Different Kinds of Ethics

Introduction

An individual can deal with the ebb and flow of daily life in only three possible ways -  

  1. You can sit there and do nothing, waiting for and taking whatever lumps the flow of events might bestow upon you -- the life strategy typical of plants and couch potatoes;  
  2. You can act at random, without thought for the consequences, and hope for the best (however you choose to understand "best") -- the life strategy typical of "non-rational" animals, and those whose life strategy is to "go with the flow"; or  
  3. You can try to understand and predict (locally, and however approximately) the flow of events and choose to act in ways that appear to you to most likely result in "better" consequences (however you choose to understand "better") -- the life strategy typical of "rational" animals.  

All intentional (as opposed to accidental or unconscious) choice, at whatever level of discourse, is predicated on the assumption that one alternative is "better" than another - on some scale of valuation. The universal assumption that underlies Ethics is that "Life will be Better" if you choose the "right thing to do". "Ethics" is the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral judgments or choices to be made by a person. A person's "ethics" or "morals" consists of those rules, habits and/or standards that the individual uses to determine the right choices, the virtuous alternatives, and the righteous behaviours.   Those rules, habits and/or standards that the individual uses to choose the alternatives they think are most likely to result in "better" consequences, however they choose to understand "better".

What should I do (now)? I should do what I ought to do!
And what ought I do ? I should seek out that course of action that would be for the best.
And how can I determine which of the alternatives I can envision is for the best? I must appeal to my conception of "Good" (or my definition that "P is Good") to evaluate the desirability of the alternatives. And I must appeal to my system of ethical pre-judgments for rules or guidelines that may apply to simplify or guide or dictate my choices.

"Ethics" answers the question - "What should I do now?" or "What is the right thing to do?"  

The philosophical disagreements arise over -  
                      Whose life will be better ?  
                      Better how, when ?  
                      What do you mean by, how do you determine "better" ?  
                      What, particularly, is the "right thing to do"?  

 

Different Notions of Ethics

The history of philosophy reveals twenty-four fundamentally different approaches to the notion of Ethics. When you ask people "How do you determine which is the better alternative?" their answer will fall into one of:-

When you ask "Whose life will be better if you do the right / ethical / moral thing?" their answers reveal two fundamentally different notions of the intended beneficiary of Ethical/Moral behavior:-

When you ask "What do you mean by life being better? Better How?" their answers will reveal two fundamentally different scales of measurement according to which a "better" life is determined:-

And when you ask "Where and When will life be better?" their answers will reveal two fundamentally different notions of the time and place where things will be better if you do the right / ethical / moral thing:-

Combining all of these possibilities yields that staggering twenty-four combinations (3 * 2 * 2 * 2 = 24). And as far as I can tell from a non-exhaustive search of the philosophical literature, just about every one of these possibilities has been supported by one philosopher or another.  

For those who understand "Ethics" from the basis of one notion, theirs is the one and only "obvious" source of true and right Ethics. The other twenty-three notions of "ethics" are obviously wrong, invalid, non-existent or illogical (and sometimes heretical and sinful).  

Regrettably, it is impossible for rational argument to shift an individual's fundamental notion of Ethics. Logic cannot be persuasive in this realm, because the underlying premises of the three different notions are quite incommensurate. A discussion of any ethical topic, including Ethics itself, will quickly degenerate to emotionalism if approached from two different notions of what Ethics is all about.  

1. Authoritative Rules / Divine Command Ethics

If you believe that the "right thing to do" is specified by rules of behaviour (e.g. "Thou shalt not . . .", "Do unto Others . . .", etc.), then you believe in an "Authoritative Rules" or "Divine Command" notion of Ethics. The ethical thing to do is that which most closely conforms to the relevant rules. It is unethical / immoral / sinful to behave contrary to or in violation of the rules.  

Many different sources of Authority for these rules have been cited by various philosophers. The most obvious, of course, is some Deity - as in the Ten Commandments of Moses, and the "Word of God" captured in print in the Bible, Koran, or Torah. For some people, the words of Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. 563?-483? bc) and Confucius (551-479 bc)   fulfill that role.   And even, for some people, the works of Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, or Mao Ze-dong.  

A key discursive challenge for this notion of Ethics is that it is impossible to convince someone by logical argument that one source of Authority is any better than another. Any philosophical discussion approached from the perspective of an Authoritative Rules notion of Ethics will almost always degenerate into emotional posturing. In a social environment, therefore, "persuasion" in ethical disagreements almost always degenerates into ad hominem attacks or outright coercion.  

A notable characteristic of many flavors of Authoritative Rule Ethics is their intolerance of any curiosity about the rationale for, and justification of, any of the Rules. A Rule is the Rule because the Authority says so - and no further response is available. An Authoritative Rule ethical theory says that "morally right" means "commanded by Authority", and "morally wrong" means "forbidden by Authority".   "Life will be Better" if you adhere to the Rules -- "Trust me!", because no explanation of why or how is available or permissible. The popular term for this sort of Ethics, when encountered outside of mainstream religions, is "cult".   Although followers of main-stream Authoritarian Rule Ethics would vociferously object to that characterization.

Adherents of any of the various flavors of Authoritative Rule Ethics also must deal with two additional philosophical challenges. Firstly, there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that requires the various Rules be logically consistent and not mutually contradictory. And secondly, there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that guides the adherent in choosing which of a set of contradictory rules to apply in any situation, or protects against a ludicrous misapplication of some Rule.  

