20 November 2005



Let us take two definitions of violence:

1) aggressive behaviour, usually resulting in harm or injury
to others, with the aim of obtaining something from them.

2) unreasonable behaviour, usually resulting in harm or
injury to others, with the aim of obtaining something from

There is nothing special about these definition, any
acceptable definition would do. But first let's take two
tours around violence.

The first thing that strikes us about violence is that it
comes in degrees and is perpetrated by all human entities,
from individuals to states. Starting, therefore, from the
top we can point out that, at face value, the human race is
violent by nature. All we have to do is to look at the
history of human existence and we'll have no doubt about the
veracity of this statement. There are, of course, those who
might disagree that violence is intrinsically inherent in
human beings, but more about that later.

Moving on, we can consider states as violent entities, and
some would say that even nations could be violent. They
might even conclude that some nations seem to have a
character trait for violence. A popular argument employed to
show that states are violent is to say, for example, that a
legal system is the creation of the state to keep its
members under control by using physical and psychological

Violence might even be perpetrated in the name of religion.
Or more probably, religion is used as a smoke screen to
justify the use of violence for some hidden agenda.
Religious wars are very common in history and have always
proved reliable when people needed some justification for
violence or when their agenda could only be sustained by
violence. Furthermore, violence has often been used by the
officials of a religion in order to make sure that members
conform. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment it is
difficult to separate religion from cultural intolerance or
simple human aggression. Does God really tell people to kill
those who do not belong to their religion or who digress
from their teachings?

The way some institutions are run is quite confrontational,
if not violent. I'm particularly thinking of places of work
and schools. This confrontation can take place as a matter
of policy or as a way of running the institution.
Confrontation can also take place in the manner members of
the institution interact between each other. Slavery or
labour exploitation might be an example of work related
violence. Whilst bullying or aggressive behaviour might be
used by individuals at work or in a school environment to
dominate colleagues and peers. It might be argued that the
competitive system used to organise companies and education
is in fact violent system, because it pitches one person
against another.

Within society, or city life for all intents and purposes,
we have neighbourhood violence and even violence associated
with sports and social events. Aggression is very common in
our society from graffiti writing to mugging and more. For
example, even though hooliganism is not a modern invention,
it has certainly spread relatively unchecked these past
score years or so. But then most popular team sports are
gladiatorial in nature anyway.

Moving down the scale we cross a psychological divide and
look at the family. Of course, violence within the family is
quite common if not normal. Children are subjected to
corrective punishment, such as corporal punishment. Child
abuse is also one of the ugliest forms of domestic violence.
And violence between partners can include partner battering,
sometimes resulting in death, to psychological pressure, the
lowest form of which is called nagging. And to break the
ultimate taboo, we can even say that children are very prone
to be violent. From throwing a tantrum to stabbings in the
school yard, are all known to have happen.

Some would even extend violence to animals and nature. For
example, the media are very fond of describing storms,
earthquakes and volcano eruptions as being violent. Others
speak of humans as being violent to the environment.
However, I would like to focus on violence towards people
and if I consider property, for example graffiti or stealing
from people, it is only because in the end this is an other
way of confronting people.

In the second tour around violence I want to look at the
nature of violence or the forms of violence we come across.
Of course, I'm not going to do a census of all the forms of
violence known to us. What I'm interested in is to identify
the most important forms of violence done by human beings in
our daily life.

By far the most serious form of violence in human history
must be war. In a way, war brings together most, if not all,
forms of violence in one singular event. And in the same
event we probably also find all human emotions taking place
at the same time. In war we have death, maiming, physical
injury, psychological harm, aggression, destruction of
character, it's all there. Like wise, we find fear, terror,
anger, sadness, sacrifice, hate, kindness, altruism, joy,
happiness, love and even pleasure, it's all there. In it's
paradoxical way, war is about life because every one
involved in war is not only trying to live, but their
mission is to survive.

We next find state violence. As I already said, some
consider the judicial system as a form of state violence.
Legal systems rely on a number of forms of violence:
judicial killing (death penalty), loss of freedom (custody
sentences), loss of property (fines) and enforced services
to society (community service sentences). Even in non
criminal cases, the law resorts to various forms of non
physical violence: exemplary damages, compensation,
bankruptcy, disqualifications and so on. Once again, we find
here another paradox. The paradox that justice tends to rely
on violence in order to take place. But state violence need
not only include the legal system, we can include
institutional corruption or mismanagement of the economy as
possible sources of violence.

Economic violence is another form of violence under which I
would include work and education related violence. I have
already mentioned slavery as probably the worst form of
economic violence. But this is not the only serious form of
economic violence. Surely, up there at top of the list is
the absence of opportunity to earn a legitimate and
dignified income. And a close third is the threat of the
loss of one's income. Even when we didn't have to go to the
office, when we hunted prey and fed on berries, violence was
not far away; conflicts between tribes has always existed,
and I'm sure disagreements on food sources were as common
then as they are now.

Why do I think that even the educational system involves a
form of economic violence? As we all know modern education
is supposed to prepare us for our adult life, both in
character forming and by implication for career prospects.
But we also know that children and young people would rather
be free enjoying the wonders of life or burning energy in
adventurous pursuits. However, at this age we are locked up
in class rooms, being told things we are probably not
interested in, and constantly being told to conform. And if
we didn't conform and do what we're told the chances are
that we end up on some economic scrap heap. The fact that
adults know best is besides the point. However, the paradox
of economics is that what should be a means of survival
turns out to be a test for survival.

Mugging, rioting, road rage, shop lifting are all part of
social violence. The obvious reason for living in a society
is to give us security, freedom to build relationships and
prosperity through cooperation. However, social violence is
exactly the opposite. It's like jumping into the sea in
order to stay dry. And if war is the ultimate in violence,
then surely civil wars, revolutions or violent coup d'etat
are the worst form of violence imaginable. Are they? So the
paradox of society is that what ought to be a case of safety
in numbers can just as quickly turn into a danger because of

Some might argue that violence in the family, domestic
violence, might be regarded as a form of social violence.
The argument might even be pushed to the claim that violence
between partners is just another form of social violence,
nothing different than a mugging or murder in the high
street. After all, partners are usually not blood relatives.
Is family violence a form of social violence? Ought we
consider it as such? However, the paradox of domestic
violence is that a family represents the same genes. The
genes of the parents are in the children; even though things
might not be that simple today. So how could there possibly
be violence against one's off springs? Of course, this
argument does not take into account the influence of
nurture, after all it's not only about nature. Even still,
there is another anomaly. Theoretically, we choose a partner
because we think or believe that they are the best partner
for our off springs, if not for us. I am assuming here only
a family setting with children. How can we be violent
towards our partner is they are as responsible for our off
springs as we are? Once again, nurture can explain some
aspects of the problem here. Of course, our problem is not
in explaining these anomalies, but that it does not make
sense to have these anomalies in the first place.

This is a natural end to our tour, but there is one other
type of violence we need to deal with. What sort of violence
is suicide? I am inclined to exclude suicide from
consideration, we already have enough as it is. But we
cannot do that if someone's suicide is a direct result of
aggressive or unreasonable behaviour by others. When this is
the case, we have the ultimate measure of how destructive
violence can be.

I started with these two definitions of violence:

1) aggressive behaviour, usually resulting in harm or injury
of others, with the aim of obtaining something from them.

