Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Online Debates: What's the Point?

A democratic society requires certain things of its citizens, and one is the ability to coexist with people with opinions different from our own. Democracy is based on the notion that if everybody is free to voice and defend their ideas, the best ideas will win out over the others. That's the theory anyway. It obviously doesn't always work in practice, but free and constructive debate is still one of the essential pillars of democracy. If it breaks, the whole thing will come crashing down.

You would think social media would be an incredible tool for democratic debate. For one thing, it's partially a written medium, and writing can be better than speech for communicating subtle ideas. It lets people set their thoughts down, look them over to see if they make sense, and then rework them if they don't. It also leaves a record, so people can go back and see exactly what points have been made, rather than relying on memory. Social media is also as fast and global as the Internet itself. If you and I are both on Facebook, I can write a comment, and you can read it and respond immediately, whether you're on the other side of the room or the other side of the world. And of course, mass distribution is no problem. Hundreds of millions of people could be reading this right now if they cared to. Which they don't, but the possibility is there (I won't hold my breath.)

So what have we done with this amazing tool? We've told jokes and shared pictures of puppies, which is fun. We've gotten back in touch with each other, which is great. And we've made each other real, real mad. We've divided up into mutually distrustful camps based on politics and religion. So, this amazing technology that could have been the greatest gift to civil, democratic debate since...ever....has helped drive us apart. Why? Because we don't know how to have a civil discussion with people we don't agree with.

We screw it up, and we screw it up badly. One problem is that we can't decide what we want to accomplish by debating. Is the point of a debate to win? If so, how is winning measured? By how thoroughly you get your opponent's goat? By how much you humiliate them in front of observers? Neither of these are especially worthy goals. After all, what good does it do to anger or humiliate someone, besides giving you a little thrill of not-very-noble accomplishment?

But maybe the idea of winning a debate is not quite so crass as that. Maybe it's not about insulting or humiliating your opponents, but simply, and without malice, pointing out their mistakes. That is necessary sometimes. If they're saying something you know to be completely inaccurate or illogical, then the record needs to be set straight, especially if others are likely to believe and spread what they're saying. But don't assume you've taught them any lessons. Psychologists have shown that even if you give people absolute proof that they are wrong, most of them will go right on believing anyway. Proof, it seems, is no match for conviction.

But maybe the idea of winning isn't the right way to think about debate. Maybe the goal of a debate should be to convince others to see things from your point of view, at least for a little while? In that case, thinking in terms of winning and losing isn't helpful. If people see debates in win/lose terms, and see changing their mind as "losing", then it's going to be very hard to convince them. Nobody likes to lose. So, if your goal is to convince people of your point of view, then you need to proceed very differently than you would if you were just trying to insult or humiliate them. You have to let them save face as much as possible, so they can come around to your view without feeling embarrassed or defeated.

There's also a third way of thinking about the point of debate: maybe instead of victory or persuasion, the goal is to compare notes; to get a little closer to the truth cooperatively than we could have separately. Think about the old story of the blind men and the elephant: the blind men each touch a different part of the elephant, then draw different conclusions about what sort of beast an elephant is.  Then they commence fighting among themselves over who's right, when none of them actually is...at least not completely. If they had realized how limited their individual points of view really were, and had the good sense to compare notes, they could have learned a lot more about elephants. This kind of cooperative dialogue really does work. One of the best reasons to get in a debate is that other people bring up points you never would have thought about on your own.

But this isn't widely appreciated, to say the least. As far as I can tell in online discussions, winning is the most common goal, with persuasion a distant second, and comparing notes hardly considered at all. And that's a shame, since so many people think of winning in terms of baiting or embarrassing their opponents. That really doesn't get us any closer to truth. And the truth is what we're really after. Isn't it?

Part of the reason we're more likely to get mad than learn anything in a debate is that we have so much trouble seeing things from the other person's point of view. And I'm not just talking about their opinions. I'm talking about how they see the debate itself. We make comments that strike us as witty and decisive, and expect our opponents to see them the same way we do. But they don't. They see them as aggressive, sarcastic, and overconfident. And you would too, if you were them. But we don't look at our own comments from the other person's perspective. We look at them from our's, which is why we're astounded that, not only do they not find them witty and convincing, they may find them downright insulting. We think, "How can they possibly argue with such such ironclad arguments? Why don't they concede the point?", without considering that if we were in their shoes, no force on earth could make us concede--not to somebody being that smug, and certainly not with all those people watching!

The other problem, besides our inability to see the debate through our opponent's eyes, is a lack of restraint. We get heated up, and everything we say takes on extra bite. We taste blood, and it gets harder and harder to hold back. We're too busy thinking about our next point to think about anybody else's perspective, so we forget there's even a reason to be restrained. Which just goes to show we're not as smart as we think we are.

If we're ever going to learn to have constructive debates online, then, we're going to have to learn two things: taking the other side's point of view, and restraining ourselves enough to stay polite. Both are hard, especially in the heat of a good argument. That's when we forget the whole point of the debate, and just start trying to make our opponents look stupid--which is not the least bit constructive. What we should have done is try to convince them of our point of view, try to learn something from theirs, or both. If they really do need to be proven wrong, then we should have tried, as the saying goes, to "make a point without making an enemy". But all this is, once again, incredibly hard. We're prone to seeing our comments in the best possible light, and theirs in the worst. That means if we feel like we're bending over backwards to stay civil, we're probably hitting just about the right note. Then we might actually convince someone to see our side.

Of course, we also need to be more charitable not just when we talk, but when we listen. If we keep in mind that people's comments probably seem more aggressive to us than they do to them, it's easier to shrug off their little digs and keep our cool. Easier, but not easy. None of this is easy. And lots of people think it's not even worth the effort. They figure that if someone is saying something stupid, they deserve to be ridiculed. "That'll show'em", they think. But that's the thing. It won't.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Armchair Ethics: A Progress Report

"We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live." - Socrates 

The Death of Socrates. Jacques-Louis David
When I started this blog, I thought it would just be a series of posts about weird little facts and ideas that struck my fancy—interesting old songs, strange creatures, odd events in history—that sort of thing. Somehow, though, it turned into something more serious. I started writing a bunch of opinionated posts about things like civil debate, science vs. creationism, rationality, and ethics...especially ethics. I think I got on that topic while debating one issue or another with philosophically sophisticated Catholics who kept talking about people like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. This made me realize I had forgotten what Aristotle had said about ethics, and probably never known what Aquinas said. Not wanting to feel ignorant (or, more accurately, be ignorant), I started reading basic books about the philosophy of ethics. When I say basic, I mean it. I picked up Ethics for Dummies, and, to my enormous chagrin, realized that I didn't know most of what was in it. Same with The Complete Idiots Guide to Ethics. I'll freely admit it—I learned a lot from both of them. I guess I fit squarely into the target audience. (Hint: if you put them on an e-reader, nobody can tell what you're reading).

The reason I was reading such books, besides the fact that they were appropriate to my knowledge level, is that there are hardly any basic books about ethics out there. Apparently they just don't sell like Dan Brown or Deepak Chopra. Unless you want to start reading textbooks, the Dummies and Idiots books are some of the only options.

There's just no demand for books on ethics. And it shows. One of the reasons I've gotten so interested in the topic is that I've realized very few people have a sophisticated way of thinking about ethics. Most of us are just muddling along, and we don't know much about what some of the great minds of history have said on the matter. And that's a shame, because they've had some great ideas, and pointed out a lot of logical pitfalls that people should be more aware of.

That being said, I'm not sure most of history's ethical philosophers really understood the way the average person thinks about morality. Most people base their morality not on careful thought, but on their upbringing, their psychological predispositions, and their gut reactions. Even if they do put careful thought on into a question, they're more likely to rationalize what they want to believe than truly reason their way to conclusions they didn't have in the first place. It's incredibly hard not to rationalize like that, and I'm probably guilty too. But it's worth trying. If there's no chance you'll change your beliefs, there's no point in sitting down and thinking anyway.

Anyway, the average person in the street has an ethical sense that has bears little resemblance to most formal philosophical systems. For religious conservatives in the US, that's likely to be a hodgepodge of ideas based on Christianity (often heavy on the Old Testament and Revelation), classical liberal ideas about economic and personal freedom (emphasizing property rights and self-determination), nationalism, and so on. For liberals, there may be a mix of ideas from liberal interpretations of Christianity (more New Testament than Old), classical liberal ideas of personal freedom (emphasizing freedom of personal conduct and expression more than economic freedom), and (often vague) ideas about the harmony of nature. Probably the majority of people are somewhere in between, with a mix of ideas from both sides.

This vague, hodgepodge approach to ethics would be fine if it didn't include a lot of questionable and downright harmful attitudes; attitudes people act on, with real consequences for real people, now and in the future.

Consider some attitudes you commonly encounter in this country:
  • Truth, and right and wrong, are socially constructed and relative to each culture.
  • American lives are more valuable than foreign lives.
  • Homosexuality is unnatural, therefore it's wrong.
  • Might makes right. That's the way nature works--survival of the fittest.
  • Greed and self-interest are good. Altruism is bad because it's inefficient, makes people dependent, and doesn't create anything.
  • Animals, and the earth as a whole, were created by God for people's use.
Each of these is extremely problematic, if you know something about the insights that ethicists (and scientists) have had over the years. I'm not going to address any of them here, except to note that they are common, and if they are both common and wrong, they can do a lot of harm.

One of the problems is that there's really no clear, simple guide to what's right and wrong that everyone can agree on. Probably the most common guide to morality for Americans is the Bible. But people draw very different conclusions from the Bible. It's just too huge and contradictory to work as a good guide for morality unless there is a standard way of deciding which parts to follow and which to reject. There doesn't seem to be such a standard. Some people will be reading this and thinking you shouldn't reject any part of the Bible. But they don't really really believe that. Everyone who follows the Bible rejects parts of its. Nobody, I hope, believes in the passages that tell us to stone people to death for adultery or marry our daughter to her rapist. That is terrible ethical advice. But there are also parts of the Bible that are great, like “Thou shalt not kill” (though people are amazingly good at ignoring that one). The question is, how do you decide which parts are good and which parts are bad? What criteria do you use to judge? Seriously. If you're a Christian reading this, I'd like to know what your criteria are. If you let me know in the comments, I'd be appreciative.

