15 Dec 201
13 May 2013

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


Testing the Theory

            Empiricist philosopher David Hume observed that a should can never be deduced from an is.  By this, he meant that human values are products of human thought, and are always based on assumptions; values cannot be logically derived solely from fact.  However, having once decided upon a value, whether arbitrarily or through thoughtful expectation of its consequences, we can empirically observe whether indeed a certain behavior tends to promote or detract from that chosen value.  Here’s one of the great advantages of approaching ethics from a critically rational standpoint guided by evidence: By understanding what goes into our ethical system and how it’s supposed to work, we’re prepared to test it in action against the standards we’ve defined for it.  Once a moral problem has been identified, a solution worked out, and a hopefully appropriate action taken, we can then observe the results, to discern whether in fact the actual consequences are in accord with some specific objective, such as our core value.  In other words, we can advance ethics to a quasi-scientific level, by using empirical evidence (a specific action and its observed results) to learn whether a hypothesis (our reasoned expectation that the action should have beneficial effects with respect to our core value) is either supported or refuted.  Likewise, in some instances we can use evidence of behavior, either from public records or from history, similar to the issues we’re investigating, in order to formulate a critical judgment about whether or not this behavior’s recorded effects correspond to what our theories predict.

            The thing to keep in mind here is that we must consider all relevant evidence, not just the bits of it that appear to support our hypothesis while ignoring anything that conflicts with it.  And for this we must consider again the entire range of possible effects.  For example, if we’ve assumed that the action would have no significant effects beyond the sphere of self and family, then we must consider whether in fact the action has produced unanticipated effects, not only at these personal levels, but on broader scales of community, nation, species, or planet.  Does an action in fact enhance or impair the functioning of society?  Does it unjustly encroach upon the legitimate rights of others?  Does it set an example, either good or bad, that others might be inclined to emulate?  Is it at all likely to have some lingering effect on posterity?  And even if an action’s effects appear negligible when it’s performed by only a single individual, would its effects be a matter of concern if the action were to become more generally practiced?  For example, if one person in town routinely burns household refuse in his backyard, that might be a matter of little concern so long as his immediate neighbors don’t object; but if everyone in town decides to follow his example, this could very well create a local health hazard, and an annoyance to communities downwind.  Thus, we reason that refuse burning in residential areas is a potentially harmful practice to be avoided.

            We must cultivate the habit of being brutally frank with ourselves about the answers to such questions.

We must always keep in mind that the true objective of empirical investigation is not to confirm our assumptions, but rather to grasp the truth of  evidence and its real implications, as nearly as we can honestly ascertain them.  Success is measured in how accurately we shape our thoughts to correspond to immutable reality, not in creating a pleasant illusion that reality must correspond to our suppositions.  Illusion is our adversary, not our ally.

If earnest and thorough observation and review do indeed support our assumptions, that’s obviously a happy outcome.  However, if they don’t, but we can still confront and deal with this unexpected truth honestly, that’s also a happy outcome, for we’ll have learned something worthwhile in the process, and have unburdened ourselves of an erroneous assumption.  We can use what we learn to further our true objective, which is to bring our thoughts and actions into closer accord with verifiable reality, and thus to alleviate or avoid future difficulties that would otherwise ensue from a festering disparity between belief and reality.

            Ethics needn’t be a guessing game of conscience, or blind obedience to authority.  Approached in a methodically investigative fashion, the empirical effects of a well structured ethic can actually be observed to determine whether or not there’s a consistent correlation between hypothesis and reality.  If there is, and if other observers acting independently attain similar results, and if no significant and unexplained discrepancies are encountered, then we could be justified in escalating the status of the hypothesis to that of a genuine theory.  Or if not, then we have reason to revise or replace the hypothesis and try again.  Approached correctly, it’s a win-win proposition.  In either case, we move forward incrementally on the basis of what we’ve learned.  This is how scientists—and other earnestly curious people—measure success: by what they learn about reality by investigating it, not by whether they can prove their hypotheses.  Granted, unlike physicists and chemists, ethicists can’t manipulate and measure exact quantities of matter and energy.  But like psychologists, ethicists can often evaluate the statistical results of observed social phenomena with a fair degree of precision.  Over time, this moves ethics—like primitive astrology toward modern astronomy, ancient alchemy toward current chemistry, and natural philosophy toward nuclear physics—out of the murky guesswork of mystical arts and toward the self-testing realm of science.  Whether ethics will ever attain the status of a true science remains to be seen; but even the prospect is exciting.  And in the meantime, we can take advantage of the steps already taken, to make our own ethics more reliable and consistent with actual experience.

Next: Wrap-up