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Latest Journal Entry:

A Consequentialist Ethical System
by Levi Meeuwenberg 2-7-06


My ideas have been coming together as a system nicely, especially in the areas of ethics and politics, although more so in the former. A while ago I mentioned the problems with creating a unified and comprehensive theory, and with those still in mind I'm going to go ahead and come up with one anyways. Partly the reason is because without one, my theories are merely a collection of interesting musings that don't really have any force. But also because I don't think I can help it from coming about. It's just the way my mind works.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." - Albert Einstein

Anyone living in modern society today knows that that quote becomes truer with every day that goes by. Rapid technological and social changes have created issues that our ancestors would have never dreamed of. Whether it be debates over medical research with stem cells, cloning, or the freedom of information on the internet, affirmative action, the war on drugs, or gay rights, moral controversy's abound. While ethics for our day to day activities and interactions have been thoroughly covered by religions and philosophers in the past, there is a need in this day and age for an ethic that can be applied to this multitude of new moral dilemmas. Such an ethical system would have to, be considerate of all peoples, be practical in operation, and be universally applicable to all rational beings. Also any ethical system attempts to answer these fundamental questions; 1. "What is right and wrong?" and 2. "Why should I do what is right?" Now, I'm not so brash as to think that any idea or philosophy, no matter how good, is going to solve these issues. The debates will continue on as before, but my real intent is to introduce another option; throw another log into the intellectual fire.

I'm sure you're excited to hear this great work of genius that's going to save us all (/sarcasm) but first it's necessary to go over some concepts that it is based upon. First is the matter of responsibility; who is morally responsible for their actions? As I will elucidate later, moral contemplation requires both empirical knowledge of the conditions and circumstances relevant to a particular issue, and the rational ability to foresee the consequences of the different courses of action. Of course I don't expect anyone to be a psychic, but there is a level of foresight that we can reasonably expect people to have. With this in mind, a person's moral responsibility is proportional to their rational capability, and ability to obtain accurate information about a given topic. For this reason children are understandably not as responsible for their actions as an adult. These capacities gradually increase during the natural process of growth. Likewise, a chef whose dish accidentally makes someone sick because they were allergic to an ingredient is not morally responsible due to his ignorance. I do want to express that my ethics are based upon a foundation of ethical relativism, so there is no absolute standard by which to judge things. Despite this, I think we can still have some general agreements upon things and work together to bring about the best for ourselves and others.

Without getting too much into my epistemology, which is much less developed at this point, there are some fundamental epistemological and metaphysical concepts that I base my reasoning on. The first is one borrowed from the existentialists, and that is that existence precedes essence. Such things as good and evil, or human nature are not things we can discover in the world through scientific investigation or any other objective means, but are qualities that we ascribe to certain things. They are not ordained from order in the cosmos but from mutual agreement of all people. I realize that such agreements aren't really possible so some generalizations must be made and used, but these are still valid for practical applications because they are currently the best thing we have to work with. If this is the case then such concepts as right and wrong are not matters for scientific or metaphysical exploration but ones of simple linguistics. "Well, then what's the point of having a belief one way or the other on the issue?" you may ask. The reason is for practical application once again. By stating it (the definition of "human nature" for example) one way or the other, the individual is knowingly ascribing meaning (or essence) to it (humans) because they prefer the consequences of the one view over the other (man I'm good at being ambiguous).

On a side note, I wouldn't actually consider myself an existentialist because I disagree with some of its main tenants. One especially is our free will. I tend to be more of a determinist than a voluntarist, however not as much as I would be if it wasn't for quantum uncertainty and randomness which throw a royal wrench into the gears of a deterministic universe. Although I am fond of the existentialist outlook; that it is a hostile and indifferent universe in which we need to find our own way despite our crushing insignificance. Now that may sound cynical, but if it's the truth it can hardly be cynical, and besides I'm generally not a cynical person...well except in politics but I believe just about everyone is there.

