What’s my ethical system? A disambiguation.

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism

A friend of mine recently asked me what system of ethics I subscribe to. For all that I’ve thought, read, and talked about ethics over the years, I still have trouble answering that question clearly and coherently. This time, at least, I had the useful realization that my difficulty discussing this in the past is partly due to the fact that there are several ways of interpreting the question, each of which leads to a different answer from me.

I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about each of these topics in the future, but for now, I want to share a brief disambiguation. Even if your answers to these questions are different from mine, it still might be helpful for you to break down your own answer along these or similar lines.

“What’s my ethical system,” then, could be interpreted any of the following ways:

1. What ethical system am I most comfortable with intellectually? Act utilitarianism. This system holds that in any given situation, you should do whatever will maximize expected utility over all sentient beings. There are some tricky questions involved (for example, are you maximizing the sum of total utility, or the average? How do you take into account the utility of future beings?). Nevertheless, utility is the only good which I think it makes sense to care about — if you told me “We should try to pursue/avoid result X, even though it won’t affect anyone’s utility,” that wouldn’t make any sense to me intellectually.

2. What ethical system am I most comfortable with emotionally? Some mishmash of act utilitarianism + rights theory. Even though my emotional intuitions usually accord with act utilitarianism, there are some cases in which I simply don’t like the action that act utilitarianism prescribes. For example, I tend to feel that people have a “right” to autonomy even if you knew that they would end up happier if you forced them to make a certain choice. I also tend to feel that people have a “right” to know the truth about certain things, even if you knew that it would make them less happy overall.

But I don’t have any justification for my feelings about those situations, nor do I think any such justification exists — I don’t think the concept of a “right” makes any sense except as a convention we all choose to respect. So I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile my strong overall preference for act utilitarianism with my strong emotional inclination to discard it in cases like these.

3. What ethical system do I think is “correct?” None. I’m pretty much an error theorist when it comes to ethics, which means that I think ethical claims (e.g., “Causing gratuitous suffering is wrong”) can’t be said to be true or false the way empirical claims (e.g., “Poisoning the well will cause gratuitous suffering”) can. That doesn’t imply that ethical claims are entirely meaningless. Clearly ethical claims can express emotions like disgust and outrage, and a kind of prescriptivism, i.e., “Don’t do X”.

But in my experience, people making ethical claims tend to also believe they are making a factual claim about a property (“wrongness”) that some act has, and that’s where the “error” in “error theory” comes in — I don’t think that properties of rightness and wrongness exist, objectively, in the world.  The explanation that most closely matches my views on this is J. L. Mackie’s, laid out in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.  So the preferences I laid out in #1 and #2 are just that — preferences.

4. What ethical system do I actually follow on a day-to-day basis? Some mishmash of #2 + weakness of will + selective apathy + social pressures and habits. I’m not perfect, even by the standards of the system of ethics I myself have chosen. There are plenty of relatively easy things I could be doing to reduce suffering in the world which I am not doing, mainly out of inertia and the knowledge that society won’t judge me harshly for not doing them. I can and intend to remedy this gap, to some extent, but there’s no clear answer to the question of how high a standard to hold oneself to.

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