I’m a sucker for short aphorisms that capture not one, but two opposing design parameters. I love the Serenity Prayer for doing that. Elsewhere, I have applied its basic structure to all sorts of other issues beyond what we can and can’t change.

I also love Einstein’s, “A theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler” and notice that it could be applied beyond theory, to morality as well.

A moral should be as light as possible but no lighter.

Or to put it another way,

A moral should be as strict as necessary but no stricter.

We tend to overlook the no-stricter side of the equation, or else we recognize it, but assume that rules should be no stricter simply because people want to be free. In the abortion debate for example, those of us who oppose strict bans on abortion argue for choice. A woman should be free from un-necessary constraint.

This give-me-liberty argument is vulnerable to easy dismissal. Abortion opponents can counter in a parental tone: “Sure you want to be free. Who doesn’t? But grown-ups know you can’t always be free. So grow up, act responsibly and make some sacrifices.”

There’s a stronger argument for moral minimalism than that liberty is fun and fun is good. The bigger problem with moral excess is that we can’t afford the luxury of restricting just anything. Un-necessary morals crowd out necessary ones. This I’ll call the pragmatic argument for moral minimalism.

You and a friend are building a house. Your boards must be cut to specific lengths if they are going to fit together well, but your friend has another idea. Since it is good and necessary to cut your wood shorter, it should be better still to cut the boards even shorter. An extra inch off of every cut–that would be an earnest gesture toward greater virtue. You go along with your friend and the house is a disaster.

I am astonished by how fast our world is changing and how fast our current moral system is steering us toward disaster. I’m not arguing that our moral system is stupid, just outmoded. Our morality was no doubt well suited to another era. Nor am I arguing here for a particular moral revision. I’m just saying that what I do every day in order to meet the approval of my local fellow man–what I do as a citizen of the US in 2010 is looking increasingly out of whack. It causes too much damage at a distance in time and space. Too many people elsewhere are dying as a result of my moral standards—both what my morals include and exclude. In a few decades we will look back ashamed at some of our what morals have wrought.

That has me thinking about the design of morals. I imagine a conference–the Universal Moral Constitutional Convention—a design meeting to amend and edit the world’s moral law. Maybe listening in on this imagined conference is the best way to illustrate some moral design issues and conflicts. So here goes. Three wise people (or Gods if you believe they create our morals and we just discover them).

Let’s listen in:

Minnie: I called this conference because I know we all care about the future. I, for one think that we need to restructure the moral code to make for greater sustainability. The code in its current form is generating problems that are rapidly getting out of hand. I think we’re going to have to add some new moral constraints and remove some old ones.

Max: Why remove?

Minnie: Well, I mean replace, because some of the rules in there now are in conflict with other rules we need, and some are just excessive. You know people. There’s a limit to how many morals they can follow anyway. So we have to prioritize. Also, it’s really important that we not constrain behavior arbitrarily. People have to keep innovating. Obviously not in all arenas—we probably don’t need more innovation in making weapons of mass destruction. But we don’t know where our next life-saving innovations are coming from. So arbitrarily limiting people’s ability to explore can be counter-productive. Morals should be as strict as necessary but no stricter. We should minimize the morals we impose.

Max: I understand, but there’s something else to keep in mind. People tend to cut corners. If you say “never more than two drinks a night,” just to take a for instance, people will take three. If you say, “brush your teeth twice a day,” people will brush once or not at all. If we want people to have no more than two drinks a night, we have say that they’re allowed only one.

Besides, kids raises in stricter homes develop more will power. It doesn’t even matter what the rules are. Some of the moral rules kids have had to live by are totally whacky. But you know, those kids learned discipline that they could then apply to anything. I guess what I’m saying is that there are two reasons why more is better. First, you have to add some moral structure to offset people’s strong tendency to subtract moral structure. And second, more moral structure builds more will power. We should maximize the morals we impose.

Faith: I hear you on the corner-cutting, Max. That’s the other thing we have to keep in mind. The rules can’t be subtle. No two-drink, or even one-drink maximums. People can’t deal with that. They need simple black and white rules. Either you drink or you don’t drink. They won’t remember our rules otherwise. Yes, we have to craft rules that make society sustainable but to have any teeth at all, the rules themselves have to be sustainable. The complicated ones won’t cut through, both because, as Max says, people cut corners but also because they just won’t remember. Absolute black and white—that’s what we need.

