Introduction to Ethics 

"We have all learned to become sensitive to the physical environment. We know that we depend upon it, that it is fragile, and that we have the power to ruin it, thereby ruining our own lives, or more probably those of our descendants. Perhaps fewer of us are sensitive to what we might call the moral or ethical environment. This is the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live. It determines what we find acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or contemptible. It determines our conception of when things are going well and when they are going badly. It determines our conception of what is due to us, and what is due from us, as we relate to others. It shapes our emotional responses, determining what is a cause of pride or shame, or anger or gratitude, or what can be forgiven and what cannot. It gives us our standards -- our standards of behaviour. In the eyes of some thinkers, most famously perhaps G. W. F. Hegel (1770--1831), it shapes our very identities. Our consciousness of ourselves is largely or even essentially a consciousness of how we stand for other people. We need stories of our own value in the eyes of each other, the eyes of the world. Of course, attempts to increase that value can be badly overdone."     Simon Blackburn(1)


One of the more interesting things about the study of Ethics is that almost everybody takes pride in having some sort of moral conscience, some sense of right and wrong.  Everyone expresses some opinions on various topics, about what they think is the right (moral/ethical) thing to do, or way to live, and what is the wrong (immoral/unethical) thing to do, or way to live.  Look at the front page of any newspaper, or listen to any radio or television news broadcast.  People are faced with situations where they are being asked -- or told -- what is right and proper and admirable and should be done, and what is wrong and unacceptable and deplorable and should not be done.

"Thou shalt not kill!  (Or cheat, or lie, or steal, or commit adultery, etc.)"
"Abortion is wrong!"  or  "Women should have the right to choose!"
"Racial (or sexual, or political, or religious) discrimination is unacceptable!"
"Women need to be protected and sheltered!"
"Equal pay for equal work!"
"Free Speech!"  or  "Don't Insult the Prophet Mohammed!"
"Control the Guns!"  or  "The Second Amendment (The Right to Bear Arms)!"
"Obamacare is Great!"  or  "Obamacare should be repealed!"
"The Government should do something!" or "The Government should get out of the way!"
"Gay marriage should (not) be legalized!"
"Marijuana should (not) be legalized!"
"Raise the Minimum Wage!"
"Bullying is deplorable!"
"Who are you going to vote for?  And why?"

OK.  Nice sentiments, sure.  Some of them, perhaps many of them, will cause arguments.  But why?  If you have an opinion on one of these topics, and you think that your opinion reflects the way it should be, why should I or anyone else agree with you?  Do you care whether anyone else agrees with you?  Why should I or anyone else care what your opinion happens to be on these matters?  Do you care what other people's opinions are on these matters?  Is it all just one person's opinion versus another?  Or is there something that underlies these issues that makes one opinion "True / Right / Correct" and the others "False / Wrong / Incoreect"?

I would like to relate a joke told by Simon Blackburn in his book "Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics"(2) --

"At a high-powered ethics institute, which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel debate, the following exchange was recorded. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment, and the panelists all said, 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.' Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said, 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.' And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation, and the way to life eternal, and they all said, 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.' And he thumped the table and shouted, 'No! It's not a question of if it works for me! It's the true word of the living God, and if you don't believe it you're all damned to hell!' And they all said, 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.'

The joke here lies in the mismatch between what the priest intends -- a claim to unique authority and truth -- and what he is heard as offering, which is a particular avowal, satisfying to him, but only to be tolerated or patronized, like any other. The moral is that once a relativist frame of mind is really in place, nothing -- no claims to truth, authority, certainty, or necessity -- will be audible except as one more saying like all the others. Of course that person talks of certainty and truth, says the relativist. That's just his certainty and truth, made absolute for him, which means no more than 'made into a fetish'."

Is the topic of Ethics necessarily to be dealt with through this Relativist mind set?  Is any expression of Ethical or Moral judgment simply one person's opinion?  Is Ethics simply a matter of one person's subjective opinion versus another's?  Do you merely tolerate and patronize opinions that you consider wrong?  Do you accept that others will merely tolerate and partonize your opinions if they differ from theirs?  If so, then why all the argument over issues such as Abortion, the Rights of Women, Guns, Free Speech, or the Minimum Wage?  Why do we argue, and not merely tolerate and patronize those who disagree with us?  Why do people shout, demonstrate, vote, and even resort to violence to press their own opinions on what they argue is a "moral issue"?

