Logistics of Morality: how navigating space helps understand objective morality

It occurred to me, in discussion with EquippedCat and Steve Ruis in early December 2016, that exploring human judgements in objective areas can illuminate some of the discussion that happens around morality and whether it is, too, is objective. The ‘objective area’ I want to look at to help illuminate why morality is also objective is ‘space’.

I believe morality is both empirical and objective. The quality being measured―thus making it empirical―is the mind, and the ruler (at principle, at least) is something like an fMRI machine which can measure changes in the brain, which relates directly to the mind. The principle here is that ‘morally good’ actions are those that safeguard wellbeing (or, at least, intend to safeguard wellbeing).

The contentious part of this model doesn’t appear to be the relationship between the brain and the mind, or the fact that―in principle―knowing the state of the brain tells one about experience in the mind. Some of the contention arises from questions about what exactly ‘wellbeing’ is, but that concern seems to be alleviated by discussing the fact that some experiences really are worse than others. The bottomline contention seems to be idea that calling ‘changes in wellbeing caused by intended actions’ and ‘morality’ identical is merely a subjective or arbitrary metric. And so it is that concern I’d like to address here.

Imagine you were tasked with the challenge of describing two points in relations to each other. It seems rather simple: you may want to just measure the straight line between the two points. It is simply a question of their distance apart (fig 1.1). But consider figure 1.2, taken from Google Maps, which shows the ‘network distance’ (distance along the road) between the same two points.

Untitled document.pngGoogle Maps shows 3 different distances, with varying times. This starts to allude to something interesting: the linear distance, although objectively and empirically true, isn’t relevant and neither is the network distance (else why would there be three routes offered?). The mention of time and another bit of information from Google (fig 2) implies something more important than distance: impedance.

Untitled document (1).png

Impedance is a measure of many things. It includes distance and time, as well as other costs (like tolls), current traffic, and for a fully laden lorry, even relief. In fact, lorries also need to know about road restrictions and speed limits. The factors that inform an ‘Impedance Index’ are all objective. But navigating the increasingly nuanced picture of which measure is relevant is clearly human judgement, even though it is all objective. And even this increasing nuance is simply increasing the complexity (but also the utility, arguably) is only a linear progress of simply that problem: navigation by the roads.

So, what if your task of describing the distance between points is actually one of building a high speed railway between the two points? For that you may need the map in figure 3 (although it wouldn’t be all you need).


If you want to build the High Speed Rail service between Manchester and London, the description you want between the two points is geology: the relief of the land and the qualities of the rocks (especially where you may need to build a tunnel). But again, it is human judgement and utility that dictates which objective and empirical measurements you need.

I should reiterate a point about morality, one that I alluded to in the introduction and have mentioned in previous posts: I do not believe there is anything about the universe that means morality is inherently in the fabric of the universe. Instead, objective morality emerges from the fact that conscious beings can make intended actions, affecting the wellbeing of other conscious creatures.

I appears I’m simply jumping from logistics of travel between Manchester and London and morality, I am aware of that. But it does have a purpose: in exploring the simple task of describing the relationship between two points, we found that there is a lot of room for human judgement without ever leaving the realm of objective and empirical measurements; similarly, in exploring morality, I think, we can see that making a few judgements doesn’t detract from morality being objective.

In exploring the very narrow question of the relationship of two points, many judgements had to be made. In exploring morality, which is a question of a realm that emerges from consciousness and intent, there are still judgements to be made. And it is that process that I often find discussions stumble on: people seem unwilling to entertain judgements about what makes this measureable. The utility of making judgements about what needs to be measured in the ‘logistics’ example we explored first doesn’t appear controversial. Yet, the fact that this makes sense in simply exploring space, the discussion from people who doubt that morality is (or can be) objective appears to refuse that more complex questions would require judgements like simpler ones do.

There are woolly and yet still objective judgements that are made in a similarly complex area: health. Objective measurements made on different organs and the body do give a sense of health, even though health itself is poorly defined, and the benchmark for ‘good health’ keeps changing (especially  what constitutes good health in old age). However, arrows of health (which way is ‘better health’ and which is ‘worse health’) are not contentious: would you be better off drinking milk or battery acid?

You may argue that health is irrelevant to the universe or a human construct. But neither position stops health being objective. And I’d argue, again, the same is true of morality; wellbeing may be poorly defined and the benchmark for being ‘happy’ may increase as quality of living increases, but arrows of wellbeing are aren’t so contentious: would you be happier spending the next year living a social life or in solitary confinement? You may even argue that the human judgements that tie morality to wellbeing make the whole endeavour subjective, but that doesn’t seem to apply to simple questions, like space, or other complex questions, like health.


10 thoughts on “Logistics of Morality: how navigating space helps understand objective morality”

  1. What is it ‘it’ were talking about? objective vs subjective morality. So let’s get our terms cleaned up.

    Morality (OED).noun: Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour, A particular system of values and principles of conduct..

    How are we describing it? With an adjective, either.

    Objective (OED) adjective: Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.


    Subjective (OED) adjective: Dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.

    So. You are saying because there is a measurable distinction between effects of behaviour (once we select the criteria being comparatively measured, such as well-being), there must necessarily be a system of values or principles that is independent of the mind..

    Well, there’s the rub: which system? What values? Which principles?

    Sure, you’ve selected well-being (just like you selected the train and the two destinations but omitted transportation by water and/or air). But there are many to choose from. I cannot help but think It is the mind that chooses which system, what values, selects these principles over those, and so that is the distinction between what constitutes subjective and objective morality: the a priori use of the mind to select the criteria. That’s what preordains the moral system about to be deployed. That’s the subjective root.

      1. Thanks, Steve.

        You say, “Those decisions might be concrete and give an impression of “objectivity” but like the maxim “it is not the destination but the journey” in this case it is not the series of decisions, but the framework that supports those decisions.” I presume an addendum to this sentence would be “… that makes morality subjective.” Please correct me if I’m wrong.

        I always equate morality to a form of measurement of consequences within a context when dealing with claims of objectivity or subjectivity. By way of analogy, distances, like the kind Allallt refers to, can be measured and produce what seems to be an objective answer but how we do this doesn’t make the epistemology itself ‘objective’ and I think this is the point you are raising. We have to introduce a relative scale that is subjective. It might be using an Imperial scale or a metric scale or time scale or a light scale or whatever. The result is not objective – independent of the mind that is required to create and then use a particular scale – but dependent on the arbitrary meaning of the created scale itself. It makes no sense to say the distance between point A and point B is seven seconds or 9.3 bushels… unless we are first in agreement about what the scale represents. That’s why calculating properties using math only works when the units stay the same. And that means the answers to such calculations are dependent and not independent of the minds that have to come to this agreement. And that dependence determines that morality is not objective but dependent on the minds that must first come to an agreement on what the units of measurement mean. In short form, the epistemology determines the ontology. And I seem to have come across that insight before.

    1. With your comment in mind, and your comment to Steve, I am forced to wonder whether anything can be objectively known.
      Else, is it less of a binary and more of a spectrum, with things being more or less subjective.

      1. Not using these kinds of binary terms. What we can know is likelihood and probability and assign varying levels of confidence to this sliding scale. A proposition or hypothesis or model that approaches one end of this spectrum becomes knowledge and is used as if the case.

  2. Fascinating approach but I think there is a blending here of the idea of moral decision making and the “morality” those decisions are being based upon. In a complex action involving morality, many decisions might be made. Those decisions might be concrete and give an impression of “objectivity” but like the maxim “it is not the destination but the journey” in this case it is not the series of decisions, but the framework that supports those decisions. Whether that framework, a system of moral guidelines, rules, etc. is objective or not is a separate question as to whether moral decision making trees seem proscribed or open.

