Morality in its most fundamental form

I’m curious if the concept of right and wrong can be distilled down to a simple rule, or a few simple rules. Something like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, although obviously that cliche fails in a number of ways – for instance, just because you want to die doesn’t mean it’s right for you to kill others. I’ve also heard “treat others the way they want to be treated,” but that fails as well – e.g., just because someone might want you to have sex with them doesn’t mean you are morally obligated to do so.

I realize that ethics is a highly complex subject, and that the task of breaking right and wrong down into a simple set of rules may well be impossible, but I’d like to see how well we can do. Ideally, I’d like a basic rule or list of rules that, if one followed them, would result in one being at least a pretty decent person.

Note: something like “do what the Bible tells you to” isn’t what I’m looking for, because the Bible is a lengthy document that’s highly subject to interpretation. I’m looking for something that’s concise and relatively straightforward. “Obey the Ten Commandments, which are as follows . . . .” would work, but only if you really think that most ethical decisions can be made solely on the basis of the Ten Commandments.

As a physicalist, I also seek to distil highly complex phenomena down to some core principles. The problem with morality (or at least, my take on it) is that I cannot reduce it to a single rule or axiom: I have to start with a fairly simple rule and add one ot two axioms rather ad hoc in order to yield my take on morality. (As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”).

My general rule is that of negative utilitarianism (NU): that suffering ought to be minimised, according to a medical/neurophysiological metric as far as possible.

However, this alone is not sufficient. We must add an extra axiom or two to prevent those undesirable logical consequences it leaves unaddressed. The first is that sentience is precious: to simply kill off humanity (or indeed complex life) just to satisfy the letter of NU would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There are others which I add in specific cases. Who says that a morality has to be as elegantly comprehensive as a physical law, anyway?

If I would have everyone else give me their money, giving them all my money wouldn’t be very productive. The Bible offers guidance about how to treat my slaves; does that mean slavery is cool?

Maybe it was Calvin Trillin’s father who said, “You might as well be a mensch.” That sounds pretty solid to me.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Sure, there’s special cases, but it works as a general rule most of the time.

If you would wish others be generous to you, be generous to them. If not in money, then in effort and time.

Don’t force your will upon another.



It sounds like you’re looking for what Kant called a “moral imperative” — something that will, if applied in every instance, produce a right morality. And for that purpose, I like the moral imperative that Jesus gave to His disciples: “Be perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

And Don’t be a Dick Shalt be the Whole of the Law

I was just reading that we are “Doomed to Perfection”.


I was going to post “Do not coerce”.

Yours parses better.

Actually the version before Christ, by Hillel and likely others before him, was the do not version, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and study it.”

Comes as close to covering as you can get in one aphorism.

I agree, for these reasons:
[li]It’s a prohibition. Resisting action makes sense; we too much act before we think.[/li][li]It solves the problem of doing something you like that others may not like. After all, it’s not giving you permission to do anything you want.[/li][li]It makes you think about the commonality between yourself and others[/li][li]It forces the responsibility onto you; you have to control your own acts.[/li][/ol]

Also, you have to take the entire quote. “All the rest is commentary, go and learn it” (that’s the quote as I was taught it):

“All the rest is commentary”: It explains, but doesn’t say anything fundamentally different.
“Go and learn it.”: But even though it is commentary, you have the responsibility to know it. A moral imperative exists, and you should spend your life learning how to use it.

The whole idea has to be put into context. It came about because a man went to two rabbis with the same demand: “Rabbi, teach me all of Torah standing on one leg.” Nothing much is said about this man, but perhaps he was mocking the rabbis and their learning, or mocking Torah and its seemingly endless set of rules and ideas.

Rabbi Ishmael took one approach: he threw the man out of his house. Good idea, perhaps, to reject the idea that the complexity of human life and learning is to be approached in such a simplistic way! Rabbi Ishmael thought that the man wasn’t worth bothering with.