Of course, intelligent people can and do argue that the Bible is just one religious/moral system out of hundreds the world has known, and it may not be the best one. Plus, nothing in the Bible is much younger than a couple of thousand years.We've learned all kinds of things about the natural world in that time--surely we've learned some useful things about ethics as well?

I've always thought the Bible is just too big, complex, and contradictory to be a reliable guide to ethics. Besides, it might just be plain wrong (if it contradicts itself, clearly some of it is wrong, because two contradictory things can't both be right). So, what is a reliable guide to ethics? Is it possible to come up with a guide to living ethically that is factually and logically defensible, yet simple enough not to be interpreted in wildly different ways by different people? Could you ever make an ethical code that someone, somewhere, couldn't twist to justify killing people? Could you construct such a code short enough to fit on a single page? Or in a document the size of, say, the US Constitution? That's what I've been asking myself the last several months. And the answer, I'm pretty sure, is no. But I do think it's possible to learn more about the many different ways people have thought about ethics, and make a good faith attempt to take the best insights from each of them.

So, what I want to do now is make a lightning survey of some of the ethical approaches I've been reading about, and mention what I think makes sense about them, and what doesn't. It's an entirely inadequate guide to all these ideas, of course, and written by a total amateur. That's why I'm thinking of it as a progress report. Still, I think I can honestly say that after 18 months of reading about ethics I have a better understanding of the issues than probably 98% of the public. Which is kind of the point—I may not know much, but I know more than most people, and that's a problem. This stuff is important. We should know more about it.

Ethical Intuitions

So where do we start? First I want to cover some ethical ideas that aren't formal theories, but common ethical intuitions. People do seem to have an innate moral sense. They have an intrinsic feeling that some things are wrong, and others right. Which is not the same as saying they know what's really right and wrong. In fact, people's moral intuitions can lead to really awful things. Having a sense of morality doesn't mean we're right about morality. 

Still, we do have a moral sense, or really a constellation of moral senses. Where does this come from? The traditional answer, of course, is that it was given to us by God, when he created Adam and Eve. But science has shown--decisively I think--that there was no Adam and Eve. Humans evolved from earlier animals, and there's no clear evidence that we were put here for any particular reason, or given any particular purpose. The most parsimonious explanation of our existence is that we just happened to evolve because there was an ecological niche for brainy, hairless, upright apes, and we filled it. Our ethical intuitions are likely to come from biological factors like the need to care for offspring and family, the need to cooperate in social groups, and so on. But you don't have to agree with me about that. You will probably agree with me about what most of the main ethical intuitions are, even if you don't agree about why we have them. Some of these closely match the moral foundations identified by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and others are just tendencies that seem to me to be morally important to many people.

To keep their pros and cons straight, I put them in a table. Because that's just how geeky I am.


Probable Innate Moral Intuitions

Name/Description and Basic Ideas
Good Points
Bad Points
Caring for Family

This is probably the oldest of behaviors leading to moral questions (e.g. how to treat others), because it evolved based on kin selection and parental care. Evolution often favors “altruism” between related organisms, because they share copies of the same genes.
Almost all humans.
Confucius emphasized family relations.

Family relations are an fundamental part of being human. Clearly it's a good thing to help your family, especially your immediate family. Parents should take care of their children. Children, in return, should take care of their parents and siblings. Feelings for family can lead people to favor their family to the exclusion of others, to extreme and unethical degrees, leading to cruelty to people competing with family members, or to ethically problematic things like nepotism.

Another ancient form of cooperative behavior is based on reciprocity—I will help you if you help me. Reciprocal cooperation can arise between unrelated animals, but they have to be able to recognize who is reliable and who cheats, and not cooperate with—and even punish—cheaters. Can be seen in positive form: “You scratch my back, I scratch yours”, and negative form: “An eye for an eye”.
Almost all humans

Many philosophers and scientists have thought a lot about reciprocity.

Confucius may have seen the Golden Rule in terms of reciprocity as much as compassion.
A whole lot of human progress has been made by people learning to form wider and wider circles of win-win cooperation. This is not exactly an ethical system so much as a beneficial practice. But it's clearly beneficial. The evolution of reciprocal relationships may be where we get our sense of fairness. However, such relationships aren't always equitable. Sometimes one party gets the much better deal. Is that right or wrong? Opinions vary.

Negative reciprocity—punishing those who hurt or don't cooperate with you, is selected by evolution, and may be a basis for ideas about justice, in the sense of rewarding good behaviors and punishing bad behaviors. Detecting cheaters is necessary, but overly harsh ideas of punishment and vengeance can lead to cycles of violence that leave everybody worse off.
In-Group Loyalty

Humans seem to have a universal tendency to give preference to their own group, tribe, or nation. They treat insiders better than outsiders, and are predisposed to assume that the ways of their group are better than those of others. How this evolved is controversial.
Most humans seem to be predisposed toward in-group preferences.

Cooperation within groups is necessary, and people within a group may owe each other more than they owe people in outgroups. Some degree of group loyalty is good.