    Part of the problem is the issue of arbitrariness. A system which is quite objective can also be quite arbitrary. The claiming of morality being rooted only in this religion or that, stems from the looseness of the topic in most people’s minds. I have asked over and over for a clear statement of Christian morality and none has been forthcoming, let alone satisfactory. Since the idea of morality is a loose on in most minds, and the idea of having an enforcer of a moral code echoes a role that parents take for their children we have these claims that “there is no morality without God.” And when a claim is made that moral principles seem to be compatible with evolutionary principles, claims of arbitrariness are thrown. Apparently having a moral code (or fragments of one) printed in a book makes them non-arbitrary.

    So, I am starting to see this whole effort in another light. A moral code is something that everyone needs. What it is isn’t particularly important in the wide scope of things but in the narrow confines of one-on-one interactions, it is critically important. A psychopath may have quite an extensive moral code, but it might not be to the advantage of anyone around them. So, collectively we need a legal code to constrain people’s moral codes to relatively safe spaces. All of these codes may be arbitrary, capricious, objective or subjective but so what. Those codes guide actions, and some actions are acceptable to society and some are not. The Bible is riddled with people acting on the basis of voices only they hear in their heads. Are they saints or schizophrenics? Depends on who you talk to.

    I apologize for blathering on, but you have framed many excellent arguments and it isn’t easy to ignore them.



  3. I applaud you Allallt. An excellent introductory expansion on how humanity can and should grapple OUTSIDE OF our own (self’s) narrow experience and measurements! Always open to new ones, if I can intermingle your points with others.

    Increased objectivity is further obtained when increased data is obtained, and dare I say… the bigger the library and the bigger-wider experience, then the better the objectivity, NOT exclusive to “one.” Would this therefore mean one library, one experience will never be more objective than ‘more than one’ as in your example of Google Maps offering more than one route from point-A to point-B?

    Well-being; health. Those were excellent points of exploration too in regard to morality. And with regard to the best well-being or the best health (of any human internal organs), that definition is HEAVILY influenced by one’s definition of life and death! Hah! Thus, it would seem to me that in order to gain the most objective definitions of life, death, health, well-being, morality, objectivity, etc, would be to hear/read, study, examine, reexamine, question, requestion BEYOND one’s current library… always. Would that not offer the best life for the best death? 😉

    Also, as purely a minor curiosity, I thought it intriguing you used the word “impedance.” Why that particular word rather than say… “results” or results-1, results-2, results-10? Was that relative to the high-speed electric train and track? Or by me asking this minor question, am I exhibiting personal (narrow?) self-experience that my immediate thought/definition of “impedance” is opposition, resistance, and other forms of stagnation?

    1. To answer the curiosity first, there are two reasons I used the word impedance.
      (1) It’s the work I learned when dealing with networks (roads, paths, rail etc), particularly in GIS.
      (2) It seems to me the correct work. If you are in place A and want to get to B, then everything short of instant teleportation is impeding that progress.

      I have to admit to the health example being one I heard from Sam Harris…

  4. I’m not sure what it is the point of this; the writing makes perfect sense, but I’m not clear what the goal is.

    It kind of sort of seems like it might be barely possible (don’t want to commit myself 🙂 ) to create a definitive morality based on “well-being”. (getting most people to agree with it is another set of odds entirely 🙂 ) But only if we can define “well-being” in concrete, measurable terms which are universal for “most” of the people. Which means that including any subjective criteria such as “happiness” or “success” is going to probably turn out to be impractical even it were to be measurable.

    And it will have to take in to account that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. That is, that providing for a standard of “well-being” of everyone, may result in less “well-being” for some. For instance, if we include a standard of health care, is that standard going to be the same for someone who is 90 as for someone who is 19 years or 9 days? That is, if the resources are inadequate to provide the target for everyone, do we reduce the standard for everyone, or apply the standard based on some (again concrete and measurable) set of criteria?

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