15 Dec 201
13 May 2013

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


Laying a Foundation

            Every rational ethic is based on some core value that’s thought to be of supreme importance.  Now, most personal ethics include many values, but it’s very useful to identify one of them to have priority over the others.  This core value is the ethic’s ultimate guide, the conflict-resolver and tie-breaker in cases where other values are found to be at odds with each other.  It’s the key element to a very important aspect of our lives, so we ought to take great care in selecting it.  Once the core value is established, we can judge whether a behavior is good, bad, or neutral, depending on whether it tends to promote that value, detract from it, or has no effect on it.

            Some of the ancient Greeks thought of virtue as the supreme value.  However, they had trouble defining to everyone’s satisfaction just what virtue is.  Aristotle proposed that to learn what virtue is, one should observe a virtuous man and learn to emulate his behavior.  But then how is one to decide upon a virtuous role model, if one initially has no clear idea what qualities would identify a man as being virtuous?  A value that can’t be clearly defined isn’t of much practical use.  We need something that can be readily identified and applied.

            Happiness has also been suggested as a value to be sought above all others.  But then the question arises:  Whose happiness?  Should we be primarily concerned with our own happiness?  With the happiness of others?  With the happiness of the greatest number?  And what do we mean by happiness anyway?  Indulgence in pleasure?  Maybe simply avoidance of pain and misery?  Or is it something that could be described as contentment, or perhaps wisdom?  The Greek philosophers conjectured that ultimate happiness is something they called eudaimonia (ευδαιμονια), the happiness of contemplating ultimate truth—whatever that might be.  The Greek thinkers were champions at answering big questions with answers that explained nothing but simply led to bigger questions.  This is fine, if all one intends to do is play idle thought games.  For something as important as ethics, though, we need something we can actually work with.

            Pleasure and avoidance of pain are certainly effective motivators.  But if the short-term pleasure of avoiding the dentist (for example) eventually results in an inflamed mouthful of rotten teeth, the long-term prospects of this behavior don’t seem very pleasant.  Perhaps we should adjust our concept of happiness to embrace something more like well-being, which would advise the endurance of whatever doses of tolerable unpleasantness or sacrifice might be required in order to maintain overall levels of health, wealth, and knowledge adequate to a satisfactory existence.

            Even most religious morality ultimately distills to this level, albeit by way of a detour through less down-to-earth territory.  Many religious people might object to this statement, arguing that they try to be moral simply for the sake of pleasing God.  But if we demand to know just why they want to please God, and if we pursue this path of inquiry to its ultimate end, in most cases it comes down to a belief that pleasing God assures one of attaining a happy afterlife, or at least of avoiding an unpleasant one.  Indeed, for affirmation of this we need simply consult the holy writings of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition (or the ancient mythologies of Greece and Egypt, for that matter), which often frame divine instructions to mortal humans in terms of reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience.  It seems assumed, even by the world’s most popular religions, that people can’t be relied on to do good just for the sake of doing good, but only in hope of reward or fear of punishment.  So, the ultimate objective is one’s personal happiness after all, even if this hoped-for gratification might be delayed until after death, and might entail a stout measure of sacrifice in the meantime.  Still, the pains of life can be tempered with the anticipation of ultimately being reunited with one’s friends, and the grim satisfaction of believing that one’s enemies will spend eternity in torment.

            Likewise, the altruist must, at some point, concede that he or she derives personal satisfaction from contributing to others’ happiness or from helping to relieve their misery—whether this satisfaction springs from the expressed personal gratitude of others, public recognition, or simply the inner gratification of anonymous acts of kindness and magnanimity.  For example, U.S. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie furnished funds to build and stock public libraries all across America.  He did so without a hope of personally making a dime on the project; even extra business sparked by public relations for U.S. Steel wouldn’t begin to pay back the investment.  Furthermore, being an atheist, Carnegie held no expectation of being rewarded after death.  We might speculate that he did it for public recognition, except that he was already a world-renowned industrialist.  But here might be a clue:  "Teach a man to be a good citizen and you have solved the problem of life," he once remarked.  Perhaps his motive was simply a hope that the project would eventually result in a wiser, more creative, more productive, more prosperous, and thus happier America for generations yet to come.

            On close analysis, it would appear that happiness plays some significant role in virtually everyone’s motivation to behave morally.  This being the case, it shouldn’t trouble or embarrass us in the least to adopt well-being, taken as a sober-minded and forward-looking form of happiness, as a demonstrably effective component of a practical, rational ethic.