Rabbi Hillel turned the situation into an opportunity. His response says: Hey, it’s very simple, really. You want one answer, here it is. But, if you are not just kidding, and you really want to know it all, then go and study it yourself.

In Talmud, Hillel usually wins. ;j

This one is subject to a huge amount of personal interpretation too, but it serves: “Act in that manner which will in your best considered opinion lead to the long term happiness of not only yourself but as many others as possible.”

That’s a good one as well.

In its simplest form, mine is “Happiness is good.” This gets all sorts of addenda about everyone’s happiness being equally valuable, happiness for a long time is better than happiness for a short time, etc. But that’s the idea.

My quick and easy rules to being a good/moral person.

First and simplest, is I’ve heard quite a few people who proclaim “why should I show them respect when they don’t show me respect first”. Thats just a short road to being an ass. My rule, is give respect until its unearned.

Second, not all too tough, give a hand when you can. I’m not talking about dropping a quarter in the salvation army pot, but when someone you know needs a bit of help, offer a hand. A quick brake job (you buy the parts and beer) or lending my truck.

Third, don’t belittle, also try not to be arrogant. If I don’t agree with someone, instead of blasting them, I actually listen to them and then may or maynot blast them based on their arrogance/ignorance.

Fourth and most important, don’t F*** anybody over, borrow something return it(money especially). Don’t try to make people look bad, so that you look good, no matter how much of a mindless retard they are, you’ll just look like an ass trying to make an ass look like an ass, the ass will make themselves look like an ass all by themselves with absolutely no help.

This rule falls completely apart once somebody F***s you over, then its open game.

My quick and simple rules to morality, they have served me well for quite some time, of course they get more complex, but thats the jist of it.

Wouldn’t the SDMB’s “Don’t be a jerk” work?

I came up w/ this many years back. The fact that you have life comes w/ two responsibilities: To continue to grow, in mind and body, and to give something back to the world in general.That, along w/ not doing anything that may cause physical or financial harm, are thoughts that often pass through my mind.
I’m not at all religeous and the ten commandments are more about obeying God than they are about secular morality, so I reject the idea that promoting religion also promotes a humanistic morality, which seems to be the extreme conservative position.
This is not something I preach, or even mention to others very often. This may be the first time I’ve ever actually written it down. It’s simply something I use for myself.

I, too, am a physicalist (currently), so I don’t accept morality in an absolute sense. However, I do have a code of ethics that I live by (though, since I do not believe in morality, I am incapable of judging its correctness) that produces results I agree with in most cases. My ethical imperative can be shortened roughly to “Do onto others that which both you and they agree have agreed is good.” Or, for those that prefer a negative imperative, “Do not do onto others that which either of you finds disagreeable.”

Inconsistencies with this system of morality:

  1. It assumes that the actor knows the mind of those around him. It is possible to ask specific questions of people capable of responding, but in some cases this is impossible or impractical.

  2. Ethical actions rarely occur in a vacuum. Anything that I do to another person likely affects the people around both of us to some degree. Ex: If I loan my friend Bill some money, my other friends may be jealous of Bill. These other friends would likely not give their consent to such a loaning, yet they are affected by it. A rigid interpretation of the above statement requires that I consider these secondary effects as well, but I find that I usually don’t. On the other hand, what about a situation where Bill’s wife asks me for sexual relations? The possible effect on Bill, who is only involved secondarily in this ethical transaction, makes
    this action unpalatable to me in a way that the jealousy of my friends when I loan Bill some money does not. (I have yet to find a consistent method of dealing with secondary effects.)

#1 can be solved by adding a few rules on, but I can’t see a way to solve #2 without invoking some concept of utilitarianism, which brings its own set of problems to the table.

But, as for an answer to your question, I’m of the opinion that any single rule is incapable of encasing the whole broad scope of possible human interactions, and that the instant you have multiple rules, you introduce the idea of conflict between them. A rules hierarchy might possibly do the trick, but I’m of the opinion that it’d have to be a long one to cover the many ways humans interact.

You are a Buddhist! :smack: :smiley: