Pankration Ethics

A lot of atheists feel the need to argue that there is something called “Objective Morality” and that we have it just as well as any group that believes they received it from higher authority.

I think this is a nice idea, and have many friends who believe it. However, I believe it is both unnecessary and (more importantly) false. There is only subjective morality.

I was watching a theological debate the other day, as I often do while drawing my comics. In it, the theist argued that it only makes sense to posit objective laws if there is a lawgiver. I have to say, this makes at least a certain amount of sense, as long as you’re talking about certain types of laws. That is, I’m willing to believe that a law like “like charge repels like” could be a random member of any number of functional sets of simple physical laws, and therefore might not require a lawgiver. However, I’m less comfortable with the idea that there’s some law like “A male of a certain primate species should not mate with a female of that same primate species until she has existed for as long as it takes a certain planet to go around a certain star a certain number of times.”

Of course, we all agree with that rule. But, do you think it’s a rule of the universe, the same as “1+1=2?”

My friend Matt Dillahunty, who believes in objective ethics, defined it nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong. For this essay, that’s how I’ll be defining objective. Subjective will mean that the rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.

Let me start off with an analogy. Let’s think about two sports: Basketball and Pankration. For those who don’t know, Pankration is an ancient Greek sport, which is basically MMA with no rules. I understand there may have been some minor rules, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Pankration was a sport with no rules. It has a goal – to make the other player concede loss. But, it doesn’t have any rules, like “no biting” or “no breaking fingers.”

On the other hand, Basketball has tons of rules. For example, you can’t punch a player. You can’t take 3 steps without bouncing the ball. You can’t hold the ball, then bounce it, then hold it, then bounce it. Of course, we accept that you COULD in principle do these things. But, since there are rules against them, you don’t.

An interesting thing about Pankration is that, by observing it, you could determine that there are in fact “rules.” For example, you might have a rule like “If both players are fit, and one player outweighs the other, the heavier player is likely to win.” Or you might say “Breaking fingers is a quick way to win.” Or, you might say “Always kick for the crotch.”

You can readily see there is a difference between the rules of Basketball and the “rules” of Pankration. The Basketball rules are given by humans in order to make the game fun. The “rules” of Pankration emerge from the state of the system – the shape and makeup of the human body and the space it occupies. The fact that “kick for the crotch” is a good rule for Pankration is not due to any human rulemaker. It’s a fact of the history of the universe in general and of human life in particular.

In other words, the “rules” of Pankration don’t really exist in the same way the rules of Basketball do. The Pankration rules emerge, fuzzily, from more basic rules of the universe. The Basketball rules are simply asserted upon the system.

Now, suppose instead of rules of sports, we’re talking about rules of ethics. The question you might ask yourself is whether the rules of ethics are more like Pankration or like Basketball.

To a fundamentalist theist, the rules of ethics are like those of basketball. They were arrived at by an authority above the players and are therefore to be obeyed. Period. If the rules of ethics really are like those of basketball, I think it is perfectly reasonable to posit a lawgiver. The rules are very specific and pertain to a particular species of beings on a particular planet. It is hard to imagine that a universe, which could have any set of rules, would happen to have a set of rules for this species. If you hold that there is a lawgiver, these rules are sensible. If you do not, you have to say that “Do not splash a human child’s face with acid” is (as Sam Harris suggests) a known rule of ethics, same as we know that energy is conserved. Both “Energy is conserved” and “A certain species of primate should not put free ions into the sensory apparatus of a juvenile of same species” are rules of reality. It could be the case, but it sure seems absurd to suppose that the latter law, which concerns a single species that inhabits a single tiny speck in a massive universe, was created by anyone other than that species.

