Friday, 5 April 2013

An Ethical Structure

As I have previously argued, the function of an ethical structure is to promote survival.

If this argument is valid, given that we are social animals, then the concepts of right and wrong which emerge from an ethical structure should align with what is best for our survival within a community (in either the physical or legacy sense).  Apparent deviations from what is right will be punished as a protective measure by that community and following the dictates of the ethical structure is rewarded by continued survival.

There will be some variability in ethical structures due to the fact that we don't all live in a single homogenous, static community.  There will be geographical variations, across continents, within nations and even across socio-economic groups within cities and towns as well as variations through time as cultures evolve.  A common feature, however, will be the fact that ethical adaptation will be driven by that which promotes survival.  In other words, what we are encouraged to think of as right and wrong will correlate with the rules and behaviour that ensure that we, as communities, do not lose the survival game.

Despite being social animals living in communities, each individual must make his or her own decisions and therefore these rules and behaviours must be, primarily, conducive to individual survival.  A very simplified ethical system, therefore, could be represented thus:

The term “Destroy” is used to indicate that what is at stake is more than merely physical survival (which could be expressed with the more intuitive “Do Not Kill Me”).

An ethical structure that consists of only one injunction, that being not to destroy the owner of the ethical structure is not going to be particularly useful.  Remember, however, that this structure works within a community – each member of which, one could assume, holds the same injunction to be primary.  The injunction serves as the basis of an agreement with other members of the community: “I’ll act in line with your injunction with the understanding that you will act in line with mine”.

But a problem still remains.  If someone is likely to break the implied covenant and destroy you, you may not be aware of the danger until you have a knife in your back – when it is far too late to protect yourself.

Community acts as a layer of defence against this.  Initially communities were defined by common heritage and therefore a shared legacy to maintain.  As communities increase in size, however, this effect is diluted – in part due to more distant genetic links and in part due to a diminished share in the shared legacy.

Another layer of defence is provided by numbers, rather than community per se.  Once we gather in herd like numbers, we can take advantage of the safety that comes in numbers.  In other words, we can use the fact that we are two hundred times less likely to be killed by a predator (or covenant breaker) if we are one in a thousand than if we are one in five.  Additionally, when we observe a fellow human breaking the implied covenant not to kill another, we get a vital warning to be on our guard and perhaps even act pre-emptively to eliminate the threat in collaboration with others in the community.

Like all animals, we are extremely sensitive to such threats.  Unlike most, however, we can extrapolate.  This means that we can observe the behaviour of animals (human or otherwise) and assess whether that behaviour increases the risk that we might be attacked and killed.  For this reason, it is not rational to restrict our concern to relatives and those in our immediate community.  A person who kills indiscriminately will be equally likely to kill anything.  A person who kills companion animals (as opposed to animals we eat) is more likely to kill a human.  A person who kills people in your tribe, age, social or heritage grouping and so on is more likely to kill you.

And a person who deliberately harms you is more likely to kill you, not only because the damage might be extreme, but also because if the inhibition against harming you is missing, there is a greater likelihood that the inhibition against killing you is also missing.  Therefore, we can build on the ethical structure:

Note that the meaning of “Me” can be interpreted widely to incorporate “people like me”, “people in my community”, “animals similar to me” and even “things”.  If you like, you can imagine another dimension extending into the screen, with the things that are least like you at the furthest remove and the screen image representing that which is most like you.  A three dimensional pyramid would thus be formed which, if viewed from above, might look something like this:

A potential threat who expends all his anger on kicking rocks is not going to be much of a concern.  Someone who has harmed your pets is a concern, but not as much of a concern as a person who has killed them.

Note also that, like the concept of survival, the concept of “damage” can be extended beyond the physical to include legacy considerations.  We don’t want our children killed or our good name destroyed and similarly we don’t want our children hurt or our good name damaged.  Similarly, the notion of similarity is flexible, particularly when one is considering legacy issues – so an attack on a stamp collector might be construed as representing a potential threat to you as a collector of paper doilies.

