Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Only Way is Ethics

A few blogs back I mentioned the black hole at the center of moral philosophy, which is: because we can't know the full consequences of what we choose to do, our choices remain uninformed, and we have no way of knowing whether even our best intentions will ultimately lead to beneficial outcomes.

So how might we confidently go about shaping things for the better and not for the worse? How, in short, do we know right from wrong?

Biology, it turns out, offers us a clue. Our behavior as a social species has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, and shaped according to one main principle: the favoring of behavior that tends to help the survival of an individual's genes.

The ramifications of this idea are weighty and vast. It explains why we tend to favor close family over strangers, why we codify certain laws and even why different societies tend to develop similar taboos.

Our sense of right and wrong is largely a matter of reciprocity - do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or more precisely: do not do unto others that which you wouldn't have done to you. That gets us a long way, too. But none of the above amounts to a wholly consistent ethics, indeed the revelations of sociobiology seem to show that a wholly consistent ethics is not actually possible.

This is because seen from different standpoints different behaviors appear right and wrong simultaneously. Theft, for example, might be thought of as unequivocally wrong, but what about the poor mother who steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving child? To take an even more extreme example: murder may be thought wrong, but what about the man who kills an aircraft hi-jacker and so prevents hundreds or thousands dying? Perhaps that murderer deserves a medal.

Novelists usually operate in a god-controlled world, in that world the author is god. The real world may be quite different. What we are presently learning may not be what we wanted to find.

About a hundred years ago physics began to move into a new era where all the old certainties evaporated in the burning bright light of new discoveries and a new understanding. It looks to me as if ethics is presently undergoing a similar transition. For those people who crave certainty in an uncertain world, better strap in tight, because the ride is going to be a bumpy one.

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