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What is ethics and why do we need it

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Ifat Glassman
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[From my blog: Psychology of selfishness]

What is ethics and why do we need it?

We make decisions every day, all the time.

What do you think is the fundamental reason for our need to act, to make decisions?

One thing to notice is that our feelings and sensations depend on our choices. Certain things will make us happy, certain things will make us miserable.

Losing a house, a great job, a tooth, or a girlfriend can make one miserable. And yet the possession of these things is not automatic: it depends on the choices one makes every day.

So why do we need to make decisions? Because if we don't, we loose the things we enjoy, or don't gain them in the first place. And if taken to the extreme: Lack of action, lack of decisions - leads to death.

This much is available to every person: Just look at the decisions you've made today and notice that each one of them ultimately influences your feelings, sensation or well being.

Let's throw in a few examples:

  • Getting out of bed to go to work: Why make such a decision? Maybe because you love your job and you can't wait to get there. Maybe because if you don't, you don't have money, which means you can't pay rent, which means you live in the street in the rain and suffer.
  • Brushing teeth: Because it influences the sensation in your mouth and in the long run your ability to chew with your own teeth.
  • Turning on the T.V. : The enjoyment of watching entertaining things.

If you don't get out of bed, brush your teeth, turn on the T.V the default is death and suffering.

On the other hand if you make the right decisions the result is happiness, pleasure, enjoyment, health.

In other words we need to make decisions because fundamentally action is required to achieve happiness and to remain alive.

Every human being that ever existed needed some sort of guidance how to live, what to avoid, what to seek, how to get it.

We need that guidance not only in isolated cases, but in the most fundamental questions in our lives: What kind of person do I want to be? What lifestyle do I want? What purpose or goals should I seek?

Ethics is the branch of philosophy which answers that need. Ethics is known to most people as a list of "you shall"s and "you shall not"s. Or - "this is good" and "this is bad". The bible provides such guidelines or suggestions, such as "you shall not steal/ kill/ cheat...".

Some people think, therefore, that ethics is an arbitrary social invention, intended to bind some to the will of others.

Ethics is indeed a guide to life, a "shall and shall not's"- except, it assumes a standard. What is good and what is bad makes no sense apart from someone for which it is good or bad for, and a goal by which to measure "good" or "bad".

If you want to build a house, you should take certain actions and should not take others. Some actions are good and some are bad for your goal. The same is true for the ultimate goal - our own life and the enjoyment of it.

Notice that once the need has been identified - Ethics becomes a scientific matter. It requires a careful study of generations of human beings - the behaviors that promote their well being and the behaviors that inhibit or destroy it. It is a study that must identify our nature and needs, and provide principles accordingly.

Ethics is not empirical - just as building a table is not empirical. One indeed makes several trials building a table - but over the trials one discovers the proper principles of building it.

Similarly, ethics is not about measuring the gross domestic product of a society and recording the behavior of the majority of people living in it. It involves identification of the principles of behavior that lead to the success of an individual and a society. These principles are timeless, they always "work" given their context (that life, choice and happiness are possible).

Let's summarize: The need for ethics comes from the fact that we need to make decisions, and that our decisions influence our sensations, feelings and survival. If we wish to live, we need to act. Ethics therefore is a science that identifies the principles that best serve this goal.

Let's look at some examples. What method is best to make decisions? Is it our emotions, or our reasoning mind? Do we need to seek the truth, or is it best to indulge in self-illusions? These are fundamental questions and as such belong to the field of ethics.

Ethics does not prescribe every single decision one makes. It does not prescribe the method to brush one's teeth - but it will tell you that your health is a value that needs to be maintained. The details are up to a more specialized or specific study. Ethics won't tell you how to play chess - it will only evaluate the value of thought provoking games for you, and their role in life.

Ever had to decide between preparing for an important exam and going out for a movie? To make this decision, one must turn to basic principles: Do I decide by what provokes the strongest emotion or by reason? Do I decide by what I know is good for the long run? Should I even be doing something which is unpleasant for me at all? "live like there is no tomorrow" is a philosophical, ethical guideline (good or bad). One needs ethics whether one wants it or not, so long as one chooses to live.

