Ethics

Status: DRAFT

About this article

Most of this article was written when I was very young. I wanted to "go down the rabbit hole" of ethics without first reading about it. In doing so, I wanted to come up with a framework where society could judge the ethics of a person and of an action.

Introduction

  • Why should I act ethically?
  • What do the words 'good', 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong' mean?
  • Are moral judgments universal or relative, of one kind or many kinds?
  • How we can know if something is right or wrong, if at all?

Ethics involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. It attempts to answer questions like: "is it wrong to have an abortion?".

In essence, ethics fulfills two objectives. It gives us:

  • A means to discern what is right and wrong (Descriptive, Meta, & Normative ethics)
  • A means to apply that judgement to conduct (Applied ethics)

This is not altogether different from any western legal system. There are two facets: the laws (right & wrong); and the judicial system (for example, court procedings). A legal system is really a society's moral framework, but, as rational humans, we shouldn't just rely on society to tell what is ethical.

The Four Fields of Ethics

Wikipedia details 4 fields of ethics:

  1. Meta-ethics: What does "right" even mean? This field is useful for analysing moral dilemmas. It has the ambition of providing a non-biased, scientific approach to judging inherently unjudgable situations.
  2. Descriptive ethics: What do people think is right? This is the study of people's beliefs about morality at a given time and place.
  3. Normative (prescriptive) ethics: How should people act?
  4. Applied ethics: How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?

The MACI Framework

Motivation, Action, Consequence, Impact

Consider the following

  1. What causes us to act the way we do?
  2. Can change our behaviour?
  3. Can we use our experience and reasoning to determine our own method of ethical application?

This article is focused on the first question; conduct. We are seeking to find a systematic and consistent approach on how to apply the concepts of "right" and "wrong" to conduct.

Unconscious judgement

Humans are always judging. Stopping judgement is as simple as stopping thinking. We don't necessarily need to act upon our judgements however and we certainly have it within us to modify our judgements. To do this we need to look into the typical framework of unconscious judgement and formulate our own rational ethical framework. The second goal of this article is to begin this task.

Every action is performed in the following stages:

  1. Motivation
  2. Action
  3. Consequences
  4. Impact

This level of segregation may seem pedantic but it's important to identify a major fallacy in people's unconscious judgemental behavior. Let's abbreviate the transition above to the MACI Framework and expand upon each step to ensure that it's clear.

  1. Motivation: A person's motivation or intention precludes any action and is how we decide which action we will take. Collectively a person's motivations may be labelled as their character.
  2. Action: An action is the physical manifestation of a person's motivations. Collectively, a person's actions are often defined as their behaviour.
  3. Consequences: Consequences are the effects that result from actions. Consequences always have flow-on consequences, but they may also have precluded the action that a person took. For example, if you ate bacon this morning then at some stage in the recent past a pig was killed. This might still be considered a consequence.
  4. Impact: The impact that consequences have are what humans usually (correctly) form judgements of. For example, consider climate change. Society is creating record levels of CO2, which is causing an increase in global temperatures, which is melting polar ice caps. The production of CO2 isn't necessarily worth judging - if humanity suddenly found a way to innocuously consume the excessive CO2 its production would no longer be a problem. However the impact of the increase CO2 is melting ice, which could cause the extinction of several species (ourselves included). This is worth judging.

Lack of information results in poor judgement

Humans are unconscious creatures however. People occasionally pass judgment on consequences and not impacts, and this is usually a case of having only partial information. If I tell you that a woman ran over a dog with her car, you might say "that is terrible!". If I told you it was because she was swerving to avoid a child that ran onto the street you might then say "that is lucky for the child!". We should always try to be well informed before passing judgement, and ensure we only pass judgement on impacts and never consequences.

Are we defined by our actions?

Consider the following examples:

  • A soldier defends the sovereignty and integrity of their nation. If he kills, or gets killed, is it bad?
  • A doctor pierces a body with a knife. If the patient dies, is it that also bad?

It's extremely difficult to to judge a person independently of the actions they perform; motivation is just too difficult to determine. Society likes to pick and choose when to judge a person's motivation and when to judge their actions. In the cases above, the soldier and the surgeon are (generally) praised within society, seemingly because their intentions are contrary to the consequences of their actions. Take a case of manslaughter however, where a person's intentions are also judged to be contrary to the consequences of their actions, but they are nonetheless punished (even if that punishment is reduced). What makes mansluaghter any different to the soldier above, where the soldier is intentionally trying to kill somebody? Is this reasonable or is it simply Argumentum ad populum?

Separating the actor from the action

Let's look at some other cases where motivation and consequences are misaligned:

  • A traveller accidently causes offense because of a cultural misunderstanding. Are they culpable if they simply are ignorant of the foreign customs?
  • A murderer walks into a bank and shoots 5 people. When he tries to shoot a sixth he finds his gun is out of bullets, so he leaves and the sixth victim's life is spared. Consequently, a person's life is "saved", does that make the action "good"?

