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empirical ethics

ethics we can all use
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Ethics is way too philosophical. In today's complex world, unless you're an ethicist, you haven't a hope of understanding and choosing an ethically acceptable course of action. Even as an ethicist you'll only know within your relatively narrow field of expertise.

So, to take a leaf out of the book of science. Empiricism worked wonders for knowledge of the natural world. Why not our knowledge of ethics.

The principle of empirical ethics:

- Act first, consider later.

(Try an action. Did it feel ethical? Yes or no? How?)

From here we can develop ethics much as empirical science has developed. Much more simple than all this hypothetically oriented ethics that currently seems to hold sway. If we look closely perhaps we will even notice that this is how most people seem to live their lives anyway. Why not recognise this and develop it?


conskeptical, Jun 12 2008

Ethical egoism http://en.wikipedia...wiki/Ethical_egoism
[xaviergisz, Jun 12 2008]

Game theory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_theory
[Ling, Jun 13 2008]


       Nope. That's just emotivism, as in logical positivism and in other places. I've written a stupidly huge amount about this in the real world, but basically, i would say a naturalistic metaethics based on virtue and vice works best, like for example Stoicism and Aristotelian ethics.   

       Ethical statements have cognitive meaning, i.e. they have truth values. They might be emergent properties, but then so are loads of other things, such as evolutionary fitness. It doesn't make values any less real.   

       Ethics is the technology of living well, in the same way as medical practice is the technology of promoting health, i.e. being well.
nineteenthly, Jun 12 2008

       Not sure you can poopoo it that easily. I'm just trying to say that ethics should be a creative, iterative, participative process, as opposed to a delegated/imposed discovery of a naturally pre-existing object.   

       Now I would agree that this is a situationist/relative ethical position. I don't know what a naturalistic metaethics is. Virtue and vice may or may not be useful labels, I'm not sure, but I suspect not. I've just been reading a bit of Nietszche's 'Beyond Good and Evil', and I like what he has to say on the Stoics... (although I also like the Stoics...).   

       Emotivism kind of implies individualism, but my references to scientific method definitely imply a cultural effort. In my mind it's perfectly legitimate to view all of science as a lot of people going 'hooray' in unison.
conskeptical, Jun 12 2008

       What if you are a sociopath?   

       No if you want what I think is a good book on ethics is "God is not Great". Christopher Hitchens developes ethics outside of religion and does a very good job.   

       I'm sure many books on atheism have similar discussions. Conflicts with ethics are what caused my original agnosticism at a young age, so you are not too far off, but you need to include a societal outlook, not just a personal one and you need to filter religious brainwashing which starts with the idea that this life isn't important, life for the next.
MisterQED, Jun 12 2008

       if you are a sociopath, under empirical ethics you would vent it into society before it becomes too destructive, and society can deal with you appropriately.   

       In many current contexts sociopathic tendencies get vented at much too late a stage (and are consequently much more destructive), so both the sociopath and society suffer needlessly.   

       Read the thread for why this isn't just a personal outlook. It is possible to have a societal outlook while also accommodating personal expression.
conskeptical, Jun 12 2008

       //Did it feel ethical?// this is not empiricism. This is subjectivism.
daseva, Jun 12 2008

       Ethics are strategic not tactical.
FlyingToaster, Jun 12 2008

       [FlyingToaster] that's the most satisfyingly succinct description of ethics I have ever heard!
zen_tom, Jun 12 2008

       I don't want to be personal, but to me this reads like a description of a perpetual motion machine would to an engineer.   

       Nietzsche, i would say, is overrated. Although he's a useful person to look at if you want to understand what others might label "psychosis" from a subjective perspective, he came from a time when it was considered radical and iconoclastic to be an atheist rather than it being a pretty inconsequential variant of everyday belief like what football team one supports.   

       By naturalistic metaethics, i mean a version of ethics which understands moral language to be interpretable in semantic rather than in speech-act terms or other utterances, where bivalent truth-values can be applied, and where ethical evaluation can be reduced to descriptive terms which refer to observable, axiomatic or analytical truths (or falsehoods). Until recently, i was basically an intuitionist.   

       Ethics could be based on duty, rights, ends or virtues and vices, among other things. If duty, the principle is, to quote Kant, "act on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it could become a universal law of nature", so in other words, "what if everyone did the same?", but the problem there is in description. Does "I am shoplifting" mean "i am providing food for my family" or "i am depriving someone of something they would otherwise have been able to gain an income from"? How do you decide which description is more valid?   

