Moral Truths Are Necessary & Eternal

Is stealing objectively wrong?

Capital investment – saving up to make life better somehow – is not possible except where property is secure. Nor is social trust; so nor therefore is cooperation. Stealing decoheres society.

Similar considerations pertain to lying, murder, adultery: they are all the death of society as such. These are mathematically demonstrable truths of game theory.

Then morality is a department of mathematical logic. And the truths of math, logic and metaphysics are necessarily true; which is to say, that they are eternally true, and could not be otherwise.

Whatever is must be conditioned by these truths. There is no way to evade them; this is what is meant by, “God is not mocked.”

So they condition all possible worlds; so they condition our world; so they condition us.

30 thoughts on “Moral Truths Are Necessary & Eternal

  1. Pingback: Moral Truths Are Necessary & Eternal | @the_arv

  2. I think there is a limiting condition on this moral imperative, namely:

    1.) If “we steal from them”, it is different from if “I steal from you”. Because the first is the essence of democratic rule, there is no better exemplification of the People’s Will. And democracy, even if not necessarily good, as they say, happens.

    2.) If “we conquer them”, is different from if “I steal from yo”u. Conquest is the foundational act of any political order, especially the aristocratic one. Conquest, on analysis, is basically theft with fringe benefits.

    On the other hand, neither 1.) nor 2.) can be held to be moral, in the sense that if 1.) or 2.) fails, the group undertaking the appropriation will be condemned. On the other hand, 1.) or 2.) can’t be immoral, because if they succeed, the leaders will ultimately end up glorious graven images for pigeons in a public park somewhere. . . or you end up with some version of progressive liberalism, committed to pretending that 2.) has only been done by European powers.

    Remember, “stealing” has no definition. If I borrow the image of Micky Mouse without permission, it is only an arbitrary legislative fiat that makes Micky Mouse “intellectual property theft” rather than “public domain”. It is an arbitrary judicial fiat that makes my appropriation “fair use” or “theft”. Even the commons is governed by arbitrary conventions. So there is no concept of “stealing” across all possible worlds, there is only an abstraction subject, as always, to the contingencies of the glorious democratic undertaking expressed as 1.) and the aristocratic undertaking expressed as 2.).

  3. I guess the best way to frame it would be that the little people shouldn’t steal, and the little people should never dream of declaring themselves big people. Here we arrive at an imperative shared by every ruling class that ever was. But it is more of a political axiom than a moral axiom. . .

    • Hah! Good points. Fascinating. In what follows, I’m just thinking as I go, so bear with me.

      1. Is state expropriation stealing? Only when it is unjust. E.g., it is just for the state to confiscate the ill-gotten assets of a criminal. On the other hand it is probably unjust for the state to confiscate the well-gotten assets of a successful and ethical businessman or farmer who has hurt no one, simply on account of his extraordinary wealth. Taxes then may be just or unjust, depending on all sorts of factors. My hunch is that to the extent that they expropriate wealth from citizens who have done no harm, taxes are unjust; this is another way of saying that it would be morally best if we could find a way for the sovereign to generate revenues to his fisc without coercing anyone to pay under threat of violence.
      2. Is conquest stealing? Again, only when it is unjust. Here I would recur to Just War theory. On the popular moral parsing of WWII that we all learned in school, it was unjust and wrong for Germany to plunder the territories she conquered, while it was just and proper for the Allies to conquer and plunder Germany of her takings, on account of his depredations.

      The justice of an attempted group taking under either 1 or 2 does not depend on whether it succeeds or fails, is lauded or condemned. That’s consequentialism. And consequentialism can’t work as a basis for a properly moral calculation. Crime is wicked not because it generally works out poorly for the criminal, but vice versa. If crime were not inherently vicious, we’d feel no inclination to prohibit it. Crime in that case would not be ill-doing. It would be mere doing, and no one would object to it.

      It is an arbitrary judicial fiat that makes my appropriation “fair use” or “theft.” Even the commons is governed by arbitrary conventions. So there is no concept of “stealing” across all possible worlds …

      The details of the definition of stealing are indeed multifarious, and different cultures define it differently. But all cultures do define and prohibit stealing, somehow or other. If they did not, they could not last for more than a week or so.

      But then, come to think of it, the differences among definitions of theft from one culture to the next arise, not from different conceptions of the nature of theft, but from different conceptions of what can rightly constitute private property.

