On Cynicism and Meta-Ethics

There was a time when I genuinely admired human beings. Their ingenuity. Their spirit to overcome challenges. Their focus on improving their own and other creatures’ lives. Was. Past tense. Recent years and especially the last one taught me differently. I am writing these lines in March 2021. We are over a year deep into a global pandemic and with a few rare exceptions a lot of people still do not get the scope of what we are facing.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died because of a new type of corona virus, and more than a few people still think it is an excellent idea to board a crowded airplane headed for their favourite resort and party on the beach with complete strangers. Meanwhile, especially in Europe, politicians are failing by the dozen at strategically astute management of the pandemic, only to be told at regular intervals by conspiracy nuts at large demonstrations that the measures taken are still far too draconian. So far, so surreal.

The problem is: my own internal failsafe-mechanisms stopped working a while ago. Over the past few months, I have been in a constant struggle with myself and my position as a member of a society I increasingly despise. Therefore, I did what every responsible adult does and tried drinking excessively to numb the voices in my head. That was not a sustainable solution. The alternative was to reflect deeply about my inner struggles and create a more reliable moral framework for myself. I have no idea, if this is something other people do on a regular basis, but I felt the need for it. Hopefully, in the future it will help me to navigate the tides of life with less despair and rage. And maybe even less cynicism.

The good life. Noble ideal of philosophy and religion alike. Scourge of humanity. A promise soaked in blood.
I do not claim to be the first to express these thoughts and will probably not be the last. I will not cite any sources, only do the occasional name dropping. Something I learned by reading Wittgenstein. For the first time I bring these ideas into the light in the guise of my words. A novelty, which carries personal weight.

Two Voices

Moral ambiguity. A battle between two opposing forces is raging in my head, lasting almost forever. The moral, the noble, the so-called good against an all-devouring cynical maelstrom. I know what people, what society expects me to do. How to behave and present myself. Be the nice guy. Smile. Be self-sacrificial. Help others. Cooperate. Be constructive. Look for solutions. Embrace diversity and human flourishing.

All the while there is this other voice in my head. It creeps around my thoughts. Everlasting. Never quiet. Tack. Come now, it is time to stop. Tack. Let them rot. Let them die. Take these matches and burn their world until nothing is left but ashes.
I should not do it. Each human being deserves life. The supreme good that nobody scrutinizes. An axiom of social interaction. Only bad people would oppose it. You do not want to be a bad person, do you?
Who the fuck cares?

Good, bad, whatever. Morality is an arbitrary construct. A social contract to ensure the survival of our species. I could not care less. But to be a part of said society, I obviously must abide by its rules. Every part of me wants to rip their smiling, caring, pretend-to-be-holy faces apart and feed them to the rats. And make them watch. Now, THAT is finally a view I might enjoy. Alas. Society. Rules. Be the good guy. No matter how stupid other people behave, you are one of the smart ones. You are better than that. Take pity on them and show mercy. They have no idea what they are doing. You, on the other hand, have all the insight you need to make better decisions than they will ever do.

Decisions based on…what exactly? Arbitrary moral ideas? Which are justified on…what grounds? An inherent value of human existence? Says who? Just being born is not a commendable achievement. Producing humans is quite a simple, if not a mindless feat. Fuck each other and eventually another human being will pop into existence. Hip-fucking-hoorah. You figured out how to use your genitals. Great job. Now go eat a banana, take your screaming crotch goblin, and let me think.

A Reliable Moral Framework

I need clarity. A different framework. The current one is clearly failing. Another reason which prevents me from burning everything to the ground and jump in front of the next train. Or slash my wrists. Whatever works best.

I need a premise. Or maybe several. That is something I will figure out during my reflective process.
But there is one important premise which precedes everything else:
A reliable moral framework considers the notion of “good” and “bad” as useless.

