The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 3)

Here it is, the last installment of my attempt to per-emptively justify the outrage I’m inevitably going to inspire with my up-coming Month of Blood series – it’s the Ethics of Ethics Part 3! This week we finally (finally) start to get a bit more practical, drawing on the slightly trippier aspects of philosophy I summarized with utterly brutal efficiency over the last two weeks, to build some theories of Normative Ethics (ie. How to do stuff)

For those with no idea what the hell I’m taking about, check out Parts 1 and 2:
The Ethics of Ethics (Part 1)
The Ethics of Ethics (Part 2)


Normative Ethics – How to do stuff

So we’ve discussed the foundation of ethics in reality (long story short, ethics should be approached as a science) and had a look into causality, whether free will exists (it doesn’t) and the implications of that for how we live our lives. Both of those give us some pretty broad guidelines for how we live our lives day-to-day, but for the most part they’re too unapplied to have a lot of relevance – as was pointed out last week, even if free will doesn’t exists it doesn’t mean a lot to us when we’re not capable of doing anything with that information. It doesn’t really matter if you getting out of bed for work is pre-destined or not; if you don’t you’re getting fired bud.

Normative ethics fills that gap. What does ‘normative’ mean? Buggered if I know, but it’s about building a method that allows you to make every-day decision. Say you find a wallet on the ground and trying to decide if you should hand it in to the cops, or take the cash for yourself. A discussion over the nature of reality or whether the decision is actually in your hands at all is not very helpful here. What you need is a clear-cut applied method that can take the facts of the situation and turn you out a clear, solid, defensible solution.

An interesting by-product of this is that Normative ethics is not really concerned with the solution you reach (as per our metaethics, that depends on the facts of the situation), but more about how you arrive at that conclusion in the first place.

And as you should now be coming to expect, there are a couple of different schools of thought on the subject (each with a couple of dozen sub-faction) that are the source of endless philosophical debate to this day. For some reason…

Deontology (a man’s gotta have a Code)

Basically put, Deontology says that we should conduct ourselves according to clear-cut rule and principles that should never be broken, and should have nasty consequences when they are. Whether we’re talking ancient Greek Virtue ethics that listed qualities a man should embody, Kant’s Categorical Imperative that was more focussed around duties we owe ourselves and others, or the more recent branch of Care Ethics that tell to use empathy to decide what to do, the essential point is the same; These here are the rules. Don’t mess with ‘em. You find that wallet on the ground, you turn it in to the police, because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is; deontology is the go-to method for pretty much every person and organisation out there who reckons they should have a say over how you live. Government laws, school rules, a business’s policies, religious creeds, person Code; all deontological systems of ethics. ‘Do what we say to be a good person. Only bad people break the rules, and they have to pay the price to be considered good again’.

Of course, just because these systems are hard and fast doesn’t mean they don’t get broken – in fact if the system is worth its salt the rules will actually be really hard to stick to and get broken all the time. It just means that if you do break the rules (and you will) you have to feel really guilty about it and try to make up for it.

When we say someone is ‘honourable’, Deontology is what we’re talking about – they have a strict code of right and wrong, and they stick to it. If they break it, they have been dishonoured, and if they fail to make amends, they are dishonourable.

Utilitarianism (The Greater Good. The Greater Good)

In stark contrast to the solid rules of Deontology, we have the slippery bastard that is Utilitarianism. This system is far more a method than set of rules, and comes in a few different flavours;
• The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few
• The greatest good for the greatest number
• Cost versus benefits
• The means are justified by the ends

Overall, what we’re being told is that what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ depends entirely on the situation. Just because a course of action might be right in one situation, doesn’t mean it always is. So you found a wallet on the street – sure you should probably turn it into the cops, but is it worth the effort necessary to do so? What if you’re crazy busy? What if you can put the money to better use than the owner? What if you have reason to believe the owner is a ratbag who will most definitely NOT put that money to good use?

Far from a clear-cut answer, Utilitarianism tends to offer a lot more questions, and context is king.

But what about all those varied flavours up there? Depending on which particular type of Utilitarianism you subscribe to, you’re going to get some seriously different answers – ‘Greatest good for the greatest number’ tends to put the needs of a large group ahead of individuals, regardless of how serious the situation is. ‘The means are justified by the ends’ on the other hand is exactly the sort of thinking that got us September 11, the Iraq War and pretty much every atrocity ever committed.

Happily there is a solid answer to this: An action can be considered ethical when the benefits outweigh the costs, and no superior alternatives exist.

Note that last line, because it makes all the difference – what we are seeking with any sort of Normative Ethics (or any ethics at all for that matter) is the best possible outcome. Deontology tries to achieve that through a solid set of rules; Utilitarianism does it by asking you to weigh the costs and benefits of the various approaches available and choose the best one.

That’s all very well, but which one should I use?

Well as you’ve probably noticed by now, both have their pros and cons.

Remember how I said an honourable person was someone who stuck by their Deontological Code of ethics? Well, as fellow fans of the series Game of Thrones well know, honour sometimes makes people do very, VERY stupid things that are clearly going to end badly for everyone involve…


…but the honourable person does them anyway because that’s their code and they’re sticking to it.

