The Origins of Morality
I often hear moral philosophers, such as Stefan Molyneux, talk disparagingly about the Will to Power and determinism. That without free will, there can be no objective morality. This line of reasoning has never sat well with me.
It's not that I don't believe in free will, so much as I can't understand why he does. Stefan is (or was, maybe? Who knows?) an atheist and doesn't buy into so-called magical thinking like God, the soul, etc. He prefers adherence to strict empiricism, logic, and reason. In his Intro to Philosophy series, and elsewhere, he's outlined why that is; yet as far as I've seen thus far in all his videos on the subject, he has never been able to adequately explain where free will comes from, which would seem to me a form of magical thinking in itself - a god of the gaps.
He can argue the gestalt principle with regards to human consciousness, and I'd be fine with that, except he'd be left having to explain why that principle doesn't also apply to things like God or the State. Only very recently has he come around to the idea of nationalism. I, being a minarchist, am of course thrilled by his conversion, but he has yet to do the same with regards to free will, even after being made privy to the Moist Robot Filter.
Maybe that will come in time, who knows?
A more consistent view for an empirical atheist would be to say that everything else appears to conduct itself in a deterministic way, therefore, it's reasonable to conclude human consciousness most likely does as well, and we should be skeptical of claims of free will.
I don't personally hold that view, but again, I don't understand why he doesn't.
His go-to argument is often something along the lines of, "Well, I'm wasting my time as a philosopher if there's no such thing as free will," or "I think determinism strips the joy and meaning and morality out of life." So ... emotional appeals.
Hmm, what that thing Stef always says in cases like this? Oh, that's right ...
So much for reason and evidence.
But besides not being an argument, it's also not true. In a wholly deterministic world, it could well be that the only reason someone changes their behavior is because they listened to Stefan speak and his words reprogrammed their minds. Moral philosophy certainly still has a place in that world.
It's a force, like any other, acting on the individual, pushing them in a certain direction. Likewise, happiness would also exist, since our emotions are biochemical reactions. We can talk about finding meaning another time, though certainly the consequences for acts of so-called immorality in a deterministic universe are the biggest question of all; and humanity is only just starting to become comfortable with the notion that people aren't evil, they're simply broken or sick.
Short term, however, let's not go around burning down the courthouses just yet, and keep the prisons where they are for now, at least until we've figured out a suitable replacement, because I highly doubt a week of even the most intensive therapy was enough to change someone like Harvey Weinstein.
Then again, I wasn't in the room with him (thank god), so I could be wrong ... but I doubt it.
Some things are just better left to the imagination.
While I believe in free will and in the existence of higher intelligences than human beings, Stefan's line of reasoning bothers me because I can actually conceive of a method by which morality could arise in a wholly deterministic universe.
Towards that end, it might be helpful to explain my own view of morals in general and where I think they come from.
There's a reason I have Lao Tsu and Descartes in my Portraits of Inspiration gallery. Many years ago, I performed such mental exercises as questioning the existence of literally everything, right down to nothing, and then contemplating the nothing only itself to find such a task impossible. The limits of my feeble human mind had hit an impenetrable veil beyond which I couldn't pass. A realm of infinite and eternal nothingness that Lao Tsu called the Tao and others have termed the Allness of All, which is the term I generally use.
It was from this point that Descartes discovered an inherent logical contradiction with regards to the self, coining the phrase, "I think, therefore I am." The same "I Am" that the Bible says is the name of God and which the double-slit experiment proved exists even in fundamental particles as "the observer."
This same self, this same consciousness, is the only thing that we can objectively prove, with all else merely being more or less probable. The same player, the same dreamer, in a holographic universe. It's the literal point where science and spirituality meet:
The all-seeing eye of God.
We'll save such topics of so-called Divine Law for another time. I just wanted to demonstrate that I've been to the edge of the universe in my mind, deconstructed everything down to nothing, and then built it back up again from first principles.
It took a number of years, and the process is never really quite finished, as there's always more to learn; but it's a mental exercise I would highly encourage everyone to undergo as a part of their spiritual evolution. It truly frees you emotionally by putting things in perspective:
In doing this, in reconstructing the universe from scratch, you eventually come to observations of the natural world - what is termed the Natural Law. Mathematics, physics, logic, etc. In Nature, we see arise, among other things, a three-tiered system with respect to how entities behave as individuals with respect to other entities.
