Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Return to Sweet Probability

A while back, in WLC8 – Sweet Probability, I looked into Craig’s use and abuse of the Bayes Theorem, which is really the unaccredited use and abuse of Richard Swinburne’s use and abuse of the Bayes Theorem.

In brief, I looked at the probabilistic thinking that underpins the standard Bayes Theorem, the one that I can find in every single statistics text book I’ve looked at, including those which are very much focussed on Bayesian probability.  The Bayes Theorem as expressed by this equation is (adapted from a handy set of University of Washington lecture notes) using the assumption that there are two mutually exclusive events, A1 and A2):

Pr(A1|B) =

Pr(A1) . Pr(B|A1)
( Pr(A1) . Pr(B|A1) + Pr(A2) . Pr(B|A2) )

If we replace A1 with R, A2 with not-R and B with B&E, this then becomes:

Pr(R|(B&E)) =

Pr(R) . Pr((B&E)|R)
Pr(R) . Pr((B&E)|R) + Pr(not-R) . Pr((B&E)|not-R)

Craig’s variation of the Bayes Theorem, however, looks like this (with variations marked in bold red):

Pr(R|(B&E)) =

Pr(R|B) . Pr(E|B&R)
Pr(R|B) . Pr(E|B&R) + Pr(not-R|B) . Pr(E|B&not-R)

Both these equations seem pretty terrifying, even the standard one.

In order to clarify things a little, we will shortly return to the idea of jellybeans.  In Sweet Probability, we had a jar with 100 jellybeans, 60 that contain Red material, 60 that contain yEllow material and 60 that contain Blue material – with some overlap, obviously.  The corresponding probabilities would be (see the article for my working):




I have been told that the jellybean analogy totally misrepresents Craig’s argument, or at least stretches the analogy until it was very close to breaking.  Clearly the use of the analogy alone isn’t going to wash.

My response to this accusation has been to demand that my interlocutor produce a derivation of Craig’s form of the Bayes Theorem, a demand that I have made repeatedly and rather forcefully … a demand that has, at least so far, been met with a ringing silence.

Therefore, it seems, we have to do the work ourselves.

In the diagram below I show the derivation of both the standard Bayes Theorem and the version used by Craig (click on it for a larger version):

The first three steps are common, and the fourth could be common, but I see no benefit in replacing B with B&E until the last step – unless your intention is to confuse.

The only tricky thing that is done in this working is to use the very first relationship Pr(X|Y)=Pr(X&Y)/Pr(Y) over and over again, sometimes forwards and sometimes backwards.  You end up with a complex looking equation, but really what it gives you is no more complex than what we have in the second line, the point in which we could replace B with B&E to get:

In our analogy, we already know that Pr(R&B&E)=0.1 so we just need to work out what the value of Pr(^R&B&E) is.  Putting this into words, we wish to work out the probability of selecting jellybean that contains both Blue and yEllow jellybean material but not Red jellybean material.  This eliminates all the red (20), orange (10), purple (10) and white (10) jellybeans along with those that contain only Blue and only yEllow jellybean material (20 and 20), leaving only the green jellybeans, of which there are 10.  So Pr(^R&B&E)=0.1 which coincidentally is the same value as Pr(R&B&E).  Therefore Pr(R|B&E)=0.1/(0.1+0.1)=0.5 which is less than the inherent probability of R, Pr(R), before we started.

But this is, of course an unfair analogy.  The value of Pr(R) that Craig uses is the probability that a specific person was resurrected.  That’s a miraculous thing and, by definition, miracles don’t occur with a probability of six in ten (0.6) – they are much more likely to have a probability of one in a million (0.000001) or even one in a billion (0.000000001).  A resurrection is even less likely than that, judging from the number of resurrected people we have today.

Note that I am not talking about someone who almost dies, who is revived and might come back with some interesting reports of an out of body experience – something which is a little more common.  I am talking about someone who is well and truly dead, who is locked into a crypt and who rises from the dead three days later.  Each year we have more than 50 million people who die.  For the sake of the argument, let’s say that each year we get 50 bona fide resurrections, which means that there is a one in a million chance of getting resurrected and Pr(R)=0.000001.  This is equivalent to having a jar with a million jellybeans in it, of which only one contains Red jellybean material.