The representation of the ethical structure is such that you can imagine the “Do Not Damage Me” element being removed, corresponding to a contravention of that injunction such that the pyramid topples (returning to the more simple two dimensions):

The concept being illustrated is that when someone harms you (or things like you), the risk that you might be destroyed is higher – as high, in fact, as if there were no injunction against damaging you.  The “to the extent that it might destroy me” element is indicative of the fact that being damaged can lead to destruction, even though this destruction may be unintentional.

We should not focus exclusively on how we assess the risk of others to ourselves, but rather consider also how others might assess the risk that we pose to them.  This layer of the ethical structure provides us with a mechanism by which we can demonstrate that we are not a risk – by making it clear that we consistently do our best to prevent damaging others.  The same applies to not destroying others, of course, but as that is the last line of defence, one obtains more benefit from an ostentatious show of harm minimisation.

Interestingly, there is no explicit commandment to do no harm in the Abrahamic religions, but a generous reinterpretation of the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself could have it including an exhortation to do no more harm to your neighbour than you would to yourself.  Doing no harm is an explicit feature of Buddhism, being an aspect of Right Action.  Minimising suffering is a centrepiece of secular forms of morality championed by people such as Sam Harris.


Now that we have introduced a second layer to the ethical structure, it should be clear that more layers may conceivably be added, establishing an Ethical Hierarchy with each layer or level of the hierarchy giving us another opportunity to be seen to act to in accordance with the implied covenant with our fellows.  I don’t want to labour the point, so I will just provide a brief justification for each additional layer.

The more commonly stated moral injunction is against stealing but I use the more neutral term “take”.  Stealing is more than just taking something that is not yours.  It presupposes that that which you take rightfully belongs to someone else.  That which is given freely cannot be stolen and equally that over which no one has a rightful claim cannot be stolen.

For example, there is a range of morning papers in some cities, including some which are distributed free of charge.  When you come across a pile of these free papers, they do not yet belong to anyone.  If you take a copy and tuck it under your arm then by your actions you have claimed ownership and indicated that that particular copy yours – while you did not pay for it, you did not steal it.  However, if someone were to yank the paper out from under your arm and run away with it you could then accuse that person of stealing what had become your newspaper.

If on the other hand, you left the paper on the seat next to you on the train and someone picked it up as soon as you left, then that act could not be justifiably considered theft, because by leaving the paper behind you gave an indication that you had revoked any claim to it.

If we are talking about a disposable item like a freely distributed newspaper, the moral issue is trivial.  Someone taking a paper which you did not invest any significant effort in securing is little more than an annoyance.  However, not all of our belongings are so simple to secure and we hold a much stronger and binding claim to ownership over certain things.  For the most part, we all have belongings which we are not capable of watching all day every day.  It serves us well if other people have a good understanding of, and respect for, ownership of property.  It is unreasonable to expect that other people will be willing to respect my claims for ownership if I fail to respect their claims for ownership.  Therefore it benefits me to act morally with respect to other people’s belongings and not steal them.  I can then take a moral position that stealing is wrong in the hope that others will respond in kind.

We want others not to take our things in general, but even more importantly, we want to hang on to those belongings which are essential to our survival and well-being. For this reason “Do Not Take from Me” is the third layer of the Ethical Hierarchy, with elements corresponding with each of the two upper layers.

While the traditional Biblical injunction “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” can be construed to refer to lying in general, "bearing false witness against one's neighbour" could well have been intended more literally since giving false evidence in a trial was looked upon quite unfavourably by the supposed recipients of the commandments. 

While lying is generally considered morally wrong, it is perhaps the most commonly transgressed injunction.  We lie frequently with experts putting the figure at up to one hundred times a day.  Not only that, we expect to be lied to.  We rarely seem to mind that we are lied to so frequently and in some instances we welcome it, given that entertainment is often geared around that special form of untruth that we call fiction.

However – when it comes to something that truly matters – we take lying very seriously indeed.  Bearing false witness in the literal sense matters because it has an implication of telling a lie to either protect someone who has done wrong or providing false evidence against someone who has not.

