15 Dec 201
07 May 2013

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



            Chances are excellent that you already have a system of morality that works for you.  This exercise isn’t intended to pry you away from a system you find satisfactory and indoctrinate you into another.  It’s simply to demonstrate the practical usefulness of methodical reason, not only in science and math, but as applied to common questions we all face, of which human behavior is in some ways both the most universal and the most challenging.  If logic can be applied effectively to something as complexly human as morality, we should be able to apply it—along with relevant knowledge—to any issue that stands to benefit from organized thinking, from homemaking to medicine, from game playing to criminology, from household plumbing to rocket science.

            This exercise is intended to demonstrate the usefulness of logical thinking about issues of everyday importance to virtually everyone.  Why ethics?  Think about it:  We’d be hard pressed to propose a topic of more universal and fundamental concern than morality and ethics, which are key to living in harmony with others of our species.  As with any real-life experience, in this exercise there's no instruction manual, no prepared checklist, no flow chart, no formal evaluation, no answer sheet.  You’re presented with an idea, and until you've read and analyzed it, you have no idea whether it's rational or irrational, true or false, beneficial or harmful.  You’re on your own as to how you evaluate it, apply it, adapt it, or reject it.  Use whatever logical tools you find useful to perform your analysis.  Take notes if you like, but also take care not to distort ideas or take them out of context.  Examine evidence, rate the credibility of assumptions, critique the logical progression of connected ideas, and judge the clarity and relevance of premises to the various points in question.

            The description and explanation of the ethic's structure, function, and purpose span several pages; but don't let that discourage you.  For, unlike many such works, it's written in a conversational style.  Jargon is avoided; non-standard terms are defined in plain language; and the argument is organized in an orderly sequence.  So, it shouldn’t be too difficult to follow the progression of ideas, and to observe whether it consistently exhibits good  critical thinking or has troublesome lapses of logic.  Reading carefully, you should be able to identify and analyze the various relationships in the text in terms of the basic AND, OR, IF, IFF, and NOT structures discussed in the symbolic logic lesson, as well as the structure of interconnected terms studied in the lesson on categorical logic.  You can trace the various threads of reasoning from initial premises to their conclusions, and then observe how the individual threads combine to form the fabric of the ethic.  If there are flaws in the reasoning, you should be able to identify them as specific fallacies, or at least as errors of one of the four general types we've studied.

            But before we begin, please take note of the following points:

First, the ethic is a serious endeavor in itself.  It is not an idle exercise in abstract reasoning, but rather a practical approach to dealing with moral issues in the real world.  Most of the material here is copied directly from my paper "Developing a Rational Ethic" (written 2011, revised 2013).  Even readers with little grasp of logic will likely find in the ethic interesting and helpful ideas that can be put to practical use in day-to-day decision-making, with or without critical analysis.

Second, however, a comprehensive understanding of rational ethics requires an ability to think rationally—which is to say, logically—which in turn is to say, clearly, coherently, consistently, and corresponding to available evidence (in contrast to merely conforming to the far weaker standards of existing opinion, belief, or tradition).  Thus, to obtain maximum benefit from this work, to be able to evaluate it intelligently, one must have a working acquaintance with basic principles of logic: how to use it correctly and consistently, how to identify fallacious ideas, and how to distinguish logic from rhetoric and other less rigorous forms of thinking.

Third, understand that, as the author of this ethic, I make no claim that the reasoning in this exercise is air-tight.  It is, after all, a work in progress, and will likely remain so for some time.  While most of the reasoning conforms to good logical practice, the astute reader might find some instances in which the train of thought isn’t tightly coherent, some assumptions aren’t robustly supported, and perhaps some confusing points that could be interpreted in different ways.  However, simply disagreeing with the ideas presented isn’t enough to count as proficiency in clear thinking.  To be credible as a critic, you must able to identify any reasoning errors you encounter, and should be able to specify each error at least as to which of the four general categories of fallacies it represents.  If you can do that, then you’re to be congratulated on your mastery of critical reading skills!  And if, further, you can explain what impact any errors have on the conclusions of the work as a whole, you can lay claim to analytical ability as well.

Fourth, I do not intend to imply that rational ethics are categorically superior to traditional morality.  I do, however, point out what I consider the practical advantages and disadvantages of each, and encourage you to develop your own conclusions, based on a fair reading of the material and compared to whatever system of morality with which you’re already familiar.  You might discover some helpful ideas you could adopt and adapt.  Or you might discover that you’re already using some of the concepts described here, to supplement a traditional moral code in the modern era.  But even if you disagree entirely with rational ethics, you’ll at least have observed the sort of reasoning that goes into such a system, and thus acquire an appreciation for the useful potential of methodical reasoning, not just in mathematics and science, but as applied to everyday practical concerns of ordinary people.

Next: What Ethics Is & Why We Need It