It's common for people in one nation or religion to think the lives of those inside their group are much more valuable than those outside it. Common, but deeply ethically questionable.

In-Group/Out-Group “morality” has led to some of the world's worst atrocities. People can lose--or never have--any sense of compassion for outsiders, and are only too happy to kill them if they are scared or feel like they're competing with them. Societies assuming they are God's chosen ones, or that God is on their side, have caused big, big problems.

Also leads to ethnocentric biases. We tend to assume the way we do it is better. Maybe it is, but it isn't something that can be assumed without further support.
Respect for Tradition as Morality

Closely related to in-group loyalty.
Lots of conservative thinkers. People like Edmund Burke have argued, correctly, that some traditions may have lasted for very good reasons (which we may not even fully understand) and it's not clear that what we replace them with will be better. Clearly, many traditions, such as slavery, honor killings and dueling, female genital mutilation, the caste system, and many others, are unjust, and needed to be changed. What's traditional is not necessarily what's right.

Many, many people seem to believe what they believe simply because they grew up believing it. This means if they grew up in another culture, they would believe what those people believe. We have to be able to logical justify what we believe, not just accept it passively.

Like in-group loyalty, leads to unfounded biases against other cultures and traditions.
Purity and Sanctity as Morality

People have a tendency to view morality in terms of what is pure/impure, sacred/profane, or clean/unclean. This may be related to the evolutionary useful emotion of disgust, and its opposite, feelings of sacredness or elevation. Modern westerners, especially liberals, may not realize how important this is to many people around the world, because they tend to think of morality in terms of fairness and not hurting people, not purity and degradation.

Many religious thinkers. Ideas about purity, sanctity, and cleanliness seem to be connected with morality in the human brain. When cities clean up their streets in the literal sense—picking up trash, etc—they get cleaned up in the metaphorical sense. Crime rates go down.

It's hard to argue that it's a good thing to wallow in some things considered morally “dirty”, such as having an extremely foul mouth. It can be good to have a sense of the sacred.
Misplaced ideas of moral purity have lead to a lot of suffering, for example, the idea that menstruating women are unclean, or that some people are “untouchable”. People commonly see outsiders as disgusting or degraded, and it's much easier to hurt and kill those we see in those terms.

Intuitions about what is clean and unclean are not enough to decide what is moral or not. If something is bad, we should be able to give a clear reason it's bad.
Protecting One's Honor

Many societies around the world have ethical codes where a strong component is protecting one's honor or reputation, violently if necessary. People who have been dishonored may kill themselves or others, as in Japanese ritual suicide, or “honor killing” of sisters or daughters accused of being unchaste. Men may cultivate a reputation for toughness and be ready to fight if they are insulted—seeing it as an ethical obligation. Ties in with nationalism, because many people who don't react violently to personal insults will advocate violence if they think their nation has been insulted.
Many societies through history and around the world. There was a honor-based tradition of blood feuds and dueling in the United States, which lasted longest in the south. Many fights and homicides can be traced to violent responses to petty insults. While it's good to have a personal sense of honor and integrity, and even shame if you feel you haven't lived up to it, I can't think of very much good to say about the extreme, violent kind of honor.

Honor-related violence may be necessary in very lawless or violent societies, where if you don't keep a reputation for toughness you won't make it, but the point is to make those societies less violent so that attitude isn't necessary.

Honor-based ethical codes tend to emphasize bravery and duty to one's group or role. These can be good things, when applied to the right things.
Mostly an example of how moral intuitions can be harmful, certainly in modern, civilized societies.

We probably have an innate intuition that truth, honesty, and authenticity are good things. It's no mystery where this came from—in a species that relies on language for cooperation, people need to trust each other to tell the truth. Which doesn't mean that's always what they do.
Probably a universal intuition. Sometimes the need to be truthful conflicts with other moral concerns. Kant thought that one should never lie, under any circumstances—even if a murderer is asking where whether your friend is in the house, so they can kill them. Surely lying can be justified in such extreme circumstances? Respect for truth, and being genuine, are extremely important moral issues. A society where everyone lies is no society at all.

What does this quick and dirty survey show? It shows that people naturally have a moral sense that can be very complex and multifaceted, and may not be explained well by ethical philosophies, which tend to be more cerebral, and less visceral, than what the average person really feels. It's also clear that not all of the "moral" impulses people have actually cause them to do the right thing. They may have a desire to do something, and think of it as moral imperative, and that desire may have been shaped by evolution. But none of that means it's the right thing to do. Many of our intuitions and traditions don't stand up to rational scrutiny. Confining "unclean" women to their tents, killing your sister after she was raped to preserve your family's honor, or seeing members of groups outside your own as less than fully human--those may all have roots in human biology and evolution, but that doesn't make them right. Such things are wrong--terribly wrong--because they hurt others for no good reason. 

On the other hand, some ethical intuitions are good. Taking care of our family, helping our friends, maintaining a basic sense of the sacred, and even having sanctions against cheaters and liars--these are good ideas, and we intuitively think they are right for good reasons. But it's possible to take these things too far. Watching out for your family is good; nepotism is bad. Discouraging cheaters and liars is necessary; cutting their hands or tongues off (as has been common in history) is bad.