2) unreasonable behaviour, usually resulting in harm or
injury of others, with the aim of obtaining something from

What do we mean by, ''obtain something''? We have to take
this in the widest possible sense otherwise we'd have a
problem with explaining such ideas as gratuitous violence.
Gratuitous violence can only mean to obtain some pleasure
through violence, or satisfaction of some addiction. We can
understand mugging someone for their money, but what about
beating up someone for no reason at all or no justifiable
reason, for example, road rage? But if we get a high from
violence we can only explain it by some reference to a
physical effect. We know that there is no rational basis for
violence, which is different from rational justification, so
this leaves us with some physical stimulant as a possible
alternative cause. Could it be that violence has some
addictive properties for humans, maybe something like
compulsive sexual behaviour? However, would it be morally
acceptable if there was a cure to some forms of violence
that people were forced to take this cure? The sad thing is
that some societies do seem to regard violence as the norm.
Hence the problem is not only one of cure but also of

As an action or behaviour violence seems to be triggered by
an over reaction to something: for example rejection,
refusal, fear, stress, desperation or even unreasonable
behaviour by others. This list points directly at pain and I
think we can take this as given. Of course, this is not a
justification for violence, but that at the mental /
neurological level there is a direct, one-to-one causal link
between pain and violence. I would even go so far as to say
that pain is both a necessary and sufficient condition for
violent behaviour. I hope to show the importance of this
later on.

Going back to the two definitions I gave earlier, the
difference between aggressive behaviour and unreasonable
behaviour is that with aggressive behaviour we put violence
in the centre of the human being as a physical entity.
Specifically, in the realm of behaviourism. However, we all
know that behaviourism can tell us what a person is doing,
but it is not enough to explain why that person is doing
what they are doing or intending to do. If this is the case,
we might be tempted to argue that violence is something that
is determined in us, and therefore there is nothing we can
do about it.

Unreasonable behaviour suggest that some violence is
justifiable, but that it is necessary to have a good reason.
Is having a good reason a necessary condition or a
sufficient condition? Is it sufficient that one has a good
reason before resorting to violence or that one needs a good
reason plus some other factors before resorting to violence?
For example, before rioting, not only do we have to be
discriminated against, but also to have tried all possible
opportunities to remove this discrimination. But this
supposes that those who are wronged have a duty to fix that
wrong, which sounds quite unreasonable. However,
unreasonable behaviour puts violence in the realm of the
rational human being. And as a consequence, I suppose, we do
have some duty to reason ourselves away from violence. Which
then begs the question, when are we allowed to use violence
given that by definition unreasonable behaviour implies
situations that are reasonable?

One of the important big debates about violence is indeed
whether we are determined to violent behaviour or whether
violence is always a contemplative behaviour. In other
words: is violence an inherent trait in human beings or
something we just pick up in life as we go along? Is there a
violence gene? There are those who argue that if there is a
violence gene then we would be determined and by implication
there is nothing we can do about it. Under these
circumstances, trying to get rid of violence would be futile
and a waste of time.

At the very least this argument (and I want to be very nice
here) shows a high degree of philosophical naivety. If there
is no gene labelled violence, it is probably because we are
looking for the wrong thing. To being with, it is evident
that violence is a public manifestation of a person's
internal causes; anger, fear, hurt and so on. What we see as
violence by others, is the end result of a process that took
place inside the person. So, it is very unlikely that we are
going to find a gene with a label attached to it saying
violence. But if my pain argument is right, then we do find
genes that are responsible for the whole pain system in our
body. If this needs further explanation we can use the
following analogy. If we're interested in the source of
eclipses we don't start by looking for an eclipse producing
tree. At the very least we start by looking at how the solar
system works. And if we are really that keen, we can try and
understand gravity. Therefore, at the very least, we don't
start by looking for a violence gene, but by looking for a
human behaviour gene. The thing that is responsible for
human actions.

