of The Non-Prophets, the guys got into an extended discussion about
morality. That discussion should be required listening for anyone with
any questions about how you can be moral without absolute rules
imposed from without, or whether situational ethics automatically
means it’s okay to commit genocide.
But what interested me more was a connection I noticed to fiat
Quick recap: it used to be that a dollar bill was a promissory note:
you could present it at a bank and they’d give you an ounce of silver
(or whatever). A bill wasn’t actual money, it was just a portable
guarantee that you did have the money somewhere.
At some point, which I can’t be bothered to look up right now, the US
declared that the dollar would no longer be backed by gold or silver
or, well, anything. A dollar is just a dollar, and is worth whatever
you can get for it. This is fiat currency: a dollar bill is worth the
same as a fun-size bag of Doritos simply because we say it is.
This may seem kind of scary: how can this dollar bill possibly be
worth anything unless there’s something of value to back it up? What
if the clerk won’t accept paper money? I want to go to the bank and
get an ounce of silver, and surely that can be exchanged for
a fun-sized bag of Doritos.
But why would silver make a difference? The only reason silver has
value at all is that we say it does. Same as a dollar bill, or bits in
a bank’s computer. So we might as well go with the dollar bills and
the bits, because they’re more portable.
Another reason fiat currency works in practice is that it’s
constrained by real-life considerations. There’s no a priori
reason why a dollar bill will buy a fun-sized bag of Doritos but not
an iPod or an SUV. But in practice, it takes more metal to make an iPod
than the silvery part of the Doritos bag; building an SUV or an iPod
takes more person-hours per unit, and so on. So it makes sense that if
a dollar can be exchanged for a bag of Doritos, you need to exchange
several dollars for an iPod, and even more for an SUV.
So an SUV is worth more than a dollar bill simply because you won’t
find a car dealer who’ll sell you an SUV at that price. Through ten
million such negotiations, eventually a consensus emerges as to how
much something is worth.
This consensus can change over time. That’s how we get inflation, and
the falling price of electronics, and so on.
Now, what about morality? How can we say that one action is good and
another bad, if there isn’t a bedrock set of rules?
Same deal as fiat currency: by mutual agreement. Is it okay to turn
right at a red light, or not? Some societies say yes, others no. Is it
rude to belch after a meal, or is it rude not to? Again, different
But just as with fiat currency, morality is not completely divorced
from reality. Some sets of rules simply work better than others: a
society that doesn’t condemn murder will fall apart. I don’t like
being punched in the face, so I’m not going to agree to a set of rules
that say it’s okay to punch me in the face. Or take my stuff, or lie
to me, and so on.
And as we grow up, we learn that other people usually tend to like the
same things as we do (affection, chocolate, honesty) and dislike the
same things that we do (lies, hunger, crotchpunches). So over time, as
people interact, we come up with rules for acceptable and unacceptable
ways to interact.
Just as fiat currency is tied to implacable reality, so morality is
tied to shared biology: we all dislike being hungry or afraid because
we’re all human beings with roughly identical brains and bodies. And
it’s not just the primal stuff that we share, like fear: reports keep
coming in about experiments that our close evolutionary cousins like
chimps and monkeys share feelings of fairness, trade, cooperation, and
So why was the Holocaust a Bad Thing? Because the Jews who were
affected by it didn’t agree to it. Why should it matter whether they
agreed to it? Because it’s only fair. Why does fairness matter?
Because we’re wired to care about fairness.
Of course, at the edges, this leads to interesting conversations where
the answers aren’t clear. If a man wants to castrate himself, should
he be allowed to do so? Is it okay to interfere with someone who wants
to castrate himself (perhaps with the possibility that if the man
can give a good reason to do so, he will be allowed to proceed)? Is it
ever okay to tell a person, “your moral code is completely wrong, and
I’m going to stop you from carrying out what you consider to be a
completely moral action that will harm you and no one else”?
We’re still working things out. It took a while, but we finally
figured out that slavery is wrong. And that denying people rights
because of their skin color is wrong. And that discriminating against
women in non-uterus-related situations is wrong. We’ll always have
stuff to work on. The important thing is to keep trying to improve.