Now, what about more formal, philosophical systems of ethics? I'm going to list those below, in the same kind of table, with the pros and cons, as I see them. I'm not remotely doing justice to most of these philosophies--this is just my way of lining them all up and comparing them. I'll start with what I see as the antithesis of ethical thinking: the idea that might makes right.


Ethical Theories

Name/Description and Basic Ideas
Good Points
Bad Points
Might makes right

Ethics is for weaklings. It's a dog eat dog world, and the strong survive. The only good is strength, power, or self-mastery (Nietzsche)
Herbert Spencer (Social Darwinism)
Nietzsche (sort of) Legions of thugs and heads of state.

While most of us recoil at this idea, most of us are also quite capable of thinking in these terms (see under "Bad Points")
Meekness is not necessarily a virtue. Strength, courage, and power can be virtues (if used for the right things). Ignores any sense that we should have concern for others. Almost the antithesis of ethics. However, many people still believe in it to some extent. If you see a bully get a righteous butt-kicking, you might think justice has been done. I probably would. But it's only by chance that the one in the right was the stronger person. What if the person behaving badly was the stronger, and won? There's something very suspect about the idea that strength should be the way of deciding justice, even if the better people happen to be the stonger ones. Lots of people who don't think in might-makes-right terms in personal relations might think they are acceptable in international affairs, e.g: "My country right or wrong".
Virtue Ethics

Ethics is about cultivating virtues, or good character traits, in order to live a good life. Socrates and Plato believed this was about perceiving and aligning oneself with "the Good" (which has a transcendent reality), through reason.

Aristotle didn't believe in "the Good". He believed everything in nature has a “telos” (goal, purpose, or basic nature), and that what is good for each thing is to be good at its telos. The telos of a knife is cutting, so a good knife is one that cuts well. The human telos is our ability to reason, and so we should seek wisdom, the greatest of the virtues.

Aristotle believed there were several virtues people should cultivate, and that each was a “Golden Mean” between an two extremes. Bravery, for example, is the mean between cowardice and recklessness.
Identifying and cultivating virtues does seem to be essential to being ethical. It makes sense to cultivate virtues as habits, so they become second nature.

Moderation does seem to be a very useful thing. Many situations require the right amount of something—not too much or too little.

His idea of eudaemonia—“living well” or “flourishing” as a more sophisticated, less hedonistic version of happiness, is useful. There's more to the good life than pleasure.

It's a good point that cultivating character has a lot to do with cultivating habits, which takes practice.
Moderation is not always right. Is pedophilia OK in moderation? No.

Aristotle, like many philosophers, was too confident in human reason. Modern psychology has shown that we are extremely biased and often irrational.

It's not clear that things do have a telos, and if they do, it's not clear that ours is reason.

Doesn't provide many clear ways of deciding what to do in particular ethical situations. Ethics can't just be about cultivating character. We also need ways of deciding which acts are right or wrong, based on things like principles or consequences.

Natural Law

Ethical laws are written into the nature of the universe. People may look to God or nature for those laws, but they believe they are “out there” in some sense. People who believe this often think morality is related to being in tune with our true nature, or fulfilling our destiny. Aristotle's virtue ethics was also a natural law theory, based on this kind of thinking.

Locke and Jefferson believed in natural law in a different sense: they believed in inalienable rights that are part of the natural order of things.
It's clear that if we go against nature, or human nature, too much, there will be trouble. We can't stop reproducing or eating living things, for example. Humans do need certain things to be happy, though we are highly variable.

Locke and Jefferson recognized that each person deserves equal rights, because they were “created equal”. Today it's clear that people aren't created equal--we aren't born blank slates. But it still makes sense to say people should have equality in basic rights, and equality before the law. People shouldn't have more or less rights based on accidents of birth.
Hard to say what is natural, especially for people, who are constantly pushing the boundaries of nature with our inventions. Is that tendency part of our nature? At the largest scales, isn't everything part of nature, and thus "natural" in some sense?

Who says what is natural is necessarily good? It isn't clear how to get “ought” from “is”. Just because something is a certain way doesn't mean it should be that way. Arsenic and infanticide are naturally-ocurring things.

It's not clear that natural laws of what is right really exist, outside of human preference and interaction.

It's not at all clear that we have a pre-ordained destiny or purpose. If we do, how do we know what it is?
Divine Command (related to natural law)

What is right is whatever God commands.

Related is the “Be good if you want to go to heaven and not hell” argument. That argument has little to do with ethics, because if the only reason you do good or don't do bad is the promise of heaven and hell, you're not really very ethical.
Lots of people. A few theologians and philosophers, such as Ockham, Martin Luther, and Kierkegaard. ? Euthyphro Dilemma: Is God commanding things arbitrarily, or is he making commands based on a standard of ethics outside himself? Only the second makes sense, unless you are willing to say that if God said doing something awful was right—e.g. torturing babies—then it is right. If you can't accept that, then you believe there is a standard of what is right external to God. Whether there is a God or not, we still have to figure out what that standard is, and what its logic is.

It may still be logical to think that God is commanding certain things because they are good, by an independent standard.

