Why am I writing this article?
Based on my personal experiences and my study of Earth’s history, human conflict usually involves the twin bad habits of claiming possession of absolute morality and absolute truth.
These lofty concepts serve as poor substitutes for defining what we want and what we are willing to risk. As a result, other people don’t understand us, they feel threatened, we fail to negotiate effectively, and we may even lose sight of what we ourselves want. Everyone will be too busy fighting all the wrong battles to get anything done.
In my decade-long project to address the situation and help humanity move forward, I developed a three-step collaborative problem-solving process and a vocabulary of concepts to help use it effectively by simply describing what we want, what obstacles stand in our way, and what we are inclined to do about those obstacles.
Future articles will walk through how I apply the three-step process, aided by the concepts in the Foundational Toolbox for Life.
This article explores why the bad habits of claiming absolute morality and absolute truth is destructive, and the philosophical basis for recognizing more constructive approaches.
I subscribe to the philosophy of existentialism, which can be summed up thusly: “A thing is as the thing does.” Existentialists describe all things functionally—by the effects that we experience from them—rather than saying that things have any inherent nature or “essence” which might be good or bad, true or false.
There’s an old quote that illustrates my point: “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Duck is as duck does. It may turn out to be different from a duck as we normally think of ducks, but we won’t know or care about that unless it starts doing things we don’t expect a duck to do, like emitting smoke and electrical sparks.
Existentialists don’t care whether something is “truly” a duck so much as we care what it does or what it allows us to do. If we care about ducks swimming around and flying instead of shorting out and exploding, then we can update our definition of what counts as a duck so that we’re talking about what really matters to us. If you want to talk about duck-shaped things you can eat, you probably don’t want to use the word “duck” to mean things that short out and explode.
It might sound silly when we talk about obvious things like exploding ducks, but existentialism comes in very handy when we talk about invisible, intangible things like morality and truth, as we see below.
Some of the effects we care about are more abstract than others, and more difficult to notice. If air pollution makes it difficult for us to breathe, the effects might be subtle and vary from day to day, but they are still there. When we experience them either directly or through measuring devices, that’s how we know something’s happening and how we can put a name to it. Ultimately, if any given thing matters, it’s because it actually affects us in ways that we can experience somehow, in some situation now or in the future.
Now that everyone is in the right frame of mind to think about existentialism (i.e. confusion and mild amusement) let’s see how it helps us approach our values and beliefs.
Existential Ethics: What should we do?
Having seen the basics of existentialism, let’s take apart the bad habit of claiming absolute morality.
Once we believe we know the “right” thing to do, there is no room for understanding or respectful disagreement, let alone compromise or—perish the thought—changing our minds. Everyone who disagrees is evil and therefore merits punishment, or at least deserves no comfort. Unfortunately, many people feel this way about mutually exclusive “right things” despite the impossibility that more than one of them is right (and the overwhelming likelihood that they are all somewhat silly).
The real tragedy is that all of these people think it’s possible to prove what other people “should” do without even knowing what everyone wants. There is no such proof—only choice and consequence.
However, just because moral certitudes don’t exist doesn’t mean we can’t judge people’s choices as constructive or destructive. With that in mind, I’d like to replace this toxic certainty of “the right thing to do” with ethics, the constructive virtue that deals with conflict.
People want things, but physical reality limits our ability to provide everyone with everything they want. We have options for what we do in response to those limitations. The most constructive options are the ones that help us maintain society and allow us all to get more of what we want over time. There are certain principles which help us make the most constructive choices, so we can build a world that we can all be proud of.
For example, let’s take the classic question of whether it’s ethically permissible for an impoverished person to break the law by stealing bread to feed their starving family.
You could argue that it’s destructive to let people steal without interference. However, you could also argue that it’s destructive to let people starve. Either way, you’d be right. We don’t want to incentivize theft by permitting people to steal, but we also don’t want people to starve. Neither of these outcomes is desirable.
Luckily, these approaches to the situation aren’t the only ones. There are many other options for enforcing laws against theft while ensuring people don’t starve, such as loaning people money until they can find a job to pay it back, maintaining social safety nets like unemployment insurance, universal basic income which supplies a minimum amount of money each month to live on while people figure out how to earn more, and/or vocational programs that set people up with the skills to earn a living doing something useful.
