The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Understanding Morality

I have a simple morality:

  1. I like feeling good.
  2. I don’t like feeling bad. (Suffering)
  3. I want other people to feel good.
  4. I don’t want other people to feel bad (to suffer.)


Most people have some of this as part of their morality.

How much is a matter of moral transitivity. How many people are part of three and four?

Let’s outline some variations:

The psychopath. Only my suffering and happiness matters.

The Patriarch/Matriarch. Only the suffering and happiness of me and my relatives matter.

The Back Slapper. The suffering and happeiness of me, my relatives, and my friends matters.

The Noble. The suffering and happiness of me, my relatives, my friends and my dependents matters. (Modern version is the good boss.)

The Aristocrat or Oligarch: Only the suffering or happiness of my class matters.

The Neoliberal Politician: Only the suffering of my family, friends and donors matters.

The Patriot. The suffering of my fellow citizens matters.

The Bigot. The suffering and happiness of people like me (my culture, skin color, religion or whatever) matters. I want people who are of inferior or enemy races to suffer and not be happy (reversal of 3 and 4.)

The Zionist: The suffering and happiness of Israeli Jews matters to me. I want Palestinians to be unhappy and suffer (and die.)

The Saint: the suffering and happiness of all humans matters to me.

The Boddhisattva: the suffering and happiness of all creatures capable of suffering or being happy matters to me.

It should be obvious that there are two variables here:

  1. How far your concern emanates.
  2. Who you reverse concern on. Who do you want to see suffer? (A lot of people who think they are good people want to see “criminals” suffer and feel virtuous for doing so.)

A third variable is degree. For most people concern vitiates with “distance.” They care most about themselves, then their family, then their friends, then people they know personally, then people like them (however they define that) and so on. For animals, mammals get a lot of concern, especially good looking ones, and non mammals get less with insects and so on falling into the exterminate them category.

What is your morality? Who does it apply to, and how much?



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  1. bruce wilder


    “Distance” could be a heuristic or proxy for community of interest as well as sympathy in people’s informal thinking.

    Conflict of interest and how that limits sympathy and compassion, if it does or should — that is where morality gets interesting.

    And, then there is the delicate matter of institutions and ethics . . .

  2. StewartM

    (A lot of people who think they are good people want to see “criminals” suffer and feel virtuous for doing so.)

    It’s hard for me to judge where I am. I’d like to think I’m with the Boddhisattva, and it most cases am, but I often do find myself wishing to see the big evil-doers hurt. (Not the little people evil-doers; the vast majority of these need help; and moreover ‘evil-doing’ to me is more predicated on the real, measurable, physical harm that someone did instead of any ‘feelings’ of revulsion or disgust or other learned emotions).

    And are there some people who by their very nature are evil and should be either killed or imprisoned for life? I’m thinking of the sociopaths among us, both big and small. These are good at learning to speak the language of goodness and compassion but they never really experience it and never change–or at least that’s what the consensus of psychology is now. When I read about some of the smaller ones, who are imprisoned, and how they act (say, prison gang leaders)–is it fair for normal wrongdoers to be locked up along with these? Would YOU want to be locked up with such people?

  3. Curt Kastens

    A few people who think that they are virtuous do not want criminals to suffer and think that they are virtuous for not wanting criminals to suffer.

    Some economists say, that when you subsidize something you get more of it.

  4. both sides do it

    There’s also a variable of metaphysics here (which I’m surprised Ian left out, since he’s aware of it.)

    When someone(/animal) suffers . . . what happens? Does my suffering increase at some point because someone else is suffering now? Whose suffering eventually turns into my suffering?

    Ian’s groups in the OP seem to each have distinct answers to this.

    e.g. Bigot: “When someone from my race suffers I eventually do as well; when others do, mine doesn’t, and it can be good for my race”.

    Neoliberal: “When my family/friends/donors suffer, that will eventually harm me as well; when people outside of that group suffer, it will never affect me, it might be good for my network”, etc.

  5. TimmyB

    “Don’t do to people what you wouldn’t want done to you” seems to be the best rule.

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