Idle Theory Some General Remarks on Ethics

Idle Theory and Ethics.

Idle Theory chops time in two, into busy and idle time. Idle Theory does the same thing with economics, when it divides products into 'useful tools' which generate idle time, and 'luxuries and toys' which use up idle time. Its approach to ethics is also, characteristically, to chop it in half. In its ethical exploration, Idle Theory is primarily concerned with behaviour that increases (or decreases) idle time, and only secondarily interested in what people do in their idle time.

The primary idle-time-producing ethical discussion deals with imperatives. Primary ethics is a matter of life and death, because when idleness falls to zero death ensues. The primary discussion is also inherently rational and mathematical, because it deals with units of time, and is always asking: "Does this action or behaviour or custom increase or decrease human idleness?" If some practice or custom increases idle time, it's a good thing. If not, it's a bad thing, or a waste of time.

By contrast, the secondary ethical discussion is more concerned with idle time activities, with aesthetics and the rules of games. There seems no obviously rational reason to suppose that one set of rules for the game of cricket is better than any other. There is no imperative demanding that one set be preferred over another: it's not a matter of life and death. Secondary ethics is non-rational, non-mathematical, unimportant. If some people like cricket, and others prefer golf, then fine, so be it. What people do in their idle time only matters if it has primary ethical consequences, and has effects upon idleness.

Comparing Idle Theory with other ethical systems

One problem for Idle Theory might be framed as a question: Does Idle Theory offer a good basis for ethical reasoning? Does it contradict accepted canons of ethical behaviour?

After all, one may well have strong reservations about any ethical theory that advocated wholesale murder, theft, rape, and vandalism - simply because most people believe, from custom, philosophy, religious belief, or gut feeling, that such behaviour is wrong. So Idle Theory has to be compared against existing ethical norms, to see how it measures up.

Fortunately, it seems that Idle Theory compares quite well, even if it offers different reasons to justify accepted norms. Murder is wrong in Idle Theory because it deprives the murdered of their idle time of life. Theft is wrong because it takes away idle time. Rape is wrong because it can result in unwanted pregnancy and disease and injury, all of which reduce idle time. Vandalism of tools and equipment and buildings also brings reductions in idle time. By and large, therefore, Idle Theory would not appear to contradict generally accepted ethical norms.

But what if, somewhere down the line, it disagrees with received wisdom? How, given a whole set of different ethical codes, does one choose between them? Some other 'super-ethics' would seem to be needed to choose which ethical systems are 'better' than others. One answer to this might be to study ethical systems to see whether they are internally consistent, devoid of contradiction. Another quite different answer may be that there is a process of natural selection at work in ethics, such that 'good' ethical systems bring prosperity and long life, while 'bad' ones result in poverty and death, so that good ethical systems tend to survive bad ones. And, given that our accepted ethical norms are almost certainly the result of thousands of years of ethical evolution, they ought to be taken very seriously, as being what has survived and endured.

But while most overt ethical systems, religious or secular, may currently be in broad agreement over most ethical matters, it was not always so historically. In the ancient world, the practice of slavery - now universally condemned - was widespread. And in modern times, it might be argued that a mafia gang has its own covert ethical codes, in which theft, murder, extortion, etc, are accepted as normal behaviour. Indeed, it might be argued that modern military ethical codes are not much different from those of mafia gangs, seeing the world as a perpetual Darwinian them-or-us struggle. These doctrines may not be formally set out in books, or argued about in universities, but they remain informal ethical systems all the same, and deserve examination.

Discounting intention, judgment, and emotion

Perhaps one outstanding difference between Idle Theory and other ethical systems is its one dimensional character, its reductionism. It concerns itself only with idle time gains and losses. And it concerns itself with outcomes rather than intentions. And it excludes judgments and opinions. And it does not regard actions as virtuous or honourable or right in and of themselves.

Thus, for example, Idle Theory's approach to something like theft does not deal with the intentions of the thief, who may have fully and knowingly intended to steal something, or merely to borrow it, or was unaware that anyone owned and used it, or thought it was his anyway by right, or was obliged to steal it, or acted upon sudden irrational impulse. Idle Theory simply looks at the outcome, the gains and losses of time to individuals that are consequent upon the act. And while outcomes may be known, there are profound senses in which intentions are unknowable. The difference between murder and manslaughter lies in the intention, but the outcome is the same. Serial killers are not discovered by knowing their intentions (and these intentions may frequently never be known), but from discovering the consequences of their acts.

