Idle Theory The Code of the Buzzard

The Variety of Ethical Systems

Idle Theory offers, at least in outline, a new ethical theory, a new theory about how to tell right from wrong, and good from evil. But there are quite a few ethical theories around, of one sort or other. Is this Idle Ethics a better ethical theory than them? And indeed, can one ever show that one system of ethics is better than another?

We might begin by comparing Idle Ethics with the Utilitarian ethics to which it is closely related. And then we might compare it with Christian ethics. And then with other ethical systems.


In some respects, Idle Theory represents an advance on Utilitarianism. By replacing happiness with idleness it moves from an incommensurable psychological measure of wellbeing to a commensurable physical measure of wellbeing. At the same time it puts top and bottom limits to an idleness which can range from 0% to 100%, whereas Utilitarianism's happiness would seem to be unlimited in its range - that is, for any degree of happiness, it would seem to be always possible to reach an even higher level of happiness. And for whatever depth of unhappiness anyone might endure, there would seem to always be an even lower depth that might be plumbed. These are significant differences, but the whole shift from happiness to idleness is very likely to have a Utiliitarian asking: "People may be very idle, but are they happy as a result? And if they are unhappy when they are idle, perhaps through boredom, and happier when they have some task to carry out, perhaps it would be better to surrender a bit of idleness in order to gain a little happiness?" And, perhaps more tellingly, a Utilitarian might object that Idle Theory's ethics are only half an ethics: they are really only concerned with how people come by idle time, and almost entirely unconcerned with what they do with such time, and in this respect Utilitarianism is clearly a more comprehensive ethical system, because it deals with all human life, whether busy or idle. And to this, Idle Theory might respond by suggesting that while the production of idle time is entirely the province of Idle Theory, perhaps the use of idle time might become entirely the province of Utilitarianism, and in their idle time men are guided by the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

This does not by any means explore the full extent of the divergence of Idle Theory from Utilitarianism, but it shows one way in which an accommodation might be reached between the two, a demarcation. In a perfectly idle society, people would adopt a Utilitarian ethics. But in a busy society, conduct would only be guided by Utilitarian considerations during idle time, and the remainder of the time would be governed by Idle Theory's idleness-maximizing ethics. Everyone would have two ethical systems, one they employed at work, the other at play.

Christian Ethics

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that has been under discussion for some 200 - 300 years in Western society. But it was preceded by a Christian ethics some 2000 years old, and perhaps at least another 1000 years or so older in its Mosaic origins, and a set of Christian ethical precepts which are still very much in use today. Indeed, Utilitarianism might be regarded as a rational, secular Christian ethics - and very much the junior partner to its august and ancient predecessor. In certain profound senses, it might be suggested that Utilitarianism is only an acceptable ethics to the degree that it corresponded with Christian ethics. If, for example, Utilitarianism had proposed that theft and murder were fine, if that was what made people happy, Utilitarianism would have been damned from every pulpit, and its advocates burned at the stake.

The principal difference between Idle Theory and Utilitarianism on the one hand, and Christianity on the other hand, is that both the former employ a similar sort of ethical rationality, totting up the gains and losses consequent upon some action, and determining its merits and demerits upon this basis. However, Christianity lacks such an internal rationality. Instead of depending upon a rationality, it depends upon the authority of prophets and teachers. The teachings of Christianity are true, not because they have an explicable rationality, but because they are derived from a chain of authority that extends all the way up to God. And there is no arguing with God.

Thus when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone, he was setting out divine law. But he neglected to set out beside them the divine reasoning from which these ten commandments had been deduced. That is, Moses did not explain why the law was this way, and not some other way. The Ten Commandments, it might be suggested, are like the Theorem of Pythagoras - but without the proof of the theorem, the reasoning underlying it.

Equally, Christianity has the extra complication that its founder, Jesus, added a new commandment: "Love one another". And it is not entirely clear whether this was an extra commandment - an Eleventh Commandment -, or a single commandment which incorporates and supersedes all the other commandments.

Ethical systems, of whatever sort, that rest upon the authority of founding fathers, prophets, and the like, all share certain inherent weaknesses. And these are that with the lapse of time, it becomes less clear what their teachings actually meant. When Moses enjoins men to worship God, what did he mean by 'worship' and 'God'? And once Moses has faded into history, and is unable to answer such questions, is there any way of ever finding out? The authority of Moses devolved after his death upon a priesthood which, despite its best efforts, could never quite match the authority of Moses. Equally, in Christianity, the teachings of Jesus were taught by his apostles and their successors, none of whom ever attained the same authority as the founder. And over time, the authority of the teachings comes more and more into question. And its accuracy was also the more questioned, the more it was translated and retranslated into new languages. And if the priesthood guarding the sacred teachings ever became corrupt, what little of their authority that remained was entirely lost.

