By Don Wharton
The purpose of this essay is to present an outline of a theory of ethical value grounded in science. Ethical values are normative principles agreed to by members of society. People have motivation to agree to such principles because the shared outcomes will be better for those people making such agreements. In the past science has been seen to be of use in ethical discussions only in the evaluation of outcomes. A scientific theory of ethical value must illuminate the nature of the ethical good by providing a reason to prefer one expression of ethical value over another.
What do we value and how do we measure that value? Adam Smith is recognized as the pioneer of modern economic theory of value as a function of supply and demand. "Market forces" in Adam Smith’s sense of the term simply do not include a broad range of both costs and benefits. Anyone who would restrict the notion of value to market value only is denying that certain other very real factors exist. Energy company executives are a prime example of this when they desperately try to deny that global warming is occurring despite the overwhelming evidence. Costs such as reduced agricultural productivity, land loss due to rising sea levels and species extinction are not reflected in the market value of energy. This illustrates how ethical values, the reasons to prefer one notion of “good” action or outcome over another, are different from market value.
Humanists have very differing views concerning the nature of ethical value. The vast differences in the personal perspectives of humanists reflect the understandable differences in human experience. Our humanist model of ethical value as deriving from human experience is a simple and accurate statement of fact. People experience the values presented by others and observe the results of actions by themselves and others. Somehow people synthesize a value system from these experiences. We tend to have substantial similarity of values but we have no mechanism to clearly demonstrate that any particular ethical principle is better than another.
In order to construct a scientific ethical model grounded in empirical fact, we must have a clear conception of good and how facts would relate to what we ought to do to achieve that good. Richard Dawkins said that organisms are survival machines for the genes carried within them. The meaning and purpose of the survival machine was to protect and replicate the genes contained within the biological machinery. Those that read his book “The Selfish Gene” know that he had an enormous variety of examples that demonstrated the accuracy of this thesis. This should not be taken to imply that differential survival of particular genes fully determine the totality of an organism design. Genetic drift, random chance, design constraints in possible organism evolution and other real world factors will constrain or contribute to the design of any given organism. An appropriate understanding of the role of genes in evolution should include knowledge of the numerous ad-hoc and idiosyncratic mechanisms that can make evolution a quite complex process.
The genes build receptors and emotive response mechanisms that are capable of a wide variety of positive and negative experiences. The evolutionary purpose of these mechanisms is, as with all other biological complexities, to preserve and replicate the genes contained within. Many aspects of these mechanisms evolved far earlier in our evolutionary history. Most of this evolution occurred back when our ancestors were reptiles. The mechanism of evolution built that machinery of experience with the implicit functional purpose of maximizing the survival of the genes carried within our bodies. That genetically defined experience of positive and negative corresponds poorly to the wisdom that is possible with the modern day human brain and the more refined techniques of intellectual inquiry that are now possible.
With the evolution of language we naturally evolved words to describe many varieties of these positive and negative experiences. The term “good” is richly associated with positive experience/occurrence at the levels of sensory pleasure, emotional affect, more refined intellectual appreciation and structural efficacy of many forms. The varieties of usages for “good” are so extensive that the Oxford English Dictionary devotes five pages to the word.
G. E. Moore said that “the main object of Ethics is to give correct reasons for thinking that this or that is good.” It is quite reasonable that people would attempt to justify those reasons from the biological complexity that we inherit and the linguistic confusion that has evolved around the word “good.” Many of these attempts have obvious counter examples. If pleasure is deemed to be good then the pleasure of a cocaine high is by definition good. This is an example of the confusion between fact and value that has been typical in philosophical history. People experience the fact of pleasure with many things that are deemed to be good. This can create the illusion that the fact of pleasure is in and of itself the good to be valued.
Moore is among the more notable philosophers that assert a distinction between the worlds of fact and value. He termed any attempt to link values with any natural property to be “the naturalistic fallacy.” He did not assert that in all cases such a linkage would be false. Instead he said that the natural property must be in itself good and that any ethical system based on the natural property must be internally consistent. In his analysis all existing ethical systems failed to meet these tests and were thus false. If we are to demonstrate Moore to be wrong we must have a theory of “the good” that satisfies these two legitimate requirements. I would add a third element, that any formal model with internal consistency must have some rough correspondence with currently shared societal values. Any system that wildly disagrees with current societal values would not be taken seriously. Those points of disagreement should be associated with cogent reasons to reconsider our existing values.
