Floris van den Berg


How can people live together peacefully, especially in a multicultural, multi-religious society? We should find a minimum level of consensus which is needed to live peacefully together in an open (world) society and a moral language to communicate with each other. Dutch philosopher Paul Cliteur published his book Moral Esperanto (this book is in Dutch and has not yet been translated) in 2007 in which he argues that it is important that people can communicate with each other in a moral and political language which is in principle understandable to everybody; in contrast with religious discourse which only makes sense to believers. Cliteur makes the analogy of Esperanto, the artificial language proposed to be the lingua franca, and emphasizes the need for a universal moral language.

A moral Esperanto has minimally two requirements. On the political level, Cliteur argues that the state should be neutral: the state should not in any way support religion. Cliteur pleads for the French model of secularism (laicite), instead of the Dutch model of religious pluralism. Religion should not be privileged. On the moral level, Cliteur argues that morality cannot and should not be grounded in religion. If people have to live together in one country and on one planet, then they have to have consensus about some fundamental issues. They have to speak a moral Esperanto.

I propose to outline such a moral Esperanto which aspires to be a universal moral theory. I call this: Universal Subjectivism. Universal Subjectivism is, like Esperanto, an artificial moral construction. I do not think that Universal subjectivism is a panacea for all moral problems. However, the suffering caused by human beings living together can be much lessened. Universal Subjectivism can reduce the suffering of humankind and hopefully all sentient beings. That is the ambition of Universal Subjectivism. Universal Subjectivism is based on combining the political theory of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice with the applied ethics of oo Peter Singer, as for example in his book Practical Ethics, whilst taking a secular humanist stance, which has been stated clearly for example by Paul Kurtz in Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism.

Moral philosophy should search for blind spots in morality. Every society has its own traditions, moral codes and customs. Moral philosophy and ethics should find any blind spots in them and try to find ways to overcome them. Moral philosophy should try to reduce suffering and improve the human condition. It should be a method to make the world a better place. How to do that? Perhaps like this:

A Moral Thought Experiment

Imagine you are miraculously lifted up from your existence on planet Earth and you can look at the world from 'the point of view of the universe'. From this position you c know you will go back to Earth, but you do not know what (U kind of being, capable of suffering, you will become. You can be 'born' in any possible form of existence. What you can do is create the institutions, laws, rules, customs of the world in which you know you are going to be 'born'. You are the lawgiver. You are in the Original Position, a position from which you have to decide what the institutions and laws will be like. From here you look at the world through a 'veil of ignorance': you do not know what your position will be in the world. You do not know if you are a woman or a man, you do not know in what shape your body is, you do not know the color of your skin, you do not know your sexual preferences, you do not know where you will be on the planet. You could be in any of these positions.

Worst-Off Positions

  1. For example, imagine yourself being born into the world physically handicapped. You find yourself in a world with institutions, which you yourself from 'up there' had invented, but there are no ramps to get into malls, shops, and buildings. For you in a wheelchair this is a serious problem. However, there could be a world in which this problem was solved by the availability of wheelchair ramps. Therefore - hypothetically - you go back up there, change the institutions to include ramps, and go down again. You cannot exclude the possibility of ending up in a wheelchair, because there are people in the world who are physically disabled. Hypothetically it could have been you. What you can do is to try to help society accommodate as best as possible the needs of the physically disabled. In a utopia one could imagine no people being disabled, but that's not how reality is. The second best option - optimizing the conditions and accepting the contingencies of fate - is the most rational thing to do.

  2. This time you find yourself as a woman. More specific, you find yourself as a woman in a misogynist society, like Saudi Arabia. You probably want to get out of this position as soon as possible and change the conditions again in order that no society will oppress women.

  3. Imagine yourself being born into a deeply religious family who take religion very seriously and impose the dogma's, traditions, taboos
    and customs on you, whether you like it or not. According to Islam scholar and critic Ibn Warraq no one could freely and rationally want to be a Muslim, especially when you are a woman. If you - from behind the veil of ignorance - would want to exclude positions in which there is religious indoctrination, then this tells us that there is something deeply wrong with parents and teachers trying to impose a particular religion upon a child. If you think this is over the top, then imagine yourself really to be born in a fanatical (fundamental) religious position and imagine you yourself to be someone who happens to hate this religious
    environment without escape routes. Or imagine yourself being a homosexual, a woman, an apostate, a libertine, a freethinker et cetera,
    being stuck in a fundamental religious socialsetting.