But this does not deal with the issue of determinism.
Unfortunately, the argument that if we are determined there
is nothing we can do about it is not all that sound in my
opinion. I will use an analogy to explain why. Let's take
heart disease as an analogy. For example, a heart attack
(cardiac arrest) is determined by the way the heart and the
blood circulation system work. If we load the system with
enough cholesterol, a good dollop of other nasties, and
maybe a handful of inherited genes, the system will sooner
or later collapse if we're not extra careful. But no one
argues that because the heart is so determined there is
nothing we can do about it. On the contrary, because it is
so determined there is quite a lot we can do; and medical
science today tries to do something about it. But the real
advantage is that if we find something that can cure or
mitigate against heart disease, then that would probably be
of a benefit to a really large number of the people in the
world. If we make a serious effort to support democratically
elected governments, then surely this ought to limit the
scope for wars and other forms of social and economic

In the case of violence, I suggest that it is desirable to
have some form of determining cause common to all. If not,
then we would, for example, be justified in discriminating
against people by just saying that they are too violent. And
this slippery slope position might make it possible for us
to be violent against people we don't like. If, therefore,
we can find some underlying determining cause for violence
we would be in a better position to do something about it.
In other words if there is a determining cause for violent
behaviour in humans then no one will be exempt and no one
can pretend to be holier than thou. The analogy with heart
disease can also give us a clue about the nature of the
things we can discover.

The object of all the drugs and treatments for heart disease
is not to eradicate this disease from the face of the Earth;
anyway by today's technology and medical science that's
probably not possible. However, the objective is to help as
many people as possible who might be suffering for this
disease. And this can only be done by providing efficient
medical facilities and offering effective educational
programmes who might benefit from these opportunities. The
starting point is not total eradication, but efficient and
effective access to all those who might need treatment,
total eradication is a result of such policies and not an
objective of such policies. Of course, it is much easier to
analyse diseases and parts of the body, especially when they
seem to be neutral. They do not impinge on our political or
economic powers. Violence is not that simple. With violence
we achieve things so any tampering with it might not be to
everyone's liking; with parts of the body we just maintain a
status quo if we need to fix them.

The unfortunate thing about violence is not the misery it
causes people, but the desperation we feel when we are
unable to control it. Some of this desperation must surely
come from the fact that we really don't know where to start,
never mind what to do.

Take care

Lawrence JC Baron

13 November 2005

The nature of the ego.

The nature of the ego.

Egoism, egoist, ego trip, ego centric. These four words represent about 70% of the words we find in an English language dictionary that is aimed at users of science English. All said, the word ego does not occupy more than half a column in the dictionary. Now if we had to take the word self, we'd find the equivalent of 5.5 column entries in the same dictionary. We can find such words as selfish, self service, self serving, self employed, self taught and many more.

Was Freud justified in changing terminology from the self to the ego half way through his research into psychoanalysis? Of course, he was writing in Viennese German and we read his works in a multitude of languages, including English. So what can the ego be since, as a linguistic concept, it does not feature prominently is our public persona or public language?

If we were talking about say, Cox- 2 enzymes, it would be reasonable to point out that this term is so specific to physiology that it would be unfair to complain that it is not a high frequency word. But it would also be unreasonable not to point out the discrepancy between the frequency of the word ego and self. This has nothing to with the fact the word ego is a basic word in psychology and therefore a technical word. Especially, when we all know that after managing the national football team, most people can claim to be, at the very least, dab handed amateur psychologists. This in itself should guarantee a reasonable dissemination of the word ego in our language. But it's not the case.

So, those of us who do not aspire even to be amateur psychologists, how should we interpret this word ego? Should we interpret ego negatively as it appears in our everyday language? Should we just accept it as a technical word in psychology and leave it at that? Or should we just accept that ego is what psychologists talk about when lay people talk about the self?

However, just because one word was used instead of the other, it does not follow that they both mean the same. The ego is related to our consciousness of our sense of the self, but most of all in the representation of the real world to the id.* Ego also refers to a set of other mental functions such as reality testing, information processing, defence and so on. Most important of all, the ego is considered as the centre where our actions originate. Of course, we are more familiar with the sense of the self than with these individual mental functions. The five and a half columns in the dictionary mentioned above must be proof of this.

