This discussion began with NaturalisticSourceOfEthics, which was then called “SourceOfEthics.”
Please see EthicsDiscussionRoadmap for an overview of the discussion.

Summary of Ethics Discussion, A

Lion began on SourceOfEthics, (now “NaturalisticSourceOfEthics,”) asking: “What is the source of Ethics?”

Helmut wanted to ask, “What is Ethics?” first, but Lion wanted to talk about the source of ethics. In reference to talking about the substance of Ethics: “…that may be like Plato conjecturing on the substance of space– Dodecahedrons, naturally.”

There is a question: How do you know ethics doesn’t really exist, metaphysically? Lion agrees: We can’t really know for sure. “Where do we go from here?” DavidCary didn’t want Lion to criticize those who disagree. Lion thinks they disagree because of the ChasmOfDeath. Helmut argues that people have argued this way before. “But who was arguing this before Hume?” Upanishads.

Introducing AndrewHoerner! Andrews thoughts on the origin and nature of ethical rules: Acknowledging the role of desire, but asserting the inescapable importance of symmetry to ethics, even when it contradicts what we want. Argues that a valid ethic is evolutionary in nature, sustainable in result, and necessarily strategic. Provides an alternative example or definition of an evolutionary ethic. Andrew has problems with a plurality of ethics.

Through conversation, we come to much greater clarity on what is meant by: “The Source of Ethics.” We seem to be asking: “Is Ethics like Physics, observing an objective reality? Or is Ethics like Cooking, and different for different people?” Helmut contributes that it may be more like Architecture, somewhat arbitrary, serving real needs, but improvable. Hans introduces accountability. Andrew makes a case for one ethics as physics, and asks CW-related questions. Lion answers the CW questions, and writes an initial answer to the substance of Andrew’s one ethics argument.

HelmutLeitner and LionKimbro then talked about how to fragment the SourceOfEthics page, so that pages didn’t get too unweildly.


I hope this works to (A) explain, (B) contain debate..!

The automatic response to this line of reasoning tends to be a quiet form of wild fear and extreme panic.

The ideas in this page can be interpreted to mean: “There is no such thing as ethics.”

Because of this, I’d like to connect this page (which is constrained to one single question) to ConsequencesOfNaturalEthics?. Or perhaps we’ll call it: “ConstructiveEthics?,” or “ConstructedEthics?,” or “SocialEthics?,” or “WillfulEthics?,” or “EvolutionaryEthics?,” or “DontPanic?,” or “EthicalOpportunities?” or whatever other name will best contain what we choose to bring to flower.

Lion, I don’t want to get on your nerves, but …

To ask the question “what is the source of ethics” means to start with a wild assumption: that a single source of ethics can be identified and that it makes sense to do so.

In doing so, you seem to suggest that we should look neither left nor right, back or forward on the surrounding context, just agree on a given formal statement.

Quite to the contrary I think that ethics is a complicated man-made concept, a cultural pattern, which means “a thing that is a solution to a problem in a context”. ChristopherAlexander. IMHO this is something holistic, which can’t be analytically broken down. One needs to describe the context and all relevant forces and related patterns to say something meaningful about ethics.

Ethics may be useful or not, it may solve problems and/or create new problems, a group may decide to use it or drop it. This is all debateable. But ethics is an observable existing phenomenon, there are various instances of this general concept and you have named some. So if you say “ethic doesn’t exist” this makes no sense except if you really mean “an absolute ethics doesn’t exist” a viewpoint which I could understand. But even this makes little sense because it resembles the problems of “absolute truth” and “objective reality” and we know how to deal with these: as we have no way to access “absolute ethics/truth/reality” it makes no sense to assume that we can get certainty about it and “possess” it … we may get near without ever knowing exactly (KarlPopper) … but on the other hand it makes also no sense to deny the possiblity of its existance.

If the message “ethic is what we want” boils down to “ethics is a man-made construction that can be evolved, changed, rebuilt or dropped” then we have a trivial agreement. This is true for a “chair”, “wiki culture” and any other pattern too.

At parts, where I read this, I feel like: “We are in strong agreement.”

The reason I was saying, “Don’t look down, left, right, forward, back, up, …” …is because side-conversations were making it impossible for me to say the thing that I wanted to say. The side-conversations are all important things, but I firmly believe that the thing I want to say does not require them.

Now, you said that- “we have a trivial agreement.”

The thing is, two weeks ago, that would not have been the case for me.

Because I believed that ethics, real ethics, was something that exists out there. I believed that ethics was a substance that floats out there, a sort of ideal metaphysical truth.

There is something in what you wrote that I think actually demonstrates this sort of feeling; It’s definitely the sort of thing I would have written two weeks ago: we may get near without ever knowing exactly.

I do appreciate that you said: but on the other hand it makes also no sense to deny the possibility of its existence.

I am not persuaded by atheist arguments that there can be no God. I am persuaded by epistemological arguments that we do not know. And I am persuaded by the scientific culture’s arguments that: “To believe that it’s there, it degrades your ability to study reality.”

As for:

“How can that be? Don’t we need clarity on what it is, before we can discuss it’s source?!” No, we don’t. It’s assumed you have some sufficient understanding of the concept of ethics, for the discussion. We could argue for many days and hours: “What is Lion Kimbro? Really?” …but it doesn’t really influence the question of “What is the Source of Lion Kimbro?” Because the answer “Edna Kimbro” is sufficient for this question.

Sorry, but this is an incorrect argument, because it assumes a 1:1 analogy between the biological (mother)->(child) relationship and some (cultural context)->(abstract idea) relationship. Never heard something far-fetched like this. – Helmut
why (mother)->(child) relationship? why not (father)->(son) relationship? – sigi

… The form of the argument may be incorrect, but I still think it’s valid to ask the question on this page without getting into all these side-arguments.

As evidence, note that you’ve addressed the argument on this page, and even successfully persuaded me to alter the page in response, without going into such questions as “What is Ethics” and “What are the consequences of Ethics” and so on.

(Specifically, I’m talking about how you said that ethics may have an independent existence, as (say) an ideal that we can forever approach, rather than being a phenomenon of the natural world.)

Helmut, where would you like conversation to flow, from here?

My interests in further questioning include:

  • “What is (or are) the destination(s) of ethics?” or “Is there such a thing as progress in ethics?”
  • “What do we want?” or even: “What do we want to want?”
  • “Why do we want what we want?”
  • “What are the implications of the ideas on this page?”

I think too advanced would be (because of required basis:)

  • “What is Ethics? What is the proper field of study of ethics?”

In some respects, I believe we are on the way to first principles, rather than away from them. I personally think that the surrounding stuff is important to get first, (based on observation & so on,) and then looking at the atomic principles (“What is Ethics”) might make sense, if we find it isn’t an illusion in the first place. Asking “What is Ethics” strikes me a bit like Plato asking “What’s the world made of,” and coming up with Dodecahedrons.

Lion, I’d like to accompany you on a fascinating journey.

There is no way separating from philosophy in the sense of “we do rational thinking here, not oldfashioned useless philosophy”. This page is a contribution to philosophy.

The main problem in this complicated territory is not to get lost, to keep the orientation, to know where we are located on the map and where we are moving.

Regarding to your questions I’d propose

  • “Is there such a thing as progress in ethics?” Yes, probably, depending on the timescale and how you decide to define and measure “progress”, e. g. the development of “human rights”
  • “What do we want?” we, as humans want different things in different situations. Food when we are hungry, a friend when we are lonely, something that catches our attention when we are bored, answers when we are curious. KarlPopper puts it in an abstract form: “living is solving problems”.
  • “What do we want to want?” This is probably not recursive, or can you imagine what “what you want to want to want to want” means?
  • “Why do we want what we want?” An open list of reasons: because of our genes, because of the way the universe is constructed, because of our social or physical environment,because of our individual self, by chance …
  • “What are the implications of the ideas on this page?” Nobody can know that now, this is open, a result of future developments.
  • “What is the proper field of study of ethics?” There is no definition power. Maybe: the concept of freedom, its development and use.

Very briefly, more later. But I just wanted to quickly answer one thing:

  • When I was talking about “philosophers,” I was abstracting a type of thinking about ethics into one word.
  • Similarly, when talking about “religion,” I am abstracting a type of thinking about ethics into one word.

I’m very clear that all of this is philosophy; all of it. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. For the purposes of painting pictures, I iconify.

Hm; I have some doubts about some of those answers. For example, “What do we want?” is answered with a “simple people, simple wants” type of answer. That’s not what I “want to want,” and that’s not what I want my daughter to want. It is what a lot of people would like us to want, because it’s quite manageable.

There are many questions that we could dig into, I’d like to ask the right question. What is the right question?

I don’t know.

You wrote that it was important to keep from getting lost, to see our place on the map, and to not lose our orientation.

To me, that’s a lot of what this is about: Not losing orientation. What is the source of ethics? What is our guiding star? “What we want.” What do we want? It seems that layers upon layers upon layers of social desire have been laid down for century after century after century.

What I want, what wants I have inherited, can be labeled with vague words like Democracy, fairness, adventure, Love, participation, and so on and so forth.

So, what is the right question to ask?

My intuition moves me towards “Is there such a thing as progress in ethics?” “What do we want, in the deep time sense?” “What do we want to want?” (like: I don’t want to be contented with eating food, and solving Rubik’s cubes.) I think that a lot of depth can come out of that question. And Sam nudges us towards LiteracyOfHumanNature with: “Why do we want what we want?” And I still try to piece together: “What are the implications of the ideas on this page?”

These are the questions that capture my interest right now.

Are these inquiries that interest you? Does any one inquiry particularly interest you? You provided answers to all of them, and they provoke more questions. But perhaps there’s something with particular tension?

Wow, we’re discussing something that people have argued over for millenia.

Currently, this page implies that anyone that disagrees is experiencing fear and panic, or has other things in his head that “degrades your ability to study reality.” Such attempts to shut out disagreement are wrong. Wrong, I tell you!

Why is it wrong?

Because I don’t want you to do that! :-)

“What kind of world do you want to live in?” is a great question. It helps me remember that asking “What do people want?” is not limited to things one can buy in a store. Real people are not Wikipedia:Homo economicus.

Sometimes people choose to do things even when they know the result will damage them financially (philanthropists) or physically (living organ donors). Often people – I’m thinking of mathematicians and physicists and painters – do things or call other people’s actions “good” because the result is aesthetically pleasing. They call these things “good” even when there is no tangible benefit to anyone.

It degrades the ability to reason, because it consistently puts your search in a specific direction: The direction hoped for.

Like Christians, looking at history, and seeing only evidence for a 6,000 year old planet, and a flood, and then trying to compute light speed dilations to account for things billions of light years away. The conversation may be ancient, but I never got the benefit of it.

What I saw 2 weeks ago is the first that I heard the idea that ethics is social construction, and that nothing further (metaphysical backing) is required to explain our situation. There are attendent pieces to the story and the explanation that also help (such as how societies exchange wants with individuals, and so on,)– maybe this is the first time I heard the argument and was able to piece it together with those attendent pieces. Maybe it’s the first time it made sense to me. I don’t have recall of hearing this idea, before, though.

I want to write later about the “ChasmOfDeath,” an idea I use to explain why I think that we keep looking for metaphysical entities to back our sense of ethics, or purpose, or so on, and I think that EvolutionarySpirituality functions (or seeks to function) as a bridge over that chasm. I think we do need to bridge the chasm, to make it through the 21st century. I don’t think that conventional philosophies or religions will be able to carry us through – I think people are going to see straight through them.

In short: I think we know in our heads that backing is not required, but we keep backing away, because of the reality of the ChasmOfDeath. (Well, maybe not Helmut, for whom there is “trivial agreement” with the ideas here..!) The Matrix trilogy is entirely about the ChasmOfDeath. (It’s the “big bad,” after all, embodied in Agent Smith & his “Why do you keep getting up, Mr. Anderson” question.)

My first reaction was similar to David’s. Why talk about emotions of people that aren’t here to defend themselves? Why let this look like immunizing against criticism?

Then I remembered occasional experiences in worldview discussions, when people with a very strong worldview feel it threathened. Arguments can get very heated and a kind of panic can be observed, at least sometimes. I don’t think that “death” is the primary reason, I think that the world view is the basis for perceiving the world, for understanding and making decisions, and when the world view is at stake or shaken, a desperate feeling of unsecurity and disorientation is the result.

But this is less about ethics, but belongs to something like “psychology of world view” which is also interesting topic not as fundamental. And it leads away from the topic of this page “ethics”.

Back to ethics, it’s also true what David said, that these are questions that have been worked at for thousands of years. Actually I just reread an interesting book about the Indian Upanishads (the philosophical part of the Vedas), about 800-900 BC. Which makes it about 3000 years of philosophical history.

This is the point where philosophy seems to get boring and counter-productive: 3000 years of pondering and the result is: Platon said X, and Aristoles said Y, the Bible said Z, Kant said A and perhaps Wittgenstein said B. And some things are plausible, others are not and no decision is made.

But I think on one hand that this is a question of perspective, because many philosophers are based firmly in the context of their time and try to solve very specific problems, which may not even be relevant to us now, although the methods and results may be interesting. On the other hand it’s also a problem of the academical system, which avoids to bring philosophy to the point: after studying 1000 pages of mostly incomprehensible Kant (or any other philosopher), it’s much more rewarding to become an Kant expert and give lectures and write books than to boil down Kant’s philosophy to the the 3 pages that matter, translate them into comprehensible language and make them consistent with other extracts, for anyone to understand, and discard the rest.

I think that wiki can be a great place to rethink and get enough feedback not to get stuck.

Who, before Hume, was promoting that human ethics is based in human wants and human evolution?

Who was arguing that ethics emerged out of the universe, as a natural force?

And why didn’t I hear this idea in a way that was convincing to me, until just a few weeks ago?

I propose that human consciousness can and does change on the large scale. I see it in movies, I see it in the bookstore, I see it in the voting numbers, and so on.

Lion, I’ve not the knowledge to answer your questions. I also do not think - contrary to what you posted as my opinion in the summary that “there is nothing new under the sun”, I just think that existing “philosophical content” has some value and should not be disregarded. It’s better than nothing. We should be able to build on old philosophy like modern physics built on Archimedes and Newton.

BTW the constructivists (Piaget, Glaserfeld, later the more entertaining Watzlawick and Förster) have argued that each human completely (re-)constructs his own reality and that there is no such thing as objective reality at all. So this is much more general and radical than just talking about possible alternative sources of ethics. They mean that everything is a human construction.

And “ethics emerged out of the universe, as a natural force” seems like a wild statement, which can be interpreted in many ways. There are a lot of religions that see God or some “eternal force” as the origin of the universe, usually trivially accompanied by eternal truths like ethics. Pantheism should also be not to far from this. The catholic priest and scientist TeilhardDeChardin even tried to reconcile/integrate Darwin’s concept of evolution and the Christian theology/worldview.

The Upanishads talk about (1) the absolute (2) the creator god (3) the spiritual in the things (4) physical reality - as four perspectices on reality that are just one and the same. They would see “ethics emerging from the absolute” and “ethics given by God” only as two aspects of the same phenomenon, just posing a problem to human understanding that resolves itself in enlightenment. Indian philosophy is very inclusive, they were really good at mapping the territory and thinking all that’s possible.

I know that it is a paradoxical situation: you can’t advance in your philosophy when you study old philosophies, because they are huge and they trap you in certain ways of thinking. But you also can’t advance your philosophy when you try to build it from first principles, because there are too many ways to run in circles or get trapped by the easiness by which you can convince yourself by your own compelling arguments. It makes no sense to repeat documented errors.

Regarding you last question I doubt that one can go from “voters change their mind” easily to “ethics does evolve” at least if you mean by “evolve” more than just “change”, that is a movement in a positive direction. But who defines what “positive” means if we move out from absolute coordinate systems? So, although I agree that “ethics does evolve” I disagree about the validity of the argument.

Not yet mentioned are the basic language problems of philosophy. For we can easily agree on the absolute truth of statements like “ethics does evolve” or “God exists” if we leave it totally undefined what the words “ethics”, “evolve”, “God” and “exist” mean. But without that the statements have no rational meaning. Just as ethics does evolve and is at least partially constructed, it’s the same with language and the meaning of words. They do not provide save ground that can be taken for granted. Wittgenstein tried to cut through that Gordian knot by his attitude “there are no philosophical problems, only language problems” but got lost imho.

I just think that existing “philosophical content” has some value and should not be disregarded. It’s better than nothing.

I strongly agree with this.

I strongly believe that for EvolutionarySpirituality to work, it has to affirm all of the traditions of the past: philosophical, and religious.

I think we have developed a desire to be consistent, and i think we want to see deeply into the consequences of ideas, and I think that philisophical studies into right & wrong develop those cappabilities.

When I imagine EvolutionarySpirituality, I see a strong meta-philisophical, meta-religious component: it is a “philosophy of philosophies,” and a “religion of religions.” It would have ideas about why we made religions in the past, that affirms their value, and about how we can participate in religions today, that affirms their value, but reinterprets their content. We would have to be cautious about how this went, in order to not trivialize the religion, but I think this is the basic plan. The same goes for philosophies.

Constructionists: Do you mean that they mean to say: “You can’t step in the same river twice,” and, “Everybody sees things from their own, completely unique perspective and viewpoint, which they build in their head over the years” or do they mean to say: “Reality is manufactured out of human existence,” in a more magical sense? (If everybody died, the universe would snuff out of existence.)

TeilhardDeChardin: I know that the EvolutionarySpirituality people hold him in very high regard. That ethics emerges out of the universe, as a natural frce, is, I think, pretty agreeable to the scientific worldview: I mean, that’s where all the planets, plants, and animals, and people came from, too. It makes sense that the universe constructed ethics, just like the universe constructed corporations and governments. This does not mean that “things as they are” are set in stone as Godly / Universal dictates; These are all ruled under the motions of evolutionary forces. (Lest that be a concern..!) Yes, I think that EvolutionarySpirituality is Pan-Theistic. And: The universe is a work in progress; It is a creation story that is not yet over. It is a God that is not complete.

As for Indian philosophy: I see Hinduism as a sort of general model of what EvolutionarySpirituality might look like, because: Hinduism seems to accomodate incredible diversity, within itself. And yet it all basically fits together. It always feels to me like this goulash religion: Everything is in there somewhere. Similarly, I suspect people will construct tons of interpretations of natural religion. Some focusing on ancestor worship, some focusing on science, some focusing on the future, some focusing on galaxies, others focusing on human creations, others on Gaia, and so n, and so forth.

You are quite right about “mass consciousness changes” to: “does that mean ethics evolves?” It is non-sequiter.

“But who defines what positive means?”

There are a few approaches to this that I’ve heard.

One approach, simply, is to say, “Well, it’s defined as things going in the way that we (for some arbitrarily selected we, with some particular degree of cohesion) want them to.” So, you might say, “Well, there are fewer wars, and fewer dying in them, and global illiteracy rates are down, and women are better represented the world over, etc., etc., etc.,” then you might say, “Okay, we’re making postive ethical motions. We’re living more in tune with the ideals and things that we want for civilization.”

Of course, people are going to disagree. Some people would like to live in a world of small tribes loving & warring with one another in the jungle, and so on. Noble savage, and all.

Another approach is based in convergent evolution. You can say, “OK, we see that nature has determined to build eyes in several diferent situations, performing independent invention in several different creatures. Furthermore, we can see that in a given lineage that isn’t in the process of branching out something new, that some eyes are clearly better than others, and some eyes are clearly worse: there is such a thing as a “bad eye” even in evolution.” In this way, it is possible to construct basic goals or (I think the philosophers call it teleology or telos or something) for segments of evolution. So, some people frame arguments that “based on our study of the ethical fossil structures, we think this is more ethical than that.”

Personally, I prefer to argue from wants, but I can see some validity to the second.

I’ve just spent some time reviewing our conversation of ethics, and came up with the following:

  • We should have a section on this page that clarifies that it’s not that “ethics doesn’t exist,” (outside of the sense of a metaphysical independent thing,) but rather that it’s a thing that we make. (And describes what that means.) Ethics as a human or animal construction thing, that answers a problem, and that may work, or not work, and so on. (With appropriate reference to ChristopherAlexander’s framing.)

“What should we ask, from here?”

  • “What are the parameters of the conversation? What do we agree is interesting, and why do we think it is interesting? What is given, and what is up for debate? Where does conversation about ethics get boring? Why are we having this conversation?”
  • “How can we understand ethics as a human construction, and what ways of defining or describing ethics are there?” (As a solution to problems, as a metaphysical ideal, …)
  • “How does ethics fit in with The Great Story, within EvolutionarySpirituality?”
  • “How do people in general feel about ethics? Why do they they think essentialist theories of ethics, and can that ever change?”
  • “What have religions and philosophies said about ethics in the past?”
  • “What is ethics? What is the proper field of our ethical conversation? What problems is ethics the solution to?”
  • “What language is useful for our conversation about ethics? How should we talk about ethics, recognizing the ChallengeOfEmotiveExpression?”
  • “What is (or are) the destination(s) of ethics? Is there such a thing as progress in ethics?”
  • “What do we want?” (at different depths)
  • “What worldviews can come out of naturalistic explanations of ethics?”

The details about constructivism are not that important, there are people that think like you suggest while others are less radical.

I do not yet understand the context of EvolutionarySpirituality. There are no links on that page and no overall layout of this worldview or philosophy is given. From what you say, it starts to make more and more sense to me. I also think that we have a lot of essential resonance and agreement.

I try a methodical overview:

  • natural science and evolution as foundation
  • spirituality is not excluded (science often does) but an essential part of evolution
  • language is a tool, not a primary source
  • logic is a tool, not a primary source (works with language)
  • causality (analytic, mechanistic clockwork-like machine-models) is one method (works with language and logic)
  • probability (statistical, stochastic cloud-like chaos-models) is maybe another method
  • patterns (holistic, living organism-like models) is another method (works with logic and language and causality) unfolding system theory

And the focus on:

  • analytical: experiences, perceptions and their understanding
  • synthetical: consistent inclusive scientific/phylosophical/religious worldview

I would now identify ethics as a pattern, that can be analyzed in its function between humans and society in the NOW, but also as a changing phenomenon historically in the evolution of societies and worldviews.

As I said, I just want to accompany you on your journey, commenting. You decide on the route and focus.

I think this idea is missing something in order to be a full ethical theory.

Normally we think of ethical theories as imposing some restrictions on our own behavior. We decline to do things that we wish to do – to steal undetectably, perhaps, or make a spiteful remark about someone who has displeased us – because they are unethical.

You may reply that this fits neatly into your framework. “I do not want the sort of world where people steal things whenever they can without detection.” But this sort of statement hides the fact that it imposes a symmetry condition on my desires over world-states. I may well want world where no one but me steals in such circumstances.

That is why people speak in terms doing or not doing things for ethical reasons. In normal usage, saying “I want a world in which I am as rich and powerful as possible, and where all things bend to my will” is not an ethical statement, i.e. it does not state an ethical proposition, though it may be true. To say “Everyone should bend to my will in all things” does state an ethical proposition, but is false, unless I will only ethical outcomes.

It is a characteristic of ethics, but not individual desires of others, that, where they conflict with the desire of an individual, they ought to override that desire. Ethics by definition consists of rules that are reasons to act a specified way. If you can steal something undetectably by anyone but me (and I can not tell), and you say, “I want to steal this thing,” and I reply “I want you not to,” this does not provide a reason for you not to steal it (except to the extent that you value my regard). If, on the other hand, I say “it is unethical for you to steal it,” whether or not you chose to abide by it, this does provide a reason – an ethical reason – to override your behavior. In this sense, the plurality of ethics you discuss is something of an embarrassment, as there is no obvious reason why i should be more willing to allow your ethics to override mine than to allow your preferences to override mine. Such an ethical system may be said to be incomplete, in the sense that there are ethical differences between people which are not even in principle resolvable ethically. Moreover, if you are limited to looking only at preferences over social states – at what you want and no more – the class of irresolvable questions is very large.

However, your theory does provide a key component of an ethical theory once you add some form of symmetry constraint. This brings philosophy back in, I am afraid, because our desires can be made into an ethical theory in a variety of ways, depending on exactly how, when and where that symmetry constraint is imposed. If the symmetry constraint is imposed in a natural way, each of these is a distinct naturalistic theory.

The simplest is the categorical imperative: that one should always act on rules that one would wish to be general laws, i.e. that i should govern my own behavior by the same rules that i would prefer to govern your behavior. If one thinks (as seems plausible) that our desires differ over states of the world achievable through symmetrical systems of rules, then the Kantian system is also incomplete in the sense above. However, it is much less incomplete, both because there are fuewer states of the world achievable by symmetric rules than by arbitrary rules, and because our various optimal states under symmetric rules will be more symmetrical in the distribution of benefits and so offer fewer grounds for disagreement and those less passionate.

Perhaps we wish to resolve some of the remaining incompleteness. Instead allowing us the liberty of any rule that meets the condition that we want the world to which the universal application of that rule would lead, we may require that the rule be derived by some particular procedure that would make it more likely to be common between us. For example, we could specify that we will accept the rules that we would agree on if we were to negotiate the rules before we know what part we would play in the game – the “social contract” we would agree to “behind the veil of ignorance,” or “in a state of nature.” Contractarians have quite diverse views about the precise details of the neutral circumstance and what laws we would choose under them – contrast Hobbs and Rawles, for example – but all of them think that there is a determinate set of rules to which all would agree.

Suppose we follow Lion to the extent of saying that ethics starts with what we want. However, suppose that we make the further requirements that we must agree on a single, symmetric system of rules that eliminates the incompleteness problem, as i think we should. (Note that this does not mean that all choices are subject to ethically constraints. There may be only a small set of actions that are ethically required or forbidden Completeness implies only that there is agreement on which choices are subject to such constraints and what the ranking is for constrained actions.)

Let us now devote a page or two to asking how we would ask how we would express this formally, to see what additional insights are provided by a rigorous approach. (Math-haters may skip to the sentence beginning “So far I have said. . .”, but I hope they will take it on faith that I can display some “ethical” systems that rank choices as a function of the preferences of everyone in society, that select as best any outcome that is unanimously chosen, and that are responsive to the preferences of every individual, but which are nonetheless noxious and violate basic ethical intuitions. Further, that when you add an additional requirement that and the ethical rule is symmetric in the sense that it distinguishes between individuals based only on circumstances and not on identity, that the resulting orderings are much more palatable and more nearly resemble our intuitive ethical notions.)


1. Suppose that we have a set of individuals H ={h1,h2,… , hn} and a set of circumstances that affect the well-being of each individual (which may include their behavior) Cm={C1,Cm2,… Cmn}, and m is an index to the the set of possible sets of circumstances C, i.e., Cm is an element of C.

2. Suppose that there is a complete, transitive ethical ordering E over C, where you would read CnECm? as “outcome Cn is at least as ethical as Cm” such that CiECj? or CjECi?, and also, CiECj? and CjECk? implies CiECk?. Define a second relationship, ethical indifference EI, as CiEICj? iff (CiECj? and CjECi?).

3. Define a M(Cn) as a permutation of Cm if it differs only by the ordering of the index of individuals, 1,…n. Then we say that preference order E is symmetric if for all {Cm,Cn}, CmECn? implies M(Cm)EM(Cn).

4. Suppose that there is also an individual preference order over C, Pi, where CmPiCn? means that “person i finds Cm is at least as good as Cn.” Assume that it is likewise complete and transitive, and that there is a simmilar indifference relationship, PIi, where CmPIiCn? iff CmPiCn? and CnPiCm?.

5. Define a specific ethical preference ordering E* as preference-consequentialist if CnE?*Cm = CnE?*(CnP?1Cm,CnP?2Cm,… CnPnCm?)Cm, i.e. the only thing that matters in deciding what is ethical is what people prefer; or equivalently, all we need to know to about the underlying circumstances to decide what is ethical is the preference ordering of the n individuals. This makes possible an enormous compression of the full information set.

6. Define a specific ethical preference ordering E* as weakly Paretian (after Vilfredo Pareto, who studied such things) if (CmPiCn? for all i) implies CmE?*Cn. In other words, an ethic is weakly Paretian if the fact that everyone likes state Cm at least as well as Cn implies that Cm is at least as ethical as Cn.

If E* is preference consequential and weakly Paretian, then this forbids us from saying that, e.g., “lying is wrong,” or “you should never make a species go extinct” if there are possible circumstances when everyone would prefer that one lie or the loss of that single species to the alternative.

7. Define a specific ethical preference ordering E* as responsive if (CmPIiCn? for all i not equal to k) and CmPkCn? implies CmE?*Cn. In other words, an ethic is responsive if it cares at least somewhat about the preferences of each individual.

I think that by “Ethics is what you want” you probably mean at a minimum that a valid ethical system is (1) preference consequentialist, (2) weakly Paretian and (3) responsive.

Let us look at one ethical ordering, Ed, that meets these three constraints: the marching line of dictators, defined as follows. Between every pair of sets of individual circumstances, if h1 has a preference, Ed follows the same ranking. If h1 is indifferent, we Ed ranks them according to h2’s preferences. If h2 is indifferent, we rank by what h3 wants, etc. Is this an ethical system?

Suppose that there is a utility index ui of how much person i prefers Cm, ui(Cm), such that CmPiCn? iff ui(Cm) is greater than or equal to ui(Cn). Now create a composite index U* = U*(u1,u2,…,un) such that U* is strictly increasing in each of the ui’s. This ethical system is also meets criteria (1), (2), and (3). An example would be U*=sum(ai*ui), where ai’s are positive constants that denote how much we care about each person i’s desires.

Now suppose you also impose the symmetry rule. Assume further that utilities are interpersonably comperable, i.e. that if, for example ui=2u2, it is meaningful to say that h1 is twice as well off as h2. The only ethical system E that meets these requirements (as well as (1), (2), and (3) is utilitarianism, i.e. CmE?Cn iff U(Cm) is greater than or equal to U*(Cn), where U*=sum(ui). (Harsanyi) With the imposition of symmetry, suddenly we are back in the territory of established ethical theories.

Alternatively, suppose that the ratios of well-being are meaningful within an individual (so I can meaningfully say that I am twice as happy as yesterday), but that there is not in principle any way to compare the overall level of well-being between individuals (so we can not meaningfully say that I am twice as happy as you). Suppose further that we limit our consideration to states that are better than some terrible state Ct. The only ethical system E’ that meets this requirement, symmetry, and (1), (2), and (3) is CmE?’Cn iff N(Cm) is greater than N(Cm), where N(Cm) is the Nash Product, defined as multiplying together for all people i (ui(Cm)-ui(Ct)), the utility in state m minus the utility of the terrible state. (Nash. See also Binmore.) Again, this is an interesting and plausible decision rule (If anyone is interested, I can send them a paper I wrote about it).

So far I have said nothing about my own ethical beliefs. Now I will.

I believe that the ethical assertions I am about to make are provable, though I am not in fact able to prove a number of them, and am not aware of anyone else who can either. Because I believe that they are provable, you could say that believe in a naturalistic ethic, one that derives from nature – a natural law, if you will. But I am not attempting to describe how ethical beliefs arise, as those explanations belong properly to psychology rather than ethics. Nor do I believe that any naturally arising ethical belief that is equally valid. Ethical beliefs are like any other beliefs: they can be right or wrong; and like any other belief, they can be wrong even when we are convinced that they are right. (This is one of the beliefs that I believe to be provable but that I can not prove, though I did discuss somewhat above why one would wish for an ethical system that is complete and universal). Thus we approach ethics as we approach the laws of nature: with awe and wonder, with humility, with our best thinking and truest feeling, and with an eye to practical application.

Let us start with a useful tautology: Ethics is a set of rules that guide choices.

Theorem: Only those able to choose based on ethical criteria have ethical obligations.

The next statement is critical. I believe that to the extent that it should not be taken as axiomatic, it can be proven, and to the extent that it can not be proven, it should be taken as axiomatic. It provides a lot of scope for different theories though.

The “Ethical rules are good” rule. When the well-being of all relevant entities is considered to an appropriate degree, communities that follow the rules of ethics will always be better off then unethical communities.

This begs three obvious questions that thereby focus inquiry: A. What is well-being? B. Which entities are relevant? C. What is the “appropriate degree” to which the well-being of each relevant entity should be be considered?

Theorem: The maximization principle. Ethics is a set of feasible rules that collectively maximize the appropriately-weighted well-being of the relevant entities.

An example: Applying the maximization principle, if we further measure well-being by the utility index we described above, define the relevant entities as our n individuals, and assert that the appropriate degree is “equally,” then we are back to classical utilitarianism. More generally, the maximization rule implies an ethic that is consequentialist, but not necessarily preference-consequentialist: we may care about consequences for reasons other than that the community or some subset thereof prefers it. We will see examples below.

Theorem: The powerful are more bound by ethics than the powerless. (Because their actions have more effect on well-being). Sometimes I call this the Spiderman rule: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Theorem: The “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you ethical?” rule. Ethical obligations increase with intelligence. (Because more intelligent beings can anticipate the consequences of their actions with greater scope and accuracy, and so can maximize more effectively).

Theorem: The ignorance is freedom rule. We are ethically free to the extent that we are ignorant or our choices are meaningless. More precisely, we are free to the extent that the impact of our choices on the appropriately weighted well-being of relevant entities is constant or unknown. Because we usually know more about the consequences of our actions on ourselves than on distant others, this provides some significant scope within which to maximize our own well-being. However, this freedom is itself constrained in the same way, in that we are ethically free to choose among actions that affect our own well-being only to the extent to which the benefit is constant or unknown. And we are rarely ethically free to be intentionally ignorant.

Theorem: The “Do unto yourself” rule. It is unethical to make choices that harm our own well-being, except when the reasonable anticipated consequential benefit to the appropriately weighted well-being of other relevant entities is greater than the anticipated harm to ourselves.

Theorem: The “Preserve the rules” rule. Ethical rules should never result in the extinction of the entire community of ethically capable beings, unless the benefit to the well-being of other relevant entities is sufficiently great to offset the loss of all future benefits to well-being from the actions of ethical beings. (For example, it might make sense for the set of all ethical beings to sacrifice themselves if it was necessary to do so to preserve all other life).

I now venture into less certain waters.

What is well-being?

I hold a theory of well-being that is sometimes called perfectionism. It says that every entity has certain qualities (“perfections”) such that it is better off more perfect than less so. For humans – and for all living things that have them – perfections include life itself, health, happiness, wisdom and freedom. Perfections are often instrumental to one another, as when better health improves happiness, or freedom to wisdom, but they are nonetheless inherently plural, in that each is a good in its own sake as well as for whatever benefit it provides to the others. We want perfections, and perfections are the objects of desire, but they are not identical to what we want, both because they are good whether we want them or not, and because we want things that are not perfections. More of a perfection is always better, but when one perfection must be traded off against another the combination that is ethically preferred is often uncertain or debatable. Examples of perfectionists include Harvard economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Karl Marx, and Aristotle.

The best argument I know for the credibility of this claim is what I call the Universal Horrible Counterexample: Choose the alternative measure of well-being you wish to propose. The most popular are happiness and freedom. Some people – classical utilitarians, for example – claim that happiness is the reason that we do everything we do, and that all other goods are simply means to the ultimate good of happiness. Some who claim freedom as the most important good make the converse claim about it: that a the widest range of choices and the greatest freedom of choice over that range is the means to every good or combination of goods. Now suppose that you are offered a treatment that greatly increases the particular perfection that you prefer while dramatically reducing the rest. It makes us ecstatically happy but kills us in three days. It grants us eternal dominion over the earth at the cost of unceasing emotional misery. For any alternative measure of well-being that you conceive, start with a plausible list of perfections such as the one above, select your alternative, plug it into the Universal Horrible Counterexample, and see if you still like the result. I suggest that if no alternative survives this test, this provides evidence for perfectionism as the best measure of well-being.

What sort of entities are relevant, and to what extent?

I hold that perfectible entities are relevant. We have no obligations toward stones or stars, except as those things serve or thwart the perfectibility of perfectible beings. I will argue below, by another application of the symmetry principle, that we must consider the impact that we have on the degree to which each perfectible being achieves those perfections; and that we must weigh those impacts by some power of the ratio that their perfection bears to our own.

Many people believe that only human beings are morally relevant, or only beings with a threshold level of some human ability or capacity, such as consciousness, the ability to feel pain, the ability to enter a social contract, the ability to predict the future, etc. Because most of these traits exist along continuous spectra, bright-line categorical rules based on them will always involve a certain number of difficult cases or apparently arbitrary decisions, though this is not necessarily fatal to the desirability of such rules.

Instead of a categorical rule, I propose a weighting rule. Hypothesize for a moment that there is no inherent upper limit on perfection. We look at our world and see perfectible beings ranging from the most humble bacterium to our noble selves. In the universe, or in the future, we will encounter beings that are as much more long-lived, intelligent, wise and free than we are, than we are than that bacterium. And they in turn will encounter their greaters.

  • Little god have Greater Gods,
  • that scoff at their divinity.
  • The Greater Gods face HYPER-GODS,
  • and so on, to infinity.

We will meet our betters. And when we do, how do we want to be treated? Perhaps a better question is, “How should we expect to be treated?”

I contend humans should expect that, given the degree to which they are more perfect than we, they will treat us as well as they should expect to be treated by Those who are to the same extent more perfect than they – and similarly, that we should expect them to treat us as well as we treat those that are comparably less perfect than we. As we consider the benefits and burdens that we place on those that are to varying degrees less perfect than we, somewhere on the spectrum between complete chauvinism for our own grade and perfect equality of consideration across grades is a unique exponent that maximizes our well-being. At this level, the benefits that we get from actions that diminish the perfection of our lessers – the benefits of exploitation – less the cost to us of our efforts to enhance their perfection – the cost of loving care and stewardship – when combined with the horror of being exploited and sweet joy of being loved and cared for, each to the same respective degree, reaches a maximum. To the extent that we were given the Garden to tend and keep, so we shall be tended and kept, and the sort of Dominion that we exercise “over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth,” just that sort of Dominion will be exercised over us in turn.

This exponent uniquely determines the weight that we should give to the well-being of beings at varying levels of perfection, dictating that we offer a nearly human standard of care and respect to beings that are nearly human, such as our fellow Great Apes, and that we care somewhat for every living being. It defines an evolutionary ethic that explains our place and specifies our role in the great pageant of life. It tells us that as we honor and care for the species that are our parents, actual or metaphorical, so we will be honored by the species that are our children. And the maximization principle applied to that ethic commands us to honor them that our life may be long on the land.

This tells us something important about how we should live on the earth: if there is a way to make the rest of life better off for our presence, we should be following it, because only thus can we assure that our condition will be improved by those above us on the great chain of being. It says that if we continue our role as the agent of the sixth great extinction, we should expect to be among the patients of the seventh.

And, subject to these conclusions about our relationship to the rest of life, it tells us what an ethical system should do, though that still leaves us with the task of finding a set of rules that has that effect: It should make us – to the extent possible, all of us – longevous, healthy, happy, wise and free (and perhaps other goods as well, though we should be careful to include only ultimate goods and not intermediate goods).

I will make one final observation. Though one would wish all intelligent beings to be capable of ethical decision-making, many and perhaps most can not do so consistantly, whether through ignorance of the true ethical preference ordering, or through cowardice, indiscipline, or some other weakness or fault. This being the case, it is the duty of those who are capable of executing ethical decisions to devise and emplace incentive systems that take the place of ethics to the extent possible. Such systems can be legal, economic, political, or social, and indeed all of these systems are probably necessary to leverage the ethical minority to the behavioral near-unanimity required for global sustainability.

To take the example I am most conversant with, global warming, it is necessary to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gasses by 60 percent (and the emissions of the industrial nations by eighty percent, assuming that the less developed nations are to be allowed some growth) by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic species loss. Even this may not be enough. This implies that we need to take immediate aggressive action. Such action can only be achieved if we create a social movement that persuades enough of us to act politically, and that political movement is adequate to enact and enforce legal limits on emissions, limits which must create the right economic incentives to redesign and replace our energy system from the ground up, starting now.

Ethical thought is by its nature strategic thought in service of ethical ends. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must become as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves.

Amen to that.

First, I want to say: I value your post, and appreciate your contribution.

But, I think that there is a confusion here: The idea that this page is about constructing a full ethical theory.

I think this idea is missing something in order to be a full ethical theory.

(First sentence.)

I would describe a “full ethical theory” as something that:

  • …has a series of axioms.
  • …it can be applied to judge whether a statement can be put into a set (labelled “ethical,”) or otherwise.
  • …people can choose to subscribe to, or not to subscribe to.
  • …and so on, and so forth.

This is very interesting, but this is not what this page is about.

This page is about the SourceOfEthics.

I don’t recommend discarding your text, and I think it’s too valuable to be left as a comment. I would put it on a page like: AndrewHoernersEthics?, or maybe ComputationalNicomachean?, or something.

Many ethical theories go to great lengths to explain their theories from their axioms, and to argue for the acceptance of their axioms.

This page is about something that is a little bit earlier or prior though: I am interested in the substance that lies at the heart, or core, of things like morality, commandments, metaphysical occult theories, ethics, cosmic harmony, and so on. This is something that is at the pre-systematic level.

I think it comes way before we can start talking about true or false ethical statements, (since those are consequences determined by the systems axioms,) and I don’t think it’s necessarily symmetric (a feature of your ethical system.)

If you show me an ethical system, for example, I will decide whether to accept it or not based on this pre-existant substance. And I note that when describing your ethical system, you take care to describe what parts of it appeal.

It is this pre-existing substance that gives the ethical system (which I compare to a machine) its “juice.” Without the juice, the machine is like an obsolete computer that nobody wants to use any more, no matter how glorious it once was.

Here’s an analogy: You have heard of JustifiedTrueBelief??

The idea that we “know” something if it is (A) True, (B) we believe it is True, and (C) our belief is justified. (That is, it can’t have been just a lucky guess.) If this is the case, then we have a justified true belief, and we can say that we “know” the thing.

Similarly, here, I position our ethical beliefs, our ethical calculations, and then the ethical truth. And what I mean to talk about here, is not the calculations step, but the ethical truth part: the SourceOfEthics.

I would caution that there are entire schools of moral reasoning that are radically different than philosophical ethics that emphasis mathematical reasoning. There are systems of ethics that depend far more upon imagination, and far less on mathematics. And there are systems of ethics that depend far more upon commandmant, or mission, even flatly in the face of all reasoning and intuition. You and I have greater affinity for mathematical philosopher’s style ethics, but I would not discard these other schools.

There are people with a state of consciousness to worship fairies, elementals, and other imagined creatures, and to whom the word “ethics” means almost nothing. The live by cosmic laws and intuitions. I would never dream of disregarding these people’s judgements, and it is not clear to me, regardless of the bravado of mathematical computations and calculations, that the imagination people are further from the pre-symbolic ethics than the ethics scholars with their computers.

I further suspect that, if we do a little poking around, we may find that there’s far more imagination in the calculator’s world than we think..! (I believe that all software code is MetaphysicalCode; It is all MetaPhysics. I’ve heard another guy call these things “Thalience,” or something like that: the creative variety of ways of modeling.) I perceive a great deal of imagination in the ethical system that you have described, though it wears an armor made of computronium.

Andrew, I also want to thank you for the impressive account of the concept of ethics in your view. It is very valuable, because it is a good additional starting point for further, even deeper discussions.

I also think that this account should go to a separate page and get a discussion of its own, which on my part, will be rather critical.

But at the moment I just want to welcome you, being happy that you started writing at CommunityWiki. I hope that you will enjoy the discussions and feel at home. – Helmut

Please excuse my weak manners; Helmut’s made a better show. Yes; Please, we’re happy to have you here, and I hope to do my part better, to help you feel at home. :)

Brainstorming for the name of this new page:

  • AndrewHoernerOnEthics?
  • AndrewHoernersEthics?
  • ComputationalNicomachean?
  • HierarchyOfEthicalResponsibility?

Another possibility is to take a particular concept from the article, and expand a page to it.

Note that we, in most cases, (and recognizing the exceptions requires CommunityLore,) we don’t make a lot of pages, one for each particular idea; not until the ideas are well established and agreed upon by the community. The reasoning (“ForestFire”) behind this has to do with the pragmatics of maintaining a wiki and so on.

I have gone back and re-read my post, and have concluded that it was arrogant and inappropriate as a response to Lion’s. So I am certainly happy to move any of it that should not simply be deleted elsewhere elsewhere. (Oh, and BTW, I think that Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, which looks at ethics form the perspective of evolutionary psychology, might be of interest to this inquiry, though i think Wright swallows certain Ev Psych claims a little uncritically. Also The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce, though I have only red reviews of it and not the book itself.).

What I think I should have done instead is ask a question. I asked myself that question, and a lot of what I wrote was my attempt to answer it. But by skipping the question, I did not get to hear Lion’s answer, thus impoverishing the dialogue. It also made everything I wrote look unresponsive.

The question is this: Is an evolutionary ethics more like an evolutionary physics or an evolutionary cookery?

Ethics, physics, and cookery are each bodies of practice and knowledge, and perhaps some values as well, that have certain common features (features that they share with much of human endeavor) that allow us to sensibly describe them as evolutionary. Suppose we view each as a set of statements, or beliefs:

  • The set of statements changes over time.
  • Statements that are copied or repeated can be said to reproduce, and those that are not copied or repeated can be said to die.
  • Statements have different likelihoods of being copied, this likelihood can be thought of as a fitness.
  • The fitness of statements depends on the degree to which a community of humans likes or wants those statements.
  • The judgment of the community of physicists or cooks is very heavily dependent on the history of this statement and related statements. Fitness is fitness in a constellation of statements, like a gene in a genome, organism in a population, or a species in an ecosystem.
  • The tendency of humans to like or want a statement enough to copy it derives in turn from the biological nature of humans, and thus from our own evolutionary history.
  • The desirability and usefulness of each statement depends on and can not be judged apart from a set of complex interactions between the statements, humans, other life forms, tools and instruments and the setting in which they are used, and ultimately much of the universe, or at least our local bit of it and its history.

But physics and cookery are also different in some important ways, that relate to the kind of evolution that they undergo, and hence to the nature of the inquiries we can make about them.

  • Falsifiable: We think that statements in and about physics are right or wrong, in a way that statements in or about cookery can not be. In particular, we think that a truthful assertion that a set of statements from physics is satisfactory can be incorrect. A truthful assertion a set of statements in cookery are satisfactory is infallible; it literally can not be wrong.
  • Progressive: We think that the body of physics statements improves over time, specifically in its truthfulness or ability to accurately predict physical phenomena. We do not believe that our cookery is necessarily better than, say, Etruscan cookery.
  • Objective: We think that the truth of statements in physics does not vary with the point of view, mood or emotional reaction of the observer. In cookery, judgments about the quality and desirability of particular statement is widely acknowledged to be an individual matter and that can vary from person to person and moment to moment.
  • Unitary. Although there are countless systems of physics and views on particular statements of physics, and though all practitioners of physics know this, it is nonetheless true that nearly all practitioners believe that there is only one true physics, though we do not now know it can probably never be certain of it. They believe further, that differences among them as to the truth of particular statements are in principle resolvable and that they are engaged in a common endeavor, though how one does so may be unknown. In cookery, we believe that differing views can not even in principle be reconciled. Even more, we think that different people can have opposite views on the very same statement, and both be correct.

So the question is, is ethics more like physics or like cookery in these ways?

We agree, I think, on all the statements about ethics that are similar to the statements that we could make about both an evolutionary ethics and an evolutionary physics:

  • Peoples actual ethical beliefs come from many sources.
  • Those beliefs change over time.
  • They are shaped by how well we like them and by how well we like the results that we imagine will come from them.
  • Our liking for them derives in part from our evolved biological nature.
  • Etc.

We agree, I think, that the inquiry about where commonly held ethical beliefs come from, and how the population of ethical views changes over time, both in individuals and in society as a whole, is an interesting one, worthy of study; and that the tools of evolutionary theory are likely to be useful in such an inquiry; and that the topic is of practical importance in building a better world.

But what about the ways they are different?

  • Can a truly-believed ethical assertion be wrong? If you think I should do X, or that you yourself should, is the question of whether this is a true statement meaningful?
  • Can we learn things about ethics that we didn’t know, such that the state of ethical knowledge can be said to advance?
  • If we hold differing views on an ethical question, do we think that we can in principle resolve that difference, even though we may not know how?
  • Does the truth of an ethical statement depend on the point of view or mood of the holder? Can what is ethical for you and me be different for reasons that depend on our attitudes rather than our circumstances?
  • Does the collection of true ethical statements sum to a single, internally consistent body of knowledge? Or are there many equally true systems o ethics?

If you think that ethics is like cookery, you ask the questions that you ask about it, and then you are done, because there are really no other questions to ask.

If you think ethics is like physics – if you think, for instance, that ethics can in principle be derived from the specifics of human nature together with some universal features of rationality, or that ethics comes from a monolithic God, or you have an intuitive conviction that ethical propositions are knowable though you are unsure how or why – you can still ask all the first set of questions, and care about the answers, but those answers do not tell you what is ethical and what is not.

In this case, asking about the SourceOfEthics has two parts, one relating to the source of ethical beliefs – how people come to have the ethical beliefs they do – and the other relating to the source of ethical knowledge – how one can test, or verify, the truth of ethical claims. More precisely, I think someone of this persuasion would say that you have misnamed the topic; that you are talking about the Source-Of-Ethical-Beliefs, while the SourceOfEthics is a different inquiry altogether. To which someone holding the first view might well reply that they are asking about the only real source that ethics has, and that to seek some different source for ethical truth is to pursue phantasms. I’ve actually held both of these opinions at different point in my life, though I think you can guess which way I’m leaning now.

Note that one need not think that ethical truth comes deductively from axioms. It can come from anywhere. But one does tend to be believe that bodies of true knowledge on a subject are internally consistent and can be systematized, and that one is likely to learn something from the effort. So people who believe in physics-like ethics are likely to be more sympathetic to such efforts, which would be at best a waste of time if ethics is cookery-like.

There might or might not be further questions of interest that relate to the source of ethical intuitions, or to moral sentiments, and so forth, each of which can be asked in both of these ways: Where do they come from? Are they reliable sources of true knowledge about what is ethical and what is not? * * *

As to what I wrote, it has two quite different parts.

The first part, up to “So far I have not . . . is mainly a rehash of other people’s thinking. It is not especially original, nor do I think that it is a particularly penetrating summary, and I am not sure it is worth preserving. One might want to keep it because it represents an important idea, which you might call SymmetryInEthics?, in the hope that others would edit and improve it, and link it more effectively to the many schools of thought concerning it.

The second part is, so far as I know, original to me in most of its features. I kind of like it and would like to save it. It is the result of the mating (some would say miscegenation) of various strains of thought that I have been interested in over several decades, notably the ethical theories of Sen and the early Marx, and various strains of thought about the economics and politics of sustainability. But the real genesis was a couple of conversations I had with Lion about the Singularity as the Evolutionary Salon. Those conversations were quite brief, but happening when and where they did, they set off this great explosion of thoughts and questions in me as I began trying to think about the Singularity using the intellectual toolkit of the sustainability movement, with maybe some evolutionary game theory thrown in. This is an ongoing process, and the result is mainly not ready for prime time. But it seemed to link up to this idea of a naturalistic ethics in an interesting way. I would be inclined to call the page EvolutionaryEthics?, unless persuaded to the contrary.

Oh, I should confess to one other intellectual source: there is rule that economists call “the golden rule” developed (I think) by Solow, one of the first things you learn in any class about neoclassical growth theory, that basically says there is a unique investment rate that maximizes human well-being in the long run. It is similar in structure to my notion that there is a unique rate of exploitation and care for those less intelligent or powerful than we that is in some sense the “best.”

As an aside, I think I am still confused about the nature of a wiki interaction. On this page, I think I know what I was doing wrong: not paying enough attention to the intention of the page’s author in creating it, i.e. to what the page is about. Back over on StrategicDialogSupportSoftware I have this nagging sense that I am not making the best use of the community, that I am asking the wrong questions or writing at the wrong level of generality. (Of course, part of the problem is that I really do not have any interest in dialogue support software in the abstract – I’m just trying to figure out how to make one specific, very complex, difficult, and still largely hypothetical dialogue work with the resources I can muster. It has only gradually come to dawn on me that the software I am imagining would be useful to others, that there is a lot of existing software out there that is sort of like what I want, and that there are a lot of additional capacities that would be helpful that were not in my original conception (which I admit with some embarrassment was drawn in vague analogy to the “Prime Radiant” in Asamov’s Foundation trilogy.) If there is stuff on the web that you think would help me get a better grasp of these issues in general, feel free to let me know – if anyone has something they want to say about how I should best use StrategicDialogSupportSoftware in particular, it should probably go there or to me privately. (My address and phone number are at AndrewHoerner).

One more question, this one more in the spirit of clarification rather than polemic. When you ask about the source of ethics, I am reminded of Aristotle’s famous four types of causation: material, formal, efficient and final. He give the example of a house:

  • the material cause is the stuff it is made out of;
  • the formal cause is the pattern or essence, perhaps best thought of as the blueprint;
  • the efficient cause is immediate forces that bring it into being, like the carpenters and plumbers who build it; and
  • the final cause is the purpose or use that calls it into being, such as to provide shelter and a home.

Are all these kinds of source in your field of interest? If not, which ones?

Yes! This is the line of questioning that I am investigating.

Very brief responses to some things you said:

  • The line of reasoning on this page came out of my very strong rejection of the evolutionary morality / psychology camps.
  • It takes a while to get used to wiki communication!
  • I don’t think that ethics-as-cooking leads to a dead end; We can talk about that some more later.
  • What conversations did we have at Evo Salon 3?
  • Yes: Open Source Software developers working on collaboration software intensely value replicability!

Andrew, on the meta-level I’d say: don’t worry about problems you perceive in using wiki. You are doing pretty well, just relax.

The only problem I perceive is in the “size” of your posting. They are great, rich in thought. To do them justice, one would have to answer in detail, seeking a balance of equal depth, a kind of reciprocity, which is very difficult. To give a short answer seems impolite, disregarding your efforts. This is not my intention but I can’t help.

The comparison of ethics with physics or cooking is interesting. I think we probably agree that ethics is somewhere in between. Ethics is a theory like physics but doesn’t provide its certainty and testability. Ethics is individual to the culture and serves purposes. Maybe I’d compare it to architecture.

With regard to Aristotle’s types of causation:

  • I think that the final cause is dominant, so that ethics is built to support people living together in peace and relative happyness.
  • The efficient cause: ethics influences what people do. There are people seeking best ways for themselves (e. g. Lion here) and people trying to dominate the behaviour of other people in certain ways (e. g. Christian ethics in medieval times) and there are academics who live on being experts on ethics. Such interest groups build their ethics according to their interests.
  • The formal cause: There seems no interesting formal cause of ethics (maybe rational thinking, but there are other “materials”) but the other way round works: ethics is constructed to be a formal cause for human interaction or decisions.
  • The material cause: This is, I think, what Lion is naming “source”. This could be religous inspiration, pure rational thinking, …, or (Lion’s proposal) our knowledge about the nature and evolution of life.

The question is whether such a project is possible and efficient. What results could different sources give? E. g. regarding homosexual relationsships it is quite clear that an idealistic, theoretical, rational ethics will tend to enforce standards and be restrictive. An evolutionary ethics will probably (1) accept deviations from standards as necessary for development (2) argue that it would be inhumane to force people to act against their genetical code, as long as no harm is done.