It is impossible, therefore, to employ logical reasoning or rational analysis in an exploration of the consequences and implications of the Rules. Consequently, in practical application "Ethical" behavior is almost always the result of a non-rational and non-logical subjective opinion as to which Rule(s) apply when, where, and how. In practical application, in situations where the prescribed rules do not provide an immediately obvious answer, Authoritative Rule / Divine Command Ethics devolves quickly into Subjective Opinion Ethics.  

Despite (or possibly because of) these drawbacks, this is the basis of the Code of Ethics developed by all of the philosophies classified as "religious", including most of the quasi-religions. In fact, it may be argued that what most distinguishes a "religion" from anything else, is the existence of a Code of Ethics based on the theory of Authority/Divine Command. But it is not restricted to the religions. A prime example of a non-religious Authoritarian system of Ethics is the Judicial System in any western nation. Judicially, just as in any Authoritarian religion, "right" means "according to the rules", and "wrong" means "in violation of the rules". The concept of a Rule itself being "wrong" is logically impermissible.   (Except in hierarchies of rules, where a lower level rule may be deemed "wrong" if it violates a higher level rule.   But the possibility of one of the highest level rules being wrong, is still impermissible.)

"The Goodness of God" Problem

(Note that this discussion is specifically about God's commands.   But it may be equally applied to the commands of any recognized "Authority".)

A key internal conundrum that afflicts the Divine Command group of ethical theories, was stated by Plato: "Is conduct right because the Gods command it, or do the Gods command it because it is right?" Suppose God commands us to do what is right. The archetypical examples are the Ten Commandments of Moses.   What is "good" and "right" stems from the commands of God. Then either (a) the Ten Commandments are good and right because God commands them; or (b) God commands the Ten Commandments because they are good and right.

If we take alternative (a), then it is possible (and in fact highly likely) that God's commands are, from a logical point of view, totally arbitrary, without any necessary foundation, and may possibly and acceptably be mutually inconsistent, contradictory, and conflicting. The rules handed down by God are Good by definition (the concept of "Good" is equivalent to the concept of "The Rules of Authority"). For example, in Exodus 20:16, the Ninth Commandment ('thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour"), we are commanded to be truthful in dealings with our neighbours. If we take the alternative (a) approach to this commandment, then we must consider that being truthful is not good or bad in and of itself, but is good only because God commands us. It is God's command that makes truthfulness morally right.

Moreover, the religious doctrine of the "Goodness" of God is, if not meaningless, at least useless. God is good because God has willed what "good" is. If "X is good" simply means that "X is commanded by God", then the statement that "God's commands are good" becomes "God's commands are commanded by God". A useless truism. Many of religious faith accept this option, and treat the concept of "God" and the concept of "Moral Good" as one and the same. God and Good are semantically equivalent. The Good is "good" because God has willed it so. And God is "good" because what is Good is what God wills it to be. Within this conception, the "Doctrine of the Goodness of God" is interpreted as the statement of the equivalence of the concept of "Good" and the concept of "God".  

If we take alternative (b), on the other hand, then we have admitted there exists a standard of "good" and "right" that is independent of the will and commands of God. Which means that there must be some other basis, besides the fact that God commands it, on which to determinef what constitutes "P" in the definition "P is Good". There are many of religious faith who reject the implications of option (a) and argue that God is good because he believes, does, and commands that which is "good", not because He has defined what is "good". Within this conception, the "Doctrine of the Goodness of God" recognizes that God is "good" by some standard of goodness that is independent of His will. St. Thomas Aquinas (ca 1225-1274), one of the greatest of the Christian religious theologians and philosophers argues just such an interpretation. But it does leave the question open as to how to determine what this independent standard of "Good" is.  

Which leads to a further alternative. Either (i) this independent standard of "Good" is knowable by us, in principle if not yet in practice; or (ii) this independent standard of "Good" is not knowable by us even in principle. If you adopt alternative (i), then you have effectively removed your system of Ethics and Morals from the realm of Authoritative Rules / Divine Command, and you must find a source for your notions of Ethics in one of the other forms.   On this basis, the commands of God are but the known manifestations of this independent standard of Good and Right.   If we were to discover what this independent standard is, and the premise is that we can, then we would no longer need God's commands to guide us.   When presented with the logical consequences of this alternative, most people of religious faith will tend to shrink back in horror, and quickly adopt the other alternative.

However, if you adopt alternative (ii), then it is debatable whether there is any meaningful difference between (b-ii) and (a) above. This interpretation assumes that it is not possible in principle for us to know what objective standard God is employing to determine what possible commands are Good and therefore may be revealed to us. Is there any detectable difference between that interpretation, and the interpretation that the commands of God are the definition of Good? In both interpretations, God's commands would have to appear, from a logical point of view, totally arbitrary, without any necessary foundation, and may possibly and acceptably be mutually inconsistent, contradictory, and conflicting. If they were not, then we might be able to reason out the standard of Good that God is applying - and that contradicts the initial premise that such standard is unknowable by us even in principle.

2. Subjective Opinions / Cultural Relativism

If you believe that the "right thing to do" is a matter of personal or public opinion, then you believe in a "Subjective Opinion" notion of Ethics. The ethical thing to do is whatever you "intuit" is the right thing to do; or whatever you feel most emotionally "good" about; or whatever you feel is the consensus of other people's opinions on what you should do.

Many different sources of opinion have been cited by various philosophers. The most obvious, of course, is the individual's personal opinion, feeling, or emotional attitude. This is the approach taken by A.J.Ayer, for example. But other approaches have included the Social Consensus, social customs, habits or thoughts, and cultural norms. And as we have seen, an Authoritative Rules notion of Ethics overlaps to some extent with a Subjective Opinion notion.  

