Ethical Naturalism

Idle Theory's ethics is perhaps an example of an ethical naturalism which argues that our ethical codes originate in our physical nature. In Idle Theory, living creatures are seen as alternating between busy and idle states. But these two states are not equivalent or interchangeable: a creature's idleness is a measure of how alive and well and free it is, and its busyness is a measure of how dead, unwell, and constrained it is. Perfect idleness corresponds with immortality, and complete busyness corresponds with death. If half some set of living creatures were to value idleness, and the other half to value busyness, the busyness-valuing subset would act to reduce their idleness, and as a consequence would rapidly die out, leaving only the idleness-preferring subset. Thus Idle Theory argues that living creatures must prefer idleness to busyness if they are to survive. And indeed, living creatures - humans included - regularly demonstrate this preference. It is upon this basis that Idle Theory constructs an ethics in which idleness is valued, and busyness devalued.

However, in his book Rationalism, author John Cottingham expresses doubts about the prospects for ethical naturalism.

Even if moral principles cannot be discovered a priori, by 'pure reason', it still remains possible that they might be derivable from the investigation of certain facts about human nature or the human situation. This approach which may loosely be termed 'ethical naturalism' is followed by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, where we are offered an account of the good for man which is based on an analysis of man's essential nature and his characteristic 'ergon' or function. During most of our century, however, the prospects for ethical naturalism have looked distinctly dim..
(John Cottingham. Rationalism. Ch. V)

Cottingham cites two objections to ethical naturalism.

1. The 'Naturalistic Fallacy'

The first challenge is posed by what has come to be known as the doctrine of the 'naturalistic fallacy'. This doctrine states that any attempt to derive moral or evaluative conclusions from 'natural' (factual or non-evaluative) premises is illegitimate. This is another area where the work of Hume has been powerfully influential. For it was Hume who first spotlighted the logical difficulty of deriving a proposition containing an 'ought' from a proposition, or set of propositions, containing merely 'is' statements. 'It seems altogether inconceivable how this new relation [expressed by 'ought'] can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.'

Living creatures do not exist unconditionally. They have to work to survive. And they cannot work aimlessly. They must have survival strategies to govern their behaviour.

A tree grows leaves in spring, and the leaves capture solar energy through the summer, and fall off in autumn, and the tree lives on through the winter on the energy it has stored up in the summer. And maybe if it stores up more than it needs to survive the winter, it uses the surplus to flower and seed. The tree does not need to be conscious of these rules of behaviour. They may be built into every cell of the tree, and activated by heat or cold, like thermostat switches. But the tree needs the strategy inherent in its rules of behaviour if it is to survive. And probably these survival strategies vary from one species of tree to another, and not only determining when they grow and let fall leaves and seeds, but governing the shape and distribution of branches and leaves. All the different species of trees may be nothing but the many different strategies of a single primal tree, some suitable for warm humid tropics, others for cold or dry climates, some for marshlands, others for deserts.

The same applies to animals of every kind, from the smallest to the largest. Each one must go about and find food to eat, employing some strategy to discover it. And many of them, like trees, may stock up in the abundance of summer, and then hibernate through the barren winter.

All living creatures need rules to govern their behaviour. An animal does not consist merely of legs, mouth, and digestive tract, etc, but must also have some some strategy - a set of rules - which coordinate its component parts to find and eat food. Grazing cattle are not crude aimless lawnmowers mechanically stripping fields of their grass. Nor are the smallest gnats that feast on the sweet sap in grass and leaves. The rules that govern the behaviour of the smallest and simplest creatures may well be hard-wired into them from their first inception. But they are still rules for all that. And these rules of behaviour, even if fixed in a few dozen neuronal switches, are as essential a component part of them as legs, intestines, teeth, or wings. For without a set of rules to direct their behaviour, they would no more successfully survive than if they had no legs or teeth or wings.

The stems of many plants bend towards the light, and the effect is to have them present their leaves towards the sun as it curves across the sky. This may be simply the result of cells in the stems drying and contracting on the sunlit side, while remaining engorged in the shade. But its effect is to provide a guidance system to allow a plant to track the movement of the sun. It could be that nature first threw up a variety of plants, some of which bent sideways to the sun, and some away from the sun, and natural selection favoured the ones which bent towards the sun. By whatever means this process arose, it became part of the plant's guidance sytem, along with those processes by which deciduous trees shed their leaves in winter, and grow them again come spring.

