The Purpose of Ethics

Ethic - "1. the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation. 2. a set of moral principles or values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or group." Principle - "1. a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption; fundamental truth as a basis for reasoning. 2. a primary source. 3. general law as a guide to action; personal code of right conduct." Moral - "concerned with the goodness or badness of character or disposition, or with the distinction between right and wrong; dealing with regulation of conduct; concerned with the rules of morality; founded on moral law; capable of moral action."

The word "Ethics" evolved from the Greek words "ethos" denoting personal character, and "Ta ethika" used to refer to the philosophical inquiries into the nature of Good and Evil. The word "Morality", in contrast, has its origins in the same Latin stem as the word "mores", meaning social customs or habits. Most philosophers tend to use the two words interchangeably, as will I in this work. However, unlike the dictionary definitions above, common parlance appears to distinguish between "ethics" and "morality" as it distinguishes matters of individual character from those of social custom. In order to avoid any confusion, therefore, in those places where I will be making a particular distinction between "Ethics" as an issue of Good and Evil, and "Morals" as an issue of social standards, I will employ the term "Social Morals" to ensure that the distinction is plain. In all other uses, you can assume that "Ethics" and "Morals" are interchangeable, and refer to the discussion of what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation.

A Code of Ethics is an attempt to define basic rules, or principles for determining what constitutes "good" or "right" behaviour. In other words, to determine what we "ought" to do next. A Code of Ethics in common usage is often configured as a "Code of Good Conduct" - defining what constitutes "good" or "right" behaviour in terms of a series of rules. But in a more philosophical employ, a Code of Ethics establishes some fundamental principles, and explores the consequences of those principles, showing their relationship to our conduct and to our judgments. When this approach to a Code of Ethics is used, the principles are not themselves (usually) a detailed guide to conduct or a set of predetermined moral judgments, but are the foundations upon which a guide to conduct may be based or a moral judgment reached.

What Ought??

There are a number of different approaches that have been used by Philosophers to justify their arguments in support of their particular judgment of what you ought to do. But regardless of the particular approach, every philosopher maintains that you ought to do this, because doing that is the less desirable choice. It doesn't matter at this point why, or on what scale of measurement, they judge it less desirable. Every Code of Ethics, no matter what the basis and no matter what the rules or principles, can be viewed as judging that some choices, action, situations, or characters are more desirable than others.

The question that naturally follows is "So What?". What is the purpose of defining this "Ought"? Why should we concern ourselves about what we "ought" to do? Why should we care? What is the purpose of it all?

It may initially appear that it would be a reasonable assumption that one of the purposes of defining "What I Ought To Do" is in order that we may define ways to "make a more desirable choice". But this only pushes the query back a step. Why should we care about making a more desirable choice?

If one pursues this questioning, it becomes apparent that the reason so many philosophers in particular and people in general attempt to determine "What I Ought To Do", is that their purpose is to "Improve the Lot of Mankind" for either themselves individually or for the general collective. Pushing back beyond this point is not possible.

Now, I am generalising a little here, and each individual or philosopher might phrase this ultimate purpose in different words, but the core concept is basic to them all. The purpose of Philosophy in general and Ethics in particular is to define "What I Ought To Do", and the purpose of doing that, is to improve the human situation. Things would be better, if everybody did as they ought. Or, at the very least, your own particular future well being will be assured, if you do as you ought. "Good little boys and girls go to Heaven!" - and everybody accepts that this (or a more faith-specific variant) is a "Good Thing".

Oddly enough, this appears to be a universal claim common to all ethical philosophies, Evolutionary Pragmatism included. And it would appear that, superficially at least, there is a common understanding of what "better" means. In one way or another, all ethical philosophies define "making things better" to mean improving the lot of human kind, either in general for all mankind at once, or in particular for one person at a time. The only differences in this area between the various philosophies, is their particular definition of what "What I Ought To Do" consists of, and the details of what constitutes an "improved lot of mankind".

