Like many young people with delusions of intellectualism, I once determined to devise a complete system of morality from first principles. The two rules I started with aren’t important, but when playing out scenarios to see if these standards gave results that aligned with my intuition I found that there wasn’t a way of acting in a purely good manner when responding to someone who meant to do harm. This lead to my first moral corollary: “there is no moral solution to an immoral situation.” And indeed, there were very few actions which could be taken in any circumstances that under my rules would be purely moral.1 Sex with a willing partner was one, so my moral system had that going for it at least.
Obviously, I’m not the first person to notice that moral perfection is impossible in life. Quite a few religions have this as dogma, though they may differ as to whether moral perfectibility is a possibility. They do tend to agree that you should at least make the attempt. I’m not so sure.
Here’s the thing – humans are impure. In our very essence. For our very existence. Purity in the physical world is literally death. For life to exist, for anything at all in the universe to happen, there needs to be asymmetry. “Pure” air isn’t. “Pure” water can’t exist for times that humans can perceive or under conditions that humans can survive. When the Heat Death of the universe occurs, all will be in perfect balance, perfectly in equilibrium, and perfectly dead. Nothing will ever happen again.
And yet, for a species that physically abhors perfection, we certainly do mentally or spiritually strive for it. A philosophy that isn’t self-consistent is rejected. We revere logic. We celebrate lives lived according to a “code.” We spend vast amounts of effort in discovering the rules under which the universe works, and more importantly, how these all must be rewrites of a single very simple set of rules. The quest for a Grand Unified Theory is one of faith that the universe is perfect. And so far, that faith seems justified. Math… works.2 A completely abstract coding system from inside the human mind seems to map exactly to the physical universe, to the extent that “the universe is made of math” is a cliché or truism among the young, hip, and self-consciously nerdy. General Relativity made successful predictions that couldn’t be confirmed for a hundred years until technology caught up. The De Broglie wavelength was a silly mathematical game that turned out to be physically real. e and pi pop up while investigating phenomena that have nothing to do with circles or growth.
So we are impure beings on an impure world in an out-of-balance universe. Why should we try to live according to logically perfect ideas? Maybe because the underlying quintessence of the universe is perfect? Except, no. It’s not, or at least there is evidence it’s not. There’s those nasty Goedel Incompleteness Theorems lurking about indicating that math itself isn’t perfect, and the success of quantum mechanics indicating that the universe has an indeterministic nature – that there is a certain irreducible unknowability to existence. So… the universe is also imperfect, or at least indistinguishable from one which is? Why then do we imperfect creatures want perfection?
I don’t know why, but I know that humans do. And we’re good at it. So good, that people are complacent in our ability to reason abstractly and follow logical chains. We are so used to having these chains work that we forget to check our work. So much begins with “if A, then B” but without bothering to check on the validity of A. And this problem begins to surface when people try to live their necessarily imperfect lives interacting with other necessarily imperfect people according to logically pure ideals3. It can’t work. And the more that a person tries to make it work, the more they add epicycles and strictures to support their effort in pure living, the more likely they are to come to the conclusions that (other) people are the problem. It was fashionable for quite a while to claim that religion was the greatest source of and most common cause for all of the horrors that humans inflict on each other. But to the extent that was ever true, it was just one special case of the general problem of valuing the perfect over the human, as the history of atheistic utopianism demonstrates.
My libertarianism (to the extent that label has any applicability) has strong overtones of harm reduction and “inactivism.” It seems to me that an angry person or a madman can hurt people, but to have industrial-scale carnage, you have to be striving for something more than personal satisfaction. When a cause is worth killing for, you can motivate people to kill for it. Ideals based on the concrete, a rejection of abstract utilitarianism, these things are self-limiting. Unless of course, you decide that the only right way of living is to live by such beliefs and the world could be made perfect if only everyone else would also live by these precepts…
So, if you find that you can’t live life exactly according to the precepts of a code/philosophy/religion that doesn’t make you a bad person (there are surely other reasons for that last bit to be true). It means you’ve found the place where the map doesn’t match the terrain. I have neither the wisdom nor the authority to advise you on how much time to spend revising the map. Just know that I have chosen to say “meh, whatever”4 and continue on whenever anyone accuses me of intellectual inconsistency.
1Because of my noticing that almost every action had moral and immoral components, I coined another snappy witticism: “People who claim the world isn’t black and white aren’t looking closely enough.” Actions which are morally ambiguous aren’t because of an absence of moral value, it’s because they have a multiplicity of same. However, instead of taking both the blame and the credit for one’s actions, it is now very popular to pretend that these somehow offset each other and we get things like “civil disobedience” that involves no repercussions, only a staged arrest played for the camera.
2Sort of. I mean, it works really really well, and for a surprising number of applications where intuition says it shouldn’t. However, it also can suggest things that simply can’t have a physical existence and that then get taken very seriously by very smart people. Stephen Hawking once solved the problems with the Big Bang by multiplying time by i. For another youtube video on how “the equations say this is possible, as long as you assume a few impossible things are true” check out this one on time travel
3This problem is at the heart of theodicy in general and the 3-omni “disproof” of God in particular. It only works by treating omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence as terms that are both definable and correspond to something that exists in the universe. Not to get into detail why omniscience is the only term that might fit those two categories, I’ll just say any definition of omnipotent that includes “…and yet must be constrained by logic” is self-negating.
4 This footnote intentionally left blank
5Bonus youtube link on the limits on human effort: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZL4yYHdDSWs&list=PLFs4vir_WsTwEd-nJgVJCZPNL3HALHHpF