The more complex some creature becomes, the more complex its control system becomes. Given a variety of food sources, from seeds and berries to insects and worms, a bird may choose to only eat those which are energy-rich, or abundant, or close nearby, rather than simply eating anything and everything. Perhaps as birds eat different foods, they discover and remember their nutrient values, and build up a store of experience, a map of the locality, and a list of favoured and unfavoured foods, and their location and abundance, and go down this list as they go about their everyday business.

And, in even more complex control systems, these maps and lists may form the basis of a simulation model of the physical environment, in which virtual reality a creature can move in its imagination. And using this simulation model, it may consider a whole range of plans of action, before choosing one to actually carry out. And as its store of information and strategies increases, it may exchange this knowledge with that of other creatures, teaching and being taught, by example, or through gestures, symbols, or words.

And at a further stage of development, a creature may begin to consider not simply alternative plans of action, but also its criteria for choosing between them, asking whether to act according to custom, or habit, or impulse, or from some general rule. And so it begins to engage in ethical debate, about what is best and worst, what is right and wrong.

And as a creature dwells ever more in an imaginary virtual reality, spending more time in its virtual world than in the real world, so it may begin to seem to it that this inner 'spiritual' world is the true reality, and the former real world an illusion, and say to itself, "How can prescriptive statements be derived from descriptive observation?" And yet this is what living creatures have been doing since the dawn of life, looking at the world around them, weighing up different courses of action, and adopting one or other of them.

And so we pass from humble bacteria to David Hume. Both have survival strategies, one simple, unalterable, and unconscious, the other complex, malleable, and conscious. The first goes about its everyday business without a second thought, while the second professes itself baffled.

Some strategy, some set of rules of behaviour, hard-wired or adjustable in a neural network, is an essential part of every living creature, plant or animal. And, being a natural part of a creature, these survival strategies - which inform the creature as to what it ought to do - cannot be separated out as being in some sense 'entirely different' from the rest of the creature. Certainly those neural networks perform a unique task - but so also do kidneys. Strategies and rules of behaviour are built into living creatures of every kind, and are part of what they are, and are vital for their survival. The 'oughtness' of a creature is part of what it 'is'. And although the process of deciding what ought to be done is different from what is done, the two are bound up together.

And in this manner, one can dispose of the 'naturalistic fallacy', by arguing that 'ought' is just another kind of 'is', and that a value system is as indispensable a component of a living creature as heart or stomach or lungs.

But Cottingham has a second objection to ethical naturalism.

2. Existential Freedom

The challenge of existentialism. The second major challenge to naturalism arises as follows If an ethical system is to be based on an analysis of human nature, there must be an identifiable human nature or essence: there must be a characteristic set of properties which define our essential nature as human beings... Yet this notion of a fundamental human essence that constrains our ethical choice is precisely what has been challenged by the existentialist movement within philosophy... The Sartrean slogan 'existence precedes essence' means in effect that that for human beings there is no fixed, determined 'essence' or 'nature' which limits our freedom. A mere thing, or ętre en soi, can only do what is in its nature to do; a machine, or even an animal, is in the position of existing within the framework of a predetermined set of essential dispositions and responses. But for a human being, and ętre pour soi existence comes first; that is, we find ourselves here in the world faced with a choice of how to live - there are no 'givens'. The belief in 'human nature' as a limiting factor which exists prior to our choice is a case of 'bad faith'; our choice is absolutely free and unrestricted by any prior constraints.

For Sartre, a man first exists, and then he determines what will be his essence. This is a responsibility from which most people flinch, appealing to the will of God, or some psychological determinism, or claiming they are creatures of habit, or victims of other people's actions. For Sartre, to avoid choice in this way, was inauthenticity or mauvais foi, the cardinal sin of existential morality. We are in short, absolutely free to make what we will of ourselves, and to say otherwise is to shirk responsibility.

But from the point of view of Idle Theory, this Sartrean existentialism appears to be another manifestation of the modern Rosy Vision of complete freedom, the idea that all human time is idle time. If such were the case, then it would indeed be up to us to make of ourselves what we willed. But it remains the case that living creatures, humans and animals, do not unconditionally exist: they must work to survive. And that work places a constraint upon their freedom. For some part of their time they must perform the work that is necessary for their survival. If they choose not to perform it, then they choose to die. And choosing to die is to choose to stop choosing. And any ethical system must be about people who choose to live, not those who have chosen to die, and therefore performing the necessary work of survival is an essential component of any life.