And while Idle Theory tends to disregard intention, it also tends to disregard individual judgments or opinions about some act in weighing its consequent gains and losses. That is, how people feel about some action is not to be included in the weighing of its merits and demerits. Judgments, it is argued, cannot include other judgments among their considerations. Thus if a man has his wallet stolen, and is outraged because of it, it is the loss of his wallet that must be counted his loss, not his outrage, which is his personal and separate judgment.

Acts like murder and rape arouse strong emotion and strong condemnation. Serial killers evoke horror. Yet although these may be grave, from the point of view of Idle Theory it is most likely those quiet embezzlers who siphon off millions into their own pockets who deprive others of much more idle time than headlining serial killers. If a million pounds could secure a lifetime of leisure, then an embezzler or fraudster who steals 100 million pounds effectively takes 100 lives. Of course, embezzlers do not actually kill people, because they take a only a little from many, but their net effect is aguably greater than that of any serial killer.

Sex, violence, death, and the like arouse the strongest emotional responses. Fraud, embezzlement, and counterfeiting, by contrast, generally arouse little feeling. And so where morality is guided by emotion rather than reason, morality tends to concern itself more with sex and violence and other emotive issues. If 'having morals' simply means adhering to some sexual code of behaviour, this suggests that morality is guided more by emotion than by reason, and that morality is in decay. For if people only concern themselves matters which arouse strong feeling, they will tend to neglect the small dull everyday matters of life. In Idle Theory, most sexual activities are regarded as inconsequential and therefore unimportant.

Idle Theory, by contrast, would dispel all emotion from moral discourse. Acts should not be judged by the feelings of revulsion or anger they evoke, but by their concrete effects or consequences. This is not to diminish emotion, however. It may be that our emotional responses have some instinctive origin in our animal past, and once served us well. But once human society becomes becomes a complex system of manufacture and trade and money, instinctive feelings are poor guides to best practice. We would distrust anyone who designed a bridge or airplane using nothing but their gut feeling, and would instead require them to produce the calculations and models which are the rational underpinnings of their confidence in their designs. And if we require cold reasoning in the design of bridges and airplanes and roads, then we ought to be applying the same cold reasoning to our morality, which is at least as important, and arguably far more important, than any bridge or aircraft. And again, if gut feeling underpinned medicine, then nobody would ever have overcome the revulsion that disease and blood evoke, and never studied them dispassionately to discover their causes.

Equality and Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
(US Declaration of Independence)
From the point of view of idle theory, nobody has a "natural right" to anything. If anyone really has a right to life, then their death, by whatever manner, denies that right. Nor does anybody have a right to liberty, at least in the sense of liberty being the freedom to do as one chooses, because one is only at liberty to the extent that one is idle. In busy societies, there is no liberty, and in idle societies, there is much liberty, and there are no rights about it. Equally, to the extent that anyone wishes to pursue happiness (if happiness can be pursued at all), it is only in their idle hours that they may do this. The Declaration might have been better framed in the negative: that "nobody has any right to deprive another of life, liberty, or their particular pursuit of happiness."

Idle Theory has no doctrine of rights. If anything, it has a doctrine of no rights. Where it agrees with the Declaration is in "all men are created equal", which it would translate as: "My time is of equal value to your time. If we are to weigh up our respective gains and losses of time, we must weigh them equally."

Idle Theory is fundamentally egalitarian if only because it treats only with time. Time passes at exactly equally the same rate for everyone, and in this sense all men are inherently and unavoidably equal. One hour of idleness for a king is exactly as long as one hour of idleness for a beggar.

Economics and politics as ethical domains

Ethics is often portrayed as being concerned with certain narrow kinds of conduct: with theft, murder, lies, etc. And the remainder of human life is equally often portrayed as being beyond morality. Thus politics and law and particularly economics are regarded as entirely separate disciplines, and devoid of ethical content. Indeed, economics tends to be treated as if it were a separate science.

But from the point of view of Idle Theory, all human activity falls within the province of ethics. Ethics is concerned with every single thing anyone ever does. Law is inevitably an adjunct of ethics, because it is concerned with determining what kinds of behaviours are permissible and impermissible, and in providing restitution in the event of injury. Economics is fundamentally an ethical concern because it is primarily through technological innovation that human idleness is raised: economic growth is growth in idleness. Therefore economics is of primary ethical concern. Equally the political organisation of society, which is concerned with the overall regulation of society, in its legal and economic activities, and indeed in the overall goals of social development, is also helplessly enmeshed with ethics.