A key discursive challenge for this notion of Ethics is similar to that of an Authoritarian Rule notion. It is impossible to convince someone by rational argument that one source of opinion is any better than another. Any philosophical discussion approached from the perspective of a Subjective Opinion notion of Ethics will almost always degenerate into emotional posturing. In a social environment, therefore, "persuasion" in ethical disagreements almost always degenerates into ad hominem attacks or outright coercion.

Adherents of any of the various flavors of Subjective Opinion Ethics also must deal with the same two additional challenges as an Authoritative Rule Ethics. Firstly, there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that requires the various opinions be logically consistent and not mutually contradictory. And secondly, there is nothing within such a system of Ethics that guides the adherent in choosing which of a set of contradictory opinions to apply in any situation, or protects against a ludicrous misapplication of some opinion. It is impossible, therefore, to employ logical reasoning or rational analysis in an exploration of the consequences and implications of the relevant opinions. Consequently, in practical application "Ethical" behavior is almost always the result of a non-rational and non-logical subjective opinion as to which (or whose) opinion to apply when, where, and how.  

The rise of the philosophical school of Logical Positivism, and more recently the theory of Emotive Ethics, is directly attributable to the incapacity of reason and logical analysis in the realms of Subjective Opinion Ethics.  

Cultural Relativism

The most currently popular variant of Subjective Opinion Ethics is "Cultural Relativism" (also called "Social Consensus Ethics" and "Democratic Ethics") wherein the "The right thing to do" is determined by the consensus of public opinion. As but one highly visible manifestation of its popularity - in most modern Western political campaigns there is almost no discussion about "What is the right thing to do?" Almost all discussion is about "What is the popular thing to do?" The same is also true of most Western media coverage. Want to know what to do? Take a public opinion poll. Reasoning from, or measuring against, ethical standards is not a conceivable activity, since there are no such things as ethical standards.  

There are a number of difficulties that must be properly managed if you choose a social consensus basis for your system of Ethics. The most significant ones are the same two your mother provided when, as a child, you pleaded for permission to do or have something because "everybody else" has the requested permission or thing. Firstly, how do you know that "everybody else" has it? And secondly, even if they do, how do you know that having it is good for you? Although, of course, this latter challenge is begging the question - since within a "Social consensus ethics" if everybody else has it, it is by definition good for you as well.  

In order to provide a rational foundation for Cultural Relativism, a process must be provided for determining what the Common Values and Consensus of Opinion are, and translating them into the necessary definitions of "Good". And when that is accomplished, a rationale must be provided for the assumption that "if it is good for everybody else, then it is good for me". Even if on the surface it is true by definition, it is certainly not a self-evident truth - "If all your friends were to jump into the sea, would you also?" Lemmings would say "Yes!". But most people would not. So even if a logical proof is not required, some form of rationale certainly is.   The logical answer does not appear to be a reasonable one.

Even when these basic difficulties are adequately addressed, Cultural Relativism implies some consequences that, initially at least, appear to be if not counter-intuitive then at least not normally expected:  

While this approach to ethics may be the "best" one, and certainly has some appeal to those with a liberal political bent, the difficulty in determining what the Common Values or Consensus Opinions are with any degree of accuracy;   the problem of justifying the application of other people's opinions to individual behaviour choices;   and the counter-intuitive consequences cited above, would suggest that there might be a "better" approach.  

3. Objective Standards / Natural Law

If you believe that the "right thing to do" is whatever will best meet some standard, or fulfill some purpose, or achieve some goal then you believe in an "Objective Standards" notion of Ethics. The ethical thing to do is whatever is most likely to be most efficient and effective at meeting the standard, or fulfilling the purpose, or achieving the goal. [Note that in what follows, I will employ the short-hand of "Purpose" to stand for the standard, purpose, or goal that is the end or standard of an Objective Standards / Natural Law Ethics.]  

Many different Purposes have been cited by various philosophers. They have varied from "happiness" for the Epicureans, and "pleasure" for the Hedonists, to "Utility" for the Utilitarians, and "Life as Man qua Man" for the Randian Objectivists.  

Within Objective Standards / Natural Law Ethics the concepts of "Good" and "Bad" are established by appealing to some objective "Natural Law" that is outside of and independent of people, societies, or authority. In the definition "P is Good", the proposition that is "P" is established as a basic assumption or axiom. The axiom becomes the "Natural Law" upon which a Objectivist / Naturalist ethical theory is founded. It is called a "Natural Law" rather than a basic axiom because the first philosophers who wrote about such ethical theories expended a lot of time and effort (as have many philosophers since) attempting to demonstrate that what they were proposing as their basic foundation was in fact the way that Nature actually was. Thus it was not an assumption out of thin air, but a suitably "Scientific" interpretation of the way Nature is.  

The Naturalist Fallacy

The so called "Naturalist Fallacy" derives from the observation that somewhere in the writings of Naturalist philosophers, there is inevitably a transition between describing what "is", to describing what "ought". The critics of Naturalist philosophies point out, more or less correctly, that there is no inevitable and necessary connection between a descriptive statement of what is, and a prescriptive statement of what ought. They then proceed to claim that Naturalist philosophies are thereby flawed, in that they are based on the fallacy that there is such a necessary connection between what is and what ought.  

What the critics of Naturalist philosophies fail to realize, perhaps because few Naturalist philosophers ever seem to specifically state it, is that the connection between what is and what ought is a basic underlying assumption or axiom that is used as a starting point. Regardless of how much paper and effort Naturalist philosophers expend trying to demonstrate that their favorite conception of the "Naturally Good" is an unavoidable consequence of the way that Nature is, the critics are perfectly right. There is no inevitable and necessary connection between is and ought. "Is" and "Ought" are in two separate universes of discourse. "Is" has to do with Reality. "Ought" has to do with the Normative. The only way to bridge them is with a Normative definition that establishes a connection - "P is Good", where "P" is some statement about the nature of Reality.  

