|One philosophical question that is sometimes raised is, "Are humans the measure of all things?"
If our fundamental idea of goodness involves consideration of others as well as ourselves, are we saying that whatever humans find pleasant is what is good? If that is the case, then would it be appropriate for all of us to just become brains in vats, with out pleasure centers continually stimulated? Are there goods that surpass human goods?
Of course if there are, then it may be impossible for finite human minds to know them. However, one thought towards an answer here is to look at two things, without which, no good is possible. One is freedom. Without the ability to make a choice, it is clearly impossible to make a good choice. The greater the range of choices, the greater the potential for good. The second is knowledge. Freedom without knowledge is just randomness, chaos, entropy. The greater the knowledge of possible consequences, the greater the ability to predict what actions will lead to good results. Together, I believe, freedom and knowledge equate to freewill, or intentionality, or informed choice.
Thus at the minimum, we can say they are fundamental things of value in the sense that they increase the potential for good. But I also would put them up as candidates for things of universal value. This has elements in common with John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism, that saw liberty as a good in itself, not just a tool towards other human goods. Freedom and knowledge creatively used to produce more freedom and knowledge, is a candidate for a definition of universal good. This is somewhat analogous to, "It takes money to make money". We are saying it takes freedom and knowledge, things of value, to produce more of the same. Of course it is possible to use things of value wastefully or destructively, so the creative process is also part of the definition.
All human creative activities from raising a child to discovering a new result in science, to simply keeping the system running could be seen as subsets of this definition. I believe that freewill is a fundamental measure of value. It is the most basic element of what it means to be alive and human, and therefore the most fundamental constituent of what we value. To paraphrase Descartes, "I decide, therefore I am". A universe without freewill can have no meaning. Things simply are. Nothing can be bad, or good, or have any value.
What we use our freedom and knowledge for is up to us. We can use it destructively to destroy complex systems, knowledge, and freedom. Or we can use it creatively to expand freedom and knowledge. What we create is up to us. Science and reason can take us only so far. They can tell us we have this creative power. But they can not tell us what to do with it. Choosing what to create is an art not a science. If we were told exactly what to paint, it would not be our painting.
Thinking of beauty may be a useful analogy here. I would argue that beauty in neither in the "eye of the beholder" nor an intrinsic property of objects, but rather is more a kin to a process or a relationship. This includes the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. Rather than freedom and knowledge, it may be more useful to think of freedom and beauty as fundamental goods. Beauty it could be argued can exist without human observers, since relationships exist that do not involve humans. But all human concepts of beauty include us as observers.
Freedom and knowledge, (or information, or complexity (or beauty)), are things that also exist beyond the human realm. Ever increasing freedom is a property of the universe, and I believe that ever increasing knowledge may be as well. The expansion of the universe, insures that the number of possibilities, (or freedom), is continually increasing, and if the quantum world is deeply interconnected as described in the Quantum Mechanics essay, then it is possible that the complexity, or knowledge in the universe increases with time, as well. It may seem contradictory to say that complexity and entropy can both increase with time, but in an ever expanding, interconnected universe, they could.
Order and complexity are not the same thing. A repetitive pattern could be very ordered, but have very low information content. It is not possible for order and disorder to simultaneously increase in a system. But it is possible for entropy, (or freedom), and information content (or knowledge) to simultaneously increase with time. Information content is difficult to define exactly, but in my view, it is the number of interactions between the pieces that quantify the complexity and information content of a system. As the number of parts of a complex system increases, the number of interactions increases exponentially. And, as I have argued previously, I believe thoughts are events in time, that relate objects in space. "Meaning" lies in the interaction between things and not in the things themselves.
So, I base my choice of knowledge and freedom as fundamental things of value on three points.
1) I believe human values can be described as a subset of these universal things of value.
2) Together they are intentionality. They are necessary, if not sufficient, for any good to be accomplished.
3) In the observed universe fundamental freedom is observed to increase, and it is possible that complexity continues to increase as well. Also, I think many would like to believe complexity does continue to increase.
By choosing a definition of good that conforms with the observed direction of the universe, I am making an optimistic choice. Good is winning. If we choose "order" as a fundamental good, and observe that entropy is winning, we'd have to conclude that evil is winning in the universe.
Universal good or human good?
Suppose we accept freedom and knowledge as universal goods. Should our goal then be to work towards them? Or, should our goal be to work towards human good, defined by human happiness? Do they always lead to the same results?
Often, they will lead to the same result, reinforcing our conclusions. However, these principles may be difficult to clearly apply in a given situation, and there may be some problems with following either idea absolutely. See the dangers of absolutism here:
Purely focusing on human goods, gives us no universal connection, and gives no good answer to the “brains-in-vats” problem mentioned above. A thorough implementation of it would probably look as close to utilitarianism as limited humans could manage. I discuss potential problems with utilitarianism here:
It would seem to tend to favor a more socialist society, based on the idea that the marginal utility of a dollar is greater for a poor person than a rich one, although it may not actually favor such an arraignment when factors like the good of future generations, and the fact that coercion may be needed to achieve redistribution of wealth, are weighted.
On the other hand, focusing on freedom and knowledge would give us results similar to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, or libertarianism. Clearly this idea would favor a more capitalistic society. But there is always danger in putting any principle as an absolute before human good. At the very least, these abstract principles may not be easy to practically apply in all cases. In addition, we have not proven that these ideas are universal goods, we have only argued in that direction. So, it may be best to remain agnostic on this question.
A compromise, or balance, or Aristotelian mean between the two ideas may be what is needed, as I argued in my essay on human implementations of ethics. http://www.davegentile.com/philosophy/What_is_good.html
I think it is interesting that the goods we are considering here are, “knowledge”, “freedom”, and “human happiness”. If we take in to account that “knowledge” is just the human version of the universal category “information-content”, and we consider that life, and specifically the human brain, is the most complex natural structure we know of, (and therefore information rich), then we can see a direct parallel between the goods described here, and the words “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
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