So far as I have come to understand it, they are as follows:
1. Ambivalence 2. Selfishness 3. Symbiosis
There are other terms for these as well. Sometimes I'll refer to the second level as the "Will to Power" or "Might Makes Right" level. You could call the first one apathy or the last one cooperation. There are limits to human language, but try not to get hung up on the terminology so much, as the underlying concepts are more important than their names.
This arrangement may be new to you, so let's unpack them one-by-one.
The first stage is that things don't care either way about other things that don't personally affect them. A lion in Africa doesn't care about a meteor in Andromeda and vice versa. Those two things will likely never have any meaningful interaction now or in the future, so it's not worth wasting what precious little bandwidth each has worrying about it.
For sake of explanation, I'm deliberately personifying the objects. Whether you think all things in the universe have consciousness or not is not important to the point I'm making. If it makes you feel any better, you can just consider such references to non-human things as being like the concept of the observer in physics.
It's just a point of reference personified.
The next stage is when two things come in contact which each other, directly or indirectly, such that they have some sort of meaningful impact on the other. Meaningful here means non-negligible, so like the sun generally has a meaningful impact upon the Earth and everything on it, such that we pay attention to it, even if day-to-day we sometimes retreat back to the first tier of not caring.
It is something we have to adapt to and deal with in reality, or which at least has sufficient chance of influencing us that we can justify considering it in the abstract.
At this level, each entity in the relationship is primarily concerned about itself first and will generally seek to maximize its own power to enable its maximum longevity. What Darwin called survival of the fittest. We understand this with regards to life forms, but it also holds true of non-living things, such as ideologies and objects. Whether such things have the power to resist external forces applied to them or not is a separate question, but even something like a rock, by virtue of its innate properties, can offer some form of passive resistance to its own alteration.
Power is often seen as a dirty word in our society. We're quick to bastardize that quote by Lord Acton and say that "power corrupts," and therefore is innately bad, whilst only having a vague or tenuous concept of what "bad" means in that case; but even setting those issues aside, we're left with the problem that Lord Acton never actually said that.
In the original quote, Action says that power tends to corrupt, which is different. It implies there are exceptions to this trend.
I think a more accurate view of power comes from Frank Herbert in Dune when he says:
"All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted."
This is essentially the argument that Sargon of Akkad made in his Answers to Libertarians video wherein he rejected the false moral dichotomy of power and pointed out (I'd argue correctly) that some people are good, some people are bad, and that is separate from whether or not they happen to hold political power. This is echoed in the pro-gun sentiment that the only thing that stops a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun.
Indeed, if power corrupted in an absolute, deterministic sense, then the sun would be more corrupt than a thousand Neros, and God still more-so; yet both are seen as essential and good overall. And what would it say of our relative power over the subcomponents of our own body? Are we a cruel tyrant or benevolent deity to those, our lowly individual cells?
The answer is both, and neither.
There exists a corollary to Herbert's statement on power. In The Postman, he says:
"The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable."
I would dissent with the idea that sane people are usually attracted by other things. Indeed, a sane individual recognizes that power is essential for accomplishing any noble or worthwhile ends, or indeed any ends at all.
In his book, Personal Development for Smart People, Steve Pavlina breaks down consciousness into its seven fundamental principles, of which power is among the three primary aspects:
I have affectionately dubbed his system: Pavlina's Triangle.
You can read the book to learn more about the whys and wherefores of the system and how to apply it. I highly recommend it and would even consider it essential reading for all human beings (especially those who consider themselves smart, or wish to become smart). For now, the take away is merely that the pursuit of power is not solely the domain of the insane. Just the opposite.
In actuality, power is amoral and neutral.
The sun is raw power. The sun is not immoral. It will just as easily cook you as it will give you life, just because it can. Life on Earth cares about what the sun does and adapts itself to its environment to make use of it, with the eventual goal being to surpass whatever threats and limits are presented by said environment. Humans, for instance, seek to harness the power of the sun to eventually build technology to enable us to leave the planet, just in case the sun ever decides to hiccup and kill us all.
Many a futurist has toyed with the concept of a Dyson Sphere wherein a sufficiently advanced society can build a device capable of harnessing the power of a star, bringing it under heel. The quality and character of the being will ultimately determine whether it becomes a Ringworld or a Starkiller Base, but in either event, it will signify that the species as a whole has risen to such heights as to overpower the sun itself.