       So then, consequences. Everyone's happy but the whole world will be annihilated instantly and painlessly without any warning, or because they are happy wireheads in the Larry Niven sense or in the Matrix. Is that right?   

       Virtue and vice: good is what one does if one perceives the world accurately and acts rationally and effectively on the information one has acquired. This is the one that works best for me. A good knife is one which cuts well, i.e. its function is best according to its nature. A good person, similarly is one who acts according to human nature. In humanism, that means rationality and a degree of altruism. Humanity is essentially rational because it needs to perform accordingly in a Universe which functions rationally as opposed to magically or in some other supernatural way. Hence, ethics is naturalistic and based on logic. Stoicism, basically.
nineteenthly, Jun 12 2008

       //Humanity is essentially rational because it needs to perform accordingly in a Universe which functions rationally as opposed to magically or in some other supernatural way.//   

       Cue quantum mechanics, shirley?
daseva, Jun 12 2008

       Quantum mechanics doesn't have much influence on the way we perceive the world in everyday terms, or rather it does, but we don't encounter the paradoxical aspects much. However, to the extent that it undermines the laws of thought, such as Pv~P and ~(P&~P), and bivalent truth values, it is probably (ha ha) relevant to it. The Stoic logic of ethics can be analysed in terms of modal logic, and one account of that is as trivalent truth values, where an indeterminate truth value becomes truth or falsehood via the contingency and necessity operators respectively. That sounds similar to collapsing the wave function to me, so maybe you're right (but only if i listen to you of course).
nineteenthly, Jun 12 2008

       I like it.   

       Ethical theories usually have two implicit assumptions: 1) there is a universally accepted truth (i.e. what is good and what is bad); and 2) when put in a tricky situation, one should act ethically rather than in self-interest.   

       Having thought about it quite a bit, I reject both these assumptions. Consequently I have been drawn to ethical egoism (which resembles your empircal ethics).
xaviergisz, Jun 12 2008

       //one should act ethically rather than in self-interest. // //I reject both these assumptions//   

       Really. You'll admit that this is a reasoned, rational decision? Ie you go about life with the ... intent... to act out of self interest rather than "ethically" - <whatever that's supposed to mean>. -?   

       I'm not having a go here, I find that statement intriguing, refreshing, and rather objectionable, all at the same time. Care to expound a bit?   

       I don't like to get too caught up in moral posturing, but I find most people will act in self interest in almost all situations, but would never admit that this is a strategic decision, rather than a heat-of-the-moment thing. I would like to think I'm different, but the truth of it might be dissapointing.   

       Please, tell me more.
Custardguts, Jun 13 2008

       //Please, tell me more//   

       I mean ethical theories might seem fine in theory, but in practice don't work. Or as the adage goes: in theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice they're not.   

       Let's say, for example, you think abortion is wrong and should never, ever be performed, regardless of circumstances. Now it's easy to hold such a simple and righteous ethical position. But if you actually found yourself with a very unwanted pregnancy (e.g. the result of rape), it's likely that you would make an exception to your ethical position.   

       I can't really see the point in having ethical theories if, in practice, the exceptions overide the rules.   

       Having said that, I think ethical theories are useful in guiding the formulation of rules and laws. But rules and laws are (to a certain extent) an arbitrary assertion of power by the state rather than a perfect system of right and wrong (which ethics tries to achieve).
xaviergisz, Jun 13 2008

       True. I suppose it all goes down to how well prepared your system of ethics is. Or even better, how simple it is. There is nothing in my personal set of ethics that would prevent me approving of the rape triggered abortion you mention.   

       Also, to assume that there is nothing outside your own experience that could happen and make you rethink your ethics would be the height of arrogance.   

       I think I'm caught up on the whole (self interest > ethics) part.
Custardguts, Jun 13 2008

       I think self interest is ethical, as in Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness" which is where I heard Ethical Egoism. What I think tips the tide to make self-interest ethical is understanding of the big picture or as [FlyingToaster] said, the strategy behind the tactics. You have to understand that as humans, we NEED other people and benefit from the success of other people, so it is in my self interest for others to succeed. That is why I disagreed with this idea: “Act first, consider later” is wrong. If I steal, then I get a benefit, which is good, so it would seem empirically to be ethical. You need to see big picture to see that theft raises insurance rates, taxes for police, costs for other security, etc.
MisterQED, Jun 13 2008

       To clarify, I was not advocating "the end justifies the means", simply stating that an action may be based on an ethic but is not in and of itself an ethic.
FlyingToaster, Jun 13 2008

       Ultimately, there's no conflict between self-interest and the good, but not in the Ayn Rand sense. It makes sense for us to fulfil our nature, and there are more and less human things to do. This can even include Nietzsche if part of human nature is to transcend itself. It would include Ayn Rand if human nature is purely selfish, but pure selfishness is not prudent and is probably also conceptually flawed, being based on the notion of a persistent and isolated subject of experience.   

