The Nature of Ethics

I noticed there hasn't been much activity here in a while. I'd better post something! This is a section from the book I'm writing on the nature of ethics. As you recall when I gave my presentation, I had a section on the nature of ethics, and after I described ethics in general I applied that idea to law in particular. This post goes into more detail in my theory of ethics. It's not directly about libertarian philosophy, but it is an important part of my philosophy, and my theory of justice and politics all fit within this. Plus, I don't have any more directly libertarian stuff quite ready to post yet!


The world acts upon all things, and all things are transformed by their interactions, but whereas most things deform according to the forces that act upon them, there may be some which resist the world and alter themselves toward an independent ideal. In their constitution these things are given a good and a bad, and implicit in their transformations is the object of realizing that good; these are the things with a will. Among them are the living things, impelled by natural selection to maintain certain lives against climate and predation.

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Different outside forces require different responses from a willful being in order to maintain itself. When we recognize a being as having a will, we can assign some concept of good and bad to it's actions. To it, the good is the ideal which the will strives to realize, and the bad what it avoids.

If a creature's will regulates in it an ability to form and manipulate representations, then this creature has a mind and is capable of thought. In living things, the struggle of the mind is first to represent the world, and second to alter this representation in search of ways to preserve it's life. With minds come senses, and together they construct a world in which there is prey to hunt, a hole to hide in, and a body to run with.

Consciousness belongs to a mind that can represent it's own will. Such minds are truly able to desire and abhor, and among them are the minds of the higher animals, the elephants, chimpanzees, parrots, dolphins, and probably many others.

Finally, reason is a kind of thought capable of constructing arbitrary representations. A reasoning mind is not limited to food, shelter, family, and predators; it is capable of abstract thoughts and is able to imagine any situation in the world or comprehend any ideal. It is possible to think without consciousness; a creature that did so would not see it's thoughts as part of any coherent whole, and it would not narrate itself to itself. A creature that thinks entirely with instinct would think this way, and perhaps so would a sleeping person.

We are the creatures with will, minds, consciousness, and reason. Our nerves react to the chemistry of our bodies, and we hunger. Then, perceiving our hunger, we speculate as to our satisfaction. We construct hypothetical worlds in our minds and explore the consequences of acting within it; introspectively, we probe ourselves to see what will satisfy us. Eventually, a form of satisfaction passes our introspective tests and a means of realizing it emerges in our hypothetical world. Finally, we test the proposed means and ends then test them again against in the real world and refine them until satisfaction is finally achieved. With consciousness, our instincts become intentions, with reason, our intensions become means, and with action, our means become ends.

The World

Our ends, however, may not mirror our desires, and instead of satisfaction, we may be left with disappointment. The means available may be insufficient, either with our tools or our skill; to which we develop our technology or our art. Our knowledge of the world or of ourselves may be insufficient; to which we search and speculate in the hopes that an answer will come.

But to these methods yield only a small subset of the problems we meet in the world. Our world is complex, and consequences have consequences. One thing leads to another, and consequences multiply forever, extending very quickly beyond the possibility of prediction or even comprehension. Our every action interacts with the world and in turn provokes reactions from everything.

Technology can deal with recurring problems, but a complex world will continuously present us with new, unforeseen problems. Science can teach us the fundamental laws by which things evolve, in a world where one event can instantly change everything, no valid prediction can be made without knowing absolutely everything. One looks out upon the world and sees a series of disjointed events which appear to have no logic to them, for everything that one sees is being altered by other events happening outside our scope. Our world cannot be understood without everything being known.

In a complex world we face fundamental problems of ignorance and lack of imagination. We are ignorant because we cannot know everything that will affect us and we lack imagination because we can hypothetically examine only a finite subset of all the infinite possibilities. Instinctively, we deal with these problems through ignorance; their existence evades our minds and consequently, we make our choices as if there is nothing left to know, and all possibilities had been examined.

Every action taken means opportunities lost, but the limits of our imaginations mean that most lost opportunities are unknown. It is not only possible, but overwhelmingly likely, given the infinite set of un imagined possibilities, that our choices are far from optimal. Think of the length of human history and of the ideas available to anyone through all that time, which have been put into practice in only the last few centuries; think of the ideas your way of life depend on and of how few are original to you.

We move through life as in a fog; everything is obscured, and yet this fog is somehow unobtrusive to us. Granting our inherent limitations means that we can never really know the right thing to do. It means always granting that our choices may be wrong, for to demonstrate that one is right would require the impossibility of considering every possible choice. This is hard to accept, but with this humility comes hope, for we must also be ready to believe that there is always opportunity for tremendous improvement, if we could only take advantage of it.

Before the advent of reason in animals this bias was not a problem, for a mind without reason may consider only a finite number of ideas, and is sharply limited in creativity and discovery. The intrinsic limits to knowledge and imagination far outstripped the limits of it's own mind. It had nothing to lose by ignoring such limitations, for it could really know and imagine everything it's mind was capable of.

Our minds, capable of considering any possibility, are therefore incapable of considering every possibility. The instinct to ignore the unknown and unimagined no longer serves us; instead it leads us repeatedly into tragedy. We are animals suddenly having the horizons of gods, and from this combination results the hubris of Adam.