      That stealing is prohibited by fiat does not by itself make the prohibition arbitrary. By definition, all the ruling acts of any ruler, of any sort, are per fiat. Such acts may or may not be arbitrary. My bet is that most acts of most sovereigns are quite careful and deliberate – are well intended. And whether a sovereign fiat is arbitrary or not does not tell us whether or not it is just.

      Notwithstanding all of that – which I think is not so much to disagree with your jaundiced points, as rather only to put a different gloss on them – I grant of course that there is always all sorts of stealing going on up in the commanding heights of any society, of a sort that would never be permitted to hoi polloi. The scoundrels in high places seem always to be with us. That’s discouraging.

      But that wickedness is pervasive does not indicate that it is not wicked. Whatever the details of its local definition, stealing is wicked; and this wickedness is given in game theory; so that it is not wicked because convention regards it as such, but vice versa.

      Notice that this means that not all convention is “mere” convention. The details of local pronunciation are (probably, for the most part), merely conventional. Deep grammar is not.

      • “Stealing” is an offence against another’s property rights (“invite domino,” as Ulpian says in the Digest (Dig. Ulpianus 42 ad sab).

        However, “property rights” are the subject of positive law. As Mirabeau says, “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens.” Once this point is grasped, the distinction between theft and conquest is obvious; between the conqueror and the conquered there is no common law or lawgiver and property rights are destroyed along with the legal system that gives them being; That is why we read in the Institutes,” Item ea quae ex hostibus capimus iure gentium statim nostra fiunt” [Then by the law of all peoples, what we take from enemies at once becomes ours] – Lib II Tit I.

      • Yes. Crimes against society, such as stealing, adultery, or lying, can occur only within a social context; they presuppose the social order. Nor can property rights make any coherent sense except within a social context. It can’t be wrong for me to take your stuff unless we are together in society which recognizes that the stuff is yours to begin with.

      • I completely agree with you if you are trying to make a Kantian-type point that wide-spread lying, cheating, and stealing are incompatible with society.

        However, the possible worlds lingo requires that “what is stealing” be the same across all possible worlds, or you cannot make a conclusion about it. [Am I myself across possible worlds if I am Nigerian doctor who wins the Nobel Prize in one world and an illiterate beggar in Calcutta with leprosy in another world? What provides identity across possible universes?]

        Moreover, I do think that the species could perhaps dispense with rules against stealing, provided we all lived as loners or in tiny, singular family units, e.g. without society. I would see the prohibition as barring the existence of the species, only the existence of a social order of any complexity. But the possible exception relating to the big fish and the small fish would still stand.

      • I am indeed making that point. Among others.

        Why does an instance of a type of thing need to be identical across all possible worlds in order for us to conclude anything about that type? Surely a blue triangle in one world such as ours would be just as triangular as a red triangle in some other.

        The species could indeed dispense with lots of things if it was not social. But it is. Society is one of the final causes of man (and men are one of the final causes of society).

      • What if morality is a code of conduct that promotes cooperation and group-cohesion in the in- group, and that groups with high levels of cooperation and group-cohesion tend to conquer and subjugate groups with lower levels of cooperation and group-cohesion? If they don’t kill or sell the conquered people into slavery, then the masters impose their morality on the subjects. [Hence, high/low culture, etc.] Thus, the kinds of traditional morality we find do a good job of promoting cooperation and group-cohesion.

        In this case, moral breakdown implies a breakdown in group cooperation and cohesion, meaning that the in-group is vulnerable to conquest and perhaps even destruction. Thus, people are extremely punitive toward transgressors because they threaten the survival of the group, and so it makes sense to kill one to spare the many.

        This brutally consequential, but it explains morality, the purpose of morality (promoting group survival), why immorality provokes the reactions it provokes, etc. It also explains why most modern moral “innovations” are diametrically opposed to the telos of morality.

      • Sure. But again, I would reiterate that a code of conduct that emphasized cooperation and group cohesion would be likely to succeed because cooperation and group cohesion are good, and not vice versa.

        I.e., it would not be good because it worked, but would work because it was good.

      • Kristor writes:

        Why does an instance of a type of thing need to be identical across all possible worlds in order for us to conclude anything about that type? Surely a blue triangle in one world such as ours would be just as triangular as a red triangle in some other.