Turning to B, we find that we have a disagreement.  What does this mean, exactly?  Craig tells us that B is “Background knowledge”.  Now when I hear that, I think of the knowledge that we as a species have access to if we choose to seek it out and, in this specific context, it refers to the fact that there are no reliable reports of people being resurrected.  However, I’ve been told that this is unfair because I am assuming naturalism whereas, from what I can tell from the complainant’s argument, B “should” be construed as theism.

Ok – but if that is the case, then it can’t be used in any argument proving the existence of god.  You cannot arrive at a valid proof for the existence of anything if you’ve assumed it from the start.  This is why I give Craig the benefit of the doubt and assume that B is just what we know, and therefore P(B)=1.0 meaning that the likelihood of knowing what we know is one hundred per cent.  This is equivalent to B being the likelihood of selecting a jellybean from a jar containing one million of them and finding that it is a jellyBean.  Thus P(R|B)=0.000001 and our “Background knowledge” has had no effect on the likelihood of a resurrection.

Now finally, we have E.  What does Craig actually mean by this?  He says it means “Specific evidence (empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, etc.)”  But how can we turn this into a likelihood?  Normally, when the Bayes Theorem is applied, we talk about different events, or aspects of an event, rather than “evidence”.  In my example, I link E to the likelihood of a selected jellybean containing yEllow jellybean material.  This is an “event” that is linked to the jellybean being a jellyBean (B), but not to the jellybean containing Red (R).

I suspect, however, that we should look more at the likelihood of the “Specific evidence” arising.  What are the chances that a book that is getting on for two millennia old contains the following reports:

·         On the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers”,

·         On separate occasions different individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death”, and

·         The original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus despite having every predisposition to the contrary”?

I’m going to follow Plantinga’s example here and say that there are two options:

·         The reports are true, or

·         The reports are false (either due to outright fabrication, delusion on the part of those making the reports or some mix of muddled reporting that led to a false conclusions which were then reported incredulously).

Since there are two options, the probability of each is 0.5 (see Planting a Tiger for an explanation of Plantigerant probability).  Therefore, P(E)=0.5 which is equivalent to half the jellybeans containing yEllow jellybean material.

So, once we have modified the analogy accordingly, we have a jar containing one million jellybeans, one of which contains Red jellybean material – P(R)=0.000001, one million of which are jellyBeans – P(B)=1.0 and five hundred thousand of which contain yEllow jellybean material – P(E)=0.5 – but what we don’t know is the distribution of yEllow and Red jellybean material.

Fortunately, we can rely on Plantigerant probability again.  If a jellybean contains Red jellybean material then it will, again, either contain yEllow jellybean material or it won’t.  Therefore P(E|R)=0.5.

We know that likelihood of a jellybean containing Red jellybean material (R) and being a jellyBean (B) is the same as the likelihood of a jellybean containing Red jellybean material, so P(R&B)=0.000001.  We know that the likelihood of a jellybean not containing Red jellybean material is 999,999 to one, so P(^R)=0.999999 and jellybeans which don’t contain Red jellybean material are nevertheless jellybeans so P(^R&B)=0.999999.

Appealing to Plantigerant probability once more, if a jellybean does not contain Red jellybean material then it will either contain yEllow jellybean material or it won’t.  Therefore P(E|^R)=0.5

Using the same logic as above, we know that P(E|^R&B)=0.5 and we now have all the numbers we need to plug into Craig’s equation to get a result.

Which means that P(R|B&E)=0.000001=P(R).

The only way you can get this equation to change in Craig’s favour is to assume that E has a likelihood that is higher than 0.5, which you would only do if you already assume that the resurrection story is reflective of an actual resurrection.

In other words, a calculation of P(R|B&E) which results in a value that approaches unity tells us nothing about the likelihood of the resurrection story being true and everything about the assumptions of the person performing that calculation.


