I ask this as a question, rather than as a wrapper to propose my opinion.
All rational societies need laws. In a diverse society, for example that of the USA, there are very different opinions among the citizens. Some want no commercial sales on Sundays, others hold Saturdays to be sacred, some support the death penalty, some feel marijuana is relatively benign, etc.
The problem comes when people wish to control the behavior of others who disagree.
There are some areas where almost all do agree, i.e. murder, theft, rape should be illegal.
Yet even in these areas, many justify those exact actions by renaming them. For example, taxes are not called theft, even when the taxpayer is not willing and gets no benefit. We say, "Of course, the government needs taxes to provide services so if a majority votes to take money from a minority, it is not theft at all, it's just taxes.
If someone is found guilty of killing someone else, or being treasonous, or attacking a law officer with a weapon, that person might be legally executed. It's not murder because the majority voted that it's OK to kill the criminal.
There must be some limits on what the majority can impose on a minority - in the USA we have the Constitution, an overarching document that regulates the power of a majority, hence our government is "a constitutionally limited democracy".
Most may agree that this is far from perfect in that there are many unreasonable and improper laws and regulations.
My question is: "How should we formulate our moral laws? What way would be better?"
Well, what are our goals for society and for government? Minimally, we want to be mutually free to pursue our own ends as we see fit, provided that in doing so we are neither harming others nor unduly interfering with other's pursuit of their own ends. We require, then, whatever minimal enforcement system will guarantee us that freedom. But I want more. I think we should strive to construct a society that is conducive to everyone's welfare. So, I think we should strive to construct a society that ensures each person access to at least minimally decent necessities of life--including health care. And since there are some things that we can only do together rather than individually, we will need a way of paying for and arranging for the building of roads, the defending of the nation, the electrification of the nation, and whatever else we think we should collectively do. Taxes, therefore, are only theft to the extent that they are collected but not used for purposes benefiting us collectively.
I agree that the current system, which is a patchwork, does not always adhere to moral standards. If we can propagate a moral sense according to which any thinking, feeling being has rights--one according to which a murderer nevertheless is seen as a thinking, feeling being who should be permitted the greatest possible freedom to live his life as he chooses (but whom we must protect ourselves from, regrettably, and therefore must exile or imprison--but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just invent a device preventing him from hurting us?), I would be happier. As it is, morality is too often based on God's command instead of on rationality, and God is too often seen as vindictive instead of as understanding, as vengeful instead of as compassionate. This is some of the harm religion does.
If you are asking for a *mechanism*--alas, I am not a political scientist. But I do hope that the propagation of a rational morality based on the moral worth of those who think and feel would reduce the amount of irrational limitation of human behavior--on homosexuality, on marijuana use, and so on. Even on the dictation of how one must dress or wear his facial hair by his employer--my pet peeve. Perhaps we can use the Internet to promote a more rational morality.
This isn't very well focused, I fear. But I'll leave it here in case it turns out to be useful.
In ALL of nature, overpopulation leads to violence. Violence and death is nature's own population regulator. IMO the violence we see in certain societies is completely natural. I'm not using any total or cumulative number to assess overpopulation. Rather, we are faced with overpopulation, at the local scale, whenever resources are insufficient for the population. Do I like violence, of course not, but I see it as inevitable.
This was well exemplified with pre-colonial first nations peoples in the Americas. The most violent tribes were those which had the hardest struggle for resources, whereas the most peaceful tribes had smaller populations living on lands of abundance.
There's no such thing as a rational morality. Morality is simply a set of rules that a group declares to be their desire. When one group of people steal from another group of people, be it a country, a nation, a state, a tribe, THEIR morality ascribes to THEIR desires, notwithstanding any "universal" "rights". As a society we have become obssessed with the concept of universal rights. I find it odd.
On the issue of healthcare, interestingly, the benefit is not only the health and happyness of individuals, "health" also increases profits to corporations by reducing abseeteism and increasing productivity in the workplace. So universal healthcare can be seen outside of the concept of individual's rights, as it also benefits the powers that be, even tho in the USA many powerful remain blind to that fact, which plays a huge role in why the USA economy has strugled for the last while.
In the sense that all morality is ultimately based on value judgments, no, there cannot be a rational morality.
In the sense that morality can rationally be built up from a selected set of value judgments, taking those selected valuations as forming fundamental principles--as axiomatic--yes, there can be a rational morality.
We can, for instance, take sentience as an intrinsic good; we can, for instance, take pleasure as intrinsically good and pain as intrinsically bad; we can, for instance, take the freedom to pursue one's own ends as he sees fit as instrumentally good, to just the extent that doing so increases rather than decreases sentient beings' pleasure and decreases rather than increases sentient beings' pain; we can, for instance, take restrictions on such freedom as justified to just the extent to which those restrictions increase rather than decrease sentient beings' pleasure and decrease rather than increase sentient beings' pain. (We may, if we wish, take freedom to be intrinsically good.) Once we have made our core valuations, giving us axioms, we can then build up morality in a rational way.
