December 2nd, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

More on My "General Theory of Moral Relativity"

Yesterday I laid out as a hypothesis one of my personal principles, which says that, "The more certain you are that you are right, the more certain I am that you are wrong." Let me expand and clarify those remarks.

No, not all statements are moral statements, and therefore the subject of this theory. The general theory of moral relativity doesn't apply to externally verifiable observed facts. When I say that the acceleration due to gravity of an ordinary object in a vacuum, dropped near the earth's surface, is 9.809 meters per second per second, that's not an opinion. That's an average, to four decimal places, of an observation made so often, without exceptions, that it is an indisputed fact. If you tell me that you are absolutely certain that you didn't die last Friday, you're very probably right. Nor does the general theory of moral relativity apply to matters of definition. When you say that you are absolutely 100% certain that the sky is blue, you're accurately applying a label that the rest of us apply to that range of colors. When you say that you're absolutely 100% sure that water is wet, you're accurately describing what we mean by the word "wet." Nor does it apply to what Robert Anton Wilson calls "game rules," arbitrary statements that are 100% verifiably true by definition, but only to other people who agree to them, like, "Three strikes and you're out," or "When speaking ex-cathedra, the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and doctrine." When you say that when bowling, knocking down all 10 pins with a single shot, three times in a row, is scored as 30 in the frame of the first strike, you're 100% accurately and reliably describing the agreed-upon rules of bowling, and I'm not disputing that.

The general theory of moral relativity is a statistical, predictive hypothesis. Is it theoretically possible for someone who is 100% sure that they did the right thing to be right, for them to have, in fact, done the right thing? Yes, I concede that it is theoretically possible. However, it is unlikely to the point of vanishing probability, for reasons that I'll get to in a minute.

If you are 100% sure that you did the wrong thing, then you probably did, in fact, do the wrong thing. If you're on the fence, if you're not exactly sure that you did the right thing, then I'd guess that statistically, you're more than 50% likely to have done the right thing. If you're pretty sure, say 70% or 80% sure, that you did the right thing, then you almost certainly did the right thing. If you're almost completely sure that you did the right thing, though, the odds haven't gone up any. If you're 99% sure that you did the right thing, I'd say you're less likely to find out that you did the right thing than if you were a little less certain. And if you're 100% absolutely certain that you did the right thing, the odds that you were right are nearly zero.

Why, beyond a certain point, does being more certain make you more likely to be wrong? Certainty about moral and ethical decisions is unnatural for human beings. To be 100% certain that a past decision was the right one, you have to be 100% certain that you know the contra-factual. That is to say that you must be 100% certain that you know what would have happened if you had made each of the possible alternative choices. It is impossible to test the contra-factual, and most people understand, on at least an instinctive basis, that it's impossible to go back, do it over differently, and see how it would have turned out.

This is why any reasonably morally responsible human being constantly revisits past decisions and asks if, knowing what I know now, that is to say, knowing how that past decision turned out, how confident am I that I should (or should not) make that same decision if a very similar circumstance were to arise again? And that is why the odds that you are right, as you approach 100% confidence, are asymptotic to zero. If you are the kind of person who is capable of being anywhere near 100% certain that you are are right, then you are probably equally certain that some of your past moral and ethical decisions were right. Which means that you have no motivation, and almost certainly no inclination, to revisit them. In which case if you were wrong the last time, you'll never know it. This all but guarantees that when confronted by a similar circumstance, you will make the same bad choice again.

And that is why I say that even if, in the past, you were 100% certain that you were right and it did, in fact, turn out historically that that time you were right, the odds are vanishingly small that any of your future decisions will also be right. Yes, you were right that time. But are you right this time? Are the circumstances the same? Does the moral or ethical principle that you used to make that decision apply equally well to this one? How certain can you be that you that you really know all the facts that related to your past decision that turned out to be right? How reliable are your perceptions of what the facts in the case of this decision? All it would be take for you to get it wrong this time would be for you to have reasoned "correctly" from incorrect data last time, and to be right about the data this time. By applying the same reasoning to a different set of facts, you're going to come to the same conclusion and be wrong.

"Man, you really hate Dubya, don't you?" This is not about political parties. This is not about factions within political parties. This is only about individuals to the extent to which the shoe fits. Yes, in fact, one of the reasons why I assume that President Bush will be consistently wrong in his moral and ethical choices is that he is morally and ethically incurious, that he is so profoundly disinclined to revisit past decisions, that he is so absolutely damned (and this time, I use the word "damned" in one its technical senses, meaning "under an inescapable doom," and not just as an expletive) smug. But it is just as easy to find equally smug, equally self-satisfied, equally self-congratulatory, and equally damned people in all political parties. For example, both Senator Clinton of the Democrats and Mr. Nader of the Greens both come to mind as people who have almost certainly never doubted themselves, and I despise them both just as roundly for it.

A Closing Thought: "Doubt. Doubt everything. Doubt that you doubt everything." Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies, 1913.