And to curb the corner-cutting, we have got to convince people that the black and white rules must be followed in black and white. See, a bunch of these jokers, they say “yes” to the black and white rules because they think they’re entitled to do their own tweaks and adjustments. We have to convince them that no, the rules are written in black and white to be followed in black and white. They have to be sold on simple pure faith in simple pure rules.

Minnie: Yes, you both make important points. But do you agree with me that it’s time to make some modifications? The world is changing. The world built by our old moral system is a world that demands a new moral system.

Faith: I’d be real careful about changing the rules at all and here’s why. Old rules have a track record of being followed in black and white. By definition a rule that has been around a long time is one that people follow or at least keep in mind. The older they are the more you can convince people to think of them as absolutes, as read-only, not to be tampered with or edited.

Max: Yes, and even if they’re out of date, they still provide the moral workout that develops will power and moral fiber.

Minnie: Max, you don’t have to worry that if we update the rules, there aren’t going to be enough moral constraints to give folks a good workout. With a world as fragile and on the brink as ours is, there are going to be plenty of morals. But it’s not like we’ve got the luxury to set up any old rules. I mean, if, in order to survive you had to work hard labor 15 hours a day, you’re not going to add to that some arbitrary and unnecessary physical exercise at the gym just so you can make sure to maintain your will power to work.

Faith: Tampering with the rules just shows people that they are editable. The rules will lose all of their credibility. The morals we have are the morals we’re going to have to work with. They got us this far. I say we can’t and shouldn’t change them.


I could go on. They do. They go on and on and on. But instead let me just summarize the three distinct arguments

The pragmatic argument for moral minimalism (Minnie): Morals have to serve us in the long run. They need to be tailored subtly to restrict only what should be restricted. We can’t afford to add other restrictions just for good measure. Adding extraneous, irrelevant and arbitrary morals is not playing it safe. Rather it distracts us from higher priority moral restrictions. We haven’t got unlimited moral resources and they have to be allocated to the absolute priorities. We need to devise the morals today that free us to employ the practices that will have served us tomorrow and keep us from employing the practices that will have harmed us tomorrow.

The psychological argument for moral augmentation (Max): Humans cut corners. We have to work against that tendency in two ways. First, people need practice constraining themselves. Adding more morals, even arbitrarily is the way to get people to cut corners less. And we have to tighten moral standards beyond what is strictly necessary, because, no matter how much of a moral workout people get, they will still cut corners. Ask for more; settle for less.

The psychological argument for moral simplicity (Faith): Humans don’t remember or abide by complex rules. The only implementable morals are strict, age-old, simple and black and white, even if it means rounding up the rules to greater strictness than necessary. Complex rules, and subtle rule changes invite modification and degradation. Rules must be absolute bans, and the most important absolute ban is a ban on non-absoluteness, in other words on corner-cutting and interpretation.

All three of these design parameters have merit. I haven’t seen them laid out like this elsewhere and I think that slicing it this way could help cut through a lot of passionate but counter-productive moral debate so we can focus our limited moral attention on what counts.

Of all the arguments, the one that I think gets the least attention is the pragmatic argument for moral minimalism. We’ve got a lot of moral laws grandfathered in that no longer fit our environment. They are people’s sacred cows. People say, “what’s the harm in having them?” as though there were no moral cost to carrying arbitrary moral rules. There are a lot of moral costs. It is downright immoral to add more morals for safe measure.

And yet Max and Faith are right too.

There. That’s my new theory, as simple as possible, but no simpler.

P.S. Only after writing this did I notice that the three voices at the Moral Constitutional Convention here are the three voices I have worked with for over a decade—the voices implied by the evolutionary process of variation with selective repetition. The three voices are variation, selection and repetition. Variation is max. He’s inclusive. He is the radical, progressive “why not?” adder of more creative variety. Faith is the voice repetition. She’s conservative. She doesn’t trust change and just wants to repeat the time-tested solutions. And Minnie is selection. She wants to edit the rules to include some new variation and eliminate some old repetition. I wrote them up years ago in the article Ax, Lax and Ox available here.

It doesn’t surprise me that I’ve circled back around to this central theme of mine. It’s either because the theme is an accurate true pattern worth circling back around to, or because I tend strongly to agree with myself. A great mind thinks alike. In this, I guess I’m like Faith.