If we know the “good” to be valued then we know a lot about what we ought to do to achieve that good. What is the nature of an “ought” and how does it relate to the world of facts? Presume that we know that if we perform action A then we will have a consequence B. If we wish to achieve B then we can say that we “ought” to perform action A. The ought derives from the goal. If there is to be some reason to select a given description of facts as an “ought” there must be something such as the seeking of a goal to provide the reason for that selection.
Daniel C Dennett said, “The philosopher’s problem is to negotiate the transition from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’ … and get all the way to norms that command assent in all rational agents.” If we are to accomplish this goal to the extent that is possible we must have a consistent theory of the goal seeking behavior of rational agents. Any general assent must be commanded by the internal logic of the theory. The world of values can become equivalent to the world of facts if we can logically justify the connection between legitimate goal seeking behavior and the factual circumstances that are required to achieve those goals. The definition of “the good” then must be linked to a theory of goal seeking.
I would like to start with five categories that include three specific categories of goal seeking by rational agents. These categories will proceed in a sequence from physical law in the absence of life to our personal goals as a rational agent. My intent is to illustrate the connection between the world of facts and value.
Events as an expression of scientific law.
Goals built into biological function.
Goals independent of knowing social agreement as to their nature.
Knowingly created shared societal goals.
Personal goals within a wider societal context.
If we drop an object in a vacuum we know both the acceleration expected and the distance for any given interval of time. We can say the object ought to achieve a certain velocity and ought to traverse the computed distance. This is the ought of expectation. The object ought to behave as expected by physical law. Obviously the universe itself does not have the goal of adhering to any specific law or set of laws. This is purely the world of facts. The facts of behavior are what is described and objects ought to behave as expected by the generalizations called physical law.
Biological function is a more complex expression of scientific law. Consider our red blood cells. We know the purpose of those cells are to transport oxygen to other cells and to transport carbon dioxide from those cells back to our lungs. This purpose is a subset of the overall evolutionary purpose of maintaining the organism as a survival machine for the genes. There is no rational agency in this purpose but there is the implicit goal seeking behavior of evolution which maximizes the survival of the genes. We can say that our blood cells ought to achieve the function for which they are designed (by the mindless evolutionary process).
Presume that a driver is entering a curved part of a road at a high rate of speed. Presume also that there is a cliff next to the outside edge of the curve. The driver is unconcerned because he has good tires and is confident in the quality of his car’s suspension system and thinks that the road is quite dry. Presume that the road ahead is actually wet due to a prior local squall but the water on the road is in shadow and is minimally visible. With this situation it is quite easy to say that the diver ought to slow down. “The driver ought to slow down” is a proposition that contains certain assumptions.
We assume that driver has the goal of continuing his life. That might not be the case. Perhaps he has terminal cancer and is in excruciating pain. This is an extraordinary circumstance. In the absence of any such extraordinary circumstance the default assumption can comfortably be made that the driver seeks to maintain his life.
There is also the assumption that the ought condition applies in the absence of knowledge on the part of the driver of the consequences of his actions. The knowing of consequences does not seem to be part of what we mean when we use the term “ought” in this case. The ought derives solely from the implicit goals that we understand to be part of the circumstances.
Assume that there are two small tribal groups that each migrate to separate uninhabited islands with nearly equivalent resources. The first group survives and prospers due to the internal cooperation, support and the sharing of information and resources. The second group has much greater internal conflict. It fails to thrive and all of its members die. In neither case is there any depth of understanding concerning the ethical principles that decide the fate of the two tribes. An external observer could in principle discern the functional reasons for the two outcomes. We can presume that each had a goal to survive and prosper. This goal is categorically intrinsic to all life, including non-sentient life. In the sense that this goal exists we can say that each tribe “ought” to exhibit the shared functional behavior to achieve their mutual survival. This ought might be visible to an external observer but not be visible within the tribes. The factual nature of the requirements to insure the goal of shared survival (a specific ought) has an existence that is independent of any internal knowledge or agreement concerning those facts. This view of the ought links it to the factual circumstances irrespective of any shared understanding of those circumstances. Implicit in this is the presumption that the principles of ethics exist beyond a shared understanding of them.
Our society has a thousand fold reduction in the probability of death by violence as compared with primitive tribal societies. This has been achieved through a knowing understanding of societal goals and a shared agreement, a social contract, concerning the principles that ought to exist to meet those goals. Thus we believe in property rights, honesty, promise-keeping and avoidance of personal violent conflict, among many other things. These shared agreements and the rule of law to enforce aspects of those agreements are an important part of modern civilization. This explicit knowing linkage between the facts of shared societal goals and the values agreed upon to achieve those goals is a substantial advance from the relatively random values of primitive tribal groups discussed above.
