My new book “Bitcoin Nation” was published on the 15th anniversary of the Bitcoin Whitepaper, October 31, 2023. You can read it below, one chapter per week. Or buy it here:

A thorough discussion of morality and ethics would fill entire libraries, so I cannot hope to do it justice here. Rather, we will focus on pointing out the most fundamental popular misunderstandings and point out a way to create a framework of continuous improvement for ethical standards.

The first misconception about morality is that it is postulated either as subjective or as objective. This is a false dichotomy. In reality, ethics is grounded in objective reality, but since objective reality contains individuals capable of subjective value judgments, these need to be accounted for in any objective ethical framework. The result is necessarily a framework of objective outlines, with subjective nuances.

A second major falsehood is the notion that ethical frameworks offer a moral guidance that results in people being able to decide whether they are “good” or “bad”.

In reality, it is theoretically and practically impossible to be 100% good or 100% evil. So any ethical framework that tries to win over people by soothing their conscience and telling them “Atta boy”, is really just a marketing scam and not any moral standard.

Third and most importantly, most modern ethical textbooks confuse two different concepts. They try to simultaneously describe what are the most “good” behaviors and which behaviors lead to the optimal outcome for human society. While often aligned, the two concepts in numerous instances couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.

If you don’t take anything else from this chapter, please try to internalize the following:

Ethically correct, aka “good”, behavior is a luxury.

Your interests are often conflicting with the interests of other persons. Only those who have met all their basic needs are free to engage in ethically correct behavior. Those who are not can only be “good”, if they sacrifice themselves. And that is also bad.

At this point, you are probably asking yourself where my judgments on what is positive and what is negative come from. As mentioned, a full ethical framework cannot be deducted here, nor am I claiming to have one. There is a lot of serious scientific-philosophy work yet to be done.

What I can give you is the basis of my ethics, which is objective and which can be your starting point if you’d like.

What is objectively valuable?

Austrian economists would likely deny that there is anything objectively valuable in the universe at all because value is subjective.

While this consideration is true for things, it is not true for conscious beings. Even though we have not fully understood, what consciousness is, beyond the fact that it exists, its basic properties are not only known, they are the only thing in the entire universe we can absolutely be certain of.

This was logically proven by Descartes, in his 1641 book “Meditations on First Philosophy”. Specifically, in his famous statement “Cognito ergo sum.” (lat. I think, and therefore I am). By sheer logic, he formulated the apodictic proof that even if the whole universe was a demonic hallucination – or in modern interpretations a simulation – you could still be certain that your consciousness is real and that you as an individual exist.

So, if consciousness is real, and one of the fundamental properties of consciousness (at least mammal consciousness) is the ability and mandatory habit to subjectively judge value, what can we deduct from this?

Let’s explore this with a thought experiment:

For an unknown, unlucky reason, you are the only consciousness left in the universe.

How valuable is the universe? Well, obviously as valuable as you subjectively judge it and yourself to be.

If you die, how much value is left in the universe? Zero, since there is nobody to perceive value. In conclusion, the value of your life must have been as high, as your valuation of yourself and the universe.

So, while we cannot quantify nor objectively measure your value judgements, we still can say with the same certainty that we can claim “cognito ergo sum” that objectively your life must have value.

Starting from this basis, we now know that any thorough ethical framework must include the desires, concerns, and value judgements of all conscious entities, while it can exclude all non-conscious things.

As a rule of thumb, we can then also deduct, that whenever your interests do not conflict with other conscious entities that pursuing these interests is morally neutral. If your actions help another conscious being, i.e., perceive a benefit from your actions, they are morally good. And when your actions conflict with the interests of other individuals and are perceived as hurting them, they are bad.

Obviously, most of your actions that affect other individuals will be perceived as beneficial by some and as detrimental by others. So the morality of your action is seldom purely good or bad. In the end, you make the value judgement, which portion of good and bad actions you are comfortable loading onto your consciousness.

An absolute hierarchy of objectively more good and more bad actions is hard to construct, although there exists a way to at least determine an outline to make statements on some aspects of morality objectively. For example, murdering a person is worse than slapping them in the face because the latter is a brief discomfort, and the other removes all the subjective value this person perceived from the universe and deprives all the individuals valuing that person of said value. I will leave further discussions on objective versus subjective aspects of morality to later books or other authors for now, and try to shift your attention to the translation of ethical baselines into societal frameworks and laws.