15 Dec 201
11 May 2013

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


Getting Specific

            So far, we’ve been speaking in generalities.  We’re now ready to consider some examples to connect our theorizing to the real world.  Despite that we might already have clear notions—for example, that honesty is good and that stealing is bad—simply relying on authority to tell us which actions are always good and which are always bad isn’t enough in a real world where issues are often complex and values come into conflict.  Today’s world of science, industry, and democracy has long since replaced institutions of superstition, slavery, and monarchy, which formed the framework of traditional moralities of the Bronze and Iron Ages.  As we’ll see, a traditional deontological view of morality exhibited some problems even in past ages, and these problems multiply as rigid moralities become increasingly out of step with accumulating knowledge, advancing technology, and social reform.

Assorted virtues
            Let’s consider some behaviors commonly viewed as virtues.  We’ll begin by setting aside existing moral judgments about them.  We’ll then see if we can determine whether these behaviors are good, bad, or neutral, not according to authority or vague feelings of conscience, but with respect to our well defined core value of human well-being—that is, whether behaviors tend to promote the core value or endanger it, or else have no significant effect on it.

Honesty:  As we’ve already noted, humans are social creatures.  Their well-being depends greatly on the society of which they’re a part.  Society tends to function most efficiently and productively in an atmosphere of trust—not blind trust, which leads fools to their downfall, but trust that’s earned and deserved by those who cultivate the habit and reputation of speaking truthfully and dealing fairly with others, even when this might be contrary to their own immediate interests.  We can make better choices when we have accurate information at hand, and when we don’t have to sift through a stack of distortions and lies to find it.  The more accurate and complete the information we have to work with, the more easily and quickly our problems can be identified and solved, with less waste and frustration.  Fair wages are offered for a fair day’s work.  Fair transactions can be negotiated with a minimum of red tape.  Fair contracts can be drawn without obscure provisions hidden in fine print and footnotes.  Even stress levels are lower when we don’t feel compelled to second-guess others at every turn.
            In a society that doesn’t value honesty, much energy is devoted to scheming to gain something that one hasn’t actually earned through productive labor, and to secure what one has legitimately acquired against the schemes of others.  People are confused about what to believe, and incentive to produce is diminished, for people have no reasonable expectation of being able to enjoy the full fruits of their own labor, and whatever measure of enjoyment they do have is diminished by the necessity of having to be constantly on guard.  Thus, we can see that honesty is generally a good thing that contributes to human well-being.
            However, we’d be foolish to treat honesty as if it were an absolute good, and dishonesty as if it were always an unforgivable evil.  Suppose, for example, that a resident of German-occupied Amsterdam in the early 1940s is asked by a Nazi officer where any local Jews are hiding.  Even though the resident knows the answer, he feigns ignorance, or gives a misleading answer, because he knows that the well-being of many innocent people would be in peril if he were to tell the truth.  But the situation needn’t be this extreme to warrant an exception to the rule.  We might choose to tell our elderly aunt how nice she looks, even when at her best she resembles a painted corpse.  If we expect that our frank opinion of her appearance would result only in hurt feelings and no improvement, and if a small lie on that score wouldn’t damage our reputation for honesty generally, then things might work out better for all concerned if we allow diplomacy to trump honesty in this case.  So, we’d do well to consider honesty our rule in the vast majority of cases, but we should be alert for situations in which the rule ought to be sidestepped in the interest of the greater good.  We could say that discretion is the better part, not only of valor, but also of social harmony.

Loyalty is generally good, because it enhances trust and inspires respect, makes society more stable, and makes it easier for people to act as a unit in times of crisis.  Like trust and respect, loyalty can’t simply be demanded; it must be earned, both initially and on an ongoing basis.  But many people can be misled into confusing charisma with virtue, and fear with respect, and may be inclined to feel their loyalty has been earned when in fact it has only been elicited by charm or threats.  Many charismatic but misguided, incompetent, unscrupulous, or even psychotic people, and many appealing but incoherent or even fantastic notions, have enjoyed the fanatically unquestioning loyalty of their followers, and the results have sometimes been catastrophic on a grand scale.  Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, Genghis Khan, the Spanish Inquisition, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Ku Klux Klan, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph McCarthy, Mao Zedong, David Koresh, Osama bin Laden.  We need to be cautious as to which people and ideals we choose to lend our loyalty.  We must in each case consider whether our loyalty to someone or to something is in accord with our core value, reevaluate that loyalty from time to time in light of new evidence, and be ready to renounce it if we find it is abused and no longer deserved.