            By now, it’s apparent that what we’re searching for is a worthy objective, to be the intended result of our behavior, as contrasted with blind obedience to some authority.  The branch of ethics that concerns itself with the consequences of behavior is called—appropriately enough—consequentialism.1  Being concerned with the outcomes of actions, consequentialism contrasts with deontology,2 a tenet of traditional rule-based morality that actions themselves are inherently either moral or immoral.  There are several varieties of consequentialist ethics, each reflecting concern about some practical aspect of the consequences of behavior.

            First, consider that our actions don’t always have the results we anticipate.  Should an ethic assign blame or credit for the actual consequences or for the intended consequences of an action?  Traditionally, consequentialism has tended to focus on actual results rather than intent.  But while we should try to make realistic predictions about our actions, this isn’t always easy to do, especially if circumstances are complex or unfamiliar.  We can exert control over our intentions, but outcomes are often influenced by factors outside our own will and understanding.  So, it would seem appropriate to apportion some responsibility to the intent of an action.  Perhaps we shouldn’t judge a bad outcome too harshly if it resulted from the best of intentions and was prudently thought out using available evidence.  Still, it seems reasonable for an agent to assume some measure of responsibility if the actual results of a deliberate action are different from what was intended.  Whether the actual results turn out to be better or worse than expected, we must be equally willing to accept either praise or blame.

            Then, there’s the matter of who or what is to benefit from an action.  Three of the best known types of consequentialist ethics are egoism, which concerns itself with benefit to oneself; altruism, whose aim is to benefit others; and utilitarianism, whose objective is the greatest benefit for the greatest number.  Each of these has a particular focus, and thus works better in some situations than in others.  Could there be a single objective suitable to resolve all moral questions?  Probably not a single one; but perhaps there might be a series of closely related objectives which could be selected from in order to frame any particular problem appropriately.

            Let’s propose that well-being is a prime candidate for our ethic’s core value, the intended consequence of ethical behavior.  But whose well-being?  There’s nothing wrong with starting with our own, since it’s the most directly obvious and immediately motivational.  But, having proposed this, we should take a broad view as to what actually contributes to personal well-being.  An individual’s well being is affected in various ways, not only by his own immediate state of affairs, but also by the well-being of his social and material environment: his family, his friends and colleagues, his community, his nation, his species, and his planet, including the other creatures with which he shares it.  What harms the planet threatens the things that inhabit it, including us; what benefits our species constitutes a potential benefit to every individual human; what discredits our nation discredits us as people in the eyes of the world; what brings prosperity to our community increases each family's and citizen’s chances of sharing in it; and so forth.  In other words, we ought not to look at our own well-being too narrowly, taking an unrealistic view that we’re entirely self-sufficient, that we can exploit and abuse others at will, or that we can plunder and poison the environment at our convenience, without concern for either social or material consequences.  This would be to hide our head under a blanket and pretend that everything outside doesn’t matter because we can’t see it.  For in truth, as individuals we are not self-sufficient.  Working alone, each relying solely on his or her own limited initiative, knowledge, skills, and efforts, we couldn’t hope to provide for all our own needs and wants beyond a bare subsistence level.  In today’s world, each of us is a specialist of one sort of another.  We benefit greatly from belonging to a society of diverse specialists—artists, bankers, builders, craftspeople, doctors, engineers, farmers, fishermen, miners, programmers, scientists, teachers, technicians, truckers, writers, and many others.  Each productive specialty benefits society as a whole, and thus enhances the level of benefits that society can return to each of us.

            So, it seems wise to expand our initial notion of personal well-being to include also the well-being of our social and material environments: our family, our community, our nation, our species, and the very planet and various other species on which we all rely.  For if the well-being of any of these is seriously harmed through either carelessness or misplaced priorities, then our own personal well-being (or that of our descendants) is correspondingly diminished, if not directly, then indirectly through the lingering effects on society.

            Now, in human well-being we have a core value that’s (1) self-motivating, (2) clearly defined and firmly centered to serve as a moral reference in virtually any situation, (3) yet flexible enough to adjust to a wide variety of situations and contexts, (4) and in addition, able to work in conjunction with other values whenever necessary or desirable, so long as those other values are not contrary to human well-being.  Of course, this humanistic core value isn’t the only one we might use.  However, it’s the only one (of which I’m aware) that combines and coordinates these particular advantages.  So, it’s the one I use as my personal guide, and will continue to use in this working example for the sake of convenience and clarity.

1 Consequentialist thinking dates back at least to the Classical period of ancient Greece (fifth century BCE), but its modern reincarnation is generally attributed to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose ideas contributed to the founding principles and subsequent reforms in the United States and other democracies.
2 Deontology categorically defines actions as either virtues or vices, on the assumption that the effects of virtues are always beneficial and the effects of vices are always harmful.  A deontological approach works well enough in a majority of cases, but often can't adjust to complex or unusual situations in which value conflicts arise.

Next: Applying Values