Such an injunction benefits us, as long as we do no wrong ourselves.  It also provides us some protection against those who would wish us ill, because a witness would ostensibly be compelled to report faithfully any wrongful act committed against us.  More importantly, this moral injunction applies to a person who commits a wrongful act as well, that person has a moral injunction to tell the truth about their wrongful act.

The injunction is also important in a general sense.  To be able to rely on people not stealing from me and not trying to kill me, I need to be able to trust them.  In order to be able to trust them, I need to be able to believe what they say.  Equally, for them to be able to trust me, they need to be able to believe what I say.  For this reason it is important that I establish the notion that I consider lying to be inherently wrong, even if I might not always tell the truth, I must be able to justify my lies and prove that they were inconsequential.  For mutual trust to be established a moral injunction against lying is required.

Again, our concern is more about being lied to ourselves than about us lying to others.  We tend to realise that in some instances it truly is better to lie than to tell the truth.  Despite this, when someone’s lies to us are brought to our attention, we can become considerably incensed at the betrayal of trust it implies.  Therefore “Do Not Lie to Me” constitutes the fourth level of the Ethical Hierarchy.

Once we have assembled into some form of community, fairness becomes very important especially in interactions involving shared resources and labour.  In order to trust someone and to believe them, there has to be some fundamental concept of equality, give and take, wherein for instance I believe you are willing to commit to responding to me in kind.  Why should I commit to respecting your belongings if I believe you are not willing to respect mine?

The concept of fairness underpins all higher moral injunctions.  Without fairness, there can be no trust.  Without fairness, there is no imperative to not take the belongings of others, because without fairness, there is no reason for others to not take your belongings just because you did not take theirs.  Without fairness, you cannot be sure that another person will respond to your peaceful overtures peacefully so to be safe you would be better off acting violently first and securing a victory over a potential aggressor.

Interestingly, fairness is a concept learned very early by humans and one that is exhibited by other social animals.  Experiments have shown that primates punish others for their lapses and are demotivated by unfair distributions of treats.

Consistent with the other layers, our concern with fairness is primarily about others being fair with us, rather than us being fair with them – although our showing a commitment to being fair illustrates to our fellows that we are trustworthy and not, therefore, a risk.  Therefore “Do Not Cheat Me” constitutes the fifth level of the Ethical Hierarchy.  Again, this layer has elements corresponding with the four higher layers.

There may be a question at this point as to whether “Do Not Cheat Me” should not appear above the “Do Not Lie to Me” layer.  Lying is a form of cheating in that the liar presents something that is not true as if it were.  Considering a conversation as an exchange of information, a lie is false and therefore useless information and if I provide you with false information in exchange for correct information, then I am being unfair – I am cheating you.  There are, however, other ways I could cheat you, or be unfair, without lying at all.  I could be quite open about the fact that I might pay you lower than standard wages if I considered you to have the wrong gender, or the wrong eye colour, or if you supported the wrong football team, irrespective of the quality of your work.  Or if I were big enough, I might openly take the lion’s share of any reward for labour that we contributed to equally, without having to resort to any subterfuge at all.

Therefore, when one treats “Do Not Cheat Me” as synonymous with “Act Fairly in Respect to Me” the relevant layer could absorb “Do Not Lie to Me” layer, but not sit above it.

In Saving the Dog, I discussed a hypothetical set of rules the last of which was “All of these rules must be obeyed at all times”.  As I said in that article, the problem with such a rule is that you are only obliged to obey it if there is an inherent (and absolute) obligation to obey rules in general, in which case any “Obey the rules” rule is redundant.

The injunction “Do Not Break My Rules”, however, is not a dictate imposed on other people unilaterally.  It’s one half of an implied covenant, “If you do not break my rules, then I will not break your rules”.  Additionally, these rules are generally communal – so “Do Not Break My Rules” can be read as “Do Not Break Our Commonly Held Rules and Any Unique Rules which I Express as Being of Particular Importance to Me”.   In other words, a community will establish common rules, but each individual may establish special rules commensurate with the status of that individual. 