Authoritarian teachings are sandcastles erected by their founders and builders, and doomed to slowly erode away thereafter. And the usual result is that, when authoritarian teachings have eroded away to oblivion, a new founder and builder appears to erect a new sandcastle. Hence the succession of prophets.

By contrast, systems of ethical rationality, such as Utilitarianism, do not depend on authority figures. The Euclidean proof of the theorem of Pythagoras is as perfectly well understood now as it was when Euclid first set it out some 2500 years ago. The Theorem of Pythagoras does not rest upon the authority of Pythagoras, or Euclid, or anyone else, but upon their reasoning. And in exactly the same way, Newtonian mechanics does not rest upon the authority of Newton, but upon his reasoning. And it is possible for their disciples to question their rationality, to propose changes, improvements, additions, and restatements. Newton's record as an alchemist, and as a hanging judge, are merely sources of mild embarrassment - as is the Pythagorean injunction to not eat beans. But nobody can ever say that Jesus multiplied his loaves and fishes incorrectly, and should have been able to feed 25,000, rather than a mere 5,000.

And one may know whenever one is dealing with an authoritarian teaching, because it will be invariably rest upon a single individual. Like Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed. Or upon Marx, or Freud, or Darwin.

While the ethics of Idle Theory has much in common with a numerical Utilitarianism, it also seems to share, or at least accommodate, some of Christian ethics. While the price of misconduct in Utilitarian ethics is unhappiness, the price of misconduct in Idle Theory is toil, suffering, and ultimately death. And the highest reward is that of immortality. Idle Theory's ethic is ultimately a matter of life and death, and in this respect it offers a ghostly reflection of a Christian ethical imperative which offers, on the one hand, everlasting life in paradise for the righteous, and on the other hand, eternal suffering in hell for the sinful. However, Idle Theory offers no afterlife, and no resurrection, and no Last Judgment. Instead, if there is an afterlife, it can only be future human life, life yet unborn. And if there is any Last Judgment, it will be one which finally consigns humanity either to immortality or to extinction.

Other shared elements are the specifically Christian injunction to "Love one another", at least in the abbreviated advice to be considerate towards others. And Idle Theory also suggests something very like Christian foregiveness, given that it sees human life as inherently unfree, actions never fully chosen, and therefore never entirely culpable.

There are no supernatural elements in the completely naturalistic Idle Theory. There is no supernatural God nor angels nor devils nor spirits, no heaven nor hell. Instead the supernatural is naturalised. The one good of Idle Theory is idle time, and the one evil its absence. Heaven is an easy life, and hell is a hard life. And although idle time might seem to be an abstraction, it is actually perfectly real, and it forms the foundation of all experience. If anyone can gaze out of a window and watch a bird fly past, they can only do so in idle time. To the extent that a human life is made up of such experience, it is only to be found in idle time. The good of Idle Theory is not abstract at all, but everyday experience.

And in Idle Theory, apart from enjoying their lives, the best that men can hope to do is to leave this world a slightly better (i.e. more idle) place than they found it, and the worst is to leave it rather worse (i.e. busier). And it is for posterity to judge who added to human idleness, and who substracted. For it is only posterity which can determine all the consequences that flow from the actions of any man.

The lives we lead are like those of droplets of water in a fountain. In our youth we are thrown up towards the sky, and in our old age we fall back down. And for a while we enjoy a spherical droplet individuality, a separate existence, before we fall back into the lake to merge back into its waters. And while we rise and fall, the sunlight is refracted through our droplet eyes, and onto other droplets, creating patterns and rainbows.

The Ethics of Self-interest

Apart from co-operative Utilitarian and Christian ethics, Idle Theory is also interested in what might be termed the ethics of coercion and self-interest. Human history is, or seems to be, one long litany of war, violence, theft, slavery, rape, fraud, and deception. In some senses, it might be said of all systems of ethics that they attempt to construct some alternative to a primary and original coercive ethic: the ethics of conquerors and pirates, of highwaymen and bandits - the ethics of Mafia hitmen. The ethical code of mafia hitmen is also a coherent ethical system.

