With respect: grounding principles

We do not come into this world as blank slates; we come into it with a sense of right and wrong. Be that as it may (and I believe that it is good), it is also possible to derive and refine that which we believe to be right (and wrong) independently of our innate senses.

But how do we rationalise the existence of "right" and "wrong", or "good" and "bad" (or "evil") in the first place? Some would say that "right" and "good" emanate from God, but even if we accept this, surely God's emanations are not arbitrary? Surely there is some fundamental basis for us to judge that which emanates from God as "right" or "good" (or "wrong" or "bad" or "evil")?

Yes, I think that there is, and it is because of this that what I outline here is compatible with a naturalistic aka atheistic worldview. Here, then, is how I see it: fundamentally, that which is "right" or "wrong" is grounded in the experience of sentient (conscious/aware) beings; beings such as ourselves - humans - as well as animals, plants, and, very probably, microorganisms. We all know from living our lives that it is possible to experience both well-being and harm. From knowing what it feels like to be harmed, and, conversely, what well-being feels like, we have (just as does God) a basis for forming our moral views: "goodness" and that which is "right" are those which promote well-being; "evil" and "wrong" are those which promote harm, particularly (in the case of evil) when it is perpetuated for the pleasure of the harmer.

But what is the rational basis for caring about what is "right" and "good" in the first place, if we are not motivated by heaven and hell? Well, the fundamental question we have to ask ourselves in this reality in which we find ourselves - aside from such fundamental questions as "Why does anything exist in the first place?" - is "Now that we find ourselves here, in this reality, what do (should) we do?"

So, from this perspective we see that we need some fundamental orientation, some fundamental principle to guide our choices (our "oughts" and "shoulds"), and I think that this orientation and fundamental principle is as set out above: recognising the nature of sentient experience as either (very roughly stated) that of well-being or being harmed, we are inevitably led to the reasonable conclusion that we generally "ought to" or "should" be promoting well-being and avoiding harm. This is what it means to feel an obligation to any moral (as opposed to instrumental) "ought" at a basic level.

From this very basic orientation of what we "should" do as a basic principle - i.e. to promote well-being and to avoid harm - we can then work out various principles which follow from or extend or exemplify it. I suggest that our basic approach to life - in ethical terms, for those who want to put a label to it - can be framed in terms of a "tree" (really a "web", because any given node - a derived principle - in the tree might derive - branch off - from more than one parent node) of principles, the root of which is that basic principle which I've just outlined, and the branches of which are those principles which follow from, extend or exemplify it. We might then extend our "branched" principles into twigs, and even leaves, and at each stage we will be exercising our judgement, so that whilst the root (promote well-being; avoid harm) is objective and unobjectionable, the further we branch from the root, the more "relative" our principles (due to judgement) become.

Naturally, some principles will clash with, or take priority over, others, particularly in some given circumstances, and, here, again, the exercise of judgement is required. The fundamental question we must ask ourselves after resolving the general structure of the tree/web is: which principles should take precedence in which situations, especially where there is a conflict or need to prioritise, and why?

Below, I present a set of principles which I hope can form the basis of a generally-agreed approach to life. I also try to give some sense of how I arrived at them, by sharing the axioms, definitions, theorems and assumptions which inspire(d) them. I do not always indicate which principles branch off from which, or which principles conflict, but I hope that they are of some value in starting out down this path of principle-based living anyway. These are the principles according to which the vision of the rest of this site unfolds.

In the below:

Note that I do not here define the terms "positive", "good", "negative" and "bad": I leave them as container terms so as to keep this set of principles as generally unobjectionable as possible. They are stipulated in future pages only to some extent, and to the remaining extent left open.

  1. The axiom of personal experience.

    Axiom: I exist, am conscious, and have experiences.

  2. The definition of sentience.

    Definition: A sentient being is one which exists, is conscious and has experiences.

  3. The theorem of my own sentience.

    Theorem: I am a sentient being.

    This follows logically from the preceding axiom and definition.

  4. The axiom of quality of experience.

    Axiom: I experience my experiences as either positive/good, negative/bad or neutral.

  5. The axiom of wilful experience.

    Axiom: I experience myself as having a will.

    Note: To refrain from making claims that might alienate readers, I do not here take a position (even though I believe in one) as to whether or not that will is "genuinely free"; it suffices that in the context of the type of decisions applicable to this site's content, it is "effectively" or "as though it were" free.

  6. The axiom of decisive experience.

    Axiom: I have experiences of making choices.

    The same note applies as above.

  7. The axiom of the good of wilful experience.

    Axiom: My experiences of being able to enact my will I experience as positive/good experiences.

  8. The assumption of the universality of the experiential axioms.

    Assumption: The preceding four axioms apply to all sentient beings.

    I doubt that there are enough readers who would question this assumption to warrant justifying it.