Each of us has an understanding of personal good that is contingent on our family, personal relationships, our livelihood, and other personal interests. This category of “good” is substantially different from our societal agreements concerning good and the factual good required for survival prior to any such agreements. A. J. Ayer disparages Moore because, “In general Moores’s rules of conduct pay no attention to the special position of the agent.” This is not totally correct because Moore does examine Egoism. He finds it to be inconsistent because that which is deemed good from one person’s perspective is not good from the perspective of another person. Obviously personal good will never be “the good” as expressed by societal norms. Personal good should differ from person to person. I am including it here not because I wish to develop a theory of personal good but because we need to understand that it is different in form but still central to the whole. Marxism tried to equate personal good with societal good. It did not work because people were not motivated to work hard for the benefit of others. Societal norms should recognize and support the pursuit of personal good where there is little or no conflict with general societal good. We know that the increase in personal effort will be of massive benefit to the wider society and thus we ought to nurture the pursuit of personal goals as part of our general societal norms.
These five categories of goal seeking and the “oughts” that attach to each are not fully separate categories. The goals of categories three and four above are social goals that have a moral ought attached to them. The personal goals of category five are socially approved if they are consistent with wider societal goals and thus also satisfy a moral ought. There are fact based reasons that define the oughts of expectation and biological function. If there is a similar fact based description of an extremely general form that would encompass all goal seeking of moral agency then we would have a similar linkage in the world of facts with the oughts of moral agency.
My position is that insofar as “God” is real “He” is equivalent to the physical universe. God is what the universe does. A naturalistic model of ethics can be built by studying what “God” does in this sense. Note that I am using “God” in the same sense as Einstein, with reverence for natural, lawful mechanism and not the slightest belief in traditional religion. My argument is that what universe does in living systems is create layer after layer of elegant cooperation with an evolutionary mechanism that increases the capture of energy needed for life and uses it with increasing efficiency to maintain the entirety of the natural ecosystem. This includes the emergent artifact of human culture. Evolutionary mechanisms create a vast number of photosynthetic organisms that together serve to capture vastly more solar energy than any single type of organism. Competing species or variations in a given ecological niche will win the evolutionary competition if they are more efficient in using the energy available in that niche.
The concept of energy efficiency says nothing about the magnitude or duration of energy usage for a given function. The shuttle booster rockets will create enormous thrust for a relatively few minutes. A digital watch might sip a very small amount of energy for years. Each is designed to be energy efficient for its function. A lion pride might put out a large amount of energy to hunt and kill its prey. They might sleep for days afterward. A small bird finding very small flecks of food in the sands of a beech might spend much of the day finding that food. The lions and the birds use vastly different strategies to acquire the food they need. These different function have much different patterns of energy usage and much different strategies to minimize the energy required.
The lion minimizes the energy expended between hunts by resting. The resting metabolism of cold blooded reptiles is roughly one tenth that of a warm blooded animal of the same size. Imagine for a moment a lion-like species that could hunt with the same strategy and effectiveness of a lion but rest with the efficiency of a large alligator. That species could rest for thirty days between hunts. This hypothetical species would drive the lion to extinction in short order.
The bird species uses small size and good insulation to preserve body heat. A species eating precisely the same food but with an inefficiently large body and less efficient insulation would not be able to compete with the smaller bird. If there are two organisms in the same ecological niche using the same strategy the more energy efficient organism will be favored by selection.
The bird species uses small size and good insulation to preserve body heat. A species eating precisely the same food but with an inefficiently large body and less efficient insulation would not be able to compete with the smaller bird. If there are two organisms in the same ecological niche using the same strategy the more energy efficient organism will be favored by selection.
This does not mean that all organism forms utilize absolute energy minimums. It only means that surviving species or variants will on average be somewhat more energy efficient in producing additional instances of their type than those that do not survive. It would always be possible to imagine possible organisms that would be substantially more efficient and there are the evolutionary mechanisms that create substantial obstacles for any possible advantageous solution. A given gene might code for proteins that are used in dozens of possibly unrelated functions. Some of those functions might be much more efficient than others. If all of those functions are contingent on the one gene then the mechanism of evolution will have no way to select for the one or more particular functions that most contribute to the fitness of the organism. This is but one of the evolutionary complexities that will impede a general Darwinian search for energy efficiency.
