An Ethics Based on Uncertainty

Most metaphysical questions can not be answered.

Is there a caring being watching our actions in this life? We don’t know. Do we have a free will? It is unknowable for us. Even if we don’t, it is possible our creator doesn’t even know. Does the lack of free will reduce ethics to meaningless? It depends. Whether we have will or not (whatever will and choice even mean distinct from what we have), ethics remains as real and relevant as it possibly can be. And we should try to live ethically. I don’t think determinism reduces ethics to a smoldering pile of ruins. The reality we experience seems to confirm this line of reasoning.

Life as we know it is filled with pain and suffering. But it does not have to be this way. There is no reason why we can not strive for happiness within the circumstances that we find ourselves in our universe. We should not give up as individuals or as a race of beings.

Ethical questions depend so much on context. We must avoid absolute ethical imperatives. We simply do not know enough about the world to dictate with confidence how we should act for all times. Just because we don’t have so much confidence does not mean we should give up. We can reason about how we should act, but we can not expect to have absolute simple ethical rules.

I need to convince myself that life can be meaningful. I live a privileged life. I live in a peaceful, prosperous part of the planet. I am healthy. If I can not find a good happy and meaningful life here, looking towards a future where medicine and science have solved many of our base problems, then where can it be? Even in higher realms of existence (if there are any) this question would remain. I have been distraught lately because I feel like I am floating. I don’t have firm grounding, and my Christian roots are severed, creating a deep discomfort with my current way of living. I think this discomfort is avoidable. I need to explore and know if I can be truly happy or can at least foresee being happy.

I love the beings around me. My wife, my family, my friends, my cats. I love art and math and building things. I enjoy the sensual pleasures of the flesh in moderation. We don’t need to reject these good things like some religious people have claimed over the years, we need to keep everything in balance and perspective. Divorce is usually bad. But it is not always—sometimes two young people marry each other when they shouldn’t have. We can not make such firm ethical imperatives like “divorce is always bad.” Primal, thoughtless sex is usually bad. Healthy sex with a lover is not bad—it is a great thing. Eating is good, in moderation—if it is not an uncontrolled urge, ruining our bodies, and abusing animals.

Ethics is a moving target. The times change. What is right now may not be later. We should adapt our thinking based on reason and honesty with ourselves and our biological limitations.

Helping others is good. Should we help other so much that we become unhappy? I don’t think so. But for most of us, we are too selfish and don’t help others enough. Our language is uncertain and loose, and we have no firm metaphysical foundation, so our ethics must be loose too. This uncertainty is disconcerting and unsatisfying to our nature, but I think it is the reality. We must not use this uncertainty to fool ourselves into selfish complacency.

I think we can learn a lot from the religious traditions to help us fight this. Knowing (given the biological limitations of our mind) is not a discrete, singular event like we often treat it. We learning something, but it fades and distorts in our minds as time passes. We must continually relearn and live our convictions. Rituals and prayer can help us continually know and keep our ethics alive in our lives. They help prevent us from deceiving ourselves.

Dear creator of the universe, if you exist, please reveal your truth to me. Tell me how to live, if not through revelation, then through reason, discussion, and tradition. Help me be honest with myself. Help me care about all around me—my family, friends, humanity, all beings, and the beautiful universe that you have created for us to live in.

My plan is to expound our lack of firm metaphysical knowledge. This includes a lack of confidence that our universe is all that exists. We don’t know this. Our intuitive knowledge is undependable because our intuition is grounded in a single universe. By imagining other universes that could be, we can loosen our sense of plausibility. Our universe may be all that exists. This is indeed possible. But it is also possible that the Christians, Muslims, or even the Egyptians were right. This is possible, although it seems unlikely. I believe that it is unreasonable to expect modern beings to place all their faith in old revelations, so distant from ourselves that we can have no confidence in their teachings. Also, just because something is possible doesn’t make it plausible. Despite the unavoidable uncertainty, we can and should evaluate evidence with a critical eye.

Our analysis should not stop with the great world religions. It is also wrong for scientific atheists to assume that the laws governing our universe are fixed. We do not know that this is the case. We also don’t know that they could have never been broken—miracles could happen. We can imagine universes (like Altera) that are significantly different than our own.

After expounding how much we don’t know, and all of the possibilities open to us, I want to explore ethics. We should take the best ideas from the existing religious traditions and combine them together. We should update them for our world today. Technology has substantially changed how we live our lives. It is foreseeable that we can live the good life; that we can remove the pain and suffering from our surroundings and ourselves. We are far from this happy situation, but it is possible. We should not abandon ethics and ethical living out of despair of our lack of firm metaphysical foundations. We don’t know. We should live in the face of this uncertainty, without absolute ethical imperatives grounded in metaphysical dogma, but with an honest and straightforward ethical system built for modern times, guided by the religious traditions of our past. Our ethics should make us happier and better. I think true happiness and goodness are the same; most of us want to be good. I do. I am unhappy now because I didn’t know and I felt like I was floating. I still don’t know, but at least I can look the uncertainty in the eye, with hope for the future, and strive to be the best I can be. I want to be good, but I don’t have a firm foundation to be. I think we can have it all. Modern life and technology and our lack of metaphysical foundations together stitch together a picture of a happy future in our universe, despite the evil and sadness in our universe today. There is also a profound peace that, despite the uncertainty, can fade into the uncertainty of death seeing the beauty that exists in our universe, and the hope for its future.

The strength and persistence of the world’s religions is a testament to the desire of humans to know, to have firm foundations. But they are also a testament to our desire to be good and to know how we should act.

We can not give confident answers, but we can outline a framework and take the best ideas from other religions in a way that is flexible and can change for the future.

My plan is to:

  1. Expound our lack of firm metaphysical foundations, and breakdown our intuition of reasonableness by exploring other universes.
  2. Explore and combine the best ethics of the religious traditions.
  3. Write a big book expounding in detail my ideas and thoughts about these topics.
  4. Write a little book with the essence of my ideas.

In everything, I need to be honest with myself. I must not do anything for self-glorification. I must love my wife and my family and humanity. I must be honest and must not delude myself a sense of security where there is no security. I must not let the distractions of the lower pleasures get in the way of me following through on my plan, which could be a great and stabilizing force for humanity. I think that we need a unifying ethical system that is honest about our uncertain metaphysical foundations.

Pascal’s Wager

My ethics stem from a version of Pascal’s Wager—sure, we don’t know whether a God exists or if they care what we do, but which is the safer bet:

  1. Try to be good, even thought you don’t want to be
  2. Do whatever you want

Which is the safer bet? I think it is safer to try to be good than to not care.

But isn’t there a third option? You could try to be bad! It is possible that there is a God, and they want you to be bad. Using metaphysical uncertainty as the basis of an ethics leaves you in the awkward position of justifying both a bad and a good ethics.

The simple answer is that I want the good ethics to be the right one. In this case, even if there was a bad God that wanted us to act badly, I would still try to be good to spite them.

What if you knew that a God existed, and you thought he was bad? Well, perhaps your conception of what is bad is ill-conceived… this is possible even if you don’t whether there is a God…

What if there is no difference between choice (1) and choice (2)? I.e. the only way you can act is the way you want to act, thus it is meaningless to say that you are going to try to act good even though you don’t want to, since because you did act good it is what you wanted to do. This is possible, but our metaphysical uncertainty extends to the problem of free will—we don’t have any way of knowing whether choices (1) and (2) are the same or different, thus this is an irrelevant against using uncertainty as a basis for our ethics.