       Therefore, yes, virtue is perfected prudence, but what is real prudence?
nineteenthly, Jun 13 2008

       "act first, consider later" needn't be wrong. It might be if we take the assumption that people are inherently evil and need rules to stop them being so...   

       I intend it with this meaning: until we have sufficient data any ethical consideration is moot. Until I have actually experienced what it is like to hug someone with compassion, or strike them out of anger, how can I really and truly assess the ethical aspects of these actions?   

       It also highlights the way that ethics often focuses on extreme actions. We're all so interested by the ethics of murder and other extreme distortions. What about more mundane everyday ethics, such as giving things to beggars or greeting strangers? There is also deep interest here.   

       Also, act first consider later shouldn't occur in isolation. If I really want to investigate the ethics of murder using this system I would be foolish to dive in right at the deep end, just as a wannabe genetic engineer wouldn't expect to create life after his first sighting of a periodic table. I just wouldn't have the relevant toolkit or understanding. The difference is that a genetic engineer would come up against boundaries that preventing him doing anything at all, the murderer would (probably) encounter severe emotional costs after the event. The genetic engineer is lucky in this respect.   

       Perhaps if I really want to investigate the ethics of murder, I should try some less violent actions first, and see what I think. I can approach murder by degrees, starting with small relatively inconsequential actions. I can also observe/cooperate with others on similar paths. My betting is that 99.99% of people who set out towards murder in this considered approach would never actually reach murder, or anything close, and would also have a much finer and more nuanced attitude towards the issues at hand than those who take the issue as a given from the outset... This is a skeptical attitude to ethics, as is befitting of the empirical technique. Also, judgement of others is not built into the system of ethics at all, it is entirely left down to the individual to decideo on their system of judgement of others, if they want one at all. That appeals to me.
conskeptical, Jun 13 2008

       // In today's complex world, unless you're an ethicist, you haven't a hope of understanding and choosing an ethically acceptable course of action.//

Rubbish! People 'do the right thing', by their own standards, all of the time without needing a complex analysis to justify it.
DrBob, Jun 13 2008

       //but what is real prudence//
Dunno, but according to the Beatles' White Album, it is expensive.
coprocephalous, Jun 13 2008

       I have never studied this, but I feel quite proud that I thought there might be a tie up between ethics and game theory and, after a very brief search, found out that there is.   

       So would it hold that emperical ethics be the equivalent of finding the right solution as a player in a typical game theory game, by playing and seeing what happens?
Ling, Jun 13 2008

       Yes, there is a link, but you still need to agree on how to quantify the payoffs. For instance, there's no universal standard for pleasure. One person's torture is another's masochistic pleasure, or one person likes Bach and hates the Beatles, but someone else is the other way round, so it doesn't necessarily get you that far.   

       Yes indeed, prudence is expensive if it is virtue, because the virtuous will probably be very poor. Choosing an ethical career over one which doesn't involve starving to death is indeed a costly decision.
nineteenthly, Jun 13 2008

       //- Act first, consider later. (Try an action. Did it feel ethical? Yes or no? How?) From here we can develop ethics much as empirical science has developed.// The problem with this approach is the issue of judging success.   

       //there's no universal standard for pleasure// and I would extend that to justice or virtue. Religious wars are fought, to save some peoples soles by ending other peoples lives. People bomb abortion clinics for the same reason. Without a basic agreement on ground rules, results are impossible to judge.
MisterQED, Jun 13 2008

       I was going to mention justice. Virtue is different because it's about correct use. It's a person's best possible state. There is no fact-value distinction or open question argument there because we are organisms and therefore have biological drives towards homoeostasis. We are able to do this because we are rational. Other species do not need to be rational to the same extent as we do, and since we are also social, cultural beings, that homoeostatic drive and rationality has a social element. That social element is ethics. It varies between societies - for instance, in a harsh environment with scarce material resources it might make sense to abandon old people to die, but in less severe conditions their wisdom is valuable, among other things.   