The major problem with any set series of rules is that they’re never going to be comprehensive enough to cover ever potential situation a person might find themselves in, leaving that person clueless as to what they should be doing and unable to make a decision.

Even worse, since the rule systems are written (or at the very least interpreted) by people, there’s an extremely good chance we will cock them up – assuming we don’t deliberately distort them for our own interests in the first place – which means you now have a whole group of people running around attempting to live up to a set of rules that lead to really shitty outcomes, or flat-out don’t make any sense. God help the Christians, who in seeking guidance from the Bible, found that some parts of it actually contradict other parts of it, leaving them screwed no matter what they do.

Utilitarianism on the other hand, is a far more accurate method of finding an ethical solution to our problems. Because it makes you ask questions and think through the various outcomes of different approaches, the odds are far better that you’ll find a good option than if you just stick to a set of rules that didn’t have this specific situation in mind when they were written.

Unfortunately however, Utilitarianism is a slippery bastard. The fact that it relies almost exclusively on the individual to make the decisions (rather than an institution or a written-down creed) make it INCREDIBLY easy to abuse.

Say you found a wallet on the street, and after weighing up all the facts available, come to the inescapable conclusion that you should return it to its owner – but you don’t want to. You really quite prefer to keep the money. And whereas under a Deontological system you’d need to find a loophole in the rules, or pay penance for breaking them, as a Utilitarian all you have to do is accidentally happen to ignore certain pertinent facts about the situation (such as you know how to return the wallet) and you’re home free! You get to keep the wallet AND feel good about the decision. Sure this is false Utilitarianism, but since it’s more of an internal (or completely subconscious) monologue rather than a public commitment, what are you going to do about it?

Unsurprisingly, poor-quality Utilitarianism lays at the root of pretty much every horrific thing that has ever happened.


Want to cheat on your diet? Well one chocolate’s not going to make all that much difference and you’d enjoy it so much! Late for work? Speeding is a victimless crime provided you don’t crash (which you won’t since you’re such a great driver). Want to rob a bank? Ah it’s all Federally Insured, where’s the harm? Need an excuse to slaughter a race you don’t like and take their stuff? Why should we give them rights when they’re genetically inferior?

So…which one should I use again?

Depends on how much of a dick you plan on being, really.

Objectively speaking, Utilitarianism is the right answer because (used right) it will always lead to better outcomes than any set of hard and fast rules could ever hope to achieve.

But Utilitarianism is also far easier to mess with because it all depends on you to stick to the method, acknowledge all the relevant facts and go with the right options, even if you don’t want to. So for the weak willed, those with poor self-awareness and the generally dickish, a clear-cut Deontological Code is the way to go – just be aware that it’s only a start.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which ethical system you use; both depend on you.

37 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 3)

  1. If I were to take your description of determinism from your previous post, it seems reasonable then that deontology is reasonable as there should be a set of rules that could govern how we all live. Of course the problem is, that we don’t understand absolutely everything in order to come up with such rules. The fact remains that it is theoretically possible though. And as you said in your post about the meaning of life, perhaps we are marching towards a reasonable set of rules over time.

    I think what’s key, is how we determine the rules, and that in breaking the rules we are not unnecessarily punitive. That is where deontology I think makes the most mistakes. If we took a very scientific approach to try and derive the rules we might do a lot better and be able to attribute a certain level of uncertainty to such rules. This would also mean that we would have to continually check the validity of those rules over time to see if they still apply. Since life is a dynamic system it is a mistake that most deontological systems treat life as a static system. Many in the US still cling to a 200 year old document, claiming that it should be followed according to its original intent. The Bible itself, no matter how well meaning such rules were first developed, is terribly outdated. If you read the book of Leviticus for example from a historical perspective you can see that the entire intent of that book is hygiene. What to eat, how to prepare food, safe sex, taking care of your skin, etc. Trying to apply anything from that book to society today is just an absolute mistake, yet many people try. So rules thus have to be a function of both space and time and cannot be static. Is a rule that is possibly continually adjusted still a “rule”? Does it become harder to follow if it changes from time to time?

    It’s interesting that once again I thought a lot of Asimov when I read your description of Utilitarianism. In his robot series two robots evolve to essentially break free of their programming of the 3 laws of robotics through experiential learning and logical arguments. Based on the idea that their laws are incomplete for truly protecting humans, because humans are most protected when humanity’s well being as a whole is protected. Like us they struggle with the idea of the definition of humanity. Is humanity a thing one can point to? Is it abstract? How can we know today what will benefit humanity in the long run? Utilitarianism asks us to analyze deeply the past and try our best to navigate an unknown future based on what has happened before. In the end it seems like most humans are just too lazy to spend the kind of energy it takes to be utilitarian. They’d rather have a set of rules to follow, even if it means breaking them from time to time. Because even the punishment for rule breaking is usually a fairly well established as well, so at least you’ll know the consequences before you decide to break the rule.