There are, undoubtly, Ethical Subjectivists among us.  But many people, rather than maintain the Relativist mind-set, would react the way the Priest in Blackburn's joke reacts.  Many people will maintain that their own expressions of Ethical judgment reflect the Truth (with a capital "T"), and is not merely their subjective opinions of things.  If others disagree with them, then they are simply wrong.  Of course, the vast majority of these people are not Philosophers -- they have little interest in exploring why their own judgements should be considered the Truth, and how those who disagree with them are making some sort of mistake.  Very few people have any interest in understanding where their "moral sense" or "conscience" comes from -- what the basis is that underlies their moral attitudes and opinions.  Most people never even express an interest in reaching their own ethical choices, making their own ethical judgements.  Most people adopt the ethical standards and opinions of others -- their parents, their peer group, their church, etc  Very few are worried about whether their own or other's ethical opinions are coherent, or inconsistent.  Most people stubbornly resist enquiries into the reasoning behind moral judgments -- their own or other's.  When challenged to back up their moral judgments and ethical opinions, they draw upon the ready-at-hand words of others.  This or that is right or wrong because somebody else has said so.  Most people will rely on a very superficial answer requiring no thought  -- bumper sticker slogans.  They will respond with either "God said so!" or with "Everybody agrees!" or "That's just the way it is!" 

The majority of people profess to be religious, and for many of them "Because God said so!" is the final answer.  The 2012 Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, Global Religious Landscape, indicates that 84% of people align themselves with an organized religion.(3)  In the United States, according to Pew, 53% believe that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral.(4)  Unfortunately, for religious people, the fact that "God / Allah / Buddha / Confucius / Marx and Lenin / Chairman Mao said so!" ends the discussion -- "God said it!  I believe it!  That ends it!"  No further discussion or exploration is permitted.  Ethics, as a field of study, is taboo!

But if you are sufficiently interested in the study of Ethics to be reading this, then you must ask yourself the question -- "Why did God say so, or why does everybody agree?"  Is there a reason, or is it just accidentally arbitrary?  Does it really matter?  Why, in "polite" society, is it just not acceptable to show anything other than tolerance for other people's ethical opinions -- regardless of what you may privately think about the issue.  Is this toleration right?  Ought we be tolerant of what we think are immoral and unethical judgments?  Is it really "the right thing to do" to be tolerant of ethical judgements that we know are clearly wrong?  Why must we remain tolerant of those "wrong" ethical judgements when they result in actions that we find offensive, abusive, and "beyond the pale"?  The only reasonable justification for this Realtivist toleration of other's moral opinions, is that we really, deep down, know that we do not know that our opinions are right and theirs are wrong. 

Is ethics and morality really just a different kind of social etiquette -- every polite and socially adept person uses the table cutlery and not their fingers to eat, responds to an RSVP before the specified deadline, and does not challenge the moral opinions of others.  According to some standards of polite society ettiquette, any other behavior labels the individual as a boor -- a person with unacceptable manners and little refinement.  Is ethics really like etiquette?  Does every polite and socially adept person have this common attitude of tolerance, and any other attitude just labels the individual as a boor -- belonging to a lower social class?  Some people certainly seem to regard ethics this way, at least some of the time.  Just look at the way that people in one political party look down on those of the other parties.  Or the way that those of one religious persuasion look down on those of other persuasions.  Is ethics and morality just a matter of individual taste -- to each his own?  Must we tolerate ethical attitudes we are privately convinced are completely wrong? 

