Common Sense Ethics

A significant aspect of the study of ethics is that ethical experimentation is an entirely mental and rational activity.  No laboratory is required, simply a rigorous and serious application of thought.  Why then, I am inclined to ask, do so few people consider ethics at all in their daily lives?  Ethics is essentially an attempt to answer the basic question: “What should I do?”  I don’t mean should in the general sense, but in the sense that the speaker is asking what good truly is.  A vanishingly small fraction of the population takes any time at all to analyze their ethical framework or meta-ethical processes, which is a shame because it’s a faculty that is available to you at all times.  You would think that some people would consider it, if for no other purpose than that they’re bored and want something to think about or discuss.  Instead, most people simply absorb the ethics that are heaped upon them in the form of societal common sense, and run into the sign “stop thinking here” and obediently and immediately cease extending the field.

Common sense makes a great starting point for ethical discussion.  For example, there is the stereotypical children’s ethical mandate of not stealing, learned at a very early age and forcibly conditioned into each and every one of us.  However, it is the role of moral philosophers to question every last scrap of ethical knowledge we have, and to generalize to create rules that apply to reality in as broad a way as possible.  In the case of stealing, it turns out that it’s fairly easy to prove it’s immoral.  Let’s assume theft is moral.  So, by stealing something, I am claiming the rights to property, while at the same time denying the right of someone else to that same property.  Contradictory, and infeasible, so theft is immoral.  Even though this proof is so simple, nobody really thinks of morality in these terms.  Ask someone why theft is bad and they’ll be confused, maybe spluttering back “because it is” or some similar platitude, or maybe regurgitating some quote they heard that sounds like a plausible explanation.

The truth is that a great deal of our common sense ethics is flawed.  Now, most people know this.  In fact, a great part of our education is growing out of our common sense ethical paradigm.  Unfortunately, most modern and postmodern thinkers look at the flaws in common sense ethics and conclude that there can be no ethics, and that everything is relative.  And because common sense ethics, unextended, creates a fertile soil for extreme relativism, most students are fully prepared to accept these ideas because it rings true for them.  We can’t judge another society because we are simply using one cultural standard to judge another, yada yada yada.  In a way this is true, and in a way it isn’t.  This elaborate construct of confusion is presented as the postmodern crux used to conclude that meaning is relative, nothing means anything, ethics are all gray and confusing, we should just live out our lives, yet at the same time you’re special adding a second layer of confusion and there are still more on top of that.  It’s a morass.  Anyway, I am here to say that ethics do make sense.  The world is not inherently a confusing and shades-of-grey place.  True, there are lots of situations where what you should do is difficult to decide.  On the one hand is ethics, and on the other is raw utility which does in fact have ethical significance (more on this later).  Maybe you have to choose which of a number of equally deserving groups should receive your help.  These are all tough choices, but they’re not ethically rigorous choices.  You are not ethically constrained in all situations of your life because in such situations you can usually use a different decision metric to arrive at a more representative conclusion.  For example, when deciding the best way to build a house, an architect isn’t asking what is the most ethical way to make the building not collapse- he’s dealing in structural analysis, and stress, loads, tension, compression, etc. etc.  He’s not ethically constrained in how he should build the house, and is free to use another, more useful, model.

One of the most serious misapplications of ethics is the distortion of what value or utility actually is.  Firstly, utility is simply a mental construct used to formalize the exchange of value.  The concept of utility does not exist in reality, therefore utilitarianism will always default to the subjective perception of the decider.  There is no objective, universal analysis of what utility is.  The idea that there is will truly mess up any model that uses a utility metric (or, all standard-type decision making models).  Secondly, utility is always convertible.  You can convert X utility into anything.  There are a number of common sense ethical fallacies, such as that human life is somehow worth a “different sort of stuff” than other ethical concerns.  True, human life is extraordinarily valuable, and pinning a utility value to it is probably one of the most difficult ethical problems, but it does have a price tag, because utility is subjective.  The idea that ‘human life’ and ‘other stuff’ are inherently unexchangeable contradicts what happens every day, when people kill one another for the sake of causes, or hit men killing people for money, or euthanasia.  To say that human life is infinitely valuable, and can only be meaningfully compared relative to other human life, produces an extremely convoluted ethical meta-model and decision making model.

