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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Moral Absolutes? - The Algorithmic Model of Morality

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

Is it always wrong to lie?

Reflection on this question will inevitably lead to a moral conundrum. Is there any such thing as absolute moral truths? In one sense, we all know it is wrong to lie, but we can think of circumstances where lying can be justified. There are countless examples of this sort of thing. Is there anything that is truly right or wrong in an absolute sense? I want to propose a model for understanding morality. While this models' roots are based on the often misunderstood notion of situational ethics, I prefer the term algorithmic morality.

Algorithmic morality? An algorithm will give you an output based on inputs according to a given formula in order to achieve a desired outcome. Some of these can be very simple: “if x then y”, for example. I contend that morality should be thought of as a complex algorithmic formula that leads us away from suffering and towards ultimate well-being. Specific “commandments” are really just expressions of deeper principles and values given to a particular person or group of people at a particular time. However, it is these deeper principles that make up the building blocks of the algorithm and ultimately are more fundamental than any particular command given at a particular time. Principles act like the hard code we take in which, when properly installed, processes external inputs (a given situation) into the proper outputs (the morally correct response to that situation). Spiritual development is when we encode these principles into our psyche and soul.

“As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle” - Richard G Scott (in Conference Report, Oct. 1993, 117; or Ensign, Nov. 1993, 86).

For a Christian, this is actually the moral model Jesus taught as he rejected the law-based moral legalism of his day. Notice how Jesus's ultimate concern is with the principle behind the commandment.

"Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." Matt 5:20-22

"And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" Luke 13:14-16

So for example, you have been given two commandments: to be kind and to not lie. These are based on the principles of charity and honesty. So what do you do when your wife (who is dealing with serious issues of body insecurity) asks if she looks fat in the dress and you think she does? Well, suddenly these two come into conflict. How about if you have been told not to steal but also that you should protect the life of your child who is starving? Do you steal the loaf of bread from a rich man to save your baby? This is where the algorithm helps. It takes all these principles and arranges them into a value hierarchy. This allows your wife’s self-esteem and your relationship to be worth more than brutal honesty at all times and can actually justify a white lie.

Robin Hood. Villain or Hero?

Is this a dangerous slippery slope? Yes, it is! But what is the alternative? It’s obvious that all commandments cannot be universally applied in every situation. Life is too complex for a complete list of do's and don'ts. Instead, the game of morality is a game of understanding what values and norms will bring you toward your desired outcome. Most importantly, it’s about how you order the principles. Not all values or principles are equal in all contexts. Knowing the principles, properly ordering them, and manifesting that order in your mode of being is the game of morality and ultimately, in my view, the very reason you have moral agency in the first place.

"The second thing to get clear is that Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying ‘Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times and the particular programme which suited one place or time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery." - CS Lewis.

This confusion about the differences between principles and commandments (the law) was the essence of Jesus‘s message to the Pharisees who had confused and distorted what values were higher in the hierarchy because they obsessed over the universal application of commandments. They placed a higher value on the letter of the law for the spirit of the law.

President Wilford Woodruff said, “For the salvation and exaltation of the children of men … are principles you cannot annihilate. They are principles that no combination of men can destroy. They are principles that can never die. … They are beyond the reach of man to handle or to destroy...Organization, programs, procedures, policies, and principles—all are important. But they are not of equal importance. …If you do not know the principles—by principles I mean the principles of the gospel, the doctrines, what’s in the revelations—if you do not know what the revelations say about justice or mercy, or what they reveal on reproof or forgiveness, how can you make inspired decisions in those difficult cases that require your judgment? There are principles of the gospel underlying every phase of Church administration. These are not explained in the handbooks. They are found in the scriptures. They are the substance of and the purpose for the revelations...Procedures, programs, the administrative policies, even some patterns of organization are subject to change. We are quite free, indeed, quite obliged to alter them from time to time. But the principles never change.”

Our values can be expressed as moral principles or axioms such as "it’s good to be kind", or they can be expressed as commandments like "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as they self." Ultimately, whether expressed as a commandment or as a moral truth, these are expressions of value. So does this mean that morality is relative or subjective because what we value varies from person to person? No, because we all ultimately value the same thing above all else. We desire to escape suffering. In fact, this is the very bedrock of all moral reasoning and language as I explain in my previous essay.

We all ultimately want to get as far away from suffering as possible and approach some notion of ultimate well-being. The question becomes how do we get there? The way that we arrange the hierarchy of values is an expression of the roadmap we implicitly build for how to reach that end. Everyone, whether explicitly or implicitly, does this because it is requisite to act in the world. The only question is if one's hierarchy of values is properly calibrated toward ultimate well-being (whatever that happens to be in reality) and that is the subject at the heart of our deepest existential longings and debates.


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Ari Coleman
Ari Coleman
Nov 07, 2022

Does ultimate wellbeing entail no suffering at all, or does your model allow for suffering in eternity?


May 18, 2021

I appreciate the depth of your thinking. Picture an illustration . Set a rectangle as a base. Label that “doctrine“. Add a smaller box on its top labeled “principles”. Add a still smaller box is on top of this labeled “rules” Doctrine is fundamental, essential and unchanging Principles flow from doctrine. Narrower rules are adapted from principles for those who cannot yet grasp what the point is. Eternal marriage is a doctrine of exaltation. Chastity is a principle that qualifies us for temple sealing and protects us from misery. Age for dating is a rule. Each has its place, but vary in importance. Rules are more flexible than doctrine and application may vary based upon another’s understanding, capacity and conversion.

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