15 Dec 201
11 May 2013

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


Applying Values

            As already noted, traditional deontological morals assign values to actions, whereas consequentialism evaluates the outcomes of actions, not the actions themselves.  The reasoning for this is that, under some circumstances, a supposed virtue can have overriding harmful effects, or a supposed vice can yield enough benefit to nullify any harm.  Put another way, consequentialist values do not derive from a list of dos and don’ts, but from an overall objective, which (if well considered) can be applied to the results of all voluntary human actions in all situations.

            A consequentialist ethic’s core value expresses its overall objective.  It serves as a steady yet adjustable reference to guide behavior and to assess its effects.  We consider the possible and probable consequences of any behavior we have in mind under the circumstances at hand, and judge whether this behavior in this situation would promote, detract from, or have no effect upon, whatever values we hold, with our core value as tie-breaker in case of conflict.

            Now, if our core value is something very direct, narrow, and simple, such as to serve our own immediate pleasure, then all we have to do is decide which available activity seems most appealing at the moment.  Go to church or go to the races, play music or play golf, eat an apple or eat ice cream, get drunk or get laid, shoot pool or shoot the neighbor’s dog, work for money or steal it—whatever comes to mind.  However, such a lax and narrow value offers little constructive guidance, and thus tends to promote degeneration of self and deterioration of prospects, rather than ability, advancement, and long-term happiness.  This is why we’ve chosen instead a more purposefully directed core value for this exercise.

            As a guide, human well-being is more demanding and more complex than self-indulgence, in that it requires thought and self-discipline, and can be broadened or narrowed to fit many contexts.  In consideration of this, it might at first seem to present a hopelessly unmanageable array of factors to track in dealing with day-to-day problems.  Yet these factors exist, whether we choose to ignore them or to consider them intelligently.  A decision made in ignorance requires less time to make, but often more time to fix the problems that result.  In most cases, a bit of intelligent consideration can save far more time—not to mention frustration, misery, and expense—than it costs.  The very purpose of adaptive context is to help us quickly identify which factors are important and relevant to any particular decision.  We can then set irrelevant issues aside and thereby simplify the problem, without losing sight of significant contingencies.  We already do this more or less instinctively.  For example, we might consider the lunchtime choice between a salad or a cheeseburger a moral decision for reasons of personal health, but we needn't worry that our decision might significantly affect the national economy or the monsoons in southern Asia.  However, the instinctive process is often impulsive and haphazard rather than methodical, and thus sometimes either overlooks key considerations, or else leads to needless worry over unrelated trifles.

            Here’s how the task can be managed effectively.  For any action we might be contemplating, let’s first consider the broadest level of human well-being’s range of interests—from self and family to species and planet—that might plausibly be affected by that action.

  • If we’re working on a major scientific breakthrough or something potentially cataclysmic, we’d first consider all conceivable global implications, present and future, of our action on our planet and species.
  • If none of our action’s implications are globe-girdling, we can consider that level irrelevant, and move on to consider the national consequences in cases involving national security, the economy, the legal system, the electoral process, interstate commerce, public safety and health, and such.
  • If there’s no reason to think there might be a significant effect at the national level, we can progressively limit our concerns to narrower levels of community—neighbors, friends, colleagues, clients, townsfolk, businesses, schools, and others with whom we routinely come into contact, whether face-to-face or via mail, phone, Internet, or other media.
  • If there are no public implications of our intended action, then we can narrow the scope even further, to family and self.

Still, it’s wise to bear in mind that even individual actions can sometimes have global implications—Isaac Newton’s applications of mathematics to physical science, Charles Darwin’s insight into the evolutionary nature of life, or Henry Ford’s use of an assembly line to mass-produce generally affordable automobiles, for example.  But unless we’re world leaders, major power brokers, or cutting-edge research scientists, in most instances our scope of personal moral concern rapidly reduces to these narrower levels of community, family, and self.  At these levels, we must ask ourselves how our behavior might affect others in these groups.  For example:  

  • Would it create a public benefit or a public nuisance? 

  • Would it be good or bad for local business and jobs? 

  • Would it be a source of delight, disgust, or danger to our neighbors? 

  • Would it set a good or bad example for impressionable children and adolescents? 

  • Would it be a source of pride and advantage, or of embarrassment and hardship, to our family?  And if the latter, would our action serve the greater, long-term good despite personal hardship?

Finally, if we’re thorough, we’ll even consider how our action might benefit or harm posterity.  After all, the well-being of our own generation has been strongly influenced, for better or for worse, by our predecessors (for instance, Carnegie’s philanthropy, the courage of civil rights activists and the determination of their opponents, or even Grandma’s fabulous recipe for rhubarb pie).  We should assume that our own actions might similarly affect future generations who must deal with the long-term consequences, good or bad.  Note that we needn’t critique each kind of behavior against the entire range of our core value, but only against the levels relevant to the behavior in question.  In most cases, this streamlines the assessment process considerably.

            Once we’ve discovered the appropriate levels on which to address an ethical problem and identified the possible and probable consequences of a specific action, we can concentrate on whether the action’s benefits to well-being at these levels of society outweigh any harmful or threatening effects.  We’re thus in a position to formulate a realistically informed and reasoned conclusion about whether we should consider the action in question “good” (mostly beneficial), “bad” (mostly harmful), or “neutral” (having no significant net effect), and thus whether or not we ought to go through with it, all pertinent factors considered.  Learning to do this consistently well requires practice.  But once we’ve gotten into the habit of glimpsing “the big picture” and reducing it to its essentials, in most instances this requires only a few moments’ thought.  Still, we shouldn’t be dismayed if a complex or unusual problem occasionally takes longer to work through.  As long as it isn’t a matter of extreme urgency, we can think of the time and effort required as a small investment that might possibly spare us (or others) a lifetime of regret.

            So, what if there’s a life-and-death situation, and there isn’t time for thoughtful consideration?  This is indeed an important issue, which we’ll address when we get to the “simplifying” stage.  But we have a bit more to do first, so we can understand exactly what it is that’s being simplified and how.

Next: Getting Specific