This is just an oversimplified example, but I think it indicates, that evolutionary ethics might create interesting arguments and that ethics from different sources can not be expected to converge.

These are my personal findings in answer to: Is ethics one truth?

(If this discussion takes on a life of its own, we may want to move it to: EthicsAsOneTruth?, or something like that.)

I believe that ethics is not one truth. Further, if ethics is one truth, I don’t think that we can access it by any process, given any amount of time.

“Can a truly believed ethical assertion be wrong?”

If someone believe in a given axiom-based or rule-based ethical framework that they subscribe to, then I think they could say, “Oh, this comes before that.”

If a person lives in a society, (and who doesn’t,) and they make an ethical assertion that goes against what the vast majority of people think is right or wrong, in their society, then the society will say: “That ethical assertion is wrong.” If they know this idea about ethics, they can further say: “That is not an accurate representation of what we want.”

But I think that if a person is alone, and constructing their own ethics from their own wants, or if a society is starting anew, I don’t think that we can say it is right, or that it is wrong. We can talk about whether it works, or leads to a stable pattern, and so on– but I don’t think we can connect it with a metaphysically independent ethical ruler floating out in space.

“Does the truth of an ethical statement depend on the point of view or mood of the holder? Can what is ethical for you and me be different for reasons that depend on our attitudes rather than our circumstances?”

I think that this depends on what you want.

“Does the collection of true ethical statements sum to a single, internally consistent body of knowledge? Or are there many equally true systems of ethics?”

I think that people construct internally consistent ideas about ethics, but I don’t think that they have, or can have, (except by extreme accident,) any justified connection with “metaphysically independent ethics,” should such a thing exist.

What people want is in flux, complicated, and very often internally contradictory. I suspect parts of ethics are common deductions of stable systems, and others whiplash wildly.

Lion, I don’t quite understand you. If we assume that ethics is a kind of social construction, then this implies that there are many ways to do it. Then there is no “one true ethics” like there can’t be the “one best house”. So I think there is a consensus anyway.

But this doesn’t mean that investigating ethics (like architecture) will not improve results. It might lead to a nearly perfect solution in a given situation. Whether we know/believe it or not.

I’d compare it to the findings of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein made us understand that different observers see things differently and that these perspectives are not just arbitrary but can be understood, predicted and transformed into each other. In a similar way perfect ethics seems to me like a logical operation, starting from arbitrary first principles (source) and a given observer position/viewpoint, then producing a framework of reasoning and decision making.

Ethics seems to answer the question “what is good for me, my family, my community, my society, world ecology, the universe, …” and if we find ways of acting that satisfy all these interest positions at the same time (Andrew’s “perfections” seem an example), and can extract general rules of good advice from that, then we’ve done a simple step forward. But most of the time the rules are conflicting and one needs to compromise or make a choice between lesser evils.

I also do not see a problem with the principle truth of EthicalStatements? like “respect everything that is existing in the universe, especially living beings” or “do not destroy anything without a understandable and generally accepted need, better a common consensus”.

I think it’s just that they lack authority; That is, they lack “backing,” should someone disagree, or think that the ethical assertions are being given too much weight.

I actually support those ideas. But if I’m in a DefeasibleReasoning? process with someone, I need something to back the idea. The question of the SourceOfEthics arises.

Incidentally, there are people who disagree: There are people who think that respect, even for living things, can only be properly evaluated against a backdrop of God. And, to a degree, I can understand that: There are situations where I would rather have people die, for the sake of a new state of existence for humanity. If people are all “stuck,” the question of “what is it to live” arises, and respect for the “life support” vision of human life needs to take a back seat.

My proposed backing for statements like “respect everything that is existing in the universe, especially living beings,” is that it is what I want, and what I believe my society wants.

I don’t see why we need to ascribe that backing to some universal constant beyond ourselves. And I don’t see why we should hesitate to say: “This is what we want.”

If we are worried that people will be unreasonable, and say, “Here is my rock, and I’m going to stand here firmly, and try and extend it to the four corners of the Earth-” … well, obviously, that is not what we want.

After making many, many promises to not enter into this discourse, this post has to be seen as an admission of failute on my part. That being said …

Lately I’ve found my thinking influnced by …

  • news picture in Canada, Ontario of First Nations “warriors” wearing balaklavas as full masks while they fight for their “rights”.
  • The Danish debate about banning burkas.
  • middle east images of the freedom fighters, always wearing masks.
  • etc, etc

In this context of SourceOfEthics, I find myself drawing a tentative conclusion that one of the sources of ethics is Accountability and that this is not possible for those who insist on Anonimity. Mulling this over further, I even also find myself concluding that I am unlikely to trust anyone who strives to hide their real identity, be it by wearing a mask in the real world, or by hiding behind an open proxy server in the virtual world.

I am particularly intrigued by these emerging conclusions because …

  • I was initially quite concerned about the wiki practice of asking for RealNames
  • I was especially concerned about posting an image (which I have come to now do on virtually every site I frequent)

Interestingly, I am beginning to get feedback that suggests others see me as being more trustworthy, since I am obviously more “transparent” than I used to be.

As a result, I plan to test “visibility” as both a possible TrustMetric factor and to consider it further as a SourceOfEthics.

Dear Lion-- I think you are asking a fascinating question, but I think you are asking it in a way that presumes you already know the answer (though that presumption is weakened by your recent additions), and I think you have the wrong answer.

The observable ethics that your are talking about, the ethics that people actually hold, have six features that I think are hard to account for in your system. So if you want to make a credible case that “ethics is what you like,” you have to confront and account for these features.

First, we can, and most people sometimes do, think that we are ethically forbidden to do things we would otherwise like to do, or ethically required to do things we would otherwise prefer not to do. We each know this is true of others as well.

Second, it appears to be an essential feature of ethics that it is presumptively shared. It must be presumptively shared, because its purpose is to get every ethical person to take into account the desires and well-being of people you otherwise care nothing about. The fact that morality is presumptively shared is why we can have conversations about what is moral that include statements like “You should. . .” or “One should. . .”

Third, I think that most people believe that their own ethical beliefs are more or less correct and that the beliefs of those they disagree with are wrong — actually wrong, and not just not to their liking.

Fourth, most people do not think “I want you to do X” means the same thing as “You should do X.” I know of situations in my own life where I told a person I thought they were ethically obligated to do something, even though They would rather not and I would rather that they not.

Fifth, while it is true that we all like the moral world better than the “every person for himself world,” the Hobbsian state, we would each like even better the “I’m the king” world.

Sixth, whether or not we agree with them, we think that ethical views of the form “X is ethical whether or not we like it” make sense, e.g. “Species have a right to exist that is independent of human desires or human well-being, a right that relates to their own well-being.” I am not saying that there is common consensus that this view is correct, but rather, that there is common consensus that such statements are coherent, which they are not, on your view.

So the moral system that you are seeking the source of is one that generally holds itself out as having a fundamental character different from that which you are ascribing to it.

I think that on your account, it is a little hard to see why moral codes are as uniform as they are. There is a substantial shared core to nearly all moral systems. What causes this?

I think that the true source of ethics is trying to figure out a set of constraints on our respective behaviors such that, if we all obeyed them, we would like the outcome better than if we did not. Instead of choosing “what we like” we are choosing a set of rules. That is why ethical statements are of the form “You should. . .” rather than of the form “I want you to. . .”

When construction these systems of rules, we impose some, usually quite rough and inchoate, notion of symmetry. We know that we are not going to get agreement on a system of rules that starts “1. Everybody does what Andrew Hoerner says, and if he don’t say anything, what they think he would like” even if rule two is to do what you like, or love your neighbor as yourself (where it does not conflict with rule 1).

If you think that almost everyone is construct morals out beliefs about well-being, some poorly articulated notion of symmetry, some beliefs about what actions cause what effects in terms of well-being, and a modicum of empathy and altruism, it is easy to see why there will be significant variation around a substantially shared core. As to variation, we have different notions or what is good for ourselves and for others. We have different ideas about social and natural causation – what will make those good things occur. And we have different ideas about how best to structure an inquiry into a system of symmetrical rules.

This also provides a naturalistic explanation of the prevalence of religious notions of ethics. From before the dawn of human history, we have had leaders who lay down rules for us to follow, and seen that those rules are sometimes better, sometimes worse, with consequences for us that are sometimes better, sometimes worse. And we have seen all the ways they fail to create rules that are good for us: through selfishness or favoritism (failures of symmetry); through failure to predict correctly the outcome of their action; through an emphasis on one thing that we admit to be valuable to the expense of others (incorrect view of well-being). So we imagine the perfect leader, one who loves and cares for each of us, who always knows just what will be good for us, and just what rules will serve best to bring about that good. We call that leader our God, and call the rules we imagine God-given, and teach our children that they should obey these laws because God is wise and good and loves us. Then the children sometimes do terrible things, because they look for truth deductively from rules rather than imaginatively from the perspective of an all-wise and all-loving ruler, or, (more often) because they see a way to use loopholes in the inherited system to their advantage.

On the other hand, my view provides something that your view does not: a naturalistic explanation of why ethical views are as similar as they are. The list of candidate components for well-being is short and in practice the components are highly correlated. Different ways of thinking of symmetry will often give the same answer, and even when they give different answers they will be a lot closer to one another than all the “I’m the king” answers.