Why choose to live? Because this is the only way for us to experience any pleasure. Pleasure is what we are driven by, by our nature. This is why suicide is only committed by depressed individuals, and not as a matter of a meaningless arbitrary choice. We all know that by living we can have everything, and in death there is nothing at all.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize one more aspect of ethics: Ethics is primarily a guide for an individual - not a society. It does have implications for life in society, if one chooses to have that, but it is primarily a personal guide.

If you now understand what ethics is and why we need it, the big question remaining is: what are those scientific ethical principles?

I found the answer in Ayn Rand's writing (which I cannot recommend enough) and in large this is the question I dedicate my blog to.

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Is this a question or an advertisement? I found it well written and pretty spot on except for one statement you made.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize one more aspect of ethics: Ethics is primarily a guide for an individual - not a society. It does have implications for life in society, if one chooses to have that, but it is primarily a personal guide.

Society is aggregate. In my opinion it is incorrect to say that ethics is primarily a guide for an individual and not a society. A society has no rights or ethical guide that are not derived from its constituent individuals. The above statement is similar to saying that gravity is primarily a force on atoms, not on larger structures. Ethics are primarily a guide for individuals and by extension society.

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The above statement is similar to saying that gravity is primarily a force on atoms, not on larger structures. Ethics are primarily a guide for individuals and by extension society.

Not really. Philosophically speaking, individuals have ethics, society has politics. Ethics involves "What should I do" whereas politics involves "How should people interact with each other". The fact that ethics impacts society indirectly does not make ethics "for" society. Society cannot ask itself "what should I do" because it is not an entity.

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I took a computing related ethics course recently and observed a fundamental problem that seems to crop up in most similar settings for discussing ethics (aside from the fundamental 'emergency situation' problem which frames most such discussions)

- the introduction to these studies is always tautological

they'll say 'what is ethics?' to start off, then answer by saying ethics is morality, or ethics is right or wrong

and of course if you want to define morality they will say 'morality is ethics.' it becomes circular immediately.

you are right, right or wrong assumes a standard. this step seems to get skipped quite often

i concocted my own definition, i invite anyone to comment:

Ethics is the standards/rules which govern behavior according to the metaphysical values held by the individual.

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Ethics is the standards/rules which govern behavior according to the metaphysical values held by the individual.
"Standards" and "rules" are not the same thing, and here "rules" (or "principles") would be correct. Not all behavior is within the purview of ethics -- only volitional behavior is. Furthermore, "behavior" is superficial and involves much more than choice (it also involves the metaphysically-given unknown) -- it is not unethical to have a heart attack and crash your car into a house, but it is unethical to chose to drive your car into a house. This definition also suggests that ethics is subjective and relative to individual whim, with no objective purpose to ethics.
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Is your definition intended to be one for correct ethics or a non-specific concept of ethics? If your intent is correct ethics then a lot of elaboration is required. For ethics as a concept and not a specific system I would say only slight modification is needed. This is all just opinion on my part, of course.

"Ethics are the standards/rules that must govern behavior for the achievement and protection of values to be possible." seems a little closer to the mark to me.

"Morality is a system of principles for determining the propriety of proposed values." might help keep out of that circular reasoning you're talking about.

I'm sure there is significant room for improvement in the above definitions, but they seem a good place to start.

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Is this a question or an advertisement?

An advertisement? I guess you could look at it as an advertisement for my blog. But not really in the sense of an advertisement to buy a product. I'm still thinking how to make money from my blog. Haven't come up with an efficient way yet.

Society is aggregate. In my opinion it is incorrect to say that ethics is primarily a guide for an individual and not a society. A society has no rights or ethical guide that are not derived from its constituent individuals. The above statement is similar to saying that gravity is primarily a force on atoms, not on larger structures. Ethics are primarily a guide for individuals and by extension society.

But that is exactly what I was saying, almost in these exact words: "Ethics are primarily a guide for individuals and by extension society".

I said: "Ethics is primarily a guide for an individual - not a society. It does have implications for life in society, if one chooses to have that, but it is primarily a personal guide".

In any case, we agree.