In fairness, we could probably make a version of ethical rules that would sound more “basic.” Like, we could say “a system capable of suffering shall not intentionally cause suffering to another such system.” Even then, you’ve got problems. There are all sorts of circumstances where benefits can outweigh the suffering of a small number of individuals. Suppose then we said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, though it is one I try to abide, is still anthropocentric. Suppose we were an intelligent species of eusocial hymenoptera. In the case of humans, the “other” in the golden rule is someone who is by and large your equal. In the hymenoptera, there are “others” of your species who are objectively, always, your inferior. So you see, this rule is a rule for primates, not for the universe. It makes sense if the universe is somehow human-oriented, as in the case of a certain class of deities, but it doesn’t make sense in a world without such a deity.

Now, suppose the rules are like Pankration. That is, they are very basic rules – rules of the universe, not of primates. In time, these rules give rise to all sorts of emergent rules, like “If you kill your children, you will be unhappy.” We can delineate the rules of ethics, but only in the way that we delineate the rules of Pankration. They require us to make observations and decide on a goal.

For example, we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering. If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule. If it were written into the universe, we might discover it. If it emerges from our history, we aren’t discovering anything but what makes us happy. That is, we’ve created rules in order to achieve certain results. This doesn’t have to be true, but it is in no way absurd to suppose it is. It doesn’t require you to posit an unobserved giant consciousness, nor does it require you to posit an intentionless universe which nevertheless has rules for a certain species of primate on a certain planet around a certain star.

And I don’t see what’s wrong with this. Ethics can work by human imposition just fine. In fact, we have all sorts of subjective ideas that are nevertheless useful. There is no objective definition for “skyscraper” but it’s useful to distinguish certain types of buildings. There’s no objective set of civil laws, but we can still observe societies and see what laws seem just. There’s no objectively delicious food, but you’ve eaten many delicious things in your life. There’s no objective definition of love, but you’ve given and received it your whole life.

I think it’s wrong to splash acid in a little girl’s face, but not because there are objective laws of ethics or because there’s any such thing as a science of ethics. I believe it’s wrong because the society that appears to me to be most happy is one in which people don’t perpetrate corporal punishment upon each other. I don’t say this is objective truth. It’s what seems to me to be the possibility that makes me happiest based on my biology and history. My ethics are the Pankration ethics. They’re real, but they’re effects, not causes.

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20 Responses to Pankration Ethics

  1. Jennifer Raff says:

    This is completely off-topic (Pankration reminded me) , but you know that the comic you drew for Greg Jackson is prominently displayed on his office wall, right? He’s very proud of it.

  2. Nickbeat says:

    Rules are great, especially for kids and people that lack Big Picture thinking skills.
    Historically we really sucked at this kind of thinking, and we needed someone to tell us the rules. We are evolving as a species, and more people can manage simply following the golden rule. Hopefully, we will ultimately rise to become Homo Empathicus:

    But rules often mislead us, lending a false sense of security. As a father, when I teach my children about traffic safety, I tell them that the laws of physics outweigh the laws of man; If they cross the street on a green light, they can still be hit by a car. The driver might get in trouble, but you will still be dead.

  3. VonKraut says:

    I agree, I think of it as the ethical Zeitgeist.

  4. Dylan m says:

    You are confusing objective (and moral realism) ethics with deontological ethics…

  5. Alex Songe says:

    Massimo Pigliucci linked this handy-dandy chart on twitter about meta-ethics the other day, so this is pertinent to the discussion: pdf of meta-ethics chart

    I actually largely agree with all the tiny objections here, but still say I believe in Objective Morality, though I probably believe something quite a bit different than what you’re talking about.

    When talking about morality, I see no sense in talking about non-social beings. Social groups seem to be what we just have to have in order to have morality make sense. Rational beings, that is, things capable of having reasons for behavior in some loose sense are the only things that can participate in the “moral community” anyway. I will accept the charge of anthropocentrism here, because frankly, very few animals come close to being able to be represented in this moral community…and those that do are by accident similar to humans. Until we get some fully sentient cephalopods or something, I’m just without a way to even reason beyond these kinds of bounds…it’s just too far out of experience.