I’m not here to promote any particular options (at the moment), but I am here to say that constructive ethics means seeking to make the situation better. If we’re arguing over how to handle a conflict without looking towards building a future where similar conflicts are easier to solve or simply don’t happen in the first place, then we’re wasting our time.
As I said before, when we abide by ethical principles, the choices we make are not only sustainable in the long term, but often even get more and more of us more and more of what we want. That’s what makes ethics a constructive virtue. The choice isn’t “right or wrong” so much as it’s figuring out which options and principles are most constructive towards our values in the short and long terms, by their effects and by the precedents they set. We choose what world we want to build and we take responsibility for all the effects of our choices.
(If you want to raise the point that sometimes people want things that are bad for them or are otherwise somehow unhealthy or immoral, that’s a valid concern. It’s covered by the liability of stagnation, the remedy for which is transcendence. We can get to that in another article. In this article we’re just focusing on the liability of conflict and its remedy of ethics. Except now we’re done with that and moving on to epistemology.)
Existential Epistemology: What do we think we know, and why?
Introduction to Epistemology
Having addressed the bad habit of claiming absolute morality, let’s look at the bad habit of claiming absolute truth.
When we look at ideological conflicts in Earth’s present, we see that opposing groups of people, those who push for society to make different risk tradeoffs in the face of the same evidence, frequently accuse their rivals of denying “the truth.” “The truth” goes by many other names, including “the facts,” “the data,” and “the science.”
In their attempts to “win” their conflicts, people start throwing around evidence filtered through their own confirmation bias, instead of seeking ways to address the risks which are what each side actually cares about.
Objective scientific facts are a myth, but that’s not the same thing as saying that all statements are equally true. The process (and mindset) of science is about saying, “We did this experiment and this was the result. Here’s the simplest hypothesis that’s consistent with this result, and here are some other hypotheses which we think are also fairly likely.”
That’s the extent of the “facts.” The hypotheses themselves aren’t “facts”–they’re collections of predictions. For example, you can’t have a fact that says, “This plant is safe to eat, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.” That’s not how “truth” works.
What you can state as fact is, “The experiments I ran on this plant are consistent with the hypothesis that it is edible for humans.” You can then make a prediction that if a human eats the plant, they will not die from it.
Every prediction comes with risks if people count on it being right and it turns out to be wrong, or vice versa. To continue our example, the existence of allergies means that even our plant edibility prediction cannot be 100% certain for every human.
People can choose which hypotheses to subscribe to based on the certain costs they’re willing to pay to abide by their predictions and the uncertain risks (and associated consequences) they are willing to accept if they’re wrong. I can choose to eat a meal containing this hypothetical plant because I don’t think it’s worth me worrying about the possibility of an allergic reaction.
(I wish it went without saying that even when you have “facts” about what is, that alone doesn’t prove what you “ought” to do. What you “ought” to do about what “is” depends on what you want. When multiple people want different things, see the Existentialist Ethics section above.)
However, the human brain usually translates the choice to subscribe to a hypothesis into the belief that the hypothesis chosen is “scientific fact” or “truth.”
People often believe a statement is true not just because we think it’s likely, but also because it’s expensive or unpopular to believe it’s false, or because it’s pleasant to believe it’s true, or because we don’t stand to lose much if we’re wrong. Do I believe a plant is safe for human consumption because everyone eating it seems to be healthy, or because all my friends eat it, or because it’s tasty, or because I feel confident in my health?
Likewise, people often believe a statement is “false” not just because we think it’s unlikely, but also because it’s socially unpopular to believe it’s true, because it’s pleasant to believe it’s false, or because we will be greatly harmed if we rely on its predictions and they turn out to be wrong. Do I believe a plant is unhealthy to eat because people I respect say it is, or because my body reacts badly to it, or because I’m very careful about my health?
There’s limited processing power in a human brain, so it’s arguably normal and healthy to abbreviate these costs and risks as “facts” so we have more mental space free to get on with our daily lives.
