The Starting Point: My thesis and its implications

I recently had an insight into metaethics that seems worth sharing and further exploration. If the argument has already been made, please point me to it.

My thesis can be summarized thus:

  1. Value systems are ultimately judged by their results. Lofty ideals count for little if adherence leads to suffering and ruin.
  2. The consequences of a value system are determined by the conditions it is applied in.
    1. Some of these conditions are unchanging or nearly so: logic, physics and human nature.
    2. Other conditions are situational and malleable: local environment, culture, economic and social conditions.

Therefore, morality is contingent and not arbitrary.

Contingency implies non-arbitrariness but bears repeating given how often it is ignored in practice.

Morality is not necessarily determinate: there may be multiple value systems that would produce good results in given conditions.

Contingencies may be subtle and slow acting:

  • A value system can be prone to drift: it is unstable to begin with or allows for extensions and corollaries that creep in over time, compromising its viability.
  • A value system can have different dynamics when held by a small minority as opposed to a dominant majority. Adherents thrive as a small group in a larger society, but widespread adoption leads to societal decline.

Some ways in which unaccounted-for contingencies might play out in real life:

  • Someone has a Great Idea, gains a following and heads out to build the Perfect Community. A few years later the community falls apart and members go their separate ways.
  • An ideology is very good at gaining power through violent revolution, but fails to deliver on its Utopian promises once in power.
  • A religion spawns a splinter sect that proceeds to splinter further until one of the splinters mutates into a virulent, ideologically totalitarian cult and unravels the entire civilization.

These examples should illustrate how subtle contingencies make moral philosophy a Hard Problem.

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