Something that Craig says in his debate with Krauss now makes more sense:

So the question “Is There Evidence for God?” isn’t really very debatable. Rather the really interesting question is whether God’s existence is more probable than not. That is, is

Pr (G | E & B) > 0.5 ?

Now I’ll leave it up to you to assess that probability. My purpose in tonight’s debate is more modest: to share with you five pieces of evidence each of which makes God’s existence more probable than it would have been without it. Each of them is therefore evidence for God. Together they provide powerful, cumulative evidence for theism.

Craig is using exactly the same sort of argument that Richard Swinburne made, using precisely the same sort of equation (although in the Krauss debate he just threw it out there and made no effort whatsoever to explain what it was supposed to mean).

When you have worked it all through you begin to see that, in fact, it was pretty cunning of Craig to leave it up to the listener to assess the probability, since you’d end up with Pr(G|E&B) = Pr(G) which is a totally subjective assessment based on whether or not you already believe in the god in question.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Morality as Playing Games

In the series of articles preceding this one, I have built a case for a morality which could reasonably be expected to develop via evolution.

In The Moral Animal, I introduced the concept of moral agency and argued that even non-human animals demonstrate it.

In The Prisoners and The Farmers and Zero Sum Games, I discussed the moral aspects of two classic game theory scenarios.  I extended that discussion further when introducing the Siamese Emperor.

I have discussed the problems associated with trying define meaning into morality or imposing a level of Divine Command onto it.

In Towards A Rational Origin of Ethical Structures, I harked back to the idea of Ethics as Winning Games and also the concept of Supreme Indifference.  In this article, I touched briefly on the concept of an “ethical structure”, explaining what it does, but I didn’t explain fully what I mean by an ethical structure, or what an ethical structure is.

I want to pause for a moment before explaining my concept of an ethical structure in order to highlight something which might not be readily apparent to the reader approaching this for the first time, even though it may seem to be obvious in hindsight.

Things, acts, words, world views, perspectives and so on are all right or wrong, good or bad, in terms of your ethical structure.  Note that while the term “moral framework” is preferred by some and “ethical framework” is also occasionally used, I shall be using the term “ethical structure” exclusively to denote the concept that will soon be explained more fully.

No matter what it is called and no matter what the preferred method of constructing it is, an ethical structure is not a valid subject for assessment in terms of itself.  An ethical structure is not good or bad, nor is it right or wrong.  An ethical structure is inherently amoral – if someone thinks they can make an ethical assessment of, or moral judgment on their ethical structure, then they’ve left something out of that ethical structure (the values and the methodology on which they base that assessment or judgment).

Note that an ethical structure is not amoral in the usually pejorative sense that people are said to be amoral when they appear unconcerned about or care little for determinations regarding morality and immorality.

An interesting concern arises when considering the argument that an ethical structure cannot be reasonably assessed in terms of itself.  Is assessing the morality of another person’s ethical structure justifiable?  It seems that once the argument that ethical structures are inherently amoral has been accepted, it is unreasonable to assess the morality of another person’s ethical structure – which would be inherently amoral from their perspective.

What can be justified is assessment of the morality of decisions that flow from another person’s ethical structure in terms of your own ethical structure, although such assessments will be subjective and relative.  It is also justifiable to contest decisions made by someone who ostensibly shares the same ethical structure.

An assessment that may be more profitable, and is entirely justified, is the assessment of a competing ethical structure conducted on the basis of evidence and reason.

An example might be useful here, since I appear to be straying very close to the form of moral and cultural relativism that is better labelled as “moral cowardice”.

Imagine a scenario that plays out in a village not too far from yours: a well-fed male walks up to a starving female who immediately cedes her food.  The well-fed male accepts the food and eats it, leaving none for the starving female.