Immanuel Kant (17241804) focused on only the intentions of the will (being) as being morally right or wrong. He held that even if the person does what is dutiful; if they do it out of merely an inclination rather than a sense of duty, then it is not morally worthy. Conversely, if an action is motivated by duty (good intentions) but doesn't bring about good consequences, it's still good. In contrast I think it's the consequences that make some act right or wrong. Hitler may have honestly intended on doing his duty or making a better world, but the results were still bad, thus his actions wrong. Again, ends don't justify any means. Also, Bob may act out of a sense of duty or with totally just intentions, but through misfortune doesn't accomplish anything. He didn't do the morally right thing, but instead a neutral thing. While we can certainly feel sympathy for Hitler's and Bob's ignorance and/or irrationality, we cannot commend them for being morally worthy. Moral action requires rational ability and empirical knowledge to foresee the consequences of actions and thus judge them as right, wrong, or neutral in the case that the act has no effect on the object.

The method for defining "right" and "wrong" that I am about to describe doesn't concern particular things people want in order to bring about their desired goals, but only the desired goals themselves. So in that sense it is not a democratically selected morality where if X number of people believe this act to be wrong then it's wrong. Please allow me to wax Aristotelian for a minute while I explain this distinction between means and final ends. We humans have many, many desires, wants, needs and so on but most of those things we desire are simply means to other ends, or other desires. Yet, there are certain things which we don't seek for any other purpose but for those things themselves. Such things can be considered ends in themselves. To illustrate this point think of the many people who seek and desire wealth. I don't know too many who seek wealth simply for the sake of being wealthy. Instead most seek it as a means to the end of being happy, comfortable, or being financially secure. This is not the case, however, for happiness. If you ask someone why they want to be happy they'll probably just give you a strange look because it's obvious. It is sought simply for the sake of happiness itself. Now, unlike Aristotle who thought there was only one final end that human beings strive for and all other desires are a means to (eudaimonia), I think there can be many ends in themselves based on my own experience; happiness of course, knowledge, family, the good, life experiences, and so on. Since my method is only concerned with these final ends, or ends in themselves, it can avoid many of the problems caused by conflicting means.

In terms of judging which final ends are better, or more desirable than others, I'm not too sure that's possible. It seems to me that it simply depends on the person because while I see knowledge as an important end in itself, another person may simply see it as a means to success, which is a means to happiness. I don't think either of us is more correct than the other. Individuals are too unique to all have the same goals and ambitions and any attempt at making them so is rather dehumanizing, not to mention unfeasible.

Finally on to the real meat of the matter. We have a set of natural, instinctual behaviors that may have been established by the process of evolution. These instinctual behaviors are not all bad, but some could use some taming in the interest of society. What I propose is a new way to measure right and wrong, or a new definition of them. That which is "right" increases the fulfillment of the shared desires (ends in themselves) of all humans. Likewise, that which is "wrong" decreases the fulfillment of these desires. Now, these obscure "shared desires" can be found more or less objectively by a test or survey of what people desire. I would presume that some desires common amongst almost all humans are things like happiness, wellbeing, and contentment. One advantage to this model is that it is adaptive to the changing desires of the global society. Another is that it avoids the conflict caused by people's different conceptions of the "ideal world" that we should strive for, and creates one in which every persons desires or final ends are satisfied. To employ this principle we can turn it into a simple algebra equation to solve. (Those that failed algebra are sadly doomed to moral delinquency)

[World-as-it-is-now] + [X] = [Ideal world]

*Where X is that which is "right" or "good"

We know how the world is now, and we can imagine the ideal world as determined by our desires. So all we must do to figure out how to act morally right is solve the equation for X. This is quite a bit more difficult in real life with all the pesky details, but at least it's a framework. In fact, most deliberation would probably be over this, but that's what our rationality is for. It seems to me a bit like utilitarianism, however instead of the "greatest happiness principle" it works on the "greatest end in itself fulfillment principle." Admittedly not quite as eloquent but more functional and relevant I would argue. There are some other important differences from utilitarianism that I will go into. Also this model may conceivably be extended to non-human creatures with desires as well, like dogs or jackalopes.

You might say that the existential situation we are presented with; that this is the only life we have makes the most convincing reason to try to make the best of it for ourselves and all others. As rational beings interested in our own ends, in a community of other rational beings likewise interested, it is rational to take up another's ends as one's own in the mutual agreement or hope that they will do the same with one's own. Thus we become interested in the ends of all of humanity, as we and our circumstances are inextricably bound together with them. Each individual forms part of the interconnected whole that is their society. However, the ultimate purpose of this arrangement is not for the good of the society, state, or government that it constitutes, but for each individual. We are not justified in, for example, killing one individual for an improvement of the conditions of many.

