My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”
(Here is his summary of, and commentary on, Baggini’s thought experiments dealing with ethics. It follows from a previous post on metaphysics. I have added my own brief reflections at the bottom of the page.)
From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
The most commonly cited source for human ethics today is religion. This invention is understandable because it fills the void of our longing to know how to survive in our inherently uncertain universe. As seen in #58 Divine Command, when environments are filled with harsh adults who are unable or unwilling to explain themselves, children learn to obey to survive. This can easily lead to a perpetual cycle as these children also learn to dominate when they can, and they don’t learn to think clearly on their own.
However, #95 The Problem of Evil shows that Gods have all just been made up ideas, and the particular one invented and followed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the one that is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving—is a logical impossibility given the facts of the world. #45 The Invisible Gardner illustrates how scientific discoveries have made the gods of the gaps vanishingly small. Poof. In fact, according to #8 Good God, no gods tell us what is good; we determine it ourselves. In #78 Gambling on God, religious answers for epistemology and logic have been shown to be flat-out wrong and dangerous. They must be discarded. All of the good benefits of religion can be provided by a secular worldview.
So what are the secular sources of ethics? Traditionally, in philosophy, as in #60 Do As I Say, Not As I Do, we see how any morally considered human behavior has an intention, an action, and a result. That’s the way an event is described prior to, during, and after it occurs. It’s the way the past, present, and future are bound together by causality yet allowed to be looked at separately across time. Virtue ethics concerns itself with the intention behind an act. Deontology focuses on the action alone. [Kant’s deontology focuses on intention too.] Consequentialism focuses on the result. But all three may be evaluated individually for moral purposes. Also, #71 Life Support points out that neglecting to act is still an act that can be morally judged for intentions and consequences.
Exploring these philosophical options, deontological rules and universal virtues don’t work by themselves because sometimes, as in #7 When No One Wins, it’s possible to do long-term good by doing short-term bad. Even further, as in #99 Give Peace a Chance?, more deaths over the short-term may be preferable to more misery and death over the long-term, although empirically it’s not very easy to know the difference ahead of time, and I personally am very glad that my best course of action hasn’t involved such sacrifice. The most universally known deontological rule is #83 The Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule is simply calling for reciprocity, for empathy, for more cooperation. But this isn’t enough! Cooperation towards what? Putting a bagel on Saturn? Subjugating ladybugs? Spreading the message of Moses? It’s terribly misguided to focus on means without considering ends too.
Consequentialism or utilitarianism tries to focus on ends, but historically they have only considered well-being, pleasure, or avoidance of pain as the ultimate goal. #84 The Pleasure Principle, however, shows that pleasure or freedom from pain are not ends in themselves, they are means towards something else. They are signposts for how to act towards survival. #98 The Experience Machine says the best prospects for long-term survival and well-being lie in dealing with the real world. Pleasure or pain avoidance are merely proximate goals in service of an ultimate goal, they are not intrinsically or inherently valuable or costly on their own. This is partly why utilitarianism fails. In #89 Kill and Let Die, we see another reason is because human evolution, as well as the evolution of other advanced animals, is governed to a greater or lesser extent by a mix of genetic and cultural traits, so the practically unknowable value of one unique human to the cultural evolution of our species means we cannot weigh life and death trolley-problem decisions by using some simple rule such as “one human = one human.”
According to #96 Family First, the equal weighting of persons or sentient creatures in the theoretical mathematics of utilitarianism doesn’t hold up in the real-life decision-making of individuals because we are not indistinguishable widgets that can be perfectly substituted one for another. While all human beings originally have equal standing for moral claims, the actual force of their claims on us is variable depending on many things such as our ability to satisfy their claims, their reputation from prior actions, or their possibility of reciprocating aid over repeated interactions in the future. In other words, as in #22 The Lifeboat, moral concerns are a force that behaves somewhat like gravity with stronger pulls by larger bodies at close distances often overshadowing the background tugs of fainter objects far away, and moral actions get harder to determine the farther away their actions are directed.
So prior sources of ethics all have problems. It’s okay to discard these old values though since we see in #27 Duties Done that oughts must be derived from more than just current norms of oughts. In #50 The Good Bribe, we see that in order to truly consider “the big picture” of a moral decision, you must look at the largest and longest view of life. In #100: The Nest Café, we see that due to the deep interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all living things, hierarchies of needs ought to be considered for each and every form of life. This includes all seven areas of E.O. Wilson’s consilient view of life: 1) Biochemistry → 2) Molecular Biology → 3) Cellular Biology → 4) Organismic Biology → 5) Sociobiology → 6) Ecology → 7) Evolutionary Biology.