By reducing the conceptual whole, the self, into a series of functions, a group of which are call the ego, makes it easier to split the self into manageable chunks to work with. We all know that the best strategy to solve a big problem is to divide it into small manageable problems. This also makes it easier to compartmentalise the mental self from a single big whole to many little bits. But how useful and how valid is this practice of splitting, re-labelling and compartmentalising?

How useful is it for us to split an Euro into one hundred different cents? I agree with you, it's a ridiculous question. However, by splitting an Euro into a hundred cents means that we can fine tune commercial transactions much better. In other words, a hundred cents help answer the technical questions on how to manage commercial obligations. But a hundred cents do not help us answer an even more important set of questions. How much is my labour worth in Euros? How can I maximise the number of Euros in my possession? Which is the best way to spend my accumulation of Euros? Who is worthy of receiving my Euros? Hence, by splitting up a whole into constituent parts, might answer or address some problems, but not necessarily all the problems nor the most important questions of all. Answering the question how can we live the good life, is not necessarily answered by knowing how we function. But we know this already.

There is, however, a different type of problem that can result from splitting up a problem. Maybe there are those who prefer that I use a different word instead of splitting up, maybe reductionism, but I’m not sure about that, maybe division of function. Anyway, I’m using the word splitting up in the same way a mechanic would speak about a car: engine, chasses, gear box, wheels etc. maybe be even in the way psychoanalysis split up the mental life of a person.

Let's go back to the original division of function, Descartes mind-body problem. Here we have the first case of splitting the human being into a mind and a body. If you remember, Descartes was trying to answer the question what is true beyond doubt? Descartes rejects sense perception in favour of reasoned deduction; i.e. a thinking being. However, this introduces a new type of problem without necessarily solving the original question. How do we get from the physical to the mental? How do we get from our eyes receiving a sensation of a fast moving object to our decision to run away from a charging lion?

In spite the attraction of dividing a big problem into smaller ones, the division of function might not always help us, it might even create other more philosophically challenging problems. The other issue that this introduces is what exactly is the nature of this division. The mind-body problem seems to suggest that there are two independent things present in us, a mind and a body. After all, even Descartes does not seem to reject the idea that we receive sense perceptions, only that we are justified to question their quality or validity. Much as we have looked these past three hundred years we have been unable to find anything we call the mind in us. Can we therefore expect the same problems when we talk about the ID, the Ego and the Superego as being parts of the conscious and unconscious self?

There is, however, a more modern model that does not have to introduce this identity problem. I’m thinking of Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. What interests us here is that the mass of an object is equivalent to its total energy. Of course, the computer I am typing this on does not appear to me as some form of energy, but rather as a body of mass with a form and shape of a computer. It also behaves like a computer and not the inside of a burning star or AA type battery. The point is that the above equation tells us that, there aren’t two things when I see my computer, energy and mass. However, this equation introduces scientific opportunities in physics which did not exist before. Could it be that we do not have two things when we talk of the mind or the body, or three things when we talk of the ID, the Ego and the Superego?

It seems to me that we have two even more serious problems with the mind-body problem and by implication the psychological division of the mental self into three different spheres. If we take bits of the body, say Cox-2 enzymes, we can discover things about them, analyse them and perform experiments on them. Others can even replicate our results, but most of all we can, for example, find solutions for any problems some parts of the body might have. Can we replicate the mind? I don’t mean can we find out things about the psychological make up of the human mind. We can because the brain is the same for everyone. But can we replicate the mind to make morally responsible beings, to make genius and to make, for example, wealthy people? We might think that not only don’t we want to be able to replicate these characteristics, but we are lucky that we cannot. In reality, of course, we do try to replicate these characteristics. Our educational system is geared at identifying those who are academically gifted amongst us; legal and religious systems are geared at compliant behaviour and all the economic models, that have been tried so far, were geared at maximising the accumulation of wealth, either in the form of property, money or power.