Within your ethical structure, this is probably wrong – maybe because you have a concept of assigning resources according to need, rather than gender.  In that village, however, food might be distributed according to eye colour and the female (having blue eyes) would only get food if there was enough available.  This is a rather deliberately arbitrary distinction – the point being that the decision to distribute resources based on eye colour is not really a moral failing, it’s irrational.  When critiquing the ethical structure of others, we are justified in assessing their decisions as morally deficient (in terms of our own ethical structure) and their ethical structure as lacking a sound, rational basis.

When we begin, however, to accuse others of having irrational ethical structures, it behoves us to ensure that our own ethical structures are rational.  To that end, it is should be noted that it is not rational to attempt construction of an ethical structure on the basis of what is good and right.  If you can make such a determination then you already have an ethical structure.  Similarly, when assessing whether an ethical structure is rational, it is necessary to delve more deeply than preconceptions of good and right.

This brings us to a question which many people are reluctant to raise, let alone address.  What is an ethical structure for?  What is its function?

In Towards A Rational Origin of Ethical Structures, I argue that the (emergent) function of an ethical structure is the promotion of survival.  The idea that the function of an ethical structure is to promote personal survival would probably be considered by many people to be quite cynical but this is based on an incorrect assumption that an ethical structure itself should be moral, rather than serving to guide our morality.

There are some who would argue that their ethical structure is based on religious convictions rather than any consideration of survival.  These people, however, are merely putting more focus on their legacy survival rather than their physical survival.  They are labouring under the misapprehension that they are the embodiment or earthly vessel of some eternal aspect, the survival of which is more important than their physical survival.  Their ethical structure is still based on survival, survival of their immortal soul, rather than their mortal body.

In the next article, I will more fully explain the concept of an ethical structure, the function of which is to promote survival.


I just want to cut one other argument off at the knees.

I’ve already touched on Divine Command Theory, but there is another argument which some might raise; the function of an ethical structure has something to do with pleasing god.

This pleasing of god is not due to altruism on the part of theists, it’s a contractual arrangement.  The followers of a god that I am most familiar with (i.e. Christians) have made it abundantly clear that if you obey the laws set down by their god, then eternal bliss awaits.  If you fail to obey the laws, then it’s eternal torment.

Theists are merely obeying the terms of an implied (and imaginary) contract.  They reveal this when they argue that without (their) god there is no good.  In other words they are asserting that if they themselves did not believe in god, they would recognise no obligation to be moral.

The gossamer-thin civility exhibited by some of our fellow travellers is truly frightening.

Since we have evidence of people losing their faith, even when it has been quite firmly held, the development of a robust basis for morality that is independent of belief in a god should be a priority.


As mentioned earlier this article is one of a series. It was preceded by Physical Survival and Legacy Survival and we reach the penultimate article in An Ethical Structure. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Physical Survival and Legacy Survival

While we play a variety of "games" in our life, they are all dependent on a single game that we play from conception right up until shortly after our last breath.  It's a game we must inevitably lose – the game of survival.

It is possible to take the idea of survival one step further than our own physical survival and consider the survival of our legacy (what I will term legacy survival, to distinguish it from physical survival).  Note that legacy survival relies on us having sufficient physical survival in the temporal sense – if we die before cementing a legacy, then any potential legacy dies with us.  Legacy survival does not imply that we ourselves have continuing involvement after death, although our descendants or other agents may act on our behalf, but instead it should be understood that the ramifications of our actions in life may continue to be felt for a considerable time after we have retired from the playing arena.

The importance of physical survival is something which we generally feel quite keenly.  We will fight for physical survival in situations in which it seems nonsensical.  People who have lost the ability to move any part of their body other than their eyes will signal that they nevertheless wish to live.  People fight for survival despite horrible pain and scarring after suffering terrible burns.  Those with life will go to extreme lengths to preserve it with some animals even chewing off their own limbs to escape a trap or other entanglement.  Not having such strong jaws, humans will nevertheless also go to similar extremes, such as in the case of Aron Ralston who severed his right arm with a pocket-knife in order to free himself when he found himself pinned by a boulder with little chance of rescue. 