Courage is the overcoming of the instinct of fear, to act against one’s own immediate well-being in the hope of advancing the long term well-being, whether one’s own or others’.  Thus, it must be considered in the context of its overall potential for good.  If there’s a good to be achieved that is clearly worth the risk, then accepting the risk to achieve the good is what we call courage.  But if the risk outweighs any good that might plausibly be achieved—for example, bravado and taking dares—then acting on such shallow motives is not courage, but plain foolishness.  It puts us (and sometimes others) at risk for no good purpose, and is thus in conflict with the promotion of well-being.  Failure to exhibit courage in time of genuine need can open us to charges of cowardice; but if we simply decline to take a foolish dare, this is not cowardice, but clear and purposeful thinking, and there’s no shame or vice in this.  The only shame is the stupidity of those who can't tell the difference.

            We can do the same for other common virtues, such as ambition, charity (generosity), fidelity, industriousness, modesty, sobriety, thrift, and tolerance.  In many cases, we’ll get similar results—in general accord with traditional morality, but with clear exceptions.  It shouldn’t surprise us that a rational approach often reaffirms tradition.  After all, for society to have survived for thousands of years, people had to be making some successful decisions about ethics—even if they sometimes might have done the right thing for the wrong reason.  In other cases, however, such as faith and piety, we’d be hard-pressed to identify a clear benefit to human well-being.  That’s because these values apply specifically to religious practice, and as such have a connection to well-being only in the sense that their objective is to obtain divine blessing or a happy afterlife; so, these have meaning only to those who subscribe to belief in such things.  Believers are free to add such behaviors to their personal moral “to do” lists, but it’s unreasonable to expect people who don’t share such beliefs to accept these as virtues.  Similarly, some religious people refuse to accept religious tolerance as a virtue, because they view beliefs and practices different from their own as universally immoral.  And since there are some such people in each of the major religions (and even among secularists), each wishing to impose their views upon all others, and each viewing themselves as virtuous and others as consumed by evil, we see that the situation results in a stand-off.  What to do about it?  The only effective solutions would seem to involve either segregation of intolerant groups, or else imposition of strict civil codes prohibiting and punishing any form of interaction that would be harmful to society.

Vices—the seven deadly sins
Now that we’ve examined the likely consequences of a few virtues, let’s consider some common vices.  Christian tradition provides a handy list of “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.  We can divide these into two groups: behaviors having distinct consequences of their own—wrath, sloth, pride, and gluttony—and cravings whose consequences are indirect, and depend on the way we choose to deal with those cravings—greed, lust, and envy.  Within the first category, we can re-sequence them in ascending order of their typical social consequences: sloth, gluttony, pride, and wrath.

Sloth is a sin of omission rather than commission.  More carefully defined, sloth is a failure to employ one’s natural or acquired knowledge and skills to some beneficial end.  The constructive use of knowledge and skills benefits society, and so by the same reasoning the withholding or misuse of such knowledge and skills is correspondingly detrimental to society.

Gluttony still has the general meaning today that the medieval churchmen gave it: the excessive consumption of food and drink.  In medieval times and in other situations of scarcity, gluttony by some could deplete limited resources to the point that others would become malnourished or even starve.  Gluttony can also have adverse effects on the glutton himself, ruining his health or depleting his wealth.  When this happens, he becomes a burden on the rest of society.

Pride—not the good sort we feel about ourselves when we’ve accomplished something admirable, but rather the sort that takes the form of arrogance, the contempt and abuse of others one assumes to be inferior to oneself—gives rise to a number of social ills.  It often manifests itself as an assumption of unfair privilege, of exemption from the rules that apply to everyone else.  The arrogant person considers common responsibility beneath his presumed dignity, demands special treatment at the expense of others, and thus becomes a social parasite, not only an irritation to, but also a burden on, the rest of society.  Such behavior is an obvious source of social friction, pitting the prideful one and the rest of society against each other.  And if this arrogance occupies some position of political power, such friction has been known to provoke rebellion on numerous occasions.