The Cultural Relativists do this by adopting the axiom that the socially customary is Good. The Divine Doctrinists do this by adopting the axiom that what some God or Authority says is Good is Good. Naturalists do this by adopting the axiom that some proposition about Reality (such as "Staying alive") is Good. The fundamental basis of all systems of Ethics is just such an axiom.

However, to improve the lot of mankind, however you choose to define that, you must first start with a description of what "IS" the lot of mankind, and then progress to a concept of what "OUGHT" to be the lot of mankind, and then you must develop a prescription of things one "ought" to do in order to get from here to there. The prescriptions of philosophy, what one "ought" to do, are but a means of getting from where we are, to where we want to be, or believe we should be. Both ends of the prescription must be firmly founded in descriptions of the Reality in which we live, regardless of our particular concepts of what that reality is. And by logical necessity, the means by which we get from here to there, must also be firmly founded in the reality that exists at both ends. Whatever we "ought" to do must have some direct connection to the Reality from which we come, and to the Reality to which we are striving to get, in order to be effective in getting us there. So the "Naturalist Fallacy" is anything but a fallacy. It is a logical necessity resulting from the starting assumption that there is a Reality in which we exist, that we can describe, and that we can change.   And from some basic assumption that some state of Reality "P" is Good and that getting from here to there is "for the Best".  

A Code or Ethics, and a standard of Good that is based on Natural Law, is the approach employed by any philosopher who wants to address the problems described above for Cultural Relativism, and Divine Command. If there is an objective Reality from which we can determine or establish some Natural Law(s) that govern Ethical behaviour, then there can be some "Universal Truths" to Ethics. There can be one correct or best Code of Ethics and standard of Good, that would be true and applicable for all societies, across all times, and in all circumstances. And there would be some standard of Goodness that is independent of God's will, about which He has instructed us, and about which we may learn on our own.  

A key discursive advantage for this notion of Ethics is that, given some specification of Purpose, it is possible to convince someone by rational argument that one ethical choice is better than another. It is certainly not possible to employ rational argument to convince someone that one particular choice of Purpose is any more correct than another. But this does not usually make much of a difference.   It is characteristic of all but a few specialized variants of Objective Standards Ethics, that the Purpose involved necessitates that the actor continue to exist, act, and choose. It is this requirement for the continued existence of the actor that results in the close similarity of Ethical prescriptions of the various flavors.

  This notion of ethics is considered "objective" because whether or not you have chosen (or proposed) the "right" choice is open to independent examination by others - once the Purpose involved is specified. Philosophical discussion approached from the perspective of an Objective Standard notion of Ethics need not degenerate into emotional posturing. In a social environment, therefore, "persuasion" in ethical disagreements need never degenerate into ad hominem attacks or outright coercion. (Which is, of course, not to suggest that it does not. Merely that it need not.)  

Adherents of any of the various flavors of Objective Standards Ethics do not face the two additional challenges facing adherents to Authoritative Rule / Divine Command or Subjective Opinion / Cultural Relativism Ethics. Firstly, within an Objective Standards Ethics, because there is a single "Purpose" identified, there is no potential for various ethical prescriptions to be logically inconsistent or mutually contradictory. A given act or choice either does or does not contribute to the achievement of the Purpose. Any disagreement about this is subject to empirical examination of the facts of the matter. And secondly, again because there is a single Purpose, there is no problem of choosing which of a set of contradictory rules or opinions to apply in any situation, and no need to risk a ludicrous misapplication of Rules or opinions. (Which is, of course, not to suggest that ludicrous misapplications to not occur.   Merely that they need not.)  

Infinite Calculation?

There is one common, but invalid criticism of Objective Standard Ethics - most often made against Utilitarianism. It is often suggested that such a system of decision making requires the individual to complete an exhaustive evaluation of all possible courses of action, determining in each case the totality of all potential consequences over an indefinitely long future.  

This suggestion, however, is based on a false premise. And it is a premise that comes from either an Authoritarian Rule or a Subjective Opinion notion of Ethics. From the perspective of an Authoritarian Rule Ethics, an act or choice is Ethical to the extent that it adheres to, or is consistent with the relevant Rules - and is Unethical otherwise. Similarly, from the perspective of a Subjective Opinion Ethics, an act or choice is Ethical to the extent that it adheres to or is consistent with the relevant Opinions - and is Unethical otherwise. The premise is that to do (or choose) the Ethical thing, the individual must know what the one Ethical thing to do is - and that it is Unethical to do anything other than that one Ethical thing. Notice that both Authoritative Rules and Subjective Opinions are about actions, behaviors, things to do -- means. They are not about goals, purposes, standards -- ends. If your notion of Ethics is all about means, and you contemplate the problem of fulfilling a purpose efficiently and effectively, then it is natural to consider that "The right thing to do" must be that one choice or action that is most likely to most efficiently and most effectively fulfill that purpose. And the only way to determine what that is, is to complete that exhaustive time-consuming evaluation of all possible consequences over an indefinite future.  

But that is not the prescription of any of the various systems of Objective Standards Ethics. The premise, derived from a means oriented foundation, becomes invalid when applied to an ends oriented foundation.   What is overlooked by this invalid premise is that if your notion of Ethics is all about goals, purposes, or standards - ends - then any choice that approaches that goal, purpose, standard - however inefficiently - is Ethical. An Objective Standard Ethics does not demand that the Ethical individual choose the one alternative that omniscience (or sometimes "The reasonably well informed") would reveal as the single best means of achieving the identified Purpose. Any variant of Objective Standard Ethics does recommend that the Ethical individual choose the one alternative that the individual understands is the best available - given that individual's state of knowledge at the time. To choose an alternative that is not in fact the best means of achieving the stated Purpose is not Unethical. To choose an alternative that you know is not some means of achieving the stated purpose is Unethical. To choose an alternative that you know is a less effective means of achieving the stated purpose is less Ethical than the alternative that is more effective - but it is still Ethical.  

