Some speculations regarding the possibility of a moral code without religion.

On a Linked-In forum, the question was raised whether a moral code without religion could be developed. My effort to look into ways to achieve better decisions for planning, design, policy-making issues suggests that it is indeed possible to develop at least a partial system of agreements — for which ‘moral code’ would be an unnecessarily pretentious term — but which has some of the same features. For problems, conflicts of interest or proposed actions or projects that require the consent and cooperation of more than one individual, (this does not cover all situations in which moral codes apply), as soon as parties realize that ‘resolutions’ based on coercion of any kind either will not really improve the situation or are fraught with unacceptable risks (the other guy might have a bigger club… or even one’s own nuclear weapon would be so damaging to even one’s own side that its use would be counterproductive) the basic situation becomes one of negotiation or, as I call it, ‘planning discourse’. Such situations can be sustained and brought to success only on the basis of the expectation that parties will accept and behave according to some agreements. The set of such agreements can be seen as (part of) an ethical or moral code. For the planning discourse, a rough sketch of first underlying ‘agreements’ or code elements are the following:

**1 Instead of attempting to resolve the problem by coercion — imposing one side’s preferred solution over those of other parties — let us talk, discuss the situation.

**2 The discussion will consist of each side describing that side’s preferred outcome, and attempting to convince the other side (other parties) of the advantages –or disadvantages — of the proposal.

**3 All sides will have the opportunity to do this, and all sides implicitly promise to listen to the other’s description and arguments before making a decision.

**4 The decision will (should) be based on the arguments brought forward in the discussion.

*4.1 The description of proposals should be truthful and avoid deception — all its relevant features should be described, none hidden; no pertinent aspects omitted.

*4.2 The arguments should equally truthful, avoiding deception and exaggeration, and be open to scrutiny and challenge, which means that participants should be willing to answer questions for further support of the claims made in the descriptions and arguments.

Simplified ‘planning arguments’ consist of three types of claims:
a) the factual-instrumental claim
‘proposal A will bring about Result B, given conditions C’
b) the factual claim ‘
‘Conditions C are (or will be) given’;
c) the ‘deontic’ or ‘ought-claim’
‘Consequence B of the proposal ought to be pursued’;
and also
d) the ‘pattern’ or inference rule of the argument (that is, the specific constellation of assertions, negation of claims and relations between A and B) is ‘plausible’.
While such arguments (just like the ‘inductive’ reasoning that plays such a significant role in science) are not ‘valid’ from a formal logic point of view, they are nevertheless used and considered all the time, their plausibility deranging from their particular constellation of claims, and the ‘fit’ to the specific situation.
The plan proposal A is itself a ‘deontic’ (ought-) claim.

*4.3 The support for claims of type (a) and (b) takes the form of ‘evidence’ provided and bolstered by what we might loosely call the ‘scientific’ perspective and method.

*4.4 Support for claims of type c) will take further arguments of the ‘planning argument’ kind and pattern, containing further factual and deontic claims in support of the desirability of B.
The deontic claims of such further support arguments can refer to previous agreements, accepted laws or treaties that imply acceptance of a disputed claim, claims of desirability or undesirability for any party affected by the proposed plan, even moral rules derived from religious domains.

**5 Individual participants’ (preliminary) decision should be based on that participant’s individual assessment of the plausibility of all the arguments pro and con that have been brought up in the discussion.
That assessment should not be superseded by considerations extraneous to the plan proposal discussion itself — such as party voting discipline — but be a function of the plausibility and weights assigned by the individual to the arguments and their supporting claims.

**6 A collective decision will be based on the overall ‘decisions’ or opinions of individual participants.
(The current predominant ‘majority voting’ methods for reaching decisions do not meet the expectation #4 above of guaranteeing that the decision be based on due consideration of all expressed concerns: here, a new method is sorely needed).

A decision to adopt a plan by the participants (parties affected by the proposed plan) in such a discussion should only be taken (agreed upon) if all participants’ assessment of the plan is positive or at least ‘not worse’ than the existing problem situation that precipitated the discussion.

**7    Discussion should be continued until all parties feel that all relevant concerns have been voiced. Ideally, the discussion would lead to consensus regarding acceptance or rejection of the proposed plan. If this is the case, a decision can be taken and the plan accepted for implementation.
Realistically, there may be differences of opinion: some parties will support, others oppose the plan. The options for this case are either to abandon the process (to do nothing), to attempt to modify the plan to remove specific features that cause opponents’ concerns; or to prepare a different proposal altogether and start a new discussion about it.

**8    Individual parties’ ‘decision’ (e.g. vote) contribution to the common decision should be matching the party’s expressed assessment of the arguments and argument premises.
For example: if a participant agrees with all the ‘pro’ arguments and disagrees with the ‘con’ arguments (or expressed lesser weigh of the ‘con’ arguments) the participant’s overall vote should be positive. Conversely, if the participant’s assessment of arguments is negative, the overall ‘vote’ should be negative. Participants should be expected to offer additional explanations of a discrepancy between argument assessment and overall decision.

**9 A common decision to accept a proposed plan implies obligations (specified in the plan) for all parties to contribute to implementation and adherence to the decision provisions.

**10 The plan may include provisions to ensure adherence and contributions by the parties. Such provisions may include ‘sanctions’, understood as (punitive) measures taken against parties guilty of violating plan agreements.
There undoubtedly might be more agreements needed for a viable planning ‘ethic’. It is clear that some of the above provisions are not easy to ‘live up to’ — but what moral system has ever been? And for some provisions, the necessary tools for their successful application are still not available. For many societal decisions, access to the discussion (to be able to voice concerns) is lacking even in so-called advanced democracies. Some expectations may sound like wishful thinking: The expectation of transparent linkage between argument assessment and overall (individual) decision and even more the linkage between arguments and collective decision are still not available. The approach for systematic and transparent argument assessment (My article in the Dec 2010 issue of “Informal Logic” on ‘The structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments’) suggests that such a link would be feasible and practical, if somewhat more cumbersome that current voting and opinion polling practices. However, its application would require some changes in the organization of the planning discourse and support system, as well as decision-making methods.

These observations were mainly done in response to the question whether a ‘moral’ not based on religious tenets would be possible (and meaningful?). That question may ultimately be taken to hinge on item # 10 above — the sanction issue. The practical difficulties of specifying and imposing effective sanctions to ensure adherence to moral rules may lead many to the necessity of accepting or postulating sanctions and rewards to be administered by an entity in the hereafter. But it would seem reasonable to continue to explore such agreement systems including sanctions in the ‘here and now’ beyond current practices, since both non-religious and religion-based systems arguably have not been successful enough reducing the level of violations of their rules.


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