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Bottoms Up

As the trash fire in my home country rages on, I’ve been thinking about morality.

Last week I read a novel set eight years after a flu pandemic killed 70% of the world population. The remaining population, at least in the United States, has concentrated in the cities, with a few scattered rural communities, leaving large areas of the country completely abandoned. A significant chunk of the book was dedicated to the author setting up the fact that one main character (Robert) is highly condemnatory of people who loot from the abandoned areas, followed by the revelation that another main character (Moira) had been one of the looters, as she made her way from the East Coast to the West Coast during the chaotic first wave. Robert is deeply disturbed by the fact that his friend and incipient sweetheart could ever have done such a bad thing.

Near the end of the book, as a second wave of the virus is taking hold, Robert gets into a situation which can only be solved by, yes, looting an deserted gas station, and has to rethink his rigid moral stance on the matter. Moira, to spare his sensibilities, even offers to leave cash on the counter … of a store that has obviously been abandoned for years.

This whole subplot just baffled the hell out of me, because it doesn’t track with my morality at all. I kept thinking, “Why would anyone care who is taking abandoned stuff?” It makes as little sense to me as the people who get angry at dumpster divers.

I then started really thinking about what drives my own moral sense, and realized that it involves a fairly complicated, and at least semi-conscious, process.

Subsequently I came to the theory that maybe there are two kinds of morality: top-down and bottom-up. There are people who trust and believe in societal rules (e.g. ‘looting is wrong’) that have been handed down to them, and then there are people who figure out ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for themselves based on first principles. A quick google search demonstrates that this is not an entirely original idea. (Interesting aside: a lot of the current use of ‘top-down’ and bottom-up’ in the context of morality revolves around how to enable moral decisions by AI agents.)

Anyway, I am obviously the bottom-up sort. I suspect innate temperament to be heavily in play here, but my horrifically abusive childhood definitely primed me to distrust ‘authority’ and ‘rules’ from an early age.

All of this musing led to the even deeper question of what, exactly, are my first principles of morality? How do I decide whether any given thing is okay or not okay?

I’m not sure I have a complete answer to that yet, but I do have partial insight, including into an important way that my morality has shifted over the course of my adult life.

I’ll explain what I’m thinking in my next post, but in the meantime, I’d love it if some of you would think about this also. Is your morality top-down, bottom-up — or do you take issue with that construction? If you are building a moral sense from first principles, what are they? What questions do you ask yourself when you are deciding whether to approve or condemn an action?

Published inAbstractions


  1. Thanks for posting this article, and …

    Okay, it’s 9:55 pm Thursday evening. I’m gonna make a cup of tea and comment on (but not answer) this question. I’d also be interested in comments on the comment.

    I’ve been practicing a particular form of Buddhism for the last ten years so clearly this informs my sense of what is moral, but I hasten to add that I look up this practice in the first place because it rhymed with and enhanced the moral feelings that were already latent in me.
    And what might these be? In response I’m going to give a very concise summary of some of our main moral teachings:

    1. No fanaticism. There is nothing to kill for.
    2. Be open minded. Wake up every day to a new day.
    3. Don’t push this stuff on anybody – especially not children.
    4. See the suffering in the world. Never turn your back. Also, in many cases going unrecognized even in yourself.
    5. Live simply and humbly.
    6. Control but don’t deny your anger.
    7. Be happy. Your first responsibility to this one life you’re living right now is to simply enjoy it.
    8. Be open and honest. Don’t hide your suffering.
    9. Speak the truth, but always in kindness. Build confidence and courage in other people, even if you don’t like them so much.
    10. Don’t undermine and take advantage of whatever communities you belong to.
    11. Earn your living by making a positive contribution to society.
    12. Practice reverence for all living beings.
    13. Don’t be a thief. Understand that investing in corporations that damage the environment or society is being a thief.
    14. Practice sex (or not) responsibly in stable and loving relationships.