The invalid premise miscasts the problem by setting the computational level too high, by demanding an unreal competence. If instead, you adopt a "good enough for government work" approach, different solution mechanisms open up. In practical application, "Ethical" behavior according to an Objective Standards Ethics is almost always the result of a rational and logical employ of the best available knowledge and a suite of learned tricks, tools, and rules-of-thumb. The task of getting the "absolute best" answer is postponed indefinitely.   Instead, Objective Standards Ethics tolerates the unintended wrong answer - relying on the individual's capability of learning from experience to clean up after himself according to the ubiquitous biological design principle: over-simplify and self-monitor.

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

There is another common, yet also invalid criticism of Objective Standard Ethics - most often made against one of the varieties of Egoism. It is often suggested that such a system of decision making permits the individual to employ any means available in order to achieve the specified Purpose, and that some of those means are inherently bad.   For example, if one identifies one's Purpose as "pleasure", "Self-interest" or "Staying alive", then it may be argued that this allows the individual to lie, cheat, steal, and kill all in the interests of achieving one's Purpose.   Yet everyone would agree that there is something clearly nasty about the means being employed here to achieve the Purpose.

This suggestion, however, is also based on a false premise. And it is a premise that again comes from either an Authoritarian Rule or a Subjective Opinion notion of Ethics. From the perspective of an Authoritarian Rule or a Subjective Opinion notion of Ethics, if one is aware of the rules or opinions that matter, then applying those rules and opinions to particular circumstances is relatively easy.   Little thought has to be given to the consequences of one's choices or actions.   Little effort has to be given to understanding and predicting how Reality is likely going to behave.   Your contemplated choices or actions either are or are not now consistent with the relevant rules or opinions.

The reason that this criticism appears initially to be so serious, is that it fools the listener into adopting the same premise.   And it does that by ignoring the longer term or wider scope consequences of the suggested "bad" means employed to achieve the Purpose.   It does not take a genius, or even "infinite calculation", to know that lying, cheating, stealing, and killing all portend serious social consequences.   It would take a particularly narrow-minded and short-term view of ones Purpose (be it "pleasure", "Self-interest" or "Staying alive", whatever) to think that it could be achieved through actions that would turn the rest of the social environment against you.   Which brings us to the single most important difference between Authoritarian Rule / Divine Command and Subjective Opinion / Cultural Relativism notions of Ethics on the one hand and the Objective Standards / Natural Law notion of Ethics on the other.

The Role of Reason

In contrast with the Authoritarian Rule and Subjective Opinion Ethics, for the proper application of an Objective Standards Ethics it is imperative to employ logical reasoning and rational analysis in an exploration of the consequences and implications of possible actions. Not necessarily an exhaustive evaluation of all possible courses of action, determining in each case the totality of all potential consequences over an indefinitely long future.   But an evaluation sufficient to identify the one alternative that the individual understands is the best available - given that individual's state of knowledge at the time.  

Lets assume that you make your first and most fundamental Ethical choice - and choose the life strategy typical of "intelligent" animals. Lets assume, that is, that you choose to understand and predict (locally, and however approximately) the flow of events around you so that you may choose to act in ways most likely to result in "better" consequences (however you choose to understand "better"). Of the multitude of possible events that might bestow lumps upon you, and consequences that you can choose to initiate - which do you value the most highly? Of the multitude of potential alternative actions that face you - which will result in making life better?  

If you believe in Authoritative Rule Ethics, then half your problem is solved for you. You do what you are told is right - without question or hesitation. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Turn the other cheek." "Love thy neighbor as thyself." And so forth in confusing number and detail -- whether your Rules come from the edicts of some religious source, the dictates of Natural, Historical, or Social Law, or the rules drummed into you while growing up. Of course the other half of your problem is still facing you. Which rule to apply, and how to apply it. Reason cannot help you. Reason has nothing with which to work. Consequences are important only to the extent that the Rules dictate.   And learning is "good" only insofar as it is focused on learning the rules. Since, by and large, consequences are not relevant to Ethical choices, learning how to predict likely consequences is not ethically relevant.   However relevant they may be pragmatically, the ethical is not the same as the pragmatic.

If you believe in some forms of Subjective Opinion Ethics, then you face the same problem of figuring out which and whose opinions to apply. But you may also face the additional problems of figuring out what those opinions are. Just what is the Social Consensus on this matter (whatever it is)? When in doubt, conduct a survey -- if you have the time and resources. And which Society should I seek the consensus of? How big? How small? What boundaries to choose? Again, reason cannot help you. Reason has nothing with which to work. Consequences are important only to the extent that the relevant opinions dictate.   And learning is "good" only insofar as it is focused on learning the appropriate opinions. Since, by and large, consequences are not relevant to Ethical choices, learning how to predict likely consequences is not ethically relevant.   However relevant they may be pragmatically, the ethical is not the same as the pragmatic.

The fewest problems of this sort are faced by those who believe in the purely personal sort of Subjective Opinion Ethics. Then you do whatever you feel is right. There will be only you to second guess yourself. In the words of the popular song - "No matter what they tell you, what you believe is true!"   Reason is, again, of no relevance. Ethical prescriptions become expressions of emotional preference. Emotivism is a very comfortable notion of Ethics, and is one that just about everyone around you agrees is the right way to go. After all, in a democracy what matters is what the majority think and want and support. There is no such thing as a "bad person" - only victims of terrible social, racial, sexual, and/or economic discrimination and oppression.  