As creatures of will, we have a good to which our bodies aspire, and a bad from which they shrink. As creatures with consciousness, our minds know good and bad as well. We are constantly driven to imagine the good and conjecture ways of realizing it. But in the complex world we find ourselves in, we can never know all the consequences of our actions, only the more immediate ones. We can never know for sure, therefore, if our actions really promote the good. No matter how good the initial consequences are, we cannot know if they will ultimately turn bad.

How can this dilemma be dealt with? How can we navigate the fog that envelopes us? Attempts to see more deeply into it will tend to make it thicker than before; for though we can learn about the way the world works, when we do so, our imaginations, and therefore also our power to change the world expand. With more possibilities now open to us, we all have greater opportunities of bringing novelties into the world, and of encountering situations that change everything. The more we apply our knowledge, therefore, the more complex the world becomes, and hence the more pronounced becomes our lack of knowledge. The more we learn about altering the world according to our plans, the more ignorant we become about the future.

The solution is not to make concrete goals and plans of achieving them; this process can never circumvent the problem. There must be some other way of making decisions. There must be some way of evaluating choices without involving ultimate consequences.

If there we're some way of promoting good ends beyond our ability to predict, we could not know what good ends we are promoting; for if we did, these ends would not be beyond our ability to predict. Let us therefore propose a class of actions that promote good but unknown ends, beyond our ability to predict or comprehend it's relation to the present. These actions could not be chosen solely on the basis of efficacy in attaining a particular goal, but must instead be seen as having their own independent value. Such actions are called ethical, and it is by acting in accordance with ethical rules that we resolve the problem of ultimate consequences.

Ethics is therefore a separate domain of value from both intentions and ends. We judge ethics only by the action itself. Ethics is also more than mere risk assessment, for if the future can be predicted probabilitistically, ones plans are determined by ones' preferences about the desired outcome and the risk incurred on the way there. There is only room for ethics under circumstances that are fundamentally unpredictable.

This view of ethics explains much of our intuitions about how ethics should work; we know intuitively that the ends do not justify the means, but if this we're true, it is hard to understand why one should be ethical at all. If the best ends require bad means, why must one limit oneself to attaining only the second best? On the other hand, a purely utilitarian justification of ethics is ultimately no ethics at all, for if the good of ethical rules is only in their knowable consequences, there is no reason why ethical rules should not degrade back into separate plans for every occasion. Once we recognize that the need for ways to circumvent the inherent limits to our own planning, then we see the reason that ends do not justify the means: the ends never end and only a tiny portion of them are known and hence could be used as a justification for an action. The benefits of moral choices, if recognized at all, will appear serendipitous; just as people say "what goes around comes around."

This view of ethics unifies the teleological and deontological, for although ethical rules are conceived as promoting human ends, we can only treat ethics as having value independent of ends. The inherently complex nature of our world means that we cannot ignore the ethics of any decision; to do so will always come at the cost of our long-term interests. It is only in those rare cases where later consequences become truly irrelevant in comparison to immediate ones, such as in matters of immediate life or death, that "the ends justify the means" could even be interpreted, but otherwise it cannot inform us in any decision we make.

The Good

The definition of ethics given here is very broad, for it applies to everything whose good extends sufficiently far in the future that precise planning is beyond our ability. Different things have different kinds of good and bad, and therefore a different theory of ethics, and not all kinds are laudable; some may be positively reprehensible. All arts and techniques have their own kind of ethics, just as do human interactions and the pursuit of happiness.

Ends may be separated from our comprehension by degrees, so there are degrees to which ethics is relevant for any given application. In practice, our goals vary in how specific and how distant they are, so our actions may be both ethical and purposeful by degrees.

A defensive move in a chess game could be considered ethical as long as it is not made in response to some specific threat; in supposing that defending his pieces will serve him in the future without knowing how, the player abandons specific future plans for abstract rules about present actions.

It is true that the good of chess lies not only in it's ultimate conclusion, but in the pleasure of playing the game itself: in the intellectual activity, in being challenged by a worthy opponent, but it is best I think, to regard the pleasure of playing as a separate good from the good of winning; for these two goods can occasionally conflict with one another, as with a player who is so far ahead that he deliberately makes a bad move simply to prolong the game and provide a challenge.

There is that the ends become so disjoint from the means that their separation is total. The ends may be thought of as being infinitely distant, for some things resemble means but continue on rather than serving any apparent purpose. These are the processes on which our existence is founded: the universe, life, human society, and consciousness.

These processes are ongoing and do not serve any knowable purpose outside of themselves. One species of life may serve the purposes of another by being it's food or regulating the environment it lives in, but life as a whole is not purposeful. Similarly, human society serves the individual humans in it, but humans do not serve a purpose beyond themselves. Since these processes never come to serve broader ends, there is no ethics to them. There are ethics for humans acting within society, but no ethics for society as a whole beyond that.

The value of the universe, life, consciousness, and human society, then, is a separate inquiry. Ethics does not shed light on the question of ultimate meaning.

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Posted in Law Post Date 08/16/2019






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