These are both cases where motivation and consequence are independent. We can conclude that, in priciple, it's important to separate a person and their actions when forming moral judgements.

This important separation allows us, as ethical people, to take action even when we truly do not know the consequences of our actions; in such cases we have only our motivations to use as a moral compass.

When a person exercises unconscious judgement, they are judging a person and their actions as one. If we are to systematically argue ethics, we must separate the actor from the action. Both are open to judgement, but must be judged independently, otherwise there will be logical inconsistencies that cannot be explained without the fallacy of double-standard. We are not what we do. We are what we intend to do.

The Ethical Judgement Framework

My task is to find a reasonable means to apply judgement to conduct. Having now separated the actor from the action, I can reflect this in my original goal by redefining it: we must find a means to apply judgement to both a person's conduct and to the person themselves. This is the start of our framework.

  1. When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge the impact of the consequences
  2. When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations

Is this framework incomplete? Yes.

For example, the second rule will be difficult to consistently apply. It is extremely difficult to determine a person's motivation. To judge, and to be judged ourselves, we need to ensure that our motivations are as apparent as the impact of our actions.

But at least it gives us some fixed, logical rules upon which to test ethical situations. We can expand this list as we progress through the study of ethics.

Why should we act ethically?

WARNING: This is still in draft

Why should we act?

"Why should we act ethically?" is a pretty difficult question, so let's warm up with an easier question - "why should we act?"

When faced with a choice of how to act, we always have options. For example, If I asked you to make me a sandwhich for lunch, your options would be:

  • act one way: make the sandwhich
  • act another way: make a pizza
  • do not act: don't make anything

Although the 'do nothing' may seem like inaction, it is really just another form of action.

We can therefore answer the question "Why should we act?"

Once we are given a choice, we don't have a choice. We must act, even if that action is inaction.

Ethics is about the choosing how to act. We may not be able to choose whether to act, but we can certainly choose how to act (i.e. one of the three options in the sandwhich-making example above).

The actor and the action

The question "why should we act ethically?" is composed of a verb (the action) and a noun (the person performing the action). We can actually separate these two things an judge each of them on their ethical merit. For further clarity we can rephrase the question:

  • Why should we be ethical and (person)
  • why should we act ethically (act)

We discussed in The MACI Framework, that actions are on the path: Motivation, Action, Consequences, Impacts. We can relate our new question to this framework -

  • When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations.
  • When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge the impact of their consequences.

Society generally looks at the consequences of a person's actions and judges the person on those consequences, regardless of their motivations. This cannot be a sound framework for passing judgement; there are too many cases where the motivation and consequences are misaligned. If the consequences are unknown then an ethical person has only their motivation to use as a moral compass.

Why should we be ethical and why should we act ethically?

“Should” is always conditional. It always depends on an “if”.

  • I should stop smoking [if I want to be in better health than I am now]
  • You should clean up your toys [if you don’t want to be grounded]

Most of the time the conditional clause is omitted, and “should” is expected to stand on its own as a reason. In each case there is an action (stopping smoking), and a result which we value (health).

So let's try answer the question by splitting it in two, and then add this conditional clause:

  1. We should be ethical [if being ethically motivated is valuable]
  2. We should act ethically [if the resulting consequences are valuable]

An Ethical Judgement Framework

The purpose of the article is to discover how to judge ethical acts, starting with our previous rules:

  1. When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations
  2. When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge their consequences

Are ethics immutable and are they universal? Or are they just a measure of each individual's or society's inner belief? Sam Harris has a concept of a Moral Landscape, whereby there are many different "peaks" of wellbeing. Although I believe this is correct, I am going to posit a framework which may live in a vacuum. As you follow the causal chain of motivation and consequence, the framework will break down. Conversely, if you look at any acts or motivations in isolation, then judgement is going to be incomplete.

We can test our framework through a series of ethical dilimmas. Ponder the following examples.

The ambiguously ethical rapist

A serial rapist sees a woman walking alone at night on the street. He decides to rape her and begins stalking towards her, when all of a sudden a much more attractive woman appears. So instead he rapes her. With respect to the first woman, it seems it was ethical in choosing not to rape her. But has he acted ethically if his motivation was to go and rape the other woman?

  • As an isolated act, choosing not to rape the first woman appears ethical, the consqeuence being the first woman's continued wellbeing rather than distress. However:
  • As the rapist's motivation was to instead rape another woman, it appears he is himself an immoral person.

Can we judge a person by only the motivation of an individual act? This fits the guidelines, but they now seem incomplete. The only reason that the man did not rape the first woman was because he raped another. So although we concluded that the isolated act is moral, the man's collective actions appear not to be. Let's try expand the guidelines:

  1. When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations
  2. When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge their consequences
  3. Consequences should not be judged in isolation. An action usually have several consequences which should be judged collectively

The man who blew his nose

A man is travelling in Japan and is eating dinner with some locals. Having picked up a travelling cold, he has a blocked nose and is finding it difficult to converse. The man blows his nose and immediately notices that the local dinner guests seem offended. He assumes that it is impolite to blow your nose at the table in Japan however he did not know that until he did it. Was it unethical?