Most people, most of the time, despite the prevalence of "polite" toleration, would vehemently disagree with this Ethical Relativism.  Most people have definite ideas of what is morally right and what is morally wrong.  If pushed, they will proclaim with great passion that their opinion is the only proper opinion.  Any other opinion is simply wrong and incorrect, even incoherent and illogical.  Even when they preach tolerance for other peoples' opinions and ways of life, they will stubbornly maintain that those other peoples and other ways of life are simply wrong.  But those who defend the rightness of their own ethical opinions almost never have any interest in inquiring into the underlying basis of those opinions.  Most people, smugly comfortable in the rightness of their own moral judgements, avoid any inquiry into why their opinions are right and other opinions wrong.  Do we live with this inconsistency in our own beliefs?  Or do we examine them, and probe for the way things really are?

Four Different Concepts Labelled "Ethics"

A philosophical enquiry into "Ethics" and those underlying bases upon which our moral opinions rest, must start by distinguishing between four different concepts that we find labelled "Ethics".  First, there is the descriptive concept of ethics.  This is the notion that anthropologists employ when they want to talk about the "ethics" of a group of people.  Anthropologists are supposed to be the experts at describing the way of life of groups of people.  But we all are pretty good anthropologists when it comes to describing the groups of people with whom we encounter every day.  From the descriptive concept of ethics, whatever a group of people wish to consider right and wrong defines, descriptively, their code of ethics.  This is the notion of ethics that underlies the concepts of "business ethics", or "medical ethics".  It takes as given the facts of the matter about what the particular group in question considers right and wrong.  It labels that notion of right and wrong as that group's "ethics".  And it ends there.  At this level of discussion, there is no good ethics or bad ethics, no right ethics or wrong ethics, there are just the ethics that people have.  It is the methodology of descriptive ethics to describe and not to judge.  Hence, it is from this understanding of Ethics, that the impetus for toleration of different kinds of ethics stems.  It is from the descriptive concept of Ethics that the impetus for the toleration of other's Ethical opinions stems.  If that is what those people think is right and wrong, then that is their Ethics.  The descriptive sense of Ethics does not permit you to judge the Ethics of others.

The second concept of ethics, is what is more pedantically called meta-ethics by philosophers.  This concept is rarely considered by non-philosophers.  The central two questions of meta-ethics are (i) "Just what is it that someone is doing, when they say that X is right (or wrong), or that one should or should not do X?" and (ii) "How does one decide what is right or wrong / good or bad / good or evil?"  Note that meta-ethics focuses on the process of decision, not on the results of the decision.  I will have much more to say on meta-ethics in the essays that follow after this Introduction. 

The third concept of ethics, is what philosophers call normative ethics.  This is the concept of ethics employed by most people when considering whether some thing or action is right or wrong, good or evil.  The answer to the questions "What is (or is this) the right thing to do?" or "What is (or is this) the best way to live?" are answers of normative ethics.  A discussion of why thou shalt not kill, is primarily a discussion of normative ethics, although it will almost certainly delve into areas of meta-ethics as the discussion progresses.  The study of normative ethics is the study of the principles and assumptions underlying the ethical judgements we make.  It is the study of why you think that Abortion is wrong, or women should be nurtured and protected, or that bullying is deplorable.

The normative concept of ethics for most people, leads seamlessly into what philosophers separate out and call applied ethics.  This is the subject matter of particular judgements as to whether this or that X is right/good or wrong/bad/evil or a duty or not.  When discussing whether killing, abortion, capital punishment, torture, affirmative action, equal pay for equal work, labour unions, capitalists, and so forth (ad infinitum) are good or bad, right or wrong, then we are employing the applied concept of ethics.  Unfortunately for most discussions on matters of applied ethics, the disagreements that almost always surface stem from underlying differences at the normative or meta-ethical level of analysis.  The reason that applied ethical arguments never seem to reach any resolution, is that those involved do not pay attention to the issues at the normative or meta-ethical level.  The disputants are therefore almost always talking past each other.  Their disagreements stem from different assumptions at the deeper levels.  No amount of argument at the applied level will resolve them.  I will have something to say on issues of applied ethics, but not until I have addressed the issues at the underlying levels.