Again, by being, I don't just mean living beings. Charcoal is soft and brittle, but the same carbon atoms arranged differently could produce tougher graphite, or even diamond - one of the hardest substances known. The same carbon can also make up the neurons of squishy human beings that get sad and make you think about death and stuff.
Through particular organization, entities can become more powerful than they otherwise would be as individuals, though of course something is lost in the exchange.
All of this occurs at the selfishness level.
I sometimes call this state of existence "raw Natural Law," to distinguish it from other established uses of the term "Natural Law." It's related to what others have called a "State of Nature," though, as you'll see in the next section, that sort of depends on how you define a civil society. Regardless, it's a realm you only wanna operate in if you already have power, or are on the path to getting it, because the rules are might makes right.
Human conceptions of good and evil don't apply here. It's completely amoral.
At this level of interaction, the more powerful entity always wins and gets to exercise its will. Smaller, weaker entities often band together to make themselves more powerful than a singular entity, and when an entity is so powerful that the relative disparity between it and another all put precludes the outcome (as in the case of an ant versus the sun, for instance) or when meaningful interactions cease altogether, the entities return to a state of ambivalence.
The third stage is symbiosis, wherein an entity suspends its lust for exercising raw power because it sees value in not doing so - that not doing so in a certain instance will actually lead to greater chances of long-term survival. For instance, a shark might evolve to abstain from eating a particular fish that cleans its teeth, ridding it of harmful parasites while the little fish gets a meal and some protection against other predators in exchange for this service.
Clearly, the animal kingdom exists in an amoral deterministic system absent free will or such notions as good and evil, and yet certain animals have managed to develop interpersonal relationships other than those found at the level of raw Natural Law. Their will to dominate is tempered by the fulfillment of a particular need, and this may ultimately be what Frank Herbert was referring to when he said the sane tend to value other things, though I wouldn't quite put it in those words.
A better explanation might be that the sane don't just focus on accruing power, but balance it with other things as well, such as their place in the great circle of life - what Steve Pavlina calls Oneness. Thus, we're back to Pavlina's Triangle and the quest for intelligence by combining Truth, Love (which he defines as "connection" or "attachment"), and Power in equal measure.
Within the animal kingdom, there exist systems of organization and dominance hierarchies based on the laws of biology. The phenomenon we understand as symbiosis is derived as an emergent property from those same laws and exist whether or not an entity is aware of them at a conscious level. Indeed, so far as we know, humans are the only species capable of this, and yet all of Nature still operates just fine in its ignorance.
Pack animals like hyenas and wolves are relatively weak as individuals compared with certain animals, especially larger prey and predators; but through symbiosis, they will instinctively submit themselves to a hierarchical structure to pursue the common goal of taking down such creatures, whether for food or in self-defense, and of course survival of the species in the long run.
I already gave an example of interspecies cooperation with the shark and the little fish. There are many other instances of this to be found.
Whereas science says humans evolved from these same lesser animals (and leaving competing theories aside for now), it stands to reason that, even if free will doesn't exist, we would still operate on a system of symbiotic relationship, both with our fellow humans, and with other species, so long as it was in our self-interest to do so.
That isn't to say free will definitely doesn't exist, just that this theory equally explains our interactions.
Symbiosis is sufficient to explain our domestication of certain animals as pets or livestock, since other animals have been shown to do this as well. The same can be said of ecology since we can't very well live in an environment that is hostile to us, and it may surprise you to learn that animals can influence that as well:
The most basic form of symbiosis between humans (beyond mating) is that of trade and contract.
Instead of simply taking what they want by force, two people come to the conclusion that it's better to keep the other alive and happy by giving up something they already have in abundance that will help the other prosper. In so-prospering, they in turn make more things through a division of labor that results in both sides being better off:
Symbiosis and delayed gratification are thus byproducts of selfishness. It is the conclusion that mere instant gratification is outweighed by its suspension, which is ultimately a form of selfishness on a longer time scale.
Thus, all interactions with others become a matter of, as Eddie Murphy so eloquently put it: What have you done for me lately?
He meant it ironically, but it's actually literally true.
We put up with other people, because we need things. Sometimes the people themselves are the things we need, since we are a social species and our needs extent to emotional, physical, reproductive, intellectual, and spiritual stimulation as well; but regardless of the subject of our desire, once we stop desiring it, we revert back to pure selfishness and raw Natural Law. To might makes right and everyone for themselves.