       Rationality is the best basis for ethics because the alternative fails to enable one to adopt an appropriate attitude to reality. Some would argue that this implies some kind of religious belief, others that natural science is the most accurate description of reality available. That's one reason people bomb abortion clinics, but the best thing to do depends ultimately on reason alone, not on anything else.
nineteenthly, Jun 13 2008

       Logic is also in my opinion the basis of ethics. As one strives to be logical or have logical thoughts about ethics, I mean about the choice one is about to make, the consideration of ones self and (in) the suroundings as percieved, the very first thing to consider, indeed the capital thing to consider is that I am essentially an emotional being. Emotions defy all logic. Emotions are a large part of my dicision process. Perhaps checked by ratio. But if you hurt what is dear to me ratio goes out the window and I will retaliate unto my own death if necessary. And there goes self preservation.   

       I do not need to try stuff out to know if it feels good or not. I have my imagination. Not as good as the real thing, I admit, but good enough to keep me from harming myself with bad ethical decisions.
zeno, Jun 14 2008

       I did think until recently that the issue was more emotional than i thought, because people can only ever pretend to be objective and select their beliefs accordingly. However, i don't think logic and emotions are as separate as people make out. The really big issue for me is the difference of opinion people often have about abortion, to the extent that it's not even possible to describe it without appearing to take a position on it. It's very noticeable how people who generally agree on most moral issues often differ on their opinion of abortion, and this is often determined by gender. Therefore there must be something about that which makes a fundamental difference, probably to do with how subjective and real the experience is to one. The trouble is, that subjectivity allows one to introduce the notion of relevant differences without providing a means of deciding what's relevant, so it reduces all ethics to opinion. I don't know what to do about this.
nineteenthly, Jun 14 2008

       In the concept of the "Selfish Gene", I remember there are different ethics present in the same species of certain birds (for example). For example, some are promiscuous (fertilize and flee) and some are not (adoptive male parent). The final result is a balance between the two that is reasonably stable. There seems to be a relationship to game theory. With more complex ethics, isn't there the same thing going on? Is it true that final result falls out only because it is has been the best way to reproduce, which maybe is the final measure?
Ling, Jun 14 2008

       The thing about game theory is that if conscious decisions are involved, so are judgements, and those can vary.
nineteenthly, Jun 15 2008

       Interesting discussion. My perspective is somewhat similar to [nineteenthly]'s, particularly the idea that virtue ethics or ethics of flourishing are best equipped to explain and place ethics within a naturalistic worldview.   

       By the way, two books pretty relevant to this discussion, for those who are interested: "The Tree of Knowledge" by Maturana and Valera is a really excellent exploration of evolutionary biology from an epistemological perspective, and "Moral Calculations : Game Theory, Logic and Human Frailty" by Laszlo Mero is a great book on the topic of how game theory interacts with and explains aspects of evolved behaviour, social psychology and the conflicts that can arise between our ability to reason and our ability to behave rationally.
imaginality, Jun 15 2008

       Well, if we're truly attempting emprical ethics, we will need to perform research, and develop a hypothesis before the experiment is done, in accordance with the scientific method.   

       Unfortunately, that puts us back at square one in many ways, except that results from actual ethical experiments might be of use in cutting some of the bullshit out.
ye_river_xiv, Jun 16 2008

       //Try an action. Did it feel ethical? Yes or no? How?//   

       My hunch is that this method would lead to different end points depending on which action you tried first. To that extent it would be a bit like trying to determine the slope of a plane by balancing a pencil on end on top of said plane.
pertinax, Jun 16 2008

       pertinax: yes, you are right. But science is no different. It seems to me that a lot of the objections people have raised here apply equally well to regular science... I don't think these objections are really failings though: any field of knowledge is an evolving thing, we can't expect it to be timeless and static.
conskeptical, Jun 16 2008

       Alasdair Macintyre is also very relevant.   

       Concerning objections to regular science, there is Thomas Kuhn, with whom i feel a lot of sympathy. He says that there are entrenched opinions in the scientific establishment which are then overthrown by conceptual revolutions when previously uninfluential people become more so. I would like academic philosophers to apply this to academic Philosophy itself, but it was failure to do this that led me to get pissed off and storm out of my career. Unfortunately i failed to realise that what Kuhn describes is a general process in organisations everywhere, so failing to challenge it there in the hope that things would be better elsewhere just led to having to confront it elsewhere, but from the rather less comfortable location of being rather closer to the breadline than hitherto.
nineteenthly, Jun 17 2008


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