Sexual selection is another example of a mechanism that can be disadvantageous for a species. The extravagant peacock tail is a significant burden for the peacock. Substantial biological energy is consumed in growing the tail feather display and in carrying the additional mass from place to place. Biologists have determined that it does document the additional vitality of the male with the more impressive display. The females of the species select for this and it thus becomes a requirement for the reproductive life cycle. It is possible for an individual peacock to invest either too little or too much energy in his display. Evolution will select for the minimum investment that satisfies the requirements of female acceptance.
This is still a “tragedy of the commons” for the species. Every sexually reproducing species will have some common process for combining male and female genetic information. The sexual selectivity in this case focused on the tail display. There was a runaway evolutionary spiral that put the species at great risk. A similar bird species without the display would be able to easily win in competition in the same niche. It would be able to survive with less food and it would be able to more easily avoid any predators.
It is easy to assume that energy usage is not the critical factor for evolutionary selection in all cases. Energy availability might not appear to be the limiting factor in a desert. Someone might legitimately think that the limiting factor was water. Well what does the organism do to respond to environmental limits on water? There might be mechanisms to store more water and minimize its evaporation. There may be behaviors that increase access to water and minimize its use. All adaptations are either in biological form or behavior. In all cases an energy investment is required. The organism that is most energy efficient in achieving an appropriate mixture of functions will win in that ecosystem niche. All organisms are biological machines. Any machine of necessity will require energy of an appropriate form to power it. Machines of any variety require power in the proper form if they are to do work of any kind. This energy is required for both the growth of biological adaptations and all organism behavior.
Biologists would agree that of two otherwise identical organisms, the one that is more energy efficient is likely to be favored by selection. But what is included in the non-identical function(s) of otherwise identical organisms? Perhaps they differ only in the production of digestive juices. Maybe there are a cluster of differences such that for one organism the entirety of the digestive system is more energy efficient in the derivation of nutrients from ingested food. Ultimately the organism has one overall function, the reproduction of others of its kind. This means the species that are most energy efficient in producing proportionally more of their kind in a given niche will thrive. This is achieved with a well honed balance between the many functions of an organism. This will not produce any uniquely best possible organism. Darwinian selectivity will only produce organisms that are better for a given environment than those that might exist without that selectivity.
Daniel C. Dennett is correct that a linkage between facts and value is the central problem of philosophy. Darwinian theory, properly understood is a description both of what “is” and an efficiency measure that can compare solutions to find which among various options “ought” to be. My explicit restatement of the Darwinian theory of evolution is that it seeks to increase the capture of energy required for life and more efficiently use it to maintain all the required functions of life. Stated in that form it is easy to extend “life” to include all of the housing, transportation, communication and other non-living systems required to maintain modern human life.
Darwinian theory has had a negative ethical connotation for many. A major problem with understanding the elegant cooperative mechanisms of nature has been Alfred Tennyson’s appalling stanza from his poem “In Memoriam”:
Who trusted God was love indeed
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed –
Tennyson is making a sharp distinction between the love understood to be God’s final law and the violence of nature symbolized by “tooth and claw.” In this stanza nature becomes the evil villain shrieking against God’s creed. This creates the image of people being clawed and killed in a violent competition for survival. If we are to see Darwinian theory as a light to illuminate that nature of the good we have to confront this fearful image. We must answer the question concerning who and what lives and dies and why? Let us look first at nature.
Tennyson’s stanza places the emphasis in nature on the violent attacks of carnivores on their prey and on violent competition that sometimes exists for mates and resources. This emphasis totally ignores the fact that carnivores are providing a critically important ecological balancing function. A complex ecosystem can go into a cascading series of collapses without the balancing services of the top predator. The ecosystem will have significantly more biomass and species variety with its top predator than without. Tennyson’s stanza also ignores the fact that the ecosystem is using the Darwinian process to find the most energy efficient solution to filling any given ecosystem niche. The definition of Darwinian fitness is efficiency in using the energy of an ecosystem to create additional examples of the species or variety in question. This is how elegant function emerges in nature.
In modern human societies elegant function through win-win strategies will on average build far more shared value than win-lose strategies which will typically only divide existing resources. Sensitive, thoughtful human relationships then become a natural consequence of a Darwinian view of ethics. This is also reflected in many ways in nature. Consider the cooperating services provided by bees and the flowers they pollinate. This is not a unique partnership. There are about 250,000 plant species that need to be fertilized by almost as many animal species. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. Together lichens provide solutions for ecosystem niches that are estimated to cover eight percent of the land surface of our planet. Fifty percent of the mass of soil can be living organisms cooperating in an intensely complex micro-ecosystem where none would survive without the whole. Many plants require animals to distribute their seeds or they would not survive. These examples of cooperative relationships are a small part of the rich network of cooperation in any real ecosystem. These natural systems create cooperative shared benefit because that is what wins in nature.