    I don’t believe that moral rules or even moral values exist with any sort of essence as real things – top down, or bottom up. They are products of our minds, they float, they change. We float, we change, we should not feel regret for whatever we have done in the past. Neither should we crave nor strive to become perfect.

    This is probably way to much for now. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading this.

    • Karawynn Karawynn

      David, I’m curious how much of that list is your own interpretation of Buddhist teaching and how much is explicitly codified and generally agreed-upon by all practitioners? I’m asking because while some of those items track with my former impressions, others seem surprisingly specific or modern. But I’ve never seriously studied Buddhism, so there could be a lot I don’t know …

      I’m not saying that morality exists as a separate force from humanity — it seems obvious to me that it is a human construct. But different humans practice morality differently. I was referring to how people judge good and bad, right and wrong on an everyday basis: do they work from a given set of rules, or do they work it out for themselves for each new situation?

      I am surprised to hear anyone suggest that we shouldn’t feel regret. While (as with anything else) it can be overdone or misapplied, I think regret can be a good and proper thing, and in fact the lack of it would seem sociopathic.

  2. David Gates David Gates

    This is actually my snapshot interpretation of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Plum Village Tradition. That can be Googled for a full Version. The Plum Village Tradition is what I’m involved with. The head monastery is in France – a wonderful place. So, yes, it is modern. I think Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the original version of these in 1966.

    Of course, I do understand that you see the world through the lens of construction. In my case I think I do try to apply these principles (top down) but also have a lot of reactions that I later try to justify by somehow working them ad hoc into these same 14 principles (bottom up) , but, as Buddhism always overstates moral issues in extreme ways, it makes it impossible to really apply the principles flat out, thus a lot of personal interpretation is required. How, for example, do you practice reverence for all life when your house is being eaten by termites? The bit about regret may be surprising, but it’s just a way to try to avoid guilt, which is really something we want to do.

  3. Alex B Alex B

    I am a bottom up thinker, but I’m not sure I ‘build’… ‘a moral sense from first principles’. That kind of construction has been successful in mathematics, but I’m not sure it describes a good way to arrive at a humane morality.

    Logic is mostly about consistency, not truth. The anglo-saxon intellectual tradition of presenting a conclusion as following inevitably from some original principals (plus evidence) can hide a lot of the intellectual work that was needed to construct it. In Mathematics, Russel, Frege, etc did the work of finding foundational principals by eliminating anything that was inconsistent. As it turns out, for mathematics, what you’re left with is still really useful. But there are two problems with this, as a thought process for constructing morality.

    One is that in Mathematics, ,they needed ‘first principals’ which are very simple and atomic concepts – things that only say one thing. That’s okay when your objects are things like numbers and sets. Its much harder when your objects are human beings, which
    automatically brings a lot of nuance and complexity even to the simplest statement. So it’s hard to find simple statements ‘first principles’ which are as unchallengeable as those in mathematics, because the terms themselves are ones which need a lot of ‘maintenance’. Historians find that terms like ‘freedom’ meant something quite different to the Romans, for example.

    The other problem is that a process of eliminating inconsistencies doesn’t necessarily give you the best outcome. Elevating some principal to be your highest one, and then eliminating things which are inconsistent with it, seems like a way to construct a rigid dogma, not a humane morality (I’m not accusing you of this, just saying it’s a problem with basing morality on unchallengeable principles).

    I understand the attraction of being able to say, here are my principles, these actions inevitable follow from them. But in morality, in the absence of a bearded god handing down the principals on stone tablets, I don’t think principals have more of a claim to be non-defeasible than any other kind of moral judgement. What I mean by that is – suppose you have had some experience; being bullied at school say, which you decide was wrong; and from that you derive a principal; I think you are just as likely to later have to modify your principle as your original judgement.

    I’m not sure any of the above helps you very much.
    Maybe what is useful is to, rather than look for principles, collect situations which are for you litmus tests that your principles must judge correctly. TBH I don’t do this in a systematic way either.

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