This brings us to the second question, "Why should I do what is right?". My answer to this question is, "Because it is self-contradictory not to." For example I would argue that war (non-peace) goes directly against almost all other final ends of people, so promoting it contradicts one's own final desires and the agreement to respect others desires. Another example is a person who decides to steal. He would presumably not want someone to do the same to him because it takes away from his desires, so by his actions he essentially makes the statement that, "I am not as morally responsible for my actions as others are," which is most likely self-contradictory unless he actually believes that. To put it succinctly; doing wrong is like smacking yourself in the face.

There is a "next level" to morality, or better yet, simply lifestyle that is completely subjective. It is in this realm that we find our ends in themselves, intentions, emotions, intuition and all manner of the incorporeal. All I can offer on this level is some observations and advice, but nothing concrete. And I find that that usually has more value than any attempt at rationalization. It's been a trend for me recently to doubt the power of reason and logic, drawing upon more eastern philosophies and ideas. Although I still think that reason and the application of certain principles can answer a lot of the tough moral dilemmas, they aren't necessary for the more basic values such as not stealing or cheating; what can be summed up in the phrase "Do no harm." In this case, "the good" becomes an end in itself, not sought as a means to anything else. This is optimal because it circumvents the need for a complex system in order to justify doing what is right. Essentially it comes down to this: we should treat people decently simply because we are decent human beings. We do not need to beg logic to prove that we should do good, it doesn't need justification. This justification (or lack thereof) is more honest and accurate in my experience. It doesn't require us to bring in a series of abstract hypothetical concepts whether they are my moral reasoning principles based on consequences, or the postulates of the resurrection, afterlife, judgment, sin and redemption. Not to say those are wrong, but they are simply unnecessary and tend to complicate what should be a simple matter of doing what's right. I think we should be able look at another human being and love them without being reminded of a third party in heaven, or a complex system of postulates and syllogisms.

Now, to your satisfaction or disgust as the case may be, I will invoke Lewis. In the following he explains a nice thought on having unconditional love for all others. Even if you aren't religious it's still very useful, "I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. But then, has oneself anything lovable about it? You love it simply because it is yourself. God intends us to love all selves in the same way and for the same reason: but He has given us the sum ready worked out in our own case to show us how it works. We have then to go on and apply the rule to all the other selves. Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that is how He loves us. Not for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves. For really there is nothing else in us to love: creatures like us who actually find hatred such a pleasure that to give it up is like giving up beer or tobacco..." (C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity pg120)

As I said, in this realm we find our intentions and while they may not be moral or immoral in and of themselves, I think they are still greatly influential in whether a person's actions turn out to be right or wrong. It is because of this that I encourage "right" intention as well as right action. Additionally other such useful ideas aid in ones quest for the ideal, like the concept of moderation. It is quickly learned through experience that you can have too much of a good thing. But completely depriving oneself of certain objects of desire for no reason is not the best way to achieve a fulfilled life either.

So what's my point? hmmmm.

There is still hope for a humanity clouded in the darkness of it's own insignificance, forever in conflict over it's destiny and purpose. All it takes is a little cooperation, a little sharing; a lesson learned on the playground that is just as applicable on the grand playground of life. We can share our space here, share our lease on truth, share our power over ourselves and others, and share a brave new world so full of such incredible feats of the human mind, yet still so full of the mystery that drives us to accomplish those feats. The great achievements of these next centuries will be of a different kind than those of the last. They will be achievements in human compassion and understanding, in diplomacy and prudence of power, and in our self-awareness. Oh I don't expect, or even hope to reach that ideal world which floats so high in our dreams. I merely hope that the struggle will continue on as it always has, and not be snuffed out through our poor decisions. The stakes are high, for we not only have a responsibility to ourselves and our children, but to all generations that are to come; all Shakespeares and Caesars, all Einsteins and Gandhis, all Mozarts and Da Vincis; the entire enterprise of the human comedy.

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