Is Tennyson’s poem a fair and accurate portrait of nature? He suggests that nature is characterized by rapacious destructive violence and not the spirit of cooperation that comes to mind when we think of love. Obviously love is a human emotion that is not shared by simple organisms such as bees or plants. The cooperative mutual benefit is a natural consequence of Darwinian selection. What succeeds is the cooperation that might be there if the organisms actually did love each other. A top predator like a tiger does not plan to increase the richness of life in its home range. The tiger just wants food. Again the result is what might be expected if the tiger did actively plan for positive results. Tennyson was not a trained biologist and he had no understanding of the benefits provided by top predators. The vast profusion of plant life increases the solar energy that can be captured and used by the wider ecosystem. Plants do not have a spirit, but if they did the gift of the energy provided would be a most loving gift to the rest of the ecosystem. In all these cases nature can be seen as reflecting the beneficial cooperative sense of Tennyson’s words: “love Creation's final law.”
This positive view of the “tooth and claw” of a tiger would not be acceptable if those killed were to be people. There are numerous cases of norms in primitive societies sanctioning the termination of the old, sick or otherwise unproductive in times of scarcity. A friend that is half Navaho tells me that it was expected among his ancestors. The old would simply go off and die when they ceased to be productive. There are similar stories of Eskimos that go out to sea on an ice flow when they could no longer contribute to their tribe. These choices happened primarily during times of scarcity. This not only happened, it significantly added to the survival potential for the rest of the tribe at that time. In that context it was obviously a good. Tribes that did this survived and reproduced more effectively than those that did not. The norm was accepted as a tool to enhance the group survival during times of scarcity. People accept that the group norm served their self interest.
This very bleak Darwinian outlook for some is quite different in modern society. Humanity has leveraged our evolved facility with language to create and communicate innovations that substantially transform everything that we do. A bridge across a river can illustrate the “good” that is achieved by modern society. If the bridge substantially reduces the distance that must be driven and thus the energy cost for every trip across the bridge then it is an explicit “good” as measured by the ethical premise of implicit in the Darwinian imperative to minimize the energy cost for any function. The bridge designers, builders and users all contribute to the creation of this shared societal good. It becomes a win/win strategy for all that participate in this solution. There are many millions of design solutions in modern society that similarly serve to create societal good. The knowledge and communication skills of the average person serves to create shared good through the vast network of win/win strategies that are part of every advanced civilization. An exponential increase in shared wealth derive from these interlocking solutions.
It is quite common for humanists to assert the dignity and worth of every human being. By my explicit measure the value contributed by the vast majority will substantially exceed the energy cost to maintain them. An assumption of human worth is usually a quite accurate statement of fact by my measure. One cannot create “good” by killing large numbers in a war and thus reduce the energy costs of their maintenance. We would also lose the positive as measured by an objective expectation of their contribution to a shared good. Programs implemented in prison populations that presume a positive worth to every person will often in fact deliver that net positive worth with a substantially reduced recidivism rate. Thus many in a group that most would assume to be least able to make a positive contribution succeed when nurtured with the presumption that they do have positive worth.
What emerges is a new unit of Darwinian survival, the civilization itself. We are loyal to our civilization because our individual survival is vastly enhanced by it. This is an obvious good but we have to clarify the explicit mechanism by which social norms are derived and propagated to support a given civilization. The survival of a civilization is contingent on its ability to mobilize the support of its citizens and that support is contingent on shared norms of civilization that meet the perceived interests of those citizens. This is an objective fact. For clarity let us restate this fact as a central premise:
No statement of ethical value will be accepted unless it meets the perceived interests of those that encounter that statement.
Civilization itself is contingent on this premise. This is also important because we have not fully answered the question: who lives and who dies and why? There are many who are old, demented, ill or otherwise incapable of making any positive contribution to society. Under any raw definition of a Darwinian ethic these people should be terminated as unfit. This is unacceptable to people because people become deeply attached to friends and family and everyone realizes that they might at some point be in the same condition. Their perceived interest includes thoughtful care for themselves when and if that happens. The fact is that it is not possible for ethical norms to evolve that violate people’s perceived interests in this manner. An ethical norm that would terminate me at some future date would only be acceptable if my present life and the lives of those that I care about are contingent on that norm.
