The Illusion of Ethical Progress

Here are two state­ments I used to be­lieve.

  1. The world’s eth­i­cal sys­tems have gen­er­ally im­proved over time.

  2. It fol­lows that eth­i­cal sys­tems prob­a­bly will con­tinue to im­prove into the fu­ture.

I think the first state­ment is an illu­sion. If the first state­ment is un­true then the sec­ond state­ment can­not fol­low from the first.

What does it mean for an eth­i­cal sys­tem to get “bet­ter”? Physics con­tains no such thing.

Take the uni­verse and grind it down to the finest pow­der and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of jus­tice, one molecule of mercy. And yet… and yet you act as if there is some ideal or­der in the world, as if there is some… some right­ness in the uni­verse by which it may be judged.

― Terry Pratch­ett, Hogfather

To judge the qual­ity of an eth­i­cal sys­tem you must do so through your own eth­i­cal sys­tem. Ethics are like Minkowski space­time. You can­not judge ethics in ab­solute terms. You can only judge an eth­i­cal po­si­tion rel­a­tive to your own.

A uni­ver­sal stan­dard of ethics must have prac­ti­cal util­ity in ev­ery so­ciety at ev­ery point in his­tory. To­day’s fash­ions of­ten judge ethics by its in­ter­nal co­her­ence (un­ten­able in tra­di­tional Ja­pan[1]) or uni­ver­sal­ity (un­ten­able in tribal pas­toral­ist cul­tures[2]).

If you be­lieve your so­ciety (or some­where nearby you in ideatic space) is the pin­na­cle of eth­i­cal evolu­tion then what is more likely?

  1. Your so­ciety ob­jec­tively is the pin­na­cle of eth­i­cal evolu­tion.

  2. You judge ev­ery eth­i­cal sys­tem by its dis­tance to your own.

An eth­i­cal sys­tem similar to your own of­ten seems like a “good eth­i­cal sys­tem”. The illu­sion of eth­i­cal progress fol­lows from this sub­jec­tive met­ric. If eth­i­cal sys­tems are one-di­men­sional then morals will ap­pear to be get­ting bet­ter as of­ten as they get worse. (Ex­cept for very re­cent his­tory which will ap­pear to have im­proved.) But eth­i­cal sys­tems have many di­men­sions.

3d random walk

In the above pic­ture you can see ran­dom walks through 3-di­men­sional space, rep­re­sent­ing 3 uni­verses with 3 sep­a­rate eth­i­cal evolu­tions. The higher the di­men­sion­al­ity of eth­i­cal space, the less likely an eth­i­cal sys­tem will walk back to a pre­vi­ous state and thus the more likely eth­i­cal evolu­tion will ap­pear to have a di­rec­tion. Each 3-di­men­sional path ap­pears to be go­ing from one place to an­other even though they are all com­pletely ran­dom. The more di­men­sions an eth­i­cal space has, the harder it is to dis­t­in­guish a ran­dom walk from progress. Real eth­i­cal space has many more than 3 di­men­sions.

Does this mean ethics is fun­da­men­tally rel­a­tive?

No

Ethics is fun­da­men­tally sub­jec­tive, but not rel­a­tive.

In the Western in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion, ethics is a branch of philos­o­phy. Western philos­o­phy has no place for em­piri­cism. Without em­piri­cal re­sults, there is no way to com­pare eth­i­cal sys­tems ob­jec­tively against each other. Progress is in­dis­t­in­guish­able from a ran­dom walk.

But there is a way to ob­serve ethics in ab­solute terms. It is called “mys­ti­cism”.

Have you ever no­ticed how Abra­ham, Je­sus, Mo­ham­mad, Sid­dhartha and Ryokan all had a habit of go­ing alone into the wilder­ness for sev­eral days at a time? Then they came back and made eth­i­cal pro­nounce­ments and peo­ple listened to them? The great mys­tics cut through the Gor­dian Knot of moral rel­a­tivism by ap­proach­ing ethics em­piri­cally.

The Snow­mass Con­tem­pla­tive Group

In the early 1980′s Father Thomas Keat­ing, a Catholic priest, spon­sored a meet­ing of con­tem­pla­tives from many differ­ent re­li­gions. The group rep­re­sented a few Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions as well as Zen, Ti­be­tan, Is­lam, Ju­daism, Na­tive Amer­i­can & Non­al­igned. They found the meet­ing very pro­duc­tive and de­cided to have an­nual meet­ings. Each year they have a meet­ing at a monastery of a differ­ent tra­di­tion, and share the daily prac­tice of that tra­di­tion as a part of the meet­ings. The pur­pose of the meet­ings was to es­tab­lish what com­mon un­der­stand­ings they-had achieved as a re­sult of their di­verse prac­tices. The group has be­come known as the Snow­mass Con­tem­pla­tive Group be­cause the first of these meet­ings was held in the Trap­pist monastery in Snow­mass, Colorado.

When schol­ars from differ­ent re­li­gious tra­di­tions meet, they ar­gue end­lessly about their differ­ent be­liefs. When con­tem­pla­tives from differ­ent re­li­gious tra­di­tions meet, they cel­e­brate their com­mon un­der­stand­ings. Be­cause of their di­rect per­sonal un­der­stand­ing, they were able to com­pre­hend ex­pe­riences which in words are de­scribed in many differ­ent ways. The Snow­mass Con­tem­pla­tive Group has es­tab­lished seven Points of Agree­ment that they have been re­fin­ing over the years:

  1. The po­ten­tial for en­light­en­ment is in ev­ery per­son.

  2. The hu­man mind can­not com­pre­hend ul­ti­mate re­al­ity, but ul­ti­mate re­al­ity can be ex­pe­rienced.

  3. The ul­ti­mate re­al­ity is the source of all ex­is­tence.

  4. Faith is open­ing, ac­cept­ing & re­spond­ing to ul­ti­mate re­al­ity.

  5. Con­fi­dence in one­self as rooted in the ul­ti­mate re­al­ity is the nec­es­sary corol­lary to faith in the ul­ti­mate re­al­ity.

  6. As long as the hu­man ex­pe­rience is ex­pe­rienced as sep­a­rate from the ul­ti­mate re­alty it is sub­ject to ig­no­rance, illu­sion, weak­ness and suffer­ing.

  7. Dis­ci­plined prac­tice is es­sen­tial to the spiritual jour­ney, yet spiritual at­tain­ment is not the re­sult of one’s effort but the ex­pe­rience of one­ness with ul­ti­mate re­al­ity.

Saints and Psy­chopaths by Willian L Hamilton

You can­not “judge” an eth­i­cal sys­tem ob­jec­tively. But you can ob­serve it ob­jec­tively and you can mea­sure it ob­jec­tively. Such em­piri­cism once formed the foun­da­tion for the Age of Rea­son. Mys­tics are less like moral philoso­phers ar­gu­ing doc­trine than they are sci­en­tists rec­on­cil­ing sep­a­rate ex­per­i­ments.


  1. For more in­for­ma­tion about this philo­soph­i­cal frame­work, read The Chrysan­the­mum and the Sword by Ruth Bene­dict. ↩︎

  2. For more in­for­ma­tion about this way of life, read Ara­bian Sands by Wilfred Th­e­siger. ↩︎