The fact that 2600 years of analysis of ethics has demonstrated inductively that we can't answer the traditional ethical questions tells us one primary thing...much like the fact that after 250 years of epistemology, we can't answer the core question "How do we determine what is true?".
What both failures tell us is that we're either asking the wrong question, or using the wrong tools.
In Epistemology, I'm comfortable not only identifying the correct question:
What should we believe?But also answering it:
For roughly all goals, the correct answer is a combination ofIn Ethics...I haven't solved the corresponding problem. "What is good?" or even "What does 'good' mean?" are highly unclear questions. After 2600 years, serious philosophers basically cannot even agree on what the words mean. Really...put an ethical intuitionist, an ethical relativist, an emotivist, and a divine-command advocate in the room...and listen to them try to agree on the topic of ethics. Feel free to leave after the first several hours of argument.
- "What my tribe believes?"
- "What predicts best?"
I can surround some answers to three related questions:
What ethics are "natural" to the human being?
- A sense of justice/fairness has been observed in pre-lingual infants. Sometime before 9 months, children were shown a puppet who was mean to a nice puppet. Babies almost universally prefer to be nice to nice puppets, and to be mean to mean puppets.
- Jon Haidt has determined that there's a fairly clear, apparently built-in set of moral axes we're prepared to respond along...but they seem to be much like the language faculty...a set of abilities that require specific inputs to be activated. As always, the (updated) 6 moral axes are: Harm, Fairness, Liberty, Authority, Sanctity, Loyalty
- Other folks have determined that which moral axes you respond to most strongly has a lot to do with brain chemistry. Psychopaths have (roughly) no social fear response, and low empathy. More active amygdala's lead to greater us-them thinking, and more concern with Haidt's Authority, Sanctity, and Loyalty axes.
- Ethics appear to be, like all other mental activity (See Haidt, Kurzban, Hanson, Kahneman, DeSteno/Valdesoto, etc.) massively context-dependent...and used in a highly self-interested way (by the subconscious).
As evolved creatures, our ethical faculties must also be evolved...what evolutionary problems do the ethical faculties appear to be solving?
- It sure looks like the ethical faculties are primarily designed (evolutionary teleology analogy alert) to solve the problem of social interactions with other members of our species.
- The (main) problem that appears solved by the existence of ethical faculties is the problem of constraining the conscious mind and it's wimpy short-term analysis to behave by proper long-term iterated game theory correct behavior.
- The problem that appears to be solved by our set of 6 distinctive ethical faculties is the problem of handling ingroup (regular, repeated, repuational games) and outgroup (non-reputational one-off games) play differently.
- The problem that appears to be solved by the availability of the ethical faculties to consciousness is the ability to nudge group decisions in our favor, by selective application of vague ethics to specific situations.
What core set of ethics are necessary to creatures like us, regardless our downstream disagreements?
- Long-term non-predating egoist prudence. Much like all insecure political leaders (that is, all political leaders) end up (and should end up) spending their entire energy output maintaining the security of their rule by the logic of public choice...so too should all rational (social, pack, top-predator) animals pursue something that resembles the long-term (cooperative -- tit-for-two-tats) rational self-interest of Aristotle, Buddha, or Rand. Furthermore...the pursuit of this long-term rational self-interest probably has sufficiently many constraints that it consumes MOST of your ethical choices...edging out most of the choices that would have conflicted from the original goal.
- In English, that translates to: Don't be stupid, Do be nice, Be admirable to your group.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to distill the essence of ethics into anything short and pithy like I have for epistemology. Indeed...I'm (subjectively, feeling) certain that the problem is that we have yet to ask the right question.
If I were guessing right now...I'd say that the correct question sounds nothing like modern or historical ethical questions, and instead is a question near "How do I succeed at (extract maximum [total] benefit from) interpersonal interactions, or maybe from my life- (soul?-) span....and the answer is something like:
- Don't be stupid -- and crime/anti-social behavior is almost always stupid
- Usually play tit-for-two tats
- Act to be admired.
The (entire?) difference between the garden-variety Christian, the Buddhist, and the Atheist in this case is in differences in conclusions about the soul-span. Christian thinks that God has rewards and punishments based on acts and faith...therefore their soulspan maximizing prudence is maximized by doing what God commanded. Buddhist thinks that the Karmic cycle rules...and to prudently maximize their soulspan benefit, they need to follow Karmic law. The (sane) Atheist reaches very similar conclusions in daily living...but without formal rules about rosaries, magic underwear, cows, or castes.