Daniel Dennett wrote the book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. It is a richly articulate exposition of Darwinian thought, perhaps the best yet written. Dennett also recognizes the enormous value that could be derived from an ethical system that negotiated the transition from the “is” to the “ought.” If anyone could propose a Darwinian view of ethics one might image that Dennett would be that person. The problem is that any Darwinian theory of ethics will have “counter-examples” that violate civilized norms to the extent that the entire theory is rejected. The transition from the “is” to the “ought” can occur only when cogent reasons can be given for precluding all such destructive “counter-examples.” Any such “counter-example” is simply not a premise that can reasonably considered given the existing facts. The energy cost of maintaining some non-functional people is a fully acceptable condition for the maintenance of the vastly greater shared value of civilization itself. The people who “ought” to die under my proposed ethical measure are armed psychopathic murderers, Al Qaeda operatives and others who pose an immanent threat to civilization.
The energy based model of evolution is a background fact that can explain the creation of virtually everything that is of value. This fact based model of evolution is THE optimal choice as a definition of the moral good, our ought. Once the obvious problems with a Darwinian ethical system are removed we become free to use our metric for the “ought” against all other ethical choices in our civilization. What are the functions that contribute to our shared survival? How can those functions be most effectively achieved? What knowledge and norms would most enhance the shared goals of civilization? If everything that we find to be of value derives from a vast network of Darwinian mechanisms that bring form out of chaos, then how can we most efficiently nurture the creation of valued form?
A major confusion is the presumption that a Darwinian view contains no implicit ethical assumption. We inappropriately emphasize that mutations are random in form and ignore that fact that nature is selecting for relative elegance of function. The implicit value of the natural order rests with the obvious selection for better function. That is not obvious if we focus our view on the randomness of individual mutations. This scientific focus makes it obvious that the mechanisms of life do not derive from a “God” that lives in a separate “spiritual” reality and it can obscure the fact that Darwinian selection for elegant function is the mission of life. That elegant function is used to maximize the capture and efficient use of energy in the ecosystem. This is the implicit ethical message provided by our universe. Our society can use this principle to increase the shared good created by society.
In a society, what is the relationship between the functions that emerge, the people and their shared ethical principles? The ethical principles must at minimum not violate the perceived interests of the people if they are to be accepted. Moreover those shared principles should serve to mobilize the loyalty, commitment and energy of its people. For this reason the shared ethical principles of a society are as important to a society as our skeleton is to us. This means that the shared ethical principles must visibly serve the people and be valued for that reason. The relative elegance of societal function will be a visible outcome of those ethical principles and the mechanism by which goods, services and valued relationships are formed.
Comparison with Kant’s Categorical Imperative
Immanuel Kant and John Rawls are two of the most renowned ethical philosophers in history. Their approaches will be compared with those supported by this essay. Kant is seen as the leading philosopher using a theory of duty. We can agree on a given duty implied by membership in a particular group. If we chose to join a club that has dues we have a duty to pay those dues. The most inclusive group from Kant’s perspective is the group of all rational agents. We did not choose to join this group but we are a member by virtue of our ability to be rational. A major premise advanced by Kant is: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Kant is presuming that as rational agents we will act as we wish all rational agents to act.
This premise is used to derive what are called categorical imperatives. Under this principle telling a lie would imply that one wished there to be a universal law that people should lie. A world in which everyone lied at all times would not work in any normal sense of the term. If Kant’s premise is accepted then one accepts a categorical duty not to lie. The justification rests with pure reason. The consequences cannot be considered under such an imperative. Quoting Kant, “The moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from this expected effect.”
Suppose that someone is in your house and he is hiding from a feared enemy. That enemy appears at your front door, lets you know that he wishes to kill the person and asks if you know where he is. This was a famous problem posed during Kant’s lifetime and my understanding is that Kant advocated a truthful answer. When Kant advocates a categorical imperative he means that consequences such as this may not be considered.
I take the opposite position. The criterion of judgment for a given ethical proposition concerning societal good must rest with the average expected consequence for that society. Any civilization of even minimal complexity will have numerous agreements between two or more people to act in concert in some way. These agreements are contingent on accurate reports concerning the abilities and intentions of the people making those agreements. If the ethical principles of a civilization are analogous to a major functional system of an organism then the criterion by which it should be judged is identical. That criterion is the energy efficiency of the functions that consequentially derive from that ethical principle. If there is misrepresentation concerning either the capacity or the intention to cooperate in some manner, then the cooperative effort will fail. This means that energy must be allocated to the detection of dishonesty prior to the creation of an agreement and energy must be allocated to the punishment of dishonesty where agreements fail due to dishonesty. Honesty is ethical by this criterion because it yields greater energy efficiency in the creation and execution of agreements.