Ethics vs Morals

The next order of business is to establish more precisely just exactly what it is that we are talking about when talking about "Ethics".  And to begin that effort, it will be useful to separate the concepts of "Ethics" from that of "Morals".  The meanings of "morals" and "ethics" do overlap.  Here are some dictionary definitions gleaned from the Internet.

Ethics (noun) -- "1. Moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior; 2. Moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior."(5)

Ethics (noun) -- "1. the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it; 2. a social, religious, or civil code of behaviour considered correct, esp. that of a particular group, profession, or individual; 3. the moral fitness of a decision, course of action, etc."(6)

Ethics (noun) -- "the study of what is morally right and wrong, or a set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong."(7)

Ethics (noun) -- "the science of morals, c.1600, plural of Middle English ethik 'study of morals'. The word also traces to 'Ta Ethika', title of Aristotle's work"(8)

Morals (noun) -- "A person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do."(9)

Morals (noun) -- "principles of behaviour in accordance with standards of right and wrong."(10)

Morals (noun) -- "standards for good or bad character and behavior."(11)

Moral (adj) -- "14c., pertaining to character or temperament (good or bad), from Old French moral and directly from Latin moralis 'proper behavior of a person in society', literally 'pertaining to manners'. Coined by Cicero (De Fato, II.i) to translate Greek ethikos (see ethics). From Latin mos (genitive moris) 'one's disposition'.  In plural, 'mores, customs, manners, morals'."(12)

Both "Ethics" and "Morals" entered the English language in the Middle English period, with moral being the older form by about 100 years.  Broadly speaking, the word "morals" refers to individual beliefs and habits about right and wrong behavior -- stemming from the Latin "moralitas" meaning "manner, character, proper behavior".  The word "ethics", on the other hand, deals with sets of the principles lying behind those individual habits and beliefs -- stemming from the Greek words "ethos" denoting personal character, and the Greek "Ta Ethika", the title of Aristotle's work more popularly known as Nicomachean Ethics, a study of the nature of good character and proper behavior and the best way to live. 

In the philosophical literature, there is some disagreement among authors in how to apply the labels "ethics" versus "morals".  It may be an over generalization, but it seems to me that the English writers prefer to use "morals" to denote the publicly available standards of right and wrong, and "ethics" to denote the private and internal beliefs about right and wrong.  Whereas the American writers reverse this usage.  I am going to follow what seems to me to be the usage more in keeping with the etymological foundations, and use "ethics" to denote the publicly available standards of right and wrong, and "morals" to denote the individual's private and internal beliefs about right and wrong.  We tend to say that the corner drug dealer has "poor morals" rather than "bad ethics".  We say that children are taught good moral principles, or "morals", if they don't lie, cheat, steal, and so forth.  But the corrupt politician, businessman, or medical professional is accused of violating the standards of ethics expected of politicians, businessmen, or medical professionals, not just accused of "bad morals".

The word "ethics" will therefore hereafter denote the external standards, characteristically provided by the local culture or institutions to which an individual belongs.  For example, doctors, lawyers, policemen and many businessmen all have to follow (and politicians are supposed to follow) a publicly articulated ethical code laid down by the institutions to which they belong, regardless of their own feelings or preferences.  Hence it frequently happens that one's professed "code of ethics" is in conflict with one's own personal sense of morality.  In following this usage, the word "ethics" will also, therefore, denote the standards and principles underlying an individual's personal sense of morals -- if there should be any.  This allows for one's own sense of what is moral to conflict with the standards and principles that supposedly underlie one's individual sense of morality.  This frequently happens whenever the individual fails of logical consistency (having two moral opinions that logically conflict), or when the individual fails in understanding the material facts of the circumstances (misunderstanding the actual situation).

"Ethics" as a philosophical study, therefore, is concerned with the examination of those standards and principles of right and wrong.  Whether the basis of one's individual moral attitudes is best captured in terms of Divine Command, Utilitarianism, Emotivism, (etc.), is a question that concerns the study of Ethics.  More on this later.