  4. You happen to enter the world as a homosexual, but you 'created' a society in which homosexuality is forbidden and socially disapproved of. It is not somebody else, but it is you who happens to be a homosexual. It is about a one in ten chance that you are a homosexual. Society therefore should not discriminate against homosexuals. The denial of one's emotional and sexual flowering as a person does have severe consequences for psychological wellbeing and happiness. For die-hard homophobes this thought experiment will be difficult because they will have to imagine themselves to be a homosexual.One should also include in the thought experiment the option that you yourself happen to be a fervent anti-homosexual for whom it is not seen as a problem that homosexuality is forbidden. However, it is those who discriminate against homosexuals who interfere with the life of homosexuals, not the other way around. The homo-discriminator will probably reply that he is personally deeply offended by the homosexuality of others. In liberal theory that's just how it is: you might be upset, offended and grieved by how others behave, but as long as they do not directly interfere with your behavior, you will have to cope, and be grieved and offended. Just like Muslims will have to cope with cartoons and critique which they find offensive. This is what the Virtual Museum of Offensive Art is about.

  5. You are born and you see the world through the eyes of a cow. This cow is confined to harsh and cruel conditions in factory farming. It might stretch the imagination to think of yourself as a cow, but it makes moral sense, because cows too have an ability to suffer and the ability to suffer is what makes an entity fit for moral concern. I am not sure if I can vividly imagine what it is like to be a cow, but I can imagine the difference of being a cow in a lush meadow and a cow in a dark confinement. So you probably go back and change the world into a world without factory farming. And I can also try to imagine what it would be to be a dolphin that is entangled in a fishing net and fighting for its life thereby breaking its nose. If I were a dolphin, I would want to have fishing methods that would leave me, and whales for that matter, alone.

  6. Now take into account future generations: there are more people in the future than there are now. Imagine being born into the future, on a barren planet. The chances of being what you are here and now in this comparably privileged position are tiny.

  7. In the previous example I spoke as if there were a future, but if we do 'business as usual' we will experience the human-made Apocalypse sooner or later. In order to think about what a (just) future society would look like, there has to be a future to humankind on this earth. You can't share a pie when there isn't one. The problem of sustainability and the
    exponential growth rate of the population of human beings ensure that the we will ruin the planet. So, all moral and political thinking should have as top priority thinking about the future of humanity and the sustainability of the planet. Would you want to live in a world with 6 billion people or would you want to live in a world with 16 billion people or more? In the case of a scenario of 16 billion people, the pressure on the environment will be immense and there is a limit to what the planet can sustain.

[Digression: The Titanic. I do think that it is five to twelve and we should do our utmost best to prevent what happened to the people at Easter Island, who ruined their island by chopping down all the trees. Abortion, euthanasia, Intelligent Design, the scientific investigation of religion and other paranormal phenomena are all important, but of secondary importance. Let me compare the situation of humankind at this moment with the people feasting aboard the Titanic before it hit the iceberg. Of course, it was important that nobody stole jewelry or was being killed aboard. But much more important was what happened to the ship as a whole. The difference is that the captain of the Titanic did not see the iceberg, but we do. We see our ship cruising towards the iceberg, but we are more concerned about business as usual on board and continue to live our lives, hoping that someone will change the course so that we will pass the iceberg.]

The model of what I call Universal Subjectivism is a procedure one can do oneself at any time. To do this rationally one should consider the worst possible positions, the so-called 'worst-off' position. It is irrational to maximize positions, which are already good at the expense of those in a worse off position. Taking into account the chances of these positions, it is not rational to bet on ending up wealthy and therefore maximizing this position. What is rational is to try optimizing the worst-off position, whatever that may be. Ideologically this is what the welfare state is about: the state tries to make life better for those worst-off in society, no matter the reason of their predicament.

The procedure is that one should pick one's 'favorite' worst-off position, go hypothetically behind the veil of ignorance and change the world as one thinks optimizes the conditions for this particular worst-off position. Then, one descends mentally, imagines how it works and adjusts if one thinks it can be better. Universal Subjectivism is a dynamic process of mentally jumping into different existential possibilities. Universal Subjectivism is a mental moral journey.

Subjective, but Universal

Universal Subjectivism is universal because the model can be applied to everybody equally. It is subjective, because it is you and your feelings and emotions, who decide - when hypothetically switched to a different existence - what could and should be changed in society and institutions in order to make life more bearable and, hopefully, enjoyable. It is you yourself who has to imagine oneself in all these different, worst-off, positions. The paradox is that although it is a subjective model, the outcome, though not objective, is universal (all rational individuals would want the same in the same worst-off position). It is not relativistic.

