In my last post, I talked about why I’m unconvinced that ethics are normative (i.e. why they don’t have universal right and wrong answers), and why I think egoism is the only reasonable foundation for any ethical system. That post was probably boring and uninteresting to most people, because most people who haven’t studied philosophy don’t care about ethics, and most people who have studied philosophy would find it painfully amateur.
I am sad that most people don’t care about ethics, though, because having a coherent ethical system is really important. Ethics are what tells us right from wrong. It’s a key ingredient in how we make decisions. Thinking about right and wrong and forming a coherent system is one of the best ways to make your life and the world better.
I. We Are Surrounded By Moral Dilemmas
Life is a series of moral dilemmas. Every day, we make decision that a different person, with different ideas of right and wrong, would make differently. Ethics aren’t just about political questions – e.g. war, civil rights, socialism, taxes – thought it’s about those too. Ethics tell us what time to wake up, which jobs to apply for, what to eat, where to shop, and whether to give $1 to the homeless man on the street.
Further, ethics are ever-present in our communities. Polyamory is often defined as “ethical non-monogamy.” Well, what about the ethical part? The atheism community is often fractured along ethical lines. Social justice communities are founded on ethical grounds, and most activism involves making ethical appeals. However, these appeals inevitably lead to a lot of disagreement because people have different ethics.
Most activism has, as one of its goals, convincing people to support a certain cause. This is really difficult to do without a shared ethical system. I’ve written before about how feminism is a self-interested issue for me. Most feminist writing comes from a much more altruistic foundation, and as a result, I find much of it unconvincing. Egoists, utilitarians, virtue ethicists, and deontologists will all approach social justice issues differently, and one group’s ethical appeal will often fail to move someone who follows a different ethical system. And since most people don’t have a coherent ethical system, most people are unable to effectively advocate in favor of their personal ethics. It is incomprehensible to tell me to “be good” if you can’t tell me what “good” means. It is impossible to tell me to do the right thing when you are unable to define “right.”
II. Our Ethical Intuitions Are Unreliable
Most people, rather than try to come up with a coherent ethical system, rely on their ethical intuitions. Certain things just “feel right,” and so that’s what people think of as right. Unfortunately, doing what feels right is unreliable at best and downright harmful at worst. Altruism is one example that, for most people, feels right. I’ve written before about why I think attempting to act altruistically often makes the world worse, and why encouraging and promoting altruism as a virtue harms people, especially people socialized as women.
Bigotry feels right to the bigots. Sexists are sexists because their ethical intuitions tell them that men and women should be treated differently. Racists are racist because their ethical intuitions tell them that the races aren’t equal. The same goes for other forms of bigotry. Explicit bigotry aside, we naturally care more about people the more we can identify with them; we care more about a single person than we do about millions of people.
A rogue’s gallery of cognitive biases are working tirelessly to confound our ethical intuitions. Biases that affect our thinking in other areas don’t just take the day off when it comes to ethics. Doing what feels right means surrendering to every bias that we have. If we don’t have a rational way to challenge our ethical intuition, there is nothing we can do when our intuition gives us faulty messages. It astounds me how many people will glorify and exalt rational thinking when it comes to understanding the world, but will abandon it when it comes to deciding ethical dilemmas.
III. Incoherent Ethics Lead to Incoherent Actions
This article by Leah Libresco is what inspired this post. Libresco was responding to Scott Alexander’s suggestion that, if one could offset its effects by doing enough good in the world, it may be ethically permissible to kill someone. Libresco also considered several other hypothetical situations which were contrived to justify breaking a popular ethical maxim. Libresco feels that the hypotheticals add so many caveats and contrived details that the situations become not just unlikely, but paradoxical. She closes with:
The major rhetorical peril I want to warn against is when you impose straining-credulity hypotheticals on yourself, and keep looking for the flaw in your philosophy, rather than the paradox in your premise that led you into confusion. It’s trivial to say, “Imagine an easily tamable mountain lion L… an immune to long-term disturbance from incest couple C… a perfect murder subject M… a hairy ball combed perfectly flat B” without checking whether such a creature still carries the normal traits of a mountain lion, a set of lovers, a human being at all.
The world is large enough to contain many rare things, but no contradictory ones. There’s no point in contorting your beliefs to make them accommodate the wholly imaginary.
