15 Dec 201
11 May 2013

Developing a Rational Ethic
A Real-World Exercise in Logical Thinking


An Example of In-depth Analysis

            In our discussion of “deadly sins,” we mentioned stealing as one of the negative responses to greed or envy.  Let’s now follow up on stealing in greater detail, and see whether or not we can rule it to be an absolute vice.  Clearly it works to the thief’s benefit, at least in the short term and if he isn’t caught.  But no less clearly, stealing harms the interests of the victim, the true owner of the stolen item.  So, we must again consider a broader scope than a single individual.  Most societies nowadays—even those based on a largely collective politic—admit to concepts of personal possession and property.  One is entitled to claim certain items as his own by right of having earned them, or by having received them from someone who voluntarily donated them as gifts.  And one is entitled to some form of compensation for a possession which he relinquishes to another.  Society’s structure is based and reinforced in part on rights of ownership.  These are incentives to work and earn, and thus to become able to acquire possessions.  If society devolves to a state at which possessions may be taken from anyone without compensation, then the incentive to work and earn is eroded correspondingly, and the society becomes both less stable and less productive.  Stealing disrupts the normal flow of money and goods in two ways.  First, it deprives the victim of the fruits of his own labor.  Second, the thief takes a shortcut past the social obligation to produce something of value in order to receive compensation for the productive labor involved.  Despite that the thief might put a great deal of work into planning and executing the theft, this work produces nothing of value to anyone else.  It thus doesn’t count as a legitimate contribution to the economic cycle of production and consumption.  It doesn’t add to the aggregate wealth of society, but rather depletes it.  Theft is a parasitic practice that simply takes from the benefits that society provides without giving back anything in return, and thus unfairly diminishes the amount of benefits that society can offer to those who are productive.  Since stealing harms society—and thus its individual members—we can see that it’s harmful to human well-being, and thus is to be avoided as a rule.

            Still, there might be situations in which stealing is justified.  Suppose a severe economic recession has been dragging on for a year or two, putting us and all of our friends out of work through no fault of our own.  Our unemployment benefits have been exhausted.  We can’t borrow from our friends, because they’re in the same financial fix.  When we go to the local charity pantry, we find that donations have dried up and the shelves are bare.  And panhandling on the street corner yields only a rebuke from the local beat cop.  In this case, we might find it justifiable to steal a few items of food from a store in order to keep our family from starving.  So, although stealing is generally a bad thing to do, in some cases it might be necessary in order to stave off some greater harm.  And our moral liability might be forgiven altogether if we arrange to pay the grocer back once we’re back to work.  It’s the proverbial case, when there are no good options available, of choosing the least of the available evils.

            We can likewise analyze the beneficial or harmful effects of many behaviors and attitudes: ambition or laziness, conformity or individuality, creativity or destructiveness, conservation or exploitation, faith or curiosity, learning or ignorance, modesty or extravagance, and countless others.  After investigating all angles of each, including some aspects that might not immediately spring to our attention, we’d probably agree on many issues, such as honesty and industriousness, but might reach conflicting conclusions about piety and faith, depending on our existing beliefs, and thus on our underlying ideas of what constitutes human well-being.  Some differences are to be expected.  While we’re all human and all social creatures with similar survival instincts, we’re also individuals with unique personalities, backgrounds, and preferences.

            As we’ve just seen, analysis of the effects of behavior under unusual circumstances needn’t be a protracted or tedious process.  It's a problem-solving activity, demanding a willingness to set aside preconceived notions, and to explore other possibilities in some detail with a critical mind.  It should be something for we’ve developed the skill to handle expediently when the occasion arises.  If we were to practice long enough, we might be able to find at least one justifiable exception to almost any general rule.  However, this isn’t our objective.  The purpose is not to become expert at breaking rules, but only to learn to recognize and deal with ethical conflicts in compliance with a well justified core value.  In most actual cases, we won’t have to dream up exceptions; they’ll present themselves to us, and we’ll simply have to select whatever available option involves the least moral hazard.  Life surprises us once in a while, and we need to know how to improvise constructively when that happens.

            However, making exceptions to generally good rules should not become a routine occurrence.  If it does, that should signal to us that an adjustment is in order, which probably means either that our standards are unrealistically strict, or that our adherence to them is too lax.  Or else that we desperately need a vacation.

Next: Simplifying the Process