Note: This is part 2 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 3, and part 4, and part 5.
When asked about whether a given act is moral, most of us will make a conclusion based on our initial intuition, and then try to rationalize a justification for that initial intuition. In day-to-day life, this intuitive approach to ethics usually works quite well. In this series of posts, however, I’m trying to go beyond this ad hoc, gut-level approach to morality. To really understand morality, I think we need to understand why a given act is moral or immoral.
In this post about morality, I’ll start by listing a set of baseline premises we can use to determine what makes something moral. I will try to give rational justifications for each of these premises. I admit that some of my justifications are somewhat conclusory, but I don’t think that most of these will be terribly controversial. If you can think of any better justifications for these premises, or of any good ways to refute them, please share in the comments. They are listed below (in roughly descending order of importance):
Perpetuation of the human race
Ensuring that the human race as a group survives, thrives, and progresses is more important than anything else.
This principle may seem to be removed from day-to-day life. Few of us will make choices which will, by themselves, determine the fate of all of humanity. But at the same time, the aggregate of our individual choices does determine humankind’s destiny. And the welfare of humankind should take precedence over everything else. Why? There are several reasons:
1. The ability to think, reason, and understand the world is something special and unique. The universe will be a worse place without beings there to understand it, so it is important to make sure that humanity not only survives, but that we continue to advance in our understanding of the universe.
2. The biological imperative: Evolution has shaped our behaviors and desires to ensure the survival of our species. We owe our very existence to these evolutionarily-determined behaviors and desires. These innate urges, desires, and behaviors are powerful and shape much of our behavior (both consciously and unconsciously). A reasonable moral system should account for these behaviors and desires and channel them to fulfill their purpose. A successful moral system needs to encourage the perpetuation of the species – if the species is not perpetuated, then the moral system will not be perpetuated either.
3. Mortality: all of us are going to die, but the perpetuation of humanity ensures that something of ourselves will continue on.
The Value of human life
Every human being is entitled to life. There are several reasons for this:
1. Intrinsic value: each human being is unique and is capable of making different contributions to our society and to humanity’s future.
2. Biological imperative: Every living thing has an instinct to self-preservation. Only living things which survive to reproduce pass on their genes. The process of evolution has thus selected for each of us to have the desire to stay alive. Our ancestors survived to reproduce because they had the urge to stay alive. We owe our existence to this instinct, and any reasonable moral system must account for this strong biological urge and encourage its continuing vitality.
3. Autonomy: because each person is independent and autonomous, each person’s life has independent value.
Individual Autonomy and accountability
Because each person is a separate individual, each person is free to determine the course of his or her own life and seek after his or her own happiness. Even when a person’s freedom is infringed by others (by being imprisoned, for example), that person is still free to make choices within the constraints placed on him or her and is free to think whatever he or she wants.
Every person is free to choose his or her actions, but every action has natural consequences which result from that action. When we choose something, we are also therefore choosing the consequences which come with that choice. This means that autonomy also comes with accountability: each person is accountable for the consequences of his or her actions.
Importance of community
No one is an island. Humans are social animals. We are each part of a larger community and society. Community is incredibly important, and moral rules should ensure that our society and community survives and thrives for the following reasons:
1. Social benefits: we have evolved to need social contact. Living in a community provides the social interactions which are essential for good mental health.
2. Protection: living in a community affords us protection from dangerous people and animals.
3. Material benefits: Almost all of the material benefits we derive from modern life (easy access to food and shelter, modern medicine, gadgets and tools to make life easier, etc.) come from the benefits of living in a community: for example, I could not build a car or a computer on my own, nor do I grow my own food (and the list could go on). Each of us is immeasurably better off because of our society/community.
Respect for living things
We should respect other living things and promote their welfare, inasmuch as doing so does not threaten the welfare of other humans. There are several reasons for this:
1. Animals are autonomous and many exhibit some level of being self-aware, so some of the justifications for humans’ autonomy and for the value of human life also apply (to a lesser degree) to animals.
2. Our survival depends on the survival of the living things around us. The Earth remains habitable for us because of the respiration of plants and the complex interactions of living organisms. Moreover, as omnivores, we depend for sustenance on eating a variety of other living things. We use also materials created from living things for a variety of other non-food uses.
3. The variety of living things on the Earth make it beautiful and pleasant.
Intentions and consequentialism
A moral system should incentivize and maximize moral behavior. When evaluating the morality of an action (both before and after the proposed action has been accomplished), both the intentions of the actor and the likely consequences of the act are relevant.
A moral system’s value comes from governing the conduct of individuals to bring about positive, moral results. The morality of an act cannot therefore be divorced from its consequences. When evaluating an the morality of an action (or inaction), the consequences of that act matter. Focusing on the consequences of an act encourages people to carefully evaluate the likely outcomes of their decisions and encourages them to maximize positive and moral outcomes as much as possible. Focusing on the consequences of an act helps to encourage better results.
Intentions are also important, though, when evaluating an act’s morality because none of us can perfectly predict the future; when evaluating the morality of a future action, the consequences which the actor expects to result from an act (or inaction), and the actor’s reasons for doing (or not doing) something are an important consideration.
While it is true that a person’s actions do not always accomplish that person’s intended result, when someone intends to accomplish something, he or she is more likely to achieve that result than when he or she does not intend the result. There will thus be more outcomes which are moral when the moral system successfully encourages people to act with good intentions. A moral system should thus encourage people to have moral intentions, and judge the morality of actions based on the actor’s intent.
It is better for more people to be happy than fewer. Taking into account the above considerations, and all other things being equal, we should act in a way that maximizes the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles.
In part three of this series, I’ll explore how applying these premises can help us derive a coherent system of morality.