The second type of problem is that with physical objects we can more or less isolate them from other parts of the body or whatever. We can remove the lungs from the body, we can remove the gear box from the car, but we cannot remove the consciousness of the self from the mind, or the brain. This is the biggest problem with analysing the nature of the ego. Even if we can put our finger on the ego we cannot isolate it from the rest of the mental self. So if we cannot isolate the ego can we say anything about the ego in real life. Things are bad enough in the physical real world, for example although we can study the function of a gear box we cannot remove it from the car whilst it is moving to make repairs or changes.

And if we could isolate, for example, the ego from the rest of the mental self how could the rest of the mental self function? Furthermore, do we really know what influence the other parts of the self and the body have on the ego? In other words, is it even technically prudent to even try to isolate the ego from the rest of the self given that the self is the whole?

Of course the ego is technically important because it is considered as the command centre of the human being. It is assumed to be the source of our actions. But is it the centre of our actions or could it be the case that when we act, we take certain common factors into account? But then how do we explain the situation where two people find themselves in identical situations yet one acts in one way and the other acts in a complete different way? This is the challenge for a science that proposes to study the human mind, it must explain the exceptions. However, we also would like to think that we are all unique and therefore by deduction we are all exceptions. Which in turn might explain why the word self is more common in our language than ego. Could it be that the self is the first level of mental life that we all have in common? And as a consequence the ego is only another cog in a machine we call the self.
Take care

*I give this definition as an idea of what is technically considered the ego; my scope is not to consider the ego as a psychology subject.

06 November 2005

Are there moral principles?

Are there moral principles?

Flanking one side of this topic we find the question: ought there to be moral principles? And on the other side there is the question: are moral principles followed?

We all love moral principles. They are relatively easy to formulate, they are very easy to follow, especially if we invented them, and the easiest thing of all is that we can accurately apply them to others. This line of argument or face value observation, at least, confirms the existence of moral principles. It might not say much about the quality or nature of these principles but that's another question. However, we can at least save the day by pointing at who is formulating the principle which might add legitimacy or authority to an otherwise frivolous enterprise.

If we assume that the person formulating moral principles to be good and responsible we assume that the principle itself is good. However, there is a very fundamental and basic problem here. Are these principles good because they are in themselves good, and therefore recommended by a good person, or do we accept them as good because we can identify with the source of the principle, i.e. another human being with authority? For example, does the categorical imperative gain currency because Kant and other illustrious thinkers advocate its validity or because it is a very rational principle? Would it have made any difference to the history of the categorical imperative if it was Kant's pet gerbil who argued the validity of the Golden rule?

If we take a quick look at history the last question won't sound so ridiculous as it does at face value. In ancient times people derived their moral laws by worshiping foxes, wolves, calves, bulls and stars. We can safely assume that all these creatures had difficulty communicating with people directly no matter how good their intentions were. Having said that, some of these civilizations were quite productive and successful for a long time. Of course, for empirical reasons, we cannot determine whether their moral frame work stayed intact because they were good at interpreting the instructions of the sun or whether they were good at improvising at what the sun might have wanted.

For whatever reason, this animal or object model was basically replaced, by the super being model. The new model had at least two things in its favour. People, can easily identify with a super being; in other words a super being is just another human being but with, bigger, better, stronger and more mysterious qualities. The other thing going for this model was that it is quite feasible that this super being could communicate with us using our language. After all, there is so much a fox or a sun can tell us directly. But this is not a real problem for a super being hence why some of the oldest books we have relate to this subject. Over the ages even this model had some structural changes made to it. In particular, the cult of the personality became very common. It was not enough to have a super being, but it became necessary for the super being to have a direct representative who was very much like us if not one of us.

