K 2. E T H I C S
is a branch of philosophy concerned with moral problems and judgments. The terms
ethical and moral are sometimes used interchangeably. Ethics has to do with
what is morally right or wrong, morally good or bad, and with what we ought
or ought not to do. It applies to people, their motives, their actions, and
There are specific and general moral judgments:
Specific: What he did was wrong, and, he ought not to do that.
General: Lying is wrong, and, people ought to keep their promises.
These judgments need to be distinguished from nonmoral normative judgments (or value judgments) that relate to things: that is a good car. And there are nonmoral judgments of ought: you ought to buy a new suit.
Cultures always provide a set of mores, ethical or moral rules people in the culture are obliged to follow. Some are enacted into law, but others are not. Growing up in a specific culture each individual normally internalizes these in their own individual conscience. But cultures change over time.
Many things can lead individuals to question some of the inherited rules. A fundamental questioning by anyone can lead to the notion that ethics are entirely subjective--each one can draw up their own rules, or indeed follow none at all.
Or it can lead to a rational effort to decide what rules have a justifiable or satisfactory basis and which do not.
It should be obvious to any thinking person who has knowledge of more than one culture that one cannot take the position that whatever is culturally required is right, anymore than one can take the position that might really makes right. It may be that evolution favors some and disfavors other elements of cultures, but as long as the majority of important cultural rules have survival value, a people may survive despite some rules that evolution would disfavor. Survival of the fittest does not suffice to validate all individual cultural rules. Since surviving cultural rules conflict, they may be judged. The question is how should they be judged. On what grounds can we judge individual moral rules whether found in some culture or proposed as better rules? This is a meta-ethics question.
The meta-ethics question is for many people answered by their religion. The moral rules were handed down to them by their God. It is not theirs to question why. Indeed that is sacrilegious, wicked to question it. The problem with this, as others see it, is that religions also differ among cultures. Any anyone familiar with different religions can readily see that every religion has incorporated various elements of their culture into their religious beliefs as though these were also dictated by their God, whereas they were merely current cultural phenomena that changed over time as the culture changed.
Those who resist efforts to get down to non-cultural elements of a religion quote their bibles as the revealed words of God. They forget that it was not god but human hands that actually wrote the bibles of different religions. The words they wrote they claim were inspired by God or even revealed to them. But they fail to realize that the human mind is fallible, and everything goes through the mind of a human before it can be written down. Lawyers find people who were eye witnesses of a wreck who testify under oath as to what they actually saw happen, but they testify to seeing opposite things happen. One or the other or both are simply wrong, because it is impossible that both are right. The human mind is fallible even with respect to what it sees, let alone with respect to what it thinks God said. There are people who do terrible things who testify that God ordered them to do it. There are people who think they are Jesus Christ. We simply have to recognize that the human mind is often mistaken as to what they were told by God. Everything is a human minds conception of what happened or a human minds interpretation of what God ordered them to do or told them.
What then is a reliable authority if even religions differ about all sorts of important matters? This is a general question to which the answer is necessarily less than satisfactory to people who want absolute certainty. There is no absolute authority of which we can be certain. The best we can do is to see how much consensus there is among human minds that have freed themselves of the cultural biases that might otherwise unduly influence them. To be sure, that might also be wrong, but there is no way of proving it to be so, although a later similar consensus might be that it appeared to be wrong in the light of further evidence or later events. This authority problem is part of the human condition. As in science, every conclusion is or should be taken to be the best we know now on the basis of the evidence we have, but everything is and should be subject to later and more complete evidence as well.
So what can we now say about different ethical views that philosophers have put forth or debated, with or without religious background? First we must make the distinction between teleological ethical theories and deontological theories.
For the former, the morally goodness of an action depends upon the goodness of its consequences. That requires an independent judgment of the goodness of those consequences. Ethical egoism judges only whether the results are good for the individual, while utilitarianism judges by whether the results produce the greatest good for society.