For example, whistling is generally considered acceptable, but in the house of a friend of mine, I know that there is a specific rule against whistling.

Like any other rule in the other layers, the infinite variety of rules that may exist in this layer can be used to assess the potential risk of someone attempting to contravene a higher level rule.  If I ignore the whistling rule in my friend’s house, he will be justified in thinking that I hold him in low regard.  If I hold him in low regard, he could reason, my inhibitions against cheating him or lying to him would be weakened.  Furthermore, my whistling could be seen as an attack on him – an attempt to force him to change his rules in his own house.

The same sort of logic can be used to assess the behaviour of strangers.  In any large community, we regularly come across people who we do not know well.  While regular interactions allow us to gauge how far we can trust certain people, to what extent they will be fair, to what extent we can expect them to tell the truth, how inclined they are to violence.  For a person we do not know well we need a method by which we can assess how well they obey the moral injunctions against cheating, lying, taking, harming and killing.

We need to know to what extent this person conforms with our ethical structure.  We can make an assessment of overall conformance based on their overt conformance with minor rules.  “Do Not Break My Rules” therefore relates to all the rules, regulations, conventions, habits, laws, routines, practices and norms we have in any society (while noting rationally that we don’t generally expect strangers to understand our unique rules).  We can judge a person from little things like their hygiene, their choice in clothes, their use of language and even their physical appearance.  If a person demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to follow convention in their clothes and speak with civility in situations where everyone is expected to know that one should not swear, what basis do we have to believe that this person will follow other more important rules and conventions?

On the other hand, when we see a person who clearly understands and follows the rules of our society, we have a basis for assuming that this person understands and also follows the more important rules.


The Ethical Hierarchy can be likened to a form of layered physical security.  For example, valuable items may be surrounded by a range of protective measures – a remote location, high razor-wire fences, a patrolled open space behind the fence, solid walls and doors, a vault arrangement and alarms associated with each measure.  With physical security, our confidence in the safety of our valuable item is highest when none of the protective measures have been breached, and no alarms are ringing.

The same applies when applying ethical hierarchy: if I am surrounded by people who obey each of the injunctions, then I can be confident that I am safe.

However, if a protection measure is breached, or an injunction is breached, a figurative alarm goes off and my confidence is reduced as a consequence.  The extent to which my confidence is reduced is commensurate with the nature of the protective measure, or injunction, breached – I might just shun a person who can’t follow the rules but prepare to fight someone who demonstrates a tendency towards violence.


The question now is, is this Ethical Hierarchy a useful model of our morality?

The primary benefit of the model is an understanding as to why, although almost all moralities share common elements (injunctions against violence, stealing, lying and cheating), they may appear so different.  The differences tend to reside in the lowest layer, in a set of rules which are often arbitrary.  There are also differences in legacy considerations, matters of prioritisation which may also be arbitrary.

Another benefit is an understanding of why obeying apparently arbitrary, and in some cases completely stupid, rules may make good sense.  Being overtly moral, by obeying these odd rules, conveys a benefit.  If our survival in a community depends on our ability to convince others that we are not a threat to their survival then our shared ethical structures are the mechanisms by which we do so – by conforming.

Finally, it should be noted that the minor rules are not fixed in stone.  The important thing is that the rules are communal, commonly held and commonly understood.  They can be based on a myth that a god wrote rules on rocks, or they can be based on the product of rational discourse.

It is at this point that my view of the world converges with that of people like Sam Harris.  I don’t agree that the minimisation of harm is an absolute basis for morality, but rather I contend that the minimisation of harm serves as an excellent basis for developing the set of rules which could underpin a rational morality.


Before leaving this series, one more issue needs to be addressed – the one which most plagues ethical theories.

Why does morality break down?  We shall look at that in the concluding article.
This article is one of a series. It was preceded by Morality as Playing Games and will be finalised by When Morality Breaks Down. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

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