Friday, 15 March 2013

Towards a Rational Origin of Ethical Structures

If an ethical structure has functional benefits for its practitioners, then its onward propagation is more likely than that of a non-functional ethical structure, being one which leads to extinction of those using it.  Within a functional ethical structure, a certain act may be held to be wrong in a moral sense if it is of benefit to the person holding this conception (the ‘moralist’) that others hold the act to be universally wrong.  Additionally, an act is held to be morally wrong if it is of benefit to the moralist that others believe that the moralist also holds the act to be universally wrong.  Primarily, a benefit means an increased probability of survival, but given that survival in abject misery is somewhat less attractive than survival in absolute bliss, a benefit can also refer to an increase of net well-being.

An act is right in a moral sense if it is of benefit to the moralist that others hold the act to be universally right, and it simultaneously benefits the moralist if others believe that the moralist also holds the act to be universally right.

Ethical considerations can work in a similar way with the exception that what is being considered to be wrong is wrong by virtue of a specific situation or relationship, as opposed to being universally wrong.  More often, however, ethical considerations are group considerations. 

An act is right in an ethical sense if it is of benefit to the group to which the "ethicist" belongs that others hold the act to be right in context of that group's activities, and it simultaneously benefits a group if those outside the group believe that members of the group also hold the act to be universally right. 

An example is the ethical stance of a bank manager with regard to honesty.  If clients hold that honesty in bank dealings is right then bank managers can trust clients, and if clients believe that bank managers also hold that honesty in bank dealings is right then clients will trust bank managers.  Since banking is heavily dependent on trust, that monies will be transferred as and when agreed, the ethical position of bank managers has functional benefit.  Furthermore, as a group, bank managers rely on the levels of trust developed by others in the group which is why bankers, and other professional groups, develop and publicise codes of ethics (sometimes referred to as codes of practice).

When developing a universal ethical structure (morality), it is not sufficient to have an internal conception of what is right and wrong.  Morality is only of benefit if it is overt and shared.  Furthermore, it is not sufficient to limit one's list of wrongful acts to only those acts which have greatest import.  By maintaining a register of less important wrongful acts, the commission of which is also ‘immoral’, the members of a society have a mechanism by which they can judge the morality of their fellows by their everyday behaviour, rather than by exception.

If I insist on breaking minor taboos, by being rude and inconsiderate, you are justified in wondering whether I consistently obey other (more important) moral injunctions, such as that against theft.  We tend to trust people who are overtly polite and considerate, sometimes to our disadvantage.  Confidence tricksters operate by gaining our trust by appearing to be entirely moral with respect to everyday community norms and then betraying us when it comes to concepts of possession and ownership.

(Many of us are therefore a little wary of people who appear too polite and considerate.  We know that we ourselves fail to be entirely polite and considerate from time to time, so when observing a person who is being very polite and considerate we are struck with the thought “What does this person really want?”)

We can therefore further say that moral and ethical considerations seem to rest on three fundamental rules:

            Do not intentionally do that which one knows to be considered to be wrong.

            Know what is considered to be wrong.

            Ensure that others know what is wrong.

This is not to say that all moral injunctions are universally relevant.  There are situations in which two moral injunctions compete, as in the prisoners’ dilemma where “do not lie” was in competition with “do not betray your colleagues”. Additionally, moral injunctions are only applicable with those you truly consider your equal in humanity.

Finally, it is not universally necessary to refrain from an act merely because the act is considered morally wrong.  It is more important that you are not observed performing an immoral act by someone who matters, in other words someone capable of ensuring that consequences will flow as a result of your performing that act.  This is why, when you put on a mask and join a mob of football hooligans, you are significantly more likely to smash a shop window than if you were just taking a nice afternoon stroll wearing nothing more than a hat.


This article is one of a series. It was preceded by Supreme Indifference and Inhumanity and will be followed by Physical Survival and Legacy Survival. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment, but play nicely!

Sadly, the unremitting attention of a spambot means you may have to verify your humanity.