An act-deontological theory would say that in a particular situation there is just one right thing to do (not dependent on the outcome). A rule deontologist would say that regardless of the situation, certain things are the only right things to do.
Now to expand on the above.
Ethical egoism is usually based upon the psychological proposition that it is human nature to be selfish. And of course it is so, at least to some degree. Perhaps degrees matter, but I pass over that.
Hedonism viewed life simply as the maximization of the excess of pleasure over pain pain for the individual. Economists were charged for a time with being hedonists. No doubt people desire to maximize the excess of pleasure over pain, but that is a very superficial view of all that life is about. All life is not simply reducible to that. Economists successfully shed all attachment to simple hedonism.
But it can be argued that ethical egoism reduces ethics simply to prudence. We do whatever is prudent--it benefits us. That is all that is necessary to be ethical, according to this view of ethics. Those who want us to do something different, claiming it to be more ethical in the situation, are asking us to make a sacrifice. Perhaps it clarifies things to distinguish mere prudence from ethical behavior. Or perhaps we should say that sometimes what would be called ethical behavior is also prudent because it pays. But sometimes what would be considered to be ethical behavior does not pay. That is when ones real ethical stance is called into play.
Even when we seem to be unselfish, not to be prudently selfish, the argument of the ethical egoist is that we think we really gain by being unselfish. Etzioni deal with this adequately.
I want to bring in two additional considerations.
First I call the ethical egoist position the smart guy ethic. It seeks to get the greatest gain for the individual at the smallest cost to that individual in every aspect of life. At work, do only what you have to do to to get the pay check, or to get the promotion. In a marriage, get the most possible out of it while giving only what is necessary to do that. Use friends the same way--get what you can and give only what one must. This is a way to destroy marriages and friendship and reduce economic productivity. This is the most subversive social doctrine possible. It destroys every social relationship--once people realize they are being exploited the potentiality of the relationship ends, and any new relationship is less fruitful.
The other thing that needs to be said is that very few if any people are concerned only to maximize net profit for themselves as simply individual bodies. Sociologists used to speak of our social selves. We normally care for our families and for at least some personal friends. We do not try to exploit them but want their well-being also. For many people their social selves include their ethnic group, perhaps their union, perhaps those who share a cause they deem very important, for some even their nation, as witness those who willingly sacrifice their lives for their nation. Indeed it is our value commitments that are part of our social selves and for which we are egoistic and selfish. To be sure, ordinarily the concern for all other parts of our social selves diminishes slowly the further they are geographically or psychologically from us. But all this gives a different picture of the normal human egoism. This is not a matter of our unselfishness but of our normal selfishness for others and for our value commitments.
This is the normal human motivation that should be assumed in economics as it considers the implications of lower and higher ethics on the economy. Hitherto economics has not had a neutral ethical effect despite its purported desire to be ethically neutral. It has treated as rational only the maximization of individual gain and the maximization of business profit without ethical considerations, and hence in effect it has preached a smart guy ethic in advocating efficiency (a maximizing concept for the individual economic unit) as the value to which it is unequivocally committed. It thinks it has shown that individual maximization is also social maximization, but it has yet a long way to go to deal with all the difficulties in such an equivalence. The most obvious difficulty has been alluded to above in showing that the smart guy ethic reduces economic productivity as well as being subversive of all social relationships.
Utilitarianism underlay much of the early economics that rejected simple hedonism. Economists were concerned about policies that produced the greatest excess of good over evil, or net benefit, for the entire country. It is too bad that they did not stick to that all the time even when they rejected also the concept of utility as providing the best index of benefit. They still think they can stick to that even when they proclaim that it is achieved by maximizing individual gain--despite plenty of evidence of frequent conflict. But there is the further difficulty, as the ethical philosophers pointed out, that the net benefit total might be maximized but the distribution of that net benefit might be quite unjust.
But justice is a deontological concept. It is argued that justice ought to be done, just because it is a vital ethical principle that carries its own weight, even at some net cost in terms of the total benefits achievable.