But how can anybody be sure what God commands? There are many different ideas, many contradictory. The Bible itself is contradictory. For example, in some places it celebrates killing, and in others it forbids it.
Golden Rule

Positive form: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Negative form: Don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you.

General form: Treat others they way you would want to be treated.

Closely related to Jesus’ “love they neighbor as thyself” (originally from Leviticus)
Many others
Most versions of the Golden Rule recognize the importance of empathy and compassion, which are an absolutely vital part of ethics.

Very simple to remember and follow compared to most other ethical rules.

The Golden Rule recognizes perhaps the most basic reason to be ethical: others have pleasures, pains, and preferences, and they are just as powerful to them as ours are to us. We have no rational reason to think our well being is of more importance than anyone else's. 
Others may not want the same things you want. It makes more sense to treat others the way they want to be treated. (If what they want is reasonable and ethical)

How does the golden rule apply to people who have done terrible things? Should we treat them as we would want to be treated?
Buddhist Ethics

Suffering is caused by desire, attachment, and ignorance; the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate these things, by following the eightfold path: right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration.

Buddhist ethics is centered around the Five Precepts--abstain from: harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.


Many, many Buddhists
Buddha, like Aristotle, emphasized moderation: the “middle way” between extreme ascetism and extreme indulgence.

The Buddhist insight that desire is the root of suffering is very valuable. You can't obtain happiness by the endless pursuit of desires. Once you have one thing you wanted, you'll want something else. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill.

Buddhism puts great emphasis on compassion, and teaches that a good way to cultivate compassion is to let go of selfish desires and cravings. Once we can keep our self-consciousness from taking up too much of our consciousness, we have more room for compassion and clear perception (mindfulness). Like Aristotle and other traditions, Buddhism emphasizes the need for practice. Thinking alone won't do much good.

I love the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva, who attains enlightenment for himself, but holds off on nirvana to help other sentient beings achieve it.

Buddhism recognizes that people aren't the only sentient beings deserving of ethical consideration.

The Buddha taught that getting obsessed with unanswerable theological/philosophical questions gets in the way of what's important. Sometimes we need to stop thinking and DO something.

Buddhism can lead people to accept their life as it is and not stand up for their rights.

Many westerners get confused about Buddhism and other meditative spiritual practices, such as Yoga, thinking that they can somehow achieve enlightenment through self-indulgence. This totally misses the point. The point is self-transcendence. It does involve the individual practice of mindfulness, but if that doesn't lead to compassion and selflessness (as well as greater personal satisfaction), it's not working. I can't help thinking a truly enlightened person wouldn't be found meditating in Sedona, but helping people in Bangladesh or somewhere similar.

Note on Mysticism: Buddhism, and many other mystic traditions in other world religions (mystic not in the sense of “magic”, but of being focused on experience instead of words and ideas) have had some great insights. One is that truth can't always be captured in words and mental images. It's too big and subtle. We also have to learn to open our minds to it: to experience it, not describe it. To taste the food instead of reading the menu. This takes practice. What's interesting is that this kind of practice leads to more than just wonder and other good feelings at the individual level. It also seems to result in increased compassion for others, maybe because we stop thinking about ourselves so much.

Not exactly an ethical tradition, but useful. Emphasizes the need to realize we can't capture the whole truth with words and ideas. Sometimes we have to let go of words and ideas to get a better sense of the world and how it flows and hangs together. Taoism is about opening your mind to see the harmony of nature, and getting into harmony with it. Often you can accomplish more by flowing with nature than by working against it.
Lao Tzu
Chuang Tzu

We can certainly learn a lot by expanding our perception, which lets us see the world in wholes. Explicit thought can cause us to have tunnel vision, and to trip over ourselves. If you think too hard about shooting a basketball, for example, you'll miss. Sometimes you have to relax and trust that your body knows what to do better than your conscious mind does.

People who can master this kind of thing are likely to be happier and more relaxed, and enjoy life more. Enjoying life is ethically important.
Taoism can be too passive. It doesn't really promote working to make the world a better place, in the sense of finding cures for disease, etc, which are very good things. Sometimes you shouldn't go with the flow, but against it.

Taoism also doesn't promote a lot of respect for rights, because it tends to encourage people to be satisfied with what they have—which is good, in moderation.

Taoism as a religion is very different from its original, simple form, and is full of silly magic and superstition.

Contractarian (Social Contract) Ethics

The basis for ethics and justice can be found by imagining a contract between people to create a system of rules for society (contractarian ethics focus on what kind of government is just)
John Rawls
Some versions, like Locke, recognize that the only real reason to have government is to make life decent, if not better, for the people who create the government. That's the only valid reason for government to exist, and if it doesn't do the job, it is a bad government, and the people have the right to change it.

Some versions, like Rawls', offer useful ways of thinking about fairness, which is an important concept, though people disagree on what it should be. Rawls said we could decide what is the most just society by having people imagine that they were going to decide on what the best society would be, without knowing what position they would have in that society--they don't know if they will be rich or poor, talented or not, etc. It's a brilliant idea.
Most people don't ever enter willingly into any contract.

A good contract is a fair one, where both parties are equally powerful, and receive equal benefits. Most societies don't seem to be based on any such contract. If a contract is unfair to you, why honor its terms?

