Moral Struggles

We can simplify many of our moral discussions by using this framework. In order to do this follow the following steps:

  1. Break the moving pieces of the problem into the economies at work.

  2. Ascribe moral authority to the more advanced economy:

Intellectual > Societal > Organic > Inorganic

  1. If the dilemma is identified as being between two positions inside of a single economy, give authority to the one that shows the most quality / value inside that economy.

  2. Identify how the agent with moral authority can act with moral responsibility toward each less valuable alternative in its own level and toward any lower level involved.

A simple application follows.

Moral Dilemma:

A city wants to build a damn down river to generate power for the city and reduce dependence on external energy sources.

First we break down the levels and the impact at each level:


Little implication - only application.


Increase in resources and productivity for the city.

Potential Reduced water flow for downstream cities.


Destruction of wildlife habitat.


Reduction in Hydrocarbons released in burning of fossil fuels.

Humans get in trouble when assessing situations like this when we start trying 'use our intellect' to solve the problem. There really isn't in any Intellectual considerations here. There is no symbolic representation and there is no scientific discovery involved. Of course we need to use scientific discovery to build the dam and to extract the electricity from the flow of water, but these are not really dilemmas. The only implications we have at the intellectual level is the moral standing to say that we reliably know that building the dam will produce the energy we say it will. Think how foolish it would be to affect lower levels if we didn't know this! What if someone were proposing building a giant cement cube in the desert to do the same? We would ask, 'why?' Why do you think this cement block will produce power? All the societal, organic, and inorganic resources going toward it would be folly and ultimately immoral until it were proved that cube could provide more value than would go into it.

But we don't have a cube. We have a dam and we know the dam will produce a massive amount of electricity for the nearby city. We can study the economics of the resources this will provide and see that it is a very valuable thing! We can see that building this dam may be a very moral thing to do, but we must take in all possible moral dilemmas into consideration.

Unfortunately the city down river is not happy about our plan. They fear that the dam will reduce their access to water. Do they have a case? Well if we apply rule 3 of our framework we have to ask a hard question. Who provides more value inside of this economy of society? The answer may be that the downstream entity is a thriving metropolis of 4 million people and a reduction in access to water could start a cholera epidemic and devastate their economy. In this case the dam would be immoral. If the town upriver is bigger and provides economic impact then the other town then building the dam may still be a moral choice.

How should the impact between the two cities be determined? This should be a general utility calculation inside of the economic layer. This means in this case you don't figure in the organic or inorganic impact unless it destabilizes the societal layer. Certainly a cholera epidemic in either place would disrupt production and value of existing resources quite a bit! If the impact is that more water will have to be pumped to the down river town and, if you do that, that the net production increase you may still want to do it.

At the extreme, this leads to a hard conclusion that building the dam has moral authority even if it ruins the downstream town as long as the long term benefit is more economic output that that town had initially.

But don't forget about Rule 4! Don't fall prey to the destructive valley!

We must ask about how a town with moral authority to build a dam and potentially destroy a town should also act with moral responsibility to that town. The answer is that it shouldn't destroy the town. It should find a place along the continuum that allows it to reach a significant level of productivity while still preserving the societal value of the smaller town. We don't know the future and all value is future value. We may discover a diamond mine under the smaller town in 15 years that allows the town to overcome any economic disadvantage that was relevant at the time the dam was built.

Or going the other direction, if the dam is not built because the down river town is more valuable, perhaps it canprovide some compensation to the other town for not building the dam.

There are a million creative solutions that satisfy the moral framework.

Once we've satisfied the moral framework at the societal level we still have the lower levels to contend with. In this case there is a real environmental impact for the wild life in the basin that will be flooded by the dam. The framework tells us that the dam has the moral authority to disrupt the organic ecosystem, but can it be done responsibly? An assessment must be made. Does an endangered species live in this basin that would go extinct if the dam were built? If not it is likely that the organic impact will be negligible and the dam can move forward knowing that it is acting with moral responsibility. Perhaps they may want to progressively flood the basin over a number of days to allow the larger animals to move out of the area being flooded. There are certainly questions to be answered, but they are questions of responsibility and not of authority.

The fact that the inorganic level will be positively affected by the dam is a plus.

The key to the framework is quickly defining the authority and then seeking the responsibility.

Many of our toughest moral dilemmas in our modern day get contentious when one side tries to elevate the societal over the intellectual. This framework eliminates that contention and just flat out calls out those that would try to put the economy of resources over the economy of intellect.

What if we modified our above example with the fact that the land to be flooded by the dam was owned by a number of private citizens who did not want their land to be flooded. If we adhere to the intellectual ideals of liberty and private property our scenario changes quite a bit. Eminent domain is a tricky thing that our framework ultimately calls immoral. Unless you can compensate those private citizens for their land in such a way that they are willing to cede the property rights to someone else we should not have the moral authority to build the dam. The intellectual authority of liberty will always override the economic authority. But rule 4! These citizens should act with responsibility to the lower economic level. If they see that by giving up their land there will be many more jobs created and many more people will be elevated to a place where they can contribute to the intellectual level, they should act with grace and find a reasonable solution to compensate them for their troubles and get the dam built.

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