By comparison, any of the various forms of Objective Standard Ethics will be the most difficult to live up to (or "according to" if you prefer). To begin with, the various flavors of this notion specify only the goal to be strived for, and offer little or no advice on how to get there. Choosing how to get there from here is a major challenge. Unless you live life in an unconscious stupor, day-to-day living is a constant sequence of choosing among alternatives with complex repercussions. The ethical is the pragmatic.   Doing a quality job of choosing according to the standard of some distant Purpose demands a significant investment in learning, thinking, and logical reasoning. That's difficult work to do consistently. An Objective Standard notion of Ethics is not for the intellectually lazy. But it is the only notion of Ethics that is based on the one critical difference between Homo sapiens and the other animals - our capacity for reason.  

The logical consequence of this, is that learning from experience (hind-sight re-evaluation of past choices in the luxury of better information and more time), learning more about likely consequences (curiosity and experimentation), and self-monitoring (checking whether the Standard or Purpose is actually being approached) are universally judged "good" by all variants of Objective Standard Ethics.  

(a / b) Better Where, When?

Any intentional (as opposed to accidental or unconscious) choice that you make, at whatever level of discourse, is predicated on the assumption that one alternative is "better" than another - on some scale of valuation. The assumption that underlies an Ethical choice is that "Life will be Better" if you choose the "right thing to do". To make an Ethical choice, therefore, you must have some (or accept in ignorance someone else's) concept of "where and when someone's life will be better".  

The various answers that have been proposed to this question can be logically categorized as:
                      - Here on this Earth, and Now in this lifetime ["Here-Now"]; or
                      - Someplace else not on this Earth (such as in Heaven), and/or sometime in the future (such as after you have gone to Heaven) ['there-Then"].  

The "There-Then" answer is unique to a small subset of Authoritative Rules Ethics. To believe in the notion someone's life will be "better" in some other place or time than Here-Now, necessarily requires a notion of a place not on this Earth, and/or a Time that is not now where whoever's life will be better will reap the positive consequences of your Ethical choices. It also requires the belief in the existence in this other place or time of some form of Intentionality that will deliver those positive consequences to whoever it is who will benefit from your Ethical choices. This "There-Then" notion of Ethical reward is almost always realized in the form of some God in his Heaven who will either benefit directly Himself, or suitably reward the faithfully Ethical once they join him there. The Authoritative Rules are thus the "Word of God" -- instructions on how to behave in order to earn your passage to Heaven, to be adhered to without question. Some devout forms of Judaism/Christianity/Islam are characterized by rules of behavior passed along by a Supreme Being, on how to earn passage to Heaven - sometimes to the extent that adherents are willing to self-destruct in order to win their passage.   The Islamic suicide terrorists are but the most recent manifestation.   Hinduism, as another example, is also characterized by rules of behavior passed along by a Supreme Being of many forms and natures.   In this case on how to get reincarnated as a "higher" being rather than a "lower" one.

To believe that your Ethical choices will benefit someone in some way in some other place or time effectively separates such belief from any further discussion or analysis. It is not possible to discuss the implications of any such beliefs without sharing the notions of where and when the implications and consequences will be realized. The only puzzle that must be addressed by adherents of a "There-Then" realization of Ethical consequences, is why the vast majority of people (now and in history) do not share that belief.    

Since we have no uncontested information about the nature of any "There-Then" or any suggested "Reward in Heaven", and since the vast majority of ethical philosophies do not assume the "Someplace Else" answer, I will dismiss that alternative for now, and focus on the "Here-Now" alternative.  

Most variants of Authoritative Rules Ethics maintain that "Life will be Better" Here-Now, despite any associated belief in something like a Heaven and a future "Reward in Heaven".      

(I / II) Better How?

Any intentional (as opposed to accidental or unconscious) choice that you make, at whatever level of discourse, is predicated on the assumption that one alternative is "better" than another - on some scale of valuation. The assumption that underlies an Ethical choice is that "Life will be Better" if you choose the "right thing to do". To make an Ethical choice, therefore, you must have some (or accept in ignorance someone else's) concept of "How someone's life will be better".  

The answers that have been provided by Philosophers over the course of history have varied from the "Personal Sensual Pleasure" of the Hedonists to "The Greater Glorification of God" of the devoutly religious; from "The Greatest Good (Utility) for the Greatest Number" of the Utilitarians, to the "However you (whimsically) Choose" of the Logical Postivists and Emotive Ethicists.  

By stretching a point or two, the diverse ways of thinking about how "life will be better" can be crudely categorized as:  
                      - "Standard-of-Living Better" - in the sense that life gets "better" as one's standard-of-living improves on the assumption that with a higher standard-of-living one can avoid more of the material sources of misery and pain, and take advantage of more of the opportunities for social and personal fulfillment. While this may not strictly capture your particular concept of how "life will be better", it can usually stand as a proxy or approximation.
                      - "Spiritually Better" - in the sense that life gets "better" as one increases something (anything) that is totally independent of the common measures of standard-of-living.  

Many flavors of Authoritative Rule Ethics derive from philosophies that maintain adherents will be happier, more content, and life will be pleasanter if they adhere to the rules, principles, and/or "Spirit" of the particular Authority involved. Many, in fact, require their adherents to renounce any common measure of a standard-of-living and pursue instead a spiritual "better". However, since we have no independent information about the nature of the various notions of "Spirit" involved, and since how you choose to think about the particular Authority that appeals to you is quite independent of any rational discourse, I will dismiss this alternative for the time being as well.  