Pain is so relative... it could never serve as foundational axiom. Pain is seeked all over the world by true tribes and westeners seeking for a little excitement in our boring sedentary lives. Pain as a basis for morality is always somehow missing the point of the passing of time, pain for a year could mean pleasure for a life, pleasure for a moment can mean pain til death. Pain is just pain, it is not good or bad, it's simply a part of life. Pain is an essential part of life.
I am using "pleasure" and "pain" in a broad sense, as those sorts of experiences which one desires or is averse to, respectively. And, of course, a detailed system of morality would have to make finer and finer distinctions that I am not really concerned with. So what if the "little hurts" are part of what one finds enjoyable about playing football? He still doesn't want to have his leg broken by the other team's players. So what if a woman likes having her breasts bitten hard during sex? She still gets to decide when it's OK and when it's not--i.e., she gets to decide when sensual pain counts as enjoyable to her and when sensual pain counts as unenjoyable to her.
It might be good to have better terms for what I have in mind. But it seems awkward to say "that sort of experience which one welcomes" and "that sort of experience which one avoids," instead of saying "pleasure" and "pain."
I note that the freedom to pursue one's own ends is generally something one wants and therefore counts as "pleasure," while restrictions on one's freedom to pursue his own ends are generally unwelcome and therefore count as "pain."
Sometimes unwelcome experiences can lead to welcome ones, in an unpredictable way. But we are discussing morality--ethics. How are we supposed to treat other people? Everyone learns from his experiences, but that doesn't mean that imposing painful experiences on someone is justified by saying, "That which does not kill [you] makes [you] stronger"?
I seem to be bothered more than some other people about restrictions of freedom--the freedom to dress as one likes or to wear his hair as he wants to, for instance. (You're free, but try getting an actuarial job with long hair and wearing a tee-shirt and jeans. Why should your boss be able to dictate matters of personal preference to you?) But I also think that we should try to construct a society that is maximally conducive to the general welfare, and that sometimes requires what you might think of as "morality rulings." Such rulings can be taken too far--I quite agree--but they can also be necessary or at least well-justified.
There are no 'moral laws'. There are moral standards. Laws are set by the state, sometimes to preserve the power of the ruling classes, to advance corporate interests, or sometimes for the common good.
And there is nothing moral about many religious ideas and practices out there. Morality has nothing to do with belief or with belonging to a particular sect or social group.
I think what you are looking for are guidelines for making personal ethical decisions, and I believe common sense should be the standard for ethical personal decisions.
I also do believe in the moral superiority of non-violence over violent behavior. I believe a person who solves conflicts, personal and societal, using non-violent means displays moral superiority, and that veganism and vegetarianism are also a sign of moral superiority. Even when I do eat meat sometimes, I recognize that meat eating requires cruelty and I recognize that it's healthier and it creates a world with less cruelty when one practices veganism.
I did not intend to find guidelines for my own personal ethical decisions. My goal is to consider guidelines for making group ethical decisions where the various group members have different beliefs.
All human societies do formulate laws intended to encode their morality. You mention your personal belief "in the moral superiority of non-violence over violent behavior". This belief allows a clear standard in deciding if an act is ethical or not. However, even among those who subscribe to it, their will be disagreements. Among vegetarians, some are vegan, other feel that animal products, such as milk and eggs are fine since obtaining them does not entail killing the animal. Since we do not have a laws governing this, it is not a problem. We do have laws governing cruelty to animals and those cause constant problems since different people have different standards of what is cruel and who is the victim. (For example, "factory eggs farms" are horrendous places (opinion) and seem obviously cruel to me. Yet banning them raises the cost of production of eggs and so makes food costs higher, presumably harming poor people.
In another example, violent behavior is often justified in the minds of most people, in situations where it is deemed required for self-defense or purposes of "justice". How should we decide these questions?
Had heads not been chopped off in France during the French Revolution, the USA might not even exist today. Had the North not fought the slavers, the USA would not exist today. Violence is an integral part of a population struggling for resources. I still hate violence, it causes elevated blood pressure, which is not healthy in the general scheme of things. I would much rather live a calm life in a little cabin, with food self-sufficiency. But the corporate greed that rules our society requires serfs to perform the labour so that the few can "be all they can be". That is violence in itself.
Common sense is completely subjective. I do not trust anyone who claims to have it.
I thought I knew what utilitarianism is, but maybe not well enough. My understanding is that it holds the morality of an action is held to be function of its total positive utility (its beneficial effects). This is diametrically opposed to the Kantian position that the morality of an action is determined by its intent, rather than by its consequence. I've long believed my self to be a utilitarian (NOT a Unitarian).
There are obvious pitfalls in claiming that maximum utility equates to morality. For example, diminishing returns means that a dollar owned by a rich person is usually worth less to him that a dollar owned by a poor one. Therefor, utility would be maximized by forceful equalization of wealth. Few* would consider this to be moral, although it is a basic concept of socialism.
*OK, OK, so maybe some extreme Democrats but let's stay within 3 sigma of the mean.