Anyone who argues human behaviour can or should be categorized alongside binary definitions, is a waste of air. And of time, if you are one of the unlucky ones to be in the vicinity when they elaborate on their great ideas about moral philosophy. It is utter nonsense in the truest form. With zero, no, less than zero, practical usefulness. Meaning, it actively harms social interactions and the prosperous striving of humanity. My own destructive mind is more than enough proof of that.
But why should my dark desires be a proof of anything?
Because we need to assume the lowest possible starting point from which we can build a reliable moral framework.
What use is an ideal which breaks whenever you are tired, feel like shit, are angry or genuinely want to harm others or yourself?

A reliable moral framework needs to withstand the tides of human emotion. At the same time, it needs to take human fallibility into account. We are all weak, often pathetic, greedy, manipulative, toxic and outright hateful. Not all the time, of course, but often enough that we cannot deny this fundamental part of human nature. Since we disregarded the notion of good or bad at the start, these states of mind simply…are. They are an integral part of our existence and developing a moral framework without considering their influence would be dangerously naïve.
This reasoning leads us to our second premise:
A reliable moral framework is built from the bottom up. If it cannot be applied to occurrences of our darkest impulses, it is of no use at all.

With this premise in mind, we can start to conceive ideas of what might be needed to create such a framework.
We strive for pleasure, comfort, and success. Goals which do not always align together. Watching Netflix for six hours straight is for many people far more enjoyable than learning, working out or doing household chores. No surprises here. Some people have an inherent need to socialize with others. People like me rarely share that desire and prefer to be alone most of the time. Different people have different needs – it does not get much more blatant and obvious than that, I hope.
A reliable moral framework needs to be detached from these variations while recognizing and ensuring their fulfilment at the same time.
The key question is: How do we get there?

For a long time, I thought I had found my answers in a concept called cognitive empathy. This means, we do not actually have to feel what the other person is experiencing (which would be called affective empathy) but can rationalize their perspective and understand why they feel or behave in a particular way.

Eventually I concluded that this approach has its own shortcomings. What do you do when you fail to rationalize said behaviour? If you simply lack the ability to understand why people do what they do because it is so out of place and detached from any kind of logical explanation. Or you inherently disagree with everything they are doing, which makes it even harder to find reasons why their actions might be justified.
Mere rationalizing does not appear to bear the answers I am looking for. At least I can derive a third premise from this realization:
A reliable moral framework needs be detached from emotional and rational considerations alike.

We often pride ourselves on how smart and rational we are – without realizing that rationality itself is not at all free from emotional influences. Whenever people say to be rational or objective, they implicitly express their fear of being seen as too emotional, which translates into unreliability. We confuse rational considerations and emotions as two separate entities while they work in unity the whole time. This does not mean, that rational thoughts or actions are not possible. Rather we should come to accept the idea of pure rationality, detached from emotions, is nothing but a myth.
By reflecting on what I have written so far, my mind came up with a fourth premise:
A reliable moral framework can never exist as a meta-physical entity permeating space, time, and culture. Any societal value is arbitrary. It must acknowledge its position as being part and product of the human consciousness.

These premises ultimately lead me to the implementation of two core elements into the framework:
Practical applicability and adaptivity.

Rethinking Morality

I remember having hour-long discussions with friends about moral questions of any kind. Over the years it became less frequent and eventually I realized what bothered me in most of these debates. They all took place in some kind of meta-physical vacuum without any connections towards real world issues. At least without any useful ones as far as I was concerned.

Reading a lot about different theories on human behaviour, moral philosophy and how a society should be structured to achieve the best outcome for all its participants I noticed something else. A vast number of thinkers loved assumptions. They draw a picture of a model citizen which then acts according to whatever theory the philosopher created around his protagonist. Or they take the opposite approach and imagine an ideal society which somehow magically will lead to better human behaviour. If you ever have the displeasure of reading the ramblings of John Rawls, you will understand my distaste for this way of theory crafting.

I hope, I can avoid these pitfalls. I do not intend to create a perfect utopia with angel-like humans inhabiting some earthly paradise. Quite the opposite.
Instead, I will start from the bottom.
The advantage of this approach should be quite clear: I do not have to assume anything. I know there is no perfect society and people with harmful behaviour traits do exist.