Perhaps this analysis sounds a little cold.  OK, let’s have a thought experiment.  I present you with a button.  If you press this button, you will receive $1 billion in cash, immediately.  There is a warehouse through that door behind you stuffed with hundred dollar bills, and it’s all yours if you press this button.  The catch is, hoho, that there is a 1 in 1,000,000,000 chance that someone will die if you press this button.  There is a 1 in 1 billion chance that you will have murdered someone to get filthy rich yourself.  Do you press the button?  Is it ethical to press the button?  If you could press it any number of times, how many times would you or should you press it?  Bear in mind that if you press it a billion times, your expected value is 1 person killed in exchange for $1.0 x 10^18 dollars.  That would be, just to print it out for you, $1,000,000,000,000,000,000.  A billion billion dollars, more money than exists in the world right now.  You would literally be able to buy the entire planet if you were so inclined.  Any thoughts?

Here is my analysis of this problem.  You may press that button as many times as you like, up to an infinite number of times.  Now, when dealing with extreme limits, weird things happen, so don’t tell me that I would kill an infinite number of people by doing that- we’re dealing with practical reality.  For example, when you drive to work, what is the risk you are running of killing someone in return for getting to work for one day?  And you are actually having to work for your day’s pay, so your value from arriving is thereby reduced.  If you could just press this button and earn your day’s pay, you have just drastically cut down your fatality footprint on the world.  As the days you drive to and from work approaches infinity, how many people have you killed versus using the button?  Yet we have no moral problem with putting our fellow man at risk when we can just ignore the risk because it isn’t in our interest to cause harm.  Because it is assumed that you don’t want to get into an accident and that you’re trying to avoid one, we ignore the risk of causing one for practical, common sense ethical issues.  Therefore, driving a car is considered perfectly moral, while pressing the button causes a little anxiety.  Now, if you still don’t accept the button concept, let’s play with the numbers.  What if it was a trillion dollars and a 1 in a trillion chance of killing someone?  What if the odds were astronomically small, like 1 in 10^20?  What about 1 in 10^100?  If you believe that human life has an infinite value relative to earthly things’ finite value, you may not press the button as long as the risk of killing someone is nonzero.  So you are condemned to a bubble-life where you never see, talk to, or touch anyone, ever since you might give them a disease.  You will never operate machinery or pick up things you might drop on them, you may never do anything on the grounds that there is some impossibly small chance that you may cause measurable harm to another person.  If you wanted to really push the boat out here, we might say that according to quantum mechanics, you have no guarantee that the statue of liberty’s atoms won’t vibrate in just such a way as to cause her to take a walk down Broadway.  I don’t even want to think about how ridiculously, insanely unlikely that is.  However, that means that morally, you have no right to exist, because there is always some freakishly obscene chance that your atoms will all decide to explode, or that pencil you’re holding will morph into a knife and fly across the room, etc. etc.  And as long as the probability is nonzero, you can’t risk it.  Let’s not even get into the issue of the relative value of life.  Do apes count?  Monkeys?  Cats?  Clams?  Microbes (on whom you commit genocide on a daily basis)?  Why are you assigning such insane values to human life, other than the fact that you want to neurotically control other humans to protect yourself?  Are you that terrified of someone deciding to kill you?

Moral codes are the most frequently used tool to control people’s behavior, and they’re especially good for doing so on a mass scale.   Religion is basically a systematic attempt to control the morality of a large group of people.  In order to best hold on to power, a religion is best served by shutting down the rational capacity of its believers, and it has the perfect vector to do so to those already ensnared.  I’m not going to get into this too much right now, but a moral code that shuns rationality is basically codified obedience to authority, and if you’re already caught by that authority, they have the power to make you reject all other authority, no matter what your religion’s leaders or followers may do.  The idea that all morality flows from faith is absurd if you think about it for two seconds, and that’s what makes religion so powerful.  By citing the sacred versus the profane- very deep voodoo parts of the human mind for exalting and villifying- you can come to any conclusions you like by direct association.  We have the power of hypochondriasis, and can become holy rollers, being possessed, speaking in tongues, we can produce whatever magical effects desired given the right motivation and stimulus, which then feeds the demon that produces those effects.  You can make people shun thinking at all, it’s so powerful.