Contractarian ethics doesn't say much about how to act in personal relationships
Liberty as a moral issue

People may have an innate tendency to resist oppression by those in power, at least if they see that power as illegitimate. Of course, what is considered legitimate authority varies from person to person, and society to society.

Classical liberals like Locke and Jefferson believed that people had inalienable rights to liberty and property. They saw government as existing to serve protect life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, etc. The purpose of government is to provide basic security and law, to ensure those rights. They saw the only legitimate government as being based on the consent of the governed. They were more interested in liberty, to let people pursue their welfare as they saw fit, than in social safety nets.

Modern day libertarians and economic conservatives may see taxation for social welfare programs, or other government programs they see as illegitimate, as robbery.
Robert Nozick

Resisting authority is vital, because those in power often act in their own interest, not the interest of those they have power over. Even if they try to act in the best interest of others, they may not be as effective at it as the people who decide for themselves what they want.

The idea that government should be based, at some level, on the consent of the governed, is a vital one too. Unless you believe rulers have some kind of “natural” or divine right to be in charge, it's hard to think of any reason government and law is legitimate, except that the people are agreeing to it, because they think society is better with it than without it.

The idea that property rights should be protected is a good one, at least up to a point. If people work for what they have, then they have rights to it. Governments should have a very good reason if they are going to take some of it away. But taxation is only robbery if it is illegitimate. The question is what is illegitimate?
Liberty and property rights are important things, but they aren't the only important things.

Sometimes liberty clashes with social welfare or justice, and there are points where those things outweigh liberty. Saying people should have the liberty to develop more virulent strains of anthrax in their homes would sacrifice public safety for liberty. Everyone thinks there is a balance point, but people disagree about where it is.

It's not clear that it's always right that some people earn vastly larger amounts of money than others. Does Maury Povitch deserve to make far more money than the average nurse or school teacher? Even if people get rich by being intelligent, talented, and hardworking, instead of lucky or unscrupulous, to what extent do they deserve credit for their intelligence or energy? What if they are born with those traits? Does someone born with a low IQ, in a poor family, deserve to stay poor all his life? He didn't choose his birth.

What about social inequalities that make the playing field far from level? If one kid is born to a wealthy, educated, loving family, and another is born to a drug-addicted, impoverished single-parent in a housing project, and the wealthy kid goes on to be successful, and the other kid doesn't, can we really say each kid deserved what they got later in life? There are very good arguments for fairness—for leveling the playing field—especially for children, who certainly can't be said to deserve their advantages or disadvantages.
Deontological (Duty-based) Ethics

What is right is not determined by consequences, but by intentions. If you do a good thing with bad intentions, you aren't being ethical. If you don't do bad things because you're afraid of getting caught or being punished, you're not being ethical.

We should act according to duty. If one person helps another because they like to help people, and another does because they think it's the right thing to do, only the second person is acting in an ethical manner. The first person isn't being unethical, and they are doing a good thing, they just aren't acting according to an ethical rule.

When considering any act, we should ask if it would be good if everyone did it. If not, it is not ethical.

Treat people as ends in themselves, not means.

Part of respecting people as reasoning, autonomous beings is to punish them when they have done wrong,

Kant Individual rights are important. Consequentialist theories that disregard individual rights, in favor of the common good, are problematic. Should we kill a person and use his organs to save five lives? No. His rights are important.

It's an important point that intentions, not just consequences, matter.

It's also true that sometimes we have to do things simply out of a sense of duty—because it's the right thing to do--whether we enjoy them or not.

Doesn't recognize the value of enjoying doing the right thing. If we can do the right thing, both out of a sense that it's the right thing, and because we enjoy it, that is better than just doing it out of a sense of duty.

Doesn't recognize the problem of ethical dilemmas, where you have to choose between two wrongs. Sometimes it's best to choose the lesser of two evils. Lying to a murderer about the whereabouts of his victim is a lesser evil than letting him murder them. I don't care what Kant said.

May take the idea of universal imperatives too far. Sometimes the right thing to do depends on context, and sometimes it's best for different people to act in different ways.

Kant's philosophy is so subtle and counterintuitive, it may be unworkable. It may simply be too hard for people to grasp and apply. An ethical system needs to be realistic.
(Utilitarianism is the most common consequentialist philosophy)

What is right is whatever gives the best results.

Bentham's utilitarianism suggested that we should aim for the greatest happiness for the greatest number, that happiness is basically pleasure, and that all pleasures are equal.

John Stuart Mill agreed that happiness is basically pleasure, but he thought some pleasures were higher than others. He also advocated “rule utilitarianism” which says that the greater good often results from following certain established rules, like respecting the rights of individuals.

Peter Singer
Gives a clear basis for why we should be ethical: because it makes the world better for people and other sentient creatures. For utilitarians, that involves maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Other consequentialists still see ethics as being about making life better, but they may think other things are more important than pleasure, such preferences, or a more sophisticated version of happiness.

Doesn’t rely on abstract concepts like social contracts, natural laws, and so on, whose objective existence is hard to establish.
Pure consequentialism wouldn't consider the past, only the future, so it would ignore how people have behaved in the past in deciding how to treat them. There may be some wisdom to that (forgiveness can end cycles of retaliation) but it's still questionable as an absolute rule. But few ethicists would see it as an absolute rule anyway.