Life does not consist of leisure. We are not always entirely free to choose what to do, and to invent ourselves. We only have that freedom in our idle time, once necessary work has been done.

The only extent to which existentialism has a point to make is in respect of idle time. During that time, we are genuinely free, and we do bear a responsibility in that time, of what we make of ourselves. And it would indeed be 'bad faith' to try to avoid that freedom, and claim to be the creature of our psychology, or our genes, or of habit and custom. In that respect, Sartre is making a valid point: we must face up to the freedom inherent in our idle time.

Put another way, then if Sartre is universally right, then the slaves on the latifundia of Rome, or the helots of Sparta, were as free as their masters. And so also is every prisoner languishing in a cell. What may well have been true for a prosperous Parisian intellectual, declaiming in some bistro by the Seine, was not the regular and ordinary circumstance of humanity.

Cottingham goes on:

If the contrast between the naturalist and the existentialist is put as starkly as this, then it may at first sight appear that it is the naturalist position which is robustly realistic and backed by common sense, while the existentialist claim belongs to the world of fantasy. The existentialist seems to be talking as if a human being is a pure mind who creates his future ex nihilo. Yet it can hardly be denied that first of all, man is a physical, three-dimensional being, subject, like any other such being, to innumerable physical constraints, such as the law of gravity. Second, and more importantly, he is an animal - a warm-blooded animal with a specific genetic inheritance. All this seems so straightforward and obvious as to make the Sartrean refusal to acknowledge any limitation on our freedom seem either perverse or fatuous.

Quite so. And this is what Idle Theory argues, although using different terminology.

However, to leave the matter thus is to miss the point of the existentialist rejection of the idea of human nature or essence. Statements about essences license universal necessary truths. All water must evaporate when heated above 100 degrees Celsius at a certain pressure: it is of the nature or essence of water to do so. Similarly, all cows, placed in a field under suitable conditions, are bound to eat grass - that is their nature. But - and here is the existentialist's point - there are no such universal predictions that can validly be made about human beings. Of course, if you push someone over a cliff, he will fall; but that is true of him qua physical object, not qua person. Of course, if you deprive him of food or air he will die; but that is true of him qua animal. But in so far as he is a human being there is, quite literally, nothing that can be safely predicted.

Here Cottingham treats cows as if they were automatons which, once placed in a meadow, simply chugged round eatimg grass. If Cottingham had actually watched cows in a field, he would have rapidly discovered that they don't spend all their time eating grass, but that they also lie down, mount one another, amble about looking over hedges, follow each other around, and engage in any number of other activities. There is, in short, quite literally, nothing that can be safely predicted about cows. Cottingham's distinction between human and animal breaks down on first inspection.

From the point of view of Idle Theory, this is because both cows and humans have disposable idle time in which they can behave as they choose. Cottingham's assumption that cows just eat grass entails a denial that cows have any idle time, and that they are constrained to eat grass continually. What Cottingham calls "human" as opposed to "animal" is really "idle" as opposed to "busy", and as far as anyone is a human being - i.e. idle - nothing can be safely predicted about them. Cottingham's animals are continuously busy eating grass, and entirely constrained and predictable. By contrast, Cottingham's humans are continuously idle, and entirely unconstrained, and completely unpredictable. And yet it is perfectly possible for human life to be so difficult that it becomes a busy, "animal" existence. Simply being human doesn't guarantee humanity.

Sartre may have a point about freedom, but it is a secondary point. For all living creatures the primary imperative is to maximise idle time. What is thereafter done within that restricted idle time, which is a state of absolute freedom, is an entirely secondary question.

3. The Open Question

Not mentioned by Cottingham, but related, is G. E. Moore's Open Question argument

Moore claimed that for any proposed naturalistic property, N, we may know that X is N and yet whether X is good will still be an open question. That is, even though is clear that X is N, we may still sensibly ask “But is X good?”

Idle time is a naturalistic property. And so the appropriate open question would be: "Is idle time good?"