    • Hey Swarn, excellent point. I actually agree totally with the idea that Utilitarianism and Deontology can be reconciled, and that Utilitarianism is a sort of reactive way of describing an ideal Deontological rule-set. The trick, which you rightly point out, is that that ‘perfect’ Deontological set of rules is nothing less than a complete and accurate description of the universe as a whole. Not only is that amount of information virtually impossible to manage, it’s also makes that theoretical set of rules way too extensive to be useful for us poor humans. That’s an interesting question about whether a constantly adjusting ‘rule’ is in fact a rule at all! I prefer to think of it the same as science – not a rule, but rather a theory that is improved over time towards a theoretical ‘perfect’ answer.

      From a practical standpoint you’re totally right about Deontological systems tending to stagnate – the Bible in particular is half the motivation for this post. I sincerely hope that anyone reading this might look at it and other Morals in a slightly more critical light as a result. Unfortunately it’s been pointed out to me that human psychology is not designed for science or rationality, but rather to survive – things like confirmation bias, punitive reactions to ‘rule breakers’ and dogmatic adherence to set Morals all make sense from a survival point of view, but aren’t so helpful now unfortunately.

      • Thank you for the reply! The concept of perfection has always been an interesting one to me (in fact I have been meaning to write a blog piece about it for some time) because it seems to me to describe a condition that we can never actually reach. In fact again, going back to Asimov’s writings in the Robot Series the group of people (The Spacers) who use robots and have an idyllic end up stagnating, while the less than perfect robot rejecting society for the most part ends up sort of being more successful in the long run. I’d rather see perfection as like an asymptote in a mathematical function. Something you can march closer towards and never really reach.

        Of course all this depends on us actually being to define what perfection is. This is always the main problem I have debating with religious people is because the believe that there is a God, but nobody seems to define God in the exact same way. So they’ll say God is perfect, but since perfect can’t really be defined it becomes a hard thing to disprove. So while it’s true you may not be able to disprove the concept of a God. As soon as somebody gives a definition of what God is capable of, it tends to be not so hard to disprove. You can say “Well there might be still a God, but he’s certainly not answering people’s prayers or whatever”. So for a deontological system to work we would have know all the rules of the universe and I don’t think it is possible to predict this. Such a state could only be realized once we are actually there, because any predictions we make beforehand about what perfection might be is likely to be at least partially wrong or wholly wrong given that we don’t understand the universe completely.

        The problem with the world is that there are people who think they have found perfection already, and wham we have religion. Even if there was a God, to think that man could have understood what God wanted so completely as to have this immutable set of rules for us to follow is just ridiculous; not to mention presumptuous and arrogant. Unless you have the final and ultimate deontological universe as we’ve mentioned our description of the universe is always incomplete and we need utilitarianism. It seems to me that a true deontological society is one for which learning is actually bad and would be discouraged. In some ways that seems to do a good job of describing the difference between conservatives and liberals. Those who are deontological to those who are utilitarian. Perhaps that is an over generalization!

        And yes, all we are required really to do is survive long enough to reproduce which is damn shame considering we are capable of so much more. This idea has been growing in my mind a lot lately as well.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Manipulation | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Being Allowed to Breed | The Ethics Of

  4. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Allowing YOURSELF to Breed | The Ethics Of

  5. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Crazy People | The Ethics Of

  6. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Jesus | The Ethics Of

  7. Pingback: Childhood Carnage: The Ethics Of… Superman (and friends) | The Ethics Of

  8. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Mercy | The Ethics Of

  9. Pingback: The Ethics Of… School | The Ethics Of

  10. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Taking Citizenship from Terrorists | The Ethics Of

  11. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Dead Idiots (Natural Selection) | The Ethics Of

  12. Pingback: The Ethics Of… 9/11 | The Ethics Of

  13. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Spying | The Ethics Of

  14. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Telling People What To Do | The Ethics Of

  15. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The Essendon Doping Saga | The Ethics Of

  16. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Lance Armstrong | The Ethics Of

  17. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Chucking a Sickie | The Ethics Of

  18. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Selling Out | The Ethics Of

  19. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The Housing Boom | The Ethics Of

  20. Pingback: Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Fascism | The Ethics Of

  21. Pingback: Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Socialism | The Ethics Of

  22. Pingback: Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Nihilism | The Ethics Of

  23. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Forcing People to Vote | The Ethics Of

  24. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Kicking out the Muslims | The Ethics Of

  25. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Seeking Asylum. Take 2. | The Ethics Of

  26. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Fascism | The Ethics Of

  27. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Punching Nazis | The Ethics Of

  28. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The Immigration Ban | The Ethics Of

  29. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Ignoring the Homeless | The Ethics Of

  30. Pingback: Smutty February: The Ethics Of… Sluts | The Ethics Of

  31. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Public Goddamned Transport and the Inevitable Collapse of Human Society | The Ethics Of

  32. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Conservation Hunting | The Ethics Of

  33. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Wonder Woman | The Ethics Of

  34. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Gay Marriage | The Ethics Of

  35. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Fear | The Ethics Of

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s