📰 Axiology, Morality, Law
Author: Scott Alexander
Full Title: Axiology, Morality, Law
Axiology is the study of what’s good. If you want to get all reductive, think of it as comparing the values of world-states. A world-state where everybody is happy seems better than a world-state where everybody is sad. A world-state with lots of beautiful art is better than a world-state containing only featureless concrete cubes. Maybe some people think a world-state full of people living in harmony with nature is better than a world-state full of gleaming domed cities, and other people believe the opposite; when they debate the point, they’re debating axiology.
Morality is the study of what the right thing to do is. If someone says “don’t murder”, they’re making a moral commandment. If someone says “Pirating music is wrong”, they’re making a moral claim. Maybe some people believe you should pull the lever on the trolley problem, and other people believe you shouldn’t; when they debate the point, they’re debating morality.
These concepts stay separate because they each make different compromises between goodness, implementation, and coordination.
At least from a rule-utilitarianesque perspective, morality is an attempt to triage the infinite demands of axiology, in order to make them implementable by specific people living in specific communities.
Law is an attempt to formalize the complicated demands of morality, in order to make them implementable by a state with police officers and law courts.
Most “moral dilemmas” are philosophers trying to create perverse situations where axiology and morality give opposite answers.
With this framework, we can propose a clearer answer to the moral offsetting problem: you can offset axiology, but not morality.
The problem with murder isn’t just that it creates a world in which one extra person is dead. If that’s all we cared about, murdering would be no worse than failing to donate money to cure tropical diseases, which also kills people
I realize all this is sort of hand-wavy – more of a “here’s one possible way we could look at these things” rather than “here’s something I have a lot of evidence is true”. But everyone – you, me, Amanda Askell, society – seems to want a system that tells us to offset carbon but not murder, and when we find such a system I think it’s worth taking it seriously.