This is part of the mechanism that drives what I described as The Great Culling (not to be confused with the documentary), wherein there will come a time when most human beings can't compete in providing even the most seemingly human of qualities to one another - being replaced by robots in just about anything and everything - and thus we will be forced to deal with the question of what to do with these people who serve no purpose except to exist for themselves.
I didn't write the rules, I'm just telling you how it is.
Contract Law is the first level in a hierarchical system of Law to emerge from the Natural Law. The next one down is the so-called Social Contract or Common Law. A lot of libertarians reject the idea of a social contract and make fun of it. I would argue this is because they don't understand what it actually is, and I've written before pushing back against their frankly childish conceptions.
For my purposes here, I use the terms Social Contract and Common Law synonymously with universal moral law, or what is known as malum in se.
The reason Common Law must necessarily be a subset of Contract Law is because it requires the people within that society to agree to submit to the law in order for it to work. By agree, I simply mean performing a cost-benefit analysis to weigh the pros and cons of doing it versus not doing it. If there is no agreement, the law can't work, and we're back to Natural Law with everyone defaulting to fending for themselves as a primary concern.
While not a perfect list, you can get a general sense of such laws on Wikipedia.
I say they are universal because, generally speaking, these are the laws that any rational group of people will eventually converge upon and agree are behaviors that ought to be enforced by society as a whole. At least the main ones, like rape, theft, murder, assault, fraud, treason, arson, false testimony, trespass, nuisance, breach of contract, ... you get the idea. They're all logically derived.
Thus, as a by-product of symbiotic forces and pro-survival incentives, Common Law can still arise in a wholly deterministic universe.
Taking murder as an example, under raw Natural Law, the biggest badass (usually an alpha male) will tend to dominate through sheer exertion of their power. In some sense, technology and training have shifted the balance of power away from mere biological limitations - such as enabling women to defend themselves with a simple handgun, for instance - but the principle of might makes right still generally applies.
Obviously, under such a system, the strong have no real use for the law, and so it should be easy to see why the invention of such rules is a product of the physically weaker; though taken as a whole, if we count mental power as a form of power, then it still holds that the most powerful entity shall rule, with the only difference being a shift in the type of power we're considering - in this case, going from purely physical to rhetorical. The reason priests exist alongside soldiers is that the human capacity for mental labor plays as much a part in our survival as do our physical characteristics.
Perhaps even more so:
Still, we are nonetheless corporeal beings and thus our physical limitations remain an important consideration in terms of our survival.
Back in the early days of humankind, the physically weak used their superior mental capabilities to come together and form a plan for how to restrain those who threatened their survival. This they called the Social Contract. They set aside their differences with one another in pursuit of the greater goal of uniting against a common enemy.
Much of human history is this same bargain replayed, with perhaps the most notable being the union of Athens and Sparta against the Persians, the union of the several American colonies against England, or the union of the Allied Powers against the Axis Powers.
Weak units come together to find strength in numbers. A tactic we inherited as our birthright for being members of the animal kingdom alongside ants and wolves, driven by the imperative of survival across different levels of being.
The implicit or explicit deal here is "one for all and all for one." You fight as part of the group to protect others and the group will protect you in turn if ever you're the one in trouble.
This, of course, requires a certain degree of social trust in order to work, lest the group betray you and call you a sucker for it. Indeed, the very concept of a civilized society could be said to be one that exchanges power for trust; and whereas we're not mind readers, this has often times led to bad outcomes, but it's also necessary because we are a social species and no one can really survive all that well on their own.
No, not even this guy.
Even at the lowest levels of human interaction, a tyrannical bully can be subdued in this way. However, as I've said before, power is amoral and neutral. Thus, the same tactics can likewise be used to bully individuals in other ways. We've seen this when it comes to the ideological tyranny of the priestly class, social factions, or the media-political complex. Thus, a truly universal moral system is one that provides rational and emotional incentives for even its enemies to support.
Returning to the example of our brute against a bunch of sophisticated weaklings, we can see how this arrangement would be a raw deal for the one who is physically more powerful. Their own natural physical advantages are tempered, reducing their absolute freedom in deference to the will of the group who, through sheer numbers, has overpowered them and brought them under heel.