That said, humans and animals will sometimes deliberately put themselves in situations in which they will almost certainly die.  In most cases, it can be shown that these are acts of legacy protection rather than of self-destruction, and when they are acts of self-destruction they are driven by an awareness (or perception) that a temporary extension of survival would bring with it more suffering than is bearable.  Natural examples of where legacy protection concerns supersede those of physical survival include risking death to protect one's young (such as when wild pigs will divert attention from a litter by breaking cover and enticing away a predator), risking death in the act of mating (such as with the mantis, the female of which will often try to eat the dismounting male) and dying to feed progeny (such as with the female Stegodyphuslineatus which is eaten by its young).  In humans, however, legacy protection can be more complex and symbolic.  Ensuring that a child is educated so as to have a better chance of not only survival but wealth and success in adulthood, ensuring that a company thrives and ensuring one's good name is maintained are all examples of efforts to promote legacy survival.

In humans, even symbolic legacy survival, as distinct from survival of one's genetic legacy, can be perceived as more important than physical survival.  This is not to say that physical survival is actually unimportant, merely that in a psychological sense we may consider the conception that we have of ourselves as being more important than our physical embodiment.  Our perception tends to be such that our body is where the phenomenon of being takes place, and therefore while our body is an important part of our being, it is not perceived as being the totality of our being.  And, to the extent that we are social animals, our sense of being is interwoven with our place within a community.

In some cases, we reify our sense of being more than our physical bodies and our conception of self into a soul and then imbue it with immortality.  When we do so, our legacy survival efforts can be expressed as an array of efforts to protect this immortal soul.  While the reality of a soul may be questioned, the psychology of someone who believes in such things will be largely unaffected by the doubts of others and efforts to preserve the good standing of one’s soul generally seem indistinguishable from efforts to maintain one’s good name.

The bottom line is that, quite often, it should come as no surprise that humans will occasionally sacrifice physical survival for legacy survival, whether that be survival of their progeny, their reputations or their souls.


This article is one of a series. It was preceded by Towards a Rational Origin of Ethical Structures and will be followed by Morality as Playing Games. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

Friday, 15 March 2013

A Doctor a Day - A Response

I recently saw an invitation, by someone with the moniker faithwithreason, to read an article by Luke A. Barnes (The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life).  Note that this article is located at, which means it has been “endorsed” by someone but it hasn’t gone through the full peer review process (note Luke's comment below in which he provides a link to a journal article in which the article also appears, indicating that it has since gone through a peer review process).  Victor Stenger, the author of the book that Barnes uses as his “antagonist”, has responded to Barnes’ paper (also located at  Stenger did not however address Barnes’ motivations.  It’s entirely likely that Barnes’ motivations align very closely with faithwithreason’s motivations because, interestingly enough, faithwithreason is also completed a PhD in Astrophysics, “not too long ago”, just like Barnes.  For those not familiar with the difference between astrophysics and astronomy, it is worth noting that astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe – like “the absorption properties of damped Lyman Alpha systems” (Barnes’ refereed articles 1, 2 and 3) or “expanding space” (Barnes’ refereed articles 4, 6 and 7) or “evolving dark energy” (Barnes’ refereed articles 8).

The link to Barnes’ article was provided with the claim that it had no religious bias, a claim which I doubt, given that Barnes has also provided arguments against evolution.  However, even if there is a bias in the Barnes’ intent, the result of that bias is already adequately addressed in his response by Stenger, someone who has many years of experience in particle physics.

Barnes, on the other hand, presents his argument after a much shorter involvement in astrophysics from a position that appears to be largely motivated by a creationist agenda.  If there was, in the field of particle physics, such obvious evidence for the fine-tuning of universe for life (or for intelligent life as Barnes argues) then there would be more physicists who would have noticed it – but figures show that significantly less than 10% of physicists are believers.  Physicists simply don’t see the evidence that Barnes believes to exist and Stenger is one of the very few who have seen it as important enough to even bother devoting time to discussing something that has not been found, as opposed to the more fruitful discussions of what has been found.