There are variants of Subjective Opinion Ethics that fall into this category as well. Obviously, since Subjective Opinion ethics is based on opinion, it is quite conceivable for someone to hold an opinion about what constitutes "better" that is independent of common measures of standard-of-living. Similarly for Objective Standards Ethics. It is quite possible to believe that Ethics is derived from some Purpose that is inconsistent with common measures of standard-of-living.  

However, whether your notion of Ethics is one of Authoritative Rules, Subjective Opinion, or Objective Standards, to believe that your Ethical choices will benefit someone in some immeasurable way not approximated by common measures of standard-of-living effectively separates such beliefs from any further discussion or analysis. It is not possible to discuss the implications of any philosophical beliefs without sharing to some degree the notion of how the implications and consequences will be realized. The only puzzle that must be addressed by adherents of a "Spiritually Better" notion of Ethical consequences, is why the vast majority of people (now and in history) do not share that belief.  

Many other flavors of Authoritative Rule Ethics maintain, along with most flavors of Subjective Opinion Ethics and Objective Standard Ethics, the "Standard-of-Living Better" notion of the consequences of making the right choice. (eg. for every Catholic or Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of poverty, there are millions of devout Catholics and Buddhists who believe that "better" will be realized in the Here-Now with an improved standard-of-living.) If you make the right choice, and do the Ethical thing, then the life of the beneficiary of your actions will improve in ways that are generally acknowledged to be "better" -- in the sense that if one's standard-of-living improves, then life is getting better.

(A / B) Cui Bono? (Who Benefits?)

Any intentional (as opposed to accidental or unconscious) choice that you make, at whatever level of discourse, is predicated on the assumption that one alternative is "better" than another - on some scale of valuation. The assumption that underlies an Ethical choice is that "Life will be Better" if you choose the "right thing to do". To make an Ethical choice, therefore, you must have some (or accept in ignorance someone else's) concept of "whose life will be better". Logically, this "who" can be categorized as one of -
                      - Yourself ("Egoism"); or  
                      - Someone else ("Altruism" = someone else; or "Socialism" = everyone else).

It is a relatively obvious dichotomy. Regardless of which of the three fundamental premises of Ethics you believe in, regardless of how you arrive at your choice of "The right thing to do", any choice you make is predicated on the assumption that your resulting actions will most benefit one of these two primary beneficiaries. And this dichotomy is independent of how you choose to define "better", or even where and when your intended beneficiary will reap the intended benefits.  

The answers that have been provided by Philosophers over the course of history on whose life will be better have varied from the "Whole of Mankind" at the socialist end of the spectrum, thru "The Other Person" at the altruist middle, to "Yourself" at the egoist end of the spectrum.  

Consider a little bit of history. Over the last 200 years (since 1800, about seven or eight generations), the history of three diverse groups of people have exhibited distinctly different reactions to three distinctly different Ethical premises.

Regardless of your notion of Ethics, regardless of whose life you propose to make better through Ethics, as long as you assume that life will be better Here-Now and that "better" is approximated by an improved standard-of-living, then the history of the last 200 years can give you some indication of how to most efficiently and effectively achieve whatever particular "better" you choose for whomever you choose.  

The Selfish Egoist?

A major criticism of "Egoist Ethics" (where the chief beneficiary of your Ethical choices is "Yourself") is that it necessarily leads to "The Rule of the Hun". The logic of this argument suggests that if the primary ethical focus is on benefiting yourself, then there will be no ethical constraints against your employing whatever coercive means are available to you to subjugate your inferiors and take whatever pleases you. And who in his right mind would choose to live in Russia today??  

The major argument in favor of "Altruist/Socialist Ethics" (where the chief beneficiary of your Ethical choices is "Someone Else") is that the only alternative available is "Egoist Ethics" and that necessarily leads to "The Rule of the Hun". And who in his right mind would choose to live in Russia today??  

There is, however, a major flaw in this philosophical argument. As the three historical examples indicate, "Egoist/Individualist Ethics" does not necessarily lead to "The Rule of the Hun" despite all the rhetoric of anti-Egoist philosophers. The history of the last 200 years is quite clear on this. Regardless of who you choose to most benefit, and regardless of what particularly you consider to be "better", the Ethical environment that has proved in fact most effective and efficient at approximating most people's concept of an Earthly Eden (delivering the greatest standard-of-living to the greatest number of people) is the Lockian dominated North America.  

To dispute the ethical implications of this factual evidence, must necessarily involve a notion of how "life will be better" that is not approximated by normal measures of standard-of-living. The necessary logical premise that would permit a valid objection to this factual information would be such as to remove any further discourse on the nature of "better" and "The right thing to do" from the realm of rational argument. History clearly shows that in fact the most effective and efficient means of "Making Life Better" over the long run (regardless of for whom you choose to "make life better", as long as you accept "Standard-of-living" as a rough approximation of your notion of "better"), is to practice the voluntary cooperation of individuals (the pooling of knowledge and the division of labor) in the pursuit of individually desirable yet common goals.  

Any rational Egoist, choosing to benefit most himself, will recognize that voluntary cooperation among rational self-serving individuals is far more likely to make his life "better" in the long run than is resorting to "The Rule of the Hun". A rational individual in the self-serving pursuit of individually desirable goals readily recognizes that achieving those goals is easier and quicker and far more likely through cooperation with others of similar desires than by coercion. (Or, for that matter, by solitary struggle.)  