Closer to our time we find that moral principles are as likely to be derived from some super being as from some intellectual genius scribbling away in a library. Although, I might be wrong on this one, the tendency today seems to be heading back towards the trinkets and the object school of thought. Except this time the cult figure instead of preaching and writing about these trinkets he or she only has to endorse them.

Whatever the system or model we look at for moral principles, we find one common factor: human beings. Between the fox and the city dweller were the temple priests, between the super being and the nation there were the princesses of the faith, between the scribe in the library and the factory workers we find the party members and finally between the single currency and the consumer we find the shareholder.

My point is not, that given the above cynicism moral principles have lost their legitimacy or validity, but rather, irrespective of the moral principle there is always someone else between the source and us. Could it be that the source of moral principles and the intermediary are one and the same thing?

In reality we only have access to moral principles through human thinking and rationalising. We can only discover things about moral principles by looking at ourselves and if there are any moral principles they must come because of our nature. Of course, some might object to this position on the grounds that although it is true that we only have access to moral principles through our thinking this is not evidence that they are not objective or due to some objective source.

If we can prove that moral principles are objective, not only can we claim them to exist objectively, but we also get the added bonus of studying them using the scientific method. If moral principles are real we can study them in the same way we study bacteria, radio waves and whatnots. If we compare moral principles to distant stars and galaxies, for example, our evidence of these celestial bodies is indirect. I mean, we cannot touch them directly in the same way we can touch some things on Earth. Our evidence of a galaxy is usually a beam of light, a radio signal or deflected gravitational pull, but none the less they still offer objective proof of the galaxy’s existence. I shall call this the secondary evidence argument.

Usually, the secondary evidence argument is used to prove the existence of moral principles ; to wit, through us we can discover a deity or a rational principle. However, there is a fundamental and fatal difference between objects and moral principles. We have evidence of objects in the real universe because the evidence we have that makes sense to us emanates from them, but our only evidence of moral principles is available to us because we are here. We can prove the existence of a galaxy by many independent ways, but not moral principles . We can prove that a moral principles is rational, using one of the logics we have at our disposal, but we cannot say anything about moral principles unless we first look at people. Someone had to tell us about the categorical imperative, it just does not grow on trees or agar medium.

In my opinion, this argument is fatal to any attempt at analysing moral principles using the scientific method; we would be looking at the wrong dataset. Fatal, in other words, in the same way if we looked at the movements of storks to predict human population demographics. This however does not mean that moral principles do not have their rightful place in the scientific method as I will try to show later. I suggest that the argument implies that we stop looking at moral principles per se and start looking at human beings as a rule. So now we can ask a very different question: what is the human source of moral principles? And then we can move on to the other question, ought we to have moral principles?

If there is anything positive that can be said about moral principles it is that they provide the means for us to lead a just and fair life. But of course there is a wide gap between: a) there ought to be moral principles because they provide us with justice and 2) justice is actually found everywhere. That moral principles have the characteristic of universalisability is not in doubt, but it is also not in doubt that moral principles are not universally applied. Why?

Let us start with the source of moral principles: human beings. Looking back at the characters in history, we find two important features. Whether is was the temple guardian interpreting the thoughts of a fox or the revolutionary writer in Russell Street, they all needed a body of knowledge and information to arrive at the moral principles they were proposing. We can even take this point as given and self evident.

The second thing that is common with all these people is that they all needed to communicate their message or their moral principles to everyone else. There is no point in discovering some wonderful moral principles and not communicate them to others. Unlike knowledge and information, communication needs explaining a bit. We mustn't fall into the trap here and say that the means of communication are not that important, and what matters is that we get the message. Unfortunately, this is not like the news, when it does not matter whether we get the news from the radio or TV. In our case we only have one means of communication: language. I suggest that our language plays an important role in the meaning and significance of the moral principles that are communicated to us. Is it by accident, for example, that those who wield unreasonable political and moral authority over peoples also assume quasi monopolistic controls over their language? Since this essay is not about the moral implications of language I will keep it at that. I would, therefore say that the need to communicate is also a given and also self evident.