There is nothing inherently wrong with murder. This statement will sound repulsive to most people. Which is understandable since most of us believe in some kind of overarching system of values. Be it grounded in imaginary natural laws, religions, or other forms of philosophy.
But the notion of inherently wrong behaviour implies the existence of a universal moral standard by which definition the act of ending one’s life without the justification of self-defence is always a despicable behaviour.

The problem with this way of reasoning is simple: it ignores the apparent reality of killing. The perpetrator often will have, in his mind, a good reason for ending another person’s life. He probably is aware of societal standards and fears to be judged but that does not automatically imply that he believes his actions are wrong. They might even be justified.

This example portrays a quite common shortcoming of traditional ideas of moral systems: they offer no solution about how to handle moral fluidity.
A reliable moral framework needs to be aware of this issue and provide a better way of addressing it. Which leads to the third core element: opportunism.

Humans are cooperative egoists. This phrase might sound paradoxical at first, but it becomes clearer after a second thought.
We seek for ways of advancing our own lives. Be it regarding material or spiritual success or simply achieving another level of comfort. This does not imply that every action we take is necessarily beneficial to our long-term existence. Cutting your skin with a blade to numb emotional pain is probably not an ideal way of solving the underlying issue but it serves a specific purpose in a given moment which is ultimately beneficial for our immediate experience. 

Whenever we engage with other people, we do it for a multitude of different reasons. But all these lead to an enhanced perception of our current state of being. At least we hope they do. We cannot foresee future events otherwise none of us would ever suffer again. What a boring way to live.

Our friends, romantic relationships and jobs are all serving a single purpose: to make our lives better. We see opportunities and we pursue them. We adapt to real world circumstances and search for the (in our mind) best practical solutions to overcome the challenges we are facing.
A reliable moral framework aims to create reverse opportunity costs.

In economics exists the concept of so-called opportunity costs. Economists think there is a way of measuring the implicit and explicit costs of a given action on which grounds one can calculate the best possible outcome. Whenever you decide to act in a specific way and disregard other choices, you will pay opportunity costs by not choosing the best available alternative, missing out on potential additional gains in material or spiritual resources.

This sounds quite arbitrary because it is. People with more working braincells than economists, which is not a difficult achievement, will immediately understand that there is no way in the world that anyone can predict all the possible costs which are inherent to one action or another. The apparent best alternative could as well be the worst simply because of reasons for which Bastiat coined the term unknown unknowns.

Why did I choose to include this concept in spite of the uselessness of its original idea?
Because it serves the purpose of portraying the idea of a reliable moral framework. And it does not suffer from the same shortcomings.
Reverse opportunity costs, or simply opportunity gains, if you will, are an increase of optionality instead of a decrease.
A reliable moral framework should always strive to increase optionality. Meaning an increase of possible available opportunities in the future. 

We cannot know if our choices could have better alternatives. We can assume but without actually pursuing them, there is no certainty.
Now we are able to answer the question: Why should you avoid killing someone (self-defence excluded)?
The answer is obvious by now: by removing another person from society you actively decrease the number of possible opportunities. Said person could have been beneficial to you in the future, even if it might appear the other way around in the present moment.

People or other creatures provide the option of serving you for a specific purpose you are not yet aware of. By choosing to enhance their possibility of survival and prospering, I increase my own optionality and might gain future advantages.
Or a bullet to the head, you never know. I am not pretending to assume any kind of certainty. Increased optionality does not mean there will always be beneficial consequences from this increase. I could cater to the needs of an infamous serial killer for all I know. 

In the end, it does not matter if you agree with my reasoning or not. This train of thought served only one purpose: to advance my own understanding on moral decision making and find a way to incorporate my unavoidable cynicism into a reliable moral framework.
At this point I am quite satisfied with the ideas I derived so far. This is by no means the end to all questions on meta-ethics and I do not claim to ever find one. But it is useful for me at this particular point of my life, meaning I found the much-needed practical applicability I was so desperately looking for. Time will tell if I need to revise my reasoning again, but this is the beauty of the framework I have created for myself: its openness to adaptation and change.

3 thoughts on “On Cynicism and Meta-Ethics

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