And from the point of view of Idle Theory, such coercive ethics regularly accompanies the busy sort of human life. In the end, all the conquerors and pirates ever wanted was an easy life, and the simplest way to come by this was regularly to steal it from others. Mafia hitmen are not evil, not different from other men in their aims: they simply choose what appears to be the quickest way to a life of leisure.

And where human life was largely one unending busy round of toil, unassisted by technological innovations that relieved them of their burden of work, as it has been the case for almost the entirety of recorded human history, the only way to come by a life of leisure was through slavery and theft and fraud. One could only live a life of leisure at the expense of others, by getting others to do one's work for one.

It is only as technological innovation - usually as the spin-off of all-important military technological innovation - has gradually begun to reduce the burden of human work, and increase human idleness, that another route to a life of leisure has very slowly opened up. Coercion is no longer the only way to a life of leisure. And indeed, the ethics of coercion regularly serves to reduce idleness, and maintain a vicious cycle of coercive violence.

In Idle Theory, human violence and aggression is not seen as an inherent human trait, part of some fundamentally flawed human nature, but instead a consequence of an enduring human condition of toil. That is to say that, if human society were perfectly idle, there would be no war, no slavery, no murder, no theft - because there would simply be no longer be any need for it. Once we can all get rich, there is no need for any of us to get rich at the expense of anyone else. And even Darwinists and mafia hitmen may understand this one day.

And, in this manner, Idle Theory can incorporate within itself the ethics of coercion from which all ethical theorists have always been trying to escape.

Ethical Evolution

This essay has, thus far, concerned itself with comparing the ethics of Idle Theory with a variety of other ethical codes. With Utilitarianism. With Christianity. With an ancient ethic of coercion. It has set out to place itself in an ethical universe.

But if Idle Theory can accommodate, and to some extent incorporate, Utilitarianism and Christianity and the Royal & Ancient ethics of coercion, can it yet claim to have attained some absolute ethical truth? What if Christianity, Utilitarianism, and mafia hitmen were all wrong? All utterly mistaken? By comparing itself to these differing ethical codes, Idle Theory simply positions itself relative to them in some respect. But it provides no absolute position.

Is there an absolute ethical truth out there somewhere, of which all existing ethical codes are more or less inaccurate approximations?

That kind of question presupposes that ethics is like physics, always putting together better theories to explain the facts. We start out thinking of the Earth as flat and the the stars sprinkled on the bowl of the sky. Then we think of the Earth as a sphere with the sun and the planets and the stars rotating round it. Then we think of the Earth as spinning on its axis as it revolves with other planets around the sun. At each step, our theoretical model explains more, and gets a bit closer to some hidden ultimate truth.

But we can't do that with ethics, because there are no ethical facts out there - like stars and planets - to construct theories around. Ethical codes are instead themselves theories about how to behave, how to act in time. Ethical codes are factual in the sense that everyone, indeed every living thing, has some sort of code of conduct, because all life acts in some manner, doing one thing rather than another. Bees collect nectar, and cows eat grass, and buzzards eat small rodents and birds: these are their codes of conduct, and they're probably wired into them. And the code of the buzzard, its talons, its hooked beak, and its sharp eyes, are all infinitely interconnected with each other. One might think of the process of evolution as entailing tiny shifts in codes of conduct which result in subtle changes in animal shape, or changes in shape that result in changes in conduct. Whole new species of birds might arise simply by shifting from eating one kind of seed or fruit or insect to another, or whose wings changed subtle shape.

If ethics isn't a problem for most plants and animals, it's probably because their ethics is as hardwired into them as are their branches and their eyes. Ethics becomes a problem when codes of conduct cease to be hardwired, and become reconfigurable software. Then living creatures start to be able to consider and choose between different courses of action, and the question arises: which is the best course of action? And most likely, for the most part, they do what's easiest. Cattle feed where the grass is greenest. Lions chase the slowest deer. It's the operation of the principle of least action.

And in this respect, a human ethics of theft and coercion is the principle of least action in operation. It's easier to steal bread rather than bake it yourself. It's easier to kill a man for his wallet, or his liver, than to earn it through honest work. And in the natural world, deer are regularly snatching leaves off plants, and lions are killing and eating deer, without having a second thought about it.

