Objectivist MetaEthics: One
By Jimmy Wales
Date: Thu, 22 Sep 1994 18:30:00 -0400
From: Jimmy -Jimbo- Wales firstname.lastname@example.org
To: ASP-Disc email@example.com
Subject: A few words on the nature of principles...
I'm not completely satified with my full formulation here, but I think that my point comes through ok. I am a being constituted in a particular way. I am aware of the world and chose my actions in ways that are determined by my nature. I am not at liberty to disregard this nature with impugnity. One fact about me is that I can't think of everything at once. As a matter of fact, I can only thing of a few things at once. I find that I have to make decisions based on an extremely limited ability to detect and process a staggering amount of potentially relevant information. When I decide what I ought to do (which for me, just means deciding what is in my actual self-interest) I can't be omniscient; I have to do the very best I can with the knowledge I have and with my limited ability to process it. In general, I am driven to use my conceptual faculty wisely in order to achieve "unit-economy." By this I mean that I store knowledge about _kinds_ of things, so that when I meet up with a _particular_ thing, I don't have to start from scratch each time figuring out what it is. There isn't time (and it isn't safe!) to learn each day anew that fire is hot, that cats are nice but scratch sometimes, etc. Every day, I have to decide what to do. And by my nature, it is just not possible for me to consider _from scratch_ all the possible consequences of any given action. So I form moral principles to guide my action. Each day on the way to my office, I am confronted by beggars. (I live in downtown Chicago.) I could spend a lot of time each morning deciding anew whether or not I ought to give change to each beggar. In order to do so, I would have to consider whether or not giving change to this beggar will actually contribute to my life. This is a very complicated question, and after some deliberation I've answered it in the negative. It would be self-destructive to give change to the beggars. This is a contextual conclusion, based in part on the fact that I have begun to recognize some faces, and that they have probably begun to recognize mine. If I gave them money this once, then they would be ever more persistent in the future. For someone in a different context (tourists, for example) the conclusion might be different. I don't think about this every day. It isn't optimal to do so! I have formed a moral principle "Don't give change to the beggars on the way to work" which was formed to apply in a specific context. So long as I am comfortably in that context, I can apply the moral principle with minimal mental effort, leaving my mind free to work on other tasks. I might of course find myself in a situation that falls _outside_ the context, but if my moral principle is formed carefully and correctly, those cases will be rare. A key point here is that I know full well that by applying my principle, I sometimes miss out on cases where giving would actually be in my real self-interest. But _global_ considerations and constraints make it worthwhile for me to forego those particular cases. This is a very specific moral principle. But there are others, formed much more broadly. One is "Don't steal." This principle is contextual, too. There are cases (_Schindler's List_ has been given here as an example) where stealing _is_ in one's actual self-interest, but because I have formed the principle carefully, and because I know the general context in which it applies (ordinary day-to-day life), I don't have to approach each case as new. I don't even have to think about it most of the time. The key point above comes into play now. Let's suppose that there are some cases in which I could steal and get away with it, even in regular day-to-day life. Like, if I'm in a store and no one is looking, I could probably slip something into my pocket. But my principle precludes me from even thinking of such a thing. Why? Unit-economy! This is the best answer I can give to the question "why have 'don't steal under any normal day-to-day circumstances' as a principle rather than 'don't steal unless you can get away with it'." The reason is that the first principle serves to reduce cognitive complexity in a way that the second doesn't. And that reduction of cognitive complexity is really important to me. It would be a huge waste of time to always go around looking for ways to steal things. Stealing is in general a very low-return activity, and I have better things to worry about than if THAT CLERK is looking this way. If anyone would like, I can explain in more detail why I think it is a fallacy to say that this line of argument would lead one to suppose that it is more often or more likely optimal for a really smart person to steal than for a really dumb person.
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