So we have two principles, justice and net benefit to try to balance, since neither one alone is defensible without attention to the other.
But justice is itself a difficult concept that requires analysis. It is claimed that justice applies not only to distribution of net benefits, but to the distribution of both benefits and harms. Indeed it is sometimes said that if some harm is unavoidable, justice requires harm to be distributed according to relative abilities to accommodate to and to bear the harm. Accordingly benefits should be distributed according to the relative need for such benefits. This has a direct applicability in the field of government taxation and subsidies.
Historically different ideas have been supported as the way to do justice in dealing with people: (1) according to their merit or deservingness, (2) by treating them as equals for most purposes, or (3) according to some other principle.
(1) Quite different bases for deservingness or merit have been important historically. The social class of birth was long considered to be the proper basis for distributing societys opportunities and goods.
Socio-economic class, not class of birth, still is widely accepted in fact. Ability is also often cited as a proper basis for economic reward. But this is a matter of society continuing to reward throughout their lifetimes those whom nature originally rewarded most to begin life.
What people made of their abilities or of their potential is a better basis.
Effort is still another basis.
The older philosophers would have said that virtue had the highest claims.
Some say social contribution is the proper basis, whatever it may be that underlies different contributions. One problem is how some social contributions can be either measured or rewarded in the contributors lifetime. Think of important inventors, or of those making important medical discoveries.
(2) Despite the range of inequalities among humans, the democratic principle is that people should be treated as equals in some respects: be treated as equals before the law, given equal right to vote, etc.
(3) A principle that is presumably applied within each family is said to have somewhat wider applicability: from each according to their ability and to each according to their need.
Historically the dawn of civilization might be said to have been reached with the dawn of the conception of human rights and responsibilities embodied in a concept of justice. Civilization progressed as those concepts were widened and more broadly applied. A true civilization will only be achieved as the concepts are fully developed and applied by human society.
As society continuously changes and creates ever new problems while hopefully trying to deal well with them, there will always be some things considered unjust and in need of correcting. So injustice will be a perennial problem, but that does not mean that the injustices of any given time should be ignored. There is a perennial task and obligation when there is a perennial problem.
In conclusion of this discussion of ethics, I propose to take the discussion to another level, but start by returning to consequences. Injustices do have consequences. That are not always visible to the economist or indeed to anyone who cannot see what they do to both perpetrators and victims, even when both accept the situation as just.
What I am suggesting is that there is indeed an objective basis for all ethics in terms of total consequences. We are free individually and socially to do anything we can do, though the nature of reality limits what we can do to some extent. It also determines the consequences of whatever it is that we actually do. Start from the simplest and most obvious. We can jump from a great height, but we cannot determine the consequences. Ordinarily if nothing interferes, gravity will make us hit the bottom with enough force to kill us. Next, we can eat anything we want, but nature determines whether it will contribute to our health or not. Nutritionists have learned some things by which we may guide ourselves a little better in our choice of diets, although they realize they do not know enough in general, let alone to take account of all individual differences. We know, even if we do not talk about it much, that if we do some things in our interpersonal relationships, the consequences will not be what we want them to be, but will worsen. We have enough history to know that if nations want peace with their neighbors, their choices of behavior toward their nations are important; for although they are free to do anything they can do, the consequences of what they do depend on realities that they do not know enough about and that they cannot control. We live in a world in which we have much freedom of action, but no freedom whatsoever to determine consequences whether in biology, or physics, or chemistry, or human interpersonal relations, or in relations among groups or in relations among nations. Unfortunately we do not know enough about human interactions as we do about chemical interactions. They are infinitely more complicated, but the only control we have is over our own actions in either case, not over their consequences. To get as close to the results we want from our actions as we can, there is absolutely no substitute for learning as much as we can about the nature of reality at all levels and harmonizing our behavior with the nature of complex reality. If we have want results that are sensible, there is an objective ethic dictated to us by reality, and that ethic at the same time embraces both teleological and deontological principles that are not in conflict.