I expect to see more efforts in the future from people like Barnes, and faithwithreason, I have no doubt, to argue that some things that we as a species don’t currently fully understand is somehow evidence for their god.  As a consequence you will start to see more serious researchers react against the theistic corruption of their discipline – in the future we might even see a cosmologist become the new Dawkins due to the feeling of outrage that Barnes’ sort of shenanigans engenders in people who have devoted their life to a proper search for understanding.

The problem, however, is that the whole argument is an effort at misdirection.

Fine-Tuning centres on a counterfactual, something that even Barnes admits, although he tries to make light of it.  He starts off saying that “FT can be understood as a counterfactual claim, that is, a claim about what would have been” and then goes on to talk about playing tennis against Roger Federer, which he has never done.

I’m assuming that Barnes means that we should imagine that there has been a game in which he played against Federer and lost, as he would undoubtedly do, and then imagine all the other possible game outcomes that didn’t happen, but which could have.  There are some major issues with the analogy: the rules of tennis are fixed; the implements are predetermined along with the arena; and so on.  The implied choice of game however, being tennis, means that the competition is heavily stacked against Barnes.  If given a clean sheet we would not be limited to tennis, so we could have chosen tiddlywinks or scrabble or any number of games in which the outcome would not have been nearly so predictable.

Instead of using a limited and entirely hypothetical scenario, I suggest that we should use a real, existent scenario, but something that could be equated to the amazing fact that I am here and able to ponder on the amazing fact that I am here and able to ponder on the amazing fact I am are here and able to ponder on the amazing fact that I am here and able to ponder on the amazing fact that I am here ... I think I have made my point, but here is a graphical representation:

In order to create such a scenario, I’m going to use a cat, who we shall call “Tiddles” (the star of The Logic of an Apologist, When an Ontological Argument Simply Isn’t and Fine-Tuning Towards Ignorance).

Tiddles (or a being very similar to Tiddles) lives in my house and this is an amazing fact.  If a single event out of a multitude of events had been slightly different, Tiddles would live in another house, would be dead or would never have existed.  I’ll just take half a dozen:

·         Tiddles’ mother could have been desexed – result = no Tiddles

·         Tiddles’ breed could never have caught on – result = no Tiddles

·         Tiddles could have escaped and been run over – result = dead Tiddles

·         Tiddles could have eaten a poisoned rat – result = dead Tiddles

·         I could have not visited the breeder the day I did – result = no Tiddles in my house

·         I could have decided to get a different type of cat – result = no Tiddles in my house

Now if I had the inclination (and the time), I could develop thousands of variations of my life, and the life of Tiddles, in which we never came to enjoy the relationship we currently enjoy or in which that relationship would have come to a distressing end.

It’s absolutely, gobsmackingly amazing, if one looks at it that way, that Tiddles lives in my house.

However, it’s not really that amazing.  I’ve had other cats and on the sad day that I become Tiddlesless, I shall certainly grieve but not too long afterwards, I will be looking for a replacement.

However, my life with the specific feline called Tiddles is a given.  It’s a fact and no matter how many other counterfactuals I might want to construct in which Tiddles is not a part of my life, they (neither singularly nor in combination) do not lead to a conclusion that some immensely powerful, transcendent, timeless, spaceless, personal Being guided Tiddles to me.

Similarly, once we are in the position to ponder how amazing it is that we are here – we are here.  All the other options that excluded us might have been possible, but if it weren’t possible for us to be here, then we wouldn’t be here to be amazed.  And it doesn’t matter how unlikely it is, because once an event has taken place, the likelihood of that event having taken place is 100%.

So, really, the universe could be “finely tuned” in the sense that if it were different then life could not have arisen and this would provide no proof of Barnes’ god.  In some ways, Stenger is doing the theists a favour, if they were only bright enough to realise it.

The Fine-Tuning “Argument” suggests that god was limited in how he built the universe in order to make life.  This is a rather weak god, one that has to follow imposed laws.  If that is the case, then why don’t we just refer to the laws and leave out the middle man?  If, however, there is a range of options from which god could choose to build a universe, then god is not so constrained.  God could make any sort of universe it wanted with life in it, but chose this one using its enormous powers.