Ethics, Etiquette and Law

Etiquette -- "The customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group."(13)

Etiquette -- "1. the customs or rules governing behaviour regarded as correct or acceptable in social or official life. 2. a conventional but unwritten code of practice followed by members of any of certain professions or groups."(14)

Etiquette -- "the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life."(15)

Etiquette -- "1750, from French étiquette 'prescribed behavior,' from Old French estiquette 'label, ticket' (see ticket (n.)).  The sense development in French perhaps is from small cards written or printed with instructions for how to behave properly at court (compare Italian etichetta, Spanish etiqueta), and/or from behavior instructions written on a soldier's billet for lodgings (the main sense of the Old French word)."(16)

When exploring the topic of Ethics it is important to distinguish between "morals" and "mores".  Both are aspects of human conduct and human interaction, but they are very different types of conduct.  Mores are usually treated as "harmless customs," where "harmless" means that failure to follow the custom may result in a negative reaction, but not a very serious one.  Such mores would include the time of day when meals are eaten and the proper form of greeting particular individuals.  And which fork with which to eat your salad, at a formal dinner.

So, on the one hand, matters of Ethics are to be distinguished from matters of Etiquette.  Matters of etiquette are clearly matters of social convention, relative to the society in which they are the "rules of socially acceptable behavior".  Matters of Ethics involve much more serious aspects of how we behave and how we treat others.  What this means is that failure to follow the dominant rules of ethics will result in a much harsher reaction from others -- examples of this would include discrimination, physical abuse and theft.  It is clear that there is a distinction between Ethics and Etiquette, because one can challenge whether a particular rule of etiquette is actually ethical.  It may, for example, be a rule of etiquette, that in polite society, one just does not ask people of that class (or family, or caste, or religion, or race, etc.) to tea or to marry.  Whereas it may clearly (according to the relevant standards of Ethics) be unethical or immoral to discriminate in these matters on the basis of class, family, caste, religion, or race, etc.

In like manner, on the other end of the spectrum, matters of Ethics are also to be distinguished from matters of Law.  As much as some people would love it if the law enforced their own ideas of proper Ethical behavior, it would not be possible to regard a Law as a bad law, unless there were standards of Good and Bad independent of what is enacted as Law.  This difference comes home most starkly in matters involving "justice".  To a lawyer and to a judge, "justice" is achieved when all the laws are followed properly.  But juries and the public have been well known to think that "justice" can better be served by breaking some laws.  A well known recent case of an Hispanic gentleman gunning down an unarmed black teenager who was perceived to be threating him is a case in point.  By law, the gentleman was defending himself against imminent threat, and so was legally justified in his actions.  But the public (and the press) maintained that this was not proper justice.  So clearly in this case, the public has in mind a standard of Ethical behavior that is distinct from the Law.  One could not challenge a law as a "bad law", and justify social disobedience, unless one maintains a standard of ethics independent of the Law.  On the other side of the same coin, one cannot praise a law as a "good law" unless one also maintains a standard of good and bad independent of what is enacted as law.

So Ethics is deeper than either etiquette or law.  Ethics defines the standards of good and bad that allows us to identify rules of law or etiquette as good or bad rules.  The rules of etiquette and the law seek to adhere to the principles of Ethics.  But the rules of etiquette are clearly conventional rules established by the society to which they apply.  And the rules of law are clearly conventional rules legislated by the jurisdiction within which they apply.  Ethics, on the other hand, may or may not be conventional.  More on that later.

A Code of Ethics

So a "Code of Ethics" is therefore an attempt to define the basic rules, or principles for determining what constitutes "good" or "right" behaviour, and distinguishing such behavior from "bad" or "wrong" or "evil" behavior.  In other words, to determine what we "ought" to do next, how we "ought" to react to circumstances, and how we "ought" to approach moral judgements.  A Code of Ethics in common usage is often described as a "Code of Good Conduct" -- defining what constitutes "good" or "right" behaviour in terms of a series of rules, or an underlying principle.  But in a more philosophical employ, a Code of Ethics establishes the fundamental principles that underly a person's moral conscience, and moral decision making.  And the study of Ethics explores the consequences of those principles, showing their relationship to our conduct and to our judgments.  A "Code of Ethics" in the philosophical sense, therefore, is not itself a detailed guide to conduct or a set of predetermined moral judgments, but is the foundations upon which a guide to conduct may be based or a moral judgment reached.