  9. The assumption of human sentience.

    Assumption: Other humans are sentient beings.

    Again, I doubt many readers would question this assumption.

  10. The assumption of the universality of sentience in life.

    Assumption: All other life forms on this planet are sentient beings.

    The evidence for this assumption is provided on the page, Respecting the non-human life of our planet.

  11. The definition of personal characteristics.

    Definition: A sentient being's "personal characteristics" are all of its traits as broadly and encompassingly as possible, including all physical, genetic, racial, psychological, intellectual, emotional, cultural, spiritual and moral traits, as well as all of that being's skills, knowledge and wisdom, and finally that being's history, including in particular all of its past choices, whether or not those choices had a moral aspect.

  12. The axiom of independence of quality of experience.

    Axiom: The quality (positive/good, negative/bad or neutral) of an experience as experienced per se is independent of the experiencer's personal characteristics.

  13. The principle of the inherent value of sentience.

    Principle: Sentience is, and sentient beings are, inherently valuable.

    This principle is justified in part by the fact that sentience makes possible positive/good experiences, and in part by the feeling we get when we stop and contemplate and actually confront the bare, stark, mysterious, inexplicable basic fact of our own existence: a sense of wonder and even awe which gives us good reason to adopt the principle that our lives are immensely and inherently valuable. It is also justified in part by the fact that if we are not to consider lives valuable, then there is not much point to living them, and it is probably justified in part by other means which you are welcome to suggest to me.

  14. The principle of independence of objective value of experience.

    Principle: The extent to which the experiences of sentient beings which are experienced as positive/good are objectively positive/good, and the extent to which the experiences of sentient beings which are experienced as negative/bad are objectively negative/bad, is independent of the personal characteristics of those beings, but not of the context in which they occur.

    This principle extends the axiom of independence of quality of experience by asserting that not only is the quality of an experience as experienced per se independent of the experiencer's personal characteristics (which it self-evidently is), but that so is its objective quality (positive/good, negative/bad or neutral) independent of the experiencer's personal characteristics. The "objective quality" is intended in the sense of the objective ethical or moral quality. The main implication of this principle is that if it is objectively (in the moral/ethical sense) positive/good for us to have a particular experience, then it is as objectively (ethically) positive/good for people who have different personal characteristics to us - including those of different races, cultures, religions and species, as well as those who are less intelligent or weaker than us, or who have done more wrong than us - and that if it is objectively (again, in the moral/ethical sense) negative/bad for us to have a particular experience, then it is as objectively (ethically) negative/bad for those other people to have the same experience - with the caveat, as elaborated above, that context matters.

    The principle also asserts though that context is important: what this means is that, for example, if allowing for a wrongdoer to have many experiences which feel positive/good encourages that wrongdoer to believe that doing wrong is rewarded, and thus to continue doing wrong where s/he would otherwise avoid it, and if there is no better way to encourage that wrongdoer to change his/her ways than by denying him/her experiences which feel positive/good, then such experiences (of the wrongdoer) which feel positive/good could, in context, be seen as objectively (ethically) negative/bad, whereas for somebody who does little wrong, those same experiences which feel positive/good would simply be as objectively positive/good as their experiential (felt) quality suggests.

    It should be noted that, even independent of personal characteristics, an experience which is experienced (felt) as positive/good is not necessarily objectively (ethically) positive/good: for example, it might be based on causing harm to others, including by unnecessarily thwarting their wills. Likewise, an experience which is experienced (felt) as negative/bad is not necessarily objectively (ethically) negative/bad: for example, it might enable a later and greater positive/good experience.

    Whilst this principle is already generally-recognised to some extent, e.g. racism is generally recognised as unprincipled, it is possible that to some extent (the extent to which it bears on the moral character of the experiencers) it will offend some people's sense of justice: surely, such people might ask, bad people don't deserve good things? But is this not a bad attitude to take in itself? Is it not, as the next principle asserts, good to will good upon others regardless of who they are and what they have done? This, too, is consistent with Christ's commandment to us to love our enemies, and regardless of whether or not you are a Christian, it is a powerful and sensible commandment.

    The next question might be: OK, but surely good people deserve better things than bad people? I would answer similarly to the previous question, except that I would add to bear in mind that in situations where there are limitations, and the choice is between providing something good (or better) to one person (or group) or the other, this principle does not mandate that the character or achievements of the two persons (or groups) be excluded from consideration. In other words, if one is faced with the choice that - exclusively - either "Bad Billy" or "Good Greg" is granted the chance to do something which both enjoy, then this principle does not prevent one from choosing the experience for Good Greg alone, because of his goodness. It is only when the opportunity could be available to both at no or little cost that it would be unprincipled to deny it to Bad Billy merely because of his character.

    And what, then, about punishing people so that they stop causing harm? My answer lies in the principle of positive teaching below.

