Ethical principles

What are the most basic principles and their limits in establishing an ethical framework for society?

Ethics is about deeply contemplating what matters in order to determine our priorities in how we live and organise ourselves as a society. Reflections about existence, identity and the reality of subjective experience lead to the conclusion that we should extend compassion to all sentient beings capable of suffering, and give highest priority to the most urgent need: the prevention of  intense suffering.

How do these core principles translate into a framework for rational decision-making? All things being equal, whenever we have a choice about actions that will have impact on others, we should aim to reduce as much as possible:

  • the number of individuals suffering
  • the duration of suffering
  • the intensity of suffering

These basic utilitarian principles provide some objective rigour to a rational ethical framework. But this rigour dissolves when we try to draw further conclusions in an effort to establish a more comprehensive and coherent system of ethics. Utilitarian thinking, and especially the classical kind that sums up happiness and suffering, in its striving for numerical rigour, quickly runs up against both theoretical and practical barriers:

  1. Perhaps the most troublesome obstacle to a comprehensive, objectively valid ethical framework is the fact that many individuals suffering a little does not have the ethical urgency of a few individuals suffering a lot. The suffering of many individuals cannot be aggregated into a single number, and you cannot create an urgency that is not already there by multiplying the number of people or animals. When we act as if this is the case, such as when we give higher priority to helping large numbers of people suffering only minimal distress rather than a few that are suffering terribly, we are yielding to our intuitions. Although we cannot simply discard our intuitions, the way we prioritize our actions in practice has an inherent arbitrariness.
  1. Increasing happiness, even when it means reducing life dissatisfaction, does not have the objective urgency of reducing more intense kinds of suffering. Furthermore, huge numbers of blissful people do not objectively balance out the intense suffering of a creature being tortured. Neither is there any objective urgency in bringing new happy lives into existence.
  1. The choices and tradeoffs an individual makes for themselves cannot be meaningfully transferred to separate individuals. An individual can agree to voluntarily suffer in the present so that they will benefit from happiness in the future. This voluntariness in itself transforms the entire nature of the suffering. This is an entirely different phenomenon from imposing suffering on a separate individual for the benefit of others.
  1. Even an ethical system that relied only on the basic utilitarian principles above (reduce numbers, intensity and duration of suffering), would conflict with some of our deepest instincts. It would, in theory, require us to give the same priority to strangers as we give to ourselves and those close to us. It would require us to limit to a minimum the time and resources we expend in striving for happiness in order to have greater impact in relieving the suffering of others. It could also require us to actively harm some when this would result in fewer beings harmed overall.

So, even principles that make sense objectively and intellectually, and that we might find reasonable if incorporated dispassionately into a system designed to minimize suffering, would lead to a cold, meaningless world we might not want to live in if we had to apply them rigorously ourselves. A pure utilitarian system that would ideally have you subjugate your own deepest personal relationships and meaning in favour of dispassionate numerical logic serves as a poor model for the kind of existence worth preserving.

An ethical framework based on the reduction of suffering needs to acknowledge both its own theoretical limitations and, more practically, the striving for happiness and meaning that we as humans need in order to be willing to act as ethical agents as well.

So, how do we apply ethics in practice? How do we make decisions as individuals, and as a society? Perhaps the first principle to acknowledge is that our striving as individuals for happiness and meaning exists on a different level than the striving to alleviate suffering. It is an instinctive behaviour, but one that is central to our existence and that we cannot sustainably discard. Even from a purely instrumental perspective, we cannot be effective as ethical agents if we ignore our own wellbeing and the elements of our life that give us the energy and inspiration to continue. But once we acknowledge this instinct, and even assert our “right” to exist and to thrive, we should continuously devote as much of our time and resources as we can to alleviating suffering elsewhere.

The second principle is to acknowledge the inherent arbitrariness of our decision-making, while applying the basic utilitarian principles as much as possible within this fuzzy ethical framework. Even with the best, most complete information at our disposal, there would be no objectively valid way of assigning ethical priorities in most cases, for the reasons mentioned above. Even in theory, then, there is no way to ethically optimise all our decision-making. But if we strive to reduce suffering, try to increase our effectiveness and still allow our intuitions to provide some guidance, we will be doing the best that we can.

(Last updated: 27 April 2016)