        “What is stealing” across possible worlds doesn’t have to be identical, but you must have some criterion that makes the concept of “stealing” the same across possible worlds–that provides identity. The lack of such a principle is a major failing in my view of the possible worlds framework. As mathematical concepts like “triangularity” have the kind of precision that a concept like “stealing” lacks. [Hence, property is theft, taxation is theft, e.g. the slogans of all the ideologues.] Indeed, it is Leibniz who first developed this lingo (I think), and the physicists seem to be the most enamored with it today.

        I think a game theory argument for why there are rules against lying, cheating and stealing are superior to “possible worlds” arguments. [I do think a world with rampant lying, cheating, and stealing is possible, I just think it would make human cooperation extremely limited, humans probably pre-linguistic, and possibly quickly extinct, as the human ability to cooperate is perhaps our greatest evolutionary adaptation.]

        Of course, this leaves the whole ought/is problem, and the free rider problem, but I think when you look at the dynamics of the superior cooperators in time, you see that they come to dominate other social orders, and take punishment of free riders extremely seriously. This free rider problem is also no doubt responsible for the emergence of religious beliefs about observation by punitive supernatural powers.

      • All we have to do in order to specify stealing across possible worlds is go ahead and specify it, as has been done with the triangle:

        Stealing is the uncompensated coerced taking of property.

        This definition takes some definitions of property, taking, compensation and coercion as axiomatic, of course, and the axioms do need to be specified. But, the definitions of property, taking, etc., are to this definition of stealing as the definitions of angle, line, and plane are to the definition of the triangle.

        This may be trickier than it appears to me, I grant. But, in any case, we are not so much here interested in the particulars of the definition of property, taking, stealing, and so forth, in this or that world, this or that culture, as we are in the fact that all human cultures in our particular world have for each of them *some definition or other,* and they all take what they then construe as stealing to be wicked.

        This is as much as to say that all cultures have developed rules and customs that guide the forms of their coordinations, so as to constitute them social in the first place.

        However you set up the rules of the game, cheating always ruins it; likewise, stealing is always suboptimal across a population.

        Free riding, likewise, is always suboptimal across a population. That it is advantageous to an individual does not begin even to hint that it might be righteous. If I could kill you and take your stuff, and be much better off, that would not make the murder righteous.

        We could sum all the social sins under the heading, “It is wicked to injure society, whether in whole or in any part.”

        I’m not perplexed about how a moral obligation might arise from a set of facts, because it seems quite clear to me that in a universe in which there are free agents who can suffer, there is no such thing as a fact that has no moral valence. Every fact eo ipso imposes some duty upon moral agents, even if only the duty to reckon it as a fact that must be accounted for in the shaping of prudent action (NB: even the judgement that a particular fact is completely irrelevant to a given moral evaluation of optional acts constitutes such a reckoning).

        There is, i.e., no fact/value dichotomy. There is rather fact/value integrity; for, facts are integrations of values: delete all the properties of a thing – all the values (along every dimension of value) it instantiates – and what you have left is no thing at all. So facts all mean something; they are all intensional – which is to say, with Aristotle, that every thing is finally caused.

      • “[y]ou must have some criterion that makes the concept of “stealing” the same across possible worlds–that provides identity.”

        Is that true? In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues that it is impossible to devise some definition of “game” that includes everything that we call games, but excludes everything that we do not. This shows us that a word need not have an essential core meaning that is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing.” We have to see how it functions in a specific social situation.

        However difficult it might be to produce a definition of the word “game,” even quite small children have no difficulty at all in using or understanding it. We are all familiar (socially) with enough things that are “games” and enough things that are not “games” that we can categorize new activities as either “games” or not; we do not (consciously) catalogue various similarities until we reach a certain threshold; we just intuitively see the resemblances.

        Think of the differences between describing
        1) The height of Mont Blanc in metres
        2) The use of the word “game”
        3) The sound a clarinet makes.

      • Michael, while I take your point, I think that KD is correct in saying that we’ll need a formal definition of stealing that holds across possible worlds if what we are after (at least in principle) is a formal game theoretic demonstration that it is necessarily suboptimal (taking suboptimality as a privation of proper good) – that it is, i.e., absolutely wicked.

        Whether or not we also need a formal absolute definition of game is another question. I think we probably do. Wittgenstein argues that we can’t get one; but does he *demonstrate* that we can’t? How could he prove that an formal absolute definition of game is impossible other than by a formal demonstration that, as formal, defined game? [I have not read the argument in question, so I’d appreciate a pointer to the passage.]