Can you sensibly compare different kinds of pleasure? How do you compare going to the opera with going fishing? Is one better than the other? Is pleasure really what’s most important in life, anyway?

Crude versions of consequentialism suggest that the ends justify the means, and don't give enough respect to individual rights. These ideas would suggest that it would be ok to kill one person, if it would make one hundred people very happy. Few if any real philosophers see consequentialism in such crude terms.
Ethical Relativism

What is right depends on the culture. There is no “real” standard of right and wrong, and no culture should judge another based on its own norms.
Lots of people think they think this, but many haven't though it through. Some philosophers, mostly postmodern types. It's true that unthinking ethnocentricity should be avoided. We shouldn't confuse “how we do it” with “what is right” because we may be doing things wrong. Logically incoherent: if we say all views are equally valid, what about the views that say they are the only right ones?

Doesn't ever give a way of saying some things are just wrong. Should we say slavery in the old south was right, because it was integral to the culture of the time?
Ethical Egoism

What is right is whatever is in the best interests of the individual.
Ayn Rand, lots of others, though many of them don't admit it. It is a good point that individuals matter, and that individuals, not groups, are who feel pleasure and pain. A society or group as a whole doesn't feel anything. The individuals who make it up do.

Thinkers like Ayn Rand do make the useful point that altruism can have harmful consequences, when applied unthinkingly. People really can grow dependent on the generosity of others, for example. Benevolence should be thoughtfully applied.

Some degree of self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly generates a lot of productivity and creativity. Enlightened self-interest, where people enter into win-win relationships of cooperation and trade, can be more efficient and workable than relying on people's altruism, which is pretty unreliable.
Ignores the obvious fact that other individuals have feelings, rights, and preferences, just like we do. How can we logically defend the idea that our interests are more important than anyone elses, from an impartial point of view?

Justifies itself by saying it is beneficial to society. But this isn't clear, and besides, wasn't the point that the individual, not society, is the unit of ethical concern?
Feminist Ethics/Ethics of Care

Says that traditional ethics has a male bias, and has focused too much on seeking universal rules, and not enough on the importance of empathy and caring, or on the importance of personal relationships, Emphasizes the need to base ethical decisions on context, not universal rules.
Carol Gilligan Caring and empathy are certainly important.

It’s a good point that personal relationships have to be treated differently than relationships with people we are less close to, and shouldn't be viewed in terms of a social contract. For example, we owe more to people who have helped us in the past than we owe to strangers. Does a baby agree to a contract with its parents?
Few clear guidelines for how to behave. “Be caring” is not sufficient advice for some situations.

Sometimes compassion for those close to us can cause us to be unethical to those who aren't.

The idea that women are naturally more caring or nurturing (on average) is surely true to some extent, but emphasizing it too much could lead to perpetuation of stereotypes and traditional female roles.

Taoism, Buddhism, Virtue Ethics, and Care Ethics all emphasize that you can't have explicit rules that cover every aspect of wisdom and behavior. That means it's good to cultivate habits, such as compassion and honesty, which will let us have good intuitions about the right thing to do in different situations. It's a good insight, but thinking things through can also be vital.

So far in this enormous blog post, I've talked about 21 different ways of looking at ethics. Some of them are closely related, but others are very different, and even contradictory. As I said earlier, I've always wondered whether it would be possible to come up with a good, simple, and unambiguous guide to living a good life and doing the right thing. As I look through all these ideas, I see that it's a pretty far-fetched idea. None of these theories stands out as being sufficient all by itself. The Golden Rule is probably the best simple rule of thumb we have, but even it has its limitations. Human life is complicated, and that means deciding what's right and wrong is complicated. It doesn't help that ethics is a metaphysically shaky topic: while we can't do without ethics, it's hard to say in exactly what sense ethics exist. It's not like we can look through a telescope, spot an wild ethic in its natural habitat, and measure it. What all this adds up to is that ethics has a certain amount of irreducible complexity. Most of the theories I've mentioned above make useful points, and a good theory of ethics should take those points into account. 

Still, there is hope. It might be possible to go through the ideas above, with their pros and cons, and come up with something simple enough to be useful. I might even try it myself, just as an intellectual exercise, and a way of getting a little closer to understanding what living well and ethically entails. But that's a task for another time, probably a time when I understand these theories a little better than I do now. I'm still an absolute amateur. But so are most other people, and that's really my main point here. This stuff is almost completely unknown to the person in the street, and it's hard to even find good, unbiased books about ethics. It's rarely taught in school until college, and then it's an elective few kids take. These are big problems. There are some giant ethical issues facing this world right now, so we better learn a little more about how to think about them.


Besides Ethics for Dummies and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ethics, which really are very useful (if painfully corny), I also highly recommend Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do, by Michael Sandel. It focuses more on what is right at the political level than the individual level, but the explanations are great. Peter Singer's book How Are We To Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, is also good, but dated and more opinionated. Simon Blackburn's Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics, is OK, but rambling. Jonathan Haidt's books The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, talk about the evolutionary and psychological bases of ethics. Both great.