral while simultaneously creating behaviour it defines as immoral. If everyone should steal, then no one will steal – which means that the moral theory can never be practiced. And why will no one steal? Well, because a man will only steal if he can keep the property he is stealing."

Problems:
1. False alternatives - we don't have to say stealing is either always moral or always immoral. It might be the case that stealing is sometimes OK - for example if your child is starving.
2. Even if it is moral for everyone to steal at the same time, it doesn't mean everyone will do it.
3. If it is moral to steal, and everyone does what is moral, they will all continue stealing even after they realize what they steal is being taken from them. Their motivation seems to be that it is moral, not that they will benefit in some way.

Unfortunately, his article doesn't address my questions about utilitarianism, the coconut, or the trader principle.

 
At 1/22/2006 5:05 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

I already addessed why utilitarianism is not moral. It is not moral because it implies that the values of the majority are superior to the values of the minority, dividing people into those whose values are enforced and those whose values are not enforced. This breaks symmetry and therefore is invalid.

Utilitarianism also leads to absurd results which also break symmetry. For instance, the idea that we should kill everyone over 60 because they do not produce enough to justify their existence. This is obviously completely asymmetrical.

 
At 1/22/2006 10:30 AM, Blogger Brent declaimed...

Yeah, I read that description, but utilitarians generally believe that their philosophy is the most impartial and universal.

First, utilitarianism doesn't necessarily mean the majority win. As I said above, if two people each gain 2 from action X, and three people each lose 1, then 4 is gained and 3 is lost, so the action is moral even though it favors the minority.

I also quoted Peter Singer who says that according to utilitaranism "if only X and Y would be affected by a possible act, and X stands to lose more than Y stands to gain, it is better not to do the act... True scales favor the side where interest is stronger, or where several interests combine to outweigh a smaller number of similar interests; but they take no account of whose interests they are judging." This seems universal and impartial. How would you define the moral razor to exclude it?

 
At 1/22/2006 11:26 AM, Blogger Brent declaimed...

Oh, and utilitarianism doesn't say we should kill unproductive people. Modern preference utilitarianism says that it is wrong to kill because it values preferences, and the strongest of preferences are the will to live. I am more of a classical utiltiarian in that I value happiness and not preferences, but I directly include human life in my definition of utility. What is valuable is human welfare, and that includes life as well as happiness.

 
At 1/22/2006 3:52 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"Yeah, I read that description, but utilitarians generally believe that their philosophy is the most impartial and universal."

What they believe is none of my concern.


"I also quoted Peter Singer"

Wonderful. Who else are you gonna quote, Hannibal Lector ? I know this is an ad hom fallacy, but if you ant me to take you seriously, don't quote a philosopher who preaches pure hatred and evil like Peter Singer.


"Oh, and utilitarianism doesn't say we should kill unproductive people."

Sure it does. It's the greatest good for the most people.


"Modern preference utilitarianism says that it is wrong to kill because it values preferences, and the strongest of preferences are the will to live."

Sounds suspiciously like individual values, not utilitarianism. Why be a utilitarian if you're going to use individual values as your standard ? You're contradicting yourself.

 
At 1/22/2006 4:57 PM, Blogger Brent declaimed...

"What they believe is none of my concern."

My point is that it is still unclear to me why utilitarian is asymetrical. In a conflict of interest, we are going to have to satisfy the values of some over the values of others. Utilitarianism proposes a way to do this which seems to me to be impartial and symetric: an act is moral if the welfare you produce outweighs the welfare you destroy. Each person counts as one.

"Why be a utilitarian if you're going to use individual values as your standard?"

I highly doubt those with "individualist values" would agree with prefernce utilitarians. Anyway, as I said above, I am not a preference utilitarian, I'm a quasi-classical utilitarian.

 
At 1/22/2006 5:27 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"I highly doubt those with "individualist values" would agree with prefernce utilitarians."

And yet the justification you gave was individualist. You said :
"it is wrong to kill because it values preferences, and the strongest of preferences are the will to live"
That sounds pretty damn individualist to me !


"Anyway, as I said above, I am not a preference utilitarian, I'm a quasi-classical utilitarian."

I don't care what kind of utilitarian you are, they're all invalid.

 
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