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A unified theory of Ethics
« on: July 30, 2020, 10:25:46 am »
Can all of the correct ethical principles be boiled down into a simple principle? I can think of a few candidates, but they all have a few problems.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." -- useful in the general sense, but there are many specific cases where this doesn't work so well. Most people's needs and desires are different from your own, so they wouldn't appreciate it if you did exactly for them what you want them to do for you. Another issue is that what you want to be done may not be what is actually good for you; it's also tricky to apply this standard to humanity as a whole instead of individual people.

"Maximize wellbeing (or pleasure) and minimize suffering (or pain)." This is a utilitarian-style principle similar to what Sam Harris promotes in his Moral Landscape. At first, it sounds too simple -- isn't there more to ethics than pleasure and pain? But I can't personally think of an ethical value that isn't ultimately about one of those things. Even an ethical choice to develop virtues (such as wisdom, honesty, character, courage) is so you have a greater ability to max. wellbeing and min. suffering at a later point in life. IMO, this principle comes very close to being an ethical principle that encapsulates all of ethics.

One issue I see with this is that it makes no difference between family and strangers; suppose you and your brother are both on a bridge when your brother falls into the waters below, along with another stranger he bumped into. Which one should you save, if there's only time to save one? This principle doesn't say. If you maximize wellbeing for one person, you'll be minimizing wellbeing for the other, who probably also has a family who would be devastated by his loss. Most of us would probably save the brother, because if he died, that loss would affect us personally; but according to this principle, you might as well save the other person. Perhaps this "issue" with the principle is actually good, because is puts a check on natural selfishness ands helps you make choices objectively.

Is there an even better principle I'm not thinking of? Or are there other issues with the "wellbeing" principle (or utilitarianism in general) that disqualify it as a good theory?
"Early morning, April fourth,
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life.
They could not take your pride."

1

noncontingent

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #1 on: July 30, 2020, 10:39:12 am »
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."

Proverbs 3:5-6

"Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered."

Proverbs 28:26

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Mt 22.37-39).

This is echoed throughout the bible. We know the principles, but our hearts deceive us and raise the ante any time we find ourselves in conflict with what we know we should do and what we actually do. I think it's futile to imagine I can escape the consequences of my own inherent stupidity through reason alone, so I try to crowd out the stupid as much as I can, but at the end of the day I'm still stupid. So I've decided this is the cross we're all asked to bear.

Paul himself said this at Romans 7:21-24

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.


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shoyt

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #2 on: July 30, 2020, 12:27:02 pm »
Yes, ethics can be boiled down to one moral principle: Be social.

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Lucian

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #3 on: July 30, 2020, 01:23:54 pm »
Can all of the correct ethical principles be boiled down into a simple principle?

No.

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shoyt

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #4 on: July 30, 2020, 01:46:47 pm »
Can all of the correct ethical principles be boiled down into a simple principle?

No.

If you think about it, then over time, you'll care less about people's conclusions and only come to care for their arguments.

"No" isn't what anyone ought to be looking for in asking this question, it seems to me.

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Lucian

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #5 on: July 30, 2020, 01:49:44 pm »
Can all of the correct ethical principles be boiled down into a simple principle?

No.

If you think about it, then over time, you'll care less about people's conclusions and only come to care for their arguments.

"No" isn't what anyone ought to be looking for in asking this question, it seems to me.

Thanks for your input.

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #6 on: July 30, 2020, 02:33:43 pm »
Yes, ethics can be boiled down to one moral principle: Be social.

Huh, interesting. So by social you mean connecting with others, understanding their perspectives, helping them, etc.? I can see how that's a good principle for a large part of ethics, but not sure it applies to everything. What about ethics towards animals, for example, or whether or not to support a charity helping people you'll never meet? (Maybe you meant something else by social, and I'm just misunderstanding.)
"Early morning, April fourth,
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life.
They could not take your pride."

7
Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #7 on: July 30, 2020, 02:34:11 pm »
Can all of the correct ethical principles be boiled down into a simple principle?

No.

How about a few principles, then? Just the basics.
"Early morning, April fourth,
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life.
They could not take your pride."

8

Lucian

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #8 on: July 30, 2020, 02:39:57 pm »
Can all of the correct ethical principles be boiled down into a simple principle?

No.

How about a few principles, then? Just the basics.

I think that's the wrong way to think about ethics, really. 

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kurros

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #9 on: July 30, 2020, 04:50:17 pm »
Yes, ethics can be boiled down to one moral principle: Be social.

Huh, interesting. So by social you mean connecting with others, understanding their perspectives, helping them, etc.? I can see how that's a good principle for a large part of ethics, but not sure it applies to everything. What about ethics towards animals, for example, or whether or not to support a charity helping people you'll never meet? (Maybe you meant something else by social, and I'm just misunderstanding.)

I think it applies here also, just in a less direct way, and in a way that leverages a few things about our own human nature. For example, whilst there doesn't appear to be any clear pragmatic social benefit to ethical treatment of animals, I think that a society which treats animals ethically is one that automatically promotes better treatment of its own members as a kind of side effect. This is because we feel an automatic empathy towards animals, and so treating them well cultivates these empathic thoughts and feelings. Whilst societies that are cruel to animals become used to dehumanizing others, and it instead promotes sociopathic tendencies. There is a reason that animal cruelty is an indicator of sociopathy in humans after all.

The case for charity is similar.
« Last Edit: July 30, 2020, 04:51:50 pm by kurros »

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shoyt

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #10 on: July 30, 2020, 04:57:53 pm »
Yes, ethics can be boiled down to one moral principle: Be social.

Huh, interesting. So by social you mean connecting with others, understanding their perspectives, helping them, etc.? I can see how that's a good principle for a large part of ethics, but not sure it applies to everything. What about ethics towards animals, for example, or whether or not to support a charity helping people you'll never meet? (Maybe you meant something else by social, and I'm just misunderstanding.)

I mean something like Hume below. For other creatures, it seems to me that how we treat them is a comment on our own state of ethical insight. We ought to be moral and ethical to all and everywhere. But, others may not agree.

Thus, the rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed, and owe their origin and existence to that utility, which results to the public from their strict and regular observance. Reverse, in any considerable circumstance, the condition of men: produce extreme abundance or extreme necessity: implant in the human breast perfect moderation and humanity, or perfect rapaciousness and malice: by rendering justice totally useless, you thereby totally destroy its essence, and suspend its obligation upon mankind. The common situation of society is a medium amidst all these extremes […] Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: and as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy … This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine.

(David Hume, ‘An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals’)


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shoyt

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Re: A unified theory of Ethics
« Reply #11 on: July 30, 2020, 04:59:54 pm »

I think it applies here also, just in a less direct way, and in a way that leverages a few things about our own human nature. For example, whilst there doesn't appear to be any clear pragmatic social benefit to ethical treatment of animals, I think that a society which treats animals ethically is one that automatically promotes better treatment of its own members as a kind of side effect. This is because we feel an automatic empathy towards animals, and so treating them well cultivates these empathic thoughts and feelings. Whilst societies that are cruel to animals become used to dehumanizing others, and it instead promotes sociopathic tendencies. There is a reason that animal cruelty is an indicator of sociopathy in humans after all.

The case for charity is similar.

Very well said.