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Morality Works

Many people think immorality is not self-defeating and needs nasty consequences imposed on it, like legal repurcussions or the community shunning offenders. And on the flip side think that morality is not very effective: doing moral actions means sacrificing getting the most money, prestige, etc, that is possible to get. In this way morality is closely tied to altruism.

One result of this way of thinking is the rich and successful are deemed prima facie immoral, and the powerless and weak are deemed prima facie virtuous. Another is that people who think this way don't whole heartedly try, strive, and want to be maximally moral; instead they are at least a little conflicted.

I define morality as our knowlege about how best to live, and thus it is effective by definition. I think the reason people shy away from this definition is if they used it then they can't see anything wrong with stealing, or with premarital, gay sex on the first date, but they are sure in advance that those are immoral, so they think my definition is refuted by contradiction.

I think it's scary that people don't understand that stealing is self-defeating even if you aren't caught and punshed. In a way, it's a denial that morality exists. They're saying that "immoral" actions are simply the ones society (or perhaps God) will punish you for, and they can't see any inherent logic in what is and isn't moral without reference to punishment.

On the other hand, I think premarital gay sex is not self-defeating, and also is not immoral. It has no negative consequences for one's life, except perhaps inciting bigots to be mean to you. I don't think we should defer to bigots; that's appeasement, and it would mean, for example, that as long as anti-semites exist people shouldn't be Jewish.

Elliot Temple on June 23, 2009

Comments (17)

Why is stealing self-defeating, even if you're not being caught and punished? What negative consequences does it have for one's life?

- Richard

Anonymous at 6:17 PM on June 27, 2009 | #1786
A lifestyle of stealing puts one opposed to one's neighbors, rather than cooperating with them. Cooperating makes more in total. Fighting risks losing. The stealing approach makes you a lot more alone.

Also, why would you want to steal? Don't you have better things to do? Stealing is very time consuming. You have to spend hours and hours meticulously planning and figuring out ways to avoid being caught, and then you have to spend a lot of effort to sell the stolen goods (or use them while keeping them hidden). This often involves meeting people that'd be better not to associate with.

- Elliot

Anonymous at 9:38 AM on June 28, 2009 | #1790
That's what thieves want: the thrill that all that brings. They see your moral life as boring.

Anonymous at 3:40 AM on July 4, 2009 | #1791
How to get thrills (and whether to get them) is a problem with a solution. Are you saying the best solution requires violently hurting innocent people? I think it doesn't.

Anonymous at 8:19 AM on July 4, 2009 | #1792
Thieves think it does. Stealing is not self-defeating. That's why justice was invented.

Anonymous at 2:12 PM on July 8, 2009 | #1798
You think thieves are correct that stealing is a sensible, effective, non-self-defeating lifestyle? Why?

You have not given any argument except an appeal to authority of thieves, and an appeal to the authority of whoever invented justice which depends on your guess at why they invented it. Appeals to authority are invalid.

Elliot at 2:20 PM on July 8, 2009 | #1799
Nothing bad happens to thieves when they steal until they are caught because they get what they wanted by stealing. That's not self-defeating.

Anonymous at 2:34 PM on July 8, 2009 | #1802
So there's no uncaught but unhappy thieves who find their life is less fulfilling than they hoped?

Sounds like you think people never make mistakes. I assume if thieves don't, most others don't either.

I believe that, say, secretaries sometimes find their lifestyle isn't working out, and that uncaught thieves run into this problem at a significantly higher rate.

Elliot at 2:37 PM on July 8, 2009 | #1804
You're missing the point. The thieving style only doesn't work where you're caught.

Anonymous at 9:24 AM on July 10, 2009 | #1824
So you believe no uncaught thieves ever find their life unfulfilling or consider it mistaken? For all thieves who are not caught, they find their lifestyle works well for them and have no regrets?

You don't think the limited circle of friends, and the constant secrecy, might get them down, in some cases?

Elliot at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2009 | #1825
Do you think Henry Hill, for instance, was a case of self-defeat?

I do not think you can call it self-defeat when it's the threat of force by others that makes you rethink your lifestyle. So maybe we are using the expression differently?

Anonymous at 11:47 PM on July 10, 2009 | #1828
"I do not think you can call it self-defeat when it's the threat of force by others that makes you rethink your lifestyle."

So a lifestyle where you kill people who disagree with you would also be fine? Since it's only the people who are trying to stop you killing that make you rethink your lifestyle.

Even without law, people do not want their rights to be broken and they will want to stop thieves and murders from doing this. You can't just ignore this fact.


Yes, thieves and (some) murderers may think that stealing or killing is a good way to live. But they are mistaken.
Cooperating with the people around them would be able to create far more wealth for all of them.

-Tommy

Anonymous at 8:04 AM on July 14, 2009 | #1842
"Even without law, people do not want their rights to be broken and they will want to stop thieves and murders from doing this. You can't just ignore this fact."

Still, that's not self-defeat. That's defeat by others.

"Cooperating with the people around them would be able to create far more wealth for all of them."

They don't want to create more wealth. They want the wealth that already exists.

What is better? Eating at McDonalds or workin there?

Anonymous at 2:38 AM on July 15, 2009 | #1847
"They don't want to create more wealth. They want the wealth that already exists."

Why do they care where it comes from?
Cooperating will give them more wealth for the effort they put in than stealing will.

Theives start stealing because they (mistakenly) think the opposite is true.

--Tommy

Anonymous at 12:46 PM on July 16, 2009 | #1854
Most thieves are richer than the common working folk.

Anonymous at 6:54 AM on July 18, 2009 | #1856

But it *is* self-defeating...

Elliot: ""Even without law, people do not want their rights to be broken and they will want to stop thieves and murders from doing this. You can't just ignore this fact."

Anonymous: "Still, that's not self-defeat. That's defeat by others."

No. The thief created his environment when he changed it (by stealing). The other people in this changed environment are reacting to the change.

The point is that the change itself was caused by the thief, not the other people. And had he not made that change, then his environment would not have been such that the other people (in his environment) would have reacted to.

So the thieving is self-defeating in the sense that the thief caused his environment to change such that people had reason to defeat him.

Rami Rustom at 2:49 PM on February 25, 2014 | #2262

Most thieves are richer than the common working folk.

"Most thieves are richer than the common working folk."

So you're counting their money and not other things like risk of being put in jail, risk of death, risk of dealing with dangerous people, risk of having a partner thief stealing from you, not having good relationships with good people, etc.

Do you think that this stuff has no value, and only money has value?

Rami Rustom at 2:51 PM on February 25, 2014 | #2263

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)