Godless Ethics and Egoism

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

Given that I’m on a roll of offensiveness with my previous post on marriage, I thought I’d see if I can break a record of the number of people I can offend in one week by blogging about ethics. This term at college, we’ve started a course on ethics, and we spent the first week or two looking at how ethical systems are defined. While it’s still fresh in my memory, I’d like to think about how this might apply to ‘godless’ ethics, of which I have already touched on before.

Just to have a definition to be going on with, ethics is an answer to the question ‘how should we then live?

Broadly speaking there are three models of defining an ethical system that we’ve looked at: virtue, duty, and consequence. Let’s look at these in turn and see how they might work out.

Virtue basically means ‘being a good person’. In other words, living a good life according to good character. We looked at the example of Aristotle:

VIRTUE, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). (From Nicomachean Ethics)

So Aristotle’s argument was basically that we should try to work out intellectually what good virtues might be, and then by habit practice them and make ourselves into good people (I hope I haven’t misrepresented him there, that was my understanding). His idea of deciding what a ‘virtue’ was was to pick the point in between two extremes (how very Anglican of him…)

And we still see this system of virtue around today, for example, if people say “Be true to yourself!” they essentially mean do in your character what your true self would or should do.

There are problems with this model, though:

  • It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to define virtue without making some kind of appeal to duty or consequence. If you don’t make such an appeal, you could end up with a very random system of existential ethics – very postmodern!
  • And, of course, who’s in charge? Who gets to set the rules about what are virtues and what are not virtues? We’ll come back to this idea.

Secondly, duty. Duty is basically a system of rules or a rule of life which we can live by. The example we looked at for this was Immanuel Kant:

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. (From ‘The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’).

I have actually heard Kant’s categorical imperative defined as a version of the ‘golden rule’ (do to others as you would have them do to you…) This is a system of ethics we still see today and in fact use quite often. How often have you heard it said, ‘What would the world be like if everybody did that?’ I’ve heard this used, for example, in the context of downloading illegal MP3s. “Downloading one MP3 might not cause harm, but if everybody downloaded MP3s there would be no music produced to download.”

There are also problems with this model:

  • Kant’s categorical imperative leads to some odd results sometimes. For example, suppose I want to close my bank account, to take all money out of it (to give it to charity, for example). But, if everybody did that, it would lead to a terrible result – the bank would go bust! Clearly, it doesn’t apply in that situation.
  • As the above point illustrates, it’s also difficult if not impossible to define a rule as rational without making an appeal to consequence.
  • We also have the same question: who’s in charge? Who defines the rules? Kant? Not everybody will agree. For example, if I recall correctly the late Christopher Hitchens thought the golden rule was actually immoral. How do we proceed on that basis?

Finally, you can model ethics in terms of consequence. As an example of this, we looked at Jeremy Bentham:

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government. (From ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’)

Another phrase of his which will probably be familiar to you: “The greatest happiness for the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation”. Again, we see this often in society – in fact I think this is probably the most common way of defining an ethical system (or variants of it). If you go back and read the previous post I linked to earlier about secularism, a lot of the comments talked about an immoral action being something which ’caused harm’. I think that is an example of Bentham’s principle in action. And it does seem like a pretty good system at first blush.

But, as with all the other models, there are problems:

  • How do you measure happiness? How do you measure consequence? There are partial ways of solving that problem, but nothing that can give a complete picture.
  • Who do you include in the greatest happiness? Who do you measure, and when?
  • This system provides insufficient support for minorities – for example, a stadium full of football fans shouting racist abuse at a single player. Again, this is partially solvable (using something like Rawlsian Egalitarianism – maximising the minimum each person has), but nothing can completely fix it.
  • There is also the problem of: ‘assumed preference neutrality’. I haven’t got my notes to hand, but I think what this means is the assumption that the same things would make people happy to the same extent. In other words, ‘happiness’ is not a universal concept across the board of humanity and cannot be treated as such.
  • Finally, like the others, who’s in charge? Who gets to determine who the happy ones should be?

That last question who’s in charge? Is one which, to my mind, plagues all godless ethical systems. Someone asked me on a previous post, “Why can’t we make up our mind about what’s right and wrong?” And that is exactly the problem. Who gets to make the final decision? The government? Should we take a vote on it? But then, what about minorities?

One of the problems – which Kant realised – is that we all want an ethical system, but we all want them to be applicable to other people. I’m more than happy for other people abide by a system of ethics, so long as I don’t personally have to abide by it (or at least, abide by it to the point of inconvenience). None of us will want to vote for an ethical system which inconveniences us, or curtails our freedoms.

And this is where egoism comes in. Ultimately, any ethical system will all be down to our own personal preference – there is no other higher barometer. I believe any system of godless ethics ultimately descends to egoism, because there is nothing else to appeal to.

The interesting thing about all this is how Christianity views ethics. The Bible actually uses the language of all three models (I won’t provide examples now but you can see places where scripture talks about character, and of course rules, and consequence). The theologian John Frame has a saying which is something like, ‘people (characters) making decision on rules in specific situations.’ I think it’s interesting how the Bible actually manages to solve the godless ethical dilemma pretty neatly.


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