    So, on your analogy, I’m going to have to say that I believe that the “rules” of morality are going to be like the rules of Pankration. But I don’t know if that requires that I call them subjective. They are different in an ontological sense, but just because they emerge from more fundamental rules of morality does not make them subjective. By analogy, would you call the operation of economics subjective? If you’re a naturalist, why wouldn’t economics be just like this Pankration-like set of rules? There’s a set goal and the physical accidents of reality conditionally give a set of emergent rules for stating why some actions are better than others. Both economics and morality under this kind of understanding would be epistemically identical. They’re rules about effectiveness (morality being “human flourishing” and economics being “optimum distribution of goods and services” or something similar).

    One of the understandings of subjective morality is that it is somehow predicated on axiomatic values you can in some sense “choose”. This doesn’t seem to me to match even the Pankration analogy.

  6. Aaron Stewart says:

    So, we’re talking about two very different kinds of “rules” or “laws” here.
    There are descriptive (or informative) laws, such as the law of gravity. Descriptive laws typically take observations and form them into causal (or at least correlational ) relationships.
    Then there are proscriptive (or normative) laws, which are regarded as standards of behavior. Such as, “Do not exceed the speed limit.”

    Basketball is wrought with proscriptive laws. Proscriptive laws are created by people to serve a specific purpose. The rules you were able to derive from observing pankration are all descriptive in nature.

    One important difference between descriptive and proscriptive laws are that descriptive laws contain no information at all about how something “should” be. Remember, “is does not imply ought”. Proscriptive laws, however, contain information about how people (at least the people that created the law) believe the world should work.

    Morality and ethics are all about how people should behave when interacting with other people (although it isn’t strictly necessary to confine this set to only humans). The point is, I don’t believe you can in any way derive morality from pure observation.

    Another way to look at it is mathematically. We can think of moral behaviors as being designed to maximize some multidimensional function. For most people this function might be the “overall happiness of the world” or something like that. If we can define in a mathematical and measurable way what it is we’re looking to maximize, then we can call morality totally objective — it’s just math. (Keep in mind, it would most likely be an equation we’re looking to maximize — not a single directly measurable variable). However, in order for this to actually be objective, we need to decide on what the function to be maximized should be. And again, how do we go from observations to saying something ought to be a certain way.

    Finally, I want to point out that, even if there is a single, all-powerful god that created the universe and us.. how does that give him (or her) the ability to decide the way things should be.
    Suppose you develop a technology that allows you to piece together biological molecules in any way you want. You use this ability to create a being which is indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. Because you created this being… do YOU suddenly have the power to decide how he should live HIS life? Because you created him, is he inevitably and forever in debt to you that his whole life is now subject to your will? I think not.
    The point here is, even supposing there is an “all-powerful” deity, there are some things which even the supposedly “omnipotent” cannot logically and objectively have control of — including morality. So, IF objective morality exists, it exists beyond the control of any being, omnipotent or otherwise.

    But let’s just be honest with ourselves.. it probably just doesn’t exist.

    Before I go, I’d like to draw an analogue here… what does it mean to be “healthy”? Is the healthiest person the one that lives the longest? Is the most athletic? Has the most offspring? Feels the most comfortable in their own skin? People talk all the time about how certain foods are “good for you” or “bad for you”, but how do you compare the “goodness” of two foods? If we can’t decide on what the end goal is, how do we compare two options to make a decision? (I hope the analogy is clear enough)

    • Basketball is wrought with proscriptive laws. Proscriptive laws are created by people to serve a specific purpose. The rules you were able to derive from observing pankration are all descriptive in nature.

      I think Zach is doing is breaking this specific model. What makes a “law” proscriptive is how we use them, even if we have “found” them in a descriptive and non-objective way. Where you draw the line between “proscriptive” and “descriptive” is arbitrary.

      For example: are the laws that define “how food should behave to be considered delicious” descriptive or proscriptive? (My answer is: it doesn’t matter at all, because is just an arbitrary line you are drawing between both sets.)