The Purpose of Ethics

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 according to what principles, 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, actions, situations, or character traits 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 do we concern ourselves about what is the right and proper thing 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" and "What is the Right and Proper thing to do" is in order that we may define ways to "make a more desirable choice" on some scale of measure. But this only pushes the query back a step. Why should we care about making a more desirable choice?  And why should we care about some scale of measuring the "desirability" of various alternatives?

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 either themselves individually, or the general collective of Mankind".  (Some Ethical philosophies focus on the individual, and others focus on the collective.  More on this in the next chapter.)  Pushing back beyond this point does not appear to be 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 (conceived as either themselves individually or the general collective of Mankind)".  Everybody agrees that things would be better (on some scale of measure), if everybody did as they ought.  Or, at the very least, your own particular future well being (on some scale of measure) will be assured, if you do as you ought.  "Good little boys and girls go to Heaven!" -- figuratively if not literally -- and everybody accepts that this is "A Good Thing".

Oddly enough, despite the great differences in the particular scales of measure being applied, this generalized notion of what constitutes a "A Good Thing" appears to be a universal claim common to all ethical philosophies, Evolutionary Pragmatism included.  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 scale of measure is being applied, and the details of what is concieved of as an "improved lot of mankind".  And hence the kind of things that "What I Ought To Do" consists of.

So it appears that it is generally accepted that the purpose of Ethics is "To Improve the Lot of Human-Kind".  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, 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 (or at least I used to), 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, either evaluate their desirability against some accepted set of rules, or estimate their probable outcomes, and judge the relative desirability of those outcomes.  And even though we probably lack a lot of the 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 actions or 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, in why the rules of Ethics and Morality are the way that they are.  Is abortion Right or Wrong?  Should you vote Liberal/Democrat or Conservative/Republican?  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?  What if the Authority (or at least the interpreter of that authority) you are relying on is wrong?  Most people do not take the time to develop their own analysis of the situation. Most people fall back on their moral intuition, 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 -- becuase it is easier than doing the thinking themselves.  Whether the resulting system of ethics makes 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 --  a Code of Ethics -- 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 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 (especially the long run consequences) of any proposed action.  (And even to judge whether a particular action would vioate some accepted rule, one must understand some of the consequences of the action -- is doing this an act of stealing?)  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 (whether they realize it or not), 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. It is, after all, the nature of Ethics to define the Good.  (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.  And as I said above, to even identify that an action violates a rule, you have to understand enough of the consequences of the action to categorize the action as meeting the criteria of the rule.  You might choose to swing an axe.  But unless you understand the consequences of that action in this circumstance, you would not be able to determine that this swinging of an axe would violate the rule "Thou shalt not kill!"  You might choose to pick up the wallet and take the money.  But unless you understand the consequences of that action in this circumstance, you would not be able to determine that this taking of the money would violate the duty of treating your neighbor as an end rather than as a means, or violate the virtue of honesty, or violate the rule against stealing.

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 in the long run.  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 about 500 million 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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Notes and References

(1)   Blackburn, Simon;  Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), Oxford University Press. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, England. 2003. Kindle Edition. ISBN 13: 978-0-19-280442-6

(2)   Blackburn, Simon;  Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2001. ISBN 978-0-19-285377-6. Pg 24



(5)  Oxford Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(6)  Collins English Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(7)  Cambridge Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(8)  Online Etymology Dictionary, URL=<>.

(9)  Oxford Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(10)  Collins English Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(11)  Cambridge Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(12)  Online Etymology Dictionary, URL=<>.

(13)  Oxford Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(14)  Collins English Dictionary Online, URL=<>.

(15)  Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 11th Edition, URL=<>.

(16)  Online Etymology Dictionary, URL=<>.


Gert, Bernard, "The Definition of Morality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

Bloomfield, Paul (Ed.);  Morality and Self-Interest, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-530585-2.

Fieser, James;  "Ethics", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL=<>.

Wikipedia contributors; "Ethics", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<>.