Saturday, October 31, 2009

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.