    Finally, it is important to emphasise (as was already implied above) that this principle does not require that pleasurable experiences (which might otherwise mistakenly be seen as objectively positive/good) that are based upon causing harm to others be tolerated: that would conflict with the harm avoidance principle below.

  15. The principle of goodness for others.

    Principle: To be good is (in part) to desire for others, independently of those others' personal characteristics, to have positive/good experiences, and for them to not have negative/bad experiences, and to make choices to effect those desires.

    See the discussion above, under the principle of independence of objective value of experience.

  16. The principle of the goodness of improved capacity.

    Principle: Except where it causes harm, and regardless of the personal characteristics of those whose capacity is being changed, it is positive/good for the capacity for positive/good experiences to be expanded, and for the capacity for negative/bad experiences to be reduced, both at an individual and group level.

    This principle is closely related to the principle of independence of objective value of experience above: if positive/good experiences are objectively positive/good regardless of whom they occur to, then it would seem to be objectively better to be capable of having more of them, no matter who it is having them; and the reverse for negative/bad experiences.

  17. The harm avoidance principle.

    Principle: Harm to others ought to be avoided unless that harm is unavoidable or the harmed gives informed consent.

    This principle is justified and detailed on the page, The harm avoidance principle, where it is worded in the first-person plural.

  18. The principle of conflict resolution.

    Principle: Conflicts of will ought to be resolved by fair and reasonable means with respect to the above principles.

    What reasonable person wouldn't advocate for and assent to fair and reasonable processes of conflict resolution?

  19. The principle of prohibition against needless punishment.

    Principle: Punishment ought not to be inflicted for its own sake nor for the sake of vengeance.

    This principle is inspired primarily by the above two principles, the principle of independence of objective value of experience and the harm avoidance principle. Are there, then, legitimate justifications for punishment? I can think of only two: the first being for the purpose of teaching or training a person to change their bad behaviour through aversion. However, by the below principle of positive teaching, aversion training should be avoided where possible i.e. where instead reason- and/or reward-based training is possible. The second is to deter people from doing wrong in the first place, however the extent to which punishment-as-a-deterrent is actually effective is debatable. Finally: detainment might in some cases be necessary, for example in order to prevent a violent person from causing harm to others, but this is not intrinsically a punishment, even though it might feel like one.

  20. The principle of positive teaching.

    Principle: Reason, reward and relationship - and any other positive measures - ought to be preferred over punishment when teaching or training.

    This principle is inspired partly by the harm avoidance principle. If positive measures are effective as motivators, then why would we prefer punishing motivators which cause - even if only temporarily - harm or at least deprivation, suffering, or pain? Too, the principle of independence of objective value of experience suggests that when the teaching or training is for the purpose of rehabilitation of a criminal, the obligation to avoid avoidable harm is no less.

  21. The principle of self-determination.

    Principle: The wills of sentient beings ought not to be obstructed except insofar as they cause harm to others or violate resolutions of conflicts arrived at by fair and reasonable means.

    This principle is inspired by the axiom of the good of wilful experience and its extension by the assumption of the universality of the experiential axioms, as well as by the principle of independence of objective value of experience. In other words, having one's will respected, so far as that which is willed causes no harm to, and does not conflict with the wills of, others, is in itself an objective good. This requires clarification though: it allows for people to harm themselves wilfully. Sometimes, others might see the sense in this, because the harm gives rise to a later benefit, but sometimes, it will seem pointless, delusional or impulsive to others. In those cases, is it ever legitimate for the others to thwart those peoples' will? I think it depends on the degree of force used in the "thwarting". Sitting down and having a strongly-worded conversation with such self-harmers, asking them to take a good, hard look at themselves, seems justifiable. Kidnapping and imprisoning them and forcing them to undergo therapy does not. Regardless, I understand it if people think that classifying such situations as "objectively good" is unjustifiable, and prefer to use a different term which indicates that such situations are accepted but not desired.

  22. The principle of fairness.

    Principle: Decisions, particularly serious ones, ought to be made on the basis of fairness, and sentient beings, both as individuals and groups, ought to be treated fairly.

  23. The principle of fairness of ownership.

    Principle: A sentient being or group of beings which acquired or holds land or property by fair means ought not to be deprived of that land or property by unfair means: i.e. by force or imposition.

  24. The principle of equal consideration.

    Principle: All sentient beings, both as individuals and cooperating groups, are due equal consideration per and with respect to these principles, regardless of their personal characteristics.

    This principle is in the spirit of the rest, some more particularly than others.


Next: Restoration of effective indigenous Australian sovereignty

The next page, Restoration of effective indigenous Australian sovereignty, suggests how, at a somewhat abstract level, we ought to restore indigenous Australians' effective sovereignty over their own country, based on the principle of fairness of ownership.