Re: Ethics

Daniel Fabulich (
Wed, 24 Jun 1998 21:01:13 -0400 (EDT)

On Wed, 24 Jun 1998, Bryan Moss wrote:

> I know how much you all hate discussing the
> basics, but what exactly makes something unethical
> and why should I care?

I'll answer the second question first because it's much easier. The
"right" action, in the ethical sense of the term, is defined as the thing
which you should do. Therefore, it isn't really sensible to ask "why
should I care what I should do?" If you've already agreed that a
particular action is the one which you should do, then there's no further
question to be asked; you should do what you should do.

The question of ethics is properly stated: "What *should* I (we?) do?" If
we answer that question, if we can find out what you should do, then we
can answer your first question by saying that an action is unethical if
you shouldn't do it; ie it is any action which is not what you should do.
Of course, we can *only* say this meaningfully if we have solved the
problem of ethics; otherwise, you could just as easily ask "What
shouldn't I do?" and get no more useful a response.

Within this context, it is usually posited by a variety of thinkers that
the right answer to the question is necessarily the rational answer to the
question. This is somewhat contested; the answer may well be unavailable
to reason, instead available only to instinct, or derived from an
"objective list" which is not itself derived from axioms. There are also
some who claim that we cannot answer the question at all; that ultimately
no actions are better than others. I happen to disagree with these
thinkers, but one should keep the non-rationalists in mind, since there
are so many of them out there.

Those aside, assuming that rationality is correct usually leads thinkers
to define what rationality is, show how the rules of rationality dictate
certain actions, declare them to be right, and claim to have solved the
problem of ethics. Kant is probably the most famous and well-respected of
such philosophers, though he has competition; this strategy goes all the
way back to Aristotle, who basically defined logic in the first place.

That being said, there is no specific extropian answer to the problem of
ethics, though we could easily suggest that one extreme answer might be:
"The right action is that which maxmizes extropy over all other possible
actions." However, I think many extropians would not agree with this
answer to the question; while extropy is good, it may not be the only
important thing in the universe. Following this rule would demand that we
kill, steal, torture, and even commit suicide if doing so would even
marginally increase universal extropy compared to that which would be lost
by doing so.

The answers I find the most compelling are probably these: "The right
action is that which is most likely to maximize the total well-being and
total number of all people." "The right action is that which would
promote our own well-being if everybody was doing the right thing." "The
right action is that which is most likely to maximize the agent's
well-being (without preventing others from doing the right thing)." The
first answer is basically utilitarianism, the second answer is a gross
simplification of Kant's categorical imperitive, and the third answer is
egoism (the modification in parentheses is close to Rand's objectivism
or some forms of libertarianism).

Speaking personally, I believe that the first answer is correct, though
the modified third answer is running a close second. I tend to reject the
second answer, on the grounds that in many cases doing the "right" action
as dictated by the second answer makes the agent and others worse off.
Without carefully defining practical rationality, it seems to me that
doing an action which makes oneself and all those around one worse off is
not very rational at all.

I tend to reject the third answer because simple egoism tends to promote
actions which seriously hurt others, if the agent can pull them off
without getting more punishment than pleasure from doing the action. This
is not a logical inconsistency, except to the extent that it would
probably be worse for us if we were all pure egoists; while I do not
agree with the categorical imperitive as written, I do think that any
rational answer to the question ought to be generalizible in a way that
simple egoism isn't.

Meanwhile, objectivism seems to rely on a kind of irrationality: while it
is objectively true that "preventing others from acting morally" is wrong
according to utilitarianism and the categorical imperitive, it does not
follow from simple egoism; indeed, egoism seems to demand that we prevent
others from acting morally if we would benefit from doing so. That being
said, however, I find that utilitarianism and objectivism/libertarianism
usually agree on what the right action is. Both are generalizible and
both seem to obey some definition of practical rationality.

Ultimately I believe utilitarianism is correct because even the modified
version of egoism may prevent us from doing something obviously rational
under a variety of situations. A common example is one in which you might
steal from someone in order to save lives, possibly your own. An
objectivist would quickly point out that stealing is wrong, and therefore
one should never do so. However, under situations of sufficient urgency,
no other choice may be available (besides death), and within that context
we again seem to be forced into the position of accepting bad consequences
when we do the right thing; a situation which I believe to be paradoxical.
Utilitarianism, on the other hand, allows us to get the consequences we
strive for without sacrificing practical rationality.

Utilitarianism is not without its problems, however, especially when
maximizing total happiness would fail to maximize total numbers, or vice
versa. It also seems to have problems of justice; for example, if somehow
by torturing one person you could make a hundred others positively elated,
utilitarianism may require that you do this. I doubt that situations
quite like this actually exist, though I'm sure some smarty here will try
and step forward and prove me wrong.

Anyway, the point is that this question is important because it determines
what you should do. As for the correct answer, if we posit that the
correct answer can be found rationally, then the problem of ethics may one
day not be so problematic after all.