Life as the Origin and Basis of Morality
Life as the Origin and Basis of Morality is a two-part video series by libertarian transhumanist Gennady Stolyarov that outlines an ethical system based on the importance of human life. Stolyarov uses this system as a philosophical basis for a later series, Eliminating Death, in which he argues the merits of life extension.
Stolyarov begins by rejecting the idea that good and evil come from arbitrary commands of God (though he later clarifies that belief in God is still compatible with his system). Instead, he suggests that ethics is reason-based and human-centred, defining ethics as answering the question "what should we do?"
He identifies life as essential, because it is required – along with intelligence and volition – to even consider the question of ethics, and he claims that suicide is irrational. With life as a foundation, Stolyarov then lists three tiers of morality, described thus:
- 1. "do no harm to others",
- 2. "do no harm to yourself", and
- 3. "civility and integrity".
| In this presentation, we are going to discuss the origins of morality; namely, where good an evil come from.
Now, I’m an atheist, and I will be presenting an atheistic perspective on the origins of morality; namely, I do not believe that morality originates from what is often called “the will of God” – that is, the say-so of an allegedly all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, cosmic ruler whom people call “God”.
Now, I believe that grounding morality in say-so of anybody – human or allegedly divine – is essentially arbitrary, because say-so without reasons to back it up is essentially arbitrary, and therefore I do not believe that it is a good justification. I believe that attempts to ground morality in the will of God – or the will of the government for that matter, which is just the other side of the same coin – is inevitably definitional. It just says, “well, this word ‘morality’ – we are going to equate it by definition with whatever God says is right or whatever the government says is right,” and, ultimately, that robs the word “morality” of any real meaning on its own.
For instance, when – in the Bible, in the Old Testament – God orders Saul to murder every single living thing in Amalek, including the women and the infant children and the cattle, and Saul does this – except he takes one of the best cattle and, instead of slaughtering it, makes an offering of it to God – God condemns and punishes Saul for disobeying him. Now, from the standpoint of morality – and I think everybody, no matter what philosophical background they come from, will acknowledge that – genocide is wrong, irrespective of who does it, who orders it, or for what reasons it is being committed. God has ordered Saul to commit an atrocity. Yet, from those who say morality is defined as the will of God, well, there seems to be nothing wrong with genocide. At that point, the people who would truly back up God’s command to Saul would have to drop any pretense of morality and just say, well, “we’ll obey the will of this powerful being, right or wrong.“
Well, I have a different view. I think, in order to obtain a legitimate grounding for morality, we need to ask, “what is morality, or ethics?” Ethics deal with the question, “what ought we do – we, as human beings?” Ethics is necessarily a human-centred discipline, because we can control our own actions. We cannot directly control, say, the actions of another animal, because we are not that animal – we cannot directly control the actions of a rock unless we exert some kind of physical force on that rock – so we cannot frame questions like, “what should the animal do” or “what should the rock do” without asking ourselves, “well, what should we do to the rock or the animal to get them to do what we think they should do?”
So, ultimately, with ethics, we start with ourselves. Without us being able to ask the question, “what should we do,” ethics becomes a meaningless enterprise. And we need to ask, “well, what are the prerequisites of us asking ourselves, what should we do?” Naturally, inanimate objects or dead people cannot ask that question, so the fundamental prerequisite seems to be being alive.
Now, of course, that’s necessary, but that’s not sufficient. Because, aside from being alive, we have to also have the ability to ask that question – a lot of living things do not have that ability – so we have to have volition, we have to have the ability to choose to ask the question “what should we do”, and we also have to have the physical faculties that enable us to ask it – either the faculty of speech or the ability to ask the question in writing or the ability to pose that question through some other medium (say, through an art form, if one is capable of doing that). And in order to ask the question at all, we need to possess the faculty of reason, which enables us to formulate this kind of proposition.
So, ethics has certain prerequisites, which it would be inconsistent for an ethical system to try to subvert or undermine, just as in any system there are certain starting premises or axioms that you cannot contradict within the framework of that system – say, in logic, one of the axioms would be the law of identity, A = A, and A cannot be not A at the same time and in the same respect, because, if you allow one contradiction, A being not A within a logical system, then you can prove anything whatsoever within that system, and it becomes absolutely meaningless – so in an ethical system, the axioms (if we wish to look at it that way) are the prerequisites for that system to exist in the first place; namely, that we the human agents who are developing this system must be alive, we must be volitional agents, and we must have the faculty of reason that enables us to formulate these kinds of value judgments.
So, the first goal of the ethical system of our quest in asking, “what should we do” – well, we should preserve the preconditions of our asking “what should we do”; that is, we should try to remain alive, we should try to remain volitional agents, we should try to remain capable of having a choice of asking that question, and we should try to embrace and cultivate our rational faculty, because our rational faculty is what enables us to delve into ethics.
So, at the point at which you believe that some kind of morality is necessary – and the question “what ought one do” has any kind of meaning – you implicitly embrace the desirability of life, volition, and rationality. And those are the starting points, and I believe – with those starting points – you can really get quite far in your ethical system, because your life is not just something abstract, ethereal, immaterial – it is quite concrete and physical, and it has very definite prerequisites. If you want to live, you need to eat, you need to sleep, you need to find a way to make a living and support yourself, you need to use your mind and innovate and adapt to your surroundings as well as adapt your surroundings to yourself, and you need to use that rational faculty to enable you to survive. So, all of these are implications of the necessary embracing of life as the starting point of your ethical system.