It is a misfortune that these various ethical, legal, economic, and political activities have been chopped up into disconnected studies or disciplines, even speaking different languages, when they are all inherently bound up together.

Ethics and Science

Modern science, despite its astonishing advances in physics, chemistry, and even biology, remains resolutely non-ethical. When asked ethical questions, scientists will routinely duck these questions by saying: "We study what is the case, not what ought to be the case." This is an answer which goes back to David Hume's assertion that he saw no way how 'ought'-statements could be derived from 'is'-statements. The natural sciences have, almost without exception, accepted this division of 'ought' and 'is', and stayed on the 'is' side of the border. As a consequence of this, there is no science of ethics, and ethics remains largely the province of religion and philosophy.

However, this division of 'ought' and 'is' is somewhat artificial. In reality, all living creatures need to have survival strategies just as much they need eyes and teeth and legs. They cannot live without them. And since a survival strategy is some sort of code of conduct, it may be argued that ethical codes of one sort or other are built into living creatures, and that 'ought' is part of 'is'. And therefore ethical codes should be studied by natural science. What may be a problem of language - deriving 'ought' from 'is' - is not a problem in the natural world of living creatures.

The failure of the natural sciences to conduct any ethical enquiries has meant that ethics has remained largely irrational. And this is probably the greatest failure of rational science. And underpinning this failure there would appear to be not so much a rationality, but rather a failure of nerve. Scientists appear to have simply not wanted to engage in ethical enquiries, because this particular area of discourse is very often animated by strong feelings and high emotions. Indeed, one of the merits of studying the motion of the planets, or the construction of galaxies, is that these are reassuring remote from the ugly world of everyday human life, and the study of science is a form of escapism. One is unlikely to meet hostility upon discovering a new moon of Jupiter, but to become ethically enterprising may result in one being burnt at the stake - like Giordano Bruno. If scientists do not want to engage in ethical enquiries, it is not that they are unable, but that they do not want to.

And yet if ethics - and economics and politics - remain largely irrational, and the field of high emotions and intense convictions, it is probably because of the failure of rational science to make any headway in them. They are arenas of emotion precisely to the degree that they are irrational, and not because they are inherently contentious.

Idle Theory simply explores one way that rational science might begin to develop an ethical and economic and political vision. Idle Theory's model of life is a simple physical model of an alternation between busy and idle states, and it uses this model to drive boldly into ethics and economics and politics. It may be that its arguments will be proved faulty, and its reason skewed - but it at least makes a fist of a rational ethics.

An Ethics of Time

Idle Theory's primary ethics is entirely concerned with gains and losses of time. And therefore the accurate measurement of time is of the highest importance, because without such a measure calculation and comparison are impossible. Clocks provide the prime ethical measure in Idle Theory.

It is primarily the activities undertaken during busy or working time that need to be measured, to determine where gains and losses have been made. There is little or no need for clocks in idle time. In a perfectly idle world, there would be little or no need for clocks. And it is precisely because ours is a busy, working world that clocks and watches are so ubiquitous and numerous.

Some ethical consequences

The kind of ethical code that would seem to grow from idle theory is one which is deeply concerned with how people behave in the serious business of earning their living, or acquiring idle time, and relatively unconcerned with what people do in their idle time, except to the extent that it has consequence upon idleness.

Much of conventional morality would appear to revolve around sexual conduct. But, in Idle Theory, sex is for the most part regarded as an inconsequential idle pursuit, however strong the emotions accompanying it. Sex only becomes of primary ethical concern when it has real consequences in the form of pregnancy, disease, or injury.

Equally, while much of conventional morality stigmatises the use of intoxicants like alcohol or hashish or cocaine, Idle Theory would disregard them if their use is confined to idle time. There is no harm in people getting drunk or stoned at parties. The only real problems arise where people are intoxicated while at work, or where they become disablingly addicted to some substance, or where their health suffers from excess use.

Or again, whatever anybody says or writes is of no importance, unless it has consequences in time. If one lies about whether one enjoyed lunch at one's mother-in-law's table, it is of no consequence. But if one lies by giving a traveller false directions, one may cost him much time, and therefore this lie has consequences. If one says of someone that he is an old fool, then it is a insult of little consequence. But if one says of a baker that his bread is always stale, then one deprives him of customers, and of his living.

