The Validation of Ethics

Recently I made a post to a LiveJournal forum in which I challenged the idea that ethical codes can be derived from some built-in, evolved moral guide. The responses were appalling. One person offered our alleged inborn aversion to hurting puppies as an example of this guide. Others proposed game theory and Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma as an alternative basis for ethics; I treated these responses a bit too kindly, since by comparison to puppy-love they're the soul of rationality. One person just baldly asserted that True Ethics leads to the welfare state, without offering any foundation. These people were, in most cases if not all, grasping at any argument that would uphold their preconceived ethical conclusions.

Being reminded just how bad the general state of ethical theory is in our society, I've decided to return to clarifying my own understanding of ethical philosophy, something I haven't addressed in detail in many years.

A basic question

In that LJ post, I posited a basic question for ethics. With a slight correction, here it is:

If you apply the best and most consistent reasoning to your life, what principles of living (if any) will that lead you to adopt?

(I originally said "action" rather than "living," but that suggests that only physical actions outside your head are at issue.)

Many people insist that ethics is outside reason. There is no way to hold a debate with them, any more than a scientist can debate someone who "feels" that Newton's laws must be wrong. Many ethical codes are simply bluff-based. They say only, "You must feel that such and such is right," or "You're a bad person if you don't know you ought to do that." They offer no arguments and need no answer, though sometimes they hide behind impressive rhetoric.

By forming the question in this way, I hope to bypass all of the arguments from bluff, as well as arguments against rational ethics as such. This isn't a priorism, but is based on the fact that reason is an efficacious way to make decisions. If careful thought were useless or self-destructive, the question wouldn't justify suicidal acts of reasoning -- but then we wouldn't be here with thinking brains in the first place.

Rand's approach

Ayn Rand's Objectivist ethics offers a good start toward an answer, but leaves some questions unanswered. I regard Rand's philosophy as highly valuable, but treat it as a foundation, not a cocoon. With some clarification, it offers a valid answer, and I'm hardly the first person to work on clarifying it. I claim, at most, some minor original insight here.

Rand maintains that the "ought" can be derived from the "is." Her link is necessary values. Each person's life is necessarily a value to him; if he chooses not to live, no other choices matter. By putting the question of morality in an if-then form, as I have, I hope to make the connection clear. If you don't want to live, or if your choices aren't grounded in reason, then you're outside the question.

Rand put it more strongly. She held that to default on reason is to default on life. This is true in an important way, but a failure of reason doesn't generally lead to a rapid demise unless it's egregious. People can worship imaginary beings and go to astrologers and still live long lives. Irrationality can undermine life even when it doesn't actually kill (and I'll return to that later), but the point I'm making here is less ambitious, and avoids some problems: If you get your answers on how to live from someone's alleged divine revelations or from the position of the stars, you aren't offering any reasons for your choices, and thus have nothing to contribute to ethical knowledge.

My question excludes not only the refusal to deal with value-choices rationally, but also the claim that we have a non-rational way of making value-choices. These are different points. Our breathing and heartbeat are regulated non-rationally but not in defiance of reason; they're automatic functions. The claim that we have a biological, inherited moral drive puts complex moral choices on the same level as insulin production by the pancreas. It should be obvious from observing other people that there isn't any such mechanism, or that if there is it's hopelessly erratic. It should be obvious from introspection that we make our choices from what we believe and what we've learned, not from any automatic function. That's what makes them choices. The idea of a built-in moral code is silly, though oddly popular.

Answers to the basic question

After excluding extra-rational approaches to ethics, there are still many possible answers to the question. One is outright rejection: Reason tells us nothing about how to live our lives, and one whim is as good as another. Another says that we're creatures of God, constantly dependent on Him and observed by Him, so reason requires us to carry out His will. Another is that individuality is an illusion and we're merely parts of society, so we should rationally act as parts in the social machinery. Against all of these is the idea that we're independent, thinking beings, and rationality means pursuing life and happiness. The answer you choose depends on what you think a human being really is.