Wrath is a destructive response to anger, typically expressed as vengeance, as opposed to justice.  Justice is systematic.  It identifies a specific offense, an offender, and a victim.  It prescribes a measured restitution to the victim (or his survivors) and an appropriate penalty against the offender.  In contrast, vengeance often operates blindly.  In citing an offense, it often inflates a relatively minor, perhaps unintentional or even imagined slight out of all proportion to the actual event.  Even when it has grounds for complaint, vengeance may fail to identify a particular perpetrator, and instead scapegoat and retaliate against an entire family or group of innocents.  This, of course, provokes a countermove by the victims of the vengeance, and, if no one intervenes, the process escalates back and forth, until one or both sides in the dispute are annihilated, or until the conflict spreads to the rest of society and consumes it.

            The other three so-called deadly sins—greed, envy, and lust—are cravings.  In themselves, cravings do not constitute actions of material consequence.  They're natural urges; they might be denied, but they can't be avoided.  It's what one does about them that matters morally.  Apart from their internal effects on the minds and emotions of those who experience them, the consequences of these vices are indirect, and may be either positive or negative, depending on the choices one makes in responding to them.

Greed is a craving to possess more of something than is necessary.  Everyone knows greed is bad—right?  But is what everyone knows an accurate view of reality?  Greed is a natural craving to improve our material well-being by laying in stores of things (especially money or other forms of wealth, which can be used to acquire other things).  The moral problem is not greed itself, but rather what we do about it.  If the urge prompts us to steal what we want, then the victim of the theft is harmed; moreover, the cumulative harm of multiple acts of stealing percolates through society, and correspondingly erodes society’s ability to benefit us.  But if greed prompts us instead to work harder and longer in order to earn more money to buy what we want, then the additional production benefits our business and its customers in addition to pumping up our own paycheck.  Or if it prompts us to invest in business with the aim of earning a profit, our investment enables the business to make capital improvements that allow it to become both more productive and more efficient.  Greed is a motivator; it can be used for bad or for good.  It’s the driving force underlying the capitalist free-market system.  When greed serves as an incentive to do something that benefits society, we can hardly call it a vice in any practical sense, no matter the judgments of archaic tradition.  And the same kind of reasoning applies to the other so-called sins of craving.

Envy is a variant of greed; it’s a craving for some specific thing that someone else possesses.  It might be a material item, a position of power and influence, or anything else whose ownership could by some means be transferred from that person to ourselves.  Again, one might try to steal a material object, or one might try to assassinate someone in power in the hope of being able to take over his position.  Or again, one might instead work harder to earn the material object (or one like it), or compete fairly to win the position of power from the incumbent.  Like greed, envy is neither harmful nor beneficial in itself; whether it leads to virtue or to vice depends on how we choose to respond to the craving.

Lust is yet another craving.  Some cultures teach that lust is something inherently dirty and shameful.  Yet it’s a natural, instinctive desire that causes us to perpetuate our species; without lust, we’d generate no offspring, and thus become extinct.  So obviously, lust has some positive effect on human well-being, and thus it’s unreasonable to categorize it as a vice in itself.  Once again, whether the craving leads to vice or to virtue depends on the way we choose to satisfy it, and in that deliberate choice, not in the mere craving, lies the moral issue.  Committing rape obviously harms the victim; adultery could endanger a marriage; incaution could risk an unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of disease.  On the other hand, sexual intercourse, in private with a willing, healthy, adult partner, and using whatever precautions are appropriate, can be a most gratifying experience of sharing intimate joy, and perhaps of giving rise to a new life.  Once again, for the reasoning person the virtue or vice is not in the craving itself, but in the choice of response to the craving.

            Surely, we can grant that the churchmen who compiled this list meant well, that they intended to promote a moral guidance system relevant to their era, yet simple enough to be memorized by a largely illiterate audience.  But in three instances out of seven, these learned men made the error of confusing natural cravings with the negative acts to which they sometimes give rise, and chose to ignore the good that a natural craving produces when responded to in a positive manner.  It would be as if, rather than identifying gluttony as a sin, they’d laid the blame instead on the craving that leads to it: hunger; or if they’d vilified ambition instead of arrogant pride.  Ironically, the medieval priesthood prided itself on its use of logic, but often got it wrong because their aim was more to promote a dogma than to seek truth.  This shows why it’s a good idea for us to apply up-to-date evidence and disciplined reasoning to ideas that have been around a long time, especially ideas we’ve traditionally assumed to be true beyond question.  If an idea is indeed true, then it should be able to withstand critical scrutiny.  If it can’t, then we’re better off revising, replacing, or retiring it.  If our true objective is to find real solutions to real problems, then we’d be unwise to rely on flawed reasoning and a knowledge base of fiction and myth.

Next: An Example of In-depth Analysis