Intro book on ethics — it’s not an easy read (took me about 6 months to finish it) but it contains a lot of deep ideas in 300 pages. The book is divided into three parts: what is the goal in life, how to do the right thing, and what is the status of morality. For a long time, I’ve discussed philosophical topics with [redacted] and we’ve touched on a lot of these themes at various points, even though we sometimes lacked the terminology to describe them.
The difference between ethics and most other subjects is that here, you can pretty much argue indefinitely and never reach agreement. For any moral stance, you can come with lines of questioning that make the position look questionable. However, it’s still worthwhile to ponder these questions as you avoid positions that are very much wrong, even if it’s unclear if a “correct” position exists. Also, by knowing the works of previous philosophers, you can avoid reinventing the wheel in your own arguments.
Part 1: The Good Life
What is the goal of life?
Hedonism: just try to maximize happiness.
- Sometimes being happy is not necessarily good, like if you’re a brain in a vat with chemicals that artificially make you happy. Only counts if the happiness is “real”.
- Having an upward trajectory in life is intuitively better than a downward one.
- Having autonomy of choice is important.
Desire Theory: no universal values for everyone, instead just pick you want in life and work towards it.
- What if they want to kill themselves?
- What if they’re retarded and just want to count blades of grass all day? Intuitively some desires are better than others but desire theory doesn’t allow this.
Part 2: Doing the right thing
Divine Command Theory: morality is dictated by god.
- This instantly falls apart if you don’t believe in religion.
- What religion to follow, and how to interpret the passages?
- Is it the case that “true” morality exists somewhere and God teaches it to us, or does God decide what is / isn’t moral?
Natural Law: morality is determined by what people do naturally.
- Not clear what counts as natural — how about homosexuality?
- What if people naturally do terrible things, like rape women?
Psychological Egoism: the only thing that motivates people is self-interest, and everyone always behaves selfishly. This is different from ethical egoism which says that it is moral to behave selfishly.
Difficulties with psychological egoism:
- There are clearly examples of people behaving unselfishly, like donating to charities or sacrificing their lives.
- You can say that they’re still doing it for themselves (for the recognition) but then psychological egoism becomes impossible to disprove which is itself a weakness.
Difficulties with ethical egoism:
- Not only is it okay, but we are required to do atrocious things if it benefits ourselves.
- Nobody has any moral rights to not be harmed.
- Arbitrarily decides that one person (yourself) is infinitely more important than everybody else.
Consequentialism: try to maximize the overall good.
- Difficult to assess which action produces the most good, as only result counts (and not the intentions).
- Requires you to sacrifice almost everything: as long as you’re not donating your entire income to charity, you can still donate more.
- Acceptable to do a lot of harm to one person if it’s for the overall good.
- Action is moral only if it’s universalizable: the goal of the action can still be met if everyone starts doing it. This rules out cases where you behave selfishly in a way that’s unique to you.
- The maxim is what you intend with an action, and it matters more than the result of the action.
- Some things like integrity, justice, and autonomy are intrinsically valuable.
Social Contract Theory (Hobbes) : society without laws is really bad, so we should agree to follow laws if it makes us better off. People agree on a set of laws to avoid tragedy of the commons, so we have a duty to obey these laws.
- A selfish person can gain an advantage by not following these laws. Hobbes argues it’s better to be a reasonable person in the long run.
- There can be disagreement on what the laws should be, and are you really expected to follow laws that you don’t believe in?
- Vulnerable populations have no protection, if everyone can harm them without being worse off.
Absolutism / Ethical Monoism: there exist some moral rules that are absolute, and must be followed at any cost. Egoism, consequentialism, and Kant’s principles are all absolute.
- For each absolute moral system, you can construct situations where following it would lead to conclusions that are difficult to fathom.
- Can solve some of these by distinguishing between doing something harmful vs allowing it to happen, but difficult to make this distinction in all cases.
Ethical Pluralism: there are a bunch of moral duties (Prima Facie duties) that are always important, like avoid harming others, keeping promises, repairing harm that’s been done.
- If there is only one moral duty in a situation, then always follow it.
- If there are multiple conflicting duties, then there’s no procedure to resolve the conflicts. Claims that such a procedure is in fact impossible.
- Stronger version is ethical particularism, which says there are no general moral rules at all, and each situation should be decided on a case-to-case basis.
Virtue Ethics: morality is too complex to formulate a set of procedures to decide what to do; wisdom requires life experience. Therefore, pick a moral exemplar and do what he would do.
- Claim that virtue is actually one of the requirements to living a good life.
- Problem: many virtuous people may disagree about what is the correct action. Also debatable is who exactly is virtuous.
Part 3: The Status of Morality
Ethical relativism: truthness of morals depends on people. It comes in two flavors:
- Cultural relativism: an action is moral if the culture / society approves of it.
- Ethical subjectivism: each individual chooses his own moral system.
- Problem is that people / societies have done pretty terrible things in the past, like racism, slavery. Then all moral systems are morally equivalent, which is hard to accept.
Moral nihilism: morals don’t really exist, they’re just human values.
- Error theory: all of morality is just a fictional, human construct — same way that atheists view religions.
- Expressionism: saying something is immoral is equivalent to expressing the emotion that you don’t like it.
Moral objectivity is the view that there are true morals — not necessarily absolute morals, but some morals are better than others. Some attacks against moral objectivity:
- Probably no true morals if so many smart people have debated about it for so long without an answer. A: yes, but such disagreements have occurred in other fields like physics.
- Science cannot say anything about morals. A: science has its limits, it also cannot disprove God / afterlife.
Conclusion: ethics is complicated and there are many competing views on everything. If someone claims a system that “solves” ethics, you should be skeptical. However, this is not to say you should dismiss ethics entirely and concede that anything goes — difficult to say that a theory is right, but some theories can definitively be proven wrong (eg: if they contradict themselves).