The alternative of having no principles fails because we're integrating beings and can't act solely on the spur of the moment without falling apart mentally. Everyone adopts some set of values, even if they observe it mostly in the breach. People need to weigh their actions against something; those who deny the need default to something, or become plain brutes with poor chances for survival.

If we reject supernaturalism, mysticism, and metaphysical collectivism, then the remaining answer would seem obvious: If we're rational about living our lives, we'll want to choose the principles which will let us stay alive and be happy. There are still many questions about exactly what that means, but those goals as general propositions should be undeniable. A rational ethics for individuals is an egoistic ethics.

But many people violently reject that conclusion, to the point of grasping at straws in the way I described at the beginning of this article. I think this is because egoism, like atheism, has an undeservedly bad reputation. People assume that if someone holds self-interest as his ethical standard, he'll have no concern for other people and will rob and hurt them at will. David Kelley notes, in Unrugged Individualism, that this view arises largely "from the assumption that there are regular and widespread conflicts of interest among individuals." But it's strange to suppose that the happiest people are those who are cold, uncaring, and violent. Odd as it is, the purveyors of the various bluff-based codes have a strong stake in making people believe it.

Clarifying egoism

But there remains the question of just what "pursuing life and happiness" means. Is it most rational to seek the longest possible lifespan, or is there some other measure of life that has a better claim on the thinking mind? Is there even a way to choose among them?

Rand's philosophical statements generally support survival as the key value, but her fictional examples and her statements about real-life people indicate this shouldn't be understood as maximizing one's lifespan. In Atlas Shrugged, Ragnar Danneskjold is a pirate of liberty, repeatedly putting his life at risk to restore government-plundered wealth to its rightful owners. John Galt says he will kill himself if his enemies torture Dagny to gain his cooperation. Health maintenance isn't listed in the Objectivist virtues, though it should be a key item if physical survival is the pinnacle of all values.

What Rand wrote was that man's life "qua man" is the standard of value. She had John Galt say:

Man's life, as required by his nature, is not the life of a mindless brute, of a looting thug or a mooching mystic, but the life of a thinking being -- not life by means of force or fraud, but life by means of achievement -- not survival at any price, since there's only one price that pays for man's survival: reason.

It is a particular kind of life which is a value. But in what sense is the life of a thinking being "required by his nature," when most people are irrational so much of the time? The need to clarify this issue led to a debate among Objectivists in the early nineties, often characterized in terms of "survival" vs. "flourishing." While "flourishing" is closer to what Rand meant, in its naive form it's hard to give reasons for its logical necessity. Peter Saint-Andre addressed the problems in the debate in his essay "Survival vs. Flourishing" (1996), without arriving at any conclusions.

The best resolution I've found is in Robert Bidinotto's article, "Survive or Flourish? A Reconciliation" (1994) (no longer online, as far as I can tell). Back in those days he was writing much better material than he is today. He concludes:

A self is a specific consciousness or identity, and its survival and well-being is not arbitrary. Just as the existence of life is conditional, so is the survival of a self. Self-preservation, in the human sense, depends on a rational course of action. Some values, ideas, emotions and actions objectively contribute to the creation and sustenance of a "self," or a human identity; others demonstrably erode and undermine one's identity, bringing one nothing but confusion, conflict, turmoil, anxiety, pain, guilt, grief, despair and -- yes -- even physical destruction, in extreme cases.
An objection might be raised as follows: "Okay, you've just described what it takes to sustain a rational personality. But suppose I'm an irrationalist and want to stay that way. I'm a malicious fiend, and love it. Clearly, the ideas and values that will sustain my kind of 'self' don't have to be rational ones. In fact, they would have to be irrational ones."
This notion treats an "irrational self" as just another kind of "self." But it isn't. Irrational ideas and values are not just other items on the moral menu. Irrational ideas and values are those which collide with reality. They lead to destruction -- not to some "alternative" kind of life.