Thus, as described in #52 More or Less, evolutionary ethics are based upon a deontological rule — “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” — and that gives us an objective and universal consequence towards which we ought to act using virtues derived from evolutionary studies that scientifically prove to us which traits are successful in leading life towards that goal. We may not be able to answer any ultimate questions now of why the universe and life exist, but maybe someone will be able to someday, and it is our job to do what we can to get to that day. Therefore, the number of people and the quality of their lives ought to exist within some range that balances scientific progress against existential robustness.
To clarify, in response to someone Questioning All This, too little life in terms of quantity, quality, or diversity is a fragile state, and too much life full of overcrowded, competitive, misery is another fragile state. Evolutionary ethics looks for robust optimization in the middle where well-being is also optimized, but this is only reached by recognizing that comfortably assured survival for life is the ultimate goal. The only position that contradicts this would be an argument for universal death, but that is an argument we living beings reject. Once you agree that any part of life ought to continue, then you agree that life, in general, wants to continue and we are then down to questioning the details of how that works, which is an empirical question. So, therefore: 1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive. By discovering this objective basis for morality, we can examine history and see how the moral values of humans have grown and changed over time and we can try to judge them using the meta-principles of what we see best survives over the long-term during evolutionary processes.
Okay. That is what “good” is, but how do we live a good life? What does this mean for me, for individual flourishing, or for what the Greeks called eudaimonia? We want to be happy and to feel pleasure, but we must recognize, as in #26 Pain’s Remains, that pain in life is unavoidable, and may, in fact, be necessary for all of the wisdom and empathy it gives us. Pain is a useful signal. Further, #91 No One Gets Hurt shows how we carry a host of biochemical “side effects” from our evolutionary history. We have freedom and flexibility to overcome many of them, but they cannot be completely forgotten. When one knows that some part of their actions are bad they will be subject to feelings of guilt. In #76 Net Head, we see that these guilty feelings or other perpetual feelings of anger are sure signs that your worldview isn’t working. They come from cognitive appraisals that “something is bad and I need to do something about that.” That “something bad” is either the world or your worldview.
From #68 Mad Pain, it is obvious that we humans feel pain when flesh and bones are torn apart, but perhaps we can feel physical pain when neuronal connections are torn apart as well. This would explain the observations that any challenge of a basic assumption will release anxiety and defensiveness. Such challenges painfully tear our minds apart. But ripping off the duct tape that holds most worldviews together seems much more preferable than feeling the continual anxiety that seems to arise when most worldviews are faced with evidence from the real world. In #61 Mozzarella Moon, we see that speaking in a debate probably moves too quickly to change deeply held beliefs. Surprising validators can change some minds. But dysrationalia stops many minds from changing, and that is caused by cognitive biases (hardware), but also a lack of understanding of probability, logic, and scientific inference (software).
It may be difficult to turn your back on your past beliefs, but according to #69 The Horror, we must always accept that what is done is done, and we, therefore, ought to strive to live well from now on so as not to reach the end of our lives and have only shame and regret to look back upon things that can no longer be changed. This will not be easy. In #75 The Ring of Gyges, we see how our intuitive moral feelings are often in conflict because of the debates that rage within us regarding the self vs. society, or society vs. the environment, or the short-term vs. the long-term, or just the fundamental choices between competition and cooperation. This is what drives the two faces of humankind, but wise people can see this and act accordingly. When we do so, we may truly begin to love life, and even see, as in #20 Condemned to Life, that immortality is not a curse. It is the logical outcome of evolution, and we ought to be able to bear it. Such long good lives, or at least, for now, such a good long succession of them, would indeed be “beautiful.” But what exactly do I mean by that?
My brief reflections – Traditional religious beliefs are mostly nonsense. Moreover, the divine command theory is ridiculous as Plato demonstrated in the Euthyphro, the problem of evil devastating for classical theism, there is no invisible gardener, etc.
I’ve never found much to recommend Kantian deontology, although I think a modified utilitarianism has a lot to offer. Like Mr. Gibney I think that evolutionary ethics explains the origins of ethics and can also function well as a normative ethical theory. I would modify Mr. Gibney’s “good is that which enables the long-term survival of life” by adding “and flourishing of life.” Survival isn’t sufficient by itself for goodness. (Note that Mr. Gibney seems to recognize this later on in the essay.)
I would also modify Mr. Gibney’s “1. Life is. 2. Life wants to survive. 3. Life ought to act to survive.” While I think you can get is from ought I don’t think you can get it quite that easily. (Perhaps Mr. Gibney is just summarizing here.) For example, Schopenhauer would argue that life wanting to survive is just a will to live that perpetuates suffering. So again we must enter the picture and choose to try to survive well, live well, or flourish.
(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with aesthetics.)