Life, the universe and everything … a reflection on fact-based morality …
Our morals must be based on the welfare and suffering of sentient beings. To measure the results of our actions against this moral standard, and to predict the moral consequences of our actions, we are obliged to base our thoughts and actions on reality, on our best understanding of the universe we live in. In turn, this obliges us to use the scientific method, which is our only tool for obtaining reliable knowledge about the world.
— Cake (2014)
Only consciousness can create meaningful feelings, joy and pain, sadness and happiness. Whether a rock is cold, hot, split in half, underwater or flying through outer space does not matter – the rock is not aware of these conditions and cannot hold an opinion on them. The condition the rock is in matters only when it affects a conscious being. The explosion of a star doesn’t have any significance if no conscious being is aware of it or is affected by it. Dead matter has no values and creates no values. Only awareness, consciousness, is creating significance and meaning. That’s why consciousness and the feelings it produces must be our ultimate measuring stick for what’s right and what’s wrong. The well‐being of sentient beings thus sets the standards for good and bad.
First rule: To be good, we have to improve the happiness of conscious beings.
Everything else follows from this basis. To make sure our actions have the intended consequences, we have to use the best available information about how the world works. Well-meaning clearly isn’t enough, you also have to make sure an action produces the intended consequences. Anything else is just blundering about and random behaviour, potentially leading to bad outcomes. If we want our good intentions to yield positive outcomes, we need to know how reality works.
If we mistakenly believe prayer prevents measles better than vaccination does, that eating lots of chocolate helps us to lose weight, that breaking promises made to other people won’t have negative effects on our relationship with them, that wearing the seatbelt in a car doesn’t reduce the risk of accidental death, that lead is a good sweetener for wine – then clearly our good intentions might produce negative outcomes. That is why we are obliged to ground our thoughts and actions in reality. Instead of trusting our own beliefs or wishful thinking, we have to use our best knowledge about reality. If we don’t, we might inadvertently cause harm.
Second rule: Good intentions are not enough – any action must be viewed in light of its actual outcome.
How can we know about cause and effect; how can we understand the consequences of our actions? How can we reliably predict the outcome of a particular action? How can we learn more and improve on this knowledge?
Of the knowledge-producing methods that we know of, the scientific method seems to be the best body of techniques for learning about reality, “investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge”. The scientific method is a way of enquiry based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.
That the scientific method works well is not an assumption – it is observation and experience coupled with reason.
If we want something to work in the real world, we should measure it in the real world – we should test whether it works. An example for empirical evidence is asking a large number of people suffering from a particular illness whether they feel better after a certain treatment. If the majority says yes, we have empirical evidence that the treatment helps. This is a reality check. Without this kind of evidence, we cannot know reliably if a treatment works.
Scientific theories make predictions which can be verified or falsified. Experiments and studies are transparent and can be repeated. Scientific findings always have a built-in reality check by definition. By contrast, other ways of knowing that might possibly exist, such as intuition, revelation, augury, visions, emotions, etc. do not entail scrutinizing their results for consistency with reality. Evidently, the scientific methods produces the best understanding of the world we live in.
Third rule: To make sure our intentions produce the desired results, we must employ the scientific method.
To sum up: to make the right decisions to improve well‐being, we are obliged to use our best knowledge about reality. This means it is a moral imperative to improve our knowledge about reality, to try to reach an understanding of reality as good as possible, and to use this understanding in our thoughts and actions.
So – that’s my world view. Thanks for reading. I’m grateful for any suggestions on how to improve it.
No need to worry, the above philosophy takes care of that, too. ☺
When looking at the welfare of conscious beings, we first have to determine what conscious beings exist. At this point in time, we have only evidence for higher animals and humans having consciousness. The existence and consciousness of a god, mother earth, leprechauns, the flying spaghetti monster or other sentient beings is not proven (and can never be disproven) – but by weighing the known facts we can estimate the likelihood of their existence. Based on what we know about reality, this likelihood is small. As a result, we have to use the well-being of higher animals and humans as our gauge for right and wrong. In theory, their welfare should be balanced against the likelihood of the existence of other sentient beings, their state of consciousness and their feelings. However, since there is no way of gaining knowledge about feelings of entities that haven’t been shown to exist, this can be and should be neglected in practice, leaving us with the happiness of humans and higher animals as the only measure for right and wrong.
Naturally, if one assumes that the likelihood of the existence of a god is high, and that its state of consciousness is orders of magnitude higher than the human state of consciousness, one must put more weight on pleasing god than on pleasing humans. In this case, god’s wishes should be followed, presumably even if harm to humans is the result. However, this is the result of three assumptions: god exists, god has a relatively higher level of consciousness and we can determine god’s wishes. So, if you have evidence supporting these assumptions, you must aim to please god. However, each of these assumptions is in conflict with what we know about the universe. If you do place your personal belief and opinions above the known facts, you are violating the moral rule about using our best knowledge about reality.
1) Our morals must and can be based on the feelings of conscious beings
2) Caring about reality is a moral obligation
3) Science is the only trustworthy way to learn about reality
Why should morality be based on the total amount of welfare and suffering of sentient beings, and not on the welfare of particular individuals? (Because that also benefits you individually.)