Idle Theory's response to this question is to point out that asking questions like "Is X good?", and indeed engaging in any sort of philosophical speculation, are idle time activities. Busy people, lacking idle time, cannot ask such questions, or engage in philosophical speculation. And so the question can be turned back on itself, and become: "Is it good to be able to ask 'Is X good?'" Or more simply, "Is it good to be be able to ask questions?" If the answer is no, then idle time is not worth having, and the open question is not worth asking, and indeed all philosophy becomes worthless. If the answer is yes, then philosophy is worthwhile, and the open question is worth asking, and the idle time needed to ask the open question is worth its while.

So Idle Theory sets up a trap. If the open question "Is idle time good?" is answered in the negative, then it follows that it is not good to have the idle time in which to ask questions like "Is idle time good?", that the open question is not worth asking, and that G. E. Moore was a worthless philosopher (along with all other philosophers). Anyone who denies the worth of asking questions, and of having the time to ask such questions, should not be asking questions. The only escape from such a self-destruction is to answer the open question with the positive. For a negative answer forbids one from asking the question in the first place.

4. Comparison with Evolutionary Ethics

Evolutionary ethics is a parallel piece of naturalistic ethics which argues, like Idle Theory, that ethical values are to be found in nature, and ethical codes evolved to "to minimize pain, suffering and death and to maximize societal efficiency, harmony and prosperity."1. But, beyond saying that our ethical codes evolved to be what they are, evolutionary ethics doesn't appear to have proposed any practical ethical advice. Evolutionary ethics appears simply to be saying that our ethical codes evolved over many millennia, and nothing more. And since we have ethical dilemmas (e.g. 'pro-life' anti-abortionists against 'pro-choice' abortionists), evolutionary ethics might simply be saying that our ethical dilemmas also evolved along with our ethical codes, and that in the fullness of time these will be resolved, and replaced by new ethical codes, and presumably new ethical dilemmas. And evolutionary ethics' practical ethical advice would seem to be to say, "Wait another million years, and your current ethical dilemmas will vanish, as your ethical codes continue to evolve." Which is, of course, no practical ethical advice at all.

Idle Theory is taking a similar line as evolutionary ethics. The primary difference is that Idle Theory uses a busy-idle terminology in which terms like pain, suffering, death, efficiency, and prosperity are all treated as degrees of idleness. Idle Theory is highly reductive, and as a result is mathematical in character. Suffering, death, efficiency, harmony and prosperity are all qualitative terms, and none can be used mathematically. (It may be true that'efficiency' has a precise meaning in physics, but that does not mean that 'efficiency' is being used here in that sense.)

In many ways, Idle Theory's ethics correspond most closely to a Utilitarianism which regards 'happiness' as the prime goal, the one good, of ethical endeavour. But 'happiness', like 'prosperity' and 'harmony' is also a qualitative term. Yet since 'happiness' was the singular good of Utilitarian thought, it anyway came to be regarded as a numerical quantity, U, to be added and subtracted and multiplied. Neoclassical economists constructed a vast mathematical system around this imaginary quantity, U. Unfortunately, their endeavours never really quantified 'happiness' or 'utility', but instead only generated an imaginary economics.

Idle Theory's variant of Utilitarianism gives primacy to 'Idleness' rather than 'Happiness'. And Idleness is a dimensionless ratio of two periods of time. Thus Idle Theory's ethics is a clock-based ethics that seeks to maximize idleness rather than happiness. And since its fundamental terms are quantitative clock time rather than qualitative 'happiness', Idle Theory's mathematics is considerably more robust than that of Utilitarian neo-classical economics.

Of course, Utilitarians looking at Idle Theory are entitled to ask another open question: "In Idle Theory's ideal world people may well be idle, but will they be happy?" And the answer must be that they may or may not be happy, in some smiling and joyful sense. They may be aimless and bored. They may contemplate dark and forbidding dreams. But the same Utilitarian question might be asked of seamen rescued from some shipwreck: "They may well be safe on dry land, but will they be happy?" To which the answer must be that after being saved they will continue to live ordinary lives, happy sometimes, unhappy others, and to be saved from shipwreck does not guarantee happiness. It simply makes it a little more probable. So also with idleness.

Anyway, evolutionary ethics has not appeared able, as yet, to actually address any ethical problems, and argue them in evolutionary ethical terms, because there is no mathematical terminology in evolutionary ethics (the ability to calculate gene frequencies is ethically irrelevant). Given its reductive mathematical terminology, Idle Theory is able to actually address some ethical problems, and argue their cases in Idle Theory's terms.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Dec 2004