Anyone who has read more than one or two of the posts on here has likely noticed some themes popping up. Throughout the various social, economic and political issues discussed there are indeed several core ethical ideas/tools that I use a lot.
The purpose of this page is to lay them out so that you can get a clearer understanding of what I’m going on about, as well as to invite criticism – it would hardly be fair for me to rip on everyone else’s beliefs but not put my own up for scrutiny, hey? Need more information, or want to give me a taste of my own medicine? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below!
Your understanding of the world is almost definitely wrong – Human understanding of the universe is limited due to our reliance on both our senses (both practically limited and easily fooled) and our brains (limited in processing power and evolved to keep us alive rather than make quality decisions). As such every human’s understanding of the world is unreliable, limited and often factually incorrect. Hence, ethics conducts itself as a science and concerns itself with establishing not ‘what we like’ or ‘what fits our existing ideas about the world’, but rather with ‘what can be proven to be true’.
Ethics is a science – For ethics to be useful, they must be concerned with the real world; objective facts rather than subjective or unprovable/theoretical concepts. Facts are best identified through the scientific method which avoid human unreliability by constantly trying to disprove and improve upon everything it knows. Old or incomplete ideas are discarded and upgraded constantly; this same method should also be applied to ideals.
Context is king – If ethics should be concerned with the real world then it must consider all relevant facts in making a decision to ensure that decision is correct. Ignoring context ignores facts, which will lead to incorrect or flawed solutions to a problem.
Questions without answers are philosophy, not ethics – Many attempts to answer ethical problems resort to theories which simple cannot be proven, such as multiverse theory, theology, the brain-in-the-tank theory, or speculation on the ‘purpose’ of humanity. Since evidence for or against these is by definition impossible to gather, these theories are philosophical in nature and of no relevance to ethics.
Responsibility is not divisible – Responsibility for any given situation cannot be divided amongst the players involved like a pie, but must rather be calculated for each individual separately based on their capacity to intervene in the situation. While contextual factors such as psychological, physical and ability limitations must be taken into account in this individual calculation, the actions/inactions of other players are irrelevant; all that matters is what each individual did, could and should have done.
There is no ethical difference between an action and an inaction – Stripped of all mitigating factors, there is no ethical distinction between committing an act and allowing an act to happen. There may be many contextual reasons why a person may not rescue a child from drowning for example, but if an individual faces none of these barriers and chooses to watch the child drown, their ethical responsibility for the harm is no different than if they actively drowned the child.
Balancing principles with practicalities – In order to improve a situation, ethics must reconcile the difference between the way things should be (principles) and the ways things currently are (practicalities). Approaches that ignore practical realities in pursuit of higher principles are idealistic and will generally fail. Approaches that justify harmful situations based on a pragmatic acceptance of the current reality are cowardly and unethical when superior alternatives are possible.
Free will does not exist – Any serious study of physics, genetics, sociology or human psychology demonstrates that human beings cannot have a will that is ‘free’ from any of these factors. Even if we decide that the human mind is somehow free of causality, the only alternative to this is unpredictable randomness, which is outside human control by definition. That ‘free will’ is therefore an illusion means little on a daily practical level, but has significant implications for questions of responsibility, decision-making and how best to deal with unethical behaviours. See The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 2)