“Ethics” is a fancy word for determining the difference between good and evil. The subject studies why one should do what is right.
People are told as children what was right and wrong by their parents, and probably did not question it too much, especially if the guidance was given with . . . physical reinforcement. Then as they grew older they probably did question those rules, or if not they should have done.
All humans have a conscience, which acts as a valuable compass–needle indicating what is right and wrong behaviour in general terms — but only roughly, and of course it can be damaged, like any delicate instrument. Within this realm there can be found a rational basis for ethics, for as has been shown previously above all humans are rational, reasoning animals.
The alternative is to seek a superstitious or supernatural basis for ethics, and for that reason it shall not give that the time of day. It will not do, for a rational human to hear “do this because I say so” or “do this because God says so” because, in the first case each person is independently responsible and cannot make tough choices on somebody else’s say–so and in the second the question of God’s very existence has not yet been settled, let alone that of where one might be able to find His tablets of stone that specify acceptable behaviour.
What are ‘good and evil’?
Since humans are self–owning individuals, an evil act is anything that interferes with that self–ownership, the most apparent example of this being aggression. It follows that good, as the opposite of evil, must be anything that prevents interference with a person’s self–ownership, namely self–defence. All other actions or modes of behaviour are morally neutral.
That simple definition is different from what one may have been brought up to follow. People may have been taught to respect government — a gang of thugs in the daily business of violating self–ownership rights all over the map. One may also have been taught that goodness has to do with positive acts of kindness. What can one say of those?
It is not hard. Positive acts of kindness are indeed praiseworthy because they do not interfere at all with a person’s self–ownership. But they are not indispensable to the good; rationally, goodness by definition must be in opposition to evil. An individual is neutral simply by respecting everyone else’s self–ownership as one would expect of them in return.
Incidentally, a couple of very interesting conclusions follow from this:
- It is impossible for government ever to do good, or anything other than evil, or ever engage in a compassionate act. Before it can do something good, it has first to obtain the resources for it from someone else under threat of force; it must in its very nature violate A in order to benefit B. “Compassion”, on the lips of a politician, is a word of the deepest hypocrisy.
- It is also impossible for anyone to make any moral choice, of good or evil, unless one is free to do so, that is, not under compulsion. If government forces one to do A, then one can be neither blamed nor congratulated for doing A; for example again, if government steals money as tax and then gives it away to help starving children in Africa not only is it, the government, not being compassionate but also you, the ultimate provider of funds, are not doing something praiseworthy either; for you had no choice. Thus, government destroys human compassion both coming and going and excludes all possibility of making a moral choice whenever it legislates conduct.
With the understanding of both good and evil, it becomes apparent that the default mode of being is that of moral neutrality, that a member of a free society should eschew evil and practice the good when evil arises, so that the whole of society does not spiral down into a vicious, destructive jungle.
Why be neutral?
To live with oneself
Rationally, one should acknowledge that humans each own themselves, that “I” own “myself”. Therefore, one should acknowledge that everyone else owns themselves. Therefore, to live consistently and at peace with oneself, one must conduct their affairs so as not to violate the self–ownership of others.
To protect one’s reputation
Here is a crucial reason: Self–interest. In a free society, especially when information is about as freely accessible worldwide as it used to be in a village, one’s livelihood is closely bound up with their reputation; and a reputation is very much easier to lose than to rebuild.
In business competition, it would be very bad idea to shoot out the tyres of a rival trucking company. Why? Because the moment news of the aggression got out, it would be hard put ever to win another contract! So strictly for reasons of self–interest, people will compete only fairly — that is, by offering potential clients an advantage.
Not to sacrifice oneself
Self–interest is the key principle! Whatever preserves or enhances the self is preferable — including living healthy and eating and drinking wisely — and whatever damages it is not.
Notice how dramatically different that is from traditional ethics based on Judeo–Christian religious teaching — which tells people, in essence, to sacrifice themselves for the good of others. “Greater love hath no man,” said Jesus, “than to lay down his life for his friends.” Surprise: Self–sacrifice has nothing at all to do with rational ethics.
This brings a couple of important implications. First, what should one say of the case in which someone they love dearly is in dire need of help? About to drown, perhaps, in a flooded stream? Are they to jump in at heavy risk to their own lives, or stand on the bank and wave sadly goodbye?
The answer will come to them in the moment of crisis: They shall make an instant judgement on which is preferable for their self–interest — to live without our loved one, or to run the risk of losing life itself. Self–interest will be the guide. Some will choose one way, some the other. Harsh and uncaring? On the contrary, that is the only rational way to choose.
Second implication, not unrelated to the first: Self–sacrifice is a truly benighted idea.
There are a couple of reasons. First, if all “good” people sacrifice their lives for others, either in the full and literal sense as above or in the sense of dedicating a life to the needy, then the proportion of good people remaining in society is going to shrink — presumably leaving it to the mercies of bad people. This is rationally nonsensical and self–destructive.
Then secondly, if the way to be “good” is to pour out one’s life in the service of others, it follows that in order to be good, one would be dependent on an endless supply of people who, by that definition, are “bad.” That in turn means that those in need of help, with physical disability for example, are branded as “bad” and that there can never be more than about half of the human race who can ever make it to an adequate level of “goodness”! That is the logical outcome of supposing that goodness is achieved by self–sacrifice and that absurd and heartless result suffices to debunk it completely.
To enhance self–esteem
True though it is, the above is not to say that positive acts of compassion have no place in rational ethics. There is a bumper sticker that urges all to “commit random acts of kindness” every day, and it is a pleasant thought. How would that fit in?
It would be just another aspect of self–interest. Do something kindly with no thought of return — it makes one feel very good about oneself, and raises one’s self–esteem! This is the good reason for all acts of charity, and should not be underrated for they can be very rewarding. Notice the huge difference though, between doing such a thing for that reason, and doing it so as to sacrifice or abnegate oneself. They are polar opposites!