I took a computing related ethics course recently and observed a fundamental problem that seems to crop up in most similar settings for discussing ethics (aside from the fundamental 'emergency situation' problem which frames most such discussions)

- the introduction to these studies is always tautological

they'll say 'what is ethics?' to start off, then answer by saying ethics is morality, or ethics is right or wrong

and of course if you want to define morality they will say 'morality is ethics.' it becomes circular immediately.

you are right, right or wrong assumes a standard. this step seems to get skipped quite often

Yes. Religion commits the same error. Nietzsche commits the same error. Ayn Rand was the first to solve this problem (lack of standard) and salvage ethics.

i concocted my own definition, i invite anyone to comment:

Ethics is the standards/rules which govern behavior according to the metaphysical values held by the individual.

I think it's better to start with examples, and only then go to the definition. A definition is only good as a summary of the essence of the concretes it subsumes.

But to offer a correction to your definition: Ethics is not standardS. Ethics is a code of values, meaning, inter-connected evaluations of what is good for man and what is bad for man (the values and principles of behavior to achieve them - or values and virtues).

A standard is what is behind the values and virtues (what makes them values to begin with).

For example, if you want to build a table, the existence of a functional table (the kind of entity that a table IS) is your standard. The standard makes stability and flatness of surface values, which in turn require certain principles of behavior (how to build the table), which in ethics would be the equivalent of virtues.

Another example, the Objectivist ethics hold this code of values: Reason, purpose, self esteem (it is a CODE of values, not just a collection of values because they assume a single standard: man's life) then the achievement of these values require virtues (principles of behavior): Independence, honesty, integrity, pride and the rest of them.

Religion is also a philosophy with its ethics and principles like "you shall not steal/ kill/ worship another god etc". It is a code of values because it is integrated under "god's word" (that's the best I can think of).

So ethics is most definitely not "standards".

Second problem is with "metaphysical values held by an individual". (I am not sure what you mean by "metaphysical values" - some examples would be good). If ethics depends on the values a specific individual holds (by which I mean, the things he desires) then it becomes subjective (I think someone has said it in this thread already, but can't find whom).

General comment: A definition is always good as a method of getting hold of a subject, but it is only good as summarization (or generalization) of the concretes it subsumes. If not, it is just a collection of words. So the place to start is with examples of ethical principles and values.

Edited by ifatart
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"Standards" and "rules" are not the same thing, and here "rules" (or "principles") would be correct. Not all behavior is within the purview of ethics -- only volitional behavior is. Furthermore, "behavior" is superficial and involves much more than choice (it also involves the metaphysically-given unknown) -- it is not unethical to have a heart attack and crash your car into a house, but it is unethical to chose to drive your car into a house. This definition also suggests that ethics is subjective and relative to individual whim, with no objective purpose to ethics.

OK so we drop 'standards' from the definition

it is true the definition should not extend to non-voluntary behavior, although i think my wording implies this already - 'governs' 'according to' suggests its only referring to such behavior that IS consciously governed. But i take your point, for clarity it could be reworded as

'the rules that govern voluntary acts according to metaphysical values held by the individual'

how's that?

People can pick the correct values thus making their ethics externally objective (Objectivism even), but they can also pick values that lead to a religious or altruistic (for instance) system of ethics. To answer Castle's question: I was addressing the general definition of ethics, not trying to promote correct ethics. So I don't really see it as a problem that this definition seems to allow for individual whim and subjectivity

I will be back to answer the other (interesting) points later

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OK so we drop 'standards' from the definition ...

Mind if I ask, why are you trying to get a definition?

'the rules that govern voluntary acts according to metaphysical values held by the individual'

how's that?

What are "metaphysical values" - can you give some examples?

People can pick the correct values thus making their ethics externally objective (Objectivism even), but they can also pick values that lead to a religious or altruistic (for instance) system of ethics. To answer Castle's question: I was addressing the general definition of ethics, not trying to promote correct ethics. So I don't really see it as a problem that this definition seems to allow for individual whim and subjectivity

What is "externally objective"? What makes values objective? You state those things, but I think they require explanation.

By the way, there is already a definition of ethics by Ayn Rand which you might find useful. You can check it out at the Ayn Rand lexicon.

Edited by ifatart
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