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  8. anthony says:

    I can’t figure out why so many people insist on misunderstanding Sam Harris’ premise on the Moral Landscape. According to Sam ethics are objective in the same way that health is objective. Things are ethical in proportion to the degree that they promote the well-being of conscious creatures. Assertions that ‘well-being of conscious creatures’ is somehow too vague or fuzzy or subjective are as mind-boggling to me (as they seem to be to Sam) as if people said that physical health is too vague or fuzzy or subjective. We have healthy physical and mental states which promote human flourishing. To promote them is ethical, to inhibit them is unethical. This is objective. Why oh why is it not something we all just agree on?? I don’t get it.

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  11. Norm Holmes says:

    Your analogy comparing the rules of basketball with the rules “minor rules” of pankration is a flawed analogy. You state the difference between the two is that basketball has rules and pankration has none or at most, “minor rules”. What you describe as “rules” developing for pankration, I suggest is strategy within the rules or “no rules” or “minor rules”. Just like in basketball a strategy develops within the rules and they are the external constraining forces whereas the strategy is the internal development of methods to win within the constraints of the rules. The rules are externally imposed and the strategy is internally contrived.

    If the world were composed of “subjective ethics” as you say, it would not look the same. When I consider breaking the moral law, for instance, contemplate murder, I get a real restraining sensation from within. The restraining sensation holds me back from the notion that murder is acceptable. In fact, if I were to try to move forward to be part of a murder I would have to push myself against this restraint and I may end up contracting great psychiatric problems as a result. Why would there be a restraining sensation, albeit a strong one, if it were subjective? If I were the only one experiencing this we could say I have some abnormality. But most people have this restraining sensation in varying degrees with minor differences.

    You state that you try to abide by the Golden Rule and yet that it doesn’t make sense in the universe. It seems there is incongruence between your prose and your real underlying belief that are in opposition. I suggest that the Golden Rule is a real (objective) truth and the fact that our semantics have defined it in an anthropocentric manner does not preclude its universality for other higher life forms.

    If ethics are subjective, then why is your statement true that says “if you kill your children you will be unhappy”? You see, if there is no a priori moral code, then all you are saying with that statement is that you believe it to be true at this time. However, you are only one person and I may not believe it to be true and our disputed positions on this matter have no resolution other than soliciting votes from other people to say that the majority of people agree with you and not me, so therefore the majority of people (society) are adopting your rule for all. However, that does not make the rule absolutely right or true, only temporarily agreed to by some people. Another group of people, such as Hitler or Stalin, could come along and kill all of us and establish new rules that the majority of people agree with and become the new rules or ethics. I believe that when we say “it is wrong to kill your children” we are saying something that is true for all times and all peoples regardless of whether Hitler says it’s okay to kill Jewish children or not.

    And here’s the kicker. If you believe moral law (ethical restrictive rules) is subjective, then all human behavior is ethically subjective. That means that good ethics like love are also ethically subjective. If I say that “love is the most wonderful positive force in the world”, that statement carries no more ethical value than to say that “killing children is the most wonderful positive force in the world”. You and I may not like to hear that and we obviously disagree most profoundly with it. But why would it have any more value if there is no objective hierarchy giving it value? The only way it has real value is to say that something external, or objective, gives it value. If there is no objective ethic then what is left is the jungle: societal opinion of subjective ethics controls the day. And this means that ultimately, love is no better than hate because it is only the current majority of people’s agreement that enforces its acceptance, and that majority is transient and therefore not timeless in its compulsion. This same argument for objective ethics is equally true for reason and intelligence and therefore an argument against objective intelligence is self-defeating.

    You state the ethics by human imposition works just fine and I would disagree. I guess it would depend on which human imposition because I would not be comfortable under Hitler’s human imposition of ethics and many others. I know this is an extreme example but history is filled with dictators imposing their rules on others that activate my restraining sensation in a way that restrains my acceptance or agreement of their rules. I think the restraining sensation is an external one and thus the argument in favor of objective ethics is confirmed in reality as well as the abstract.