An increase of happiness for an individual can bring about a reduction of happiness for others. If this reduces the sum of happiness of all beings, any randomly picked individual will, statistically, have less happiness than before. Consequently, you, as an individual human being, are likely to be less happy than before. Put differently, if you and other people try to grab happiness at the disproportional expense of others, chances are your own happiness will suffer, too. That's why we should aim to increase the collective happiness of all humans and try to reduce conflicts of interest between the pursuits of happiness of individuals. We should not maximise individual, egoistic pursuits of happiness independent of consequences for other beings.
As a result, the welfare of each human being must be considered to have equal value – this increases the chance of any one individual being happy. Egalitarianism and probably also democracy thus follow logically from maximising the welfare of sentient beings.
In essence, being moral, treating everyone as equal and sticking to reality will increase both the collective happiness of all humans and your individual chance of being happy.
What is good and what is bad?
The moral measuring stick to decide whether an action is right or wrong: To what amount does it cause suffering and happiness to sentient beings, now, and in the future? If, on balance, the action causes more happiness, the action is good and should be carried out. If harm outweighs the increase in well-being, the action is bad. It’s really that simple.
The existence of god or gods: Thinking through the implications of this world view, it seems to me to follow that not looking closely into the existence of god is immoral. If there is a god with a higher state of consciousness, I should take its wishes into account and not violate its happiness. If there is no god, but I follow certain rules that I mistakenly believe to have come from god, I might harm the welfare of humans without deriving any benefit from it. This means moral people should look closely and carefully at the evidence for god.
Sexism: If someone makes a sexist remark, why is that bad? Because that person sees the feelings of a group of people as having less importance than the feelings of himself and others, which is an attitude that leads to reduced welfare of society.
Racism: See above for sexism. Splitting society into groups of higher and lower value reduces total societal happiness and is therefore bad.
Raising of children: In order to help children develop into people able to tell right from wrong, they have to learn about reality. You are morally obliged to pass on your best knowledge about the universe we live in. If facts show that children are better off in life knowing mathematics, or how to swim, and you can teach them at relatively low cost, it is your duty to do that.
Monarchy: Monarchy is violating the principle of treating people equally. One or more persons are selected by arbitrary rules to have different duties, powers, rights and status from others. This leads to sub-optimal aggregation of happiness, and is therefore wrong. Same goes for aristocracy.
Judging others and being judged by others: Use the same yardstick and principles you use to judge yourself, including the allowances you make for your own weaknesses, tastes, likes and dislikes. The feelings and needs of others have the same importance as your own. Pass judgements only on opinions and actions that affect the welfare of others, anything else is private and within the right of each individual.
Follow your own principles and conscience: "There's no need to waste our lives away worried about the way others will judge us. Somebody else's opinions, thoughts, and feelings always say more about them than they do about us.”
Disagreeing with others: “If you don't question yourself, and your own assumptions about everything, then you effectively haven't earned the right to question anyone else who disagrees with you. Your beliefs and opinions have to be based on reality, and well-thought out, everything else is just personal feeling – maybe correct in a personal sense, but not in an objective or absolute sense.
Other, more complex, social concepts such as communism can also in theory be judged by this world view, but evaluating the interdependencies and effects are much more difficult. Starting with egalitarianism, one might conclude that common ownership of production facilities, land and perhaps the abolition of private property is the best structure for society – but empirical evidence shows that these measures lead to lower production of scarce goods, and conflicts of goals such as the tragedy of the commons followed by environmental disaster. As a result, total happiness is not at the optimal level. If communism is facilitated by dictatorship of the proletariat, the needs and wishes of some part of the population are valued less than the wishes of the apparently enlightened part of society. This again reduces overall happiness.
And so on… I find it fun thinking about these things, and it’s probably a moral imperative that we do. ☺
Thanks to Sasha Lulibub, Meike Heston, Richard David Precht, Jerry Allan Coyne, Ophelia Benson, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Greta Christina, Peter Hearty, Paul Zachary Myers, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Ben Goldacre, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Madeline H. Wyndzen, Immanuel Kant, Dan Savage, Libby Anne for helping to shape this world view.
PS: Oh, and sorry about the lilac/lavender colouring scheme… but I love those colours, and it's my website … ☺
 Anne Frank
 Albert Camus put it: “The evil that is in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
 If you are not quite sure whether science actually works, you are probably not reading this on a computer, driven by a chip powered by electrons pulsating a few billion times per second through a few billion transistors a few nanometres wide, made of sand with the help of light. The scientific method might also be responsible for you being here, having reduced both infant and adult mortality by some orders of magnitude.
 The whole thing should be pretty much obvious anyway: If we want to improve things not just for ourselves, but also for others, we should ask the other people what they would like and what they don’t like. That’s the scientific method – it’s called getting empirical evidence.
 Mark Twain: “The institution of royalty in any form is an insult to the human race.”
 Madeline H. Wyndzen
 Krubozumo Nyankoye