But there are problems here as well. What about someone who decides that he'll engage in a life of deception and manipulation so that he can get rich and acquire political power? People do accomplish that, sometimes attaining a high level of security and being widely admired, and they're very much at odds with the Objectivist ideal of the independent, productive individual. Can we really say they're destroying themselves in pursuing that kind of life? Can we say they aren't living "qua man," when many people through history have lived that way?

If we claim that the result of such living is actual self-destruction, then we have to make dubious claims that their inner psychological states are really a wreck, or else define self-destruction in some other, unconvincing way. But if you look at their actions in relation to the criterion of my original question -- "If you apply the best and most consistent reasoning to your life" -- their actions don't constitute an affirmative answer. They are able to act that way without major self-destructive consequences only because they don't grasp the full implications of their actions.

The lack of understanding I'm talking about here is intellectual. I'm not talking about lack of compassion or empathy or otherwise trying to sneak the claims of others or an inborn moral code through the back door. Rather, through evasion or lack of comprehension, they avoid a mental collision with themselves through not understanding the full implications of their policy. When a society encourages certain kinds of destructive actions, it's sometimes possible to get away with this through a lifetime, but it's still a matter of getting away with it rather than maintaining a really tenable policy, just as a government can get away with a certain level of harmful policies without causing an economic collapse.

The worst cases are the easiest to dismiss. Brutal dictators such as Hitler and Kim Jong Il destroy the societies which they claim as their glory. Their power-lust leads to palpable ruin. More moderate looters, of which there are many examples in current politics, aren't quite as obvious. They may get rich, command respect, and die peacefully at an advanced age. But they fail the test of the initial question: Is their course one that a person applying the best and most consistent reasoning would apply?

If they're promoting policies which they know to be destructive, one could argue that reason has led them to conclude that they can profit by deceiving others. Their whole life becomes an act, a pretense, since they must maintain the deception in all their communications to be convincing. This splits them in two, into a public self and a private self. This isn't a sustainable course, so they start to believe their own deceptions. This path of evasion may allow them outward success, but it isn't and can't be a path of full reason; and we've seen many cases where the fragile fašade disintegrates.

True "self"-preservation

Returning to my original question, the mind which applies the best and most consistent principles of reasoning seeks its own continued existence and wholeness, not just the survival of the physical body or continuity of memory. Imagine that an alien stepped out of a spaceship and offered to let you live forever -- but that life would be as a brainwashed tool. Few people would see any value in that kind of immortality. The self we want to maintain is our personality -- our distinctive thoughts, memories, loves, and values; and we're only partly maintaining it unless we hold integrity as a principal value. If you gain the whole world but lose your soul -- that is, your unbroken identity and the values that make it up -- what does it gain you?

In a limited way, the self continues even beyond personal death, since these thoughts, memories, loves and values can continue through other people. If we face a choice between seriously betraying them and dying, death may be the choice which is truer to self.

Since the question answered by this approach to ethics is "What would a rational mind choose?" it would be inconsistent to push choices down other people's throats. Reasoning, not denunciation or condescension, should be the major weapon in our moral arsenal. If people become dangerous to us, it's right to fight them and to persuade others to join the fight. But as long as they harm only themselves, they're answerable only to themselves. They might not be the people we choose as friends, and in some cases we might want to avoid them altogether, but they can go to hell (metaphorically) in their own way.


Recapitulating my initial question: "If you apply the best and most consistent reasoning to your life, what principles of living (if any) will that lead you to adopt?" The short answer is principles which permit you to live and sustain your life and maintain your wholeness and self-respect as a thinking person. Others, particularly Rand, have elaborated on this, showing how specific virtues arise from this base. People may call entirely different ethical systems "moral," using a base such as divine commandments or instincts, and it's useless to debate free-floating claims. I claim only that an ethics based on reason, in the way I have described it, must lead to these conclusions.

July 22, 2007

Last updated May 25, 2011
Copyright 2007 by Gary McGath

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