  • The man blew his nose because he wished to converse more easily. His motivation seemed ethical, so he seems like an ethical person. However:
  • Blowing his nose caused offense to the local Japanese and so the action itself appears unethical

Once again, this seems to make the guidelines incomplete. How can the man have known the offense he would cause? Let's try make a further ammendment:

  1. When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations
  2. When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge their consequences
  3. Consequences should not be judged in isolation. An action usually have several consequences which should be judged collectively
  4. Motivation is the better indicator of morality if a person is ignorant of the consequences of their actions

The reluctant carnivore

A girl watches a documentary on the cruel treatment of pigs destined for human consumption. She empathises with the pigs, however she loves eating bacon for breakfast. She decides to keep eating bacon. Is she an immoral person?

  • The act of eating the bacon seems to be immoral, but only now that the girl knows that pigs are treated poorly. When she was ignorant of this fact, eating bacon appears to be "less immoral"
  • Her motivation for eating bacon is not to cause them cruelty, it is to cause herself delicious, bacon-y pleasure.

Of course the act of eating the bacon seems immoral, but only now that the girl knows that pigs are treated poorly. When she was ignorant of this fact, eating bacon appears to be "less immoral". This situation was covered with the inclusion of guideline number 4 above. However if the girl is such a moral person, why does she continue to eat the bacon? It seems to be because she derives more pleasure from eating the bacon than from abstaining. After all, how does she know the documentary was true? She isn't directly causing harm to the pig, right? She has to eat; how can she know whether chickens are treated any better?

At first it seems like we could make an addition to the guidlines like so: "The less direct influence a person has on the consequences, the more amoral the action".

But that's not entirely true. Let's use a topical example to explore this clause: global warming. Humans and businesses are clearly contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however are each to blame equally? Although they may contribute atmospheric CO2 in different proportions, one could argue that they have equally little influence over the issue of global warming. So we have to amend the clause to reflect the impact that each person contributes. A wrothy clause may be: When a person has an only indirect influence the consequences, the moral judgement should be in proportion to their contribution to the impact of the consequences

Using this stipulation, we can say that businesses who contribute more CO2 than people have a greater moral obligation towards reducing their carbon footprint.

For additional clarity, the clause explicitly says "impact of the consequences". When we judge consequences, it is usually the impact of those consequences that we judge. For example, one consequence of increased greenhouse gases is increased global temperatures. The warming itself isn't worth judging, it is the flow-on effects (e.g. melting polar ice caps resulting in polar bear deaths).

Now we have a better framework for judging the bacon eater and the contributer to global warming. In the case of the bacon eater, what is the impact? A pig will definitely die, that is certain. But will her continued consumption cause the extinction of pigs as a species? This possibility is not even feasible; one could argue that her consumption increases the population of pigs as species due to consumer demand. However, can we say the same of global warming? It is entirely feasible, even if the possibility is remote, that global warming could cause another Ice Age, causing the extinction of a plethora of species. So the impact of contributing to global warming could be considered less ethical than eating bacon.

  1. When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations
  2. When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge their consequences
  3. Consequences should not be judged in isolation. An action usually have several consequences which should be judged collectively
  4. When a person is ignorant of the consequences of their actions, motivation is the better indicator of morality
  5. When a person has an only indirect influence the consequences, the moral judgement should be in proportion to their contribution to the impact of the consequenses

The worst best man

Brian is getting married in a few months and has asked Dave to be his best man. Brian chose to have the wedding on an island, which will be an expensive trip for Dave, too expensive for him to afford. Since Dave cannot attend the wedding, is he an immoral person?

This one is really one of the easiest to solve: The less choice a person has, the more amoral the action. Ethics is about choosing the correct path of action from the choices we have. If we cannot perform an action, the consequences of the inaction cannot be ours to bear.

  1. When judging whether a person is ethical, we must judge their motivations
  2. When judging whether an act is ethical, we must judge their consequences
  3. Consequences should not be judged in isolation. An action usually have several consequences which should be judged collectively
  4. When a person is ignorant of the consequences of their actions, motivation is the better indicator of morality
  5. When a person has an only indirect influence the consequences, the moral judgement should be in proportion to their contribution to the impact of the consequenses
  6. The less choice a person has, the more amoral the action

The healthy man and the unhealthy woman

Imagine the following people:

  • a 25 year old man chooses to get fit, by running around the block every day.
  • an elderly woman loses all her friends and family. Knowing she doesn't have a means to support herself she decides to commit suicide.

Both of these situations appear to have only personal consequences (no impact on other people), however one seems obviously more ethical than the other. Why?