There are two ways to use this model. In the first place, individuals can use it for themselves as an ethical tool. When confronted with a moral problem, you mentally change positions with the others concerned and imagine yourself in that position. Can you rationally want yourself in that position?

On the other hand, there is the social and political level. This model can be used to test how just a particular society is, and change it for the better. Universal Subjectivism tries to maximize the freedom of the individual, not the group, because it is always imaginable that some people in the group do not want what the group O wants. Therefore, the State should guarantee maximum freedom for the individual. However, even maximum freedom has limits. Individual freedom cannot intrude the freedom of other individuals. Individuals should not limit on the freedom of other individuals; only if there are strong reasons to do so, like compulsory education. Paradoxically, education is interchangeable: most adults agree that their parents were right in insisting they go to school.

In order to evaluate and judge a society morally, one should look how it is to be in the worst-off position in that particular society. You can use the following checklist: what would be my social position in that society if I were: a women, a homosexual, a different race, mentally or physically handicapped, unemployed, nonbeliever, apostate, transsexual, prostitute, a libertine,democrat, a farm animal, belonging to an ethnic minority, a critic of the government, an inmate, a journalist, or a political activist. The Amnesty International Yearbook can be used as a moral indicator of the moral condition of a country. Many societies are, what I call, 'victim society': groups of individuals are systematically placed in a worst-off position. We should try to expand the circle of morality as wide as possible and prevent that there are victims. Universal Subjectivism is a tool to help to check if there are victims.

The idea of interchangeability, that is the contingency of any existence, limits the domain of possible options. The axiom on which the theory rests is that you cannot rationally want to be in a worst-off position, or, in other words, you cannot rationally want to be tortured (even for a masochist there are kinds of torture where the 'fun' stops). When there are victims, interchangeability is irrational and self-destructive. Of course most people are not rational, or at least not all the time. But within the 'moral game' of doing the model of Universal Subjectivism, people are assumed to be rational. In order to test a particular position, look for the possibility of interchangeability.

Expanding Rawls' A Theory of Justice

Universal Subjectivism is a hypothetical social contract theory based on Rawls version of the social contract by making people decide on the social and political parameters of society without them knowing what they will be in that society. In the Original Position people who make the choices look through a veil of ignorance at the society: they do not know what and who they will be in that society. Rawls limits the domain of his theory in two ways: 1. Rawls takes rational, or potential rational persons into account (thus not taking non-human animals into account for example) and 2. Rawls limits himself to a single nation. However, the broadening of the Rawlsian idea of deliberation in the Original Position from behind a thick veil of ignorance does make expansions possible. Rawls does not seem to use the potential power of his idea because he incorporates a (Kantian) notion of the essence of a human being. When one leaves these notions behind and instead focuses on the ability to suffer, plus universalizability of each sentient being, the theoretical problems disappear, but pragmatic problems appear.

Why Be Moral?

But why be moral? Why should anyone bother to do this thought experiment? Well, because hypothetically it could be you in any of those worst-off positions. Of course many people do not care at all about the moral irrelevance of their fortunate existence and are unwilling to consider giving up any privileges. Not being willing to apply this model, is the end (or at least a severe limitation) of moral discourse. It is a personal choice whether or not you want to be involved in (this) moral discourse. It is a choice anyone can and has to make.

Education, more specifically moral education, is pivotal. It is important to be able to imagine oneself to be in the O position of someone else. What else can do this better than the study of literature? When you read a novel you see the world through the eyes of some character. You see and experience what the world looks like from the perspective of another human being. If you are able to do this yourself, you are able to play the game and see the world from different perspectives.

Education should be free and open, not closed and unfree. Education should be secular and scientific: would you want yourself to be taught falsehoods (like 'evolution is just a theory') and guild ridden by taboos? I do think that the kind of education that people would create for themselves from behind the veil of ignorance is a kind of liberal democratic, science based, open education. An open and free education ensures that each individual has maximum possibilities to choose how to live for him or herself.

Seeing the world from a different perspective is one thing, the next thing is to have empathy: to feel the emotions. In Universal Subjectivism you do not have to have sympathy with the fate of somebody else, but only with your own fate, which could be anything. In order to prepare yourself for the worst-off positions you have to have empathy. You have to have sympathy only for yourself.

I conclude that Universal Subjectivism is a usueful tool to overcome moral blind spots. So, imagine what it is like to be in a worst-off position. Doing that means you take the moral weight of contingency seriously.

Floris van den Berg is a philosopher at Utrecht University and Executive Director of Center for Inquiry Low Countries (www.cfilowcountries. org).

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