Our perceived interests are not violated by this proposition that honesty is ethical. This analysis of the interests of rational agents is quite similar to that proposed by Kant.
There is a set of games called the prisoners’ dilemma that have been extensively analyzed by game theorists. The classic case presumes that two people have been arrested under conditions with marginal evidence. Each might get a one year sentence with existing evidence. Each is offered a deal to give additional evidence against the other. The person to first give additional evidence will go free. The one that does not do so would then get a five year prison term. Choosing to cooperate in holding a secret is worse as measured by the prison term than reneging on that agreement. This is true for both parties. Moreover, if the other person reneges first the outcome is much worse for the person still choosing to cooperate. Cooperation is assumed to be the civilized and ethical action among philosophers that use game theory.
Let us use game theory to look at a case that was extensively analyzed by Kant. Someone in desperate need of money might request a loan with no intention of repaying it. Reneging on the deal yields the money borrowed without repayment. Cooperation requires repayment of the debt and a net decrease in financial resources for the borrower. This is similar to the prisoner dilemma game in that cooperation at this level yields worse results than reneging. This is a common situation in any society.
A truthful representation of an intent to repay a loan would be the ethical action under either this evolutionary theory of ethics or Kant’s categorical imperative. We ought to follow knowingly created shared societal ethical principles defined by the energy efficiency criterion. This class of ought takes precedence over the ought associated with personal goals. Personal goals must be consistent with the ethical premises of the wider society.
Prisoner dilemma games can be unfortunate for two reasons. The prisoners are by definition violators of society’s laws. Cooperation is in service of antisocial behavior. The benefits and penalties of this game strategy are unrelated to any model of societal good. Under the ethical model espoused here a different category of ought is attached to the good associated with cooperation based on societal goals. Such cooperation is scored as ethical and the defection is scored as unethical. Cooperation in pursuit of antisocial goals is unethical. Visible reasons that serve the interests of rational agents are given for each judgment.
Note that Kant as a German Idealist places inappropriately large value on the role of ideas. We cannot presume that an understanding of one’s existence as a rational agent will in itself result in ethical behavior. This is not the factual truth of our world. We will still need to detect cheaters before agreements are made and punish any cheaters after they have defected from an agreement. Kant’s implicit assertion that pure reason alone is sufficient will never be verified by real world experience. The ethical theory proposed here provides reasons to link fact and value in a manner that will justify societal values.
Honesty is a valuable shared resource. It enables trust in relationships and the productive effort that can come from that trust. In order to establish trust one must be willing to diminish short term personal reward in order to create a greater common good that benefits everyone. This view gives a substantially different ethical calculation if one is confronted by a murderer at one’s front door looking for someone hiding in your house. In this case there might not be any personal gain received by lying to the murderer. There is no reason to believe that others will be less trusting if one lied under these conditions. The valued resource, a reputation for honesty, is not enhanced by telling the truth to the prospective murderer nor diminished by an untruth.
The ethical perspective advocated here is similar to a system of economics that can weight the value of numerous resources in a complex environment. The life of an individual will typically be valued quite highly in this system. A truthful statement that results in the destruction of a life is then an obvious ethical evil. The future good from that life is destroyed.
The Kantian perspective might be salvaged by creating numerous finely graded ethical laws, such as: ‘One must not lie unless the lie can be expected to preserve life.’ This approach could generate thousands of individual micro-categorical imperatives. It would be cumbersome and unworkable. What is required is a mechanism so that people can rapidly weight the competing ethical values to find the appropriate ethical path. This mandates something similar to economics. Kant repudiated any consideration of consequences. My alternative would find the value of ethical principle in an objective evaluation of the consequences.
Comparison with John Rawl’s and his “Theory of Justice”
John Rawls’ book is said to have spawned an industry of academic analysis in response to his views. Rawls wants to see maximum liberty and access to physical resources for all in society. Inequalities can still be justified if they maximize or at least contribute to the long term expectations of the least fortunate group in society. His theory is based on a “veil of ignorance.” If we look at society with this presumption that we are ignorant of our particular circumstances then we will of necessity have to assume that we could be among the least fortunate. Compassion is thus built into this assumption.
In any society there will be those that do not get what they want or perceive that they need. If they resort to criminal action there must be some mechanism to constrain that action. People often lose their liberty when those constraints are imposed. Rawls would advocate a minimum reduction in liberty that is consistent with a shared good that included a positive expectation for the least fortunate.