So it appears that the purpose of Ethics is "To Improve the Lot of Human-Kind". And it appears that all philosophies agree on this. Which seems to indicate a universal agreement on the purposes of Philosophy. This is definitely unique, but probably has more to do with what Philosophy and Ethics is all about, and why Philosophy and Ethics are such a consuming topics of interest, than any universal agreement on philosophical first principles.

Of course, the philosophy of Evolutionary Pragmatism is no different. The ethics of Evolutionary Pragmatism is justified on the basis of an argument that the "good life" is judged to be better than the "bad life", and that choosing the "good life" will in some real and measurable way improve your "lot in life". What I intend to be different about the philosophy and ethics of Evolutionary Pragmatism, is that I will clearly define what I mean by the "Good Life", and provide a detailed rationale of why I believe that it is better than any alternative.

The Operational Rationale

Every minute of every day, every one of us is faced with a myriad of decisions that must be made quickly, with a dearth of information, and must be made reasonably well. We are constantly faced with the need to make rapid decisions based on inadequate information, and using an imperfect analyser (the human mind). As a result, most of these decisions are made on the basis of habit. In such a situation, I have always done thus, therefore I will do the same thing this time. Many of these habit based decisions are made on the basis of life style. I wear a jacket and tie each business day, because I am an office worker in an office with a dress code. It simplifies my decision making each morning to fall back on a life style pattern. Philosophical attitudes and opinions are similar to life-style choices. It simplifies decision making processes in situations demanding a value-based choice of behaviours. In this situation, what should I do? What does my Code of Ethics tell me is Ethical? That is what I should do. If we didn't have a system of philosophical beliefs, how would we decide what to do? For each decision situation we encounter, we would have to analyse each possible course of action, estimate their probable outcomes, and judge the relative desirability of those outcomes. And even though we probably lack a lot of needed knowledge about the options available and their probable consequences, we would want to do it properly a good proportion of the time. Too many bad choices would be detrimental to our comfort and well-being, not to mention the more abstract concept of "The good life". All this would take a considerable amount of time and effort to do properly. And it pre-supposes an existing and unbiased basis for evaluating the desirability of the outcomes, and comparing the desirability of alternatives. A system of philosophical beliefs, then, is like a life-style pattern that we have developed. We have pre-set guidelines to speed the decision making processes, and yard-sticks against which we can evaluate alternatives we have no prior experience with. The faster we can make good decisions, the more time we will have to invest in making those decisions for which we have no guidelines.

Everybody has a set of philosophical beliefs, even if they are not aware of them consciously. For example, would you steal money from your co-worker? Most people would immediately say "No, of course not!" There is little hesitation by most people, including those without a consciously held philosophy. But do you know why you say "No"? Most people would say "Because it is wrong!". They have appealed to a philosophical pre-judgment that says "To Steal is Wrong". They have not gone through the detailed analysis necessary to figure out exactly why they should decide not to steal from their co-worker. Most people apply the simple edict blindly, without understanding why the edict works (or what it means to say that the edict "works"), and in what circumstances the edict might not apply. Appealing to a set of pre-judgments frees the mind to pursue more rewarding or productive activities (whatever they may be at the time). Very few people are interested in the question of "Why?".

Most people go about their day-to-day lives, doing whatever they feel is necessary at the moment, and doing whatever planning for the future seems appropriate at the time. Most people have no interest in why they make the choices they do, in why they have the emotional reactions to the news stories that they do, in why and whether their acquired ethical opinions are appropriate or not. Is abortion Right or Wrong? Because it is such a hot topic in the news these days, most people have an opinion. But do you know why you have the opinion you do? Why are you so sure that your opinion is right? What if you are wrong? Most people do not take the time to develop their own analysis of the situation. Most people fall back on their philosophical principles, and ultimately say "Because it is Wrong/Right!!". And most people have developed a personal concept of philosophy based on the teaching of their parents, church, schools, peers, and the occasional hero. They have not developed an understanding of right and wrong, they do not give the matter any conscious thought. They have adopted and tailored other people's standards and pre-judgments. Whether the resulting system of ethics make sense, is consistent, is in tune with Reality, or will result in personal destruction is of very little interest to most people. This is one of the reasons why religions are so prevalent in human culture. All religions establish a set of standards and pre-judgements that forms the basis for a system of ethics. And all religions demand, more or less strongly, that the followers of the religion adhere to its ethical standards. By adopting a religion as your own, you are adopting that religion's set of philosophical principles.

