A new normative theory (also a PhD thesis)

Discussions that deal with moral issues. Key questions in ethics include: How should one live? What is right (or wrong) to do? What is the best way for humans to live?

A new normative theory (also a PhD thesis)

Postby Daniel McKay on January 8th, 2017, 7:42 pm 

I am a PhD student who is working on an entirely new normative theory and, as part of that, I am looking for people to point out any problems with my arguments or any objections I should deal with to my theory. Previously I have posted links to chapters but that is quite a lot to read in order to contribute so instead I'm going to make some abridged versions of my case for my normative theory in this post. If you disagree with anything I say, or can think of an objection to the theory that comes out of it, please let me know. If you make good points I will respond to them in my thesis and reference you however you prefer.

To be clear, this is a very short summation of the arguments present in my first thesis chapters, if you would like to read them in more detail, I can link you the chapter itself.

So, let's dive straight in to the arguments:

I take as my starting assumption that morality, if it exists at all, is the way in which persons (by which I mean free, rational, conscious agents) ought to be or act, where ought is understood in a categorical and universal sense. With this assumption in hand, we can begin to ask what that way might be, or to put it another way, what is of moral value, by considering what it is to be a person. As a way in which persons ought to be or act would apply to all potential persons, not merely us as humans, we cannot use contingent facts about ourselves as humans as the basis for moral value. So moral value cannot be grounded in something like happiness, as we can imagine persons that do not experience happiness. What then could be a basis for moral value? We can consider what is shared by all persons in order to come up with possible candidates and what we find is that all persons have free will, so the capacity to make choices, and also understanding, the capacity to understand their choices. This joint capacity for both understanding and making choices, which I will from now on be referring to as freedom, is not only shared by all persons, it is also not shared by anything that is not a person. There are no things which are not persons, free, rational, conscious agents, which can understand choices and make them freely. This capacity is, in a very real way, what it means to be a person, a moral agent. For this reason, this seems to be our best candidate for moral value. Though it is possible there are other candidates and indeed other things that are of moral value, they will not be discussed here as I do not know what they could be.

So, our candidate for moral value is freedom, but freedom over what? As this morality is objective and universal, it is presumably not the case that it makes conflicting recommendations, or made no recommendations at all, in almost all practical situations, which would seem to be the case if all choices were of equal value. However, if the freedom that matters is the freedom to make one's own choices, the choices that relate to those things that belong to the person; their mind, their body and their property, then morality would be functional. Also, there is something conceptually odd about the idea of being free to make someone else's choices for them, against their will. For these reasons we can say that what is of moral value is the freedom of persons over those things which already belong to them; their mind, their body and their property. As a quick note on property, I should say that I have not yet seen a really good justification for how we come to own unowned property in the first place. If it turns out we cannot truly own property, and it is instead just a useful construct, then we can remove it from our list of things that our ours and treat it purely instrumentally.

So, we have our candidate for moral value, but we don't know what form our moral theory should take. To determine this let us first consider whether we ought to be concerned with the actions people perform or the character traits they exhibit. We might well want to be virtue ethicists of a kind, but many of the traits we might want to consider desirable in persons can't be shared by all potential persons, and those that can, such as being free and rational, are already shared by all free, rational agents, so it isn't clear how we could say a person ought to be. So instead we ought to focus on actions, but do we focus on the consequences of our actions or the form our actions take? We may want to be deontologists and say that people ought to only act in certain ways or according to certain maxims. But the problem with this is that maxims are always arbitrarily defined, in that a maxim that says "don't kill" could be made better if it included an exception for when the person you are killing is trying to kill you and you are defending yourself, but it could be made even better by including an exception for cases where killing that person prevents the death of five others who are in morally similar circumstances, and so on and so on until our maxims describe the situation we are in and what to do in it perfectly. This of course leads to the distinction between acting and letting happen, and it isn't clear how we can draw a clear distinction between something that happens because you did something and something that happens because you stood by. Without having a strong way to morally distinguish action from inaction, it seems we ought to be consequentialists.

So, we have a consequentialist theory with the ability of persons to understand and make their own decisions as the measure of moral value. This means that when acting we ought to ensure we do not violate the freedom of others over their own choices, unless we must do so in order to prevent a greater violation of freedom which could not be prevented without at least this much of a violation occurring, and we have some degree of obligation (which I discuss in it's own chapter but won't get into here) to prevent or reduce such violations. What this means in practice is that determining what to do in a moral situation is not a matter of weighing happiness, following strict and unchanging rules or considering what kind of person acts in a certain way, it is a matter of allowing persons to make their own choices. To give a few examples of practical implications:

* Lying can be wrong in some circumstances such as fraud where it denies the person the ability to understand the choice they are making, but it is not wrong in most circumstances.
* Adultery (assuming there aren't any STIs involved) is a personal issue, not a moral one.
* Parents do not have a right to decide what happens to their children, rather they have an obligation to protect their child until it is capable of making its own choices and to act in its best interests when they must make decisions for it in the interim.
* The role of a government is to first protect its people and then to act in their interests especially when making decisions regarding shared property.
* Nothing can ever be offensive enough that we ought to violate the freedom of a person to say it.

Looking forward to reading all the ways in which you disagree with me.
Thanks for your time.
Daniel McKay
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Re: A new normative theory (also a PhD thesis)

Postby irfuzzbucket on May 7th, 2017, 12:03 am 

"Morality is the way in which persons ought to be or act...a way in which persons ought to be or act would apply to all potential persons...moral value cannot be grounded in something like happiness, as we can imagine persons that do not experience happiness"

You have made the assumption that morality is present in all "persons". based on your definition of morality: "ought" implies the word "should": Humans should act morally or should have a moral compass. would argue that not all persons do. and therefore morality is not something necessarily present in all persons. Some persons may be immoral. Therefore morality could be based on something like "happiness" which is not present in all persons.

I do think your idea of consequentialism without an infringement on freedom is very accurate
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Re: A new normative theory (also a PhD thesis)

Postby nameless on June 2nd, 2017, 8:00 pm 

Daniel McKay » Sun Jan 08, 2017 4:42 pm wrote:So, let's dive straight in to the arguments:

I take as my starting assumption that morality,

Righteo! *__-
Let's begin at the beginning, I guess.
If the initial premise fails, so does all built upon it.

From a religious Perspective (and a dictionary), 'morality' is judging people/stuff as 'good' or 'bad/evil'!

This is exact manifestation of the stolen Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Sin of Pride/judgment) in the Garden!

As a Xtian (or any other religion), we are warned against 'judging' others;
"Judge not lest you be judged!"
Such judgment (good/evil) is the sin of 'pride'!
'Pride' is the only sin (from which all others spring), yet the hypocrites flaunt their practices, joyfully, proudly, in the face of their god!
You are told that;
"If you judge, judge with righteous judgment!"
Yet goes on to say that;
"None are righteous, no not one!"

From a 'secular' perspective, it is insanity!

It is not uncommon for folks to conflate 'morality' with it's polar 'opposite', 'ethics'!

if it exists at all,

Everything exists!
'Morality' exists as vanity/judgment in the ego/thoughts of the beholder!

is the way in which persons (by which I mean free, rational, conscious agents) ought to be or act,

According to the 'judgment' of the 'believer'/beholder!

where ought is understood in a categorical and universal sense.

There is not anything 'Universal' about the vanity of 'morality', any more than 'neurosis', or the Zika virus is 'Universal'.
Very local, at best!
There is no logic or science that can be used to support the notion that 'morality' can ever be 'objective/Universal.
It is insanity!
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