15 Dec 201
05 May 2013

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


What Ethics Is and Why We Need It

            Ethics is a form of behavior control.  Some behavior controls, such as laws, are imposed by an authority.  We, the ones whose behavior is moderated by laws, would hope that there’s good reason for each of them.  In some cases, such as driving on the proper side of the public highway, the reason is fairly obvious, since calamity is an almost inevitable result of violating the convention.  But in others, that reason remains an undisclosed and undecipherable mystery that we’re simply supposed to accept on the say-so of the authority doing the imposing and controlling.  But we’d still better go along with it, if we don’t want to end up in court, or worse.  This is the fundamental distinction between morality and ethics.  Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there is this subtle distinction:  In ethics, and especially in rational ethics, we want to be able to know and understand the justification for each standard: why complying with it is inherently beneficial, and why disobeying it poses a distinct threat of harm.  To understand these things, we need to understand what we—human beings—are, what our needs are and how we attain them, and which methods toward this end have historically succeeded and which have failed—and how and why.

            We’re human, and humans are social creatures by nature.  The specialized division of labor permitted by organized social interaction enables us to be far more productive and prosperous than would be possible if each individual had to supply all of his or her own personal needs and wants entirely through his or her own labor and ingenuity.  Even among primitive hunter-gatherers, productivity is improved if those especially good at hunting are assigned that task, while those more talented at gathering take up that occupation, and that the fruits of both fields of endeavor are shared by the entire community.  And as tasks become more complex, as with herding and agriculture, crafts and trade, defense and warfare, mining and metalworking, medicine and technology, engineering and planning, and even arts and entertainment, specialization and organization become more than just handy adjuncts to our labors.  They’re essential to creating and maintaining the social structure that makes possible the abundance and the higher standards of living to which we soon become accustomed and would be loath to do without.

            An essential part of the social organization that makes specialization possible is a set of behavioral guidelines, which form the basis of smooth and efficient interaction among farmers, cooks, toolmakers, physicians, administrators, and others.  Such guidelines form the social structure that enables and encourages specialization and interaction according to rules to which everyone presumably agrees and submits in order to obtain his or her fair share of the benefits that such a system generates.  In ancient systems, social structure typically assigned certain privileges and obligations to each level of society, the rulers and priests being the most privileged, the slave or serf labor being the most obligated, with soldiers, craftsmen, and merchants at various levels in between.  In more modern, egalitarian systems, everyone is (at least in theory) assigned the same basic privileges and obligations with respect to interpersonal behavior.  And indeed, the egalitarian way of doing things has in most ways demonstrated itself to be far superior to the ancient tiered systems, in terms not only of productivity and prosperity, but also of humanitarian well-being, justice, and happiness.  Through its innate encouragement of individual responsibility and initiative, egalitarianism has forced ancient monarchic and caste-based systems into obsolescence in the developed countries.  And their success places pressure on less developed societies to become more egalitarian in order to enjoy the benefits of cooperation and competition in the modern environment.

            The behavioral component of social structure takes a number of forms.  It might be religious morality, civil law, cultural tradition, or personal and group ethics.  Most often, it’s a combination of several or all of these, each playing a particular role in the grand scheme.  Civil law is the codified standard to which all members of a society are legally bound, under threat of penalty for failure to comply.  Cultural tradition is a non-codified norm that society assumes as a sort of collective habit, but which is often informally enforced by ostracism or various forms of discrimination.  At one time, much of religious morality was written into civil law, and thus the two were in some respects synonymous.  But with the advent of religiously pluralistic societies, religious morality has become more of a group ethic, each religious group being defined as people who share a certain set of beliefs and who subscribe to a certain view of mystical authority.  Supposedly, civil law supersedes group ethics, and so takes precedence when the ethics of different groups come into conflict.  But civil law, religious doctrine, and cultural tradition—all rule-based controls—could never anticipate and cover every possible eventuality, conflict, and combination of circumstances.

            This is why we need ethics.  Ethics, the formulation of appropriate behavior, is what fills in the gaps in law, morality, and tradition.  Indeed, because ethics is a dynamic process rather than a static list of dos and don’ts, it can even furnish a stand-alone morality—and a rationale for it—for those who lack religious belief or who don’t subscribe to the norms of the culture in which they find themselves.

Next: Laying a Foundation