Thus while Idle Theory appears to broadly follow the accepted canons of ethical conduct, it is likely to shift emphasis away from some activities, and towards others.

Normative and Positive Ethics

For the most part, Idle Theory's ethics is normative in the sense that it attempts to set out an outline code of conduct: act in that manner which either increases social idleness, or at least does not decrease it.

But in another sense Idle Theory's ethics is sometimes positive in the sense that it attempts to explain and describe why codes of behaviour may differ from place to place, or from time to time. For example, in low idleness societies, Idle Theory expects that such societies will be unable to support many non-working elderly or disabled people. They may not even be able to support non-working infants. So, in busy societies, these non-contributors would be left to die - because society simply could not afford to keep them alive. But in very idle societies, in which little work needs to be done, it becomes perfectly possible to care for the elderly and disabled, and it comes to be regarded as cruel and inhumane to just let them die. In this manner, a very different set of values is likely to operate in busy societies than in idle societies, and these antithetical value systems may sometimes come into conflict.

The contemporary dispute between pro- and anti-abortionists might be regarded as precisely such a conflict. Very roughly, pro-abortionists might be seen as regarding human society as being busy, and for it to be essential for parents - who have to work to support non-working infants - to themselves determine whether they can afford to support such children or not, and act accordingly. In some cases parents may decide that they can support another child, and in others that they can't. By contrast, anti-abortionists may be seen as regarding human society as largely idle, and therefore perfectly able to support any number of newborn infants. And because they regard society as perfectly able to support such infants, they hold it to be immoral to unnecessarily prevent new lives to be lived, regardless of parental decisions.

This divide is generally between a political left which tends to see human society as made up of busy and constrained workers, and a political right which tends to see human society as made up of largely idle and free individuals, doing as they choose. The work-centred left tends to be pro-abortion, and the leisure-centred right tends to be anti-abortion.

And so, from the point of view of Idle Theory, both pro- and anti-abortion value systems are valid ones, depending how idle society really is or is not. If society is busy, then abortion is an inescapable necessity. If society is idle, then abortion is entirely unnecessary. If the dispute is intense, it is perhaps because modern Western society is neither very busy nor very idle, but somewhere in between.

Idle Theory raises a similar argument in respect of slavery, which it explains as simply being the way, in busy societies, by which one set of people - slaveowners - became idle at the expense of another set of people - slaves. And Idle Theory suggests that the institution of slavery died out because, as human social idleness rose thanks to technological innovation, the institution of slavery simply became both unnecessary and unworkable. Busy societies need slavery, because it is the only way that some people can become idle. But idle societies have no need of such slavery. In modern Western society, the abolition of slavery is generally regarded as an example of moral progress, of people realising that it was wrong to enslave people, and so stop doing it. But from the point of view of Idle Theory, such 'moral progress' was actually simply the consequence of a rising social idleness that had rendered slavery unnecessary, and permitted 'moral progress'. By the same token, according to Idle Theory, if social idleness should fall, the institution of slavery will promptly re-appear, and be accompanied by 'moral barbarism'. If, for example, euthanasia and labour and death camps appeared in Nazi Germany, it may not have been that Germany had lapsed into moral barbarism, but instead that, in the aftermath of the First World War, German idleness had fallen (or was perceived to have fallen), and necessary measures were taken to unload the burden of the non-productive deformed, insane, criminal, workshy, and alien elements of society.

In respect of both abortion and slavery, Idle Theory isn't adopting a normative ethical view at all, but instead standing back and saying that in busy societies abortion and slavery are necessary - and therefore the right thing to do -, and in idle societies abortion and slavery are unnecessary - and therefore the wrong thing to do. Idle Theory makes no judgment one way or the other, but instead simply points out one of the determining factors in making a moral judgment. And in this manner, Idle Theory sets out to positively explain how people may come to hold entirely opposite moral views.

But to the degree that Idle Theory sets about positively explaining how and why people may hold radically different ethical views, to that degree it is also implicitly assuming that its ethical criteria are what actually govern human behaviour. Or, at least, it is postulating that ethical codes of conduct, however different, are consequences of the application of the same underlying set of ethical principles - in much the same way that the laws of physics result in entirely different consequences, given entirely different initial conditions.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Oct 2004
Last edited: Feb 2005