This article was inspired by David Yerle’s post on Morality.
What makes an act ethical? For example, take two people: X and Y. Is it ethical if:
- X hits Y without provocation?
- X hits Y out of revenge because Y hit X first?
- X helps Y because X knows people are watching?
- X helps Y because it gives X a warm feeling?
- X helps Y because X feels Y’s pain?
- X helps Y because X would want help in that situation?
- X helps Y because X feels good knowing Y was helped?
- X helps Y because X wants to do the right thing?
In each case above, X helps Y because there is a payoff. What about the case where X helps Y simply because it was the right thing to do — with no desire for actually doing it?
- Is this even possible?
- Can people behave out of pure duty?
- Is there such a thing as a motivation-less act?
- Is motivation synonymous with payoff?
In short, are we all selfish, but a certain subset of motives is deemed ethical? If so, then is the word “Ethics” meaningful, since it is often defined as opposed to self-interest?
If all acts are out of self interest, then a pragmatic attitude towards ethics would be to harness self interest so that one is motivated to act ethically, even when there is no apparent reward or punishment. How can this be done?
One way is to claim there is always a reward. Universal reward/punishment systems in the form of a belief in God or Karma (both articulated with the “What goes around, comes around” expression) are one way. This raises a question first posed by Plato. If God determines ethics, then is something ethical because God determined it, or did God determine it because it is ethical? If the former, then any inhumanly unethical act that came from God would be ethical. If it is the latter, then something is held above God, not determined by God.
Another is to invite ethical behavior for its own sake by reprogramming oneself to desire ethics. The Stoics did this and derived it from an analysis of the problem with desire. Since desire’s main problem was the possibility of frustration, an object of desire entirely in our hands was the solution. Ethical intent was just such an object.
Yet another way is to capitalize on an apparently happy coincidence: the mental states underlying ethical behavior (like compassion and forgiveness) are happier (in the long run at least) than those underlying unethical behavior (like hatred and greed). This becomes doubly important because some people think seeking happiness is selfish. By tying happiness to ethics, they get the motivation and even permission to seek happiness. This is reinforced by the observation that a path that cultivates a less conditioned happiness:
- Makes one less likely to come into conflict with others
- Makes one less likely to be hurt and thus seek revenge
- Frees time and money that can be used to help others
- Makes one more pleasant and helpful (happy people are usually nicer)
People thus can do things that invite happier states of mind and also feel better about themselves and the world. This could form a positive feedback loop.
Yet there is a tension here. It is the tension between action and contemplation. Many of these paths are contemplative and are often seen as a self-absorbed withdrawal from the world. This criticism has been applied to all contemplatives, from Buddhists to Christians. Yet this withdrawal is what enables people to work on themselves so as to uproot their ant-ethical tendencies and face the world as more ethical beings.
What’s more, as they become more content, ethics becomes logical. After all, if all beings matter and one’s happiness is addressed, what is left to do but to help?
If you were perfectly content no matter what you did, would you be motivated to spend your life helping others? If not, why not? What would you spend your life doing and why?