By default then, our state of knowledge and our means of communication make up the bulk of the source for our moral principles . But can we divorce the rational being from the emotional being, the physical being, the being who feels pain and who needs to survive in the hostile environment we live in? I don't think so, or at least not much more than what we can survive by just taking a deep breath. So how much does this third factor, the human being as a physical entity, influences the nature of moral principles ?

Maybe, it is not by coincidence that moral principles tend to address this imbalance created by a hostile environment. Take the concept of justice, what is justice if not a redress to our status in a win-win strategy game? What is altruism if not an insurance should we find ourselves in difficulty? If the moral principle, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, make sense, by the same token a moral principle that says thou shalt always wear a blue jacket, is completely absurd. Moral principles address things that matter in life.

That moral principles are useful and help us survive suggests that there ought to be moral principles. This does not mean we also have to like the reasons why we ought to have moral principles . I agree with you that giving survival as a reason to have moral principles is neither interesting nor intellectually sexy. But at least some of us can relate to survival, but few of us can relate to some high powered logical principle.

That there are moral principles is not in doubt. There are libraries full of books telling us that there are moral principles . Thousands if not millions of people have died or gave their life to such principles as freedom, democracy, rule of law and what have you. What is more interesting is whether all moral principles have the same status. Are there moral principles that are more fundamental and basic than others? Is there a moral principle that is the holy grail to all, or at the very least, first amongst equals?

I have argued that knowledge and information are one of the sources of moral principles . We also know that that knowledge and information are some of the few things that are very resistant to degenerative principles known by us, such as the law of diminishing returns which does not seem to apply to knowledge and information. The issue of information overload is a problem with us and not with knowledge and information. I will leave it to scientists to tell us whether determined chaos, thermodynamics and black holes irrevocably destroy information.

For our purposes, what matters is that as far as we are concerned knowledge and information are limitless and basic. Limitless in the sense that we can never know enough and limitless in the sense of knowledge is non ending. Basic in the sense that DNA is information and in the sense that without DNA there won't be life as we know it. From my point of view, if there is to be a master moral principle, it ought to be a right and the freedom to knowledge and information; I shall call this moral principle, intellectual freedom. This does not mean the freedom to say whatever we want, but the freedom to argue the truth without hindrance or malice and with complete access to knowledge and information as required.

Finally, how should we understand the empirical question: are moral principles followed? Earlier I suggested that although moral principles are universal they are not always universally applied. But universalisability should not be understood with the strong meaning of not having instances of negatives. For example, no injustice, no poverty, no war and so on. The way we should read universalisability is by applying moral principles without prejudice, bias and in all applicable cases. If, therefore, we all had access to the same unbiased knowledge and information we'd all be in a better position to know what ought to be done. It is not a coincidence that totalitarian states tend to be secretive, manipulate and control information and now a days also prevent access to the internet. I suggest that this is evidence enough on how important information and knowledge are.

So the way we answer the empirical question depends on how we treat moral principles. If we treat moral principles as some ingredient in a recipe for utopia then it shouldn't come as a surprise if moral principles are not regularly followed. However, if we treat moral principles as a theoretical standard, a sort of gold standard or benchmarking, then we have a model to compare reality with the gold standard. In a way, we can perform a hypothesis testing between the gold standard and the empirical evidence from the field on how moral principles are applied. This clearly and firmly puts moral principles to the rigors of the scientific method. In this way we know for sure how much and by how much moral principles are being followed and if needs be do something about it. For example, if we take the hypothesis that all nations ought to have a state and then go and see how many nations do actually have a state, we can then see how well the evidence fits the hypothesis. Once we have full access to unbiased information, in the same way we have unbiased information about black holes, we can systematically analyse our results to account for any discrepancies. Any alternative would be the equivalent of building a mare's nest with woolly thinking.

Take care

Lawrence JC Baron