A student of economics would explain this in terms of the difference between the creation of new wealth through cooperative production versus the transfer of already existing wealth by means of coercive expropriation. The former is a positive-sum game - in the long run everybody wins, even the "losers". The latter is a negative-sum game - there are always net losses from "Transfer friction" and in the long run everybody loses, even the "winners". The history of Russia is proof. If it were otherwise, the Tsars and Commissars of Russia would have been living in Eden.  

Any rational Altruist or Socialist, choosing most to benefit the other person or the whole of mankind, will recognize that voluntary cooperation among rational self-serving individuals is far more likely to make other people's lives "better" in the long run than is any personal self-sacrifice. The resources available to the individual Altruist or Socialist are limited. Over the long run, the "better" created by the cooperative productive efforts of rational self-serving individuals is almost certain to far exceed the resources available to the single individual. Even the resources of an entire population of Altruists or Socialists would not suffice.  

Over the long run, the "better" created by the cooperative productive efforts of rational self-serving individuals is almost certain to far exceed any result of universal self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is a negative-sum game - there are always net losses from "Transfer friction" and in the long run everybody loses. The history of Western Europe is proof. If it were otherwise, then it would be Western Europe and not North America that is considered the closest Earthly approximation to Eden.  

So, no matter what your notion of Ethics, no matter how you choose to define "better", no matter who you choose to benefit, history clearly shows that in practice the most effective, efficient, and likely means of delivering that "better" is to practice the Ethics of "Rational Egoism". A Rational Egoist recognizes that voluntary cooperation among rational self-serving individuals is the most effective and efficient and most likely means of making life "better" in the long run.  

In order for two rational self-serving individuals to voluntarily cooperate in a social environment, each must gain from the interaction. This is the definition of "Fair Trade". So a Rational Egoist approaches social intercourse with the principle of Fair Trade as his Ethical guide.  

Conclusion

Regardless of how you determine which is the ethically / morally better alternative; regardless of whose life will be better if you do the right / ethical / moral thing - if you choose as your standard of "better" some non-material "Spiritual" realm, or some other "There-then", you are effectively removing your Ethical beliefs from the realm of philosophical discussion.   There is, in practical application, no discernable difference between "Emotive Ethics" and these "Spiritual" or "There-Then" variants.

On the other hand, if you believe that life will be better in the Here-Now, in some fashion roughly approximated by an economic standard-of-living measure, then regardless of how you determine the which is the ethically / morally better alternative and regardless of whose life will be better if you do the right / ethical / moral thing - the most effective and efficient means of delivering on the "Promise of Eden" is "Rational Egoism".  

If you do not like the conclusion of this analysis -- that "Rational Egoism" is the most effective and efficient means of "making life better" for the greatest number of people to the greatest possible degree -- then you must alter one of the premises that got you here.   You must choose one of these three ways of changing how you think about "The right thing to do".

If you do not provide different answers to one or more of these three issues, then "Rational Egoism" is the most effective and efficient delivery mechanism for whatever "Better" you conceive of. If you do not like "rational Egoism", there are only two alternatives available to you -

(a) Define your notion of Ethics in terms of the non-material welfare of someone other than yourself, as judged by that other person. In other words - live your life for the sake of, and at the beck and call of someone else's needs. Consider yourself a human sacrifice at the alter of someone else's notion of "A better life".  

(b) Define your notion of Ethics in terms of the non-material welfare of someone other than yourself, as judged by some third-party Intentionality. In other words - believe in God. Consider yourself a human sacrifice at the alter of God's notion of "A better life".

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Footnotes

(1) Ad Hominem   Translated from Latin to English, "Ad Hominem" means "against the man" or "against the person."

An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of "argument" has the following form:

Person A makes claim X. Person B makes an attack on person A. Therefore A's claim is false. The reason why an Ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Example:
                 Bill: "I believe that abortion is morally wrong."
                 Dave: "Of course you would say that, you're a priest."
                 Bill: "What about the arguments I gave to support my position?"
                 Dave: "Those don't count. Like I said, you're a priest, so you have to say that abortion is wrong. Further, you are just a lackey to the Pope, so I can't believe what you say."

(2) AYER, Sir Alfred Jules (1910-89), British philosopher, who influenced the development of contemporary analytic philosophy. He taught at the universities of Oxford and London and became Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford in 1959. Ayer's book Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) was an influential expression of logical positivism.   In it Ayer presents a modified version of logical positivism which he called 'logical empiricism'. This made rather radical charges against philosophy itself, such as asserting that metaphysics was simply nonsense, that questions of value were nonexistent and that philosophers should concern themselves almost solely with language.  

The consequence of removing metaphysics is that statements about 'facts' are simply statements about things in the sensory realm. This means that a statement such as 'God exists' is really a statement about the person who says it rather than its referent (God). 'Factual' statements are merely emotional utterances in disguise. The logical extreme of Emotivism can be seen in the following example. If one wishes to make the claim, "Murder is wrong" this is not to make a value judgment based on some Ultimate referent but simply to say "I don't like murder" (or "If murder became legal then I believe society would crumble"). However, if one has removed the possibility of metaphysics in matters where an Ultimate Referent would be sought then there is no way of justifying this view of murder as being right or wrong. One is just as entitled to say "Murder is wrong" as one would to be to say "Murder is right".

Other works of Ayer include The Problem of Knowledge (1956), The Central Questions of Philosophy (1973), and Part of My Life: The Memoirs of a Philosopher (1977).

(3) Lemming:   Any of various small, thickset rodents, especially of the genus Lemmus, inhabiting northern regions and known for periodic mass migrations that sometimes end in drowning.

(4) no matter what - BOYZONE
                               
- Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by: Jim Steinman

"no matter what they tell us
  no matter what they do
  no matter what they teach us
  what we believe is true"