A more savvy intellect would recognize this and seek to harness the power of the soldier class by offering equal protection under the law, and perhaps special accolades of honor and privilege within the tribe in exchange for turning their power outward, rather than inward.
The same invitation that brought them low could thus be extended to these individuals.
So the deal might go something like this: "Yes, you are more powerful as an individual, but we are more powerful as a group. However, you can be part of the group if you agree - just as we all have - not to harm one another, but instead to use our collective power to strike down trouble-makers within our ranks or to defend against external threats to any one of us, for none of us is as strong as all of us, and the survival of each of us is enhanced by the limited submission to the group."
At its most basic level, this arrangement gives us the fundamental natural rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as courts of Common Law and collective defense.
The exact details are the history of politics.
Families, tribes, nations, cities, States, teams, clubs, businesses, and factions based on identity or ideology all have in common an implied solidarity to the group and a preference for the in-group coupled with - or even defined by - a general mistrust of some force outside the group that has not so-agreed to be bound by the same rules as everyone else.
The way to cure this, to heal the divide, is to expand the definition of the group to be more inclusive of others based on some more fundamental trait, the most unifying being that we are all human. We're all Moist Robots with pink innards and fallible minds. This lack of transcendence, this desire to remain in the weeds, is a general failure of politics, and of identity politics especially, and is one reason why I've tried to propagate such hashtags as #HealTheDivide and #ItsOkToBeHuman.
I understand the latent hypocrisy of this while calling myself a libertarian nationalist, but I'm only human too, and I have to live in the real world just like you until everyone else catches up to such ideals.
In an older article entitled Birth of the Minarchist Syndicate, I wrote about a hypothetical tribe of humans and how they banded together with their neighbors to form the foundations of what we'd call a government for the purpose of their mutual survival against invaders. This process occurred via the same principle of symbiosis. That a limited suspension of absolute freedom under raw Natural Law was in their interests. Enough that they'd actually be ok with going through with it, at least.
So long as there are teams of incompatible principles, there must necessarily be a separation between them as surely as fire and water must be kept apart to avoid extinguishing one, the other, or both.
Human trade and moral law stems from symbiosis, wherein weak entities band together against a collective threat, pooling their individual skills and resources, instead of fighting amongst themselves. They subrogate the right to do whatever they want to their fellow man in the moment for the purposes of long-term survival.
Prohibitions against murder, for instance, arise from the mutually agreed compact that "society" will all rally to punish anyone who violates the agreement. So the hulking warrior is brought to heel, even though he's more powerful individually; and he even benefits by this, as he's guaranteed the group won't turn on him either. It's a win-win.
An important thing to note is that the third phase is precarious. As soon as a powerful entity feels it no longer needs the group, it will return to stage two - to raw Natural Law. The shark will go back to eating the little fish if there are no more parasites to clean. The same works the other way in that the individual must safeguard against giving the group too much power, lest it turn on them and cannibalize them as well.
Indeed, each individual can be said to have incentive to stay wary of the consolidation of too much power in the hands of a collective.
Nature evolves constantly, so this balance of power evolves with it at all stages, from the family to tribes, to cities and States, to nations and eventually planets. It exists in and between races and genders and other religious or socio-political groups. Businesses and governments built from the bottom up arise out of that symbiotic relationship, whereas cronyism and tyranny are a reversion to raw Will to Power.
Libertarianism and nationalism work hand-in-hand to strike as close to perfect a balance one can reasonably get between the rights of individuals while providing a check against the unrestricted power of individuals to infringe on those same rights in others.
As I said from the onset, I believe in a thing called free will. There are things in life that we clearly can't choose, but some things we can. It's like a card game in that you can't choose what hand you're dealt, and depending on the game, the cards you get may always be predetermined; but part of the excitement of living is that you still get to choose how to play your hand, and that might make all the difference in the world.
Or not. Maybe future advances would only further inure the idea of a deterministic universe, since reason itself is built on rules, rather than arbitrary whim, and through a greater understanding of science, the world becomes less magical.
To one such as myself who accepts the concept of a soul and higher beings, it is not an inconsistent system to have magical thinking and free will exist hand-in-hand. However, as I've hopefully shown you, free will is also not essential either for creating a system of objective ethics; and so, if you're an atheist, empiricist, or determinist, it's my hope that this article bridged a few gaps and filled in some logical holes for you.
If not, well, can't say I didn't give it my best shot.