The Purpose of Ethics

"The philosophy that can't help you do things does nothing."  

This then, is what Evolutionary Pragmatism assumes to be the purpose of Ethics, and the purpose of Philosophy - the establishment of basic guidelines and rules for deciding which behaviour is Good and Bad, so that the individual will not have to make detailed analyses most of the time. And the reason this is so necessary is that the individual most of the time does not have the necessary information to make an "omniscient" choice of which alternative course of action is "for the best". Most of the time, the individual lacks the necessary knowledge about their current circumstances to be able to conceive of all possible alternatives. Most of the time, the individual lacks the necessary understanding of Reality to be able to even approximate the consequences of any proposed action. And most of the time, the individual must make these valuations and choices in a mental environment that is influenced by stress, and emotional baggage. So every individual needs, and has, both a standard against which to evaluate the alternatives so that what is "for the best" can be identified, and a set of rules (from absolute to rules-of-thumb) that simplify decision making because they work most of the time.

Regardless of what philosophical system you, as a reader, may possess, I trust that you do not disagree that one of the primary purposes of your philosophical system is to distinguish that which is "Good" - more desirable - from that which is "Bad" - less desirable. (I must admit that I can conceive of no other purpose for a system of philosophy. If you have one, I would be very interested in hearing it.)

If you never had to choose what to do now, you wouldn't need standards against which to evaluate the desirability of the alternatives. If you didn't need to make decisions on which behaviour would be "for the best", you wouldn't need a concept of what is "best". If you didn't have some form of philosophical beliefs, some code of ethics as a guideline for identifying the "best" alternative, you would be making behavioural choices completely independent of the consequences of your actions. If you could make behavioural decisions without considering how you and Reality interact, you wouldn't need to make decisions that are "for the best", and you wouldn't need to worry whether your understanding of how Reality behaves is accurate.

It is, however, intuitively obvious, at least to an Evolutionary Pragmatist, that behavioural choices are NOT made independently of the consequences. Everybody, regardless of their intelligence, their education, their knowledge of Reality, their sanity, their philosophical awareness, or even their sobriety, makes decisions they firmly believe are "for the best". And everybody has some form of concept of what is "best". It may be different from individual to individual, and even from moment to moment. But everybody believes that "Doing the Right Thing, is Good". They merely differ in what they consider is "The Right Thing" and how they define "Good". Everybody pays attention to the consequences of their behaviour. If they don't, they sooner or later "fail to cross the street". That kind of obliviousness to the behaviour of Reality is self-defeating, and self-correcting. People may pay attention to different consequences, and certainly place different values on the "desirability" of different consequences, but everybody makes behavioural choices with some consideration to those consequences. We individual humans are the end result of over a billion years of practice at giving due consideration to the consequences at the genetic level. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that we also automatically do the same, to some degree, with some degree of success, on the intellectual level.

It is for these reasons, that Evolutionary Pragmatism establishes the second basic axiom that it does. The further development of the Ethical concepts within Evolutionary Pragmatism is governed by the axiom that the purpose of such Ethical standards and Moral pre-judgments is to improve the probability of a "good" behavioural choice, that will more likely achieve what is "for the best".


The Second Axiom: The purpose of Philosophy in general and Ethics in particular, is the establishment of basic guidelines and "rules of thumb" for determining which behaviours are most likely to promote the achievement of "The Best", over the long-term.

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