The second major ethical issue I want to address is the idea of truth.  Now, people say things like “lying is bad.  Never lie.”  Well, if you think about it, why?  Why is telling somebody something that is not true an immoral action?  OK, first of all, by what standard is something true?  Statements in English will have many standards which will be necessary before they will be true.  They must be grammatically, syntactically, and semantically correct, they must refer to objective or subjective reality as appropriate, they must speak about something which exists, make a declarative statement which introduces new information or refers to definitions, and cannot be self-referential, circular, or contradictory.  We have just outlined the nature of propositional statements only.  What about questions, commands, or interjections?  I know I’m talking in a way similar to people who talk as if there is no real truth, but that’s not what I’m saying.  There is indeed a real truth, and we can know it, but to say that it is a moral imperative to share that truth does not follow from those premises, and one of the reasons it does not follow is that the methods by which we understand the world are themselves suspect.  I am saying that the idea that “Statement A will be either true or false” is a meaningless statement.  While the real world has truth values, language and the human experience is subjective and relativistic.  I can experience the world very directly and assume it’s valid.  However, if I say a true statement to someone else, they have no way of knowing that my subjective reality is valid, just from my statement that it is so.  This refers back to the nature of consciousness.  I know that I’m conscious.  But I have no way of knowing that you are, or that anyone else is.  I assume so because I know I am, and you look and act in a way that is quite similar to me (relative to, say, a monkey, a tree, or a lump of quartz).  If there were some way to directly share consciousness, then we would be the same person with twice the mental hardware and be left in the same quandary relative to everyone else.

Back to truth.  Basically what I’m saying is that you cannot utter statements which can be objectively true because they are statements- they are a representation of reality which must necessarily occlude and distort information in order to fit into language.  By the same token, you must compress your understanding of reality by editing and distorting information in order to think about it, causing a subjective experience of reality because everyone will do so differently.  That’s all subjectivity means- it’s being encoded differently in each of us.  I realize I haven’t said this before.  Objectivity and subjectivity are not inherently inconvertible either.  Objective reality simply means that it refers identically to reality.  Now, the only way that’s possible is if it is reality, because otherwise it will be a reference or a copy.  Subjectivity is when you have a reference or a copy, and in our case it must necessarily be distorted and cropped in order to be useful.  The reason it’s subjective is because we all edit and crop differently.  In any given moment, we’re paying attention to different things, we’re learning different things, we have different models based on things we have experienced or learned, etc. etc.  If somehow we could all have lossless thought encoding, we would experience an objective reality (although still a reference) and could agree perfectly by citing endless amounts of evidence.  It still wouldn’t be the objective reality, but close enough that the difference is irrelevant.  The hardware required is unimaginable, but it may be possible.  Now, the fact that it’s possible to get “close enough” proves the point that speaking only the truth is not morally required.  You can refer to reality by using a statement which is not true.

I need to clarify here.  When I say that lying is not morally required, I am not saying that lying is morally acceptable.  Attempting to manipulate someone else’s mental model by supplying them with faulty information is just evil.  However if someone asks about an embarrassing part of your life, don’t feel bad about just lying about it.  You have done no wrong.  If you try to steal people’s money by claiming that if they give you $5 today you’ll give them $10 tomorrow and then disappear, or otherwise take advantage of people, you’re not evil because you’re a liar, you’re evil because you’re a manipulative thieving scammer.  Actions, objects, and so on, are all morally neutral.  Knives are neither good nor evil- they are merely an arrangement of atoms.  They just are.  Actions are merely sequences of motion- they just are.  Keep in mind though that words in language tend to combine objective meaning with connotation, secondary motivations, and other bits and pieces.  So when I say stealing is bad, the simple raw action of taking someone’s property is actually morally neutral.  However when we use the English word “to steal” we are saying a great deal more than just that.  We are saying things like 1) the thief has no right to the property in question, 2) the victim is innocent and unwitting, 3) the victim has full and morally legitimate property rights to the item in question, 4) the thief is greedy/lowlife, etc. etc.  Maybe I should have simply gone with the short and simple version instead of appearing to contradict myself by being complete.  Too late now.


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