        Does such a definition need to exclude everything that we don’t ordinarily consider a game? I don’t see why. Indeed, one of the wonderful strengths of game theory is that it finds applicability to all sorts of procedures that we do not ordinarily consider to be games. I myself am game to treat *any* multi-agent procedure iterating under a set of rules with differentially valuable outcomes as a game, and then to treat procedures that we ordinarily consider to be games as a subset of games in general.

        After all, we are not accustomed to treat solid objects as clouds or fields. But that’s what they are.

  4. Pingback: Moral Truths Are Necessary & Eternal | Reaction Times

  5. To say “stealing is objectively wrong” raises all sorts of rather difficult questions – Object of what? Of perception? Surely not.

    A simpler approach is to say that the will to steal is ultimately incoherent; the thief wants to make another’s property “his own.” But, if everyone is free to take whatever he can lay his hands on, then “own” and “ownership” become empty concepts.

    Similarly, to say, “Promises are not binding” is meaningless; it is its binding character that distinguishes a “promise” from a prediction or mere declaration of intention.

    Perhaps, that is what Aristotle means, when he calls bad choices paralogisms (παραλογισμός = Unreasonable or fallacious). True enough, we can often trace their causes to instinctive or dispositional factors, but they remain logically incoherent.

    • Rather than “objectively wrong,” I should have said, “absolutely wrong” – remembering, of course, that stealing is a coherent notion only within the context of some social order, and that there are many ways to order a society, so that property and thus stealing can be understood somewhat differently by different societies.

  6. I’m feel quite honored that my question has prompted it’s own post 🙂

    However, I’m afraid game theory does not actually lead to morality. Let’s see here for a description of the free rider problem:

    “My contribution—say, an hour’s work or a hundred dollars—might add substantially to the overall provision. But my personal share of the increase from my own contribution alone might be vanishingly small. In any case of interest, it is true that my benefit from having all of us, including myself, contribute is far greater than the status quo benefit of having no one contribute. Still, my benefit from my own contribution may be negligible. Therefore I and possibly every one of us have incentive not to contribute and to free ride on the contributions of others. If we all attempt to free ride, however, there is no provision and no ‘ride.’”

    and later:

    ” David Hume grasps the generality of the problem clearly. He says:
    `Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ‘tis easy for them to know each other’s mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But ‘tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou’d lay the whole burden on others.` (Hume [1739–40] 1978, bk. 3, part 2, sect. 8, p. 538).”

    Clearly, it is not a proposition of game theory that it is _wrong_ for the individual to follow the positive incentive to free ride (or to steal, cheat etc.). Yes, if all do it, there is no “ride”, no society. But an average individuals actions do not cause the end of society. If you say that “one _should_ not do what would cause the death of society if all did it”, then you have simply _left_ game theory. This is a statement of morality. That one should _disobey_ the positive incentive of game theory for the individual and instead maximise society’s interest cannot be anything else then a moral conclusion — and needs moral premises. These are exactly what I am trying to find, but so far I don’t see any that work — that could convince the skilfull thief, murderer etc. that (despite fulfilling his desires successfully) he is still making a mistake.

    • The solution to the free rider problem is psychological: children are taught that their behavior is being watched over by supernatural agents, and that punishment will result if they defy group taboos. This is combined in early childhood with the experience of God-like parents punishing them, so the analogy is made flesh, so to speak. This is why atheism is next to immorality in the eyes of many, because of the free rider problem.

      The second piece is the socially-sanctioned use of shaming tactics, punishment, and violence against transgressors. Armies in warfare often are placed in transgressive situations, and military discipline and punishment by necessity tends toward severity to insure good order.

    • The truths of game theory by themselves are inert. They do not care about anything, or do anything, or intend anything. Indeed they cannot. There is no fire in the equations themselves. They can by themselves rather only describe the maths of concrete beings who do care, intend, and do – who game, and who in so doing concretely deploy and manifest the strategies formally specified in game theory.

      If you have a population of concrete players, who do care about the score of the overall population – if only because iterated optimally played rounds will generate the greatest social capital over time, so that the score of all players keeps increasing at the margin – they will quickly settle on cooperation, and banish or kill defectors.

      But the game theoretical fact that the strategy of cooperation optimizes value over time can’t affect the behaviour of agents who don’t care about optimizing the net present value of their lifetime scores in the first place. Only when someone begins to care about things are the truths of game theory kindled, and operant.