What’s not healthy is when someone else has abbreviated different risks into different “facts” and we call them fools instead of taking a step back and acknowledging our different situations that lead us to make different choices based on the same evidence. Just because I’m willing to eat the plant doesn’t mean I’m entitled to expect everyone else to make the same choice.
Different people are willing to pay different costs and take different risks. Sometimes that’s just due to variations in personality, but sometimes those costs and risks are measurably different depending on each person’s situation and what they want.
Either way, that doesn’t mean that a hypothesis is “fact” for one person and not for another. I could prepare for multiple mutually exclusive predictions being both true and false, but that doesn’t mean I believe any of them to be “facts” or “fake.” Every hypothesis is still just a collection of predictions with some measured probability of being accurate or not in different situations.
Often people will introduce “facts” into an argument that are worse than inaccurate: they’re irrelevant. They make predictions that nobody cares about, because the person rattling off the “facts” doesn’t understand what the person they’re talking to does care about.
Remember the mantra of existentialism: “A thing is as the thing does.” That phrase applies to everything. Facts are as facts do. Whether we treat a statement as “fact” or not depends on how well it helps us get what we want, through making accurate predictions about the world. If it doesn’t help us get what we want, it’s called “trivia”—mildly interesting, perhaps, but we won’t get much mileage out of it.
Sometimes a collection of facts might be helpful in one context but not in another. Newtonian physics is “true” for most people’s daily lives and is much easier to learn and apply than Einstein’s general relativity, but it doesn’t accurately predict what happens when things get very fast, very massive, or very far away. General relativity may be mere trivia when you’re driving a car, but we need it whenever we make or do something that goes beyond the context in which Newtonian physics is good enough.
Alternatively, your fact about a tomato being a fruit might come in handy for you as a botanist, but it might be slightly less useful to your cousin who is a cook.
The important epistemology skill we need to practice is figuring out how far our facts can take us before we want to pause, take a step back, and reevaluate the evidence available and the risks we choose to take—and ask others to take—based on it.
Here’s an example of how I would expect people to handle disagreements about facts in a healthy manner:
I had a conversation with someone about the existence of ghosts. At the end of the conversation, I acknowledged her experiences with the feelings and movements of objects within a house which led her to believe a ghost inhabited that house. (The ghost hypothesis was supplemented with the evidence that after burning sage, the movements and feelings disappeared, which is consistent with how many ghost hypotheses predict that ghosts can be placated or removed from a house.)
I felt that this evidence in favor of the ghost hypothesis was contradicted by the lack of evidence of all the things I would expect to see if the ghost hypothesis was correct. However, my conclusion that ghosts don’t exist is only a provisional one. I will go about my life as if ghosts don’t exist until such time as I embark on a project that relies on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts, at which point I guess I’ll find out one way or the other.
Many people all over the world go about their lives as though ghosts do exist, and if that knowledge helps them effectively handle situations they ascribe to ghosts, then at the moment I have no vested interest in attempting to convince them otherwise, and I have no ethical justification to demand they stop trying to solve their own problems in a way that works for them and doesn’t harm anyone else. If our disagreement becomes a problem in the future, we can hash it out then, using the conflict resolution skills I’ve been writing about. That’s the short version of my existentialist take on ghosts.
If we want to move forward as a society, we need to stop arguing about “the right thing to do” and “the truth” and start discussing what we want, the risks we are and aren’t willing to accept, and how constructive the different options are. Until we do, our civilization will remain dysfunctional.
For this reason, I will start posting articles showing how I approach applying these existential principles (and the constructive concepts and methods from my other articles) to the various conflicts that plague human society today.
In the long term, to help build a world we can all be proud of, I aim to furnish society with the vocabularies we need to define and communicate constructive visions for the future. Those are the first steps towards making our visions a reality. At the moment I’m in the process of putting together a business model so that I can do this work full time. The more people I can empower with Visionary Vocabularies, the more we can all accomplish.
If you still have questions about these existential takes on ethics and epistemology or are still not sure why they are important, I invite you to share your questions or concerns in the comments below.
If you already stand for these principles but appreciate how I explain them here, please comment below to let me know how helpful you found this article and anything that I can do to improve future articles.
For that matter, if you already stand for these principles, please leave a comment just to let me and the handful of your fellow readers know that there’s more of us out there.