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Metaphysical Moral Caution

a theory of ethics, in summary

Ethics And Morals: A Glossary

This discussion calls for some clarification of terms.

Metaphysical And Moral Uncertainty

You may or may not exist. Others may or may not exist. God may or may not exist. The world may or may not exist. Even if we could be sure these things exist, we do not know their nature with absolute certainty. Any person's notions about self, others, God, the world we perceive, or even whether we perceive the same world, cannot be truly proven or disproven so far as we know at this time. Some metaphysical worldviews, in fact, depend on this uncertainty to provide for meaningful concepts such as faith.

Given all that, Good and Evil as necessary features of metaphysical reality may or may not exist, and any individual person may reasonably believe that they do exist, or that they do not exist. Any number of possible Truths about the nature of reality might each necessarily imply their own particular definitions of Good and Evil, of metaphysically true morality. If the mainstream Hindu metaphysical worldview is correct, one probably shouldn't step on grasshoppers, and one definitely should not eat beef. If the mainstream Christian metaphysical worldview is correct, the Ten Commandments of the Bible surely factor into it. If the foundations of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy prove correct, government permits as a means of restricting who can operate in certain industries is surely Evil, as is demanding others give their lives or even fortunes for one's own benefit. If a philosophical Taoist worldview is correct, Good and Evil exist as fabrications or mere perspectives on a world where all dichotomies are meaningless, and all things are one. If the worldview of metaphysical nihilism is correct, there is no Good or Evil in this world, nor any other, and in fact this world does not exist at all.

While some representations of these metaphysical worldviews may appear flawed, none of them or uncountable others appear, in their most basic forms, either provable or disprovable. It still seems self-evident that, if Good and Evil are meaningful terms necessitated by the nature of metaphysical reality, we should live according to the consequent code of behavior. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing with any certainty what that would mean. The best we can probably do is take a cautious approach to maximizing our chance of being Good, and minimizing our chance of being Evil.

Self-Determination And Moral Caution

Maximizing the chance of being Good is, in some respects, quite simple and quite personal. It may be that no specific and universal guidance is possible. The obvious general guidance is simply the suggestion that one should come to some conclusion about what system of metaphysical morality is most likely to be true and adopt it as one's own. Acting according to that, with the possible cautionary measure of identifying a broad range of most-likely truths and especially favoring those moral requirements that apply across all (or at least most) of them, should maximize the chances of being Good. Whether one arrives at such beliefs about what constitutes the most likely true metaphorical morality is necessarily one's own affair.

Minimizing the chance of being Evil is another matter. It requires great care and rational analysis to avoid errors. Because we do not truly know what is Evil, the fact of potential for others' ideas of Good and Evil being true while one's own are false becomes a central factor in our analysis. Such analysis and care requires us to allow others to determine their own metaphysical worldviews and live according to the moral requirements dictated by those worldviews. This is the self-determination principle of metaphysical moral caution. It is applicable because any interference in another's determination and application of the moral mandates of that person's own metaphysical worldview interferes with that person's ability to be Good according to those beliefs. Surely, preventing others from being Good as they see it, destroying potential for Good or its manifestation and propagation, can be an Evil act. Some objections may be raised to that, but they seem unlikely to apply outside of minority cases of strictly incompatible moral systems. The cautious response to this realization is to allow others to develop independent notions of Good and live according to those notions, to be Good people according to their beliefs.

Ethical Analysis Of Moral Caution

Any intentional or negligent act which interferes with efforts to live morally is an act of coercion. It coerces actions contrary to the person's moral will, or inaction where action may be required. Coercion that interferes with practice of correct moral beliefs is clearly Evil. Metaphysical moral caution thus identifies coercion as a primary threat to cautious avoidance of Evil.

Inaction in the face of Evil may or may not be Evil. A belief that action against Evil would itself be Evil may mean inaction is Good, and when someone attempts to coercively force action that person then runs the risk of destroying a Good choice of inaction. We may be paralyzed by the moral mandate for inaction, producing an ethic of pacifism. This ethic requires us to allow what we see as Evil to flourish if the alternative (to act against it) runs substantial risk of being an act of Evil itself, given the very real danger that what we believe to be Evil is itself Good instead. This is a reasonable interpretation of the requirements of metaphysical moral caution, as far as it goes at this point. At minimum, we must respect the pacifistic choice as one consistent with, and protected by, the self-determination principle of metaphysical moral caution.

This form of pacifism is self-defeating in some respects. If by definition Good people are so pacifistic, and everyone else is Evil by the nature of non-pacifistic choices and acts, the consequence is that Evil people inherit the Earth. Even so, this is consistent with the self-determination principle of metaphysical moral caution by prohibiting behavior that interferes with others' moral self-determination. From a practical perspective, however, metaphysical moral caution itself suggests that anyone who does not truly believe a pacifistic metaphysical moral view should be free to act in some way to protect Good from Evil.

When estimating the odds as we do when applying metaphysical moral caution to determine a practical, universally applicable system of ethics by which to live, we optimize our efforts for doing the most Good balanced by doing, or allowing, the least Evil. The self-determination principle of metaphysical moral caution must apply equally to all and, where it is not reciprocated, the unethical acts of others should be opposed within the limits of the ethical, or at least the ethically excusable. Where the consequences for both possible outcomes of an ethical dilemma are similarly undesirable, either choice becomes at least ethically excusable as a reasonable, personal interpretation. When assigning ethical concepts of Right and Wrong to the act of interacting with others' moral self-determination, it becomes clear that coercive interference with the moral self-determination of others is itself ethically Wrong, while preventing such coercion is ethically Right by those standards, or at least ethically excusable. In summary, taking coercive acts in defense against coercion are not in and of themselves necessarily Wrong; they are Right when defensive in nature, or at worst neutral -- excused from a judgment of unethicality, if not ethical and Right per se.

Rights And Aggression

Let us simplify our language with one more definition:

These three equivalent statements draw us to the ethical conclusion of the moral caution argument:

  1. The performance of an act is Wrong when it creates a condition of coercion that did not previously exist.

  2. The initiation of a coercive relationship is Wrong.

  3. Any act of aggression is Wrong.

Coercive acts taken in defense against an aggressive act (and its perpetuation by the initiator) are Right -- or at least neutral, excusable, or otherwise not unethical.

We finally arrive at our destination: a core ethical principle justified by metaphysical moral caution, called the non-aggression principle. Both forms of ethical system described above as compliant with the self-determination principle of moral caution -- the form that allows for coercive defense against acts of aggression, and the pacifistic form -- abide by the non-aggression principle itself. Depending on which form one adopts, either two or three fundamental ethical rights apply.

A Final Note

The foregoing arguments imply a number of consequences. Identifying and considering most of them is left as an exercise for the reader, but one in particular deserves mention, and encouragement for the reader to ponder:

The only entities who possess these rights and may be judged unethical for violating them are those capable of moral self-determination. By extension, it may be that those who demonstrate rejection of these rights for others do not posses these rights themselves. That, however, is a matter for other essays than this.

- Chad Perrin, 05 MAY 2013

updated 2017-01-04

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