Now, to be consistent, you cannot just say your own life is the ultimate goal of the ethical system – though it is, I believe, the most important goal, because if you’re not alive you cannot make ethical systems at all. But, if other human beings have the same essential nature as you, then, if you deny them the right to life – if you deny them the right to be free, volitional, rational agents – then you have just robbed yourself of any claim to these same prerogatives. Because, why should you have them if other entities that have the same essential nature as you are not allowed to have them? That’s inconsistent. That’s a contradiction.
So, in embracing an ethical system, you necessarily and implicitly affirm the desirability of your own life and the desirability of the lives of every single innocent individual who has not infringed on the lives and liberties of others.
So, therein lies the starting point of morality.
| In my previous presentation, I showed that life – the life of every single individual – is necessarily the starting point for a moral system that has a rational foundation to it.
Now, you are in need of a moral system. Why? Because you are alive right now, and you have implicitly – if not explicitly – chosen life over death. Now, the alternative of life versus death is the alternative that is faced by every living thing – human beings included.
Animals face it, too, but the animals largely don’t really have a choice about whether or not to pursue life. A lot of their faculties are preprogrammed into them in the form of what are called “instincts”. The animals act by default in such a way as to pursue life within the limited cognitive and physical abilities that they have, and very few animals choose not to pursue life. And, so, for many of them, this alternative is not really something that requires a lot of contemplation.
For human beings, it’s a bit different. But, nonetheless, if you are watching this video right now, and if you are not choosing to drop dead at this very moment by depriving yourself at this very instant of the preconditions for life, then you’re implicitly choosing life.
Now, at the point at which you say, “well, I decide to choose death instead of life,” but then you try to go about some kind of time-consuming process in pursuing your own death, you’re committing a bit of a contradiction. Because what do you need to do in order to, say, commit suicide? Are you to get a knife and stab yourself, or get a gun and shoot yourself or hang yourself, or commit one of the other perverse acts people do to commit suicide? Well, you need to make physical movements to do that, and you need to make them over a span of time. You need to use your mind in order to coordinate those physical movements. And what business do you have in trying to use life and rationality to achieve the opposite of life and rationality; namely, death and the complete lack of thought – complete lack of awareness – that it entails? You’re using A in order to try to get non-A, which is quite a contradiction.
So, the person who tries to commit suicide is inconsistent on his own premises in the sense that he implicitly embraces life and he explicitly seeks death. The only way that you can make a fully consistent choice to pursue death is to just drop dead, at which point, yes, you will have no need for morality, and at which point nobody will have the power to stop you.
Now, also granted, if somebody really, really wants to commit suicide, and he makes repeated attempts, it’s unlikely that even the most vigilant other people will be able to stop him. There’s no real practical way to prevent a determined suicidist from committing suicide. But, if you’re watching this video, and if you’re wondering about morality, I’m assuming you probably don’t want to commit suicide.
So, you’ve chosen life rather than death, and I think this choice is a very important choice, no matter where your other philosophical preferences lie. I don’t require, in embracing this moral system, that you be an atheist like I am. You could very well believe in a god and an afterlife – or many gods, or the Hindu version of Brahman and merging yourself with Brahman in the afterlife, or the Buddhist vision of nirvana – so long as you believe that this life has value and that you are going to pursue this life over death in every situation where you can make a choice that will influence the course of affairs. Then, you and I have some common ground in establishing an ethical system.
Now, I believe there are three tiers of morality that need to be considered and that follow from embracing life. First of all, a truly moral person will not inflict harm upon the lives of others. This is the first tier of morality, because, by damaging other human beings intentionally and directly, one is robbing oneself of any rational justification for one’s own right to life and one’s own right to liberty, because other human beings have the same essential nature. They, too, are able to contemplate ethical systems. They, too, have a volitional faculty and a rational faculty, and to deprive them of that would then beg the question, “well, why in the world are you insisting that you have these rights if you don’t grant them to people who are, in essence, like you?” So, this is the first tier of morality: “do no harm to others.”
The second tier of morality is “do no harm to yourself.” Do not engage in self-destructive actions such as suicide or, say, the taking of life-endangering drugs or engaging in risky behaviors against which you do not have adequate protection of adequate assurance that you will emerge from the alive. Now, this, of course, is left to individual judgment in many respects, because we need not only to consider a behavior in isolation but how it relates to other behaviors. The example that I like to use is somebody who eats a chocolate cake of 600 calories a piece every single day, and he takes great pleasure in this. This probably wouldn’t be good for his health, except, every single day to compensate for eating that piece of chocolate cake, he goes out to run for an hour and burns about 800 calories, which actually makes him expend more calories on net than he would have done had he not eaten that chocolate cake, because his running is solely motivated to compensate for eating that cake. So, you need to consider context in deciding what is or is not self-destructive.
The third tier of morality is the tier of civility and integrity. In how to relate to other people, you need to honestly represent yourself and carry through on your promises, and you need to be civil and tactful in your interactions with others, to never deliberately insult another person, to oppose another person’s ideas with dignity and with courage but not at the same time trying to denigrate that person or suggest that that person is somehow evil just for advocating those ideas. Once again, we need to distinguish between truth and falsehood in ideas versus good and evil in people. So, civility and integrity – they’re less important than doing no direct harm to others and doing no direct harm to oneself, but they are quite important nonetheless, and adherence to the third tier of morality is the capstone of ethics. Once you have the other two down, you work on the third, and that ensures harmonious, peaceful, mutually-advantageous interactions among human beings.
So, this has been my brief overview of the origins of morality and some of its basic structure. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I look forward to your feedback.
- G. Stolyarov II. Eliminating Death. YouTube. 18 December 2013.