Of course, that leaves the creationist apologists without any proof of god, but that’s what faith is for, isn’t it?

Towards a Rational Origin of Ethical Structures

If an ethical structure has functional benefits for its practitioners, then its onward propagation is more likely than that of a non-functional ethical structure, being one which leads to extinction of those using it.  Within a functional ethical structure, a certain act may be held to be wrong in a moral sense if it is of benefit to the person holding this conception (the ‘moralist’) that others hold the act to be universally wrong.  Additionally, an act is held to be morally wrong if it is of benefit to the moralist that others believe that the moralist also holds the act to be universally wrong.  Primarily, a benefit means an increased probability of survival, but given that survival in abject misery is somewhat less attractive than survival in absolute bliss, a benefit can also refer to an increase of net well-being.

An act is right in a moral sense if it is of benefit to the moralist that others hold the act to be universally right, and it simultaneously benefits the moralist if others believe that the moralist also holds the act to be universally right.

Ethical considerations can work in a similar way with the exception that what is being considered to be wrong is wrong by virtue of a specific situation or relationship, as opposed to being universally wrong.  More often, however, ethical considerations are group considerations. 

An act is right in an ethical sense if it is of benefit to the group to which the "ethicist" belongs that others hold the act to be right in context of that group's activities, and it simultaneously benefits a group if those outside the group believe that members of the group also hold the act to be universally right. 

An example is the ethical stance of a bank manager with regard to honesty.  If clients hold that honesty in bank dealings is right then bank managers can trust clients, and if clients believe that bank managers also hold that honesty in bank dealings is right then clients will trust bank managers.  Since banking is heavily dependent on trust, that monies will be transferred as and when agreed, the ethical position of bank managers has functional benefit.  Furthermore, as a group, bank managers rely on the levels of trust developed by others in the group which is why bankers, and other professional groups, develop and publicise codes of ethics (sometimes referred to as codes of practice).

When developing a universal ethical structure (morality), it is not sufficient to have an internal conception of what is right and wrong.  Morality is only of benefit if it is overt and shared.  Furthermore, it is not sufficient to limit one's list of wrongful acts to only those acts which have greatest import.  By maintaining a register of less important wrongful acts, the commission of which is also ‘immoral’, the members of a society have a mechanism by which they can judge the morality of their fellows by their everyday behaviour, rather than by exception.

If I insist on breaking minor taboos, by being rude and inconsiderate, you are justified in wondering whether I consistently obey other (more important) moral injunctions, such as that against theft.  We tend to trust people who are overtly polite and considerate, sometimes to our disadvantage.  Confidence tricksters operate by gaining our trust by appearing to be entirely moral with respect to everyday community norms and then betraying us when it comes to concepts of possession and ownership.

(Many of us are therefore a little wary of people who appear too polite and considerate.  We know that we ourselves fail to be entirely polite and considerate from time to time, so when observing a person who is being very polite and considerate we are struck with the thought “What does this person really want?”)

We can therefore further say that moral and ethical considerations seem to rest on three fundamental rules:

            Do not intentionally do that which one knows to be considered to be wrong.

            Know what is considered to be wrong.

            Ensure that others know what is wrong.

This is not to say that all moral injunctions are universally relevant.  There are situations in which two moral injunctions compete, as in the prisoners’ dilemma where “do not lie” was in competition with “do not betray your colleagues”. Additionally, moral injunctions are only applicable with those you truly consider your equal in humanity.

Finally, it is not universally necessary to refrain from an act merely because the act is considered morally wrong.  It is more important that you are not observed performing an immoral act by someone who matters, in other words someone capable of ensuring that consequences will flow as a result of your performing that act.  This is why, when you put on a mask and join a mob of football hooligans, you are significantly more likely to smash a shop window than if you were just taking a nice afternoon stroll wearing nothing more than a hat.


This article is one of a series. It was preceded by Supreme Indifference and Inhumanity and will be followed by Physical Survival and Legacy Survival. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.