Any reduction in liberty will have an energy cost associated with it. Energy would have to be allocated to building and manning the entirety of the corrections system from the police, courts, jails through the half-way houses and probation system. Principles that reduce these energy requirements without increasing energy costs elsewhere in society would be good as measured by the consequences. Compassionate investment in education, drug treatment and crisis assistance will serve to prevent the desperation that might otherwise create criminal activity. Treatment alternatives to incarceration, where effective, are an obvious ethical good. Job training that creates salable skills for inmates will reduce recidivism and the future costs associated with reinstitutionalization. On this issue the ethical calculus advocated here would be quite similar although not identical to that advocated by Rawls. Punishment would be an evil that is justified only by the elimination of a still greater evil.
Rawls would like to see a minimal difference in the resources available to the least fortunate and the most fortunate. The ethical system here will not directly confirm Rawls on this point. However, a major source of the inequality is exorbitant executive compensation for high level corporate management. My judgment is that a substantially different theory of governance might be justifiable under the ethical system proposed and that the extreme corporate compensation that we now see would be substantially reduced under that form of governance. Even a very brief theory of governance would be beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is possible that a theory of governance would again produce results that would be moderately similar to that advocated by Rawls.
Why should a rational person adopt the ethical perspective advocated by Rawls? At its base the motivation would rest on his “veil of ignorance.” This is an abstraction that will not directly connect with a person’s motivation. It is not factual. People do know their circumstances. They are not ignorant. Rawls fails to provide a sound personal reason for someone to prefer his ethical premises.
The ethical theory presented in this essay produces value to be shared among the members of a civilization. It increases cooperative action and reduces negative consequences for people wherever possible. The purpose is explicitly to provide the reasons for people to be committed to the greater good of the whole. Both Kant and Rawls fail to provide this level of direct motivation to the people to believe in their systems.
The Choice/Antichoice Issue
What does this say about the abortion choice/anti-choice issue? Does this view of the universe give us a method to properly chose ethical action? Obviously most people will prefer positive function over dysfunction. If we allow choice then people are likely to prefer positive function. This view seems to argue that allowing choice is the ethical option for society. Are there any problems with this perspective?
Traditional religion might argue that there is a slippery slope problem. If it is OK to terminate a fetus then it could also be OK to terminate dysfunctional infants or older people that have outlived their usefulness. As we have seen these problematic cases have been precluded for reasons describe above. There is no slippery slope.
Since nature selects for positive function it is ethical to allow humans to do the same. The only circumstance where that is reasonable in modern society is prior to birth with a policy that supports choice. All the functions of our body exist because there were evolutionary pressures to select for that function. We value the functions that are properly executed by our bodies. If we cease to select for those functions our genetic message will cease to convey that positive function to our progeny. The structure of our universe demands that we be pro-choice. The only requirement is that choice actions be used prior to the social engagement that makes citizens treasured members of society.
The ethical principles espoused in this paper elegantly include the wider ecological perspective that is ultimately required for our shared survival. We are a natural species and our theory of ethical value should directly link to the natural ecosystem that nurtured our evolution.
A proper understanding of any person’s identity philosophically should include all of the causative events creating that identity from the Big Bang to the present time. My identity includes not just my physical body but language, knowledge and shared wisdom made available by others. I did not create this network of knowledge. I simply have the good fortune to benefit from and understand what has gone before. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, who themselves have stood on the shoulders of giants.
All the premises of this naturalistic theory of ethical value are empirical facts. G. E. Moore has argued that any such theory of ethics would fail due to his concept of a naturalistic fallacy. By this he meant that all such natural definitions of the good would fail to meet an open question argument: "Is that property itself good?" My premises fully meet this objection and provide a required internal consistency. Likewise Hume argued that the “Ought” could not be derived from the “Is.” I have done that with an explicit theory of the ought and a linkage with the world of facts. The universe itself can tell us what we need to know about the ought by the empirical evaluation of alternative views of the ethical good.
What would happened in a world that shared a valid vision of the ethical good? We would have heaven on Earth. Ecosystems would return to functional balance. Kindness and cooperation will mark the vast majority of relationships. Conditions of desperation and despair would be replaced with joyous celebrations of the shared good.How do we create that world? We do it one step at a time by finding ways to communicate and validate an understanding of the ethical good and creating mechanisms that will actually deliver that good to an expanding proportion of our planet’s population. We create that world by personally choosing to understand the ethical good and creating a sense of community with others that share that interest; by using that knowledge to create the good life for ourselves and others.