    On a practical note, we are in agreement about the importance of following the Golden Rule and that is more important in the here and now than whether ethics are subjective or objective. Thank you for your writing.

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  17. Applejacks says:

    Hi Zach,

    One thing you seem to be saying in your article is that what seems to be ethical is just what seems to make us happy, and what seems to be bad is just what seems to make us sad. There are various problems with that. For instance, utility monsters (which you’ve discussed in your comics) and the repugnant conclusion. So what is ethical is not the same as what makes you happy, or if it is, it’s purely by coincidence (just as it would be if everything ethical was also funny).

    But is ethical norm like a norm of pankration? Well, in the sense that ethical norms emerge from systems, yes, but they do not do so based on any *goals* necessarily. That is to say, they need not depend on your interests or desires. To see why, consider the fact that you have certain interests right now, namely, to eat, to type, and so on. In the future, you will presumably have other interests, which you do not have right now. Perhaps in the future you would like to purchase a house, even though you would not like one right now. That is to say, the future version of yourself has a reason to purchase a house, whereas the present version of yourself has no such reason. If you were to be made aware that it was likely the future version of yourself would be interested in a house, then it would be wise for you to begin saving for a house now. E.g. you have a reason to begin saving for a house now, independent of your own desires or interests now, or those of anyone else (yourself, in the future, does not yet exist, and so they do not have any reasons either, barring a B theory of time anyway).

    This also works for pain. You have a reason to avoid future suffering on your part, despite the fact that this reason is not based on your own current desires or interests at all (or those of anyone else). These seem to be reasons *external* to yourself, that *force* a certain action to be rational for you, *objectively*, not *subjectively*. This is what most ethicists take ethical reasons to be like. These kinds of reasons may still seem a bit mysterious to you, but there is an example of an external reason that is often more familiar to people, an epistemic external reason. Epistemic reasons are external because they don’t depend on your desires or interests for their being reasons. The fact that there is evidence for evolution is a reason for you to believe in evolution, regardless of whether you like it or not. That’s uncontroversially an objective kind of reason. Ethicists take ethical reasons to be of the same kind often (although some are anti-realists, who take ethical reasons to not exist, or otherwise be subjective).

  18. xhable says:

    Rhetorical question: Would you say robots have objective morality?

    Line of thought: If so – and we are just biological robots…

  19. chris reiley says:

    Greetings Zach, lovely article:

    “There’s no objectively delicious food, but you’ve eaten many delicious things in your life. There’s no objective definition of love, but you’ve given and received it your whole life.”

    How true. Love exists within us, and relative to our lives and experience. As does beauty, and truth in certain ways. I can love because I know internally what it means. I have been shown in life by receiving it from friends and family, but ultimately my choice to love and how and whom is completely relative to my experience and to my developing concepts of loving human service. Appreciation of beauty exists as the saying goes “within the eye of the beholder”, (flying dungeon monsters??). What I deem beautiful is unique to my experience. Some things many will agree are beautiful, ask a a new parent if their child is beautiful and the universal answer will be yes. Ask a birthing room parent if the experience of that same child’s BIRTH was beautiful and you might get some variation, in fact it might progress with experience. The shock of watching my daughter emerge physically from my wife was terrifying and overwhelming perhaps not something I would have called beautiful. But at the birth of my second child, having the previous experience to draw from I was truly able to appreciate the transcendent beauty of that moment. So, progressive and subjective. The same with love, I would argue that I have learned to love more and with greater meaning as I encounter new people and new experiences in my life. Again, both subjective and progressive. I cannot define love or beauty except as they relate to my unique experiences. No definition will encompass the whole meaning of these universal concepts, it takes a poet or an artist to even approach it. However, I know what love means to me, and I know it ever greater as an influence in my life. Give and receive love your entire life. Know beauty in everyone you meet and everywhere you go. What better life is there?

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