      As lying there on the page, the truths of game theory are not by themselves moral. As deployed by agents who order their acts toward ends they construe as valuable, the truths of game theory become precepts that guide action in the way that it should go so as to realize the greatest value. This is to say that they become moral precepts.

  7. If morality can be described in mathematical terms does this not suggest that materialism and spiritualism are essentially the same substance only on opposite ends of the spectrum? Having been indoctrinated by Catholic theology I tend to think of the spiritual as “wholly other” than material. It seems to me that to conceptualize the two as being of the same substance (and I am not saying you are doing this necessarily) it seems to rob spirituality of some of its unique power.

    • The spirit is the life of a living concrete being. It is an integral togetherness of soul or form, of matter, of efficiency, and of finality. Matter is not spirit. Matter as such – prime matter – has no form, but is rather the capacity to take form. Matter as formed is amenable to mathematical treatment, for as formed it will have formal characteristics, and forms are logico-mathematical – are, i.e., formal. Matter can be spiritual – can live – insofar as it can take the form of the soul, thus becoming a body that efficiently acts toward final intentions.

      In Catholic anthropology, matter and spirit are not opposite ends of the spectrum – that’s a Cartesian notion – but rather are orthogonal categories.

      I’ve been intending for weeks to post on the relations of soul, spirit, and body. Must get to that. It’s one of the philosophical skeleton keys.

      • Traditionally, you have spirit, soul and body.

        Spirit is connected with logos/language, and so spirit is necessarily communal. [The Holy Spirit is associated with the Church as a corporate body.] It is connected with group identity.

        Soul is connected with personal identity and sensation. It is thus private.

        Body is connected with personal identity but is communal. We wear clothing to make parts of our bodies “private”, but they are not innately so, in the way that my sensation of pain is.

        Descartes equated spirit and soul (mistake) and then posed an absolute dichotomy between body and soul (mistake). The school men did a much better job, even if their epistemology is based primarily on sense perception (mistake).

      • The soul of a corporeal organism – including man – is the form of its body. This doctrine is so traditional that it is in the Catechism somewhere. I don’t have my Catechism handy, so I can’t look up the relevant paragraphs. I’ll try to hunt it down.

        When a body is ensouled, it lives; and that life is its spirit. The spirit then is the soul as living; and it is the body as living; it is the life of the ensouled body.

        Beings that have no body can have souls, too. In general, the soul of a being is the form of its concrete implementation, whether or not that implementation be material.

    • The tension in naturalism is as follows:

      The world consists entirely of what can be described in 3rd person impersonal descriptive language. This means any statement not in the 3rd person impersonal must be “reduced” or “translated” in the 3rd person impersonal, or it “doesn’t exist”. Now why our grammar should be reducible in this way is never explained or defended, or why something “doesn’t exist” because it can’t be translated into an assertion in the 3rd person impersonal.

      The other tension is that empiricism is rooted in sense perception (which discloses the means by which our 3rd person impersonal descriptive statements are verified). Sense perception is an inherently private faculty, and an inherently private faculty can’t be described in the 3rd person impersonal (this is where DesCartes was coming from). The so-called view from nowhere. However, in actual fact, regardless of empiricist epistemology, what is deemed “true” is in fact a result, always, of social consensus only. [Hence empiricism is the least empirical of philosophies.]

      Obviously, what is deemed “true” varies from community to community, but there is no way to talk about this in 3rd person impersonal statements, other than some form of relativistic framework and the reduction of “truth” to anthropological description–and even the truth of this Boasian anthropological description is determined by who? [The concept of truth cannot be divorced from the concept of authority, which is a huge problem to translate into 3rd person impersonal statement.]

      So you either end up putting the foundations of all things into some faculty which can’t exist per your theory, and having to explain how it makes sense, or you go relativist, and having to explain how your really right even though truth claims are relative.

  8. Moral truths are necessary for the survival of any society. We see this, not only with humans, but with social animals. They are, by no means eternal or universally objective however. They exist only to serve the survival of the group/tribe/species they protect.

    • They are necessary and eternal because they are game theoretical truths. This is to say that they are truths of a department of mathematics. And the truths of mathematics are eternal and necessary.

      The peculiar character and circumstances of a given actual group determine which of the moral truths of game theory properly pertain to them, and how.


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