Such casual theft only becomes a problem when humans begin to form cooperative groups. In such cooperative groups, people can no longer act as autonomous agents, solely looking after their own interests, doing what they felt like when they felt like it. A human hunting society would cease to function if, as soon as it caught some animal, one of its members ran off with the catch, to eat all for himself, without sharing it with the others. In such societies, there's an inevitable tension between an individual's own self-interest and the interest of the society in which he finds himself. Perhaps some humans never learnt how to cooperate with other humans, and could only ever consider their own interests.

In many ways, what we condemn as criminal behaviour is simply the expression of natural self-interest. There's nothing wrong with self-interest. It's essential for survival. If people lost all self-interest, and became selflessly concerned with the wellbeing of society, then a hunting society that captured some animal would find its members refusing to eat it themselves, and offering it to others, who would in turn refuse it, and nobody would eat at all. A society can die of selflessness, just as it can die of selfishness. There has to be a balance struck between selfishly doing what you like, and selflessly doing what others want. It is the balance between idleness and busyness. In our idle time, we do what we like. In our busy time, we do what others want of us - baking bread, tending cattle, building roads.

In a human hunting society, the rules were probably pretty simple. But as human societies evolved into complex civilisations, the rules multiplied. And to make sure that people knew the rules, they were written in stone for them to read. And they were backed up by penalties. And yet these systems of rules and laws were in continual flux. The Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) is both longwinded and ferocious. The Mosaic Ten Commandments (1200 - 1500 BC) are, by comparison, brief and to the point. The single commandment of Jesus ( 0 BC ) represents a further simplification and compression. It might be said that what is happening here is a process of simplification: that as the rules and laws governing complex human societies multiplied, so the attempt was made to simplify them. And indeed, all ethical thinking might always be regarded as the attempt to formalise, simplify, streamline, and rationalise ethical codes.

Seen from an evolutionary perspective, ethical codes are in continuous change and development. They never remain the same.

The ethic of self-interest might be regarded as the primary ethical code that governs all living things, and is essential to their survival. This is now regarded as the epitome of unethical behaviour, but only because pure self-interest within human society is intolerable and destructive. The formation of human societies required the adoption of rules which later became formalised as laws, which were established upon the command of kings, prophets, and other authorities. More recently, the attempt has been made to establish ethical principles upon reason rather than authority. This also is an attempt at simplification. Utilitarianism is one example. Idle Theory is another.

The Threat of Ethical Chaos

We live in a dangerous time. It is a time in which authoritarian religious ethical teachings are in decay. The rise of religious fundamentalism, of papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy, is part of a doomed attempt to restore this lost authority. But it is also a time when ethical rationality, if one can ever be found, is in its infancy. And so we live without either authority or reason. The ethical ground is vanishing from under our feet.

With the inexorable decline of religious authority, and in the absence of an ethical rationality, one inevitable result must be a growing profusion of novel ethical beliefs. If our time is one in which strange cults and sects arise, it is because in a deepening ethical vacuum, ethical codes are torn apart, recombining and mutating in strange and unpredictable ways. In the absence of both constraining authority and restraining rationality, it becomes possible for people to come to believe almost anything. And this is a dangerous circumstance, because human society depends upon ethical conduct in almost all its activities, and would disintegrate without such conduct, bringing not merely chaos but toil and suffering and death.

At the moment, the only people who can see the danger are the religious custodians of ethics. And their response is to try to go back to Mohammed, back to Jesus, back to Moses. But there is no way back.

One day the liberals who have been cheerfully tossing moral codes out of the window for years, like so many old books, so as to free humanity of their onerous demands, will suddenly realize that we actually do need moral codes, and do need laws. Maybe not all the trivial ordinances we presently endure, but some that are in some sense fundamental to human existence. They will realize the need for it when people start doing the weirdest and most unexpected things, adopting the most bizarre and perverse opinions, and doing the most hideous things. Liberals who have been working for years to dispose of morality will suddenly find themselves pressingly concerned with its conservation. And knowing that there is no way back to Jesus, no way back to any such authority, they will begin to search furiously for an ethical rationality. And they will look not to the prophets, but to science and to reason.

In the impending era of ethical chaos, a presently lapsed ethical debate, largely continued by a few obscure academics and theologians, ethics - and perhaps theology - will spring to life, and reclaim its mantle and crown as the queen of the sciences. A debate that is now barely a whisper will become a loud babble. And the essence of that debate will be whether we should go back, or go forward. Whether we should seek authority, or reason.

Out on the high seas, an argument will break out among the crew of the lifeboat of humanity. Should we go back to that all-too-real shipwreck, or forward to a distant but perhaps imaginary land?

That which is immoral must also be irrational.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: July 2006