15 Dec 201
13 May 2013

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


Simplifying the Process

            As we reason our way through a variety of examples, it might appear that the process is too cumbersome to be put to practical use for everyday problems.  We don’t want to find ourselves in the position of having to work at length through a life-or-death problem when we need an immediate solution.  As it turns out, the process can be vastly simplified.  However, simplifying any system without compromising its benefits or creating problems requires preparation, practice, and enough familiarity to appreciate and retain the advantages of the full system in its streamlined version.

            A rational ethic offers the flexibility to tailor a solution to a particular problem.  But after several passes through an initial “set-up” stage of the ethic, we’ll have identified the most common behaviors and classified them according to our core value.  In essence, we’ll have created a general list of dos and don’ts—much like a traditional list of maxims or “commandments,” except that these have been developed through methodical reasoning, not imposed by authority.  Our established list of responses then serves as a reliable guide in ordinary situations.  Such a list forms the basis of what’s called a rule ethic, which affords us the convenience, in most cases, of governing our behavior by pre-established standards.  The availability of the two forms of ethics—a fully reasoned act ethic (which enables us to deal rationally with specific acts in specific situations and with specific complications), and a general rule ethic that applies in ordinary situations—constitutes what’s commonly called a two-level ethic.1  But since we already use the term level to identify the scope of our focus, it would be less confusing for us to call the act-or-rule option a mode instead; thus we have a two-mode (or bimodal) ethic with multiple levels.

            Well, then, why should we go out of our way to pursue the more laborious method, if most of the time it produces results similar to traditional morality?  There are good reasons for investing the time and effort to understand and practice the method.

            First, we occasionally find that some idea in traditional morality doesn’t make sense, that it’s irrelevant (or even counterproductive) in the current environment, or inadequate to address issues that have arisen in the modern era.  For example, the dramatic increase in life expectancy is grounds for many to rethink traditional attitudes toward the permanence of marriage: A century or more ago, when average life expectancy was little more than fifty years, it was commonplace for married couples to spend thirty of those years in a reasonably comfortable union.  But is it realistic to expect an average couple to live happily and harmoniously together for twice that span or more?  Some might make it, and they’re to be congratulated.  But a great many eventually encounter intolerable marital friction, a painful, dividing experience rather than a comforting and uniting one; the erstwhile partners become adversaries, and the relationship becomes a perpetually escalating torment.  There should be no stigma attached to divorce if it permits people to escape dysfunctional unions and to find more compatible mates.  Our methodical approach enables us to weed out or update anachronisms that we might otherwise overlook.

            Second, life sometimes throws the unexpected at us.  Sometimes we’re confronted by unique situations that no moralist has ever anticipated.  Sometimes we must make decisions, not between a good and a bad action, or even between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two bads, but among a range of choices, each of which contains a mixture of both good and bad.  War to defeat slavery and genocide, free-market economics, birth control, therapeutic abortion, compassionate euthanasia, and stem cell remedies for diabetes and Parkinson’s are but a few such issues—or opportunities—that have arisen in modern times.  Using evidence available at the time, we must rationally assess which option (or combination of options) will most likely yield the greatest good and the least harm overall.  There are no pat solutions to complex problems, but when they arise, we can use rational ethics to address them.  This is because a practical, working understanding of the hows and whys of moral judgment is central to rational ethics.  Having cultivated and used this understanding to set up the ethic, we can then use the same understanding to resolve conflicts and to adapt to unexpected situations, to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid unnecessary risks.  This ability to adapt contrasts starkly with traditionally rigid Bronze-Age moralities which, relying as they do on authoritarian dogma instead of evidence and reason, aren’t readily adaptable to a post-slavery, post-monarchic space age of democracy, science, industry, information, and global interaction.

            Third, working through ethical problems at our leisure is great practice.  It accustoms our minds to thinking through problems methodically and in terms of rationally established values, rather than reacting impulsively.  Familiarity with the method keeps us in tune with the values and the objective, even when we’re forced to take shortcuts.  If pressed to make an urgent decision, practical experience makes us habitually aware of things that are most important to consider, keeps us alert to key factors that an inexperienced person might overlook, and thus enables us to take these into account quickly, without the need to dwell over them at length.  Practice thus prepares us to apply the experience of careful observation, evidence evaluation, and sound thinking to on-the-spot resolution of problems that arise unexpectedly.

            Even so, we must be prepared to act in an emergency when necessary.  Moreover, repetitive deliberation in routine situations wastes time that could otherwise be more productively or enjoyably spent.  So, it’s also to our advantage to have a convenient set of established rules at hand; and if these rules have been formulated beforehand by methodical reason and verified by consistent experience, so much the better.  Indeed, through regular use of a rational act ethic, one tends to develop a corresponding rule ethic more-or-less from sheer habit.  (Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way around.  Habitual use of rule ethics doesn’t give rise to rational act ethics; unthinking habit is far more likely to degenerate into a static moral code.)  With all this in mind, it’s not only possible, but even advisable, to employ a bimodal system of ethics, and to be able to choose the act or rule mode as appropriate to the situation at hand.

1 Two-level or bimodal ethics have also been developed by 20th-century philosophers R.M. Hare and Peter Singer.

Next: Testing the Theory