While Libresco has a point that one’s ethics need not accommodate the paradoxical, I disagree that ethics need not accommodate the imaginary. The examples that Libresco gives are not paradoxical. There is nothing inherent to the definition of a mountain lion that makes them untameable. There is nothing inherent to the definition of brother and sister which makes incest harmful. It is the context and details surrounding these circumstances that makes mountain lions wild and incest harmful. These situations are not paradoxical; they are merely incredibly unlikely to the point of being absurd. But if your ethics cannot accommodate the absurd, your ethics are flawed.
The world is absurd. Very, very unlikely things happen every day. There is literally no way to foresee all situations where your ethical judgment will be necessary. A useful ethical system must apply to situations that you can’t imagine. The very fact that you can imagine a situation means that it’s worth considering on ethical grounds. Because inevitably, you will be called to make a moral decision in a situation that you’ve never thought about. If your ethics are unable to be applied to all situations you can imagine, then they will surely not be applicable to all situations you encounter. If your ethics can’t give you a good answer to the trolley problem, then your ethics will not be able to give you an answer when you are faced with an unforeseen dilemma. If your ethics do not apply in the least convenient possible world, then your ethics do not apply to this world.
IV. Alexander’s Morals Are Incoherent
From her piece, though it’s not explicitly stated, it seems that Libresco is tacitly admitting that her personal ethics don’t have an answer for the contrived hypotheticals. Alexander, too, seems to be suggesting that he is having trouble reconciling his ethics. To me, this is an indication that their ethics need refinement.
Let’s start with Alexander. Alexander posits that it may be moral to have someone killed if an overwhelming amount of good is done elsewhere to offset the immorality of the killing. Alexander’s post seems to assume utilitarian ethics (which is consistent with his other writing and several comments made on his post), since from any other mainstream ethical viewpoint, this would not be a difficult question. However, rather than prove his point, Alexander merely proves the incoherence of his ethics. From a utilitarian standpoint, if a person is capable of doing an overwhelming amount of net good, that person has a moral obligation to do so. The moral choice is to do all of the good, but not kill the person. Utilitarianism makes no distinction between “less moral” and “immoral.” The only question is how much utility flows from the act. In Alexander’s hypothetical, it’s possible to do all the good while avoiding the bad, and so that is the ethical choice. Doing all the good AND the bad creates less utility, and is thus less moral (i.e. immoral).
It’s not mentioned in the post, but Alexander’s misstep relies on his determination-by-fiat that giving 10% of his income to charity is enough to keep him morally in the clear. As I said above, utilitarianism makes no distinction between “less moral” and “immoral,” so as a practical matter, utilitarians must either draw an arbitrary line somewhere, give as much as they possibly can of themselves, or make peace with the fact that they are acting immorally. Alexander chooses to draw the arbitrary line. However, this throws a wrench into the remainder of his moral machinery. Alexander’s hypothetical murderer is extremely rich, and offsets his murder using targeted spending. Under actual utilitarian reasoning, the murderer would be obligated to give away nearly all of his money in the most utility-maximizing way possible in order to behave morally. Thus, a moral millionaire would be a contradiction. The only way Alexander can even reach the question is through the assumption that the millionaire is not ethically required to do as much good as possible, but at that point, he’s abandoned utilitarian ethics and the whole conversation changes. This does not point out a flaw in utilitarianism itself, but it does point out a flaw in the reasoning of almost all utilitarians that consider themselves to be acting morally.
Libresco seems to be hinting that she has an actual answer to the dilemma (“‘moral damage’ is a bad in and of itself”), though she never actually says what it is, so I’m unsure of her position on Alexander’s hypothetical. I do think, however, that’s it’s worth considering, and that it’s important that one’s ethics have an answer.
Ethics matter. Ethics are the way we determine right from wrong, on big questions and small questions. It is important that our ethics are applicable to all situations, because at some point, we’re going to encounter a situation we didn’t plan for. If our ethics can’t accommodate that situation, then we will either freeze up or attempt to revise our ethics on the spot, which can lead to disastrous results. It’s much better to consider difficult ethical questions in times of calm, where we have the time and energy to work out the answers.
If we are unwilling to consider hypothetical situations, even absurd hypothetical situations, then we are not taking our ethics seriously, and we will not be prepared when life throws us a serious curveball.