I believe that people will often be able to come to substantial agreement on an ethical issue they share if they confront it repeatedly and have opportunities for dialogue about it. This provides evidence, though not proof, that there is a true ethic that is attracting them toward a common solution. It is certainly plausible that dialogue helps people clarify their beliefs about symmetry and well-being, and in my theory of the origin of ethics, one would expect clearer beliefs about symmetry and well-being to result in clearer beliefs about ethics, which in turn would result in more agreement about ethics, since in my system all disagreement comes from lack of clarity.

I admit this view is to a certain degree one of faith. I think that if we had perfect knowledge of ourselves, we would know what was good for us. If we had perfect knowledge of physical and social causation, we would know the effect that each system of rules would have on us. If we had perfect understanding of the various different ways of thinking of symmetry, we would know which system of rules each would imply. We could then select that one, and it would indeed be the One True Ethics, the one the all-wise, all good God/Dess would have given us.

This ethics is neither known, nor knowable with certainty. But it is approachable through luck and wisdom, experience and thought, sympathy and empathy. To believe that the One True Ethics exists causes us to inquire about its nature; to disagree, discuss, test, and learn, and thereby come closer to it than we were when we started.

But perhaps no amount of self-knowledge would lead to agreement about the nature of the Good, and we will always have those that will prefer wisdom over happiness and those that will prefer happiness over wisdom. And perhaps every view of symmetry results in a unique pattern of distribution of well-beings such that there are always those who prefer, e.g., a less equal distribution of a bigger pie and those who prefer a more equal distribution of a smaller one.

I do not believe this. I think that perfect knowledge would result in one ethic – that would vary with circumstances, but not in its principles. I am, in fact, more convinced of this than I am of any particular feature of that ethic. This may be a matter of temperament.

However, even if there is a range of ethics that correspond to different ideas of the good and of the best form of symmetry to impose, we are far, far away from that core. It is like looking at Jupiter from earth: It may be a vast disk if you are near it, but it is a point from here. When we begin our journey, it does not matter what part of Jupiter we are trying to get to. Though we may discern differences in the ultimate goal, the paths to all of these goals is the same from here. And until we have all agreed that we should feed the hungry, heal the sick, cloth the naked, comfort the bereaved, teach the ignorant, protect the weak, preserve the health of the planet, and provide every human being with the wherewithal to achieve these things as a matter of right; and that this agreement should take the form of creating concrete institutions that actually do all these things – which, I believe, every valid ethical system will do – we need not concern ourselves overmuch with the variations, and can comfortably take refuge in the commonalities.

At the same time, think it is vitally important that we retain humility with respect to any particular formulation of ethics, for all the reasons that my personal hero and icon John Stuart Mill gives in On Liberty, which i believe is still the best defense of freedom of speech ever written. And i think that the combination of such humility with the quest for the true ethics based on disputes about the nature of the good and the proper sense of symmetry would be worse than your system at:

“maintain[ing] a plurality of ethical views,”

and “build a global civilization that runs very different in different places (that is, that grants freedom of identity to groups,)”

(it would do these things, but not as well)

and better than your system at: “unit{ing] against anti-ethical horrors,”

and “make[ing] ethical progress as an entire diverse planet.”

I would urge you to look at my original six facts and ask whether, as a matter of science, your explanation of the SourceOfEthics or mine is better at accounting for them.

I also observe that someone with my view of the nature of ethics could not fully agree with your account of the source, while someone with what I take to be your view of the nature of ethics could not fully agree with my account of the source. So from a wiki point of view, it seems like we should either call this Source-Of-Relativistic-Ethics or something like that, or acknowledge that our ideas about the source of ethics is inextricably bound with our view of the nature of ethics, so that someone who thinks that ethics is something universal, about which we can have correct or incorrect belief, is bound to have a different view of the source that someone who thinks we each have our own ethics, and can not be mistaken about them, and that both will in turn differ with someone who thinks that ethics is something we have built but now share, but could with equal validity have built differently, like the memorial in town square or the U.S. Revised Code Annotated.

Now some quick wiki questions:

Is the summary field supposed to contain a summary of the whole page, or the most recent comment?

If someone suggests that a comment of mine belongs on its own page and i agree, do i just move it, or wait for some consensus or other signal? What about comments that respond to mine? Should I copy them, but leave the originals behind as well?

If someone incorporates something into the top part of the wiki that i think accurately and adequately reflects my comment, should i delete it (that is, my comment, not the incorporation)?

If i have a page that i started, and someone makes a suggestion and i incorporate it, should i delete their comment? what if i ask them first if my incorporation accurately summarizes their view?

If I ask newbie questions like this and someone answers them, and I am satisfied with the answer, should I delete both question and answer? Should i move it to some Answers-To-Questions-Newbies-Ask page? Should I have asked the questions on that page in the first place?

Is using hyphens as i just did a reasonable way to “quote” a CamelCase word that i do not yet think should be made a page?

Wow! What a great post!

I’m eager to answer it, but I need to rush home. Before I do, though, quick answers to your small questions at the end:

  • The summary field describes the last few days of conversation. If you don’t have time, just attach a one liner summarizing what you just added. This said, if you want, feel free to summarize the whole page: In general, though, that takes too long to maintain.
  • The naming of new pages is reserved for OccasionalContributors and CommunityMembers. We still need to talk about the name of the page. I don’t think EvolutionaryEthics? is a good name, because the Evolutionary Ethics community (which is “out there”) already has a definition for it that I think conflicts with yours. Remember that the DocumentMode on pages here is CollectiveSpeech, and speaks mostly for the CommunityMembers, who are, in some weird way, accountable for and to it, in the eyes of the SilentMajority. We still need to have a conversation about your page. If you like, you may relocate it to AndrewHoernerOnEthics?, and then we can start the discussion on what to rename it to, from there, if you do not like that name. I promise to have that conversation with you, if you want it. Relocating comments: If you think they aren’t mainly part of this discussion, feel free to move them.
  • Generally, we leave comments attached, until we do a reworking. Reworking is usually reserved for CommunityMember or someone in the GuestRole. I believe you that you are now in the GuestRole, but you should defer to a CommunityMember if they disagree. Incidentally, there are way more CommunityMembers than just me, but mostly they aren’t contributing right now, for various reasons. (School, transportation, busy, whatever.) Of course, if you choose to exercise your RightToLeave for whatever reason, you may erase your comments (see: RightToVanish, WikiMindWipe.)
  • If someone else puts something at the top, but didn’t delete your comment, you should probably leave it at the bottom, unless you really really really want to delete it.
  • If you start a page, and you incorporate someone’s comment, usually (traditionally) what we do here is leave it. That may change: I’d like to spell out ConversationProcess. On this page, I intend to preserve conversation, and then to either hide it, (away in an archive page,) or to delete it, well after conversation has died. But while conversation is active, I personally think it’s a good idea to keep the log rolling, so that we can look back at the history, and so on. A different BenevolentDictator may decide differently.
  • We have tried storing answers to questions before, and have ended with byzantine reams of pages like “Answers-to-Questions-Newbies-Ask.” (See: CategoryThisWiki.) These pages often exhibit ChangeFailure. With exceptions (mainly on how to do something technical,) I’d just go with it. If questions recur, we’ll put them someplace at some point, for economy. This said: If you want to, if you know a good place to– we believe in BeginnersReworking. I would recommend strongly against making new pages though– try to find a good existing place.
  • The way we usually quote CamelCase that we don’t want to link, is to use 6 apostraphes. That’s what I use, at least.

I have been reading your response for many hours now, literally.

And I have been taking notes on it for many hours now, literally.

Helmut’s right: Please, smaller responses. DivergingArguments are really bad for the discussion.

That said, this subject is important enough to me, that I’ve been putting in the hours.

I still have not put together my total response for you. Granted, I have written 300 lines in counterpoint, but it’s not what I’ll be posting here.

I’m still debating about whether to post individual responses to your six points, like I think you are asking for, which will likely lead to even greater fragmentation, or whether I should only a handful of key pints, and respond with them.

Lion, your diagramm is great! It is beautiful and does an excellent job to make your view understandable. Here a picture really says more than a thousand words.

BTW your division directly corresponds to Popper’s three-world-model:

  • world I - the physical reality (what you name “IS”)
  • world II - the reality of individual the individual mind: consciousness, awareness, thinking, … (what you name “WANT”)
  • world III - the reality of intellectual and cultural artefacts (what you name “OUGHT”)

I’d just prefer “map of ethics” or “topology of ethics”. It describes the landscape, the stage, on which the phenomenon “ethics” happens.

Ethical Discussion continues on EthicsDiscussionB

Meta-discussion has been relocated to EthicsDiscussionRoadmap

Define external redirect: DontPanic SocialEthics CnPiCm WillfulEthics DefeasibleReasoning CiEICj AndrewHoernersEthics ConsequencesOfNaturalEthics CnE CmPiCn AndrewHoernerOnEthics CmPIiCn CmECn EthicalOpportunities ComputationalNicomachean EvolutionaryEthics ConstructiveEthics CiECj CiECk CjECi EthicalStatements ConstructedEthics CnP SymmetryInEthics CnPnCm CmE CmPkCn JustifiedTrueBelief EthicsAsOneTruth CjECk HierarchyOfEthicalResponsibility CnECm

EditNearLinks: WikiMindWipe RightToLeave RightToVanish KarlPopper CommunityMember ForestFire OccasionalContributor RealNames BenevolentDictator TrustMetric DocumentMode ChristopherAlexander GuestRole SilentMajority CamelCase