Re: virus: Morality

Vicki Rosenzweig (
Tue, 27 Feb 1996 15:17:00 -0800 (PST)

Jay brings up some interesting points. Most particularly, how do I
define my self-interest? As a person who has chosen
for reasons as much emotional as intellectual not to reproduce,
and thus cannot define my interests as "maximize the number of my
descendants who live long enough to breed," I need a
non-DNA-based definition of self and self-interest.

And that in turn looks, to me, like the basis for a system of ethics.
My self, from my viewpoint here, is the (reflexive) awareness of my
body, including beliefs and perceptions. (Call it mind or soul if
you like, but the basic entity is physical.) Clearly, it's in my interest
to continue a pleasing way of life. (I would seriously consider suicide
if I were bedridden and had Alzheimer's, for example, though I will
probably choose to live so long as I can either walk or think.)

The next and more subjective question is, what way of life do I find
pleasing? As a middle-class American with spare time to spend on
a computer net, I'm not particularly worried about having enough to
eat, or a heated room to sleep in. So I can look at larger and
longer-term questions.

I want (consider in my interests) my friends to be similarly secure. I
want to live in a society where nobody is going to attack me for the
money in my pocket. (That one is in your self-interest even from the
purest DNA-based survival viewpoint; how to achieve it is, I think,
beyond the scope of this discussion.) I want clean air to breathe, and
to look at the sky through. I want lots of interesting ideas to think
about, good books to read, and interesting people to discuss them
with. I want plenty of time to do the things I enjoy. I want balance:
I don't want to live by cheating others, and need to look out for
the time when they catch on and try to get their own back.

All of this is self-interest, but it leads to some ethical ideas. Balance
means that I will give and receive gifts, and I will sell my time and skills
to those who wish to buy them, but I won't steal from or cheat people,
or let them cheat or rob me. Wanting lots of interesting ideas to play
with, and good books to read, means that I don't steal books, or tape
or photocopy the work of struggling musicians or writers: not only is it
unbalanced, but if too many people do it, the creative people
won't have time to create because they'll be too busy paying the
rent by waiting tables or doing legal proofreading.

I could go on, and may yet, if there's time and interest, but for the moment
will just note that these are some of the basics of an ethical system that
I can and do live by, and that it needs no gods. (I have a few, for a
of reasons, but this ethical system doesn't need or invoke any.)

Vicki Rosenzweig

On Tue, 27 Feb 1996, Duane Hewitt wrote:

> On Tue, 27 Feb 1996, Lather. Rinse. Repeat. wrote:
> > I am an "amoralist" because I do not believe in the existence of a
> > objective standard of right and wrong. However, I do live more-or-less
> > according to a set of _subjectively determined_ guidelines which I call
> > "a code of ethics".
> >
> > As for atheism, I have a difficult time seeing how an atheist could
> > believe in an objective standard of morality.
> Why not?
> If an atheist believes that there are laws that govern behaviour like
> there are laws that govern physics then it becomes a matter of
> discovering what those laws are.

I suppose that I make a distinction between "morality" and "laws
governing behavior". Even if there are laws governing behavior and even if
those laws are subject to violation by human beings, then I would still
have a difficult time calling such violation "morally wrong". Unnatural,
perhaps -- but I see no need to invoke "wrong".

If such laws exist and they are NOT subject to violation by human beings,
then does a discussion of right and wrong still have meaning? If it is
not possible to commit a "wrong" action, then do "wrong" vs. "good" actions
still exist?

> Let me suggest that such a law is Natural selection. This occurs on many
> levels. It occurs on the level of genetics and on the level of ethics.
> Certain combinations are more likely to survive and propagate. Now if one
> is able to discover why these combinations are able to do so then you are
> uncovering "what is". Now "what ought to be" is not necessarily identical
> to "what is" but recognizing your constraints gives you apoint of


But I still see no need to involve "what ought to be" -- morality -- in
the discussion.

I use the term "ethics" to describe my own guidelines for decision making
and personal behavior. My code of ethics is simply that I try to
determine and pursue, in any situation that I feel will have a significant
effect upon me, what is in my self-interest.

But I do not consider it "wrong" for me to act contrary to my self
interest, nor do I consider it "wrong" for anyone to act contrary their
particular self-interests. Foolhardy, perhaps, but not "wrong". To me,
this would be the equivalent of saying that the dinosaurs were morally wrong

for becoming extinct.